Death’s Apprentice – Part 55

Joe sighed and looked at his tea. It was becoming gungy around the edges like when milk goes off. His stomach roiled in disgust.

‘Do I have to drink this?’

‘Deal?’

He sighed loudly. He hadn’t really got a choice, had he? ‘Deal.’

‘Now drink up.’

‘Do I have to?’

‘It’ll make you feel so much better.’

He looked at it, took a deep breath, and prepared himself.

‘Come on, down the hatch.’

He opened his mouth and took a big gulp. It tasted like mud and sweaty armpits and…eugh…he couldn’t. He couldn’t do it. It was only when he tried to take the cup away from his lips that he realised it was being held firmly in place by Agnes.

‘There’s a boy,’ she said, ‘drink up.’

Agnes only removed her hand from the mug when she was sure Joe had finished every last drop.

Joe felt sick. His stomach was loudly complaining about the vile muck he had been forced to drink. She said it would make him feel better. Well, he didn’t feel better. He felt like crap. He felt like he needed a really good burp.

BBBUUUURRRPPPP.

Joe felt red hot shame crawl across his face.

‘Oh, don’t worry,’ said Agnes, ‘it does that to everyone. Bet you feel better though now, don’t you?’

He thought about it. He didn’t feel sick anymore but he wouldn’t have said he felt better.

‘What’s the plan of attack then?’ Hel asked Joe.

‘I don’t know. Where’s the Woodcutter live?’

Agnes threw the bottle that had contained the green substance into the fire. It smashed into tiny little pieces as the fire devoured the glass.

‘He lives in the Haunted Forest -‘

‘The Haunted Forest? Come on, I mean, really?’

Hades gave another, louder cry.

‘That’s to the east of here, isn’t it?’ asked Hel.

Agnes sighed loudly. ‘Yes.’

‘That’s going to take forever,’ said Hel.

‘About a day’s walk, if we don’t run into trouble.’

‘A day? I haven’t got a day. Can’t we just apparate or something?’

Agnes studied Joe with narrowed eyes. She shook her head. ‘Humans,’ she said to Hel, ‘You know who I blame? J. K. Rowling, that’s who. Everyone thinks that’s how magic works. One click of your finger and you can get anywhere in a second.’

‘I don’t think it works like that,’ said Joe.

Agnes shot him a look. ‘What?’

‘Apparating. It’s not a click of the fingers, it’s -‘

‘Yes. Rowling’s fault. Schools for witchcraft and wizardry, I ask you. Now everyone thinks if they get a stick, wave it around and mutter something incomprehensible in Latin that’s magic! Anywayyyy, rant over.’ She placed her hand on her forehead. ‘I don’t know where that came from. Must be a full moon or something.’

‘So when do we go?’ asked Hel.

Agnes sniffed the air.

‘You reading the signs? Making sure it’s the auspicious time to take the journey?’ asked Joe.

Agnes looked at him with what Joe thought might be disappointment. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I think Hades has dropped one.’

Death’s Apprentice – Part 54

‘No silly, I’m not going to hurt you. You just need a restorative tincture or maybe something a little stronger, hang on.’ Agnes swooped over to a small cupboard in the corner of the room and began to root around in it.

Joe took a sip of his tea to calm his nerves. Things were getting way out of hand.

‘Yes, got it!’ shouted Agnes, spinning on her heels, a small bottle full of a green substance raised in the air.

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s Dead Man Walking.’

Joe gulped loudly.

‘Don’t worry,’ said the witch darting over to where Joe sat.

But he was worried.

Very worried.

Especially when he caught sight of the silver skull stopper jammed into the neck of the bottle.

‘Do I really have to take that? I’m sure I’ll be fine,’ said Joe, recoiling.

There was a loud pop as Agne’s pulled the stopped out with her teeth. She spat the stopper onto the floor. It bounced several times then rolled off under a cupboard never to be seen again.

‘It’s okay Joe,’ she said, gripping his shoulder with her free hand whilst simultaneously tipping the contents of the bottle into Joe’s tea. It hissed as it touched the hot tea and then disappeared. ‘Why be “just fine”? We’re going to be facing some really REALLY bad shit, Joe, why not be prepared?’

‘I haven’t actually agreed…’ but his voice drifted off as Agnes began to talk over him.

‘Really, really, REALLY bad shit actually. And that’s before we even enter the Valley of the Dead. I need my heart back Joe and I have a good feeling that you’re the man to do it.’ She absentmindedly patted him on the shoulder as she looked off into the distance. ‘There’ll be all manner of nasties before we reach the Woodcutter -‘

‘The Woodcutter? Who’s that?’

Agnes sighed. ‘The man who stole my heart obviously. Do keep up Joe.’

‘How did he…you know…’

‘How do you think?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘He cut it out with his blade,’ said Hel.

Hades began to cry.

‘Nevermind,’ said Agnes, ‘Joe’ll get it back for me, won’t you Joe?’

‘Well, I am kind of busy. You know with my own quest. Remember?’

‘What?’ asked Agnes.

‘Retrieving Death’s scythe.’

‘Oh that? Yes, yes. Easy peasy. As soon as I get my heart back, I’ll help you find the scythe. Deal?’

Joe sighed and looked at his tea. It was becoming gungy around the edges like when milk goes off. His stomach roiled in disgust.

‘Do I have to drink this?’

‘Deal?’

He sighed loudly. He hadn’t really got a choice, had he? ‘Deal.’

‘Now drink up.’

‘Do I have to?’

‘It’ll make you feel so much better.’

He looked at it, took a deep breath, and prepared himself.

‘Come on, down the hatch.’

He opened his mouth and took a big gulp. It tasted like mud and sweaty armpits and…eugh…he couldn’t. He couldn’t do it. It was only when he tried to take the cup away from his lips that he realised it was being held firmly in place by Agnes.

‘There’s a boy,’ she said, ‘drink up.’

Death’s Apprentice – Part 53

He looked at Agnes and Hel who were both studying him with a mixture of amusement and concern. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. What the fuck had just happened? Why was he so grumpy? And, more importantly, why the fuck had he just fainted upon seeing a badly healing scar?

What the hell was going on?

And why the fuck was he swearing so much?

‘You ok?’ asked Hel.

No, he really wasn’t and now his face was turning red with shame.

‘I’m sorry for snapping, I don’t know what’s wrong with me,’ he said, rubbing the back of his head. He’d got a nice lump developing there.

‘It’s all good,’ said Agnes, producing a large mug of tea from thin air, ‘I find a cup of tea helps in any stressful situation.’

Joe took the mug from her. It was decorated with dancing unicorns.

‘It’s this place,’ said Hel.

‘Not my cottage?’ asked Agnes.

‘No. The forest.’

‘Ahhhh, I see. Yes,’ said Agnes, rubbing her chin with her hand, ‘it is the Forest of Suffering after all.’ She looked at Joe with those large eyes full of concern and all his grumpiness began to melt away. Again. She had a habit of doing that.

‘It probably doesn’t help that you’re alive.’

‘No, it probably doesn’t,’ said Hel, looking at him in sympathy, her hand firmly on her hips.

‘Maybe we should do something about that?’

‘WHAT?’ shrieked Joe, recoiling back into his chair. ‘I’m okay alive, thanks. I don’t want to die!’

‘No silly, I’m not going to hurt you. You just need a restorative tincture or maybe something a little stronger, hang on.’ Agnes swooped over to a small cupboard in the corner of the room and began to root around in it.

Joe took a sip of his tea to calm his nerves. Things were getting way out of hand.

‘Yes, got it!’ shouted Agnes, spinning on her heels, a small bottle full of a green substance raised in the air.

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s Dead Man Walking.’

Joe gulped loudly.

‘Don’t worry,’ said the witch darting over to where Joe sat.

But he was worried.

Very worried.

Death’s Apprentice – Part 52

‘I have lost my heart,’ said Agnes.

‘Lost your heart? Like, it’s been broken or something? You want me to beat someone up? Because if you do,’ said Joe putting his palms up in the air, ‘I’m not your man. I’m no good in fights, never have been.’

‘No, I’ve lost my heart,’ she said, pulling down her top ever so slightly to reveal the top of a very nasty red scar that had been crudely sewn together with thick black thread.

Joe recoiled in horror. ‘What the…? How are you…?’ Joe stood up quickly. ‘How did….?’ But he couldn’t finish his sentence because blackness took hold of his vision and he crashed to the floor.

 

Joe could hear voices in the dark. He recognised them but couldn’t put names to them. He could open his eyes but he didn’t really want to. He was tired and he wanted to sleep. And his head hurt, at the back.

‘Stick that under his nose, that’ll wake him up,’ said one of the voices.

If they were talking about him, he didn’t want to know and he didn’t want to wake up. He wanted to sleep. Why couldn’t they just fuck off and leave him alone?

‘What is it?’ asked the other voice.

‘A mixture I made myself. It contains a lot of traditional ingredients and a few little extra bits I’ve added myself. I was especially pleased with the addition of the Cane Toad guts, it seems to give it an extra je ne sais quoi…’

Several things happened at once. Joe felt something cold and wet thrust under his nose and the most disgusting smell of rotting eggs and…

He didn’t want to think about it anymore. His eyes shot open. Agnes and Hel were stooped over him, a brown bottle of some sort held under his nose. His arm jerked up of its own accord and hit the bottle which fell out of Agnes’ hand and flew across the room.

‘Shit!’ screamed Agnes. ‘It can’t hit the fire.’ She threw her arm out, pointed at the bottle and screamed, ‘Beluk!’ The bottle came to halt and hovered mid-air.

‘What the fuck Joe,’ said Agnes, ‘I was only trying to help and you try and blow my house up!’

‘I don’t need any help and I didn’t mean to.’ He didn’t know why but he felt a little defensive. He dug his elbows into the Persian-carpeted floor and pushed himself up.

‘You sure about that?’

‘You look ill,’ said Hel, pushing the knife in a little deeper.

‘I’m fine,’ he snapped, dragging himself off the floor and onto his knees, ‘it’s just low blood sugar or standing up too quick or something.

‘What like Orthostatic hypotension or something?’

‘Yeah, that.’ Joe hadn’t got a clue what she was on about and he didn’t care. He just wanted her to shut up. He stood up slowly and staggered over to the chair by the fire. He dropped into it like a stone.

He looked at Agnes and Hel who were both studying him with a mixture of amusement and concern. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. What the fuck had just happened? Why was he so grumpy? And, more importantly, why the fuck had he just fainted upon seeing a badly healing scar?

What the hell was going on?

And why the fuck was he swearing so much?

Death’s Apprentice – Part 50

‘It’s a long story,’ said Joe.

‘I know, but we’ve got time,’ she said.

But, where did he begin? ‘I don’t know how it’s all got to this point, to be honest, but, to cut that long story short, I need to find Death’s scythe -‘

‘Here, in the Underworld?’

Joe nodded. ‘Yes, Death’s sister stole it from Death, my boss.’

‘So, that’s what you’re here for,’ said Hel, ‘totally makes sense now.’

‘And you’re a human? And still alive?’ asked Agnes.

‘Yes,’ said Joe, but, he was starting to wonder whether he was actually dead and this was Hell.

‘And Death’s sister is…?’

‘I don’t know but I need to find her.’

Agnes’s covered her hand with her mouth and shook her head. ‘There’s no way,’ she said, her hand still covering her mouth.

‘No way to what?’

‘To get to Death’s sister.’

‘Why?’

‘Because Death’s sister lives in the Iron Fortress deep in the Valley of the Dead.’

‘Oh,’ said Hel.

Hades, who at some point, had woken up, sat up and gave a loud gulp. He stood up, stretched his back legs out and went over to Joe. He placed his head on Joe’s lap and began to cry.

Joe began to stroke Hade’s thick warm fur.

‘And?’ asked Joe.

‘And no person EVER has made it through the Valley of the Dead alive.’

‘I have the Book of the Dead to help me,’ said Joe.

‘That’s not going to help you, Joe, that’s written for dead people.

‘Well, it’s got me this far.’

‘Except, that’s not very far at all,’ said Hel.

Silence fell upon the room. He didn’t know why but suddenly he was feeling really grumpy. He grabbed at the Book of the Dead from where he’d dropped it on the floor. He opened the front cover and looked down the contents page. He found the section he was looking for, called The Valley of the Dead. ‘Page two-hundred and eleven,’ he said to himself as he flicked to the section.

Death’s Apprentice – Part 49

Joe looked into Agnes’ deep green eyes. They reminded him of the colour of the wildfire on the Game of Thrones TV series. Her red hair was like fire and as wild as the night. She looked like a witch, except, she was covered in tattoos like one of his mom’s mates who worked at the local tattoo parlour.

Her name was Shandi, ‘with an “I” not a “y”‘ and she was a self-confessed strident feminist. She was always telling his mom to leave his shitdad. That was the only thing that Joe like about her, because, in that she was right; his mom would be better off without his shitdad.

Joe prayed for the day that his mom left him, except, unlike Shandi, he knew deep down that his mom wouldn’t change and that she’d still be a useless mother with or without his shitdad. He loved his mom, but she really wasn’t cut-out to be a mother.

Besides, he’d seen Shandi and his shitdad snogging, and that had made Joe realise that Shandi wasn’t really looking out for his mother. Her concern was more like self-interest. Whilst he hated his shitdad, he didn’t want his mom to be hurt, not like that. His shitdad on the other hand…

‘I’m Joe,’ he said. He grabbed her hand and shook it. Her hand was warm, her hold firm. He didn’t know why but he knew he already liked her.

‘I know,’ she said, ‘I saw you coming, Joe.’

‘Oh.’

‘In my crystal ball. It said a handsome stranger would come.’

Joe’s face glowed red.

‘So, I prepared you some stew.’

His face turned a deeper shade of crimson. ‘Thanks.’

‘That’s okay,’ she said, punching him playfully on the arm. ‘Want some tea?’

‘Yes, yes please.’

She bounced off the bed. ‘Come on then!’ She gestured for him to follow.

He sat up. There were now three chairs arranged around Hades who was still curled up in front of the fire. Hel sat down on one of the chairs and Agnes sat next to her. Joe yawned as he climbed off the bed and went over to the third chair.

‘So, Joe, what brings you to my neck of the woods?’ she asked as he sat down. ‘Hel tells me you’ve got yourself into a spot of bother?’

A spot of bother? Well, that was one way of putting it.

‘You could say that,’ he said, taking the chipped mug of tea that appeared out of thin air in front of him. ‘Thanks for the tea.’

‘You’re welcome.’

‘And thanks for the stew,’ he added quickly.

‘You’re welcome. So, why are you here?’

Death’s Apprentice – Part 48

He didn’t blame Hades for falling to sleep. Joe had to admit this cottage was pretty snug and homely. He yawned loudly before he shovelled the last spoonful of stew into his mouth. He dropped the bowl onto the floor and stood up to stretch.

Yep, this place was rather nice; too many knick-knacks for Joe’s liking but still, it was more homely than he’d ever considered his own home to be. Yes, this was more like it.

He looked around for Hel. Where had she got to? He looked at Hades. Hades didn’t look worried as he lay there snoring his head off so why should he be worried? Maybe Hades had got the right idea. Maybe that’s what Joe needed, a nap. The bed did look really inviting, and it wouldn’t hurt to rest for a few minutes, would it?

He flopped onto the bed which seemed to cocoon him as he fell, like some giant cuddly arms. Oh, it felt so comfy, so warm…

 

Jow woke with a start. He gasped for air. That was one Hell of a dream. He’d been dreaming that he was being held prisoner by a woman with a knife.

His heart jumped into his throat as a woman’s head swooped into view, her features covered by her thick red hair.

‘And what do you think you’re doing on my bed?’ she demanded, whilst thrusting a silver knife to his throat.

‘I…I was just…’

‘I know what you were doing,’ she boomed, letting the sharp blade rest on his skin, ‘you were sleeping. ON MY BED!’

‘I’m sorry, I just…’

‘I just…I just…stop snivelling like a child. Actually, now I come to think of it, I’m quite partial to children. I like to cook them and eat them in a stew for my dinner.’

Joe’s stomach rolled. Acidic bile rose up into his throat. He hadn’t had he? The stew…? Eugh!!! He hadn’t eaten human flesh? Had he?

‘I think I’m going to be sick,’ he squeaked.

Suddenly the witch threw her head back and began to laugh. She dropped the knife onto the bed stand and climbed off Joe. She rolled over and lay beside him, clutching her stomach as she laughed.

‘That was too funny,’ said another voice. This one he recognised.

‘Hel?’

Hel came into view, her eyes streaming with tears of laughter.

‘What? You…?’ He sat up, his pride stinging with indignity. ‘You…what’s going on?’

‘We’re only having you on! Sorry.’

But, Joe could tell Hel wasn’t sorry. No, not at all. She was laughing now but he’d get her back. Yep, at some point, he was going to get her back for that.

‘Couldn’t resist, sorry. It was too easy,’ said the other woman who was still lying next to Joe. She turned her head to face him, her hand outstretched. ‘The name’s Agnes, pleased to meet you.’