The Magician King Page 43

“Did you ever wonder,” Penny said, “where magic comes from?”

“Yes, Penny,” Quentin said dutifully. “I did wonder about that.”

“Henry had a theory. He told me about it when we were at Brakebills.”

He meant Dean Fogg. Penny only ever referred to the Brakebills faculty by their first names, to show that he thought of himself as their equal.

“It seemed wrong to him that humans should have access to magic. Or not wrong, but strange. It didn’t make sense. He thought it was too good to be true. As magicians we were taking advantage of some kind of cosmic loophole to wield power that by rights we were never meant to have. The inmates had found the keys to the asylum, and we were running amok in the pharmacy.

“Or think of the universe as a vast computer. We are end users who have gained admin-level access to the system, and are manipulating it without authorization. Henry has a whimsical mind. He isn’t a rigorous theorist, by any means, but he does have moments of insight. This was one of them.”

They had left the square, Poppy and Quentin walking with their arms around each other now, pooling their heat. The zone of warm air was centered around Penny and moved with him, so that the cold nudged them along if they lagged too far behind him. He had a captive audience. Even being lectured by Penny was preferable to freezing to death.

“Now push Henry’s theory a little. If magicians are hackers who broke into the system, then who are the system’s rightful administrators? Who built the system—the universe—into which we have broken?”

“God?” Poppy asked.

It was good to have her here when dealing with Penny. Penny didn’t get on her nerves. He didn’t push Poppy’s buttons the way he pushed Quentin’s. She just wanted to know what he knew.

“Precisely. Or more precisely, the gods. There’s no need to get overly theological about it: any magician who could work magic on such a fundamental scale would be, almost by definition, a god. But where are they? And why haven’t they caught us and kicked us out of their system? They must have worked spells on an energy scale that to us is no longer conceivable. Their power would have dwarfed even that of the mages who built the Neitherlands.

“You should see it, Quentin. I mean really see the Neitherlands, the way I have. It’s not infinite, you know, but it goes on for thousands of miles in all directions. It’s wonderful. They show you everything when you get in the Order.”

It was funny about Penny. He was an arrogant prick—notice the way he all but ignored Poppy—and he’d suffered terribly, but deep down under it he was still very innocent, and every once in a while his innocence overpowered his arrogance. Quentin didn’t quite have it in him to like Penny, but he felt he understood Penny. Penny was the only person he’d ever met who loved magic, really loved it, the same way he did: naively, romantically, completely.

“After a while you get to be able to read the squares, like a language. Each one is an expression of the world it leads to, if you understand the grammar of it. No two are the same. There’s one square, just one, that’s a mile on each side, and it has a golden fountain in the center. They say the world it leads to is like heaven. They haven’t let me go through yet.”

Quentin wondered what heaven would be like for Penny. Probably in heaven you were always right and you never had to stop talking. God, he could be a dick where Penny was concerned. Probably in heaven you had hands.

They were silent for a bit, as they crossed a stone bridge over a canal. Little whirling snow-devils chased each other across the ice.

“Where did the gods go?” Poppy asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe they’ve been in heaven. But they’re back. They’ve come back to close the loophole. They’re taking magic back, Quentin. They’re going to take it all away from us.”

They’d come to a square that looked no different from any of the others except that the fountain in the center was closed. A tarnished bronze cover, ornately inscribed, fitted over the basin. It was held shut by a simple latch. Penny glided over to the fountain, over the snow, the tips of his bare toes brushing it. He let himself float gently to the ground.

Quentin was trying to process what Penny had said. This must have been what the dragon had meant, back in Venice. This must be the mystery at the root of it all. But it couldn’t be real. It had to be a mistake. The end of magic: that would mean the end of Brakebills, of Fillory, of everything that had happened to him since Brooklyn. He wouldn’t be a magician anymore, nobody would be. All of their double lives would become single ones again. The spark would go out of the world. He tried to work out how they’d gotten here. A trip to the Outer Island, that’s all it was supposed to be. He’d pulled a thread, and now the whole world was coming unraveled. He wanted to unpull it, to put it back, weave it back together again.

Penny was waiting for something.

“Open this for me, please,” he said. “You have to undo the catch.”

Right. No hands. Numb, but not from cold now, Quentin unhooked the bronze hook that held the cover on, then worked his fingertips between the cover and the stone. It was heavy—the metal was an inch thick—but with Poppy’s help he heaved it up and part of the way to one side. They peered in.

It took a second for the perspective to resolve, and when it did they both backed away instinctively. It was a long way down.

There was no water in the fountain. Instead it was just a vast, echoing darkness. It was like they were looking down through the oculus of an enormous dome. This must be what lay beneath the Neitherlands. Far down, Quentin would have guessed a mile, was a flat pattern of glowing white lines, like a schematic diagram of circuitry, or a maze with no solution. Among the lines, waist deep in them, stood a silvery figure. It was bald and muscled, and it must have been enormous. It was dark, but the giant made its own light. It glowed with a lovely steady silvery luminescence.

The giant was busy. It was at work. It was changing the pattern. It grasped one line, disconnected it, bent it, connected it to another line. Because they were the size of derricks, its arms moved slowly, traversing enormous distances, but they never stopped moving. Its handsome face showed no expression.

“Penny? What are we looking at?”

“Is that God?” Poppy said.

“That is a god,” Penny corrected her. “Though that is really just a term to describe a magician operating on a titanic power scale. We’ve seen at least a dozen of them; it’s hard to tell them apart. There’s one at each of these access points. But we know what they’re doing. They’re fixing it. They’re rewiring the world.”

Quentin was staring down at the exposed circuitry of creation, and at the master of it. It looked a little like the Silver Surfer.

“I suppose,” Quentin said slowly, “you’re going to say that that is a being of sublime beauty and power, and he only looks like that because my fallen mortal eyes are incapable of perceiving his true magnificence.”

“No. We think that’s actually pretty much it.”

“Come on,” Poppy said. She tilted her head. “He is pretty impressive. He’s big. And silvery.”

“A big silvery janitor. Penny, this can’t be how the universe works.”

“In the Order we call it ‘inverse profundity.’ We’ve observed it in any number of cases. The deeper you go into the cosmic mysteries, the less interesting everything gets.”

So that was him. The biggest bastard of them all, top of the food chain. That’s where magic came from. Did he even understand what he’d made, how beautiful it was, how much people loved it? He didn’t look like he loved anything. He just was. Though how could you make anything as beautiful as magic and not love it?

“I wonder how he found out,” Poppy said. “About us using magic. I wonder who tipped him off.”

“Maybe we should talk to him,” Quentin said. “Maybe we can change his mind. We could, I don’t know, prove ourselves worthy of magic or something. Maybe they have a test.”

Penny shook his head.

“I don’t think they can change their minds. When you get to that level of power and knowledge and perfection, the question of what you should do next gets increasingly obvious. Everything is very rule-governed. All you can ever do in any given situation is the most gloriously perfect thing, and there’s only one of them. Finally there aren’t any choices left to make at all.”

“You’re saying the gods don’t have free will.”

“The power to make mistakes,” Penny said. “Only we have that. Mortals.”

They watched the god work for a while without talking. It never paused or hesitated. Its hands moved and moved, bending lines, breaking one connection, making another. Quentin couldn’t see why one pattern was better than another, but he supposed that was his mortal fallibility. He felt a little sorry for it. He supposed it was happy, never doubting, never hesitating, eternally certain of its absolute righteousness. But it was like a giant divine robot.

“Let’s cover it up,” he said. “I don’t want to look at it anymore.”

The bronze cover grated against the stone, then dropped with a clang back into place. Quentin latched it. Though who the latch was going to keep in or out, he couldn’t imagine. They stood around it as if it were a grave they’d just finished filling.

“Why is this happening now?” he said.

Penny shook his head.

“Something caught their attention. Somebody somewhere must have tripped an alarm and summoned them back from wherever they were. They may not even have realized they were doing it. We didn’t know they were here until the cold started. Then the sun went out, and the snow came, and the wind. The buildings started to collapse. It’s all ending.”

“Josh was here,” Quentin said. “He told us about it.”

“I know,” Penny said. He shifted uncomfortably under his robe. He forgot himself and spoke in his old voice again. “The cold makes my stumps ache.”

“What’s going to happen?” Poppy asked.

“The Neitherlands will be destroyed. It was never part of the divine plan. My predecessors built it in the space between universes. The gods will clear it away, like a wasp’s nest in an old wall. If we’re still here we’ll die with it. But it won’t stop there. It’s not even the Neitherlands they’re after, it’s what it runs on.”

You could say one thing for Penny, he could look a hard truth in the face. He had a weird integrity about things like that. He was calm and collected. He didn’t flinch. It wouldn’t occur to him to.

“Magic is the problem. We’re not supposed to have it. They’re going to close whatever loophole they left open that lets us use it. When they’re done it will go dead, not just here but everywhere, in every world. That power will belong to the gods only.

“Most worlds will simply lose magic. I think Fillory may fall apart and cease to exist entirely. It’s a bit special that way—it’s magical all the way through. I have a theory that Fillory itself might be the loophole, the leak through which magic first got out. The hole in the dike.

“The change would have started already. You may have seen signs.”

The thrashing clock-trees. They must be something like Fillory’s early warning system, sensitive to any signs of trouble. Jollyby’s death: maybe Fillorians can’t live without magic. Ember and the Unique Beasts up in arms.

They were fixing the world. But Quentin preferred it broken. He wondered how long it would take. Years, maybe—maybe he could go home and not think about it and it would all happen after he was dead. But he wasn’t getting that impression. Quentin wondered what he would do if magic went away. He didn’t know how he would live in that world. Most people wouldn’t even notice the change, of course, but if you knew about it, knew what you’d lost, it would eat away at you. He didn’t know if he could explain it to a non-magician. Everything would simply be what it was and nothing else. All there would be was what you could see. What you felt and thought, all the longing and desire in your heart and mind, would count for nothing. With magic you could make those feelings real. They could change the world. Without it they would be stuck inside you forever, figments of your own imagination.

And Venice. Venice would drown. Its weight would crush those wooden pilings, and it would disappear into the sea.

You could see the gods’ point of view. They made magic. Why would they want an ignorant insect like Quentin playing around with it? But he couldn’t accept it. He wasn’t going to. Why should the gods be the only ones who got magic? They didn’t appreciate it. They didn’t even enjoy it. It didn’t make them happy. It was theirs, but they didn’t love it, not the way he, Quentin, loved it. The gods were great, but what good was greatness if you didn’t love?

“So is it going to happen?” he asked. For now he would be stoic like Penny. “Is there any way to stop it?”

He was warm again, but the chill kept creeping back in through the soles of his boots.

“Probably not.” Penny began to walk, like a regular mortal, with his actual feet. The snow didn’t seem to bother him. Quentin and Poppy walked with him. “But there is a way. We always knew this might happen. We prepared for it. Tell me, what’s the first thing a hacker does once he breaks into a system?”

“I don’t know,” Quentin said. “He steals a bunch of credit card numbers and subscribes to a lot of really premium porn sites?”

“He sets up a back door.” It was good to know that even having attained enlightenment Penny was still impervious to humor. “So that if he’s ever locked out, he can get back in.”

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