Under any other circumstances, I’d have vomited in my mouth. Instead, I bounced around on the balls of my feet in delight. Just for the next five minutes, I was prepared to put aside all the worries and fears I had about the undead and the unsavoury. Enchantment was worth it.
‘Each of you,’ Belinda said, addressing us, ‘has a cauldron in front of you. For now your cauldrons are safe but if you are voted out, they will be tipped over and the magic inside will cease to exist. Your names will be drawn at random. State clearly who you wish to see voted out and what your reasons are.’
This was where the magic really happened. Depending on when a contestant’s name was drawn could change the course of the entire game. I’d seen episodes where it went right down to the wire, with equal votes cast for different people. I’d also seen episodes where the first vote decided who the unhappy victim would be. As Armstrong directed the cameras into a sweeping shot of the whole area, I cracked my knuckles in preparation.
Belinda delved into her velvet drawstring bag, withdrawing one slip of paper. ‘The first contestant to vote is Harriet.’
At least three cameras swung towards her. The others focused on the rest of us, ready to capture the expression of the first unlucky target.
Harriet took a deep breath. ‘I’ve thought about this a lot,’ she said, her voice quavering only just slightly. ‘I have clashed with Ivy and she has done several things of which I disapprove.’ I’d have tried to look contrite but I was playing the role of evil contestant. Rolling my eyes, I clicked my tongue and folded my arms as if she were being completely ridiculous. ‘However,’ Harriet continued, ‘I have come to realise that she is not a bad person. She can still see the error of her ways and I’m happy to help her do that.’
I raised my eyebrows. Harriet was painting herself as some kind of saint. It shouldn’t have annoyed me, she was playing a part as much as I was, but it still irritated me.
‘The person I would like to vote off,’ she said, while everyone else held their breath, ‘is …’
Harriet never got the chance to finish. From somewhere to the left there was a loud shout. Armstrong leapt to his feet, a furious expression on his face. ‘Who the hell is that?’ he yelled. ‘Who is interrupting our shooting?’
There were more shouts. I jumped in front of my cauldron while Winter started to sprint towards the sound. Before he even reached the trees, a nightmarish creature sprang out, crashing into him and knocking him to the ground.
If I thought the monster man who had attacked us up on the hill was gruesome, then I’d been naïve. The straggly hair told me this was the same creature I thought I’d seen in the trees during the challenge. Now I could also see his face I felt ill. He’d obviously been much further down the decomposition process than the previous zombie. There were scarcely any scraps of flesh clinging to his bones; in fact, half of his skull was pure bone. The other half was writhing with maggots. A single worm slithered out of his eye socket.
I swallowed down my horror, let out a cry and raised my hands. I was going to send this damn thing back to kingdom come where it belonged.
Screams tore the air and people scattered in all directions. I held my ground and flicked my fingers, twisting my right index finger into a figure of eight and using my pinkie for added impact. Whether the zombie sensed what I was doing or not, it wheeled round and barrelled towards me. That was fine. I only needed two more seconds. I rotated my wrist – then something slammed into me, knocking me down and interrupting the rune.
For one horrifying moment, I thought there was more than one undead bastard. Then Mike’s arms went round me, pinning me in place. ‘Don’t worry, Ivy. I’ll save you.’
The bloody plonker. I wriggled underneath him in a vain attempt to free myself as security guards streamed in from all the directions. Some were carrying tasers but I doubted they would help. This was a corpse, after all; electricity would increase its strength and speed, not decrease it.
‘Let me go!’ I screamed.
Mike looked down at me with a confused expression. I twisted round so I was on my back and thrust my hands upwards to shove him off while turning my head to see where the zombie was. Why wasn’t it on us yet? At the speed it had been going…
I gasped in horror. With Mike’s intervention, it had abandoned its sprint towards me in favour of focusing on the one other person who was standing alone. Frozen in shock and seemingly unable even to scream, Belinda only managed to blink once and hold up her hands. Then the thing was on her.
Blood sprayed out in all directions, arcing into the air before splattering on the hard ground as the thing bit Belinda’s neck with its teeth and ripped at her flesh with its claws. Fingernails, I thought dully. Not claws. That used to be a human being.
‘Oh my God.’ Mike’s entire body was quivering. He gave me a wide-eyed look of horror then sprang up and bolted away, as streams of red-robed witches finally appeared from all directions.
Working as one, the Order witches raised their hands and cast out a combined rune. The zombie was flung backwards from Belinda, her blood staining every inch of its body and features. With nothing to support her any longer, Belinda collapsed. Moonbeam pelted towards her.
The zombie, grappling with the invisible magic forces that were being flung at it, caught sight of Moonbeam and made for him. Again, the witches’ magic pushed him back.
‘You need to stop it moving!’ I screamed. ‘Make ice and trap its legs!’
I had no idea whether they heard me or not. I was already scrambling towards Moonbeam. He fell by Belinda’s side, his fingers pressing against the red-stained skin of her neck. The blood just kept on coming.
Focusing on the immediate danger, I flung out my hands again towards the zombie. It groaned as another barrage of magic hit it from behind. Its knees gave way, the joints making an audible pop – but it wasn’t finished. Using only its hands, it scrabbled forward, mindlessly doing whatever it could to get back to its meal.
Without Winter right next to me, I couldn’t draw water and make ice as quickly as we’d managed during our previous undead encounter. Fire would be fastest – and riskiest. Pulling as much oxygen into my lungs as I could, I threw out a double-handed flame rune. Within an instant, the zombie lit up, the remnants of its clothes alight. As the acrid scent of charring flesh and burning hair filled the air, I ran straight for it. I was short and unfit but, if I snagged it in just the right spot, this might work.
Using all the momentum I could gather, I knocked into its shoulder, forcing it away from its path towards Moonbeam and his mother. Then I followed up with an immediate wind rune, flattening it completely to the ground and holding it there. At least, that was, until magic slammed into my body as well as the zombie’s. Pain flashed through me and it felt like my very bones were breaking. I heard Winter’s strangled yell then my knees gave way.
The red-robed witches advanced, finally gaining on the zombie and adding more flames to my fire while ensuring that it didn’t move towards anyone else and the fire was contained. I fell all the way down, using the last of my strength to roll away while keeping my body from the heat. It was about all I could manage to do. The pain was excruciating.
I coughed and choked, squinting back at Moonbeam and Belinda. My vision swam; I was either going to throw up or pass out. Maybe both. For one strange moment, I thought I saw Tarquin sprint up towards them and lunge downwards, grab something and smash it under his heel. Then Winter was on me, gathering me up in his arms as my consciousness finally gave way to blessed release.
It was the raised voices that I heard first. Through the fugue of pain and semi-consciousness, I could make out Winter. Curiously, his voice was shaking with fury. ‘You could have killed her!’
‘We’re very sorry. She was in the way of the spell and—’
‘Any idiot could have avoided her! You call yourselves witches? You’re not fit to be in Arcane Branch if you can’t perform simple runes to hit a damn zombie!’
‘Uh, Adeptus Exemptus, it wasn’t really a zombie. It was an animated—’
Winter interrupted them again. ‘I know damn well what it was!’