Chapter no 7

The Sun and the Star

Parts of Penn Station had been renovated recently, but it was still nowhere near as picturesque as Grand Central Station, a fact that Nico always found disappointing. The lower level was dimly lit,‌

crowded and claustrophobic. As they navigated their way from the LIRR terminal to the subway, Nico grumbled to Will about the station’s dismal design.

‘It’s not that bad!’ said Will, pointing to a nearby food stand. ‘Those pretzels smell delicious.’

‘I don’t think the scent of baked dough counts as a positive architectural feature,’ said Nico.

‘You’re just upset that I didn’t let us shadow-travel or use the Grey Sisters or your zombie chauffeur.’

‘Any of which would have been easier and more fun!’

‘What have I told you about shadow-travel?’ Will chided him. ‘It’s not good for your health. You should only use it for emergencies, and this is not an emergency. Yet.’

As soon as he said this, a woman who was definitely a tourist walked

straight into him, spilling her iced coffee down the front of Will’s shirt and jeans.

Once again, Nico had to hold back a laugh. The poor woman was incredibly apologetic and offered to buy Will a shirt from a gift shop. Personally, Nico would have loved to see Will in an I ♥ NY tee, but Will muttered that it was fine, accidents happen, and they continued on their way.

‘Is it an emergency yet?’ Nico asked as they waited at the platform for the E train, a puddle of beverage forming around Will’s feet.

‘It’s coffee,’ said Will matter-of-factly. ‘We’ll be in the warm open air soon enough, and it’ll dry. Still not an emergency.’

It wasn’t an emergency when the E train they were waiting for didn’t

show up for thirty minutes due to a signal problem somewhere downtown. It also wasn’t an emergency when the 6 line they’d transferred to sat in the tunnel outside the Ninety-Sixth Street station for another ten minutes, Will’s clothes still damp, making the subway car smell like the dumpster behind a Starbucks.

‘This train is now out of service,’ the conductor announced when they

finally pulled into the station.

‘I can literally hear you saying I told you so in your mind, Nico,’ said Will when they emerged on the Upper East Side. ‘You’re basically yelling at me through telepathy.’

Nico laughed super hard. ‘I said no such thing!’ ‘Exactly. But you’re thinking it.’

Nico mimed a zipper across his lips. ‘I am nothing if not supportive of you, Will Solace.’

Will turned his face to the early-autumn sun and breathed in deeply. ‘All right, Nico di Angelo. So what’s this detour you had in mind?’

‘Right this way,’ Nico said.

The two of them dodged pigeons and some slow-walking tourists in a neighbourhood that was very much alive and very much unaware of the gods, demigods and monsters who called it home. The Mist prevented most humans from ever seeing that magical side of the world. To a mortal, a glowing sword might look like a baseball bat, because that’s what their brain could accept. A ravenous harpy might look like a bad-tempered

chicken. Even a celestial fight between gods and Titans might be written off as a freak thunderstorm. This was a good thing, considering how many wars for humanity had taken place here in Manhattan. But the Mist sometimes deceived demigods, too, obscuring the truth of the immense, primordial powers at play, and that’s why Nico was taking Will to a small apartment on 104th and First Ave.

Because only two other demigods had ever survived a journey through Tartarus and, for Will’s peace of mind as well as his own, Nico wanted to compare notes.

Will did not figure out where Nico was taking him until they were in front of the building. Then he stopped cold.

‘What are we doing here?’ he asked. ‘Recruiting Percy? I thought he was in California.’

Nico scowled. ‘Not recruiting him. Hades no. I wouldn’t dream of that.

He more than deserves time off.’ ‘Then –’

‘You’ll see.’ Nico led the way inside and up the stairs.

When the apartment’s front door opened, Sally Jackson smiled, her daughter, Estelle, firmly attached at the hip.

‘Hello, boys. Been a few months since I got a demigod visit,’ she said, and Estelle cooed. ‘Come on in.’

It was strange being in Percy’s home without him. Sally set Estelle in her playpen and then headed for the kitchen. She returned with a plate of blue

sugar cookies. ‘You know,’ she said, setting them down on the dining-room table, ‘I could make cookies in any other colour. But it’s mostly habit at this point.’

‘Thank you, but we don’t want to put you to any trouble,’ said Will. He glanced at Nico. ‘Do we?’

‘No …’ said Nico, though he considered Sally’s cookies a really great kind of trouble. ‘I just wanted to contact Percy and Annabeth, and I thought, well, this might be the best place to do it from.’

‘Contact him?’ asked Sally, taking the empty chair across from them. ‘About what?’

As best as he could, Nico briefly summarized the story of Bob and the prophecy.

Sally turned down a corner of her mouth. ‘You’re not thinking of asking Percy to go with you, are you? Because he’s just got settled at college, and this is the closest thing to normal he’s –’

‘Not at all,’ Nico cut her off. ‘I promise.’

‘Good.’ Sally crossed her arms over her chest. ‘Because I would never want Percy or Annabeth to have to face that place again. You shouldn’t go either, dear, no matter who is in danger.’

‘It’s different for me,’ Nico assured her. ‘As the son of Hades, I know my way around. But Will …’

Will leaned back, understanding dawning on his face. ‘Oh, I get it. You want me to talk to Percy. So he can discourage me from going?’

‘No,’ Nico protested, though maybe that thought had been in the back of his mind. ‘But I know you’re nervous about it. And you worry I’m underselling the danger. So I thought it might help to hear from someone who isn’t related to Hades and who still survived Tartarus.’

‘Barely,’ Sally murmured. ‘Percy doesn’t tell me the details of everything he’s been through. I think he believes he’s protecting me. But I do know that his worst nightmares are about Tartarus.’

Will gulped. ‘Wow, this is already helping so much …’

Nico tried to push down his rising frustration. ‘Will, just talk to Percy, okay?’

Will managed a smile. ‘Yeah, of course. It’ll be nice to see him. And Annabeth, too, if we can … Wait, how exactly are we contacting them –Iris-message?’

Nico turned to Sally. ‘I was hoping you might know their schedules? I don’t want to send them a glowing hologram when they’re in the middle of a lecture or something.’

Sally smirked. ‘I’m not saying I have their college schedules memorized, but this time of day, West Coast time, I imagine they’re both at Percy’s dorm … hopefully studying for their English exam.’

‘Perfect.’ Nico pulled a golden drachma out of his pocket. ‘Next question, Ms. Jackson. Do you have a standard way of sending him Iris-messages? Like, so I don’t have to spray water all over your apartment?’

‘Very thoughtful,’ said Sally. ‘I have just the thing. Come on.’

She gathered up Estelle and led them down the hallway, Nico and Will both grabbing some cookies on the way.

They ended up in Percy’s old bedroom, which again Nico found very strange. He remembered years ago, coming in through that fire escape

window and, to his surprise, being offered some of Percy’s birthday cake. It had been one the first glimmers Nico had ever felt of true friendship.

‘Here we are,’ said Sally, gesturing to a contraption on Percy’s dresser. Will laughed with delight. ‘That’s actually kind of brilliant.’

Nico had to agree. Percy had rigged a humidifier next to a desk lamp, so when Sally turned it on a veil of steam bloomed upward, the water droplets breaking the light into shards of colour – just what you needed to ask a favour of Iris, the rainbow goddess.

Nico held up his gold drachma. ‘O goddess, accept our offering,’ he prayed. Then he tossed the coin into the steam, where it promptly

disappeared. ‘Show me Percy Jackson at New Rome University.’ Seconds later, a familiar face took up most of the image of the Iris-

message. Percy’s green eyes looked like blotches of algae floating in the steam. ‘Nico?’ he asked. Then he stepped back and took in more of the scene. ‘Mom? Is everything okay?’

Estelle squealed with delight at the sound of her brother’s voice.

Sally laughed. ‘Yes, Percy, everything’s fine. Your friends just stopped by for a visit!’

From what little Nico could see in the background, Percy was indeed in his dorm room. There was a small unmade bed to the left and a desk

covered in books and papers. Percy himself looked somewhat dishevelled, too.

‘Nico!’ said Percy. ‘Oh, man, it’s so good to see you!’

Annabeth loomed into view, pushing Percy out of the way. ‘What’s going on? Do we need to come fight someone?’ Then her expression brightened. ‘Oh, hey, Nico. And is that Will? Will Solace! How are you?’

‘We’re good,’ said Will, beaming. ‘How’s college life?’

‘Shockingly normal,’ said Annabeth. ‘Aside from the stray monster or two, the biggest worry we’ve had is getting to class on time.’

‘Only I seem to have trouble with that,’ grumbled Percy. ‘You’re not missing classes, are you?’ said Sally.

Percy’s eyes went wide. ‘No! Definitely not. Never missed a class in my life.’

‘Didn’t you set your high school on fire once?’ said Annabeth. ‘I bet you missed class that day.’

‘I – You know that isn’t what happened! They were empousai! How was I supposed to know that Hecate was setting me up?’

Annabeth smirked at the others. ‘He’s so easy to wind up.’

Percy grunted. ‘Anyway …’ he said, peering at Nico and Will. ‘What’s up?’

‘So, we wanted to get your advice,’ said Nico. ‘About a quest.’ ‘Whoa, you guys got one?’ said Annabeth. ‘Oooh, tell us about it!’ ‘Well,’ said Nico, grimacing, ‘we’re going down to Tartarus.’

There was a long silence. If it wasn’t for Annabeth and Percy blinking, Nico would have believed there was some type of problem with the Iris-message connection. They’d recently gone almost a year without magical

communications because of the evil Triumvirate, so it wasn’t like that was impossible.

Still … Nico should have anticipated their reaction.

Finally, Annabeth turned to Percy. ‘He said Tartarus, right?’

‘Maybe it’s a quest for tartar sauce,’ Percy said. ‘Something low-stakes and delicious.’

‘Yeah, I’m going with that.’ Annabeth looked back at Nico. ‘So, a tartar-sauce quest. Good for you. Goes great with fish and chips.’

‘Come on, guys,’ said Nico. ‘I’m being serious.’

‘Oh, we know,’ said Annabeth. ‘So are we! You should definitely take up a tartar-sauce quest. Maybe consider a nice lemon aioli? That could be


‘Annabeth, please –’ Will began.

‘I saw a kid in the dining hall the other day mix every condiment

available into a masterful nightmare of a sauce,’ said Percy. ‘He called it the Explosion.’

‘Because it would be an explosion in the mouth,’ said Annabeth. ‘Makes a lot of sense.’

Nico groaned, and Estelle giggled in her mother’s arms.

‘Sounds like you all need to discuss this among yourselves,’ said Sally, bouncing Estelle gently on her hip.

‘There’s nothing to discuss!’ said Percy.

‘Love you, Percy!’ Sally called out. ‘Stop missing classes!’

There was another awkward bout of silence once Sally and Estelle left the room.

Nico sat on the edge of Percy’s bed. ‘Will and I are going whether we discuss this or not,’ he said. ‘I was hoping you two could give Will

something in the way of advice so that the journey isn’t as hard on him.’

Annabeth shook her head. ‘It’s Tartarus, Nico. You almost lost your mind there once before. We weren’t even in Tartarus that long, and it nearly destroyed us.’

‘I practically lost myself in that place,’ said Percy. ‘The things I saw … The things I did.’ He shuddered. ‘I still have nightmares about Akhlys.’

‘Well, this definitely doesn’t make me feel any better,’ said Will, plopping down next to Nico.

‘And you two are willingly going there?’ said Annabeth, her voice pitched high. ‘What is this quest? What possible reason –’

‘Bob!’ Nico shouted, louder than he’d intended. ‘I’m going back for


Now it was Percy and Annabeth’s turn to look uncomfortable. Percy closed his eyes for a long moment. ‘Oh, Nico,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘I know this is going to sound terrible,’ said Annabeth, ‘but I wasn’t even thinking of him. Gods, how could I forget?’

Will reached over and grazed the back of Nico’s hand with his fingertips. ‘We know this quest is a bad idea, but … there’ve been some developments. Nico, tell them.’

And so Nico did, as carefully as he could. When he recounted his most recent string of nightmares – the voice calling for help, the apparitions all telling Nico to listen – Percy and Annabeth became visibly upset.

‘We shouldn’t have left Bob down there,’ said Percy softly. ‘I knew this would come back to haunt us one day.’

‘I suspected it would, too,’ said Annabeth. ‘But … why you, Nico? I mean, no offence, but wouldn’t Bob reach out to me and Percy as well, since we were the ones who saw him last?’

Nico didn’t answer, though one theory lurked in a dark corner of his mind: Maybe because Bob thought I would help, but he wasn’t sure about you two.

Will seemed to pick up on his brooding thoughts. He hooked his finger

around Nico’s. ‘Guys, I agree it’s troubling that this prophecy seems geared only for Nico. We don’t know what Bob’s situation is. We don’t know if this is some kind of trap –’

‘I don’t care if it is!’ said Nico. ‘Because Bob is really in pain. I know it.

I need to do something to help him. We can’t leave him down there to suffer.’

Will squeezed his hand. ‘Exactly. We have to try. So if there’s anything you guys could tell us that might help …’

Percy’s gaze became unfocused, as if he were staring into the past. ‘Well, Bob is a former Titan. That means Tartarus itself doesn’t affect him the way it does us. At least he has some mental protection against the place. If he

survived that battle with Gaia’s minions …’

Nico could tell Percy was grasping at reasons for optimism, but they all knew Tartarus was the bleakest, most dangerous, most toxic environment in creation. Even if Bob had some resistance, even if he was an immortal being … there were plenty of things down there that could make a Titan

wish he could die. Nico was beginning to wonder if this Percabeth pep talk had been such a good idea after all.

‘Is there any protection I can bring?’ Will asked. He let go of Nico’s hand and rummaged through his knapsack. He pulled out a sun globe. ‘I do have this.’

‘Why would you need –?’ Annabeth began. ‘Oh, duh. Child of Apollo.

That’s actually really smart.’

Percy frowned. ‘Yeah, no sunlight … I didn’t consider that. Tartarus is going to be worse for you than anyone else.’ When Annabeth gently

slapped his shoulder, he winced. ‘What? I’m not wrong.’

Will’s whole body seemed to deflate. ‘So there’s nothing else I can do?’ ‘Now, wait a second,’ said Annabeth. ‘That’s not what either of us said.

In fact, I would say that you and Nico have one big advantage.’ Percy nodded. ‘You two have each other.’

Nico squinted at him. ‘Um … okay? What does that mean? Besides sounding like a cheesy Hallmark card.’

‘It’s exactly what it sounds like,’ said Annabeth. ‘Because that cheesiness is what’s going to make the journey survivable.’

‘Okay,’ said Will. ‘Meaning what, though?’

‘Tartarus wears down your sense of self,’ said Percy. ‘It honestly feels like it was designed to make mortals suffer. The more time you spend down there, the worse it gets.’

‘I remember that,’ said Nico, a familiar coldness creeping into his limbs. ‘It’s like … an endless dark voice in your head, telling you that you’re the worst.’

Percy was nodding. ‘And then there’s the Cocytus – the River of Lamentation – which is like that times ten.’

Will ran his fingers through his blond hair. ‘So … how is this supposed to help, exactly?’

‘Nico went through Tartarus alone,’ said Percy. ‘Well, maybe not totally alone, but he certainly didn’t have someone alongside him who cared about him and was invested in making sure he survived the journey. Honestly, I don’t know how he did it.’

Nico’s ears burned. He wasn’t sure if the awe in Percy’s voice made him feel pleased or resentful.

Annabeth wrapped her arm around Percy. ‘Being together is what made the difference for the two of us.’ Her grey eyes fixed intently on Nico, then

Will. ‘We reminded each other about the world above. We did what we

could when one of us was suffering to try and lift their spirits. Told jokes. Stories. Anything. Having a companion makes all the difference down there.’

‘And who knows, Will?’ Percy added. ‘Maybe you’ll find that being the son of Apollo gives you some kind of advantage. It’s possible that your powers will actually be stronger down there.’

‘But don’t depend on it,’ said Annabeth. ‘We both felt drained all the time. If it hadn’t been for Bob …’ She gazed at Percy, a regretful sadness on her face.

‘We wouldn’t have made it,’ he said, finishing her sentence.

Nico was now more certain than ever that he had to complete this quest. It wasn’t right that Bob had got left behind, and he would do pretty much anything to fix this.

‘Thanks,’ said Will. ‘That actually does help to know.’ But he didn’t speak with much certainty. When his eyes met Nico’s, they betrayed his fear.

‘Well, thanks, guys,’ said Nico. ‘We should let you go.’

‘Be careful,’ said Annabeth. ‘I know it goes without saying, but we don’t want to lose either of you.’

‘We’ve all lost so much already,’ said Percy. ‘Honestly, though? If any two people could survive a journey to Tartarus and back, I think it’s you two.’

Warmth spread through Nico’s chest. He remembered why he’d been drawn to Percy Jackson in the first place. Like Will Solace, Percy had an inexplicable, stubborn faith in other people.

‘Thanks,’ Nico said. ‘That means a lot, coming from you.’

‘One last thing,’ said Annabeth. ‘I don’t know if it’s possible, but see if you can find Bob’s cat.’

‘Small Bob!’ exclaimed Percy. ‘Oh, man, I hope he’s survived, too.’ ‘A cat?’ said Will.

‘Not just any cat,’ said Annabeth. ‘He’s a spartos, created from the fang of a sabre-toothed tiger. He looks like a calico cat, but he’s so much more.’

‘Bob and that cat were inseparable,’ said Percy. ‘Bring them both home if you can.’

‘We’ll do our best,’ said Nico, nodding. ‘Promise.’ They said their goodbyes, and the Iris-message faded.

Will and Nico sat in silence for a few moments before Sally Jackson returned. ‘You get what you needed?’

‘Yes, thank you,’ said Will.

‘I take it Percy couldn’t talk you out of it?’ asked Sally. ‘He tried,’ said Nico. ‘You would’ve been proud.’

‘But we’re still going,’ Will said, and Nico heard resolve in his voice.

Sally Jackson sighed. ‘Well then, you boys want some snacks for the road?’

Nico got the sense that this wasn’t the first time she’d had to deal with despondent demigods in her home. She seemed unfazed by it all.

Will helped her pack some blue sugar cookies in his bottomless knapsack while Nico wandered into the living room. Displayed on a bookshelf were various photos of Percy through the years. Nico picked up one of a young Percy, maybe eight years old, standing next to his mother, arms around her waist, his mouth open in a wide smile. They looked to be in Central Park,

and snow was falling around them.

‘Sometimes I need reminders of the normal, good times,’ said Sally as she came up behind Nico. ‘What with all the chaos in our lives. Despite it all, we actually did get to do some fun family stuff together.’

Nico turned to her. ‘You’re not afraid.’ ‘Hmm? What do you mean?’

‘All this talk here today … you didn’t bat an eye. Doesn’t it ever freak you out?’

‘It has,’ she acknowledged. ‘And I’ve seen some terrible things. There were certainly moments when I wasn’t sure my son would come back. He disappeared for months that one time, remember?’

Nico nodded. ‘Yeah, I was the first Half-Blood camper to find him in Camp Jupiter after he was swapped with Jason Grace.’

‘But at the same time he’s part of something wonderful now and, honestly, that makes it a lot easier.’

‘Part of what?’ asked Will, rubbing blue crumbs from the corners of his mouth.

‘Did you leave any for me?’ Nico said. Will just smiled.

‘Percy’s part of a great big family,’ said Sally. ‘He’s got friends like you and Will, and many others across the globe. And all of you, at a moment’s

notice, would do everything in your power to save the people you love. What more could a mother ask for?’

As Will and Nico left Sally Jackson’s home, Nico kept thinking about Sally’s words.


I guess Camp Half-Blood is basically one big super-dysfunctional family, he thought.

He wasn’t sure what awaited him and Will in the coming days, but he grabbed Will’s hand as they walked back to the subway. If they were going to survive Tartarus, then it was time to believe what Annabeth and Percy had told them.

They’d have to do it together.

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