Death’s Apprentice – Part 48

He didn’t blame Hades for falling to sleep. Joe had to admit this cottage was pretty snug and homely. He yawned loudly before he shovelled the last spoonful of stew into his mouth. He dropped the bowl onto the floor and stood up to stretch.

Yep, this place was rather nice; too many knick-knacks for Joe’s liking but still, it was more homely than he’d ever considered his own home to be. Yes, this was more like it.

He looked around for Hel. Where had she got to? He looked at Hades. Hades didn’t look worried as he lay there snoring his head off so why should he be worried? Maybe Hades had got the right idea. Maybe that’s what Joe needed, a nap. The bed did look really inviting, and it wouldn’t hurt to rest for a few minutes, would it?

He flopped onto the bed which seemed to cocoon him as he fell, like some giant cuddly arms. Oh, it felt so comfy, so warm…

 

Jow woke with a start. He gasped for air. That was one Hell of a dream. He’d been dreaming that he was being held prisoner by a woman with a knife.

His heart jumped into his throat as a woman’s head swooped into view, her features covered by her thick red hair.

‘And what do you think you’re doing on my bed?’ she demanded, whilst thrusting a silver knife to his throat.

‘I…I was just…’

‘I know what you were doing,’ she boomed, letting the sharp blade rest on his skin, ‘you were sleeping. ON MY BED!’

‘I’m sorry, I just…’

‘I just…I just…stop snivelling like a child. Actually, now I come to think of it, I’m quite partial to children. I like to cook them and eat them in a stew for my dinner.’

Joe’s stomach rolled. Acidic bile rose up into his throat. He hadn’t had he? The stew…? Eugh!!! He hadn’t eaten human flesh? Had he?

‘I think I’m going to be sick,’ he squeaked.

Suddenly the witch threw her head back and began to laugh. She dropped the knife onto the bed stand and climbed off Joe. She rolled over and lay beside him, clutching her stomach as she laughed.

‘That was too funny,’ said another voice. This one he recognised.

‘Hel?’

Hel came into view, her eyes streaming with tears of laughter.

‘What? You…?’ He sat up, his pride stinging with indignity. ‘You…what’s going on?’

‘We’re only having you on! Sorry.’

But, Joe could tell Hel wasn’t sorry. No, not at all. She was laughing now but he’d get her back. Yep, at some point, he was going to get her back for that.

‘Couldn’t resist, sorry. It was too easy,’ said the other woman who was still lying next to Joe. She turned her head to face him, her hand outstretched. ‘The name’s Agnes, pleased to meet you.’

Death’s Apprentice – Part 46

Joe’s stomach groaned as he neared the cabin and smelled… His nose twitched as he sniffed the air. Stew. It was stew! His absolute favourite. Winner, winner, thought Joe, stew for dinner. Get in!

The log cabin looked well cared for and, if Joe was really honest, exactly what a cabin in the woods belonging to a witch should look like. It had a rocking chair on the porch with a patchwork quilt of browns and oranges and reds, carefully folded upon the seat. There were pots of plants on either side of the cabin door. Probably herbs, thought Joe, as this house belonged to a witch.

The garden was just as well kept. There was a well-tended pumpkin patch with pumpkins of various sizes and colours. There were rows of carrots, what looked like rhubarb, and potatoes. There was a small section of the garden fenced off with what looked like willow twigs that had been woven together. Behind the fence, were strange-looking plants with gnarled branches and bizarre flowers and plants that just looked like lots of twisted thorns.

‘Are you coming in or what?’ asked Hel, standing in the open doorway of the house.

‘I’m coming,’ he replied, slipping his hands into his pockets as he had an attack of conscience. It didn’t feel right just walking into someone else’s house. Having said that, he kind of hoped she wasn’t in there either. ‘Is…is she in there?’ He stepped onto the first step and stopped.

‘Who?’

‘The witch.’

‘No. At least…I don’t think she is.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ snapped Joe. Being hangry and anxious was not good for his mood.

‘Well, I can’t see her but she’s a witch isn’t she? So she could be a slug, or a frog, or anything, couldn’t she? So, I think you need to hurry up and eat already because if she catches you…’ Hel drew a small finger across her pale throat. ‘She might end up putting you in the stew…if you’re lucky…’

There was a pregnant pause interrupted by the sound of a frog croaking then Joe’s stomach groaning.

‘What?’ asked Joe.

Hel shrugged, turned, and went back into the cabin.

Death’s Apprentice – Part 45

‘How much longer?’

‘Not far,’ said Hel as she skipped through the trees like a ballerina on speed.

Not far? Not far? It felt like they’d been walking through this shitty forest for days! Joe didn’t know how long he could go on for. His stomach felt like it was eating itself and his legs didn’t feel as if they belonged to him anymore. And his mood? His mood was maybe not a good thing to discuss.

‘Here we are, look!’ Hel screeched to a halt, raised her small hand and pointed at something that Joe couldn’t see yet.

He moved closer to the little girl and looked out of the trees into a small clearing. There was what looked like a small log cabin surrounded by a small kitchen garden full to the brim with herbs and vegetables. Grey smoke twisted out of the chimney and drifted into the eternally twilit sky.

‘Stay here!’ she ordered, before she raced off towards the cabin, her hounds swiftly following.

Except for Hades.

Hades seemed to have developed a connection with Joe. The huge dog stood next to him, his muscles taut, his eyes alert and…

God, what was that smell?

Joe looked at Hades. Hades looked at his bottom then looked at Joe, his head slowly getting lower and lower.

‘Hades, have you…?’

Hades’ head dropped even further.

It was at that moment that Joe decided he like Hades a lot. He watched as Hel skipped off towards the cabin and he wondered whether she’d allow the dog to go with him back to up there, “real life”, or whatever it was. Because if this was the Underworld (and it definitely was as far as he could tell) and this was “real”, then what was up there? What did he call it? The upper world? But, Joe mused, it was more like a big downer, especially living with his mom and shitdad.

Maybe, IF he ever got back to up there, he’d have to consider alternative living arrangements now he was working.

He shrugged as if in conversation with himself. What did any of that matter? He’d deal with that if he ever got out of here alive.

Alive? Wasn’t that ironic as he was in the Underworld?

There was a long howl that seemed to echo around the forest. Hades’ ears pricked up. He threw his head back and gave his response – a long sorrowful howl that sent a shiver down Joe’s back. When he’d finished his cry, he nudged Joe’s leg and began to stroll off towards the cabin.

Death’s Apprentice – Part 42

Joe had no idea how long they’d been walking through the forest. Walking? What he actually meant was stumbling through because even though the trees seemed to strangely move apart when Hel skipped through them, their gnarly roots seemed to try and trip him up whenever possible. He’d fallen over that many times that he was now considering crawling.

There was no telling what time it was down here in the underworld. There was no sun to mark the passing of the day, and no moon to show the passing of the night. Instead, there was a murky, unforgiving twilight that hung over them, a light that was completely useless for walking through a forest.

Joe’s stomach gave a long hard groan.

Great.

He hadn’t even considered how he would feed himself down here. In this…shit hole.

Yes. The further he stumbled, the more he realised this place was a shit hole. Not like his house (not home, for was the place he went to bed really a home?). No, that was a shit hole, shit hole. This dark, forbidding place was a shit hole because it stunk like a toilet that hadn’t been flushed for a month and the funny light seemed to be sucking the very life from him. His legs were burning, his eyes were burning, his lungs were burning and he felt like shit.

Joe thought that he probably used the word shit far too much but that word seemed to sum up so much of his life.

His stomach groaned again. So loud that it echoed through the trees. Or that’s how it felt to Joe.

Hel stopped stone still in front of him. Her hounds did the same. It was almost like they were connected on some telepathic level.

‘What was that?’ she whispered, slowly turning to face Joe.

Joe’s stomach roared again.

‘It’s me. Sorry,’ he said, with a small shrug.

‘Ahhhh,’ she said, as comprehension dawned on her. ‘You’re hungry?’

‘Yes.’

‘One of the problems of being alive, I suppose?’

‘Well, I wouldn’t class eating as being a problem,’ said Joe.

‘It kind of is down here,’ she replied.

‘Dead people don’t eat,’ said Joe, realising this could be a major problem. Was he going to die of hunger down here? Was he going to shrivel up like a prune, his body left to the creepy crawlies that probably lurked in the undergrowth?

Death’s Apprentice – Part 41

‘What are you doing?’

The sound of the sweet little voice made Joe’s heart jump in his chest. He flung his hand up to his pounding heart and ended up dropping the branch in the mud.

‘What the?! Don’t make me jump like that!’ he screeched spinning around to see Hel standing there as sweet as anything. Where had she appeared from? She was like an annoying little sister he couldn’t get rid of.

‘I’m trying to help this man. He’s trapped -‘

‘Hello!’ said the man in the bog, ‘I’m still here…and I’m sinking!’

‘You don’t want to do that,’ she said, arms folded behind her back as she swayed from side to side.

‘What do you mean? The guy’s going to die -‘

‘No, he’s not.’

‘Hel,’ said Joe, flinging his hand in the air in exasperation, ‘he’s sinking in the mud.’

‘So?’

‘So, I can’t just leave him to die, can I?’

‘Why not? He’ll be back again tomorrow.’

‘Of course, I can’t…what do you mean he’ll be back again tomorrow?’

‘Oh that’s Lord Valdis and you’ve no need to worry, he’s already dead.’

‘What?!’ spluttered Joe. ‘What do you mean he’s dead?’

‘Do you want to tell him?’ Hel asked the man. ‘Or shall I?’

The man mumbled something but Joe couldn’t quite make out what he said.

‘I guess I’ll tell him then,’ shrugged Hel. ‘Where are we, Joe?’

Joe looked confused and didn’t answer.

‘What you need to remember is that not everyone is like you. People are usually dead here.’ She shrugged. ‘This is the Forest of Suffering. Lord Valdis is suffering. That’s what’s supposed to happen.’

‘Ohhh…’ said Joe, pretending that he understood perfectly, when, in fact, he didn’t.’

‘Lord Valdis hoarded all the food in his castle when his people starved. He ate and drank and became fat when his people died of malnutrition. He deserves to be stuck in the mud like the pig he was.’

Well, when she put it like that, Joe thought she had a very convincing argument.

‘So, what is this place then? Is it like purgatory then?’

‘Oh no,’ said Hel, ‘purgatory is for temporary punishment. The punishments here go on forever!’ She smiled as she said these last words.

‘Forever, forever?’

‘Is there any other kind?’

Joe thought about it for a second then gave up. His brain hurt too much.

‘Come on then, she said, spinning around, ‘that’s if you want to get where you’re going.’

‘And what about me?’ asked the fat man.

‘What about you?’ replied Hel.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Thirty-Seven

‘Well,’ said Joe.

‘Well,’ said Hel.

‘I’d better be getting on then.’

‘Okay,’ said Hel.

‘Okay.’

‘Thank you, though,’ said Joe, although he was unsure what he was actually thanking her for. But at least she’d fallen silent and the questions had stopped. He raised the Book of the Dead in his hand in a kind of salute and, without another word, turned and strode off into the trees.

The ground underneath Joe’s feet was springy and covered in branches and decaying leaves. The air smelled musty and damp which reminded Joe of autumnal walks with Lola by the cut.

Lola. His heart-strings gave a twang. He was never soppy or sentimental, except when he thought about his dog. He hoped they were taking good care of her at the funeral home.

The trees were tightly packed together, their gnarled branches like long fingers above him, their roots snaking across the uneven ground below him. He stumbled a couple of times as he tried to get away from Hel but he couldn’t go too far because he needed what little light there was so he could look at the book in his hands.

He stopped at what seemed like a good spot. The trees in front of him were becoming even closer together and Joe knew he’d struggle to see anything very much soon. He needed a torch. A torch would have been very good. He had one on his phone. Except…

Except, he’d given it to Charon. And it didn’t have very much charge on it anyway.

He opened the book and flicked through it until he found the section on The Forest of Suffering. The handwriting was a neat cursive in black ink. He began to read:

The Forest of Suffering

Dark and bleak.

You won’t make it through. So don’t bother.

But if you don’t want to take my word for it, try it.

And pray.

For there are things lurking in the trees that are worse than Cerberus himself.

Joe doubted very much that there could be anything very scary in these woods if Cerberus was anything to go by. Cerberus had proved to be quite a letdown. But then, that kind of was the story of his life.

He turned his attention back to the book:

It is said that the trees move in the Forest of the Suffering. They somehow manage to block the traveller’s way so it becomes impossible to break through. And then, when they trap you in their evil lair, they begin to whisper dark words into your ear. The traveller will slowly become mad through their words.

 Many souls have been lost to the trees. They linger, still half-mad in the forest, calling out and driving other’s to their deaths with their incessant sorrowful cries.  

 Joe looked up and listened. There was no sound at all so he very much doubted that this bit could be true either. Although, it was rather strange that there was no sound at all. No birds, no breeze, no…

‘What are you doing?’ A sweet little voice cut through the silence.

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.