Pulling up my hood to hide my face, I slipped from the fog-shrouded London street into a narrow alleyway between two abandoned buildings, a smile forming at the prospect of breaking the Alliance’s rules. Rule number one: no trespassing in the Passages. Rule number two: no leaving Earth without a permit.
Lucky they didn’t know about this particular door.
I rubbed my arms, the chill from the alley wall penetrating the thin fabric of my coat. Several feet in, the brick gave way to a fake section of wall which wasn’t obvious at first glance. This area was so off-radar, no one would ever come looking for trouble here, not of the magic variety. But my fingers found the familiar cracks between brick and metal, and a gentle push made the fake part of the wall slide away, revealing cold metal.
I didn’t know who’d first discovered the Passage here, nor who’d concealed it. The Alliance had logged every single one, not that there were many on Earth, but this was hidden even from them. A nice irony that the biggest illegal offworld operation was in the same city as Earth’s main Alliance branch.
Nothing was quite like that first thrill when magic made itself known, buzzing under my skin as my fingers brushed the metal wall. It was icy to the touch and functioned like a sliding panel, moving back to reveal a dark corridor. Heart beating fast, I stepped over the threshold.
The Passages were always freezing, no matter the time of day. There was no sun here, and on the lowest level, where I was, it felt like the inside of a gigantic refrigerator. The lowest level, or “level zero”, was the most dangerous, which was most likely why the Alliance hadn’t found the door. Even Alliance guards could get eaten alive by the monsters down here.
Luckily, this time it was quiet, though the lingering stench of Cethrax’s swamp followed me through the corridors. That world was not on my list of tourist destinations. But once I’d escaped the warren of the lower levels via a concealed staircase, I was in the Passages for real. The first-level corridor opened before me, branching out into countless others. All identical—high-ceilinged, ten metres wide, and lined with metal doors like the one that led to Earth. All were labelled with numbers in an order only the Alliance knew, to ensure nobody but them could tell which door led to which universe. There were thousands in total, spread throughout these corridors. Maybe even millions—I hadn’t seen them all.
For me, imagining was part of the thrill. Every hum of the wind in the dark whispered promises of worlds beyond imagining, every door held something new behind its cold metal exterior. I’d come here too many times to count, yet I’d never set foot beyond one of those doors. But God, the temptation was so intense I could taste it.
And then there was magic. You couldn’t really see magic on Earth the way I could here, like the shift of a tinted lens, enough to make the world look one degree different. And I could feel it under my skin, like I was plugged into a live wire. Something in the Earth’s atmosphere stifled magic, which was why the Alliance relied so much on their offworld technology. No denying they needed it, seeing as they were the one force standing between Earth and the mercy of a thousand offworld threats. And yet, I’d be at their mercy if they found me here. Using an unregistered Passage to help illegal magic-wielders from another world that the Alliance deemed ‘dangerous’ would mean instant imprisonment, if I was lucky.
I walked swiftly, with the occasional glance behind to make sure I wasn’t being tailed. I had long since figured out the pattern of the Alliance’s patrols and could avoid them, but despite having come here frequently since I was eight years old, I couldn’t pretend I knew all the Passages’ secrets. They’d been set up by the original Alliance. That was about as much as anyone on Earth knew. Not how they’d put the doors in place, not how they found each world. Classified, Nell had said. The Alliance guarded its secrets well.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. I fished it out and glanced at the screen. “Level 2, Door 65. You’re late.”
Rolling my eyes, I slid my phone back into my pocket. Delta had been the one to hook up my phone to Inter-World Communications so I’d have a means of contacting him from Earth. A pretty handy extension. Not quite as fancy as the flashy communicators members of the Alliance carried, but it worked for me. I could call anyone within the five neighbouring worlds and the Passages between.
Second level. I suppressed a shiver of unease, and the smile faded from my face. I knew which world I’d be dealing with this time.
The staircase was invisible to most people, but I found it, coat whipping behind me in the chill wind of upper level. Shivering, I climbed the twisting staircase and hurried through the corridors, not daring to glance at the doors hidden in the gloom. I couldn’t imagine the horrors on the other side. These were worlds torn apart by war, worlds barred from ever joining the Alliance.
One of them was my homeworld.
Reaching the corridor I needed, I paused, looking out for the familiar figure. Delta waved at me from a shadowy corner near door 65.
“You took your time.” Delta faced me with a smile full of elongated teeth.
“Can’t be too careful,” I said, mimicking Nell’s lecturing voice, and he grinned. His hair stood up like the bristles on a toothbrush.
“Right. There’s a family coming through. They should be here any minute now. They’ve been checked over. No magic, and no weapons training.”
I nodded. No magic usually meant it was easier to get away. Not that the Alliance didn’t think we’d all start a magical war anyway, given the chance.
“How’s it going?” he asked. “Is Nell still being paranoid? I thought she’d locked you up.”
“Not going to happen,” I said. “She knows I’d break out and come here anyway. What’s she think will happen? I can hardly go swanning off to Valeria without a permit—though I wouldn’t turn down an invite,” I added, not so subtly.
“Nice try, Red,” he said.
“Ugh. Enough with that stupid nickname already.” Though my dyed dark-red hair had an even more vivid glow in the Passages. Blue light shone from the walls and ceiling, like an alien nightclub. “Seriously, though. Hover boots? Valeria has actual hover boots now?”
“New patent,” said Delta, with another grin. “Not on the market yet, but I’m going to get my hands on some as soon as they are.”
“If you don’t let me have a go in them, I’ll never forgive you,” I said, crossing my arms. Delta and I were like weird cousins… who happened to live in different universes. I’d never met most of his family, and all I really knew about them was that the Campbells worked in magi-technology in Valeria’s capital, trading with other universes. When they weren’t smuggling offworlders through the Passages.
“Sure thing, Red.” He ducked as I pretended to aim a punch at him. “How’s Gary?”
“Long gone, thank God,” I said. “He took issue with my–” I made quotation marks with my fingers–“‘wild lifestyle’. I made the mistake of going over to his place after that fight with the selver and he thought I’d been in some neon orgy or something.”
Delta snickered. “That’s priceless. You went over there with selver drool all over you?”
“I couldn’t help it! That stuff doesn’t clean off easily. I glowed in the dark for a week! I had to throw away my clothes, Delta. The sacrifices I make for you.”
“I’m sure you’ll get over him.”
Such was the price I paid for a double life. Part-time cashier and part-time assistant at Nell’s home business by day. Owner in chief of an illegal shelter for offworlders by night. Any time between, I spent in the Passages. And none of it could I share with another person. I was surprised my now ex stuck around that long. For some reason, most guys weren’t particularly enthused when you refused to tell them where you lived or how you spent most of your time. “I know a dozen ways to kill a man with my bare hands” didn’t go down well as a conversation-starter. Even if you followed it with “Wait. I’ve not actually done that.”
There was a slight possibility I needed to work on my conversational skills.
“Good. How’s Nell doing, anyway?”
“Same as ever,” I said. “She’s thinking about expanding our business into offworld markets.”
“Might as well, seeing as you have the connections,” he said. “The Alliance upped their cross-world trade restrictions not too long ago. A lot of people are angry about it. You’d have support.”
“Yeah, not exactly legal, though, is it?” I gave him a meaningful look. We were breaking a dozen laws between the two of us just by standing here talking.
“You could always join the Alliance,” he said with another toothy smile.
My own smile froze. “That was a joke, right?”
“Right.” He gave a rather forced laugh. “Sure. Just, you know, it’d give you an alibi. You could come here more frequently, help more people…”
I bit my lip. I couldn’t pretend it had never crossed my mind, and I knew his family had connections with Valeria’s Alliance. As an Alliance member, I’d have legal access to the Passages without worrying about being intercepted by guards. But I’d also be expected to work for them. And that I couldn’t do. I couldn’t pretend to be one of them. Not even for money to pay the shelter’s bills. Their council, as Nell reminded me on a weekly basis, had left my homeworld to ruin.
“Nell isn’t the ruler of the Multiverse, you know,” said Delta.
I smiled at that. “No, but I reckon she could give the Alliance a run for their money.”
A faint noise sounded behind Door 65.
“Let’s get this sorry business over with,” said Delta. He nodded at me, and then tapped the door once, twice, three times. Safety signal.
The door opened in a silent sliding motion, and I caught a glimpse of a gleaming tunnel beyond, which led to the transition point. Not Enzar itself, of course—all the Passages directly into the war zone were closed off. Instead, the lucky few who managed to escape via hidden tunnels were taken to a between-world transition point before being smuggled out. Earth was an obvious choice because it was so low-magic and innocuous—not to mention right at the Alliance’s centre—that no one would possibly suspect it might be at the heart of an operation like this.
It was a family this time, a mother and two kids. The woman turned in my direction, frightened eyes peering from under layers of sand-coloured scarves. I fixed a reassuring smile on my face. She was a couple of years older than me, by the look of things, early twenties at most. Her face was oval-shaped and delicate with eyes like glittering amethysts—a dead giveaway, if the expression of utter desperation wasn’t enough. Nell always said you could recognise a person from Enzar a mile away. Everything about the Enzarian Empire used to be beautiful.
The little boy broke free of his mother’s grip and ran to me. I smiled at him, too. “You’re going to be safe now,” I said.
“Yeah, Ada will take care of you,” said Delta, stepping back. “You okay from here?”
I nodded. “Sure thing. Take care.”
We parted ways, and I led the family towards the staircase. “Just down here,” I said, with another encouraging smile, as the boy peered warily down into the dark. I held his hand and led the way.
The woman let out a sob, adjusted a grip on the little girl curled into her. “Thank you,” she whispered, in English. I didn’t speak Enzarian, though I’d asked Nell to teach me a dozen times. She’d have learned English at the transition point, like Nell had. There was no going back to Enzar.
It broke my heart every time, but I couldn’t afford to lose my concentration. I tensed at every noise, gaze sweeping into the darkest corners as we made our way downstairs and then back through the Passages. Only the sound of our own footsteps on the metal floor followed us. What they were made of, I didn’t know—certainly nothing found on Earth. The bluish glow was ever-present, as was the shiver of magic, making the hairs stand up on my arms, like it lived in my very skin. Perhaps it did.
All too soon, we climbed the stairs down to the lowest level. The stench of Cethrax was stronger than ever, like a corpse left to rot—and that about summed up Cethrax, which even the Alliance called the cesspool of the Multiverse.
A too-long shadow that appeared to belong to nothing crept along the corridor. Something followed us. I picked up the pace, my heart thudding. I had to get the family out of here, and stop whatever it was before it noticed the door.
There: the way back to London, Earth. The door that had saved my life, and Nell’s, and too many more to count.
“You’d better get through that door, now,” I said to the woman. The little boy clutched her hand, and she nodded. “Wait for me outside.”
Only when I was sure they were safely out of the Passage, on Earth, did I turn around, bracing myself. The shadow crept over the floor like spilled ink.
“You can’t have them anymore,” I told it. “They’re gone.”
A growl answered me. My hand slipped to the dagger concealed in my boot. I’d had a feeling another of these nasties would show up. They never had the guts to interrupt a patrol, but stragglers in the Passages were easy prey. Or so they thought.
Magic crackled beneath my fingers, ever-eager to strike, but I couldn’t use it now. It’d draw too much attention, and I could fight well enough without it. Trouble was, it was always there, as irresistible as a drug, and about as safe as juggling lit matches. So instead, I let my opponent reveal itself to me, layer after layer of shadows peeling away, and three rows of jagged teeth in a wicked smile. Oh, brilliant. A chalder vox.
They liked pain. Really liked it. It was like tripping on acid for them. I had to kill it.
I held up my left hand and tapped into the magic in the air, the red glow warning it I wasn’t to be messed with. The chalder vox didn’t even blink. It shuffled forwards, and I saw that it had three arms, one sprouting from the middle of its chest and ending in curved claws. Its ears were the same length as its rocklike face. Lovely. Creatures like this one were slow and clumsy, but also six feet of rock-hard skin.
One stonelike fist hit the wall, inches from my face. I dodged, kicking high at the hand that grabbed for me, and my foot connected with something solid. The creature hissed at me, its face stretched in a hideous grin. It was enjoying this.
I backed up and prepared to spring.
The monster’s hand swiped as I jumped, magic flowing through my hand to propel me higher—I’d used it without thinking. Again. Oh, all right, then. Using magic in a closed space was generally a stupid idea, like firing a rocket in a cubicle. It was like any physical force, and if you weren’t careful, the backblast would knock you out.
As it was, I aimed well. My feet connected with the creature’s face, and when I let go of the magic, the backlash bounced off the ceiling and knocked into the back of the chalder vox’s head, driving its teeth into the heel of my padded combat boot. Ouch.
With one hand, I gripped the side of the chalder vox’s elephant-sized ear for balance and pulled myself upright, dagger aimed directly at a dip in the back of the creature’s neck.
It flailed, almost throwing me off, but I held on and stabbed. The blade sank into the monster’s weakest point. There was no blood, but a horrible screech echoed off the walls and the chalder vox fell to its knees. I leaped back quickly. Shadows flowed from the hole in the back of its neck, thick as blood. It went still. Dead.
Talk about an obvious weakness. Replacing the dagger in its sheath, I turned my back and went through the door, back into the foggy London alleyway. The static buzz of magic faded as I stepped back onto Earth. With the low-hanging clouds and tall buildings, it felt more enclosed than the Passages, and the smell of exhaust fumes never really went away. The woman and kids waited for me, looking uncertainly around.
“Sorry,” I said. “We were followed. The Passages are dangerous, as I’m sure my friend Delta told you.”
The woman bowed her head. She understood she’d never be able to go home. The kids wouldn’t even remember it in a few years. I hoped so, anyway. My heart twisted all the same.
“Okay,” I said, slipping a hand into my coat pocket. “You need to wear these all the time,” I said, handing the woman a small packet. “They’re contact lenses,” I explained. “Your eyes will attract attention here. People on Earth don’t have eyes that colour. Take your pick—blue, green, brown, grey. But stick with one colour.” I glanced down at the little boy. His irises were pale grey, almost white, like mine. “They aren’t mageblood?” I asked.
“I’m half mageblood,” the woman whispered, face clouded with sadness. My heart twisted again. Oh, boy. Half magebloods had a death sentence on them from birth in Enzar. She was lucky. Really lucky.
I nodded. “If the kids start developing the pigment, get them more of these lenses. Ask Nell. She runs the shelter. It’s this way,” I added, pointing towards the street at the alleyway’s end. Nell had rented the empty three-floor apartment building for convenience, as it was a short walk away from the alley. No one saw us, but I kept an eye out while I unlocked the door and led the family inside. I didn’t need to tell them to keep quiet.
Nell was still up, waiting in the dark hallway. She looked much younger than her real age, even with her dark brown hair pulled into a bun. Her oval-shaped face hadn’t a single wrinkle, though a jagged scar marked her right cheek. A souvenir from Enzar, she’d told me. More scars marked her strong, tanned arms. Her light blue eyes met mine as she nodded. Her natural eye colour was pale purple and could pass as blue, but she wore the lenses anyway. Even her hair was dyed; most Enzarians were fair. Another reason I’d dyed mine dark red.
“Welcome,” she said to the woman, extending a hand. “I am Nell Fletcher.”
In her typically quiet-but-authoritative manner, she led the family upstairs, leaving me in the dark hallway. I pushed open the door to the kitchen and helped myself to a glass of water.
We lived on the ground floor. Officially, the upper floors were out of use, and no one ever came to check, since we owned the building. No nosy landlords asking questions. Nell had set up this place herself, after she’d come to Earth with me. When I was less than a year old. Our odd family had later added Jeth and Alber, my brothers. None of us were related by blood, but we were as close as real siblings.
Nell came back into the kitchen, having helped the family settle upstairs. We had only a limited number of rooms, but this place was more of a transition point. We’d get the refugees new identities, help them adjust to living on Earth as best we could. We had contacts with other shelters throughout London. All illegal, like ours. Nell would never forgive the Alliance for adopting a noninterference policy twenty years ago that meant there was no legal way to help anyone from the worlds on the second level of the Passages.
Now, she narrowed her eyes at me. “Your coat’s singed,” she said.
I glanced down. She was right, of course, the edge of my black trench coat was smoking slightly. “A chalder vox,” I said. “I got it, though.”
Nell had nailed the disciplinary stare. “Ada. You need to stop challenging those things.”
“I couldn’t let it run around in there. It might have attacked someone. Or got through one of the doors.”
“Then it’s a problem for the Alliance. Not for us.”
The old argument. “Thought you said the Alliance were blind to what’s in front of them,” I said.
“Tell me the three principles of magic.”
I rolled my eyes. “Do we really have to go through this again? Can’t I just go to bed?” I was bone-tired after the fight, though using magic often left me restless and irritable. Like it called to the part of me that belonged to Enzar, my homeworld, even here on Earth.
“Just tell me.”
“Magic is a force which either acts on a person or an object. Every use of magic has an equal backlash effect, and there are three levels of increasing severity. All is tied into the Balance.”
“You know I’m not going to forget,” I said, with a sigh. “Look, I didn’t have a choice. I only used a little.”
“Someone might have seen,” said Nell, pressing her mouth into a thin line. “Magic creates a ripple effect. You know that.”
She was right, of course. But I’d only used level-one. It barely registered. It wouldn’t affect the Balance. Only a major magical disturbance would cause the levels of magic across the universes to tip. A major disturbance. It had never happened, not as far as the Alliance knew, and from what Nell had told me, their records went back over a thousand years. Hell, the Alliance guards themselves used magic-based weapons in the Passages. I was careful.
“Yes, I know,” I said. “Can I go and get some sleep now? I’ve got an early morning shift.”
“Make sure you don’t sleep in, then.”
Nell didn’t even like my job—well, there wasn’t much to like about a part-time stint in a supermarket, but it was more than most graduates could get these days, and it had stopped her giving me grief for not going to university. It hadn’t seemed worth adding to our debts with a mile-high stack of student loans I’d never be able to pay back.
I wanted to keep doing what I did: helping people. But I couldn’t live at home forever. Nor did I want to. There was more to the world than this. More to the Multiverse.
Delta had said I should join the Alliance. But I knew better than to mention that aloud to Nell. It’d only set her off again. Yes, I knew that the Alliance’s council had ruled against interference in the war, but sometimes it felt like Nell held them single-handedly responsible for every problem in our lives.
“Night, Nell,” I said instead, and headed to my room.