“Look at us: all armed and ready to meet the zombies.”
The rungs were worn smooth with age, crusty with rust at the places they were joined to the bricks. After testing the stability of the first rung, Kane slung the rifle over his shoulder, gave his two companions a taut smile and began his descent. It was awkward carrying the lamp, but he wasn’t about to descend into a foul-smelling abyss beneath a house of horrors without being able to see what might be waiting for him at the bottom. Above him, Arika leant over the edge of the well shining the torch on his head.
Twenty rungs down, the well ended and Kane stepped onto bare earth. Lifting the lamp, he saw he was standing at the top of a flight of stairs. The first two steps were broken, the slabs of stone cracked and crumbling, but after that they seemed largely intact. They were smooth and shiny from years of traffic, and it occurred to him that at some point in history the stairs may have led all the way to the surface, perhaps to a house that pre-dated this one.
“Anything down there?” Arika called from above.
“More stairs!” he yelled over his shoulder.
“Shall I come down?”
Raising his head, Kane used his arm to shield his eyes from the glare of the torch beam. “Sure!” he returned, barely able to conceal his reluctance.
But it wasn’t Arika who came down; it was Dylan. His thin arms strained as they fought against gravity, his legs wobbled and he grunted softly with each step. As he neared the last rung, Kane reached up and helped him down.
“You should start working out. Them arms are like spaghetti.”
Dylan stood catching his breath, sneering at him. “It’s such a crock being old.”
Arika came next, a heavy-duty flashlight hanging around her neck. The strap of her bag was slung over one shoulder, the bag rubbing against her hip, no doubt with the gun and wrench inside, and she was holding an axe awkwardly under her arm.
“Where’d you get that from?” laughed Kane, stepping into the stairwell to make room for her in the well.
“Dylan found them.”
“In a box of tools,” said Dylan. “And I got this,” he added, pulling a cattle prod from the waistband of his pants.
“Be careful with that, bro. You don’t want it zapping your you-know-whats.”
“They’re not my you-know-whats.” He jabbed his crotch with the end of the cattle prod. “It’d serve Wilfred right if I burnt them off.”
Arika, swinging the axe by her side, smiled at him.
“Look at us,” said Kane: “all armed and ready to meet the zombies.”
She froze. “Zombies?”
“Just a figure of speech.”
“I hate zombies.”
Kane was surprised by the vehemence in her voice. “You’re okay with mad wizards and killer housekeepers, but not zombies?”
“It’s something about eating brains. I like my brain.”
“I doubt there’ll be zombies all the way down here. I guess we’ll find out soon enough, though, won’t we?” Turning to the darkness, he said, “Let’s go find the book.”
“Jesus,” said Arika, shining her light on the stairs. “Where do you think this leads to? We’ll end up in China at this rate.”
“Wine cellar?” suggested Dylan.
“A long way to go for a bottle of red.”
“Only one way to find out,” said Kane.
He started down the stairs. After the first few steps, the brick-lined corridor turned abruptly to the left and then resumed at a right angle. They continued on in silence, their clothes rustling, their footsteps echoing up and down the dark corridor. The further they descended, the colder it seemed to get.
After a time, Kane began to discern a muffled wailing. He stopped and held up a hand. “Listen.”
They looked at each other. The wailing, which seemed to be coming from deep underground, rose in intensity until it became a long howl. It was a stark, lonely sound – something you might expect from an animal caught in a trap. A chill like he’d never felt before travelled up and down Kane’s spine.
“More dogs?” suggested Arika.
There was a human quality about the howl, which made Kane doubt it came from a dog.
“Maybe it heard us,” whispered Dylan.
“It’s probably the wind,” Kane said to comfort them.
“Yeah, sure,” said Arika. “A right storm happening down there.”
“If it’s anything more, we’ll deal with it. Like we have with everything else.”
“I don’t know about this,” said Dylan, his voice cracking. “Maybe we should go back and get help.”
“And how do you suggest we do that?” snapped Kane. “You wanna call in the cops and wait around till they send some rookie to see if there’s probable cause for a search warrant? We could tell them there’s a ghost in trouble in the wine cellar. That might hurry them up.”
“I just thought –”
“Maybe if we tell them you’re a teenager trapped in an old man’s body, that’ll push them along. We better suggest they bring along their wands in case there’s a magical fight with the sorcerer and his horde of reanimated zombie friends.”
“Easy there,” said Arika, striking his shoulder. “Your brother’s allowed to be scared. He isn’t in the best physical shape if something happens down there.”
“Why do you think I said he should stay upstairs? Why does no one ever listen to me?”
“The he-man has spoken.”
“It was only a suggestion,” grumbled Dylan. “Why do you have to have a conniption fit over everything?”
Kane took a deep breath. He was gripping the rifle so tight his hand hurt, and he realised he was more nervous than he’d let himself admit. “Let’s keep going,” he said. “The sooner we’re out of this madhouse the better.”
He held up the lamp and Arika played her flashlight on the stairs as they went deeper and deeper underground. The air was cold and damp, though the stink of rot and mould had largely dissipated – or maybe they’d just gotten used to it. Kane could hear Dylan wheezing. Behind Dylan was Arika. Kane could make out the tap of her footsteps, which in his mind seemed to rise in volume until they drowned out every other sound. His heart began booming in his ears at the thought of what he was doing: leading a woman he hardly knew into an unknown danger that didn’t really concern her. It was different with Dylan – his mission there was life or death – but Arika was a hanger-on, an unnecessary distraction. The fireman in him berated him for letting her get as far as the farmhouse gate.
She coughed, and the noise pushed a new thought into his head. Is she looking at me? – staring at the back of my head? – impressed by the depth of my loyalty to my brother, the steps I’d take to save him? He chuckled to himself at the absurd thought. What a time for his testosterone to be acting up! As if Arika would be thinking about anything apart from what might be awaiting them at the end of these stairs!
Yet here in the bowels of the Earth, encased in suffocating darkness and surrounded by hidden threats, Kane was experiencing something he’d been yearning to experience his entire life: the courage and determination of a hero. Not a hero who’s paid to put out fires and rescue cats from trees; a hero who puts his safety and other selfish concerns aside and risks his life to protect the lives of others. Today he’d come here of his own volition to rescue his brother, someone he hardly knew and felt little real connection to. And now he had two people to protect, two lives that depended on him.
During their descent, the wailing had receded to a whine. Like the foul smell, it became part of the background. With his thoughts now firmly on the protection of his brother and Arika, what was left of Kane’s fear also dissipated. His nervousness gave way to an adrenaline-fueled thrill of anticipation at the thought of what wonders or horrors were awaiting them deep underground. He was here to fight a battle for his brother’s future, for his very existence, and anything that tried to stand in his way was up for the fight of its life.
“Oliver would be proud of me.”
Kane frowned at the voice in his head. Usually when a thought of Oliver popped into his mind, he booted it out before it could take root. His role in his brother’s death was something he still felt acutely, something that might send him the way of his mother and his brother if he dwelt too closely on it. In the year following Oliver’s death, his therapist had advised him to do the exact opposite, encouraging him to work through his thoughts and feelings and face them head on. She said that excising the bad stuff would be the starting point of his recovery, and for a while he tried to follow her advice – but he was only fourteen at the time and all this did was keep him in a state of despair and anxiety that seemed to overwhelm him and have no end. His father was the first in the family to recover from the tragedy and his advice to Kane was the advice he took on board. “Live your life as a hero,” Mike told his fifteen-year-old son. “Make Oliver’s death mean something by being the best man you can be.” They were great words and he recalled them now and gained strength and confidence from them.
Engrossed in these thoughts, Kane almost didn’t see the end of the stairs. They’d come to a blank wall.
“That doesn’t look good,” commented Arika, playing the torch up and down the bricks.
“It’s okay,” Kane said over his shoulder. “There’s an exit here.”
To his left was an opening in the wall, an archway that led into pitch blackness. Holding the lamp through the opening, he bent forward and peered around the corner.
“What is it?” came Dylan’s voice, thin and trembling in the rarefied air.
Kane stepped through the archway. “Come and see for yourself.”
The lamp light illuminated the walls and ceiling of a huge passage built from thousands of bricks. Wide enough for a dozen people to walk through side by side, and almost as high, it comprised a series of barrel-vaulted arches that melted into the darkness. Between the arches were square openings, some with wooden doors, some just yawning black spaces.
“Far out,” breathed Dylan.
“Simon will die,” was Arika’s contribution.
The wailing stopped.
Kane was reminded of how crickets stopped chirping when someone came close. The silence was deafening.
“I think I preferred it when it was howling,” he whispered, moving to the first of the openings.
The room had no door, though he could see that hinges had been ripped out sometime in the past. The room was square and featureless, the brick walls at the back and to the left bulging inwards, buckled by the pressure of the earth behind them. The bare floor was thick with dust.
“Ever seen anything like this before?” he asked Arika.
She played her flashlight around the room. “No freaking way. These types of places belong in ancient Rome, not under some old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.”
“How could anyone have built such a thing all the way down here?” Dylan asked.
“Tunnels like this were sometimes built as tombs. But this is so deep underground, I’m not sure. Unless it started off closer to the surface and something happened to bury it.”
“Then someone found it and built the well,” suggested Dylan. “And turned it into this bunker.”
“Maybe that’s what it is,” suggested Kane: “a fallout shelter.” He couldn’t think of anything even remotely more likely than that. “They did some weird things in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties.”
He crossed to the other side of the passage, where a rotting oak door with horizontal belts of iron bolted along its width led to the first of the rooms on that side. “What’s the bet this one’s filled with cans of soup and tuna?” he joked.
Pressing the iron handle, he leaned his body weight against the door. It creaked open a little and then jammed, causing a series of clatters. Placing the lamp and the rifle on the ground, he braced his feet, applied his shoulder and pushed harder, but still the door only opened enough for him to get his head inside.
“Give me the torch,” he said to Arika.
She handed it to him and he returned to the room and moved the light around.
“What’s in there?” Dylan asked as Kane stood frozen in the doorway.
The room was similar to the one on the other side, except this one wasn’t empty. Stacked from the back of the room to the door were thousands of bones. Some looked like the bones of large animals: sheep or cows; whereas others were obviously from smaller animals, such as rats and rabbits. He guessed the pile had become so high and unstable that at some point an earthquake or gravity had caused it to collapse. It was the bones that were stopping the door from opening any further.
“A bunch of animal bones,” he reported over his shoulder, then caught his breath. The torch beam had come to rest on a human skull. The skull had no jawbone and part of the right cheekbone was missing, but there was no denying it had once been a living, breathing person. Its black eyes stared at him as if challenging him to pretend it was something less sinister.
“Lemme see,” urged Dylan, touching his arm with his cold, leathery hand.
Kane withdrew and handed Dylan the torch. Dylan leaned into the room.
“Gross,” he said, coming out and making room for Arika.
She had a quick look. “That’s decades worth of meat,” she said; “if that’s why they’re there. Looks like someone’s been living down here for a long time.”
Kane recalled the howling they’d heard earlier. If it was human, it didn’t sound like it came from someone who was here voluntarily. Had Waite been keeping prisoners in these rooms? It was unlikely he had friends or a family living down here in the dark, not when there was a house and a small village above them. Kane was repulsed by the thought of the old man reanimating dead things and creating monsters from stolen corpses, but could he also be capable of kidnapping and murder?
“Next,” he said, retrieving his rifle and the lamp and moving down the passage to the next door.
This room was lined with wooden shelves, which held stacks of grey trousers and matching shirts – the kind that might be sold in an army surplus store. Beneath the shelves were arranged dozens of boots of different sizes and colours, some modern, some looking as though they were decades or even centuries old.
“Freaky,” said Dylan. “What would he need with all those clothes?”
“Maybe this was an army bunker,” suggested Arika. “That might explain it. Soldiers could have been living here … during the war …”
Kane smiled as her words petered out. Like him, she was probably thinking by now: What would an army barracks be doing out here in the middle of sheep, cow and goat country? – built beneath an old farmhouse? – forgotten? His idea of a fallout shelter was more likely – though not a shelter from nuclear war. When the plague came to Jacob’s End early last century, perhaps the residents banded together and built this place to escape the creeping death they feared was ending the world.
He recalled an old movie he’d seen as a boy: The Time Machine. The monsters in that movie – the Morlocks – started off human and then moved underground, where they mutated and fed on the compliant humans living above them. The horrors from that movie welled up in his mind and he imagined things sinister and cannibalistic lurking in the shadowed rooms of this nighted tunnel, waiting to pounce on them and rip the meat from their bones.
Pulling the rifle from his shoulder, he held it at the ready. Though it was only a tranquilliser gun, it gave him comfort to know they also had an axe, a cattle prod, a wrench and Arika’s pistol if anything came at them. He also determined that, in addition to searching for the Necromonicon, they would keep their eyes peeled for more weapons.
Moving to the next room, they found something different again: a large black coffin, displayed almost ceremonially on a wooden trestle table.
“Shit,” said Dylan, going up to it. “Do you think there’s a body in it?”
“I’m not that curious,” said Arika from the door.
But Kane was that curious. He wasn’t taking the risk the Necromonicon was hidden in one of these rooms, and a coffin seemed to him a logical place to keep a book of the dead. Handing his lamp to Dylan, he stepped up to the coffin and with an effort pulled up the lid. As it rose, it slipped off the coffin and fell with a loud clatter to the floor. At the same time Kane heard a quiet yelp from somewhere outside the room, a sound that was strangled, as if whatever had made the noise had quickly stifled it to avoid detection.
Dylan said, “Is it –?”
“Sh!” interrupted Kane, staring out the door.
The sound wasn’t repeated.
“Did you hear that?”
“It’s probably the same thing that was howling,” said Arika, who was still standing half in, half out of the room. “Sounds like it’s in one of these cells.”
“The casket’s empty,” Kane announced, staring at the white satin material that still held the shape of a body.
“This is hopeless,” said Dylan. “The Necromonicon could be anywhere.”
“Exactly,” returned Kane, taking the lamp back. “Which is why we’re looking in every damn coffin in every damn room.”
“Did you need to rest?” Arika asked Dylan.
“There’s no time for rest,” answered Kane, annoyed all over again his brother hadn’t taken his advice to stay upstairs. But when he turned back to Dylan and saw his drawn face and bloodshot eyes, his mood softened and he said, “Maybe you should wait here while I go on.”
“No,” said Dylan, straightening his back. “I’m not sitting here in the dark while you two go off and have all the fun.”
“You’re in no shape to be exerting yourself, man. I can’t let you die of a heart attack before we find that damn book.”
“I’ll stay with you if you like,” offered Arika.
“I said no. Wilfred told me he was immortal; he can’t die.”
“He’s two hundred years old. His body can surely last another two hours.”
Kane frowned at him. “You shout out if you’re in any pain or – if you need a rest. We’ll all rest together. But for now, we gotta keep moving before that body snatcher comes back and finds out what happened to his housekeeper.”
When Dylan nodded, Kane turned and crossed to the next room on the other side of the passage. This one had an oak door like the previous room, reinforced with belts of iron, though this door was in much better shape. He pressed the handle. The door was locked.
“That’s interesting –” he began to say, when he was stopped by a small noise coming from inside the room. It sounded like a rattle of metal against metal.
“Hello,” he called softly, his mouth against the door. “Is someone in there?”
His question was greeted with silence.
“What is it?” asked Arika.
“I thought I heard something.”
“Look at the floor.”
He followed the line of her finger. The dirt had been disturbed.
“Do you think the book might be in there?” asked Arika.
He shook his head. “I dunno.” He tried the handle again, pressing his shoulder against the wood. “This is one mother of a door. We’ll need the axe to open it. Let’s keep going. We might find the keys. If we don’t find the book, we’ll come back.”
On they went. The next room had no door and contained more coffins, about two dozen of them, stacked against the walls. Most of the caskets were broken, and Kane could tell they were empty. He did a quick search of the ones on top, then led Dylan and Arika back into the passage. He knew without looking that the Necromonicon wouldn’t be in there. What would be the sense in puny old Wilfred Waite hiding his precious book under a pile of heavy coffins?
The next room, however, revealed something new and exciting. Waite had set it up as a study. There was a table in the centre, four wooden chairs, shelves lining the brick walls. The shelves were bending under the strain of row upon row of old books, along with stacks of notebooks and loose papers.
“Jackpot!” cried Kane, placing the lamp and rifle on the table. He turned eagerly to Dylan. “Can you see it? It’s gotta be here.” Warm relief flooded his body. He felt his muscles relax. He hadn’t realised till now how wound-up he was. “It’s about time,” he commented to Arika, who was already checking out the books and papers. “I was beginning to think we’d never find it.”
Arika was too engrossed in her search to respond. Dylan moved about the room in the opposite direction, checking out each of the shelves.
Kane lit an oil lamp that was on the table and the room filled with warm yellow light. He turned off the other lamp to preserve the battery.
“It’s not here,” Dylan announced from the other side of the room.
Kane turned to him. “You didn’t look very hard.”
His brother glared at him.
“What I meant was, your eyes aren’t what they used to be. Did you look over there?”
“I looked everywhere.”
“On the top shelves? How can you see that high up?”
“I said it’s not here!”
“Okay, bro, no need to shout. I just wanna make sure you’ve looked properly.”
Dylan glowered at the floor.
Arika came to his defence. “He’s exhausted, Kane. Don’t forget he’s older than my grandfather.”
Dylan turned his glare on her and said in a growly voice, “I don’t need you to speak for me.”
“I’m sorry, I was just –”
“Okay, okay, let’s cool it,” interrupted Kane. He peered at Dylan through narrowed eyes. Was his brother starting to take on Waite’s personality? Was the old man’s warped brain poisoning him? Right now, he seemed indistinguishable from the evil wizard. “If you say it’s not here,” he said, aiming for conciliation, “it’s not here.”
“It’s impossible to miss,” explained Dylan, also making an effort to control his temper. “It’s half the size of this table. And when you’re near it, there’s a kind of static electricity that pulls you towards it.”
“What do you mean?”
His brother looked exasperated. “Don’t you ever listen to me? It’s full of black magic, like I told you a thousand times, and it wants people to read it and release all that power. Or else, what’s the use? It’d be just another stupid spell book.”
“I’ve got to get my hands on that thing,” muttered Arika.
Kane glared at her.
“For – purely academic reasons. It’s a classic.”
“Winnie-the-Pooh is a classic,” corrected Kane, picking up the oil lamp. “C’mon, let’s keep going.”