Death’s Apprentice – Part Thirty-One

Joe didn’t stop running until he’d put as much distance as he could between him and Charon. He hadn’t run since he’d done P.E. at school in year eleven, not that he’d done very much physical exercise even then because, well, he didn’t really go to school.

He stopped as he neared the tree line, bent over and held his chest as he tried to get control of his breathing. He was really unfit.

Finally, he stood up and looked at the towering trees of the Forest of Suffering. What had Charon said about it? All Joe could remember was some comment about something called Cerberus that would tear him apart. Joe thought he’d heard of Cerberus before but he couldn’t place where. He opened the Book of the Dead that Mrs Crow had given him.

He flicked to the chapter called “The Underworld Guardians,” then found the entry for Cerberus:

“Cerberus guards the entrance to the Forest of Suffering. Beware of the monstrous Cerberus for he has three heads and the tail of a snake. Beware all ye that enter for ye shall not be allowed leave. Soothe the monster with the honey cake given to you by your psychopomp. It will subdue the beast long enough for you and your psychopomp to enter. Do not look back.

If you are unlucky to be alive when you face him, you will find death soon enough.”

Joe didn’t understand any of it. He looked up and scanned the perimeter of the forest. He couldn’t see any dog, let alone one with three heads and a snake for a tail. He let his gaze fall back to the book. What on earth was a psychopomp? Where did he find one and where did he get the honey cakes?

He flicked through the book and found the section for psychopomp:

“Before you enter the underworld, Death will assign you a psychopomp, or a Guide of the Souls. The psychopomp will help you make a smooth transition from your old world through the land of the dead. They will guide you. Giving you the tools and the advice you need to get you to your destination.”

So, Death had been no help whatsoever. She’d really prepared him well, hadn’t she?

Joe’s heart leapt from his chest into his throat as he felt something move behind him. There was a thump on the grass and a meaty growl that rumbled around his chest.

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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?’

Death’s Apprentice – Part Twenty-Three

Joe took his seat in between Mr and Mrs Crow.

‘I will explain when -‘

‘Sorry I’m late everyone!’ Joe turned to see a tall blonde woman enter the room wearing a long black cloak, followed closely behind by a rather small man with a long crooked nose that was too big for his body.

Bitch,’ said Mrs Crow, under her breath. Joe could see Mrs Crow’s hand tightening on the arms of her chair, so much that her knuckles were turning white.

‘What was that?’ asked the blonde woman.

‘Sorry Morana, I was just coughing. It’s one of the pitfalls of being so old. My throat gets very dry.’

‘That’s okay, Corvina. I can’t stay long. Meetings all day. What’s the latest on your problem?’

Morana took her seat at the head of the table. The small man sat at her right. He took out a notepad, ink pot and quill from his tatty leather satchel and placed them on the table.

‘It’s not just Corvina’s problem,’ said the man who had been introduced as Marcus.

‘I agree,’ said Febris. She stuck her finger in the air as if she was going to say something else but then began a coughing fit. Everyone ignored her.

‘There have been no death’s in England for sixty-seven -‘

‘Nearly sixty-eight,’ interrupted the blonde woman, looking at the giant watch on her wrist. It looked to Joe like it belonged in a museum.

‘Nearly sixty-eight days,’ finished Mrs Crow.

Joe noticed the small man to the right of the blonde woman was scribbling notes furiously on his pad as everyone spoke.

‘And what do you intend to do about it?’

‘Well, I asked my sister to attend this meeting but, as you can see,’ said Mrs Crow, pointing to the only vacant seat around the table, ‘she hasn’t taken me up on the offer.’

Morana placed her pale hand up to her face and gave a short, fake cough. ‘Forgive me, Corvina, I don’t seem to quite understand. You asked the woman, your sister, the person who has stolen your scythe to come to this meeting, in the hopes of achieving what exactly?’

‘Well,’ said Mrs Crow, leaning forward in her chair, her hands still tightly clenched around the arms of her chair, ‘it wasn’t to offer her tea and biscuits. I was going to fucking stab the bitch.’

Everything went quiet.  The little man beside Morana dropped his quill on the table, sending ink splattering across the table. Mr Crow coughed to break the uncomfortable silence.

‘I hope you’re going to clean that up!’ said Mrs Crow.

‘Let me get this right. You were going to stab your sister?’

‘Yes. Well, not me, Marcus was going to do it for me.’ Everyone in the room turned to look at Marcus who nodded and moved his jacket to the side to reveal a dagger attached by a belt to his waist.

‘Okayyy. But how would that get the scythe back?’

‘I was going to send Joe,’ she said, flicking her head in Joe’s direction, ‘once the bitch was dead.’

Suddenly everyone looked at Joe. Joe turned red.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Twenty-One

The home was full activity. Mr Crow was standing next to the tallest man Joe had ever seen. He was even taller than The Mountain in Games of Thrones, but, just like Azrail and Mr Crow, he was spindly, with long thin legs. He held a large leather briefcase in his right hand and a dark brown trilby in the other.

‘But Josiah,’ he said, ‘things can’t go on like this. Something has to be done. The law states -‘

‘I’ve sorted it,’ said Mrs Crow, sweeping through the room.

Mr Crow and the tall man turned as she spoke. Mr Crow looked rather relieved. The other man looked rather irked as if he didn’t really want whatever it was sorted.

‘Ah, Corvina,’ said the tall man, doffing his cap, ‘how good it is to see you.’

‘Oh, do get out of my way,’ snapped Mrs Crow, pushing past the man, ‘we’ve got a meeting to get started. Joe, come on.’

Joe was still stood in the doorway unsure whether he actually wanted to enter into the funeral home. It wasn’t like he was scared, or anything like that, but he felt that as soon as he crossed into the home his life would be changed for good. For better or worse. And he just wasn’t sure.

And then he heard Lola snarl. He was pushed out of the doorway as someone forced entry. He went flying, face first, on to the carpet.

‘Please, Corvina, tell me, he’s not…?’

Mrs Crow turned and yelled at Joe, ‘Get up then. We’ve got things to do.’

Joe scrambled to his feet, his face felt hot and anger was beginning to simmer in the pit of his stomach. He turned to see who’d knocked him over. In front of him stood the widest (and shortest) man he’d ever seen.

‘I’m not late, am I?’

‘Oh no, Mr Smith,’ said Mrs Crow, ‘it’s nice that you could join us. Now, if you’d let my assistant through.’

‘Oh, sorry,’ he said, looking at Joe. But Joe could tell he wasn’t sorry at all.

‘Shall we go through?’ asked Mrs Crow.

‘I’ve set up the conference room. Febris, Limos, and Marcus are already in there -‘

‘I bet that’s a great atmosphere. Lucifer here?’

Lucifer? Did he hear that right? Nah, thought Joe, it’s got to be some sort of joke.

‘Yes, and his secretary. We’re just waiting on the Boss.’

‘Okay. Let’s get this over with. Joe,’ said, Mrs Crow, ‘this way.’