Ever since Percy was little he had heard stories about the castle at the edge of his father’s kingdom. They said it had been the royal court once, until it was cursed by an evil sorceress for not being invited to a banquet. It was a dark place, surrounded by a forest filled with impassable thorny bushes and vengeful spirits. Every story told a different version of what had happened there, but the moral was always “never offend a witch”.
Percy had no plans to do that. But he did plan on visiting the infamous castle, even though Grover, his squire and best friend, tried to talk him out of it.
“It’s madness,” Grover said. “That place is cursed. A hundred years ago the entire castle and town died, and that forest appeared....”
“...and the land was left without a regent until my grandfather conquered it,” Percy said, rolling his eyes. “I know. I grew up with that story. That’s why I want to go investigate.”
“Even if the curse doesn’t scare you, the forest should,” Grover said. “Nobody decent lives within sight of it. Outlaws and bandits, the lot of them.”
“I’ll be fine, Grover,” Percy said. “You don’t have to come.”
“I’m your squire, of course I have to,” Grover sighed. “But I’m going to tell Lady Annabeth what you’re doing, and maybe she can talk some sense into you.”
“She already tried,” Percy laughed. “Then she gave up and asked me to record everything I see for future generations. Maybe I’ll find something that will finally solve the mystery of why it happened in the first place.”
“The witch was offended at not being invited to a party,” Grover frowned. “Everybody knows that.”
“I’ve heard something about there being more than one witch invited, and the one getting a silver plate rather than a gold one is the one who cursed everyone,” Percy said. “And I heard something about the princess being cursed. There are a thousand different versions of that story.”
“And all of them should tell you not to go there,” Grover pointed out. “But you’re going to anyway, aren’t you? Fine, I’ll get us packed.”
They left the following morning, bright and early. The journey to the cursed castle took two days and at the evening the second day they stopped to make camp with the forest visible in the distance. The highest towers of the castle could be seen above it. Grover was making a point of not even looking in that direction.
“I don’t like this,” he said. “We shouldn’t be here.”
“You’ve been saying that the whole journey,” Percy said tiredly, though he had to admit the place gave him an uneasy feeling as well. “Listen, why don’t you wait here tomorrow? The horses seems scared, and I doubt we’d be able to take them with us anyway.”
Grover protested a little bit, but agreed quickly enough, which showed how scared he really was. He made Percy promise to sound his horn if something happened, though.
At dawn the following day Percy entered the enchanted forest. It was like entering another world, the bright light of dawn suddenly turning to the falling darkness of twilight. The terrain was almost impossible to pass, as well. There were thorny bushes everywhere, and Percy had to cut his way through more often than not. It didn't help that every thorny vine he cut through knitted itself back together as soon as he had passed, either. He suspected it was already evening when he finally reached the castle wall, but the light hadn’t changed, so it was hard to tell. He had to go around the wall for a long while before he finally reached the gate, and could cut through the vines covering it.
After stepping through the gate, Percy froze. For a long time he stood still, staring at the scene in front of him. There wasn’t any thorny bushes inside the castle walls. The unruly vegetation stopped at the gate, and he was free to walk around. If he had ever doubted the forest was enchanted, this would have changed his mind.
He hadn’t walked far when he stumbled upon the first skeleton. It was lying in the middle of the street, holding an empty bucket in its bony hands. There was no sign of struggle. If anything, it looked like the person had just fallen down dead in the middle of fetching water.
Percy found other skeletons as well, all looking like death had been instantaneous. The place filled him with dread, but he had come this far, so he wasn’t leaving before he found some sort of proof of what had happened.
The doors to the castle building were wide open, so Percy entered cautiously, and looked around in awe. Time hadn’t touched it. The place was white marble, with golden details at the walls and pillars. The walls were mostly covered with tapestry, depicting scenes from legend, some of which Percy recognized. The floor was covered with amazingly detailed carpets, and unlit crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Percy almost smiled as he looked around. Annabeth would have loved this place.
Well, if it wasn’t full of the remains of the dead.
What Percy was looking for was some sort of study or library, where he could find an account of what had happened. He searched through the castle, getting more and more tired by the minute. It was probably late, though the light outside remained unchanged. At long last Percy found the library, a large chamber filled to the brink with tattered books and scrolls. There was a skeleton sitting slumped by a desk with a quill in its hand, having apparently died in the middle of writing. Percy carefully lifted the book from underneath it.
He wasn’t a good reader in his best hours, and right now the words were swimming all over the page, making no sense. He concentrated hard, trying to decide whether or not it was worth bringing the book with him. Finally he made out the last sentences: And she said thus: “the prince will sleep, his time will stop. But for trying to trick me, the time will run out for the rest of you.” We’re all paying the price, and our time has en. The man had died before finishing the last word. Percy stuffed the book in his bag, figuring he’d give it to Annabeth to read when he got back, so she could read it and tell him what it was about later.
The sentence about the prince confused him. He had read it multiple times to make sure he understood it right, but it made no sense. The prince would sleep while the others… did what? Died? Did that mean the prince was still alive? After a hundred years, it seemed ridiculous, but with all the magic in the air, who knew? If he didn’t at least try to find out he would never be able to stop wondering.
Despite his weariness, Percy continued his search, eventually finding the stairs leading up to the tower. The stairs went on forever. He was breathing heavily when he finally reached the top and looked around. The room was sparsely decorated and dark, but in the middle was a large bed with black sheets, and under them lay a boy. Percy’s breath hitched as he walked closer. The boy had dark, curly hair, long eyelashes and skin as pale as death, but he was breathing. Percy couldn’t believe it. This boy, this maybe fifteen year old boy, had been asleep in the castle for a hundred years, while everybody else had perished.
Percy hesitated as he sat down on the bed, watching the boy sleep. He wasn’t sure how to wake him, or even if he should. If he was right, then this boy was the heir to a kingdom that no longer existed, with a court made up of skeletons. Maybe it would be more merciful to leave him where he was.
On the other hand, perhaps waking the prince would break the curse. Percy’s father’s kingdom had lived in fear of the dark castle long enough. Not that Percy had a clue how to wake someone who’d been sleeping for a hundred years.
He tried all the basics; shouting at him, shaking him, pouring water on him and even slapping him in the face, but the boy remained asleep. In the end Percy gave up. He should have gone back to Grover, who was probably worried sick, but by now he was far too tired. He settled down on the floor beside the bed, closing his eyes. This room seemed a bit more peaceful, more alive than the others, so maybe sleeping here wouldn’t be so bad.
Percy slept restlessly, dreaming about sitting on his mother's knee when he was little, listening as she told him tales of wonder and magic.
“And the prince kissed the beautiful princess, and the spell was broken,” his mother said. “The dwarves rejoiced, and everyone lived happily ever after.”
Percy thought it was a silly story, and asked for one with more adventure and sword fights. His mother laughed at him and complied. He woke up before he found out what the next story was
Rested now, he prepared to leave, occasionally glancing in the direction of the sleeping boy. There may have been a strange, foreign beauty to his features but he was no princess. However, Percy was technically a prince, even if his mother had been the king’s mistress, not his wife. Percy shrugged to himself. No harm in trying, right?
He sat down on the bed, hesitating for a moment before leaning down and gently bringing their lips together. He was surprised to realize the boy was warm at his touch. He would have expected him to be cold as a corpse, but it was clear the boy was very much alive. The realization made the kiss longer than strictly necessary.
Percy finally pulled back and looked at the sleeping boy, but there was no change. He started playing with the thought of carrying him out and see if he could find another cure when the boy suddenly opened his eyes wide, staring at him. His eyes were dark, almost black in the limited light. Percy's breath hitched. he hadn't expected that. Well, he hadn't expected anything, really.
“Um, hi,” Percy said, surprised to say the least. The boy seemed panicked as he looked around the room.
“Was it real?” the boy asked, his voice sounding as strange as his words. “Where is my sister?”
“Um,” Percy said again. “Listen, you’ve been asleep for a really long time.”
The boy turned towards him, with tears in his eyes. “How long?” he demanded. “What happened?”
“About a hundred years,” Percy said, watching the boy’s eyes widen in shock. “All I know is that there was a curse. Wait, maybe this will help.”
He reached for his packing and brought out the book he had collected yesterday. The boy’s hands were shaking as he flipped through the pages and begun to read in silence. Percy watched in fascination. Either he was just skimming the pages or he was a faster reader than Annabeth, which shouldn’t have been possible.
“No,” the boy mumbled as he read on. “No, this can’t be true. It's just another nightmare. This wasn’t supposed to happen! It was supposed to fix everything!”
After he reached the last, unfinished page he screamed and threw the book at the wall. He violently untangled himself from the sheets and attempted to stand up. Percy managed to catch him just before he lost his balance.
“Easy, there,” he said. “I know it’s hard, but you need to...”
“You don’t know anything!” the boy said angrily. “Let go of me. I can walk by myself.”
Percy reluctantly let go. The boy staggered, but didn’t fall as he made his way towards the stairs. Percy quickly fished up the book from the floor and stuffed it back into his packing before following the boy, walking directly behind him, ready to catch him if he fell again. The stairway seemed even longer now.
“My name is Percy, son of king Poseidon,” Percy introduced himself as they walked. “What’s your name?”
“Nico,” the boy answered, then said nothing else. Percy wasn’t sure what to say either. What do you say to a boy who had just woken up after a hundred years and realized everyone he’d ever known were gone?
“Um, listen,” Percy tried. “You don’t want to look around. We should just head straight out of here. Trust me, you don’t want to see this.”
“I already have,” Nico said gravely. “I’ve walked these halls in an everlasting nightmare. I know what to expect. I just need to see it with my waking eyes.”
Nico led them straight to the throne room, not even looking at the skeletons they passed. He stopped in front of the thrones, looking at the three skeletons up there with a completely expressionless face, before kneeling down beside the one not on a throne, that had apparently been sitting on the stairs leading up to them. The skeleton had been wearing a green dress when she died. Nico’s sister, Percy realized.
“You should leave,” Nico said after a long while, raising back up and turning towards Percy. His voice sounded hollow. “Go back to wherever you came from.”
“I’m not leaving you here in this cursed castle!” Percy exclaimed.
“The curse has already been broken, thanks to you,” Nico said, nodding towards the window. Percy could see the sun rising outside.
“It doesn’t matter,” Percy said. “You can’t stay. There’s nothing for you here. I’ve checked every room, and the only thing there are more dead bodies.”
Nico nodded. “They may only be dead bodies to you, but they are my family, my friends, my people,” he said. “With my father and sister gone, the title of king falls to me. It’s my duty to bury them.”
“The title is meaningless. You’re a king of ghosts,” Percy said. “I understand you want to bury them, and I’ll help you with your family, but leave the rest. I’ll send some men to do the job when we get back to my father.”
“That would be most helpful,” Nico said. “But I’m not leaving until every single one of them is buried. Their deaths are because of me and my family, and a burial is the only apology I can offer.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Percy said. “But there are at least a hundred people in here. You can’t bury them all.”
“I can try,” Nico said stubbornly. “Take whatever you want as a reward for breaking the curse, but I’m staying until this is finished.”
“You know, the land has been ruled by my family for fifty years now. I’m your prince,” Percy said, trying a different approach. “So when I order you to come with me, you should obey.”
“This castle has never sworn fealty to your father,” Nico said venomously. “My family remains the rulers here, unless you wish to fight me about it?”
Considering that the scrawny boy in front of him was unarmed and hardly in any condition to fight, it shouldn’t even have registered as a threat. Still, there was something in those dark eyes of his, a madness and determination born from grief, that made Percy take a step back, almost frightened.
“I should just throw you over my shoulder and carry you out,” Percy sighed, admitting defeat. “Fine, stay. I’ll leave what provisions I have with you, and return within a week’s time with more men to help you.”
Nico nodded. “Thank you,” he said, sounding sincere enough that something broke within Percy. He blinked a few tears away, then said goodbye, hurrying out the door. Once he reached the streets outside he looked around, hesitating. He didn’t really want to leave the boy alone in there with only the dead for company, but he didn’t have much of a choice, except to force the boy to come with him against his will. He would just have to try and return quickly, before Nico could lose what was left of his mind.
As he reached the castle gate, it quickly became apparent that the curse had been broken. The dark forest with the thorny bushes was still there, of course, but as Percy cut through them to make his way forward they didn’t close up behind him again. He had a feeling the whole thing could be cut down now, with enough men.
Grover and the horses were where Percy had left them. Grover ran towards Percy and hugged him in relief the moment he saw him.
“I was worried!” he said. “You took so long, and then something happened. I don’t know what, but it feels like something has changed.”
“The curse has been broken,” Percy said tiredly. “I’ll explain on the way. We need to hurry back.”
Grover was bewildered by the story, and apparently having a hard time believing that the curse really was broken. When they stopped for the night, Percy asked him to read from the book by the light of their campfire.
“This is bad for my eyes,” Grover muttered, but he was as interested in knowing the whole story as Percy was. “This is a recount of the history of the kingdom.”
“Just skip ahead to the last few pages,” Percy groaned. “I just want to know what happened to Nico.”
“Hmmm,” Grover said, flipping through the pages. “It has now come the time of princess Bianca’s sixteenth birthday, and the fulfillment of the prophecy. The curse that was transferred to prince Nico upon his birth will now come to pass. A spinning wheel have been placed in the tower for this very purpose. The prince shall sleep there, and the princess will be safe from the curse.”
“But what was the curse?” Percy asked. “And why did they transfer it to Nico? How is it even possible to transfer a curse from one person to another?”
“I’ve heard it’s been done between siblings before,” Grover said. “They share the same blood, so it’s easy, apparently. Anyway, these is the last two entries: The people rejoiced as the day passed. Though distraught by her brother’s fate, no harm befell the princess on the anniversary of her birth. And the last one: The sorceress have realized she’s been outsmarted, and her fury knows no bounds. And she said thus: the prince will sleep, his time will stop. But for trying to trick me, the time will end for the rest of you.” We’re all paying the price, and our time has en...Well, ended, I suppose.”
“So Nico ended up with a curse meant for his sister, and because they tried to thwart it, the whole castle was cursed instead,” Percy surmised. “But why was there a curse in the first place?”
“My eyes hurt. It’ll have to wait until tomorrow,” Grover said, and Percy nodded. As he lay down to rest, he wondered if Nico had known about the curse being transferred to him before it had started. If his sister had known. Nico didn’t seem to resent his family for it, despite that they had chosen his sister over him and doomed him to a hundred years of sleep. Then again, they had certainly paid for it. Percy closed his eyes, and his sleep was restless, filled with dreams of skeletons and a boy with dark eyes.
They reached his father’s castle the following evening. King Poseidon was surprised to hear the news they brought, but he promised Percy a handful of men to leave the castle with him the following day. They handed the book over to Chiron, who said he’d read it during the night and give them a summarized account in the morning.
Annabeth stopped Percy just before he reached his chambers to retire for the night.
“I noticed something when you told your story before,” she said. “You never said how you woke the boy up.”
“Um,” Percy said, blushing a little bit. “I was remembering a story I heard when I was little, about the princess and the dwarfs? So, yeah, I kissed him. It worked.”
Annabeth’s eyes went wide. “You kissed him, and it worked?” she repeated, stunned. “Percy, kisses don’t break curses except in very specific cases. And usually it has to be true love, but you hadn’t even met him before.”
“And we’re both guys,” Percy pointed out, but Annabeth just made an irritated, waving gesture with her hand.
“Irrelevant. That is not unheard of,” she said. “This, however, is. Unless you just happened to fulfill whatever criteria the curse specified, like being a prince for instance.”
“Or maybe the curse was meant to only last a hundred years and I just happened to be there when it broke,” Percy shrugged. “Maybe Chiron can tell us about it tomorrow before we head back there. If not, Nico probably knows.”
“I wish I could come with you to see it,” Annabeth sighed. “After all the stories of the grandeur of that castle...”
“When the bodies are buried and the forest cut down, you can come,” Percy promised. “But it’s not a nice place to be in right now. I still hate that I had to leave Nico there alone.”
“It was his choice,” Annabeth said gently. “Given the same situation, would you have acted differently?”
“I’d rather not think about it,” Percy said. They said goodnight after that, and Percy went to bed, his sleep as restless as ever.
“I hate to speak ill of the dead,” Chiron said the following day at breakfast. “But whoever wrote that chronicle was not a good writer. He's very vague on the details. As far as I can figure it, King Hades invited four witches to the celebration of his daughter’s birth. Three of them gave her gifts, beauty, wisdom, health, but the fourth one cursed her to prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and sleep for eternity unless the curse was broken. This would happen on the eve of her sixteenth birthday. The chronicle does not give any reason for this.”
“I’ll ask Nico when I see him,” Percy said. “He’s bound to know something, at least.”
“After the burial is finished, tell the boy I welcome him here as my ward,” Poseidon said, giving Percy a smile.
“About the prince, Nico,” Chiron continued. “It seems like the king loved his daughter so much, that as soon as the prince was born the curse was transferred to him. Both siblings grew up ignorant of the curse, though it was planned to tell them before princess Bianca turned sixteen. I assume it happened that way, but the chronicle is silent on the matter. The rest Percy have already told you.”
Percy felt bad for Nico after hearing that. Being told your father preferred your sister and had cursed you in her stead... How had he felt, hearing that? Had he been angry? Percy knew he would have been, if it had been him.
They set out shortly after breakfast. Percy had ten of his father's men with him, and Grover. None of the others seemed particularly eager to reach the castle. The superstitions ran deep, and even though Percy assured them the curse had been broken they didn’t quite believe it. Percy could understand that, but he was in a hurry. Nico was still alone in the castle, with only the dead for company and probably nothing to eat. The rations Percy had left with him would have ran out by now.
They reached the castle as the sun went down on the second day. Despite Percy’s insistence that the castle was safe, the men refused to enter the forest at night. Considering the treacherous, thorny terrain, they were probably right not to, but Percy still called them cowards and told them to come after him in the morning, then he entered the forest.
He tripped and cut himself a couple of times, almost causing his torch to go out, but it was actually easier than he thought to find the way. The path he had cut for himself a few days ago was still open, and he followed it all the way to the castle gate. The moon was high on the sky when he reached the courtyard. The skeleton that had been fetching water was no longer there, nor was any of the other ones Percy had noticed in the courtyard last time. The door to the castle was still ajar, and as Percy entered the throne room he saw that the skeletons of Nico’s family were gone as well. The boy was nowhere to be seen, either.
Percy walked around the castle, seeing that most of the other bodies were still there. The only one he noticed was missing was the one in the library that had died writing. The chair was now empty, and instead of the chronicle Percy had left with Chiron there were pieces of parchment at the table, filled with scribbles.
Looking closer and concentrating, Percy realized the scribbles were names, dozens of names listed under each other in two rows. Some of the names had been crossed out.
“I’m trying to remember them all,” a voice said, and Percy nearly jumped out of his skin. He had drawn his sword and spun around before he could recognize the voice. Nico was standing in the shadows behind him, half concealed by the darkness. The torch in Percy’s hand cast an eerie light upon his face, making him seem almost transparent and ghost-like. He didn’t seem surprised to be at sword point. If anything, he just looked tired. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his cheeks were hollow.
“Sorry,” Percy said, putting his sword away. “Remember who? The people who lived here?”
Nico nodded, walking over to the desk and looking down at the parchment. “I remember my family and friends,” he said. “And the smith, the stable master - all the people I considered important. But the villagers, the servants and the soldiers… I can’t recall them all. I’m trying. I know I should know them, but I can’t remember.”
His voice was desperate, like he was begging Percy to help him. He seemed on the verge of crying.
“Nico, nobody expects you to remember every single person who lived here,” Percy said gently, moving towards him to put a hand on his shoulder. Nico immediately shook him off.
“Don’t touch me,” he said angrily. “And how am I supposed to give them proper burials without knowing their names? I need to remember them.”
“Nico, are you trying to bury them one by one?” Percy asked in disbelief. “It’s an impossible task. There are so many, and they don’t even have facial features any more. Can you recognize them by their clothing?”
“I have to try!” Nico insisted. “They are my people! I can’t just dig a hole and throw in the bones. That would be disrespectful, and if that’s what you’re here to do, then please just leave.”
“I’m here to help you,” Percy frowned. “I brought ten men and my squire, but they are waiting until daybreak to enter. We will follow whatever instructions you give concerning the dead.”
Nico’s shoulders slumped. “Thank you,” he said. “I...I know it’s impossible to remember them all, but I want to try. The village surrounding the castle was consumed by the forest, and they haven’t even left bodies behind. I need to honor them as well, in some way.”
“Some of them got away, you know,” Percy said, and Nico head snapped up to stare at him.
“There are plenty of people in the towns around the land who claim their ancestors fled this place as the vines begun to grow,” Percy said. “A girl working in our stables says her great grandmother barely escaped with her life.”
“Really?” Nico said, smiling slightly. “That’s good. At least someone survived.”
Percy didn’t point out that they were all dead now anyway. “You should go to sleep,” he said instead. “You look tired.”
Nico scowled. “I’ve slept for a hundred years. That's enough for several lifetimes,” he said. “Besides, I still have work to do.”
“I don’t think it works that way,” Percy frowned. “Please tell me you have slept at least a little since we parted.”
“A little,” Nico agreed. “But I’ve walked these cursed halls in my sleep long enough. The dead are demanding to be buried. I don’t have time for rest.”
Percy looked him over. There was that mad glint in his eyes again, the one that almost frightened him. Finally, Percy nodded.
“As you wish,” he said. “Show me what I can do to help.”
They collected the bones of each skeleton separately in pieces of cloth taken from various places in the castle. Percy noticed that Nico didn’t differentiate what cloth went to what person. A skeleton dressed like a servant girl was collected in shining silk, while a nobleman was collected in ordinary linen. Nico would name them when he could, and talk about who they had been.
“Her name was Nina,” he said as he collected the bones of the servant girl. “She used to bring me breakfast. She was going to be married in the summer, to the blacksmith’s apprentice. I buried his bones yesterday. Do you think they would want to be buried beside each other?”
Percy could only nod. He wondered if he could have remembered half as many names and stories, if their positions had been reversed. Percy was ashamed to admit he might not even had tried.
When they each were carrying two bags of skeletons, Nico led them out the eastern gate. A dozen or so small graves stood in a clearing in the forest right beside the castle wall.
“It took me almost two days to clear even this much,” Nico said. “But I didn’t want to bury them in the courtyard. It felt wrong, somehow. Improper.”
Percy nodded. “People would have trampled all over their graves if this castle ever becomes inhabited again,” he said. “You were right.”
“I don’t want anyone else to live here,” Nico said as he shoveled up dirt from the ground. “But I’m not stupid. Now that the curse is broken it won’t take long for people to start claiming this castle as their own.”
“It’s yours, though. Isn’t it?” Percy said. Nico shrugged.
“For now,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be able to defend it. Besides, I’m not sure I want to stay here.”
“My father invited you to stay at his castle, as his ward,” Percy said.
“Invited, or ordered?” Nico asked tiredly. “It doesn’t matter, I suppose.”
“So you accept?”
“Do I have a choice?” Nico sighed, then turned to put the first body in the ground, saying a brief prayer and apology as he did. It was slightly different for all four of the bodies.
Some time later Percy’s men turned up, looking around the castle in suspicious awe. They seemed almost frightened of Nico, though. Percy could understand that. The red light of dawn did nothing to make the boy seem less like one of the dead.
“Here we are,” Percy said uncomfortably. “What are your instructions?”
“If you could start clearing the forest around the graveyard, that would be most helpful,” Nico said, addressing the men directly. “You’re free to look around the castle as you see fit, but please do not disturb the bodies before I’ve had a chance to identify them.”
Clearing out the graveyard didn’t take long with ten men. The roots of the forest had never grown very deep, and for the most part they didn’t have to dig far to get the plants out of the way. By nightfall the graveyard was a pretty decent size.
None of the men wanted to venture far in the castle by themselves, so they camped out in the throne room, using the large fireplace for light and warmth. After spending the day clearing out the forest, they had plenty of firewood. Percy more or less forced Nico to join them for a meal, but the boy didn’t eat much and disappeared soon after, hopefully to sleep, but more likely to continue working. Percy didn’t like it. Neither did the men, apparently.
“Are you certain he’s not a ghost?” one of the men, a soldier called Travis, asked Percy after Nico had gone.
“Yeah, he doesn’t really seem all that alive, does he?” Travis brother, Connor, added. Percy frowned at them.
“How alive would you seem if you woke up to find everyone you’ve ever known dead around you?” he said angrily.
“I’m just saying, sleeping for a hundred years… It’s not natural,” Travis said.
“Which is why it’s called a curse,” Percy said, rolling his eyes. “He’s grieving, but he’s a good person. You’ll see.”
“I wonder,” Connor muttered. “He seems more like a spectre to me.”
Percy decided he’d had enough. He lay down on the floor to sleep, exhausted from not sleeping the night before. Thankfully, his sleep was dreamless.
He couldn’t find Nico when he woke up the following morning. When he asked around, nobody had seen the boy since last night, but as Travis pointed out, Nico melted into the shadows pretty well so they probably wouldn’t see him unless he wanted to be seen.
There were five new graves in the graveyard, though, so he must have been passing through the throne room on several occasions during the night, unless of course he had used another entrance. Percy ordered his men to make the pathway to the castle bigger, since there were still plenty of space in the graveyard. Grover was investigating the castle, and Percy joined him. He had been in a hurry last time, and hadn’t really given himself time to look around properly.
It was a beautiful place, but the horror of what had happened there colored every inch of it. Nico had seemed certain that people would come back to live there soon enough, but Percy wasn’t so sure. Even if time had stood as still for the castle as it had for Nico, leaving it unharmed by the years that had passed, it would take someone braver than Percy to want to stay there for any length of time. It felt like the ghosts of the dead were still walking the halls, though Percy couldn't see any.
The sun was already high on the sky when Nico turned up again, carrying two sacks of bones like he’d never stopped doing it. Percy quickly fell into step with him.
“I couldn’t find you earlier,” he said. “Where were you?”
“With my family. In the royal crypt,” Nico said. “I sleep there sometimes.”
“You sleep in the crypt?” Percy repeated in disbelief. “Why would you do that?”
“In case I don’t wake up,” Nico shrugged. “I wish there were stonemasons to cut their images into the stone, but I’m the only one who remembers what they looked like. And getting the others buried are more important right now, anyway.”
“How many are left, do you think?” Percy asked.
“I’m not sure. Some dozen, at least,” Nico said. “If your men could count them, I would be grateful.”
In the end it took two more days before everyone was buried, and even then Nico insisted they sweep the castle one last time in case they had missed someone.
“We will leave tomorrow morning,” Percy said when Nico was satisfied that the job was finished. “I’ll leave five men to guard the place until my father decides what is to be done with it.” The men groaned at this, but they already knew about that part of the plan. Nico nodded slowly.
“I’ll go pack some things,” he said tiredly, walking away. After nightfall, Percy found him in the graveyard, lighting small candles by every single one of the graves while singing a song of farewell. Percy watched him in silence, but the pure grief in Nico’s voice was heartbreaking. All he wanted was to walk over and put his arms around the boy to comfort him, but he knew disturbing the ritual would just make Nico angry.
Finally Nico lit the last candle and stood up before the graves, singing the final verse of the song. The silence that followed was eerie, but somehow the air seemed easier to breath. Like the souls haunting the castle had been put to rest.
“Is it finished?” Percy asked. Nico slowly turned towards him, showing no signs of surprise at his presence.
“No,” he said. “But it’s a start.”
“What do you mean?” Percy asked, but Nico just shook his head and started walking back towards the castle. He clearly knew exactly where to put his feet even in the darkness. Percy sometimes stumbled even though he was carrying a torch.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” Nico told him outside the front door. “I want to take a last farewell of my family before we leave.”
“I understand,” Percy said. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Nico nodded, then disappeared into the shadows of the dark courtyard. It almost looked like the shadows swallowed him up. Percy shuddered involuntarily, then proceeded back to the throne room. The men looked more comfortable in the castle now. Maybe they had felt the ghosts leave as well, or maybe they were just getting used to the place.
A problem presented itself as soon as it was time to leave. The horses they had brought with them had been nervous about entering the castle, though not as badly as before the curse was lifted. The previous night they had settled down some, but they didn’t allow Nico anywhere near them. Even Percy’s own horse, Blackjack, reared was soon as the boy came close. Nico didn’t seem particularly surprised by it.
“They probably know I’m not supposed to be alive,” he said. “Maybe they can still smell the curse on me.”
“Or the smell of death,” Travis muttered behind him. Percy gave him a stern glare.
“So we’ll walk. It’ll take an extra day or so, but it’s no big deal,” Percy shrugged.
Nico didn’t look back a single time as they left the castle behind them. He was wearing a scowl on his face, but he barely said a word. When Percy asked if he was okay he just grunted as a response. However, as the castle had faded into the horizon and they stopped for a brief rest, Nico’s spirits seemed to improve. He even ate more than Percy had seen him do before.
“So, can you actually use that?” Percy asked, pointing at the sword at Nico’s hip. He had been a bit surprised when the boy appeared with it that morning, but he understood Nico’s reluctance at traveling unarmed.
“Well enough,” Nico answered. “It used to be my father’s, so it’s a little heavier than what I’m used to. It’s an heirloom, though. I didn’t want to leave it there.”
“Can I see?” Percy asked. Nico hesitated for a moment before pulling the sword out of its sheath. Percy stared at the blade in Nico’s hand. It was completely black, barely reflecting the light at all, and held a terrifying sort of beauty. Not unlike it’s wielder.
“Does it have a name?” Percy asked, looking closer at the blade but not daring to touch it. He had an irrational fear that he might not be able to see the edge of it.
“No,” Nico said, sheathing the sword again. “My father once told me that giving something a name means giving it a soul, and if something has a soul it should not be used as a tool.”
“A strange thing to say for someone causing his own son to get cursed,” Percy said before he could stop himself. Nico frowned.
“It was me or Bianca. If you’d known her, you would have done the same,” he said.
“It doesn’t bother you, then?” Percy asked.
“When I first heard about it, I was mad,” Nico admitted. “Bianca took it even worse than I did. In the end I was proud to take her place, but things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to.”
Nico gave him a brief smile. “You don’t have to be. I spent a hundred years mourning her, unsure if what my nightmare’s brought me was the truth. Now I know, thanks to you.”
“I’m still sorry for what happened to you,” Percy said. “Can you tell me why there was a curse in the first place?”
“I don’t know all the details. I was too mad to listen very closely at the time,” Nico said. “As I understood it, my father was fond of benevolent witchcraft. He invited four famous witches to a celebration when Bianca was born. Three gave gifts, the fourth one cursed her.”
“That’s what the stories say. Or some of them, anyway,” Percy said. “But why curse an innocent child?”
“It had something to do with my father. I heard rumors that he used to court the witch, and she was offended when he chose my mother instead,” Nico said. “She was looking for the smallest thing to take as an insult during the celebration. Apparently there was some mix up with the plates that finally gave her a reason to do it.”
“Really?” Percy said in disbelief. “The plate-story is actually true?”
“That’s what I heard,” Nico shrugged. “To be honest, the reason matters very little to me.”
Percy had a feeling there was something Nico wasn’t telling him, but he got distracted by Travis, who triumphantly told his brother to “Pay up. I told you so.” Apparently they had made bets on which parts of the old stories were true. Percy would probably have joined them, if he hadn’t had a living, breathing part of the story right in front of him.
Three days later, Percy was lying on his own bed in his father’s castle, unable to sleep. Things had gone better than expected. He had introduced Nico to his father and the court, and the boy had been welcomed with open arms, even if some people gave him suspicious or frightened looks. Still, Percy felt uneasy, like he had missed something.
He sighed as he gave up and got up from the bed, dressing himself enough to be decent. Then he made his way to the room that had been given to Nico earlier that evening. He hesitated a few moments before knocking on the door, lightly so he wouldn’t wake Nico up if he was sleeping. The door opened to reveal that Nico was still fully clothed, though he had put his sword away. Despite his room being dark, he didn’t look like he was heading to bed any time soon.
“Is something wrong?” Nico asked, sounding surprised to see him.
“I’m not sure,” Percy said slowly. “It’s just a funny feeling. Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” Nico said, gesturing for Percy to come in. “Court rules have not changed much in a hundred years, but it’s still strange, being here.”
“I understand,” Percy said, looking around the room. “Why haven’t you unpacked yet? Aren’t you planning on staying?”
Nico gave him an annoyed look. “It’s only been a night. I haven’t had that much time to unpack,” he said, but he didn’t look Percy in the eyes.
“You’re lying,” Percy said. “Why are you leaving? Where are you going to go?”
Nico sighed. “Fine. I was hoping to spare you from this, but fine,” he said. “My people have yet to be avenged. I’m going to try and find the witch.”
“But that was a hundred years ago!” Percy said. “Surely she’s dead already.”
“I’m not,” Nico pointed out. “And if she could keep me alive, there’s no reason she wouldn’t have done the same to herself. I’m certain she’s still around. I was hoping to find some clue about her whereabouts here.”
“Look, even if she’s alive, even if you can find her, you can’t go after her alone,” Percy said. “She killed an entire castle with one spell. You wouldn’t stand a chance. All the stories say never to make an enemy of a witch.”
“She was my enemy before I was even born, and she killed everyone I’ve ever loved,” Nico said with a mad glint in his eyes. “What more can she possibly do to me?”
“She can kill you,” Percy said. “I don’t want that to happen. Don’t do this!”
“Wouldn’t you?” Nico asked softly, and Percy hesitated. He would. Even before burying the dead, it would have been his first instinct to avenge them. He couldn’t fault Nico for wanting the witch dead.
“Even if I don’t go after her, there’s a chance she’ll come after me once she hears the curse’s been broken,” Nico said. “So I can’t stay long.”
“In that case, there’s a chance she’ll come for me as well,” Percy said. “I’m the one who woke you up, after all.”
“Right,” Nico said. There was a faint blush on his cheeks. Percy had a similar reaction, thinking about just how he had woken the boy up in the first place. He cleared his throat.
“Anyway, the point is that I’m coming with you.”
“What?” Nico asked, eyes wide in surprise. “You can’t! She’ll kill you! Besides, you have no reason to.”
“If you think staying here might endanger my people, then of course I have a reason to,” Percy said determinedly. “And there’s no way I’m letting you face the witch alone.”
“I might have a better chance alone,” Nico said coldly. “She would have nothing but death to threaten me with, but if you come with me...”
“Look, it doesn’t matter,” Percy said. “I’m coming, and that’s final.”
He stared Nico down, which wasn’t easy despite the boy being almost a head shorter than himself. Nico had a very unnerving stare, but finally he sighed and turned away.
“As you wish,” he said tiredly. “Don’t blame me if things turn out badly. You’re about to make an enemy of a witch, like you warned me about.”
“I think I already did,” Percy smiled, gently patting Nico’s shoulder as he walked towards the door. “Try to get some sleep. We’ll gather information about the witch tomorrow.”
Nico nodded, then closed the door after Percy walked out. Strangely enough, Percy felt a bit better now. He might just have sealed his fate, but somehow that didn’t bother him as much as the unknowing feeling before had. Besides, what little boy hadn’t dreamed of defeating the evil witch in the stories?
Finding clues to the whereabouts of a hundred year old witch turned out to be harder than Percy thought. They had been searching for a week now. He had enlisted Chiron and Annabeth to help, but neither had found anything worthwhile. Even in this day and age, there were plenty of rumors about witches, but the specific one they were looking for was elusive. Percy was starting to fear they would have to follow up on all of the rumors just to find out more.
Nico kept to himself a lot, for some reason still preferring being alone. Percy wondered if it was because being around people reminded him of what he had lost, or if he was afraid to form bonds he might lose again. It might also have been the funny looks people around the castle were giving him. His story had spread through the castle like wildfire, and a lot of people found him frightening, making pretty obvious efforts to avoid him.
Which was why he was so surprised to see Nico sitting outside the stable one evening, talking to the stable girl. Nico was actually smiling at her, which was a rare occurrence in and by itself. She was smiling back at him, looking like she was enjoying whatever conversation they were having. Percy wondered if there was something going on there, and if he had any reason to be angry about it. Probably not, but he was still itching to make his presence known.
However, before he could step out the girl got up, kissed Nico’s cheek and headed back into the stables. Nico had a fond smile on his lips as he looked after her, and Percy’s blood was boiling for reasons he wasn’t really able to explain.
Percy waited until Nico was heading back into the castle before stepping out of the shadows.
“Having fun?” he asked, arms crossed over his chest. Nico didn’t even have the decency to look surprised as he turned around.
“I may have found a lead,” Nico said.
“A lead? From a stable girl?” Percy asked harshly, then cringed at his own words. Unlike his older brother, Triton, he had never seen servants as less worthy, but suddenly it sounded like he did. Judging by Nico’s frown he didn’t approve.
“Yes, from the stable girl,” Nico said angrily. “Is that a problem?”
“Sorry,” Percy muttered. “I didn’t mean it like that. What did she say?”
Nico studied him suspiciously for a moment before answering. “There are rumors of an evil witch living in the mountains north of here.”
“I heard about that. What makes this different from all the other rumors?” Percy asked.
“She’s apparently lived there for a hundred years,” Nico said, turning his eyes away and looking uncomfortable. Percy frowned.
“And what are you not telling me?” he asked. “If we’re going after her I deserve to know.”
Nico sighed. “Fine. Hazel did give me permission to tell you if I thought it was necessary, after all,” he said. “But not here. Let’s go inside.”
Percy followed Nico back to his room, slightly confused.
“When did you and her get so close?” Percy asked, trying not to sound sour. “I mean, horses hate you, right?”
“They do,” Nico nodded. “But I remembered you mentioning a stable girl whose ancestors had escaped the curse, so I went looking for her on my first day here. She was really uncomfortable at first, so I apologized for what had happened to her family and planned on leaving her be. She started crying and stopped me before I left.”
Nico smiled fondly again. “It turns out that her great grandmother was the witch who transferred the curse from Bianca to me when I was born, and she thought I'd blame her family for what happened. Her mother and grandmother were witches as well, so they kept track of what happened in that world. Hazel said she prefers to tend the horses, though, so don’t you dare tell anyone about this!”
Nico glared angrily at him.
“I promise this will stay between us,” Percy said. “But if this happened on the first day, why are you only telling me this now?”
“Because Hazel didn’t tell me about the witch until tonight,” Nico shrugged. “We’ve been talking every night since then, but she didn’t tell me she knew about it. She said she didn’t want me to go get myself killed, but tonight I told her we were leaving anyway to follow up on the leads, so she gave in.”
“You two really are close, huh?” Percy said bitterly. Nico raised an eyebrow at him.
“That was another surprise, actually. Apparently her great grandmother was my father’s lover, and pregnant when she left the castle,” Nico said. “So Hazel is very likely my half-sister’s grandchild, strange as it might sound.”
“I don’t think strange quite covers it,” Percy said, wide eyed. Nico just smiled wistfully.
“In some ways, she reminds me of Bianca,” Nico said. “And finding out I still have a piece of my family left...It was a bit overwhelming.”
“I can understand that,” Percy smiled. “So, she’s like a sister to you?”
Nico blinked. “Yes. What else did you think it was?”
“Sorry,” Percy laughed, inexplicably relived. “When I saw you together, I kinda thought you were courting her.”
Nico blushed. “Like I’d have time for that,” he muttered. “And you should already know Hazel is engaged to one of your guards. Frank, if I recall correctly.”
“Really?” Percy asked. “I don’t really keep up with the relationships going on in the castle. When’s the wedding?”
“In a few years, I guess, when they can support a family,” Nico shrugged. “I’ve left whatever remains of my inheritance to her in case I don’t return, though, so it shouldn’t be a problem.”
“You’re going to return,” Percy said determinedly. “We both will.”
Nico gave him a sad smile. “Go to sleep, Percy. We’ll prepare the trip tomorrow.”
They left before sunrise two days later, mostly so nobody could get into their minds to stop them. Annabeth and Chiron had spent countless hours in the days earlier trying to talk Percy out of the endeavor. Percy hadn’t said anything to his father at all, but he’d left a letter explaining the situation in his room. He figured that by the time they figured out what his messed up words and misspellings meant, they’d be far away already.
Hazel had managed to provide Nico with a horse that actually allowed the boy to ride it. The mare was old, half blind and had apparently lost its sense of smell, but it was quicker than having to walk the whole way to the mountains. Even on horseback, it was a three day journey.
Hazel had also told them that they were unlikely to be able to kill the witch in combat. Cowardly as it was, she said a sneak attack would work better. And she advised them to keep her talking if she caught them. Bored witches got terrible ideas.
Most of the ride the first day was spent in silence. Both of them felt the weight of what they were about to try, and Percy at least had a hard time thinking about anything else. Still, as the day went on and nothing strange happened, he started to get bored with the silence. He was looking for a way to break it when Nico unexpectedly beat him to it.
“Lady Annabeth came to talk to me yesterday,” he said. “She asked me to look after you on this, and I quote, 'foolhardy endeavor of vengeance’.”
“Sorry about that,” Percy laughed. “She didn’t want us to go through with this. She said it was very unlikely the witch would come after us after all this years, and that we were needlessly tempting fate.”
“She may be right,” Nico said. “It’s not too late for you to go back, you know.”
“I told you, I’m not leaving,” Percy said. “Stop telling me to.”
“I guess I just don’t get why you would do this,” Nico frowned. “You have a life back there. I don’t.”
“You could have, if you wanted to. You even found family, you said so yourself,” Percy pointed out. “And I’m doing this because you’re my friend. I don’t let my friends go on suicide missions by themselves.”
“Friend?” Nico repeated. “We barely know each other.”
“Have it your way,” Percy scowled, a little hurt that Nico apparently didn’t think of him as a friend. “I woke you up, so you’re my responsibility. Happy?”
“Not until that witch is dead, I won’t be,” Nico said gravely. Percy sighed. The boy clearly wasn’t in the mood for light conversation. Percy could understand why, but it dampened his spirits. They didn’t say much more until it was time to make camp.
The mood only got tenser the closer they got to the mountains, and when they finally reached the place the rumors had talked about, they hadn’t spoken for a day. Both were nervous and on the edge, and a single word could set off a full argument between them. Even Percy's attempt at talking strategy the evening before had failed.
Thus, they hadn’t managed to conceive a better plan than to try and sneak in, and as they approached the witch’s dwelling they immediately realized a flaw in that plan. The witch lived inside the mountain, and the only visible entrance was a large stone door guarded by a giant man, who was sitting outside it looking incredibly bored. Percy and Nico spent some time carefully looking around, but they couldn’t find any other entrance.
“Now what?” Percy whispered when they had given up their search. They were stranding pretty far away from the giant man, but he still didn’t at to risk being overheard. “Do we head back?”
“Do what you want to, but I’ve come too far to turn back now,” Nico said. “I could just walk right up to the door.”
“That’s crazy,” Percy exclaimed. “You’d get killed. Look, the giant have to sleep sometime, right. Let’s just wait until that happens.”
“Even if he falls asleep, he’s sitting right in front of the door, which by the looks of things open outwards. It’d still be impossible,” Nico said, then hesitated. “Unless we kill him, I suppose, but I’d rather not.”
“Me neither, but he is working for an evil witch,” Percy pointed out.
“It might not be entirely consensual,” Nico said. “Look at those rings around his arms and legs.”
Percy frowned. “What about them?”
“We had a collection of those at the castle. Old relics, never to be used,” Nico said. “They call them Rings of Confinement, or Enchanted Shackles. The old Captain of the guard called them Wedding Rings. Essentially they bind a person to another. If they try to run or disobey the rings get tighter, until your hands and feet fall off.”
“Magic,” Percy cursed, making a face. “So if we talk to this guy he might help us.”
“Not necessarily,” Nico said. “Some people take the shackles voluntarily, as an oath of eternal service.”
“Right. Wedding rings,” Percy said. “Okay, so we’re not killing him. Do we just walk up there and ask him to announce us to the witch?”
Nico shook his head. “No. I’m just going to walk up there and ask him to announce me to the witch. It he attacks me, you come help. If he lets me in, you follow behind, discreetly. If you get a chance to kill the witch, even if I’m at risk, you take it. The rest we improvise. Agreed?”
“Maybe I should be the one to walk openly?” Percy suggested. “I mean, you’re better at sneaking than I am.”
“Not around witches,” Nico smiled bitterly. “Every animal can sense that I reek of an old curse. Hazel told me she could sense it as well. In all probability the old hag already knows I’m here, and is wondering what’s taking me so long.”
“Then why the hell were we even looking for another entrance?” Percy asked, confused.
“So that you could sneak in unnoticed,” Nico said, like it should have been obvious. “It was always the plan.”
“And when were you going to tell me?” Percy asked angrily. Nico crossed his arms over his chest.
“I just did,” he said. “And I figured you might not have let me come this far if you knew.”
“Of course I wouldn’t,” Percy exclaimed. “Nico, this is crazy. You don’t stand a chance. You’ll get killed.”
“And I might take her with me,” Nico said with a voice of steel. “Look, I appreciate all you’ve done so far, and if you want to go back I won’t blame you. In fact, I’d prefer it if you did.”
“You’re lying,” Percy said, certain even if he was furious.”And I told you, I’m not leaving here without you. But when we get out of here I’m going to beat you up for making plans without me.”
Nico offered him a pale smile. “Agreed,” he said. “Wait here, and keep an eye out.”
“Be careful,” Percy told him quietly as Nico visibly steeled himself and openly walked up to the giant doorman. Nico could easily have slayed the giant if he had wanted to, as the large man didn’t even notice him before he was standing right in front of him.
“Who goes there?” the giant asked, quickly getting on his feet and making an effort to look intimidating, though it mostly came across as embarrassed. Percy, hidden behind some nearby boulders, fought down the urge to laugh.
“Your mistress knows me. I request an audience with her,” Nico said formally, though even he looked amused.
“Oh!” the giant said, sounding surprised. “Is the Mistress expecting you? The Mistress never said...Who are you?”
“I’m the son of King Hades,” Nico said, smiling now. “I take it you don’t get many visitors here, huh?”
“No visitors anymore. The Mistress scares them all away,” the giant agreed, smiling sadly. “Scary people come sometimes, but they don’t talk to Bob. Nobody talks to Bob anymore.”
“That must be boring, and lonely,” Nico nodded. “Does she keep you out here all by yourself all the time?”
“All the time,” Bob agreed enthusiastically. “Nothing to do, so Bob just sits here. Go hunting for deer nearby sometimes. Shot some this morning. The Mistress pass by when she goes in or out, but is better alone.” Bob looked afraid suddenly, like he’d said something wrong. “Please don’t tell the Mistress Bob said. Bob did not mean it.”
“Don’t worry about it, Bob. I’m not going to tell her anything,” Nico said, giving Bob a warm, reassuring smile. Percy’s heart skipped a beat. He understood that Nico was trying to get the giant on their side, but he seemed so sincere. Percy was honestly a bit jealous. Nico had never smiled at him like that.
“How long have you worked for her?” Nico asked, and Bob looked confused for a moment.
“Long time. Since before Bob can remember. Before Bob was Bob.”
“And who were you before you were Bob?” Nico asked, apparently in no hurry to see the witch, despite his earlier urgency. Percy was starting to become irritated at standing hidden in the shadows and listening in on the conversation. Spying was not his strong suit. He had long since realized he lacked the patience for it.
“Bob was no one. A kind man gave Bob his name, then he went to see the Mistress,” Bob said, then grabbed Nico’s arm. “The kind man never came out. If you go see the Mistress, you never come out, either. You are also a kind man. You should not go.”
“Thank you for the warning, Bob, but I don’t have a choice,” Nico said, gently clapping Bobs arms, wide enough to break the thin boy in half like a twig. “Besides, I suspect she’s expecting me already. We shouldn’t keep her waiting.”
“No, we shouldn’t,” Bob agreed sadly, turning to open the door. “Follow Bob.”
They disappeared through the door, and Percy waited a moment before he followed them, trying his best to keep his steps quiet. Bob was still talking to Nico about how sorry he was Nico must meet the Mistress, so Percy was safe from him, at least. He doubted the giant would have attacked him anyway. He seemed like a pretty nice guy.
Bob led Nico through a labyrinth of caves, and Percy followed as close as he dared behind them. He was glad they had a guide. Even if they had managed to find another entrance they would have gotten lost immediately in the tunnels. Finally, they reached a large wooden door, which Bob unlocked before they passed through. Thankfully, he didn’t lock it again behind them. Bob was still talking to Nico, but he sounded nervous now, and Nico wasn’t very responsive. Percy wished he could be there with him, but he kept to the shadows as instructed. When another voice was heard a few minutes later he was very glad he was in hiding.
“What took you so long, dearie?” a raspy female voice said. She sounded like she was smiling. Percy was hiding right behind Nico and Bob and didn’t dare look out, but the hairs of his neck were rising. “I expected him at lunch, and it’s almost dinnertime. Tch, Tch, little one. A good servant does not keep his mistress waiting. I might have to think about replacing you.”
Percy had never heard anyone sound so sweet and so deadly at the same time. He completely understood why Bob was sobbing as he tried to introduce Nico.
“A visitor, son of a king. His name is...uh...” Bob tried.
“Yes, dear one, what is your name?” she asked, and Percy finally risked a glance. A small, old woman was standing in front of Nico. She was as thin as he was, with a bended back and a pale green dress that went out of fashion in Percy’s grandmother’s youth. Her gray hair was styled in what would have been an elegant up do, if she had been fifty years younger. Or ninety. She was looking at Nico with her head tilted slightly to the side, smiling with too many teeth. Percy fought down the urge to run.
“You already know who I am. My name is of little importance,” Nico said, sounding surprisingly calm.
“Of course, my dear. But it’s still rude not to introduce yourself,” the old woman said. “After all, this is the first time we’ve met each other.”
“They call me the Ghost King,” Nico said, and Percy almost snorted as he recognized his own words. “And you, I believe, they call the Witch of the Mountain. What other names do we need? I didn’t come here to exchange pleasantries.”
“Clever boy,” the witch said, smiling wider. “So what is the reason for this little visit? Come to find another soul that has withstood the trials of time, have you, dearie?”
“I wish to know the reason for the curse put upon my family a hundred years ago,” Nico said. Percy moved back into the shadows, hiding behind shelves and boxes full of horrible things as he tried to circle around the witch quietly, to stab her in the back while Nico distracted her.
“Oh, that was so many years ago. I was so young then. Young and beautiful and so fond of dancing,” the witch said, swaying side to side with her arms up, as if moving to some unheard music. “Your father and I used to dance together, did you know? You look so much like him. How handsome he was! How full of delights those days were!”
Percy couldn’t see her expression anymore, but she put down her hands and straightened her back, her demeanor changing as her voice turned spiteful and bitter, full of rage. “But that woman came along, with her songs and smiles and deceitful words. Enchanted him, she did. And then that little girl was born, and they had the stomach to demand I bestow gifts upon her. Me! Who should have sat in that woman’s place, eating from golden plates and sharing his bed. No, no, no, I could not stand for it.”
Percy was almost behind her now. “So, I told them. I told them I would not let them insult me like that. And that little girl, that little girl should never have existed. No, but I was merciful. I wouldn’t kill her. She would just sleep for a while. Long enough that that he would have to get another heir. I thought that might make him see reason, but he never came back to me. I waited, but he never came. Such a handsome man, but so very, very cruel.”
She walked closer to Nico, reaching out to stroke his cheek with her claw-like hands. “He was cruel to you too, wasn’t he, dear one? Trying to trick the both of us, he did. That girl should have been the one to sleep, but instead he forced it upon you. Oh, how angry you must have been, my sweet. But I avenged us. Yes, I did. I made them all pay. And now you have come to me. Such a handsome boy.”
She was standing too close to Nico for Percy to attack. Percy hesitated, even if Nico looked horrified. Percy understood that. He wouldn’t have wanted that woman to touch him even if she hadn’t been a hundred year old witch.
“Why don’t you give me your name, my sweet?” the witch purred. “I could make you forget all those horrible things they did to you. You’d be safe here, forever. My beautiful young man.”
Nico visibly shuddered and took a quick step back, out of her reach. She immediately curled up again, like a rat, full of suspicion. Percy realized he had missed the opportunity to take her completely by surprise, but she didn't know he was there yet, at least. Maybe he would get another window.
“My apologies. After sleeping for a hundred years I’m unaccustomed to touch,” Nico tried, but it was clear he had already awoken the witch’s suspicions.
“You are not as good a liar as your father was, dearie,” she chuckled. “Tell me, how is it the curse was broken? Only the kiss of a prince could break it. I had thought it very unlikely to happen to you, pretty as you are. No, I thought you would sleep forever, alone and forgotten as I was.”
“As you say,” Nico nodded nervously. “And yet the fates were kind.”
“The fates are never kind, little king,” the witch said. “And this beloved prince of yours, where is he now? Has he already forgotten you? Or did he follow you here? Creeping around my halls like a common rat, is he?”
She begun to look around with a predator's smile on her face. “Come here, little one. It’s not nice to keep a lady waiting. Tch, tch. Not chivalrous at all, my dear.”
The witch turned her back on Nico as she turned around, and Percy had never seen anyone move so fast. Nico drew his sword to stab her, but she must have expected it, turning into mist the moment his sword would have hit her. She rematerialized moments later, grabbing both his hands to hold him still.
“Not very nice at all, my handsome little king. So much like your father, always trying to trick everyone. But I won’t fall for it again. No, no, no, I won’t,” she said, taking straight into Nico’s ear. She now had her back turned towards Percy, who figured this was the only opportunity he might get. She was still standing too close to Nico for it to be safe, but if he aimed for her heart, he would hit Nico’s shoulder at worst. He had to try.
He almost made it, but the moment he raised his sword to deliver the blow the witch’s head snapped around, releasing her hold on Nico and pushing Percy away with an unnatural force. He managed to lash out before flying away from her, but it only caused a small gash in her arm. Percy flew backwards and crashed into one of the shelves. Through the vials and skulls raining down on him he could see Nico attempt to attack again, but the witch was using magic now. She said something Percy didn’t hear due to the ringing in his ears, and Nico froze mid attack, apparently unable to move. As Percy attempted to stand up, a cage appeared around him, trapping him inside like a wild animal.
The witch looked at them, then proceeded to inspect the bleeding gash in her arm. “You two have made me quite mad. Yes, you have, dearies,” she said, walking over to Nico. “Such a waste of a pretty boy, but I cannot have you trying to stab me in the back. It’s so very tiring, and makes me so hungry. Oh, but it’s almost dinner time.”
“Servant!” she yelled, and Bob appeared, looking very pale. “Be a dear and prepare dinner for me, won’t you?” She briefly stroked Nico’s cheek again, smiling. “Oh, such tender young flesh you have. It’s only appropriate, really. Your father refused to become one with me, and now you will. Oh, how delicious it will be. It has been so long.”
Percy watched in horror as she ordered Bob to take Nico down to the kitchen and make a stew out of him. When Bob, pale faced and shaking, threw Nico over his shoulder Percy stated screaming.
“You can’t do this! You coward! He was kind to you!” Percy shouted desperately at the giant, who briefly looked over his shoulder and then hurried away. The old witch chuckled.
“How sweet it is that you care for the boy, but you should never have followed him here, dearie,” she said. “Not to worry though, I’ll let you have a taste of him before I eat you as well. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? Just a taste of that sweet, handsome boy.”
Percy had never screamed so much in his life, but no matter what he said the witch just laughed and clapped her hands in delight, like she was enjoying the show. Eventually she grew tired of him and disappeared somewhere, leaving him alone. Sometime later the smell of stew started to spread in the room, and Percy threw up, slumping in a corner of the cave. It was impossible to think. He couldn’t believe Nico was gone. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. It just couldn’t be real.
He barely registered when the witch came back, sitting down at the table as Bob appeared with a plate of stew. He didn’t look in Percy’s direction, but Percy was too tired to scream at him. What would be the point now, anyway? It was too late. Nico was… Nico was...
Percy watched in horror as the witch put a spoonful of stew into her mouth, making a sound of delight. “Such tender flesh that boy had,” she said. “What a delightful taste.”
Percy proceeded to empty what he had left in his stomach, distantly hearing the witch chuckle. He couldn’t remember what happened after that. In all probability, he passed out.
He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when the witch returned, and ordered Bob to make a stew out of Percy as well. He was thrown over Bob’s shoulder like a sack, and the giant carried him away from the witch.
“You must be quiet,” Bob told him. “Bob should obey his Mistress. She will know. But the other one said to bring you. Said you were a friend as well.”
“The other one?” Percy asked confused. Bob carried him to the kitchen, but they didn’t stop by one of the workspaces. Instead Bob carried him to what Percy presumed was the pantry door.
“You must be quiet. She cannot hear,” he said, opening the door and throwing Percy inside the dark room. “Bob must prepare the Mistress dinner now.”
He closed the door behind him, leaving Percy in almost pitch black darkness, wondering what had just happened. Bob hadn’t killed him, but did that mean… Could it mean…
Something moved in the darkness beside him. “Percy?” a familiar voice asked quietly, and Percy froze for a moment as he felt a hand at his shoulder. Then Percy launched himself in the voice’s direction, his arms closing around a warm body, who gasped in surprise. Tears welled up in Percy’s eye as his hands searched for the other’s face in the darkness. When he found it, he brought their lips together in desperate kiss.
For a moment the other froze, then Percy was forcefully pushed away.
“What are you doing?” came an embarrassed hiss. Percy’s eyes were finally becoming used to the darkness, and he could vaguely see Nico’s face in front of him, holding a hand over his mouth, seemingly shocked.
“I thought you were dead! I thought that stew was…I thought she ate you!” Percy said, crying openly now. He reached out for Nico again, and the boy let him put his arms around him. Percy sobbed loudly into Nico’s shoulder, holding him tight.
“She might still do it if you’re not quiet,” Nico whispered. “I’m so sorry. I never should have brought you here.”
“You didn’t bring me, I came of my own free will,” Percy said, making an effort to dry his tears. “And she needs to be killed. We need to finish this.”
Nico nodded. “We will. Bob saved both our lives by hiding us here, but we need to move tonight,” he said. “My scent still lingers, so she will become suspicious if we wait any longer.”
“How did he trick her?” Percy asked. “I mean, she’s mad, but she’s still a witch, and he isn’t exactly a genius.”
“Remember how he said he shoots deer in the mountain?” Nico said. “The witch never eats them, so she doesn’t remember what they taste like. It was still a gamble, though, and he risked a lot by helping us, so don’t insult him.”
“I didn’t mean to,” Percy said. “Is he doing this just because you talked to him?”
“It would seem so,” Nico said, sighing as he put his head down on Percy’s shoulder. “We should get some rest. We’ll move when she’s asleep.”
“Right. Any plan I should know about?” Percy asked, gaining a low chuckle from Nico in return.
“Not really. Bob promised to show us to her chambers, but we’re on our own after that,” Nico said. “If we can stab her in her sleep, I say we do that. It only seems appropriate, after what she did to my people.”
“Agreed,” Percy said. They fell asleep a little while later, still holding each other.
Bob woke them up late in the night, looking pale and nervous. “Bob will take you to his Mistress now,” he said with a shaky voice. Percy clapped him on his arm, since he couldn’t reach his shoulder easily.
“Thank you, Bob. No matter what happens, we owe you our lives,” he said. Bob blushed faintly.
“Bob wants to be free as well,” he said. “The Mistress is evil.”
“Yes, she is,” Nico agreed. “Let’s go.”
Bob led them through the labyrinth that was the witch’s lair, eventually staying in front of an ornamented wooden door that looked like it had been stolen from a castle somewhere and just put into the cave. It was probably exactly what had happened.
Nico gave Bob a nod, then carefully opened the door and looked into the room. It was dark, but the old woman sleeping on a luxurious bed was still visible. The room was more boastfully furnished than any other Percy had ever visited, and he had met some pretty prideful noblemen in his days. The witch clearly fancied herself royalty.
Nico quietly drew his sword and approached the bed. Percy followed right beside him, then walked around the bed to the other side. The witch was sleeping peacefully, looking like the sweet old lady she pretended to be, and for a moment Percy was ashamed of what they were about to do. Then he looked up at Nico, and saw the determination on his face. Every horror he had been forced to face was because of this woman. Percy nodded, drawing his own sword, remembering how he had felt yesterday, watching the witch eat stew.
Both of them raised their swords above the witch, looking at each other. Then all of the sudden the witch’s eyes snapped open, and they pushed their blades downwards at the same time. The witch had no time to turn into mist before their swords nailed her to the bed, but she had enough power left to send both of them flying in opposite directions, hitting the walls behind them.
“This isn’t happening! I ate you! I ate you!” the witch screamed as her blood covered the sheets in red. “Iapetus! This is your doing! You betrayed me! Even you!”
Her voice turned weak. “Everyone is always lying to me,” she said, tears running down her face. “All I wanted...all I ever wanted...”
They never found out what she’d wanted. The old woman took a few more raspy breaths, then stilled. Blood was dripping down on the floor now. Percy stumbled to his feet, walking over to Nico’s side of the room, helping him up. The boy was still staring at the woman they’d killed, looking dazed.
“Is it over?” Percy asked him quietly, and Nico turned around to look at him, nodding slowly.
“Yes. It’s done.”
They found Bob outside the door, sitting on the floor and holding his head. The Rings of Confinement hung loose around his wrists and ankles. Nico kneeled down beside him, taking one of his hands in his own and removing a ring. Bob watched him, wide eyed.
“Iapetus. Is that the name she took from you?” Nico asked, repeating the gesture on his other arm. Bob nodded.
“I think so,” he said. “It’s starting to come back. I don’t think I was a very kind man.”
“Well, you are now,” Percy said, watching with some amusement as Nico removed the rings from Bob’s ankles as well. “And you can stay Bob if you like him better.”
“Maybe,” Bob said, looking at Nico again. “What should I do now?”
“You’re free to do anything you want,” Nico said, casually throwing the rings aside before turning towards Percy. “Could he come with us?”
“Why not?,” Percy nodded. “I’m sure there’s place at the castle for him. Speaking of which, we should get going.”
“Not before we bury her,” Nico said, glancing at the witch. “We don’t want her becoming a restless spirit. Not with those powers.”
Percy shuddered at the thought. “Agreed.”
Burying the witch took a long time, but Nico insisted on doing everything properly. Percy was a bit hesitant about taking his sword back, but Bob and Nico both seemed to think it was for the best.
“We’ll wash them clean with pure spring water when we get out of here,” Nico said. “If we just leave them here, covered in her blood, someone might stumble upon two very cursed blades in the future.”
They didn’t have much daylight left when they finally started the journey home, but all of them agreed that they wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. They rode, or in Bob’s case, walked, until it became too dark to continue, and then made camp. Percy suspected Nico fell asleep before he’d even settled down on the ground. Thankfully, Bob offered to take the first watch, and Percy lay down beside Nico, curling up against the boy for warmth and comfort. They had made it, and they were both still alive. Percy could hardly believe it was true, but feeling Nico’s body beside him made it real. He never wanted to let go of him again. Smiling into Nico’s hair, Percy fell asleep.
They reached the caste two days later. Percy didn’t think he’d ever been hugged as much as he was that evening. Annabeth actually cried, before she hit him, then hugged him again and demanded he’d tell her what happened. Percy lost track of Nico pretty quickly, but he suspected he’d gone to see Hazel. Bob stayed with Percy, though, and he did his best to provide the giant with some food and a place to stay. Percy’s father seemed delighted to meet a man so large, insisting that Bob should join the guard.
They didn’t have time to prepare a big feast for the "victorious witch-slayers" that evening, but dinner was still unusually lively. People were celebrating that the witch from their childhood stories had been killed, despite that most of them hadn’t known she was still alive in the first place. Bob was clearly overjoyed by the fact that so many people wanted to talk to him. Nico, on the other hand, clearly hated it, and excused himself the moment it was appropriate. He looked tired to the point of exhaustion, and Percy could see Hazel at the servants table, watching him leave with a worried expression on her face. She met Percy’s eyes for a moment, and gave him a small nod. Percy quickly got up from the table.
He knocked on Nico’s door, not waiting for the boy to open it before entering. Nico was sitting on his bed, slowly twirling a dagger in his hands. He looked up in surprise as Percy entered.
“What are you doing with that?” Percy asked, closing the door behind him and walking over to the bed. “Please tell me you’re not thinking what it looks like you’re thinking.”
“Why not?” Nico said. “My only purpose was to bury and avenge my people. It’s done. I have nothing left.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Percy said, sitting down beside him. “You have plenty left. People who love you. You have Hazel. And Bob. And you have me.”
“You are not mine,” Nico said, looking down at the blade in his hands.
“I could be, if you wanted me to,” Percy said, holding out a hand. “Give me the dagger.”
Nico looked up at him, slowly handing the blade over. He still seemed sad. “I don’t think you mean the same thing I do.”
“I’ve kissed you twice already. You know what I mean,” Percy said, putting the dagger away. “What you mean is more important, though.”
Nico was quiet for a while. “What about Lady Annabeth? Isn’t she your fiancée?”
“Technically, yes,” Percy said. “But it’s more so neither of us have to deal with other suitors. She told me two years ago that she wasn’t going to marry anyone, and that she would spend her life studying instead.”
“I fail to see why those two would be mutually exclusive,” Nico said, sounding a little bewildered.
Percy laughed. “Well, she’s not interested in marriage,” he said. “So we just kept our engagement going, until either of us met someone else we wanted to spend our lives with.“ Percy carefully put a hand over Nico’s. “Which I think I have.”
Nico blushed deeply. “The people wouldn’t approve. We’re both men,” he pointed out. Percy shrugged.
“It’s been known to happen sometimes, according to Annabeth, and I don’t really care what anyone thinks,” he said. “It’s more a question of whether you want it to happen or not.”
“I...” Nico said. “I need some time to think about this.” Percy nodded.
“When you figure out what you want, let me know,” he said, giving Nico a smile as he got up from the bed.
“What I want,” Nico mumbled, then sighed deeply. “I want to go home.”
Percy blinked. He hadn’t expected that. “Are you sure?” he asked uncertainly. “I mean, that castle is still abandoned, though my father mentioned he had plans to repopulate it, as soon as he could figure out who to give it to.”
“I know, and I’m sure,” Nico said. “Even after everything, it feels more like home than this castle does. I’m so out of place here.”
Percy nodded. “I’ll speak to my father about it first thing in the morning,” he said, moving towards the door. “Goodnight.”
“Wait,” Nico called out to him, and Percy turned towards him again. “Wait, could you, I mean, would you mind, um...”
“Do you want me to stay with you?” Percy asked, his heart beating loudly in his chest as Nico nodded.
“I hate sleeping on my own, after what happened,” Nico said, flustered. “And the last few nights have been… better, I guess.”
Percy smiled as he walked back to the bed, bringing Nico close to him. The boy relaxed into the embrace, resting his head against Percy’s shoulder. Percy soothingly drew circles on Nico’s back with his thumbs. Even if this was all Nico ever wanted from him, Percy was happy to provide it.
King Poseidon was a little reluctant about Percy’s proposal when they talked the following morning.
“The boy is too young to handle a castle on his own,” he said. “I had planned to give it to one of the noblemen as a boon.”
“Considering the castle’s history, they might not see it as a boon,” Percy pointed out. “And technically Nico is older than you are, and the castle is his birthright. When it really comes down to it, his claim is more lawful than yours.”
Poseidon laughed. “I suppose you’re right, son,” he said. “But he’s still young and inexperienced.”
“True, but he won’t be alone. I’m going with him,” Percy said. “And I’m sure Chiron and Annabeth would join us for a while, to study the rather extensive library at the castle.”
“Are you stealing my advisor?” Percy’s father asked, his voice full of amusement. “I suppose I must yield, before you find a way to give Nico back his crown, as well. Very well, the castle is his, but know that most of the ambitious noblemen will not appreciate it. You two might have made enemies at court by this.”
Percy smiled. “Most of them looked scared of Nico even before we killed the witch. I doubt they will bother us,” he laughed. “Thanks, dad. I’ll go tell him.”
Nico slept in Percy’s arms every night after that, but if anyone noticed, they never said a word about it. It took about a month for them to gather enough people and supplies to make the castle livable again, though more would come with time. They rode ahead of the caravan, to reach the castle first. Nico said he wanted to have one last look at the place the way it used to be, before the new people came to change it.
When they arrived, after greeting the soldiers who were still guarding the castle, the first thing Nico did was take Percy with him underground, to the Royal Crypt. It was a large, square place, with tombs along the walls. Mostly royal looking old men, judging by the faces carved in stone. Nico went further in, before kneeling before three graves with no engravings.
“I’ve come home,” he said quietly. “Your deaths have been avenged, and there will be life in the castle again. You can rest now, but I’ll always remember you. I miss you.”
Tears started running down Nico's face. Percy knelt beside Nico, putting an arm around him. Nico turned to lean against him, crying uncontrollably into his shoulder. It took a long time for Nico to calm down, but Percy didn't mind. He suspected this was the first time Nico had truly allowed himself to feel his loss, and he felt honored the boy allowed him to witness it.
Later Nico took him upstairs in the castle. “This used to be my father’s room,” he said, showing Percy around a particularly large chamber. “I guess it’s mine now. Letting it stand empty isn’t really appropriate.”
“I suppose not,” Percy agreed. “I will need a room as well, you know.”
“I know,” Nico smiled. “Follow me.”
He led Percy out of the chamber and walked pretty far down the corridor, before turning and walking up another one. Percy was getting irritated when they finally stopped and Nico opened the door. It was a fairly decent room, he supposed. Decorated for a woman at the moment, but that could be changed. Still, it wasn’t really what he wanted.
“Isn’t there a room a bit closer to yours?” Percy asked, then felt a cold weight in his stomach as a thought hit him. “Or are you trying to say something with this?”
Nico gave him a smirk. “I am saying something, but not what you think,” he said, walking over to a small statute of a naked woman standing in the corner. “Watch.”
He took a rather inappropriate hold of the woman and turned her around. Then he pushed against the wall behind her. Percy gasped in surprise as a hidden door swung open. Nico gestured for Percy to follow him through it, to a small room with another door on the other side of it. Nico slid the other door open, and Percy started laughing.
Nico’s chambers lay on the other side.
Percy threw his arms around the boy, bringing him close for a kiss. Nico didn’t push him away this time, and Percy got a little bolder, licking Nico’s lips and rejoicing when he opened his mouth, allowing Percy entrance. They stood that way for a long time, holding each other tightly and taking time to explore.
“So I’m your mistress now?” Percy laughed breathlessly when they finally parted. Nico smiled as he rolled his eyes.
“If you want to be. I doubt I could sleep with anyone else staying in that room, even if they didn’t know about the entrance,” he said. “I don’t need to tell you to keep it a secret, do I?”
“Like I’d tell anyone,” Percy snorted. “I will be sneaking into your chambers every night, though.”
“Good,” Nico said, an Percy leaned over to kiss him again.
“How did you find out about this, anyway?” Percy asked later, when Nico closed the entrance so no one else would stumble upon it.
“I’ve always been good at not being noticed. It’s a natural talent of mine, meaning I spent most of my childhood desperately trying to be noticed,” Nico said, laughing a little. “Sometimes I would spy on people for fun. It was a coincidence that I stumbled upon this secret. Got mentally scarred for life by what I saw, too. I’ll leave it to your imagination.”
Percy laughed, pulling him back into an embrace. “Do you think you can be happy here, with me?”
Nico smiled, at him, gently kissing his eyelid. “I already am.”