The first time Nico fell into Tartarus, it had somehow seemed to last a long time and no time at all, as if time had become elastic. But right then, as he and Will plunged through the void, it seemed to take
It was hard to talk. Hard to think. Hard to do much of anything except hold on and be terrified. Did either of them fall asleep at their oars? Maybe. Nico’s memory was a patchwork of nightmares and darkness.
At one point he drew his sword – he wasn’t sure why – and held it above him as if he could intimidate the abyss into releasing them. The blade’s dim glow illuminated the boat, enveloping him and Will in a violet halo.
But then the darkness closed back in, its black tendrils swarming the
sword like antibodies attacking a virus, and snuffed out the sword’s light.
After that there was nothingness once again: just the free fall and the roar of water, pain and voices.
Will had never experienced darkness like this.
He could feel it inside him, as if he were breathing it, consuming it. And it never ended.
It was not like night. His eyes would have eventually adjusted to that. He could see nothing here – not the boat, not the waterfall cascading around them, not even Nico beside him on the bench. Only the warmth of Nico’s
shoulder pressed against his told him that his boyfriend was still there. Every so often, Will thought Nico might be trying to say something, but it
was impossible to be sure in the thunderous roar of the Acheron and the torrent of screams from the tortured souls.
He tried to summon light from within himself … the faint glow that usually came so easily. But here it was impossible. This place seemed to drain him of his willpower.
That thought almost made him laugh. Because it was literal. His ‘Will’ power wasn’t there. It was gone. He just … existed.
But he existed with Nico. His sole comfort was that he wasn’t alone. He had Nico.
And together they fell.
Nico fought against the darkness, against the fear and the cold that wanted to paralyse him. Turning his head took every bit of his energy, but he put his mouth next to Will’s ear, took a measured breath and then said the words he hoped Will would hear.
A promise of hope.
The words tingled in Will’s ear.
They ignited his heart.
‘I love you.’
And they fell.
Nico noticed a tint to the darkness below – something between red and black. It grew and, as it did, so did the heat.
At first, he found it welcome – like the warmth of a spring day. Then it felt like the dead of summer.
Then like a furnace, a pit of lava, the middle of the sun.
He had a silly fleeting thought: Maybe this will recharge Will!
But the only thing the heat seemed to recharge was Will’s need to scream.
Will began to float off their bench … upward? Sideways? Nico wasn’t quite sure because the boat was twisting and spinning through the void, and his sense of orientation had gone haywire.
The oars forgotten, Nico grabbed Will and held him tight, his legs straining to stay anchored under the thwart beam.
‘I’m here!’ Nico told him. ‘I’ve got you!’
‘But that!’ Will yelled, his eyes fixed on something below them. ‘What about that?’
Nico followed his gaze, and he absolutely hated what he saw.
The red-tinted darkness had now resolved into deep ruby sky, punctuated with menacing darker clouds of … Oh. As their boat punched through one, Nico realized the vapour droplets were blood. Great. On top of all its other selling points, Tartarus had blood clouds. Nico didn’t recall those from his last trip.
And below the clouds was the rapidly approaching terrain – which they were moments away from smashing into.
‘I don’t know what to do.’ Nico said it softly at first, to himself; then he looked at Will. ‘I don’t know how we survive this.’
The wind blew through Will’s bushy hair. In the fiery light of Tartarus, his bronze skin seemed to glow again, each whisker on his cheeks a filament of gold. Nico found it completely unfair that, even as they dropped to their deaths, Will still looked stunning.
‘Nico,’ Will said, his tone suddenly confident, infused with sincerity, ‘if anyone can save us from this, it’s you.’
And in that moment Nico pushed aside his panic and his fear, because … Well, Will Solace believed in him.
The voices of the Acheron had dispersed as the waterfall broke into a loose funnel cloud of rain, but their words still rang in Nico’s head: So
cavalier with life. You distribute death like a badge of pride.
A solution sprouted in his mind.
He was in Tartarus. Death was all around him.
It was time to use that to his favour. ‘Will, hold on to my feet.’
‘What?’ ‘Just do it!’
Will grabbed him by the ankles. Nico spread out flat with his belly pressed against the bow of the boat, his head sticking over the prow like he was sledding in the Winter Olympics, skeleton-style … which only seemed appropriate. The ground kept rushing up to meet them – a depressingly familiar terrain of jagged hills; fleshy, pockmarked plains; and bubbling, poisonous swamps. From the base of the waterfall, the Acheron snaked
away through a deep canyon, but Nico had no faith they would hit the water, if that was even a survivable option.
He had to make his plan work.
Nico opened his mouth and screamed – unleashing all his power, his desperation, his will to live. Far below, the ground splintered in a web of fissures. Skeletons began clawing their way out of the soil – thousands of human, animal, giant and monster bones cobbling themselves together,
climbing atop one another to form an ever-growing scaffold of undeath.
Nico commanded them into the shape he needed, and the skeletons complied.
When the boat hit the top of the bone ramp, Will screamed, but he kept his grip on Nico’s ankles. Their canoe skittered down the slope perilously fast and bumpy at first, but the bones reshaped around their hull, slowing and guiding their descent. Moments later, the boat skidded to a gentle halt on the banks of the Acheron.
Nico rolled out of the boat and collapsed on his back, gazing up at the blood-red clouds in Tartarus’s sky.
That’s when he heard the laughter.
Nico sat upright, worried that some horrible demon had already found them. But it was Will, sitting in the dirt, hugging his belly as tears streamed down his face.
His giddiness was infectious. Nico couldn’t help it. The enormity of what they’d just survived hit him, and the only thing he could do was laugh.
‘Nico, you –’ Will dissolved into giggling. ‘You just built a halfpipe of the dead.’
‘I’d like to thank Tony Hawk,’ he said, ‘and all the dead who made this moment possible.’
Right on cue, the towering slope of skeletons collapsed into a lifeless mountain of bones.
Nico crawled over to Will and rested his head on Will’s thigh. ‘Welcome to Tartarus,’ Nico said. Then he passed out.