“You want a piece of me, do you? A nice juicy calf to chew on, maybe?”

At last Kenny regained control over the three blood-covered Barrys and herded them down the backstairs and into his truck. He’d also attracted two hangers-on: a doctor and a nurse who seemed to have been caught up in the power of his charm. They followed him down the stairs and climbed into the truck behind the others.

“What the heck,” shrugged Kenny, smiling at the muscle-bound doctor and thirty-something nurse who were milling around with the Barrys as if waiting on a dancefloor for the music to start. “Let’s have ourselves a party.”

Shutting and locking the doors, he climbed into the truck, drove out of the hospital parking lot, turned left and started towards the Gates’ house. Wilfred thought the boys would be stupid to hide the Necromonicon there – the most obvious place imaginable – which made it the logical place to start. It quickly became clear he was right. The closer the truck got to the Gates’ place, the more furiously the Barrys threw themselves against the grate behind Kenny’s seat, pushing him to go faster.

“Patience,” he muttered. “We don’t want to be pulled over by some unfortunate police officer, do we?”

Kane climbed the ladder and jumped into the treehouse. Kneeling, he put his flashlight on the floor and pulled open the door of a secret compartment.

“I moved it here when Dylan was in the hospital,” he said as Arika came up behind him. “He didn’t know about this place. I made it when he was away. To hide my stash of …” Smiling awkwardly, he picked up his flashlight and pointed it at the compartment. There lay Waite’s black leather bag from the farmhouse. “See? If Dylan was working with Simon, he would have taken it before I moved it. After all, he was the one who hid it. From Simon. What that NSO guy said is madness.”

Arika was stumped too. “He definitely said Dylan and Simon were working together.”

“Maybe they were seen somewhere and it was misinterpreted. Maybe … the professor ambushed him to try and get him to hand over the book.”

“Agent Morgan said they were both at the farmhouse.”

Kane refused to believe that. After their stand-off on Thursday, it would be a turnaround of epic proportions for Dylan and the professor now to be best buddies. Then again, Dylan had steadfastly refused to stop working with Waite in the beginning, so who’s to say the professor hadn’t simply convinced Dylan they could pick up where Waite left off? How much did he really know about his brother? Until recently, they’d been little more than strangers – they hadn’t even liked each other.

“So why would Dylan hide the book, refuse to give it to Simon, then work with him two days later?” No matter how many times he said it out loud, it still didn’t make sense.

“The NSO might have Dylan mixed up with someone else,” Arika suggested, though he could see she didn’t believe that. “When did you last see him?”

“This morning.”

“How was he?”

Kane shrugged. “Fine. I suppose. I didn’t really notice.”

She gave him a look that reminded him of the looks his father used to give him. “You haven’t asked him about Simon?”

“I thought I’d wait till you got here. He’d just deny it if I asked out of the blue. You haven’t said anything to Simon?”

“I haven’t heard from him since I told him you wouldn’t give him the book. If what Agent Morgan said about him is true, he’s probably at the farmhouse right now.”

“With Dylan, you think?”

It was her turn to shrug. “Has he been home much?”

Kane screwed up his face. “Kind of. He did say he’s taken up his art work again and he’s been seeing some teacher in town. Sounded like a healthy thing to do, considering. I’ve been at work for the past two days, so I don’t really know about his comings and goings. Hey, you don’t think him and Simon are just doing artsy stuff?” He dismissed the thought as soon as the words had left his mouth. Which put them back at square one. “You’re probably right: they’ve mixed him up with someone else. Let’s ask him when he gets home.”

“Do you know when that’ll be?”

He didn’t. Dylan had gone back to being his quiet, reclusive self and Kane had moved on with his own life. They were reverting to their pre-Waite relationship, where they went about their lives in parallel dimensions.

He glanced at his watch. “What time is it? – twenty past nine. He mightn’t be home for hours.” He looked at her. “What do you want to do? Watch a movie or something? There’s not much else to do on a Tuesday night in Quorn.”

“Here, let’s have a look at the book,” Arika said, lifting out the bag. She removed the Necromonicon and opened it on the floor.

“I’m not sure this is a good idea,” said Kane. But he wasn’t about to issue any more directives. If Arika thought looking through the book could help settle whatever was happening with Dylan, he was prepared to go with her judgement.

They both stared at an illustration of a splayed man, his skin peeled away from his body and pegged to the dirt with wooden stakes. Slug-like creatures were feasting on his torso, and a Punch-looking man with a long nose and big chin appeared to be collecting them and placing them in a wicker basket. The way the torchlight played on the parchment made it appear like the slugs were moving.

Arika turned the page. The left side was crammed with ancient text, curves, dots and lines, all written in rust-coloured ink. The right side had a detailed illustration of five corpses hanging upside down, their flesh being sliced away by an ogre wearing a butcher’s apron.

She closed the book and stared down at the horned devil on the cover. In the reflected light of the torch, her face looked a little green. “I think I’ve seen enough.”

Kane couldn’t help himself. “Still say it’s a classic?”

“I don’t know what to do about the NSO and Simon and Dylan,” she admitted. “All my answers were about Simon, and now … I’ve got no idea. I don’t know who to trust.”

Kane wanted to say, “You can trust me,” but he knew that was the kind of thing an untrustworthy person might say. It was more important to let his actions speak for him.

“Let’s put it back,” he suggested. “This is as good a hiding place as any. While Dylan is safe and no maniac has this book, we don’t have to make a decision. Let’s play it by ear.”

She got to her feet. “Do you have anything to drink in the house?”

“Should be cola in the fridge.”

“I was thinking of something a bit stronger.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Beer? I think … if Dylan hasn’t drunk it all.”

“Stronger?”

He laughed. “There’s Scotch in the sideboard in the dining room. Do you wanna go pour? I’ll be right down.”

Cleo Grieves ran down the corridor, gun raised, past rooms and doorways where patients, nurses, doctors and other hospital workers and family members stood in shock or paced the floor in silent panic.

The male nurse running alongside her pointed at a closed door opposite the lift. He looked like the living dead himself: face ashen, eyes glazed, lips grey. “They’re in there,” he hissed, gripping her arm.

Sidling up to the door, Grieves peered through the window. A young woman wearing a bloodied hospital gown was hunched over a man in a bed. The back of her gown had been torn, revealing a gash in her back through which Grieves could see part of her spine and several rib bones. She was chewing on the man’s shoulder. The sheets were wet with blood; droplets were falling to the floor, joining a growing red puddle around her feet.

As Grieves stared in horror, a half-eaten face slammed against the window. Leaping back in fright, she lifted her gun and in the same move kicked open the door. The impact threw the body off balance and it fell back with arms in the air and dropped heavily to the floor. Grieves could see now it was an elderly woman. As she rolled over and scrambled to get up, Grieves trained the gun on her head. The woman was wearing a purple flowered frock with a ruffled collar – bloodied and torn, but quite clearly the type of dress a grandmother would wear. She had on only one shoe; the other was lying under the bed, next to a small gold wristwatch with a broken band.

Grieves stood watching as the woman struggled to get up, slamming her hands ineffectually against the floor. She was having trouble getting to her feet, mostly because chunks of muscle in her arms and legs had been eaten away. “Don’t be fooled,” Henri Appleby had told them. “No matter how much it appears human, once it’s been bitten it’s dead. There’s no pitying it and there’s no bringing it back. Shoot it in the head. Or chop it off. Most importantly, don’t let it bite you and don’t let it escape to bite someone else.” It was weird hearing the words coming from the mouth of a mousy, maternal-looking woman – almost laughable at the time, but now it told Grieves the awful truth about what she needed to do next.

Stepping closer, she placed the muzzle against the woman’s temple. “She’s dead; she’s dead,” she reminded herself, frowning at her denuded arms, trying hard to screen out the curly grey hair and purple frock. “She’s never coming back.” With one last look at the hole in the old woman’s face, she turned her head away, grimaced, and pulled the trigger.

The noise was deafening, the impact spinning the woman’s body along the floor. Blood and brain matter spattered across the room.

“Holy crap,” muttered Grieves, going over and kneeling beside her. She made the sign of the cross, even though she wasn’t religious. Up close, the woman looked like Liv’s grandmother, with the obvious difference that Liv’s grandmother didn’t have half her head missing. Still, she was someone’s grandmother – possibly that someone was the young woman gnawing on the patient in the bed.

“Oi!” she cried, getting to her feet.

The woman ignored her. Picking up an overturned chair, Grieves threw it at her, then quickly raised her gun. The woman growled like an animal warning off scavengers, but was too intent on her meal to turn around.

“Bloody heck,” swore Grieves, and went up and poked the woman in the back of the head with her gun.

This time she spun around, lips pulled back from her bloodied teeth. Grieves backed away. Sensing fresh meat, the dead woman lifted her arms and staggered towards her like a lover eager for a hug.

Lifting the gun, Grieves shot her in the middle of the forehead.

A scream echoed down the hall, sparking other screams and yelps of horror.

The bloodied man in the bed jerked, sat up and swung his legs off the bed. “C’mon Sam,” murmured Grieves, stepping towards him with the gun aimed at a point between his eyebrows; “drive faster.”

Kenny parked the truck two doors down from the Gates’ house, climbed down, went to the back, unlocked and pulled open the doors. The three Barrys were waiting and emerged together, walking into air and tumbling to the road face-first. Pushing themselves up, they climbed to their feet and stumbled forward, blood dripping from their torn faces, leaving a trail of red splashes on the road. The two hangers-on followed suit, but it was clear they didn’t have the same radar for the Gates’ house. For a time they walked around in circles, until Kenny steered them towards the Barrys and they hurried after them.

Staying close behind, Kenny held the charm at the ready in case anything else went wrong. Back in the wards, the Barrys had created havoc, running around biting people like kids at a smorgasbord. Eventually Kenny managed to get through to Wilfred, who reminded him of the subservience sub-spell, and he was at last able to herd the trio towards the back stairs and get back on track with his mission. Fortunately, hospital security was busy dealing with the mayhem upstairs, so the unexpected detour had, in a strange twist of fate, aided their escape.

At first all five zombies kept to the path, walking single file, but as they neared the Gates’ house, a curious thing happened: the three Barrys separated. Lila went towards the front door, Claude veered to the left and Ormond went off to the right. The doctor and the nurse followed Ormond, the slowest and biggest target.

“Triangulation,” Kenny breathed, recalling Simon’s description of how the spell worked. “They spread out and locate it like a mobile phone.” Clapping his hands, he cried, “Kenny S, you’re a bloody genius!”

Opening the fridge, Arika checked out the contents. In addition to a half-empty bottle of Coke, the fridge contained two pizza boxes, a bottle of salad dressing and a carton of iced coffee. Pretty much what she expected to see at the Gates’ place. Taking out the Coke, she carried it across the kitchen, past a leering face in the corner of the window. It was Kenny Snyder, half-hidden in the shadows.

In the dining room, she opened the doors of the sideboard and located the bottle of Scotch, alongside six glass tumblers. The sideboard was also home to empty bottles of vodka, tequila and gin. She gathered Dylan wasn’t averse to spirits; he just didn’t like Scotch.

Collecting the bottle and two glasses, she went back through the kitchen. Halfway across the floor, a scuffling noise outside the window made her stop in her tracks. Placing the glasses and bottle on the counter next to the Coke, she crossed to the window and peered into the darkness. The window opened to the side of the house – it was the same window she’d peered through the first time she visited. There was no one there.

She stared for a few more seconds while her eyes adjusted to the darkness, then went towards the garden carrying the Scotch and two glasses, the bottle of Coke under her arm.

“Kane!” she called out. “I thought you were –” and then she looked up and saw what was happening at the treehouse. Her face fell and everything dropped to the grass.

Standing around the tree were a nurse, a doctor and a bald man wearing a grey uniform. Near the top of the ladder was an older woman with blonde hair; not far behind her was a plump younger man; both were wearing the same grey uniform. Arika recognised the uniforms straight away: they were the ones they’d seen stacked in a room in the catacombs, the ones Kane said Waite’s army of the dead were wearing. She also knew as soon as she saw their blood-soaked clothes and hands and faces that these were no ordinary visitors.

“Kane!”

Up in the treehouse, Kane was turning the pages of the Necromonicon. Despite his earlier disgust, he’d decided to take another look at the seven-pointed star with the eye. He’d had a sudden notion that perhaps it was more than just the reversal spell for the body swap spell; perhaps it was a general wish-fulfilment spell, a funnel for all the Necromonicon’s power. With nothing to lose, he was aiming to put his hand on the page and wish away all mad wizards, resurrected mummies and steam-punk zombies.

Before he got there, he passed page after page of scary monsters and nauseating gore. Some of the illustrations were so detailed and lifelike, he began to wonder whether the monsters had sat and posed for the artist. The more he saw, the greater became his fascination. Disgust receded and was replaced with an avid interest in what the next page would bring. He was starting to appreciate there was a world out there he’d never suspected existed, with dimensions that excited him and energised him and made his mind boggle. This world – this universe – was bigger than himself and Dylan and Arika – bigger than the family he’d lost – bigger than the sum total of his life – of all their lives. With each page, the feeling grew that he was missing out on something: a power that was now within his grasp; the opportunity to be greater than he was, to realise his potential in ways he could never before have imagined. Arika was right, he nodded to himself: they needed to mine the Necromonicon for its spells and secrets; they needed to release its power on an unworthy world and surf that power to greatness and –

Her voice broke the book’s spell.

Kane glanced up, feeling a nausea akin to motion sickness. As his head cleared, he saw what appeared to be a thin woman with blonde hair and a blood-smeared face staring at him from the top of the ladder. Her skin was grey, her eyes red, and there appeared to be the symbol of a half moon carved into her forehead.

“Kane!” he heard Arika yell. “They’re coming up the ladder!”

He stared at the woman in shock, and his paralysis lasted long enough for her to finish her climb to the top rung and launch herself at him.

Scuttling away like a crab, he watched her fly towards him.

She fell flat on her face, her head in the secret compartment. Before she could recover, Kane scrambled back and slammed the trapdoor down hard, wincing at the sickening crunch.

A red-faced man now appeared at the top of the ladder. He was soft and chinless, with the same grey pallor as the woman, the same red eyes, the same half moon carved into his forehead. Propelled by adrenaline, Kane ran towards him, swung on a tree branch and booted him in the face. The man threw his arms up and fell backwards. Two seconds later, Kane heard a loud crack.

He peered over the edge of the treehouse to find the man lying across the back of the wrought-iron park bench, his body bent at an impossible angle. Despite the fact his spine was clearly snapped, his arms and legs thrashed as he tried to get up.

Behind Kane, the dead woman shuffled to her knees, threw off the trapdoor and climbed to her feet.

He turned to see her grabbing the Necromonicon. She tucked it under her arm and with surprising energy clambered over the wall and dropped like a lead weight to the ground.

He ran over and looked down in time to see her pushing herself up from the grass. Then he saw Arika running from the house with her gun. She saw the zombie and stopped. The dead woman’s skull was crushed, her right shoulder dislocated from the fall, but none of that was stopping her. As she stooped to pick up the Necromonicon with her one working arm, Arika lifted her pistol and shot, blowing the side of her face away.

That didn’t stop her either. Holding the Necromonicon against her body, she stumbled away jerkily like a broken marionette.

Arika aimed again.

That’s when Kane saw a figure lumbering towards her, a bald man, large and dressed in grey like the others.

“Arika! Behind you!”

She spun around. Crouching and holding the gun with two hands, she shot the dead man in the face and watched as he crumpled to the ground. When she was sure he wasn’t getting up again, she turned back to the woman with gun raised. But the zombie was gone. Arika ran around the side of the house, but she was nowhere in sight.

She rushed back and looked up at Kane, who was peering over the edge of the treehouse.

“Are you okay?” he called out.

“There’s more!” she yelled. “At least three!” Then she took off after the woman.

Kane whirled around. The first thing he noticed about the man coming towards him was his blue scrubs; the next thing was his huge muscles. The doctor was taller than Kane and had broad, gym-built shoulders and thick legs. He didn’t have any obvious injuries slowing him down. Kane realised that this one wouldn’t be as easy to deal with as the old woman and the flabby fat man.

When the doctor lunged at him, he made a spot decision to retreat. Leaping into the air, he grabbed a branch and lifted his legs, just in time to avoid the dead man’s grab for his ankles.

That’s when a brown-haired woman in a nurse’s uniform appeared at the top of the ladder. Her uniform was almost completely red, her hair matted with blood. Like the others, she’d obviously been feeding on someone.

“How many of you things are there?” he yelled at them.

Arika was now at the bottom of the ladder. She’d arrived in the front yard just as a truck sped past the house, no doubt with the old woman and the Necromonicon inside. For a second she was torn between giving chase and going back to help Kane; but when she remembered her keys were inside the house, the decision was taken from her. The truck would be long gone by the time she managed to retrieve them and get back to her car. Recovering the Necromonicon would have to wait.

She peered up at the dead nurse, who was struggling to climb into the treehouse.

“Hey!’

Hearing her voice, the woman glanced around, looked down, saw her, snarled like a tiger, started to descend.

Arika stepped back for a clearer shot. Raising her gun, aiming carefully, she squeezed the trigger. Once again, her aim was spot on. Blood exploded from the zombie’s head and she fell from the ladder and dropped with a thud to the ground.

Running around the tree, Arika craned her neck to see how Kane was doing.

Up in the tree, he was watching the muscle-bound doctor climb towards him. He knew dead men had no fear, and this one would keep on climbing until there was no more tree to climb. Then there would be nothing to stop him sinking his teeth into Kane’s ankle. He bit his lip. There was only one thing to do: go down and face him head on.

He started moving down, his fear escalating as each step brought him closer to the zombie’s snapping mouth. When he was just out of reach, he braced his back against the trunk, raised both legs and booted the man in the face with all his strength.

The doctor’s head snapped back, but miraculously he held on. The kick only seemed to make him hungrier for Kane’s leg. He resumed his ascent, faster now, lips pulled away from his bloody broken teeth.

Backing up to the next branch, Kane braced himself again. He waited until the doctor released his grip, then kicked. This time the man flew out of the tree, crashing through branches and landing with a ground-shaking thud next to Arika.

He grabbed her ankle. She yelped in surprise and tried to pull away, but his grip was strong and she fell to the ground, reaching out in vain as her pistol bounced away from her.

The dead doctor started pulling himself towards her. His red eyes were glued to her leg; his broken mouth chomped in anticipation.

Arika stretched a hand towards her weapon. Digging the fingers of her other hand in the grass, she dragged herself closer. With each pull, the zombie advanced too, his grip like a vice on her ankle. Just as her fingertips touched the gun barrel, the terror-filled thought came to her that she might be out of bullets. How many shots had she fired? The count paralysed her for a moment, but as the doctor’s snapping teeth made contact with her shoe, she lunged at the gun, grabbed the grip, swung it around and shot the rest of his teeth out.

His brains splattered over Kane’s legs.

“Oh shit! Sorry! What a mess!” She looked behind him. “Hey, another one!”

Kane turned to find that the zombie with the broken back had managed to push himself off the park bench and was now dragging his fat body across the grass towards them. The dragging action had pulled his pants down and they were tangled around his ankles.

It was such a weird sight, Kane couldn’t help but laugh. He stepped closer and bent over the man, making sure to stay well out of reach of his groping hands. “You want a piece of me, do you? A nice juicy calf to chew on, maybe? Mmm, yum; you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” He turned to Arika, who was sitting on the grass with legs crossed. “What is it with these things?”

She pointed her gun at it and pulled the trigger. The barrel clicked. She was out of bullets.

“Maybe we should save this joker for that agent friend of yours,” Kane suggested. “He might wanna dissect it or something.”

Getting to her feet, Arika reached into her pocket and with a trembling hand pulled out a new magazine. “I’m not taking any chances,” she said, and reloaded her pistol.

Kane glanced around. “Where’s the book?”

Read Chapter 46: Battle zone

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