The thwarting of his battle plan worked a change on Typhon. He grew taller still. Crusty, scarlet scabs of dried sweat cankered his upper body. His splayed feet grew longer, to balance his increased height, and his fingers lengthened too, blackening with pent up rage. His temples pulsed so violently that his circlet of gold became less of a crown then a garrotte, wringing his shapeless thoughts into pure pain. Reaching to pull it off, he found, crawling along his hairline, an irreverent tickle of insects. “What does the Sibyl want?” he roared, needing an excuse to laugh. He did not get the reply he was expecting.
“The Sibyl wants to go to Olympus.”
“Me to,” chirruped the grasshopper.
“Me too,” said Arachne the Weaver. “We wish to offer our immortality, and ransom Titan Prometheus.”
Their voices were so soft that the news took time to reach the other citizens of Monstro – a whisper, a rumour, a shock. The creeping-crawlers were such a familiar sight: everyone had spent years stepping over them, plucking them like burrs out of their fur. A chorus of protest built up as, one by one, the monsters got wind of the plan. Giants who had desperately sought the herb of immortality without finding it - to them it was beyond belief that anyone would voluntarily give up their everlasting life.
And yet to Arachne, Tithonus and the Sibyl, life was a black noose from which they dangled day in, day out, while the O’s (if they remembered their victims at all) sniggered at the memory of turning them into insects.
Deucalion and Pyrrha wept for joy on each other’s shoulders, while Prometheus himself seemed bewildered, unprepared for such a sudden pang of hope. He shook his head, and said repeatedly, “This is not… This was not how… The weak should not die for the strong!”
“Let me take them there!” Xyno did not waste time trying to persuade the Three to think again. As he said to Typhon, the solution was perfect; as soon as the Prometheus was free, the conquest of Olympus could begin. He also pointed out that a grasshopper, a spider and a hairball of shrivelled woman would take a year to climb Olympus on foot. Monstro must not show itself, or they would lose the advantage of surprise. It followed that Xyno was the ideal man to deliver the Three Insects to the Halls of the Gods. “Who am I? No one, me. No one looks twice at Xyno. Up I’ll go and down I’ll come. Tell you what! That Pegasus can hurry us there. Consider it done. Hate’s an itch won’t wait for scratching, in’t that right, Your Fearfulness. And you got an urgent hate on you. In’t I right, in’t I?”
The truth of this was plain from the constant shifting of those elongated feet, from the stench of frustration, from the words that burst from Typhon’s lesser heads as the sweat burst through his skin. “I am the bonfire where Zeus will burn!” said a dozen of Typhon’s heads.
The Echidna gave the idea more thought than her mate. “Take Heracles’s boy with you,” she told Xyno. “For luck.”
To Hylas she said, drawing him aside, drawing him close in the coil of her muscular tail, “Go with them, my little yellow dandelion. Tell them your master Heracles sent you to escort The Three Littlies. Say Zeus’s son Heracles humbly begs his beloved father to set Prometheus free; like what Zeus promised. ….Revenge, buttercup. Don’t it taste buttery!” and she kissed Hylas on the top of his head.
With one hand Hylas clung tight to a knot of mane while, with the other, he cradled three precious, fragile morsels of life. Now and then, Tithonus had to be reminded where they were going; he was a grasshopper, after all, and even the thought of dying could not hold his attention for long. The sun was rising and his unrequited love for Dawn dragged on him like instinct drags on migrating birds. If the Sibyl and Arachne had not been holding tight on to their friend, he would more than once have leapt eastwards out of Hylas’ hand.
Their delicate little feet, their frail, fibrous bodies tickled his palm. More unpleasant was the closeness of Xyno astride the horse behind him, the dob-dob of his wet nose, the arms clasped tight around the boy’s waist. Hylas was under no illusions about the motives of the little fixer-and-fetcher: he was starting to get the measure of Xyno.
“Still after finding the drink of the gods, Xyno?”
Xyno’s laugh snuffled in his ear. “While we’z there. Where’s the harm in that, say? Nice little outing to the Spring-of-all- ‘appiness.”
Hylas was too scared to care. If only he had been given time to muster his courage, to prepare himself! If only he had said: I am probably eleven and even if I’m twelve I am mortal and not born for meeting the gods. He had heard tell there was no air to breathe high up near the sky. He had heard how the sight of Zeus in his true form, undisguised, was so bright that it scorched away mortals as sunlight scorches away shadows: to nothing. How, though, could he say he was afraid? The three creatures in the hollow of his hand were making the journey fully intending never to return. However much they wanted to be dead, the actual business of dying must be filling up their heads like the sea filling a ship.
Arachne was humming a song she had sung once at her loom as she wove wonderful tapestries. Tithonus was chafing a lovesong from his back legs. Now and then he asked, Where are we going again? The Sibyl repeated over and over her mantra of longing, “The Sibyl wants to die. The Sibyl wants to die.” Perhaps it was herself she was trying to convince now.
Pegasus, despite the renewed strength in those magnificent wings, was battling the gusts and eddies of wind that always snag on a mountain peak. “This far I brought my rider, Bellerephon,” the horse said at once point. It gave the little fetcher-and-fixer such pleasure, to know he was on track for the elixir of the gods, that Pegasus said no more. Unhappy memories should not be greeted with a yelp of pleasure and a licking of chops.
The mountain was so bare and grey – not like the lush valleys at its base. Grey clouds lay strewn about like dirty washing. Skinny goats with big horns would climb thus far, survey the view and go down again, disappointed by the lack of grass. A momentary hope flickered through Hylas that the home of the gods stood not on the mountain but somewhere higher, far more lofty, among the towering clouds and solar coronas of the sky above. Perhaps they would not be able to reach it after all.
“You are trembling Arachne,” said the Sibyl.
“With happiness,” said the Weaver.
“Where are we going again?”
Pegasus flew into a clammy darkness of cloud that condensed on Hylas’ skin like a thousand tears and made his tunic wringing wet. Too close to the unseen rock face, the horse scraped one wing against it, and a flurry of feathers burst out of the mist.
“Far enough,” said a voice from within Hylas’ hand. The Sibyl, now with the end in sight, had found her tongue. “Mortals are forbidden to trespass on the holy mountain. You, Hylas, have youth and beauty. You, you dog-faced scratcher of itches, you have time to change for the better. Turn back and leave us to play our part.” And with that she flung, between Hylas’ finger and thumb, a coil of gossamer she had been secretly weaving. Down it slid the Three Insects of Monstro to be instantly swallowed up by the white mist. Hylas snatched in his hand, but all that returned to his grasp was the clinging thread. “Do not follow,” came a whisper out of the fog. “We will go on alone. The gods kill with casual slaughter. Cherish your lives while they still have colour and beauty. Shed them only when all sweetness is gone. Take them, Pegasus, and tell our friends. We who are about to die do so with joy.”