Part 10: Portal
When Janet came in for her shift the next day, she was greeted by an unusual sight: an empty receptionist’s desk.
“Where’s Felicia?” she asked Hela.
“In the basement, showing our dear Prince the interface she uses to monitor the portals. She knows its current state better than any of us.” Hela grimaced. “Not that any of us knows the current state of anything very well.” Hela was looking very far from her immaculate self. A sheen of sweat lined her forehead, there were creases in her suit, and her hair was slightly tousled.
They made their way to the side-kitchen. “Hard night?” Janet asked.
“Without a direct link to the magic on Himmeria and Durridel, the entire place is losing its structural integrity. Slowly, but it’s getting harder and harder to keep it together.”
“You don’t need to be watching me,” said Janet. “I’m sure you have more important things to do.”
Hela gave her a hard look. “Curious. Smith told me I shouldn’t let you out of my sight. He seemed to think you’d get up to some mischief if left alone.”
Janet tried her best to look innocent. “Me? Why would I do that?”
“Perhaps you think you can do a better job than the Exile Prince.” Hela raised a brow. “Is that what you think?”
Hela had spoken up for her the night before. She had wanted Janet to help. Janet decided to take a chance. “Maybe. Do you think I could do a better job?”
“You wouldn’t know how to begin.”
“Only because nobody’s told me.” Janet put down the polishing cloth she’d been holding. “Listen. You know I’ve seen magic before, when something tried to grab me on the stairs. That’s not the only time. Last night, I saw it too, only the strings were golden, and they seemed to be going up. I was on the top floor. That was a portal, wasn’t it? I saw a portal entrance.”
“That was last night?”
“Early last night. I don’t think the portals had closed yet.”
“What about now? Can you see any magic now?”
Janet concentrated, looking about her. “I can see … glimmering in the walls. Like, really thin silver threads, moving slowly.” She blinked. “They look like they’re breaking apart.”
“That’s because they are.” Hela put up a hand, and Janet watched thin silver threads go from her hand and stretch around the room. “You saw that?”
“That’s to stop other people hearing what we say.” Hela sighed. “Portals are, in essence, bridges made of magic. They stretch like the strings you see here, from one world to another. But each bridge is made of strands that originate from both worlds, and meet in the middle. So a portal from Durridel to Earth would be made of the essence from both Durridel and Earth.”
“The magic from Durridel and Earth,” said Janet. “You mean Earth does have magic?”
“It’s not exactly magic. Magic comes from a person. All this —“ Hela gestured around the room “every strand of it was cast by somebody, at some point. But the portals themselves come from the essence of the world, not from any one person.”
“Cory said I was the only one who could control the portals.”
“That’s true to an extent. You would have more of an affinity with this side of the portals, since your essence and the Earth’s essence are the same. So if the problem is on this end — and really, it’s hard to see where else the problem would be — then it’s a matter of manipulating that essence so that the portals are open again.”
“Manipulating the essence?”
“Magic looks like strings to you, yes?” Hela waited for Janet to nod. “I’d imagine the entrances to Earth have sealed themselves off. Tied themselves up in knots. You would have to unravel those knots.”
“Is that what Telar is trying to do?”
“Telar doesn’t have the affinity you do. His control over the portals lies in the fact that he has been a citizen of both Himmeria and Durridel. That means he could stretch through and force them to open on the other side.”
“But that wouldn’t work if Earth is the problem.”
“With enough power, it might. But it would be an inelegant solution, and prone to collapse at any point. I doubt he could do it, though. With the portals closed, his ability to reach that magic is as limited as it is for the rest of us.”
“So why is Smith letting him do it?”
“Evidently he does not trust you at all.”
“And you do?”
“You’ve given me no reason to doubt you.”
Janet very carefully kept her face blank. “So you would be fine with letting me find a portal and trying to force it back open?”
“You wouldn’t want to force it. Also, I would not be able to help you. Smith would know, and he’d stop us before you got near anything important. But he trusts me to watch you. I could lose track of you.”
“You really think I can do it?”
“I think you are the only one who can.” Hela flicked her fingers, and the strings of magic she had sent around the room flew back to her fingertips and vanished. “I expect you to work to the end of your shift, even if the circumstances here are a little unusual. Smith is working from his office with a team of spell-casters, so we are in effect, understaffed.”
The next few hours crawled by. Hela did not volunteer any more information, and Janet was afraid to ask. Neither of them left them room. Cory dropped by a couple of times to take away the clean glasses. The restaurant was bustling, since many of the guests had been thrust out of their rooms and were afraid to return.
Janet was more than ready to go when her shift ended. The only problem was, she didn’t know where to go. Robin and Paxton could be anywhere. She decided to do what Hela would have expected, and went upstairs to the top floor. Instead of going into the corridor, she waited in the stairwell. It seemed less likely other people would come in here.
She only had to wait a few moments before Paxton came into view from below her. “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 seems to think I have a better chance at connecting with them than the Exile Prince.”
“He is dangerous,” said Paxton. “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 Overarching King and tried to amass his own store of power. In Durridel, all magic comes from the King, you see, and then is parcelled out. Our Prince wanted to change that. 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.”
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. Can you help us?”
“I know a little more than I did yesterday,” said Janet, and left it at that. She didn’t know if the way the portals worked was supposed to be secret, but Hela hadn’t wanted others to hear her conversations, and Janet could respect her trust at least that much.
“We are near the portal that we tried to go through yesterday. I believe we can find it without too much trouble, especially now that you are with us.”
It took longer to find the odd staircase than any of them expected. 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 concentrated on the mirror. It glimmered gold, but she could not distinguish one string from another. 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. She groaned and clutched her face. “Ow.”
“Did you find it?”
“I found something.” She stretched her mind forward. She could see the threads now, all tangled in a clump. There was something in the middle of them all, holding it together. She prodded the clump and the gold strings parted. In the middle she could see a ball of black threads, tangled tightly with the gold.
“That looks like the spell that tried to grab me before,” she murmured?
“What spell?” asked Robin.
“It happened a while ago. It doesn’t matter now.”
Paxton frowned at the mirror. “I can see many different spells here. I think someone tried to close this portal on purpose.”
“Well, let’s try and undo that.” Janet prodded at the lump and felt another stabbing pain through her mind. Now she saw it up close, it wasn’t completely black. It resembled the colour of tarnished silver, but still with little bright glimmers here and there. She couldn’t touch any of those threads without pain. Instead, she tried to touch the gold threads, to move them out of that tangle.
The gold threads moved gracefully, responding easily to her thoughts. It was still difficult to untangle, especially since she couldn’t move any of the dark threads. But Janet worked slowly, one thread at a time, and eventually was able to get the gold threads out of that black ball. Once they were out, they moved on their own, stretching to fill the space in the corridor. Janet leaned back against a wall and closed her eyes, exhausted. “I think I’ve done it.”
“That you have,” said Paxton. His tone of voice made Janet open her eyes. She looked up at the mirror. There were no reflections at all, now, instead, it opened like a window into another staircase landing. They could see the stairs leading up on the other side.
“We cannot repay you for this,” said Robin.
“Without you, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do that,” muttered Janet, “so I’d call it even. You should go now, before somebody realises what I’ve done.”
“We will not forget this,” said Paxton, and they stepped forward and vanished into the mirror.
Janet turned back towards the stairs. It sounded like there was nobody in the corridor. She waited until she could stand properly and then began down the steps. She wanted nothing more but to get out and go home.
On the third step, dark tendrils reached out for her. This time she was too slow to avoid them. They grasped her, pulled her down, under the stairs, through the walls, and deposited her on a hard floor.
Janet got to her hands and knees. She wasn’t alone. In front of her, Robin and Paxton were getting to their feet.
Robin turned. “Janet! What are you doing here? Isn’t this Himmeria?”
Janet turned and saw Hela slam the door shut.
“No,” said Hela, “it isn’t.”
Thanks for reading! Part 11 is here.