The Magician King Page 37

But appearances were deceiving. Quentin stuck the first soldier’s sword point-down in the sand and squared off.

Kinetics: he was good with them. He was a Physical Kid. Whispering fast, reaching back to a Brakebills seminar he hadn’t thought about in, what, five years, he held out both hands, palms up, and waved them toward the soldier as if he were shooing away a flock of pigeons. As one, the black pebbles on the shore rose up at the man in a dark stream, like a swarm of angry bees, pelting him in the chest and the face with a rattling sound like a gravel truck dumping its load. Confused, the man turned to run, but he fell after only a few steps, and the rocks buried him into unconsciousness.

There now. All at once the fear was gone again, and the pain was gone, and the inertia was gone. Quentin was free to move. He could pass the boat. He’d been free his whole life, if only he’d known it.

He walked over to where the man lay half-covered. A warm, damp wind was coming in from offshore. Quentin kicked some rocks away from his face: a narrow sunburned face, ravaged by acne scars. His story was over for now. Quentin picked up his sword and chucked it as hard as he could out to sea. It skipped once, twice, and sank.

He picked up a small flat stone and slipped it into his pocket.

A skinny, windy path led up from the end of the beach through the trees toward the near watchtower. The grade was steep, and he walked up it bent over; it made his burning side feel better. He was afraid of nothing except losing momentum. He rehearsed spells to himself under his breath without actually casting them, feeling the energy build and then letting it die away again.

The watchtower was round and built on a steep slope, so coming up on it even the ground floor was above him. He put a hand on the old exposed foundation. He wondered who’d built it. The bricks felt cool and permanent. Who had placed them in this careful, elegant way, rectangular bricks approximating a smooth circle? Who was inside it? Was it enough that fate, or Ember, or whoever, had stuck these people in his way, that he was now going to hurt or kill them? After all he couldn’t keep this nonlethal shit up all night. Was it enough that one or really two of them had tried to kill him—one of them had even gone so far as to stick a sword in him?

Enough thinking. Sometimes it felt like all he did was think, and all other people did was act. He was going to do the other thing for a while. See how that felt.

He blew five minutes on a silent ritual that was supposed to enhance his senses, at least in theory, though he hadn’t done it since he was an undergraduate, and even then he’d never done it sober. His best bet would be to fly up the outside of the tower and surprise whoever was inside from above. Flight was a surprisingly major arcanum, bigger than you’d think, and he worried that using it would leave him with too little juice for a fight. But on the other hand, huge points for style. Nothing made you feel more like a fucking sorcerer than aviating under your own power. Yippee ki-yay, motherfuckers.

Up he rose through the twilight air. The ancient brick rushed by his face in the dimness. There was no noise. He felt his chest empty out a little with the effort. It wasn’t so much a feeling of being weightless as one of being supported, touchlessly, somewhere around your shoulders. You were a baby being lifted up by a giant parent. Who’s a good boy?

Quentin’s long legs hung down as he cleared the treetops. He wished the others could see him. He shot up above the rim of the tower, arms spread out, one hand holding his stolen sword, the other lit up and crackling with violet witchery in the dimness. At the last second he cocked one knee up, the way superheroes did in comic books.

The man on the rooftop had time to stop swinging his arms back and forth and crane his neck back in shock, squinting, all blond hair and buckteeth, before Quentin extended his hand toward him, two fingers pointed. Two deep indigo pulses shot out of them and caught the man in the forehead and dropped him; the pulses ricocheted off into the darkness to points unknown. Quentin had had a long time to tinker with Penny’s old Magic Missile spell, and now it ran smooth and precise, with glowy special effects on top. The man’s head snapped back and then forward, and he went down on his hands and knees. Another shot, to the ribs, sent him sprawling over on his side.

Three down. Quentin landed lightly on the stone roof, which had a low wall around it. Again he felt the absence of a sound track keenly. There was a gun up here, a squat black cannon with a neat pyramid of cannonballs next to it. He took the flat rock that he’d collected from the beach out of his pocket. Drawing a dagger from the belt of the unconscious lookout—it was all the man was armed with—he began scratching a rune on it. It was a complicated business, but he could see the rune in his mind—could picture the page of the book where he’d read about it, a left-hand page. It didn’t have to be exact, straight lines and right angles, but the structure of it had to be right. You couldn’t mung up the topology.

When it was done, when he connected the last line to the first one, Quentin felt the join in his gut. It was good enough. The power was locked in there. The stone buzzed and jumped in his hand as if it were alive.

He waited for just a moment at the top of the stairs. Once he threw that rock there would be no going back, no slipping off into the darkness. The warm ocean wind poured over him under the darkening sky. The weather was picking up, and the sea was flecked with combers. A storm was rolling in. He had a sudden worry about the man he’d left down on the beach. What if the tide came in? Quentin was pretty sure the water would wake him up before it drowned him.

A quick, soundless flicker of blue-white light caught Quentin’s eye, in his peripheral vision. It came from the other watchtower, on the far side of the keep, through the trees—it was exactly as if somebody had taken a flash photo inside it. He squinted into the half darkness. Had he been spotted? Had he imagined it? A long moment passed. Ten seconds. Twenty. He relaxed again.

The other tower ripped open. Something hot and bright and white exploded inside it. The whole top floor blew out, and arcs of power flashed out in all directions, setting the treetops around it on fire. Stones went crashing away through the underbrush. The tower’s roof pancaked down onto the floor below it.

Just then, out at sea, the rough, bold shape of the Muntjac came heeling silently around the point. It was like an enormous friendly dog he hadn’t seen for weeks and weeks, bounding toward him. The others had come. It was all happening.

Grinning like a loon, Quentin threw his stone down the stairs and stepped away.

A colossal whump made the roof under his feet resonate like a drum, as the stone gave up the energy he’d locked inside it all at once, explosively. Dust spurted up from between the roof tiles, and air blasted out of the mouth of the stairs. Instinctively Quentin half squatted, and for a second he wondered if he’d overdone it, but the tower held together. He ran down the steps, prepping another spell, the tip of his sword scraping the wall. The room was dark—he could just make out two men, one lying prone under a broken table, the other trying to get to his feet.

Quentin kept running. His mind was clear and ringing with excitement. As he ran he blew into his hand and shook it to get another spell charged up. Not a moment too soon, because yet another man came pelting up the stairs, hurriedly tugging on gloves. Quentin stiff-armed him straight in the chest, which might or might not have worked anyway, but Quentin’s hand was amped up like a Taser, and the charge blew the man back down the stairs.

Quentin hurdled the groaning body and kept on running, out into the square in front of the castle.

It had four sides: the keep on the left, watchtowers on either end, ocean on the right. There was a small obelisk in the middle. A moment later Poppy came walking into the open air from the opposite corner. He hadn’t realized what he must look like, shirtless and bloody, until she saw him and he saw her expression. He waved in what he hoped was a cheerful and not moribund way. He was about to jog across to her when a stick clattered across the cobblestones next to him. He looked at it curiously, then scrambled violently backward out of the courtyard when he saw that it was an arrow.

Poppy saw it at the same time he did. She darted behind the pedestal, singing something in rapid-fire Polish, and a green tracer appeared in the air, like a green laser, connecting the arrow to the roof of the castle. She had back-traced its path through the air.

She didn’t faze easily. It must be an Australian thing. Probably she grew up fighting off snakes and dingoes and whatever else. He’d never seen her cast anything before, and it was amazing. He’d never in his life seen anybody move their hands that quickly.

“Oy!” she called, her back to the stone obelisk. “Are you all right?”

“I’m all right!”

“Eliot and Benedict are finishing in the tower!” she shouted.

“I’m going in!” He pointed to the keep.

“Wait! No! Bingle’s coming too!”

“I’m going in!”

He didn’t hear what she said next. He was overjoyed to see them, and somehow weirdly Poppy, good old Poppy, most of all, but he felt a surge of longing at the same time. This was his chance. If he didn’t stay ahead of them, if he didn’t get there first, he would lose it, and he didn’t want to be selfish about it, but if it was all the same to them he wanted this one to be his show. Quentin whispered a few words to his sword and struck it twice on the ground. It took on a golden sheen. Poppy was working on the end of the green trail from the arrow now. The end became a spark, and the spark raced along the trail like a lit fuse. It disappeared over the parapet, and there was a crack of thunder.

Quentin ran for the doorway of the keep. The feeling was absolutely glorious. He didn’t know how he knew what to do, but he did. With the others at his back, his last doubt was gone.

The doors were made of foot-thick iron-bound beams. He took a skip-step, wound up with the sword, and smashed it into them overhand. The spell he’d put on it didn’t affect the way the sword felt to him, but it acted on everything else as if it weighed about half a ton. The whole structure vibrated, and the wood cracked and split. More dust. The boom echoed out into the night. Another hit smashed the door halfway in, and another cleared the doorway.

Striding into the castle Quentin felt so full of power it was almost painful. It was bursting out of him. He didn’t know where it was coming from—his chest felt huge, its contents under maximum pressure. He was a walking bomb. Five men stood in the hall behind the broken door, pointing swords and spears at him, and a shout of wind rushed out of Quentin’s hands and blew them backward. He blinded them with a flash of light and then threw them bodily down the great hall. It was just so obvious.

He turned and put one hand on the ruins of door he’d just knocked out, and it began to burn. This seemed like a good idea, and very dramatic, but just in case it caused problems later he hardened his skin against fire.

He was discovering, in a way for the first time, what it felt like to truly be a Magician King. That fat bastard he’d been when he was sitting around Castle Whitespire, playing with swords and getting drunk every night? That was no king. This was a king. Master and commander. This was the culmination of everything that had started the day he’d walked into that frozen garden in Brooklyn, all those years ago. He had at last come into his own. Maybe all he’d needed was Ember’s permission. You have to have faith.

The ritual he’d done to ramp up his senses was actually working: he was so wired, he could feel where people were through the walls—he could sense the electricity in their bodies, the way a shark does. Time, that dull mechanism that usually reliably stamped out one second after another, like parts on a conveyor belt, erupted into a glorious melody. He was getting it all back now, everything that he’d missed and more. Poppy was right, that time on Earth, it had been an adventure after all. It wasn’t just blundering around, it was the buildup to this. And this was living. He would live like this from now on.

“This is me,” he whispered. “This is me.”

He trotted up the front stairs and through a series of grand rooms. When people approached him, objects flew at them and battered them to the floor—chairs, tables, urns, chests, whatever he could get traction on with a spell. Lightning struck and stunned them. Lazily, he stopped a thrown ax in midair with one outstretched hand, and sent it back the way it came. Breathing in, he sucked the oxygen out of rooms until the people in them choked and passed out, lips blue, eyes bulging. Pretty soon they began to run when they saw him coming.

He felt altered, like he had grown physically giant. It didn’t stop the spells pouring out of him, one after another, effortlessly. The enemy troops were mixed, human and fairy and a few exotics: a stone golem of some sort, a water elemental, a red-bearded dwarf, a rather tatty talking panther. It didn’t matter, he was an equal-opportunity hero. He was a gusher, a fire hose. He barely even felt the wound in his side anymore. He threw his sword away. Screw swords. A magician doesn’t need a sword. A magician doesn’t need anything but what’s inside him. All he had to do was be who he was: the Magician King.

He had no idea where he was going, he just worked room to room, clearing the building. Twice he heard the Muntjac’s guns boom in the distance. Once he threw open a door and found Bingle and Julia backing down a crowd of soldiers amid the wreckage of a drawing room full of ornate furniture. Bingle’s magic sword flickered in front of him, as fast and precise as an industrial machine, its glowing tracery leaving hypnotic neon tracks in the air. He seemed to be in a state of martial ecstasy, his tunic wringing with sweat but his face calm, his hooded eyes having drooped almost to slits.

But the real terror was Julia. She’d summoned a kind of transformative magic Quentin didn’t know, or maybe whatever it was in her that wasn’t human had come to the surface in the fight. He hardly recognized her. Her skin was shining with that phosphorescent silver, and she’d grown at least six inches. She fought bare-handed—she advanced on the soldiers till somebody was foolish enough to thrust a spear at her, at which point she simply grabbed it like he was moving in slow motion and began beating the shit out of him and his friends with it. Her strength looked enormous, and metal blades just skated off her skin.

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