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I sighed heavily and turned over. Maybe counting sheep would help – except that reminded me of what had happened up in Scotland just last month and only exacerbated my sleeplessness. A hot milky drink was supposed to be another helpful remedy – or so I’d heard. Unfortunately, the only milk here was in those little plastic containers designed for tea and coffee. Even if I could work out a way to heat them up without using either a microwave or magic, they’d provide little more than a single mouthful.

If Winter were awake, I’d have asked him to bespell me but he was fast asleep. His jaw was slack and, for once, he was utterly at rest. I screwed up my face. This was ridiculous: Ivy Wilde did not suffer from insomnia. Unless it had something to do with the latent necromancy swirling around my system. That chilling thought had me sitting bolt upright and breaking into a cold sweat.

I got out of bed and padded naked into the bathroom to splash cold water on my face. I was dabbing it dry with a towel when I heard the sound of an engine outside. That couldn’t be right; it was three o’clock in the morning and we were in the middle of nowhere. Even farmers wouldn’t get up this early.

I checked on Winter, who’d not even stirred, and grabbed my coat, shrugging it on to preserve my modesty. Then, doing what no one should ever do when it’s the middle of the night, there is a serial killer on the loose and many, many ghosts to contend with, I slipped out.

The pub was silent inside but I could hear voices outside. Frowning, I walked over to the front door and put my ear against it.

‘We should just ring the bell.’

‘Or spell it open and find rooms for ourselves. We can settle up with the owners tomorrow.’ There was a pause. ‘I mean, today.’

‘We will do no such thing,’ the familiar voice of the Ipsissimus – the living one – said. ‘There is plenty of room in the car. Besides, we’re not here to sleep.’

‘We can’t investigate anything while we’re out here.’

‘Honestly, I never knew witches could whine so much! Villeneuve, get back to the car. You can sleep in the boot. Masters and Houseman can have the back seat. The other two can take the front.’

‘What about you, sir?’

‘I’m going for a walk. I want to see this wood.’

There were a few audible intakes of breath. ‘But it’s the middle of the night! It’s too dangerous!’

‘I rather think,’ the Ipsissimus said drily, ‘that the only risk will come from stumbling in a pothole. As I can use magic to light the way, that will not be an issue. Go on, you young folks, get your rest. I’ll see you in a few hours.’

‘I’ll go to the wood!’ Tarquin burst in. ‘I don’t mind. I’m not tired anyway.’

‘I’m a higher rank than you, Villeneuve,’ another voice said. ‘I’ll go. You stay here with the Ipsissimus. It might not be safe for you.’

‘I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself.’

‘Hmm,’ the Ipsissimus said, staving off the impending argument and sounding for all the world as if he were trying to come up with an amicable solution to suit everyone. I grinned to myself. It appeared that he was a man after my own heart. ‘You’re right. It probably would be better if more than one person went to the wood. I tell you what, you lot go and investigate then report back to me. I’ll stay here.’

There was a moment of brief and, to my mind, sullen silence then the witches acquiesced with a series of quiet mumbles. I listened as their footsteps drew away. I could learn a lot from the Ipsissimus, I decided.

‘Are you going to open that door, Ms Wilde?’ he enquired.

Startled, I drew back. My smile grew and I unhooked the chain and let him in. The other witches, Tarquin included, had already been swallowed up by the night.

‘Don’t worry about them,’ the Ipsissimus said cheerfully. ‘They’ll be quite some time before they return. Between their bickering and the fact that none of them can navigate their way around clearly marked roads, they won’t be going anywhere fast.’

I couldn’t help asking, ‘If they’re such an annoyance, why bring them?’

The Ipsissimus knitted his fingers together and looked astonished. ‘This is the Order, my dear. We work together as a team. Besides,’ he added on a grimmer note, ‘from what Adeptus Exemptus Winter has told me, there may be serious danger. There are more Order witches on the way. We were caught short in Scotland but I won’t let that happen again. Not when there are very real risks to consider.’

‘And then some.’ I met his eyes. ‘There have been some further developments.’

‘Excellent,’ he replied flatly. ‘That’s always what I want to hear.’

I drew him over to the deathly silent bar area and we sat down before I filled him in. I have to say this for the Ipsissimus – he knows when to keep quiet and listen. It wasn’t until I’d finished talking that he started to ask questions. ‘There was no other identification in the room at all?’

I shook my head. ‘The Barcells, who own this place, have agreed to seal the room off until the police can get here and dust it down for prints.’

‘They’ll be here first thing in the morning. It’s already arranged.’

I nodded acknowledgment. ‘That’s good. I just…’ I sighed.

‘Go on, Ms Wilde.’

My unhappiness was obvious. ‘I think that Blackbeard is going to prove a lot more clever than that. He was forced to leave here in a hurry but there are no identifying features anywhere. Not to mention that we only came across his existence by accident. We don’t know how long he’s been operating for, or how many others he’s killed. How can an entire coven vanish and no one think to report them missing or to ask questions? Whether they’re in the Order or not, you’d think that someone would have said something.’

‘You think that Blackbeard has been covering his tracks.’

‘I do.’ I grabbed a curl and wound it tightly round my finger, cutting off circulation to the tip and watching absent-mindedly as it turned red. ‘This isn’t about ego. We weren’t supposed to know what he’s been doing. He doesn’t want fame or notoriety or a following, he’s all about the mission.’

‘And the mission is to kill witches?’

‘So it appears.’ I released the curl but the tension still remained.

The Ipsissimus stood up and walked to the window, gazing out at nothing. ‘She was right, you know, your ghost. Nicholas Remy was indeed a witch hunter. By all accounts he was a nasty bastard. It cannot be a coincidence that the killer selected that as his name. If we do not find him soon, I have no doubt that there will be more deaths.’ He stroked his chin. ‘I shall have to reach out to the non-Order covens and tell them to be on the lookout.’

‘I think that would be very wise,’ I said quietly. ‘And as for my theory…’

He turned and faced me. ‘If your theory proves to be true and Blackbeard is immune to magic, the situation is incredibly grave. I shall set the librarians to research the matter immediately. If there are amulets to negate the effects of spells or the supernatural, or any precedents for this kind of situation, we shall know about them soon.’

Shifting slightly, I eyed him. I felt guilty for asking about myself considering everything else that was going on but I had to know. ‘Speaking of scholarly research,’ I said. ‘Has Philip Maidmont uncovered anything about my, er, condition?’

‘Hmm?’ For a brief moment the Ipsissimus looked blank then his expression cleared. ‘Ah, yes. You’re perfectly safe. Your ability to converse with the dead is indeed a side-effect of the necromantic magic you absorbed from the boy but, as all the energy you displaced is now focused towards the spirits, there is no need to worry. Unless you actually try to raise the dead, you are no danger to either yourself or to others.’

I breathed a sigh of relief. It felt like a massive weight had been taken off my shoulders. An involuntary chortle of glee escaped my lips and I raised my hands, my fingers sketching a rune. The nearby fireplace roared into life, the flames dancing and writhing in an unnatural manner.

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