Elise’s poignant story about Hercules’ future impressed the judges and was very highly commended – well done Elise!
There are two cities here. The first is well-trodden and scuffed, a graveyard of plastic chairs abandoned under faded awnings. Summer, and the days drip hot and sticky as blood while the nights fatten with crickets. Cracks steal through sun-baked concrete. From the shuttered shops, the whir of air conditioning.
The other city lurks in the weed-strung corners, in the cool of the smallest noonday shadow, in the crumbled pillars edging the parking lot. It is a city of echoes. It is a city the man once knew well.
He sits in the flimsy shade of a parasol, plastic chair squeaking beneath his weight. He’s waiting. He’s been waiting a long time. There’s a plastic coffee cup cradled in his massive hands, crushed a little more with every minute. Once-restless hands, those. Callussed, sure. There’s a sadness in their stillness.
The man shifts, chair creaking in protest. Despite the heat he misses the familiar weight of his lionskin, draped heavy across broad shoulders and lost now too, sold to a pawnshop many cities ago. He gave up counting the years a while back. Now he measures time in places. Less lonely that way.
He tried to find the others too many times to count. But they faded, or they crept back into their palaces, or they lost their godhood and lived out a few snatched years as mortals before old age stole them away. He wishes he could join them, sometimes. But his last purpose ties him here, to these cities, columns jutting like ribs from graveyards of rubble. A last task.
He waits. He’s used to it.
There’s one more who he knows remains. The last twenty-eight cities have been spent searching for him. The man crossed from graveyard to graveyard, walked through so many tombs that the brush of ghostly fingers clung like cobwebs to his dreams after. He wandered places where men had died buried, places where men had died unburied. Spirits restless and sleeping. And still Hades would not let himself be found.
This was the man’s last attempt. He’s stolen through cities of the dead; now he sits in a dead city. Because while there might be a quiet metropolis here, below it lies the ghost of Thebes. Columns poke like ribs from a graveyard of rubble. Thebes, lonely and broken, dies beneath dusty tarmac.
He nearly misses Hades when he arrives.
At first glance the man mistakes him for a waiter. He’s unassuming, smallish, a face made for skimming over in crowds. His hands are long and pale. And he’s easy to overlook, impressively so, and if you look away you might just forget you were talking to anyone at all.
“Lord Hades,” the man says quietly. “It has been a while.”
Was Hades always sitting down? The man does not know. But he’s sitting now, leaning forwards in a plastic chair that the man was certain was not there before. He speaks with the voice of a cliff battered by waves, cold and weary and unfathomably old. “Not Lord. Not anymore.”
“Must the old names die with the city?”
“Yours has,” Hades points out, not unkindly.
The coffee cup crumples further in sword-worn hands. “Perhaps.”
“You should take another. Settle down.” He pauses. “Why are you still – here? In this–” An arm gestures languidly to the faded cafe awning, the broken-tooth pillars, the fan stuttering sadly away in the corner. “This hollow city.”
“Waiting,” the man says.
“For – anyone. But I suppose it is fitting. That death comes to the man who cannot die.”
“Your last task. The one tying you here.” That rocksalt voice softens imperceptibly. “What is it?”
“I was hoping you’d tell me that.”
“I know as much as you.”
“Then I wait, I suppose. I keep waiting.” The nameless man looks away.
“I am sorry,” Hades says. “This is no hero’s glorious burden. This is–”
“The cruelest kind of agony.”
“Well.” The man’s laugh is humourless. “It certainly is impossible. But of all the enemies I have fought, I never thought I would be bested by time.”
Hades looks out to what once was Thebes, to the sun-slick road and tire-tracks greasing tarmac. And then further, the bones – stones that once made palaces drowned in scrubby bushes. Toppled pillars choked by thorns. The yellowed houses built in a graveyard of echoes. “Kingdoms fall. Cities die. Perhaps waiting for the ruin is the hardest task of all.”