Ella’s story of the Harpies was highly commended by the judges, who very much enjoyed reading it – well done Ella!
Tendrils of mist curled around Hercules, surrounding his senses with the surreal illusion that he was dreaming. Familiar figures seemed to dance behind his eyes, yet every time he whipped round to see these demons the mist was empty as ever.
He was in the underworld.
The floor was glass-like, a giant mirror reflecting his every action. Each step Hercules took resonated through the cold atmosphere, causing ripples to flow over the smooth, mirrored surface.
Deep silence hovered in the air, the kind that comes after death. All he could hear were his own strained breaths and the sound of his weapon, clanking alongside iron-clad legs.
He aimlessly wandered, forgetting how and why he was there.
But then he heard it, and memory came back to him, like the shock of jumping into cold water.
Tortured screeches pierced through the mist. Harpies. What he was here for.
The mist wrapped around sickly pale skin, revealing faces of women pinched with warped pleasure. Naked beasts flocked around, swooping down with tremendous wings of fire, ice and fear.
Long fingers – distorted into claw-like hands – combed through flashes of golden hair flaming and consuming the creatures. One hovered just above Hercules, her clawed legs agonizingly twisted and scaly, a reminder of the hate they could inflict.
By now, 20 or 30 Harpies had gathered round, their full bodies revealed.
One of the Harpies opened her mouth, letting free a shrill voice, dripping with malice.
“Greetings, great hero, Hercules.”
He replied in his own gruff tone, taking surprise at how hoarse it was. This place was steadily drawing the life from him and his voice.
“Is – Is this the underworld?” He stammered, gaining some weak force in the demand. The Harpy grinned.
“This is a place of the past, that haunts you through the mist, and of the present, that mirrors you through the ground. If that is what you mean, then yes.”
“And what of the future?” Hercules asked, dread creeping up his spine.
“There is no future here, this is a place for the dead.” Restlessness began to itch over the Harpies, and they taunted him, venomously.
“Poor little mortal lost in death” one crooned over from his right.
“Astray in the mist, he’ll never come back!” another trilled, eyes twinkling with pleasure.
Greedily they crept around, cornering Hercules. He drew out his sword, yelling with all his might –
“I am not here for death! I have been sent on a thirteenth labor, a thirteenth quest, to retrieve the blood of a Harpy!” he raised his arms, clutching his sword in one and a small glass vial in the other. His quest was to fill the vial with blood – a task he could complete without having to slay them all.
An instant change flashed over their faces. What was once mocking glee had hardened, fixing glares of hate upon Hercules.
“Those with mortal blood never leave the underworld!” the leader squalled, flinging back her hair, revealing burning eyes. “Dive!”
Before Hercules could react, hundreds of shrieking beasts bore down on him, like spears thrown from the skilled arm. Frantically, he slashed his sword, hoping to land it in one of them. Blood flashed everywhere, whether it was his or theirs he did not know; he had no time to feel pain.
In time, he was sure some of the blood was his. Various areas burned with pain, searing white, impairing his vision. All he could see was sound and pain and panic, so much that even blood was a distant memory. Staggering, still swinging his blade, Hercules made for the gates.
Surely, he could not make it. Surely, he had lost too much blood. Surely, it was too far. But Hercules – the mighty hero – had bent fate before, and this wasn’t going to stop him.
After struggling blindly for what seemed like decades, he slumped down. He had passed back through the gates of the underworld, to the quaint little boat he had rowed to the shores of the underworld. Merrily it bobbed among the black waves, loose from the tethers binding it to land.
The Harpies were no longer there. Their howls of despair rung back from the gates, but much like mortals, they could not leave.
He had escaped, yes, achieved the impossible. But he had not achieved his quest. Despite how much blood he saw, there was none in the tiny glass vial. For the first time since the start of his labors, Hercules lost hope.
Whatever his need, he could not go back. The Harpies would have an unquenchable thirst for blood now, he would never survive a second trip.
All that effort, for nothing. He might as well lie down and die here, in the boat.
As his eyelids drooped shut, an idea occurred to him. A final chance. He grabbed a handful of cloth from his shirt and wrung it out. Slowly but steadily, drops of crimson dripped into the glass vial.
Hercules lifted the vial, smiling. The precious rubies were there, plain as day, the fruit of his quest.