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Death’s Apprentice – Part Twenty-Nine

Charon beckoned for Joe to follow him, the phone clutched tightly in his hand.

‘This way, sir.’

When Joe looked up he was caught off guard by the landscape that had somehow appeared out of the darkness. A lump caught in his throat at the stark beauty of the place. He shook his head. He was becoming pathetic.

Charon’s small wooden boat was tied up at the side of a wide river that swept from left to right as far as the eye could see. Behind that, Joe could see a vast forest with trees reaching up into an eternal twilight, their gnarled branches reaching out like giant claws.

‘What’s that?’ asked Joe, pointing to the forest.

‘That’s the Forest of Suffering.’

‘The Forest of Suffering? And I’ve got to go through there?’

‘Yeah but I wouldn’t worry too much, you’ll never make it that far. Cerberus will tear you up first.’ Charon gave a little chuckle as he climbed into the boat. He placed the lamp on the floor of the small boat and held his hand out for Joe. Joe took it and climbed in.

The boat rocked gently from side to side and he climbed in. Joe noticed that there was no oar or motor. The water of the river was still and full of weeds and…

‘No! Don’t look in the water!’ screamed Charon.

Joe thought he could see faces floating beneath the surface of the water. Pale, skeletal face with huge mouths and…

There was a sharp slap on the side of his face. It broke his concentration. He looked at Charon, holding the side of his face which was stinging.

‘What was that for?’

‘No looking! You’re not going to die on my watch. What happens after, well, that’s not my problem.’ He gave another little chuckle.

Joe felt unsteady on his feet as the boat moved from side to side. He went to sit down.

‘No! No! No sitting on this journey. We’ll be there in a minute.’

‘Oh okay.’

Charon turned to face the front of the boat. ‘And off we go,’ he said, holding his left hand in the air, his crooked finger pointing to the other side of the river. In his other hand, he still had the phone. Joe could see it said seventeen percent battery. Joe hoped the crossing wasn’t going to take too long because he didn’t want to think what would happen if the phone ran out.

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Dragon Rider – Part Eleven

Dragon Rider

Chapter Six Continued

Going Nowhere, Fast

Drake slung his guitar over his back and headed for the door.  There was no point taking anything else as it would only slow him down and he could easily find food from somewhere, even if he had to be a little creative to get it.  And anyway, he didn’t intend on being away too long.  The only trouble was going to be getting used to the lenses Gizmo had given him to keep him in contact with the warehouse.  He could feel them irritating the lining of his eyes, but he’d give anything a go at least once.

He halted at the exit to the warehouse.  He could see the Metatron with Willow sitting on top of it, bent double under a bulging rucksack.

‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ growled Drake, his hands clenched firmly at his side.

‘I’m coming with you.’

Drake’s jaw tightened.  ‘Look, thank you for letting me use the Metatron, but I said I was going alone.’

‘I know what you said Drake, but I’m just not listening,’ she said, putting her hands on her hips.  ‘I can help, I have magick, you never know when you might need me-’

‘I work alone.’

‘Not this time Drake.  This concerns all of us and I’m not prepared to just sit here and do nothing.’  Willow huffed and crossed her arms over her chest.

‘They hate human witches in Nowhere even more than here,’ spat Drake.

‘I don’t care, I’m used to it,’ replied Willow.  A few silent seconds passed before she looked at him from under thick black eye-lashes.  ‘I’ll let you control the bike.’

Drake looked at Willow sitting stubbornly on the bike.  Damn it, there was no point arguing.  ‘You do as I say, okay?  And for God’s sake what have you got in that rucksack?’

Willow began to run through the list, counting them off with her fingers, ‘I’ve packed some food, rope, my make-up-’

‘Get rid of it.’

‘But Drake, I-’

Drake cut Willow a hard stare.  ‘Get rid of it.’

She heaved herself off the bike.  ‘Okay, Okay but I get to take my make-up-’

‘Whatever, just get on with it.’

Willow returned five minutes later (a couple of tons lighter) and climbed onto the bike behind Drake.  He turned the key to power the machine up; it growled at him as the jets burst into life, the blue-orange flames exploding from the back of its silver body.  It slowly rose into the air, where it hovered until Drake hit the acceleration and they sped off in a blaze of fire.

Their journey to Nowhere was swift; within half an hour they had left the oppressive darkness and squalor of the City behind and were travelling through vast forests of leafless trees peppered with the remains of devastated towns and cities.  They saw no one; Drake deliberately avoided the other cities, choosing instead the more scenic route through the Wild Country, emerging from the mountain passes as the sun was beginning to fall beyond the horizon and into Mithra’s Realm.  In the distance, Drake could see the fortified town of Nowhere, its great timber buildings silhouetted against the setting sun.

Before they hit the main elevated mud road into Nowhere, Drake and Willow discarded the Metatron beneath a pile of dead leaves and branches, under a leafless Sycamore tree; they’d have to come back for it later.  The people of Nowhere were not into the gadgets of the modern world, so they continued the journey into town on foot.

Once they’d reached the vast moat that encircled the town they dipped behind a rocky outcrop and observed the Search and Security Team controlling the heavy flow of traffic passing through the gate.

‘How are we going to get past those?’ asked Willow, as she watched a Security Troll pick up a leprechaun by his oversized collar and toss him into the moat.  He landed with a great splash and then began swimming to the side, spluttering and panting.

Drake took in the town’s defences; the eight metre high walls with sharp wooden stakes arranged at forty-five-degree angles at their apex, the hulking goblins patrolling along the battlements and the slimy, suckered tentacles of the Kraken surfacing from the murky depths of the black moat as it attempted to devour the flailing leprechaun.

‘We’ll have to wait for a load big enough to hide in,’ he replied, ‘there’s no other way.’

Once the sun had finally said goodbye to the market town, leaving in its wake a grey-blue dusk, Drake and Willow slipped out from behind the rocks and crept closer to the road.  They lay down on the great earth embankments, waiting for a suitable load to pass in which they could hide.  The road was heaving with traffic; farmers escorting their herds through the gates, long trains of carts filled with cured meats, terracotta pots, and silverware, and brightly clothed entertainers juggling or eating fire.

A farmer with a bad limp headed along the muddy road with his three sons, shepherding a large herd of Tri-horn Hairy Fairy cattle.  These huge beasts were much sought after for the magickal properties of their horns, urine and red pelts which were used to make flying carpets in the Middle East.  They were completely placid, unless you were trying to brand them with a piece of searing hot iron on their bottoms (not a good idea, as the farmer could testify), and a perfect Trojan horse to get Drake and Willow into Nowhere as they smelt worse than horse poo.

Drake pulled on his hood and motioned for Willow to follow him up the embankment and into the herd of cattle.  They thundered along the road at a great speed, which was probably a good job as the air around them was putrid and full of large meat flies which had attached themselves to the cows’ bottoms.

Soon they were passing through the town gates and under the humungous hairy noses of the Search and Security Team and, although the farmer was questioned and his sons were not allowed to take in their broadswords, the group entered Nowhere fairly easily.  Once they were safely past the trolls and deep within the Common Marketplace Drake and Willow extricated themselves from the cattle and tried to take a breath of fresh air.

Only the air wasn’t fresh.

The Marketplace was worse than being stuck in the middle of the cattle; it was thick with the smell of rotting fruit, dung and urine.  They didn’t know about hygiene or street cleaners in Nowhere; it smelt like one giant toilet that hadn’t been flushed for over ten years.  Carts, laden with all types of produce from small milk containers that held infinite amounts of liquid to embroidered silk that kept the wearer toasty warm even in the Artic, trundled over mouldy vegetables, dung and more indescribable things.

Cloaked wizards were enchanting balls of blue light to hang in the air above the market stalls and tiny flower faeries were being strung up around the perimeter buildings.  In the background, Purple-haired Pygmy Pigs and Disappearing Dung Donkeys brayed and grunted amongst the chatter and singing of the excited townspeople.

Despite the bright light and the sheer amount of people in the Market place, Drake felt as relaxed as he ever would do in Nowhere.  He couldn’t believe their luck; they’d arrived on the Eve of Samhain, a Festival celebrating the end of Summer and the coming of the Dark Days, which entailed lots of drinking, dancing and the slaughtering of lots of animals.  Even though he was far from welcome in Nowhere (which would never change because he’d taken off with their dragon) he knew that they were far too preoccupied to notice him or Willow.  And if they did, they drunk so much before, during and after feasting, that they would probably think he was part of the entertainment, for at least a little while anyway.  All he and Willow had to do was to stay out of trouble as they crossed the market square and get up to Alchymia’s tower at the top of the hill before they sobered up.

But if he did get caught here, well, the consequences would bring more than tears to his eyes.  The whole place reeked of the Darkest Ages when humans were rounded up and eaten alive.  And if they caught Willow?  Well, let’s just say, they hated human witches more than they hated Drake and they would, no doubt, love to make a great spectacle out of killing both of them.

Drake and Willow made their way swiftly across the packed market, both of them keeping on their hoods as a precaution.  Drake knew Willow was the weak point at the moment; he could feel her prancing after him, her mind being seduced by the riotous entertainers as they practiced their fire dancing skills.  Why had he let her come?

Suddenly he stopped; he could hear a familiar gruff voice rising and falling over the general commotion.  He took a sharp intake of breath and waited for Willow to catch him up, not daring to look around or move one more step.  As soon as she’d reached his side, he grabbed her to hold her back.  He felt her body tense as his cold fingers closed around her arm.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could just see Scarface and the other two dwarves, Ozzy and Elvis.

 

 

Death’s Apprentice – Part Twenty-Eight

Joe reached out to shake Charon’s hand.

‘Obol,’ said Charon, jerking his hand away, leaving Joe’s hanging awkwardly in the air.

‘What?’

‘An obol. I need an obol.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Joe, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’

‘An obol. I need payment. Charon looked at the confused look on Joe’s face and added, ‘Money. To transport you across. Every dead person needs to pay for passage.’

‘But, I’m not dead. Can’t I just…’

‘No. No exceptions. I need to eat you know.’

‘Oh, okay.’ Joe shoved his hand in his jean pocket and fetched out a two pence piece and a chocolate bar wrapper. ‘That’s all I have, sorry,’ said Joe with a shrug. He offered the money to Charon.

Charon screwed up his face. ‘No. That’s not going to be enough.’

‘Is there another way across?’

‘Maybe,’ said Charon, ‘but I don’t know of any.’

‘Can I row myself across?’

‘What? You think you can just come in and take my job? Do you know how long I’ve been working here young man? You young people, think you can just come in and take over.’

‘Okayyyy.’ Joe looked at the book in his hand, The Book of the Dead. He opened it, hoping that there would be some way of getting around this problem.

On the first page, the words, “The Book of the Dead, The Ultimate Guide to the Afterlife” was written in black script. He turned it over, looked at the contents page and flicked the page he needed. It read:

“Pay Charon the Obol given to you by Death. This is very important. If you do not, you will remain stranded on the banks of the River Styx for eternity. This is not a good idea as the Styx often floods resulting in the bank you are standing on being totally covered in smelly, swampy water that will give you trench foot. Trench foot is an incurable condition in the underworld. You don’t want that.”

Joe snapped the book shut.

‘Well?’ asked Charon.

‘Well…’

‘Come on, I haven’t got all day.’

‘Will you take something else?’

Joe could see he had piqued Charon’s interest.

‘How about this?’ said Joe whipping out his mobile phone.

‘What is that devilment?’ asked Charon, jumping back.

‘It’s a phone, look,’ said Joe, flicking on the screen.

‘Really?’ asked Charon, placing his free hand on his hip. ‘What do I need a phone for? Who am I going to call?’

‘So you know what a phone is?’

‘Well, yes. I just haven’t seen them so small.’

‘Ah, okay,’ said Joe, ‘this isn’t just a phone. Watch.’ He clicked on the camera icon and took a picture of Charon.

‘What was that? Are you trying to cast some sort of spell over me? It won’t work you know!’

‘No, I’ve taken your picture.’ He showed Charon.

‘Oooh,’ he said, ‘my beard needs cutting doesn’t it. And how do you do that? Show me how to take, what is it called?’

‘A photo.’

‘Yes, how do you take a photo?’

Joe showed him quickly, conscious of the fact that his phone had only nineteen percent battery.

‘And you’ll give this, to me, for passage?’

‘Yes. Deal?’

‘Deal.’

They shook hands. Joe released Charon’s hand and wiped the sweat and dirt onto his trousers.

Book Review – The Green Mile by Stephen King

The Green Mile by Stephen King (Orion Books, 1998)

I’ve very late to the party with this book! I must also say that I have watched the movie loads of times and it happens to be one of my favourites.

The Green Mile is narrated by Paul Edgecombe, the superintendent in charge of the death row section of Cold Mountain Penitentiary – known as the Green Mile – in 1932. The book is a recount of his days on E-block and the strange events that took place in that year.

In particular, the arrival of John Coffey, condemned to die on ‘Old Sparky’ for the rape and murder of two young girls. But, it soon transpires that everything isn’t quite what it seems with this gentle giant who cries a lot and is deeply afraid of the dark. Paul soon comes to question whether Coffey is innocent of the crimes he’s been convicted of especially when it seems that Coffey has been gifted the powers of healing.

This book is beautifully written and, at times, heartbreaking. I can’t remember the last time I cried reading a book but The Green Mile managed to break me. It’s easy to see why Stephen King is hailed as a master of writing.

This is a weighty book filled with themes such as damnation, salvation, racism and atonement. It’s an exploration of power, or lack of it, and the illusion of superiority. It’s a book about death, morality and death used as a punishment. But, it’s also a story about love, compassion and healing.

It goes straight into my list of favourites. I would give it five out of five stars,

Great for those who like deep, unsettling and dark narratives. Not so great for those who don’t like magical realism and want a light read.

Dragon Rider – Part Ten

Dragon Rider

Chapter Six Continued

Going Nowhere, Fast

Willow sat cross-legged on a crumbling window ledge, flicking through the pages of a black leather book with fat gold hinges that Drake had managed to “borrow” from an Antique Book Dealers.  ‘Here it is,’ she said, clearing her throat, ‘The Emerald Key is not a key as such, but a magickal text that allegedly allows the reader to unlock all of the wisdom in the Universe and, because of this, anyone who possesses it can wield great power.

‘It was the first book ever to be created and was written by the God Mercury at the request of Zeus so that he had a full record of everything he possessed.  Unfortunately, it was stolen from Mount Olympus, along with fire, by Prometheus who gave it to Hermes Trismegistus, the Book’s Guardian on earth.

‘The Emerald Key has been passed down through generations of Guardians who swore to protect it as Hermes had once done.  It is believed that Guardians have included Roger Bacon, Nicholas Flamel and Edward Sampson, among others.’

‘That’s it?’ asked Drake.

‘Yep, apparently the book simply vanished around 1832,’ finished Willow.  She dropped the book on to the window ledge and went to sit next to Drake on the sofa.

Drake closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.  ‘Okay Gizmo, what’ve you got?’

‘Not much more than what Funestus told us,’ said Gizmo.  ‘Apparently, that Canches guy-‘

‘The one who wrote the notebook?’ asked Drake.

‘Yeah, he was friends with Nicholas Flamel, one of the most famous Alchemists of all time-’

‘Nicholas Flamel?’  Drake laughed, ‘The crackpot who allegedly created the Philosopher’s stone?’

Gizmo nodded his head.  ‘It was Flamel who had the book, he just showed it to Canches.  It was The Emerald Key that gave Flamel the instructions on how to create the stone so that he could conquer death-’

‘Conquer death?’ asked Drake, his voice full of scepticism.

‘Don’t ask me,’ shrugged Gizmo, ‘I’m just reading what it says here.’

‘Okay, sorry,’ said Drake.  Boy, was this guy sensitive.  ‘Do you think you could do some more digging, see what else you can find?’

‘I’ve got Ailsa on to it, if she comes up with anything, I’ll let you know.’

Drake sighed.  ‘We have no leads, nowhere to start.’

‘Give it a couple of hours and I’m sure Ailsa will come up with something-’

‘I don’t think we’ve got a couple of hours, Fenrik’s already on to it, I know it.’  Drake banged his fist on the arm of the sofa, ‘If only we knew what he was up to.’

‘What we need is someone magickal, someone who can give us another angle on The Emerald Key.  Know anyone at the Uni Giz?’ asked Willow.

‘No, I’m sure-’

‘That’s it!’ said Drake smacking his forehead with the heal of his hand, ‘How come I didn‘t think of that before?’  He jumped up from the sofa.  ‘I need to pay an old friend a visit, she’s a Mystick, she’ll know where we need to start.’

‘You know a Mystick?  Why haven’t you told us this before?’

Drake shrugged.  ‘Her name is Alchymia, she’s helped me out a few times, maybe she’ll be able to help again.  She’s a good place to start anyway.’

‘So where do we find her?’

‘Nowhere.’

‘Drake, now isn’t the time for jokes-’

‘I’m not joking.  It’s an old magickal town to the north-west of here.’  Drake rubbed his chin, deep in thought.  ‘Didn’t think I’d go back there so soon.  It’ll be dangerous, can’t risk Falkor-’

‘Dangerous, how exactly?’ asked Gizmo, who had stopped flicking his hand over the images on the screen in front of him.

‘Long story.  Let’s just say I’m not very welcome there.  But still, it’s the only lead we’ve got.’

‘So when do we go?’ asked Willow, jumping off the sofa.

‘We don’t,’ said Drake, grabbing his Zephyr, ‘I go alone.’

‘Drake,’ said Gizmo, ‘you’ll need help.’

‘You,’ said Drake, slapping Gizmo on the back, ‘need to fix the problem you’re having breaking into the Enforcerer’s computers.  You also get to send Ailsa to infiltrate Fenrik’s system-’

‘No!’ cut in Gizmo, ‘I can’t allow that, it’s too dangerous, I-’

‘I know, but we need to know what he’s up to, what info he’s got, how close he is to finding it.  Find that out and we’ll have half a chance.’

‘And what do I get to do?’ asked Willow, her hands firmly on her hips, her eyes thunderous.

‘You get to stay here and help Gizmo.’

‘Drake?  Come on!’

‘I’m going alone.’

‘You’re not even taking Falkor?’ asked Willow, suddenly concerned.

‘Who’s Falkor? asked Gizmo.

‘No, it’s too risky, they’re not exactly pro-dragon where I’m going, and on the subject of Falkor…’

‘Dragon?’ asked Gizmo, swinging around in his chair, ‘no one said anything about dragons-’

‘No Drake, I’m not looking after him,’ said Willow shuddering, the thunder in her eyes now replaced by a look of horror.  ‘Look, I like dragons, really, I do, but I couldn’t look after one.  Anyway, if you’re not taking him you’re going to need transport.  We can use my Metatron, it’s a bike that Gizmo’s souped-up, very fast, very cool, you’ll like it.’

Drake chortled.  ’I was only going to ask if you could keep an eye out for him and give me the heads up if anything happens, that’s all.  But the Metatron sounds like a good idea.’

‘Great!  You get to go on an adventure and I get to babysit a Dragon.’

‘Will someone tell me when we got a pet dragon?’ asked Gizmo.

 

Death’s Apprentice – Part Twenty-Seven

The door creaked on its hinges as Joe pushed it open. A cool breeze blew in from the open doorway. Joe took a tentative step forwards but stopped because he could see nothing but black. A vast open expanse of black.

‘Go on then,’ said Mrs Crow.

‘But there’s nothing there,’ said Joe, taking a step backwards.

‘There is,’ said Mrs Crow, and with a sharp jab to his back she added, ‘now stop piddling about here and get on with it.’

Joe staggered through the door and into the black.

‘It’s been nice knowing you,’ said Mrs Crow to his back, ‘you know if the worse happens.’

He turned as the door slammed behind him.

‘Great,’ he said. The word echoed through the darkness. ‘Brilliant. Just brilliant.’

He stood still, not knowing what to do. Did he go back? The prank had surely gone far enough, hadn’t it? He couldn’t play this stupid charade forever, could he? No. Time to go back. Things had gone far enough.

Joe spun on his heels. He’d had enough. He’d go back through the door, have a good laugh with whoever had set this up but now it was time to finish it. Except…

The door had disappeared.

‘Very funny!’ he shouted to no one in particular. ‘You can stop now!’

‘Stop what?’ The voice made him jump. He swung around to see a figure swathed in black, lit by a small lamp held by a skeletal hand.’

‘Fuck! Who are you?’

‘Pleasure to meet you too!’

‘Yeah, erm.. sorry…I…you made me jump.’

‘Well, who else did you expect to be here?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Joe, he flung his arms in the air, nearly losing the book in his hand, ‘I’ve never been here before.’

‘Of course, you haven’t. You only die once.’

‘I’m not dead.’

‘Not dead? Don’t be stupid! Of course -‘

‘I’m not. I’m still alive and kicking and not falling for this shit anymore.’

The figure rushed over to him and grabbed Joe’s wrist. It held it in icy cold hands.

‘Wow!’ the figure exclaimed. ‘You have a pulse! You’re an actual live person. Well, this is very irregular.’ The figure dropped Joe’s hand and held up the lamp to Joe’s face. Its hood dropped from its head, revealing a man’s skeletal face. He had a patch over one eye and long straggly grey hair. Joe thought he could smell ammonia. The man reached up with his free hand and run it across Joe’s face. Joe cringed inside.

‘Oh, I’m sorry. This is too much, isn’t it? It’s just…it’s just I only ever see the dead ones and to find a live one standing right before me, well, it’s nothing short of a miracle.’ The man reached inside his cloak and scratched his armpit. ‘I’m Charon, by the way,’ he said, offering Joe the hand he’d just scratched his armpit with, ‘and I’m your guide across the River Styx.’

So, You Wanna be a Writer? Five things you need in Act Two of your novel.

In the post, Five reasons why the three-act structure is for you (see it here), I explained that act two corresponds with the middle of your novel.

Act Two is where the hero takes action. Here are five key ingredients that the middle of your story needs:

One – Challenges that the hero must face

The hero can’t have it easy. There have to be lots of obstacles put in their way because, if there wasn’t, what would be the point of reading it? It would be pretty boring, wouldn’t it?

The challenges don’t have to be life and death scenarios. It’s best if there are plenty of highs and lows to the second act. Usually, the challenges facing the hero at the beginning of the second act begin to test character but don’t have serious consequences. That’s not to say they aren’t difficult, just that they don’t have a life or death outcome. Slowly the tension builds in act two so that by the end of act two the hero is at his lowest point.

man in blue and brown plaid dress shirt touching his hair
Photo by Nathan Cowley on Pexels.com

Two – A world that is different from the ordinary world of Act One

The ordinary world of act one is where we meet the hero and where the hero is inactive. The special world –  in which the hero enters after the triggering event at the end of act one – must challenge the hero. It must be different and allow the hero to be tested and, in turn, change.

Don’t forget that the hero isn’t used to this new special world. They have to learn new rules.

Three – Be aware of the theme of your story

As I explained in my post, five things you need to do in act one of your story, your novel will need a theme that runs through the whole of it.

There will be an underlying theme or message to your story. This is an idea that runs through the whole of the novel. The message could be, for example, “crime doesn’t pay,” or “love conquers all”. It gives the story cohesion.

You must keep this in mind as you write act two, making sure the theme is a thread that runs through the whole of your story. If you don’t, the story won’t gel properly and won’t have the cohesion it should have.

Four – avoid a saggy middle

There is a danger in act two that your writing will fall flat and become boring if the action isn’t dynamic. The hero must face challenges but they can’t all be easy. There has to be highs and lows and, as the story continues, the tension needs to rise until the hero is at his lowest point at the end of act two.

Remember that the second act is just as important as the beginning and end. Take time over it and don’t rush. Also make sure that the message of the story, for example, Revenge is self-destructive, runs through the entire length of the novel.

Keep your focus, keep the writing tight and make sure you don’t meander. There has to be a momentum, a reason why the character has to keep on going, no matter the cost.

Five – Make sure you include a crisis

At the end of act two, the hero has to be at his lowest point. He has to face a crisis. This is a plot point which throws the hero into act three.

The crisis can be the hero facing his greatest fears, the end of a relationship, or he can be near to death as he is brought to his knees by whatever hostile force is facing him.

The crisis is the main event of the second act. It is the point to which everything in the story leads before it emerges the other side allowing for the hero to change.

 

Is there anything else you’d add to this list?