Chapter no 14

The Sun and the Star

The answer came almost immediately. One moment, they heard the sound of shuffling feet from somewhere far away, and then,‌

suddenly, they were surrounded by troglodytes.

There were too many to count, but Nico was so happy to see them.

The troglodytes looked like humans if humans stood barely a metre high and had evolved from frogs. They had paper-thin lips over wide faces, recessed noses and bulging eyes like amphibians’. Their skin tones came in a seemingly limitless assortment of colours. Even in the dim light, Nico

could see greens and blues and browns. One of the trogs – dressed very much like an aerobics instructor from the 80s – had skin that glittered as if covered in yellow gems.

Troglodytes had a penchant for costumes, and they were dressed in every conceivable outfit you could imagine: sweaters on top of overalls; double-breasted suit jackets over sweatpants; skirts and dresses and blouses, all haphazardly assembled and layered on top of one another. One trog wore nothing but neon pink: high-waisted leather pants, a jacket with cropped

shoulders over pink mesh and an audacious cowboy hat, all of it studded with gold.

The hats were … Well, if anything was expected of a trog, it was that they loved hats. Rarely had Nico seen a troglodyte wear only one at a time. Indeed, every trog in Nico’s field of view had stacked multiple chapeaus on top of their head. Beanies under Stetsons under newsboy caps under

snapbacks under crowns. If it went on top of a head, the troglodytes wore it.

The trog Nico knew best, Screech-Bling, stepped forward, decked out as usual in his miniature George Washington costume, complete with a white

wig under a leather tricorn.

‘We see you, Nico di Angelo and Will Solace!’ Screech-Bling cried. Of course, his actual speech was punctuated with the constant clicks,

growls and screeches the trogs used to communicate.

‘Thank you – grrr – O great Screech-Bling, CEO of the troglodytes!’ said Nico. ‘I –’

Will stepped forward. ‘We come bearing – click – gifts, O great – screech

– troglodytes!’

Nico watched in horror as Will unknowingly told the audience that he came bearing ‘rotten’ gifts to the great ‘fermenting’ troglodytes. Then his boyfriend set down his knapsack in front of a couple of jittery, nervous trogs and pulled out the other two hoodies he had packed. He held them high and asked, ‘Do these gifts – grrr – you?’

The troglodytes looked uncertainly at Screech-Bling. ‘Will, what are you doing?’ Nico whispered.

‘I thought I’d at least try,’ Will said.

‘You just asked them if your hoodies “devour” them.’ ‘No, that’s not what I said!’

Nico nodded. ‘It totally is.’

But the trogs seemed to have understood the gesture. Two of them had already slipped inside the pale blue hoodies, which dragged on the ground due to their short stature.

Screech-Bling doffed his triangular hat. ‘They do devour us,’ he said. ‘Come, Nico and Will – screech! – and join us in our new home.’

Will smiled at Nico. ‘Guess I did okay.’

Nico chuckled. ‘Yeah, I think so.’ He took Will’s hand in his. ‘Thank you for trying.’

They began their trek through the dark cavern with Screech-Bling in the lead. Soon they entered a side passage lit by clusters of bioluminescent mushrooms – the trog version of wall sconces – and Nico could see well

enough to put his glowing sword away. One of the trogs who had snatched a hoodie danced a little jig in front of Will, clicking and screeching before darting away.

‘I think that trog in particular is happy with you,’ said Nico.

Will scanned the crowd, which was chattering and clicking fiercely in their colourful fashion ensembles. ‘They’ve really improved their clothing options since we last saw them.’

‘That was part of the appeal of this place,’ said Nico. ‘They’re right by the River Styx.’

Will tilted his head. ‘I don’t get it.’

‘The Styx carries the remains of broken dreams.’ ‘Which means –?’

‘Well, when the dead cross the river, they abandon their mortal lives. A lot of times, they discard the last of their precious memories in the water. You can see all sorts of debris floating in the current: the pages of unfinished manuscripts, paintings that went unsold, photographs of loved ones.’

Will winced. ‘That is so sad.’

Nico hadn’t really thought of it that way. To him, it was just the nature of the Underworld, but he nodded in sympathy. ‘Anyway, a lot of clothing

ends up there, too. The trogs have a great time fishing it all out.’ ‘And … Hades doesn’t mind?’

Nico shook his head. ‘I doubt he’s ever going to notice or care that there’s less –’ Nico stopped himself; he’d almost said garbage, but Will would probably find that a harsh way to describe the remnants of people’s

lives – ‘less stuff in the Styx. This is the perfect place for the troglodytes to be. No one is looking for secret caves on this side of the Styx, and no one from the world above is ever going to come down here willingly. So, there’s, like, zero chance that their home might … well, you know.

Accidentally get trampled by a bunch of tauri silvestres.’

‘Ugh,’ said Will. ‘I don’t even eat beef any more because it reminds me of them.’

The tunnel twisted sharply to the left. Nico and Will fell silent as the light ahead of them grew, along with the echoes of what sounded like a boisterous party. Their trog escorts rushed forward, clicking and hissing

excitedly, and the tunnel opened into a cavern even larger than the first. ‘Sweet Hades,’ muttered Nico.

He’d seen the earlier stages of the construction, but the sheer scope of what the trogs had accomplished since his last visit took Nico’s breath

away. If their previous home had been akin to a subway platform, this was Grand Central Station. The troglodytes had carved the cave’s ceiling into an elaborate dome, with friezes of trogs chasing giant lizards and bulls, then repurposed the largest stalagmites and stalactites into looming support

columns, reinforced and decorated with all manner of garbage. To the right,

the trogs had set up a massive staging area, where they organized all the human objects they’d found into house-size piles, though Nico couldn’t see any rhyme or reason to the way things were sorted. Towards the back of the cave, an archway led into an even more bustling area, with trogs coming

and going like rush-hour traffic: more trogs than Nico had ever seen in one place. But even that wasn’t the most overwhelming thing about Trog HQ.

On the left side of the cavern, the trogs had excavated an enormous hole in the wall, about fifteen metres off the ground, from which cascaded a midnight-black waterfall. The water crashed into a gigantic pool before being channelled through a series of canals, where troglodytes sat on the banks with rudimentary fishing poles and nets, grabbing out all sorts of detritus and tossing it behind them to other trogs, who sorted the refuse and laid the best bits on racks to dry. Further down, the current turned giant

waterwheels that seemed to be powering grindstones, bellows and other strange contraptions.

‘What is this?’ Will muttered in awe.

‘You are bearing witness to a new age of the troglodyte,’ said Screech-Bling. ‘This is a most effective operation.’

‘You … diverted the River Styx,’ said Nico, and he rubbed at his eyes. ‘For hydraulic power. And you’ve basically introduced the Underworld’s first recycling system.’

‘Yes, we did,’ said Screech-Bling.

‘It’s so brilliant I can barely stand it,’ said Nico.

Screech-Bling puffed out his chest. ‘You have helped us greatly, Italian son of Hades.’

Will frowned at the troglodyte trash-pickers. ‘But isn’t Styx water dangerous?’

Screech-Bling made a derisive clicking sound. ‘To trogs? No.’

Another troglodyte ambled by with a large goblet of smoking dark liquid, decorated with miniature paper umbrellas. ‘It is spicy, however.’ He belched and continued onward with his Styx-water mocktail.

Screech-Bling grinned at Will. ‘It is good to see you again, Texan son of Apollo. Please give your father our regards the next time you see him.’

‘Um, thanks,’ said Will. ‘I’ve got to admit, your new headquarters are

very impressive.’

‘You have seen nothing!’ Screech-Bling said, lifting his chin. ‘Come. We shall feed you and hear stories of your quest!’

‘Oh, I’m okay for food,’ said Will hastily. ‘I just had some ambrosia.’ ‘You speak gibberish to the troglodytes,’ said Screech-Bling. ‘All beings

must eat! Come feast with us!’

The trog leader pushed ahead through the crowds, not waiting to see if his guests were following.

Will gave Nico a worried look. ‘The last time we ate trog food, it was lizard soup.’

‘Which was not that bad,’ Nico said. ‘Honestly, live a little, Will! Let’s get some food and rest before our journey really begins.’

‘And if they’re making their food with Styx water now –?’

‘I’ll let them know we have, uh, dietary restrictions. It’ll be fine. Besides, you need some nourishment after your Care Bear reveal.’

Will did not look convinced, but he followed Nico into the flow of trog foot traffic, trying to keep an eye on Screech-Bling’s tricorn hat in the distance. They passed numerous tunnels that branched off from the main thoroughfare, and Nico hoped they’d have a chance to explore.

At the same time, a voice nagged in the back of his mind: No. Don’t waste time. Go save Bob.

Finally, they arrived in the trogs’ communal eating area – a huge recessed pit like an amphitheatre, with a cooking fire and a collection of salvaged kitchen appliances in the centre. Nico felt like he was about to be in the

studio audience for a television bake-off. As they made their way to the front row, the trogs’ master cook strode towards them, a huge grin on his face and a much-too-tall white chef’s hat canted on his head like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Click-Wrong (pronounce the W) looked overjoyed to see Nico and Will again.

‘I have improved our recipes!’ he exclaimed. ‘Today, I have a human dish for you!’

‘Oh?’ Will looked like he wanted to ask whether that meant a dish made from humans, but he didn’t.

As Click-Wrong scurried off to prepare, a small troglodyte dressed like a Tour de France cyclist ran up and offered Will a large yellowish triangle that kind of resembled a block of cheese.

‘What is this for?’ Will asked.

The child pointed at Will’s head. He then offered Nico a brown bowler hat.

Nico couldn’t contain his amusement. He put on the bowler, then turned to Will. ‘Where’s your team spirit? You know the trogs expect their guests to wear hats. Don’t be shy.’

With a look of irritation, Will placed the foam cheese wedge on his head. ‘Why can’t I ever get a normal hat?’

‘Who likes normal?’ Nico said. ‘I much prefer the weird.’ ‘Says the guy with a normal hat!’

Click-Wrong returned with a steaming black stone cup in either hand. ‘Please provide feedback,’ he said. ‘I accept a rating between one and five stars.’

Nico peered into the cup. The broth was a dark red colour, with pieces of some sort of animal protein floating in it. ‘Er, looks great, though I should have mentioned we can’t ingest Styx water –’

Click-Wrong waved aside the comment. ‘I am aware of human digestive weaknesses! Do not worry. Bon – screech – appétit!’

Nico took a sip and was pleasantly surprised. It was a little tart, very

savoury and actually quite good, though he couldn’t identify what human recipe it was supposed to be.

‘Not bad at all, Click-Wrong!’ said Nico.

Will followed his cue and took a sip. He contemplated for a moment, then gave a thumbs-up. ‘Yeah, this is tasty! What is this?’

‘Tomato soup,’ said the chef. ‘I am glad you enjoy it! This gives Click-Wrong pride.’

Nico stared into his bowl. Tomato soup would not have been his guess. ‘Where do you get tomatoes down here?’

Click-Wrong smiled coyly, as if this were a trog state secret. ‘It also

contains green anole lizard and some noodles. Those are my contributions!’ Will froze with the bowl halfway to his mouth. ‘Lizard. Again?’

‘A delicacy among trogs,’ Nico reminded him, so as not to offend their host. ‘Lots of human cultures eat lizard, too. We are honoured, Click-Wrong!’

To show he meant it, Nico slurped down a chunk of lizard meat. It was less chewy than he’d expected.

Will took another sip from his cup. ‘And … what kind of noodles did you find?’

‘The most common kind you humans use,’ said Click-Wrong.

Will frowned, then pinched a long dark ‘noodle’ out of the broth. A look of horror grew on his face. ‘Um, would that be the kind of noodle we wear on our shoes?’

‘Exactly!’ said Click-Wrong, delighted. ‘They are quite tasty.’

Nico covered his mouth to hold in the laughter. On the end of the ‘noodle’ was a small sheath of plastic – an aglet – that only appeared on one thing in the human world.

Will sighed. ‘Well, thanks, Click-Wrong. Humans can’t actually eat shoelaces, but … they add a real kick to the soup?’

Click-Wrong, clearly pleased, skipped off to serve other trogs.

Nico was lucky enough that his cup didn’t have a single shoelace in it. He was about halfway through his soup, and wondering how anoles could be so tasty, when Screech-Bling reappeared, heartily chewing on a bootstrap. ‘It is good to see you feasting with us!’

‘I’m glad you’ve made so much progress with the new headquarters,’ said Nico.

‘There is more to do. Our hat-storage room is already overflowing.’ ‘Maybe you could collect fewer hats?’ Will suggested.

Screech-Bling stared at him.

‘Or not!’ Will said, adjusting the block of cheese on his head. ‘More hats for everyone!’

Screech-Bling turned back to Nico. ‘Now please – tell me of your journey.’

Nico updated the troglodyte on everything that had transpired so far, from the voices and the repeating prophecy to the fight they’d had with Epiales.

By the end, Screech-Bling was scratching nervously at his powdered wig. ‘We have only been here a few months,’ he said, ‘yet we can sense

something has changed in the ground beneath us. Something is stirring.’ ‘I don’t like the sound of that,’ said Will.

‘What do you think it is?’ asked Nico.

‘We do not know.’ Screech-Bling clicked his tongue a few times. ‘We lack wisdom of the Underworld and its many strange creatures.’

‘That’s understandable,’ said Will.

‘But I do know this.’ Screech-Bling sniffed the air. ‘The change has a strong smell … And that scent is on you.’

‘I’m sorry, what?’ said Nico.

‘It is on both of you,’ said Screech-Bling. ‘A smell of … I do not know.’ Will sniffed his blue hoodie. ‘Is it from our run-in with Epiales?’

‘No,’ said the troglodyte. ‘I know the scent of demons. This is similar … but stronger. Related? It perplexes me.’ The trog CEO turned to the crowd in the dining area and shouted, ‘Trogs, come and smell these demigods!’

Suddenly Nico and Will were swarmed by other troglodytes pressing their noses against them.

‘Excuse me,’ said Will, trying to push one away who was smelling his knees.

‘Yes, yes!’ The troglodyte grinned up at him from beneath their sideways baseball cap. ‘The smell is all over you.’

‘On you as well!’ said another one, sniffing Nico’s shoes. ‘Very strong.

Like fish rot.’

‘No, like truffles,’ said another. ‘Bug goo,’ suggested a third.

‘It is the changey smell!’ said a trog in a cowboy hat, and the others murmured their assent.

‘Yes, the changey smell!’

Nico’s skin crawled. Whatever ‘the changey’ was, he didn’t want to smell like it.

A fierce chorus of clicks and growls broke out nearby, and Screech-Bling excused himself to deal with a group of young troglodytes who were fighting over a set of matching wizard hats.

As he walked away, Nico’s thoughts began to race. Epiales had mentioned Mother.

Screech-Bling said the smell might be related to demons.

Nico’s theory from before resurfaced, but he didn’t want it to be true. It couldn’t be.

‘Nico?’ Will nudged him. ‘You okay?’ ‘Yeah … just thinking.’

Nico must have been sending out strong I don’t want to talk about it

vibes, because Will didn’t ask for details.

‘At least the troglodytes seem happy down here,’ he offered. ‘I didn’t expect that.’

Nico raised an eyebrow. ‘Why not?’

Will shrugged. ‘You know, just … the Underworld, land of the dead. I thought they might find living here … depressing?’

‘Death is a part of life,’ said Nico. ‘We always live next door to it. I don’t think that fact should be called depressing.’

‘Okay, sure, but living in this place …’ Will scanned the cavern, like he was looking for something that just wasn’t there.

Nico took a deep breath. He reminded himself that Will had been through a lot today … They both had.

‘Not everything here is the worst in the universe,’ he said. ‘My father lives in the Underworld. And lots of living people keep his palace running. Bob was a janitor there, remember?’

‘Yeah, I remember,’ said Will. ‘I’m just saying … living people, like Bob or the troglodytes, they’re the exception to the rule, right?’

Nico scowled. He wished Will could be a little more open-minded about the Underworld. The troglodytes may not have been born here, but they fitted right in. Couldn’t Will see that?

But Nico didn’t want to fight any more. He also supposed their encounter with Epiales hadn’t made for the best first impression of his father’s realm.

He was trying to figure out how to say that, how to spin his irritation into something more positive, when Screech-Bling reappeared, having

successfully mediated the wizard-hat dilemma.

‘Now, Nico di Angelo,’ said the CEO, ‘where were we?’

Unfortunately, Nico remembered: the smell of change, of something

stirring. Mother … Epiales had warned they would meet her soon enough. ‘I know what is stirring,’ Nico said. ‘Or at least I think I know.’ Screech-Bling examined him, his eyes moving quickly back and forth.

Then his pinkish tongue flicked in and out of his mouth. ‘How would you know this, Nico di Angelo?’

Nico hesitated to say. He didn’t even want to speak her name. But if the troglodytes could sense her – smell her presence even at this great distance – then they deserved to know. They all might be in danger.

‘You should summon your council,’ Nico told the trog leader. ‘We need to talk.’ Then he faced Will. ‘I think I know who sent me those terrible dreams. And why Bob’s in trouble.’

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