Will’s newfound heart-light power – which Nico still didn’t understand – must have really drained him. Nico sat on the ground and rested Will’s head on his thigh, absentmindedly
stroking his boyfriend’s curly blond mane while Will slept.
Nico wondered if the Care Bear anti-demon display meant that their main worry – that Will’s powers wouldn’t work in the Underworld – was moot now. But what had made this one ability materialize at that particular moment? Fear? Desperation?
Will snored softly, providing no answers.
It struck Nico then how surreal all this was. In the distance, beyond the River Styx and the walls of Erebos, was his father’s palace, usually a place
where he would be welcomed. Now he’d have to avoid Hades at all costs on his way to Tartarus. Still, a part of him wanted to take Will into Erebos, teach him to play fetch with Cerberus (Will loved dogs), then stroll into the throne room and introduce Will to his father – to show Hades that Nico was trying, that he hadn’t forgotten Hades’s wish that Nico be the one child of his who was happy.
That was the most surreal thing of all … Was he happy?
Nico wasn’t very familiar with the sensation, but he couldn’t deny that he felt wonderful in Will’s presence. He even longed for the son of Apollo
when they were apart. A funny thing had happened as the two grew closer: Nico suddenly understood all those cheesy, sappy love songs he’d always hated. They’d always seemed like such a ridiculous exaggeration. And it
wasn’t only that, of course. He’d grown up in a time and place where people like him … well, they just didn’t have love songs. In a roundabout way, his
experience in the Lotus Hotel had allowed him to end up here, where this
Nico had a boyfriend.
But that was the dichotomy of his life. The seventy years they’d spent at the Lotus Hotel had protected Bianca and Nico, but by then they’d already lost their mother due to Zeus’s rage, so it wasn’t like Hades’s plans were infallible. They’d had to move all over the country. They found Camp Half-Blood, and friends, and then Nico experienced loss once again: Bianca, taken from him …
It was a constant pattern for Nico: find some sort of solace and comfort, only to have it ripped away.
Now here was Solace in his lap, sleeping like a baby. What would come and tear him away?
Nico wanted to believe it would be different this time. He wanted Will to understand and accept the darkness that was a part of him, but he also
wanted to be seen as a complex person who was more than that – not just a child of Hades. Still, how could Will understand if Nico couldn’t understand it himself? He couldn’t seem to escape the darkness any more than he could defeat Epiales. It always came back, always claimed him,
always reminded him of who he was.
Was it possible for him to choose a different destiny? Or was he cursed to suffer every time he found a crumb of happiness?
Nico reached out and grazed the scabbard of his Stygian iron sword. This was far from his first trip to the Underworld, but he felt as nervous now as he did that first time, long ago. He was thankful that Hades hadn’t been the one trying to keep Nico and Will out of the Underworld, at least.
Nevertheless, something was coming for them. Someone down here didn’t want Nico and Will to reach Bob.
Someone called Mother.
An inkling of an idea started to form in his head, but then Will stirred.
His eyes darted around and found Nico.
‘Hey.’ Will smiled. ‘My grumpy little ball of darkness.’
Just like that, Nico’s brooding sense of doom evaporated. It was ridiculous what Will could do to him with just a smile.
‘Don’t move,’ he ordered.
He dug around in Will’s knapsack until he found the ambrosia squares Juniper had made them. As he fed one to Will, he silently conceded that
they had been a good idea. The colour soon came back into Will’s face, and he was able to sit up.
‘Well, that was an experience.’ He wiped some crumbs from his chin, then gave Nico a guarded look. ‘You okay?’
‘I’m perfectly fine,’ said Nico. ‘So … are we gonna talk about it?’ Will’s face flushed red. ‘Do we have to?’
‘Demigod Care Bear.’
Will reached into his knapsack, retrieved a metal flask and took a swig of water before handing it to Nico. ‘You’re not going to let me hear the end of that, are you?’
Nico had a drink, then gave the flask back to Will. ‘Why would I? It perfectly describes the fact that light just erupted from your chest.’
‘Don’t Care Bears shoot their energy from their stomachs?’
Nico waved that off. ‘An unimportant detail. Have you been holding out on me? Did you know you could do that?’
‘Not really,’ Will said. ‘But ever since I found out I could glow, I’ve been thinking that if my skin could emit light, maybe I could eventually project it outwards.’
‘You sliced off some of Epiales’s weird tentacle things!’ ‘You’re welcome?’
Nico laughed. ‘Well, at least we know your powers still work in the Underworld.’
‘I’m still pretty tired, though,’ Will said. ‘So I shouldn’t use it often.’ Will it still work once we reach Tartarus? Nico wondered.
He really hoped so.
After helping Will to his feet, Nico guided him to the bluffs that overlooked the River Styx. Will froze there, seemingly transfixed by the rushing water below.
‘Will?’ Nico asked, his hand on the small of Will’s back.
Will shook his head. ‘In the nightmare that Epiales gave me, you jumped in the river.’
‘What?! There’s no way I would do that.’
‘I should have realized it was a dream once you did,’ Will said. ‘You basically pressured me into doing it as well. It was …’
He didn’t finish.
Nico grabbed his boyfriend’s hand and guided him towards the edge of the cliff. As they approached the brink, Nico could sense his reluctance.
‘We’re not jumping,’ Nico assured him. He brought Will closer and pointed down. ‘Look.’
Right at the very edge, a small recess was cut into the rock. The indentation continued downward, snaking along the side of the cliff,
widening into a ledge no bigger than a goat path, only a metre above the raging current.
‘We’re taking that?’ Will asked, his pitch rising with anxiety.
‘We are,’ said Nico. ‘It’s the safest way to stay out of my father’s sight.’ ‘Safest, huh?’
‘It’s also the only way to get to the troglodytes’ new home.’
Will took a moment to survey the world before him. He spent a long time staring at the black walls of Erebos dotted with torches, and the crowds of
smoky grey figures pushing towards the main gates. ‘So many dead people …’
Nico nodded. ‘They have to go somewhere. Like I said, most will end up in Asphodel. They’ll be bathed in the River Lethe, forget their mortal memories, then just wander around. Forever.’
‘And that doesn’t disturb you?’ asked Will.
‘Not really,’ Nico said. ‘Most of them wandered through their lives anyway. It’s what they chose.’
Nico could tell that Will wanted to say something else, but, whatever it
was, he kept it to himself. Nico reached into his own pocket. He touched the bronze coin he always kept there – a keepsake Will had given him as a token of his dedication. He wondered if Will’s commitment would always be that durable, or if he would eventually decide that Nico was just too
alien, coming from this realm.
Nico shook off the thought. He led Will down the narrow, twisting path. If either of them made one wrong move, it was entirely possible they might slip and fall into …
Actually, Nico didn’t really want to think about that, either.
Thankfully, it wasn’t nearly as long a descent as their initial one from the Door of Orpheus, but as they hiked along the river Nico worried about what would happen when they reached the troglodytes. He was sure his
subterranean friends could help them get into Tartarus. He was also certain that whatever plan they concocted, it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience for Will. They were still in the upper reaches of the Underworld, and they’d
already been nearly bested by a shadow-squid nightmare demon with
mommy issues. Once they reached the depths of Tartarus, things would get so much worse … Well, they’d just have to deal with that when the time
Nico stopped often to allow his boyfriend to catch up on the trail. The first time this happened, Will seemed convinced that something was following them again.
Nico saw nothing. Plus, the trail was so narrow that nothing of significant size could have hidden from them.
‘I swear I heard little rocks falling down,’ said Will. ‘Like something had accidentally knocked them over the edge.’
This didn’t seem likely to Nico, given that the roar of the Styx would drown out most other noises, but he decided to humour Will and remain still for a minute. They both heard nothing.
Nico shrugged. ‘We’re both on edge after Epiales and their nightmares.
Don’t let this place get to you.’
‘And … you’re sure we’re not still in a nightmare?’
Nico inched closer and gave him a quick kiss. ‘That feel like a nightmare?’
Will smiled. ‘No.’
‘Correct answer. Now come on. Just stick close and watch your step.’
They stopped a few more times, though, because Nico kept getting ahead of Will.
‘You’re so good at this,’ Will said, his steps careful and controlled, while Nico was now walking backwards down the trail. ‘How many times have you taken this trail before?’
‘Oh … A few.’
Will’s eyes brightened like he’d just had an epiphany. ‘All those times I couldn’t find you over the past couple of weeks – this is where you’ve been disappearing to.’
Nico nodded. ‘I wanted to make sure the troglodytes got settled in their new home. There were some challenges, but … well, you’ll see what I
came up with.’
The corner of Will’s mouth rose. ‘I’m glad you thought about helping them.’
‘Well, that’s what this quest is all about, isn’t it?’ said Nico, facing forward. ‘We have to fix what’s been broken.’
‘I love that about you, Nico di Angelo.’
Nico’s face flushed. He wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to Will being so open and … nice. But he was definitely willing to try.
The ledge continued downward, gradually levelling out until it was no more than a narrow path running along the water, the rocks slick with spray from the rapids. As they neared the end of the trail, Nico slowed. ‘You’re going to need one of those hoodies you brought,’ he told Will. ‘We’re not going swimming, I promise, but you’ll want to get as little of the River Styx on your skin as possible.’
Will didn’t argue. He slipped into a pale blue hoodie that read CAMP HALF-BLOOD COUNSELLOR across the chest.
Nico pulled the hood on the collar of his leather jacket up over his head. ‘Just follow my lead.’
He moved ahead cautiously, hugging the cliff on his right, his face practically rubbing against the dark stone. And then: a reprieve. A wide
cave mouth opened up in the side of the cliff, and Nico darted inside, away from the water. Will followed, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled very tight, so that all Nico could see was the tip of Will’s nose and his eyes.
‘That’s a good look on you,’ he said.
Will pushed his hands out of the ends of his sleeves and shuddered. ‘I feel like a turtle.’
Nico unsheathed his sword. Its dim purple glow didn’t do much to illuminate the cave, but Nico knew the way from here. ‘You ready, Will?’
Will pushed back his hood and let his bushy blond hair loose. ‘Ready for what, exactly?’
‘Troglodytes!’ he called, his voice echoing deep into the cave. ‘It is Nico di Angelo, son of Hades! I have returned with my glow-in-the-dark boyfriend, Will Solace!’