“Tell us! Tell us! Who are we again?”
Monstro was under siege. The raids came more and more often. The numbers were doubling every time. The Locust Eaters were swarming.
“They feed on words,” a lapith explained. “News. Messages. … Most of all Story.”
“Ladon the Dragon says they’re a nattrel phemonnynon but I think the O’s sent them to plague us.”
“Nibble us away.”!
They crowded round, self-pitying, like old people with thinning hair, harking back to more lustrous, curly days. Maybe it was just their memories that were thinning, and it only felt as if their stories were disappearing. That was what Hylas thought.
Until a locust settled on his shoulder.
The insects came in twos and threes at first, drifting on the wind, seeking out holes and crevices in the land. Exploring. A split in the rock might lead, via fissures and flues, to the caverns below. If ever the Locust Eaters got deep inside Monstro City, colonised the high, dark recesses, bred and fed and fed and bred, they would quickly achieve their goal. They would strip every brain-stem, sound by syllable by sentence. Their insatiable appetite would devour every story and history. And, as Thoősa said, what ‘s anyone without a story?
Argus the peacock was sounding the alarum.
As the one locust perched on Hylas’ shoulder, another flitted past his face – a flying cockroach large as a man’s hand. The dog and fox fled, tails low; they knew what it was to be engulfed by a swarm of these things, powerless to move, and to feel the scrabble of ten thousand feet and a thousand coiled tongues flickering over their fur. Others citizens also fled deeper belowground, but not Typhon, the giants or the cyclopses. They and the furies and horses, harpies and Echidna toiled up the slippery gradient towards the daylight, to defend it from the coming swarm. The visitors went too, ignorant of the terrible sight that was about to greet them.
“TYPHON WILL KILL THEM! TYPHON WILL SPILL THEM!” the monsters chanted.
The swarm was so dense, so vast that it blackened the sky in rippling waves of darkness. elp! elp!
Argus’ warning shriek was cut short as the shining blue-and-green of its peacock splendour was muffled up in a blanket of insects. The noise of massed wings was a ripsaw cutting timber.
Typhon planted himself like a tree, each foot on a burial mound, brandishing his heads at the sky like a hundred angry fists. As the moving cloud of insects closed in on him, he raised his battle banners – a hundred flags of orange flame streaming from his gaping mouths, scorching a swathe of sky which rained down the crispy ash of dead locust-eaters.
The furies, black and flapping as sails torn from a ship, flung themselves on those that escaped. The giants swung their clubs, the cyclopses their blacksmiths’ hammers. By then, Typhon had drawn enough breath to let fly another geyser of fire.
Hylas pulled the leather strap from round his waist – a slingshot - and grabbed up stones. So densely packed were the locusts still to come that one stone brought down ten at a time and barely snicked a hole in the black fabric of flying insects.
Another searing rag of light; another wall of flame; another legion of locusts eaters cooked in mid-air and falling, falling, streaking everyone’s face with ash. And still they came on – an oily river of insects. Around the sixth and seventh breath, Typhon, brick-red in the face, stopped to rest his hands on his knees and assess the enemy. The enemy collided with his face and spilled down his back, smothering both him and his wife. The monsters mooed their alarm, the horses, rearing to knock down locusts with their hooves, caught each other accidental blows and bloodied a giant who instantly turned on them, club swinging.
It was a flock of ravenous harpies, tumbling home to Monstro across the Egregian Plain, who, seeing the swarm, attacked it from rear and finally broke it up. It drifted away piecemeal, to north, south, east and west, on the evening breeze.
“His heads are willing, but his lungs are weak,” Phantasos confided to Pythia, back down in the Great Cavern. “One day soon Typhon’s fire will fail, and then the locusts will be in among them. I’m right, aren’t I? The days of Monstro City are numbered. Am I right? I am, aren’t I, Pythia?”
The Oracle turned her back on him. “Doesn’t take prophecy to tell you that. Some things are plain for the purest fool to see.”
Phantasos turned to Thoősa, instead. “It stirs a strange grief in me, to see it. I come here as often as I can with dreams for them, and I find them not sleeping but wide-eyed with worry, and I - “ The Dream Bringer broke off, his face as grey as his clothing. The thread of his sentence frayed, through sheer weariness.
“Are you all right?” asked Thoősa.
“ I am plagued myself, child. Sorrow has stolen away the blessing of sleep. I, the brother of Somnus, Sender-of-Sleep, cannot sleep.”
“Panacea could mend that. I think she can mend anybody. She could make something to help you sleep.”
Phantasos frowned and shook himself. “No, no. Argus slept once, and look what happened to him.”
A luminous blue head nudged at the back of his knee and the threadbare peacock – its few remaining feathers sticking out at zany angles – pecked at the Dream Bringer’s pocket. “What did happen to me?” said Argus.
The locust eaters had not only stripped Argus of his shining plumage, they had eaten away his story. He was a cherry tree after the blackbirds have stripped it of cherries. His prettiness gone at last, he had at least been allowed into Monstro City. But his story too had been ripped away.
So Thoősa crouched down and stroked the stubbly head. “It’s the same old story, Argus. Once upon a time, Zeus, King of the gods, took a fancy to a pretty woman called Io…” And she began to tell the peacock his own story – to give it him back.
As she did so, others gathered round – other casualties of the locust eaters. It was not just the promise of a story that enthralled them, but the idea that Thoősa had somehow been carrying the peacock’s past around with her and was about to give it back. “How does she know? Does she know mine?” they murmured amongst themselves.
The monsters rarely told their stories to one another: mostly they were too ashamed to mention the defeats. So, as one raid after another robbed them of their memories, no one else could give them back what they had lost.
“How does she know?” “Does she know mine?”
Hylas explained how sailors, songs and the wind had carried myth, legends and rumour as far as Mysia – “Where?” – where Thoosa lived, and that was how she had heard their stories. The clamour rose steadily, so that Thoősa finished the peacock’s story having to shout it into the hollow of his ears. “Form a line! Line up!” she told them. “I’ll tell as many as I know.”
Queuing was an idea new to Monstro City. There was barging and brawling, and those at the back jumped to the front and were elbowed out of the way again, so that the queue roiled around the great cavern like a hysterical caterpillar.
Did Thoősa make some up? When memory failed her, did she fill in the gaps from her own imagination? It did not matter: the stories had probably changed a dozen times, in the mouths of different storytellers, even before they reached Thoosa. The monsters whose stories had been flayed off them by the locusts re-clothed themselves in her words, buried themselves in the plots. Afterwards they were convinced they remembered every fight, every fright in shining detail. During each retelling, the queue stamped and shuffled their claws, paws and oozing pseudopods, and urged her to hurry up. So many had lost their stories. And the locusts were after the rest.
The locusts were back: a distant grey smoke, a low black cloud, a blotting out of daylight, a brittle, flickering, wall of besieging noise.