Feet shuffle on grey sand. A chill wind blows. Megakles would shiver if he still had a body, but instead the wind moans through his phantasmic ribs, adding to the chorus of distilled despair on the banks of the River Styx.
Another day in the everlasting night of the Underworld.
Megakles sighs. In life, his breath could clear a chamber, but here he cannot even move the queue. He shambles towards the place where Charon stands on his mighty prow. Wonders if he’ll ever reach it.
Black-cowled, the escort of the dead beats back the unburied and the poor with his staff.
“An obol for the crossing!” he scolds. The Styx swallows his words.
“Gah,” says a voice.
Megakles turns. A short man stands beside him, translucent, colourless, and hairy. Megakles frowns at him and scratches his own, lesser beard.
The man speaks again. His voice is a curse on the air. “Charon thinks he’s so powerful, but did you see the two who slipped by yesterday? Not a coin between them, yet they made use of the new war dead. Quick thinkers, those two.”
Megakles stares. Scratches.
“’Course, they were heading to Tartarus. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not spend a year’s atonement there before they let me out for a bath.” He grins up at Megakles, teeth rotten as month-old apples.
“Hnh,” says Megakles.
“You’ve got an obol though, haven’t you?” The man looks Megakles up and down like an army conscriptor. “You look like someone who was cared for in life. Who buried you? Wife? Lover? Son?”
“No,” says Megakles, tightening a fist around the dull and dented silver of his last possession. His voice is the sound of leaves in a breeze. He’d been lucky; without companions or family, the priest who buried him had dropped a coin. Then again, he had gifted the shrine with two stolen bags’ worth of them.
His eyebrows narrow. “What do you want?”
“Me? Nothing!” Objecting hands rise in frigid air. The queue of phantoms takes another step. “Only—”
Megakles growls. “What?” Short men always want to challenge him. Even here.
“Well…” The man reaches into his robe, pulls out a folded parchment. “I’ve got a map.”
“Yes. Of the Underworld.” The parchment rustles. “I came once before, you see. But I’m willing to sell it. For the right price.”
Megakles’ laugh is a raven’s cough.
“I died without a coin this time.” The phantom face is sorrowful. “And I’ve a score to settle before returning.”
“So?” said Megakles.
“It’s a way out for you.”
Charon calls again. “An obol for the crossing!”
Megakles can’t quite define the distance remaining. He hesitates. Another chance? “Let’s see it, then,” he says.
He hefts the obol. It is enough—the coin and man whisk free. Parchment flutters to the sand.
Megakles picks it up. “Thanks,” it reads.
His roar is lost in the everlasting night of the Underworld.
This short story was my entry to April’s Furious Fiction competition, a 500-word flash challenge run by the Australian Writer’s Centre on the first Friday of each month. Entrants have 55 hours to write a piece inspired by and including a number of prompts. I’ve been entering since 2019, and many of the pieces are available here on my website if you fancy a browse!
Now I’m off to play Hades…