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Grenville frowned. ‘That’s a shame. I quite like the idea of not existing. Existence can get remarkably tiresome, you know.’ He sighed. ‘But yes, I have heard of nulls before. I understand the concept.’

Good. ‘Get in touch with as many spirits as you can. Send them out across the campus. Blackbeard is here somewhere. I have no idea what kind of range his null nature provides but when ghosts start disappearing, you know you’re getting close. Find out which area he is in and tell me. He’s killed the Ipsissimus but I don’t believe for a second that he’s finished. While Winter is ensuring the safety of the Hallowed Order of Magical Enlightenment, I’m going to be ensuring Winter’s safety.’

‘How exactly?’

‘By sending that bastard to the fires of hell,’ I said. I didn’t know how yet but I would do all that I could to achieve it.

‘Good plan,’ Grenville said.

Yep. Planning to that kind of depth and detail had always been my forte.

***

As I walked through the Order, I kept catching snippets of conversation. They all followed the same pattern.

‘You’ll never guess what?’

‘Tell me!’

‘Adeptus Exemptus Winter has returned. He’s back for good!’

‘Thank goodness. We were lost without him.’ I’m paraphrasing slightly but that was definitely the gist. I kept my head down as I walked. I was either going to be blamed for his departure or congratulated for his return – I didn’t really care which. What I did care about was not being interrupted. Whatever Blackbeard was planning, it was bound to be bloody. It was imperative I found him and stopped him before anyone else got hurt.

‘Ivy!’

Arse. I turned and spotted Eve jogging towards me. She caught up and gave me a quick hug. ‘Is it true? Is Winter really back? It’s all over campus. Tell me it’s not just a rumour. Tell me he’s not just here for a visit.’

‘Yeah, he’s back. For good. Listen, Eve, I really have to go.’

She beamed. She wasn’t hearing me properly. ‘That’s wonderful news!’ Then her smile vanished. ‘Are you okay that he’s back?’

‘I’m in love with him, Eve. Whatever makes him happy makes me happy. As long as his happy doesn’t involve throwing water over me to wake me up or making me go jogging. You get what I mean.’ She nodded vigorously. ‘Now,’ I continued, ‘I really have to go.’

She finally seemed to realise that I was serious. Her smile dropped and her gaze grew anxious. ‘What’s going on?’

I looked at her assessingly. Eve was in Arcane Branch; she knew how to maintain a level head. ‘There’s a serial-killing null on campus. He’s already killed the Ipsissimus and there’s no doubt that he’s here to kill others. The more witches the better, as far as he’s concerned. We have to find him and stop him but we can’t use magic against him. I have a bunch of ghosts on the look out for him but it’s difficult because they tend to vanish whenever he is in the vicinity.’

She blinked. ‘Uh…but…’

‘Everyone thinks he’s in Uffington. He’s not.’

‘You’re talking about Hal Prescott. The Bearded Butcher.’

Bloody Tarquin Villeneuve. ‘Blackbeard. Yeah. Whatever. He’s here and we need to find him before he kills anyone else.’

‘They wouldn’t let me go,’ she said, the colour draining out of her face. ‘They only wanted the experienced witches to go to Uffington. The only ones left are people like me who don’t know what they’re doing.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I snapped, marching off again, my gaze swinging around desperately for any glimpse of Blackbeard. Eve had no trouble keeping up with me with her long-legged stride. ‘You know exactly what you’re doing. Find the bad guy. Stop the bad guy. Don’t use magic. It’s pretty simple.’

‘Ivy,’ she whispered, ‘if we can’t use magic, how can we stop him?’

I opened my mouth to answer her, just as the familiar figure of Lily came flying round the corner, her arms flapping wildly. As she ran, three other figures popped into existence beside her, fleeing even faster than she was. She zipped past both Eve and I without a second glance. Of course – she was looking for Winter, not me. He was the one she trusted; I didn’t even register in her field of vision.

Fortunately the dead had more respect. All three ghosts came careening to a halt. ‘You’re her,’ one gasped. ‘He must be over there!’

‘It was the strangest thing,’ said another. ‘I was walking along minding my own business and keeping an eye out, then everything went black.’

‘You reappeared in the same spot?’ I demanded.

I felt rather than saw Eve staring at me. ‘Are you talking to one of them? Are you talking to a ghost?’

We all ignored her. The ghost nodded. ‘Yes. I was beside the fountain. When I returned I was still there.’

‘Blackbeard is on the move.’ I grimaced. It was a long time since I’d been here and my knowledge of the Order campus layout wasn’t as up to date as it should have been. ‘What’s beyond the fountain, Eve?’

Eve’s hand went up to her mouth and she stared at me in horror.

‘What? What is it?’ I tamped down the temptation to shake her as hard as I could.

‘The crèche,’ she said. ‘Witches who have kids can leave them there during the day. It’s the only building past that point.’

I felt ill. It made a sick kind of sense – if you were Blackbeard. Lop off the head then move on to the future. Destroy the next generation of witches and you’d destroy the Order for good. I swallowed. And then I began to run.

***

Even with the sound of the cascading water from the fountain and the distance between Eve and me and the crèche, it was obvious that something was terribly wrong. The screams and shouts said it all. You’d have had to be truly evil not to have felt terrified by the sounds that were renting the air.

I sprinted as fast as I could but Eve quickly overtook me. She pelted straight ahead while I was left gasping. Maybe I ought to join the gym once all this was over and done with. Then I shook myself. The fear and trepidation were clearly getting to me. Every time I was in a life-or-death situation, I started to think I should lead a healthier lifestyle. The trick was to start avoiding life-or-death situations. With that in the forefront of my mind, I put on an extra spurt and rounded the corner just as Eve flung herself towards Blackbeard and leapt onto his back. Four witches, all of whom must have been crèche workers, flung repeated streams of magic attacks in his direction.

He laughed and tried to shake off Eve. ‘Do your worst, witches,’ he bellowed. ‘You can’t hurt me!’ He spun round and I spotted the long, shining blade in his hands. That was probably the same one he’d used to kill Clare and the rest of her coven. It was probably the same one he’d used to kill the Ipsissimus.

Eve shrieked like an Amazon warrior and curved her head down, biting his ear. Blood spurted everywhere. Unfortunately, it only enraged Blackbeard and didn’t slow him down in the slightest. He thrust the blade upwards, narrowly avoiding sliding it straight through Eve’s neck. She swung to one side. Terrified that he’d succeed if he tried the manoeuvre a second time, I ran towards them.

I gestured frantically to the four crèche witches. They got the message and used the momentary distraction to vanish back indoors and look after their charges. They’d probably already realised that magic wasn’t going to work here. While I charged at Blackbeard to try and help Eve, a window opened and various objects were thrown out. Somehow I didn’t think a plastic toy elephant was going to be much of a weapon; neither was the breast pump much use. The milk bottle, however…

I switched direction and darted over to snatch it up just as Blackbeard finally threw off Eve. Her body smacked into the wall of the crèche and she slumped down like a broken doll. Shit. He turned towards her, blade raised, obviously ready to finish her off.

I yelled and twisted off the bottle top. ‘Have some boiling water,’ I shrieked, throwing the milk at him.

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