Chapter no 26

The Sun and the Star

The trogs led them further into darkness.‌

There’d always been a comforting glow to the land of the dead.

Well, comforting to Nico, at least. But here, far beyond where he’d accidentally been sucked into Tartarus a couple of years ago, that glow was fading.

Perhaps he should have asked Hades about the boundaries of the

Underworld. How far did it stretch? Were there other subterranean lands beyond the black walls of Erebos? Other ways into Tartarus that Hades had never talked about? But of course Nico couldn’t have risked posing such questions. He had to accomplish this mission without his father’s knowledge.

If he survived, though, he would ask his father about Tartarus … and so much more.

The mini adventure to Persephone’s garden had mysteriously invigorated Will, but now his newfound energy seemed to be fading. He struggled to keep up. Whenever he fell behind, Hiss-Majesty would zip to his side, offering words of encouragement and nourishing lizard jerky. Nico was glad that at least Hiss-Majesty didn’t try to herd them like the cattle. He didn’t relish the idea of double-time high-stepping all the way to Tartarus.

As they travelled, the shadows became longer. Skeletal cacti stretched their brittle arms towards the acidic clouds overhead. Packs of rogue spirits drifted over the parched land. Where were the spirits headed? What were they doing out here, so far from the fields? At one point, Nico and company had to wait on a low ridge while a pair of drakons moved along a ravine,

spitting fire at one another. Nico wondered if somehow he and his

companions had already crossed into Tartarus, because it was beginning to feel like it …

‘How much further?’ asked Will, panting. ‘I thought you said it was close.’

‘Just over the next ridge,’ said Screech-Bling. ‘You’ll be able to hear it soon.’

‘Hear what?’ Nico pulled his bomber jacket tighter. All he heard were the whispers of the dead being carried on the cold wind – voices that caressed Nico’s ear, begging for an audience.

‘Not much further,’ said Hiss-Majesty, their voice low. ‘From here, the path is steep. Watch your step.’

Which was precisely when Will fell.

He pitched forward, his left shoulder smacking hard against the dirt, then began rolling downhill like a floppy log.

‘Will!’ Nico cried, which was not his smartest move.

Down in the ravine, the drakons turned their long necks in his direction. ‘Get Will!’ cried Hiss-Majesty. ‘We shall buy you time!’

Both the troglodytes leaped into to action, sprinting straight towards the drakons.

‘Look at me!’ shouted Screech-Bling, waving his arms at the monsters. ‘I am your worst enemy!’

‘I can herd cows!’ yelled Hiss-Majesty.

By the time Nico caught up to Will, the son of Apollo had rolled to a stop on a small plateau about halfway down the hill. Nico knelt next to him,

checking him for injuries. Will’s eyes lolled back in his head. His arms were covered in cuts and scrapes.

‘Will!’ Nico resisted the urge to shake him. ‘Will, can you hear me?’ His boyfriend muttered something unintelligible.

Healing wasn’t Nico’s speciality – that was Will’s thing. Nico had a few vials of nectar and squares of ambrosia on him, but he wasn’t sure those

would even help. He was about to rummage through Will’s pack for the battery-operated sunlamp when an earsplitting roar rang out. Nico looked up to see both drakons blast Screech-Bling with white-hot fire.

Nico screamed. He rose, drawing his sword, but then glanced down at the motionless Will. Nico couldn’t leave him here undefended.

‘Go!’ said a familiar voice.

Nico turned. With a rush of relief, he found Screech-Bling standing next to him, wreathed in steam, his tricorn hat singed. Otherwise, he looked fine.

‘H-how?’ Nico stammered. ‘You trogs must be indestructible!’

Down in the ravine, Hiss-Majesty had taken the CEO’s place as chief drakon-wrangler, zipping between the monsters, yelling out herding

commands like ‘Attention! Forward march! Left face! Your other left!’ The drakons ignored these instructions, stomping and blowing fire in


‘Tough, but not indestructible,’ Screech-Bling said, a puff of smoke

escaping his right ear. ‘Go help Hiss-Majesty! I will watch over the son of Apollo.’

Nico sprinted downhill towards the drakons.

He dived and rolled to avoid a splash of fire, then slammed his sword into the foot of the nearest drakon. As Nico feared, his blade didn’t do

anything other than notify the creature of his presence. Drakon scales were notoriously hard to penetrate. Nico’s earlier determination to protect Will now gave way to a terror-filled desperation. There were two impervious drakons versus one very pervious Nico. He didn’t like those odds.

He wove his way between the legs of the first creature, hoping to confuse it, but then his own legs were swept out from under him by the tail of the


Hiss-Majesty was instantly at his side. ‘Up, son of Hades!’ Their small, strong hands pulled him to his feet. ‘We must defeat them!’

Nico swung his sword above Hiss-Majesty’s head as the first drakon

charged them – but something felt wrong. His sword was utterly weightless in his hand. The blade passed through the drakon’s shoulder joint as if it

were empty air.

For a moment, Nico wondered if he was back in one of Epiales’s nightmares, battling a hallucination.

Then the drakon collapsed like a broken card table. The monster stared at its severed leg with a look of absolute shock, which Nico found completely understandable. How did that sword slice through drakon scales?

The creature howled as its body disintegrated, wafting away in a cloud of dust. Nico turned to face the other drakon but found, to his great surprise, that it was retreating into the gloom.

Hiss-Majesty doubled over, panting heavily. Their green skin was covered in a sheen of moisture.

‘That was very tiring,’ they said. ‘I was not sure I could do it.’

Nico stared at his blade, still smoking with drakon blood. ‘What did you do?’

‘I am very fast. I guided your sword.’

Nico’s eyes widened. ‘You – you what?’

‘Sometimes speed can do what pure strength cannot.’ Hiss-Majesty removed their cheese hat and used it to sponge the sweat from their face. ‘I must rest a moment.’

Nico started laughing. Drakons were nearly impossible to defeat, yet Hiss-Majesty had found a way to do it in seconds.

‘You were amazing!’ said Nico. ‘You just … and then you … I’ve never


Hiss-Majesty looked uncomfortable with this praise. ‘Let us go check on our friends. Unless there are more drakons to fight?’

Nico clapped them on the shoulder. ‘I don’t think any drakon is going to come within five miles of you now.’

When they reached the trail, Nico was happy to see Will sitting upright, munching on an ambrosia square. Screech-Bling sat nearby, applying some sort of grease to his blistered skin. Apparently, the fire had hurt him worse than he’d let on.

‘Hey,’ Will said sleepily. ‘What happened?’

Nico planted a kiss on Will’s forehead. ‘Well, you passed out, Screech-Bling got torched, and Hiss-Majesty defeated a drakon.’

‘I – Wait, what?’ Will glanced over at Screech-Bling. ‘Are you okay?’ ‘I will be fine.’ The CEO scooped a handful of goop. ‘Our salve is very

good for burns. Top-rated SPF – skink protective fat. You have none in your medical kit?’

‘I think I need to correct that oversight,’ Will admitted. Then he turned to Hiss-Majesty. ‘And did Nico just say you defeated a drakon?’

‘I only assisted.’ Hiss-Majesty kicked at the dirt. ‘It is not as big a deal as the son of Hades is making it out to be.’

‘You defeated a drakon!’ Will said. ‘That is absolutely a big deal!’ Hiss-Majesty blushed a deep shade of emerald.

‘How are you feeling?’ Nico asked, inspecting Will’s cuts and bruises. ‘You took a nasty tumble.’

‘I’m fine,’ said Will. ‘Nothing that can’t be fixed with some nectar or ambrosia.’

Nico frowned at the bleeding spot on Will’s knee. ‘Seriously, did you

have to wear shorts?’ ‘They’re comfortable!’

‘Not when they don’t protect you in a fall!’

Will pulled a small red plastic case from his knapsack. He popped it open and rummaged through the medical supplies: disinfectant pads, gauze, bandages.

‘Let me do that.’ Nico took the kit from Will.

While the troglodytes kept watch, Nico disinfected his hands, then

cleaned out each of Will’s cuts and scrapes, the way Will had taught him to do after the war with Gaia. He found a small gash on the back of his boyfriend’s right leg, then some swelling on his left elbow. Will winced and jerked away when Nico touched the area.

Nico applied some antibacterial salve on the deeper cuts and wrapped them with gauze. He made a sling to hold Will’s elbow stationary for the time being. When he was finished, Will looked like he had got in a fistfight with a hurricane.

‘You did really good,’ said Will, inspecting the bandages. ‘Thanks.’ ‘I had a good teacher.’ Nico sat back. ‘But you don’t seem to be as

healing as fast as usual. Should I be worried?’

Will shook his head. ‘I sort of expected that my healing abilities would be diminished down here. These are just scrapes and cuts. I’ll be fine.’

But would he? They still weren’t in Tartarus yet, and quite literally

everything down there would be worse than up here in the Underworld.

Nico felt trapped between his concern for his boyfriend and the urgency of their quest. Maybe this was yet another reason why going on a quest

without three demigods was a bad, bad idea. Had they been doomed from the start?

Nico helped Will up as Screech-Bling – now completely recovered –packed up his SPF supplies and Hiss-Majesty jumped around them

excitedly. ‘We are very close!’ they said. ‘I cannot wait for you to see the shortcut!’

Nico wanted to grumble about how very long this journey to the shortcut had been, but he kept his thoughts to himself. Will started off limping, but within a few minutes he was more limber. He looped his free arm around

Nico’s shoulders, hobbling slower than Nico wanted to be moving, but Nico also appreciated the closeness.

We’re going to get through this, he told himself. He had to believe it.

The climb up the next ridge was tougher. All Nico’s adrenalin from the drakon fight was gone. A dull soreness seeped into his muscles. Halfway up, Will was huffing and puffing so badly they decided to rest while Nico pulled out the sun-therapy globe. Naturally, the batteries were starting to die and, judging from the waxy sheen of sweat on Will’s face, his internal batteries were dying, too. While still standing, Will put his hands on the back of his head so he could breathe more deeply.

Nico struggled to put new batteries in the globe. He dropped one, which rolled merrily down the hill.

‘Oh, come on,’ he muttered.

‘Just grab another,’ said Will. ‘Don’t worry about it.’

Nico wasn’t sure they would find any extra triple-A batteries for sale in Tartarus, but he fished another from Will’s pack. Once the globe was glowing at full strength, he handed it to Will.

‘Thanks, Nico.’ He sounded … defeated.

At the crest of the hill, Will sat to rest, and Nico noticed a dark red stain spreading across his boyfriend’s midsection.

‘Will …’ Nico tried to keep the fear out of his voice. ‘What happened there?’

Will looked down at his gut and frowned. ‘I … I don’t know. That can’t be right.’

Unfortunately, the wound was very real. When Will lifted his shirt, the long red curve across his abdomen looked like someone had tried to draw a frowny face there with a razor. Nico cleaned and dressed the wound, but his fingers wouldn’t stop trembling. Maybe the cut had happened when Will fell down the hill, or before that, in Persephone’s garden, or as they passed through the orchard of Menoetes. But Nico couldn’t shake the feeling that the wound had simply opened, as if Will’s body was unravelling from the inside under the stress of being in the Underworld.

As Nico wrapped Will’s abdomen in gauze, he noticed that Will’s other wounds were all bleeding through their bandages. Children of Apollo were usually even quicker to recuperate than most other demigods. Something was deeply wrong if Will’s wounds weren’t closing.

‘Hey.’ Will’s hand touched his face. ‘You’re worried. Upset. I get it. But I’ll be fine.’

Nico frowned. ‘You’re not fine. Your cuts … This shouldn’t be happening.’

Will sighed. ‘We knew it was a risk for me to come here.’ ‘But we haven’t even –’

‘Got to Tartarus yet,’ Will finished. ‘I know. But I’m tougher than you think.’

He leaned against Nico’s shoulder. ‘I’ll just keep up a steady regimen of nectar and ambrosia. You’ll keep the wounds clean. Maybe I can rest here a second before we continue.’

‘Demigods!’ Screech-Bling shouted from the other side of the summit. ‘You can see it from here – the next step in your journey!’

Nico kissed the top of Will’s head. ‘Be right back.’

He joined the troglodytes, who wore matching solemn expressions as they gazed down at the flat expanse beyond the hill.

Far below, a massive river roared and churned as it rushed over jagged rocks. The water looked like … well, water. It didn’t have a strange-

coloured hue, at least. It wasn’t made of fire. But the sight of it unsettled Nico nonetheless. Those vicious rapids cut across the dark plains and then

The river dropped into nothingness.

Nico shivered. ‘There’s no way we can cross that.’ ‘No,’ Screech-Bling agreed.

Nico raised an eyebrow. ‘So what are we supposed to do?’

Hiss-Majesty pointed to the drop-off, then made a hand gesture like a plane going into a nosedive. ‘It is the fastest way.’

‘I really hope you’re kidding,’ Nico said.

‘What’s going on?’ Will shuffled up to them, his limp much more pronounced. The sun globe glowed in the crook of his arm. Given the terrible chill in the air, Nico worried about Will in his cargo shorts. Couldn’t that boy have just worn a pair of jeans for once?

But there was no protecting Will from what was in front of them – no hiding the truth or sugarcoating reality.

Will’s eyes traced the course of the river. ‘Is that our shortcut?’ Nico nodded. ‘Afraid so.’

‘I don’t suppose the entrance to Tartarus is on the other side of the river, and there’s a convenient bridge somewhere?’

Nico smiled in spite of himself. ‘Apparently not.’

‘It is the Acheron,’ said Screech-Bling. ‘The River of Pain.’ The name sent a chill down Nico’s back. ‘No.’

‘Yes,’ said Screech-Bling.

‘I mean no, there has to be a better way.’

‘There is not,’ said Hiss-Majesty. ‘And we have looked. This is the best!’ ‘Excuse me.’ Will raised his hand. ‘First-time caller, longtime listener.

Remind me why the Acheron is so bad?’

Hiss-Majesty faced him. ‘Five rivers run through the Underworld, son of Apollo. You have already seen the Styx, which is merely spicy.’

‘Acid dissolving your bones spicy,’ Will said. ‘But yeah.’

‘And you know of the Lethe,’ said Screech-Bling. ‘The River of Forgetfulness, where Iapetus became Bob.’

‘And I told you about the Phlegethon,’ Nico added, ‘which I drank from.’ ‘Right,’ said Will. ‘The River of Fire.’

‘The fourth is the Cocytus,’ said Screech-Bling, ‘the River of Lamentation, which mostly runs deep in Tartarus.’

‘With luck, we can avoid that one if we’re careful,’ Nico said. ‘But the fifth river, the Acheron …’

Nico gazed down at the raging torrent. He didn’t want to tell Will what those waters could do. Will already looked miserable, though he put on a brave face and didn’t complain. But Nico feared that what they were facing now would break his facade.

Will stood straighter, probably sensing Nico’s hesitation. ‘So it’s the River of Pain. I can deal with pain.’

Screech-Bling adjusted his scorched tricorn hat. ‘If only that’s all it was,

Son of Apollo.’ Hiss-Majesty whimpered in agreement. ‘The Acheron is also the River of Punishment.’

Will gave Nico a look that clearly meant Explain.

‘Sometimes … Sometimes when souls arrive in the Underworld, they have done such horrible things that they’re not even fit for the Fields of Punishment. They have to be cleansed … in the Acheron.’

Will cupped his sun globe a little tighter. ‘And I guess this cleansing is … painful.’

‘The pain is not just physical,’ said Screech-Bling. ‘It will rip your soul to pieces. It will find every bad thing you have done, every bad thought, and make you feel agony and guilt until you have been purified.’

Will gulped. ‘And then … you can get out?’

‘Oh, no,’ Screech-Bling said. ‘By then you will have dissolved into a fine sediment of eternal misery, still conscious, but probably not sane.’

‘Even standing on the banks of the Acheron will affect you,’ Hiss-Majesty warned.

‘And you two will not be standing on the banks. You must go in.’

Will took a step back. He started shaking his head. ‘Okay, Nico, I – I

can’t go in that water. Maybe you’re right. There’s got to be another way.’ ‘Well,’ said Screech-Bling, ‘you won’t actually –’

‘Hold on.’ Nico felt an unexpected surge of irritation. ‘Will, you’re

worried about going in the Acheron? If anyone could come through that river unscathed, it’s you. You’ve never done a single terrible thing in your life! You help people!’

Will took another step back. His eyes looked haunted in a way Nico had never seen. ‘I’m worried about both of us, Nico. And you’re just as good a person as I am. I know you’ve had a tough life, but –’

‘A “tough life”? It’s been more than just tough, Will.’ ‘Son of Hades –’ Hiss-Majesty tried to interrupt.

‘That’s not what I meant!’ Will continued. ‘But you haven’t done anything you deserve to be punished for.’

‘How do you know?’ shouted Nico. ‘Do you know everything I’ve been through? What I’ve had to do just to survive?’

‘No! Because you won’t tell me!’

Silence fell between them. Nico was reminded of the time Will chastised him for not helping in the camp infirmary last year. This wasn’t just the

weight of the Underworld pressing down on Will, making him say things he didn’t mean.

Will’s bitterness and frustration were real.

Before Nico could find a response, Hiss-Majesty tugged at the sleeve of his bomber jacket. ‘Um, Son of Hades, we were not done explaining the


‘What do you mean?’

Hiss-Majesty pointed upriver. ‘You will not have to swim. She can help you.’

A few hundred yards from the precipice, a small thatched hut squatted near the riverbank. A well-worn path led to a rickety pier, where a white boat like a large canoe was moored. On the ground outside the hut sat a woman with pale blue skin, the muted colours of her gown rippling in the

light of a cooking fire. She was too far away for Nico to see her face, but

she had clearly noticed them. She raised a hand and waved to her onlookers.

Great, Nico thought. Will and I just had an argument in front of Ms Shortcut.

‘We cannot accompany you any further, demigods,’ said Screech-Bling. ‘This is where we must part.’

Hiss-Majesty nodded sadly. ‘She cannot help us.’

Nico wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but he felt ashamed that his last moments with the troglodytes had been spent arguing with Will. His face burned.

‘Thank you both,’ he told them. ‘For all you’ve done for us.’

Screech-Bling doffed his tricorn. ‘You will always be a friend of the troglodytes. When you return, we will welcome you with open arms!’

Then Hiss-Majesty stepped forward, bashfully holding their cheese-wedge hat.

‘You have helped me find much more than my proper hat, demigods,’ they said. ‘I have found my calling. I am not sure when I will see you again, because I have … I have decided to stay with Menoetes and herd cattle!’

Nico imagined Menoetes’s entire herd in matching uniforms with

sequinned pants and plumed hats, marching to the barn each evening in perfect lockstep. The thought made him smile.

‘You will make an excellent cattle-herder,’ Will said. Tentatively, he touched the troglodytes’ faces, and a warm glow spread from his fingers

across their skin. ‘Thank you both for your kindness, for taking care of me, and for getting us this far.’

The trogs stood a little straighter. ‘You honour us,’ said Screech-Bling.

‘I will never forget you, Will Solace,’ Hiss-Majesty said with a sniffle.

Then the trogs exchanged a look, as if silently agreeing that staying a moment longer would lead to ugly sobbing, and vanished in a cloud of dust.

Nico remained silent, stewing in his shame and irritation. ‘I’m sorry, Nico.’ Will broke the tension. ‘I didn’t –’

But Nico waved off his apology. He didn’t want to risk talking about it while he was still so upset.

‘Let’s go meet our shortcut,’ he said. Then he turned and walked towards the mysterious woman with the boat.

You'll Also Like