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 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.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Thirty-six

The girl placed her arms behind her back and began to swing from side-to-side. She looked up at him and said, ‘You’re alive.’

No shit Sherlock is what he wanted to say but instead, he replied with a curt, ‘Yes.’

‘Why?’

‘What do you mean why?’

‘Why are you alive?’

‘Because I’m not dead.’

‘I think you’re being a little impertinent.’

Joe didn’t even know what that meant. ‘If you say so,’ he said. He really just wanted her to go so he could look at the Book of the Dead in peace.

‘Why are you here?’

‘I’m on holiday.’

‘No, you’re not.’ The girl thrust her owns out to the side, her fist rolled into tight little balls. The hounds surrounding her all stood up and began to give throaty grumbles.

It was a little orchestra of growls that put Joe on edge.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Joe.’

‘Joe what?’

‘Joe Bones,’ he replied.

‘Why are you really here?’

What to do? Tell her the truth or find some excuse? Joe decided on a solution somewhere between the two.

‘I’m here to find something for someone.’

‘What?’

‘I can’t tell you.’

‘Why?’

‘Because…’

‘Because what?’

‘Because I don’t know who you are.’

‘Well, that’s easy. I’m Hel,’ she said, thrusting out a little pink hand towards Joe, ‘pleased to meet you.’

Joe took her cold hand in his. It was ice cold. ‘And I’m Joe.’ All the hounds relaxed again.

‘I know,’ she said, ‘you told me.’

‘Well, it was very nice meeting you but now I have to go.’

‘Go where?’

‘Through the Forest of Suffering.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I need to.’

‘But why?’

‘To get to where I’m going.’

‘Where are you going?’

‘Through the Forest of suffering,’ said Joe through clenched teeth. Boy, he was glad he didn’t have a sister. Well, not one that he knew of anyway.

‘You’ll never make it through there,’ she said. She folded her arms across her chest.

‘Well, I’ll take my chances. Besides, Charon said I wouldn’t make it past Cerberus -‘

‘Cerberus? Why? Cerberus won’t hurt you. Not when I’m around.’

Joe stifled a laugh. ‘Okay, if you say so.’

‘I can help you through the forest.’

‘I’m okay thanks.’

‘I don’t think you are.’

Death’s Apprentice – Part Thirty-Five

Cerberus cowered, his hackles raised on his thick neck, his snake-tail tucked firmly in between his muscular back legs.

‘What’s a matter, boy?’ asked Joe, taking in the dog’s troubled appearance.

Joe reached out and ran his hand through Cerberus’ warm rough fur. The dog was shaking.

‘Cerberus? There you are, you naughty boy. Where have you been?’ It was a girl’s voice which made the dog shake uncontrollably.

Joe turned his head to where the sweet, little voice had come from. A small girl, probably no more than ten-years-old, stood before him dressed in a white shift dress. Her hair was the colour of the darkest night, her skin as pale as the moon. She took a tiny step forward. It was then Joe noticed the pack of hounds sitting behind her, dogs of varying shapes and sizes.

‘Who are you?’ he asked. Things were going from strange to stranger. Joe had already questioned his sanity many times since he’d entered Crow’s Funeral Home and now he was doing it again. What was a ten-year-old girl doing down here with a pack of dogs? And why was a three-headed dog so scared of her?

He gave himself a pinch. He knew, deep down, it wouldn’t work but he tried it anyway in the vain hope that he was just dreaming. Maybe his shitdad has drugged him? He certainly wouldn’t put it past him.

‘Ow!’ he screeched pinching himself again. No, he wasn’t dreaming it. This was actually happening.

The girl’s eyes narrowed and she shook her head in disbelief.

‘Why are you hurting yourself?’ asked the girl.

‘Because…’ he looked at the girl and then his arm, ‘oh, it doesn’t matter.’ He certainly wasn’t going to explain himself to a little girl.

 

 

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.