Death’s Apprentice – Part 43

‘Mmmm, let me think,’ said Hel, her right hand stroking her chin.

‘It’s okay,’ said Joe, ‘I can wait.’ He almost added, I’m used to being hungry, but didn’t because what was the point? No one cared.

And, he was used to it if he was really honest. It was part of the package when you lived in the Bones’ household.

Not that they were dirt poor, not like his mate Limey. Limey’s parents were both chronically ill and on benefits and when they got put on to Universal Credit there were a few times that their benefit money was stopped. No benefits meant no money. No money meant no food and no heating. It sucked.

No, Joe’s mom worked and although they weren’t rolling in money, they weren’t on Limey’s scale either. Problem was, Joe’s shitdad prefered beer and weed and the bookies to feeding his stepkid. But hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

Right?

Wrong.

It had just given Joe a load of rather unhealthy coping skills.

Hades rubbed his head against Joe’s leg making him jump. His heart twanged again as he thought of Lola.

‘Good boy,’ he said, running his hands through the dog’s rough fur. The dog began to purr loudly and started to lean on Joe nearly making him fall over.

‘Careful Hades,’ said Hel and the dog shifted its position. ‘Okay, I’ve got it. There’s a witch that lives in these woods -‘

‘A witch?’ Even Joe could hear the scepticism in his own voice. ‘Really? Come on now. Stop pulling my leg!’

Hel stared at him, her face contorted with confusion. ‘I’m not touching your leg.’

‘I know. It’s just a saying…’ Nope, he could see from the look on her face that she wasn’t getting it. ‘It doesn’t matter. So, this witch…how far is it? Is she dead?’

‘No, she’s very much alive,’ said Hel.

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Death’s Apprentice – Part 42

Joe had no idea how long they’d been walking through the forest. Walking? What he actually meant was stumbling through because even though the trees seemed to strangely move apart when Hel skipped through them, their gnarly roots seemed to try and trip him up whenever possible. He’d fallen over that many times that he was now considering crawling.

There was no telling what time it was down here in the underworld. There was no sun to mark the passing of the day, and no moon to show the passing of the night. Instead, there was a murky, unforgiving twilight that hung over them, a light that was completely useless for walking through a forest.

Joe’s stomach gave a long hard groan.

Great.

He hadn’t even considered how he would feed himself down here. In this…shit hole.

Yes. The further he stumbled, the more he realised this place was a shit hole. Not like his house (not home, for was the place he went to bed really a home?). No, that was a shit hole, shit hole. This dark, forbidding place was a shit hole because it stunk like a toilet that hadn’t been flushed for a month and the funny light seemed to be sucking the very life from him. His legs were burning, his eyes were burning, his lungs were burning and he felt like shit.

Joe thought that he probably used the word shit far too much but that word seemed to sum up so much of his life.

His stomach groaned again. So loud that it echoed through the trees. Or that’s how it felt to Joe.

Hel stopped stone still in front of him. Her hounds did the same. It was almost like they were connected on some telepathic level.

‘What was that?’ she whispered, slowly turning to face Joe.

Joe’s stomach roared again.

‘It’s me. Sorry,’ he said, with a small shrug.

‘Ahhhh,’ she said, as comprehension dawned on her. ‘You’re hungry?’

‘Yes.’

‘One of the problems of being alive, I suppose?’

‘Well, I wouldn’t class eating as being a problem,’ said Joe.

‘It kind of is down here,’ she replied.

‘Dead people don’t eat,’ said Joe, realising this could be a major problem. Was he going to die of hunger down here? Was he going to shrivel up like a prune, his body left to the creepy crawlies that probably lurked in the undergrowth?

Death’s Apprentice – Part 41

‘What are you doing?’

The sound of the sweet little voice made Joe’s heart jump in his chest. He flung his hand up to his pounding heart and ended up dropping the branch in the mud.

‘What the?! Don’t make me jump like that!’ he screeched spinning around to see Hel standing there as sweet as anything. Where had she appeared from? She was like an annoying little sister he couldn’t get rid of.

‘I’m trying to help this man. He’s trapped -‘

‘Hello!’ said the man in the bog, ‘I’m still here…and I’m sinking!’

‘You don’t want to do that,’ she said, arms folded behind her back as she swayed from side to side.

‘What do you mean? The guy’s going to die -‘

‘No, he’s not.’

‘Hel,’ said Joe, flinging his hand in the air in exasperation, ‘he’s sinking in the mud.’

‘So?’

‘So, I can’t just leave him to die, can I?’

‘Why not? He’ll be back again tomorrow.’

‘Of course, I can’t…what do you mean he’ll be back again tomorrow?’

‘Oh that’s Lord Valdis and you’ve no need to worry, he’s already dead.’

‘What?!’ spluttered Joe. ‘What do you mean he’s dead?’

‘Do you want to tell him?’ Hel asked the man. ‘Or shall I?’

The man mumbled something but Joe couldn’t quite make out what he said.

‘I guess I’ll tell him then,’ shrugged Hel. ‘Where are we, Joe?’

Joe looked confused and didn’t answer.

‘What you need to remember is that not everyone is like you. People are usually dead here.’ She shrugged. ‘This is the Forest of Suffering. Lord Valdis is suffering. That’s what’s supposed to happen.’

‘Ohhh…’ said Joe, pretending that he understood perfectly, when, in fact, he didn’t.’

‘Lord Valdis hoarded all the food in his castle when his people starved. He ate and drank and became fat when his people died of malnutrition. He deserves to be stuck in the mud like the pig he was.’

Well, when she put it like that, Joe thought she had a very convincing argument.

‘So, what is this place then? Is it like purgatory then?’

‘Oh no,’ said Hel, ‘purgatory is for temporary punishment. The punishments here go on forever!’ She smiled as she said these last words.

‘Forever, forever?’

‘Is there any other kind?’

Joe thought about it for a second then gave up. His brain hurt too much.

‘Come on then, she said, spinning around, ‘that’s if you want to get where you’re going.’

‘And what about me?’ asked the fat man.

‘What about you?’ replied Hel.

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 39

It took a few seconds for Joe to move. He didn’t know whether Hel irritated him more than amazed him. She couldn’t be, what, more than ten years old and here she was skipping off into the dark forest with a pack of hounds. Not wanting to look foolish, Joe hurried after her.

Branches crunched under his foot as he walked deeper into the…dark forest…except it wasn’t dark anymore. A shiver ran down his back. It was as though the trees had pulled up their roots and had moved further apart in order for them to pass through.

The forest was full of what looked to Joe like giant oak trees, their crooked branches like crooked hands reaching out towards the damp earth. Their trunks were disfigured faces watching their every move.

All around him hounds raced through the undergrowth, their noses constantly twitching as they ran.

Joe tried to keep up with Hel and her hounds but they ran like the wind and he was only a mere human, and a clumsy one at that. Brambles grasped at his legs, broken branches tugged at his arms.

He was trying desperately to keep up, to keep at their pace, but that meant not looking at what his feet were doing. He knew what was going to happen before it even happened. His right heel bent at an awkward angle as his foot got caught in bramble and he crashed to the floor.

‘Shit!’ A jolt of pain ran through his crumpled body. His knees screamed in pain, and his wrists throbbed from where he had tried in vain to stop himself falling. Why? Why would he do that when he knew he couldn’t save himself? Why did anyone throw their wrists out to stop themselves falling when they were inevitably going to fall anyway?

Joe smacked the ground with his forehead and gave a long, hard growl. He was so over it! What the hell did he think he was doing running around in the Underworld? He was only one stupid human, for God’s sake!

He rolled over onto his back. There was a sky above him which surprised him because he assumed he was underground. It wasn’t the normal sky he was used to, more of a twilight coloured sky, that strange and gloomy kind of light.

Death’s Apprentice – Part 38

Joe spun around on his heels so fast that he nearly dropped the Book of the Dead.

‘Hel?’ For fuck’s sake. ‘I thought I was…’

‘What? Doing it on your own?’

‘Well…’

‘I’ve had a word with my hounds,’ she said, gesturing at the group of dogs that had began to gather around her and Joe, ‘and we’ve agreed that we need to help you.’

‘But, I’m okay. I can -‘

‘NO,’ she shouted and stamped her foot on the ground. Hel thrust her arms out rigid at her side. ‘We are coming and that’s that!’

‘Okayyyy,’ said Joe. Except it really wasn’t. He didn’t function well around people. And this person was particularly annoying. And she seemed a little crazy. I mean, she had a word with her hounds? CRAZZZYYYYY.

‘So what do you suggest we do? The book says -‘

‘We don’t need the book,’ she said, flicking the book away, ‘we have the dogs.’ She turned her attention to the dogs. ‘Go on then, Cerberus, Hades, Persephone and all my little children, show us the way!’

Hades was a huge dog, not quite as big as Cerberus, but still very intimidating. He looked to Joe like a rather large version of an Irish Wolfhound, except his eyes were like pits of fire. He stood proud, his four legs straight, his hackles raised and he gave a single deep howl that seemed to go on forever. When his final note came to an end, he began again and this time all of the hounds surrounding them began to join in.

A shiver ran down Joe’s back. His stomach clenched. He was in awe but also a little scared of the dogs’ purposeful cries.

Hel ran her hand down Hade’s back.

‘Go on then boy,’ she said. He turned his head, licked her hand once then strode off into the forest. The other dogs, including Cerberus, bound after him.

Joe stood still, staring at the spot where Hades had disappeared into the forest.

‘Are you coming then?’ She asked as she turned and skipped off into the trees after them.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Thirty-Seven

‘Well,’ said Joe.

‘Well,’ said Hel.

‘I’d better be getting on then.’

‘Okay,’ said Hel.

‘Okay.’

‘Thank you, though,’ said Joe, although he was unsure what he was actually thanking her for. But at least she’d fallen silent and the questions had stopped. He raised the Book of the Dead in his hand in a kind of salute and, without another word, turned and strode off into the trees.

The ground underneath Joe’s feet was springy and covered in branches and decaying leaves. The air smelled musty and damp which reminded Joe of autumnal walks with Lola by the cut.

Lola. His heart-strings gave a twang. He was never soppy or sentimental, except when he thought about his dog. He hoped they were taking good care of her at the funeral home.

The trees were tightly packed together, their gnarled branches like long fingers above him, their roots snaking across the uneven ground below him. He stumbled a couple of times as he tried to get away from Hel but he couldn’t go too far because he needed what little light there was so he could look at the book in his hands.

He stopped at what seemed like a good spot. The trees in front of him were becoming even closer together and Joe knew he’d struggle to see anything very much soon. He needed a torch. A torch would have been very good. He had one on his phone. Except…

Except, he’d given it to Charon. And it didn’t have very much charge on it anyway.

He opened the book and flicked through it until he found the section on The Forest of Suffering. The handwriting was a neat cursive in black ink. He began to read:

The Forest of Suffering

Dark and bleak.

You won’t make it through. So don’t bother.

But if you don’t want to take my word for it, try it.

And pray.

For there are things lurking in the trees that are worse than Cerberus himself.

Joe doubted very much that there could be anything very scary in these woods if Cerberus was anything to go by. Cerberus had proved to be quite a letdown. But then, that kind of was the story of his life.

He turned his attention back to the book:

It is said that the trees move in the Forest of the Suffering. They somehow manage to block the traveller’s way so it becomes impossible to break through. And then, when they trap you in their evil lair, they begin to whisper dark words into your ear. The traveller will slowly become mad through their words.

 Many souls have been lost to the trees. They linger, still half-mad in the forest, calling out and driving other’s to their deaths with their incessant sorrowful cries.  

 Joe looked up and listened. There was no sound at all so he very much doubted that this bit could be true either. Although, it was rather strange that there was no sound at all. No birds, no breeze, no…

‘What are you doing?’ A sweet little voice cut through the silence.