Chapter no 25

The Sun and the Star

Nico was staring at a very odd scene.‌

Menoetes leaned against one of his nectar trees, laughing so hard tears streamed down his face. Screech-Bling stood next to him,

staring into the distance like a nervous mom waiting for the school bus.

Down in the pastures, a herd of black cattle seemed to be doing marching-band manoeuvres – pinwheeling, prance-stepping, and re-forming columns in perfect synchronization. In front of the bovine troops stood a tiny figure in a foam cheese-wedge hat – Hiss-Majesty, waving a tree branch like a baton.

When Nico’s and Will’s donkeys came to a stop, Menoetes didn’t even acknowledge them. Instead, he cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled to Hiss-Majesty, ‘Amazing! Now bring them back!’

Hiss-Majesty clicked a series of commands in Troglodytish, and the entire herd marched double-time towards the orchard.

Nico hopped off his donkey. ‘Um … what’s going on?’

Menoetes wiped the tears from his eyes. ‘Turns out that little troglodyte has a knack for herding cattle!’

‘They have many talents,’ Screech-Bling agreed, his face alight with joy. ‘And the cattle churn up many tasty grubs and worms from the soil as they march. It is a win-win!’

Menoetes and the trog CEO gave each other a complicated fist-bump/secret handshake like they’d been friends for years.

‘We were productive while you were gone,’ Menoetes told Nico. ‘Did you get what I asked for?’

Nico slowly reached into his pocket. He worried his hand would drift right through the pomegranate, as it had in his stepmother’s garden, but his fingers touched a very solid fruit.

What was that about? he wondered. Why couldn’t he touch the fruit in the garden but Will could?

When Nico brought out the pomegranate, Menoetes’s eyes gleamed with hunger. His jet-black tongue flicked across his lips.

‘Just one?’ he asked wistfully. Will produced the other two.

‘Three?!’ Menoetes sounded like he was about to burst into tears. ‘That is more than I expected!’

And then he opened his mouth and threw in the first pomegranate. ‘Wow,’ Nico said. ‘So … you’re not worried about being stuck here


‘Why would I be?’ Menoetes let out a loud burp. ‘I love it here. I don’t

ever want to leave, and I’m sure Geryon will feel the same. We would never be accepted aboveground. Where would people like us fit in? I have a job here that I like a lot. I’m in love. Why would I ever want to throw that


Will stared wistfully into the distance. ‘But you’re not worried about what you might miss out on in the mortal world?’

Menoetes grunted. ‘Every so often, sure. But I’ve been working for

Nico’s father now for a long, long time. This is what I’m accustomed to. It’s where I feel at home. And it’s where Geryon is.’

Nico felt a chasm opening in his heart. He loved what Menoetes had just said. But … what was this aching sensation? Was Nico envious of the bull-man?

Nico knew that for practical reasons Will would never offer to stay here for him. That was fair. The Underworld had been negatively affecting Will since they’d arrived. But there was something about Menoetes’s confidence in Geryon that felt distant to Nico … out of reach.

Nico’s fingers found their way into the pocket of his jeans, where they traced the image embossed on the coin.

Maybe he was overthinking this. Maybe the Underworld was starting to wear on him, too.

Meanwhile, Will was telling Hiss-Majesty and Screech-Bling how he and Nico had managed to sneak into Persephone’s garden. Will did a great job

making it sound much more suspenseful than it was, dialling up the tension as though they’d come much closer to getting caught by the goddess. He looked genuinely nervous.

‘I am impressed.’ Menoetes turned to Nico. ‘I know you have

complicated feelings about Geryon, and I must admit I do not blame you, but, still, you got this fruit, at great danger to yourselves.’

‘We kind of had to,’ said Nico. ‘You know, the whole quest thing?’

Menoetes shook his head. ‘You could have retrieved just one pomegranate. Or you could have unearthed an entire skeleton army and forced me to let you pass!’

Nico rolled his eyes. ‘Now you’re just being dramatic. I could still summon some skeletons if you like, though.’

Menoetes gave a hearty laugh. ‘You are a funny one, Nico. Maybe the funniest of Hades’s children.’

‘Hazel’s pretty funny,’ Will offered. Nico elbowed him in the ribs.

‘Regardless,’ Menoetes continued, ‘I would like to offer you something besides just safe passage through my land. I can provide you with information.’

Nico’s pulse jumped. ‘What information?’

‘About your quest, of course,’ said the bull-man. ‘I know what you’re up to. You’re not the only one hearing his voice calling from Tartarus.’

Nico was pretty sure what was left of his soul had evaporated out of his body. ‘I’m sorry, what?’

‘Many of us down here can hear him from time to time,’ said Menoetes. ‘He is … loud. Sorrowful. We learn to tune out those who are suffering because we have to. I mean, the Fields of Asphodel and Punishment are basically white noise to me at this point.’ He sighed. ‘But he is different.

Because … well, he’s not dead. He’s a living being in terrible pain, calling out, aching to be listened to.’

Rage swept through Nico, so encompassing and intense that it wasn’t until Will cleared his throat that Nico realized he was summoning multiple skeletons from the ground. He let out a deep breath, and they collapsed into heaps of bones.

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I just hate knowing Bob is in pain.’

‘I do, too,’ said Menoetes. ‘Bob is pretty legendary around these parts. What he did for Percy and Annabeth … Those of us who care about the

Underworld and what happens in the mortal world won’t forget that. But after that incident with the Doors of Death, we’re all prohibited from

entering Tartarus. So none of us can go confront her.’ ‘Her?’ said Will. ‘You mean –’

‘Nyx.’ Menoetes spat on the ground. ‘She’s obsessed with Bob. He represents everything she hates.’

‘That’s what we figured,’ said Nico. ‘I met her once, a while ago.’

‘I hope I never meet her,’ said Hiss-Majesty, shaking their head. ‘She sounds terrible.’

Menoetes’s head drooped. ‘Nyx believes that what is born in darkness must remain in darkness. The problem is … Bob willingly chose to remain Bob rather than return to being Iapetus. That is why she has detained him.’

‘Detained him … how?’ asked Will.

Menoetes stared into Nico’s eyes. ‘Do you remember your time in Tartarus?’

Nico winced. ‘Unfortunately.’

‘Do you remember the regeneration blisters?’ ‘I always thought of them as zits.’

Menoetes snorted. ‘That is appropriate. Being inside one is rather like drowning in a boiling whitehead.’

Will clutched his stomach. ‘Thanks for that.’

‘It is an experience most monsters and demons have had,’ the bull-man continued grimly. ‘At any rate, a few weeks ago, a demon who works with me got trampled to death by the cattle. This in itself was not a big deal. He

just regenerated in Tartarus and clawed his way back here. But while he was down there … he saw Nyx standing over a very large regeneration blister, berating the entity inside who was trying to be reborn, telling him he would never break free until he relented. It was Bob.’

The two trogs yelped in horror and hugged each other.

Nico had to clutch Will’s shoulder to keep himself steady. ‘No. That’s too cruel, even for Nyx.’

‘I’m afraid it is true,’ said Menoetes. ‘Nyx is holding Bob in a permanent

regeneration cycle until he chooses to become Iapetus again.’

Nico’s fury rose again, but Will – blessed, illuminating Will – squeezed his hand. A radiant calmness passed up Nico’s arm and spread into his


The kind act warmed Nico, both in the literal and the figurative sense, but then he began to worry. ‘Will, you need to conserve your energy.’

‘I just thought you might need the reminder.’ ‘Of what?’

‘That I’m here. That I know you’re upset.’

Nico pulled Will close, still vibrating with residual anger. ‘I didn’t mean to raise the dead. I’m just … so, so mad.’

‘You should feel what you need to feel,’ said Will. ‘I don’t want to diminish that. I don’t even know Bob, and I’m furious, too.’

Nico stared at Will. Wow, where had that come from?

Screech-Bling clicked and hissed in outrage. ‘What is happening to Bob is wrong. No one should be treated like that. And for – SCREEK – what?

Having the courage to change?’

Hiss-Majesty nodded. ‘We troglodytes love to adapt. We are always

changing! For example, who knew that I would love herding cows?’ They glanced at Will, clearly hoping for approval, and were rewarded with a beaming smile.

‘I doubt there’s ever been a finer cowherd with a finer cheese hat,’ Will said. Then he turned to Menoetes, and his expression hardened again. ‘So where do we find Bob?’

‘Yes, that is the information I wanted to give you,’ said the bull-man. ‘Deep in Tartarus, there is a hut that belonged to a reformed giant.’

Will frowned. ‘You mean … like Geryon?’

Menoetes seemed to consider that. ‘Yes, I suppose so. This giant is well respected here in the Underworld, for he opposed the Maeonian drakon and helped the demigods close the Doors of Death.’

‘Percy mentioned him,’ said Nico. ‘Damasen?’

‘Yes! That is the giant. When you emerge in Tartarus from the troglodytes’ shortcut, follow the trail to the left until you reach the swamp. There you will find Damasen’s hut. And, once you do, Bob should not be far away.’ Menoetes gave Nico a sombre look. ‘I hope Damasen has regenerated. He was killed fighting the drakon, but if he has been reborn, I am sure he would love to help you.’

‘We’ll do our best to find him,’ said Will.

Screech-Bling adjusted his powdered wig. ‘We should leave soon, demigods. The shortcut is not far.’

‘Make sure to refill your nectar before you go,’ added Menoetes. ‘You will find no more of it where you’re going.’

‘Thank you,’ said Nico. ‘For helping us. You didn’t have to.’

Menoetes shook his head. ‘I did. And not just because you brought me tasty pomegranates. We can’t let Nyx get away with torturing Bob. What if this is just the start of her tyranny?’

His words dug under Nico’s skin. He hadn’t even considered that Nyx might be torturing others down in Tartarus. Nico knew she was setting a trap to kidnap and torment him – and possibly Will, too. That was one thing. At least they were choosing to face that danger. But other entities who were just trying to be reborn, maybe to change into something better

… Nyx had no right to make them suffer.

For the first time, Nico wished the prophecy had been longer. All it warned was that someone would have to leave something of equal value behind. That wasn’t enough! It could mean so many things! Nico had to stop the goddess of night, but he needed more clues about how to do it.

He remained frustrated and nervous as the troglodytes guided them out of the farm. His last glimpse of Menoetes was the bull-man’s red-tinged

silhouette, waving at them from the top of the hill, his cattle still standing at parade rest behind him.

Soon the farm was lost in the gloom as the troglodytes led them into the stretch of dark hills – part of the Underworld Nico had never visited. He had no idea what awaited them at the shortcut, nor what Tartarus would be like on his second visit.

However, as Will walked alongside him, Nico worried most about what the abyss would do to his boyfriend. Had this whole trip been a mistake? Should they have brought a third demigod like questers were supposed to?

Nico walked on, full of questions with no answers.

‘The first time we kissed?’ Will’s eyes looked hazy and unfocused. ‘I … Yes, I remember. Why do you ask?’

Nico forced down his growing sense of panic. Will’s condition kept

swinging from almost fine to ready to keel over, but the trend was definitely downward. If this kept up, they would never make it down the river, much less to Tartarus.

Meanwhile, Gorgyra loomed over them on the dock. Nico tried to ignore the fluttering of the nymph’s gown in the chilly breeze, the whispers

swirling around him, yearning for more secrets.

‘Because the stories help.’ Nico tried to sound confident. ‘It won’t take long. Then we’ll get in the boat and go.’

Will nodded. ‘Okay … Well, if I remember correctly, it wasn’t that long ago.’

‘No, it wasn’t,’ Nico agreed.

Will watched Gorgyra drifting around them, like a teacher monitoring a test. He put a hand on Nico’s leg. ‘We don’t have to talk about this now, Nico.’

‘Yes,’ said Nico. ‘We do.’

The whispers from Gorgyra’s gown reached out again:

You were so alone then. Will you be alone again?

Nico pushed them away. ‘It was after Jason died.’ He willed his voice to stay even, not to give in to the rising sadness in his chest.

‘Yes,’ said Will. ‘Just like with Leo, you were distraught. But not angry. Not that time. You were more …’ He sighed. ‘I’m not sure what to call it. I didn’t know what to do.’

The dock boards creaked under Gorgyra’s feet. ‘Do about what?’

‘About me shutting down,’ said Nico. ‘Like, completely. I wasn’t even crying over Jason’s death. It didn’t seem real to me. How could he just be gone?’

‘And Jason meant a great deal to you, yes?’ said Gorgyra. ‘He was the first to truly accept you.’

‘Exactly. And I wasn’t there to help at the end. I couldn’t save him!’ Hot tears poured down Nico’s face. He turned away from Will and

Gorgyra, suddenly ashamed by his display of grief. But the whispers followed him, threads of loneliness and desperation wrapping around his heart, pulling him back.

You wish for him to return, they said.

You resent that he left you.

You are worried that this one will leave you, too.

That last whisper was a punch to the gut. Nico sobbed, because that was his biggest fear, wasn’t it? That’s what he worried awaited them at the bottom of the plunge: Will would die. Will would sacrifice himself.

Will would be left behind.

‘I’ve got you,’ Will said in his ear. Then his boyfriend’s arms wrapped around him, holding him tight. Nico turned until they were face to face,

staring into each other’s eyes. Nico was supposed to be nurturing Will, not the other way around, but Will always seemed to know when Nico was most vulnerable. There wasn’t pity in Will’s face, just concern. Just care.

Nico leaned forward and kissed him.

It wasn’t a long or particularly romantic kiss. Their lips met. Will reached up and held the back of Nico’s head. It was brief, it was sweet, and it was

what Nico needed.

It was also exactly what Will had done for Nico that day outside the

Hades cabin, shortly after they’d learned of Jason’s death. Will had kissed Nico for the first time in a moment of impulsiveness, something Nico didn’t know Will had in him. The kiss had been just like this one, short and sweet. Then Will had pulled away, worry on his face, an apology tumbling from his lips.

Nico had stopped him. Then kissed him back.

In a moment so full of grief and rage and sadness, Will had given him … Light.

Now Will pulled away. ‘I’m right here,’ he promised. ‘For whatever you need. We have each other.’

Nico didn’t mean to laugh. It came out as a frail, brittle sound. Only a few days ago, he’d joked to Annabeth that her advice sounded like a

Hallmark card. Now he felt like he was living in one.

He was worried Will might take offence. Instead, his boyfriend only looked concerned.

‘What is it?’ Will asked, wiping away Nico’s tears. ‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘I just …’

He glanced over Will’s shoulder and his voice died. Gorgyra now stood at the end of the dock, moving her hands as if working a loom. Below her, the River Acheron churned, threads of dark water weaving themselves together into a thick band, which Gorgyra pulled towards her.

Will turned to watch. He and Nico sat there – Nico’s arm around Will’s waist – as Gorgyra gathered cords of woven water, stitching them into her dress. Only when the last thread disappeared into her gown did Nico realize what she was doing: rescuing lonely souls trapped in the River of Pain,

adding them to her collection. When she was done, her chest heaved with

exertion. Her gown’s fabric had turned cloudy, whispers filling the air as the older souls greeted the newcomers.

Gorgyra staggered under their weight. Instantly Will and Nico rose to help her, their own problems forgotten.

‘I’m fine,’ she promised, though her face was drained of colour. ‘The souls called to me, and I had to help them. It seems your tender moment drew them here.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Nico.

‘No, it is a good thing,’ Gorgyra said. ‘Lonely souls finding one another is always a good thing.’

She gestured to the boat. ‘She is yours. You have more than earned her.

Take care of her, and she will guide you straight into Tartarus.’

Nico’s heart leaped – not because he was anxious to get to Tartarus, but because they might finally be making some progress.

Will shifted next to him. ‘But … I didn’t finish the story.’

Gorgyra’s smile was weak but still warm. ‘I believe you just showed me.’

The boat bobbed precariously as Nico climbed in. He hoped Will had good sea legs. The only ship Nico remembered spending a significant

amount of time on was the Argo II, and that had flown more than it had sailed.

This trip was with Will, though. That changed everything, even if their destination was the basement of the universe.

Gorgyra watched them pensively as their boat drifted away from the dock. What was she thinking? Did she believe that they’d make it?

Nico reached in the pocket of his jeans. He took out the coin, running his fingers over the embossing until he’d traced every bit of it.

‘You brought my gift,’ said Will, smile lines crinkling around his eyes. ‘Great minds think alike.’

He reached inside the collar of his shirt and pulled out his gold chain. On it glinted Nico’s ring.

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