The one thing you never talk about while you’re in the Scholomance is what you’ll do when you get out. Not even the richest enclaver would tempt fate that way. But it’s all we dream about: the hideously slim chance we’ll survive to make it out the gates and improbably find ourselves with a life ahead of us, a life outside the Scholomance halls.
And now the impossible dream has come true. I’m out, we’re all out—and I didn’t even have to turn into a monstrous dark witch to make it happen. So much for my great-grandmother’s prophecy of doom and destruction. I didn’t kill enclavers, I saved them. Me and Orion and our allies. Our graduation plan worked to perfection: We saved everyone and made the world safe for all wizards and brought peace and harmony to all the enclaves everywhere.
Ha, only joking! Actually, it’s gone all wrong. Someone else has picked up the project of destroying enclaves in my stead, and probably everyone we saved is about to get killed in the brewing enclave war. And the first thing I’ve got to do now, having miraculously gotten out of the Scholomance, is turn straight around and find a way back in.
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The last thing Orion said to me, the absolute bastard, was El, I love you so much.
And then he shoved me backwards through the gates of the Scholomance and I landed thump on my back in paradise, the soft grassy clearing in Wales that I’d last seen four years ago, ash trees in full green leaf and sunlight dappling through them, and Mum, Mum right there waiting for me. Her arms were full of flowers: poppies, for rest; anemones, for overcoming; moonwort, for forgetfulness; morning glories, for the dawn of a new day. A welcome-home bouquet for a trauma victim, meant to ease horror out of my mind and make room for healing and for rest, and as she reached to help me, I heaved myself up howling, “Orion!” and sent the whole thing scattering before me.
A few months—aeons—ago, while we’d still been in the midst of our frantic obstacle-course runs, an enclaver from Milan had given me a translocation spell in Latin, the rare kind that you can cast on yourself without splitting yourself into bits. The idea was that I’d be able to use it to hop around from one place to another in the graduation hall—all the better to save people like enclavers from Milan, which is why she’d handed me a spell worth five years of mana for free. You couldn’t normally use it to go long distances, but time was more or less the same thing as space, and I’d been in the Scholomance ten seconds before. I had the hall visualized as crisp and clear as an architectural drawing, complete with the horrific mass of Patience and the horde of maleficaria behind it, boiling its way towards us. I was placing myself at the gates, right back where I had been when Orion had given me that final shove.
But the spell didn’t want to be cast, putting up resistance like warning signs across the way: dead end, road washed out ahead. I forced it through anyway, throwing mana at it, and the casting rebounded in my face and knocked me down like I’d run straight into a concrete wall. So I got back up and tried the exact same spell again, only to get pasted flat a second time.
My head was ringing bells and noise. I crawled back to my feet. Mum was helping me up, but she was also holding me back, saying something to me, trying to slow me down, but I only snarled at her, “Patience was coming right at him!” and her hands were slack, sliding off me with her own remembered horror.
It had already been two minutes since I’d been dumped out; two minutes was forever in the graduation hall, even before I’d packed it full of all the monsters in the world. But the interruption did stop me just banging my head against the gates repeatedly. I spent a moment thinking, and then I tried to use a summoning to get Orion out, instead.
Most people can’t summon anything larger or with more willpower than a hair bobble. But the many summoning spells I’ve unwillingly collected over the years are all intended to bring me one or more hapless screaming victims, presumably to go into the sacrificial pit I’ve incomprehensibly neglected to set up. I had a dozen varieties, and one of them that let you scry someone through a reflective surface and pull them out.
It’s especially effective if you have a gigantic cursed mirror of doom to use. Sadly I’d left mine hanging on the wall of my dorm room. But I ran around the clearing and found a small puddle of water between two tree roots. That wouldn’t have been good enough ordinarily, but I had endless mana flowing into me, the supply line from graduation still open. I threw power behind the spell and forced the muddy puddle smooth as glass and staring down at it called, “Orion! Orion Lake! I call you in the—” I took a quick glance up at the first sunlight and sky I’d seen in four years of longing for them, and the only thing I could feel was desperate frustration that it wasn’t dawn or noon or midnight or anything helpful, “—waxing hours of the light, to come to me from the dark-shadowed halls, heeding my word alone,” which would very likely mean he’d be under a spell of obedience when he got here, but I’d worry about that later, later after he was here—
The spell did go through this time, and the water churned into a cloud of silver-black that slowly and grudgingly served up a ghostly image that might have been Orion from the back, barely an outline against pitch darkness. I shoved my arm into the dark anyway, reaching for him, and for a moment, I thought—I was sure—I had him. The taste of frantic relief swelled through me: I’d done it, I’d got hold of him—and then I screamed, because my fingers were sinking into the surface of a maw-mouth, with its sucking hunger turning on me.
Every part of my body wanted to let go at once. And then it got worse, as if there were any room for that to get worse, because it wasn’t just one maw-mouth, it was two, grabbing at me from both sides, as if Patience hadn’t quite finished digesting Fortitude yet: a whole century of students, a meal so large it would take a long while eating, and meanwhile Fortitude was still groping around trying to feed its own hunger even while it was being swallowed down.
And it had been blindingly obvious to me back there in the graduation hall that we couldn’t possibly kill that monstrous agglomerated horror, not even with the mana of four thousand living students fueling me. The only thing to do with Patience was the only thing to do with the Scholomance: we could only push them off into the void, and hope they vanished away forever. But apparently Orion had disagreed, since he’d turned back to fight even with the school teetering on the edge of the world behind him.
As if he’d thought Patience was going to get out, and in some part of his stupid brutalized brain imagined that he could stop it getting out, and therefore he had to stay behind and be a hero this one more time, one boy standing in front of a tidal wave. That was the only possible reason I could imagine, and it had been stupid enough without shoving me out the gates first, when I was the only one of us who’d ever actually fought a maw-mouth before. That made it so unutterably stupid that I needed him out, needed him here, so I could scream at him at length to impress upon him exactly how stupid he’d been.
I clung to that rage. Rage made it possible for me to keep holding on, despite the heaving putrescence of maw-mouth trying to envelop my fingers, sucking on my skin and my shielding like a child trying to get through a candy shell to the better sweetness inside, trying to get to me, trying to get to every last bit of me so it could devour me down to staring eyes and screaming mouth.
Rage, and horror, because it was going to do that to Orion, Orion who was still there in the hall with it. So I didn’t let go. Staring down into the scrying puddle, I hurled murder at it past his blurry, half-seen shoulder, casting my best, quickest, killing spell over and over, the feeling of a lake of rot sloughing away from around my hands each time, until I was gulping down nausea with each breath I took, and each casting of “À la mort!” went rolling off my tongue on the way out, blurring until the sound of my breathing was death. All the while I kept holding on, trying to pull Orion out. Even if it meant I’d heave Patience out into the world with him and spill that devouring horror into the cool green trees of Wales right at Mum’s feet, my place of peace I’d dreamt of in every minute I’d been in the Scholomance. All I’d have to do was kill it, after all.
That had seemed utterly impossible five minutes before, so impossible I’d just laughed at the idea, but now it was only a low and trivial hurdle, when the alternative was letting it have Orion instead. I was really good at killing things. I’d find a way. I even had a plan laying itself out in my head, the clockwork machinery of strategy ticking coolly away in the background of my mind where it never stopped after four years in the Scholomance. We’d fight Patience together. I’d kill it a few dozen lives at a time, and he could pull the mana out and feed it back to me, and together we’d create an unending killing circle between us until the thing was finally gone. It would work, it would work. I had myself convinced. I didn’t let go.
I didn’t let go. I was pushed off. Again.