I'd never been all that fond of Halloween, not even before spending both Halloweens of my probationary period dealing with drunk teenagers and students and their questionable sense of humour. But a part of me still liked the idea of dressing up and having a good night out, and I felt a small pang of envy when we walked past a group of girls my age in skimpy comic heroine outfits (Spiderwoman, Catwoman, and what I thought might be Batgirl).
On the other hand, I was headed to a haunted cemetery with an actual wizard to deal with a real ghost problem, and even without any skimpy outfits involved I was pretty sure that beat any other way to spend Halloween.
Nightingale hadn't said much about what we were going to do when we'd set out for Kensal Green Cemetery late in the evening, only that it was routine and nothing to be too concerned about. It had been a fairly short drive from the Folly, no more than twenty minutes despite the evening traffic, but since we'd been too early we'd parked the Jag nearby and enjoyed a nice dinner at a small Indian restaurant. Nightingale seemed tense and preoccupied, but I knew better than to try and get him to tell me what this was about if he didn't want to.
After dinner we decided to walk the short distance to the cemetery, and the few costumed people we passed – probably heading to some party or other – drew a small frown from Nightingale. I wasn't surprised anymore that he didn't stare at the girls, although I still wasn't sure if that was him being a gentleman or him simply having no interest in women at all. I suspected that the latter was more likely, but we didn't pass any men in costumes that were tight enough to warrant staring, so I had no real proof for my assumption.
“They didn't really do Halloween in your day, eh, sir?” I asked. “I don't like it all that much either, but I get why it's popular. You get to let out your inner child by dressing up and still do all the fun things you do as an adult.”
Despite himself, Nightingale smiled a little at that.
“We did have fancy dress parties when I was young,” he conceded. “They were quite popular in the 20s, and not really confined to one day a year.”
“Masquerade balls and all that?” I was trying to imagine Nightingale in a colourful costume with one of those Venetian masks on his face, but that just didn't fit. Maybe he'd just worn a dinner jacket and a long cloak, and painted his face white to pass for a vampire. He'd make a pretty terrifying vampire, I thought. A smile played around the corner of his mouth, as if he was thinking of a particularly amusing memory.
“And less … mannerly events. Ah, here we are.”
I was really starting to hate Nightingale's uncanny ability to change the subject whenever I almost managed to get him to talk about his past, but we'd reached the Main Gate of the cemetery. I had expected that we'd have to circle around to the larger Top Gate, but Nightingale must have called ahead because there was a security guard waiting for us by the gate. He looked cold and pretty unhappy about having to stand there waiting to let some coppers into the cemetery in the middle of the night, and I wondered what Nightingale's official story for being here had been. We showed our warrant cards and stepped into the cemetery proper.
Kensal Green Cemetery had been the first of the Magnificent Seven, the seven great Victorian cemeteries that had been built in London when the people in charge had finally realised that a rapidly rising population and small church graveyards didn't go well together. Inspired by the Père Lachaise in Paris, Kensal Green had been consecrated in 1833. I'd been here once after reading a book on London cemeteries, but that had been on a sunny day in July, and it had looked harmlessly picturesque then. Stepping into it on a cold October night with freezing wind and a continuous drizzle that darkened the sky despite the city's light pollution, I felt a shudder crawling down my back.
I looked at Nightingale, at the stern expression on his face, the way his gloved hand tightened around the grip of his cane.
“Should I be worried?”
“Not worried, just careful.” He glanced to his left, in the direction of the Dissenter's Chapel, then turned to the right and started down on the broad Central Avenue. It was lined with tall, old trees that I'm sure Nightingale would have been able to identify; all I cared about was that the shadows they threw seemed much darker than was entirely natural. “I merely have to renew some wards, but it's an old cemetery. They can be … surprising.”
The Central Avenue was paved and covered with leaves, wet from the rain earlier that evening. After a while the trees to both sides were joined by mausoleums and gravestones, most of them half overgrown with ivy and lichen. I wondered if Nightingale had known any of the people buried around us, if we were walking past any old friends, teachers, colleagues. Family maybe. I realised that I had no idea where Nightingale's family had been from – his accent was too polished to betray any regional influence, and I wondered if there were still any distant relatives living in Essex or Sussex or wherever, or maybe right here in London.
The cold feeling that had taken hold of me when we'd entered the cemetery let up a little as we walked down the comfortingly normal, straight road; but even then I couldn't shake the feeling that things were moving in the bushes, that I saw a shadow scurrying from behind a gravestone, too large to be a squirrel or a bird, that the sound I kept hearing didn't quite sound like the rustle of leaves in the wind. I wasn't sure if it was vestigia or just the atmosphere of the place getting to me, but I still took care to walk closer to Nightingale, our shoulders almost brushing. Whatever it was, I had no doubt that Nightingale could deal with it. If he hadn't been sure of that, he wouldn't have taken me along.
“What kinds of wards are we talking about?” I asked. It'd be easier to focus on the task at hand than to let my imagination run away with me, just because it was a foggy Halloween night on an apparently haunted cemetery. And foggy it was – it hadn't been in the city itself, but somehow behind the cemetery walls a thick mist seemed to gather above the ground, slithering between the plants and stones on either side of the path. I felt like I had landed on the set of a particularly atmospheric horror film.
“The kind that keeps a particularly stubborn and dangerous ghost confined to his grave,” Nightingale replied. “Unfortunately they have to be renewed once a year.”
“Isn't there a more permanent solution to the problem?” As we kept walking, the large Anglican Chapel came in sight at the end of the Avenue, a grand neo-classical building on a raised terrace that dominated the cemetery. I wondered if that was where we were headed. There were catacombs beneath the chapel, and for all that they might be even creepier than the cemetery itself, at least they'd presumably be dry.
“None that I know of. Not when the ghost in question was a very powerful black- ethically challenged practitioner who spent most of his life looking for a way to make himself immortal.”
I thought I heard a high, keening sound somewhere to my right. Nightingale must have heard it, too, because he glanced in the direction it had come from, and the sound stopped, at least for the moment.
“So he was some sort of necromancer?” I imagined a tall gaunt figure in a black cloak, mumbling Latin incantations in a deep voice while drawing indecipherable symbols on walls. Probably with blood. If my experiences with magic so far were any indication, the whole thing had probably been a lot less exciting and a lot more dangerous. Nightingale gave me a thoughtful look before he continued walking.
“Something like that, yes. When he died, it was all the Folly could do to imprison his spirit; they didn't know how to destroy it entirely. He had taken too many precautions to avoid death.”
A gust of cold wind came up as we reached the circle before the chapel, and somehow the cold went right through the several layers of clothes I was wearing. It still wasn't raining as such, but there was just enough fog and drizzle in the air that my clothes felt uncomfortably damp. We didn't continue towards the chapel; instead Nightingale turned left and stepped off the path. I had already turned off my phone before we'd even entered the cemetery, and I was glad for it now that Nightingale conjured a small, bright werelight. A smart precaution, because off the path the ground was uneven and slippery, all mud and wet leaves and gnarled roots. I heard that keening noise again, and I thought I'd caught a glimpse at a half-transparent white figure behind one of the gravestones. We passed a large mausoleum with a weeping angel leaning against a column, and I couldn't shake the feeling that its eyes were following me, staring and drawing me in –
I slipped, but Nightingale grabbed me by the arm and steadied me, his brow furrowed with concern.
“It's vestigia, right?” I forced myself to meet his eyes instead of looking around, not sure if such a high amount of vestigia would be more or less reassuring than my overactive imagination. He nodded. To my embarrassment I was very grateful that he kept his hand on my arm for the next few metres.
“Cemeteries are always rich in vestigia, especially old ones. That's what gives them their character, their atmosphere.” He let go of my arm to push aside a branch of what I thought might be a walnut tree, but I wasn't sure. “Traditionally it's believed that the veil between this world and others is thinnest on All Hallows' Eve, and while I doubt that anyone has ever proven whether that's true or not, a lot of practitioners have always chosen this night for rituals that necessitate the invocation of ghosts.”
“Is that what our ethically challenged magician here thought?”
We found a smaller trail and followed it for a few metres, and Nightingale's werelight somehow only added to the eerie atmosphere. The shadows behind the graves looked darker, and the wet leaves reflected the light in a strange, dark green glow.
“Yes. As did those who imprisoned him.”
“So that's why you have to come here every Halloween instead of dressing up and going to a party?” It was a weak attempt to lighten the mood that fell flat even to my own ears. Nightingale shrugged; despite his tenseness he didn't seem too worried.
“I suppose. At least that's what I was told, and the documentation on the case is unfortunately rather incomplete. Everyone was quite embarrassed that a former member of the Folly had caused such trouble. Maybe I could renew the wards on a different night, but frankly I'm not too keen on finding out what would happen if that's not the case.”
He finally stopped in front of a large neo-Gothic mausoleum that included a particularly creepy looking angel with a sword in one hand and what had probably once been a torch in the other. One half of its head was overgrown with lichen, which gave it an odd, two-faced look. The Latin inscription was overgrown as well, as was the name of the grave's occupant, but I could still decipher the dates. 1811-1853. At least this wasn't some old school chum of Nightingale's who'd gone over to the dark side.
The cold was almost unbearable around the grave, and I wished that I had followed Nightingale's example and brought gloves. As it was I just buried my hands in my pockets and hoped that it wouldn't start raining.
“So how did he die?”
Nightingale gave me the pointed look he reserved for particularly thoughtless questions.
“The Folly doesn't take the unauthorised use of magic lightly.” It was enough of an answer, and for once it was hard for me to disapprove of it. I wasn't any more for the death penalty than any other sensible person, and Nightingale's more ruthless tendencies still made me uncomfortable, but I could see how it might not exactly be easy to lock up an extremely powerful magician. I certainly couldn't imagine how any prison in the world would ever be able to hold someone like Nightingale.
He made the werelight hover up towards the top of the mausoleum to have it illuminate the area around as, as much as that was possible within the thick growth. His signare felt comfortingly familiar and I couldn't bring myself to feel guilty for stepping closer to him. He took off his gloves and handed them to me, and I was almost tempted to put them on. They were brown leather, too soft to be cowskin, probably lined with silk on the inside.
Nightingale touched the stone plate in the middle of the mausoleum wall gingerly. There were runes or letters carved into the stone, but even if I'd known the language, it would have been impossible to decipher them underneath the ivy. Nightingale gave me a grim look.
“Touch it. But be careful.”
The rough stone wall felt like it was made of pure ice, so cold that the tips of my fingers burnt from the touch. But what was worse was the immense rage I felt from inside the stone, the mindless fury of something caged for so long that it had gone insane. I jerked my hand away, my fingertips still tingling, and once again Nightingale's hand went for my arm, steadying me. His fingers were warm through my damp clothes, even though he'd touched the stone just before.
“Again,” he said, his tone more gentle than before. “Pay attention to the wards this time.”
I shot him a baleful look, but I did as I was told. Nightingale wouldn't make me do this if he didn't think I could learn something from it. His touch kept me grounded when my fingers slid over the icy stone again, and this time I tried to ignore the fury emanating from inside the grave. It took me a minute to see – or feel? it was hard sometimes to translate vestigia into normal sensations – the fine white lines that kept the spirit contained, like an intricately spun web that pulsed with power. I could feel Nightingale's signare in it, but also something else, a steady, heavy strength and a whiff of lavender that I suspected originated from the wizard who had first cast this spell. The lines were thin, though, wavering in some places.
Nightingale told me to keep paying attention even as he let go of my arm and placed his palm in the very middle of the stone plate, while his other hand tightened around his silver-topped cane. I tried to follow the spell he was casting, but it had to be seventh or eight order at least, a complex line of interwoven formae, and a surge of power went into the stone. I could feel the white strands thicken and tighten, buzzing with renewed power, as if Nightingale was recharging them like a battery. I stumbled backwards when I heard a blood-curdling scream from the inside of the grave, so loud that it made my ears ring.
Nightingale stepped away from the mausoleum just a moment later. I had lost any sense of time, but a glance at my watch showed me that we hadn't been on the cemetery for more than half an hour. Sweat shone on Nightingale's forehead, and if keeping those wards up and running already cost that much of his power, I really didn't want to imagine what would happen if they ever failed. But it wasn't as cold anymore as before, just a normal foggy autumn night, and the background vestigia surrounding us had dropped to a more bearable level.
“That's it?” My voice shook a bit more than I wanted to admit, but Nightingale only nodded and didn't comment on it. For all that he had nerves of steel, he didn't seem to judge other people for being more easily unsettled. I wondered if it was the war that had taught him to keep a calm head no matter the situation or if he'd been like this before. Somehow I never managed to imagine a younger Nightingale, cheerful and carefree and maybe terrified on occasion. I handed him his gloves back; for a second our fingertips touched, and the slight shudder I felt at that was for once more reassuring than distracting. He slipped the gloves back on as we slowly headed back to the path and from there to the cemetery's Central Avenue.
The wind still whispered in the treetops and there were still shadows around us that moved just a little bit more than seemed entirely normal, but the unnaturally thick fog was starting to dissipate. Nightingale's werelight vanished when we reached the main path, but it was less dark than before.
“That grave seems like a bomb waiting to go off, sir,” I finally said when the Main Gate came into view again. There were carts standing on both sides of the avenue, full of gardening tools and flowers for the graves.
“The wards still hold,” Nightingale said, although he didn't sound quite as content with that as he probably wanted to. “If the entire Folly 150 years ago couldn't think of a better way to deal with the problem, I doubt that I would find one now. Ghosts were never my speciality.”
It was one of those uncomfortable reminders that, for all that I doubted that any supernatural creature we'd encountered so far could actually beat Nightingale in a fight, he did not in fact know everything there was to know. That he'd been left alone with responsibilities that had once been divided among dozens or rather hundreds of men, each with their specialised knowledge and skill set, and now Nightingale somehow had to muddle through all of that on his own. Considering that, I figured that keeping an evil necromancer who'd had 150 years to plot his revenge locked up instead of letting him out and looking for a better way to deal with him was probably the smartest choice.
Nightingale thanked the security guard on our way out, while I took the time to breathe in some car fumes, enjoy the city noise that had been suspiciously muted inside the cemetery walls, and generally appreciate the fact that we hadn't actually been attacked by any ghosts, spirits, demons or whatever else was out there. Nightingale looked relieved as well, if tired, and I refrained from asking him if things had gone less well in other years. If they had, I doubted that he'd want to talk about it.
So we both stayed silent while we walked back to where Nightingale had parked the Jag earlier that night, but it was a companionable silence, not an awkward one. He didn't immediately get into the car when we got there, just stood by the driver's door with one hand resting on the roof, hesitating for a moment.
“I'm sure you could still go out and enjoy the rest of the night,” he said, and I smiled a little when I realised that he must have listened when I'd explained to him, a few weeks ago, that a lot of parties these days didn't even get started properly until 11 or midnight. I considered it for a moment, but somehow I wasn't in the mood for loud music and large quantities of alcohol. That and I thought any tacky ghost decorations at a Halloween party would only make me roll my eyes right now.
“It's all right, sir. I don't like Halloween all that much anyway.” I didn't know how to tell him that the prospect of sitting by an actual fireplace with him and some tea and brandy – I blame Nightingale for getting me into that – sounded like a great way to spend the rest of the evening. Maybe I could even get Nightingale to indulge my curiosity and tell me some ghost stories based on very real events. I might have to get quite a bit of brandy into him first for that, but I was not above getting my governor drunk. Especially when he looked like he could use a stiff drink or three.
I thought I saw the hint of a smile on his face, but just in that moment he turned to get into the car, so maybe I had just imagined it.
Or maybe I hadn't, and Nightingale didn't feel like being alone tonight any more than I felt like being in a crowd of strangers.