Search

Chapter no 37

The Sun and the Star

‘Dam it,’ said Nico.

Small Bob glowed brightly enough that Nico could see his skeletal outline. Nico watched as the cat elongated, then grew in height, until there was a full-size, snarling, illuminated sabre-toothed tiger next to‌

him.

Well, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen, he thought.

Nico glanced back at the first woolly mammoth–goat monster, which was making quick work of the remaining cynocephali. They didn’t have much time before the odds would be …

He grimaced. It didn’t seem accurate to say two-to-three, given that the ‘two’ were enormous monsters Nico had never seen before.

He had to focus, despite the fact that his inner voice was screaming at him. He’d sensed the dead beneath the ground and foolishly raised them, unaware that the bones weren’t bodies but attached to … those things?

What even were these creatures? What monster collected the dead and fashioned their bones into weapons? A part of him wanted to take back everything he’d just said to Will about the Underworld not being evil. Because these things seemed pretty evil to him.

‘What do we do?’ asked Will. ‘I don’t have any weapons.’ ‘Maybe you can Care Bear-stare them?’ Nico suggested. ‘Them? Nico, what are these things?’

‘I have no idea! I’ve never seen them before!’

Will hesitated. ‘I’m not sure I should use my abilities just yet.’ The monster took another thundering step towards the demigods,

crushing the mangrove roots beneath it. ‘How ’bout now, then?!’ said Nico.

‘What about Nyx? What if I only have enough power for a single shot?’ Nico glared at him. ‘What? Why would you say that?’

‘I’m exhausted,’ said Will. ‘I don’t know what I have in me!’

The first shaggy monster roared, and both boys watched as it opened its mouth – revealing a truly unfair number of teeth – and chomped down on the head of the final cynocephalus.

‘Well, that was awful,’ said Will.

Small Bob growled next to Nico, and he reached down to pet his head. ‘Kitty, I don’t know what strategies you have, but I’m willing to try

anything.’

The sabre-toothed tiger licked Nico’s hand, and it was strangely very much like being licked by a house cat, just rougher.

Small Bob crouched as the monster examined them. The woolly mammoth–goat thing lowered its head just like Small Bob had, and the two creatures locked eyes.

Come on, Nico thought. You can do this, Small Bob.

The monster made the first move, charging the tiger. Nico grabbed Will and yanked him out of the way.

It was just in time for Small Bob to leap up, rather than to the side. He landed on the creature’s neck, under the ridge of bones, and bit down on a fleshy spot. The creature cried out in pain, and Nico knew this was his only chance. He sprang forward, his sword ready, and jammed its point into the monster’s leg with a quick and deep jab, then ripped it free. The monster immediately stumbled, falling on its bleeding knee, which was when Nico heard the impossible.

‘Leave Carl alone!’

Nico spun around to find that the other shaggy creature had stepped back over the Acheron.

And had spoken.

‘That’s unfair!’ the monster said. ‘He’s going to get a head start!’

Carl whimpered. (The monster’s name is Carl? Nico thought.) ‘Don’t worry about me, Bartholomew! I’ll still beat you this time!’

‘You’re cheating, bro!’ Bartholomew yelled back. ‘You’re just jealous my collection is better!’

‘What in Hades’s name is going on?’ said Nico, lowering his sword. ‘You two can talk?’

Bartholomew scoffed. ‘That’s a fine question to ask after you just stabbed my bro in the knee!’

Small Bob hopped down off the monster’s back and slunk over to Nico, his maw soaked with blood. Moments later, he turned back into a calico. A very confused calico.

‘Nico, I know Tartarus is a bizarre place,’ said Will, ‘but please tell me I’m not hallucinating.’

‘You’re not hallucinating,’ he said. ‘Are they talking?’

Carl panted on the ground. ‘I am right here,’ he said. ‘You don’t have to talk about me like I’ve already died, dude.’

Bartholomew plodded over to his friend. ‘But you’re about to,’ he whined. ‘Did you plan this? Is this a set-up, bro?’

‘Oh, so you think I somehow found this guy and brought him to Tartarus so he could resurrect us?’ Carl laughed weakly. ‘Even you know that’s

absurd, bro.’

‘Could someone please explain to us what’s happening?’ Nico cried. ‘What are you two?’

Bartholomew lowered himself to sit next to Carl. ‘We are aeternae!’ he said. ‘Surely you’ve heard of us.’

Nico shook his head, but Will was nodding.

‘Alexander the Great wrote about you!’ said Will excitedly. ‘You killed a bunch of his men over in India.’

Carl grunted. ‘Gods, he was so annoying.’

‘Always said he never lost a battle,’ added Bartholomew. ‘And yet we

easily destroyed, like, half his army without them killing a single one of us.’ ‘I guess we don’t count,’ whined the other aeterna.

Bartholomew snuggled closer. ‘You count to me, bro.’ ‘Bro,’ said Carl. ‘That’s … That’s so nice of you to say.’

‘Am I drunk?’ said Will. ‘I’m drunk. Menoetes put wine in the nectar, I know it.’

Nico ignored Will. ‘I’m … I’m still lost. Why are you mad at Carl for dying?’ Then he turned to Carl. ‘And why do you seem to want to die?’

‘Oh, bro, it’s so cool!’ said Carl. ‘When we die, that’s when we collect bones for our defences. I’m gonna get so many more bones than

Bartholomew, dude!’

‘Only because you’re getting a head start!’ screamed Bartholomew. ‘Now I gotta go find a battle that will end in my death, dude. Those dog-headed monsters were, like, way too easy, man!’

At the exact same time, both Carl and Bartholomew turned their heads to Nico, then looked down at his glowing Stygian iron sword.

‘Bro,’ said Carl.

‘Bro,’ said Bartholomew.

‘Oh, no,’ said Nico. ‘No, no, no. Don’t even think of it.’

‘It’ll be so easy!’ said Bartholomew. He then fully lay down and

stretched out his neck. ‘Just make it real quick, and then it will be a fair race.’

‘I’ll still beat you, dude,’ said Carl.

‘As if. I’m gonna find so many bones that my bones will have bones!’ ‘Oh, yeah?’ Carl coughed, and blood trickled from his mouth. ‘My bones

won’t just have bones, but while you’re asleep they’re gonna steal your bones.’

‘Bro, I’d like to see you try!’

Will’s jaw was practically on the mossy ground. ‘I think I may never recover from this.’

‘I’m not going to kill you, Bartholomew,’ said Nico. ‘I just thought you were going to kill us. That’s the only reason we attacked Carl.’

‘Bro, it’s almost time,’ said Carl. ‘I’ll see you on the other side!’

‘Not fair!’ cried Bartholomew, and he raised his head, glaring at Nico. ‘Come on, dude, just kill me!’

Nico dropped his sword, his face twisted in bewilderment. ‘This is too much,’ he said. ‘I can’t willingly kill someone like that!’

‘Why not? You basically killed Carl. What’s one more?’ Will tugged on Nico’s bomber jacket. ‘Let’s just go, Nico.’

At that, Bartholomew fully rose and roared at both of them. And once again Nico really hated how many teeth were in his mouth.

‘You don’t have a choice!’ the aeterna bellowed. ‘If you don’t kill me, I’ll eat you both!’

Which is the exact moment when Nico realized that Small Bob was no longer around. He looked down, then around him, and then he was too late.

Small Bob – now back to sabre-toothed-tiger form – leaped from behind and clawed his way up Bartholomew’s body. The aeterna roared, but mostly because he was surprised.

There was nothing Nico could do as Small Bob ripped out the monster’s throat.

He fell to the ground alongside his friend. ‘Bro,’ Carl groaned. ‘You did it.’

‘Just for you, bro,’ said Bartholomew. ‘You’re the coolest, dude.’

‘No, you are.’

Moments later, there was silence. Small Bob trotted over to Nico, looking quite pleased with himself. He shrank until he was back to a calico cat, then rubbed his blood-covered face on Nico’s boots.

The bodies of the two aeternae sank into the earth of Tartarus. The last thing Nico saw of Carl was a lone, bony hand, disappearing into the dirt, its thumb raised in approval.

‘Let’s never tell anyone about this,’ said Will. ‘Oh, most definitely not,’ said Nico.

‘Meow.’

Small Bob began walking towards the swamp, stopping halfway there to turn back and mewl at Nico and Will.

‘I think he wants us to follow him,’ said Nico evenly.

‘I think I’m dreaming,’ said Will. ‘Did Epiales just give us a fever dream?’

Nico didn’t answer. The two of them slowly followed Small Bob into the swamp, leaving Gorgyra’s boat behind.

 

 

 

 

The blisters on their skin had begun to heal, but Nico picked at one of them as they trudged through the muddy undergrowth. Even with no sun in the

sky above, the swamp felt just as muggy as a summer afternoon in

Manhattan, when all the heat got trapped in between the buildings and

cooked the people down below. Sweat poured down Nico’s face constantly, running into his eyes and stinging them.

It was clear Will wasn’t doing much better. His skin had fewer blisters on it, but it had returned to its previous waxy sheen. Nico had to slow his pace so Will could keep up, and even then Nico wasn’t sure how much longer Will was going to last.

The swamp was dense, dark and oppressive. The greenish haze was gone, but high in the mangrove trees there was a yellowish mist that smelled of

sulphur. The water below was a deep brown colour, and all sorts of slimy creatures slithered away from them.

Small Bob kept a much faster pace, darting so far ahead that Nico often lost track of the cat until they managed to stumble upon him, and then he’d bound away again. Nico knew he should be more vigilant about what

awaited them in the swamp, but exhaustion was beginning to numb his

senses, too. He heard things rustling nearby, yet he didn’t look. It felt like something was close behind them, but he couldn’t bring himself to turn back. He moved forward, one pained step at a time, because if he stopped, if he hesitated, he would simply cease moving entirely.

They walked for hours. Nico soon had to grasp Will’s hand and tug him along. They stepped over gnarled roots and trudged through thick mud that threatened to hold them in place. The swamp hummed with a terrible

energy. Was it the creatures who hid in the darkness? Or was it a sign that they were trampling through a living thing, an organ or another part of

Tartarus that was just as alive as everything else?

‘I wish Small Bob could talk,’ said Will, breaking the long silence. ‘So he could tell us how much further we have to go.’

‘You’re doing well,’ said Nico. ‘Every step we take brings us closer to Bob.’

‘How come those boneheaded weirdos could talk but not Small Bob?’ Will said, continuing as if Nico hadn’t spoken. ‘Like, where’s the justice in that?’

Nico chuckled. ‘Yeah, that does seem pretty unfair.’

Will started to say something, but he snapped his mouth shut. ‘What is it?’ asked Nico.

He squeezed Nico’s hand weakly. ‘I love you, Nico,’ he said, and his voice shook on Nico’s name.

Tears sprang to Nico’s eyes. He could hear the pain in Will’s voice. ‘I love you, too.’

‘I don’t mean to get sappy in the middle of the most cursed swamp in the whole universe.’

‘You totally do.’

Will nodded. ‘I one hundred percent do,’ he said. ‘I have to.’ Nico tugged him forward again. ‘Why?’

Will hesitated, then said, ‘Because I can feel it all slipping away.’ Nico froze, and Will’s boots sloshed in the wet mud. ‘What?’

‘I don’t know how else to describe it,’ he said, his lips moving slowly. ‘It’s like … like who I am, and what I’ve done … it’s hard to remember.’

Nico could feel his own exhaustion pulling at his bones, beckoning him to remain still, to drop to the ground.

But he couldn’t give in to it. Not after all this. Not with Will in this state. ‘Come on,’ said Nico. ‘We have to keep going.’

Small Bob meowed from the twisted roots of a nearby mangrove, and Nico guided Will in that direction.

‘I can’t say I’m going through what you are,’ Nico said. ‘But think about what Percy and Annabeth told us. We have to keep reminding each other of our lives before. That’s how we’re going to survive this, Will.’

‘Before?’ Will groaned. ‘I can’t grab on to any one thing. It’s all a soup in my mind.’

‘Then let me remind you,’ said Nico. ‘Or we can talk about the stories we shared with Gorgyra.’

‘Gorgyra.’ Will said her name sleepily. ‘Her dress was weird.’ ‘It was,’ said Nico, smiling.

‘It was full of voices.’

‘Don’t think about those. Think about what we told each other.’ ‘They said I belonged with them,’ said Will. ‘That I was lonely, even

with you.’

Nico’s heart sank. ‘What?’

‘Not all the time, Nico,’ said Will, shooting him a sad look. ‘Just sometimes. When I’m not sure if you’ve let me in.’

Nico didn’t slow down, even though he wanted to, even though he needed to know what Will meant. But … he already knew, didn’t he? As much as this trip had revealed some of Will’s uncomfortable thoughts about the Underworld and the darkness in Nico, it had also revealed that Nico often shut Will out. Of his past, of his feelings, of the things that scared him.

‘This relationship stuff is hard,’ said Nico softly.

Will nodded. ‘Yeah, it is,’ he said. ‘I didn’t know you had to, like … always work on things. But you do, don’t you? Every part of it … is a choice.’

Small Bob leaped across the path they were on and jumped over a downed mangrove. Nico helped Will over it first, then hopped up onto the trunk. On the other side, Will had his arms out to help Nico down.

‘Will, you’re exhausted. Don’t worry about me.’

‘I got you,’ said Will. ‘Just like you’ve had me this whole quest.’

Nico eased himself into Will’s arms, and soon they were both locked in a tight embrace.

‘Is it okay if I tell you I’m scared?’ Will said into Nico’s shoulder. ‘Of course.’

‘Because I’m scared of what’s coming.’ Nico pulled away. ‘Of Nyx?’

‘Maybe a little,’ he said. ‘But more … more the prophecy. And what you’ll have to leave behind.’

Will’s upper lip quivered, and Nico stilled it with a kiss.

‘It’s not going to be you,’ he said, ‘and it’s not going to be me.’ ‘You promise?’

Nico hesitated for only a second, then blurted out, ‘I swear on the Styx.’ Will’s eyes went wide. ‘Nico, why did you say that?’

‘Because I meant it!’

‘But what if that is how you have to save Bob? Now you can’t!’

Nico shook his head, then pulled Will along once more, desperate to get past this awkward moment. ‘We’ll figure it out when we get to that point.’

He could tell Will had more to say, but his boyfriend fell back into silence.

So Nico filled it as they walked. He started with the stories they’d told Gorgyra, even recounting Will’s own past to him. His companion didn’t

speak the entire time, but Nico knew that Will needed this more than he did.

He reminded Will about the infirmary. The trading of trinkets.

That first kiss.

Nico then shared parts of his childhood he’d never talked about before –good parts. He spoke of Bianca, his Mythomagic set, the Lotus Hotel.

Nico described as much brightness as possible. He imagined himself as a sun that shone on Will and cast him in warmth. He had to, because shadows swallowed them on all sides, gnarled roots threatened to trip them up, and thorny vines hung menacingly from the branches.

They walked.

Finally, Nico couldn’t keep talking any more. His throat was dry, and his tongue was sticking to the roof of his mouth. He so desperately wanted all this to be over.

But the swamp kept going on and on and on. The only sound Nico heard aside from their footsteps was Will’s laboured breathing.

It was getting worse.

 

 

 

 

When Nico was certain that he was actually going to collapse before Will did, Small Bob started yowling repeatedly.

Nico’s eyelids were drooping again and again, as if they weighed half a ton. His vision was beginning to blur at the edges, too. Sleep threatened to take over his body, but he couldn’t stop here. Everything was dark and wet and muddy, and Nico had no idea where he was. What if Small Bob got too far ahead? What if they had doubled back the way they had come?

So when Small Bob’s cries reached Nico’s ears, he let go of Will’s hand, then began to lightly slap his own cheeks. ‘Stay awake, Nico,’ he said. ‘Stay awake.’

‘Is that Small Bob?’ said Will. ‘Or is there some sort of cat monster calling out to us, announcing that we’re about to be its next meal?’

Nico walked towards the sound of Small Bob and found him perched on an enormous root. The calico looked up at Nico and purred loudly.

‘What is it?’ he asked. ‘What did you find?’ Small Bob turned his head to the side.

The trees were sparser in that direction. Beyond them, there were no more mangrove roots and no more yellow mist.

‘Will …’ Nico said, practically vibrating. ‘Will, I think we’re here.’ Small Bob bounded forward, and Nico chased him, dragging a stumbling

Will behind him. The trees parted, and Nico gasped as they burst into the clearing.

To his right was an enormous oak. It leaned so far to the left that Nico wasn’t sure why it hadn’t completely fallen over. He noticed it grew not from the ground but out of a frighteningly large drakon skull.

But there, in the direction the tree pointed, was a hut. It had a strange dome made of green leather and … were those bones? Maybe. The dark

entryway was on the side facing where they’d exited the swamp, and Nico

almost slipped on the mossy rocks as he scrambled towards it. Two large femurs were situated on either side of the door, their top ends stained black.

‘Damasen!’ Nico called out. ‘Damasen, we are friends! Are you here?’

He heard Will say something behind him, but Nico didn’t stop. He needed this. They needed this. After so much pain and suffering, they had to have this win.

Nico skidded to a stop in front of the hut. He tore free his sword, holding it aloft so it would illuminate the darkness, and stepped inside …

His heart dropped to his feet.

Will shuffled up next to him. ‘Where is he?’ he said. ‘Where is Damasen?’

Nico wanted to cry.

‘The hut is empty,’ he said. ‘He’s gone.’

You'll Also Like