Death’s Apprentice – Part 47

Joe paused.

What he got to lose? His life was pretty fucked up already. I mean, everyone hated him in the upper world. And here?

Well, no one hated him here. Yet. But what kind of loser ends up in the Underworld when they’re still alive? And, even though he was still alive, that could easily change and he could end up dead.

But then, he was in the right place for it.

And, his life had kind of been a waste up until this point.

The only thing he’d got going for him was Lola and sometimes he thought she’d be better off without him. He often thought of all the nice families she could’ve ended up with, with big gardens, nice comfy dog beds and a shitdad that didn’t hit her.

What kind of miserable person was he? He kept Lola because of his own selfishness. And he knew it. He was alone in the world and Lola made him feel that little bit less alone but was it worth her being mistreated?

Joe’s heart sank.

He really was a piece of shit, wasn’t he?

Joe pushed thoughts of Lola from his mind. He couldn’t help her down here so he had to forget her for a bit then, when he got back he’d….

No, he couldn’t think of that, not yet.

He climbed the steps and entered the cabin, with his heart feeling like it was in his feet.

Colour and smells seemed to assault him from every direction. His stomach groaned loudly again as he smelt the stew. Beef, he thought, with…carrots…and dumplings. God, he thought it smelled so good that he’d probably commit murder just to have some. His mouth began to water.

He looked over to the black cauldron bubbling in the hearth. Beside it, in the coals, sat a large black iron kettle. On the mantelpiece sat loads of knick-knacks – cat statues, a small crystal ball, a figurine of a naked woman, and some jars filled with what looked like black gloop and a strange clock with lots of dials and fingers and moons. A crooked broomstick leaned up the side of the brick fireplace.

The walls of the cabin were made from a silver-coloured wood that had been covered in colourful drapes and tapestries. And over at the far side of the single-roomed house sat the comfiest bed Joe had ever seen. It was covered with a thick layer of blankets and furs. He yawned. It sure did look inviting.

‘Here you re then,’ said Hel holding out a wooden bowl of steaming stew.

The saliva was beginning to pool at the corners of his mouth.

He took the bowl and began to shovel it into his mouth before he even sat down on the wooden chair placed next to the hearth.

Hades yawned and stretched out his front paws before he circled around in front of the fire several times. He crashed to the floor in a big dog-doughnut and before Joe had taken two mouthfuls of the stew, he was snoring loudly.

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.

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.