Nature abhors a vacuum. It's a cliché, but it's also true. So when the atmospheric pressure drops over the ocean, the sea level rises up a bit to make up for it. If the atmospheric pressure drops a lot, like when there's a big storm, then the sea level rises a lot. And when there's a big storm you get high winds too, and the winds whip up giant waves, and if the winds are blowing in the right direction at the right time, they aim the water straight at the coast as the tide is coming in. This is what makes the storm surge, the storm tide much higher than normal that overtops sea defences and in 1953 killed five hundred people on the east coast of the UK. And it's why we have the Thames Barrier, to stop one of those surges coming up the tidal river and drowning London. When the boffins at the Met Office predict a storm surge might happen, they alert the Thames Barrier and the great gates are lifted up off the estuary bottom and slot together to make a vast wall of steel that will keep the high tide out. It's a nice bit of engineering and it's predicted to keep working for the next fifty years or more, even with climate change and sea levels rising and all the rest of it.
It wasn't designed for sea serpents.
There's just me and Nightingale in the Folly now, and as a general rule, I'm the one who handles the one am calls. I don't mind, it's what I'm there for. But after Skygarden we had a steady increase in call-outs. My theory is that when we popped open the cap on the magic oil drill, it sprayed accumulated magic over all central London. And it got into things. A tube train that started running on its own at night. People like Mr Nolfi finding that half-forgotten childhood spells suddenly worked. Some unusually large and aggressive squirrels in Hyde Park. Instead of maybe one call-out a week, we were getting them almost every day. Some of them weren't our cases, and those were pretty straightforward to get rid of, but others took a lot of time and energy. Not to mention the need to come up with the non-magical explanations for the rest of the Met.
Add my magical training and Latin lessons to that, and I hadn't had a day off in months. To be fair, neither had Nightingale. And at the end of October the calls got even thicker, and we'd had a couple of fairly serious incidents in a row and I hadn't managed to get much sleep for several nights on the run. So after watching me nod stupidly over my steak and kidney pudding one stormy Friday night, Nightingale dispatched me to bed and unplugged the extension of the bat-phone that runs to my room. I did try to argue with him, because I knew he hadn't had any more rest than I had, but he only gave one of his little smiles and told me he'd been resting in the Folly for fifty years and he'd be fine. So I crashed in my bed and was asleep by eight pm.
"Peter! Peter, get up!"
I groaned and tried to get my head under the duvet. A firm hand pulled it away, and I looked blearily up at Nightingale. He was still wearing the same suit he'd had on at dinner.
"Mmfh what?" I said.
"I'm sorry, Peter, but this is urgent and it needs both of us. Be down at the car in five minutes."
I stared blankly at him, then heaved myself out of bed. The trouble with getting a little bit of sleep when you're exhausted is that it just makes you want more, and you feel even worse than you did before. Molly gave me a cup of steaming coffee at the foot of the stairs, and I nearly scalded my mouth drinking it on my way out to the garage.
"What is it?" I asked.
Nightingale drove out of the Folly's garage and took off down the road, spinner on the roof. It was an awful night, rain lashing the car and the Jag's pathetic windscreen wipers struggling to keep up, gusts of wind walloping the side of the car at intersections: a proper autumn storm of the kind that explains exactly why we like to live in cities where weather is on the outside and you're on the inside.
"It's the Thames Barrier," he said. "They can't get it fully closed. From what they've told me, I think there's a sea serpent lying across it."
Sea serpents. Just when I thought I'd heard it all. As my body absorbed the caffeine and my brain absorbed the information, I was suddenly really, really awake. There was a big storm, they wanted to close the Thames Barrier, and they couldn't. I'm not sure I even noticed Nightingale whisking through intersections against the light as I thought about that.
"What do we do about it?" I asked on a clear bit of road.
"Depends what we find." There were some trees alongside the road, bent over in the wind, and as we approached, a large branch came crashing down in front of us, blocking the road. I ducked, instinctively and totally uselessly, and Nightingale's signare flashed. The branch lifted itself up again and spun neatly to lie on the far side, where the wind couldn't blow it straight back into the road again. If Nightingale had even blinked, I hadn't seen him do it.
"Holy shit," I muttered.
"Not a nice night," he agreed, taking a roundabout at sixty with the confidence of a man who can just pick up any stray bad drivers, bicycles or cats and set them down on the roadside unharmed without touching his brakes.
We escaped the storm through the Blackwall Tunnel, just long enough to catch our breaths before emerging into the roaring wind again. Nightingale took us unerringly back towards the river, through an industrial estate and finally to some serious security gates, floodlit and with a lot of cameras keeping an eye on everything. There was a man waiting in the lee of a wall, and he came forward. I wound down my window--really wound it, with a little handle that turned around. Wind and rain rushed into my face.
"DCI Nightingale," I told him, "and PC Peter Grant." I showed my warrant card, and Nightingale produced his own.
"You're the specialists? Go on in, you can park just around the back, they're waiting for you in the foyer."
"How big are sea serpents?" I asked as Nightingale slid the Jag into a parking place separated from the river by a high wire fence. The huge piers of the Thames Barrier were glinting in the angry yellow glow of London's night sky. They didn't look like something that could be harmed by anything smaller than an aircraft carrier. Boats strike them sometimes, and the boats sink, but they don't even damage the finish of the Barrier.
"We'll see." In concession to the weather, Nightingale was wearing a vintage policeman's winter coat with caped shoulders that made him look like Sherlock Holmes's younger, more fashionable brother, but with a felt hat instead of a deerstalker. I zipped up my standard-issue high-viz coat to my chin and we made the dash to the entrance.
Inside, a middle-aged white woman with a short haircut and thick glasses was waiting for us. "I'm Dr Campos," she said. "I'm in charge here tonight. We don't have a lot of time, so I'm not going to complain that our contingency planning is entirely inadequate for this situation. Instead I'm going to take you straight to the problem and you can tell me if it's something you deal with or whether we need to escalate further."
"Quite," said Nightingale, while I wondered who she would escalate to after us. The Navy? "We won't waste any of your time. If we can see the... obstruction, we should be able to tell you at once if it is something that falls within our purview."
A couple of her assistants followed us as we were led through control centres and engineering offices and through several security-locked doors. Then we were given hard hats and went down a narrow spiral staircase. Nightingale donned his hat a little bemusedly. I held tight to mine. We went into an equally narrow tunnel, lined with pipes and cabling. The river is about half a kilometre wide here, and we went past two exits up into the piers before I felt it suddenly. A cold, alien presence that made the hairs stand up on my arms. Vestigia, the really powerful kind.
"Ah," said Nightingale. "Yes. You were right to call us. It's directly above us here."
"It's cold down here," said Campos obliquely. "You can see it from the next pier."
We went up an iron spiral staircase and out into a platform in the middle of a storm. I didn't really want to go right to the edge of the rail, but Nightingale and Campos both strode across without blinking, so I had to do the same. The waves foamed and frothed all around the pier. We were high enough that the spray didn't reach us. I looked down into the water and saw nothing but black waves and white foam.
Then all at once I saw it. It was the width of a bus, gleaming a weird sea-green colour, and it was long. It stretched all the way from one pier to the next, and it seemed to be wrapped around the pier we stood on, like some giant charging cable that's got tangled around your chair leg and your desk.
"Most assuredly a sea serpent," Nightingale said, gazing down at it.
"Sea serpents," Campos muttered. "Twenty years in this field and this is the first time I learn about sea serpents?" I honestly couldn't tell if she was angry or disappointed that she hadn't met one sooner. "Why is it on the Barrier?"
"Avoiding the storm, in all probability. Or else it's a comfortable place to sleep." He shaded his eyes with one hand from the lashing rain, and even in an orange hard hat he looked like a Fifties film star as he surveyed the riverbank downstream. "We're going to have to lure it away."
I couldn't stop looking at it. The head was right at the base of this pier, luminous eyes half-closed. A sea serpent. When I'd first met Nightingale and listed all the supernatural creatures I could think of, he said I hadn't even scratched the surface. I was starting to wonder just what else was out there that I hadn't seen yet. And what horrifying way I would discover them.
Nightingale was heading back to the door. "Come on, Peter!" he called over the wind. "You can read up about them later on!"
I jerked off the rail, hurried back inside and followed Nightingale and Campos back down the stairs and through the tunnels. "Yes," Nightingale was saying to Campos, "we can deal with this. We'll go a little way downstream and lure it off, and you can raise the barrier."
"What do you need? We can get anything--"
"Just a place to work."
A place to stand, I thought, and despite it all I grinned.
"I saw a little pier a couple of hundred yards downstream from here," he said. "That would be ideal."
Nobody hung about in getting us there. At crime scenes, usually there's a lot of time to stand around and talk. The staff here were all into getting this job done as fast as humanly possible, and given the stakes, I didn't blame them. The quickest way to the pier, unfortunately, was walking, so I put my hood up as we went back into the weather. Nightingale's hat, I noticed, never seemed to be touched by the wind, though he never adjusted it and I didn't feel his signare either. We went through a gate that Campos unlocked, and then we were back on the riverbank.
It was a floating pontoon pier with half a dozen small boats moored to it, about ten metres away from the shore, reached by a narrow gangway that was rocking in the wind. Nightingale vaulted the low gate at the top of the gangway and I followed him. "You'd better remain here," he told Campos, gesturing to a shelter used by waiting tourists. There was only a railing on one side of the gangway. I held on to it as I followed Nightingale down. He didn't, walking like a cat on the top of a fence, and went straight to the end of the little floating pier closest to the Barrier. There was a small open boat moored to the end, the simplest kind of motorboat with no roof and just an engine at the end. Nightingale jumped onto it and gestured for me to follow.
I'm not a boat person. It's not that I get seasick or anything. It's just that when you have a choice between solid well-built foundations anchored into the ground, and a thin piece of moulded fibreglass between you and slow soggy death, I'm voting for the concrete. But where Nightingale leads, I've got to follow. I swore an oath and everything. So I jumped into the little boat too.
"We're not going out in this boat, are we?" I asked. It wasn't ours and I had no idea how to drive a boat, even if we'd had the keys.
"No, no," said Nightingale. "I just need to be right on the edge of the water." He gave a sudden smile. "Sea serpents are attracted to powerful magic."
So I wasn't completely surprised when he detonated a bomb in the water about five metres away from the boat. The water glowed yellow and orange, and the vestigia rolling off it felt like a depth charge, like there should be fountaining water and debris everywhere and flames licking the sky even in this storm.
Instead the water glowed, the wind howled, and I tried to steady my breathing. I felt like Nightingale should have been taking a dramatic stance, but actually he had sat down on the edge of the boat, cane in one hand, head turned out of the wind. Beneath the roaring vestigia I felt the steady patient tick-tock of his spell, a simple werelight but at a power I couldn't imagine working at.
Nothing much seemed to happen, other than Nightingale's depth charge illuminating the water. I wondered what they were making of all this on the piers and on land. Nightingale held the spell steady for five solid minutes while the boat rocked in the waves. It was like listening to a singer hold a note longer than seems humanly possible: you expect they're going to faint for lack of oxygen at any moment but they just keep on going and going with their sound. But just when I was thinking surely even Nightingale couldn't keep it going any longer, I felt a surge of pure terror that had nothing to do with the weather or my worries about whether Nightingale was about to have an aneurysm, and I saw the sea serpent's head break the surface of the water right beside us. It swallowed Nightingale's light in a gulp that could have swallowed the entire boat with it, then vanished underwater again. I heard a metallic grating above the roar of the wind and the water. They weren't wasting any time getting the barrier up as soon as the serpent was off it.
"Is that it?" I said, and something tipped the boat ninety degrees on its side.
By all the laws of physics, I should have been flung into the water. Instead something pinned me in place as if my boots had been glued to the bottom of the boat. Nightingale didn't fall overboard either, as if he was wearing a seatbelt, and I felt his signare flash. All the ropes tying the boat to the pier ripped loose, we swung away from the pier and I stared down at the watery vortex beneath me. Then a giant sea-green shape arced above us, the boat gyrated and wallowed and stood up on its end so that Nightingale seemed to be hanging from his seat, and I fell against the rear gunwale.
I seized the railing and held on with a death-grip, and Nightingale came sliding towards me like Legolas surfing down the staircase in the Two Towers film and grabbed hold of the railing beside me.
The sea serpent had the front end of the boat held loosely in its mouth. Its yellow eyes were as big as dustbin lids and more alien than anything I'd ever seen before. It was looking at us, but whether it was curious or hungry or angry, I had no way to tell.
Now Nightingale and me work well together as a rule. I don't know if it's because he trained me or just because we know each other pretty well by now, but we don't get in each other's way. He knows I'll do what he says and I know if he's telling me something I need to get on with it.
"Jump!" he bellowed to me now.
I jumped towards the pier, even though it was a good three metres away across open water full of thrashing sea serpent and I knew I wouldn't land. Nightingale's forma gave me a shove in midair, like a computer game character given a boost of superpower, and landed me on the wildly rocking pier. Because this wasn't a computer game, I landed in a heap, but I stayed on the pier which was the main thing. Then I scrambled up and looked back.
The sea serpent was lunging for Nightingale, jaws wide. Nightingale threw himself flat in the bottom of the boat, and I lobbed a fireball over its head. It turned to track where the fireball had gone, then looked back at Nightingale.
It was drawn to his magic, I realised. He'd lured it off the Barrier with a spell, and now it wanted more, like when you give a stray cat a bit of tuna from your sandwich and then it follows you home yowling at you. A cat the length of a Tube train with jaws big enough to swallow a car.
The sea serpent sank back down under the water, and the wake pushed Nightingale's little boat back in the direction of the pier. I crawled to the edge and stretched out my arm as far as I could, grabbed one of the ropes trailing in the water and began to pull. I felt Nightingale begin to do a spell.
"No!" I yelled. "No magic!"
The forma fizzled out and I tugged on the rope with all my strength. It moved with agonising slowness towards the pier. Nightingale leaned over the side, reaching out to me. Another metre and we'd be safe.
The water foamed between us and the sea serpent's tail came shooting out of the water, lashing from side to side. It ripped the rope out of my hands and swung towards Nightingale. He was looking over my shoulder, and gave a yell of warning. I ducked and looked behind me in time to see the head on the other side of the pier, between us and the bank, lunging now for me.
Nightingale cast a shield spell and the sea serpent's head struck it and recoiled. "Get up the gangway!" he shouted to me, and then cast three hot fireballs in rapid succession in the opposite direction, out to the middle of the river, like he was throwing balls for Toby to chase. The sea serpent's tail lashed out and knocked him flat in the bottom of the boat and pinned him there. The shield spell and fireballs all fizzled out at once and the boat began to rock back away from the pier.
You'd think Nightingale would be very much the self-sacrifical, 'leave me and save yourself' type, but as a rule he's actually not. Don't get me wrong, he does march straight into dangerous and potentially lethal situations, but he always has a plan for how he's going to get out of them again, and he's got the power to follow through on those plans. When he walks alone into an evil magician's secret lair to disarm the booby traps, he makes sure he's got someone holding a rope ready to haul him out again if it goes wrong.
But I recognised the way the shield spell had stopped, because it's what happens when Molly suddenly pokes something in my ear when I'm making a spell and my concentration goes wrong. Nightingale's doesn't, not just for being poked in the ear, and Molly flat refused to allow anyone to experiment to see how much you had to disrupt his attention to destroy a spell he was casting partway through. But apparently the sea serpent flattening him had managed it.
I didn't run up the gangway. Nightingale was sprawled in the bottom of the boat, not moving, the sea serpent's tail lashing above him. I didn't sense him starting another spell. So I didn't do what he told me. Instead I jumped back into the boat, without impello to help me this time, and landed partly on top of the sea serpent's tail. It was slimy and I skittered off it as fast as I could. Nightingale was raising his head and blinking a lot, and then he saw me.
"No, no, you stupid boy--" he gasped. The boat lurched crazily, first one way, then the other, and we had to grab each other and hang on to avoid being thrown into the water. Nightingale had a death-grip on me with his right hand, and I caught his staff before it could fall overboard too.
Life jackets, I thought. That's what we should have brought. Or maybe the Navy. A destroyer or three, for when you need that little bit extra backup to deal with a sea serpent.
The boat steadied and it seemed like nothing was happening for a moment. I could see the sea serpent's head a little away from us in the water. "If we don't do any magic," I said, "maybe it will calm down again and go away."
Nightingale was sitting up, looking uncharacteristically dishevelled and pale. I mean, I'm sure I looked like I'd been dragged through a hedge both forwards and backwards after all that, but Nightingale typically walks out of a magically exploding building without a speck of dust or a wrinkle on his suit. So I didn't like seeing him like that at all. "Perhaps," he said. He brushed some dirt from his sleeve and shifted position uncomfortably.
There was a great deep clang and I looked around. They'd closed the Barrier. The huge gates rose up out of the water, shrugging off waves and storm surges and sea serpents alike. London was safe.
The sea serpent's head didn't seem to be getting any further away, but the gates were moving. No. We were moving, away from the gates. It was smooth enough that I didn't realise at first, but then I looked around the little boat properly and realised that the sea serpent was looped around the entire boat, a full circle lassooing us. Behind us I could just see the glowing tail propelling us through the water.
The gates of the Barrier were shrinking fast. We were heading out to sea.
Nightingale leaned back against the gunwale, one hand on his cane. "Or possibly not," he said. "Damn."
"Can we signal for help?" I asked. Nightingale's super-powered werelight was better than any flare. I could still see both banks of the river, and this was a busy shipping channel. Someone would be able to rescue us.
"No." Nightingale knelt up and looked around too, taking in the sea serpent's position. "It will attack any boats that approach it. Let's not make this situation worse. I don't think it's going to kill us, not right now."
Don't increase the number of casualties. It's the first rule of disaster management, and the one I had signally failed to follow a few minutes ago. From the frown between his eyes as he looked at me, Nightingale was thinking of this.
I was wondering what would be worse than being carried off to sea by a sea serpent. "What does it want with us? Can we negotiate with it?" I haven't had much hostage rescue training, but I was willing to learn fast under these circumstances.
"It's an animal," he said impatiently. "You can't talk your way out of this one." He settled back down. "All those stories about why wizards don't cross water? This is why. If you do magic on the high seas, you attract them."
"Then what do we do?"
The waves were very high around us, and the wind drove rain across the boat, but we were somehow avoiding being swamped. The sea serpent was carrying the boat along with impressive smoothness, considering the weather. "It's taking us somewhere," I said.
"Correct. I suspect we will find that this is a female, and she is taking us back to her nest for her young."
"Oh, that's an improvement," I muttered.
"Sea serpents nest on rocky coastlines, and we won't be more than a few hours away from it. Our best chance of winning free will be there."
"Will magic actually work against it?" I asked. "Can you take it with a fireball?" I didn't bother asking if I could take it. I can burn through bigger things than a paper target with my fireballs these days, but you don't bother with my popgun when you've got a missile sitting next to you.
"Not easily. They are remarkably powerful creatures in their way, and their hides repel the use of magic on them. Fireballs would not be effective." He looked out at the sea-glowing head in front of us. "Besides, they're much rarer now than they were when I was young. And they don't harm people as a rule. Only magicians."
David Attenborough eat your heart out, I thought. Nightingale now revealed as a fully paid-up member of the Save The Sea Serpents club, even while being carried off to be used as a chew toy by a nest of them, I huddled down beside him to wait.
We'd been moving for about half an hour when I noticed that the waves seemed to be getting rougher and higher. Spray was starting to soak through my trousers even though I had my legs drawn up as much under my coat as I could, and the little boat was rocking more wildly. Then I looked over the side and saw the sea serpent's coil loosening.
"It's letting us go," I said.
Nightingale looked around. There was nothing visible, no lights of other ships, no distant coast, and without the sea serpent's protection the boat was starting to tilt alarmingly. In a moment we'd be swamped. "We don't want it to let us go here." He made a complicated spell around us which blocked the next wave that would have drenched us both, then cast a powerful werelight in the direction of the sea serpent. Its head rose up out of the water, it stared at us and then it coiled around the boat again and kept on swimming.
"That's better," said Nightingale. "I think I'll keep these up for a while to encourage it."
It was noticeably more comfortable behind Nightingale's invisible umbrella. "You've got to show me how to do that," I said.
"Study it now," he answered. "It's within your grasp. Start by identifying the formae I'm using."
I closed my eyes for a while, paying attention to the steady hum of the spell, then opened my eyes to look at it. Not that there was much to see, with an invisible umbrella, but I noticed how it was stopping the rain but not really doing anything to the wind.
"You're using aqua," I said at last. "It's not a barrier. You're collecting up the water as it arrives and bouncing it off and--" I looked again, "tipping it over the side." Thus avoiding the problem where the drips from the edge of your umbrella go down your neck. I spotted two of the inflectentes he was using, and he nodded and told me the other two. The invisible umbrella caught a sudden sideways wave and I watched it bounce off the dome, run down the side and soak the side of the sea serpent, which didn't object.
Nightingale's been teaching me magic for almost two years and I knew what the next step was, and I pulled my coat down a bit further in preparation. "Have you got it?"
My first attempt at the umbrella spell funnelled rainwater neatly onto my lap. The second evaporated the rain as it fell and created a small cloud, though that one slipped away before I could generate my own weather system. The third didn't do anything at all. Nightingale adjusted his hat pointedly.
I was pretty cold and damp and, if I'm honest, kind of scared, though it's hard to be really scared when you have Nightingale sitting next to you as calm as if he was in the atrium of the Folly doing the crossword. But a big part of what Nightingale teaches me is how to do magic when I'm not in ideal conditions, not in the lab where it's quiet and calm and you can take your time, because that's not what my life is like most of the time. So learning how to do a new spell while being abducted by a sea serpent was par for the course.
I managed to repel water for about thirty seconds, then for a minute. Then it was back to clouds again. But Nightingale was right: it wasn't like there was anything else to do here. So I worked at it and after about half an hour I could make a serviceable umbrella that blocked the spray and rain. Just in time for the rain to stop.
"We're going west," Nightingale said. "The storm was in the North Sea. I think we're heading through the Channel."
Out to the Atlantic, I didn't say. I really hoped Nightingale was right about the baby sea serpent thing. But it was a bit calmer, and we'd left the rain behind, and the clouds weren't so low and heavy. I saw some distant lights once and watched them until I couldn't tell if I was still seeing them or not. I was starting to feel seriously cold, even huddled up under my coat, and made the mistake of saying so.
"You could have followed my instructions," Nightingale said sharply to my complaint. "Then you at least would be warm and safe somewhere." He looked away.
Then I'd be frantically trying to force the RNLI and everyone else to go after the sea serpent and get you back, I didn't say in return. I huddled back under my coat and went back to looking out over the water and trying not to let my teeth chatter.
"Rory would be so jealous of me," Nightingale said a few minutes later, unexpectedly, as if he wanted to make up for snapping at me. I didn't ask who Rory was, because I've learned the hard way that if you break Nightingale's flow early on, he remembers that he's talking about people who've been dead seventy years and clams up again. But I made a listening noise, to show that there were no hard feelings.
"He wrote a dissertation about sea serpents but never actually saw one. Not for want of trying, either. He used to go out in a little sailboat and control it by magic, and never attracted anything. Spent his summers getting himself tide-bound on beaches all around the Welsh coast and never found a nest either. He had a theory that they would like the Welsh coastline. Something about the waters of the St George's Channel. He--"
The sea serpent shifted position a bit and there was a really worrying cracking noise. I just had time to think, no, that's not good, and then I was sitting in an inch of water. Nightingale cast a werelight and I saw that the front of the boat had a big split in it and water was coming in fast.
Nightingale's signare flashed and the water began to pour up the sides and out of the boat again. I swallowed and made the umbrella spell, upside down, over the place where the crack was. It held first try and it felt stable. I concentrated on keeping it there.
"Good thinking," Nightingale said, and I maintained the spell. It was working; the water was staying on the outside of the boat. I was starting to wonder if I could shrink the area of the spell a little.
"Don't mess with it," Nightingale said quietly. "I'll take over if you need me to, but you've got it just right there."
I wondered if Rory, whoever he'd been, would still be jealous of us. Probably.
I held the spell as long as I could, but it's always tricky with new spells and I began to feel it slip sideways. Nightingale nodded tiredly. "My turn," he said. His inverted umbrella was a lot smaller and neater than mine. I wrapped my arms around my knees and tried not to shiver, or stare at the dark line in the white bottom of the boat.
I lost track of time then, but it could have been as much as an hour that Nightingale sat there holding our boat together. I stared out at the sea and saw occasional lights in the distance, but nothing close by. It was dark, far darker than it ever gets in London, and the little werelight that I was maintaining seemed to only emphasise the darkness. The steady tick-tock of Nightingale's spell was comforting, the undertones of his signare seeming more vivid in the night. I looked at him, sitting perfectly still beside me, and couldn't help but feel better. Then I made myself look away.
Making a pass at your boss is one of those really risky moves in any organisation. In the police it's not exactly unheard-of, given the pressures everyone's under, but there's still a lot of ways it can go sour. When you're in a two-man unit, it's a really bad idea no matter how impressive your boss is. It's not like you can snog him at the end of a long shift and then transfer to a different station if it ends up causing problems.
Still, sitting huddled next to him in a boat thinking about what the chances of survival were and all the things I wanted to do, I was seriously tempted. I looked back at him again, and then moved my werelight a little closer to him with a frown. He was shivering almost as much as me, and his face was strained, right hand curled around his staff.
"D'you want me to do the patch for a bit?" I asked, and he gave a short nod. I got my spell going, and Nightingale sighed and bowed his head and I concentrated on keeping the patch in place, and watched Nightingale and tried not to think about what we were going to have to do next.
The shadows were darker on my right, I realised suddenly, darker than the night sky. I blinked stupidly at them for a while before I really believed it. "That's land," I said. "Cliffs."
It took a moment for Nightingale to respond. "Ah. Good," he said. "Wait until we're closer."
The clouds were breaking up now here, and the moon flickered out, and I saw land properly: high cliffs looming up. The light of a building, but just one, not enough to be a town or village. Rocks, looking very close. Distances are funny on the water, a distance you could walk in less than two minutes is more than enough to drown in, and there were bound to be currents, plus just the shock of cold water can kill you all by itself. At least it was October instead of March, the seas wouldn't be so cold. But still, jumping over the side and swimming for shore was definitely a solution of the very last resort.
"Up there," Nightingale said. There was a promontory and then a long rugged-looking shore backed by grey cliffs. "We break free around the point. You'll distract it, I propel the boat in to shore." There was a glitter in his eye that made me understand why everyone used to call him The Nightingale. "Get to shore any way you can. I'll be right behind you."
A shield like a tower, I thought, spread over the son of someone. Something like that, anyway. But I'm not a classically educated gentleman. I'm police and we're suspicious bastards and this was the second time Nightingale had tried this tonight. I waited for him to move, and when he knelt up in the boat, he kept his left arm tucked in by his side.
"How are you going to swim with whatever you've done to your arm?"
For the first time I saw genuine worry in his face, not about whatever he'd done to himself in the fight earlier but because I'd found him out. "It's a sprain, nothing more. We don't have time for this." He was watching the waves, the rocks, the beach tantalisingly close. "I'll be fine."
Yeah, you will, because I'm going to be right beside you, I thought grimly.
Nightingale took the staff in his good hand and I felt the surge of power. The sea serpent's coils slid off the boat and we bobbed free. I was keeping up the patch on the front of the boat, and I also managed to hurl a few noisy fireballs out to sea, remembering what Nightingale had done earlier. The boat began to move towards the shore. I had a sense of tremendous complexity in the spell Nightingale was working to move it, more formae than I could keep track of at the same time as making my own spell. But his expression was completely calm, almost eerily calm. I tried to imitate it.
The sea serpent wasn't buying my distraction. Not really a surprise, given the difference between the fireballs I was throwing and Nightingale's spells. I sent the hottest, fiercest thing I could out to sea and Nightingale's head jerked round. "Steady there, Peter."
The sea serpent undulated back towards us and arched right over the boat. It was about to push the whole thing under, I realised, and sink us properly. Nightingale swished the boat sideways and the bottom of the boat suddenly grated against something that wasn't the sea serpent. We were on the rocks. The boat lurched and Nightingale fell sideways, but kept his spell going anyway.
Unable to sink the boat when it was on top of a rock, the sea serpent turned back again. Its great length made it a bit slower to react to things, which was one of the few advantages we small mammals have over the big cold-blooded creatures of the world. But when it did react, there wasn't much you could do about it. It slapped the side of the boat with its tail hard enough to crack it all the way along, and Nightingale and me both ended up in a heap in the bottom. I'd lost my grip on the patch somewhere in that and water was coming in again, soaking me along one side. I tried to make a shield spell as the tail swung around again, and the blow didn't land. Nightingale made a much tougher shield over mine.
We were less than twenty metres from the shore, I reckoned. The length of a swimming pool. A swimming pool with icy water, rocks, giant waves and a very annoyed sea serpent in it. But it was about as good as it was going to get.
"Go!" Nightingale shouted. He had his staff in his left hand now, using his right to help himself out of the boat. The sea serpent slapped the water, the boat rocked and tipped us both in.
I was freezing already, and I hadn't expected the water to be that much worse, but it was. I yelped as I went in. I couldn't have stopped myself for anything, even though Nightingale was completely silent and concentrating beside me, keeping his shield up over us both. We were only shoulder-deep. I felt the bottom with my feet, slippery and awkward with rocks. The sea serpent lunged towards us, jaws wide around Nightingale's shield. A wave rose up and went over both our heads.
Despite being literally underwater, Nightingale kept up the spell. I wasn't sure I could have remembered my own name with the wave over my head trying to spin us sideways. But I hung on to him and when the wave passed over the sea serpent was still on the other side of the shield. There was a look of total concentration on Nightingale's face, as if he was nothing but the shield spell. If he could keep it up, I had to get him to shore.
I got an arm wrapped around him and dragged him through the water until it was more like chest-deep. Another wave ducked us both, but I didn't let go of Nightingale and he didn't let go of his spell, but I could sense it was weakening, the usually tidy clockwork of his signare starting to seem out of sync. The sea serpent lunged again and this time I yanked us both sideways. The sea serpent burst through the shield. Nightingale was gasping, struggling to recreate his spell, another huge wave crashed over us and I lost my grip on him. I flailed out frantically and grabbed something.
It was Nightingale's staff, and grabbing it then felt like catching hold of a flaming arrow in flight, but it was thrumming with the woodsmoke and pine of his signare and I held on to it tightly. The sea serpent turned its attention on me.
I leaned back in the water and stared at the sea serpent. Nightingale was still underwater. I was so cold I couldn't feel my legs. But for a moment, my mind was perfectly clear. I took that clarity and made the most perfect lux impello in my life, not a fireball but a flying light, all channelled through Nightingale's staff. It left my hand like a javelin and flew glowing across the water, burning through all the stored power Nightingale had put into it and lit with the match of my spell.
The sea serpent arced up out of the water, following it, and then took off after it faster than Toby with a tennis ball. I groped around frantically until I found Nightingale surfacing painfully beside me, dazzled by the light from the staff. I got my arms around him and he coughed and gasped for air, but he got his feet under himself. My whole body felt incredibly heavy, like I was hauling rocks through the water, but the water was waist-deep now and I could see the beach clearly.
Another wave knocked me to my knees, and Nightingale pulled me up somehow, and we scrambled out of the sea panting and gasping and shaking, and landed with a crunch of rocks on the shingle beach.
Out at sea, I saw the sea serpent rear up out of the water, Nightingale's staff in its jaws, still glowing. It plunged into the water with its trophy, and I watched the gleam slowly fade to darkness.
The moon went back behind the clouds and I stared around in the grey-shadowed night stupidly and curled into a ball. Land, I thought. Land is good.
A glowing light that wasn't the moon bobbed over my head. Nightingale's werelight, spluttering a little. He was sitting up beside me, swaying. "Can't stay here," he gasped through chattering teeth. "Come on, Peter. Get up. Got to get above the tide line."
I could barely feel my feet. Or my arms, or my hands, or anything except an overwhelming, exhausting cold that sucked the strength from my muscles and seemed to be bending my bones. But in the werelight I could see we were on a long shingle slope, only just above the line of the waves. The shingle sloped up, first shallowly, then steeply, until it reached the base of the towering cliffs. I couldn't see any sign of civilisation, not so much as a streetlight. It was probably a really nice beach, but I'd have swapped it all for even the most hideous new-build housing estate.
I got to my hands and knees and began to crawl, then stood up. Nightingale was on his feet beside me and I flinched at the expression on his face. This was the man who'd returned from Ettersberg, on foot, injured, in January. He got his arm around me and leaning on each other we staggered up the beach. I fell down twice and each time Nightingale dragged me up relentlessly.
The moon came out again and I saw a line of washed-out colour about two hundred metres away. In the moonlight it was all grey-toned: grey-blue, grey-red, grey-yellow, but I knew what they were. Nightingale saw them too.
"Come on," he muttered. "Just a bit more, Peter. Shelter." It sounded like he was encouraging himself more than me. The shingle was hell to walk on, it kept twisting and turning under my feet and we both fell down and had to drag ourselves up again and again. But at last we reached the two steps up onto a wooden boardwalk, and a row of beautiful beach huts in front of us.
Nightingale stared at the door of the nearest one and I felt something that made me more afraid than anything the sea serpent had done: his half-built forma collapsing uncompleted, like a broken clockwork toy. I gave the door a couple of kicks and the small lock broke. Nightingale lurched through the door and I heard the distinctive thump-thump-thump as a human body collapses onto an echoing surface. I stumbled in afterwards and pulled the door closed behind us.
It was completely dark. I made a werelight. It was a classic beach hut: lots of deck chairs and a table folded up at the side, nautical-looking cupboards built into a bench at the end and a few scattered cushions. A battery-powered lamp. I switched it on and let my werelight go. There was a blue and white rag rug on the floor. Nightingale was prone on top of it. It was all too easy to crash down next to him, and I did. It was getting up again that was going to be the challenge. But he needed help. We both needed help, but what we had was me.
"'m fine," Nightingale mumbled as I shook his shoulder. "Don't you have work to do?"
Hypothermia is a killer, and when you're soaking wet it's a fast killer. I knew this, but it was hard to make myself do anything about it. All I wanted was to lie down and wait until I felt better. But I wouldn't feel better. And despite the beach huts, this wasn't a town seafront, this was a remote beach in the middle of the night. Nobody else was going to do anything useful, and neither of our phones would have survived the one-two of intensely powerful magic and being thoroughly soaked.
It really sucks to be the one the buck stops with. But Nightingale had used up everything keeping the sea serpent off us and getting us here. All I had to do was basic first aid. It wasn't a bad bargain. I got up on my hands and knees and looked at him hopelessly, trying to think about what I should do. Then I opened the cupboards at the end of the hut.
"Jackpot," I muttered. Towels. Lots of big beach towels, dry and soft. The next cupboard was almost as good. Several packets of biscuits. Mugs. Teabags. UHT milk. And a small gas camping stove and kettle. I stared at the two cupboards for a while and tried to work out which to go for first. My brain seemed to be on a work-to-rule strike: one idea at a time, no exceptions. But eventually I started to peel off my soaking coat. Which wasn't easy, since I couldn't really feel my hands. I got it off somehow, then my equally soaked sweater and t-shirt underneath, all my clothes, and got myself wrapped up in about four towels. Dry. Dry felt amazing. I realised I was missing a critical component of my quest to make tea, and there was no plumbing in here. Fortunately, I'm a wizard.
"Aqua," I intoned, and made a small puddle on top of the cupboard. I glared at it, concentrated, tried again, and this time my kettle filled up. I lit the stove and ate about six biscuits while staring at the flame, and started to feel--well, not better, but like survival was a reasonable possibility. Like I would start being able to feel my fingers soon.
I threw the rest of the towels in Nightingale's direction, and the cushions too. He mumbled something incomprehensible and didn't move, and I lurched back over to him. He wasn't shivering as much as me, and he should have been. "This," I muttered, "is what happens when you let your fashion sense get in the way of practical work clothing."
The police coat was heavy with seawater. I undid the buttons and then pulled him into a sitting position. He was in and out of awareness, eyes open but blank. If he was seeing anything, it wasn't me. I got the coat over his shoulders and pushed it away to join my sodden clothes. The suit jacket joined it, and the waistcoat, and I began to unbutton his shirt. He made a guttural sound as I pulled it off his left arm, and I winced too as my sluggish brain remembered his injury too late. His wrist was swollen and purple and yellow with brusing. Could be the sprain he said it was, could be broken, I didn't have any way to tell. Either way, it wasn't life-threatening and the cold was. I wrapped a towel around his shoulders and held it there with my arm, trying to dry him off.
I spread out the cushions on the floor and let him lie back on top of them. His belt was swollen with seawater and hard to undo. I got there in the end and stripped him completely, piled up a few more cushions and a lot more towels and wrapped him up in all of them. He still wasn't shivering much.
The kettle began to whistle, and Nightingale sat up abruptly, scattering towels everywhere. "Take cover--" he was muttering, and I felt another broken-clockwork forma.
"It's just the kettle," I said, and eased him back down. I tucked the towels around his shoulders again and went over to make the tea. There was even sugar, little individual paper tubes lifted from some cafe somewhere. I don't normally like sugar in my tea, but I dumped three tubes into each of them, then wrestled open the miniature pots of UHT milk too. When I tried to lift up the mug, it seemed to be burning right through my hands, so I left them to cool for a bit and went back to Nightingale.
His hair was soaked, I noticed. I pulled one of the towels up over it and began to rub it dry. He blinked up at me in bewilderment, then said, "Peter," and closed his eyes again. His hair was soft and fine, white-boy hair, and I ran my fingers through it again, just to prove that I was getting sensation back in my hands at last.
I figured the tea would be cool enough to drink, and I took a sip. It was probably the worst cup of tea I'd had in my life, and the most welcome. I finished the mug in about three swallows and then took Nightingale's to him dubiously. "Cup of tea?" I said.
He made an effort to sit up, and I held him there with an arm around his shoulders. He was horrifyingly cold to the touch and it was hard to make myself get closer to him when it felt like I'd only just stopped feeling equally frozen. He looked at the mug vaguely and made no effort to take it from me. I lifted it cautiously to his mouth for him and he took a sip, then turned his head away with a grimace.
"You know I don't take sugar," he mumbled. "Get Molly to make some real tea."
"It's this or nothing," I said. "Come on. You need it."
I coaxed about half of the tea into him, then he pushed it away suddenly and my reactions were too slow to stop it spilling. Fortunately it went on the floor instead of us. "All right, all right," I said. "Be like that."
He lay down again on the cushions and I wrapped the towels and blankets around him. There weren't many left for me after that, and he still wasn't shivering much, and he should have been. I knew what you're supposed to do in this situation. And I wasn't really hesitating, because it was Nightingale, and he'd do the same for me. It's just that this wasn't how I wanted to get naked and tucked up in bed with him.
"All right," I said, mostly to myself. "I've got to get you warmer."
I crawled into the blankets with him and wrapped them around us both. Touching him was almost painful, it felt like my skin was trying to crawl away instead of touch his, which was about the most ironic thing ever considering some of the dreams I've had lately. I wrapped both my arms around him and pulled him as close to me as I could bear. He made an odd sound, half pain, half pleasure, and I pulled the blankets up so that they covered most of our heads too, just leaving a little gap for our faces.
"I'm all right," he mumbled, "no need to fuss. No need." But he didn't try to move away.
The battery-powered lamp died suddenly and we were back into darkness. I could feel Nightingale's chilly breath on my neck, shallow and slow. My feet were tingling painfully, my legs had pins and needles, and shivers kept going over me. For a while Nightingale just lay there, freezing my balls off for me, and I began to wonder if I should have left him here and tried to go for proper help. But I didn't think I'd have made it even to the nearest road on my own. And gradually Nightingale started to shiver, just little tremors going over him at first, then getting worse and worse until he felt like he was going to come apart at the joints, painfully gasping for breath in my ear.
I was well beyond knackered by now, the kind of exhausted when you've stopped after doing way too much, and you don't have a hope of doing anything more, but I couldn't go to sleep with Nightingale's distress beating down on me. I held him tighter and ran my hands up and down his back. Either his skin was feeling warmer against mine or I was getting used to the cold. He made a pained sound, still shaking more than I'd have thought a person could shake, and I cupped my hand behind his head and mumbled the kind of things that are embarrassing to remember afterwards. Not that I thought Nightingale would.
I think I dozed a little, but I was too worried to sleep properly. It must have been over an hour before he started to feel warm, or at least a more normal temperature, first in his chest pressed to mine, then slowly in his legs and arms. His hands, tucked against me, were still cold, and I rubbed them between mine, careful of his injured wrist, and said just at the limit of hearing, "There, that's better, ssh, you're going to be okay now, I've got you, I've got you."
The moon shone in through the little window. There was a gleam on Nightingale's face, and I realised his eyes were open and looking at me. The only reason I didn't jump out of the blankets instantly is that I was way, way too shattered to move, but I did pull away. He removed his good hand from mine, and I felt a sick unhappy twist in my stomach. Well done Peter. Survived a sea serpent only to sink your apprenticeship.
But there was a wondering smile curling at the corners of his mouth. He slowly moved his free arm and touched my cheek very lightly, then wrapped his arm around me, pulling me in again, close to him. "You do seem to have me," he said in a low voice. Then he gave a sigh and leaned back in the nest of blankets, tugging me unceremoniously so that my head was on his shoulder and our legs were tangled together. "I am so tired," he said. "But stay there, Peter?"
"Yeah," I said into the soft skin at the base of his neck, "yeah, I'll stay here."
Winter nights are long in England, and we wouldn't be rescued until morning. Late in the morning. I hoped.