The Magician King Page 51

“That won’t work down here,” someone called out, in a schoolboy English accent. “Magic doesn’t work.” It was that kid, and Quentin recognized him now. It was Martin Chatwin himself. But young—his shade looked about thirteen. That must have been what he looked like just before he became a monster, before he died for the first time.

“I don’t see your girlfriend,” Martin said nastily. “She’ll not save you.”

Maybe it was that Quentin could still die—that’s what attracted them. By killing him they could change something, do something, however terrible, that made a difference in the world above.

A couple of shades in the front row started forward, the first wave of the inevitable rush, but Benedict stepped forward to meet them and they hesitated. He grabbed a badminton racket out of somebody’s hand and brandished it at them like a sword.

“Come on, you bastards!” There he was: the warrior Benedict should have been. He assumed the perfect dueling stance he’d learned from Bingle and pointed the racket at Martin Chatwin. “Come on, who’s first?” he shouted. “You? Come on then!”

Quentin stepped up next to him, though with nothing in his hands and no magic in play, he was painfully aware that he didn’t look very dangerous. Too bad he didn’t bring a sword. He squared off and put up his fists and did his best to look like he had the faintest idea what to do with them.

“I am changing,” Julia said matter-of-factly behind him. And then she repeated, “It is time.”

Not now. Please not now. Let nothing new happen now. Quentin stole a glance back at Julia, then stopped and stared. Everyone else was staring too. Julia was taller, and her eyes had become a brilliant green. Something was happening. She was staring down at her arms with a small, deliberate frown on her face as she watched them become longer, and stronger, watched her skin take on a lustrous, pearly luminescence. It was like she’d looked in the fight at the castle, but more so. She was becoming something else.

Then she was smiling, really smiling. She looked past him at the assembled shades, and they fell back like they were facing a strong wind. Benedict gaped.

“Can you see me now?” she said.

He nodded, goggling.

She was something else now, something no longer human. A spirit? She had been beautiful before, but now she was magnificent. Something about being here must have caused her, or allowed her, to finish becoming what she’d been becoming all this time. She was as tall as Quentin now, though she seemed to be stopping there. With an air of curiosity she picked up a stick from the floor, a hockey stick it looked like. When she touched it, it grew. It came to life and became a long staff with a knobby crown. She hefted it, and the shades scrambled back even farther, even Martin Chatwin.

“Come,” she said to him. Her voice was Julia’s voice, but amplified, and with reverb. “Come fight.”

Martin didn’t come any closer. He didn’t have to, Julia came to him. In a flash, quicker than a human could move, like a poison fish striking, she had him by his shirt front. She picked him up and threw him overhand into the crowd, his arms and legs splayed out like a starfish. Her strength was surreal. Quentin wasn’t sure if she could hurt Martin—it’s not like he could die a third time—but he sure as hell must have found it daunting.

The crowd was like a soccer crowd: the front ranks scrambled back, but behind them the shades were flooding in from all directions, pushing them forward again. Their voices and the sound of their feet were loud in the enormous room. Word had gone out. Something was happening. There was no end to them. Julia could probably fight her way to the door through them, but he didn’t think she could save them all.

Julia saw it too.

“Do not worry,” she said. “It’s going to be all right.”

Quentin had said that to her on his parents’ lawn in Chesterton. He wondered if she remembered too. It certainly sounded better coming from her now.

Julia thumped the end of her staff on the floor, and then Quentin had to look away. The light was that bright. He couldn’t see, but he heard the massed shades of the underworld of Fillory gasp in unison. The light was different—it wasn’t the thin fluorescent gruel that passed for light down here, it was real rich white-gold sunlight, with all its wavelengths intact. It was like a gap had opened in the clouds.

A voice spoke.

“Enough,” it said. Or she said: it was a woman’s voice. It was a thrilling thing that harmonized with itself.

When Quentin could look again, he saw a woman standing in front of Julia, where her staff had struck the floor. She was a vision of power. Her face was lovely, warm and humorous and proud and fierce all at once. It was the face of a goddess. And there was something else there too—half Her face was in shadow. There was gravity there, and an understanding of grief. Everything will be all right, She seemed to say, and whatever is not, we will mourn.

In one hand She held a gnarled staff like Julia’s. In the other She carried, oddly, a bird’s nest with three blue eggs in it.

“Enough,” She said again.

The shades did what She said and kept still. Julia knelt in front of the goddess, her face buried in her hands.

“My daughter,” the goddess said. “You are safe now. It is over.”

Julia nodded and looked up at Her. Her face was streaming with tears.

“You’re Her,” she said. “Our Lady.”

“I have come to take you home.”

The goddess motioned to Quentin. She wasn’t glowing exactly, but it was hard to look at Her, the same way it’s hard to look at the sun—She was that intense. Only now did Quentin really register the scale of Her. She must have been ten feet tall.

The dead watched them mutely. No more Ping-Pong. For a moment the entire underworld was silent.

Julia rose to her feet, drying her tears.

“What happened to you?” Quentin said. “You’ve changed.”

“It is over,” Julia said. “I am a daughter of the goddess now. A dryad.” I am partially divine,” she added, almost shyly.

He looked at her. She looked magnificent. She was going to be all right.

“It suits you,” he said.

“Thank you. We must go now.”

“I’m not going to argue with you.”

The goddess gathered them both in with one tremendous arm. She held them, and together they all began to rise into the air. Someone cried out, and Quentin felt Benedict’s hand grab his ankle and hang on.

“Don’t leave me here! Please!”

It was like the last chopper out of Saigon. Quentin reached down to grab Benedict’s wrist and for a moment he had it.

“I’ve got you!” he yelled.

He didn’t know what he was doing, but he knew he was going to hold on to Benedict with all the strength he had. They were ten feet up, twenty. They could do this. They were going to steal one soul back. They were going to reverse entropy. Death would win the war, but it wasn’t going to do it with a perfect record.

“Hang on!”

But Benedict couldn’t hang on. His hand slipped from Quentin’s and he fell back down among the shades without a word.

Then they were flying up past the fluorescent lights, and then up through where the ceiling would have been. There was nothing more he could do. Without Benedict to hang onto, Quentin gripped the key so hard it bit into his palm. He had lost Benedict, but he wasn’t going to lose that. They rose up into the darkness, through fire, through earth, through water, and then out into the light again.

CHAPTER 25

Before they did it they took a vacation. It would take a week to order some of the necessary materials: mistletoe, more mirrors, some iron tools, chemically pure water, a few exotic powders. The ritual was pretty involved, more so than Julia would have thought, given the source. She’d expected something crude and pagan, a brute force play, but the reality was more complex and technical than that. They would have to clear a lot of space.

So while they waited for the FedEx guy to arrive, and for a few slowrolling preparatory spells to mature, the magicians of Murs, the secret genius-aspirants to the sacred mysteries of the godhead, played tourist. It was the final furlough before their unit shipped out overseas—some last-minute R&R. They went to Sénanque Abbey, which despite being familiar from a million advertisements and in-flight magazines and five-hundred-piece jigsaw puzzles, was stunningly beautiful, the oldest, stillest place Julia had ever been. They went to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which really had been the pope’s new castle at some point, though all that was left of it now was a single scrap of wall with a few empty windows in it that stood out above the flat vineyards around it like an old, rotten tooth. They drove down to Cassis.

It was October, the ass-end of the season, and Cassis was the ass-end of the Côte d’Azur, barely part of it at all, low-rent and chock-full of teenage day-trippers out of Marseille. But the sun was hot, and the water, while it was colder than Julia thought water could be and still remain in liquid form, was a legitimate and spectacular azure. There was a small hotel there, not far from the beach, in a grove of stone pines full of invisible cicadas that trilled incessantly and amazingly loudly. When they sat on the porch they could barely hear each other talk.

They drank the local rosé, which supposedly lost its flavor if you drank it anywhere besides Cassis, and took a boat tour of the calanques, the hullshredding limestone fingers that stuck out into the sea all along the coast. Nobody noticed the magicians. Nobody looked at them twice. Julia felt wonderfully normal. The beaches were all pebbles, no sand, but they spread out their towels over them and did their best to get comfortable, alternating long stretches of sunbathing with terrified, hilarious dashes into the water. It was so freezing it felt like it would stop your heart.

They all looked pale in their swimsuits. Following the local custom, Asmodeus took off her top, and Julia thought Failstaff’s heart would stop just from that. And it wasn’t just Asmodeus’s breasts, which were indeed small and high and remarkably jiggly. Failstaff was obviously in love with Asmodeus. Six months in a house with them, and how the hell had Julia missed that? These were her friends, the closest thing she had to a family now. All this business about being gods was impairing Julia’s ability to think like a human. Which was never her strong suit to begin with. She’d have to watch that. Something was getting lost in translation.

Julia watched the seafoam draw webs and Hebrew letters on the surface of the water and then erase them again. She shook her head and closed her eyes against the hot white Mediterranean sunlight. She felt happy and contented, like a seal on a rock, with her seal family around her. She was coming out of a dream, and all her friends were here with her—it was like the end of The Wizard of Oz. But the frightening thing was that she knew she was about to sink down into the dream again. It wasn’t over. This was just a brief lucid interval. The anesthetic was going to kick back in in a second, the dream would take her, and she didn’t know if she would ever wake up again.

That was why, that night in the hotel, when everybody else was asleep, she found herself walking the halls. She wanted something—she wanted Pouncy. She knocked on his door. When he answered she kissed him. And after she kissed him, they slept together. She wanted to feel like a human being, a creature of stormy, messy emotions, one more time. Even if it was a slightly slutty human being.

She’d slept with people in the past because she thought she should—like James—or to get something out of them that she needed—Jared, Warren, fill in your own examples. She didn’t think she’d ever done it just because she wanted to before. It felt good. No, it felt fantastic. This was the way it was supposed to work.

She seemed more into it than Pouncy did. When she’d first gotten a look at him, that first day, she’d thought, aha, yes, let’s not jump to any conclusions, but by all means, this could happen. She’d always gone for the clean-cut type, viz James, and Pouncy fell well within the acceptable parameters. But whenever she looked into Pouncy’s flat slate eyes, and steeled herself for the drop as she fell for him, it never quite came. There wasn’t quite enough of him there.

There was someone in there, she knew there was. She could see him perfectly clearly when they were online. But when they were together in person, face-to-face, Pouncy retreated somewhere far below the surface, deep under the ice. His security was too tight to crack, even for a hacker of her credentials.

She told Pouncy all this afterward, lying in bed, with those cicadas still shrilling away outside, though thankfully muted by the shutters. For a long time he didn’t answer.

“I know,” he said carefully. “I’m sorry.”

It was the easy answer. Though at least he’d given it a shot.

“Don’t be sorry. It doesn’t matter.” It really didn’t. They looked at the ceiling and listened to the cicadas some more. She felt pleasantly fleshly. She was mind and body both, for once.

“But just so I know, is that why you want this so much?” she asked, sitting up. “The power? Like, if one day you’re that strong, then maybe you’ll be safe enough that the rest of you can come out?”

“Maybe.” He grimaced, incidentally showing off those interesting lines around his mouth. She traced one with her finger. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know, or you won’t say?”

Nothing. Blue screen of death: she’d crashed his system. Oh, well. Boys were so unstable that way, full of buggy, self-contradictory code, pathetically unoptimized. She flopped back down on the thin hotel pillow.

“So where would you put Project Ganymede’s chances of success?” she said, just making conversation now. “Percentage-wise?”

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