This is the eighth part of my fortnightly serial. If you missed Part 7, you can read it here.
Part 8: Reaching Out
In the days that followed, Janet did her best to concentrate on seeing the magic of Hotel Fulcrum, but it was difficult. There wasn’t really any time to focus. While she worked, Hela would take calls, or quiz her on various locations in the hotel. Taking the time to focus her mind at home didn’t help either. Requests for quiet resulted in laughter and half-hearted attempts to lower voices before things started up again. She told them she was trying to pick up meditation, a revelation which was mostly greeted with scorn.
Janet’s mother followed her to her bedroom after that announcement. “Janet, are you all right?”
“I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Why are you so interested in meditation all of a sudden? It isn’t anxiety, or depression, or…”
“Of course not. Mum, meditation is perfectly normal. It’s something people would talk about at uni all the time.” This was not untrue, although Janet had usually made a point of ignoring those people.
“You’ve always been quiet, now you barely talk to anyone. I’m worried about you. You need to get out more, meet people.”
“I am. I have a job, remember?”
“And when you’re at the job, do you actually talk to people? About themselves? Or just put your head down and work?”
“I thought working was a good thing.”
“It is. It’s not the only thing, though.”
Janet stopped trying to meditate at home after that. Instead, she would leave early for the hotel, and wait in the car for her shift to start. There, she focused on picturing a wall in her mind — she hadn’t forgotten Hela’s advice, and she suspected she’d need to shield her mind a lot. When it seemed like things had settled down a little more, she began to wait in the lobby, ignoring the people around her and focusing on the floor, although it still gave her a twinge of fear. Sometimes she felt like she could see the threads it was made of, but she might have just been remembering that night when Hela had woven the floor back together.
As the days went by, she thought she might actually be making progress. There was no way to really know if she was protecting her mind enough: all she knew was that nobody was commenting on her thoughts anymore, but that could have just been good manners on the parts of the others. But she was sure she could see glimmers in the walls. They weren’t anything on the order of the twisting, shifting strings Paxton had showed her, but they happened too often now to just be her imagination.
It was at this point Hela started giving Janet more errands to do on her own. Usually this was limited to the ground floor, carrying glasses from the bar to the overflow dishwasher, and other such things.
One day, she said, “You should shadow Cory tonight. Go with him when he’s running errands to rooms and the like.”
Cory grinned at her. “Hope you can keep up.”
Janet barely could. Cory ran everywhere. He was sent up on errands that took them both to what seemed like every corner of the building. Janet lost sight of him once. He came back, apologised, and slowed his pace. He was talkative, too. A chatterer.
“Normally the hardest thing about the job is getting along with the new people,” he said, as they went to a room on the top floor. Cory, it seemed, never took the lift. “They come from all over, and you wouldn’t believe the strange habits some of them have, or what they get angry about. Tiny things. But people are stuck here for now, since everything is so unstable and nearly out of balance, so I’ve time to get used to them.”
The people they saw did seem to know Cory very well. Janet’s first thought, watching him talk to them, was that she could never do this. Each guest was greeted differently. The old man on level two received a bow and a meal passed over in two hands. The two women on the top floor stood and gossiped with Cory for seemingly no reason. He introduced Janet to them as “the new anchor.”
“Do you have to do that?” she asked him as they went back downstairs. “Tell everyone I’m the anchor?”
“Don’t you want them to know?”
“Well, I don’t really want them to know I’m an outsider.”
“You, an outsider?” Cory scoffed. “We’re the outsiders. We’re guests in your world. You’re the only one who really belongs here. That’s the point.”
“That’s not what it feels like.”
“You have to ignore Mr. Smith, he’s just picky. I think he was too used to whatshername, Sylvia. But even then, he never really let Sylvia do much with the portals.”
“Why would he do that? I thought the point was to keep things stable and not touch anything.”
Cory stopped and stared up at Janet. “They haven’t told you?”
“What the anchor actually is.” Cory looked at Janet’s confused expression and explained, “They’re the only person who can control the portals. Like, really control them, make sure they’re open, and move them if necessary. I mean, you wouldn’t be able to control the other ends, the parts that’re in Himmeria or Durridel, but you could control this end. We — well, Mr. Smith and Hela, I can’t do any of this — we can control what’s around it, seal it with a spell in front, or change the relative location, but the actual portal entrances themselves? You’re the only one who could really control them.”
Janet gaped at him. “You’re joking.”
“No, hand over heart.”
“Mr. Smith would never trust me to do anything like that.”
“He would never trust anyone to do anything like that. Like I said, even Sylvia never did anything more than fix any major problems. Not that there were many back then.”
Janet wondered if this Sylvia had ever worried about belonging. Wasn’t that the point of the anchor, to really belong here? Now it seemed like even she had never been fully trusted. “Did you know her well? Sylvia?”
“Not really. She left not long after I started working here.”
Janet heard her mother’s voice in her head: Do you actually talk to people? Janet had seen Cory many times over the last few weeks, had worked beside him, but didn’t know anything about him beyond his name. “Why are you working here? Couldn’t you be off learning magic or something instead of running around doing chores?”
Cory grinned. “Magic? Is that all you think we do in Himmeria?”
“I don’t know anything about where you’re from.”
“Himmeria’s … nice, the parts you can live in, anyway. We’ve built several cities in the sky. They look beautiful. The problem is the ground’s not safe to live on anymore. The sitheri and other beasts have taken over most of it.” Cory’s grin faded. “That’s all they talk about, the council. How to deal with the beasts, get the land back. I don’t think that’s even worth trying anymore.”
“Is that why you’re here? Because it isn’t safe there?”
“It isn’t safe anywhere. That’s part of the problem, of course, the portals make everything unstable, so the cities aren’t really safe either. But no, I’m here because my father had expectations for me. I didn’t want to follow them, we argued, and now I’m here. He’s pretty high up on the Council, you see.”
“He exiled you?”
“What? No, of course not. We aren’t Durridel, we don’t exile people. They just made it clear that if I didn’t want to follow in my father’s footsteps, I’d better clear the way for someone who did. So I came here. It’s much more fun here, trust me. You don’t want to — look out!”
Janet leapt back as something snaked out of the staircase. It was a dark, thin, tendril. As she looked, it split apart, and two thinner tendrils stretched out toward her. “What is that?”
“You can see that? That’s a calling spell.”
“What’s a calling spell?” Janet took another step back up the stairs to avoid the thing.
“It calls something to another place. I think,” Cory frowned, his eyes focused, “yes, I think someone was trying to summon you to them. Come on, let’s go this way.” He tugged her back up the stairs with him.
“Won’t that thing follow?”
“It’s not very powerful. If it was, you’d be somewhere else right now. I think someone was trying to be sneaky.”
They made their way back down to the kitchens, using another staircase, without any incident. Cory spilled the tale to Hela while Janet tried to keep her mind blank. She was wondering if this had anything to do with Robin or Paxton, and that was not something anybody else needed to know. Of course, the problem was she still wasn’t that good at fixing a wall in her mind.
Hela looked past Cory at Janet and smiled thinly. “If your foremost thoughts are ‘I don’t think this will work’, then there’s little point in shielding your mind.”
Chagrin and relief flooded Janet. “So, not a great attempt.”
“Speaking practically, it worked, since if you have any secrets I don’t know them. But you might want to work on your focus. Can you think of any reason why someone would want to call you?”
“No. I didn’t even know that was a possibility.”
“Didn’t you? It seems you can see magic all of a sudden.”
“I think that was maybe the side effect of the focus? I’ve been seeing glimmers in the walls. Is that related?”
“And that’s because you’ve been practicing?”
“Maybe, I don’t know.” She frantically kept the image of her bedroom wall in the front of her mind.
“It could have been someone just experimenting,” Cory suggested. “It wasn’t a very powerful spell.”
“That might mean it wasn’t serious, or that might mean someone didn’t want to get caught. Janet, I think you’d better leave while we sort this out. We don’t want you to get caught up in this.”
“Thank you.” Janet almost fled out the building, afraid someone would catch her thinking. It wasn’t until she sat in the car that she let herself wonder: had it been Paxton? Were they in trouble somewhere, reaching out to her for help? Or was there someone (or something) else after her?
When Janet arrived the next day, Hela told her that they had tracked the spell to somewhere in the basement.
“That doesn’t mean the caster was in the basement, it just means that they wanted you there,” said Hela. “I have no idea what any of this means. But it seems you at least have warning. So I’m not going to keep as much of an eye on you.”
That was equal parts reassuring and worrying. “So if it happens again…?”
“It won’t happen again. We’ve tightened up security so that no spells of that sort can go undetected.”
Janet’s surprise at Hela’s willingness to let her roam did not last long. Soon she realised it was less an issue of trust, and more an issue of necessity. Hela was being called away more often. The staff were examining the spells in every inch of the hotel and shoring them up.
Janet learned this from Cory, who she suspected had been appointed her replacement minder. That was fine. Cory was good company, and a less threatening presence. “Mr. Smith says we need to take more preventative measures,” he said, “so they’re those that are best at magic and getting them to make everything stronger.”
With Cory, Janet ran orders up to rooms regularly, which meant she also got to know the guests. They went from regarding her with frosty suspicion to giving her a nod and word of greeting. She did her best to learn their names and match them with faces, or at least room numbers. Cory had told a side-splitting story of one guest’s reaction when he’d forgotten their name, and that afterward, he’d taken to putting everyone’s names in a poem of sorts to recite while wandering the halls. “Sarasra in 221, Elexa in 218…” It didn’t seem much of a poem to Janet, but she took the hint and worked on remembering names.
While Cory was good company, he wasn’t actually very good at minding Janet, so she was able to sneak to the basement several times. She did not find Robin and Paxton. They could have found a new hiding place — had to have found a new hiding place, because if they were caught surely she’d know. Surely whoever caught them would make sure she knew. But perhaps they were hurt, somewhere, and unable to find her. Janet was sure they had sent the calling spell. It was the only thing that made sense. Which meant it was only a matter of time before Hela and the others, inspecting the spells, would come across them. Janet pushed the worry to the back of her mind, where it stayed like a weight. She made sure to keep an image of her bedroom wall in her mind at all times. She was getting better at it, better at holding the image while still thinking about other things.
She was also getting better at seeing the magic in the walls. Now, instead of just seeing the occasional glimmer, she could see whole strings, and trace them from one end of a corridor to the other. These weren’t the shimmering silver strings she had seen that day in the basement, but were more like the tatters of a spiderweb, visible only where they caught the light. Still, progress was progress. It was a miracle she could see them at all. Sometimes, when she was alone, she would stop whatever she was doing just to watch that glimmer.
Janet was watching the strings on the top floor one night, after delivering a pizza (considered a local delicacy, according to Cory), when she noticed something different. Strings of a different colour. These were gold, not silver. Paxton did say she would be able to distinguish between different spells by colour, but hadn’t he also said that it would take a while for her to be able to do that? She felt oddly drawn towards the magic. She came forward and noticed it led to another staircase, that led upwards.
That stopped her in her tracks. This was the top floor. Anything that led up could just be the odd architecture of the building — or it could be another portal. Janet didn’t want to get into more trouble now.
She walked past, determined to ignore the desire to go up to it and look at that golden magic up close. She took the lift down — if she wasn’t with Cory, she always took the lift down. There seemed less chance of some dark magic grabbing her that way.
She wasn’t the only one at the lift. Telar stood there in his white cloak, still billowing gently despite the lack of wind. Janet walked into the elevator after him. “Ground floor?” She kept her tone sweet. She hadn’t seen him since the day he’d called her his replacement. It seemed like years ago.
He glared at her and said nothing. She pressed the button and stood there as they descended.
“If you are going to let peasants in, you should keep them under control.” Telar sniffed. “They are causing trouble.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Janet was getting better at hiding her emotions. She pictured her bedroom wall in her mind. Behind it, she thought, Robin and Paxton? Was that what he meant? There was no other way it made sense.
“You don’t really think nobody will find out that they are here? Everyone in this building has far more magic than you.”
“I already knew that, since I have none.”
“Keep that in mind. Stop acting like you belong here.”
“I do belong here!” Janet was surprised to find that she meant it.
“We’ll see about that.” The lift doors opened and Telar swept out. Janet let out a shaky breath. How had he known? And why had he not told anybody?
The worry kept going through her head as she went about her duties. She didn’t know how to find Robin and Paxton without going about and calling their names, and that was a surefire way to be found out almost immediately. Perhaps that was what he’d been hoping; that she’d give herself away through stupidity.
“Are you all right?” Cory asked.
“I have a headache,” said Janet. It was true. Her head had ached since that conversation.
Hela, who had come in to the kitchen for a brief moment, gave Janet a sharp look. “Are you sick?”
“No,” said Janet, slowly realising this was more than just a headache, “but something feels wrong. Like the ground isn’t quite stable. Do you feel it?”
“It’s probably just your imagination,” Hela said, but she kept a close eye on Janet for the rest of the night.
Given that, it seemed better not to go looking for Robin and Paxton at the end of the shift. Janet debated the idea as she walked to the lobby. Hela would notice. Telar was probably waiting for this chance. And why would she find them now, when she hadn’t found them the last half-dozen times she’d searched?
Lost in thought, Janet didn’t notice the commotion until she was nearly upon it. The lobby was often busy, but now it was packed. Full of bodies, noise, and chaos. She elbowed her way through the crowd to the reception desk, where Felicia was trying to have several conversations at once.
“I’m sorry,” she was saying, “but you’re all going to have to wait. I don’t know any more than you do.” She caught Janet’s eye. Janet came behind the desk.
“What’s going on?”
“The portals,” said Felicia. “They’ve closed, all of them.”
Thanks for reading! Part 9 is here.
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