‘Just a little spell I picked up during my time out in the wilderness,’ I said smugly. I grabbed a box and lifted it up, using only the tip of my index finger. I pretended to groan and strain.
‘You did this yesterday, didn’t you? You had the same expression on your face when you were lifting weights.’
Uh oh. ‘Nooooo.’ I shook my head. ‘I wouldn’t do such a thing.’ I tossed the box to one side, put my hands behind my back and began to whistle, avoiding Winter’s glare.
I cocked my head. ‘Is it though?’
‘You probably expended more energy avoiding exercise than doing the exercise itself.’
Somehow I doubted that. ‘Chill out,’ I drawled. ‘You need to realise that the path of least resistance is always the best.’
‘This is like dealing with a toddler.’
I raised my eyebrows. ‘You’re the one throwing your toys out of the pram.’
‘Whenever I think that we might be able to make this work, you revert to type. You’re almost entirely untrained and yet look at the talent you’ve got. You’re wasting it all.’ He seemed genuinely angry.
‘Well, look at you!’ I shot back. ‘Ninety per cent of the time you’re a sad sack jobsworth who can’t crack a smile unless it’s on Order instructions. Then you show flashes of fun and a sense of humour and genuine thoughtfulness. It doesn’t last though, does it? All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy.’
‘All play and no work makes Jack a mere toy,’ Winter retorted. ‘I didn’t ask for this, you know. I didn’t even want a partner.’
‘Is that supposed to make me feel better?’
Winter turned away, shoving his hands into his pockets. He was very, very pissed off. And to think that a few minutes ago we’d almost been flirting. I grimaced and reached out, gently touching his shoulder.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said gruffly. ‘Obviously, we’re just opposites who’ve been thrown together through no fault of our own. We rub each other up the wrong way. My priorities are different to yours.’ I sighed. ‘I won’t cheat again.’
‘Is that what you said eight years ago?’
I bit my lip. Winter cursed and looked back at me. ‘Let’s just find the sceptre and get out of here. Alright? We’ll worry about this … partnership later.’
I nodded. ‘Yeah. Okay.’ I paused. ‘Should I undo the spell on the boxes?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ And then he closed his mouth and stopped speaking altogether.
In silence, we made short work of the rest of the boxes, tossing them to the side and clearing the way. Despite having been moved round the previous day, they still kicked up a lot of dust, making me sneeze violently on several occasions. The rest of the time, I kept my head down and avoided looking at Winter.
We finished moving the boxes and stared down at the dusty floor. There was no shiny golden sceptre waiting to be rescued – but there was a trapdoor. A single padlock, which was obviously brand new, gleamed up at us. I didn’t need to glance at Winter to feel his tension.
Reaching into his pocket, Winter crouched down and took out a small amount of dried knotweed. He blew it into the padlock and released the lock. He unclipped it and placed it carefully to one side, while I lifted up the trapdoor and gazed downwards into the dark, dank hole that had been revealed. It was little more than a foot and a half wide and there was a rope ladder stretching downwards. The air that rose up from beneath felt humid. I was betting that somewhere down there was water. Knowing my luck, this led directly to the Order sewers. How lovely.
Determined not to complain again and give Winter more cause to snap, I twisted round and began to climb down, swaying dangerously on the first few rungs until I found my balance. It was difficult to keep going, not least because the further I went the darker it got. Above my head, I felt Winter test the ladder’s strength then, apparently deciding that it wouldn’t hold both of us, he pulled back and waited while I continued to descend. I looked neither up nor down; I simply kept ploughing on. I’d wanted to be anywhere other than the library and this was what I got. Be careful what you wish for indeed.
The basement light from above was only just visible by the time my feet landed on solid ground. I tugged on the rope ladder to let Winter know he could come down then used a rune to magic up enough light to see. It definitely looked like a sewer. It smelled a lot like a sewer too.
There were concrete paths on either side of a small, unnatural looking river of gunk. From behind me there was a skittering sound as a rodent of some kind darted along on its merry way. I shivered; mice were one thing but sewer rats were entirely different. The curved walls on either side were covered in dark, slimy moss that only added to atmosphere of despair. If the person who’d stolen the sceptre had brought it down here, I’d certainly award them a gold star for determination.
I edged forward and peered into the gloom, half expecting to see the eyes of some tunnel-dwelling monster staring back at me. As far as I could tell, I was completely alone. Then something touched my back.
I leapt about a foot in the air, banging my head on the low ceiling and almost slipping into the smelly river below. The only reason I didn’t was because Winter grabbed my arm and hauled me to safety. I blinked at him in acknowledgment. I’d have expressed my gratitude but he was the one who’d scared me in the first place.
He turned to the slime on the walls and immediately began bagging some of it up, no doubt for some spell he was planning later. This is one of the many reasons why I prefer focusing my energies on runes rather than herbs. If you have to climb into a sewer to get the ingredients you need, I reckon it’s probably never going to be worth it.
Winter jerked his head downstream, in the opposite direction to which I’d been facing. I nodded and gestured at him to proceed. With his face set in a grim mask, he moved off. For once, he wasn’t marching along like an army colonel. One false move and he’d be on his arse. As entertaining as that might be, the last thing I wanted was for him to bring me down with him.
I followed gingerly, matching him step for step. My light spell continued to illuminate the way but all we could see was more of the same.
We traipsed along for a good eighty metres. We had to be getting close to the end of the building by now. The sceptre might have been taken down to the very bowels of the earth but the wards preventing it from leaving the walls of the library without permission would still hold. It couldn’t be far away. I cursed whoever had sent us on this wild goose chase. If Winter spent his days investigating trivial matters like this, I couldn’t understand why he took his work so seriously. Arcane Branch: what a waste of time. I was just about to tell him so when he stopped abruptly and pointed across the river to a gap in the wall. Some broken bricks were lying underneath it as if it had been created deliberately.
I flicked my fingers, making the illumination spell drift over so we could see for sure. The light hovered, its glow bouncing off the tip of the sceptre, which was barely visible inside the hole. I eyed it thoughtfully. Considering the lengths the so-called thieves had gone to in order to bring the sceptre down here, they hadn’t done a particularly adept job of concealing it. Even with Winter’s locator spell we could have walked right past it if they’d replaced the bricks.
Without waiting for me to say or do anything, Winter leapt over the river, landing with a barely audible thump on the other side. Well, that was a manoeuvre I wasn’t likely to copy any time soon; chances were I’d miss and end up waist deep in whatever nasty gunk was beneath us. I peered down. Whatever was down there, it included some incredibly large objects. Didn’t some heartless people flush baby alligators down their toilets? Was that a long snout or a branch?
My brow creased. Whatever it was, it was moving strangely as if fighting against the flow of water rather than being carried along with it. That didn’t make any sense unless…
I whipped my head up just as Winter reached into the hole in the wall to grab the sceptre. ‘Stop!’ I yelled.
He pulled it out, holding it lightly in one hand and turned to frown at me. ‘What?’