A Deadly Education Page 2

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.

At the moment, though, while fighting through one page after another of extremely specific Old English household charms in crabbed handwriting, I felt strongly I could have gone for a nice big helping of malia myself. If my unshucked oats were ever being eaten by leapwinks—your guess is good as mine—I’d be ready. Meanwhile the puddle of soul-eater kept letting out soft flaring pops of gas behind me, each one like a distant flash of lightning before the horrible eruption of stink reached my nose.

I’d already spent the whole day in a deep slog, studying for finals. There were only three weeks left in the term: when you put your hand on the wall in the bathrooms, you could already feel the faint chunk-chunk noises of the middle-sized gears starting to engage, getting ready to ratchet us all down another turn. The classrooms stay in one place in the school core, and our dorms start up at the cafeteria level and rotate down each year, like some enormous metal nut whirling round the shaft of a screw, until down all the way we go for graduation. Next year is our turn on the lowest floor, not something to look forward to. I very much don’t want to fail any exams and saddle myself with remedial work on top of it.

Thanks to my afternoon’s diligence, my back and my bum and my neck were all sore, and my desk light was starting to sputter and go dim while I hunched over the tome, squinting to make out the letters and my arm going numb holding my Old English dictionary in the other hand. Summoning a wall of mortal flame and incinerating the soul-eater, the spellbook, the dictionary, my desk, et cetera, had rapidly increasing appeal.

It’s not completely impossible to be a long-term maleficer. Liu’s going to be all right; she’s being a lot more careful about it than Jack. I’d bet she used almost her whole weight allocation to bring a sack of hamsters or something in with her and she’s been sacrificing them on a planned schedule. She’s sneaking a couple of cigarettes a week, not chain-smoking four packets a day. But she can afford to do that because she’s not completely on her own. Her family’s big—not big enough to set up an enclave of their own yet, but getting into throwing distance—and rumor has it they’ve had a lot of maleficers: it’s a strategy, for them. She’s got a pair of twin cousins who’ll be turning up next year, and thanks to using malia, she’ll have the power to protect them through their first year. And after Liu graduates, she’ll have options. If she wants to quit, she could put spells aside entirely, get one of those dull mundane jobs to pay the bills, and rely on the rest of her family to protect her and cast for her. In ten years or so, she’ll have psychically healed up enough that she’ll be able to start using mana again. Or she could become a professional maleficer, the kind of witch that gets paid handsomely by enclavers to do heavy work for them with no questions asked about where the power comes from. As long as she doesn’t go for anything too excessive—as in, my kind of spells—she’ll probably be fine.

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