Death’s Apprentice – Part 70

He was useless.

He couldn’t remember his times tables. He hadn’t got a clue about algebra and he could only just about tell the time on an analogue clock. When the English teacher had made him read Macbeth out loud in year 7 the other kids laughed because he didn’t know what the words meant or how to say most of them. That was partly his own fault and he knew that; school was difficult and loud and full of people that treated him like his mom and stepdad, so he just didn’t go.

He didn’t stay at home either. He spent his days hiding from the wag man in the park, or wherever he could find shelter on the rainy days.

His English teacher said he was useless. The Maths teacher told him he wasn’t even good enough to sweep up floors and that he would never amount to anything.

And know he was here trying to save the world. How the actual fuck had that happened?

‘So, you going to make me carry him on my own then?’

‘What?’

‘You’re not going to help?’

‘Cast a spell. I’m not your skivvy,’ said Joe.

Agnes put her hands on her hips and huffed. ‘Really? You’re not going to help?’

‘Cast a spell,’ he repeated.

‘Right. Fine.’

Agnes bobbed her tongue out at Joe.

‘Very mature,’ he said. God, it was like having an annoying big sister.

‘You do realise you’re spoiling my fun.’

‘Just cast a fucking spell.’ Joe was losing his patience.

‘Alright, Mr Grumpy! God, you’re no fun!’ She turned to look at the woodcutter’s body. Holding her arms about two feet apart, her palms facing the ground, Agnes commanded his body to rise with a simple word, ‘Astigan!’

The woodcutter’s body began to slowly rise into the air. As it did so, his arms began to droop underneath him, the axe still clenched tightly in his right hand.

‘Well, that was easy,’ said Joe. Why couldn’t she have just done that in the first place? Why didn’t everything have to be so difficult?

‘But not as much fun,’ replied Agnes with a wink. She turned gracefully on the spot and began to skip off into the woods, the woodcutter following after her, his axe dragging across the ground.

Death’s Apprentice – Part 69

Joe ignored her. ‘We can’t drag him across the ground, we’ll end up giving him a brain injury.’

‘Well, that was the general idea.’

‘Haven’t you got a spell you can do, or something?’ It wasn’t just the woodcutter’s head that he was worried about. The guy looked seriously heavy and Joe wasn’t exactly known for his upper body strength. Or his co-ordination for that matter. A few metres dragging the dead weight of the woodcutter would finish him off.

It was almost as if she heard what he was thinking because Agnes looked at him with a face that suggested she was less than impressed.

‘You’ll have to get used to carrying dead weight when you graduate from an apprentice, you know.’

‘What?’

‘When you graduate and you become Death.’

Joe was shocked. The wind was knocked from him, but why? He knew that’s what he’d been recruited to do; to be Death’s Apprentice. He knew he had to find Mrs Crow’s sister in the underworld and retrieve the scythe and yet somehow, even here with Agnes and the woodcutter, it hadn’t seemed real. Until now.

He took a big gulp of air to steady the nerves rising inside him. He wasn’t made for this. He was the kid that got beaten up by his stepdad. The kid whose mother told him, quite regularly, that he was a big mistake.

He was useless.

He couldn’t remember his times tables. He hadn’t got a clue about algebra and he could only just about tell the time on an analogue clock. When the English teacher had made him read Macbeth out loud in year 7 the other kids laughed because he didn’t know what the words meant or how to say most of them. That was partly his own fault and he knew that; school was difficult and loud and full of people that treated him like his mom and stepdad, so he just didn’t go.

He didn’t stay at home either. He spent his days hiding from the wag man in the park, or wherever he could find shelter on the rainy days.

His English teacher said he was useless. The Maths teacher told him he wasn’t even good enough to sweep up floors and that he would never amount to anything.

And know he was here trying to save the world. How the actual fuck had that happened?

Death’s Apprentice – Part 64

Joe closed his eyes. It was another beast. All was lost. There was nothing more he could do. The adrenaline that had fuelled was quickly being consumed by the fight.

There was a yelp. The branch was knocked out of his hand with a great force.

He opened his eyes just as Cerberus was standing over the creature that had very nearly claimed his life. With one plunge of its head, it tore open the beasts neck. And the beast lay dead.

Was this really the hound that he’d been playing fetch with?

‘Good boy Cerby,’ came a child-like voice.

It was Hel. And Joe was thankful to hear it.

‘You okay, Joe?’ she asked.

Was he?

‘Yes. Are you?’

‘I’m fine. I don’t know where Agnes has got to though.’

‘What were those things?’

‘Werewolves. They’ll be back soon. We need to get moving.’

Werewolves? Of course, they were. It was like being in Bloxwich on a Saturday evening, thought Joe.

‘Thanks,’ said Joe.

‘I didn’t do anything,’ replied Hel.

‘I was talking to Cerberus,’ said Joe, aware of how awful that sounded.

Cerberus looked over to Joe. The middle head’s tongue was lolling out of the side of the mouth. He looked so cute, so normal, well, as normal as a dog with three heads could look. It didn’t look as if he’d just finished off a werewolf. The only tell-tale sign was a blob of blood that the first head was trying to lick off the ear of the second head. Joe strolled over to Cerberus and buried his head into the thick neck fur of the dog. He smelled of wet dog and the zingy iron smell of blood and stale meat. He reached up and stroked the back of one of the dog’s many ears.

‘Thank you,’ he mumbled into the dog’s fur. Cerberus gave a tiny rumble that Joe interpreted as dog speak for “be cool man, it’s all good.” Suddenly he felt a pang in his chest.

He really missed Lola. Dogs were so loyal and they didn’t stab you in the back.

Joe felt something nudge his leg but chose to ignore it. He needed a minute.

But the thing nudging his leg was rather insistent. It pushed its head under Joe’s arm.

‘Hades, you daft dog,’ said Joe looking down at the dog who was wildly wagging its tail and persistently nudging Joe’s arm.

Joe looked up, startled as another load howl cut through the silence.

‘They’re back,’ said Hel. ‘Come on Cerby, time to go hunting.’ She turned to Joe and said, ‘I’ll leave Hades with you. I’ll keep the wolves away from the door. You really need to go, keep following the string north until you reach the Woodcutter’s cottage, okay? I’ll meet you there.’

Joe turned to find the string. It was nowhere to be seen.

He whirled around to tell Hel it was gone, but she had already disappeared.

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 60

The forest was haunted, of that Joe was very sure. He thought he could hear the voices of ghosts whispering to him. ‘Stay with us,’ they said. ‘I need to get back,’ they said. But even the sound of one young voice whispering, ‘they never found my body,’ failed to move Joe.

He feared his heart might be dead.

On he went, consumed by the coldness.

There was a howl in the distance. A whelp.

Hades bounded out of the fog, his eyes burning bright. Joe immediately knew something was wrong. He’d seen that look before on Lola. Hades’ hackles were raised, his shoulders were tight and clearly visible and he held his head low as if guarding something.

There was a low growl from somewhere near but it wasn’t Hades. Hades growled in response and jumped in front of Joe as if to block his path.

Or protect him.

Out of the fog jumped a black shadow. It was huge, taller than Hades and much taller than Joe. Why that thought hit Joe just then was strange because Joe had thought for a fleeting second that the shadow was one of Hel’s hounds, but it couldn’t have been because Joe was sure that it was walking on two legs like a human.

And then the shadow was gone.

Joe stopped still. He could feel the pounding of his heart in his chest but he couldn’t feel anything inside him. It was a strange feeling this numbness. He knew full well that he should have been scared. Why wasn’t he scared? Why wasn’t he scared of the shadow?

Hades’ paced before him, his long fangs bared and dripping with drool.

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.