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The way had been shut, the Neitherlands were shattered for all Quentin knew. The Beast didn’t need to kill them, he had simply used them. Now that he had attained the power he sought they didn’t matter anymore. In Fillory, they had been hiding at the faun’s house, underground, beneath the roots of a massive clock tree. They had been so arrogant; they were proud of the battle magic Penny had learned. “My THAC0 is on fleek.” Janet laughed, casting magic missile at a row of bottles. THAC0 (to hit armor class zero) had become a running gag after Quentin explained what it was. That evening they gathered wild mushrooms and cooked them in a big iron pot in the faun’s fireplace. They had feasted and gotten drunk on Fillorian honey wine. Now he knew. They had been so stupid. The Beast had been there all along, quietly watching them practice and drink and joke about his armor class.
It was Alice who had revealed him. She was working through a phosphoromancy sequence, shaping the air into lenses above the faun’s scarred table, sending little tendrils of light to weave through the clock-tree roots in the ceiling. Quentin had wanted to distract her, to coax her to bed in the little earthen room the faun had given them. He brushed her hair back and kissed her neck. “What’s up Vix? Still at work?”
“I’m altering Goethe’s penumbra, I think it could be used to cloak us from the Beast,” she said, adjusting her glasses. The first sign of the Beast didn’t alarm him. His terror remained mute and subliminal as he watched the little moth flitting around Alice’s lens array. Then the terror rose within him like an icy wave. The shadow divided itself, splitting in two, then splitting again and again, until it seemed to devour the room. The Beast revealed itself, stepping lightly from the mirror. In that moment it could have simply killed them, but that wasn’t what it wanted. It wanted Penny’s button. A single movement of its finger tore the glass box from Penny’s jacket. The glass deconstructed itself and the Beast held the button up to the light for a moment to examine it. The moths slowed for a moment and Quentin thought he could see his face. It smiled as it began disassembling the real.
It made an opening, a portal above them which screamed with accelerating force. The ceiling had become fluid; Quentin and the others were pulled through it, up towards the collapsing maelstrom of light. He screamed but his voice was lost in the roar. He held to a branch of the clock tree and reached towards Alice as she floated past. Their hands touched for a moment, but she was gone, falling upwards into the vortex. Quentin’s hand had slid down the branch as the portal’s gravity increased. He held a little clump of the tree’s acorns in his fist as he plummeted into the sky.
Now he carried the acorns in his frayed suit jacket pocket as he walked quickly towards the Gravesend safehouse. It turned out to be a burned-out Russian diner beneath the overpass, a painting of a smiling pierogi leering through the broken window. There was a red notice of demolition from the city pasted over the front door. It was warded of course, a flimsy array. Quentin dissipated the ward and swung the door open. The room was strewn with debris, and a stagnant cloud of dust hung in the air. Shards of afternoon light illuminated the dilapidated booths, where small knots of goth kids struggled through mutilated versions of Popper’s practical exercises. The bouncer walked towards him brandishing a stick (a wand?) and Quentin pushed him back into a chair with a gesture.
Near the destroyed kitchen one kid sat alone in a booth fiddling with an ornate pocket-watch. The kid couldn’t have been much older than twelve. His long hair fell over his eyes and he tapped his Converses on the black and white linoleum floor as he worked. This was the power Quentin had sensed, drawing him like a magical beacon since the Beast had cast him out of Fillory. The kid met Quentin’s eyes for a moment, and he took this as permission to join him in the booth. He introduced himself. Kevin. The watch was an antique skeleton Omega, maybe 100 years old, with an ornately carved-gold filigree showing Adam and Eve eating from the tree of Knowledge. Original Sin. Quentin could see the gears behind the figures. Kevin was working an intricate lattice of gestures over the watch. Horomancy. A discipline so obscure there were no professors at Brakebills with the specialization and no classes offered, just a brief sidebar section in “Magical History.”
“Nice watch,” Quentin said. “What did you do?”
“It’s not an instrument of time anymore,” Kevin smirked. “It’s an instrument of probability.”
He held the pocket watch above the table and dropped it an inch. It landed on its edge and balanced there, slowly rotating.
“It didn’t fall over because of the probability distortion field. It’s highly localized. It only extends an inch around the watch,” He smiled up at Quentin. “You ever read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead? In the beginning they flip a coin like 100 times and it always comes up heads. It’s like that. Probability distortion.”
“I have something you’ll want to see,” said Quentin, and he pulled the acorns from his pocket and laid them on the table. They whirred with some internal motion which made them tilt back and forth on the table.
“A tourbillion?” Kevin snatched them up and examined them under a loupe, then held them to his ear. “Beautiful movement too.”
They were attracting thirsty stares from the goth kids.
“They’re seeds,” Quentin whispered. “But I don’t know how to make them grow.”
“Come with me.” Kevin stood up and lead Quentin back into the ruined kitchen. He blocked the doors with a chair, and Quentin cast a quick but complicated ward. They cleared a space on the rusty metal food prep counter. Quentin found a dead potted plant in the window and salvaged the little pot of earth, setting it in the middle of the counter. He could feel the gyroscopic pull of the internal movement as he moved the acorn through the air. He pushed it down into the soil with his thumb.
Quentin worked through a basic outlay for accelerated growth, but supercharged the final passage using one of Mayakovsky’s special circumstances. Two little leaves pushed out of the dirt, little whirring gears at their stems. The plant began to grow but it was somehow wrong, disordered. There was no central mechanism, instead the gears and springs were evenly distributed along the branches.
“Fillory is a magically ordered space,” Quentin mused “Here there’s no magical superstructure.”
Kevin held his fingers apart and looked through the space, a magical lens. Somehow he comprehended the plant’s original form. He began to build an impossibly intricate array within the shell of Quentin’s growth spell, and the clock parts began to crawl along the branches. They looked like little mechanical caterpillars writhing in a knot on the slender trunk. Finally the clock formed. Kevin handed the Omega to Quentin and he ran it along the trunk, along each branch, moving it over the leaves. Bathing the clock-tree sapling in probability distortion.
The broken meat freezer began to shake, a line of blue light poured out from the seal around the lid. The clock-tree had created a door. Still holding the Omega, Quentin flung the lid open and jumped in.
He appeared in Fillory high in the air, perhaps a mile. His mind was a blank white roar, flooded with adrenaline. It was too late for any spell, he could only watch with fascination at the landscape hurtling upwards to kill him.
But Quentin didn’t die. He plummeted through the canopy of branches onto a soft hill, softer than any feather bed—velveteen. The Cozy Horse. It had broken his fall, it had been directly below him. What were the chances? He peered at the tiny nude figures on the Omega for a moment, then clung to the Cozy Horse as it lurched beneath him, panicked, smashing a passage through the clock-trees.
The Cozy Horse reared and screamed. It was terrified. Quentin felt it too, a palpable thickening of the air. The Beast was already there; the moths rising like a plague cloud. The horse tried to leap over it, but it stretched its hand up and caught the stitched hoof and pulled it down, pitching Quentin into the long grass. The Cozy Horse lay there, its neck twisted at horrible angle, the Beast above it. The moths spread out and Quentin saw its face clearly. The wide-set blue eyes. The full lips. It looked so familiar. Its jaw elongated and it tore the Cozy Horse to pieces, pulling huge wads of cotton batting from the horse’s distended throat and spitting them on the ground, until finally only a gigantic wooden armature remained. The skeletal structure was still moving, still magically animated somehow.
Caged inside of the Cozy Horse’s wooden ribs Quentin saw a being of pure magical energy, glowing bright blue. It grinned malevolently and shook the wooden bars. The Beast hesitated and took a step backwards. He seemed surprised to see the imprisoned niffin. It seemed that some of Fillory’s mysteries still remained beyond its grasp. Now the Beast turned away from the huge prancing armature and rounded on Quentin, grinning through the cloud of moths.
“Of all the times I’ve killed you,” it leered. “I’ll remember this as one of the most amusing.”
Quentin held the watch in his hand and touched the Cozy Horse’s massive armature. It was just then that the binding spell that held the horse together and kept the niffin imprisoned began to spontaneously decay. The spell was incredibly powerful, an array unlike any Quentin had ever encountered. It was something ancient, perhaps wrought by Ember during Fillory’s creation. Now it’s core structure was unravelling in the probability distortion field. Gigantic wooden sections fell from the armature, cratering the earth with concussive force as the Beast stalked toward Quentin.
“You are truly an extraordinary child, Quentin,” the Beast’s voice was a subsonic roar, “You’ve shown me something new.”
The Beast’s extra fingers twitched, but it didn’t begin its incantation. It was as though it were deciding how best to kill Quentin. It didn’t see the niffin, now freed from its prison, darting low along the ground. The niffin seemed to flow into the Beast’s body, as though it were slipping on an empty suit jacket. The Beast screamed as its head began to fold inside of itself, cold blue energy pouring out of its body like a fountain. The Beast’s hand twitched in seizure as it reached into its coat pocket. Was it already dead as it held up the button?
The button spun in the air, growing larger in the niffin’s energy field. It was becoming unstable. The button was an immensely powerful magical energy source. What would happen if it shattered? Quentin dropped the Omega as he began to frantically cast a repair spell, unfolding the first array around the sparking and jittering button. The button ricochetted against the walls of Quentin’s stabilizing array. He lost control; the array unravelled. The button broke apart leaving something like a tear hanging in space. It grew larger and larger, consuming everything around it, its energy building in an infinite feedback loop. He thought of Alice one more time. Where was she now? The tear opened wider; he was drawn in. The world faded away as oblivion consumed him.
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