The Magician King Page 16

Julia rolled down what was left of the broken window so that it didn’t look so broken.

“How the hell did you do that?” he said.

“You know about hot-wiring?” she said. “That is ‘not-wiring.’ That is what we used to call it, in the old days.”

“In what old days did you go around stealing cars? And who is ‘we’?”

She didn’t answer, just took a corner too fast, so that the car heeled over on its ridiculously too-bouncy suspension.

“That was a stop sign,” Quentin said. “I still think we should go to Brakebills.”

“We are going to Brakebills.”

“You changed your mind.”

“It happens.” Her thumb was still bleeding. She sucked it and wiped it on her pants. “Can you drive?”

“No. I never learned.”

Julia swore. She turned up the radio.

It was four hours from Chesterton to Brakebills, or as close as you could get to Brakebills by car. Julia did it in three. They shot west across Massachusetts the long way, whipping along old New England interstates that had been cut through pine forests and blasted through low green hills, the sides of which showed bare red rock. The rock faces were slick with water from underground springs exposed by the blasting.

The sun set. The car smelled of its owner’s cigarette smoke. Everything was toxic and chemical and unnatural: the plastic walnut trim, the electric lights, the burning gasoline that was shoving them forward. This whole world was a processed petroleum product. Julia kept the radio on classic rock the whole way. It would be an exaggeration to say that she knew every single lyric of every single song that came on, but not by much.

They crossed the Hudson River at Beacon, New York, and turned off the interstate onto a two-lane local highway, winding and humped up with old frost heaves. Apart from Julia’s singing they didn’t speak. Quentin was still trying to make sense of what had just happened to them. It was too dark to make the trek to Brakebills tonight, so Julia showed him how to extract cash without a card from an ATM at a bug-swarmed gas station. They bought sunglasses for her, to hide her weird eyes, and they spent the night—separate rooms—at a motel. Quentin mentally dared the clerk to say something about their clothes, but no dice.

In the morning Quentin took a genuine hot shower in an actual Western-style bathroom. Score one for reality. He stayed there till all the sea salt was finally out of his hair, even though the tub was made of plastic and there were spiders in the corners and it reeked of detergents and “fresheners.” By the time he cleaned up, checked out, and harvested a bona fide actual sixteen-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola from the vending machine, Julia was waiting for him, sitting on the hood of their car.

She’d skipped the shower, but she’d doubled up on the Coke. The car spit gravel on its way out of the parking lot.

“I thought you did not know where it was,” Julia said. “That was what you told me when I asked you.”

“I told you that,” Quentin said, “because it’s true. I don’t know where it is. But I think there’s a way to find it. At least I know someone who did it once.”

He meant Alice. She’d done it as a high school senior, so they ought to be able to manage it. Strange to think of it now. He was going to follow in her footsteps.

“We’ll have to walk a couple of miles through the woods,” he said.

“That does not bother me.”

“A vision spell should reveal it. It’s veiled, but just to keep civilians out. There’s an Anasazi spell. Or Mann. Maybe just a Mann reveal.”

“I know the Anasazi.”

“Okay. Great. Then I’ll let you know when.”

Quentin kept his tone carefully neutral. Nothing made Julia angrier than the feeling that she was being condescended to by a Brakebills graduate. At least she wasn’t blaming him for getting them shunted back to Earth. Or probably she was, but she wasn’t doing it out loud.

It was a hot late August morning. The air was saturated with bronze sunlight. A mile off, at the bottom of the valley, they caught glimpses of the huge blue Hudson River. They parked at a bend in the road.

He got that it hurt her pride, and maybe something even more vital, to be dragged back to Brakebills begging for help. It didn’t change the fact that it was their first and best and possibly only option. He was not fucking staying on Earth. He wanted a quest? Now he had one. The quest was to get back to where he was when he started his goddamned quest. That ought to learn him, but good.

Before they set off Julia spent fifteen minutes on a spell that she curtly informed him would cause the car to wait an hour and then drive itself back home to Chesterton. Quentin didn’t see how that was even remotely possible, on any number of levels, but he kept his doubts to himself. If he’d thought to keep more of the glass he could have at least fixed the window, but he hadn’t, so hard cheese on whoever’s muscle car it was. He tucked two hundred dollars in twenties into the glove compartment, then they drank the rest of the Coke and climbed over the sheet-metal guardrail.

These weren’t recreational woods, meant to be hiked through and picnicked in. They hadn’t been curated and made user-friendly by helpful park rangers. They were dense, and the light was dim, and walking through them wasn’t fun. Quentin was constantly ducking his head too late to avoid being slashed across the face by a branch. Every five minutes he was convinced that he’d walked through a spiderweb, but he could never find the spider.

And he wasn’t sure what would happen if they walked into the Brakebills perimeter without knowing it. Nothing in theory, of course, but Quentin had watched Professor Sunderland lay down the barrier after the Beast attacked. He’d seen some of the things she’d ground into those powders. Any second they could be running smack into it. The idea made his face tingle. After half an hour he called a halt.

The woods were still. There was no sign of the school, but he felt it somewhere around here, as if it were hiding behind a tree waiting to jump out at him. And he imagined he could feel older tracks running through the woods too. Like Alice’s—poor cursed teenage Alice, wandering all night looking for the way in. It would have been better for her if she’d never found it. Careful what you hunt, lest you catch it.

“Let’s try it here,” he said.

Julia launched into the Anasazi spell in her rough, fierce casting style, clearing invisible layers away from the air in a square in front of her, like wiping fog off a windshield. He winced, inwardly, to watch some of her upper hand positions, but it didn’t make her castings any less forceful. Sometimes it seemed to make them more so.

He began work on the Mann instead. It was a lot easier, but it wasn’t a contest. Best to diversify.

He never finished. He heard the usually imperturbable Julia squeak and skip a step backward. Suspended in the air in front of her, in the square she’d cleared, was a face. It belonged to an older man with a goatee wearing a royal-blue tie and an appalling yellow blazer.

It was Dean Fogg, the head of Brakebills. His face was in the square because he was standing right in front of Julia.

“Soooooo,” the dean said, drawing out the vowel until he practically burst into song. “The prodigal has returned.”

Not five minutes later they were walking across the Sea, which was as lush and green and immense as ever. It rolled out around them, the size of half a dozen football fields. The summer sun beat down on them from directly overhead. It was June here, inside the magic walls.

It was incredible. Quentin hadn’t been back here for three years, not since he’d gone to Fogg and asked to be stricken from the rolls of the magical world, but nothing had changed at all. The smells, the lawns, the trees, the kids—this place was like Shangri-la, forgotten by time, abiding in an eternal present.

“We were watching you from when you left the road. The defenses go far beyond what we had in your day. Far beyond. Double-braided lines of force—we have a remarkable young man in our theoretical department, even I don’t understand half of what he does. You can see a map of the entire forest now, in real time, showing anybody in it. It’s even color-coded by their intentions and state of mind. Remarkable.”

“Remarkable.” Quentin felt shell-shocked. On his other side Julia said nothing. God knew what she was feeling, he couldn’t have guessed within a thousand miles. She hadn’t been here since her failed exam in high school. She hadn’t spoken since Fogg had appeared, though she had managed to shake his hand when being introduced.

Fogg rattled on about the school and the grounds and Quentin’s classmates and all the impressive and respectable things they were up to. None of them seemed to have gotten themselves accidentally exiled to the wrong dimension. There was plenty of hot local news too. Brakebills had become a force to be reckoned with on the international welters circuit, thanks to the efforts of one especially sporty young professor. One of the topiary animals, an elephant calf, had broken free of its hedge and was running amok around the grounds, albeit very slowly, at the rate of about a yard a day. The Natural group was laboring mightily to corral it and bring it to justice, but no luck so far.

The library was still plagued by outbreaks of flying books—three weeks ago a whole flock of Far Eastern atlases had taken wing, terrifyingly broad, muscular volumes like albatrosses, and wrecked the circulation area, sending students crawling under tables. The books actually found their way out through the front door and roosted in a tree by the welters board, from which they raucously heckled passersby in a babel of languages until they got rained on and dragged themselves sulkily back to the stacks, where they were being aggressively rebound.

All Quentin could think was how weird it was that all this was still going on. It shouldn’t be possible, it must violate a law of physics. A few students dotted the grass, girls mostly, sunning their light-starved bodies to the extent that the school uniform would permit. Classes were out for the semester, but the seniors hadn’t graduated yet. If Quentin were to turn left here and walk five minutes, past that stand of live oaks, he’d get to the Cottage. And it would be full of strangers, lolling in the window seats, drinking the wine, reading the books, screwing each other in the beds. He’d wondered if he would want to see it, but now that he was here he really didn’t.

The students watched the three of them pass, propped up on their elbows, full of lofty pity for those who had been stupid enough to graduate and get older. He knew how they felt. They felt like kings and queens. Enjoy it while it lasts.

“I wasn’t sure we would ever see you again.” Fogg was still talking. “After your—what shall we call it—your retirement? Not many people who make that choice ever come back, you know. When we lose them we lose them forever. But you, I take it you saw the—how shall I put it—the error of your ways?”

Fogg had evidently decided to take the high road, and it certainly sounded like he was enjoying the view from up there. They left the burning expanse of the Sea for the cool paths of the Maze, which opened up at unexpected intervals into little squares and circles inside of which were nestled pale stone fountains. The same fountains he’d lounged around with Alice, though the paths were different. The Maze would have been redrawn since his day—once a year every year. He followed Fogg’s lead.

“I had a change of heart.” The high road was wide enough for two. “But it was very generous of you to accommodate me, in my—what shall I call it—my hour of need?”

“Just as you say.”

Fogg removed a handkerchief from inside his lapel and patted his forehead with it. He did look older. The goatee was new, and it was mostly white. He’s been here all this time, every day, doing what he’d always done, to other kids who then moved on and left. Quentin felt claustrophobic after only five minutes. Fogg still saw him as the boy he used to be, but that boy was gone.

They walked into the House and up to Fogg’s office. Before Quentin followed him inside he turned to Julia.

“Do you want to just wait out here?”

“Fine.”

“Might be better tactically for me to do this man-to-man.”

Julia formed a mirthless “OK” sign with her thumb and forefinger. Great. She seated herself on the bench beside Fogg’s door, the one usually reserved for naughty and/or failing undergraduates. She’d be fine. He hoped.

The dean sat down and clasped his hands in front of him on the desktop. The rich, leathery, familiar smells clawed at Quentin, trying to drag him back into the past. He wondered what he would say if he could talk to the boy he had been, sitting in what looked like this exact same chair, all those years ago, wearing the rumpled clothes that he’d slept in, joggling his knee with nerves, and trying to figure out if this was all a joke. Proceed with caution? Take the blue pill? Maybe something more practical. Don’t sleep with Janet. Don’t go touching strange keys.

And what would his younger self say? He would look back at him the way Benedict looked at Quentin and say: like I would do that.

“So,” Fogg said. “What can I do for you? What brings you back to your humble alma mater?”

The problem was how to ask for help without giving away more than he should about Fillory. Its existence—its reality—was still a secret, and Fogg was the last person he wanted to know about it. If he found out, then everybody would hear about it, and next thing you know it’s the hot spot for Brakebills kiddies on spring break, the Fort Lauderdale of the magical multiverse.

But he had to start somewhere. Just pretend to be as ignorant as he is.

“Dean Fogg, how much do you know about travel between worlds?”

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