Death’s Apprentice – Part 61

A shadow launched out of the fog again, it jaws slashing at the side of Joe’s face. He heard the beast’s teeth snap shut, and smelled its acrid breath, but did not see the beast they belonged to for it was just too quick. Its jaws snapped shut inches from his face before it was consumed by the shadows again.

And then, it appeared again from the other side of Joe. Hades whipped his body around as the figure emerged from the fog. It was huge. A dog bigger than any Joe had ever seen, even bigger than Hades. It looked like a human except it was covered in a thick layer of fur and it’s head had no human face because it looked more like a wolf.

Hade’s launched at the creature’s throat, his own jaws missing the target by inches.

The was another growl from behind Joe. He turned just in time to see another wolf creature merge from the shadows, its mouth smeared red with blood.

Joe jumped backwards, away from the snapping jaws. His foot connected with a gnarled tree root snaking across the floor and he lost his balance. He fell back with a thud, hitting the base of his spine on the hard floor. He felt the pain ricochet through his torso but he didn’t have time to register it as the wolf creature crouched down on all fours and launched at him.

Joe tried to push himself back, away from the creature’s snapping jaws but there was a large tree trunk in the way. He couldn’t move. He was trapped.

The beast stopped just inches away from Joe’s head. He could smell its acrid breath and see the drool pooling at the corners of its mouth. It gave a throaty growl and prepared to strike. It sprung forward, teeth bared. Joe closed his eyes. It was strange, he didn’t feel scared. He didn’t feel anything. All he knew was that he didn’t want to see the creature tearing him limb from limb.

There was another growl. Joe could make out movement in front of him that wasn’t the creature. He opened his eyes just as one of Hel’s hounds launched itself at the creature’s neck. It latched on with its canines and began to wiggle its body violently to cut off the creature’s air supply. It reminded Joe of lions when they latch on to the neck of their prey in the wildlife documentaries he’d watched growing up. The times he’d had a television that was. His Shitdad liked to pawn them for beer money.

The wolf creature stood up on its back legs and grabbed at the hound with its sharp claws. Blood was oozing from the wound in its neck but still, it kept on pulling at the hound in an attempt to yank it off its throat.

Beside him, he noticed Hades was finishing off the first beast that had attacked.

Joe pulled himself off the floor just as the other wolf creature managed to prize the hound off its throat. It held the hound in its hand-like front paws and threw the dog to the ground. The dog yelped as he hit the ground at a funny angle. Then he moved no more.

The beast turned his attention back to Joe.

Death’s Apprentice – Part 56

They’d been walking for hours before they even reached the edge of the Haunted Forest. I mean, thought Joe, how more cliché could you get than the Haunted Forest? He felt like he was in a bloody fairy tale.

Agnes had insisted on preparing him a little rucksack. She’d filled it with sandwiches full of green mushy stuff (Joe didn’t know what it was, nor was he going to ask as he thought that might get him into even more trouble than he already was in) and a flask of tea. Although, after having the last cup of tea with the Dead Man Walking, it had kind of turned him off but she was, at least, trying to be helpful. Joe had slipped the Book of the Dead into the rucksack even though it had proved pretty useless so far.

The bag itself was a little bit of a problem. It was pink with a picture of a My Little Pony on it. This raised several serious questions in Joe’s mind; why had Agnes got a pink My Little Pony Rucksack, and what did that say about her character? He buried these thoughts in the back of his head. He was far too much of a chicken to ask her.

It was pretty obvious, even to Joe, when they’d reached the edge of the Haunted Forest for a thick blanket of fog had started to envelop them in gloom.

‘So, before we go In,’ said Joe, trying to delay the inevitable moment of actually entering the forest, ‘what’s the deal with the Woodcutter?’

Agnes came to an abrupt halt. She spun around, her fists in tight little balls at her side. ‘What do you need to know other than he has my heart?’

‘Well, how did he get it? How did he steal it? It’s not really something that I thought would be easy to steal.’

‘Are you trying to say I was careless?’

‘Well, no…I…was just asking.’

Agnes’ shoulders dropped and she sighed loudly. ‘The truth is…I was careless. I loved him. And I gave my heart away -‘

‘But you said, he stole it.’

‘Joe,’ said Hel, ‘she means she gave it away metaphorically speaking.’

‘Yes. One night we…and then…when I woke up, he’d cut my heart out.’

‘But what did he want with your heart?’

‘I don’t know, do I?’ snapped Agnes.

Death’s Apprentice – Part 55

Joe sighed and looked at his tea. It was becoming gungy around the edges like when milk goes off. His stomach roiled in disgust.

‘Do I have to drink this?’

‘Deal?’

He sighed loudly. He hadn’t really got a choice, had he? ‘Deal.’

‘Now drink up.’

‘Do I have to?’

‘It’ll make you feel so much better.’

He looked at it, took a deep breath, and prepared himself.

‘Come on, down the hatch.’

He opened his mouth and took a big gulp. It tasted like mud and sweaty armpits and…eugh…he couldn’t. He couldn’t do it. It was only when he tried to take the cup away from his lips that he realised it was being held firmly in place by Agnes.

‘There’s a boy,’ she said, ‘drink up.’

Agnes only removed her hand from the mug when she was sure Joe had finished every last drop.

Joe felt sick. His stomach was loudly complaining about the vile muck he had been forced to drink. She said it would make him feel better. Well, he didn’t feel better. He felt like crap. He felt like he needed a really good burp.

BBBUUUURRRPPPP.

Joe felt red hot shame crawl across his face.

‘Oh, don’t worry,’ said Agnes, ‘it does that to everyone. Bet you feel better though now, don’t you?’

He thought about it. He didn’t feel sick anymore but he wouldn’t have said he felt better.

‘What’s the plan of attack then?’ Hel asked Joe.

‘I don’t know. Where’s the Woodcutter live?’

Agnes threw the bottle that had contained the green substance into the fire. It smashed into tiny little pieces as the fire devoured the glass.

‘He lives in the Haunted Forest -‘

‘The Haunted Forest? Come on, I mean, really?’

Hades gave another, louder cry.

‘That’s to the east of here, isn’t it?’ asked Hel.

Agnes sighed loudly. ‘Yes.’

‘That’s going to take forever,’ said Hel.

‘About a day’s walk, if we don’t run into trouble.’

‘A day? I haven’t got a day. Can’t we just apparate or something?’

Agnes studied Joe with narrowed eyes. She shook her head. ‘Humans,’ she said to Hel, ‘You know who I blame? J. K. Rowling, that’s who. Everyone thinks that’s how magic works. One click of your finger and you can get anywhere in a second.’

‘I don’t think it works like that,’ said Joe.

Agnes shot him a look. ‘What?’

‘Apparating. It’s not a click of the fingers, it’s -‘

‘Yes. Rowling’s fault. Schools for witchcraft and wizardry, I ask you. Now everyone thinks if they get a stick, wave it around and mutter something incomprehensible in Latin that’s magic! Anywayyyy, rant over.’ She placed her hand on her forehead. ‘I don’t know where that came from. Must be a full moon or something.’

‘So when do we go?’ asked Hel.

Agnes sniffed the air.

‘You reading the signs? Making sure it’s the auspicious time to take the journey?’ asked Joe.

Agnes looked at him with what Joe thought might be disappointment. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I think Hades has dropped one.’

Death’s Apprentice – Part 50

‘It’s a long story,’ said Joe.

‘I know, but we’ve got time,’ she said.

But, where did he begin? ‘I don’t know how it’s all got to this point, to be honest, but, to cut that long story short, I need to find Death’s scythe -‘

‘Here, in the Underworld?’

Joe nodded. ‘Yes, Death’s sister stole it from Death, my boss.’

‘So, that’s what you’re here for,’ said Hel, ‘totally makes sense now.’

‘And you’re a human? And still alive?’ asked Agnes.

‘Yes,’ said Joe, but, he was starting to wonder whether he was actually dead and this was Hell.

‘And Death’s sister is…?’

‘I don’t know but I need to find her.’

Agnes’s covered her hand with her mouth and shook her head. ‘There’s no way,’ she said, her hand still covering her mouth.

‘No way to what?’

‘To get to Death’s sister.’

‘Why?’

‘Because Death’s sister lives in the Iron Fortress deep in the Valley of the Dead.’

‘Oh,’ said Hel.

Hades, who at some point, had woken up, sat up and gave a loud gulp. He stood up, stretched his back legs out and went over to Joe. He placed his head on Joe’s lap and began to cry.

Joe began to stroke Hade’s thick warm fur.

‘And?’ asked Joe.

‘And no person EVER has made it through the Valley of the Dead alive.’

‘I have the Book of the Dead to help me,’ said Joe.

‘That’s not going to help you, Joe, that’s written for dead people.

‘Well, it’s got me this far.’

‘Except, that’s not very far at all,’ said Hel.

Silence fell upon the room. He didn’t know why but suddenly he was feeling really grumpy. He grabbed at the Book of the Dead from where he’d dropped it on the floor. He opened the front cover and looked down the contents page. He found the section he was looking for, called The Valley of the Dead. ‘Page two-hundred and eleven,’ he said to himself as he flicked to the section.

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.