Death’s Apprentice – Part 40

He turned his head from side-to-side. There was no sign of Hel, or her hounds. He dropped his head hard onto the rough ground. Well, at least it was quiet now.

There was no sound at all.

‘Help! Help me!’

What the hell was that? Joe lay still listening hard for the voice. Had he imagined it?

‘Help!’

No, he hadn’t imagined it. It was a man’s voice and it was coming somewhere to the right of him.

He pulled himself off the floor. He was absolutely filthy and smelled worse. Joe hated being dirty. He didn’t like dirt at all.

He held his hands out in front of him. They were caked in mud and a thick red graze covered both heels of his hands.

‘Help! Come quick!’

Joe looked at his hands, gave a deep sigh and rubbed his hands on his hoodie. Today was not a good day.

‘Over here!’

He turned towards where the voice was coming from and set off through the trees.

He’d only stumbled a few metres when a small clearing opened up before him encircled by more oak trees. There was a muddy bog in front of him, with a small, fat man stuck up to his waist in it. A large branch reached out towards him, it’s fingertips just out of the man’s reach. The man’s forehead was beaded with sweat as he was trying desperately to grab the branch but it was a couple of centimetres too far. The man was well and truly stuck.

The man looked up.

‘Help me, please,’ the man pleaded. ‘I can’t get out! I feel like I’ve been here an eternity and I don’t know how much longer I will be able to survive. I’m so thirsty, please help!’

Joe moved forward to assess the situation. ‘Hang on,’ he said, looking around for a branch long enough to reach the man.

‘Please hurry,’ said the man who seemed to have sunk a few more centimetres into the mud.

‘Okay,’ said Joe, locating a branch that he thought was long enough for the job, ‘just don’t thrash around or else you’ll sink even further.’

He grabbed the branch and began to feed it across the mud to the man.

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Death’s Apprentice – Part Thirty-Four

From where Joe was lying, he could see Cerberus’ snake tail wagging wildly.

Suddenly, all fear dissolved in Joe. All that time he’d been worried about Cerberus, and after what Charon had said about him ripping him apart. He looked at Cerberus’ three heads; the lopsided mouths,the long, smelly tongues, the way he was wagging his tail. He very much doubted this dog had it in him to rip anything apart. You only had to see the look on its cute, daft face.

Cerberus was a dog like Lola, just a very big version of a dog, well, a very big version of a dog that had three heads. But what did two extra heads matter? Dogs were dogs, no matter how many heads they had. And, even with three heads, Joe knew he preferred Cerberus to almost all humans.

As Joe was the local dog whisper, he knew he’d got this covered.

‘There’s a good…’ He had a sneaky look under the dog, ‘there’s a good boy!’ Joe ran his hand under the jaw of the middle head. It was soft and wet under his fingers.

The dog began to purr, almost like a cat. ‘Oh, good boy! Do you want to play?’ He stretched his arm out and grabbed a stick. He threw it for the dog.

Cerberus bounded after it.

The stick hadn’t gone far, so Joe quickly stood up and waited for the dog to come back. Which it did a second later, holding the stick in its huge, drooling, middle mouth. The first and last head also had a small bite on the stick.

‘Drop,’ said Joe.

Cerberus’ heads loosed the stick and it landed on the floor in front of him.

‘Oh, you’re such a good boy,’ said Joe, stroking the side of Cerberus’ middle head. ‘Do you want me to throw it again?’

Joe bent down to pick it back up. He was still bent over, hand clamped on the stick when the dog yelped.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Twenty-Nine

Charon beckoned for Joe to follow him, the phone clutched tightly in his hand.

‘This way, sir.’

When Joe looked up he was caught off guard by the landscape that had somehow appeared out of the darkness. A lump caught in his throat at the stark beauty of the place. He shook his head. He was becoming pathetic.

Charon’s small wooden boat was tied up at the side of a wide river that swept from left to right as far as the eye could see. Behind that, Joe could see a vast forest with trees reaching up into an eternal twilight, their gnarled branches reaching out like giant claws.

‘What’s that?’ asked Joe, pointing to the forest.

‘That’s the Forest of Suffering.’

‘The Forest of Suffering? And I’ve got to go through there?’

‘Yeah but I wouldn’t worry too much, you’ll never make it that far. Cerberus will tear you up first.’ Charon gave a little chuckle as he climbed into the boat. He placed the lamp on the floor of the small boat and held his hand out for Joe. Joe took it and climbed in.

The boat rocked gently from side to side and he climbed in. Joe noticed that there was no oar or motor. The water of the river was still and full of weeds and…

‘No! Don’t look in the water!’ screamed Charon.

Joe thought he could see faces floating beneath the surface of the water. Pale, skeletal face with huge mouths and…

There was a sharp slap on the side of his face. It broke his concentration. He looked at Charon, holding the side of his face which was stinging.

‘What was that for?’

‘No looking! You’re not going to die on my watch. What happens after, well, that’s not my problem.’ He gave another little chuckle.

Joe felt unsteady on his feet as the boat moved from side to side. He went to sit down.

‘No! No! No sitting on this journey. We’ll be there in a minute.’

‘Oh okay.’

Charon turned to face the front of the boat. ‘And off we go,’ he said, holding his left hand in the air, his crooked finger pointing to the other side of the river. In his other hand, he still had the phone. Joe could see it said seventeen percent battery. Joe hoped the crossing wasn’t going to take too long because he didn’t want to think what would happen if the phone ran out.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Twenty-Eight

Joe reached out to shake Charon’s hand.

‘Obol,’ said Charon, jerking his hand away, leaving Joe’s hanging awkwardly in the air.

‘What?’

‘An obol. I need an obol.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Joe, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’

‘An obol. I need payment. Charon looked at the confused look on Joe’s face and added, ‘Money. To transport you across. Every dead person needs to pay for passage.’

‘But, I’m not dead. Can’t I just…’

‘No. No exceptions. I need to eat you know.’

‘Oh, okay.’ Joe shoved his hand in his jean pocket and fetched out a two pence piece and a chocolate bar wrapper. ‘That’s all I have, sorry,’ said Joe with a shrug. He offered the money to Charon.

Charon screwed up his face. ‘No. That’s not going to be enough.’

‘Is there another way across?’

‘Maybe,’ said Charon, ‘but I don’t know of any.’

‘Can I row myself across?’

‘What? You think you can just come in and take my job? Do you know how long I’ve been working here young man? You young people, think you can just come in and take over.’

‘Okayyyy.’ Joe looked at the book in his hand, The Book of the Dead. He opened it, hoping that there would be some way of getting around this problem.

On the first page, the words, “The Book of the Dead, The Ultimate Guide to the Afterlife” was written in black script. He turned it over, looked at the contents page and flicked the page he needed. It read:

“Pay Charon the Obol given to you by Death. This is very important. If you do not, you will remain stranded on the banks of the River Styx for eternity. This is not a good idea as the Styx often floods resulting in the bank you are standing on being totally covered in smelly, swampy water that will give you trench foot. Trench foot is an incurable condition in the underworld. You don’t want that.”

Joe snapped the book shut.

‘Well?’ asked Charon.

‘Well…’

‘Come on, I haven’t got all day.’

‘Will you take something else?’

Joe could see he had piqued Charon’s interest.

‘How about this?’ said Joe whipping out his mobile phone.

‘What is that devilment?’ asked Charon, jumping back.

‘It’s a phone, look,’ said Joe, flicking on the screen.

‘Really?’ asked Charon, placing his free hand on his hip. ‘What do I need a phone for? Who am I going to call?’

‘So you know what a phone is?’

‘Well, yes. I just haven’t seen them so small.’

‘Ah, okay,’ said Joe, ‘this isn’t just a phone. Watch.’ He clicked on the camera icon and took a picture of Charon.

‘What was that? Are you trying to cast some sort of spell over me? It won’t work you know!’

‘No, I’ve taken your picture.’ He showed Charon.

‘Oooh,’ he said, ‘my beard needs cutting doesn’t it. And how do you do that? Show me how to take, what is it called?’

‘A photo.’

‘Yes, how do you take a photo?’

Joe showed him quickly, conscious of the fact that his phone had only nineteen percent battery.

‘And you’ll give this, to me, for passage?’

‘Yes. Deal?’

‘Deal.’

They shook hands. Joe released Charon’s hand and wiped the sweat and dirt onto his trousers.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Twenty-Six

Like everything else that had happened in the last twenty-four hours or so, Joe wasn’t quite sure if what was happening at that moment was real or not. He considered all the things he’d been through; meeting Mr and Mrs Crow, the trial for the job which included burying a dead body at midnight with a man, called Azrail, who looked like a skeleton, finding out Mrs Crow was Death (well for England anyway) and that her sister had stolen her scythe so she couldn’t collect the souls of the dead anymore. Oh, and he’d met a man called Lucifer.

No. At some point, hopefully not too far in the future, the prank would stop, the prankster would be revealed and everything could go back to normal.

Whatever normal was.

Because, right at this second, he was feeling like it all needed to stop. It wasn’t funny. It wasn’t funny in the beginning and now, now it was even less funny.

His heart was pounding against his ribcage. His legs were jelly and he was sweating. Yep, this was as far from funny as you could get.

Joe was scared. Really scared. More than he’d ever been scared in his life. Even when he’d taken a beating from his stepdad.

What could be even scarier than taking a beating from your stepdad?

Standing at the door to the underworld knowing you’re about to go through it.

‘Are you sure this is the only way?’ asked Joe, turning to face Mrs Crow.

‘Yes. You’ll be fine. Just remember not to upset Cerberus because you don’t want your face ripped off do you?’

‘No. But -‘

‘Don’t worry about it Joe,’ said Mrs Crow, with a patronising pat to his shoulder, ‘you’re good with dogs. It will be fine. Cerberus will be fine -‘

‘And if he isn’t?’

‘Well, you’ll have your face ripped off then, won’t you? Take this,’ she said, holding out an A5 book to Joe.

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s the Book of the Dead. Hopefully, it will help you to navigate the underworld -‘

‘Hopefully?’

‘Well, no one’s ever used it so I don’t know how useful it will be. But at least it’s a start, isn’t it? It’s something.’

‘Yeah great.’

‘So you know what you’ve got to do?’

Joe nodded. ‘Yep. Find your sister and get the scythe back.’

‘There’s a good boy. Go on then, off you go. Any last words? Anything you want me to tell your mother if the worst happens?’

Joe sighed. ‘No.’

‘Go on then, no time like the present.’

Joe grasped the cold brass knob on the door. The door to the underworld. The cheap pine door that stood between him and the underworld. The unremarkable door that hung in the funeral home of Mr and Mrs Crow, Hight Street, Bloxwich.

He turned the knob and began to push the door open.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Twenty-Five

‘You’ll be fine,’ said Mrs Crow.

‘Fine? Fine? I haven’t even been out of Bloxwich,’ said Joe. His heart was beating hard in his chest. Sweat was pooling in the small of his back. Please, please, he thought, let me wake up. Let me wake up!

‘Are you sure about this?’ asked Morana. ‘He doesn’t look too well -‘

‘He’s all we’ve got,’ said Mr Crow, with a shrug. Mrs Crow gave her husband a sharp kick under the table.

‘I’ll go with him,’ said Lucifer.

‘And me,’ said Marcus, ‘I am the War Horseman. And I do know my way around the Under-‘

Mrs Crwo shot out of her seat waving her arms around maniacally. ‘No, no, no!’

‘But -‘

‘DON’T. BE. STUPID! She knows who you are you moron.’

‘Well,’ said Marcus, his face like thunder, ‘I’ve never -‘

‘Okay, okay,’ said Morana, her hands spread in supplication, ‘let’s all take it down a notch. Let’s all calm down -‘

‘When, in the whole history of calming down, has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down?’ asked Mrs Crow. At that moment, Joe couldn’t decide if he hated her or admired her because she did have a point.

Morana sighed heavily. She closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose.

‘She has a point you know,’ said Febris, moving her mask aside to speak.

‘Okayyy. Who’s in favour of sending Joe down into the underworld?’

‘Just fucking do it and let let me get on with getting my scythe back,’ snapped Mrs Crow.

Everyone except Joe raised their hands.

‘That’s eleven for. Okay, motion -‘

‘Do I not get a say?’ Joe could feel his insides shaking. This was so typical of any adult that he’d ever met. They never fucking asked. Always telling. Always moaning at him. Always yelling.

‘What?’ asked Mrs Crow. ‘You want to go back to your miserable existence? Go on then, Joe.’ She pointed at the door. ‘There’s the door. Use it.’

‘Corvina!’ Morana slapped her hands on the desk. ‘Stop!’

‘Go on Joe, run back to the stepdad that hates your guts. And your mother who wishes you’d never been born.’

‘CORVINA!’ Morana jumped up. Her chair fell backwards and hit the floor with a thud.

‘So? What are you waiting for Joe? Go on. Leave. Leave like you always do.’

The anger was boiling inside him. He could feel it burning in his chest.

‘I’ll do it,’ he said.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Twenty-Four

Joe sunk into his chair. Yep, he was getting a really bad feeling about all of this.

‘And who’s Joe? Is he the Chosen One?’

‘Joe is Joe,’ said Mrs Crow ‘and no is the answer to the second question.’

‘Wouldn’t it be better to use the Chosen One? I mean,’ said Morana, with a patronising smirk, ‘that is what they’re for.’

‘No shit Sherlock.’

Mr Crow coughed.

‘The Chosen One is dead,’ said Mrs Crow.

‘Dead?’

‘Are you deaf?’ asked Mrs Crow.

Morana moved forward, her eyes narrowed. ‘What did you say?’

‘Dead. I said, the Chosen One is dead.’

‘How? How did he die?’ asked Joe. All eyes turned to him. Joe went even redder. He didn’t know why he’d spoken. He didn’t know where those words had come from.

Mrs Crow leaned over and gave him a patronising pat on the knee. ‘An unfortunate accident.’

‘Accident?’

‘He was murdered by my sister.’ She gave him a big toothy smile that made Joe think that this had actually pleased her greatly.

‘Why would your sister murder the Chosen One? And why was he the Chosen One? And what was he chosen for, exactly?’

‘Details, details,’ said Mrs Crow, dismissing his question with a flick of her hand.

‘No. Come on, Corvina, if…’ Morana looked at Joe, ‘…this…Joe is going to be sent to get the scythe you should really answer his questions. You can’t send the poor boy into the lion’s den, so to speak, completely blind, now can you?’

Mrs Crow let out a long hiss. ‘Okay, okay,’ she said sticking her hands up in the air. She turned to Joe. ‘What do you want to know? Anything? No? Good.’ She turned away from him.

‘Actually,’ said Joe, ‘I want to know everything.’

Mrs Crow slumped in her seat, her shoulders hunched up, her hands clamped onto the side of her chair. ‘O – fucking – kay!’ she screamed. ‘Here it is. The whole fucking lot. My fucking sister stole my scythe because she’s a fucking bitch, okay? Is that what you want to hear? How Death got done over by her own fucking sister?’

‘Well, actually -‘ But Joe couldn’t finish his sentence.

‘She came here. Stole my scythe. MY scythe -‘

‘What’s the scythe?’

Mrs Crow hissed again, louder this time. ‘For God’s sake, Joe! You don’t know what the scythe is?’

Joe shook his head.

‘It’s what I need to do my job properly. I use the scythe to cut the souls of the dead from their mortal bodies. I mean you wouldn’t send in a surgeon without his tools now, would you? And now she has it -‘

‘That’s why there’s been no deaths in England? But why hasn’t it affected the rest of the world?’

‘Because there’s more than one Death. Every country has its own Death. Humans do like to die.’

‘And kill each other,’ put in Marcus.

‘And kill each other. Morana here is the Overlord, the Big Boss, The Death, blah, blah, blah…and she,’ said Mrs Crow, looking like she was about to swallow a wasp, ‘doesn’t actually collect souls now, she just -‘

‘Corvina!’ warned Morana.

‘Corvina you should’ve got the promotion,’ said Febris, ‘that wasn’t fair. Not fair at all,’ said the old lady shaking her head before slipping her oxygen mask back over her face. She shrugged at Morana. ‘Sorry, but it’s true,’ said Febris through her plastic mask.

It was Morana’s turn at looking like she’d swallowed a wasp.

‘Sorry,’ said Mrs Crow, ‘I digress. We needed someone to get the scythe back as she’s taken it to the Underworld. I can’t go down there. Don’t ask why, because I’m not going to tell you. We advertised for a hero. Got loads of applicants.’

‘They all died on the trials, except one,’ added Mr Crow.

‘He doesn’t need,’ hissed Mrs Crow, ‘to fucking know that!’ She closed her eyes and sighed loudly. ‘As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, we found our Chosen One and my sister cut him down with the scythe before he’d even had the chance to enter the Underworld.’

This was crazy. He was going mad. Joe rubbed his eyes. This couldn’t be happening. This really couldn’t be happening.

‘And now we’ve got you, Joe. Well done! Congratulations!! You got the job!!!’ Mrs Crow began to clap. Slowly the whole table joined in with the clapping. There were murmurs of well done and congratulations rumbling around the table.

‘Hang on,’ said Joe, bolting upright in his seat, ‘I’ve got to go down into the Underworld?’