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 63

Lola.

What would she do? He couldn’t leave her. He knew that she was safe with the Crows back at the funeral home but how long would that last? She’d be sent to a dog’s home. And then what?

No. He couldn’t do that. He had to fight, but how?

He turned around, fully aware that the beast was only inches from him. With a strength he never knew he had he ripped a large branch from the tree behind him. It snapped with a loud crack. He pulled it free and turned sharply just as the wolf creature reached him. He swung the branch and it connected with the creature’s head.

The wolf staggered sideways, stunned.

A feeling stirred in Joe. A feeling that surprised even him, in the heat of the battle. He wanted to live. He needed to live.

And then another creature emerged from the fog, even bigger than the beast he had just stunned. It was huge, over eight-foot-tall and its teeth looked like jagged glass inside its mouth. It looked as if it had been in battle as it had a large gash running across its left eye. The eyeball was missing and there was a gaping hole in its place. Below its eye, it’s mouth had been cut and the skin flapped down allowing Joe to see the muscle and sinew underneath. It was also missing a big chunk out of its nose.

Joe knew he should have been scared of this beast slowly advancing on him but he wasn’t. His body hummed with adrenaline and the need to survive.

He picked up the large branch and charged at the creature just as it lunged for him. The wood connected with the beasts chest, plunging through its chest cavity and spraying Joe with warm hot blood.

Joe would live. The beast would die.

But the beast kept coming for him, lunging at him with its snapping jaws. The creature kept moving forward on the branch. Joe held on tightly but he could feel the body of the beast moving forward, the branch plunging deeper into its body. On it kept coming despite the weapon splitting his chest open.

Joe held on tightly and, with all the strength he had, he twisted the branch inside the beast.

It made no difference, the beast kept on, a war machine wanting to kill its prey. Joe felt his insides turn to jelly as he realised the beast was not going to die.

There was a movement to the side of Joe.

Joe closed his eyes. It was another beast. All was lost. There was nothing more he could do. The adrenaline that had fuelled him 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 to see Cerberus standing over the creature that had very nearly claimed Joe’s life. With one plunge of its middle head, it tore open the neck of the beast. And the beast was dead.

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

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

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

Death’s Apprentice – Part 62

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 canine 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 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. He 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.

The wolf creature lunged at Joe, its giant mouth, covered in bright red blood, gaping open.

Joe stood frozen to the spot. He was going to die. He knew he was going to die. Of that, he was completely certain. There was no way on earth that he could fend off that beast.

It’s not true, thought Joe, as time seemed to stand still, you don’t see your life flashing before your eyes just before death. Well, he didn’t anyway. He felt nothing. Nothing at all.

That was a lie.

He felt something, just not what you are told you will feel, or what you would expect.

He felt relief.

No more Shitdad.

No more beatings.

No more Lola.

Fuck!

Lola.

What would she do? He couldn’t leave her. He knew that she was safe with the Crows back at the funeral home but how long would that last? She’d be sent to a dog’s home. And then what?

No. He couldn’t do that. He had to fight, but how?

He turned around, fully aware that the beast was only inches from him. With a strength he never knew he had, he ripped a large branch from the tree behind him. It snapped with a loud crack. He pulled it free and turned sharply just as the wolf creature reached him. He swung the branch and it connected with the creature’s head.

The wolf staggered sideways, stunned.

A feeling stirred in Joe. A feeling that surprised even him, in the heat of the battle. He wanted to live. He needed to live.

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 59

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.

Joe had only taken a few steps into the Haunted Forest when the thick fog began to envelop him. It was a strange fog, like nothing he’d ever experienced. As soon as he’d entered, it had swirled around him and made him feel cold, and not just physically. It was as if someone had reached inside of him with a freezing cold hand and had placed it around his heart. He wondered how he would be feeling if Agnes hadn’t given him the tincture, Dead Man Walking, because at that very second he felt absolutely nothing. And that, if he was really honest, scared him a lot.

There was a loud howl in the distance.

He held on tightly to the string that Agnes was leaving in a trail for him and Hel to follow. Agnes was in front, Hel behind. Her hounds were somewhere in the forest, hidden from view by the fog. They were lucky, they could use their noses and superior sense of smell to navigate their way through the forest.

It was a good call to use the string to navigate their way through the trees. Agnes knew where to go. She said she had the directions to the Woodcutter and her heart engrained on her soul. She had held her palm out, spoken a word that Joe had never heard before, and a small ball of golden light and exploded into existence. She’d uttered another phrase under her breath and the orb had taken off with Agnes following close behind. Unfortunately, there was only one orb of light so Joe had to use the string to find his way.

Only it wasn’t exactly a great strategy. He couldn’t see how far in front of him Agnes was because she was too fast and the fog too thick. The string showed him the way but it couldn’t point out big divets in the ground, or tree roots that tripped him up, or brambles that snagged his hoodie.

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.

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 57

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. ‘I just want it back.’

‘Okay. Fair enough,’ said Joe. ‘So, what’s he like, this Woodcutter? Is he scary? What’s the plan of attack?’

‘The plan,’ replied Agnes, ‘is for one or two of us to distract him whilst the other sneaks into his cottage and steals it back.’

‘Good plan,’ said Joe, ‘any details?’

‘Well, as I’m going to be helping you get through the Valley of the Dead after I get my heart back, I was hoping that you might be able to have some input into the plan.’

How did I know that was coming, thought Joe.

There was a howl. Joe ignored it thinking it was Hel’s hounds.

‘How are we going to find our way through the forest?’ asked Hel.

‘Yeah, that will be a bit of a problem,’ said Agnes. ‘If we’re not careful we’ll end up losing each other in that thick fog.’

Joe was so tempted to ask why that was a problem. He kind of liked the idea of losing them. They were giving him a headache.

‘Any ideas?’ asked Agnes.

‘What?’ asked Joe.

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.