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.

Death’s Apprentice – Part 58

She rolled her eyes. ‘Ideas so we don’t lose each other. IN. THE. FOG.’ She said the last words very slowly.

I’m not stupid, thought Joe, but unless he came up with an idea, and fast, he would end up looking stupid. Think, think, THINK!

Breadcrumbs? He thought to himself. No, crap idea. No doubt some shitty insects or birds would eat the trail. What about…

‘Got any string?’

‘Why on earth would I bring string?’

He shrugged. ‘They use a line when people go cave diving-‘

‘What has cave diving got to do with this?’

There was another howl.

‘Well, cave divers lay a line of string down so when visibility gets really low they can-‘

‘Still find there way back,’ finished Agnes. She ruffled his hair. ‘You’re not as stupid as you look, are you?’

‘But have we got any?’

‘What?’

‘String.’ God, thought Joe, this was getting really difficult. This is why he prefered working on his own.

‘You want string? I can give you string. Look in your bag.’

Joe stared at Agnes for a second. He knew there was no string in his bag. Why on earth was she pretending there was?

‘Go on then.’

Joe sighed and did as he was told. He took the bag off his back and unzipped it. He peered inside and low and behold there was a ball of string in there. A big ball of crimson string. He put his hand in and retrieved it.

‘How did you…?’

Agnes just winked at him. ‘Come on then, no time like the present.’ She held her hand out.

It was the first time he’d noticed that her hands were decorated in intricate patterns that reminded him of Henna tattoos. He placed the ball of string on the palm of her hand.

She took the string and began to tie it around the nearest tree. It looked like a tall Beech tree to Joe. It was very tall, and silver with pockmarked bark. There were no leaves on it so that it looked like a skeleton. If trees had skeletons, that’s what they’d look like, thought Joe. Once she’d finished she gave the string a ping with her finger.

‘Seems strong enough,’ she said. ‘It reminds me of that Greek myth. You know the one, Hel?’

‘You mean the one with Ariadne?’

‘Yes, that’s the one, except everyone knows it as the Theseus and the Minotaur myth when, in fact, if it hadn’t been for Ariadne giving Theseus the thread he would never have been able to find his way back out of the maze.’ Agnes looked off into the distance before adding, ‘ Bloody typical.’

‘And how did it end for Ariadne?’ asked Hel.

‘He abandoned her,’ said Agnes, looking straight at Joe.

Death’s Apprentice – Part 52

‘I have lost my heart,’ said Agnes.

‘Lost your heart? Like, it’s been broken or something? You want me to beat someone up? Because if you do,’ said Joe putting his palms up in the air, ‘I’m not your man. I’m no good in fights, never have been.’

‘No, I’ve lost my heart,’ she said, pulling down her top ever so slightly to reveal the top of a very nasty red scar that had been crudely sewn together with thick black thread.

Joe recoiled in horror. ‘What the…? How are you…?’ Joe stood up quickly. ‘How did….?’ But he couldn’t finish his sentence because blackness took hold of his vision and he crashed to the floor.

 

Joe could hear voices in the dark. He recognised them but couldn’t put names to them. He could open his eyes but he didn’t really want to. He was tired and he wanted to sleep. And his head hurt, at the back.

‘Stick that under his nose, that’ll wake him up,’ said one of the voices.

If they were talking about him, he didn’t want to know and he didn’t want to wake up. He wanted to sleep. Why couldn’t they just fuck off and leave him alone?

‘What is it?’ asked the other voice.

‘A mixture I made myself. It contains a lot of traditional ingredients and a few little extra bits I’ve added myself. I was especially pleased with the addition of the Cane Toad guts, it seems to give it an extra je ne sais quoi…’

Several things happened at once. Joe felt something cold and wet thrust under his nose and the most disgusting smell of rotting eggs and…

He didn’t want to think about it anymore. His eyes shot open. Agnes and Hel were stooped over him, a brown bottle of some sort held under his nose. His arm jerked up of its own accord and hit the bottle which fell out of Agnes’ hand and flew across the room.

‘Shit!’ screamed Agnes. ‘It can’t hit the fire.’ She threw her arm out, pointed at the bottle and screamed, ‘Beluk!’ The bottle came to halt and hovered mid-air.

‘What the fuck Joe,’ said Agnes, ‘I was only trying to help and you try and blow my house up!’

‘I don’t need any help and I didn’t mean to.’ He didn’t know why but he felt a little defensive. He dug his elbows into the Persian-carpeted floor and pushed himself up.

‘You sure about that?’

‘You look ill,’ said Hel, pushing the knife in a little deeper.

‘I’m fine,’ he snapped, dragging himself off the floor and onto his knees, ‘it’s just low blood sugar or standing up too quick or something.

‘What like Orthostatic hypotension or something?’

‘Yeah, that.’ Joe hadn’t got a clue what she was on about and he didn’t care. He just wanted her to shut up. He stood up slowly and staggered over to the chair by the fire. He dropped into it like a stone.

He looked at Agnes and Hel who were both studying him with a mixture of amusement and concern. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. What the fuck had just happened? Why was he so grumpy? And, more importantly, why the fuck had he just fainted upon seeing a badly healing scar?

What the hell was going on?

And why the fuck was he swearing so much?

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 49

Joe looked into Agnes’ deep green eyes. They reminded him of the colour of the wildfire on the Game of Thrones TV series. Her red hair was like fire and as wild as the night. She looked like a witch, except, she was covered in tattoos like one of his mom’s mates who worked at the local tattoo parlour.

Her name was Shandi, ‘with an “I” not a “y”‘ and she was a self-confessed strident feminist. She was always telling his mom to leave his shitdad. That was the only thing that Joe like about her, because, in that she was right; his mom would be better off without his shitdad.

Joe prayed for the day that his mom left him, except, unlike Shandi, he knew deep down that his mom wouldn’t change and that she’d still be a useless mother with or without his shitdad. He loved his mom, but she really wasn’t cut-out to be a mother.

Besides, he’d seen Shandi and his shitdad snogging, and that had made Joe realise that Shandi wasn’t really looking out for his mother. Her concern was more like self-interest. Whilst he hated his shitdad, he didn’t want his mom to be hurt, not like that. His shitdad on the other hand…

‘I’m Joe,’ he said. He grabbed her hand and shook it. Her hand was warm, her hold firm. He didn’t know why but he knew he already liked her.

‘I know,’ she said, ‘I saw you coming, Joe.’

‘Oh.’

‘In my crystal ball. It said a handsome stranger would come.’

Joe’s face glowed red.

‘So, I prepared you some stew.’

His face turned a deeper shade of crimson. ‘Thanks.’

‘That’s okay,’ she said, punching him playfully on the arm. ‘Want some tea?’

‘Yes, yes please.’

She bounced off the bed. ‘Come on then!’ She gestured for him to follow.

He sat up. There were now three chairs arranged around Hades who was still curled up in front of the fire. Hel sat down on one of the chairs and Agnes sat next to her. Joe yawned as he climbed off the bed and went over to the third chair.

‘So, Joe, what brings you to my neck of the woods?’ she asked as he sat down. ‘Hel tells me you’ve got yourself into a spot of bother?’

A spot of bother? Well, that was one way of putting it.

‘You could say that,’ he said, taking the chipped mug of tea that appeared out of thin air in front of him. ‘Thanks for the tea.’

‘You’re welcome.’

‘And thanks for the stew,’ he added quickly.

‘You’re welcome. So, why are you here?’