Finding my voice, I looked round. ‘How many of you are there?’
‘Seven.’ She looked sad. ‘One man killed our entire coven.’
I quashed my rising horror – it wouldn’t help any of us right now. I had to focus on the details and find out what had really happened. I looked at the three of them, taking in their matching robes. They were white, not red, and even in ghostly format the material seemed to have a homespun quality.
‘You’re non-Order witches,’ I realised. The fact that their disappearance had gone unremarked was starting to make sense. Not a lot of sense, admittedly, but a little.
The man threw himself down the small hill, ignoring the trees in his path, and planted himself in front of me with a bullish stare. ‘You’re in the Order? The one person we can communicate with and they’re in the bloody Order?’ He threw his hands up in disgust. ‘She won’t help us. We’re damned for all eternity.’
I counted to ten in my head. ‘First of all,’ I said calmly, ‘I’m not in the Order. My name is Ivy Wilde.’
Phantom Karen jerked. ‘Wait,’ she said. ‘I’ve heard of you. You were kicked out for assault.’
‘And cheating,’ I added. ‘Don’t forget the cheating.’
‘I heard other covens approached you to join them but you told them to sod off.’
I shrugged. What could I say? ‘I’m sure it would be lovely having other witches to talk to. But non-Order covens have to work hard and the results are never that…’ I paused, trying to think of the right word. This lot were grouchy enough as it was without me insulting their abilities. ‘Never that successful. I’m not much of a worker bee.’
She snorted. ‘She sounds just like your kind of person, Amy.’
The other female witch, Amy, looked irritated but she didn’t rise to the bait. ‘And how can you see us?’ she asked. ‘How can you talk to us?’
‘I absorbed the magic from a kid who was playing around with necromancy. By doing that, I stopped half of Scotland from exploding.’
All three jaws dropped simultaneously. ‘No way,’ the man breathed.
‘That’s so cool.’ He danced around from foot to foot. ‘So you must possess necromantic magic now. You can raise us up! You can let us return to our families and—’
Amy cleared her throat. ‘There’s just one small problem,’ she said. ‘We’ve all been cremated.’
For a moment the man’s brow furrowed and he stopped moving, then he shrugged as if his lack of a body were a trivial matter and returned to bouncing backwards and forwards. He was making me dizzy. ‘I’m sure that won’t be a problem. This woman is clearly a strong witch, just like we were. She’ll find a way around that.’
I shook my head. ‘I can’t. And even if you’d been buried, I couldn’t raise you up. Necromancy is evil – not to mention impossible to control. The repercussions are potentially catastrophic.’
‘But you must be using necromancy now if you’re talking to us,’ he pointed out.
‘I am not.’ I was aware that my voice was overly loud.
Bored with the chatter, Karen wandered back to Winter who was watching me like a hawk. It must have been strange for him only hearing half of the conversation. She fell to her knees in front of him and appeared to examine his groin with great interest. ‘I’m never going to have sex again,’ she said sadly.
I’d just about had enough. ‘Karen!’ I barked. ‘Get over here and sit down. You,’ I said to the man, pointing at him as I obviously didn’t know his name.
I nodded. ‘Thank you. Paul, you sit next to her. Amy, you go there. I need you all to stop moving around, stop yapping and asking questions, and start telling me exactly who you are and how you ended up here.’ I looked around. ‘Not to mention where the other four members of your coven are. If they’re also dead, where are they? They must be here too, right?’
The three ghosts exchanged glances before Amy piped up, ‘We should start at the beginning.’ Finally someone was talking sense.
Paul nodded in agreement. ‘I was born in June. I was always told it was unseasonably hot for that time of year and my mother—’
‘For Pete’s sake!’ Karen howled. ‘Not that beginning, you nincompoop!’
I looked at Winter. ‘This might take some time.’
‘I was beginning to realise that,’ he said drily.
I sat down and stretched out my legs. I might as well get comfy and settle in for the long haul.
By the time the three ghosts had finished their tragic story and Winter and I were trudging back towards the car, the sky was darkening and it felt even colder. Now less concerned that he’d need to conserve his magic in case of an emergency, Winter conjured up a heat spell for us but the chill had already settled in my bones.
‘All seven of them are dead,’ I said. I shivered. Seven was supposed to be a lucky number; that was why there were seven members in their coven in the first place. Unfortunately, it wasn’t particularly lucky for them any more. ‘However, only three of them are in Wistman’s Wood. Every new moon, their killer comes and scatters another witch’s ashes. Until they arrive here, the last thing any of the dead remember is the night they were killed.’ My mouth flattened. ‘And yes, they were all killed at the same time and in the same place. They’d got together to try and perform a concealment spell. They were worried that the Order were after them.’
Winter grimaced. ‘Unlikely. Unless they were performing illegal or dangerous spells, I doubt anyone at the Order would care what they were up to.’
‘They were sure they were being followed. And if it wasn’t the Order tracking them…’
‘It was probably the killer.’ Winter rubbed his chin.
‘That’s what I was thinking.’ I hunched up my shoulders against the cold wind and plodded on. ‘Anyway, the spell exhausted them so they fell asleep after they cast it. At some point the killer appeared and stabbed them all, one after the other. He was – er – adept because only two of them woke up. One had time to mutter a curse. The other tried to fight back but the killer was too strong.’
Winter halted. ‘They both saw him?’
‘Yep. Karen, the one who made the curse that’s keeping them here, described him in great detail. A bushy black beard but no moustache, and a bald head. He had a stud earring of a skull and his skin was a mess, as if he’d had bad acne when he was a kid and the scars had never quite gone away. He was just over six foot and large. Not fat,’ I said, repeating verbatim what she’d told me, ‘but a large build and fairly muscular.’
Winter nodded approvingly. ‘That’s good. It gives us a lot to work with.’
‘Yep. Not to mention the fact that they were all cremated before they were left in the wood.’ I still felt a bit nauseous from the mouthful of Karen I’d eaten with my tuna sandwich. ‘The temperatures required to burn a body properly are too high for anyone to do it without professional equipment.’
‘Unless they’re a witch with a particular propensity for fire,’ Winter pointed out.
‘True,’ I admitted. ‘But even in that scenario it can’t be common to have that kind of skill. We’ve still got a good starting point. Whoever our murderer is, he must be keeping the other four bodies back then dumping them one by one when the moon is right. I don’t know why the coven members don’t remember anything until they’re left here, but there’s definitely a disturbing ritualistic nature to all this.’
Winter ran a hand through his hair. ‘Everything about this is disturbing. Has the killer done something to stop the spirits from moving on? Is that why they’re still trapped here?’
‘As far as any of them can tell, they’re trapped in Wistman’s Wood because it’s an old pagan site. Magic lingers in the trees and prevents their souls from travelling anywhere else. I don’t see how the killer would know that, but at this point almost anything is possible. And the reason the ghosts haven’t moved on to the afterlife is because Karen woke up just before he slit her throat to tell him that their coven wouldn’t rest until he was brought to justice.’