Death’s Apprentice – Part Thirty-One

Joe didn’t stop running until he’d put as much distance as he could between him and Charon. He hadn’t run since he’d done P.E. at school in year eleven, not that he’d done very much physical exercise even then because, well, he didn’t really go to school.

He stopped as he neared the tree line, bent over and held his chest as he tried to get control of his breathing. He was really unfit.

Finally, he stood up and looked at the towering trees of the Forest of Suffering. What had Charon said about it? All Joe could remember was some comment about something called Cerberus that would tear him apart. Joe thought he’d heard of Cerberus before but he couldn’t place where. He opened the Book of the Dead that Mrs Crow had given him.

He flicked to the chapter called “The Underworld Guardians,” then found the entry for Cerberus:

“Cerberus guards the entrance to the Forest of Suffering. Beware of the monstrous Cerberus for he has three heads and the tail of a snake. Beware all ye that enter for ye shall not be allowed leave. Soothe the monster with the honey cake given to you by your psychopomp. It will subdue the beast long enough for you and your psychopomp to enter. Do not look back.

If you are unlucky to be alive when you face him, you will find death soon enough.”

Joe didn’t understand any of it. He looked up and scanned the perimeter of the forest. He couldn’t see any dog, let alone one with three heads and a snake for a tail. He let his gaze fall back to the book. What on earth was a psychopomp? Where did he find one and where did he get the honey cakes?

He flicked through the book and found the section for psychopomp:

“Before you enter the underworld, Death will assign you a psychopomp, or a Guide of the Souls. The psychopomp will help you make a smooth transition from your old world through the land of the dead. They will guide you. Giving you the tools and the advice you need to get you to your destination.”

So, Death had been no help whatsoever. She’d really prepared him well, hadn’t she?

Joe’s heart leapt from his chest into his throat as he felt something move behind him. There was a thump on the grass and a meaty growl that rumbled around his chest.

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Death’s Apprentice Writing Experiment – A Review of my work so far.

Now I’ve written a fair chunk of the beginning of Death’s Apprentice, I thought it would be a good opportunity to review what I’ve learnt so far.

I’ve written thirty parts of the story at this point and, I have to say, it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable, if a little scary, experience.

The Good Points:

I like how this whole experiment has opened me up to a new way of writing a novel. I have never pantsed a novel before. Pantsing doesn’t mean pulling down someone’s pants. In writing it’s used to describe a way of writing which isn’t plotted. A pantser writes by the seat of his or her pants, with no fixed outline. The story develops as you write it. This is also known as winging it and whilst I’ll admit to winging a lot in my life, I have never winged writing. Until now!

It’s not necessarily stretched my imagination because I had a very vivid imagination anyway, but, it’s made me think on my feet.

I’m not a rigid plotter but I do like having some sort of destination fixed in my head. I don’t write in chronological order but write the parts that appeal to me as I’m plotting. If I become stuck in the plot I go away and think about it, write another scene and let the problem tumble around in my head. With Death’s Apprentice, I haven’t been able to do that and it’s forced me to confront the plot issues as they happen. I’ve found this both challenging and rewarding.

The Bad Points:

I feel out of control of the writing. In a way this is liberating but also has taken me out of my comfort zone.

I feel that I don’t really know who Joe is yet, although he does keep surprising me with his actions.

Sometimes, it’s quite daunting sitting in front of a blank screen, knowing that I’ve got to write something because it’s Wednesday. I haven’t had writer’s block so far, so that is a good thing (thank heavens for that!). I’m sure there will be a stumbling block at some point, but I’ll deal with that if it happens.

I haven’t been reading all my work before I write the next section. I usually refresh my memory with a brief look at the week before’s post. Now I’ve done a review of the story so far, I can see I’ve somehow changed from the first-person viewpoint to third! That’s not too much of an issue though, as that can be sorted when I’m editing. Although, it does leave me with the question of which point of view I should use for the narrative.

It’s hard knowing that my mistakes are there for everyone to see. My writing isn’t polished and some of it is downright crap, lol!!

In Summary:

I like where the story is heading so far. It’s been a challenge, but one that I’m enjoying in a masochistic kind of way. I’m enjoying where it’s taking me, but I know that sometimes, my writing isn’t necessarily the most exciting because I am struggling to write some parts. It’s helping me to let go and write a little freer. It’s helping me to become less of a perfectionist.

What do you think of Death’s Apprentice, so far? What’s boring you? What do you think is good? More importantly, what’s bad? What’s grinding your gears? Where can I improve?

Let me know 🙂

Death’s Apprentice – Part Thirty

The boat began to glide effortlessly through the water. Charon lowered his hand and flicked the camera on the phone back. He held it up and began taking pictures of the landscape and Joe. Snap, snap, snap.

‘You can take a selfie too,’ said Joe.

‘What is a selfie?’

‘Pass it here and I’ll show you,’ said Joe holding out his hand. Charon reluctantly passed the phone back to him. After a few adjustments, Joe held the phone up and said, ‘look.’ Charon looked at the image on the screen of himself and Joe.

‘Ohhhh, I see. I like that. Let me try.’

Joe passed him the phone back. It was at fifteen percent.

‘Come here,’ said Charon, throwing his skeletal arm around Joe’s shoulders. Joe cringed inside but managed to make a smile. Charon clicked the icon and the flash went off. ‘I like this,’ he said, pushing Joe to one side. Charon took another selfie, moved around the boat a bit and took another one. He combed his hair back with one hand, then took another photo. And another. And another.

Then they were nearing the bank.

‘Er…Charon,’ said Joe, ‘I think we might be about to crash.’

‘Oh..what? Oh, oh dear,’ said Charon as the boat ground to a halt, caught on the sand and silt of the bank.

Joe jumped out. ‘Thank you,’ he said. He turned and began to walk off towards the tree-line.

Charon wasn’t listening. Instead, he’d turned his attention back to taking photos. The phone camera was click-click-clicking at a rapid rate. Joe knew the battery would be dead within minutes.

‘What the…?’ he heard Charon shout. Joe ignored him, put his head down and ran.

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.

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.

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.’

Death’s Apprentice – Part Twenty-Six

Like everything else that had happened in the last twenty-four hours or so, Joe wasn’t quite sure if what was happening at that moment was real or not. He considered all the things he’d been through; meeting Mr and Mrs Crow, the trial for the job which included burying a dead body at midnight with a man, called Azrail, who looked like a skeleton, finding out Mrs Crow was Death (well for England anyway) and that her sister had stolen her scythe so she couldn’t collect the souls of the dead anymore. Oh, and he’d met a man called Lucifer.

No. At some point, hopefully not too far in the future, the prank would stop, the prankster would be revealed and everything could go back to normal.

Whatever normal was.

Because, right at this second, he was feeling like it all needed to stop. It wasn’t funny. It wasn’t funny in the beginning and now, now it was even less funny.

His heart was pounding against his ribcage. His legs were jelly and he was sweating. Yep, this was as far from funny as you could get.

Joe was scared. Really scared. More than he’d ever been scared in his life. Even when he’d taken a beating from his stepdad.

What could be even scarier than taking a beating from your stepdad?

Standing at the door to the underworld knowing you’re about to go through it.

‘Are you sure this is the only way?’ asked Joe, turning to face Mrs Crow.

‘Yes. You’ll be fine. Just remember not to upset Cerberus because you don’t want your face ripped off do you?’

‘No. But -‘

‘Don’t worry about it Joe,’ said Mrs Crow, with a patronising pat to his shoulder, ‘you’re good with dogs. It will be fine. Cerberus will be fine -‘

‘And if he isn’t?’

‘Well, you’ll have your face ripped off then, won’t you? Take this,’ she said, holding out an A5 book to Joe.

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s the Book of the Dead. Hopefully, it will help you to navigate the underworld -‘

‘Hopefully?’

‘Well, no one’s ever used it so I don’t know how useful it will be. But at least it’s a start, isn’t it? It’s something.’

‘Yeah great.’

‘So you know what you’ve got to do?’

Joe nodded. ‘Yep. Find your sister and get the scythe back.’

‘There’s a good boy. Go on then, off you go. Any last words? Anything you want me to tell your mother if the worst happens?’

Joe sighed. ‘No.’

‘Go on then, no time like the present.’

Joe grasped the cold brass knob on the door. The door to the underworld. The cheap pine door that stood between him and the underworld. The unremarkable door that hung in the funeral home of Mr and Mrs Crow, Hight Street, Bloxwich.

He turned the knob and began to push the door open.