I smiled. She grinned back and started her first rune. Her movements were slow, at least compared to someone like Winter, and I knew before she was halfway through what she was preparing to do. The magic she was using was barely Neophyte level. As her fingers drew upwards in a sweeping motion, it was clear that she was conjuring up a ball to fling at my shins to knock my feet out from under me. To stop it, all I had to do was cast a simple wall. It would take barely a breath. I pasted on a dull expression and waited.
Anthea’s ball appeared five metres to my side. She had indeed progressed a great deal since we were teenagers; around double the size of a typical bowling ball, it was hurtling towards me with incredible speed. I furrowed my brow and concentrated. I had to get this just right.
Using jerky movements, I cast my defensive rune. There was a whistling sound as the air drew in around me. I slammed out the heel of my palm at the last second, pushing out a gust of air to knock the ball off course. Given the ball’s velocity, however, the energy I put into it wasn’t nearly enough. I half turned and it crashed into the side of my calf. Even if I’d wanted to stay upright, I doubt I’d have managed it. I just avoided sprawling face first by bracing my palms against the damp grass. There were a few huffs from the crowd; I was certain I caught at least one witch mutter, ‘I told you so.’
Limping slightly because it bloody hurt, I pulled myself upright and grimaced in Anthea’s direction. She looked appalled. ‘I’m so sorry! Are you alright?’
‘Yeah, I’m fine. You’re just the better witch.’
‘We can go again. You can cast first.’
I managed a half smile. ‘No, I think I’ve suffered enough humiliation for one day.’ I shrugged helplessly. ‘There’s not much a layman like me can do against the might of the Order.’ I winced, walked over and shook her hand. ‘Thanks, though. That was … not fun.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she said again.
‘Don’t apologise. That was the game.’
Anthea bit her lip. ‘I told Tarquin you were here.’
‘I figured.’ I patted her on the shoulder. ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Before I had to listen to any more apologies, I turned away and rejoined an unsmiling Winter. ‘There we go,’ I said with forced cheerfulness. ‘I reckon that was enough delay to stop anyone being suspicious about what we’re up to. If we were rushing around like mad things, someone might suspect something was up. Like, say, one of the Cypher Manuscripts being stolen.’
He just looked at me. ‘Did you let her win?’
Something about his tone made me think that regardless of how much he disliked these sorts of magic challenges, he despised the idea of throwing a match even more.
‘Alas no,’ I said. ‘Do you think I’d deliberately injure myself?’ I pointed at my throbbing leg. ‘I think I might have fractured something.’
He frowned and looked down. ‘It’s just bruised.’
Damn; I’d really have to get him to teach me how to do that some time. ‘I guess I’m just not that great in a fight.’
Winter’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. ‘Then how did you beat two witches on your own and in a confined space?’
For a moment, I didn’t have the faintest idea what he was talking about then I remembered Bell End and Alice. The latter was a Second Level witch with a reputation for highly aggressive skills. Oops. ‘They didn’t know I was a witch when they met me. I caught them off guard.’ I pursed my lips. ‘If I had more time to prepare, I might be able to best Anthea. Shall I go back and try again? I don’t want you to be ashamed to be seen with me now that it’s clear I’m not that skilled at magic when I’m under pressure.’ I did my best to look worried.
This was getting ridiculous; I should just tell him the truth. It was what I’d normally do but, for some reason, I didn’t want Winter to think badly of me for not putting in more effort to win. Better to be considered a magic weakling, I supposed, than just a weakling.
I wasn’t sure whether he believed me or not; he could be darned difficult to read when he wanted to be. In the end, however, our mission won out. He checked his watch and muttered, ‘Let’s get a move on. We still aren’t any closer to finding Volume 9.’
I bobbed my head and breathed out. ‘Yep,’ I said. ‘Let’s go.’
It was lucky that Tobias Worth-Jones was as much of a stickler for work as Winter. Even though it was lunchtime, he was at his desk munching on a sandwich while trying to read through some magically enhanced papers. And people wonder why I’m happy not to work at the Order.
When he caught sight of us, Tobias’s eyes widened and he stood up. He still had a mouthful of bread but that didn’t stop him talking. ‘Adeptus Exemptus Winter! What brings you over this way?’
With every word, I was sprayed haphazardly with particles of food mixed with saliva. I didn’t try and save his dignity by pretending it didn’t happen; instead I made a show of wiping my face and looking disgusted. Unfortunately the effort was lost on Worth-Jones; as per usual, it was Winter who got the message.
He got straight to the point. ‘Your signature is on a personnel file that has been removed from HR,’ he barked. ‘We need it. And we need to know why you took it in the first place.’
Tobias appeared unconcerned. ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’
‘Oscar Marsh,’ I interjected helpfully. ‘You logged out Oscar Marsh’s file.’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘It’s definitely your writing, Tobias,’ Winter said. ‘I’d recognise that scrawl anywhere.’
‘When was this?’
Worth-Jones rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ‘I did go to HR then,’ he said slowly, ‘and I did check out a file but it wasn’t Oscar Marsh. It was for one of my own witches.’ He pulled a face. ‘A disciplinary matter, alas. Although I can see why there would be a mix-up, given it’s Marsh’s file that you’re here about.’
Winter stilled. ‘Why? What do you know about Oscar Marsh?’
Tobias blinked. ‘Oh, Diall complained about him vociferously.’
I tried to think when I’d ever used the word ‘vociferously’. Nope. Couldn’t do it.
‘What exactly did Adeptus Diall say?’ Winter demanded.
‘Oh, that Marsh was frequently late and had turned up drunk on one or two occasions.’ He chuckled. ‘Although who amongst us hasn’t done that?’
I put up my hand. ‘Me,’ I said. ‘I’ve never done that.’
Worth-Jones still didn’t look at me. I brought my hand down and examined it. No, I wasn’t invisible.
He continued. ‘I think the biggest issue is that Marsh is incredibly weak at magic. He shouldn’t even have been admitted to the Order in first place. Plenty of people with smatterings of magic manage without actually becoming witches.’ He shrugged. ‘Marsh is still Adeptus Minor though. How he managed to gain that position, I’ll never know.’
Diall’s grubby fingers were over everything. Winter didn’t say anything like that to Tobias, however. He remained strictly on point. ‘Do you know anyone who knew Marsh personally? We need to find his address.’
‘Trumpton Avenue.’ Tobias thought for a second. ‘Number twenty-two, I believe.’
Winter stared. ‘How on earth do you know that?’
‘Because Diall had to go there on more than one occasion to pick up Marsh. He made a little ditty about it. Now how did it go?’ He scratched his head. ‘Ah, yes. “Twenty-two Trumpton Avenue houses the witch who hasn’t a clue. Vodka, rum, Bacardi and…” No, wait. “Rum, vodka, gin…”.’ He frowned. ‘No. Hang on. I’ll have it in a minute.’
‘I think we’ll manage without it,’ Winter said drily. ‘Thanks for your time.’
Tobias was still mumbling and humming to himself as we walked away.
‘He’s the culprit,’ I said as soon as we were at the end of the corridor. ‘Tobias Worth-Jones is the guilty one for sure.’
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