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Maidmont licked his lips. ‘Yes, yes. Good idea. Let’s do that.’ He didn’t move a muscle.

Winter tapped his foot. ‘Let’s go then.’ His mouth flattened. ‘The more trustworthy witnesses we have while we check, the better.’

He had a point. Given my reputation within the Order, I wouldn’t be surprised if the coincidence of my return and the Manuscripts’ disappearance would end up being linked. I’d go down in history as the most infamous, evil witch that ever dared to walk the earth. Not to mention that I’d be locked up for the rest of my natural life.

The three of us headed up to the third floor. Part of me hoped that Winter and I had got it wrong and someone merely wanted to send us to cold, desolate graves. Right now, that was more comforting than the thought that someone had stolen the Cypher Manuscripts and all the power they contained within their ancient scrolls. If they had, the amount of work Winter and I would have to do would be never-ending.

Winter had permission to enter the warded room where the Cyphers were kept but I had to wait outside until Maidmont released the ward. Rather than make him go to all that trouble, I stepped out of the way; I could watch from the doorway. At least then there would be no chance that my fingerprints would compromise the scene.

Winter opened the door and he and Maidmont strode inside. My eyes searched beyond them. There were a lot of oak shelves; even from here, I could see that several of them still contained Cypher documents. I let out a sigh of relief.

‘It’s alright! They’re still here.’ I wiped my brow. It was difficult to tell whether the dampness was sweat or drips from the water spell. Either way, the world wasn’t about to end.

Winter slowly examined the shelves. Although he was still frowning, I sensed he felt the same relief. We’d been jumping at shadows. As soon as I thought that, however, Maidmont let out a small cry. ‘Volume 9,’ he gasped. ‘It’s not here.’

Winter leapt towards him. ‘Show me.’

The librarian pointed shakily. With both their bodies blocking the view, I couldn’t see anything but it didn’t matter; there was no doubt that the librarian would know whether it really had gone missing or not.

‘Could it have been checked out?’ Winter demanded.

Maidmont stuttered, ‘N–no. No one apart from the Ipsissimus himself is allowed to remove the Manuscripts and he’s not been in here for several months.’

‘Double-check the room,’ Winter growled. ‘Maybe it’s just been returned to the wrong shelf. Ivy, get in here and look around too.’

‘I can’t,’ I said unhelpfully. ‘The ward won’t let me.’

Winter flicked his fingers at me with another lightning-quick rune. The slight pressure that had been holding me back immediately vanished. I wrinkled my nose and inched forward. The less involved I was with all this, the better. I really didn’t want to go inside.

‘It’s not here,’ Maidmont whispered. ‘It’s definitely not here.’

I released a breath. ‘I don’t suppose you know what Volume 9 contains?’

A deeply troubled voice sounded behind me. The Ipsissimus. ‘Authority,’ he said. ‘Volume 9 includes all the spells for increasing power and authority over others.’

I bit my lip and turned towards him. ‘Well, things could be worse, right?’

His pale eyes looked at me. ‘If you’d be happy to live in a magical dictatorship, where the leader goes permanently unchallenged and can do whatever he or she wants to, including torture, death and corruption of the highest order, then yes, Ms Wilde, things could be worse.’

Ah. Well, when he put it like that…

Chapter Fifteen

The four of us regrouped in the Ipsissimus’s study. ‘It was wise to keep this matter to ourselves,’ the Order Head said to Winter. ‘We will have to allow the witches to return to the library or it will raise suspicion. Let’s make sure that the Cypher room is sealed off from everyone.’

‘Agreed,’ Winter said. ‘Until we know who is responsible for the disappearance of Volume 9, we have to assume everyone is a suspect.’

The Ipsissimus rubbed his chin. ‘Indeed. This is worrying. Most worrying.’

‘Why would those kind of spells exist?’ I asked. ‘And why would they be written down where anyone can access them?’

‘We don’t generally believe that our witches have the desire to rule the world, Ms Wilde,’ he answered. ‘And witches who have access to any of the Manuscripts are carefully monitored. We can’t go around destroying ancient artefacts because we don’t like what they contain. One cannot unknow what is already known. Once the atom was split, it could not be undone.’

‘Nobody goes around teaching nuclear physics to children though, do they? It’s bullshit. The Cyphers could have been locked away in a sealed room. People would forget about them.’

‘We live in the free world, Ms Wilde. We are not in the business of concealing knowledge. Besides, that volume contains information that is still used today.’

‘Such as?’

‘The less powerful spells include details on subjects such as how to gain the attention of a room,’ Maidmont interjected. ‘They can imbue the caster with confidence. There are also a few spells for dealing with bullish familiars who are unwilling to do as they’re ordered.’

I imagined how Brutus would react if I tried to put a spell like that on him. There would be feline carnage and my corpse would be left undetected in my flat for months.

The Ipsissimus drew back his shoulders and stared at Maidmont. ‘Have you read it?’ he enquired icily.

‘Oh no,’ the librarian denied, suddenly alarmed. ‘I wouldn’t. I’m simply well versed in the catalogue. Besides, my skills aren’t high enough for the spells to have any effect.’

Winter sighed. ‘And therein lies the rub.’ I looked at him questioningly. ‘Only high Level witches can absorb the magic and cast the spells from the more complicated Cypher pages,’ he explained. ‘If a less able witch tries them, they’re liable to destroy themselves in the process.’

‘And,’ the Ipsissimus added, ‘just in case you think that we give anyone access to the Manuscripts and the opportunity to abuse their power, all Order witches are only allowed to view the Manuscripts for short periods of time. It would take days to fully understand and utilise the higher Level magic.’

‘Which is why,’ I pointed out, ‘they were probably stolen in the first place. So the thief could study them at leisure and implement the spells without fear of being stopped before they finished.’

Everyone fell silent as we absorbed this. Frankly, it was all becoming a little too worrisome for me. ‘Ipsissimus,’ I began, ‘do you happen to have any ossombe root?’

Winter stiffened. The Ipsissimus frowned. ‘It’s not an ingredient I’m familiar with,’ he admitted. ‘Why? Will it stop our would-be megalomaniac?’

‘No,’ I said cheerfully. ‘But it’ll enable me to get as far away from here as possible.’

If anything, he was now even more confused.

‘That’s enough, Ms Wilde,’ Winter barked.

So we were back to Ms Wilde again? Before I could say anything, the Ipsissimus regained control. ‘I hope, Adeptus Winter,’ he said, ‘that you have a plan for tracking down this witch, whoever he or she may be.’

‘Assuming there’s only one,’ Winter growled. ‘I have a few ideas.’

‘You have carte blanche but time is of the essence. It’s imperative that you find them before they can absorb all of the magic they are after. If that happens, we will be helpless.’

I met Winter’s eyes. It was obvious where to begin; we both knew that Diall was mixed up in this somehow. We could probably have him under lock and key in the next hour – if eager Mr Smythe hadn’t already brought him in. It was possible – just – that this entire catastrophe could be solved by teatime.

There was a knock on the door. ‘I said I wasn’t to be disturbed!’ the Ipsissimus roared. I jumped. Had he partaken of a little of Volume 9’s magic himself?

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