I DECIDED that Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life. I hadn’t really cared much about him before then one way or another, but I had limits. It would’ve been all right if he’d saved my life some really extraordinary number of times, ten or thirteen or so—thirteen is a number with distinction. Orion Lake, my personal bodyguard; I could have lived with that. But we’d been in the Scholomance almost three years by then, and he hadn’t shown any previous inclination to single me out for special treatment. Selfish of me, you’ll say, to be contemplating with murderous intent the hero responsible for the continued survival of a quarter of our class. Well, too bad for the losers who couldn’t stay afloat without his help. We’re not meant to all survive, anyway. The school has to be fed somehow. Ah, but what about me, you ask, since I’d needed him to save me? Twice, even? And that’s exactly why he had to go. He set off the explosion in the alchemy lab last year, fighting that chimaera. I had to dig myself out of the rubble while he ran around in circles whacking at its fire-breathing tail. And that soul-eater hadn’t been in my room for five seconds before he came through the door: he must have been right on its heels, probably chasing it down the hall. The thing had only swerved in here looking to escape. But who’s going to let me explain any of that? The chimaera might not have stuck to me, there were more than thirty kids in the lab that day, but a dramatic rescue in my bedchamber is on another level.
As far as the rest of the school is concerned, I’ve just fallen into the general mass of hapless warts that Orion Lake has saved in the course of his brilliant progress, and that was intolerable. Our rooms aren’t very big. He was only a few steps from my desk chair, still hunched panting over the bubbling purplish smear of the soul-eater that was now steadily oozing into the narrow cracks between the floor tiles, the better to spread all over my room. The fading incandescence on his hands was illuminating his face, not an extraordinary face or anything: he had a big beaky nose that would maybe be dramatic one day when the rest of his face caught up, but for now was just too large, and his forehead was dripping sweat and plastered with his silver-grey hair that he hadn’t cut for three weeks too long. He spends most of his time behind an impenetrable shell of devoted admirers, so it was the closest I’d ever been to him. He straightened and wiped an arm across the sweat. “You okay—Gal, right?” he said to me, just to put some salt on the wound. We’d been in the same lab section for three years. “No thanks to you and your boundless fascination for every dark thing creeping through the place,” I said icily. “And it is not Gal, it has never been Gal, it’s Galadriel”— the name wasn’t my idea, don’t look at me—“and if that’s too many syllables for you to manage all in one go, El will do.
” His head had jerked up and he was blinking at me in a sort of open-mouthed way. “Oh. Uh. I—I’m sorry?” he said, voice rising on the words, as if he didn’t understand what was going on. “No, no,” I said. “I’m sorry. Clearly I’m not performing my role up to standard.” I threw a melodramatic hand up against my forehead. “Orion, I was so terrified,” I gasped, and flung myself onto him. He tottered a bit: we were the same height.
“Thank goodness you were here to save me, I could never have managed a soul-eater all on my own,” and I hiccuped a pathetically fake sob against his chest. Would you believe, he actually tried to put his arm round me and give my shoulder a pat, that’s how automatic it was for him. I jammed my elbow into his stomach to shove him off. He made a noise like a whoofing dog and staggered back to gawk at me. “I don’t need your help, you insufferable lurker,” I said. “Keep away from me or you’ll be sorry.” I shoved him back one more step and slammed the door shut between us, clearing the end of that beaky nose by bare centimeters. I had the brief satisfaction of seeing a look of perfect confusion on his face before it vanished away, and then I was left with only the bare metal door, with the big melted hole where the doorknob and lock used to be. Thanks, hero. I glared at it and turned back to my desk just as the blob of soul-eater collapsed the rest of the way, hissing like a leaky steam pipe, and a truly putrescent stink filled the room.
I was so angry that it took me six tries to get a spell for cleaning it up. After the fourth attempt, I stood up and hurled the latest crumbling ancient scroll back into the impenetrable dark on the other side of my desk and yelled furiously, “I don’t want to summon an army of scuvara! I don’t want to conjure walls of mortal flame! I want my bloody room clean!” What came flying out of the void in answer was a horrible tome encased in some kind of pale crackly leather with spiked corners that scraped unpleasantly as it skidded to me across the metal of the desk. The leather had probably come off a pig, but someone had clearly wanted you to think it had been flayed from a person, which was almost as bad, and it flipped itself open to a page with instructions for enslaving an entire mob of people to do your bidding. I suppose they would have cleaned my room if I told them to. I had to actually take out one of my mother’s stupid crystals and sit down on my narrow squeaky bed and meditate for ten minutes, with the stench of the soul-eater all around me and getting into my clothes and sheets and papers. You’d think that any smell would clear out quickly, since one whole wall of the room is open to the scenic view of a mystical void of darkness, so delightfully like living in a spaceship aimed directly into a black hole, but you’d be wrong. After I finally managed to walk myself back from the incoherent kicking levels of anger, I pushed the pigskin book off the far edge of my desk back into the void—using a pen to touch it, just in case—and said as calmly as I could manage, “I want a simple household spell for cleaning away an unwanted mess with a bad smell.” Sullenly down came—thump—a gigantic volume titled Amunan Hamwerod packed completely full of spells written in Old English—my weakest dead language—and it didn’t open to any particular page, either. That sort of thing is always happening to me. Some sorcerers get an affinity for weather magic, or transformation spells, or fantastic combat magics like dear Orion.
I got an affinity for mass destruction. It’s all my mum’s fault, of course, just like my stupid name. She’s one of those flowers and beads and crystals sorts, dancing to the Goddess under the moon. Everyone’s a lovely person and anyone who does anything wrong is misunderstood or unhappy. She even does massage therapy for mundanes, because “it’s so relaxing to make people feel better, love.” Most wizards don’t bother with mundane work—it’s considered a bit low—or if they do, they hunt themselves out an empty sack of a job. The person who retires from the firm after forty-six years and no one quite remembers what they were doing, the befuddled librarian that you occasionally glimpse wandering the stacks without seeming to do anything, the third vice president of marketing who shows up only for meetings with senior management; that sort of thing. There’re spells to find those jobs or coax them into existence, and then you’ve provided yourself with the necessities of life and kept your time free to build mana and make your cheap flat into a twelve-room mansion on the inside. But not Mum. She charges almost nothing, and that little mostly because if you offer to do professional massage for free, people will look at you sideways, as well they should.
Naturally I came out designed to be the exact opposite of this paragon, as anyone with a basic understanding of the balancing principle might have expected, and when I want to straighten my room, I get instructions on how to kill it with fire. Not that I can actually use any of these delightful cataclysmic spells the school is so eager to hand out to me. Funnily enough, you can’t actually whip up an entire army of demons on just a wink. It takes power and lots of it. And no one is going to help you build mana to summon a personal demon army, so let’s be real, it takes malia. Everyone—almost everyone—uses a bit of malia here and there, stuff they don’t even think of as wicked. Magic a slice of bread into cake without gathering the mana for it first, that sort of thing, which everyone thinks is just harmless cheating. Well, the power’s got to come from somewhere, and if you haven’t gathered it yourself, then it’s probably coming from something living, because it’s easier to get power out of something that’s already alive and moving around. So you get your cake and meanwhile a colony of ants in your back garden stiffen and die and disintegrate. Mum won’t so much as keep her tea hot with malia.
But if you’re less of a stickler, as most people are, you can make yourself a three-tier cake out of dirt and ants every day of your life, and still live to 150 and die peacefully in your bed, assuming you don’t die of cholesterol poisoning first. But if you start using malia on a grander scale than that, for example to raze a city or slaughter a whole army or any of the thousand other useless things that I know exactly how to do, you can’t get enough of it except by sucking in mana —or life force or arcane energy or pixie dust or whatever you want to call it; mana’s just the current trend—from things complicated enough to have feelings about it and resist you. Then the power gets tainted and you’re getting psychically clawed as you try and yank away their mana, and often enough they win. That wouldn’t be a problem for me, though. I’d be brilliant at pulling malia, if I was stupid or desperate enough to try it. I do have to give Mum credit there: she did that attachment parenting nonsense, which in my case meant her lovely sparkling-clean aura enveloped mine enough to keep me from getting into malia too early. When I brought home small frogs in order to mess with their intestines it was all supremely gentle, “No, my love, we don’t hurt living creatures,” and she would take me to our corner shop in the village and buy me an ice cream to make up for taking them away. I was five, ice cream was my only motivation for wanting power anyway, so as you can imagine I brought all my little finds to her. And by the time I was old enough that she couldn’t have stopped me, I was old enough to understand what happens to sorcerers who use malia. Mostly it’s seniors who start, with graduation staring them in the face, but there’re a few in our year who’ve gone for it already.
Sometimes if Yi Liu looks at you too quickly, her eyes are all white for a moment. Her nails have gone solid black, too, and I can tell it’s not polish. Jack Westing looks all right, all blond smiling American boy, most people think he’s a delight, but if you go past his room and take a deep breath in, you get a faint smell of the charnel house. If you’re me, anyway. Luisa three doors down from him vanished early this year, nobody knows what happened to her—not unusual, but I’m reasonably sure what’s left of her is in his room. I have a good sense for this sort of thing even when I’d rather not know. If I did give in and start using malia, I’d be sailing through here borne on—admittedly —the hideous leathery bat wings of demonic beasts, but at least there’d be some kind of wings. The Scholomance loves to let maleficers out into the world; it almost never kills any of them. It’s the rest of us who get soul-eaters popping under our doors in the middle of the afternoon and wauria slithering up out of the drain to latch on to our ankles while we’re trying to take a shower and reading assignments that dissolve away our eyeballs. Not even Orion’s been able to save all of us.
Most of the time less than a quarter of the class makes it all the way through graduation, and eighteen years ago—which I’m sure was not coincidentally near when Orion was conceived—only a dozen students came out, and they were all gone dark. They’d banded into a pack and taken out all the rest of the seniors in their year for a massive dose of power. Of course, the families of all the other students realized what had happened—because it was stupidly obvious; the idiots hadn’t let the enclave kids escape first—and hunted the dozen maleficers down. The last one of them was dead by the time Mum graduated the following year, and that was that for the Hands of Death or whatever they called themselves. But even when you’re a sneaky little fly-by-night malia-sucker who picks his targets wisely and makes it out unnoticed, there’s nowhere to go but further down. Darling Jack’s already stealing life force from human beings, so he’s going to start rotting on the inside within the first five years after he graduates. I’m sure he’s got grandiose plans for how to stave off his disintegration, maleficers always do, but I don’t think he’s really got what it takes. Unless he comes up with something special, in ten years, fifteen at the outside, he’ll cave in on himself in a nice final grotesque rush. Then they’ll dig up his cellar and find a hundred corpses and everyone will tut and say good lord, he seemed like such a nice young man.