Chapter no 35

The Sun and the Star

Nico didn’t know what to do or where to go next.

The lava fields churned below him, and the land sloped gently downward. Menoetes had told him to ‘follow the trail to the left

until you reach the swamp’, but Nico hadn’t found any such trail yet. Nico assumed, though, that they needed to go deeper into Tartarus. Were they headed to the Doors? Was that where Nyx had Bob imprisoned?

The ground shuddered, and Nico waited to see if Will would wake up, but he continued to snooze soundlessly. Had that shudder been Tartarus taking a breath? He hoped the protogenos would remain in slumber – he had no desire to face him like Percy and Annabeth had, especially not since he already had Nyx to contend with.

He wondered if Nyx had sent Amphithemis his way. He hadn’t told Will this part, but manias were technically born from her. It was possible that the centaur’s arrival had been a coincidence, but Nico couldn’t really believe that.

At the same time … why? Why would she do that if she was waiting to torment Nico herself? That part didn’t make sense. Shouldn’t she want him to reach her as quickly as possible?

It was yet another unknown among so many others. He ran his fingers through Will’s hair, and his boyfriend stirred.

‘Shhh,’ said Nico. ‘Go back to sleep. We’re safe for now.’

Will yawned. ‘Nah,’ he said, rubbing his eyes. ‘I just needed a quick nap.’

He sat up slowly, and Small Bob woke up, too, arching his back and yawning. Nico noticed that Will’s skin looked a little waxy, like it had in the

Underworld prior to them finding Gorgyra. ‘Eat some ambrosia,’ said Nico. ‘Please?’

Will smiled at him. ‘Your cheek looks better,’ he said, rummaging in his knapsack. ‘And the scars might be kinda cute.’

Nico rolled his eyes. ‘Don’t start with that.’

‘Well, it’s true!’ He munched on an ambrosia square. ‘It’ll also make you more intimidating.’

‘Now that is much more interesting,’ Nico said. ‘I could always go for

more intimidating.’

Will scoffed. ‘Like you need it.’

The two of them sat in silence as they watched the spurting, hissing magma. It was Will who vocalized what Nico had just been thinking.

‘I don’t know what we should do next, Nico,’ he said. ‘This place … It feels like it goes on forever.’

‘I know. It’s hard to wrap your mind around.’

‘Now I get what you meant before. About how Tartarus presses down on your spirit. I don’t know how else to describe it, but it’s … it’s heavy.’

Nico nodded. ‘I know this is hard for you,’ he said. ‘Being down here for all this time. But you’re doing pretty well, all things considered.’

‘You think so?’

Nico leaned over and kissed Will’s temple. ‘Yeah, I do.’

‘I think we are doing well,’ Will said. ‘You realize we basically just had our first real fight, right?’

Nico raised an eyebrow at Will. ‘Did we?’

‘I don’t know. Things felt a little intense before I fell asleep.’ ‘They did,’ said Nico. ‘I was annoyed. And scared. And confused.’

Will cuddled closer. ‘Me, too, Nico. And it’s like this place is pushing us to that point.’

‘Yeah. It … It does that.’ He went quiet. ‘And I think it’s worse when you’re alone.’

Will sighed. ‘I’m really sorry I left you.’

Nico leaned away. ‘No, no, that’s not what I was referring to. I was talking about the time I was here before.’

‘Oh,’ said Will, and his face fell. ‘It’s one thing to hear you talk about it and another to actually experience it. You were in Tartarus for days! I’ve been here maybe a few hours, and I’m already losing it.’

‘No, you’re not,’ said Nico. And then, much quieter: ‘Not yet, at least.’

Will pushed himself up and held out his hand. ‘Then we keep an eye on each other,’ he said.

‘Deal,’ said Nico, taking Will’s hand.

Will struggled a bit helping Nico up but brushed it off with a dismissive wave. ‘I’m fine,’ he said. ‘Just tired.’

‘This is me keeping an eye on you,’ Nico said, smirking. ‘Are you okay?’

Will grimaced. ‘Better than before, I guess. But … I haven’t been without the sun this long in my entire life, and it’s starting to wear me down.’

Nico knelt and pulled the sun-therapy globe from Will’s knapsack. ‘Then maybe it’s time for you to recharge!’

Will laughed. ‘Oh, I’d forgotten about that!’

He took the globe from Nico and switched it on. Nothing happened.

‘Batteries must have drained,’ he said. ‘They were new, too.’ He tossed the globe to Nico, then dug around in his bag for the second extra set he brought. But even after replacing the dead ones, the globe didn’t turn on.

Nico frowned. ‘Maybe it got damaged.’

There was a moment when Nico thought that Will was about to panic.

But the son of Apollo quickly smiled and put the globe away. ‘Perhaps we should just get going, then. The sooner we find Bob, the sooner we can leave, right?’

‘True,’ said Nico. ‘But I … don’t actually know how to get out of Tartarus yet, though.’

‘We’ll figure it out later.’ Will turned around and looked out towards the boat. ‘What should we do with that?’

‘Good point,’ said Nico. ‘I’m not sure. I guess we’re supposed to take it with us? Or maybe come back to it?’

‘But we have no idea how far we’re going,’ said Will.

‘I know. I just wish I knew the way to Damasen’s hut. Where’s the swamp?’

There was a loud meow at Nico’s feet. He looked down at Small Bob, who yowled again.

‘What?’ said Nico. ‘Are you hungry? Thirsty?’

Small Bob meowed, then darted down the hill towards the boat. ‘What’s he doing?’ asked Will.

‘I don’t know. I don’t speak cat.’

‘Ha-ha. You know that isn’t what I meant.’

Small Bob stopped just past a couple of craters left behind by exploded regeneration pods. He let loose a long meow, then trotted away again.

‘I can’t believe I’m going to say this,’ said Will, ‘but does he want us to follow him?’

‘I’ve seen stranger things in Tartarus,’ said Nico. ‘Let’s go.’

Nico took Will’s hand and led the way as they chased Small Bob. Every so often the calico would pause and look back at the two of them, which pretty much confirmed Will’s theory. At the same time, Nico resisted the urge to celebrate. It was possible that Small Bob knew where his

companion was, but it was just as possible that the cat was leading them somewhere else. However, it wasn’t like Nico and Will had a ton of information to go on.

Moments later, they arrived at Gorgyra’s boat. Small Bob stood on his rear legs to try to look inside it, meowed, then sat and whipped his tail back and forth.

‘Okay, we made it to the boat,’ said Will, who was slightly out of breath. ‘Now what?’

‘Well, what did Menoetes say about Damasen’s hut?’ said Nico. ‘He told us to follow the troglodytes’ shortcut to the swamp.’

Will raised an eyebrow. ‘Maybe he meant that literally.’ ‘Huh?’

‘Like, the troglodytes’ shortcut was the Acheron, right? So, what if we’re supposed to literally follow it to the swamp?’

‘Oh!’ Nico widened his eyes. ‘Because it might take us to the exact swamp he was talking about.’

Will nodded enthusiastically. ‘I think that’s our best option right now.’ ‘Meow!’

Small Bob pawed at the air.

‘I think Small Bob just voted yes,’ said Will.

‘Let’s do this, then,’ said Nico, and he lifted the cat into the white canoe. ‘We’ll need to push it into the water together. You up for that?’

Will nodded, but he still looked a little sick. ‘Keeping an eye on you,’ said Nico.

Will swung his knapsack around and took a swig of nectar, which was the last bit left in the first of two bottles. He screwed the lid back on and put it

away. Within a few seconds, the colour returned to his face, and he took a deep breath.

‘I really don’t want to go back in that river,’ he said, ‘but it’s now or never.’

Nico smiled. ‘I’ll be right there with you.’

That seemed to be enough for Will. He closed the distance between them and planted a kiss on Nico’s lips.

‘Together,’ he said. ‘Together,’ Nico whispered.

With Will’s help, Nico dragged the boat over to the bank of the Acheron, and the agonized, pain-stricken voices called out to him once more, like he’d tuned in to the universe’s worst talk radio show. He ignored them as they both shoved the canoe into the water. Nico gripped the stern as hard as he could, and Will took a deep breath before hopping in.

His boyfriend gasped. Grimaced. Shook his head. ‘Hurry, Nico,’ he grunted. ‘Get in!’

Nico kept pushing the boat while bracing his legs on the bank, and soon it started moving, floating on the Acheron, while tormented voices called out to Nico, assuring him that he, too, would have his own place among them. He vaulted over the hull and rolled over onto his back, breathing hard.

You are the ghost king, a voice said.

I am, Nico thought.

This is where you belong.

But then Nico raised his head. Looked at the other two passengers. Will, whose face was strained as he reached down with a shaking hand to grab at him. Nico took it, gripped his boyfriend’s hand tight, and thought, No. This is where I belong.

Then Nico lay there, staring up at the blood-red sky, while the three of them drifted down the River of Pain.

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