‘You’re just jealous. When did any other witch manage to talk to the dead? When did anyone else do what I can do? At first it was just a bit of fun. I found an old book with her name in it.’ He pointed towards the grave. ‘And spells for stealing sheep. You’ve no idea how much fun it was watching him running around the countryside after those stupid creatures. Got him out of my way as well.’ Alistair smiled in smug self-satisfaction. ‘And he got the blame for losing them.’
I felt sick. This was what happened when magic appeared without the Order around to keep it in check and to make sure it wasn’t abused. What had begun as a few cruel pranks had escalated into something entirely different. No one expected someone like Alistair suddenly to show magical talent, despite his ancestry. He’d kept it quiet and been able to use it for his own vindictive ends.
‘Then you switched things up, didn’t you?’ I said, doing what I could to keep him talking so he was focused on himself rather than me. Bit by bit, I was managing to free my fingers. My right pinkie was loose but what I really needed were both thumbs. Right now they were bound tightly against my palms. I just needed a bit of wiggle room and I’d be able to get both Gareth and myself out of this. ‘You used some kind of herblore on the sheep to cause hallucinations.’
Gareth started and stared at me but Alistair let out a crow of delight. ‘You noticed?’ He crouched beside me, an eager expression on his face that revealed his youth. ‘What did you see? What happened? Was it really trippy?’
Deciding that he’d be disappointed if I told him it was just a bloodstain, and hoping that happy Alistair was more controllable than unhappy Alistair, I used Mazza’s tale and embellished it further. ‘I saw the devil,’ I said, my eyes wide as if to convey my horror. One of my middle fingers slipped out of the bindings. I was almost there. ‘He had horns and glowing green eyes and he tried to attack me with blood. I thought I was drowning. There was so much blood.’
A distant, wistful expression crossed Alistair’s face. ‘Blood. It took me a while to realise how important it could be. Old Morag’s book kept going on about it. She didn’t call it blood, though, she used the word ichor. At first I didn’t pay it any attention. But then I got curious.’ He smiled. ‘Google is a wonderful thing. With ichor, I can do whatever I want. I’ve used sheep up until now but that’s where I think I’ve been going wrong. Sheep’s blood isn’t good enough. Human blood will be much better. I was going to use Gareth’s. I won’t take too much. I won’t kill him.’ He paused, desperation leaking into his voice. ‘I don’t want to hurt anyone. I just want the magic that Morag can teach me.’
He looked at me. ‘You’re a witch. Your blood will be stronger than his. I can use it and this time I will succeed. It will be Morag herself I bring up, not those others. Then she can teach me more about who I really am and what I’m capable of.’
Given how long old Morag had been in the ground, I doubted she’d be teaching anyone anything other than how to run away very, very fast.
Thinking quickly, I looked Alistair directly in the eyes and tried to convince him that what he was doing wouldn’t work. At the same time, I shifted round with small jerky movements. I’d almost freed my thumbs but they wouldn’t do me any good if I started cramping up after being tied like this. I had to be ready to attack.
‘Blood won’t help. You know that the first body you raised killed someone. By doing what you did, you caused the death of an innocent man.’
‘That wasn’t my fault! He shouldn’t have been up here!’
Ignoring Alistair’s desperate attempt to blame his victim, I persisted. ‘His name was Benjamin Alberts. He had his whole life ahead of him and your actions meant he died alone and in pain. It was a brutal way to go. Gareth will tell you that.’
‘I’ve got more control now! That won’t happen again.’
I shook my head. ‘No, Alistair. You have less control now, not more. You’re an inch away from the magic taking you over completely. You’ll destroy yourself in the process. You were talking about blood. What colour is yours?’
Alistair’s eyes were shifting from left to right. I could see from the expression in them that he wasn’t going to believe me. He didn’t want to believe me. ‘Red, of course.’
‘Are you sure?’ I pressed. ‘Because I wasn’t lying when I said that necromancy was dangerous. If your blood has even the faintest tinge of black then it’s already too late. The power you’ve unleashed will destroy half this land. Not just me and Gareth, but your parents. The town of Tomintoul and everyone around it. You’re releasing hell, Alistair. You need to stop.’
What I didn’t mention was that whether his blood was black or not, it was the end of the road for him. I doubted that would go down well.
Alistair spun round with a flounce. The momentary freedom from his gaze was exactly what I needed. With one last jerk, I managed to get not only my thumbs but also my fingers free enough to perform the rune I required. In three heartbeats, my bonds were loose enough for me to escape fully.
I remained cautious, however, and stayed in place so that Alistair wouldn’t get suspicious and attack. He already had necromancy to his name; there was no telling what other magical abilities he could boast of. I was determined not to give him the chance.
When he turned back to face me, he was holding a long-bladed knife. There was a bleat and I realised that a few graves away there was a tied-up sheep: Alistair’s Plan A before Gareth and I had foolishly presented ourselves. He brandished the knife and for one horrified second I thought he was going to plunge it into one of us. Then he lifted it up and sliced the back of his own hand, blood immediately welling up along the cut. He held his hand aloft.
‘See?’ he declared. I peered through the gloom and relief washed through me. Alistair’s blood looked as natural as mine. The necromantic magic hadn’t taken him over just yet. There was still time. ‘This is proof that you’re lying. My blood is as red as yours. But it’s yours that will be spilt this night.’
Not if I had anything to do with it. Unable to waste any more time and regardless of the consequences, I raised my hands and threw out an attack rune. This one was designed to take no prisoners.
Alistair let out a high-pitched cry, one hand going immediately to his throat as his windpipe closed off. He dropped the knife and it fell to the ground with a dull thud. If I’d thought he was going to give up because he couldn’t breathe, however, I was sorely mistaken. Still scrabbling to breathe, he ducked his head and barrelled towards me just as I got up to my feet.
Despite my best efforts to avoid cramp, I was wobbly enough to sway and half collapse on one knee, allowing Alistair the time he needed to smack into my chest and knock me down on top of Gareth. I couldn’t maintain my hold on the magic and Alistair’s breath was released. He spun round for another attack but his magic was too clumsy.
I flung out a ward rune, creating a protective barrier around both Gareth and me. Alistair rammed into it but he didn’t know of any way to break it down apart from brute force. It held, shimmering in the night air.
He let out a curse and spat. Then he turned once more and walked over to the knife. He picked it up, his finger touching the tip of the blade as if to test it.
‘Ivy,’ Gareth said in a strained voice.
‘Shhh.’ My attention was on Alistair. When he made a beeline for the sheep, I hissed and dropped the ward. I stalked forward, throwing a rune out behind me to loosen Gareth’s bonds. ‘Leave the animal alone, Alistair.’
The sheep bleated, as if it knew what was coming.
‘Everything else is ready,’ he muttered. ‘I just need the blood and the words and then I can set Morag free.’
‘Morag is at peace,’ I told him. ‘She’s no longer there. What lies beneath that headstone is just a shell.’ In fact, surely she was nothing more than bones by this point. Even if he did bring back to claw her upwards, I reckoned her skeleton would collapse before it took a single step. At that point, though, it wasn’t Morag’s corpse that worried me it was what would happen with Alistair’s magic if he succeeded.