Armstrong beckoned Belinda and, with an imperious flick of her hair, she strolled up and took her place directly in front of the obstacle course. ‘Here we are, at the gateway of our very first challenge! The winner receives automatic immunity from the vote. Everyone else will be fair game.’ As she continued, I blocked out her voice and focused on how I could find out what her vial was really about. There had to be a way. ‘On your marks,’ Belinda beamed. ‘Get set… Go!’
Everyone hurtled towards the first obstacle with extraordinary speed. I let them all pass then ambled forward. I was conserving my strength. As Belinda burbled away about who was in the lead, I took my time reaching the net and crouching down to get underneath it.
‘And Mike has already cleared the first obstacle while Ivy has only just reached it!’ Belinda yelled.
Good for Mike. I hunkered down and began to shimmy through. Even with my glacial pace, this was hard work. The net snagged on my daft corset several times and, unwilling to expose more flesh than was absolutely necessary, I took my time freeing myself. By the time I scrambled out the other side, at least three of the others could barely be seen. I shrugged and moved up to the rope swing. This could work.
Picking up speed, I flung myself towards it, snagging it with one hand. I let myself swing out. Then, in a moment of panic and with the rope burning the skin on my palm, I released it, dropped to the ground and rolled with a loud groan.
I did my best to look hurt and squeezed my eyes shut. Then I opened the left one just a crack and peeked. Morris Armstrong waved to stop the proceedings and in less than a heartbeat a medic, Belinda and several cameras were surrounding me.
‘Ivy!’ Belinda said, her voice the epitome of concern. ‘What’s happened? Are you alright?’
No. I needed her to lean over so I could grab that damn vial. I groaned. ‘My back,’ I said in a strained voice.
‘Don’t move,’ the medic instructed. ‘We’ll look you over and make sure you’re alright.’
Trevor Bellows appeared from out of nowhere. ‘This is the second time this contestant has been out for the count. I think it’s time we withdrew her from the competition.’ He paused for a beat. ‘For her own safety, of course.’
I struggled up to my elbows. ‘I think I’m okay.’ I pressed one hand against my ribcage. ‘It really hurts here, though.’
Belinda leaned close enough for my plan to work but there were too many cameras. I couldn’t see any angle from which I could perform the rune I needed and not get caught. I grimaced. Well, so much for that idea. If I wanted to steal Belinda’s vial without her noticing, I’d have to do it off camera. That was a pain in the arse.
Gasping, and trying to appear winded, I gently pushed away the medic and got to my feet. ‘I’m fine,’ I said. ‘I can do this.’
Barry looked concerned. Even Belinda’s concern seemed genuine. It belatedly occurred to me that I couldn’t do this kind of thing again. With one contestant dead, Enchantment couldn’t take any chances with our wellbeing. They really would pull me from the show, whether I was their much-needed nasty contestant or not.
Thinking quickly, I babbled out a reasonable excuse. ‘I’ve been hexed!’
Everyone blinked in shock.
‘Hexed?’ Belinda tried to frown but her forehead couldn’t wrinkle naturally. Botox? ‘What do you mean?’
‘I had it,’ I said with defiance. ‘I had the rope in my hands and then I felt a shooting pain which only magic could create. One of the other contestants has bespelled me because I’m such strong competition.’ Even to my own ears I sounded ridiculous.
I saw Armstrong open his mouth to speak but Barry sidled over and murmured something in his ear. The director’s expression cleared and he gave me a happy thumbs-up. Yes, this was all part of an act. Just not for the reason he thought.
‘I’ll get my own back on whoever did this,’ I said, with an added snarl. ‘No one hexes Ivy Wilde and gets away with it.’ I applauded myself mentally; I’d make an excellent panto villain.
I followed up my words of dire consequence with a glare, flinging a narrowed-eye look at the other contestants. The truth was that they were all too far away to see what I was doing but it didn’t matter. The camera picked it all up and I managed to soothe the last of the crew’s worried expressions, as well as fulfilling my brief. ‘I’m good to go again,’ I said. ‘I won’t be beaten!’
I threw my arms around in an extra flourish and almost smacked Bellows’ face in the process. His expression hardened. ‘I have to insist—’
‘I’m fine,’ I interrupted. ‘Never felt better.’ I jumped up and down as if to prove it. Immediately I regretted it; I still had three-quarters of the obstacle course to complete.
‘Everyone else has been kept in the position they were when you fell,’ Belinda said.
I nodded, catching sight of an irate-looking Harriet perched precariously on top of a high bar with her hands fluttering in the air. Oops.
‘I’ll blow the whistle and you’ll begin again. If you’re sure?’
I breathed in deeply and, a moment later, we were off again. Rather than merely strolling, I tried a bit harder this time around. Coming last after my faked collapse might not reflect well on me.
The trouble was that I had a lot of ground to make up and the obstacle course was incredibly hard. It didn’t help that when I reached the top of the bar where Harriet had been forced to stop, the first of the magic waves hit me. No wonder she’d looked so annoyed. Someone, possibly Bellows, had conjured up a host of flying lizards. They were insubstantial and, when one flew directly at my face and its tail grazed my skin, I realised that they more illusion than anything else. It didn’t mean that they weren’t bloody annoying at this height.
I clambered down, making a beeline for the mud pit. At the far end, three other contestants were still struggling to pull themselves out. As I edged forwards, a flaming streak of fire whooshed in my direction. It wasn’t magically induced, however; the fire came from canisters rigged at shoulder height along the side of the pit. Sneaky. What was the betting that they would be hidden from the camera’s view to make it appear as if more spells were being cast? It didn’t really matter. The fire was obviously working to a schedule. Flames of death. Beats of three. Flames of death. Beats of three. Even I could manage to escape this part.
The mud pit might be a different matter, although I vaguely remembered watching a science experiment on television involving a swimming pool and custard. At the time my focus had been on the poor sod who had to clean up the mess afterwards. However, there was something to be said for being a couch potato; that show might stand me in good stead now.
I decided to make a run for it. Counting under my breath I dashed across, picking up speed when I hit the mud to avoid sinking into it. It worked. The momentum – and something to do with the laws of physics – kept me going. I scampered across the surface, springing happily onto solid ground on the other side. That was how to do it.
I let out a crow of exultation then, remembering my promise to Barry, swivelled round to the three contestants who were still stuck and shouted, ‘In your face!’ It was mean and nasty and I felt more than a trickle of guilt but I needed to make sure I wasn’t thrown off the show.
Panting hard, and under no illusion about what Winter would say about my lack of fitness if he saw me now, I completed the last few obstacles. I was almost ready to collapse but I still had a way to go. I jogged forward, weaving in and out of the trees which I was sure had been placed there just to annoy me. I could see the Celtic-knot puzzle up ahead. Then a root came up out of nowhere and I went flying. Arse.
Heaving myself up and spitting out a mouthful of dirt, I ignored the cameras that were zooming in on my exasperated face and wiped my eyes. As I blinked away flecks of muck, something flitted across my peripheral vision. I half-turned, just in time to see something shoot behind one of the larger trees fifty metres or so away. It could have been an animal – but what it looked like was a human being with long straggly hair moving around on all fours.