Monstro City is a place inhabited by cast-offs and casualties, the disappointed and discarded, the frightening backed into a corner, the monstrous squeezed out of sight. All the defunct, defeated and hunted monsters in the world had somehow drifted together into this one place, like rubbish in a river. They came in as many varieties as the insects of the earth.
When the Olympian gods took control of the universe away from their Titan ancestors, the Titans did not go down without a fight.
But they went down, all the same.
So did the Giants, born from the blood spatter of their dying overlord. They dispersed to the far edges of the world, dragging their dragony tails behind them, hoping to make a come-back some day. They had all the time in the world, after all, being as immortal as any Olympian ...so long as they could get their fill of The Herb of Immortality. But Zeus kept the Sun out of the sky; the Herb withered in the ground. Within three days it was extinct. So were the Giants (to all effects). All they had left were the remnants of their extraordinarily long lives; gradually they would die out. They aged. They died.
But they still had a king.
Hylas thought he had steeled himself against the horrors of Monstro City until he met Typhon. Typhon stood larger than the Giants, as a horse stands larger than a dog. For whereas the Giants were born from drops of Titan blood, Prince Typhon was a true son of a Titan King. The other monsters called him The Prince of Darkness.
His arrival was heralded by the monumental crackling of the ligaments in his knees. Fetched from his throne room by the racketing disturbance, he entered the main chamber and all his various heads looked in every direction at once, taking in the scene, the strangers, in an instant.
If all the temper in the world was put in a leather bag, that bag might take on the shape of Typhon. He filled Monstro with roaring and orange light, breathing fire from dozens of his hundred heads. He roasted roosting bats. He dried the dripping roofs. He scorched the stalactites and incinerated the litter. He cremated the dead crane. Hylas, who had watched Heracles fight the hundred-headed Hydra, had never felt fear such as shook him on seeing Typhon.
“It is only me, Typhon,” said Phantasos calmly, “come with dreams for you all - and a couple of runaways.”
“You chose a bad time to come, Dream-man. The locusts are swarming. There are Heroes abroad. And the drains are blocked again. “ It was not the volume of all those heads that was worst, but the randomness with which they spoke. Some whispered, others bawled, other whined. Some were speechless for lack of teeth. Some simply smirked. Some were no bigger than a fist, and half-formed. Some let their gaze wander imbecilely to and fro; others combed the floor for food, or fixed on some lesser beast and glared. Some hawked up black smoke, or spat on the floor. Even among themselves there seemed to be a brawling, quarrelsome disorder. The two hundred eyes – well, a few were missing through injury or a shortage of eyeballs – delivered a torrent of images to Typhon’s brain simultaneously.
He poked at something small and shrivelled on a rock ledge and asked, “What does the Sybil want?”
The shape twitched; the voice was tiny. “The Sibyl wants to die!” Typhon found this so funny that all his hundred heads burst out laughing – a noise so appalling that Hylas held his arms over his head, and all the sleepers woke from the dreams Phantasos had brought them. Pegasus shied, skittish and nervy, but Thoősa clung on tight.
A running joke, clearly. The more often Typhon heard it (and he asked it every time he caught sight of the Sibyl), the funnier it grew: ‘the Sibyl wants to die’
“Usual story,” Phantasos remarked to Thoősa. “The Sibyl worked for the gods, telling fortunes to foolish mortals. Asked what she wanted for wages, she asked for immortality – forgot to ask for everlasting youth. Age withered her. Now she would give anything to die, but cannot. Cricket there shares her despair: the same thing happened to him,” and he pointed out a dull brown insect shivering, quivering against the rock face. Thoősa had not noticed it before, but in among the massive, muscled monsters crawled a host of lesser creatures. Truly, Monstro City ran to a thousand kinds of ugly.
Pythia the Oracle was spellbound by the story of the Sybil. She limped over to peer at the spider-like crumple of desiccated flesh and bone shrunk to a size she could hold in her hand. Here were two women in the same line of work: prophecy. Fortune telling.
Panacea came to stand beside her. “And will the Sibyl die?” she asked. “One day? Surely she must know if anyone does. She has the gift! Can’t she foresee it?”
“Gift? You call it a gift?” snapped Pythia. “Prophecy is a worse curse than old age!” and she closed her fingers over the brittle little creature in her palm to try and crush it, then and there.
Horrified, Panacea tried to prise the fist open. The Sibyl bleated with pain. Typhon roared so loud that flames from his mouths thatched the whole cavern. He was roaring with laughter – sneering, angry laughter - that an ignorant outsider should try to kill the unkillable. He was angry too, though.
“Forgive Pythia. She is new to exile,” said the Postman carefully placing himself between The Prince of Darkness and the Oracle.
Meanwhile, the cyclopses (who were the blacksmiths of the gods) had been tinkering with Talos, examining the quality of his joints, assessing his damaged coachwork. They led him away: whether to dismantle him or sit him down to dinner was not clear.
Many citizens of Monstro were not survivors from the Age of the Titans. Some were the results of punishments. Transformations. Handmaids and huntsmen turned into plants or deer. Cast-off lovers turned into insects. Desecrators of holy places turned into wild beasts.
“We kissed after our wedding,” said one of the leopards.
“We had forgotten we were still in the temple garden,” said his mate. “It wasn’t the thing to do. Apparently.”
Many of the monsters owed their very existence to the Olympians: the gods and goddesses had made them. Quite literally. Talos out of brass to guard Crete, Argus to stop Zeus getting to Io, Ladon to guard an orchard at the end of the world, the cyclopses to make weapons and thunderbolts for Zeus…
Visitors were not unknown. Abaris the Priest had called in on Monstro, apparently, riding his golden arrow. Ladon the Dragon was there now, visiting his mother. (Guarding Hera’s precious golden apples was simple, but dull, and Ladon bored easily.) And, of course, Phantasos was always welcome. He doled out dreams: dreams in which the monsters roamed a sunny world helping themselves to whatever they wanted. In their dreams they were rulers of the universe, winning battles, chewing on Heroes, spitting out their eyeballs like pomegranate pips. Such happy dreams! Since the Dream Bringer had taken to visiting, life had grown more bearable in the rocky kingdom sandwiched between the Upper World and the Underworld.
But the welcome clearly did not extend to Thoosa and Hylas. They could see that human children – one of them gut-churningly beautiful – disgusted them. The Dream-Bringer did what he could to distract attention from them. “Lo! I bring you a doctor!” he said. “Panacea, daughter of Asclepius the All-Gentle Healer.”
Typhon directed the majority of his eyes towards Panacea. The head with the crown smirked. “Cut myself shaving,” he said.
“Oh? Where?” asked Panacea, reaching for her wallet of herbs.
“Have to find out, won’t you, and kiss it better!” and he enveloped the young women in a forest of grinning heads, licking her and nibbling and sniggering into every nook and cranny of her.
Enter Echidna, the only monster in the world capable of scaring the Prince of Darkness. Married to Typhon since the early days of the world, this stocky female in a straw hat – half big-bosomed matron, half anaconda – arrived with the suddenness of a mudslide, scattering turtloises, beetles and spinopines out of her path. “Riddle for you! Riddle for you! How often can Zeus pass a buxom girl?” Another of Typhon’s favourite jokes.
“Depends how often he eats her!” he said and went off into another spasm of laughter. The Echidna embraced Typhon with the tip of her tail, and unsubtly dragged him away off Panacea. But she showed more concern for the winged horse in the passageway. “Is that girl troubling you, dearie?” She bore down on Thoősa who was still sitting astride the flying horse, stroking the dishevelled wings. Under her robe, the Echidna’s movements across the stone floor made an ominously scaly scuttle.
“No, Grandma,” said Pegasus. “There’s nothing of her. Light as air.”
Thoősa tried not to flinch from the face pushed close to hers. “Riddle for you! Riddle for you! How many teeth has an egg got?” the Echidna asked.
“I don’t suppose it has any - .”
“Best not hatch one of mine, then!” said the Echidna and laughed, her big bosom bouncing cheerfully. “Riddle for you! Riddle for you! How do you tell an egg from a heart?”
“An egg’s much harder to break,” said the Echidna, and wept tears of mercury, sinking her own fingers in her hair and tearing out a clump or two. “This is Pegasus, you know.”
“An orphan from birth, poor beast. Aren’t you, lovie? Orphan from birth. Killed my daughter, you know.”
“Now Grandma…” said the horse.
“One of them Heroes got astride Peggy and up they went to kill my girl Chimaera. Hate you for it, don’t I, Peggy?”
“Love you like a son, though. Daughter. Son. Never can tell, what with them wings draping your assets. Which are you again?”
“I’m neither, Grandma. I’m a horse.”
“Right. Like Mother and Horse we are, Peggy and me,” said the Echidna. “So no spurs and no whips, right?” Her face was so close that Thoősa could barely focus on it; there was a sphinx-like beauty to the bone structure; her pupils large and liquid dark as a dog’s, an aquiline nose… “Ten children I’ve had, child. Six are dead and one’s in hell. How’s that for a game score? Hey ho. These things are sent to… Riddle for you. Riddle for you! How do you tell an enemy from a friend?”
“I – “
“You can’t. Not till it’s too late,” said the Echidna and wept tears of amber that solidified before they hit the ground. “Has anybody watered the plants lately?”