Kali looked guiltily at Tracy’s unmoving body, slumped at her feet. But she 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 got 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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