The first hint they had that they were getting close was a shrill, piteous cry:
“That will be Argus,” said the Postman.
“The Argos?” cried Hylas delightedly. “Where? That’s Jason’s ship!”
“Argus,” said Phantasos, “with an upsilon. Argus is a dragon – or what’s left of one.”
After a moonless night spent stumbling over moor and marshland, the prospect of a dragon had them colliding with one another in the dark. Hylas had been longing for daylight, but at the mention of dragons, he wanted to pull the failing darkness closer round him. Their first view of Argus was a crescent of shivering darkness. Within minutes, dawn welled up and they could grasp the true shape of him.
“That’s not a dragon,” said Hylas, laughing with relief.
The peacock’s tail fanned out in a quivering halo of iridescence, while the beak went on shrieking: elp! elp!
Feathers as long as bulrushes lay strewn all around: Thoősa gathered them up delightedly – a bouquet of shimmering flowers, each blossom an eye of aquamarine. The bird itself was green, purple, gold and turquoise, with a head of the most vivid blue.
“Argus still stands guard,” said Phantasos. “It is what he was made for, after all. In his monstrous days. …Soft, Argus! Softly now. It is I, Phantasos, delivering a dream or two.” The bird abandoned its strutting and scurried closer, as if the Postman’s pockets were full of grain. Phantasos rubbed with finger and thumb behind the shining head while he explained to the others the dragon-ness of Argus.
“Usual story: Zeus chasing a pretty wench; jealous wife Hera trying to spoil his fun. This time the pretty wench is Io, and to hide her from his wife, Zeus turns Io into a little white cow. Wife Hera isn’t fooled. Hoopla! and the cow is looped round with dragon – Argus-of-the-hundred-eyes, who never sleeps. Zeus can’t get anywhere near Io. No matter, one word to wingèd Hermes - a little magic, a little lullaby, a sharp sword – and Argus is …dogmeat..”
The peacock began to rattle its spiny plumage in paroxysms of fright. Phantasos drew the seeds of dreams out of his pocket and strewed them on the ground to soothe him.
“Hermes butchered Argus. Little Io was …within reach again, wasn’t she …until Hera sent a gadfly to chase her half way round the world. All part of the fun and games. All part of the tit-for-tat that helps pass the time up there on Olympus…” At his feet, the sentry-bird Argus pecked up dreams, head jabbing downwards as if in rhythmic sobs. “Hera had knitted Argus herself. So she was upset to see him chopped into messes. She saved all the eyes she could. Hates waste. Stitched them together into this fellow. A piece of needlework. The Queen of the Gods is good at handicrafts.”
At which the Brass Man, (also made-to-order for Hera) set his arms flailing, lent back his head and loosed a roar from his nostrils, that came out fringed with fire. Pythia slapped in terror at Talos’ knees. “Quiet! Hush! The O’s will hear! The O’s will look down and see…!”
But the shrill cries of the peacock-sentry and the roar of the Brass Man did not have to travel as far as Mount Olympus to disturb the sleeping.
The roof of Monstro City is a lip of level land long since eroded away beneath by rainwater running off the Egregian Plain. The underground space created by this erosion is vast cave system with one small opening at ground level. Perfectly invisible from above, it was never marked on any map. The ideal hiding place.
Their approach brought them to a rash of burial mounds, each one decorated with the belongings of the dead: a hoe, a massive spear, a chariot wheel, a bow – even a perfectly good lyre. Hylas tried idly tuning the lyre’s strings, and knocked it over by mistake, and tried to prop it up again. Behind them, Argus the peacock had started up his doleful shriek again, watching them with a hundred accusing eyes.
“You two had best not come any farther,” said Phantasos.
It was true that Hylas and Thoősa were not the ones looking for a hiding place. But they had not been expecting to be left standing outside. And a graveyard is a harsh place to be told you are on your own again.
“Argus, too, would sooner be inside than out,” the Postman explained. “But his unfortunate – how can I put it? - prettiness has condemned him to permanent sentry duty. Nothing beautiful is welcome inside. You, Thoősa, you might pass, in a bad light. But you, boy… you would have all manner of problems … Daughter of Asclepius come. Talos, shall you carry the Lady Pythia? The floor slopes steeply down; her crutches might skid.”
“People live here?” asked Thoősa, incredulous. To her relief, Phantasos shook his head.
“No,” he said. “Not people.”
One step under the vast overhang, and the sky disappeared; the last stars of the night were replaced by rock. Sunlight penetrated only a stone’s throw into the subterranean gloom, and yet beyond that it was not totally dark. Tar welling up and puddling the floor crawled with acid yellow flames. Even from outside, Hylas and Thoősa were able to see far down the throat of the cavern-system. Firelight threw trembling shadow-shapes up the cave walls: two women and a giant automaton crawling on hands and knees for lack of headroom. (The Dream-Maker cast no shadow.) Stalactites groped down from above. As the motley party descended the sloping passageway, black tar-smoke finally pulled a veil behind them and they were lost from sight.
“I’m not staying here,” said Thoősa. “I’m going in.”
“But we were told…”
“I want to see inside. … You can wait here if you want, pretty boy. I’ll come back and tell you all about it.” (Unfair and unkind, she knew, but it would fetch Hylas along quicker than anything else.)
Sure enough, seeing Thoősa striding away into the caves, Hylas snatched up the lyre and swung it across his back. “Wait for me!”
The drip of water from the rocky ceiling sounded like tears. A dank terror flowed like a draught out of the subterranean tunnels and struck them in the face. Not far in, Hylas trod in something whitely glutinous that stuck to the sole of his sandal. “I don’t believe this place,” he said, and instantly felt better. The fear ebbed out of him, because he had just realised something very reassuring: “It’s all right,” he told Thoősa. “It’s just a dream! I’m dreaming it!” He felt quite proud that he could dream such a spectacular nightmare: he must be sure to remember it when he woke, so that he could tell Heracles…
Thoősa was reaching conclusions of her own about the place. The carved pillars, the stripes of colour painted on the stalagmites, the statues, the floor worn smooth... What else could this be but the ruin of some ancient subterranean civilisation lost to memory. The prevailing smell was of old things - things grown old – urine, dry skin, dust and spillages. A number of pot plants lurked, wilting, in alcoves, most of them dead. Shapes she mistook for animals turned out to be statues: scratch marks on the ground showed where these had been dragged down from the entrance then abandoned cluttering up the passageway. So, had the one-time citizens made raids into the day-lit world? To steal sculptures? Cultured people, obviously! One statue was of a dog, tongue flapping; the other was a fox running at full stretch, brush streaming out behind. Exquisite carvings, perfect in every detail.
Hylas did not believe for one moment this dream-underworld was still inhabited. …So what were those noises? Blood pulsing through his eardrums as he slept? His own snoring? Not the sound of hoofs or hammers, footsteps or howling, that was certain. Limbed, leathery shapes shifted up near the ceiling but bats were to be expected. Caves always have bats. Dreams frequently have bats. The white gumminess on his shoe made his every step stick.
The walls widened, from passageway into a space so vast it might have held Deucalion’s ark and all its animals, and still Hylas did not wake up. Even banging his hand against the wall, he could not wake himself. And he was generally such a light sleeper; a Hero’s page has to be. Balancing on one foot, he picked the irritating white blob off his sandal and was revolted to see that it had eyes and the power to move away across the stone floor.