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Chapter no 36

The Sun and the Star

Eventually, the voices of the punished souls became a sort of background noise for Nico. Though they were certainly more insistent, they reminded him of his own internal voice, the one that

always told him negative things about himself. What difference did a few thousand more make?

He sat up and gestured for Will to join him. Will, still shaking, quickly crawled over and twisted around so his back was against Nico’s chest.

‘I’m going to close my eyes,’ Will said. ‘This place … I don’t like looking at it. It’s getting more and more intense.’

‘I got you,’ said Nico. ‘Just rest. Recuperate. I’ll wake you once Small Bob does anything.’

The calico meowed, then hopped into Will’s lap.

Will went silent then, only moving as he breathed. Nico suspected that the protective layer over Will’s vision – kind of like the Mist, but for demigods in Tartarus – was fading. That wasn’t good. It was actually very bad. An unfiltered view of Tartarus felt like beetles invading your mind, and Will was already so weak.

But Nico … well, he’d done this before. So he was better able to

withstand the signs of a slumbering protogenos as they drifted down a river full of agonized souls.

He finally saw the source of the lava fields far in the distance to their left.

There was an erupting volcano spewing magma and black ash up into the blood clouds and, from there, flows of lava spread in every direction, much like …

Oh.

He gulped.

The lava flows spread over Tartarus like veins.

This was the protogenos’s circulatory system, carrying fire and hatred throughout his body.

Nico was thankful that Will was asleep and not observing any of this.

Not yet, said a voice from the river. But he will. And then you two will give yourselves over to us.

Nico shook his head. No, they wouldn’t. They were here to free Bob from Nyx, and Nico would do anything it took to fulfil this quest and rescue his friend.

But, as the Acheron led them away from the lava fields, Nico still wasn’t sure if that was true. The final lines of the prophecy jabbed at him. He still hadn’t figured out what that part meant. How would he be required to leave something behind of equal value?

It couldn’t be Will.

It couldn’t be himself. It just couldn’t.

The river began to bend towards Nico’s right, and that was when the sky started changing. The blood-red sky took on an orange hue, then a yellow one. Mountains rose on either side of the Acheron further downstream, and they looked horrific, as if they were made of bones and knives, jagged and sharp. As the river approached them, Nico could also see the clusters of regeneration pods spread all over the base and lower half of the mountains. He wondered what kinds of monsters were going to break free from them, but then he was immediately glad he wouldn’t be around to find out. On

either side of the banks of the river were bone-white Joshua trees, thorny bushes and the skeletons of cacti.

This was a wasteland within Tartarus. Nico wasn’t sure which part of the body this represented, but he wanted to suggest that Tartarus use some moisturizer.

And Will and Small Bob slept on.

The mountains rose ever higher. Nico realized that the Acheron was set to pass between them, and his senses tingled. Something was wrong.

Terribly wrong. He twisted around as best as he could without waking Will and saw …

Shadows.

Shadows were darting between the skeleton trees and cacti.

Something was following them.

Nico tried not to panic. They were on a fairly fast-moving river, and it was also wide enough that most creatures wouldn’t be able to access the boat without plunging into the deep waters. But …

They were about to lose their advantage.

As the boat floated towards the next pass, the walls of the mountains rose high above them. Nico recalled Percy’s stories of facing Scylla and

Charybdis with Clarisse La Rue, and he knew that this predicament was far worse.

This river was in a narrow canyon, and the Acheron thinned to a width only slightly larger than the boat’s. Anything that wanted to ambush them could do so now.

Nico looked back one last time.

He thought he saw something lurking behind the trunk of a cactus. He wasn’t sure, and that was a million times worse.

‘Just stay alert,’ Nico whispered to himself.

His left arm was looped around his boyfriend, his fingers interlocked

with Will’s. But his right hand now crept towards his sword, and his fingers grazed the pommel.

The boat entered the mountain pass.

Nico kept his eyes on the steep inclines, dancing from one side to the other. There were jet-black scrub plants growing on the sides, as well as bushes with sickly brown leaves shaped like long needles. The stone of the mountains glistened, and Nico was sure that if he reached out and touched it, it would be wet and sticky.

Like an organ.

Like something that was alive.

He pulled out his sword and brought his right arm around so the blade was now resting just over Will’s body.

He heard a splash behind him.

It was small. Nothing too large, then. And, to Nico’s left, a few pebbles rolled down the mountain and softly plunked into the Acheron.

He glanced up, gripped his sword tighter.

The eyes were small and glowed in the yellow hue of Tartarus. There weren’t many of them tucked up behind the needle plants, but they were there. Watching. Waiting.

Waiting for what, Nico did not know.

But they didn’t attack the boat. The river surged, and they picked up speed, twisting through a sheer gorge before the Acheron sloped down.

Nico held Will tightly as the boat bounced along the river, and then they returned to a slow drift once the Acheron straightened. Behind him, the

short rapids petered out until they were a dull roar, and then … nothing. The canyon was deathly silent.

‘I really hate this,’ Nico whispered aloud.

The tension was unending. Nico wasn’t sure if he was imagining the

sound of something entering the water behind him, but he also didn’t want to risk taking a look back and leaving himself vulnerable to an attack from either mountainside. Every so often he’d catch a creature hiding in the

shadows, its small, beady eyes glowing as it watched them, but nothing made a move.

Meanwhile, Will began to stir in Nico’s arms. He wasn’t waking but struggling in the midst of a dream. Nico wished he could pull the

nightmares from his boyfriend’s mind and take them on himself so that Will could sleep restfully. He needed it.

You need it, too, said the river. Why don’t you join us? Why don’t you rest forever?

Nico inhaled deeply, trying to still his racing heart.

Soon, though, the twisting, turning canyon gave way to an opening. An ending. The stone walls on either side no longer towered over the boat. It was only once they’d passed the other end of the canyon that Nico allowed himself to look back.

He spied a few sets of glowing eyes peeking around the trunk of one of the bony Joshua trees.

Who were they? What did they want? Why hadn’t they attacked?

He glanced down at the dark waters of the river but saw nothing following him.

Nico settled, facing forward, and Will continued to twitch and kick softly in his arms.

The Acheron flowed, and they flowed along with it.

 

 

Will woke when Nico started coughing.

Will drifted from his nightmares into consciousness. Nyx or Tartarus – he wasn’t sure which, nor did he think it mattered in the end – had sent him images of Nico, furious. ‘You left me behind!’ Nico had spat, and he’d backed Will to the edge of the cliffs that overlooked Erebos, Hades’s palace and the fields of the dead. ‘Now it’s your turn.’

And Nico had shoved him. Over and over again.

Will had believed he was falling, but it was only once his eyes were open and had adjusted to the yellow-green light that he realized he was no longer dreaming. The feeling of Nico trying to hold in a cough had shaken him

awake.

He leaned forward and spun around, and that was when Nico doubled over, coughing hard and deep. Before Will could react, before he could comfort his boyfriend, the gases hit him, too.

Will’s eyes stung, then welled up with tears, blurring the sickly landscape on the banks of the Acheron. His lungs quickly filled with the bitter, thick

air, and he started coughing as well. But it didn’t help. No matter how hard he coughed, he couldn’t expel the foulness.

‘Nico,’ he groaned. ‘Where are we?’

Small Bob sat on the bow of the ship and meowed at them.

Nico spat a thick blob of phlegm onto the floor of the boat, and it was tinged with brown. ‘Inside,’ he slurred. ‘We’re inside.’

Will wiped at his eyes and clung to the hull. He peered out into landscape, but everything was coated in a terrible mist, greens and yellows mixed in a sickening cloud. He could see the slick, moist stone ground, but nothing else.

He gazed behind them and thought he saw a pair of glowing eyes, but the mist swallowed up whatever it was.

Inside.

Inside.

Something was too familiar about that. Will crawled forward and lifted Nico’s head, which had drooped to his chest.

‘Inside what?’ he choked out. ‘What’s inside, Nico?’

Nico’s eyes rolled in his head before they focused on Will. He had never seen Nico so scared before.

‘You know,’ Nico breathed out. ‘The mist.’

Will was beset with another bout of horrific coughs, and he fell back, his right shoulder hitting the opposite bench and ringing out with a dull pain.

The acidic air clung to his lungs. It coated his skin.

Which then began to blister.

The bumps were small at first. His arms were itchy, but as soon as he brought the fingers of his other hand up to scratch, the lumps became prominent. He cried out and bolted up and saw that Nico’s outstretched hand was bubbling with them, too.

It was like …

Like they were being digested.

It all came to him then, and it felt as if something had been lifted from Will’s consciousness, some sort of gauze that had been there since they’d fallen into Tartarus on this very boat. He had never seen Tartarus for what it truly was. Everything before this had only been what his mind had been

able to handle.

Will crawled forward. How had Nico described it? Tartarus was alive.

Oh.

They were inside the old god. And this …

This was his digestive system.

Tears flowed out of Will’s eyes. No. No, this couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t be true. But his skin ached, his lungs struggled to fill themselves with air, and his eyes burned.

They were being consumed. Tartarus was alive.

Will felt his mind start to crack, to shatter. The pained voices in the river cried out to him, reminding him what a horrible person he was, showing him how many monsters he’d killed, how many campers and demigods he had failed to protect. His fingers were in his bushy hair, pulling it over and over again, and he clamped down on the scream building in his throat.

It was Small Bob who saved him.

Will felt claws in his shirt, on his chest. Small Bob’s face loomed in his, and he meowed loudly.

‘Huh?’ Will tried to grab the cat, but the furball darted off towards the bow of the boat.

‘Meow!’

‘What is it?’ Will struggled towards him.

The cat continued to mewl, so Will pulled himself up and peered over the hull.

The Acheron was widening, but that didn’t interest him. The shadows in the mist, however …?

Will squinted. Within the clouds of acid, he could just make out twisting shapes that rose out of the ground. The boat slowly drifted towards them until …

He knew.

He knew what they were!

‘Nico!’ he cried, then coughed. ‘Nico, I think we’re here!’

He turned quickly and Nico groggily pushed himself off the bench he was leaning on. ‘What?’ he said. ‘What is it?’

Will pointed as Small Bob mewed again. ‘I know those trees!’ he said.

For a moment, the name escaped him, but then he was finally able to blurt it out. ‘Mangroves!

Nico squeezed next to Will and spat again. ‘Which means …’ Small Bob meowed.

‘It’s a swamp,’ said Will.

Right then Small Bob leaped from the boat and landed on the shore. He kept pace with the boat, yowling loudly.

Nico groaned as he stood slowly. He stepped out of the canoe to follow Small Bob and waded his way to the banks of the Acheron.

The voices hissed and cried out.

You can’t leave.

You can’t escape what you’ve done. Failure.

Join us.

Come join us.

Nico stumbled, and Will spun around. He needed to land the canoe, moor it to something, so he could climb out. All he had to do was stick out an oar and …

The oars. No!

He had completely forgotten them. They must have fallen out when he had flipped the boat to make a shelter for Nico!

Panic filled Will. He looked back at his boyfriend, whose figure was getting smaller on the riverbank.

So Will grabbed the gunwale and he, too, jumped out of the boat, keeping a tight grip as the Acheron’s freezing waters ran over his bare skin. He was finally ready to admit that wearing shorts had not been the brightest idea.

An unbearable pain ripped through his body, and this time it felt like the

souls of the punished were clinging to his legs. The boat was being pulled downstream by the current, but Will held on to it as he took a tentative step towards the bank. Then, with a scream of frustration and agony, he heaved the canoe onto the shore. He dragged it with jerking movements until it rested completely on the mossy ground.

Only then did Will allow himself to collapse.

He lay there, staring up at the diseased sky, his every breath a painful rasp. Thankfully, Nico soon arrived.

‘Will,’ he breathed out. ‘Will, you’re okay.’

‘I hate this place,’ said Will, struggling to sit up.

Nico actually laughed. ‘It’s really terrible, isn’t it?’

This time even Will couldn’t resist. He fell into laughter with Nico until the son of Hades was doubled over, coughing into Will’s chest.

‘We look hideous,’ said Will. ‘Like Aphrodite’s worst nightmares.’

Small Bob trotted up to them, and Will was suddenly overcome with

emotion at the sight of the cat. He held out his arms, and Small Bob crawled into his lap, where he promptly curled up and started purring.

‘Thank you, Small Bob,’ said Will.

The three of them sat there while Will and Nico caught their breath,

which still hurt from the acidic air. But it wasn’t as bad as it had been a few minutes ago. By the time Will felt rested enough to rise from the ground, he’d noticed that the greenish-yellow mist only hung lightly in the mangrove forest. He could make out the twisted roots of the trees and now saw there were other plants, too: thin reeds with puffy ends shooting out of the ground; a leafless clump of bushes, their branches covered in thorns.

Dark vines with small grey flowers hung from the mangroves. ‘So this is the swamp,’ said Will. ‘It’s sort of … peaceful here.’ ‘Peaceful?’ Nico spat out some more phlegm. ‘Really?

‘I don’t know! In its own way. It’s so quiet here. And the longer I’m in the Underworld, the more I have to accept that it’s nothing like what I thought it would be.’

Nico raised an eyebrow. ‘What do you mean?’

He gestured to the mangroves. ‘It’s like in Persephone’s garden. There’s no sunlight at all, and yet these plants all seem to be thriving.’

Nico fidgeted in place. ‘Well … yeah. Like I said before, life finds a way, even here.’

Will stepped closer to Nico. ‘I’ve been kinda closed-minded, haven’t I?

That bothered you,’ he said. ‘And so have a lot of other things I’ve said, right?’

Nico shrugged. ‘It’s not a big deal.’ Will rolled his eyes. ‘I knew it!’ ‘I’m fine, I promise.’

‘Nico,’ he said, ‘I can always tell when you’re upset, and we’re in a place where being upset is actually a very bad thing.’

Small Bob mewed softly at Will’s feet. ‘See? Even the cat agrees with me.’

Nico looked like he was going to give Will a sarcastic reply, but he pressed his lips together, then sighed. ‘I just feel like sometimes you haven’t been willing to see the Underworld through my eyes,’ he finally said.

‘Through your eyes?’

‘I don’t know. It’s complicated. I get why this place scares you, and it’s not like I love Tartarus or anything. But the Underworld is … well, it’s like a second home for me. And it hurts to hear you talk about it like it’s evil.

Death isn’t evil. It’s just … death.’

Will thought about that for a moment. Nico did have a point, and Will’s mind immediately offered up a memory: the sight of Persephone, glowing with beauty, amid a garden that was the most picturesque thing Will had

ever seen. Her words came back to him, too. A god or demigod so

surrounded by death … they seem to appreciate life more than anyone else.

The Underworld was populated by death. That didn’t make it evil.

The troglodytes had helped them. So had Menoetes. And Amphithemis

… He was more victim than assailant.

There was so much life in this place dedicated to the end of it.

Maybe that’s what Nico meant. Somehow, the Underworld was like … like a spark of hope in the darkness.

‘I know it’s not all evil,’ Will said finally, and he took Nico’s hand. ‘It’s just … I guess it’s hard for me to adjust to it all. But … I’m trying. Do you

believe that?’

Nico examined Will’s face. ‘Yeah,’ he said, and it warmed Will’s heart. ‘I think you are.’

‘I still think Tartarus sucks,’ Will said. Nico chuckled. ‘Oh, I agree. It’s –’ ‘MEOW!’

They both looked down to Small Bob, who stood facing the Acheron. He was hissing, his back arched, tail up in the air.

Will’s heart flipped in his chest when he followed Small Bob’s gaze and saw, on the other side of the river, a pack of cynocephali.

The dog-headed monsters approached slowly, their lips curled up in growls and snarls. The leader – was it the same one Will had narrowly

escaped earlier? – paced back and forth, eyeing the river, clearly trying to determine if it should wade in.

‘Oh, great,’ said Will. ‘They followed us!’

Nico let go of Will’s hand and grabbed his sword. ‘I think I spotted them a few times along the way,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t entirely sure what was tracking us, but it had to have been them.’

Nico’s voice didn’t sound entirely certain to Will, but it didn’t matter. He quietly counted the pack. ‘Seven,’ he said. ‘Seven of them, three of us.’

Small Bob hissed again.

Will glanced at Nico, but he didn’t seem fazed at all. He had a mischievous grin on his face.

‘What is it?’ asked Will.

‘Our odds aren’t seven to three,’ he said. ‘Ours are much higher.’

Nico lifted his sword, blade down, then called out a summoning as he plunged the tip of it into the mossy terrain.

Immediately, the ground rumbled, and Will stepped back as a crevice formed in front of him. A bony hand poked out stiffly from beneath the dirt, and soon more bones appeared as skeletons rose from their resting place,

and …

No.

Something was off. Will sensed it.

Before Will could stop Nico, before Nico could realize what he’d done, the truth revealed itself.

The bones were not the dead, not in the way Will and Nico understood them. Will knew this as soon as the first creature’s head broke free of the

earth, then pushed itself upward.

Its head was crested with sharp, serrated bones. Femurs and jawbones, ulnae and humeri. Some were absolutely not human.

When the monster fully emerged, it stood on two legs but otherwise looked like something between a goat and a woolly mammoth, its body

covered in shaggy, matted fur, its eyes slitted and red. It roared, a piercing, horrifying sound that made Will clutch his ears, certain his eardrums would rupture if it went on any longer.

The monster spotted the cynocephali across the Acheron. The dog-headed creatures howled and barked, but Will watched in shock as the towering monster easily stepped over the entire river, then swung its

crested, bone-covered head down and cleaved three of the cynocephali in two with just one movement.

‘We should go,’ whispered Nico, his hand now on Will’s elbow.

Will wasn’t going to argue. He turned with Nico towards the mangrove forest, and …

Another one of the woolly mammoth–goat monsters burst out of the swampy forest. It crushed a tree under its hooves, then blew its rotting breath into the boys’ faces with a roar.

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