It was too late. There was a faint rumble, almost like distant thunder. If this were Hollywood, there would have been time to make a run for it. Unfortunately, we were in real life. There was barely time to blink before the wall of ferociously churning water hit us.
I was immediately swept off my feet. I thought I heard Winter yelling my name but I might have imagined it in the roar. I couldn’t see anything and, no matter how frantically I tried to kick or swim or grab for the side, the gush of water was simply too strong. It was freezing cold, already chilling me to my very bones. The temperature wasn’t the most pressing danger, however – it was the flotsam and jetsam crashing along with the water. Something metal scraped along my thigh, sending a bolt of flaring pain up through my body. Something else slammed into the side of my skull. And the water kept coming.
I had no way of knowing which way was up and which way was down. My lungs were burning and I needed air. The red robe I was wearing snagged on something and my body was yanked backwards, momentarily halted against the flow of water. It was enough. I twisted and turned, swallowing water as I desperately sought oxygen. Then my head broke upwards and I could breathe. I took in a scant two mouthfuls before the fabric of the robe ripped and I was cast away again.
This time, the robe wasn’t helping me. Instead it was dragging me down, a sodden mess that would end up pulling me into a watery grave if I didn’t get rid of it. My fingers scrabbled at the buttons, desperately trying to undo them, but it was too cold and the current was too strong. Completely disorientated again, I tumbled this way and that, blood thumping in my head like the bass drum of a crazy thrash metal band screaming out an anthem for death. I gasped for air once more and then held my breath, squeezing my eyes shut and trying to concentrate. It was next to impossible to manage a rune here but I still had to try.
I moved my right hand, feeling the magic course through me as I threw all my energy into it. Then another object slammed into my back and I was thrown off course, the power of the rune fizzling away before I could complete it.
A feeling of complete calm overtook me. The tiny logical part of my brain that remained knew that this was my body preparing itself for the inevitable. I no longer minded. This was where it was going to end. I couldn’t really complain; I’d had a fairly good innings and the good thing about dying young was that I’d probably get a decent number attending my funeral. I hoped someone would be sensible enough to look after Brutus for me. I hoped Bell End and Alice didn’t starve to death in Eve’s flat.
‘The sceptre! Ivy, grab the sceptre!’
Winter’s barely audible yell registered dimly. Good grief. The man really did take his job seriously if he was drowning and still worried about that stupid thing. I opened my eyes, catching sight of him a few metres ahead of me before another wave of water crashed over my head. Why wasn’t he moving?
He thrust the tip of the sceptre in my direction and, without thinking, I took hold of it. Then my body slammed against an invisible wall and pain flared through me, expelling even the cold from my veins.
‘Don’t let go!’
I groaned. ‘What?’
Winter’s face swam towards mine. ‘Don’t let go!’
My grip tightened as the pain increased. Of course, I thought dully, the ward. The water had carried us from one end of the building to the other and, because Winter hadn’t released his hold on the sceptre, the magic was preventing him from going any further. He was holding one end of the sceptre while I held the other and, as long as we were touching it, the avalanche of water around us couldn’t break through. The downside to all this was the agony of the ward itself. I howled, swallowing more foul water as I did so. It was excruciating. My very atoms were screaming.
‘The water!’ Winter shouted. ‘It’s stopping. Just a few moments longer, Ivy. You can do this.’
No, I didn’t think I could. I gritted my teeth and tried to cling on. It was like being stabbed by a thousand knives all at once, while standing in an arctic tsunami. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. The water was still sucking me under, dragging at my useless robe. The Order were going to kill me after all. Death by dangerous dressing.
Then Winter’s hand grabbed me. ‘You see? It’s going down. We’re alright, Ivy. We made it.’
He was right: the water level was sinking rapidly, from my shoulders down to my torso. What had been Hokusai-inspired waves were now gentle undulations. I gasped and gulped and finally let go of the sceptre. My body jerked a few feet, still pulled by the under-current, but it wasn’t long before I could stand up.
I reached for the side, my hands clinging to the warm concrete. I tried to heave myself over the edge and back to safety but the damn robe was still in the way. With shaking fingers, I undid enough buttons to push it over my shoulders and down to my waist. I kicked it free of my feet and hauled myself onto the walkway. I rolled onto my back and tried to calm my breathing.
Winter’s hands reached for me, pulling me backwards until my back was against his body. ‘We’re both too cold,’ he muttered. ‘We need to warm up or we’ll freeze before we can get help.’
I pushed back into him, seeking his warmth as he sought mine. Then I sketched out the rune for fire and, right by our feet and without any fuel, flames roared to life, casting heat in our direction. Winter was shivering as much as I was but we clung to each other. Shivering was good. Shivering meant we were still alive. And against all the odds, as well.
I don’t know how long we stayed like that; it was quite some time before I felt Winter stir. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘This was all my fault.’
‘You weren’t to know.’
‘I should have known that it was a trap of some kind. They rigged the sceptre to the water, staunching its flow until someone came along and moved it. Then everything that had been held back was released all at once. It was designed to kill us,’ he said grimly.
‘Not us specifically,’ I consoled. ‘Whoever was assigned to investigate the sceptre’s disappearance. It was just dumb luck that we were in the library when they realised it was missing.’
For a moment, Winter was silent. ‘I’m sorry, Ivy,’ he said again. ‘It wasn’t dumb luck. This is my remit. I was re-assigned just before you were bound to me. When anything is misplaced or stolen, I’m the first port of call. It might seem that we were in the right place at the right time but even if I’d been on the other side of Oxford, I’d still have been the lead investigator.’
I absorbed this. ‘So what you’re saying,’ I said, wanting to be absolutely sure that I understood him properly, ‘is that you still believe it was an Order witch who took the sceptre. And that the thief knew you would be brought in to investigate, so they laid that trap knowing that you would be the one to trigger it.’
‘Not just me.’ He paused. ‘Us.’
I pushed away from him and turned round, meeting his eyes for the first time. ‘Are you trying to tell me that someone is deliberately trying to kill us? That because human resources made a stupid mistake, I should be afraid for my life?’
‘Maybe they didn’t realise you were working with me.’ He scanned my face anxiously. ‘The Ipsissimus has been keeping your, um, recruitment quiet. You were probably right the first time around. It must just be me that’s being targeted.’
I sprang up, shivering again as both my magical fire vanished and I lost the last of Winter’s body heat. It didn’t matter; there was enough angry fire inside me to keep me warm for a while yet. I spun on my heel and began to march off. Idiots with guns in the back of my taxi were one thing – I could deal with them. This was entirely different.
‘Where are you going?’
‘To find someone to complain to!’ I stomped off towards the door.
It didn’t take Winter long to catch up. ‘Ivy,’ he began.
‘Don’t say anything.’ I marched up the stairs, hell-bent on my mission. ‘I need to do shouting right now.’
‘Shout at me.’
I turned to face him. ‘I can’t shout at you.’
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