‘What the hell?’ Winter ground out when I turned off the engine and he slipped off the back.
‘There’s too much mud. The wheels are spinning.’
He peered at me through the darkness. ‘That was not what I meant and you know it. You drive like a demon, Ivy.’
Winter growled, ‘You should have left the bike at the bottom of the hill.’
I blinked. ‘But then we’d have had to walk all the way.’
‘Now the bike is all dirty.’
‘So wash it when we get back.’ Preferably while wearing a white T-shirt, which would quickly get soaked, and when I was watching from a comfortable vantage point. I patted him on the arm. ‘Come on. I think it’s this way.’
‘Then let’s get going.’ With his usual gait, Winter took off at a tremendous speed, scaling the hill as if it were nothing more than a gentle incline. I followed after him, my determination to get this over and done dissipating in the face of the immediate ache in my calves.
‘Slow down,’ I called to Winter.
His response was immediate. ‘I can’t hear you!’
Ha. Ha. Ha. I gritted my teeth and ploughed upwards. Who the hell murdered someone up a mountain? It would have been far more convenient to use the cemetery – at least then it would have been a one-stop shop.
Huffing and puffing, I glanced back down. With the gravestones just visible in the moonlight, it looked more picturesque than creepy. ‘It can’t,’ I heaved, ‘be a coincidence,’ I paused again for breath, ‘that the murder took,’ I gasped, ‘here.’
Winter finally stopped and turned. ‘What on earth is wrong with you?’
I doubled over and tried to bring more air into my lungs.
He snorted. ‘If you went to the gym…’
My bottom lip curled. ‘Yeah, yeah.’ I straightened up. ‘The locals call this place Dead Man’s Hill. It’s probably got nothing to do with the graveyard and everything to do with the fact that you feel like a dead man when you climb it. In any case, it can’t be a coincidence. This spot is poetically apt.’
‘So you think our murderer is a local?’
‘Not necessarily. But I bet it’s someone with local knowledge.’
‘I think that’s a given.’
I clutched my chest. Winter peered at me. ‘Are you having a heart attack now?’
‘I might be. I’m just so shocked that you agree with me.’
His eyes fixed on mine, their brilliant blue piercing, despite the darkness. ‘Stranger things have happened.’ He held out his hand. ‘I’ll help you up the rest of the way.’
Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I gladly accepted his help. His hand was warm and firm and, as we walked further up the hill avoiding the odd rabbit hole and clods of random turf, I couldn’t shake the delicious shiver that was running down my spine. ‘What kind of moisturiser do you use?’
‘Your skin is very soft.’
Winter paused before speaking. ‘Sometimes, Ivy Wilde, you are very strange.’
‘But you like me really.’
This time there was an even longer silence. ‘Yes,’ he said finally. ‘I do like you.’
I took in a deep breath. It was now or never. Act your age, Ivy, not your shoe size. ‘Rafe,’ I said quietly. ‘Can you stop a minute?’
He did as I asked, turning to face me. ‘What is it?’
A cloud passed in front of the moon, blocking out the last of the little light. For once, I was glad that I couldn’t see Winter’s face. This would be easier, I decided, when I couldn’t judge his immediate reaction. Not to mention that he wouldn’t be able to see how red my cheeks were, although they felt hot enough that I was probably casting my own glow.
‘I’ve been meaning to say this for some time but,’ I gulped in more air, ‘I was a bit scared. The thing is that I like you too.’ I swallowed. ‘What I mean is I…’
From out of nowhere, a huge shape emerged from the darkness to our left. It collided with Winter, throwing him to the ground. I caught the barest glimpse of dark skin, a mane of hair and long claw-like nails flashing towards him with murderous intent before I acted. Screeching like a banshee, I threw out three runes in quick succession.
The first sent out a single gust of wind strong enough to send our attacker off-balance. He swayed violently to one side as the second rune took hold and the roots of a nearby clump of heather rose up and wrapped themselves around one bony thigh and completed the job of pulling him off Winter. The third was a protective barrier, shielding both of us from the bastard’s next move.
I yanked Winter to his feet. He was breathing heavily and there were four raked cuts down his cheek, blood dripping from each one. ‘Get back, Ivy.’
I moved in front of him. He was injured; this wasn’t the time for gentlemanly heroics. There was a rustle as whoever had attacked us broke free from the heather and sprang up again to face us. I stared at him, horror reverberating through my veins. Yes, he was male. And, yes, he looked vaguely human – but the emphasis was on vaguely.
He had long straggly hair that covered his face, which was probably just as well given the state of the skin on his hands. There were pus-filled sores and his nails were an extraordinary length. He was on all fours, like some kind of animal. A continuous guttural snarl emitted from his throat and the reek that wafted from him was almost enough to make me pass out.
None of those were the worst things about him, though. What really sent a chill through me was that he was wearing a smart double-breasted suit, complete with red-spotted tie and a matching handkerchief peeking out from his top pocket. It was like being faced with a monster from Savile Row. A real monster.
I barely had time to take in all these details before he lunged again. His body smacked against my magical barrier and I felt the magic in it waver. It wouldn’t last long.
Winter stepped up next to me. ‘Goddamnit, Ivy, get back!’ He raised his hands, drawing his own runes.
‘They won’t…’ I began. I didn’t get the chance to finish. Fire plumed upwards, singeing the ward and falling short uselessly. There was no such thing as a one-way barrier. It protected us from the monster man but it also protected the monster man from us.
Winter hissed out an expletive. ‘Release the ward spell,’ he yelled as we were subjected to another frustrated attempt at an attack.
‘If I release the spell,’ I argued, ‘then we’re dead.’ I wasn’t even sure why I was bothering to refuse. It’d probably take the bastard facing us fewer than three attempts to bring it down completely.
Winter’s jaw clenched. ‘Fine. On the count of three, you start running back down the hill. Go and get help from the town. I’ll hold him off until then.’
That was about the most nonsensical thing I’d ever heard – for many reasons. ‘You know I can’t run,’ I told him.
‘Ivy, this is not the time.’
I drew back my shoulders. ‘No, it’s not. Because if you think I’m leaving you here alone with that thing, then you’re doolally.’
The monster man threw his head back and screamed. For a fleeting moment, his face was visible – what remained of it. I saw a swarm of maggots in the soft flesh of his cheek and little more than dark holes where his eyes should have been. I swallowed hard and tried not to vomit.
‘Doolally,’ I whispered. ‘Whatever this thing is, it’s going to take both of us to bring it down.’
Winter didn’t answer immediately. I wondered whether he was still going to argue the point. Instead he gave me a small, tight nod. ‘Fire,’ he said. ‘Fire will stop it in its tracks. If you release the ward, I’ll cast out enough fire to cremate it to kingdom come.’
I shook my head. ‘It’ll die with fire but it’ll take too long. It’ll be on us before it collapses and we’ll end up getting burnt too.’
The monster man snorted, as if he thought both of us were being ridiculous. Still on all fours and moving with the litheness of a cat, he began to circle round us apparently searching for weaknesses in the ward.