The white gumminess on Hylas’s shoe made his every step stick to the stone floor.
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.
When he looked up, he was the target of a hundred stares. A hundred sharp arrows of fear plunged into his chest.
Most were giants – at least the giants took up the most space. After generations of stooping, their shoulders hunched high above their heads which jutted forwards like battering rams. Their ham-shaped hands hung below their knees, and their beards grew as long and bristling thick as horseshoe-nails. Once their hair had been the colour of rust; now most were grey in beard, hair, eye and vein. Short tendons in their legs gave them a crouching stance, though, as if they might at any moment pounce at Hylas and pull him like a wishbone. Which they very well might.
“I told you two to say outside,” said Phantasos sharply.
There were cyclopses, too, their clothes charred, their arms striped with glossy burn-scars got working at their forges. The single eye in the centre of each forehead was bloodshot, and lacked eyelashes or eyebrow – scorched off in the foundries of Etna. They were in high spirits, capering around Talos the Brass Man, rubbing dirt off him with their aprons. It was not often they met up again with something they had made in their forges; Talos was the biggest commission the queen of the gods had ever given them, and one of their finest accomplishments.
Some of the bats were not bats at all, but harpies, with leathery wings and the heads of balding women. Furies hung there, too, and wings limp as dishrags, but their claws still needle-sharp. Hylas felt his thighbones melt in terror and sank to his knees, hands flat on the gritty floor.
Then there were the things that Nature had had no hand in. Nature had never stitched together the head of a goat, the tail of a dolphin, the body of a bull. That took a different kind of handicraft.
Thoősa fixed her eyes where she could most bear to look – on the two great black horses snorting, and pawing the stone floor – on the two leopards whose purring growl crumbled, truffle-dark, from between velvet jowls – on the woman dressed as a bride, in decaying bridal splendour. Monstro City did contain beauty! It did! – even if the great cats had hungry yellow eyes, the horses were sinking their long teeth into the carcase of something dead, and the bride’ s face held more sorrow than Thoősa had ever seen before. Seeing that face, Thoősa wanted to shut her eyes altogether, but that would have been to die at unknown hands – claws – paws – hooves, whatever. For surely she was about to die in the jaws of one of these monsters. Should she turn and run? The leopards would be on her in moments. Besides, she had no power in her legs, no blood in her heart. So she fixed her eyes on – “Oh!” - the winged white pony that had appeared in the corridor behind them, its yellowing wings droopy along mangy flanks, ragged and moulting. “Oh!” she said again, startled by joy in the midst of terror.
By the light from a coal-fire brazier, Panacea was already making herself useful, imitating her doctor father. She was kneeling beside a jumble of spills, spines and twitching flesh, pouring balm into a wound. An injured bird. Like broken tent-frames, more of these huge, gawky birds hung from the roof by claw or beak or snapped wing, gigantic cranes that had roosted once on thatched roofs and in treetops.
Hylas recognised them at once: “Panacea, no! Get away! They bite! They’re the killer cranes! I saw them with - uh!”
Thoősa chose that moment to toss a stone up into the cavern roof. It dislodged several bats and just missed Hylas as it fell back down. Most of the bat droppings didn’t, though. “Hylas, I’m so sorry!” she said, rushing to scrape him clean with a sliver of slate. From very close-to she murmured: “Say that name here and we are all dead.”
“But they do bite!”
“You mean they are meat-eaters,” said Panacea witheringly. “Like you.”
The killer cranes whirled once again through Hylas memory, their saw-toothed beaks dripping blood as they stooped on Heracles, and Hylas handed him arrow after arrow, and Heracles laid them to his bow, puncturing feathery breasts, knocking birds out of the sky.
The Fifth Labour of Heracles: pest control in Stamphilia.
A difficult job well done. The world was a better place without killer cranes, wasn’t it? No one would argue with that, would they? Recalling the battlefield afterwards - feathery as a split mattress - Hylas was astonished so many of the hideous creatures had survived to struggle this far.
But he took Thoősa’s advice and did not mention Heracles the Hero. Already it was plain enough that no one liked Hylas himself. The females found nothing irresistible in his face. If they snatched in their breath at the sight of him, it was not admiration but regret.
Take Stheno the Gorgon – she with serpents in place of hair: “I was beautiful once,” she said, scowling at him, running one hand through her snakes. “My sisters and I. Beautiful. Before the O’s turned us into bugaboos to frighten the children.”
At the mention of the Olympians – the entire assembly uttered a noise no words can describe: a kind of hiss, but produced by countless different mouths, nostrils, swimbladders, beaks, navels, ears and ovipositors... Then a different noise broke through: a kind of choked, mewing ecstasy. The bride was moving towards Hylas. She dropped her gauzy head-covering forward over her face as she came, and her sobs sucked it into her mouth and out again on every breath. “Child!” she crooned. “It’s a child!”
All the Argonauts’ warnings about women came back to Hylas. Should he put his fingers in his ears? No, she was not a Siren. Should he prepare to be kissed? No, she was no water nymph. The woman glided towards him with the soundless smoothness of a ghost, but she was no ghost, as he felt full well when her shoulder barged him out of her way. Her veiled eyes were fixed on someone else just behind him.
“You remind me so much of my daughter,” said the Lamia, gently touching Thoősa’s cheek with the backs of her fingers. “Let me look at you! Just like my little Scylla, yes. When she was a child. A child! A child!” And as she closed her hands around Thoősa’s throat, that one word became a bloodcurdling overflow of frenzy: Child! Child! Child!
A chaos of shouting filled the great hollow space, rebounding everywhere, tripled by echoes.
“Get her off!”
“Child! Child! Child!”
“Let her go, lady!”
“It’s just the curse.”
“A curse on the curser!”
“Child! Child! Child!”
“Help me, Hylas!”
The aged. short-sighted giants thought they were seeing a fight and cracked their knuckles. Injured killer-cranes flapped down from the roof and cluttered the floor. Phantasos (accustomed to moving among silent sleepers) seemed paralysed by the racket. Panacea threw herself across her satchel of herbs, for fear running feet, hooves and paws trampled it. The black horses bit each other in the flank. Each cyclops shut his eye.
Hylas grabbed the bride’s hair and pulled and twisted and hauled. But the Lamia seemed to feel no pain - simply tipped her tear-stained face towards him and said, in a moment’s clarity, “You next, child.” The lyre across his back swung and banged and hampered him, so he pulled it over his shoulder. He could use it as a club! Or the strings, maybe, to throttle her! Then some random memory said how Heracles had killed his music teacher that way and hated himself for it after…
There was little to see of Thoősa. The Lamia’s boneless lower body was entwining her, the veil enveloping her head. So Hylas knelt one knee on the rocky floor, rested the lyre across the other, and began to play: it was the only thing he could think to do. He sang, too – breathless after the struggle, but recovering his voice in the way he had been taught: breathing from his stomach.
“O bring me the flowers of springtime Thrace,
The white-wooled lambs of Kos;
Bring me the foaming sea’s white lace
The velvet valley’s moss
And I will build a baby’s crib….
The effect was shattering. Utter silence fell. Only a crane, in dying of its injuries, threatened to break the spell. Given the strange harmonics of the place, even Hylas had never heard his voice so amplified and echoing. He wished he knew more words. He wished he knew more chords. He wishes Orpheus was there to take up the refrain.
The cyclopses swayed like fence posts loose in the ground. The horses swivelled their ears. The Lamia unwound and slipped from exhaustion into sleep: the Postman had finally come and poured down dreams on her, like olive oil over a salad. Thoősa dragged herself free and, being incapable of speech - what with the bruises to her throat and the tears welling up - backed slowly down the corridor to where the winged pony still stood sway-backed and mangy. She climbed clumsily on to its back: it made no objection.
It was just that she had promised herself (as she was having the life throttled out of her by a monstrous bride) that if she should somehow escape alive, nothing would stop her from sitting, just once, astride the mythical winged horse Pegasus.
Still no one spoke. In the end, a cyclops recognised the lyre, snatched it from Hylas and crunched away up the passageway to replace it in his brother’s burial mound. But within the cavern, the mood was calmer. Sometimes, in Monstro City, pockets of methane gas would suddenly explode, killing, maiming, causing rockfalls. Afterwards, those left alive felt briefly safer, knowing the gas was spent and it would not happen again for a while. That was how it felt now. The explosive atmosphere had eased.
“Who taught you to play like that, boy?” asked Phantasos.
Hylas glanced across at Thoősa. “Oh, you know. I sort of picked it up.”
“Usual story,” said Phantasos, explaining the Lamia’s extraordinary violence. “Zeus chasing a pretty woman. Jealous wife Hera trying to spoil his fun. This time the pretty woman was Lamia. Lamia bore Zeus a child or two. Hera cursed her for it, of course.”
“Now the Lamia can’t see a child without she wants to kill it,” said one of the leopards.
“Love it. Kill it,” said the leopard’s mate. “Her own. Anyone’s, really.”
“Killed her own little Sullah, not ten paces from here,” Stheno chipped in.
“Nah. Sullah. Scylla’s silly sister, Sullah.”
“Ssso sssad,” her hair agreed.
“I’m partial to child myself,” observed one of the black horses contemplatively, “though I try to refrain.”
The leopards nodded. Several of the monsters licked their lips.