Phantasos was making deliveries. At least that is what he said, though since there was nothing in his hands, it seemed he must be at the end of his rounds. He made no show of fear when he saw Talos, either. In fact, at the sight of him, Talos threw up both arms, folded his hinged legs and fell prostrate in front of the man, like a collapsing pile of armour. Phantasos laid a hand on Talos’ head: as gentle a gesture as any ever seen in a postman. The Brass Man rocked gently on his knees, forward and back, forward and back, and the fingers of his hands opened and closed.
He was dreaming.
“Generally I despatch my mail by night, of course,” said Phantasos, “but Talos here never sleeps, you know. To him I must deliver by hand.”
It was an extraordinary sight, as touching as a dog dreaming of rabbits. And yet the woman smoking the burning leaves seemed so horrified by it that she shuffled towards the nearest boulder big enough to hide her.
“Ah! There’s another who never sleeps,” said the Postman sadly. “But Pythia will not let me deliver dreams to her at all, will you, lady? … Is this a permanent change of address, Pythia? Or are you on your way home?”
As the woman tried in vain to squirm out of reach, he walked round the rock, patting at the air, trying to discourage her from screaming, “No messages! No messages! No words! No pictures! Keep your presents to yourself!”
His gift rejected, Phantasos looked sadly at his hands and laid them on the boulder instead, which seemed to relax a little, from round to oval. Unless it was just a trick of the light.
Pythia’s screams subsided to sobs and pleas for mercy. “Don’t tell! Don’t tell! They’ll make me go back. Please Phantasos. Please don’t tell the gods!”
“Hush, lady. I myself am abroad without permission. I will not tell if you will not tell.”
“Have you delivered anything to Heracles the Hero lately?” asked Hylas, with a single-track selfishness that made Thoősa slap the back of his head.
The Postman looked put out, snatching his grey rags around him with irritable, elegant fingers. “Heracles? For a man who has seen what he has seen and done what he has done, he sleeps surprisingly sound, that one. I send him dreams yes. Of course. His dead wife and children. The fruits of his Labours. Usual things. I send them by the usual means: airmail. Most bounce back to me off the walls of the world. Undeliverable. Gone Away. Well, let him sleep dreamless. What do I care? My time is precious. I would sooner spend it on his victims. Heroes, pthah!”
Hylas was indignant, and strongly minded to walk away then and there. But Thoősa’s mother had spoken well of postmen: if you want directions, ask a postman, she had said. So Thoősa asked Phantasos now if he knew the way to Delphi and the Navel of the World. “We need to ask the Oracle…”
At that the woman on the ground snatched her bronze crutches and levered herself up on to her two wavering legs.
A boy. A girl. A monstrous horde. She did not say it. The words gurgled loudly in her guts: an undigested meal that had disagreed with her. A boy. A girl. A monstrous horde... In an attempt to put her fingers in her own ears, she lost control of the crutches and tumbled over again. “There’s nothing at Delphi! No one there! You’ll find nothing there. Don’t ask. Don’t look! There’s nothing at Delphi! A girl. A boy. A monstrous….” She was hysterical again, rocking and screaming and biting at her knuckles.
The Postman answered sadly, “If you are looking for the Oracle, look no further. There she is. There is Pythia, High Priestess of Apollo in the Temple at Delphi. …At least she was until recently. Oh Pythia, Pythia.” The Postman’s voice was sonorous and soothing - but he glanced over his shoulder, even so. “ ‘Monstrous horde’, did she say?”
Panacea set her snakes down on the ground and told them to find mandragora and valerian and poppy… But she too glanced fearfully over her shoulder. “’Horde’, as in ‘army’?”
Sunset flared like a burning fuse.
Thoősa picked up the bronze crutches and gave them to Talos who straightened their bent shafts and splayed the bronze feet (for better grip) using the tip of his thumb. But both he and Panacea glanced up at the sky for signs of thunderbolts.
“Did I hear her right?” said Hylas. “Did she know we were coming? She said ‘A boy. A girl. An -”
“A horde! A monstrous horde! Marching! Marching!” the words ripped out of the Oracle like whooping cough.
Thoősa turned to the Postman. “Do you know a place we can hide?”
Phantasos, Bringer of Dreams, lived out his everlasting nights in a cave near the doors of the Underworld. Alongside his brothers, Death and Sleep, he spent the dark hours shelling dreams like peas, and sowing them on the night wind. But lately, during the day, unknown to his sleeping brothers, he had been leaving his cave.
While they slept, he had begun to travel farther and farther afield, making ‘special deliveries’ it was not in his contract to make. Disguised in lime scale and cobwebs, walking barefoot to leave no tracks, he had taken to visiting those who did not sleep, places too stony barren for dreams to grow, folds in the map too awkward for even the winds to find.
“I do know a place,” Phantasos told the travellers. “A last resort. A desperate place for desperate folk...”
Panacea’s snakes returned to their owner, slithering past their feet, mouths blossoming with ferns, petals, leaves and grass-heads. One dislocated its jaws and regurgitated a whole lemon. From zest and hips, perfumes and nettle stings, from weeds and garden litter suspended in lemon juice, the Doctor’s Daughter assembled the messiest of concoctions and rubbed it into Pythia’s hair, throat, wrists, ankles. Almost at once, the Oracle grew calm.
The Postman crouched down then, and stared into her eyes. He spoke very deliberately. “Pythia? Will I take you all to Monstro City?” he asked. “Is that what I will do?”
It was not an offer. It was a question. Even immortals like Phantasos cannot see into the future.
Pythia breathed deeply and straightened her spine. “How should I know, Phantasos. I’m not in the smoke any more. How should I know where you will take us. To good or ill.” Then she looked at the sky, along the road in both directions and over her shoulder, too. “Just take us somewhere the gods cannot see.”