“They’ve started! They’re bombing the place!”
“What are you freaks up to in there?” Morgan muttered as he pressed the binoculars against his face and pointed them at the farmhouse door. He was standing with one foot on a fallen tree, dressed in his black uniform and black boots, an assault rifle slung over one shoulder.
Stifling a yawn, he glanced over at the two-toned Bentley and white Honda parked side-by-side near the gate. They looked odd together – like Orwell and Gates themselves, the odd couple shacked up with Waite raising zombies and monsters to unleash on the world. As a precaution, the cars had been disabled, but Morgan was under no illusion about the power held by the wizards – he wouldn’t be surprised if the assault sent them barrelling out of the hole in the roof astride broomsticks.
Looking up at the hole, he stepped through the plan once more in his mind. Early that morning, after a series of tactical planning meetings involving senior officials across the NSO, it had been determined that the odds the wizards would surrender under any scenario were close to zero. This led to agreement on two primary tactics. First: the attack would be dynamic entry, so Waite and Orwell would have little or no chance to cast a spell or release any monsters from whatever restraints they were held under. Second: it would happen in daylight, so the monsters would be at a disadvantage if they tried to emerge into the light after a lifetime spent in darkness.
He smiled at Henri, who was standing next to the military truck scrolling through her phone. She’d dressed sensibly, if a little unfashionably, in a mustard-coloured long-sleeved blouse, burgundy slacks and black schoolgirl shoes, now plastered with mud. Uncharacteristically, she’d overdone her make-up – he guessed to hide her drawn complexion and the bags under her eyes. Not only that: just before dawn, after lying awake worrying for most of the night, she’d taken her scissors and cut off her braid. When Morgan first saw her, he gave her queer look and asked, “Are those new glasses?” and she reminded him of the braid and told him about her wake-dream of dead people grabbing hold of it and taking bites out of her neck. Even now, five hours later, she couldn’t stop rubbing the spot her phantom attackers had sunk their teeth into.
Morgan’s phone rang. Pulling it from his pocket, stepping off the log, he pressed the phone against his cheek. “Morgan.”
He frowned. He’d expected it to be Posniak, ringing with further orders about the attack, but it was Arika Livingston. She’d been calling all morning, to the point where he’d gone from ignoring her because he had so much to organise, to ignoring her in retaliation for her pestering.
“Arika,” he puffed. “Look, I’m sorry: I can’t talk. You’ll have to speak to my assistant. I’m in the –” He held the phone away from his ear. “Okay, okay, calm down. What’s this about?”
As Morgan listened, his eyes moved back to Henri. His mouth fell open. “You’ve got to be kidding,” he said. Then: “Are you sure?” He listened a few seconds more, and then said, “Hey, wait; hold on.”
He put the phone on speaker, whistled at Henri, waited as she toddled towards him through the mud, and then said, “Now repeat what you just told me. I’ve got someone here who needs to explain to me how this is in any way possible in a sane world.”
Kane was fixing the bandage on Dylan’s arm when Arika appeared at the door.
He glanced up, forced a half smile, then let his eyes fall back to the greenish forearm he was wrapping in a white dressing. “This should keep the flesh on those old bones a bit longer,” he said, raising his brow, trying to make it sound like a perfectly normal thing to say to his seventeen-year-old brother. Despite his flippancy, he was having trouble keeping his voice steady, and when he wasn’t busy wrapping, his hands trembled so much he had to hold them between his knees.
“Kane, can we talk?”
He looked at Arika and his heart rate trebled in an instant. There was something unnatural in the tone of her voice, a quaver he hadn’t heard before. A few minutes ago she’d been energised by righteous anger. All he could think was, What now?
“In private,” she added.
He went back to winding the bandage around his brother’s rotting arm. “Anything you can say to me, you can say to Dylan.”
She seemed ready to argue with him, but then stepped into the room and came and sat on the bed. Staring at Dylan, she said in a flat voice, “NSO – or whoever they are … Something’s happening.”
He scrunched his face. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I told Morgan about last night and all he said was leave it to him and not worry.”
“Isn’t that same as what he said last time?”
“It was the way he said it.”
He shook his head in annoyance. Her words reminded him of January, who was always finding hidden meanings in sentences or tones or glances. It was a weapon she used to try and control him, and though Kane knew that wasn’t Arika’s style, it was still a trait that irked him.
“Did you tell him about Dylan?”
“He definitely reacted to that.”
“Did he say he knew anything about where Dylan’s body is?”
“I asked him, but he wouldn’t say either way. But Kane, he said there was an incident at the hospital last night, something involving dead people running amok; and when he had to go, he apologised and said something like, ‘We all have to make sacrifices’, like he was talking about us.”
Kane’s ears pricked up. “Zombies running amok?”
“That was the gist of it.”
He stared into the air. “That explains the doctor and the nurse. Did he say anything else?”
“Just that they contained it – whatever that means.”
“Hmm, Snyder must have left some of his zombie horde behind. I wonder what all that was about. Did you tell him about the book?”
“I figured I had to. He needs to know what we’re up against.”
“But he’s still not inclined to help us? Doesn’t he know we can help each other?”
“It was after I told him about the Necromonicon, he was suddenly in a hurry to get off the phone.”
‘Hardly surprising, I suppose.” Kane collected the bandages and scissors and got up from the bed.
“I think they’re planning to attack the farm, Kane – and I think they’ve decided Dylan is expendable.”
Kane stared down at his brother’s corpse. His arms and legs were fully bandaged, as well as most of his head, and fortunately this had reduced the stench of decomposition to an almost bearable level. Perhaps Arika was right: with the right care, they may have plenty of time up their sleeve, plenty of time to retrieve the book and get his brother’s body back.
“Nah,” he countered, shaking her words out of his head. “That’s a big leap in logic from a quick phone call.”
“It’s not just the call, Kane. They’ve had the farmhouse under surveillance, and plenty of time to prepare for a raid. Now there’s been two zombie attacks in one night, not to mention Hugo. If I was them, I wouldn’t be waiting around for the next disaster to happen. I wouldn’t. I’d go in. It’s what Dad taught me, and if anyone knows how the armed forces think, it’s him.”
Kane crossed to the window. He was mentally exhausted and only half-comprehending what Arika was saying. He didn’t want to believe that everything was about to go south, but if she was right, Dylan’s body – his real, seventeen-year-old body – might be blown away before the end of the day, and then all he would have left would be this rotting, stinking carcass. This would be his life – their life – for God knows how long.
He turned back to her, alarm escalating inside him. “You sure they understood what you were saying about Dylan?”
“Definite. I had to repeat it to someone else who was with him. A woman.”
“You told him it was Waite in Dylan’s body?”
Now it was Arika who looked annoyed. “Twice.”
“And what did he say to that?”
“He said, ‘Leave it to me. And don’t worry.’ And when I asked what he was going to do about it, he said he couldn’t tell me, but it was under control. Then he said he had to get off the line, and said that thing about us all having to make sacrifices.”
“Ring him back.”
She pulled out her phone and rang Morgan’s number. He didn’t pick up.
Kane walked in a tight circle. A mixture of fear, anger and panic was whirling in him, threatening to explode into the room. He breathed shallowly, trying to hold it down. “They can’t kill him,” he murmured. “They can’t. That’s murder. It would be his death warrant. He’d have to – We wouldn’t –” Stopping, he gaped at the bandaged figure on the bed.
Arika got up and took him by both arms. “They can do whatever they like, Kane. They don’t care about one casualty if it saves other lives.”
Pulling away from her, he headed for the door. “That’s not gonna happen. They are not gonna kill my brother.”
Dylan picked up his notepad and began scribbling.
“Wait, wait,” cried Arika. “Dylan …”
Kane turned as Dylan held up the smudged note.
‘Take me,” it said.
Henri was furiously cleaning her glasses when Morgan yelled, “Go!” Piping out a shriek, she dropped the glasses in the mud.
Morgan bent down, picked them up, shook them and returned them to her, then raised his binoculars and trained them on the farmhouse. Lieutenant Darren Sparks, the troop commander, was kneeling on the portico, trying the door. It was locked. He motioned to another soldier, who bent down and cracked the lock.
Sparks gently pushed open the door. He waved the others over.
The soldiers were all in black: black helmets, black gloves, black boots, carrying black assault rifles. They massed on the portico like pudding, then, close on each other’s heels, filed into the farmhouse.
Morgan waited, the binoculars glued to his face. Henri was next to him; he could hear her breathing, fast, like a sparrow. She was wise enough to stay quiet, a departure from her usual tendency to vocalise whatever was on her mind, and he wondered how much the events of last night had scarred her. Cutting off her hair after having nightmares of flesh-eating zombies: it didn’t bode well for her mental health.
Black shapes began moving in the windows – first downstairs, then very quickly in the upstairs windows. Morgan saw the soldiers in his mind’s eye: entering the rooms two by two, fanning out to each corner, quickly detecting any threats. They would be swift and noiseless – unless of course there was something or someone that needed putting down by deadly force. Then all hell would break loose. Chewing his lip, he tapped his foot on the dead tree.
At last Sparks appeared back on the portico. He raised his phone to his ear and at the same moment Morgan’s phone buzzed.
“It’s clear,” came Sparks’ voice.
Morgan lowered the phone and shook his head at Henri. “They must be down below.”
Taking the strap of her binoculars, she slipped them over her head and hung them on a fence post. Frowning at the house, she said, “I would bet my grandma’s knickers on it.”
Morgan almost laughed out loud. He was still trying to figure out whether Henri was courageous, chicken or plain cuckoo. Just when he thought he’d pigeon-holed her, she turned around and surprised him again. “Are we ready then, Henri?”
Rubbing her neck, she said, “Ready as we’ll ever be.”
Her reluctance was almost palpable, and suddenly Morgan found himself with an aversion to dragging her through the mud and into the farmhouse to face an army of demons creeping and crawling beneath their feet. She’s a librarian, he reminded himself, not a soldier. He was surprised she’d even turned up today after all she’d been through at the hospital. Courageous, chicken or cuckoo? Whichever it was, the NSO needed her. She had special training in this kind of thing – she’d proven that with the success of her anti-zombie spell – and for this reason was likely their most valuable asset. It made his job of protecting her even more important.
“It can’t be any worse than what we went through at the hospital,” he reassured her. “And this time we have back-up.”
“I’m not sure I agree it can’t be worse.”
“Our guys are the best in class.”
“Still not convincing me, I’m afraid, Sam.”
“We’ll keep you behind all the guns.”
“In a rock/paper/scissors-type scenario I’d say monsters beat guns. And magic beats monsters.”
“Well then, just think about all those delicious books you’ll get your hands on. Maybe even some lovely magic wands and – flying broomsticks.”
“Oh Samuel Morgan,” she purred coquettishly, “you really know how to talk sexy to the ladies, doncha?”
He dropped back his head and laughed. An image had come to him of Henri lurking in the human biology section of the library checking out pictures of naked men. When in his vision her clothes morphed from frumpish burgundy slacks and orange shirt to sexy librarian dress and fishnet stockings, he laughed even harder.
“Come on then, Henri,” he said, pulling himself together. “You’re right: we’re nowhere near ready. But then again, neither are they.”
At first when the bell clanged, Wilfred ignored it, but after a few clangs he jerked up his head in annoyance. On the table, the man he’d resurrected earlier lay panting, his mouth filled with bubbles of blood.
Laying down the knife, Wilfred crossed to a computer. The screen was showing video from hidden webcams in each of the rooms above. As he watched, black shapes floated past the cameras. There was the glint of light on a gun barrel.
Intruders. Soldiers this time, not a bunch of bumbling kids or an impotent old man with his greedy, thieving eyes on everything in sight. This was worse. These intruders were bent on eradicating him and his history and everything he’d amassed.
Trembling with rage, Wilfred took the monitor in both hands. “Infidels!” he screamed at the screen. “Insects! Vermin! Pond scum!”
He stopped and blinked hard, willing the images away. With the Necromonicon in his possession and Varafti on his side, he half believed he had the power to make the trespassers vanish or burn from the inside, but the reality was, he didn’t have anywhere near that much power. Not yet. And Varafti, his new ally, was gone, taking Simon’s essence with him to use in whatever unimaginable rites he had planned in his own fiery, infernal dimension.
The black shapes continued to move about. The soldiers were looking through the cupboards and drawers and in any nook and cranny they could find. One of them stopped and a woman’s face peered into the camera. Squeezing the monitor hard, as if he were squeezing her head, Wilfred shouted, “Get out! Get out! Get out!” Her hand rose and the camera went black.
He couldn’t believe their timing. Just yesterday, the Necromonicon had chosen to return to him, to favour him as the instrument of its dark power. Varafti had sealed a pact to help him summon Yog-Sothoth and open the way for the return of the Great Old Ones, and everything was now in place for the Feast of Sidusater and the final confirmation of his consciousness in this perfect young body. All was ready to set in motion his long-awaited ascension to the throne of the world.
Releasing his grip on the monitor, Wilfred went back to his project. Staring down at the silent corpse, he settled himself with the knowledge the universe was actively plotting against him, trying its darnedest to sabotage anything he did that might help Kragn succeed with his grand plan to return to the Before. It was not a personal failure. Quite the opposite: his powers were so great, the universe had been forced to take notice of him.
He collected the knife from the table. In truth, this intrusion was only a temporary setback: a few more ants to crush on his way to his throne. “I tried to do this the civilised way,” he smirked as he ran a finger down the bloody blade. “In my benevolence, I might even have spared you to kneel before me and witness the dawn of the new world. But with your arrogance and interference you have forced me to take the path of chaos. The gods will not be pleased. They will insist on retribution. And it will be these youthful hands that wield the flaming sword of vengeance.”
Picking up a rag, Wilfred wiped the blood off the knife, then threw the rag down and held the blade up to the light. He turned it over. The knife was clean, glinting sharply. Smiling with satisfaction, he replaced it on the table, pulled his shirt over his head and stared down at his slender body – at Dylan Gates’ slender body. He ran his hand down his chest and over his hairless belly. It was a shame to deface its milky perfection, but he had no choice. The time had come to throw open the gate and unleash the leviathan. There was no other way.
Tossing his shirt across the room, he swiped up the knife and held its point close to his nose. “Lord Azathoth!” he screeched in the voice of a teenager. “In your righteous service I affirm my name! Pain is my call! Blood is my promise! Chaos is my gift! I beg you: release your agent and unfold on these maggots your power and your majesty!”
Bending forward, he placed the knife blade against his stomach and slowly sliced it down to the line of his trousers. Grimacing and grunting in agony, he went on cutting the knife into his skin, slicing bloody lines and curves, gritting his teeth and squirming in pain, until at last he’d carved the word Dhagdar into his belly. By the time he was finished, blood was streaming into his trousers, dripping down his legs, soaking his socks, filling his shoes.
“Azathoth!” he screamed through the white-hot pain. “I writ my name in your infinite majesty! Your sacrifices are begun! I beseech you: ready the gate! Accept my unworthy tributes! I beseech you twice: ready the gate! I beseech you thrice: ready the gate! Your sacrifices are begun! Ready the gate! I beseech you in the name of all this puny rock and its seething vermin have to offer!”
The floor rumbled; the lights flickered; a chill wind flew into the room, carrying with it the smell of sulphur and rot and death. The dead man sprang up shrieking, and as if in response, the wailing in the dark corridors rose to an unholy cacophony of howls and screams.
Wilfred, cackling like a maniac, raised his face to the ceiling, flung open his arms and spun around in an ecstatic dance. Blood from his wounds flew across the floor and spattered against the walls. He bumped into a chair, knocked it over, collided with a table, fell dizzy and laughing across the corpse’s legs. Pushing himself up, he spied Gilles’ anxious face at the door, but he was feeling too drunk with power and anticipation to care about any of it.
As Gilles’ face withdrew, a booming voice shook the earth, stopping him in his tracks. Cowering under the dust and dirt falling from the ceiling, he said, “Yes, Master, bloodbath first, dance later.”
Kane leaned over the steering wheel, egging the truck to go faster. Arika, in the back seat, was hanging onto Dylan, making sure he didn’t roll over and fall on the floor.
A terrific boom shook the air and for an instant Kane lost control of the truck. It swerved and ran off the road, he spun the wheel and came to a stop in a ditch.
“They’ve started!” he cried, twisting in his seat. “They’re bombing the place!”
In the back seat, Dylan gurgled. He was trying to say something.
“Write it down,” prompted Arika, pushing the notepad and pen into his hands.
He scribbled something and held it up.
“It wasn’t an explosion,” read Arika.
Kane looked at his brother. “What does that mean?”
He scribbled something else. This time he gave the pad to Kane.
“It was a voice. Of a god.”
Arika gaped at him. “They’re fighting back.”
Kane gaped at Dylan, not knowing whether this was good news or bad news. At least if Waite and Orwell were taking the offensive, Dylan’s body was safe for the time being. It would give them some breathing space, a chance to intervene and hopefully convince the NSO not to destroy the farm and everything in it.
Handing the pad back to Dylan, he lifted his foot off the brake and slammed it on the accelerator. The wheels spun in the mud and they took off in a surge of power.
Around the next curve, Kane screeched to a stop at a road block.
Two soldiers in black approached the truck. They were holding rifles at the ready, but they were sauntering up as if they had all the time in the world. Behind them, a third officer stood guard at the barrier, his stance making it clear to anyone that no one would be getting past him.
“What the – ?” Kane said under his breath.
The soldiers stopped at his window. One of them motioned him to lower it.
“Can’t go any further, mate.”
“We’ve gotta see Sam Morgan.”
The soldier gave him a glacial stare. “Don’t know any such person by that name.”
“Sam Morgan. NSO.”
The soldier blinked.
“He knows us. It’s a matter of life or death.”
The soldier blinked again.
“Come on, man. How would I know his name if he didn’t know me?”
The second soldier wrinkled his nose. “What is that awful stink?”
He stepped towards the back passenger window and placed his hand against the glass to see through the reflections.
“Kane –” began Arika, trying to block the man’s view of Dylan’s shrunken, bandaged-wrapped corpse.
Kane was thinking the same thing. Shoving the gear stick, he reversed, turned the truck around and retreated. As they sped away, he watched the two soldiers in the rear-view mirror. They were strolling back to the road block, sharing a laugh, probably over a fart joke.
Around the curve, he stopped the truck and wracked his brain for a Plan B. Perhaps they could approach the farm from the flank by driving over the fields. Surely the NSO wouldn’t be expecting anything like that. It was worth a try.
“Can you ring Morgan again? They might have let him know we were there.”
Arika’s face showed the pointlessness of his suggestion, but with a sigh she dialled the number.
Dylan was scribbling again. He handed the pad over the console to Kane.
He took it from his brother’s hands. “Are you sure about this?”
“What is it?” asked Arika, the ringing phone pressed against her ear.
Kane stared feverishly at her. Here was hope at last, their Plan B, a chance to complete the battle he believed they’d won a week ago. He was so excited he could hardly breathe.
“He’s figured it out,” he said in a hoarse voice. “He knows where Waite is.”