The Magician King Page 54

Then He pushed Himself inside her. She had wondered if He would be too big, if He would tear her open and leave her gutted and flopping like a fish. She strained against Him. Exhausted, she rested her hot forehead on her arm in what she supposed was the manner of rape victims since the beginning of time. Her own hoarse panting was the only sound.

It took a long time. It was not a timeless period; she didn’t pass out or lose track of time. She would have said it took between seven and ten minutes for the god to finish raping her, and she was there for every second of it. From her vantage point she could see Failstaff’s thick legs on the floor, not moving anymore, overlapping Gummidgy’s long brown ones, and she could see where the two who had died by the door lay, a huge continent of blood having flowed out from under the stone block and joined into one shape.

Better me than Asmo. She couldn’t see Asmodeus, because she couldn’t look at her, but she could hear her. She was crying loudly. She sounded like the little girl she still essentially was, a little girl who had lost her way. Where was home for her? Who were her parents? Julia didn’t even know. Hot tears flowed down Julia’s cheeks too, and slicked her arm, and wet the brown wood.

The only other noises were those made by Reynard the Fox, the trickster-god, grunting softly and hoarsely behind her. At one point a couple of rebel nerve endings attempted to send pleasure signals to her brain, whereupon her brain burned them out with a pulse of neuro-chemical electricity, never to feel again.

Before He was done with Julia, Asmodeus doubled over and threw up, splat, on the floor. Then she ran, slipping once on vomit, once again on blood. She reached the door, and it opened for her. It took a long time to close behind her. Through it, and through a window across the hall, Julia caught a glimpse of the innocent green-black world outside, impossibly far away.

The fox-god barked loudly when He came. She felt it. The terrible, unspeakable thing, which she would never tell anybody, not even herself, was that it felt wonderful. Not in a sexual way—God no. But it filled her up with power. It flowed into every part of her, up through her trunk, down her legs, and out through her arms. She clenched her teeth and shut her eyes to try and stop it, but it even reached her brain, lighting her up from within with divine energy. She opened her eyes and watched it fill her hands. When it reached the tips of her fingers her fingernails glowed.

And then He took something from her. As He withdrew His penis from her, something came out with it. It was like it caught on something—a transparent film, it felt like, something inside her, the same shape as her. It was something invisible that had been with her always, and Reynard ripped it away. She didn’t know what it was, but she felt it go, and she shuddered when she felt it. Without it she was something different, something other than what she had been before. Reynard had given her power, and taken something in payment that she would have died rather than give up. But she didn’t get to choose.

Finally, it might have been ten minutes later, she raised her head. The moon was back up in the sky where it belonged, as if it were blameless, and had taken no part in this. It was just a regular moon now, a sterile rock, frozen and suffocated to death in the vacuum, that was all.

Julia stood up and turned around. She looked at Pouncy. He was still sitting up against the wall, steely eyes still open, but very definitely dead. Maybe he was in heaven now. She knew she should feel something, but she felt nothing, and that in itself was horrifying. She walked to the door and out through it, her bare feet splatting lightly in the cool blood. She didn’t look back. All the lights were off. The house was empty. Nobody home.

Thinking and feeling nothing, because there was nothing left to think or feel except the unpleasant stickiness of blood and God knew what else on her feet, and between her toes, she stepped out onto the lawn. Something terrible has happened, she thought, but no emotions attached to those words. The sacrificial animals were all gone, escaped somehow and fled, except for the two sheep, who wouldn’t meet her eyes. For some reason the sun was coming up. They must have been in there all night. She rubbed her feet in the cold dew, then bent down and put her hands in it and rubbed them on her face.

Then she uttered a word she had never heard before and flew, naked and bloody as a newborn baby, up into the lightening sky.

CHAPTER 26

The others had stayed out on the beach until dawn, waiting for Quentin and Julia to come back up from the underworld. Finally they’d given up and gone back to their berths aboard the Muntjac, chilled and exhausted, to sleep. When they woke up a few hours later they were relieved, and then overjoyed, to find Quentin and Julia waiting for them on deck.

Though the scene they woke up to was a weird one. Julia stood there transformed, newly beautiful and powerful. She radiated an air of peace and triumph. Quentin wasn’t transformed, but something else was going on with him: he was down on his hands and knees for some reason, just staring at the wooden planks of the deck.

They had flown up and up and up, until gradually Quentin realized that the weightless feeling he had was of them descending instead, but not the way they had come: they dropped down through wet clinging clouds, and then he saw a little chip of wood below them in the ocean that turned out to be the Muntjac, the water around it glittering with dawn light. The goddess placed them on the deck, kissed Julia on the cheek, and vanished.

Quentin found that he couldn’t stand on his own; or he could, but he didn’t want to. He got down on all fours and put the key down in front of him. He looked at the good wooden planks the Muntjac was made of, really looked at them: after a night spent in hell everything was real and vivid and impossibly detailed. Colors looked superbright, even the grays and browns and blacks and the other undistinguished, intermediate noncolors that he ordinarily would have skipped over and ignored. He followed the lines and striations and tiger stripes of the wood, drawn and arranged with careless perfection, dark and light, order and chaos, all mingled together with little splinters along the edges of the boards that had been scuffed up and set at different angles, each one, by the passage of careless feet.

He absolutely understood how weird and high-seeming he looked, but he didn’t care. He felt like he could stare at the wood forever. Just this: the good, hardy, noble wood. He was never going to lose this, he thought. He was going to enjoy everything exactly as much, to the atom, as Benedict would have enjoyed it if he could have come back from the underworld. And Alice, and all the rest of them. It was all he could do for them. Earth or Fillory, did it even matter? What was the huge conundrum? Everywhere you looked there was so much richness, you could never exhaust it. Maybe it was all a game, that got crumpled up and thrown away at the end, but while you were here it was real.

He pressed his forehead against the deck, hard, like a penitent pilgrim, and felt the beat of the waves transmitted through it from below like a pulse, and the heat of the sun. He smelled the sour salt smell of seawater, and he heard the hesitant footsteps of baffled people gathering around him, unsure of what to do. He heard all the other meaningless noises reality was always cheerfully making to itself, the squeaks and scrapes and thumps and drones, on and on, world without end.

He took a deep breath and sat up. Away from the warmth of the goddess’s body he shivered in the early morning ocean air. But even the cold felt good to him. This is life, he kept saying to himself. That was being dead, and this is being alive. That was death, this is life. I will never confuse them again.

Then people were hauling him to his feet and guiding him down below to his cabin. He was pretty sure he could have walked on his own, but he let them half carry him—they seemed to want to do it, and who was he to stand in their way? Then he was lying on his side on his bed. He was dead tired, but he didn’t want to close his eyes, not with everything that was going on all around him.

Some time later he felt someone sit down on the edge of the bed. Julia.

“Thank you, Julia,” he said after a while. His lips and tongue felt thick and clumsy. “You saved me. You saved everything. Thank you.”

“The goddess saved us.”

“I’m grateful to Her too.”

“I’ll tell Her.”

“How do you feel?”

“I feel finished,” she said simply. “I feel like I am finally finished. I became who I was becoming.”

“Oh,” he said, and he had to laugh at how completely stupid he sounded. “I’m just glad you’re all right. Are you all right?”

“I was stuck in between for so long,” she said, instead of answering his question. “I couldn’t go back—I wanted to, for a long time. A long time. I wanted to go back to before what happened, when I was still human. But I couldn’t, and I couldn’t go forward either. Then somehow in the underworld I realized for the first time, really understood, that I was never going back. So I let go. And that’s when it happened.”

He felt tongue-tied. What did you say to a newly minted supernatural being? He wanted to just stare at her. He’d never been in such close quarters with a spirit before.

“You said you were a dryad.”

“I am. We’re the daughters of the goddess. That makes me a demi-goddess,” she added, by way of clarification. “I’m not literally her daughter of course. It’s more of a spiritual thing.”

Julia was still Julia, but the anger, the sense that she was violently at odds with the world over some crucial point, was gone. And she’d gotten her contractions back.

“So you take care of trees?”

“We take care of the trees, and the goddess takes care of us. There’s a tree that belongs to me, though I’m not sure where it is. I can feel it though. I’ll go there as soon as we’re done.” She laughed. It was good to know she still could. “I know so much about oak trees. I could bore you to death with it.

“Do you know, I had almost lost faith in the goddess? I almost stopped believing in Her. But I realized I had to become something. I had to take what was done to me and use it to make myself into what I wanted to be. And I wanted this. And when I called Her, the goddess came.

“I feel so powerful, Quentin. It’s like there’s a sun inside me, or a star, that will burn forever.”

“Does that mean—are you immortal?”

“I don’t know.” And here a cloud passed over her face. “In a way, I’ve already died. Julia is dead, Quentin. I’m alive, and I may be alive forever, but the girl I was is dead.”

Sitting this close to Julia, he could see how inhuman she was now. Her flesh was like pale wood. The girl he’d known in high school, with her freckles and her oboe, was gone forever—she’d been destroyed and discarded in the making of this being. Julia would never be mortal again. The Julia sitting next to him on his bed was like a magnificent memorial to the girl she used to be.

At least this Julia was beyond all that. She was out of the game, the living and dying game, that the rest of them were trapped in. She was different. She wasn’t kludgy, rickety flesh and blood anymore. She was magic.

“There are things you should know,” she said. “I can tell you now, how this all began. Why I changed, and why the old gods came back.”

“Really?” Quentin propped himself up on one elbow. “You know?”

“I know,” she said. “I’m going to tell you everything.”

“I want to know.”

“It’s not a happy story.”

“I think I’m ready,” he said.

“I know you think that. But it’s sadder than you think.”

There were no more islands. They were past that now. The Muntjac slit its way through calm empty ocean, day after day, farther and farther east, the sun rising in front of them, roaring by overhead, and then extinguishing itself nightly in the water behind them. It was visibly larger in the mornings—they could almost hear the muffled rumble of its burning, like a distant blast furnace.

After a week the wind died, but the sky was clear, and in the afternoons and evenings Admiral Lacker raised the light-sail, and they ran along on the strength of a storm of sunshine. Quentin had been to the far west of Fillory, when he hunted the White Stag over the Western Sea, but the far east was a very different place. It had a polar quality. The sun was bright and hot here, but the air was getting colder. Even in the mornings, when the sun seemed dangerously close, like it was going to light the mast on fire, they could see their breath. The blue of the sky was deep and vivid. It felt like Quentin could fall up into it if he wasn’t careful.

The water was an icy aquamarine, and the Muntjac slipped through it almost frictionlessly, barely leaving a ripple. It was different stuff from ordinary seawater—silkier and less dense, with almost no surface tension, more like rubbing alcohol. Only one kind of fish lived in it, long silvery bullets that flashed and dashed through the water in diamond-shaped schools. They caught a few, but they didn’t look edible. They had huge eyes, and no mouths, and their flesh was bright white and smelled like ammonia.

The world around them began to feel thin. It was nothing Quentin could put his finger on, but the material of reality itself seemed to be getting sheer and fragile, stretched taut over its frame. You could feel the chill of the outer dark right through it. They all caught themselves moving slowly and gently, as if they might put a foot through the fabric of space-time by accident.

The sea was getting shallower too. You could see the bottom through the glassy water, and every morning when Quentin checked it, it was closer. This was an interesting phenomenon from an oceanographic point of view, but more to the point it was a problem. The Muntjac wasn’t a big ship, but it still drew twenty feet or so, and at this rate they were going to run aground long before they got to wherever the hell they were going.

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