“I’m saying Wilfred Waite is a warlock and I’m helping him.”

Mike, old chum, this makes no sense.”

Kane was leaning over the kitchen table, trying to make sense of his father’s accounts. He had the mortgage papers, statements from three bank accounts and tax returns for his business going back five years, and though he’d been going over them for the past hour, the big question still on his mind was why Mike had taken out a second mortgage. He was a self-employed draughtsman, with no office rent or staff to pay. And he always seemed to be working. Often when Kane arrived home late at night, Mike would be locked in his office, the click of his keyboard or the scratch of his pencil the only sounds in the house. It didn’t make sense they owed so much on the mortgage. Maybe he was a secret gambler. Keeping a mistress? Gambling with a secret mistress? Only something outlandish like that would explain the dire state of their finances.

His eyes were grainy and sore, his head like a block of lead, and his mind was screaming at him to stop trying to understand something Mike had taken with him to the grave. His mind was right, of course. What difference did it make how they’d gotten into this mess? After poring over these papers since the crack of dawn, the only thing Kane knew – the only thing that mattered – was that he had no chance of making the monthly mortgage payments.

In a burst of frustration, he shoved the books and papers away. Flying off the table, they slapped to the floor. Papers scattered across the tiles.

Pulling out a chair, Kane dropped into it and sat staring at his hands. They were strong hands, dedicated to protecting property and saving lives, but he’d never felt weaker.

He didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there when he heard the front door open. It slammed shut. Footsteps approached the kitchen.

Dylan appeared in the doorway, his blue eyes bright in his white face. He stopped short when he saw Kane staring at him. “Oh – hey,” he chirped, glancing at the papers on the floor. “What happened?”

Kane looked him up and down. His clothes were rumpled and grubby. There was dirt on his face, lines of it running down his cheeks. “Where have you been?” he asked. “I thought you were still in bed.”

“Nup.”

“Where were you?”

“Out. On a visit.”

“Who with?”

Dylan smirked. “I’m not supposed to say.”

“Have you been out all night?” As Dylan went past him to the cupboard, he screwed up his nose. “What is that godawful smell?”

Dylan laughed shrilly – an unfamiliar sound from his usually gloomy brother.

“You smell like you’ve been rolling in manure.”

Dylan brushed the dirt off his trousers.

“Don’t do that. You’re making a mess.”

“Chill, brother.”

“Chill, brother? Who are you? Shaggy?” He got up. “Where have you been?”

Dylan, smiling to himself, rinsed a dirty bowl under the tap.

Shaking his head, Kane began collecting the papers and books from the floor. He could hear Dylan behind him pouring cornflakes into the bowl.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

Kane glanced impatiently at him. He was in no mood for his brother’s games. “Go to bed,” he said, getting to his feet. “You look like you’re about to fall over.”

“I couldn’t sleep now.” Dylan plucked at his shirt, brought the material to his nose. “I suppose I do stink a bit. Not surprising really.”

Kane watched him as he poured milk into the bowl, carried it to the table, sat down and began eating. Despite himself, he was curious to know how his brother got so dirty, and why he was so bloody cheerful all of a sudden.

“Were you up all night?”

Dylan nodded.

“Doing what?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“You already said that.”

“Well you wouldn’t.”

Kane waited for more, but his brother kept on eating. As he spooned cornflakes into his mouth, he seemed to be enjoying a private memory. He was nodding and smiling and chewing with his mouth open, making loud crunching and smacking noises. Kane knew he knew Kane hated that, but he wasn’t about to distract his brother from answering his questions by reacting to it.

Dropping the papers on the table, he went to the window. A steady rain was falling. Rising above the Kimmerles’ roof were thick clouds, black and angry. Another storm was on its way.

“I’ve been communing with the dead,” Dylan declared to his back, and then went back to his crunching and smacking.

The comment was so weird it took Kane a while to process it. He realised suddenly that Dylan must be talking about their parents. He must have been out at the cemetery. But all night? He looked again at the state of Dylan’s clothes, thinking: What was he doing? – rolling around in the dirt?

“What –”

“There’s this wizard,” explained Dylan, waving his spoon at him. “Necromancer, he calls himself. Wilfred Waite. From the antiques shop.”

Now Kane was even more confused. Wasn’t ‘wizard’ a code for someone who cooks up drugs in meth labs?

“He’s got books and chemicals that do things that are out of this world.”

“Drugs? You mean drugs?”

Dylan laughed at him. “Not drugs, stupid. Magic.”

Kane’s next thought was ‘magic mushrooms’ – but he decided it was best to let his brother go on with his explanation rather than keep leaping in with a bunch of guesses.

Dylan went back to eating cornflakes and chewing with his mouth open and smiling at his private memory.

“What are you saying, Dylan?”

With mouth full, he said, “I’m saying Wilfred Waite is a warlock and I’m helping him.”

“A what? A warlock? Like a male witch warlock?”

He spooned more cornflakes into his mouth.

“Is that what you’re saying? This character is a male witch?”

“Warlock. No one says male witch.”

“I don’t believe what I’m hearing.”

“Told you.”

“You’re talking about it like it’s …” Kane couldn’t think of an analogy, so he threw up his hands.

Dylan seemed pleased by his reaction.

“What did you take?”

Now Dylan was the one to look confused.

Kane felt the magma of panic rise inside him. With everything else he had to contend with, a drug-addled brother would be enough to push him over the edge. His mind screamed at him to run – run away from Quorn and Dylan and psycho ex-girlfriends and all this responsibility and do what he wanted to do, not what his dead parents expected of him. He wasn’t a mature, responsible adult, he was a healthy young man with his whole life ahead of him, and he’d be damned before he let this family tragedy be his personal tragedy.

“I’m going to work,” he said, though today was his day off.

“The spells are ancient,” Dylan said, beaming at him.

Kane went up to him, a sick anger blurring his vision. “What is this shit about warlocks and spells? What drugs are you on, Dylan?”

The shrill laugh came again. Dylan dropped the spoon in the bowl. “You crack me up.”

From his reaction, Kane wasn’t sure anymore that this was about drugs. He had no idea what it was about. Time to start the conversation over.

“Who is this person you spent the night with?”

“Mr Waite.”

When Kane looked bewildered, he added, “The old guy from the shop we went to – when we bought the sideboardy thing.”

Now they were getting somewhere. After they arrived home with the sideboard, Mike told him about the store owner: a doddering gnome with oversized clothes and a voice like tyres on gravel. He said this guy had told them a wacky story about a supernatural monster that wanted to destroy the universe, and then they’d shared a laugh over Dylan’s debate with him.

“What’s this shopkeeper got to do with anything?”

“I told you: he’s a necromancer.”

“He’s the warlock?”

“Yep.”

“The kind that casts magic spells?”

“Yep.”

“Real spells or pretend ones?”

“Real ones.”

Kane had a sudden vision of Dylan dancing around a bonfire with a bunch of naked, saggy-skinned old men and women who got their kicks from enticing impressionable teenagers into their nasty Satan-inspired orgies.

He shook the image from his head. “And?” he asked, though he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear more.

Dylan leaned back in his chair. He looked dead tired, but he was also shaking with nervous excitement. “I went to Wilfred’s farmhouse, down on Deep Ocean Road. There’s an old church there, and old Willie said there were people buried behind it, from when the farm was running last century. We built a fire and did these chants from these old books and this rumbling came up from the ground. Willie said it was the spirits of the dead. He said he can make out what they say, and I will too when I’m initiated. I had to bury three runes and do rites over the graves – and if I do that enough times, eventually I’ll understand what the corpses are saying, same as him.”

All Kane could think was: This is worse than drugs.

“He needs an assistant cos he’s getting too old. I’m doing it, Kane.”

He stared feverishly at Kane, waiting for his reaction.

“Doing what, Dylan? You’re talking gibberish.”

Dylan made an exasperated face at him. “What is it you don’t understand?”

“You – just said you were talking to dead people.”

“No, I said Wilfred was. Why don’t you listen?”

“First thing is: that’s impossible. Second thing: name me one time a zombie story has ever turned out well.”

Dylan smirked at him. “They’re not zombies. They’re spirits.”

“I don’t care what they are.”

“Geez, you’re thick. Zombies are dead bodies. Spirits are –”

“I know what spirits are!” Kane felt like he was conversing with a lunatic.

Dylan’s face began to darken. “Can’t you be excited for me just this once? This is a job. I can get money. For the house.”

“There’s nothing in what you’ve said to get excited about, Dylan. Seems to me you’re either raving mad or a complete idiot.”

“Don’t talk to me that way.”

“You just told me you’ve been hanging out with a warlock and playing Chinese whispers with dead people. Can you hear yourself?”

“All I hear is my Neanderthal brother thinks everything I do is shit. Nothing’s changed around here! Welcome back, Dad!”

Pushing back his chair, Dylan got up and stormed out of the kitchen.

Kane stared at the empty seat, his mind surprisingly calm. At least this was the Dylan he knew. Returning to the window, he gazed out at the sodden garden, trying to draw energy from the greenery and life out there. He was finding it hard to comprehend how his brother could play games about death after the trauma they’d just been through. It seemed criminally morbid. Kane had focused on moving the opposite way: getting on with his life, forging ahead. He was back on track with his training; he’d resisted January’s attempts to use his tragedy to get back into his bed; he was trying to figure out what to do about the house. If Dylan was heading down a dark path, there was a risk he would drag them both down.

Leaving the window, he went to the dining room, to his mother’s sideboard, and picked up a wedding photo of his parents. They were both in white, under a clear blue sky, hugging in a garden of red roses. His mother was gazing lovingly at his father; his father was smiling out at him.

“Don’t worry, folks,” he said to the picture. “I’ll look after him.”

Putting the photo down, he opened a drawer, pulled out some papers and went through them until he found the bill of sale from Quorn Fine Arts and Antiquities. Then he went to the computer and typed in ‘Wilfred Waite’.

Dylan threw himself on the bed. His mind was still popping like fireworks over what had happened last night, but his mood had taken a dive thanks to his brother’s scepticism and negativity. How could he be so naïve? They lived in Quorn, for God’s sake! There were probably more witches and ghosts per square mile here than anywhere else on Earth. If anyone was being stupid and ignorant, it was Kane.

Despite the thoughts crackling in his head, he quickly fell asleep. But it was a slumber more than a sleep, a dream-memory of the graves behind the chapel at the farm. In the dream, Dylan had his ear against the ground, where something gnarled and black, buried just below the surface, was whispering to him in a guttural voice. He couldn’t make out what the thing was saying, but its tone suggested an enticement, a promise of something incredible if he would do it a favour he couldn’t yet understand.

Now he was back in his bedroom. He could hear the hiss of the pipes, something banging in the bowels of the house. The room was full of shadows, though Dylan knew it was still morning.

His mother’s voice sounded close to his ear. “Eat your breakfast,” she said. “It’s your favourite.”

He saw Fruit Loops pouring into a bowl. But that was Oliver’s favourite breakfast, not his. He heard his baby brother’s excited squeal. He was probably in the treehouse, swinging off a branch or climbing towards the sky. He virtually lived up there, high above the rest of the earthlings. He thought it was the next best thing to flying. Oliver was fearless, like his brother Kane, whereas Dylan was the quiet one in the family, the artist and thinker. The odd one out.

The shadows grew, and now Dylan was in a different room. This one was dark. Maroon velvet curtains covered the windows. A broken chandelier was hanging from the ceiling, swinging like a pendulum. Then he saw them. Ghostly shapes. They started as a grey mist, emerging from cracks in the dirty ceiling and from the edges of the cornices, and as they descended towards him they materialised into the shapes of people – ugly, twisted, freakish dead people, with hollowed-out eyes and crushed skulls and mouths open in silent screams. They came from the worst-of-the-worst nightmares, but these ones were real. Wilfred had shown him their pictures in his books.

Dylan jerked awake. His heart was pounding in his chest, making his head throb with every beat. His mouth and his eyes were dry and it felt like a cavern had opened up in his stomach, demanding to be filled. Rising onto his elbows, he gazed towards the window. It was dark outside. The house was silent.

Dropping his head back on the pillow, he closed his eyes and was once again fast asleep.

Read Chapter 11: Necromancer’s assistant