ARCHIVE (Awakening – Chapter Three)

**All finished chapters will be updated on the Awakening page, in Writing Projects, if you want to read the full work to date**

Chapter Three

When Kali opened her eyes, she was in her own bed. Her boots were nearby, but she was still wearing the clothes from her excursion last night. She sat up slowly, wincing as a sharp twinge shot through her arm. Otherwise, there was a dull ache in her ribs and she felt a little tender. But, thinking back on last night, she knew it could be worse.

She had always healed quickly, too quickly, but she was glad of that now. Without it, she had no idea what condition she would be in. It didn’t even feel that strange to her, but she had learned over the years that she should hide it.

The pain returned when she stood and stretched, but she stuck with it. Kali’s shoulders clicked but the pain didn’t worsen. It was fairly steady so hopefully she’d get used to it until it faded. As long as she didn’t overdo it, it would probably be back to normal in another day.

The events of last night came back to her again and she shivered. If Hades hadn’t gotten there when he did, how far would Ares have gone? It terrified her to know that she had been completely powerless to stop him. What only made it worse was that she was sure he hadn’t even been trying.

She dropped back onto her bed and put her forehead on her knees, breathing hard. “Get it together.” She muttered to herself, hoping the sound of her voice might steady her. A panic attack would do nothing but hinder her. Not that she had really decided what she was going to do yet. That was something else she would need to think about.

One more chance. She would give her mother one more chance to tell her what was happening. Either way, her father…Apollo…had seemed intent that she go to the camp for training. And if it would help with the headaches and everything else she tried to work through every day, then she was willing to give it a try. But it would bring her closer to Ares, and the other gods. It didn’t seem like a logical move, to go right up to people who would want to kill her and would be more than capable of doing so.

With her mind racing over those thoughts, it took Kali a while to realise that her head wasn’t hurting. Maybe it was because she had expended so much energy? Or was it that she had slept better than she could ever remember last night? She blushed when she remembered that she had snuggled up against Hades and buried her face in her hands.

But Hades had put his arm around her. He had come for her even though she’d heard Apollo tell him he could leave her for the night. She didn’t know how he had known she’d needed him, but he had hauled Ares off her when she had been sure there was no way out. Surely, that meant it was more than just a favour for Apollo?

Kali shook her head and tentatively stepped out of her room. She was up earlier than usual so she was sure there was no chance of bumping into Lynette, but she was still careful not to make too much noise. When the floorboards creaked as she passed the door to the master bedroom, she froze and held her breath. But the silence remained, and she continued through the dark house to the living room.

On the table was a new vase full of colourful tulips. Kali rolled her eyes; the new boyfriend was clearly doing his best to woo her mum. Though, she reminded herself, they’d already been together for a year. It didn’t sit right with her, but she knew Lynette hadn’t been lying. But she hadn’t even told Kali his name. Curious, Kali wandered over to the flowers and plucked the card out.

Her heart plummeted when she saw that the pin holding the card was in the shape of a winged staff, with two snakes coiled around it. A caduceus? Sure enough, the name on the card was her own. There was no message, just her name, but her hands were trembling when she put it back on the table. Hoping that she was wrong, Kali used the search function on her phone to check her suspicions.

The flowers were from Hermes.

Kali ran back up the stairs and knocked anxiously on her mother’s bedroom door. There was no answer, not even the usual grumbles and curses. Tentatively, she opened it and found the room was empty. She frowned and moved back into the hallway, calling “Mum? Are you home?”

Silence. If Hermes knew where she lived, and Ares had found her just down the road, was it possible that one of them had taken her? Her heart in her throat, she hurtled down the stairs and collided with Hades’ chest. She had realised at the last moment that he was there, feeling his presence more than seeing him. But it was too late to change her trajectory, so she just buried her face in his chest instead.

“Easy, little dove.” Hades murmured. She could hear his smile in his voice. “This is a warmer welcome than I was expecting.”

Blushing, she stepped back away from him and stumbled on the bottom stair. Hades caught her with a chuckle, and she felt his arm slide around her waist. She realised that she had essentially thrown herself into his arms. But he had caught her, hadn’t he?

Cursing her distracted thoughts, Kali let Hades pull her up and averted her gaze. Even if she couldn’t see him, she still had a feel for him. It was clearer and clearer each time he was near her. But she shook herself and stated “My mum isn’t here. Is it…could Ares or Hermes have done something?”

“They could have, but I don’t see a reason they would.” He replied quietly. Kali could hear the resignation in his voice and her stomach plummeted.

“But…she wouldn’t just…” Kali’s voice trailed off. If it was an anniversary, it was more than just plausible that Lynette would spend the night out. With everything else that was happening, she hadn’t even considered that. So, while she’d had her whole world fall down around her… “How do I get to Camelot?”

Hades was silent for a moment but suggested “Perhaps you ought to think this through a little more.”

“Hermes knows where I live. Ares can’t be far behind. And my dad” she hesitated; it still felt strange to think about, “made it pretty clear that there is nowhere else for me.”

Another moment of silence, before Hades said, “You will not be able to speak with your mother for quite some time once you leave.”

“She didn’t tell me.” Kali admitted, the words suddenly bursting out of her. “For all she knows, I’m still having an existential crisis because my entire world is a lie. To be honest, I’m not so sure I’m out of the woods on that yet either. But she left. I needed her…” Her voice shook, and she looked down at her hands again.

“She is still trying to convince herself that Apollo was lying about your power.” He murmured, but he moved beside her on the sofa. Without thinking, Kali leant against his side again; his closeness comforted her.

“Yeah, maybe.” It didn’t matter. She could run around in circles trying to understand why her mother did the things she did. But the bottom line was that she had left her there alone. Instead of opening up and putting Kali first, she was clinging to the lies she had told her all her life.

The hurt tightening in her chest faded somewhat when Hades shifted to put his arm around her. Without thinking, Kali mumbled “Why do I feel so comfortable around you?”

“Comfortable?” He chuckled, though the sound was somewhat bitter.

Blushing, Kali refused to look at him. But she valiantly continued “I can never normally relax around anyone. But being near you…steadies me.”

“Your honesty is going to be the death of me one of these days, Kali.” He sighed gently. “If you are serious about going to Camelot, then I can only help you so much. Apollo asked me to keep you safe but there are certain trials I cannot interfere with. I can give you the entrance, but you must reach it alone.”

“I’m not afraid.” She insisted.

“Did you know that your father is incapable of telling a lie?” Hades said lightly, his tone giving nothing away. “He can evade as much as he likes but if you drag an answer from him, it is always the absolute truth. Most of his children over the years have inherited that particular weakness.”

Kali shuffled uncomfortably, but retorted “Considering how much you dance around answering a question, you’d be a hypocrite to lecture me about putting on a brave face, right?”

“Lecture?” He laughed, and Kali could feel the rumble in his chest. “Kali, love, you are one of a kind. And I hope you never lose that fire in your eyes. But you should be careful how you speak to the others. They will likely not allow you the liberties I do.”

That was something Kali had been wondering, so she threw caution to the wind and asked, “Why do you?”

He laughed, and his hand brushed her neck as he curled her hair around his fingers again. “I could hardly protect you if I were too busy getting offended by your familiar mannerisms.”

“Familiar?” She echoed, frowning curiously. His fingers at her neck were distracting, but the word resonated with her. Familiar was exactly how he felt to her. Instead of letting her mind focus on that, she brushed it aside and grinned at him. “I can’t be the first one to speak to you like this.”

Hades did not answer, and they sat in silence for a long time before he murmured “What are you planning to do?”

“I don’t know. I’m angry.” She mumbled, leaning forward with her arms on her knees. Staring straight ahead of her, she grimaced and said “I gave her every chance to tell me the truth. I can’t understand how she could just lie to my face.” She clenched her jaw and shook her head, glancing back over her shoulder at the dark space Hades occupied. “I can’t stay here…and things have been getting worse lately. If going to this camp or school or whatever it is will help me, I shouldn’t walk away from that. Right?”

“I cannot influence you in this, Kali. No matter how much I would like to.” He sounded almost pained.

Kali nodded, knowing she shouldn’t try to put the choice on anyone else. She stood slowly, and felt Hades move to the other side of the room. “Everything I thought I knew about my life has been a lie. She told me my dad was dead. It took me years to start believing her, but I did. Every time anything happened that I couldn’t explain, she told me it was all in my head. She even took me to see therapists and doctors to test for post traumatic stress, and a whole list of other disorders to explain them away.” She took a deep breath, holding back the tears that were threatening to overwhelm her again. Before they could take hold, she insisted “Will you tell me how to get there?”

The tears glittering in her eyes when she looked at him then made him hesitate. He laughed quietly at himself; how could he say no when she looked like that. He wondered if she even realised that she had followed his movements around the room. If she knew how terrified she should be in his presence. He wasn’t as immune to her charms as he wanted her to believe.

Eventually, Hades replied. “The nearest entrance would be the amphitheatre in Caerleon, in Wales. I cannot tell you more but, from what I’ve seen, you’ll find the way.”

Anxiety nagged at her. “What about Ares and Hermes?”

“They should be occupied elsewhere, at least until sunset.”

Putting on a brave face, Kali smiled again and stated, “I’ll see you there, then.”

“I’m sure you will.” Cool lips brushed the back of her hand and Kali’s heart leapt into her throat. Before she could react, the shadows lifted from the room and she knew that Hades was gone. She hadn’t realised how dark the room had been. For the first time in her life, she hadn’t even noticed the sunrise.

Kali knew she should move fast but after last night she needed a shower. Savouring the feeling of the water scalding her skin, she took longer than she intended. By the time she was finished, it was already nearly eight. If she was unlucky, someone would call her mum before nine to ask why she wasn’t at school. But the shower had been worth it, and she felt refreshed and ready to face the day.

She wrapped herself in a warm towel for a few moments but did not bother trying to dry her hair. It would do what it wanted regardless. Instead, she just pulled it into a long plait over her left shoulder and got dressed. Comfortable jeans, a band t-shirt, and a hoodie were the first clothes she happened across, so she flung them on and started to get her things together.

While she packed, her mind drifted over everything that had happened. Everything she could remember was shifting in her mind now that she knew the truth. Memories she had convinced herself were dreams. Things that had been explained away as an overactive imagination. Anger boiled her blood, but she had no outlet for it, so it just simmered under her skin. She was surprised smoke wasn’t coming out of her ears.

With new purpose, Kali grabbed a notepad and a pen from her school bag and started to write. Tears splattered the paper before she finished, but her hand didn’t falter. She didn’t even read through it. She simply signed it and left it on the table for her mother to find.

With one last look around the living room, Kali took a deep breath and left the house. Her hands were shaking when she locked the door behind her. Her rucksack was uncomfortable, especially when she was trying to avoid jostling her shoulder. But she hitched it up again and double checked the train times on her phone. Music blared in her ears and she hummed along while she walked; the songs in her ears gave her strength.

Kali had already plotted out her course to Caerleon and she kept running over it in her mind. It was bad enough being chased by gods and other creatures without getting lost somewhere on the way to Wales as well. She hated going anywhere on her own; so much could go wrong. But the music kept her nerves at bay and helped her focus. Not to mention calming her frantic thoughts. She hadn’t even left the postcode yet, and she was already panicking about what could go wrong.

She was too warm in her leather jacket, but she didn’t have the room in her bag for it. When she got to the station, she was overheating so the hoodie ended up around her waist. Her ticket was purchased quickly, and she managed to ignore the small queue that formed behind her. Now she would just have to hope that she wouldn’t make too many mistakes or go to the wrong platform.

After a short wait at the station, she got onto the train and settled herself against a window in the second carriage from the back. Evidently it wasn’t a very busy time of day, or perhaps she was just lucky, because Kali was almost alone in the carriage. There were two women gossiping about their colleagues at the other end of the carriage and a man seated a little way from her just staring out the window. Kali knew she had over an hour on that train, but she kept one eye fixed on the screen that would tell her where they were.

After a while, her eyes wandered. She found herself observing her fellow travellers briefly as her mind drifted back to uncomfortable things. She massaged her shoulder absentmindedly and her eyes fell on the women. They were in their late thirties, perhaps. One was slightly plump with rosy cheeks and a blonde bob cut, and the other was her polar opposite. Kali frowned curiously and watched them for a few minutes, wondering what their lives were like. Her music was too loud to catch their conversation, but they seemed animated and relaxed.

She pulled her gaze away, realising that the sick feeling in her chest was jealousy. Instead, she looked at the other passenger. The man was quite attractive, she realised as her eyes fell on him, and there was a glint in his hazel eyes that was slightly mischievous when they flicked up to meet hers. Kali flushed, embarrassed to have been caught watching him, and looked back out the window again. But before she looked away she admired his defined features. He was slim and quite tall, with sandy hair and a boyish face and there was something about him that captured Kali’s attention. There was something different that she didn’t see in the two women at the other end of the carriage, but she just couldn’t place it.

Kali turned up her music and forced herself to ignore the other passengers, gazing at the sun as it winked from behind the clouds. Eventually she got unsteadily to her feet and got off the train, navigating through the bustling people and the confusing signs to the next platform she needed. The train was already there, waiting, so she got on it and made herself comfortable. There weren’t many people on this one either and Kali was relieved. This time, she didn’t pay any attention to the other passengers. Her nerves were making her restless and she just wanted this to be over, wanted everything to be normal again. But, at the same time, she refused to live a lie anymore.  

A few stops later, Kali was on the platform in the underground. She stood against the wall to avoid being jostled too much by the people. The train was packed, but she was only on it for a few stops. She could handle it. She stayed standing with her bag on her back and her eyes on the floor. Anything to avoid having to interact with any of the many people pressing in around her. The air was stale, and Kali had to turn up her music to hear it over the noise of the train. When she finally managed to escape the confines of the cramped carriage, she took a deep breath and decided that she did not like public transport.

Kali stood staring at the station map for a long time, trying to get her bearings. The back of her neck prickled, and she glanced around her uneasily. It was only then that spotted the man leaning against the wall beside her, watching her. His hazel eyes were smouldering now, and his sandy hair fell across his face, casting it in shadow, but Kali knew it was the same man from the first train she had been on. She wondered if it could be a coincidence, but something told her he was following her.

As soon as that thought entered her head, she became certain of it. She looked away from him and forced herself to turn away to find the last platform she needed. Her carriage was completely empty until the man stepped onto the train and gave her a wink and a grin. Kali just looked at him for a moment and then stood up, leaving her bag where it was, and walked slowly over to him. His smile widened, and Kali grimaced to herself. But she didn’t want to hide, and she wasn’t going to run.

Before she could come to her senses, she closed her hand around the handle of the knife in her pocket. The knife she had cut Ares with. Moving with a confidence she did not feel, Kali swept the knife up and pressed it to his throat.

His eyes glittered, mesmerising her for a moment, and he laughed “Did you like the flowers?”

Hermes. Fear made her hand shake slightly, but she brushed it off and forced her face into an indifferent scowl. “Tulips aren’t really my thing. But I suppose the gesture was nice?”

“I’m not going to hurt you.” He said with a smile.

Kali’s face hardened, and she grimaced “I’ve heard that before.”

“It’s a shame that Ares found you first. I would have liked the chance to woo you before you got all jittery.” His eyes flickered down towards the blade at his throat as though he only just noticed it was there, and his grin widened. Mirth filled his colourful eyes and he said “You know, I’m immortal. That blade won’t cut me.”

Kali surprised him by grinning, coolly stating “It cut Ares.”

The mischievous grin faded to a look of interest, but no apprehension. Kali hated how little power she had in this situation. They might as well be having coffee as her holding a knife to him. Even knowing that it would cut him, he didn’t seem remotely bothered. Instead, he looked at her with twinkling eyes and admitted “I heard he tried to do a blood tie. You must really be something.”

“Hades said that too.” Kali murmured thoughtfully. “What’s a blood tie?”

“Hades, huh?” Hermes still stood patiently, leaning casually against the side of the train. They were moving now but Kali’s hand stayed steady. Even if it was an illusion, she needed to feel like she was in control of something. He watched her for several moments, his eyes still twinkling, before saying “A blood tie is the only way Ares could keep the rest of us off you. You’re not in anyone’s territory, so you don’t have a god’s protection. By exchanging blood with you, Ares could bind you to him and stop anyone else trying to claim you.”

She didn’t know why he was telling her any of this. But if it undermined his competition, it was probably worth it to him. Still though, her stomach turned at the memory of Ares trying to force his bleeding wrist over her mouth. “So, if he’d given me his blood…”

“You would be his.” He replied simply.

Anger boiled her blood. Her hand tightened on the knife, but she dropped it to her side. She hung her head, as though defeated, but her voice was still strong when she snarled, “Do I not get a say in any of this?”

“Ares must have been sure you’d succumb to his particular charms. Or perhaps you drove him into a corner.” He laughed, still not moving from his position against the side of the carriage. “But it is usually inevitable that the gods get what they want.”

“I guess you’ll both have to be disappointed, because I have no intention of giving either of you what you want.” Kali walked away towards the seats, but she wasn’t surprised when he followed. They had the carriage to themselves, but so far he was being a gentleman.

He sat opposite her, spreading himself out in the available space in the same way a cat would. Kali smothered a laugh at the thought, and Hermes’ smile returned. But his eyes pinned her down when he continued the conversation. “Those are some harsh words, considering you don’t even know me.”

“That’s the thing. You don’t know me either. But you’ve decided you want me because of…what, exactly? How I smell?” She glared right back at him. He hid his power under his winning smile, but Kali could still feel it pulsing in the space between them. She just didn’t care.

Hermes didn’t know if she was brave or stupid, but the reckless glint in her eyes drew him in. “Something like that. Though I will admit you are very attractive when you’re angry.”

“You people can’t just decide you’re going to control my life.” She muttered, but the anger was dropping out of her as quickly as it had flared up. It was getting difficult to summon the energy to really care about anything anymore.

“Who said I want to control you?” Hermes saw the spark fading from her eyes and goaded her. “That’s Ares’ thing, not mine. Personally, I’d like to see you wild.”

Kali rubbed her forehead, fighting another headache, and met the god’s gaze. “Will you please just leave me alone?”

“I’ll think about it.” He shrugged, and the colours of his eyes seemed to swirl as Kali looked at him. She looked away before she could get caught up in the dancing light. Grinning at the dizzying effect he was certain he had on her, Hermes crossed his arms across his chest and asked slowly “So, Hades approached you too?”

She coughed unconvincingly and hoped that her blush wasn’t too obvious. “I wouldn’t say that. He’s doing my dad a favour by not letting you guys accidentally rip me apart while you’re fighting over me.”

“And your father is…?” He asked, expectantly.

“Apollo.” Kali admitted, thinking that it hardly mattered if he knew now. It wasn’t a lie. She felt her lips straining to return his smile, in spite of her determination not to. He was too charming for his own good. “I figured it must be obvious to everyone, except me.”

“Oooooh. Bitter?” He winked but leant forward with a thoughtful expression. “I can see why he’d ask Hades to watch out for you. He’s lost a lot of his kids over the last couple of decades. Probably why he hid you away from us too.”

Instead of being drawn into his conspiratorial whisper, Kali leant back. But he had piqued her interest. With a growing sense of foreboding, she asked “Lost?”

“It’s a dangerous world out there. Even without over-zealous gods vying for your attention.” Hermes said carefully, avoiding a real answer. But Kali understood.

“I don’t really believe in coincidences…” She sighed on a shudder. Afraid to know the answer, she took a deep breath and asked, “Am I in danger from you, Hermes?”

Hermes laughed again and stretched back in his chair. “I think I stand a better chance winning your hand fair and square, on this occasion. So, no. No danger from me just yet. Although, you feel stronger than his normally do. Different somehow.” His smile was different, inquisitive, and Kali just shrugged and turned her gaze to the window, watching as the houses and fences gave way to trees and rolling hills.

“I will admit, I would very much like to taste your lips, Kali.”

The confession came so suddenly that Kali felt her face and neck turn immediately red. Flustered, she stammered “You can’t just say that to a girl!”

“Should I take that as a ‘not yet’?” Hermes whispered, leaning ever so slightly forward and Kali fought the urge to laugh, but she was still too embarrassed.

She arranged her features into a stern expression, and insisted “You should take it as a ‘do you want my knife to familiarise itself with your testicles’!” She flashed the knife again for good measure, hoping she seemed at least slightly intimidating.

“‘Not yet’ it is.” Hermes grinned, his eyes gleaming. “Pity. But I think I’ll have fun changing your mind.” He winked and then stood, steady despite the constant moving of the train. He bowed his head slightly and then turned and walked away into the next carriage and out of sight.

Kali frowned after him and bit her lip. She had no idea what he had gotten from that conversation, but she was terrified that she had said the wrong thing. Not because she cared about his opinion, but because her life could literally hang in the balance. When she got to Camelot, she would need to be very careful who she spoke to and what she said.

Kali let herself get lost in her thoughts for a while, she wasn’t sure how long. When she managed to snap out of her reverie, she only had a few minutes left of the train journey. It was drizzling in Cardiff and she pulled her hoodie back on and zipped it up. The temperature was so different there than at home. Kali shivered when she looked at the sky; she couldn’t even see the sun through the grey clouds overhead. An omen? She pushed the thought aside and just pressed on to find a taxi, where she could be warm and dry for a little while longer.

It was about fifteen miles to Caerleon and a quick internet search told Kali it should take less than an hour, depending on traffic. The taxi driver was friendly and tried to make conversation as he drove, but Kali was tense, so her replies were short. She wasn’t great with people at the best of times. Now, she had too much else on her mind to keep forcing a smile. The more her nerves nagged at her and the edgier she got. She was sure the driver was as glad to be rid of her as she was to escape the car by the time they arrived.

All Kali wanted to do was run as she approached the amphitheatre, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted to sprint onwards or flee back. What lay ahead of her was unknown and daunting, but it was where she knew she belonged. What was behind was everything she had ever known. But what she had known had been a lie. Besides, she had come this far. Kali pushed her dark hair off her face and let it tumble over her left shoulder. Steeling herself, she took a deep breath and took her first fateful step.

It wasn’t raining heavily but the damp clung to her clothes and Kali shivered slightly. She usually liked the rain, but this kind of drizzle sent a chill through to her bones. She glared up at the sky but was soon distracted by the pull she felt towards a tunnel she could see. She instinctively pulled back, but she knew this must be the path to Camelot.

As soon as she had stepped into the tunnel, it closed behind her and she was plunged into darkness. The sudden silence knocked her breath from her lungs, and she had an image of being buried alive. Squeezing her eyes shut, Kali forced herself to breathe and did her best to compose herself. But it was a hard image to shake off.

The tunnel was winding seemingly at random, and it was mostly downhill. Luckily, there was only the one tunnel for a long time, so Kali didn’t need to worry about getting lost. When it did eventually start to branch off, she didn’t know which way to go. Every path seemed to have a different lure, calling to her. She finally decided to stay on the main path and ignore the smaller branches. At least that way she could remember where she had been.

Stumbling through the darkness, Kali’s hand gripped the hilt of the knife in her pocket. After walking for what seemed like hours, she saw a figure just ahead. The girl had obviously seen her, but she made no effort to help or hinder Kali’s progress. As Kali got closer, she saw the girl was rather shapeless and about a head shorter than her. But she was also clearly muscular and much wider than Kali was. Her pale hair was slicked off her face in a tight ponytail, and she wore no makeup to hide her poor complexion.

The girl stepped forward and said “You’re what he’s hung up on? Really?” She scowled with revulsion and then muttered “I’m Tracy. You on your way to Camelot?”

“I am. You meant to be my guide?” Kali asked, already knowing the answer.

“Not exactly.” Tracy grinned, showing slightly uneven teeth and Kali saw that a couple of them were even missing. The smile was aggressive, and Kali didn’t quite know what to make of her, but she could guess whose kid Tracy was and why she was there. And Kali doubted that this welcome was a pleasant one.

Sure enough, Tracy continued to say “See, my Dad was detained, but he wanted you to have a proper greeting when you got here. He asked me to pop along and make sure you were…comfortable. Just until he gets here to see you himself. Mighty keen, he was, that you should get to see him before you got all swept up in the system at Camelot.”

“So, you’re here to…stop me?” Kali asked slowly, not all too sure yet what her chances would be against this girl who looked not unlike a barrel.

Another unpleasant show of bad teeth followed. “Just delay you a bit. He said I could do it however I wanted so I’d guess ‘violently’ would be the best bet. ‘Specially as you’re just one of Apollo’s; I hear they’ve never been too good with fighting. You’re all healers and singers and you never seem to want to hurt anyone.”

Kali frowned but knew that if Tracy was underestimating her, she stood a chance. She sighed wearily and put her bag on the floor. She looked at Tracy for a moment before asking “Do we really have to do this?”

“Yeah. I think we do.” Tracy grinned but it looked more like a snarl as she lunged towards Kali and slammed her against the wall.

She tried to punch Kali in the face, but Kali twisted away, and Tracy’s fist smashed into the wall instead. She grunted with pain and rounded on Kali again with a snarl. Tracy swung another punch and this time Kali wasn’t quick enough to avoid it and she spun away as Tracy’s fist collided with her cheek. The other side of her face smacked against the wall of the tunnel. Kali scowled and spat out blood before trying to kick Tracy in the stomach.

Tracy doubled over at the impact, but the fact that she had practically rock-solid abs had saved her from the brunt of the blow. Without straightening up, the demigod charged at Kali and knocked her to the floor, falling on top of her and trying to pin her down. Before she could get a good enough grip, Kali managed to buck Tracy off her. When she tried to get back on top of her, Kali managed to kick her in the face. Tracy howled with pain as her nose crunched under Kali’s boot and Kali scrambled hastily to her feet. But her ankle twisted painfully when Tracy pulled it out from under her, and she fell back to the floor.

Kali decided to end the fight then; she was bruised, bleeding, and she knew that this girl was just buying Ares enough time to get to her himself. Kali couldn’t let that happen. She couldn’t let Ares get there are bind her to him. Even knowing what he had to do didn’t mean she’d be any less powerless to stop it.

With one fluid movement she rolled over, pulled the knife out of her pocket, and slashed Tracy across her stomach. The look of shock that flashed across the demigod’s face sent a wave of nausea through Kali. She was certain that a camp for demigods would need miraculous healers, but she couldn’t believe that she had just stabbed someone. It was self-defence, maybe, but Tracy didn’t really mean her any harm.

Tracy fell heavily to the floor and Kali caught her, regretting it when the girl’s weight settled on her. Cursing, she pressed her shaking hands against the slash to try to stem the blood. In her panic, she didn’t notice her hands were glowing until a wave of exhaustion washed over her. Tracy was looking at her with wide eyes, until they both realised that the bleeding had stopped.

Without missing a beat, Tracy leapt up and slammed Kali against the wall. Pain flared across her back, but Kali snarled and hurled herself at the girl. She managed to get onto Tracy’s back and held on like a monkey, wrapping her arms around her neck. She squeezed the girl’s throat with all of her strength, not relenting even when Tracy slammed them both back into the side of the tunnel.

Eventually, the thrashing stopped and Tracy fell to the floor. Kali released her hesitantly and was relieved when she stayed down. But she wasn’t going to hang around. If this was where Ares wanted her, there was no way she would stay there. She looked guiltily at Tracy’s unmoving body; she should really bring her back to Camelot.

Kali shook herself; there was no way she could carry the other girl. Even if she knew how far she was from the exit, she couldn’t just drag her through the tunnels. And if she woke up, it would be another fight. No, Tracy would have to stay where she was.

Just as she made the decision, a snuffling noise grabbed her attention. She froze at the sound, her heart thudding, and listened intently to the sniffing and snorting. She slowly bent and retrieved the knife from where she had dropped it, trying to make as little noise as possible.

The snuffling stopped. Kali found she was no longer breathing in the new silence and the lack of sound was even more terrifying. She knew whatever had been there was still close. It had to be. But now she couldn’t hear it, so she had no idea where it was.

Unless it had gone? It could have been drawn by the sound of the fight, but the tunnels probably echoed. Maybe it had given up and wandered off. Whatever it was.

Her hopes were dashed when she heard a low growl ahead of her. Her heart stopped as a bear-sized dog with bloodshot eyes prowled into her line of sight. Its teeth were bared, and its hackles raised, and Kali could have sworn that it was drooling when it fixed its eyes on her.

Kali was exhausted, but fear rushed through her and everything else fell away. She had seen a creature like this before. And she could remember what those teeth felt like. Her mother had insisted it was a normal dog after she had chased it away. But this was no dog.

The eyes she had thought were bloodshot gleamed and she realised that they were a solid red. And in the darkness of the tunnels, they were glowing. It prowled closer, and she knew that her legs would not obey her. As she looked at the beast, its jaw widened, and another row of teeth pushed its way through its blackened gums. Two more glowing eyes seemed to sprout on the outside of those it already had. Its hulking body hunkered down, widening. The closer it got to her, the more its appearance changed. Every change just brought more terror, paralysing her.

A word came unbidden to her mind: hellhound.

Without the slightest bit of warning, the beast broke into a run and lunged for Kali’s throat. She threw herself back instinctively and it missed her by barely an inch. She fell hard and scrambled back, but it was already coming at her again. Another snarl made her dive to the side, but she misjudged the distance to the wall in her panic.

Not only had she smashed her already battered shoulder and ribs into the wall, she hadn’t managed to get out of the hound’s reach. Teeth clamped around her left forearm, and she screamed as her bones cracked under the pressure. The creature did not release her, pushing itself forward. Its eyes pierced her as surely as its teeth, drilling into her and bringing all of her fears to the front of her mind. She could hardly think straight. But even though her terror nearly consumed her, she knew that she’d felt worse.

With that certainty, Kali reached for the knife she had dropped in the dirt. She groaned with the effort it took to keep the hound from reaching her throat. Its jaws tightened on her arm and the cry it tore from her was more animal than human. She barely recognised the sound. But her fingers closed around the knife and she did not hesitate.

The knife came down into the hound’s skull, and Kali embedded it to the hilt and twisted. She fell back as the creature howled, and pressed her hands to her face in horror. It had released her, but she couldn’t move. She could only watch as the creature ran in a circle before collapsing to the ground. It whined and twitched once, twice, and then crumbled away to ash in front of her.

Without warning, her stomach turned and she was violently sick. Her throat burned, and she shuddered when she wiped her mouth on her sleeve. She could barely fathom what she had just done. What she was capable of doing. Maybe she was defending herself. Maybe it was instinct. Maybe it was her or the hound. But she had killed it.

Another wave of nausea threatened to consume her, but she closed her eyes and forced herself to breathe through it. Shutting down on her whirling thoughts, Kali pushed herself up. She had a few problems that she needed to find a way around. Her main concern was how many more of those hounds, or other creatures, were in the tunnels. Hades had mentioned there would be trials, but she hadn’t considered that there might be monsters.

She was already weak from her fight with Tracy, and subsequently healing her. If that was what she had even done. She probably had concussion, and her arm was definitely broken. Not to mention, she was bleeding heavily. She couldn’t imagine that Tracy would have gone too far from the camp, though. So, she couldn’t have much further to go. But she also couldn’t leave the girl there, in case there were any more hounds around. If nothing else, the blood would surely draw them.

Kali teetered uncertainly for longer than she should have before carefully putting her bag back on her back. She eased her mutilated arm through the strap, doing her best to muffle her cries. Then, with a grumble and a sigh, she did her best to sling the demigod’s arm around her shoulders. Taking several deep breaths, Kali hauled the girl up with strength she didn’t know she had.

Progress had slowed to a crawl as she struggled to drag Tracy through the tunnel with her. She froze at every sound echoing around them. When Tracy stirred slightly, Kali nearly dropped her. But the girl just mumbled something incoherent and snorted.

“At least someone is having fun.” Kali muttered, trying to find strength in the sound of her voice. But she sounded as she felt; lost and alone, in the dark. But she pressed on; she had lost her fear of this kind of darkness a long time ago, and she was used to being on her own. This was nothing.

Even so, when she saw the first glimmer of light she thought she might cry. The relief nearly knocked her off her feet, and she let Tracy fall to the ground beside her. She awkwardly dragged the girl’s dead weight another few feet before giving up. That would have to be good enough. Someone else could bring her the rest of the way.

Limping forward into the light, Kali wondered how many more steps she had before she collapsed. Her head was swimming, at least partly because of the blood loss. The pain in her arm was encompassing pretty much everything else, but she was still aching all over. But, she insisted, it could be worse. As long as she was still moving, it could be worse.

Kali struggled up the slope and blinked into the sunlight. She paused in the archway, at the edge of some kind of arena. She closed her eyes and took a long breath of the fresh air. It felt like she had been in that tunnel for days. Glancing up at the sun, she could tell that it had only been a couple of hours. The light warmed her and she found the strength to go on.

Even with her injuries, she was curious. She ignored the ever-growing weakness that washed over her and looked around the arena. It looked like there was some sort of lesson there and Kali saw Ares standing in the centre of a group of teenagers. Kali felt embarrassment and rage boil over inside of her, and she grabbed her knife again. Without thinking, she threw it with surprisingly good aim at Ares.

The god of war caught the knife before it could bury itself in his chest and looked at it with some surprise. But he did not look pleased to see her. He smirked as he walked over, leaving a group of confused demigods staring at her with awe. “I’m so glad you could make it.”

Liar. She raised an eyebrow, clearly mocking him, and forced her lips into a defiant smile. “Someone should probably go get Tracy before she gets eaten. I left her near the exit for you.”

“Eaten?” He frowned, taking in her injuries with new interest. “By what, exactly?”

“My guess was a hellhound, but I’m not exactly well-versed in the different types of demonic dogs around these parts.” A laugh caught her attention and she saw two men standing nearby. Ares had taken up all of her attention before, but they must have come over with him. Her pride wouldn’t allow her to ask Ares for help after everything he had put her through. Not to mention, she was afraid of him. Instead, she turned her attention to the two warriors and asked, “Would one of you mind taking me to wherever I’m meant to be?”

The larger of the two crossed his arms and suggested “You might want to think about sitting down.”

“Thought about it.” She said evenly, too tired to keep up her grin. “Shall we?”

The slighter of the two, though still quite burly, nodded and indicated that she should follow him. The other stayed behind and just looked at Ares with raised eyebrows, obviously asking what that had been about. Kali no longer cared what was happening behind her; it was taking everything she had to keep moving.

As Kali stepped out of the arena with her guide, she looked out at the clearing and saw it expanding around her. In the middle of the camp was a lake, lined with stone benches, and with an intricate fountain at its centre. A number of buildings were unfolding, all irregular shapes and sizes. She couldn’t guess what any of them might be for. Some were tall and others long or deep. All of them were in completely different styles, like they had been dropped out of time. Kali felt dizzy watching it all grow.

When things finally stopped shifting and changing, Kali managed to get her bearings. It was only then that she realised that her guide was taking her to the largest building, closest to the lake. It was circular and surrounded with columns and archways and from what Kali could see it was about three stories high.

Her guide was watching her silently, and she made no attempt to start a conversation. Even if she wasn’t so close to passing out, she wouldn’t have known what to say. She just kept her concentration on putting one foot in front of the other and followed his lead.

They were about halfway between the arena and the circular building when Kali noticed a man on a white stallion, riding towards them. But, as he approached, she realised that he wasn’t on a horse at all. She stared at him blankly for several moments until she was sure of what she was seeing and stated, “You’re a centaur.”

“I am. And you are…?” His expression was guarded but pleasant enough and his eyes were a bright piercing blue. It almost hurt to look at him, but there was nothing malicious there.

“Impressed.” She admitted weakly. The man who had been guiding her chuckled and retreated to watch from a safe distance. Kali shifted uncomfortably; a real centaur. If gods were real, why wouldn’t they be as well? She shook herself and tried a smile as she said, “I’m Kali.”

“A pleasure. I am Chiron.” He bowed his head slightly, letting his white hair fall like a curtain over his face for a second with a small smile.

Kali knew that name from the myths she had read as a child and her jaw dropped. If anything in them was remotely accurate then she was honoured and terrified to meet him. She couldn’t think of an appropriate response, so she awkwardly mumbled “Nice to meet you.”

“You seem to have met some trouble on your way.” When Kali didn’t reply, he prompted “Do you know what attacked you?”

She clenched her fists and glanced away, mumbling “I think it was a hellhound, sir.”

“And the beast?” He asked lightly.

“I…” She bit her lip. It took her a moment to swallow the lump in her throat before she admitted “I killed it.”

There was a pause, and Kali didn’t want to look at him to see his condemnation. But after a brief silence, Chiron casually enquired “Any other trouble in the maze?”

“Maze?” She blinked, her eyes moving back to his face to read his expression.

He smiled expectantly, explaining “The tunnels. They are designed to mislead and waylay demigods as they try to reach us. You seem to have had no trouble with the puzzles along the path.”

Kali hesitated; she hadn’t seen anything like that. Had she gone the wrong way? Had she done something wrong? Eventually, she tentatively said “Puzzles?”

“And traps. You encountered nothing?” Chiron seemed surprised, but there was a curious smile on his lips.

Kali thought about it for a moment before suggesting, more to herself, “Maybe Tracy disabled them all.”

“Tracy?” Again, his tone was even and light, revealing nothing.

Her heart plummeted into her stomach. Maybe she shouldn’t have mentioned it. It would probably be easier if everyone didn’t know that Ares wanted her. But she had already started, so she mumbled “A demigod apprehended me on my way here.”

“I see.” The first hint of disquiet crept into his voice, and he sternly stated “I will arrange for someone to find her immediately. If a hellhound entered the tunnels, she may be in danger.”

Pain was forcing its way into her head and she could hardly think straight, but she managed to say “I brought her near the entrance and told Ares. I’m sure it’s sorted.”

“She attacked you, and you brought her to safety?”

She coughed for a moment and whiteness took her mind, but she was used to that. Of everything she was feeling, that was the closest to her baseline. Breathless, she replied “She wasn’t trying to kill me. She was just delaying me.”

“Forgive me for indulging my curiosity. Any further questions can wait until the healers have tended to your wounds.” Chiron said gently, catching her arm as she fell to one knee. She could feel her energy slipping out of her grasp, and it was only getting worse. But she forced herself back up and lifted her chin slightly to look at Chiron ageless face, seeing it lined with concern. “Can you walk?”

“Takes more than a little cut like this to keep me down.” She grinned valiantly, but he did not let go of her arm as they began walking back towards the arena.

The centaur’s features softened into a fond smile, and he said “The infirmary is not far. But you do not have anything to prove. You secured your place just by reaching us here.”

Kali just nodded, barely able to spare the energy for a reply, and continued to shuffle alongside Chiron. She knew that she was slowing him down. It would be much easier for him to just take her there and be done with it. But she had made up her mind to get there with her own two feet. They hadn’t failed her yet, and she needed to prove to herself that she was still alive.

When she faltered, it was more to do with the hospital smell than her own condition. She hated it more than almost anything else. For some reason, she had expected the infirmary to be different. Less clinical. Chiron slowed, but did not comment. On the way there, he had casually pointed out areas of the camp and made polite conversation that she tried desperately to keep up.

By the time they reached the Infirmary, which looked surprisingly normal, Kali was beyond exhausted. She had no idea how she had made it all the way there. From the way he kept glancing at her as they walked, she thought that Chiron was equally surprised. But the moment she was shown to a room, the world went dark around her and she was falling into blissful oblivion.

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