‘I think someone else can handle Armstrong,’ Winter replied. ‘I’ll stay here and make sure Ivy’s alright.’
‘I’m alright,’ I protested. ‘I keep telling you.’
‘Go and speak to him,’ the Ipsissimus repeated, this time in a firmer tone of voice that clearly brooked no argument.
I thought that Winter was still preparing to refuse him and I doubted that would go down well on his CV. There really was no need for him to stay around, as much as I wanted him to. I reached out and touched his arm. ‘It’s fine, Rafe. Go.’
Winter gazed at me for a long moment before eventually nodding, albeit with considerable reluctance. He hesitated then dipped his head, his lips brushing against mine. ‘Don’t do anything foolish, Ivy.’
I tilted my head up and kissed him back with more feeling. Winter’s mouth opened in surprise and I took full advantage as the pain still running through my body was replaced by a different kind of ache. He tasted of minty toothpaste and masculinity. Yeah, I knew how ridiculous that sounded, but as my senses swam I had no other words to describe it.
There was a cough. Winter pulled away and glanced at the Ipsissimus who was studiously avoiding looking in our direction.
‘I should go.’
‘Yes, Adeptus. You should.’
Winter threw me one last long look filled with meaning and left. The Ipsissimus stuck his head out the door and barked at the rest of the witches, whoever they were, to leave also. Only when he was sure they were gone did he look back at me.
‘What gives?’ I asked. I really didn’t have a good feeling about this. The man had a burning desire to talk to me alone so, whatever it was, it was bound to be important. And no doubt something I didn’t want to hear.
‘Can your familiar be trusted?’
Still at my feet, Brutus let out a small growl.
They eyed each other for a long moment. Surprisingly, it was Brutus who backed down, stalking out of the room with his whiskers quivering.
‘I’ll get straight to the point, Ms Wilde.’
It was about time someone did. I refrained from speaking and simply watched him. He sighed heavily and sat down.
‘We’ve not had a necromancer show their face for almost a hundred years. Frankly, I find it hard to believe that anyone could be stupid enough to think that raising the dead is a good idea. But,’ he shrugged, ‘here we are.’
Something occurred to me. ‘You knew all along, didn’t you?’ I said in wonder. ‘When you sent Winter and me here, you knew it was a necromancer.’
‘I suspected. I didn’t know for sure. And, regardless of his praise for you, you are not here because Adeptus Exemptus Winter wanted you.’
I felt my body tense. ‘Go on.’
‘It is imperative that the necromancer is stopped. Unfortunately, from what we understand, that is easier said than done. Philip Maidmont, the librarian who I’m sure you remember, has been diligently at work trying to discover the best course. There is only one method detailed in the Cypher Manuscripts and it is not going to be easy.’
I snorted. ‘Tell me something I don’t know.’
The Ipsissimus didn’t smile. ‘Fair enough. Necromancy is a powerful art. It can consume the user, adapting and changing almost at will to suit its own needs. Not for nothing is it considered the blackest magic. Once its power is released, it is nigh on impossible to rein it in.’
Frowning, I tilted my head. ‘But it can be done, surely? How was it halted last time?’
‘The Great Kanto Earthquake.’
Huh? A faint smile crossed the Ipsissimus’s face at my obvious confusion. ‘Tokyo, 1923. It started with one necromancer and it ended with a death toll of more than 140,000 people. Not to mention the near destruction of an entire capital city.’
I sucked in a breath. ‘Oh. That’s … bad.’ I was horribly aware of how much of an understatement my words were.
‘Indeed. While we are blessed that our little hell raiser, whoever they may be, has decided to undertake their evil work in a rural setting, we can still expect considerable damage. Necromancy feeds on itself,’ he explained. ‘It thrives on death and it is a demanding mistress.’
I paced over to the window and glanced out. The Enchantment set was like a ghost town. Mazza ambled from one side to the other with a sad expression on his face. I couldn’t see another soul, no matter how badly Morris Armstrong might want filming to continue.
‘Keep going,’ I said grimly. I turned back to the Ipsissimus. ‘There’s a reason you’re telling me all this and not Winter, so you might as well let me know what it is.’
For one fleeting breath, I thought he looked guilty. Then he raised his chin and met my gaze head-on. ‘Indeed. Either the necromancer must be killed before he grows too strong, or the magic must be halted before it can overtake him. Maidmont thinks he has found a way to neutralize the power. There is an incantation which, if performed by a highly capable witch, is likely to stop the magic in its tracks. I believe you possess that capacity.’
‘What’s the catch?’ Because there was always a catch. Always.
At least the Ipsissimus didn’t beat around the bush. ‘The side-effects of doing such a thing are catastrophic. As far as we can tell, the witch who performs the incantation will be forced to absorb the necromantic magic themselves. In all likelihood, it will destroy them, body and soul.’
Now we were at the crux of the matter. ‘You want me to do this. You want me to sacrifice myself.’
His answer was simple. ‘Yes.’ He paused. ‘I am sorry. I do like you, Ms Wilde, despite what has gone on in the past. It is a shame that you are not in the Order. I think you could have done great things.’ He met my gaze. ‘Of course, if you can kill this rogue witch in time then the incantation may not be required.’
I swallowed. Killing another human being wasn’t usually in my daily planner. Not that there was ever anything in my daily planner. But if it meant stopping the loss of life on a grand scale, there really wasn’t any choice to make. Unfortunately the same went for the incantation. If it were the choice between destroying myself and destroying half of Scotland, I’d have to step up to the proverbial plate.
I didn’t bother suggesting that Winter should do it. He possessed just as much magic as I did, but he was in the Order and I wasn’t. I was expendable. That might have rankled if it weren’t Winter. I would do this for him. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself otherwise.
‘How will we know?’ I asked quietly. ‘How will we know whether there’s still time to neutralize the magic?’
‘He has already raised two undead creatures. If a third one is brought from its grave then it’s too late. But it takes time to maintain that kind of energy, especially between the first few raisings. There may be a day’s grace.’
Except a day wasn’t very long at all. And the Ipsissimus didn’t sound very convincing. ‘You don’t think it’s likely. You think it’s already too late.’
I sighed. ‘In truth, we might not know if there’s been a third raising, even if we find the necromancer.’
‘It’s death magic,’ the Ipsissimus said. ‘If you can find the bastard in question, spill some of their blood and it remains red in colour, his or her death will be all that’s required. If their blood is tinged with black then it’s too late. If you can’t get close enough to draw blood…’
‘Then the incantation should be performed anyway,’ I finished. The risk would just be too great not to. I didn’t like the odds of coming through this unscathed.
He knitted his hands together. ‘I am glad you see what must be done.’ His expression didn’t change. ‘I need to know if you can do this, Ms Wilde.’
I laughed humourlessly. ‘What’s the choice?’
‘Other than Adeptus Winter? Me.’ He gestured at himself. ‘I’m the only other witch in the vicinity with the capability. The other Third Levels who can do it are making their way here with all due haste, but I don’t think they’ll arrive in time.’ His voice was filled with frustration. ‘We’re in the middle of nowhere.’