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Now that he was confident I was fully recovered from my woes and ills, Winter’s blue eyes crinkled with amusement. Hmm. I’d show him.

Blinking rapidly, I let my bottom lip jut out slightly and tremble. I couldn’t actually cry on demand but I could give it a good shot. I dropped my head and half turned away, as if embarrassed to be caught weeping. Winter immediately reacted, grabbing hold of me and drawing me into a tight hug. Not only was his dry body heat a bonus, so was the fact that he held me close. Only when I was sure that I’d pressed myself fully against his length did I move away. ‘Ha!’ I stuck out my tongue. ‘That will teach you to laugh at me, sirrah!’

Winter was perplexed – until I pointed out the muddy splodges on his body from where I’d touched him. If I was going to look like the creature from the black lagoon, so was he.

‘Why you little…’

I raised my eyebrows. ‘Little what?’

He shook his head. ‘It’s probably safer not to say.’

‘You betcha it probably is.’

Winter sighed, bending over as if to brush the worst of the mud off his clothes. A heartbeat later, there was a loud splat as he threw a handful of mud at me. The first one missed; the second landed smack bang on my cheek.

I gasped in mock horror. ‘You…’

‘You what?’

My jaw worked uselessly. I blew out air through my pursed lips and glared. ‘It’s probably safer not to say.’ I paused. ‘You black-hearted guttersnipe.’

Winter tilted his head to one side. ‘Guttersnipe? If I’m a guttersnipe, then surely you are a cabbage-headed fribble.’

‘I’ve never heard of a fribble before,’ I commented. ‘I’m going to assume it doesn’t mean supreme being of gorgeousness.’

‘That would be a correct assumption.’ He eyed me. ‘Not bad for a cow-handed gadabout.’

Darn it, he was much better at insults than I was. I was going to have to up my game. ‘Why you … you … blue-eyed…’ I threw up my hands. ‘You win.’

Winter smiled smugly. ‘I always win.’

‘Oh yeah?’

‘Yeah.’ His smile softened. ‘I got the girl, didn’t I?’

I was standing in the middle of nowhere, with civilisation miles away. I was cold. I was wet. I was pretty certain that the dribble running down my cheek was sheep dung. And I couldn’t have been happier. The men in white coats would be after me any second now. I actually looked around just in case they were already on their way.

The horizon might have been clear of people but it certainly wasn’t clear of rain, which took that moment to splatter down with greater intensity. Winter frowned and raised his hands to re-do the umbrella rune I’d taught him. I shook my head. ‘With any luck, it’ll wash off the worst of the mud.’ I sighed. ‘But if you could perhaps retrieve my shoe?’

Winter drew out a quick rune, his elegant fingers dancing through the air. A few seconds later, my poor trainer bobbed to the surface of the evil puddle-cum-sinkhole-cum-deathtrap. I grabbed it and squeezed it back onto my foot, grimacing at the squelch.

‘Thank you. Although this is why we need the Order’s help,’ I said. Winter stiffened. I bit my lip and looked at him. ‘I can’t rely on you alone to perform magic spells to keep us dry and conserve enough energy to deal whatever might be waiting up ahead. I can’t be afraid of using magic.’

‘For what it’s worth, I’m pretty certain you’re not about to go on a zombie-raising rampage. The spirits you’re seeing,’ he gestured, ‘they’re probably just a side-effect of the necromantic magic you absorbed. It’s not as if anyone else has ever done that before and survived. There’s no precedent here to work with.’

‘There might be more side-effects to come. We just don’t know.’ I reached up and brushed away a glop of mud from his cheek. ‘About the Order, Rafe. Maybe you should…’

‘No.’

I wanted to argue with him. I knew he desperately missed being part of the Order, even if he wouldn’t admit it to himself. But if Winter was going to accept all my faults and foibles and daft actions without question, he deserved the same respect from me. I pushed back my hair and nodded.

‘Okay.’ I wrinkled my nose. ‘I’ll tell you something for nothing,’ I said, changing the subject. ‘When we get back home, I am staying put for at least a week. On the sofa, with Brutus and you and absolutely nothing else. I don’t care what the ghosts say or do or want. Coming here is already above and beyond. This is probably the spirit equivalent of a daft prank. They’re probably watching us and pissing their transparent pants.’ I bloody hoped so. When Winter’s eyes met mine through the rain, I knew he was thinking the same.

Enough larking around. It was time to get serious.

***

We tramped on as the weather gradually grew worse. It wasn’t just the rain, which was mingling with the mud in my hair and on my face and making my eyes sting. The fog was becoming denser, shrouding everything in a thick veil. Having wet feet didn’t make me feel particularly cheery either. I honestly considered casting the spell I needed to dry off but I didn’t want to be rash.

Several more times Winter and I slipped, slid and narrowly avoided falling. Dartmoor was supposed to be an area of natural beauty; so far it seemed nothing more than natural disaster. It also seemed a long way to come to dump a body but maybe that was the point. Not that I was a corpse-dropping expert, of course.

I was on the verge of telling Winter that we should turn around and see if the pub had any rooms for the night when, out of nowhere, I spied a wood up ahead. At first I thought it was the heavy mist that made the place appear ethereal and otherworldly but the closer we got, the more I realised that the weather and the circumstances were nothing to do with the atmosphere – or the chilled thrill which was running through my veins. I’d never seen anywhere like Wistman’s Wood before.

The area was thick with trees. There were few leaves, which was hardly surprising at this time of year. What was astonishing was the twisty-turny nature of the branches and the heavily gnarled trunks. It was like coming across a wood of cultivated bonsai trees – except these versions were definitely not in miniature. Green moss clung to every surface. The ground wasn’t any less strange; heavy boulders and stones lay everywhere, covered in the same moss so that it was almost impossible to tell where the trees began. I gazed round, my mouth hanging open in wonder. Standing here was worth the long, soggy trek.

Winter gave a small shout. ‘Bilberry!’ he crowed. ‘Do you know how difficult it is to get hold of natural-growing bilberry?’ He darted over the rocks and wove in front of me.

I smiled. There was very little that could make a herblorist happier than coming across some clumps of fresh weeds. I left him to it and scanned round, searching through the twisted skeletons of the trees for any ghostly movement. There was nothing; the wood was as quiet and eerie as a graveyard. Funnily enough, that thought wasn’t the slightest bit comforting. I took a deep breath and tried to force the matter. ‘Hello? Is anyone there?’

The wind seemed to pick up in answer, whistling through the bare branches and rustling the loose sections of hanging moss. But no one spoke.

I shrugged. Either the ghosts were shy or they weren’t here. I couldn’t see any evidence to suggest a body had recently been dumped here, let alone several bodies. Besides, although this place was bleak and chilly it was unusual enough to attract ramblers. No one had noticed anything out of the ordinary. This was a wild-ghost chase.

I picked my way over the rocks to join Winter. He was emitting strange coos of delight and gathering up as much bilberry as he could. ‘Having fun?’ I enquired.

‘There’s so much of it! Honestly, Ivy, there are so many applications for this kind of plant. The possibilities are endless. In fact…’ he looked up at me, suddenly remembering why we were here. He stilled and searched my face. ‘Have you seen any spirits?’

‘Nope. It’s spooky but there’s nothing here that I can see.’ I glanced round. ‘And I can’t see where on earth you’d hide a dead body either. Can you imagine lugging one all the way out here without being noticed?’

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