This is the ninth part of my fortnightly serial. If you missed Part 8, you can read it here.

Part 9: Portal

Janet went in early for her shift the next day. Felicia was at her desk, as always. 

“How did things go last night?”

“The portals are still closed, if that’s what you mean. Our Exile Prince has gone to the basement to work in peace.”

“Do you think he can get them open again?”

“What does it matter what I think?”

“Well, you could help me, if you think I could do it better.” Janet leaned forward. “I’m not just saying this. I want to help, I really do. You and Hela both seemed to think Telar doing it was a bad idea.”

“Hmmm, so that would mean that we are both eager to disobey Mr. Smith’s wishes? That’s a bit of leap, don’t you think?”

“I’m not asking you to break the rules. Just – I just want to see a map of where all the portals are. The one that Hela gave me doesn’t have them on there.” She had snuck glances at it, once Smith had left her. She’d hung around in the lobby, watching the map, trying to trace out the lines. Nothing that said it was a doorway to another world. She had tried finding the stairs she’d seen. Nothing there. They weren’t on the map.

Felicia glanced around and lowered her voice. “The portals can’t show up on any map. It’s not a question of being allowed to do it, I can’t. But if you think your connection to them is growing, you shouldn’t a map. Just follow the link in your mind.”

Janet sighed. She was on her own. 

She spent the shift with Hela in the kitchen, polishing glasses. Hela spent most of the time on her phone, either glaring at it or snapping into it. Janet didn’t understand any of the words, which probably meant there was a way to turn off Felicia’s perception filter. 

Near the end of her shift, Janet plucked up her courage and asked Hela, “Can I hang around when I’m done?”

“What are you up to?”

“Nothing, I just thought I’d get to know the place better, and since you think I know my way around now…” she trailed off. 

“It has nothing to do with trying to get the portals open yourself? You think you can do better than our Exile Prince?”

“I don’t think that at all.” Which was the truth.

“Hmmm. Mr. Smith is taking a moment in his office to restore the main rooms to order. It’s a long task, and important enough that he is not to be disturbed by midnight.”

“So?”

Hela raised her brows. “Be out by midnight.”

“Thank you.” 

“Don’t break anything.”

After her shift was officially over, Janet crept to the corridor by the study where she had met Robin and Paxton last night. It was not a good place to meet, but she thought maybe they would think she would show up there again. A group of people in feathered dresses were huddled there, whispering. One looked up at her. “Mr. Smith isn’t seeing anyone until midnight,” they fluted, “and after that, we have an appointment.”

“Good for you,” said Janet, and moved on. The basement struck her as an impossibly terrible idea, so she took the lift to the top floor, then walked to the stairwell. It seemed like the most likely to be deserted place.

As soon as she shut the door to the stairwell, Paxton came into view. “Robin’s checking the corridor on this floor and the one below, to make sure nobody’s near. We followed you up here. Do you know where the portals are?”

“No. Apparently they don’t show up on maps. But Hela and Felicia both seem to think I have a better chance at connecting with them than—”

Paxton raised a hand. “You should not say his name. Names have power.” 

“Of course they do. I should remember my fairytales, huh? I won’t call him up here by saying his name, will I?”

“No. But he is dangerous. I do not know why Mr. Smith let him near the portals.”

“He’s safer than me, apparently.”

“He is not. Do you know why he was exiled from Durridel?” Paxton did not wait for a reply. “He didn’t like the system. He wanted to be at the top. He challenged the Emperor, tried to amass his own store of power. In Durridel, all magic come from the Emperor, you see, and then is parcelled out. Our Prince changed that when he rebelled. It was foolish. His only shield was secrecy. Once the others found out, and they were bound to, sooner or later, their power far surpassed his, and so they cast him out with ease.”

“They say he came here because he couldn’t rise high enough in the Himmerian order. Government. Whatever.”

Paxton shrugged. “I do not know what happened after he left Durridel. But it does not surprise me. He seeks power, and power only.”

The door above them opened. “There is nobody here,” said Robin, “that I can see, anyway. Have you the map?”

“Not with the portals on it.”

“Then we shall have to do without. We are near the portal that we tried to go through before. I believe we can find it without too much trouble, especially now that you are with us.”

“Are you sure this is a good idea? You trying to go through the portal is probably what made them close in the first place. What’s to say we don’t mess things up more, and let everyone know about it in the process?”

“If we stay,” said Paxton, “they will find us.”

“You don’t know that,” said Janet.

“The prince knows we are here,” said Robin. “He will sell us out if it helps him.”

“Why hasn’t he yet, though?” 

“He must have his reasons. Will you not help us?”

“I’ll help, of course. I just don’t know that this is the right way to be helping.” Janet stood up. “I guess I don’t have any better ideas. Let’s go.”

It took longer to find the odd staircase than any of them expected, although Janet thought she should have expected it. It was not where the other two had remembered (or it had moved since they were there), and all Janet had to go on was the throbbing in her mind, and the pulsing of the faint silver strings around her. They took several wrong turns until they found it: a set of almost translucent white steps that ended in an empty white landing. There was no other way off the landing, and the only decoration was a gilt-framed mirror. The glass was dark, their reflections blurry.

“So what do we do now?” asked Janet.

“Not we,” said Paxton. “You.”

“I don’t have any idea about how to go about this.” She sighed and dropped to the floor, sat cross legged, facing the mirror. “This is where the portal opens?”

They nodded. Janet closed her eyes. All she had to go on was the headache she’d had last night. It had felt different; almost as though it was outside her head. If she could find the feeling again…

For a long time she just sat there, feeling stupid. Then something seemed to shift. A sharp pain, possibly a nail, went through the front of Janet’s head and she groaned and clutched her face. “Ow.”

“Did you find it?”

“It’s still broken, if the pain is anything to go by. But it feels like it’s in front of me.” It was an odd sensation; as though her mind was stretched to fill the corridor. No, it was wider than that, larger. Her mind filled the entire hotel, and the edges throbbed. “I think Tel — I think the Exile Prince is doing something.”

“Can you separate this door from what he’s doing?”

“I can try.” I don’t know if that’s a good idea, she wanted to add, but there was really no point to that. She had come too far to be raising doubts now. Janet clenched her teeth and dove into the pain. If she concentrated, she thought she could see points in her mind, tiny pulsing stars in the dark. There was one right in front of her. It should have been blinding her, instinct said, but it was giving off a very dim light, like a glow in the dark sticker. Threads linked all the points. Some threads felt right. Others did not, and they were all going down. To the basement. Janet reached for the thread in front of her. 

She gasped and opened her eyes.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know.” It had hurt. She tried again. Closed her eyes, took deep breaths until she could see the points of light and the nearly invisible thread. The trick should be to do it slowly, carefully. Suddenly and probably he would notice. She blew at the string. It stretched but did not break. Slowly she reached out a hand and took it in two fingers, and pulled as gently as she dared. It came loose. Now she focused on the dim light, trying to brighten it. In no way was it like a door. And yet, something was coming. Like she had tugged at something, called something, and now it was coming.

It hit her. She sprawled back and might have fallen down the stairs if Robin had not been behind her.

“I think you did it,” said Paxton, staring at where the mirror had been. Now there was a white vortex.

“I … don’t remember doing that.” Janet sat up, rubbing her head. It throbbed as though she’d hit it against something hard.

Robin frowned. “I can hear voices from below. We should leave now. Can you close it behind us?”

“I don’t know. I shouldn’t be here.”

“Just hide until they are gone, then.” Robin took Janet’s hand and kissed it. “We owe you a great debt.”

“You taught me quite a bit already,” Janet muttered. “I think that’s fair.”

“We will not forget this,” said Paxton, and they stepped into the tunnel.

Janet turned back towards the stairs. She could still hear voices, but they were growing distant now. After a few moments there was only silence. She counted slowly to ten and then began down the steps. She wanted nothing more but to get out and go home.

On the seventh step, everything shifted, just as it had that time Paxton and Robin called her back to the basement. This time, she found herself in a room she’d never seen before. It was completely empty: no furniture and no door that she could see, unless it was behind her. But Janet’s attention was caught by what was in front of her. Robin and Paxton were sprawled on the ground, all in a heap.

“This isn’t… is this Himmeria?”

“No.” Behind Janet, Hela slammed the door shut. “It isn’t.”

Thanks for reading! Next part will be out 10 November 2019.