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Jake Potts stood in the lobby of the hotel, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the light. In front of him, a massive, twisted oak tree sprang from the lobby floor, reaching towards a domed ceiling decorated to look like a sky split between night and day, with the a brilliant sun shining in a cerulean sky on one side, a crescent moon and twinkling stars on the other. Jake blinked again, looking around the rest of the lobby, trying to take in the hotel’s staff dressed in blue and gold livery, and the massive wooden desk waiting for people to approach for check-in.
“Where am I?” Jake asked. His voice sounded strange in his ears, as if coming from a distance.
“Ah, Master Jacob.” The man standing next to him spoke with a deep voice colored with a strong, upper-crust British accent. Jake recognized the voice, though he couldn’t put a name to it. “I did warn you to order your thoughts.”
“What?” Jake turned and looked at the British man. He wore a black suit with vest and pocket watch, and he had wings of white hair running back behind his ears.
“It’s the first lesson,” the British man said. “Order your thoughts. You cannot hope to master the arcane arts if you cannot master your own mind.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh dear, this is worse than I thought.” The British man was not much taller than Jake. When he got down on one knee to talk to him, Jake found himself looking down into the British man’s sharp blue eyes. “What is the last thing you remember?”
Jake tried to think. The first memory that sprang to mind, still painful and fresh, was picking up the phone at home and hearing a crackling voice deliver news of the accident. Jake shook his head. No, that wasn’t the last thing he remembered. The call had been weeks ago. The memory just refused to fade like the rest.
“The foster home.” Jake frowned and looked around. “Wait. Where is Michael and Clementine?”
“Master Jacob.” The British man’s voice became stern. “Focus! I need you to remember.”
Jake locked gazes with the British man for a moment. Then, like morning fog giving way to sunlight, details in his memory became clear. He remembered packing his bag and leaving the foster home. He packed everything because he knew he would not be returning. And he remembered this stranger’s name.
“Miles Baker,” Jake said.
“Yes, that’s right. What else do you remember?”
“You told me… you told me we were going somewhere.”
“For what purpose, Master Jacob?”
Jake took a deep breath. He remembered something, but he didn’t believe it. He looked back into Miles’ eyes.
“Yes, that’s right.” Miles stood back up, placed his hands on his hips, and stretched. “You have the gift and the potential to join the ranks of the Arcane Guardians. Or, to put it in terms you may be more familiar with, you are a wizard, Master Jacob.”
Jake opened his mouth to deliver a stronger swear word, and stopped. A bitter taste coated his tongue, running down his throat and making him gag. He clapped a hand over his mouth and stared as Miles’ lips twisted into an impish grin.
“Now,” Miles said, “why don’t you wait here while I finish securing our rooms. And please do not wander off or touch anything. This place is not what it seems.”
As soon as Miles took a step towards the front desk, the awful taste of soap in Jake’s mouth disappeared. He licked his lips, wondering if he’d imagined it. Had Miles done something to him? No. Impossible. Magic wasn’t real. Could Miles have hypnotized him?
Jake turned to watch Miles at the front desk. The dapper British gentleman smiled and spoke with animated hands to the person behind the counter. Jake tried to look at the night clerk and found himself staring at the white marble flooring that surrounded the massive tree. The huge oak came right out of the floor with no visible gaps to expose the soil beneath.
Frowning, Jake tried again to look at the night clerk. He blinked, and then stared at an ornate painting on the wall depicting a knight in silvery armor astride a massive black horse. The knight held a gleaming sword in one hand as his other hovered near the edge of his visor.
“What the hell?” Jake said. He remembered what Miles had said before and tried to focus his thoughts. Gritting his teeth, keeping his intention clear in his mind, Jake slowly turned to look back at the night clerk. A muscle spasmed in his neck and he ignored it. A figure stood on the other side of the massive desk, but Jake’s eyes refused to focus. His vision blurred, and he felt a tear run down his cheek. When his head began to ache, he let his vision turn away. The tree stood before him, tiny decorative houses lining its massive, twisted branches.
“Master Jacob,” Miles said. “Are you quite alright?”
“What’s happening?” Jake’s head throbbed, though the pain began to subside.
Before Jake could pull away, Miles reached forward and wiped the tear from his cheek. When Miles didn’t withdraw his hand, Jake looked down at it. Blood covered the tip of Miles’ finger.
“One cannot look upon The Night Manager without their express permission,” Miles said. “But don’t worry. I’m sure you will become acquainted soon enough. And see here! It takes a strong will and a focused mind to look for as long as you managed. You certainly must have what it takes to be a Guardian. Mark my words.”
Jake reached up and wiped his eyes and his cheek. He felt the tacky warm blood on his fingers before he looked down to confirm. Miles hadn’t tricked him, and he hadn’t hypnotized him.
“Let’s climb up to our rooms so you can wash up. You’re going to want to get a good night’s rest so you’ll be ready for tomorrow.”
“What’s happening tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow, Master Jacob, you are going to cast your first spell.”
Jake sat in a creaky wooden desk chair in Miles’ room. They shared adjoining suites, and Jake could see his unmade bed through the open door between their rooms. Hunger twisted Jake’s stomach into knots, and he hoped that the joke or farce would be over quickly.
“Now,” Miles said. He bent over one of his black-scaled bags and rummaged through the contents. “Let’s see… ah! Here it is.”
“Can’t we go down to breakfast first?”
“Oh no, my boy. One’s first brush with the arcane can lead to nausea, and–“
“I’m not your boy.”
“I’m not your boy, Mr. Baker. Don’t call me that.”
“Ah. My apologies, Master Jacob. Now as I was saying–“
“Can’t you just call me Jake?”
“Of course, Master Jacob. Of course. Now where were we…”
Jake heaved a sigh and looked towards the door. He wondered what his British host would do if he just got up and left.
“Take this.” Miles offered what looked like a brass thimble and an eye dropper.
“What is this?”
“In the cup? Tap water, though we’ll fix that up soon enough.”
Jake found himself holding the thimble in one hand and the dropper in the other. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“Just hold it for now, and clear your mind. Once I’ve explained what it is we’re doing, I’ll–“
“No. Stop.” Jake set the thimble down on the desk behind him. “I don’t want to do this. I don’t believe in magic.”
“I know, Master Jacob. I know. And I understand. That’s why this first spell we’ll be casting is to clear your vision and open your eyes.”
Jake opened his mouth to argue, then stopped. He raised a hand and touched the corner of his eye. He had seen things already that he couldn’t explain. What would be the harm in going along with Miles? If it got them down to breakfast that much sooner, it would be worth it.
Miles gestured towards the dropper still in Jake’s hand. “That is called a Dropper of Clarity. It’s a tool the Guardians devised some time ago, easily made and easy to use. What goes in the dropper does not matter, but what comes out will wash away the sticky film of the mundane that covers most people’s eyes.”
Jake blinked a few times. “What?”
“It’s a magic item that helps you see magic.”
“Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?”
“Because the details are important.” Miles gestured towards the thimble on the desk. “Please pick that up, and follow my instructions.”
Jake did as he was asked and sat up straighter in his chair, mirroring Miles’ posture.
“Some magical artifacts are more difficult to use than others,” Miles said. “Some require a specific location to work, or the utterance of triggering words. Droppers of Clarity, on the other hand, only require a small effort of will.”
“Right. How do I do that?”
“Clear your mind. Empty it of everything.”
Jake shook his head. “I can’t do that. No one can do that.”
“I know it can be difficult at first but–“
“It’s like telling someone not to think of a kitten. Just saying it out loud makes people think of it.”
“Master Jacob,” Miles’ voice became suddenly stern. “I would appreciate it very much if you would not interrupt me when I am instructing you. Furthermore, until you have learned more in the ways of the arcane arts, it would reflect well on you not to proclaim what is and is not possible.”
Jake sat back in his seat. He felt his cheeks warm, and he wanted to be anywhere out of Miles’ presence. Jake knew that he’d been rude to the British gentleman, and getting called out on it made him feel small and ashamed. He wanted desperately to see his parents. Of course, his father wouldn’t have put up with Jake’s tone or behavior. Jake’s shoulders slumped and he wished he could crawl into the thimble and hide under the tiny pool of water.
“You have already demonstrated that you can do this,” Miles said. “You tried to look upon The Night Manager, and as far as I can tell, nearly succeeded. Compared to that, activating the dropper should be simple.”
Jake smiled. “So, you’re saying this isn’t going to make my eyes bleed?”
Miles did not smile. “Most likely not. We’ll have a clean washcloth handy, just in case.”
Jake swallowed and reached to touch the corner of his eye again.
“If, as you say, you cannot completely clear your mind, then I’d like you to visualize something appropriate. Imagine a door opening, or a dense fog lifting. Anything that gives you a sense of revelation.”
Jake closed his eyes and tried to go with it. He tried to imagine the things Miles had described, but neither doors nor fog gave him a sense of clarity. He kept seeing the door close, and the fog return, and it all reminded him of a life he’d never have again.
“Concentrate, Master Jacob.”
A sharp comment formed on Jake’s tongue but he bit it back. He was concentrating. What did Miles think he was doing? He imagined wiping a hand across a foggy mirror and seeing his own, red-rimmed eyes looking back. He visualized ripping wrapping paper off a package. The last Christmas with his parents, his mother had given him a leather jacket.
“You had something for a moment there. Keep trying!”
Jake pushed away the thoughts of his mother and his jacket and reached for a memory that wasn’t so close to recent events. He thought back to a science class. The teacher had smudged something oily on a plate of glass, and all of the kids took turns looking through the microscope. Jake remembered twisting a dial, raising and lowering the glass until the circle of empty white light solidified into an image of tiny, translucent cells, swimming in pale liquid.
“That’s it! Very good, Master Jacob!”
Jake opened his eyes and looked at the objects in his hands. Neither the thimble nor the dropper looked any different. “Okay, what now?”
“Draw some of the water into the dropper and release a single drop into one of your eyes. Do it quickly, though, before the device goes back to sleep.”
“Which eye? Why not both?”
“You certainly may choose both eyes, if you wish, but I do not recommend it. You will soon be able to see things you never would have imagined. If it becomes overwhelming, you may want to be able to close one eye and still see the mundane world, as you’ve seen it your entire life.”
“Did you put something in the water while I had my eyes closed?”
“I think you already know that I did not. Hurry, please. The dropper will only remain active for a few more seconds.”
Jake shook his head as put the glass into the thimble. The tiny dropper drank the water and glimmered in the hotel light. He tipped his head back and held the dropper over his left eye. He squeezed, the drop formed and fell, and a split second before the liquid touched his naked eye, he thought he saw a golden light. Then the cool moisture was there. He blinked and raised a hand to wipe the water away.
“A moment!” Miles said, taking hold of Jake’s arm. A few seconds later, Miles let him go. “That should do it.”
Jake wiped his face. It felt like wiping tears, something he’d done far too often over the last few weeks. He looked at Miles and shook his head again. “Nothing happened.”
“Are you so sure?” Miles pointed towards one wall of the room. “Look there. Close your right eye, if you must.”
Jake set the thimble and stopper down and turned towards the indicated wall. A framed painting of a farmhouse interrupted a cream-white surface. Faint shadows drew darkened lines diagonally from carpet to ceiling. It looked like an ordinary hotel wall.
“I told you, it didn’t–” Jake started.
The wall rippled. Something long and sinuous slithered just beneath the paint. The creature stretched along a narrow passage Jake hadn’t seen before. Jake thought at first it was a snake, but its thick body didn’t seem to end.
“A tentacle,” Miles said, sounding pleased. “Some sort of giant squid, I believe.”
Jake’s chair fell over as he tried to get away. He propped himself on his hands and crab-walked backwards, away from the wall. Miles put a hand on his shoulder and stopped him.
“She will not harm you. For the most part, she isn’t even really here. Or more precisely, we are not there.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jake realized he’d shrieked his question. His breathing came in short gulps. He wanted to look away but he couldn’t turn his head. Miles’ firm hand kept him in place on the floor.
“If you hadn’t guessed yet, this hotel is an unusual place. In our world, it sits directly over the conjunction of two powerful lay lines. Because of this, it–“
“Let me go!”
“Of course, Master Jacob. Why don’t you close your left eye for a moment and catch your breath.”
Jake blinked several times before reaching up with one hand and covering his left eye. The undulating image and the corridor within the wall disappeared. Through his right eye, he saw the painting and the plain off-white wall he’d seen before. He quit trying to scramble away from it.
“What did you do to me?”
“Nothing! I simply helped you cast a spell which allows you to see beneath the surface of the mundane world. I assure you, Master Jacob, this effect is quite temporary. In an hour or two, the fog of creation will fill your eyes again. But with practice, you can open your eyes to magic at will and see what lies beneath whenever you like.”
“Why would I want to do that? What did you put in the water? Did you drug me?”
Miles reached past Jake and picked up the thimble. He raised it in a brief toast, then tossed back the contents as if it were a shot of liquor. “It’s just water. No drugs. Nothing extra except for whatever it might have collected from this hotel’s old, brass pipes. Consider, Master Jacob. If you’d been drugged, why would the unseen world disappear when you covered your left eye?”
“It could still be–“
“No,” Miles said in a sharp tone. He took a deep breath and forced a smile before continuing. “We don’t have much time here, and I don’t want to spend what we have trying to explain to you what most of the world would find unexplainable. For your sake and mine, I need you to start trusting in what I have to teach you. As for your other question, why someone would open their eyes to the supernatural, there are many reasons. Open your left eye and look at the stopper.”
Jake lowered his hand and looked. The stopper appeared as it had before with its smoky glass and its bright red rubber stopper. Closing his right eye, Jake saw something else. The stopper glowed with a soft golden light.
“I see it.” Jake turned and looked back at Miles. A small, round object rested above Miles’ heart, glowing from beneath Miles’ shirt more brightly than the dropper. Jake pointed towards it. “I see something there, too.”
Miles’s eyes went wide and he clutched at the object at his chest. “Ah, yes. This. You don’t have to worry about this. Not yet, anyway.”
“What is it?”
“Not something you’re ready for.”
“But what is it?”
With a sigh, Miles loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt. He tucked a finger beneath his collar and fished out a silver chain. The chain itself didn’t glow, but the golden medallion that emerged shone like a torch. “This is a Master Key.”
“What does it open?”
Jake crossed his arms in front of him. “You just said I need to start trusting you. It goes both ways. How am I supposed trust you if you don’t trust me enough to answer my questions?”
“Oh, very well.” Miles removed the medallion from his neck and held it out in front of him. “Most people live their lives believing that the only world that exists is the one they were born into. But there are many worlds. More than you can imagine. Master Keys like this one open and close the doors between the many worlds.”
Jake stared at the gold disk in Miles’ hands. In spite of the otherworldly light that surrounded it, in spite of his heart still beating fast from seeing a monster slithering through the walls, Jake clung to his doubts.
“Why don’t we have a little stroll around the hotel?” Miles asked, closing his hands around the Master Key.
Before Jake could form words to protest, he found himself walking down the hallway next to Miles. Wood-paneled walls stretched out in front of him, occasionally interrupted by immaculate white doors with ornate brass handles. More paintings of countrysides and farmhouses dotted the walls, each composed with exquisite detail, none memorable enough to capture Jake’s attention as he walked past them.
“Where are we going?” Jake asked.
“Just around the hotel. Not too far, I’m sure.”
Jake started to ask another question, then stopped mid-step. He turned to his left and stared at the wall. He covered each of his eyes in turn. Through his left, he saw a closed door like the rest in the hallway. With his right eye, the wall continued uninterrupted.
“Is this one of those doors you mentioned before? Into another world?”
“There is a door there, and it is in another world. It’s just not connected to our world.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Try to open it.”
Jake reached for the handle. His hand passed through empty air.
“This hotel is a special place,” Miles said. “Built on a conjunction of many lay lines, the boundary between worlds here is quite thin. Thin enough that we can sometimes stop and look across the gap and glimpse the places beyond. That’s why I brought us here, Master Jacob. Sometimes, seeing is believing, and I need you to believe.”
Jake lay on his bed above the covers, his fingers knitted behind his head, his eyes fixed and unfocused on the ceiling. Jake and Miles had walked for almost two hours before the effects of the eye dropper wore off. During that time, he’d seen things he couldn’t believe. One of the phantom doors had opened to reveal a long-haired goat chewing a cigar with an intelligent gleam in its bar-shaped eyes. Only it hadn’t been chewing. It had been smoking. Through a window, Jake had seen what looked like a modern bathroom dominated by a velociraptor, snarling and slashing the linoleum, like something out of a Stephen Spielberg movie. They passed an elderly woman in a wheelchair that looked normal enough, except for the silenced pistol tucked into her knitting bag. Jake saw dozens of things he had no explanation for, any one of which would have been enough to keep him awake at night. Then there had been the explanations. All day, Miles went on and on about lay lines, incantations, the history of magic… it had all been overwhelming.
The sun had set long ago and the clock had made the transition from large numbers to small. Laying on his bed with his mind swimming through memories he couldn’t catalog, sleep eluded him.
With only one lamp lit, long shadows reached dark fingers across the walls. Jake stared at them, closing one eye. After everything he’d seen, he half-expected to see something looking back at him through the darkness. He focused. For just a moment, he could almost see the outline of a tentacle, long and sinuous. Or was his imagination getting the best of him?
An unrelenting silence pressed down on Jake. It had never been so quiet in his home. His mother always had something going on the television. Half the time, she couldn’t tell you what was playing. She just wanted the noise, she’d say. Even after the accident, after Jake had gone to the foster home, there had never been true silence. The foster home had creaked and hummed around him like a living thing.
However else Miles had disrupted Jake’s life, one constant remained: Jake’s mind found its way back to his parents and the accident. He didn’t like to think of it, but he couldn’t avoid it. How can a person make themselves not think of something?
If Jake’s dad was there, he might have had an answer. His dad was so smart. He’d work on crosswords with a pen. If Miles had been pulling some sort of trick on Jake, Jake’s dad would have seen through it. Jake wished his father was there right now, if only to help Jake process the impossible things he’d seen that day.
A sound like fabric tearing broke the silence. Jake flinched from the noise. It came again, sounding through the door that separated the two rooms. Snoring. Miles had a snore like a sputtering lawn mower. Did the British man have sleep apnea or something? Jake added another tally to the mental checklist of things keeping him from sleeping.
Jake’s memories tumbled back to another time when snoring had kept him awake. He and his parents had gone camping and they’d had to share a tent. Jake had ducked down into his sleeping bag with a flashlight to read while his parents fell asleep a couple of feet away. When the batteries ran out and his eyes got heavy, he could hear the sleep noises coming from his parents. Eventually, insect chirping and an occasional breeze through dry leaves lulled Jake off to dreamland.
Sleep wouldn’t be so easy this night. He’d seen things in the hotel that wouldn’t let his brain rest, like the tiny people that lived in the tree in the lobby. As Jake had watched, one of the little elves raised a hand and waved at Jake. They could see him, just as Jake could see them. Miles insisted that they were in a different world, but they acknowledged Jake’s presence. That made them real.
As another one of Miles’ resonant snores penetrated the walls into Jake’s room, Jake sat up. A new thought filled his mind. A possibility. Something he never would have considered before that day. He rose from his bed and crept towards the door into Miles’ room.
Jake gave the doorknob a slow turn. It clicked open, and the hinges snitched on him with a creak that sounded like a scream. Jake waited in the open door. Miles’ thunderous sleep noise encouraged him forward.
The British man lay unconscious above the covers, an open book spread on his chest. Miles’ head rested on the pillow facing Jake, his mouth open and a thin line of drool running in a line to the fabric. Jake froze part way into Miles’ room, only moving whenever the sleeping man emitted another resonant blast.
Miles kept his room neat and organized, with his clothes hung up in the closet and his sundry other possessions tucked into his crocodile skin bags, which he left open on the dresser. Jake tip-toed to the bags and peaked inside. He found the box with the dropper, pulled it out, and moved on to the bathroom.
Jake drew water from the tap and tried to activate the dropper. It took him several tries. Jake’s eyes stung and his cheeks felt wet as though he’d been crying. Eventually, the dropper glowed in his hand. This time, he’d dosed both eyes.
As he made his way back towards his room, his footsteps slowed. Other items in Miles’ room wore similar auras to the dropper. Items beamed from Mile’s bag on the dresser. The book resting on the British man’s chest bore a rose-colored light. None of the other magical items in Miles’ room lit up like the Master Key, though, which Jake could see radiating from the bedside table drawer.
Jake’s plan had been to look for a window that showed him his parents. With so many possible worlds, there had to be one where the accident had never taken place. Jake thought that if he looked hard enough in the hotel, maybe he could find that world. Maybe he’d be able to see them. Maybe they’d be able to see him, too. But why look for a window when you might be able open a door? Jake crept towards the table with the glowing golden amulet.
The drawer slid open with a soft sigh. Jake reached for the chain. Miles stopped mid-snore. Jake looked towards the British man, caught in the act, his heart pounding in his ears.
Miles snorted, closed his lips, and turned his head. The snoring resumed, a bit quieter than before.
Jake withdrew the Master Key and slunk back to his room. He closed the door behind him and released the breath he’d been holding. He had the key. All he had to do next was figure out how to use it.
With both eyes opened to the magical world, Jake had a hard time navigating the hotel. He kept trying to follow hallways that didn’t exist. When he found the stairs, he nearly tripped and fell. Whatever world he was looking into had seven steps down before the turn, while the real world had eight. He managed to catch himself on the rail.
On the bottom floor, he started towards the lobby, then stopped. If the Night Manager were on shift, what would happen? Would Jake’s eyes start to bleed again? With the effects of the dropper running, would his head simply explode? Jake turned around. Best not to risk it.
In front of him, the world flickered and moved. Hallways winked into existence, slanted off into different directions, then disappeared. A casino appeared in front of Jake for a moment, its occupants wreathed in smoke as they pulled one-armed bandits. The slot machines disappeared, replaced with poker tables. A restaurant took the place of the casino, with waitresses wearing blue dresses appropriate for a sock hop. The restaurant morphed into a diner. Jake locked eyes momentarily with a short-order cook that had a scar twisting his mouth and cheek into a wicked sneer. The diner disappeared but the grim-faced cook remained, only he was a bouncer standing in front of a dance hall. A line of waiting guests stood in front of him next to a velvet roped queue.
“Can I help you, sir?” a man whispered in Jake’s ear.
Jake turned to see an older man in a bright red bell-hop’s uniform. A name tag read “Sammy” in black letters on a gold background.
“I think I need a quiet place to sit down.”
“Have you been to the lounge? The bar is closed this time of night, but the seats are comfy and it should be very quiet.”
“Can you take me there?”
Sammy smiled, his blue eyes twinkling. “Of course! Right this way.”
The old bellhop walked forward into the heart of the chaos. Jake kept his eyes focused on Sammy while the geography of the hotel shifted around them. A few moments later, Sammy stopped and gestured towards a beige sofa.
Whatever room Sammy had brought them to, it continued to warp through different realities. Jake reached his hands forward and placed them on the back of the couch. He felt the soft material and sighed in relief. It was real.
Jake turned to thank the bellhop. Sammy was gone.
“Right. I think I’m just gonna sit and wait this out.”
Jake lowered himself onto the sofa as the hotel continued its dizzying dance. For as long as Jake had walked with Miles earlier that day, Jake hadn’t seen anything like this. Had they just not come to this part of the hotel? Was it not so dramatic before because Jake had only dosed one eye? Perhaps Miles had done something to keep the realities straight. Jake could only guess. With a heavy sigh, he sat back and resigned himself to watching different realms of possibility twist all around him.
As the immediate surroundings changed from a bar to a pool to a well equipped gymnasium, Jake noticed one detail remain fixed in place. However else the rooms changed, he could see a stationary door leading out of the hotel. It changed colors and shapes but it did not move relative to Jake.
After a few minutes, Jake reached down and pulled up the Master Key. In his hands, it glowed with hope and possibility. He looked from the Master Key to the door. He’d come this far. Why stop now?
Keeping his eyes on the door, Jake stood up and walked across the chaos of the hotel. Phantoms of people and furniture appeared in front of him. Jake gritted his teeth and walked through them. He reached a hand up and touched the door knob. A static shock stung him as he wrapped his fingers around the cold metal.
Jake pulled out the Master Key and held it against the door and thought of Miles’ instructions on using the dropper. He had to focus and visualize. Visualize what? Probably something to do with opening. Jake’s mind conjured a memory of his old home, before the accident. He visualized the heavy front door which his mother decorated with a wreath every holiday season. He saw the door opening in his mind, with his parents waiting for him on the other side.
He opened the door.
Plates crashed. A man shouted. Jake turned and saw a waiter surrounded by shards of porcelain, his cart overturned next to a set of dumbbells. A woman with long brown hair, platform shoes, bell bottoms, and a tie-die shirt stood a short distance off, staring at another woman wearing a big-shouldered, tan business suit. Except for their clothing, they could have been twins. Another waiter in a completely different uniform from the first pushed a mop bucket towards the spilled plates, stepping over gymnasium equipment before sliding around the beige couch.
“What’s happening?” asked a man in a blue blazer.
“Where am I?” asked another man in a space suit, his helmet tucked under one arm.
More people appeared, each adding their voices to the chorus of questions and exclamations. Jake heard more sounds of dishes breaking, followed by a gunshot. Then screaming.
“Oh no,” Jake said. The door was gone. Where it should have been, a ragged hole in reality yawned, the edges frayed and moving. Beyond the opening, Jake saw another hotel. As he watched, the hole widened by several inches on each side.
“This can’t be happening.” Jake squeezed his eyes shut, hoping to break the spell. After a moment, he heard a familiar voice approaching.
“There, there. Be a good chap and help this woman up, would you? That’s it. Everything will be all right. No need to worry. Ah! Master Jacob, there you are.”
A hand gripped Jake’s shoulder and he opened his eyes. In front of him, the tear in reality continued to eat away at the wall.
“Miles, I don’t know what to do.” Jake turned to the British man and pressed the Master Key into his hands.
The British man looked at the amulet. “Impressive. It usually takes months of practice to get an artifact like this to respond at all.”
“You’re… saying I did a good job?”
“Oh, heaven’s no. An unstable rift at a nexus of power like this can tear the fabric of our reality to ribbons. This was quite irresponsible on your part, Master Jacob.”
“How do we fix it?”
Wood splintered and glass shattered somewhere behind Miles. The British man rubbed his chin as he examined the rift. After a moment, he took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. He handed the amulet back to Jake.
“We’ll do this together. The Master Key will only work from this side, so you hold on to it.”
Before Jake could protest, Miles stepped around him and through the portal. As Jake watched, duplicates of Miles stepped off to the right and left. More copies of Miles appeared behind Jake wearing different outfits.
“Now,” Miles said from the other side of the rift. “Hold up the key where the door should be.”
Jake lifted the amulet. It felt heavier than before. “Miles, wait. What are you doing?”
“It’s very important you try and focus, Master Jacob. We don’t have much time.”
“Focus on what? If this closes and you’re on the other side–“
“This will take both of us, one on each side. Visualize a boulder or a stone.”
“Not a door?”
“Doors are meant to be opened. This is a break, and what we need is something solid and whole.”
The memory of a lake with a rocky beach sprung immediately to Jake’s mind. He remembered climbing the huge boulders next to the cold, blue water. He tried to put the image out of his mind, but how do you delete a thought once it’s in your mind? The amulet touched something solid.
“No! Don’t leave me like this!”
“I’m sorry, Master Jacob, but this is the only way. We only have a few moments, now. There’s a book in my room. I want you to–“
Jake didn’t want to hear it. He tried to pull the Master Key away, but it refused to budge. Jake brought a foot up, braced himself, and pulled harder. Something gave and he fell, landing hard on his back. The door that had not been there slammed shut. The click of the lock echoed into the sudden silence.
Groaning, Jake sat up and looked around. The strange warping of reality had ceased, and he found himself on the floor of a sparse lounge. Alone.
Jake scrambled to his feet and opened the door. Cold night air rushed in, prickling his skin to goose flesh. He stepped outside and looked around. Miles was nowhere to be found. A crescent moon partially obscured by clouds beamed down at him.
“Miles, I’m so sorry.”
The empty night offered no response.
Jake found Miles’ book on the bedside table beneath an ornately carved wooden pen. Jake picked up the writing instrument and examined it. On the top where a clicker would be, Jake found a dime-sized ruby set into the dark wood.
Setting the pen aside, Jake opened the book and thumbed through it. Half the pages were blank while the other held words and pictures drawn in black ink. Jake turned to the last page and found a message addressed to him.
Dear Master Jacob,
You have already experienced more grief than any young man your age should have to bear, and I hope that my departure does not add to your burden.
Though I have only known you for a short time, I am certain that you will make an excellent Guardian. You are inquisitive, strong-willed, and pure in your intentions. Do not let the experience with the rift dissuade you. I believe in you.
As you may have already guessed, this book is special. In addition to containing my notes and instructions on the mystic arts, it is also a way for us to communicate. I have a copy, and whatever is written in one appears in the other. But please have a care as there are only so many pages.
You will find the resources you need within my bags, and the hotel staff has been instructed to attend to you for as long as you’d like. Study my notes, and for the sake of our reality, do not try and open a portal to reach me. Trust me when I tell you that you are not ready for that.
But someday, you will be.
Jake traced the last few words with a finger. He picked up the pen, set it to the page, then stopped. What was he going to say? Was he going to thank his brief mentor, or apologize? He riffled through the empty pages with his thumb. Miles was right. There weren’t enough pages to waste.
Turning off the light, Jake returned to his room and closed the door behind him. As he saw it, there really was only one thing left for him to do. He turned on the bedside lamp, sat on his bed, and opened the book to the beginning.
He began to read.