The Magician King Page 42

She hugged herself against the cold. They really weren’t dressed for this. She wasn’t panicking though.

“This isn’t Earth,” Quentin said. “This is the Neitherlands. Or these are the Neitherlands, I’ve never really made up my mind which it is. This is the world in between Earth and Fillory and all the other worlds.”

“Right.” He’d told her about the Neitherlands. “Okay. Well, it’s nice and all, but it’s cold as hell. Let’s get out of here.”

“I’m not actually sure how we’re going to do that. You’re supposed to come in through the fountains, but you need a button to do that.”

“Okay.” Their voices vanished in the frozen air as soon as they spoke. “Well, but do a spell or something. Why did it take us here?”

“I don’t know. They’ve got a sense of humor, those keys.” It was hard to think in the bitter cold. He studied the empty air they’d just appeared out of, his breath smoking. There was really nothing left of the portal back to Fillory. Poppy walked stiff-legged over to the fountain. They were in the Fillory square; the fountain had a statue of Atlas in it, coiled and braced under the crushing weight of a marble globe.

The water in the fountain was frozen. The level of the ice was actually above the stone rim. She felt it with her hand.

“What the shit,” she said quietly. She didn’t sound like herself.

It was dawning on Quentin how much trouble they were in. It was cold here, really cold. It couldn’t have been more than 15 or 20 degrees. There was no wood, nothing to make a fire with, nothing but stone. Quentin remembered Penny’s warning not to do magic here. They might have to test that.

“Let’s go over to the Earth fountain,” he said. “It’s a couple of squares from here.”

“Why? What good would it do if we don’t have a button?”

“I don’t know. Maybe there’s somebody there. I don’t know what else to do, and we have to start moving or we’re going to freeze to death.”

Poppy nodded and sniffed. Her nose was running. She looked more frightened now than she had back on the island, when they were fighting for the key.

They started to walk but immediately broke into a jog instead, to warm up. Apart from their footsteps the silence was absolute. The only light was starlight, but their eyes were adjusting rapidly. All Quentin could think was that this wasn’t going to work, and after it didn’t work things would get very bad. He tried to do mental calculations about thermodynamics. There were too many variables, but hypothermia wasn’t far in their future. A few hours at most, maybe not even that.

They trotted through the broken cityscape. Nothing moved. They crossed a bridge over a frozen canal. The air smelled like snow. A stupid mistake, and now they were both dead, he thought giddily.

The Earth square was bigger than the Fillory one, but it was in no better shape. One of the buildings showed a row of empty windows through which the stars were visible. The façade had survived the catastrophe, but the building behind it was gone.

This fountain was frozen too. The ice had plugged the great bronze lotus flower and cracked it all down one side. They stopped in front of it, and Poppy slipped on black ice under the snow and just managed to catch herself. She popped back up, slapping the wet off her hands.

“Same,” she said. “All right. We need a way out of here. Or we need shelter and something to burn.”

She was rattled, but she was hanging on to her nerve. Good old Poppy. She set a good example, and it woke him up a little.

“The doors on some of these buildings look like wood,” he said. “And there are books inside the buildings. I think. Maybe we could get some and burn them.”

Together they walked the square till they found a broken door, a Gothic-arched monster that had been knocked askew. Quentin touched it. He broke off a splinter. It felt like ordinary wood. They would have to try a fire spell. He explained about how magic acted in the Neitherlands: it was supercharged, explosive. Penny had said never to use it at all. Desperate times.

“How far away can you cast a fire spell from?” he said. “Because we’d better be as far away as we can get when it goes up.”

“It goes up” came out of his numb lips sounding like “id go dup.” He said it again, enunciating a little more clearly, but only a little. This was going downhill faster than he’d thought. They didn’t have long at all. Maybe fifteen minutes more in which they could plausibly get a spell off.

“Let’s find out,” she said.

She began pacing backward away from the door, back toward the center of the square. He couldn’t help thinking that this was just a stopgap, a way station on the road to the inevitable. After they’d figured out how to light a fire, they’d have to find shelter. After they found shelter they’d need food, and there wasn’t any food. His mind churned uncontrollably. They could melt snow to drink, but they couldn’t eat it. Maybe they could find some leather bookbindings to chew on. Maybe there were fish under the ice in the canals. And even if they could survive indefinitely—which they couldn’t—how long till whatever broke the Neitherlands came along and broke them?

“All right!” Poppy called. “Quentin, move!”

He pressed his palm against the wood, if that’s what it was. If this didn’t work, could they make a magic button from scratch? Not in fifteen minutes. Not in fifteen years.

There was a crack between the two doors. Thin blue light shone faintly through it. Starlight. But it wasn’t starlight. It flickered.

“Hang on!” he said.

“Quentin!” He caught a note of desperation in her voice. She had her hands jammed in her armpits. “We don’t have much time!”

“I thought I saw something. There’s something in here.”

He pressed his face up against the frozen wood, but he couldn’t see anything more. He went from window to window, but they were all dark. Maybe from the other side. He yelled at Poppy to come on and ran through an archway to the next square over.

The building was a huge Italianate palace with evenly spaced windows. He considered for a moment the possibility that they might be even worse off if whatever was in there making blue light came out here, but it seemed unlikely that it could offer them a more lingering, unpleasant death than the one they were about to experience anyway. He wondered if, before he died, he’d sink so low that he would pray to Ember to save him. He thought he probably would.

There was no door at all on this side of the palace, but the façade was broken: it ended in jagged stone above the second rank of windows. He could probably get over it if he had to, which he did. A frozen wind was coming up. He wondered what had happened here. It had been so still and protected before, a world under glass. Someone had cut the power and smashed the windows and let the elements come roaring in.

A running jump got him up on the first window ledge. He thanked God, or Ember, or whoever, for the architect of the Neitherlands’ excessive fondness for baroque ornamentation. He could tell the rough stone was taking skin off his cold fingers, but he couldn’t feel it.

“Stand there,” he said, and pointed. He put a foot on Poppy’s shoulder, which she accepted with good grace. From there he could get a foot on the upper molding, and a hand on the window ledge above it, which wasn’t enough for a good grip but was all he was going to get. From there he jumped and grabbed the top of the broken wall. He had to will his fingers to bend.

With his cheek pressed against the cold stone, Quentin risked a look down. Poppy was watching him expectantly. Her lovely face was pale and grave in the starlight. Slowly he hauled himself up until he got a forearm over the wall, then clumsily hiked his knee up onto it. He looked down for the first time into the interior of the Neitherlands.

It looked like he remembered pictures from the London Blitz looking. There was no roof, and most of what had been the second floor had fallen in and lay in ruins on top of the first. The floor was awash with paper, stirred in slow circles by the wind. Books large and small lay sprawled in various states of intactness, some whole, some spread-eagled and eviscerated.

At the far end, where remnants of the upper floor formed a partial shelter, someone had arranged some of the more intact books into tall, neat stacks. The man who presumably had arranged them stood among them. Or no, he wasn’t standing, he was floating a foot off the ground, with his arms spread out.

That’s where the blue light was coming from. There were runes on the floor below him that gave off a faint cold glow. Either he was a fellow refugee from the destruction or the author of it. It seemed like a good moment to take a bad risk.

“There’s someone inside!” he called down to Poppy. He raised his voice. “Hey!”

The man didn’t look up.

“Hey!” Quentin yelled again. “Hi!” Maybe he was Fillorian.

“Quentin,” Poppy said.

“Hang on. Hi! Hi!”

“Quentin, the doors are opening.”

He looked down. So they were. The doors were opening outward, all by themselves.

“Okay. I’m coming down.”

It wasn’t much easier coming down; he’d lost all feeling in his fingers. He took Poppy’s numb hand in his own. This really was their last chance.

“Shall we?” he said. It sounded even thinner than he meant it to.

CHAPTER 22

They picked their way through the rubble, trying out of politeness to step on as few pages as possible. Quentin almost turned an ankle on a stone that rolled under his foot.

The blue light from the runes seemed to be what was supporting the man. His bare feet hung a yard off the ground. He had sandy hair and a large round face—his round head could almost have been what was holding him up, like a balloon. Around him in a cloud hung a dozen books, and a few more single sheets of paper, all opened in his direction, presumably so he could consult them simultaneously. The pages of two of the books were turning slowly.

He didn’t greet them or even look at them as they approached. He had long sleeves that fell over his hands, but there was something odd about the way the material hung. As Quentin got closer it became obvious what it was: the man had no hands. It was Penny.

Quentin hadn’t recognized him without the mohawk, and his hair fully grown in. He’d never known what Penny’s natural hair color was, only that it probably wasn’t metallic green. Penny rotated in place to face them, gazing down from where he hung in midair. He was thinner than he once was, much. He didn’t used to have cheekbones.

Quentin stood at the edge of the eerie blue letters etched in the ground. The cold had gotten into his core. He couldn’t stop his shoulders from shaking.

“Penny,” he said lamely. “It’s you.”

Penny watched him calmly.

“This is my friend Poppy,” Quentin said. “It’s good to see you, Penny. I’m glad you’re all right.”

“Hello, Quentin.”

“What happened to you? What happened here?”

“I joined the Order.”

He spoke softly and calmly. Penny didn’t seem to feel the cold at all.

“What is that, Penny? What’s the Order?”

“We care for the Neitherlands. The Neitherlands is not a natural phenomenon, it is a made thing. An artifact. It was built long ago by magicians whose understanding of magic went far, far deeper than yours does.”

Not mine, mind you. Just yours. Good old Penny. His losing his hands the way he did was a catastrophe Quentin would never really get over, but if anybody was born to be a mystical floating monk with no hands, it was Penny. They were going to freeze to death before he was done with his dramatic exposition.

“Ever since then men and women like myself have watched over it. We repair it and defend it.”

“Penny, I’m sorry, but we’re really cold,” Quentin said. “Can you help us?”

“Of course.”

When Penny lost his hands Quentin thought he would never do magic again. Counting Penny out was a mistake he apparently couldn’t stop making. Hanging in the air in front of them, Penny joined his empty wrists together in front of him and began rhythmically reciting something in a language Quentin didn’t know. He was making some kind of physical effort under his robe, but Quentin couldn’t tell what.

All at once the air around them went from frigid to warm. Quentin shook even more uncontrollably as he warmed up. The relief was immense. He couldn’t help himself, he bent over, and his mouth filled with saliva. He thought he might throw up, and that seemed incredibly funny, and he started laughing. Beside him he could hear Poppy moaning as her body recovered.

He didn’t throw up. But it was a minute before either of them could talk again.

“What happened here?” Poppy said finally. “Who destroyed this place?”

“It was not destroyed.” Penny corrected her with a trace of his old touchiness. “But it was damaged, badly. Perhaps irreparably. And there is worse to come.”

The books and papers that surrounded Penny closed and zipped off to their places in various stacks and piles. Penny began floating in the direction of the open doors of the palazzo. Apparently those blue runes weren’t all that was holding him up. The Order seemed to adhere to the principle of suckers walk, players ride.

“It is better if I show you,” Penny said.

Quentin took Poppy’s hand, and they followed him out into the square. Quentin was coasting on an endorphin high. He wasn’t going to die—probably—and after that all news was good news. Penny talked as he floated along. His head was still a couple of feet above theirs. It was like having a conversation with somebody who was riding a Segway.

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