The scales always sway back into balance.
He slammed back a beer as the jukebox in the corner of this well-out-of-the-way hole in the wall cranked out some Judas Priest. Another dusty beer and a shot of Jack appeared without a word, as if by magic. They called him Theo in these parts, which was as good a name as any. He’d been on the run so long that it didn’t matter anymore.
The chorus of Breaking the Law drowned out the sputters of the motorcycles cruising through the desert. Few could rock harder than Rob Halford, yet if he walked into Evelyn’s Place, dragged out in leather, he’d probably get himself shot. For all the ways they had advanced, they remained remarkably primitive in some ways, even regressed in many. The shot’s subtle burn chased away his regret for not attending that Judas Priest show back in the eighties. That would have been something. Maybe he could have felt the electricity in his veins again as the screeching guitar assaulted him; Theo would never know.
Breaking the Law faded, replaced by the overly worn copy of Back in Black. Soon, he would have to break in and replace some of the albums in the jukebox. Theo was pretty sure the newest album in there was thirty years old. Unless he picked up and left again, his hourglass was almost up in this desert. Never stay in one place too long, a simple and effective strategy that had kept him alive all this time. Theo wasn’t sure why he’d been coming here every night, watching the sands of time drain away. It could have been that no one questioned his long grey beard that tended to draw calls of “Santa!” anywhere else, that the beer was always cold, or that he was just tired. He felt the last one more every day, so he concluded that must have been it.
“Another one, Evelyn,” Theo said as the crash of billiard balls echoed off the tin walls. Thursday meant that Jeff would be hustling everyone again. They all knew that his stupid nickname, Bull, was a cover to make himself seem tougher than the accountant was. They also knew that he was a better player than he let on, but, come on, no one was intimidated by Jeff. So, Evelyn's patrons called him Bull and played along while all the lost souls drank the days and nights away.
“Forgetting tonight? Or celebrating?”
Evelyn’s voice was raspier tonight than usual, and Theo hoped she wasn’t coming down with something, or worse. Years of smoking took a toll on even the hardiest of women, but Evelyn could have stage four, and it wouldn’t stop her from smoking a pack a day. Somedays, he respected that macabre ritualistic dedication and the accompanying acceptance of the inevitable. It was that kind of fatal bravery that Theo yearned for, the kind that would allow him to finally accept that he was tired of running and instead charge headlong into the stampede. But the inevitable scared him, and he wasn’t afraid to admit that. No one would remember him; all that would have mourned him were long gone, and he was all that was left. So instead, he kept running so someone would remember them. The thought helped him sleep.
“Forgetting Evelyn. Always forgetting,” Theo said. She said no more. She never did. It was a healthy relationship for an unhealthy habit. He glanced at the pool table as Brian Johnson’s voice faded. Jeff was already up a few shots and lining up another combo in a hand-torn leather jacket that had never once met the road.
The door crashed open, and the rumbling of the motorcycles replaced the rest of the conversations in the dank place. Theo set his beer down and spared the door half a glance. He always sat at the same barstool to keep an eye on it without staring at everyone that walked in—old habits died as hard as he did.
Theo took another drink. Sure, there were good times, like his time with Mary, and Maria, and with the one he couldn’t bring himself to name, but all those fleeting memories couldn’t replace the ones he had lost, so he tried in vain to drink their ghosts away.
Some Iron Maiden came on next, and Theo was thankful that someone queued up a deeper cut, and he chuckled that of all the songs, it was Powerslave. The fabric of the world was woven with the strong reeds of irony and absurdity. At this point, all he could do was laugh. Another round appeared silently in front of him. As Theo watched the beads of condensation race down the dusty bottle, he suddenly yearned for a good, strong wine. Of all the things he lost when he rode away in the hold of that accursed British ship, good wine was the one he missed the most. His family was gone, certain as sin, but the wine he craved was still elusively locked away halfway around the world for those who knew where to find it. No one could make it as good as old Dionysus's own stock.
Jeff ran another table, some money changed hands, and he smartly bought the next round for his latest victim. The voices around Theo let him brood in the comfortable anonymity a room full of strangers provided. Mick Jagger’s voice replaced Bruce Dickinson’s, and Theo found himself tapping along despite his disdain for the tune.
“Hey Evelyn, another,” Theo tapped the bottle without looking her way, no sign of slur in his voice as he kept an inconspicuous eye on the door.
“You know, that stuff will kill you one day. And wouldn’t that be just a damned shame, brother?”
Theo’s veins turned to ice. The fingers curled around the next beer had a distinctly white shade of bone. Theo looked up to see the crooked smile Evelyn wore, a wicked hunter’s smile, the same one Artemis had when she drew her bow.
“Hope you guessed my name. I’m glad someone else looks at me rather sympathetically. Sometimes it can all be so overwhelming,” the husk of the proprietor cackled along with the jukebox through a hacking cough.
“She should have taken my advice. I told her those cigarettes would kill her. Shame she didn’t have a few more years, days even,” Theo said with a trace of a snarl. The initial rush of fear left him, and a feeling he had not felt since he and Maria slept under the jungle stars trickled through him.
He had expected the world to go silent when this time came, but no, it spiraled on as it always did. The billiard balls crashed again from seemingly halfway across this world and the next one.
“How long has it been, Brother?” Theo said, not leaving the husk of Evelyn's gaze as he downed the beer. He kicked himself–the blackness of her iris was now so apparent in the dimly lit bar.
“I lost count sometime around Judas. I’ve been busy; I’m sure you can understand. Tragically misunderstood powers mommy and daddy gave me. On the other plate of the scales, I never had to worry about going out of fashion. By any name, they’ll always worship me. Can’t say the same about you,” The husk said.
“Evelyn, I’m dry over here!” Carlos yelled from the end of the bar. The husk’s head snapped around so rapidly that Theo was sure the patrons would understand their peril. Run, fools, run! Go as far and as fast as you can.
“You’ve had enough for tonight, I think. Maybe longer.” the raspy imitation of the bartender's voice cut unnaturally through the air.
Carlos nodded. He stood up and left without as much as a second glance from his friends. The patron’s unnatural movements sent a mixture of disgust and anger through Theo’s veins. One by one, the rest of the mortals silently left in a rigid march until only the two interlopers remained. The jukebox flipped to the thundering intro of For Whom the Bell Tolls.
“Let’s not drag this out. I’ve got another stop to make, apparently. Poor Carlos should have kept his mouth shut. The rest of them might fare better,” The husk said with an annoyed shrug.
“And I’d hate to keep you from that dog of yours,” Theo said.
“Good, you understand my struggle. Cerby does loathe me being gone too long. But before we get to all the ugly bits, can we discuss something? Theo? Really?” The husk said as it poured itself a shot. With a nod, it took it, and the brown liquid dribbled through the mirage of papery skin around its mouth. The phantom mirage of flesh decayed as Theo watched until nothing remained but the bright white skeleton. Theo felt the nausea stirring in his stomach that had nothing to do with the alcohol.
“The name fits,” Theo said. As he did, the husk reached into her back pocket, and Theo relaxed, letting the old power flow through him. The lights in the back of the bar flickered.
Hades placed his scepter on the faded bar, a carved piece of cypress capped with a bronze key on one end and scales ever so slightly out of balance upon the other. Theo scowled at the infernal thing and fought the urge to recoil.
“As much fun as this has been, you know what I must do. You’ve run from your fate for too long mighty one. So let’s both stop playing games and get to it.”
“My fate? I am a God. I have no fate that is not my own. You are just an errand boy,” The rage repressed by generations poured into Theo’s voice and shook the shack’s tin walls. The husk flexed its skeletal neck and tapped its long finger against its temple.
“See, this is what gets me about this whole family. Demeter was the worst about it, all ‘it’s not my fault there’s a famine,’ and ‘you can’t do this to me.’ It’s not for me to judge! Can you believe she accused me of kidnapping her daughter? Absurdity! You derelict your duties; the fates pass their judgment, and I carry it out. If you all just accepted that, we all might still be able to get together around the solstice. And I’ve done you plenty of favors,” Hades said through the husk. It slammed its fists upon the bar as it finished, and the scepter bounced at the force of it.
“What favors?” Theo yelled. “You’ve taken them all from me. All of my servants. All of my lieutenants. All of my subjects. I had no one to fight for me and no one to save. What could I have done, shattered the earth to protect them? The world had moved on from our power. Then, when I finally found peace, you took them from me too!” The memories of holding the lifeless bodies of Maria, of Mary, and, so many lifetimes before them, of Hera flashed before him—all of them who he became too powerless to save.
“...Apollo had all the same kaka, you know. At least you got angry at your sentence. He tried to quote me some poetry as he bargained and begged. Pathetic really. He didn’t even love any of them either–”
“I did,” Theo said flatly. The door slammed shut, and with it, any chance of escape.
“Sure, I’ll give that to you. You always were the noblest. But you’re mistaken. You could have wielded your strength, turned away the invaders, and saved plenty, but here we are. As I said, I let you have that time together. Then the Fates did what they do, and I do what I do. It’s a thankless job. For those keeping score in the arena,” the husk held up a hand and ticked off fingers as Hades' voice echoed through its empty skull, “that’s extra lifetimes, extra loves, and I even tossed in some painless deaths for all of them. You really owe me finishing this quietly, brother. Your fate has come.”
Theo stood, the barstool flying across the bar as he drew himself to his full and terrible height. The room's shadows seemed to shrink before the rage of the fallen god.
“I am Zeus, and you will bow to me, brother. Leave this place. Leave me. Go back to the infernal plane of your cursed existence.” The walls shook while the lights of the dingy bar flickered. The door strained against its hinges as the storm gathered outside. His days of running were over. For one last time, the power of Zeus would echo across the world and shake the bones of the earth.
The husk scratched its brow dismissively, “You know, had you just come with me when I had to detour to that Judas business; I could have probably gotten you a trial, probably,” it said, the words oozing out like poison into wine. “But come on, how many times in the last hundred years or so would a lightning bolt from Mt. Olympus made all the difference? I can think of a couple of big ones…” The husk gritted its bone-white teeth and drew its paper-thin lips back in awkward derision.
Silence fell between them.
They had come to an end so long demanded. Zeus saw the husk’s hips shift ever so slightly while the bone-thin hand rested on the wooden bar next to its scepter. The hair on his arms tingled as the bar filled with electricity, a power he hadn't experienced in a mortal lifetime. For the first time since Maria, he felt alive. His eyes narrowed.
His foe let out an exasperated groan. “Fine. Whatever you say next, don’t give me the whole ‘come and take it’ bit. It’s overused and always annoying. Trust me. I was there.”
The lightning bolt pierced the window nearest them as smiles creased their faces one last time.
About the Creator
Full-time nerd, history enthusiast, and proprietor of random knowledge. The best way to find your perfect story is to make it yourself.
Here there be dragons, and knights, and castles, and quests for entities not wished to be found.