For one brief moment, Julia Wicker was talking to her best friend again, begging him to come back, and before she knew it, before she was ready, the golden glow from the flower dimmed until went out completely and turned to dust in her hands as a soft wind blew through the trees above her. She frantically tried to gather all the dust back into her hands, as if that might somehow bring back his visage, but it just blew into the water and floated downstream.
It was then that, for the first time since Quentin died, Julia cried.
She let out every tear she had been holding inside since Penny and Alice, disheveled and grief stricken, dragged their feet into her hospital room to tell her that they lost him. She had consoled everyone else in their grief and she trudged forward, determined to find a way to bring him back and swore she would stop at nothing. And she handed out that foolish promise like tokens to anyone who needed it, but she hadn’t cried.
The occasional tear would spill over the edge every now and then but hadn’t broken the carefully constructed seal in her heart that prevented a real “salt the earth and damn the powers that be” kind of cry you let out when you lose someone you love. Speaking to Quentin and then losing him again opened the flood gates within her that she had kept locked down and holding water in a particularly bitter way. There had been a hollowness in her heart since he died, an acknowledgement that there was something within her that was missing. She was so sick and so fucking exhausted of that feeling.
Hearing his voice, and hearing him sound so tired, broke her in the same way it had every time she visited him in hospitals throughout high school, only this time it felt permanent. This time he was really gone, and even though he promised her that he would come back, she finally felt the overwhelming reality that there were so many forces, beyond them, working against that very promise. For the first time, it suddenly felt as though there was a very real possibility that he could never come back, that he could be stuck there forever, and they would all just have to learn to live with it. It was a truth she had been scared of since they were twelve, the first time Q was in the hospital. She remembered that first night after they took him away, it was the first time she prayed to anyone out there who could be listening, she prayed for something out there to stop it before it even happened. Even now, it was a truth that she hadn’t yet accepted, not until it was ash blowing in the wind.
Sobs rocked her chest and a hesitant hand found her shoulder as Julia realized that Marina was awoken by her soft sobs, “Are you okay?”
Water in the quiet stream began to rise as the small naiad brought her friends to the surface and sat together on river rocks. They sang a soft melody, hoping to sooth her her sorrows.
“I uh, I’m not very good with this – uh, feelings. But is there anything I can do anything to help?” Marina asked, genuinely trying to comfort Julia.
Julia shook her head and sniffed her nose, “No,” she said, putting her hand on top of Marina’s, “but thanks for trying.”
Marina was only able to smile awkwardly and ask as the naiads sang softly, “what happened?”
“That, my timeline jumping friend, is a very long story,” Julia noted plainly, dipping her hands in the water, washing her hands of ashes that still lay gathered in her hands.
Marina shrugged, squeezing Julia’s shoulder just a little, “Well, I’m up now. Your crying made sure of that, so we’ve got time.”
Without any excuse not to, and a rare impulse to get some things off her chest, Julia told her the tale or more so the cliff notes version of her childhood with Quentin, all the magic and pretending, how this timeline had treated them, the Beast, Brakebills, losing magic, Alice's betrayal, the Monsters, losing Persephone, the Seam, and the flowers from Hades. The sun was rising on Fillory before she came to the end of her story, all the while they naiads sang soft melodies to her.
“He should be here, it’s fucking not fair,” she mused to the running water in front of her.
“He’s coming back though, yeah?” Marina asked, trying her best to be comforting. “He’s on his way, right?”
Julia sighed, “Yes, but it’s not a sure thing. He could always choose to stay there and --” she took a deep breath before more tears could fall over the brim of her eyes, “I’m scared he won’t come back. For years, this is what I’ve been terrified of. That he would leave, like this, permanently, and we’d all be left here figuring out how to fill his place even though no one can.”
There was no answer and there was nothing Marina could say, no sentiment she could offer, that would lessen the weight on Julia’s heart. The only thing they could do was listen to the naiads’ soft lullaby and watch the sun come up.
Somewhere in the Neitherlands…
The Library was silent but for a few new apprentices shelving books. Alice and Kady had finished their council meeting a few hours prior and decided to take a well-deserved break by cracking open some vintage whiskey they found in a vacant office down the hall.
“Wait, wait wait, you have a Master’s Degree in philosophy?” Kady laughed, pouring herself another drink. She stopped laughing for only a moment to say, “No offense.”
Alice laughed and took another sip, “some offense taken but even I can see the irony of it. I guess even then I was looking for more answers than could realistically be given. I didn’t even pursue it, I just kept taking the classes and reading the books, searching for something I didn’t know that the time, but I never found it. One day they were just like, you met all the requirements, here’s your degree.”
Kady nodded, “I suppose that just goes to show you that even people with fancy degrees don’t know shit sometimes, huh?”
“Of course, they don’t, I certainly don’t. The technical stuff, the intricacies of magic and science, I understand inside and out, but all that abstract shit, all the “what we owe to each other” and nonsense like that, I’m totally lost,” she laughed. She shoulders shook and then settled, “I always have been…” she stated maudlinly. “Alright I think that’s probably enough for me,” Alice said putting the cap back on the bottle and shuffling to her feet and it took a moment for her to regain her bearings
“Woah Quinn, you really need to learn to handle your liquor better,” Kady chuckled to herself, and downing the rest of her glass, “though it’s probably for the best. I wouldn’t say I got this or any of my other talents from the pure ease of life, so probably best you stay a lightweight” she caught Alice’s arm to prevent her from falling over in front of her.
“Oh yeah, instead of taking up drinking, I just resorted to becoming a vengeful force of pure magic with no moral compass that reaped havoc across the multiverse,” she laughed, “maybe I should have tried booze first.”
“Yeah, that was really shitty of you,” Kady sighed and rolled her eyes slightly, “Come on, let’s get you tucked in.”
Alice shook her head, “I still have a few things I need to finish up here.”
“Fine, you’re just going to pass out at your desk anyway,” Kady noted and Alice slightly nodded as she led her down the hall to her office door. Her sat down in her chair and her head immediately fell in her hands, “I’m heading home, but I’ll be back at the end of the week. I expect a progress report.”
Alice nodded slightly and her eyes shut before Kady closed the door behind her.
When she finally did wake, she felt groggy from the hangover, but also acknowledged that it was more sleep than she had gotten in months. Before she opened her eyes, she was immediately alerted to the rustling sound of papers and pages turning in books.
“So, this is your new calling? Tending to the books of the multiverse?” she heard a voice say from the corner of her office. She did a quick tut that illuminated all of the candles in her office, the flickers of their flames dancing almost up to the ceilings. Much to her surprise, the one who sat in the chair was Hades. He sat with one foot rested on the opposite knee with a book held open in one hand. She also noticed that he’d already helped himself to the liquor cart, clearly finishing off the bottle of whiskey her and Kady had opened earlier. She thought to mention it, but then decided telling a god that his etiquette was somewhat lacking was a bad idea.
While he looked up and admired the architecture, he continued, “I must say, for all the places in this wide universe you have discovered and burned, it is surprising you’d choose something so…mundane.”
Alice shrugged, “Well, if you’re like me and going to put down roots anywhere, a library of practically infinite knowledge isn’t the worst choice.”
“Mmmm, I suppose not,” he said, pursing his lips and tapping his ring clad fingers on the side of a glass of whiskey.
Alice leaned back down at her desk and put some file folders that were laying open in front of her back in the drawer, “What can I do for you, your majesty?” she asked with one eyebrow raised.
Hades scoffed, “Enough with the formalities, you and I have history enough to simply get to the point.”
Alice waited but the god looked back down at the book in his hand and licked his fingertips to turn the page. “Was there something in particular you came to talk to me about? You’re not usually the kind to just drop in for old time’s sake.”
“Ah, yes,” he noted, taking a swig of his drink, “I just wanted you to know that you can cease your manhunt for who removed Quentin Coldwater’s book from the shelves.”
She stood from her chair, crossing her arms, “it was you.”
“Of course, it was me,” he laughed.
“But why send it to the poison room?” she asked, accusatorially.
He smiled, amused at her direct tone, “Apart from not wanting anyone else to know that I helped your friend, since technically I’m not supposed to? I don’t need more lovesick mortals crawling to me from the depths hoping to get special treatment.”
Alice’s eyes narrowed suspiciously, “then why does Quentin Coldwater get special treatment from the God of The Underworld? What makes him so special?”
“Ah, you need not concern yourself with such things, Alice. But I knew that if you read his book, then you would know where to take it. You and Mr. Waugh needed to clear the air, devoid of any latent animosity. It was a test and I’m happy to say you passed.”
Alice clenched her teeth and her hands made fists down at her sides, “what kind of test?”
Hades looked up at her as she seethed. He shut his book with a loud thump and stood with undeniable authority but quickly softened, “It wasn’t a test to see who holds more of Mr. Coldwater’s heart, I wanted to know if you could truly see where you are needed most.”
“WHICH IS WHERE?” she exclaimed, throwing her arms up, “I have literally no idea what I’m doing in this job or…anything else for that matter. Do you know how hard that is for someone who used to know everything? There was once a time when I knew everything!” she sighed, “it seems like a million years and lifetimes ago, but fuck, it’s like there is this itch I can’t scrath. Going backwards is harder than it should be.”
“No, you thought you knew everything. There are still many secrets in this realm and beyond that you haven’t unlocked yet, my dear. And you are not going backwards at all, you are moving forward, just as you should. That itch, as you call it, is exactly what you should be afraid of. It exists to burn you to the ground. Forsake it. Allow me to ease some of your worries; you are on the right path, as are all of your friends. For the first time in 41 lifetimes and beyond, everyone is heading towards their full potential instead of away from it into death. Trust me, after I’m done here, I don’t want to see any of you for a long, long time,” he said rolling his eyes, “which again is why time magic should not be left in the hands of mortal magicians…” he mumbled under his breath.
“How are we all exactly where we are supposed to be when we all feel so lost and Quentin is dead?” she questioned the god, arms crossed in defense.
Hades sighed, “You are just going to have to have faith that you are all on the precipice of both pain and greatness. There are still many challenges ahead but if you stick to the path, you will triumph over them. Mr. Coldwater is on his own journey that is so entangled with those who reside in this world and the worlds beyond. There isn’t anything you can do for him but continue on your path. Alice, you are needed here most, to bring order to this chaos, which admittedly should be a challenge for you… but it will also be the most rewarding work you have done thus far. Should you continue, you will come to understand this life, lives beyond, and yourself more than you ever thought possible, even beyond what you learned as a Niffin. You are not without knowledge, it is all around you,” he said gesturing to the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves all around her office.
“It is time that I go, but fear not, Alice, The Library is secure in all realms and you are changing things for the better. Bring magic to the people and watch your life unfold before you,” Hades calmly said before disappearing into dust, leaving his half-finished whiskey on the floor where his feet had stood just a moment before.
“Well, what the fuck am I supposed to do with that?” she shrugged. She never did care for the notoriously vague advice from gods. But what else could she do but learn to trust her own intuition and have faith that everything would work out, and god, she hoped against hope that they would all win, really win, just once. Once would make it all worth it, if they could stop the literal or proverbial bad guy and all live to laugh about its years from now, that would make it all worth it.
Somewhere in Fillory…some time ago
“I’m done, I’m not doing this anymore,” Quentin said one morning after working into the late hours of the night before on a pattern he would have bet his entire first edition Fillory and Further collection on it being correct. It wasn’t of course, and he proceeded through the day in a vile mood that got increasingly intolerable as the morning droned on and while Eliot set up for more patterns.
Eliot put the last tile in a stack on the brick edge of the mosaic, “We don’t have any other options, Q. We can’t go home. Even if we did somehow make it back to Earth, we’d be in the wrong time.”
Quentin sighed loudly, “So? We can find a horomancer or something, I don’t know, but this is ridiculous. There is no end to this puzzle. It’s impossible.”
Eliot looked off into the distance over Quentin’s head, “Maybe it is, Q. Maybe it is impossible, but we literally can’t do anything but what it asks of us. I’m trying to make the most of it and right now you and your shitty mood are not helping.”
“Oh, I’m not helping?” Quentin asked, accusatorially and tilting his head up further to meet Eliot’s eyes, which evaded him, “What about you, huh? We’ve been at this for over a year and you’ve been drunk the whole time! If you think you can drink your way through this like a fish, your liver is going to give out before we are even close to solving this stupid fucking thing.”
Eliot just turned and walked away from him. He went back into the house to gather more parchment, shook his head to himself, and took a deep breath. He walked back out the door to find Q waiting for him angrily, so he tried to refocus the conversation instead of getting angry at him, “fine, you know what, it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is we could be done tomorrow for all you know. We can’t throw away all this time we’ve invested,” he paced over to the table, laying out some sheets and gathering various colors of chalk, “You want to live your life, live it here,” he said under his breath, not meaning for Quentin to hear it.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Quentin retorted.
“You know exactly what that means,” Eliot said a little louder with a certain venom he hadn’t known he was harboring.
Eliot had spent all morning stacking up tiles in the order they would go in for that day’s pattern, hoping that this new method would expedite the process of going through patterns more quickly. Quentin in his own anger and irritation got up from where he sat and kicked them over, “oops,” he said unapologetically.
“What is your problem?!” Eliot exclaimed, throwing down his papers on the table
Quentin exaggeratedly shrugged, “What’s my problem? My problem is I want to go home. I don’t want to do this anymore and you’re looking at me like that makes me crazy. You’re not even hearing what I’m saying! All you’re doing is laying out your little chalks like this is a good life that we’re living here but it’s not!”
Eliot stared at him blankly as he seethed under the surface. It wasn’t the first time they had this disagreement, both of them being on either side of it depending on the day, but for whatever reason Quentin’s words cut into an insecurity in Eliot he hadn’t known was so tender, “So, what? Is this about Alice or something? The peach girl maybe?”
“Jesus fucking Christ, Eliot…” Quentin sighed and rubbed his temples, “No, it’s not about Alice or the peach girl, her name is Arielle by the way. But no, it’s not about either of them. I just don’t want to do this fucking puzzle anymore! Why is that so hard to believe?! Why does it always have to be about something else?!”
Eliot threw his eyes wide, “Because things are always about other things with you! Believe it or not, this monotonous tedium is not exactly my idea of fun either. It was only tolerable because we were doing it together, but that must have just been my own delusion. You are clearly miserable so, from the bottom of my heart, I extend my most sincere apologies that you don’t have better company for this stupid goddamn quest.”
“Oh my god, Eliot, this is ridiculous. Not everything is about you, okay? I miss home! I miss my books, I miss the internet, I miss indoor plumbing, I miss Julia, I miss Margo, I miss not always being on a quest which is weird for me because that’s all I ever wanted. I miss things! What is so awful about that?!”
Eliot pursed his lips, “Nothing. But just remember, we are trying to clean up your mess,” his words stabbed through the tension between them like all the air had been dispelled from the world. His eyes widened a little, but he said nothing. Eliot just turned his back to Quentin and started off into the woods in a haste, as if he could outrun what he’d just done.
It was a long walk to Chatwin’s Torrent, or what would later be named Chatwin’s Torrent, which is where Eliot realized he was heading absentmindedly as the sun moved across the sky that afternoon. Each and every step felt heavier as Eliot wanted to turn around immediately and go back and apologize, but he also knew that without space to breathe, that wouldn’t be any help to either of them.
As he stepped up the beaten path, he heard the babbling of the water over the smooth river rock and sighed.
“What seems to be troubling you, sir?” a voice asked him. Eliot looked around and realized the voice came from a small woman sitting on a rock. She sat there with her knees tucked under her, and an enthusiastic look in her eye, the kind that was so eager to help that Eliot often found insufferable.
“Who are you?”
“I am the River Watcher. It the sacred duty of my family passed down through generations,” she said happily, “So, what appears to be ailing you?”
“Nothing,” Eliot noted, gesturing up and down his torso, “See? No broken bounds or gaping wounds.”
The small woman nodded, “well, as the protector of these healing waters, I can tell you for certain that not all wounds can be seen.”
He sighed, “Ain’t that the truth.”
She squinted at him a little, “are you a child of earth?”
Eliot and Quentin had made a decision when they got there, that in order to stay focused on the quest and have as little impact on the future as possible, that they would keep a low profile and not drawn attention to themselves. Eliot did feel as though he could not lie to this woman, so he said, “Yeah, but I’m here for –”
“Something important...” she said, “it evades me, but I can tell its purpose is true. So, please feel free to drink the water and be on your way.”
“Don’t I need twenty pieces of gold or something?” Eliot questioned.
“These waters belong to this world, and you are in this world, so why would I charge you for using a natural resource?” The River Watcher asked, equally as perplexed, “that’s akin to thieving and selling the stolen goods for profit.”
Eliot shrugged and laughed a little to himself, “Well, I hope your descendants share the same sentiments,” he said under his breath. He fell to his knees against the dirt and cupped his hands into the water and brought some to his lips. He drank a little and sat back.
At first nothing happened, and then suddenly, he felt lighter. He thought he imagined the feeling of a weight being lifted off his shoulders accompanied by the feeling of taking the deepest breath he could muster and exhaling, almost as if he’d been underwater without knowing it, “Woah, what was that? What happened?”
The River Watcher shrugged, “it seems the waters have eased some of your worries and allowed you to return to a more stable state of clarity. Have you been feeling isolated or lost in any way? Maybe more irritable or erratic than usual?”
“Well…yeah, but I wouldn't say that’s unusual for me,” Eliot sighed, “how did you know that?”
She shrugged, “it’s my job to understand these things. The effects of the water will metabolize from your system in a few days, so take some with you,” she waved her hands and a jar filled with the river water appeared in Eliot’s hands.
It was dark by the time Eliot made it home. Quentin had already stacked all of the tiles back up and dowsed the fire outside. A lantern illuminated the inside of the cottage and a steady stream of smoke was puffing out of the chimney. He took a deep breath, walked up to the front door, and pushed it open.
Quentin was curled up on the couch with a blanket, tea in front of him that had already gone cold, and his book laying open face-down on the floor. Eliot thought he might be sleeping, so he shut the front door quietly and put the jar down on the small table inside.
“How the hell were you able to find hooch in this place?” the lump of blankets asked from across the room.
Eliot rolled his eyes, but felt more levelheaded to brush off some of Quentin’s passive aggression, “Its river water from Chatwin’s Torrent. The River Watcher thought I might need it later, so she made me a to-go bag of sorts. It’s not the most exciting party favor I’ve ever received but it sure is effective.”
Quentin sat up and rubbed his eyes, “but you don’t have a broken leg and you didn’t get your hands cut off?”
“Apparently it does a lot more than heal broken bones and reattach limbs. I guess it’s also sort of like Fillory’s natural antidepressant,” Eliot shrugged and walked over to the couch, gesturing to Quentin if he minded if Eliot sat down. He seemed open to the idea. He went to sit up, but Eliot just lifted his legs, sat down, and laid them over his lap, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean what I said before. None of this is your fault.”
Quentin shook his head, “No, it is. You were right, this is my mess. I killed Ember and got magic shut off. The whole reason we are on this fucking quest to bring magic back is because of me. Otherwise we wouldn’t be stuck here.”
“Q, you had the best of intentions when you did that. And frankly, I should thank you because I was stuck here. I would have been a goner along with the entirety of Fillory if you hadn’t done that. So, thanks Q.” Eliot smiled and rubbed Quentin’s leg.
Quentin gave a forced smile back at him, still harboring feelings of incredible guilt.
Eliot hesitated, “I’m going to ask you a question, Q, and I will accept whatever your answer is.”
“Are you upset by being stuck here,” he paused and took a breath, “or by being stuck here with me?”
Quentin blinked at him for a split second, still baffled he would ask that. He sighed heavily, “El, come on.”
Eliot held a hand up, “No, look, I know that we get along most of the time, but I also know that recently we complicated our friendship, and if that fucks things up for us, then I’m more than willing to go back to –”
Quentin sat up sharply and suddenly kissed him quiet. He ran his fingertips along Eliot’s jawline and let them tangle in the curls behind his ear before pulling away to look at him, “I’m going to be bold here for a minute so just deal with it,” Quentin smiled.
“Okay,” Eliot said quickly, Q’s sudden burst of affection silencing him upon request.
Quentin sighed, “You’re the one who said let’s save our overthinking for the puzzle, and I’ve been fine with it, but I think you have been giving me a run for my money in the overthinking department,” Eliot shrugged in response so he continued, “I’m not upset because I’m stuck here with you. I am upset because I miss our real lives. I miss so many things, El. I know you know what I mean…”
He did. He missed being the king of his castle, both at Brakebills and in Fillory in the future. He missed Margo, in fact no words known to man could describe just how much he missed her. He got used to not getting attached to people or places, but he did miss his home and the only other person, apart from his present company, he let truly know him. He counted himself lucky to even have Quentin here, even luckier still to feel Quentin’s fingers locked in his hair and his lips against his, he just didn’t know how real it was or how long it would last, but he was determined to enjoy it while it seemed Q's better judgement took a vacation.
If he dived too far into this feeling and let himself fall completely like he felt he was starting to, would he eventually be crushed if and when they got back home, to their other lives, only to find Quentin didn’t want it anymore? Would he find himself alone with all these emotions for someone he should have never crossed that line with? A life with Quentin as a friend and nothing more would be tolerable, but a life without him…
He didn’t think he could survive that.
"Yeah, I know what you mean,” he sighed and played with the very frayed strings of Quentin’s hoodie, “I’m sorry. You wanted me to hear you and all I heard was what hurt me.”
Quentin sighed and rubbed his thumb against Eliot’s bottom lip, “Don’t make up fears and then get mad at me when you think they are coming true. We’re clearly not going anywhere any time soon, so you have to talk to me. Whatever you think is happening isn’t happening, okay? We haven’t even talked about what we are to each other now, and we can talk about that later,” Quentin paused seriously, “but regardless, pay attention because I’m only going to tell you this once, okay?” he questioned.
Eliot nodded so Quentin continued, “I am not just going to disappear with the next fair maiden that happens to pass by. I’m not going to give this up for whatever you think I’m going to put above you. I care about you, Eliot. And I need you, right now and moving forward, to believe that. If I didn’t mean it, I wouldn’t have kissed you to begin with. But I did, so here we are.”
“Here we are,” Eliot smiled, leaning closer to Quentin.
Quentin smiled wide, then his smile fell, and he leaned away from Eliot, “so talk to me instead of fighting a fight with me that you’ve invented because we were not fighting about the same thing.”
Eliot nodded guiltily but shook that feeling off when he saw Quentin smiling at him.
“And I will do the same,” Quentin said, “I’m sorry for taking my anger out on you, that wasn’t fair.”
They sat quietly together in front of the hearth, the logs inside having already been reduced to embers in front of them, but still giving off a pleasant warm heat. Quentin had his head resting on Eliot’s chest contentedly, until he got caught on his own train of thought.
“A penny for your thoughts?” Eliot finally asked, trailing his fingertips up and down Quentin’s arm.
Quentin sighed, “It’s just…I know this is my mess. I need to take responsibility for it but it’s so fucking heavy. I caused it all and the guilt of it haunts me every day. I deserve to be here, doing this bullshit puzzle, but I took you away from your life. That’s not fair and its sick that sometimes I’m happy that it happened.”
“I am happy about it sometimes too, a lot actually, even though there are things that I miss. And if that’s sick then so be it,” he smiled somberly, “I’m in this quest with you, Q. We’re meant to do this together. That was made very clear to me when I was given the quest by that flamboyant chicken in the woods,” Eliot said, continuing to rub his palm up and down Quentin’s arm, trying to soothe his worries.
“But what if we never solve this, El? It’s an impossible thing to do. Sure, we could give up and maybe make our way home, but that’s only two keys for a seven-key quest. What if I’ve doomed the universe to a life without magic forever? What if our friends never have magic again? Can you imagine what that would do to them, especially Julia? To think that I’ve hurt her again when she has been through so much, too much already… I can’t do that to her, Eliot. I can’t,” Quentin could feel his chest welling up under the weight of it all.
“Shh, Q. It’s okay. We’re going to do our best to get this done, okay?”
Quentin sniffed sharply and rubbed his eyes with his sleeve, “but what if it’s not enough?”
“If we fail, we’ll do that together too,” Eliot assured him.
Quentin sat up suddenly and planted his lips back to Eliot’s, searching for a more rigorous outlet for his overactive downward spiraling than cuddling on the couch. Eliot would give anything to ease his mind just a little. Sure, cause and effect pointed to their current predicament being Quentin’s fault, but intention was still something that mattered to Eliot. He knew that Quentin would never do something to hurt innocent people, never mind cut the entire universe off from magic. He only wanted to save his childhood safe haven that turned out to be real and be a real home to real creatures.
Quentin wanted to save the embodiment of his own sense of hope, fearing the destruction of Fillory would take too much from him, including Eliot. And he refused to let that happen, and so he stopped it. But now they were stuck hunting down keys, one of which that may very well be concealed right where they lay together, hoping to illustrate the beauty of all life
but what if it’s not enough?
Eliot woke from a seemingly short slumber to find himself chilled to the bone from sleeping under the night sky. Margo, Josh, and Fen had gone inside hours ago and he’d stayed behind to look up at the stars. He clutched the corners of his cardigan and tried to pull them closer to his body in order to find some warmth. His breath steamed from his nostrils and the fire was nothing but tiny embers, so he decided to get up and go inside. The yard was darker than it had been when he had drifted off to sleep and as he turned towards the cottage, he realized why.
The lantern by the door, the one that he had kept burning since he arrived, had gone out.
He remembered that years ago, when Quentin would travel to the nearby villages for supplies that he wouldn’t return until after dark. On one occasion after Arielle’s passing, Quentin couldn’t retrace his steps and spent the whole night outside, unknowingly walking in circles in the cold, in the dark. He was convinced it was being tired from walking that made him a little disoriented and he couldn’t find his way back. It didn’t matter to Eliot, after that night he always stayed awake with the lantern lit, knowing it could be seen through the trees, and that Quentin would be able to find his way home again.
Now, if and when Quentin came home and it just so happened to be in the night, he would still be able to find his way.
So, he retrieved some oil from the kitchen counter and went back outside. The lantern must have been out for some time because it was cold to the touch. He filled the reservoir with oil and closed the glass. He did his simple first starting tut and the lantern began to burn brightly.
That should last a few days, he thought to himself but if he was going to be really honest, he didn’t know how much longer he could keep this up for.
“Are you okay?” Margo asked him when he went back inside and sat by the fire, wrapped in a lump of blankets trying to warm his limbs.
He nodded, “Yep, must have fallen asleep out there. Winter must be coming, I’m fucking freezing.”
Josh snored loudly from across the room, prompting Eliot to roll his eyes. Margo shook her head with a small laugh, “I’ll make you some tea, you big baby.”
“Thanks, Bambi,” he muttered back to her, already drifting off again from the relief of the warm fire and the constant exhaustion that had plagued him since the Monster’s eviction from his body. He was so fucking tired and it wasn’t that keeping a lantern lit took an extraordinary amount of effort or energy. It was the waiting, the seemingly endless waiting that was eating him alive, consuming him and leaving him almost unrecognizable to himself.
Margo, however, only saw her best friend being exactly who he is – caring to an inhuman degree, lost with no tangible way out, and deeply in love with someone out of reach. They judgment of his faults that he would come home so she would be free of the torment of watching the person she loved most waste away in grief, a grief that she could do nothing to stop or ease.
And to Eliot, being possessed by a monster was small potatoes compared to the hollow and empty nothingness of waiting for that love to come back to him.
Somewhere Else in Fillory…
When dawn finally broke, they packed up their camp and continued onward. They came upon a pub a few miles outside of a village. The closer they got to Julia’s powers, the more restless and uncertain she became. Marina trudged on with unshakeable confidence while Julia could do nothing but doubt herself with each step. Lingering in any populated area was a bad idea, but they decided to stop and rest their feet for a while, pulling hoods over their heads in attempt to keep a low profile.
However, the pub quickly quieted upon their entry and all eyes, both human and animal, were glued to them, almost as if they were assessing a threat.
The barkeep grumbled, “haven’t seen the likes of you ladies around here before.”
“They look harmless, don’t they,” a bear in the corner, clearly drunk, chimed in while the other patrons muttered amongst themselves.
“By now, we should all know better than to assume. Anyone could be working for the King, can never be too careful,” the barkeep berated back
“They don’t work for the King,” a voice said from the other corner, surrounded by an entourage, “but they’re not from here. I’ve been to every land from here to the Neitherlands, and they certainly aren’t from Fillory. My guess is they are children of Earth.”
The woman stood, angled hat covering her face, puffy white sleeves draped over her arms, with a pair of guns strapped to either hip.
“Strange to find gun-toting pirates in Fillory, is it not?” Marina asked Julia, loud enough so that everyone could hear her.
The stranger took a swig from her pint glass and slammed her glass down on the bar, “I don’t know what books you’ve read, but it’s a different world out there. And it sure as shit ain’t a fairytale. It’s a war and if I have to defend myself and my crew with primitive weapons of earth, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
“She might fit in better in Texas or something, what the fuck,” Marina mumbled to Julia, who stood like a statue next to her, unmoving.
The woman took one gun from her holster and spinning it around her first finger, “you think I like this? That this life is a dream come true? It’s not, but I do what I have to do for my people. Surely, some part of you can understand that,” she sighed, placing the gun on the table where her crew sat, “I risk the lives of my crew and myself every time we sail in Fillory’s waters or step on her shores.”
Marina tilted her head and Julia asked, “But if trade was outlawed, why risk coming here at all?”
“It’s simple, necessity. Loria has been impoverished since the Dark King conquered Fillory and King Idri fell to the first war. After that, all trade and magical agreements between countries were voided. There are things the Fillorians need from us and there are things we need from them,” she stated plainly, “It’s a broken place, but sometimes broken places still have resources. We’re not here to make problems for the locals worse, we are just trying to maintain our home so we do what we have to do and I haven’t died yet. So, unless you plan on turning me in, we’ll be going about our business.”
“We’re not here to cause problems either. I’m here looking for something I lost,” Julia said plainly
The pirate scoffed at her, “well if its anything worth having, I’m sure the Dark King made it his a long time ago.”
Julia smiled slightly at the ground, “I wouldn’t be so sure. He can’t have anything he wants. I’m here to get it and be on my way, and hopefully restore a bit of peace to this place I loved back when I looked a little different than it does now. The people were more welcoming, and the kingdom wasn’t ruled with an iron fist.”
The whole pirate crew laughed, but lifted their glasses to her, “Well then we wish you luck. We don’t gamble on hope, but you seemed determined, so more power to you.”
Marina and Julia laughed, “yeah, that’s kind of the whole idea.”
Julia turned to walk out the door, but Marina caught her arm, “I think I’m going to stay here. You should go on.”
“I thought this was a serious study for you,” Julia squinted in confusion
Marina shrugged, “Yeah, but the more I think about it, this seems pretty personal. I get a strong feeling that this might be something you need to do alone,” Marina said sincerely.
She nodded, unconvinced, “so this sudden change of heart wouldn’t have anything to do with the hot, gun-toting pirate king now would it?”
“What? I have no idea what you are talking about,” Marina laughed, “okay, so it might be that, but also I think it would be best, for you, I mean.”
Julia thought for a moment, and suddenly found herself in agreement, “Yeah, maybe you’re right.”
“Just don’t die, okay?” Marina smiled and patted Julia’s shoulder before turning back to the bar. It was interesting to see Marina think about someone else needs before her own wants…well in her own way.
Julia sighed and looked around the pub at all the creatures, local Fillorians, and pirates from lands far away, that she knew she could help if she had the means to.
She walked through the village and even with her hood over her head, Julia could tell that her presence did not go unnoticed amongst the villagers. Concerned whispers of who this stranger could be were felt on the chill breeze, telling everyone that the cold winter was on its way. Julia felt a small yank on her cloak and turned around sharply to find a small girl with curly hair gazing up at her.
“Excuse me, ma’am, my mama says I’m not allowed to talk to strangers, but who are you? I’ve never seen you here before and we don't get visitors here, except for a merchant sometimes.”
Julia smiled at her, “I’m just heading to the forest.”
“The talking forest?” the girl questioned enthusiastically.
She nodded, “that’s the one. I think I left something there. I’m going to try to see if I can find it.”
Julia continued walking and the girl skipped alongside her, “must be important. People don’t go into the forest anymore. The Dark King says it’s not allowed. He has tried to burn it down so many times, but it just won’t burn,” she said in the matter-of-fact tone that all little kids have, “the trees on the edge of the woods still give us fruit whenever we need it though. And they hide it when the king’s men come here, like they are saving it for us. Peaches are my favorite,” she smiled.
“I don’t remember planting peach trees here,” Julia muttered
They came upon the edge of the forest, just outside of town. She remembered the border of the forest being much further away but apparently the trees took on a mind of their own. Julia stood there, taking it the sight of massive overgrown wood, branches tangled together, and she felt a subtle hum from the earth and up into her chest, almost like the trees were beckoning her forward.
The girl stood still behind her and coughed slightly to get her attention, “Miss? Is this you?”
“Hmm?” Julia questioned and turned around to look at her. Upon turning she saw a tall woman carved into a tree trunk, standing guard over the path into the forest. The carving had long, flowing hair over her shoulders and the eyes carved had a sort of permanent sadness. The likeness was uncanny.
“Are you Our Lady of the Tree?” the little girl asked
Julia smiled and laughed a little, “I think I was once.”
The girl gawked and the rummaged in her pockets, she came up with a handful of berries, “here, my lady.”
Julia took the berries from her hand and did a few tuts. Before the girl’s eyes, the few berries became an overflowing basket, “here you go, my dear. Go share them with your family, okay?”
“Thank you so much, Miss,” she gasped, did a clumsy curtsy, and took the basket from Julia’s hands.
“ELLIE! IT’S TIME TO COME HOME!” a voice called loudly from the village just a little way back up the path.
“Oh, that’s my mom calling me, I have to go!” the girl took off so quickly and then stopped so fast she sent dirt up into the air, “And miss? I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
The girl smiled at her and something about the sincerity of her voice and the look in her eyes seemed so familiar she couldn’t help but smile back. Ellie took off then, leaving Julia standing there on her own. “I hope so too,” she muttered to herself.
Julia made her way, alone, to the edge of the forest and though her feet planted themselves in the dirt, she felt an almost gentle wind pushing her to enter and claim what belonged to her. She picked up one foot after the other and disappeared in the shadows between the trees.
It was like it was a different place to her than the one she grew and left in the capable hands of local farmers. And though three hundred years had passed, the forest vibrated on a different frequency, similar to what she remembered from her time elsewhere with Iris. The trees almost sounded like they were humming to each other as she walked under their branches. It wasn’t long before she couldn’t remember which way she was going or which way she came from. She didn’t know if it had been ten minutes or ten hours, but she couldn’t feel the twinge of fear that usually came with finding oneself lost, she felt peace for the first time in a long, long time.
She came upon a lone tree at the center of everything. It stood taller than the others and glowed dimly a soft blue. The wind blew for a brief moment and the sounds of cracking bark echoed into the forest, “Ah, we’ve been waiting for you, Miss Julia.”
She stood stunned for just a moment and replied, “Who is we?”
“All of us, the bearers of your power, a forest of your creation. We have long awaited this day, hoping you’d come,” the tree spoke softly.
Julia shook her head, “but I don’t understand. I don’t understand how you’ve grown like this or how so much time passed in Fillory. I don’t even know where my power is, I feel it, but I can’t reach it.”
“Many questions remain a mystery, but you always were the one to find the answers. As for your power, it’s all around you, Julia. It’s us, it’s the ground, it’s the rains above, it’s the fruit that feeds the people. It’s everywhere here,” the tree moved slowly and untwisted her trunk to reveal a glowing blue essence within, “However, it mostly resides here, safe away from the evils and continuing to give in the ways you do.”
Julia took a few steps forward, eyes wide, reaching her hand out to the sudden wave of electricity running through her veins. She quickly jerked her hand back when the feeling of power overwhelmed her body in harsh jolts. “To be unmade is painful, so is rebirth. Of that I can attest to personally.”
She turned her face down in shame for her actions while she was shade-less.
“Worry not, child. All comes in due time, in life, in death, and so on. Our lives are cyclical. Yours is not.”
Julia shook her head, “but I don’t understand. I don’t understand why it’s not just gone. I don’t understand how it made all of this,” she gestured around herself at the vastness of the dark, dense forest.
“You have bound our soul to this land, Julia. You grew this forest from nothing, and as we continued to grow the villages prospered, the elderly don't fall to illness, the children live to see the coming spring, all because of you. The trees on the edge of the woods tell me of the Dark Kings reign and this has protected us from the armies and the flames” the tree gestured a branch to the glowing blue within her, “when you expelled your powers so violently from your body to make the keys, the shell of it still lingered within you, keeping your vessel a divine beacon. Powerless but not completely lost. However, when the last of it was amputated, instead of dying, it endured. It fled and found its way here, to a place you left a part of yourself, both in destruction and in creation.”
Her voice cracked a little in her throat, “I didn’t know that would happen when I did it. I just had to fix what I ruined.”
“Your intentions speak true to your heart. You’ve been to countless worlds and that has never changed. It planted itself here and all the while, it’s been growing and creating beauty where you taught it to,” one of her many branches gestured out into the forest, which had grown exponentially since her magic took residence there and with the passage of centuries.
Julia remember how it felt to force the trees up from the ground and send their roots deep into the earth, and demand that the trees grow food for the people. She had taken everything away from them, so when she planted her feet in the dirt and brought the seeds from below to fruition, she felt like how she imagined a volcano must feel when it finally achieves its purpose. It wasn’t that long ago in her mind, though it felt like ages, but still the forest had fed and protected generations of Fillorians and it was the only solace she found from what she had done when flames danced in her own cold eyes.
“It’s been waiting for you here and growing so that you can be what you once were and more, if that’s what you wish. You have to opportunity to do what you were born to do,” the Great Tree said gently.
Julia let out a shaken sigh, “but how do I know that this is what I was born to be? There have been countless versions of me in countless timelines. How do I know what I’m supposed to do or who I’m supposed to be? I don’t know what path to take, there are too many…and somehow not enough at the same time.”
“We have faith you will make the choice you need to make, Miss Julia. Whatever you choose, there are good things on the horizon for you.”
She wanted to believe that so desperately, she wanted to but the odds stacked against them stood in stark contrast to everything she ever tried to do for good.
The tree snapped and crackled as it shook off its moss and groaned while it reached to the sky to feel the last light of day on her golden leaves. “We have all made this decision together. You have to take it, Julia.”
The heart of the tree glowed in bright blue, reaching out to her as she got closer. Within proximity to her magic, her mind became clear of doubt and mortal whims, and she felt more than anything a sense of truth. As a goddess, she knew things that she never dreamed as a human to even wish to know. Standing in the forest, she knew more destruction would follow if she took what she wanted, what she needed.
“I can’t. It’s a part of you now, it’s a part of the forest,” Julia said hesitantly, fearing the worst but understanding an undeniable truth, “If I take it, you all will wither and die.”
The great tree nodded slightly as her bark groaned, “Yes, we will die, and you will grow. We will live again either by your hand or reborn by the warmth of the coming spring, ” A swift wind blew through the forest and the leaves almost sounded like applause. “Take it and become the goddess Persephone knew you could be.”
“I can’t,” she shook her head, her eyes welling tears at the brim, “I can’t do it. I burned this forest and I felt nothing. It wasn’t until I got my shade back that I felt you all die. I felt it so deep in my soul. It was an atrocity that I was responsible for, I did it, no one else. I killed all of you because I could and because I wanted to. It was heartless and selfish. I can’t do that again. You provide for all the people and animals that live here. I can’t take that away again.”
The great tree’s bark loudly protested at her movements, cracking as she leaned closer to Julia, “My dear child, I see your soul because it is now mine. We are mirrors in a way, you and I. So, I know that you don’t feel that way now. You understand what this means just as we all do, that this is a sacrifice. Make no mistake, it’s not just for you, but for all the gifts you will give in your time. Our people have already tended to the harvest. Nothing more will come until spring and the animals will find their way, I promise,” she sighed and shuffled her branches, “I cannot tell you which path you must follow, but it belongs to you, it is bound to you, and though we are all of you and your magic has brought us splendor and many gifts, it doesn’t belong here.”
Tears cascades over the brims of her eyes and she nodded. She knew what she had to do to stop the terror in Fillory, to help her friends, to help Quentin, to help herself. She reached out a hesitant hand and tendrils of blue light reached out to her, connecting with her fingers and spilling into her veins.
The pain was indescribable, like being struck by a thousand lightning bolts and plummeting into the ground from a great height. Power poured into her body and glowed a map of veins and arteries until all of her shone bright blue and light cascaded out in all directions over the horizon, visible for miles and miles around.
The power drained from the trees and settled into its home, her eyes were the last thing to stop glowing as her human body changed and twisted and came back together as the goddess she used to be and more. When she finally came to, she was on the ground beneath the Great Tree and all the leaves started to fall around her. She looked at her hands, she shook and trembled as she reacquainted herself with the feeling of holding storms and life and wind and all possibility within.
Julia stood, anew, and gently ran her fingers over the bark of the Great Tree, preserving her life force and placing a cold frost on everything around her, settling the forest in for a long sleep inside and early winter. The cold that would come would be extraordinary, the people would stay warm in their homes, telling stories until the world thawed and came back to life.
Many miles away, Eliot stood stunned at the cottage, a dome of light that illuminating the sky before disappearing. And for the first time in a long time, he was hopeful. If Margo couldn’t save Fillory, and if Quentin couldn’t save himself, then maybe Julia would be able to do what none of them could.
And from further away, her light could be seen from Castle Whitespire. Not minutes later, cloaked riders on black stallions by the hundreds clamored out of the gatehouses and their hooves stomped like thunder, a sound the people of Fillory knew all too well.
And even beyond that, Hades stood in his castle at the epicenter of the Underworld and felt the vibrations of power, through the depths, through his own being. Julia was among them once again. The power felt familiar and he couldn’t help but smile sadly, the more she wielded and molded it, the power would become hers and thus the markings left on the worlds above by Persephone would change and dissipate. He knew it was what she had wanted, for Julia to reach possibilities they never could, but still her absence echoed everywhere.
Though they couldn’t live in the Underworld, she would bring flowers every time she returned, even if they only lasted in vibrance for the night. The way she would tend to them as they expired always made him weep. He sat on the throne of the Underworld as God of the Dead, tasked with the sacred duty of keeping the souls of mortals, of beings who knew what it meant to die. And though he had seen it billions of times, that was something he was certain he knew nothing about, not truly. Persephone's loss was the closest as he'd ever felt to death and it hollowed him out entirely. But Persephone, she had always had a tenderness for any dwindling life at it's end. She always took great care of the dying things, where most find it too hard to bring their energies to things not long for this life, that’s where she was both her happiest and saddest, be it a plant or animal or human life, she would always leave ease upon their departure. She would nurture at the beginning and at the end, always. It was the singular thing about her, that informed her whole being, that spoke to her entire truth that made him love her so wholly.
Hades knew Julia had the same intuition and hoped that she could hone that talent so the realms would not be without that kindness for long. He knew Persephone was out there somewhere, and he awaited the time when he could join her on her next journey.
Somewhere in the Underworld…
His breath was turning to steaming clouds as the temperature seemed to drop. Quentin tried to rub his hands together for heat, but he found no relief and instead shoved them back into his pockets as he kept walking.
Had it been this cold the whole time? Quentin thought to himself, maybe he just didn’t notice before, or maybe he was getting closer and closer to being human again as opposed to lost wandering spirit.
There was no day or night in the Underworld, no dawn as proof of time passing, just an endless dusk and he truly didn’t know how long it had been since he’d seen Hades or Charon or the growing number of demons, intent on keeping him there forever.
The colder he got, the more tired he grew, and the more he wished that he could be home.
Not New Jersey, or New York, or even Brakebills. Those places gave him all they could give him, but never the ease he always needed. He was so fucking tired of quests and journeys and craved to remember all of the details of a simple life he lived so many years ago.
It could have been time or being trapped in a physical manifestation of his own depression, but the longer it went on, more it all became blurry and that was the saddest part of all of it, to not remember the little things that made being stuck at a cottage in the middle of nowhere, not only a good life lived, but the best life one could live.
He had begun to forget what the sunrises looked like and how its light glittered on all the tiles, or how the leaves danced on the ground when then wind blew, or how Teddy’s little snores sounded when he fell asleep outside reading, or how it smelled when Arielle baked pie and danced around the living room with Eliot, or how Eliot’s fingers felt when they gently pushed his hair out of his face.
He was forgetting.
His brows furrowed as he tried and failed to access those memories that were guiding him home. Absent of their comfort, he began to panic.
“Okay, okay, this is fine, I can remember. It’s fine.” He tried to tell himself to no avail. Quentin’s hands started to shake as the franticness set into his veins, which was certainly not one of the first things he wanted to feel as he regained his physical body. “Great,” he said rolling his eyes, and rubbing his hands together to try again to warm them.
He took a deep breath, “Okay, let’s try this again,” he closed his eyes and tried to focus.
The blood coursing through his body slowed and his heart returned to a normal rhythm. The chill in his bones lessened, giving him some relief from the shaking to keep warm. The golden light shone before him brightly, and he kept walking.
Quentin rounded a bend in the path and found fog covering his view.
Well fuck. Now what? he thought to himself.
The fog slowly cleared, and he felt warmth on his skin for the first time since he’d set out on this seemingly endless godforsaken fucking walk.
Only a single structure stood at the far side of the clearing he now found himself in. He knew it, he knew it like the back of his hand, as if it were yesterday.
Amongst the log piles and tiles, the peach and the plum trees, he saw the chimney burning away and inside the house was aglow as it had always been. He spotted a single silhouette in the window and he ran as fast as his feet could take him, passed the peach trees, tiles clinking under his shoes, and up to the door. He took as deep a breath as his lungs could hold and exhale sharply as he opened the door.
There, standing in the dim doorway, peace overtook him, and he’d never been happier in all his life, or lives, to be home. He walked in and the door shut behind him.
The dark lantern hanging just to the right of the door swung back and forth in the chill breeze, cold to the touch.