"Oh," said Nightingale. I barely heard him at the time.
It was vampires again. This time a nest had turned up in the poshest part of Mayfair, in a grand Georgian house that had been bought by some Russian mobster who lived in it two weeks of the year and left it empty apart from a security service the rest of the time. Two security guards had gone missing before word reached Nightingale by whatever strange route he learns about these things, and the first I knew of it was when we headed off bright and early one morning to set another expensive part of London on fire. It's not just me who does that, and I have a suspicion that Nightingale enjoys it more than I do. And besides, Frank Caffrey and the fire brigade were waiting to stop anything getting out of hand this time.
The house was huge, but for reasons known only to them, the vampires had chosen to make their nest in a bathroom larger than my parents' flat. Perhaps they liked the decor: lots of black marble and dark wood along with a sunken bathtub that could have passed as a small swimming pool and some antique dark oak furniture. We searched the rest of the house, felt the tactus disvitae, got to the bathroom and located the vampires and confirmed their identity. Everything was going smoothly until the vampires woke up.
There were four of them. Nightingale took two of them with fireballs in two directions simultaneously, both arms flung out in different directions, and I think I managed to singe a third a little bit, enough to slow him down. The fourth went for us. In fact he went for me, presumably because I couldn't throw fireballs through solid steel. Nightingale flung up a shield around me, which I hadn't known you could do, and then sent a fireball whistling past my ear and into the vampire. And that's when it happened.
The one I'd singed had got back up and gone at Nightingale. He danced back out of reach behind what I later discovered was a bidet, but the vampire leaned forwards with a snarl. I sent another fireball at the vampire, missed and singed a hole in a towel. Nightingale said, "Oh," in a strange voice and sent a final fireball at the vampire. It burst into flames like the others.
I didn't notice, though, because Nightingale had gone still, left hand cradled in his right, looking down at it. He took three steps backwards until he hit the tiled wall and for the first time in my life I heard him swear, fluently and creatively as any soldier.
"What's wrong?" I asked. He'd gone whiter than I thought a person could get, almost the colour of the marble behind him. I could see some blood on his hand, but it didn't look like a serious injury, barely more than a scrape. But shock could be a funny thing. "You should sit down, sir," I said, and took a spare towel off a pile and went towards Nightingale. He looked up at me.
"Stand back," he said, his voice taut. He slid down the wall until he was sitting on the floor, and looked at the injury again. It was on the back of his left hand, a long bloody scrape running crosswise from one side to the other. Then he opened his right hand and conjured a werelight. It blazed with much more heat than a normal light, like Nightingale had plucked a burning coal out of a fire and was holding it in midair. I had no idea what he was planning until he moved the werelight until it was resting against the cut.
Even then it wasn't until he closed his eyes and looked away and I smelt the singe of the hairs on his arm that I realised what he was doing.
"What the hell--stop, stop!" I shouted. I grabbed the designer crystal carafe by the sink and filled it up with cold water and dashed over. Nightingale had bitten his lower lip white and bloodless. Then he released the werelight and collapsed sideways, curled around his burned hand.
I uncurled him enough to pour water over the red and blistering burn, then refilled the carafe and did it again.
"What were you thinking?" I said. "It'll be better if you can hold it under running water. Hang on a sec." I dragged an expensive antique chair over to the sink and turned the cold tap on again. Nightingale didn't protest as I helped him up and over to it. I put his hand under the running water and then wrapped a couple of enormous fluffy magenta towels around his shoulders against shock.
"I'll call an ambulance," I said.
Nightingale looked up at me. "There's no point. It didn't work."
"You need an ambulance, sir, that's at least a second-degree burn and you're in shock." And you need help, because you did it to yourself on purpose.
"There's no point," he repeated, and then looked at me with a strange kind of wonder. "You don't realise, do you? It bit me, Peter. The vampire bit me."
I stared at him. "You said things weren't like the stories," I said at last. There was something roaring in my ears. I didn't realise I'd taken three steps away from Nightingale until I saw the flash of grief on his face.
"Some things are."
"So--" I couldn't bring myself to finish the sentence.
"So at sunset, I will become one of them."
I stared at him. A part of my mind checked that he wasn't about to pass out and that his hand was still under the running water. Then I turned and paced around the room. The four vampires we'd just killed were nothing more than ash. One of the towels was still smouldering. I poured water on it too and stomped on it with my Doc Martens. It felt good to stomp on something. Then I took out my phone and powered it up, the jingling tune loud against the echoing marble.
"What are you doing?" Nightingale asked me cautiously.
"Looking up when sunset is," I said. "It's at 21.14 tonight. And it's only 7.30." The morning rush hour hadn't begun as we'd made our way over to Mayfair.
"Yes. There's time. We can finish up here and return to the Folly, get everything sorted out. Then I will go down to the gunroom. You will wait twenty minutes before coming after me."
His voice was so casual it took a while before I understood. "You--you--" I stuttered.
"A vampire who is also a master magician would make your troubles with the Faceless Man seem trivial indeed," Nightingale said calmly. "I will not permit that to happen. And it is better that I act at once, before this incapacitates me further."
"There must be something else we can do," I said finally, but my voice sounded small and uncertain. "There must be."
"Do you think I'm the first person this has happened to?" Nightingale said. "It's a hazard of the job. There are many previous recorded cases, and no successful ways to treat it. I hoped maybe fire could burn it out--but it didn't work."
"How do you know it didn't work?" I demanded, looking at his blistered and swollen hand. "How do you know?"
"I can feel it. You should be able to feel it too, if you touch my arm."
I put a hand lightly on his upper arm. It took a while for me to calm my mind enough to sense for vestigia. At last I felt that distant sense of Nightingale I'd perceived before, canvas and pine and smoke, but now there was something else, dust and decay and hunger, concentrated on his left hand but starting to seep up into his body.
I didn't want to say it, but I had to. "Amputation...?"
"Also been tried. Doesn't work."
"Why sunset?" I asked after a minute.
"I don't know."
"If we got on a plane right now, went to the north of Norway or somewhere where there's no sunset at this time of year, what would happen?"
Nightingale made a sound that I realised was meant for a laugh. "Peter, how do you come up with these things? Still, even that would only prolong the... problem."
Prolong the agony was the usual phrase, I thought. And Nightingale had said it would incapacitate him before it killed him. I got my phone out again.
"What now?" he said, sounding very tired.
"I'm calling Dr Walid, if you won't let me call an ambulance."
"Abdul," said Nightingale quietly. "I suppose so."
"That burn needs treating. And--and if--" I couldn't finish the sentence. "He'd never forgive me if I didn't call him."
"Yes," said Nightingale, "I suppose you must. I think it would have been easier just to go out fighting. Not... drag it out."
"That's not your call," I said sharply, and stabbed with excessive force at Dr Walid's name in my contacts. He answered quickly.
"Bright and early for you, Peter," he said. "What can I do for you?"
"It's Inspector Nightingale," I said, and then had to stop for a moment. I could almost feel Walid tensing on the other end of the phone.
"Yes?" he prompted. "What's happened to him, Peter?"
"We were dealing with some vampires," I said. "He was bitten. He says--at sunset he'll turn into one. He tried to burn it out, but it didn't work, and he won't let me call an ambulance."
"He can meet us at the Folly," Nightingale said. "There's no sense him coming here. We need to leave."
"You need to keep your hand in the water," I said straight back, and then to Walid, "He says meet us at the Folly. You'd better bring... lots of things. I don't know what we can do, but there has to be something." I paused. "He's planning to kill himself," I continued quietly, trying to sound as calm as if I were talking about a random member of the public I had to call a negotiator for, to talk him off a bridge, and not--and not Nightingale.
I could hear Walid not swearing. "I'll meet you at the Folly. For the love of God, don't let him do anything until I get there."
"I won't. I think you'll probably beat us to it, though, we still have to finish up here. And I mentioned the burn, right? It's bad."
"I'll take care of it. Just get him here."
Nightingale's face was turned away when I hung up. "I wish I'd never said anything," he murmured. "Just... wrote a letter explaining the situation. Come on, Peter. Let's get on."
He tried to stand, but when he moved his injured hand he choked on a gasp, and sat back quickly. I steadied him. "You'll be better off with that in a sling," I said, and rummaged through the many cabinets in the room until I found a first-aid box still in its plastic wrapping. I used the plastic bag the triangular bandage was packed in to cover the burn, and then tied a neat sling. My first-aid instructor would have been impressed. Nightingale sat through this with a blank expression, but didn't try to tell me I was wasting my time. Then I helped him up again and kept a tight grip on his good arm as we made our way back through the mansion to the front door. He didn't protest until we got to the door, when he broke away and went down the steps into the street alone.
Frank Caffrey got out of his van when we emerged, and I saw him look at Nightingale in alarm before jogging over.
"All clear," Nightingale said, sounding brisk and normal. "I'm afraid there's a bit of a mess--Peter set a towel on fire. But nothing much. You can get it all squared away without any trouble."
"And you?" said Caffrey.
"I'm fine." Nightingale turned towards the Jag, Caffrey beside him. I followed, and Caffrey opened the passenger door of the Jag for Nightingale and helped him in. I didn't hear what they were saying, but Caffrey suddenly saluted, turned smartly and closed the door for Nightingale. Then he looked at me.
"In one breath," he said, "he tells me he's fine, and then he says we're all square now, no more debts, and then he asks me to keep a weather eye on you. I don't know what's going on, but--take care. Because I'm going to be keeping both eyes on you."
I just nodded. Caffrey being menacing might have intimidated me at some other time, but there wasn't much that could get through right now. Caffrey eyed me as promised, then stood by as I got into the driver's seat and began to negotiate the Jag through the London traffic back to Russell Square.
When we got there, Nightingale was in the grip of some kind of spasm of pain, his face set and his whole body rigid with tension. I looked away. It felt rude somehow to look at him like that, as if I'd caught him half dressed. I waited until I could hear his breathing steady, and then went around and opened the door for him. He leaned heavily on me as we got out and went up the back steps into the Folly, and didn't speak. I could feel it immediately now when I touched him, like some computer-game plague eating him away. Except it wasn't a game.
Dr Walid was already there, and he and Molly met us in the corridor. She took one look at Nightingale and her face contorted in distress. She rushed forwards. I felt Nightingale flinch from her emotion.
"It's all right, Molly," he said, almost sounding convincing. "Don't worry."
Walid came over too. "Now then," he said in that special professionally steady voice doctors use when they're faced with an alarming patient, "let's get you comfortable." He put his hand on Nightingale's back and steered him to an armchair where he'd obviously been getting ready, his medical kit laid out on a large table alongside. I stood back as he took over.
"Wear gloves," was all Nightingale said. "You don't want to risk contagion."
"Risking infection, more like. You did this to yourself, on purpose?" He looked at me for confirmation. I nodded, not really wanting to remember it.
"There was a chance it might destroy the contagion," Nightingale said. "I couldn't hold it for long enough. Perhaps I should have got Peter to do it."
"Oh, I'm sure Peter would have been thrilled to have the chance to burn your arm off," Walid said tartly, then shook his head and got on with dressing the burn. Nightingale didn't make a sound as he worked.
"There must be something we can do," I said when he had finished. "Some literature about this."
"There's plenty of literature," Nightingale said. "It all says the same thing: the kindest thing you can do for someone who's been bitten by a vampire is to put a bullet in their brain quickly and cleanly."
"Some other option," I repeated.
"Look for yourself. To save you excitement, I will tell you that there has been one successful magical solution, but it's not an option."
"What is it?" I asked.
"You won't use it," he said. "You perform some complex rituals and sacrifice a newborn baby as the infected person is dying. The new fresh life can overpower the anti-life."
"I take your point," I said. "Not an option." I thought for a minute. "What about, like, an animal? It's not that different from eating meat. You could kill a--a baby chick or something. A lamb." I thought I could do that, under these circumstances.
Dr Walid looked interested, but Nightingale shook his head. "It's been tried. Doesn't work." He looked at us both. "There's nothing you can do. You need to accept that. It's not your fault and you can't change it."
"Oh, you just want us to leave you here to die on your own," I said more angrily than I really meant to sound. Walid said nothing.
"More or less," he said. "People die in this city every day, every hour, Peter, you know that. I've cheated death for a good seventy years. It's not so bad. My only concern is for the rest of your training. You can't take up my job with your level of knowledge, it would be a fiasco. I think your best bet is to go overseas, find another practitioner and get him to train you to mastery. Someone will undoubtedly take you," he added, looking at me. "In exchange for learning what you've already been taught by me."
"I wouldn't give away--" I began.
"You misunderstand me. There's no reason for me to keep my secrets. If you can use them to purchase the rest of your training, so much the better. I only ask--you can take it as a last request if you like--is that you return to London when your training is over, to look after the city."
His last request. His fucking last request. I looked at him. "You think I wouldn't do that anyway?"
He said nothing in response. Walid was looking away, also silent. After a while I got up and went into the library.
It turned out Nightingale had been telling the truth. Being bitten by vampires was relatively well studied as such things went, and all the books were as clear and unambiguous about the situation as Nightingale had been. I skimmed through one gruesome description of just how horrible it was for the victim before sunset arrived, and some cold-blooded theorising that the reason is to incapacitate the victim so that they can't seek help. And there were long, long lists of things that had been tried to counteract the effects, and apart from the one where you murder a baby, none of them worked.
Dr Walid wandered in after a while and I gave him the most comprehensive book on the subject. He scanned through it, grimaced and gave it back.
"What do you think?" he said.
"You're asking me?" I answered. "I don't know. He knows all of what's in these books, more or less, but... he doesn't really think scientifically about problems, and nor has anyone else for the past seventy years or more. There could be something. But I don't know what it is."
"And if we don't find it soon." Walid didn't need to finish the sentence. He turned at some small noise from the atrium, and went back out. Reluctantly, I followed.
"Satisfied?" Nightingale said as we returned. "I know you don't like to admit defeat, but there's nothing you can do for me."
"Nothing magical," I said slowly. "But what about medical? Perhaps you should go to hospital, see whether they can figure something out. Medicine's moved on a lot since your old friends were doing magic research."
"We could certainly treat the symptoms," said Walid thoughtfully. "Starting with something for the pain, Thomas. Your English stiff-upper-lip routine is dangerous, I've told you a thousand times."
Nightingale gave a one-sided shrug. "It hardly matters now."
"But what is it, medically speaking?" I persisted. "It's in the vampire's saliva, I guess, transmitted to your blood?"
"That would seem plausible. I advise against attempting to collect samples from another vampire." Which was a Nightingale-joke. I tried to smile.
"We could run some blood tests on you," said Walid. "Though without knowing what we're looking for, and with the, the--" and I realised he was trying to avoid saying deadline. "The time constraints," he went on, "I'm not sure that's the best place to start."
He stared thoughtfully into space.
"If it's in his blood now," I asked, "couldn't you, like, drain out all his blood and replace it with donor blood?"
Walid gave me a look. "No," he said.
"It works on Star Trek," I muttered. "Why not?"
"I could explain," he said, "but you'd need a medical degree to understand the answer. You can't drain out someone's blood completely."
"A butcher can," said Nightingale, and I realised he was making another joke.
"More or less," said Walid with a very dirty look, "but you'll notice how that requires the animal to be dead and chopped up into small pieces. No."
Molly, who had been sitting at Nightingale's feet with her head against his knee, looked up suddenly, then turned to face him, hand reaching up.
"What is it?" he asked her.
Molly stared up at him, then touched one finger to her mouth, and then to his bandaged wrist. He frowned in confusion, and she repeated the gesture again, and then a third time showing her teeth. Nightingale stared at her, then used his good hand to push himself to his feet. Molly and Walid both reached out to help him, but he brushed them both away and walked slowly and stiffly across the atrium. I stayed where I was.
"You can do something?" I said to Molly.
She gave a tremulous nod.
"Will it work?"
Her nod was slower to come this time.
Haemomancy, I thought. Divination by blood. "Is it like what you did to me?"
She gave a sort of crooked shrug that I took to mean not very much like.
Nightingale stopped at the far end of the atrium, resting against the wall and gathering his strength to pace back again. He was watching us.
"Is it dangerous?"
Molly didn't answer.
Walid was watching Nightingale with professional concern, but Nightingale stared into space for a while and then walked slowly back. "No," he said to Molly. "I won't have it."
"Why don't you explain precisely what 'it' is?" said Walid, moving to steer Nightingale back into the armchair. Nightingale frowned at him and stayed on his feet.
"Molly proposes to risk her life and sanity to save mine. It's out of the question."
"Haemomancy," I said. "How does it work? She bites you and sucks your blood, and--and what then?"
"And then she will be able to perceive the... the contamination in me."
"And can remove it?"
Molly nodded before Nightingale could speak.
"And what are the risks?" Walid asked. "Other than you falling down where you stand right now and making this whole problem go away by cracking your skull, for God's sake, Thomas," he added sharply as Nightingale swayed. Nightingale glowered at him, but allowed Walid to push him back onto the chair.
"The risks," Nightingale said. "Where to start? Molly could get stuck, get lost, be unable to get back out again. She could become infected herself, doubling the problem for you two. She could," he went on with deliberate brutality, staring at her, "lose her control and decide to kill me and then you two as well."
Molly cringed from his tone and gaze, and even though that's exactly what had happened to me, I said sharply, "That's not fair, sir."
"It's a real risk," he said, but I could see his attempt to push Molly away was hurting him too.
"She didn't kill me, and she likes you a lot more than she likes me." I didn't think, somehow, that if I'd been the one bitten Molly would be volunteering for this on my behalf.
"And there's no guarantee it would work, even if Molly survived the experience undamaged," Nightingale concluded. He sat back in the chair and went rigid suddenly, his face twisting in pain.
"Please let me give you something for that," said Walid quietly as Molly crept closer again.
"No," said Nightingale through his teeth, "no. I'm not risking losing my awareness now. God knows what you two will do to me in some misguided attempt to prolong this... agony." He whispered the last word, and I think we all winced. Molly put her head against his knee. I kind of wanted to do the same.
"You can't just give up," I said. "I think this could work. Don't you want to try, at least?"
"I'm not risking Molly like that."
Molly raised her head and gave him a long, direct gaze.
"I'm not sure that's your choice," I said. "It's hers."
He didn't answer, but he looked at Molly again. She stared back at him, eyes no longer downcast like a demure servant, and he looked away.
"And even if it doesn't work, it'll be useful, you know," I continued after a minute. "It'll add to our store of knowlege about it. Maybe someday there will be a cure, but only if we keep trying new things. This is something new."
"Oh, now you want me to be your lab rat," said Nightingale tartly.
"The science of magic, sir," I said, and to my amazement the corners of his eyes crinkled as if he was smiling. He looked back at Molly, and then at me and Walid, and I knew we had him.
"How can I argue with that?" he said. "I've never succeeded yet. Very well. Do your experiments." He paused. "But I have some conditions. We can't do it here."
I looked at Molly. "But--"
"No. The risk of releasing two powerful vampires inside the Folly, in central London, is far too great. We must go somewhere remote."
"You're hardly fit to travel," Walid pointed out.
"It won't be any worse travelling than it is sitting here. That's my first condition, and if you can't accept it--" he turned back to Molly "--then there's no more to be said."
I could see he thought he'd trapped us. Then Molly stood up in a single graceful movement and looked Nightingale full in the face. He looked back at her. She walked slowly across the atrium, through the entrance hall, and over to the great double doors, and swung them open. She turned back and looked at us, at Nightingale, and stepped across the threshold.
"I think you've got your answer," I said. Molly stood on the doorstep for a full minute, staring out at the morning bustle of Russell Square, before coming back inside and rejoining us. I saw she was shivering, and patted her on the shoulder awkwardly.
Nightingale looked abashed by this, and he took Molly's hand in his. "You would do this?"
She merely stared him down again.
"Then there are two other conditions. I think you need a control. I know you can link Peter in as well. At a remove, he won't be at risk of contamination, but he will be able to pull you out, if need be, and--and give advance warning if it fails."
I nodded, wondering just what being 'linked in' would mean. "I'll do whatever you need," I said.
"And the third." He struggled to his feet again, and Molly and Walid both hovered at his side. "I'm not running the risk of getting caught out." He made his way slowly to the back stairs, and I knew where he was going.
"Sir--" I began.
"As insurance," he said. "I will let you do your experiment. But I need to have this."
Walid trailed us down the stairs and into the secure room where our guns were kept. Nightingale opened the safe and took out a small-calibre pistol and ammo, made the gun safe single-handed and stowed it all inside his blazer's inner pocket. I filled out the paperwork, helplessly. Dr Walid didn't say a word.
Back upstairs, Walid insisted that we all stop and eat something first, and somewhat to Molly's dismay we all ended up in the kitchen. Even in there with her I didn't quite understand how the food was appearing so quickly, but we all had soup and rolls before heading into the Jag.
I think Molly would have hesitated getting into the car after helping Nightingale in, but he took her hand suddenly, and she made a strange gulping sound and sat down beside him, her eyes fixed on him. Walid got into the rear as well, leaving me to drive. I was glad of that. I kept thinking about the pistol in Nightingale's pocket.
Nightingale had shown us his chosen destination on a paper map on the kitchen table, just outside the M25 south of London on the North Downs. His goal had clearly been to get as far away as possible from other human beings while staying within an hour's drive of the Folly, and judging by the map the area was a mixture of woods and farmland, with civilisation marked only by a few pubs, a golf course, and the remains of a Roman villa.
I put the radio on after the first time I heard Nightingale's breath catch as we went over a bump, and we listened to fifteen minutes of the current top twenty on Radio One before Nightingale said, in a tone only slightly fainter than usual, "I'm not convinced this is music."
"That's because your musical tastes aren't properly educated," I retorted at once, and was rewarded with a ghost of a laugh. The track ended, and I leaned over and turned the dial back through the crackling analog radio static until I got to Radio Four, where an old geezer was talking about people making illegal connections to the gas mains. That kept us going until we left the motorway and started down back roads, when I had to turn it off to hear Nightingale's quiet directions. We found ourselves in a rural area surprisingly quickly, on steep winding back roads that passed back and forth through farmland and woodland. When we were deep in woodland, Nightingale directed me off the road onto a track that ran for about three hundred metres through rather a lot of mud--the Jag would need a wash when we got back to civilisation--to a small carpark, evidently for the benefit of hikers and dog-walkers.
"Here we are," said Nightingale, and then went silent again. I got out and went to look around while they sat in the car. When I got back, Nightingale said, "There's just one more thing you need to know." His voice was hoarse, as if he'd been yelling for hours. Or screaming. "I will... attract things. In this situation. Others."
"What kind of things?" I said. "Dammit, sir, if ever there was a time to stop making impenetrable remarks and just be clear, now is it."
Nightingale frowned at me. "I don't make impenetrable remarks," he protested.
"Just tell me what to expect."
"It could be anything. Other vampires. Some of the fae. Trolls. Were-creatures. Spirits. All supernatural creatures are attracted to a person who is--being turned into one of them."
"Please tell me they'll come with a cake and an invitation to go out and get a cup of coffee with them sometime," I said.
"In daylight, at midsummer, they probably won't pose too much of a problem," he said. "But forewarned is forearmed."
Walid had sensibly stuck Nightingale's old wheelchair in the boot, and we needed it. He could barely move his whole left side now, and getting him out of the car was difficult, though he made no complaint. And it was only noon. If this didn't work, then by sunset--I didn't want to think about it.
But he was still very much aware and in control, and he directed us firmly down a long track away from the Jag, almost a kilometre into the woods. The place was about as deserted as we were likely to get. Molly and Walid spread some thick blankets on the grass, and helped Nightingale down. He tried to sit up, swayed and lay down. Flat on his back at our feet, he looked disturbingly like some of the corpses I've seen. I walked away across the clearing.
Walid came after me a minute or two later. "You need to keep it together, Peter," he said. "He's only doing this because you asked him to. I know it's hard. You care about him, and you depend on him, and when you see someone you depend on--"
I turned away, and Walid stopped talking. I didn't think I could handle being psychoanalysed right now. "I just need a minute," I said without looking at him, and he gave a grunt of acknowledgement.
I looked back. Molly was sitting cross-legged at Nightingale's head, her hand on his good shoulder, her pale face intent. For all her silence, she seemed to be handling this pretty well. Nightingale looked at me suddenly, and I flinched. He smiled almost fondly.
I walked back. He didn't say anything special, just, "Well then. Time for your experiment, I think."
"The science of magic," I said, managing to sound pretty normal. "Ready when you are."
Then Molly turned to me, studying me. I tried not to cringe away from her intent gaze. I don't know if I can do this, I'm not sure it will work, I don't know the answers, don't look at me like that. Then she held out her hand, palm up, and slowly I put my own right hand on hers. She nodded, then quickly pulled my wrist up to her mouth, twisted and bit down.
I managed not to pull back and scream, but it wasn't easy. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Nightingale twitch, his right hand raising as if to cast a spell, then falling back. Molly bit into my radial artery and the pain made spots dance in front of my eye. Walid stood by.
The longest ten seconds of my life ticked by, and then Molly released my wrist with a jerk and twisted away very quickly, looking down at Nightingale. I twisted too, mirroring her, and only realised I'd done it a second later. I was looking at Nightingale too, so it was a surprise when Walid appeared in my field of vision and said, "That needs bandaging."
I blinked and staggered, and Walid grabbed my elbow. "Peter," he said sharply, "Peter, answer me."
"Yeah," I said blearily, "yeah, you can bandage it, I think."
I was looking through Molly's eyes, I realised. And my own, at the same time. No wonder I felt dizzy. Molly, now kneeling beside Nightingale, looked up at me and I felt her doubt and anxiety and hunger all swirling together.
"Definitely working," I said out loud, and saw Molly's mouth move as I spoke. She drew back a little from Nightingale, and I realised that was because of me.
"Good," said Walid absently, winding a bandage in a figure of eight around my wrist and hand. "That should hold it."
"You're linked?" Nightingale said, looking between us. His voice seemed more resonant than usual. I wondered if that was how Molly heard him.
"Yes," I said. "On to stage two."
Walid took some notes, and Molly moved closer to Nightingale again. He tried to raise his injured hand to offer to her, but couldn't move it. Molly reached out and lifted it for him, resting his wrist on her knee. She unwrapped the bandages, and I felt a twist of anguish as I saw the red and white blistered skin, and wasn't sure if that was Molly's emotion or mine.
"You really need to see a specialist," Walid muttered.
Nightingale heard, and said, "If this works," he said, "you can have all the specialists you want. And all the painkillers. And if it doesn't--you won't need them."
Molly held his wrist carefully in both hands, and looked up at him. Nightingale met her eye and I was looking into his eyes and almost reading his thoughts. He nodded gravely.
"Go ahead, Molly. I want you to try."
She leaned down and kissed the burn, then turned his wrist over and sank her teeth into his radial artery. With my eyes and Molly's, I saw Nightingale's whole body jerk, and I heard him gasp in pain. Walid, sitting at his head, took his other hand, and from Molly's eye-view, he looked almost tender.
Then I saw Nightingale as Molly was seeing him now, the black strands of the vampire poison running through his entire body, thickest around the bite and down his arm, but extending everywhere, even into his head. It was like ivy swallowing a tree, and it was completely unlike how I'd ever perceived anything magical before.
It would have been a lot more fascinating if I couldn't also see Nightingale's pain like flames coursing through him, sometimes dying down to give him respite, sometimes flaring up and making him groan and try to move as if he could escape it. I tried to concentrate on understanding how the vampire-poison was spreading through Nightingale, but it was hard to keep my focus. Or possibly it was Molly who was having trouble focusing. I couldn't really tell, but I forced myself to look at Molly's face. It was tricky, like trying to see your own elbow.
"What are you going to do?" I asked her, and that made her eyes flick to me. Her teeth were still embedded in Nightingale's wrist, but the reminder seemed to make her focus change, back to the vampire infection.
The wood and the sky faded away from my awareness, and Nightingale seemed to be all I could see, even Dr Walid disappearing into shadow. I could hear Nightingale's pulse in my ears, and taste the slow jets of blood in my mouth.
I don't know how to start, I heard in my head, and realised it was Molly.
Using Molly's senses, I looked at the vampire traces running through Nightingale, forcing myself to see an interesting problem to solve and not--not anything else. Uproot it? Cut it out? Kill it? Molly seemed to hear my thoughts, because she snapped her teeth, and I saw one of the thousands of black strands snap. Nightingale jerked. But the strand uncoiled from Nightingale, releasing him, and seemed to melt away.
That worked, I thought, and Molly tried again, again, again. The third time, Nightingale screamed. I dragged my attention away, and saw that Dr Walid was bending over him looking deeply worried.
"What are you doing to him?" he snapped.
Surgery, I realised, and tried to force my lips to move. It took a minute to figure out which were mine and which were Molly's. "Surgery," I croaked to Dr Walid. "We're doing surgery. Cutting out the threads. I think we can do it."
Walid looked at me for a minute. "If he can take it," he said. He leaned over Nightingale again, shaking his good shoulder. "Thomas," he said, "Thomas, I want to give you some morphine now."
Nightingale's head jerked in what I thought was a nod, and Walid reached for his medical case. I turned my attention back to Molly.
I/we could see the drug working on Nightingale, the way the flames cooled and the pain became a dim echo. His body relaxed for the first time that day, and I felt something ease inside me as well, unless that was Molly. I really couldn't tell. My wrist throbbed, and I returned my focus to the work we were doing.
It was slow and painstaking and tedious, like watching carefully through hours of CCTV footage for a glimpse of a suspect. All the black vampire-threads ran from Nightingale's hand up into the rest of his body, and Molly and I realised that if she bit through them at the root, the whole strand would disappear. So it was just a matter of working through them all. But they were growing and moving even as we worked.
I gradually became aware of another sense, a gnawing, empty hunger. I thought I remembered eating a bowl of soup and about four rolls not that long ago, so I didn't understand why I would be hungry, but I was. Nightingale's blood tasted good. I drank more deeply.
"No," I mumbled, "no, that's not right. Not him."
I felt myself distinct from Molly for a moment. Ease off, I told her. He's not your dinner.
I could feel her anger boiling up, first at me and then at herself as she realised what she'd been doing, and she stopped working on the vampire infection.
"Save it," I said out loud. "We've got a job to do."
She tensed, and I thought she was about to break away from Nightingale and leave the job unfinished. I tried to reach out the way she was doing and cut through the strands, but I couldn't do it at this distance. Nightingale groaned, and I felt Molly's attention snap back to him.
Just keep working, I tried to tell her, trying to force my own attempt at calmness over her unhappiness. It seemed to work, and she found another vampire-thread to bite through, and another, and another, the flow of blood back to a thin trickle again.
Something slapped me on the side of the head, hard. "Peter! I need your help right now!"
I blinked into focus and realised that at some point I had sat down on the blanket with my head touching Molly's and my hand on Nightingale's vampire-infected arm. I had no memory of it.
"Wha'?" I mumbled as sleepily as if I'd just been woken at 2am.
I stared where Walid was gesturing. Over at the edge of the clearing, there was a big white horse. No. Not a horse. It had a giant pearlescent horn on the middle of its forehead. A fucking unicorn.
"It's a unicorn," I said, staggering to my feet. I could still see the inside of Nightingale's wrist with half my mind, and it was confusing as hell.
"I'm no expert," said Walid, "but I don't think it's happy."
I wasn't an expert either. The closest I've been to horses was riding a donkey at the seaside one time, and supporting the mounted police doing crowd control. Their horses are nice and big to intimidate people into moving, but I know that they've been trained to within an inch of their lives not to step on people or kick them in the head even if they're Millwall supporters. This unicorn was just as big, but it definitely hadn't had that training. Its ears were flat back against its head, and it was pawing the ground with its front hoof, which seemed about the size of a dustbin lid. The horn looked sharp enough to spear a Tiger tank.
"Crap," I said. I took a step forward, and the unicorn lowered its head until the spike was pointing at me. No, not at me. At Nightingale. "We're trying to fix him," I protested to the unicorn. "He'll get better."
The unicorn snorted and took two deliberate steps forwards. I didn't think it believed me.
"Away with you," Walid said, waving his arms and sounding a lot more rural and Scottish all of a sudden. "G'wan with you, go!"
The unicorn looked unimpressed. I glanced down at Nightingale, but he was too out of it to make any suggestions. The unicorn came several quick steps closer, and suddenly I was looking right at the horn a metre from my chest.
Something shifted in my head then, and I heard a long furious hiss come out of my mouth. It was like no sound I'd ever made in my life, but it was a sound I'd heard once before, when Molly was seriously considering eating me for dinner the last time we'd tried haemomancy. I moved forward slowly, sideways to the unicorn. Its ears were already flat back against its skull, but its head went up as I moved, and I saw white flash in its eyes. I/Molly hissed again, and the unicorn snorted and tossed its head up so that the horn was no longer pointing at me. Then it skittered a few steps sideways, wheeled around and lashed out a kick at me. The hoof was even bigger coming at me, and I only just managed to dodge. Walid gave a yell, and the unicorn cantered away.
"That," I said shakily, "was seriously freaky." My voice hissed the esses in that a bit more than normal, and I shivered.
"Crap," said Walid. "Get back to work, Peter, now." He was kneeling by Nightingale again, looking anxious. Nightingale was very still. "I don't think you have much longer. He's lost a lot of blood."
Molly had stopped working while I/we chased off the unicorn, her attention on it instead of Nightingale. She looked back at him now.
"We have to get this done," I said, which would have sounded more useful if I hadn't still been hissing. I think I probably sounded like I was speaking Parseltongue. Walid frowned at me, but his focus was on Nightingale.
While we'd been distracted the vampire strands had been regrowing. We both got back to work, and I tried to encourage Molly to go faster. My expensive magic-proof watch said it was now quarter to four. Still plenty of time until sunset, I tried to reassure myself, but it wasn't as convincing as it had been earlier. Molly seemed to agree with me, because she started slashing across the strands of vampire contamination in great swathes. They curled up and melted away, and we were finally gaining ground, I could see it.
"Nearly there," I said, or think I said, it was hard to be sure.
Then there was just one left, a small black knot right where Nightingale had been bitten. It wasn't a strand she could cut through, but I knew what it was. If we left it there, it was the seed that would sprout the vampire tendrils all over again. You have to get it out, I told Molly.
She focused on it, then I felt her gather herself together and prod me, be ready.
I didn't know what I was supposed to be ready for until Molly bit the whole thing out into her mouth, then with an effort jerked away from Nightingale and spat.
I made a fireball. It was as wobbly and spluttery as my first attempts had been, but it was hot and it was fiery, and I singed the ground where Molly had spat, burning the grass and scorching the dirt. Molly stared at the light, and held up her hand for me to continue. Holding that fireball, after everything else and with Molly in my head, was like trying to lift up a car, and it flared and sparked and tried to slip away from me, but I kept it going. It's amazing what you can do when you have to.
Finally Molly nodded, and I let the fireball go and collapsed onto the grass beside Nightingale. Vaguely I was aware of Dr Walid beating out some sparks and looking between the three of us in consternation. Molly had sunk to her knees too, arms wrapped around her head. Nightingale was unmoving.
I managed to sit up. Dr Walid had one hand resting on Nightingale's neck, feeling his pulse.
"And?" he said, trying and failing to sound professionally calm and not worried out of his mind.
"It worked. We got it all. He's going to be okay. I think."
"Ah." There was endless relief in the syllable, and he too sat down on the grass. None of us moved for a while, and I really hoped the unicorn wouldn't come back for another round.
There was a noise from Nightingale that drew us all to look at him. He stirred, and opened his eyes.
"Molly," he mumbled, and she lifted her head. Then, "Peter?"
"I think it worked, sir." I put my hands flat on his chest and felt with all my might, but found no trace of the decay and death I'd felt before. "I think it's gone."
"Yes," he whispered. "Well done." His eyes closed again.
Dr Walid's eyes were suspiciously damp. He leaned in. "Thomas, I need you to tell me how you feel."
"Terrible," Nightingale said without opening his eyes. "You can get all the specialists you like, now."
"Can you be more specific?"
"I set my arm on fire," he said, his voice slurred and slow. "And I feel like someone's taken every muscle and bone in my body apart, boiled them and then put them back together with a rusty stapler. I could sleep for a week."
Walid grimaced. "Perhaps that will teach you not to set yourself on fire again," he said. "All right. I think we'll take you directly to the UCH. I want to get your head inside the MRI machine as soon as I can, and also the burns unit want a word with you. And then there's the blood loss."
"Do your worst," Nightingale murmured. He turned his head slowly to look at Molly. "I'm sorry, my dear. Should have trusted you could do it."
She moved closer to him. I watched cautiously. Making the fireball had undone whatever had connected me and Molly, and I couldn't sense what she was feeling any more. But I remembered that it had been right after we'd done the haemomancy before that she'd lost the plot and tried to eat me. But Molly didn't do anything except place a hand on Nightingale's head, smoothing his hair, and even after being inside her head the look of tenderness on her face made me choke up a bit.
I looked away, glancing at my watch automatically: quarter to five. But we weren't on the clock any longer. It was over. Walid was replacing the bandages on Nightingale's burned hand, his eyes still a bit too bright.
"All right," Walid said when he was finished. "Let's get you back to the car and to the hospital."
It took all three of us to lift Nightingale to the wheelchair, and bump it back along the track to the Jag. Walid eyed me, and said, "I think I'll drive. Tell me if he seems worse." He dug out his own mobile and called ahead to the hospital, relaying a long list of medical instructions.
We got Nightingale into the car, where he sat slumped half-awake between Molly and me. Somewhat to my surprise, Walid put the spinner on the roof and drove the Jag back into London with impressive speed and competence. I wondered when he'd done the advanced driving course, and why.
Once we reached the UCH, we were met at the ambulance entrance by a porter with a trolley, a nurse and a young Indian doctor who turned out to be the burns specialist, and they whisked Nightingale away with impressive efficiency.
"Do you want to go back to the Folly?" I asked Molly, but she shook her head. I didn't really want to leave either, so we followed the medical procession and wound up sitting outside the door of Nightingale's hospital room on either side like guards. After an hour or two I went and got some food and coffee, and when I came back the burns specialist was just leaving. Molly eyed her suspiciously and the doctor hurried away. A little longer and Dr Walid opened the door.
"You can come in now," he said. He didn't ask why we hadn't gone home. I suppose it wasn't really much of a mystery.
Nightingale was lying in bed, his left hand swathed in bandages and a drip in his elbow. But he looked better than before. Molly went over to him as if pulled by a magnet. I hung back, feeling a bit awkward all of a sudden.
Nightingale looked at Molly and smiled at her. "I'm glad you've found your way out of the Folly at last," he said quietly, "even if I wish it had been some other way. I think it will open up a whole new world of possibilities for you."
She regarded him levelly. I suddenly pictured Molly coming out and working cases with us, and then smiled to myself as I thought about DCI Seawoll's reaction to that. Molly nodded gravely as if she'd heard my thoughts, and then began to fuss about smoothing the sheets on Nightingale's bed to her precise standards. Nightingale looked at me.
"As for you, you did very well, Peter. Very well indeed."
I looked away, and found myself glancing down at my watch again. It was ten past nine. There was a window in Nightingale's room which, when I went to look out, turned out to face west.
"What is it?" Nightingale asked, seeing me staring out.
"Sunset," I said.
"Ah." He tried to sit up to see out, but couldn't manage it. His bed had a remote control that was as baffling as any TV remote, and when I tried to make it sit up I wound up elevating his legs instead. He snorted, and I went for the old-fashioned approach, sliding an arm under him to help him sit up and propping up some pillows behind him, and perching on the side of the bed next to him. He leaned back against my shoulder. Molly went to stand at his other side, and together we looked out at sunset over Paddington.
The sky was orange and purple, the pollution haze over London glowing golden in the light and seeming to set the rooftops and the windows on fire for a minute. A flock of pigeons swirled past. The sun set. Nightingale did not turn into a vampire. Instead he let his head rest against me. "I am really very fortunate," he said, "to have you as my apprentice, Peter."
He was full of the good painkillers, I reminded myself, because he would never say anything like that normally. And it was just because I was helping him sit up that I had my arm around him, holding him close enough that I could feel that comforting sense of pine and canvas and smoke and Nightingale. It wasn't at all that I was hugging him. I'm far too English for that.