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The Way a Fool Would Do

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You never really know what you’re getting into, when you choose to take a soulmate. Before Quentin had bound himself to Eliot, he’d been forced to endure the normal barrage of questions from the Fillorian Soul Council, and then a separate barrage of questions from his cousin Julia, who had nitpicked his choice down to the marrow, pouring concern after concern into Quentin’s already terrified brain.

He’d been so frustrated with her at the time, but in retrospect he can’t blame her for her caution. The fact is, no matter how much you prepare, no matter how much you think you’ve thought it all through, binding another soul to your own is unlike anything else in the world. It is impossible to know how it will feel until it’s already too late to turn back.

When Quentin thinks about those first couple of days, the overwhelming swell of emotion, the elation and devastation, the knowledge, seeping into his bones, that he’d never be alone again, all the good and the unforeseen pain of such a thing… he and Eliot had been unable to bear the slightest disconnection for over a week, weepy and clingy and loving each other and hating each other so very much, the sinews of their inner selves entangling until Quentin had worried he’d forget who he was supposed to be on his own, without El there to define him. And Eliot had worried about the same thing back. Quentin knows, because Quentin had felt that worry echoed back inside his head.

They’d been warned it would be that way, but there are no words that could ever prepare someone for it. And after the settling, after they’d learned to moderate and control the elastic limits of the bond, it became, as Quentin had known it would be, the most precious truth of his whole world. Eliot Waugh, his soulmate. Quentin Coldwater, with a soulbond, the tattooed rune stark and black against the skin by his left hip bone. The power, the status, the comfort, the peace, it was all more than Quentin had ever thought he’d be lucky enough to enjoy.

He almost hadn’t agreed.

Now, the thought of not being Eliot’s soulmate is horrifying to him, in the very real sense of the word horror. But when El had asked him, he’d hesitated, because even at the tender age of fourteen, he’d been well aware of the way his heart and body reacted to Eliot’s very presence. He’d wondered, painfully often, what it would be like to place his hands along the expanse of Eliot’s ribs, how it would feel to press their lips together. And doing what they had done, binding themselves together forever more… it meant he’d never get to find out.

Ultimately, it was a stupid reason to hesitate over saying yes to the best and most precious relationship in his whole life. It’s not even like he was giving anything up that he already had—the whole hypothetical depended on Eliot wanting to kiss him back, after all. And El loved him, obviously, but it had never been like that for him, not even as a fleeting adolescent thought.

So Q had said yes, and Julia had smiled and supported him, and he’d emerged on the other side more happy than he’d known it was possible to be.

In the old days, as Q knows from reading history books with his tutors, soulmates were arranged like political marriages. Important Fillorian families matched up their young ones, bonding them at incredibly young ages and tying the fates of entire political factions to one another through the soulrune, emblazoned upon youthful skin.

Nowadays, modern society balks at such callous and profane treatment of something so fundamentally life-altering. Children have to reach the oh-so-wizened age of fifteen before they’re allowed to create a soulbond, and many people wait until they’re much older, despite some evidence that this dilutes the power of the bond. In addition to this, the two would-be soulmates must undergo vigorous compatibility testing and affirm their devotion to the bond over a period of months before it can be approved by the council.

Lord Eliot Waugh of Broken Lineage asks Lord Quentin Coldwater of the Third House of the Crashing Sea, to be his soulmate at age fourteen, a full year before they’re allowed to actually create the bond.

Quentin agonizes over the decision for two full days, returning to find Eliot pale with lack of sleep, desperate for a response. Saying yes is one of the happiest memories of his life. He can still close his eyes and see the way relief and elation had bloomed across El’s young face, the way they’d jumped into each other’s arms and laughed in unmitigated joy like a couple of loons, until one of Q’s family’s stewards caught them jumping on the couches in the sitting room and had frowned at them censoriously until they’d calmed down.

And they get all the pesky testing and affirmations and council debates out of the way, so that by the time Quentin turns fifteen, a full seven months after Eliot, they’re ready to make the commitment. It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to them both, after the first few impossible, unspeakable days of adjustment. They walk around Castle Whitespire for months with an extra bounce in their step, enjoying the looks of awe and fear that follow them wherever they go, as they luxuriate in the full golden glow of magic’s most sacred gift.

Quentin likes to think he didn’t know he was in love with Eliot when he bonded with him.

Or certainly he hadn’t known when he first agreed. He likes to think that his desire to belong to Eliot had been as pure as everyone always says soulmates are supposed to be. That at the tender young age of fourteen, he’d been genuine when he’d turned to his dearest friend in the world, held his hands tight, and promised to stay with him forever. That if he had once briefly thought of Eliot’s body in a less than brotherly way, it was nothing more than a consequence of puberty. Insignificant, in the face of what they are to each other now.

Never mind that eight years later, he still can’t imagine himself loving anyone else. Never mind that the thought of his more-or-less required marriage to an eligible member of the Fillorian nobility makes Quentin’s stomach hurt so bad he keeps waking El up in the middle of the night with the pain of it. Never mind the shameful times he’s built up the walls extra high around his mind, blocking his soulmate from seeing into him, as he touches himself picturing the graceful lines of El’s hands, bucking and coming at the thought of letting the mental walls slip, letting El know what Q’s doing on the other side of the barrier...

But maybe Quentin had known. Maybe, despite the desperately strong joy he carries with him every day, merely knowing his soul belongs to Eliot, he did something wrong, in agreeing all those years ago. Maybe it was deceitful, maybe Eliot would be horrified to know he’d bound himself forever more to a man who can’t stop lusting after his soulmate, the deepest and most forbidden taboo there is.

It’s a moot point, either way. Attraction is fleeting, or so he’s been told. Love is fickle. Even marriage need not be permanent or restrictive, if spouses prove to be less than compatible. There’s nothing permanent under the sun, with one exception.

Soulmates are forever, and forever with Eliot is exactly what Quentin has always wanted.

*****

Eliot wakes up slowly, his head fuzzy with strange dreams. As is his habit, he reaches first inside his mind to find the thread of the bond, searching for Q along the length of it, reorienting his waking consciousness to the presence of another. In sleep, things can get blurry between them, and it always takes a minute to remind himself of who he is, and who Q is, and the boundaries that must exist between those two things.

Today, there is no murkiness. Quentin has attempted to keep his side of the bond blocked, so Eliot can feel only the baseline fact of his presence and nothing more. But something unpleasant and miserable is leaking through Quentin’s shoddy protections.

Eliot frowns, sighs, squirms into his comfortable mattress for another minute, and then stands up, making his way to the door that connects his chambers directly to Quentin’s.

He nudges at Quentin through the bond, a gentle caress. Sometimes, if they’re close to one another physically and concentrating really hard, they can pass complex thoughts directly into one another’s minds, and have almost entire conversations without saying a word. This is considered extremely rare and the sign of a particularly strong bond, but Eliot and Q don’t go around bragging about such things, for obvious reasons. Usually, sensations, feelings, general impressions and inquiries can pass between them easily. This morning, Eliot lets a gentle inquisitiveness pass through the bond, a tentative let me in.

He feels Quentin’s hesitation, and then a mournful acceptance, and Eliot swings the unlocked door open between them.

“Hey, Q,” Eliot says out loud, his voice a practiced balance between cheerful and commiserating. His soulmate is not a fan of condescension, but it’s simply a fact that sometimes the poor boy requires some coddling.

“Four,” Quentin says, before Eliot can ask.

The scale of Quentin’s Melancholy is from one to ten, with one being his baseline everyday tendency towards pessimism, and ten being… well, Eliot has only seen Quentin at a ten one time, and it’s not a memory he’s keen to revisit first thing in the morning.

“You know what that means,” Eliot tells him firmly, squatting down next to the lump of Quentin on the bed. He reaches a hand out and brushes hair out of his squished face, fingers tracing the creases of linen against his skin. Eliot’s heart lurches with the familiar wish that he could climb into the bed beside Quentin, fold their bodies together. He wants to have woken up here, beside him, instead of in the next room over. He ignores the longing. He’s long since gotten used to it.

“I don’t wanna,” Quentin says, petulant.

“You’re the one who said four.”

“That’s because you won’t let me get away with lying,” Quentin says. Eliot tugs on his elbow and Quentin sighs, sitting up with apparently extreme effort. Four means he feels like garbage, but actually leaving his room, getting some food, and forcing himself through normal routines will probably make it better. Five means he gets to stay in and be treated like an invalid, at least for a day.

“Here’s what you’re going to do,” Eliot says, slipping affection and sturdiness along to Quentin through the bond, lending him whatever mental strength he can. “You’re going to freshen up, get dressed, come to the breakfast room, and I’ll have all your favorites waiting for you before we’ve got check-in.”

Quentin squints at him, frowning, but his own walls are slipping even further, and Eliot can feel his reluctant acquiescence, his gratitude. “What did I ever do to deserve you?”

Eliot smiles, pretends his heart isn’t constricting painfully in his chest. Breathe through it, and it’ll go away. “A question not even the gods can answer.” He tilts his head, quirks an eyebrow, and pulls Quentin to standing, tugging him forward to place a kiss against his forehead. “Now hurry up. Your gloominess made me sleep in.”

Quentin gives him the mental equivalent of an eye-roll, his face remaining passive and innocent. Eliot quirks a mental eyebrow at him right back, a silent try me, Coldwater. Quentin sighs dramatically, then turns to get ready for his day.

*****

After breakfast, which does indeed seem to perk Quentin up a bit, to Eliot’s delight, they head together for the Magician’s Hall. This full wing of Castle Whitespire is dedicated to the noble-blooded magic users of Fillory, and has been decorated with an austere grandeur that equals that of the Chatwin’s royal residence elsewhere in the castle, but still maintains its own unique flavor. This part of the castle feels utilitarian, like people use the space for useful things instead of merely to awe visitors with the splendor of noble riches.

It is here that they will get their assignments for the day, from their boss, Henry Fogg of the Sixth House of the Crystal Lake. He’s been in the position for nearly two decades now, and spends his days wrangling the magically gifted members of all of Fillory’s most noble houses. It’s not a job Eliot envies. He knows for a fact he was a nightmare to handle when he’d first arrived, aged ten, grieving and angry, lashing out at anyone who tried to offer him a kind word.

(And Henry Fogg is not much for kind words to begin with.)

These days the Master of Magical Operations is forced to treat Eliot with some measure of respect. Eliot’s a fully adult Lord of Fillory now, after all, despite his broken lineage. He’d once been of a Fourth House, before losing it, and even those who no longer retain their house’s title still often carry the imprint of prestige their absent house would have granted them. And more important than the unwanted remains of his family’s honor following him around, Eliot is in possession of a soulmate. He’s bonded, in fact, to a member of a Third House. Fogg, while nominally a member of a Noble House, is only a Sir, and not a Lord. If it rankles him, his relative unimportance compared to his students, Fogg never shows it.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” Fogg greets them when Eliot and Quentin enter the room. Julia Wicker of the Third House of the Razed Forest is already there, as is Alice Quinn of the Second House of the Eagles’ Roost. They’re missing a few of their usual number, but Fogg explains their absences before Eliot and Quentin have even found their seats.

“I’ve sent Penny and Kady out early this morning,” he declares, and Eliot feels a stir of confusion and alarm zing along the bond from Quentin. He echoes it back automatically, settling down on one of the uncomfortable stone benches around the perimeter of the room.

They all come here every morning for an assignment, but it’s been months since there’s been anything at all to do. Usually they get perfunctory instructions to maintain their regular patrol and report back with anything unusual, and the rest of their time is their own. Eliot has gotten used to the luxury of the rich and titled, has almost come to view his duties as an appointed member of the Magician’s Court as nothing more than a symbolic role.

“What happened?” Quentin asks, leaning slightly closer into Eliot’s space, for comfort. Eliot can feel the urge in his soulmate to go burrow under blankets and hide himself from the world. It’s a bad day for something unusual to be happening, something that might throw Quentin’s shaky equilibrium further out of alignment. Eliot tries not to let himself be irritated with Fogg for this. He’s only the messenger, after all.

“Some strange activity, in the Orchards,” Fogg says.

The Southern Orchards is a large and sweeping forest, so named because in the ancient days of Fillory the land there was cultivated, only to later grow wild and untamable. There are still patches of the forest where the trees grow in oddly uniform lines, or where fresh fruit swings invitingly low on hanging branches. It’s a deeply magical place, but usually benign, as long as the local folk don’t upset the balance by taking too many creatures for food, or felling too many trees for fuel.

It’s also too close to Castle Whitespire for comfort, if indeed something more sinister is making itself known.

“Strange in what way?” Julia asks, biting her lower lip.

“Strange in…” Fogg tilts his head, as if trying to decide how to put it. “A human way.”

There could hardly have been a more alarming answer to Julia’s question. Eliot shifts in his seat, grabbing Q’s wrist in his hand without looking. His anchor, through anything and everything. “The Beast?”

Fogg gives Eliot a shrewd look. Eliot’s early interactions with the Beast are not spoken of in polite company, but they’re hardly a secret. He can feel every eye in the room turned to look at him. Except Q, who doesn’t have to look to know exactly the mix of emotions rocketing through him at the very thought. It’s been thirteen years since the Beast… but why would he turn up now? And why in the Orchards?

“No,” Fogg says. Then, after a pause, “well, I should be more precise. Early reports suggest not. But the magic is foreign and powerful, and we cannot identify the caster.”

Every magician in Fillory is known to the Crown. There are so precious few of them, it seems impossible that anyone could have slipped through the cracks. An unknown caster can only mean a caster from somewhere else. Loria, maybe, or the Wandering Hoard. In any case, not good.

“And you sent Kady and Penny out there alone?” Alice asks, managing to straddle the line between a genuine question and outright chastisement of their de facto boss. She is of a Second House, the highest ranking person in the room. She can get away with speaking to anyone however she wishes, and has become an expert at deploying the privilege selectively.

Fogg raises an eyebrow at her. He’d hardly have maintained his position without standing firm in the face of the nobility’s caprices. “No, indeed I did not. I sent them to scout the perimeter. They are not to enter, and not to engage, but to come straight back here to report their findings.”

Eliot’s unease only grows. He knows Pen and Kady about as well as he knows anybody. If something dangerous tries to poke its nose out of the shelter of the trees, their curiosity and lust for a good fight will get the better of them. They’ve been itching for conflict for weeks, now.

“And then what?” Julia asks, but Fogg hardly needs to answer.

“Then, pending their report, we’ll send in our best.” He lifts an eyebrow in Eliot and Quentin’s direction. “Unless the two of you have any objections?”

A frisson of fear passes between the two of them, and Eliot can’t even tell if it originated with himself or with Quentin. They’re used to strange magics, to threatening animals and plants that would kill you as soon as look at you. But human threats… the idea of fighting a fellow human magician, one of the few granted the mysterious and bounteous gift of the Chatwins… well, they’ve trained for it. But short of the Beast reappearing at last, it had always seemed a hypothetical consideration.

“No objections,” Quentin says, a little too loudly. “It’s our honor to serve.”

Eliot disagrees, and he lets Quentin know without moving a muscle. It’s hardly an honor, no matter the titles and how they dress it up for the masses. It’s more like the only work men like them are likely to get.

But this is an old argument.

“Want to go warm up?” Eliot asks his partner in everything. “You can come watch,” he continues, turning to Alice and Julia and quirking his lip up at the corner. “If you’re looking for some combat pointers.”

“His ego truly astounds,” Julia says to Alice with an eye-roll. And then she turns to Quentin. “Keep that soulmate of yours in his place, Q.”

Q and Eliot stand together, moving in fluid harmony towards the door. “Oh, he’s in his place,” Quentin says, teasing reassurance in every word. He curls a hand around Eliot’s elbow, like he’s staking a claim.

*****

Sparring with Eliot is one of Quentin’s most treasured daily activities. It is exquisite torture, of course, to move his body in rhythm with El’s, to touch him, to pin him to the ground, to be pinned to the ground, to smell the sweat of his exertion. But it’s also the only way he gets to have any of it, and he tries, he really tries, not to be a pervert about it when at all possible.

It’s not just his overactive imagination that makes the activity fun for him. There really is something so pure and exalted and freeingly physical about the action, an art to their magic and their bodies, proof positive to the world of how perfectly they fit together. Whenever visiting noble children come to the castle, especially those who are considering soulbonding for themselves, Eliot and Quentin are asked to put on a little exhibition of their combined talents.

They’re stunning together, their instincts and their minds working always in uncanny unison. Eliot throws knives over his shoulder and Quentin catches them between his hands without looking. Quentin allows Eliot to trip him up so he can roll into a full flip and land on his feet. He blocks blows before Eliot has moved to make them. When they’re fighting one another, it turns into a performance, more often than not. Good exercise, a fine honing of skills. A system in perfect balance.

Quentin remembers the first time he and El had ever sparred. It was only a week or so after they had first met, two children with no idea what they would become to each other.

Eliot had shown up at the Coldwater estate, a wiry tall youth ten years of age, declared himself of Broken Lineage, and all but demanded sanctuary as the old laws of Fillory required. Lord Theodore Coldwater, Head of the Third House of the Crashing Sea, would have granted him sanctuary even if he’d been a nobody from nowhere, and in fact at first, both young Quentin and his father had assumed that was exactly what he was.

It hadn’t mattered—they’d taken him in, gotten him food and warm water and a place to sleep, and then the next morning, allowed him to unburden himself of his story.

It had been… quite the story. It had started with a dramatic bang, with the loss of Eliot’s parents, the Lord and Lady of a Fourth House of Fillory. Eliot, even as frightened and shaken as he had clearly been, had been thorough in describing the strange and terrible Beast who had cut them down right in front of Eliot. And then his miraculous escape, the way he’d run, and hadn’t stopped running until he’d found somewhere he thought he might be safe.

Quentin remembers hearing the story, and finding that kind of strength miraculous. He’d been in awe of this strange half-starved boy, the way he’d appeared out of nowhere to take up all the space in an estate otherwise gloomy and uninteresting. And he’d never met someone of Broken Lineage before. He’d always been warned that such people were ill luck, having lost the protection of their house, but Eliot had seemed as noble and honorable as anyone else Quentin had ever met.

And just a couple of days later, Eliot had found Quentin in the gymnasium, working on his battle magic and physical fighting technique with his Master. Eliot had insisted on a duel. Quentin, startled at his vehemence, had said yes. And then had been summarily destroyed.

Quentin knows now, of course, why Eliot had insisted on fighting him. It had been a power play, a way to assert some form of dominance in a situation where he felt unmoored and without a single advantage. But at the time, Quentin had been dismayed at this stranger’s fierce skill and violent behavior.

Sparring was one thing, but Eliot had done something else when he’d slammed Quentin’s sturdy body to the ground, ignoring the boundaries of the safety mats, and forcing him to tap out his defeat against the floor. Quentin hadn’t minded losing to a worthy opponent, but he couldn’t believe the uncouth and ungentlemanly way that some random refugee of a nearly destroyed fourth house had dared to behave in such a way to the future master of the house where he’d claimed sanctuary.

Eliot had been proud of his victory at first, but then uncertain and afraid when Quentin had informed him that Theodore Coldwater wasn’t going to take kindly to a stranger entering his home and doing physical damage to his only son and heir.

Quentin had in fact been quite sure that if he told his father what Eliot had done to him, Eliot would be sent away. He’d wanted to do it, run to his father, take back some measure of the authority that Eliot had stripped from him in battle. But he didn’t. He didn’t, because even at the very start, even despite his humiliation and anger, Q hadn’t wanted Eliot to go away. Eliot was the most interesting thing that had ever happened to him, the first spark of life he’d managed to find since his mother had died. So instead, Quentin had kept quiet, he’d used clumsy magic to heal up his split lip, and he’d won Eliot’s loyalty from that moment forward.

Nowadays, Eliot would probably rather ritually flog himself than cause Quentin even a twinge of unnecessary pain. The point of their sparring is no longer who wins, although Eliot is still usually the one who comes out on top, due to what he would describe as a “scrappy childhood”.

Instead, working together in this way is more about refining their technique, preparing themselves for the rare occasions when they have to fight something else, for the protection of Fillory and the Crown.

Alone on the practice mats on the training hall, and without the need for a single word between them, they slip into a familiar formation. A few hand-to-hand rounds ending with Quentin on his back, El’s hands pinning his shoulders to the mat. Then they add some force magic, then introduce practice blades. Quentin actually gets one in under Eliot’s guard towards the end of the session, although Quentin suspects El is going easier on him than usual, given his fragile mood.

(He lets Eliot get away with the gentleness, knowing exactly how much he scares his soulmate whenever his own mind gets in his way.)

“I’m worried about Pen and Kady,” Quentin admits when they’re done, sitting side by side against the wall of the gym.

“I was trying to get your mind off of that,” Eliot says, nudging their shoulders together.

“Maybe you shouldn’t have pulled your punches, then,” Quentin retorts, but there’s no real bite to it. He’s too tired, pleasantly sore from hitting the ground, muscles tingling and blood singing with adrenaline.

“You think you’re funny but you’re not funny,” Eliot says, poking him in the chest with a single admonitory finger. “Penny and Kady are fine. They’re the best in the field. Well, besides us, of course.”

That goes without saying, and Quentin doesn’t even try to suppress the feeling of smugness that Eliot’s words cause. He lets the pride filter through so Eliot can feel it, and Eliot answers him with a surge of confidence and joy. They’re soulmates. The only bonded pair currently in residence in Whitespire’s Magician’s Court. Everything they do is amplified between them, Quentin’s strength becoming Eliot’s, and the other way around. The rest of their team is fantastic, incredible, but none of them have a soul-rune.

“I think we’ve all gotten complacent,” Quentin says, bringing the conversation back to the issue at hand. “I woke up this morning with the weirdest feeling.”

Well, Eliot already knows that, doesn’t he? He’d entered the room practically on tip-toe, concern radiating off of him in waves. He thinks he’s good at tamping it down, but he never is. Still, if Quentin isn’t too far down into the abyss of his own mind, Eliot’s concern helps quite a lot. It reminds him that there’s someone in the world who literally wouldn’t survive it if he…

It’s not always the healthiest motivation to keep him trudging through his days, but it’s undeniably effective in a pinch. Besides, this morning wasn’t… that. Quentin knows what it feels like when his own mind attacks him for no good reason at all, and this had felt different. He’s getting the strangest sense, from magic itself, like the air around them is trying to send messages. Something is coming. Some sort of reckoning. A change bigger than any they’ve weathered before.

Quentin can’t say everything in his life is perfect. But he can say that generally speaking, he’s pretty happy with it. The thought of a change, a change in the shape of some alarming human threat in the Southern Orchards, has him on edge more even than usual.

“Tell me,” Eliot says, generous as always with his attention.

“There are things in my life I couldn’t stand to lose,” Quentin says. You’re at the top of that list. This fact is also implied, existing tangibly between them, humming along the strands of the bond. He doesn’t have to say it out loud. In fact, he’s not sure he can say it out loud. “And I get the strangest feeling that those things are at risk.”

“It’s been too quiet for too long,” Eliot says. “Until this morning I’ve been taking it for granted, the fact that magic has been behaving itself.”

“No unnatural monsters to slay, no energy disturbances throwing the world out of order.”

“It’s been a nice break,” Eliot says, wistful.

“It’s been a biding of time,” Quentin corrects.

“Who’s doing the biding?”

“That,” Quentin says, “is what I’m so afraid of.”

*****

The Southern Orchard Forest is one of Quentin’s favorite places in all of Fillory. From a distance, or along the outer edges of its dense growths, the trees have a cheerful, inviting look, ripe with fruit and edible leaves to eat, low branches perfect for relaxing with a good book. Before he and El had come of age and joined the Magician’s Court as full members, they’d sneak off with the help of their friend Penny Adiyodi of the Second House of the Silver Moon, who was able to use his traveling magic to take them straight to their favorite tree for an afternoon of leisure, then pop back to whisk them home again before anyone could miss them for the evening meal. Asking for Penny’s help in this sort of getaway always came with a price, however, and as they got older he became less and less willing to be their personal means of escape.

So it’s been a while since Quentin has looked up into the inviting sturdy bows of the orchard trees, or stared into the gloom of the dirt path twisting away from warmth and into shadow. It feels a bit like a homecoming, but there’s a sense of foreboding, staring into the gloom. Something’s in there. Something that shouldn’t be.

Eliot’s mental voice echoes in his head. Ready?

Stay close to me, Quentin thinks back and Eliot shifts a bit closer, in reassurance. The fact that El had decided not to speak out loud tells Quentin everything he needs to know. They’re both scared.

Penny and Kady’s information had been alarming and yet annoyingly vague. Based on their diagnostic spellwork, they were almost certain it was a single entity inside the woods. They were also certain that whoever it was, they were generating a magical field of incredible strength and power, far more than should have been possible for a single caster.

On the more reassuring side of things, Penny and Kady said the magic didn’t feel like the Beast’s work. They’d all gotten more than used to that sickly, angry signature, weaving through the land, corrupting otherwise ordinary creatures into puppets of the Beast’s will. This, whatever it is, doesn’t have that same tangy taste of blood and rage.

Well… maybe there is some rage. Quentin shivers as he and Eliot step into the shadows under the trees, winding their way down a footpath that becomes narrow and snarled with roots only a few dozen feet past the tree line. Whoever is casting, there is anger there. Desperation. Grief, maybe. It sits heavy on the back of Quentin’s tongue, weighs his heart down into his stomach.

Eliot takes his hand, squeezes it, and Quentin lets their fingers tangle together. It’s an indulgence they probably wouldn’t allow themselves inside Castle Whitespire, but here it’s safe. It’s necessary.

Quentin feels a nudge in his mind, a more direct vision passing from Eliot through to him. The fingers around his own squeeze harder, as an image of an angry crocodile, eyes blazing with an orange glow, snaps forward at Quentin along the bank of a muddy river. It’s Eliot’s memory of an event that had taken place three years ago, another dangerous solo mission assigned to the bonded pair.

Quentin sends back an image of what he remembers happening next, Eliot swooping down out of the air, dropping on the creature from above, giving Q the time he needed to prepare a killing blow. Quentin gives a mental nod of understanding. Eliot will get up in the face of whoever is casting the magic, and Quentin will bring them down.

Non-lethally, Eliot reminds Quentin. Unless absolutely necessary.

Then don’t get too close, Quentin says back. If you’re in any danger…

They’re getting closer, and the air around them is filled with static, magic building beneath their feet and pressing between the trunks of trees surrounding them on all sides. There’s really no path left to speak of; they’re merely trusting to their instincts, to the pull of the spell being cast somewhere deeper in the forest. It’s occurred to them both that the spell itself is not exactly subtle. Whoever’s casting, they don’t mind being found. Which means there’s every chance they’re walking straight into a trap.

“El, promise me,” Quentin says as they creep their way closer.

“It’s not the Beast, Q,” Eliot says, which is as good an answer as any. “I’d feel it if it was.”

“Alright, but—”

“Risking myself is risking you, and you know I won’t do that,” Eliot says.

It’s reassuring, but maybe not as reassuring as Quentin wants it to be.

Ahead, Quentin sees light, a strange icy pink emanating out of the gloom of the forest. They’re almost there. He squeezes Eliot’s hand once more for good measure, and then disentangles their fingers, bringing his hands up in front of him, ready to cast.

Eliot gives him a brief glance, and then his strides lengthen, as he steps out in front of Quentin, ready to loop around and try to approach the threat from another angle. Quentin closes his eyes and centers himself before creeping forward, allowing his mind to slip into that inbetween place, the bond wide open between him and Eliot. He can’t see precisely through Eliot’s eyes, but he can sense him, know when he’s moving and when he’s standing still, the give of the dirt and foliage under his feet. Silently, Quentin casts a muffling charm on himself to further mask his own approach, and he gathers his power inside of him, ready to burst forth and subdue the unknown threat.

And then…

He gasps, a sudden shock of pain ricocheting through his ribs and down to his toes. His knees nearly buckle, but he catches himself on the rough bark of the nearest tree. He swallows, barely stopping a strangled yelp from escaping his throat. The pain hadn’t been his own. Which makes it even worse. Godsdamnit.

He tugs harder on the bond in frantic worry, and propels himself forward, abandoning stealth in favor of speed as he rushes towards Eliot’s last known position. The pain is already fading, leaving the sting of tears in his eyes but also the knowledge that whatever’s happened to his soulmate, it’s not fatal. It almost feels like someone shoved him, hard, knocking all the wind out of him. But where—

Q, don’t come any closer, Eliot says inside Quentin’s mind, but Quentin ignores him entirely. It’s not a strategic command: it’s laced with fear, like he wants to warn Quentin back from walking straight into trouble. But Quentin doesn’t have a choice, does he? It’s not like he can leave without El.

It’s not really a clearing, that he steps into. Or at least, it wasn’t a clearing until very recently. He can see flattened bushes and fallen trees, their trunks still firm with recent life where they lay scattered on the forest floor. It seems impossible that they hadn’t noticed the devastation earlier, but something about the caster’s magic must explain that. There’s an aura to the woman standing in the middle of the clearing, like she’s simultaneously calling Quentin towards her, but also obscuring all detail of what exactly she’s doing. Her hands don’t appear to be moving. Whatever she’s set in motion, it’s happening all on its own.

Eliot is pinned against one of the trees still standing, right on the edge of the woman-made clearing where this unknown magician has caused such destruction. He’s straining against invisible bonds, his face pinched tight in fear. But he’s not in pain anymore. Quentin would know if he were.

“Hello,” Quentin says, approaching with as much confidence as he can muster. There’s no plan of attack anymore. She has Eliot trapped, which means diplomacy is his only choice.

The woman, whose eyes had been on Eliot, turns to face him instead. She’s floating several inches off the ground, Quentin sees, and in one of her hands she clutches a bright, smooth stone, the size of a clenched fist. It emanates a pale pink glow, lighting up the woman’s veins and turning her eyes a strange watery red as she focuses on Quentin. “Who are you?” she asks, her voice echoing strangely in the clearing, amplified by power.

“My name is Quentin. Could you maybe… stop whatever you’re doing?”

She blinks at him, clearly not having expected the simple request. “I’m searching,” she says. “I have to find—”

She blinks, and the red in her eyes flicker. She looks down at the stone in her hand as if seeing it for the first time. Then she looks over to Eliot, frowns, and twitches her free hand in the air. Eliot collapses, breathing hard, at the base of the tree.

I’m okay, he projects to Quentin, before Q can ask. Keep talking to her.

“Uh. Who are you, then?” Quentin says, trying to pretend he’s met an interesting stranger while exploring the market, instead of encountering a woman with an incredibly powerful magical anchor stone in the middle of a wild forest.

The woman sways in the air, her hair standing up in the static of the magic she’s created. He still can’t identify the spell, but Penny and Kady had been right about one thing: it doesn’t feel malicious, or anything like the Beast’s power. There’s almost a yearning to it, a sadness that resonates with Quentin all too well.

“I’m…” the woman can’t seem to take her eyes off the stone in her hand. Slowly, her feet drift towards the ground until she’s standing firm. The long strands of her dark hair descend to lie in tangled waves around her face.

Then she closes her eyes, and her hands drop to her sides. The stone goes dull, the magic in the air fading away into nothing but the usual ambient buzz. It’s only now that the spell is fading, that Quentin realizes how little control its caster had over what was happening. When the woman looks up, she takes in the dead plants around her with keen interest, almost disbelief, walking in a tight circle to view the devastation. She looks back at the stone, then to Eliot, who has pulled himself to his feet, then over to Quentin.

“Under the authority of Castle Whitespire,” Quentin begins, but she holds a hand up, and magic curls his tongue back in his throat, forcing him silent.

“Hey,” Eliot snaps, and he rushes forward to Quentin, turning his back on their unknown enemy with the same recklessness that had sent Quentin rushing into this clearing without a plan. “Don’t touch him.”

The silencing charm fades almost at once, and Quentin breathes, opens his mouth, unsure. She’s not making any sort of threatening moves, really. Not right now. Without being sure of where she got that anchor stone, or what she meant to do with the spell she was casting, Quentin’s not even sure if this woman has broken any laws, in the strictest sense. Still, he knows for a fact that the king and queen will want her to be brought in.

“You’ll have to come with us,” Eliot says, his body angled just slightly in front of Quentin’s.

She shakes her head at him, looks up, and the last bit of dazed confusion finally leaves her eyes. They’re wide, beautiful, brown, fierce and resentful and imploring all at once. She meets Eliot’s stare head-on, and then she speaks. Her voice is stilted, formal, almost like she’s memorized these words and doesn’t want to mess them up now that she’s finally found someone to say them to.

“My name is Margo Hanson of Broken Lineage. I require your help.”