Light drifted through the curtains, the first glimmer of sunlight cresting over the forest that surrounded Camelot. A smile was on Kali’s lips as she sat up. As warm and comfortable as her bed was, she was already buzzing with nervous energy. Her life had always been boring and predictable; she always knew what each day had in store for her. But now? Anything could happen. For the first time in her life, she had no idea what to expect.
Kali teetered on the border between excitement and terror as she went through her morning routine. The normal activities helped steady her, but she was still jittering when she left her apartment. She had donned her uniform and grabbed a bag, and she was ready to face the day. Her optimism dwindled somewhat as she began heading towards the Colosseum for her first class.
There was still plenty of time before Weapons Training, so Kali took a detour and wandered to the lake. It made more sense to her, knowing her mother’s heritage, that water always had a calming effect on her. Biting her lip, Kali thought about her phone. Out of habit, she had thrown it into her bag before she left her room. But she had put it on silent mode and hadn’t looked at it since she left her mum’s house.
Taking a deep breath, Kali braced herself for the guilt. She dreaded to think how many times her mother had called. She must have been worried sick. What must she have thought when she found an empty house? She hesitated but she couldn’t put it off any longer. She pulled it out of her bag with a stone in her stomach and unlocked it.
Nothing. No calls. No messages. No sign that anyone had noticed she was gone.
The silence was worse than any hurtful message she could have received. Staring at her empty inbox, Kali felt all of her energy just drain away. It was for the best, she knew. She had to be careful that no one found out who her mother was, or she’d be in danger. That had to be why there had been no calls.
Kali dragged herself out of her spiralling thoughts as more demigods started rushing through the camp. They were all so loud, moving around in their packs, and she felt like she was in slow motion. It was dizzying, watching them all scurry about. She slipped silently in line behind a group, turning off her phone and putting it back into her bag as she walked. She did her best to put it out of her mind; she would have enough to think about with her new lessons.
The air was cold in Camelot, even for early October. But the skies were clear, and a pale sun winked down at her as she stepped into the arena. The chill bit into her bare arms, but Kali didn’t mind. That feeling was the only thing keeping her focused.
Kali hadn’t quite taken in the sheer scale of the arena when she had first arrived. The Colosseum. She couldn’t fathom how many seats there must be up in the stalls, overlooking the arena floor. As she wandered through one of the grand archways, her hand found a pillar to her right and she leant against it to steady herself. It was a simple smooth pillar, solid stone, but it buzzed with life. The excitement of the spectators had seeped into it over the years. Kali could almost hear cries echoing through the stonework.
Unnerved, she stepped away and dropped her hand to her side. She couldn’t put it off any longer. Lifting her chin, Kali strode into the arena and towards the group of demigods about her age that were chatting near the centre. She only managed to take four steps before a hand closed around her wrist and a voice called “This isn’t a social club. Get moving.”
Ares’ grip was strong on her arm, and he pulled her against his body and pinned her in place. He laughed quietly in her ear and murmured “Good morning, sunshine.”
“It was.” She growled, keeping her eyes on the floor. Struggling slightly against his forced embrace, she tried to test his grip but there was no give.
“Don’t be like that. I’ll start to think you don’t like me.”
Kali looked up at him, keeping her face blank, and mocked “Heaven forbid I hurt your delicate ego.”
His grin did not falter, and he leaned in towards her. “You seemed to enjoy my company just fine, when we met.” Ares’ voice was low, intimate, and he whispered in her ear. “Or would you like a reminder?”
With a sharp, sudden movement, Kali jabbed her elbow into his throat and twisted away. The amusement on his chiselled features told her that he had allowed it, and she spat angrily “You took advantage of me.”
Crossing his arms, Ares leant against the column nearby and smirked “Oh, I’m sorry. Did I treat you like an adult capable of making her own decisions?”
“You lied to me.” She insisted, though a part of her couldn’t help but agree with him.
“Did I hurt your feelings, little one?” He asked, with an almost tender expression. His hand reached out to cup her cheek, and Kali hesitated. But she hated the familiar way he touched her. She hated the way he looked at her like he had some say in her thoughts or feelings. She hated the thought that this man would try to control any aspect of her life.
Slapping his hand away, Kali snapped “I will hurt more than your feelings if you touch me again.”
Blinking, Ares looked at his hand and then at the girl in front of him. And he laughed. Seething, Kali turned to leave but his hand closed around her wrist just long enough for her to feel the calluses on his palms. She whirled around to face him, her eyes full of fire, and he stepped back and held up his hands. “Let me make you a deal.”
“I want nothing you offer.”
“That seems surprisingly short-sighted of you.” His grin was back, but Kali noted that his hands were in his pockets. “I run assessments at the end of every month, to see how the demigods are coming along with their training. If you impress me, and I mean really impress me, then I’ll back off and wait for you to come to me.”
Suspicious, she replied “You’ll leave me alone?”
“If you impress me.”
“What do you get out of it?” She struggled against the urge to back away; he scared her, but she didn’t want to let him see just how much. “Deals normally go both ways.”
His answering grin showed every one of his perfect white teeth. “Win or lose, I get to see what you’re made of. That’s enough for me.”
“Then I want the knife, too.” She demanded, lifting her chin.
“Greedy.” He laughed, looking down at her. He noted the glint in her eyes, and the set of her jaw. He also noticed her balled fists trembling at her sides. “Alright. We’ll see how you do, sunshine. But don’t hold your breath; your kin have always been healers first.”
“We’ll see.” Kali grunted, and she turned away from him. Without a backward glance, she strode into the Colosseum and joined the line of demigods running around the edge of the arena. She fell in behind a thickset girl with an auburn ponytail, and desperately struggled to keep up the pace. When they finally stopped, the girl ahead of her wasn’t even out of breath. But Kali’s legs were like lead, and her lungs were straining.
Kali felt some small measure of relief when she saw she wasn’t the only one out of breath. But Ares started calling out exercises and her heart sank again. Music blared through the stadium and Kali let it run over her, using it to give her the energy she needed. The first hour of the class was spent with push ups, sit ups, squats, and other exercises she had never heard of.
Much to her surprise, through sheer tenacity, she was not the bottom of the rung in the class. There were several demigods there that had collapsed during the first stage. A guy about her age lay on the ground near her, with his face in the dirt. Light brown dreadlocks covered his face, and she would have wondered if he was still breathing if not for the laboured movement of his chest.
Part of Kali was relieved that she wasn’t the least fit member of the group. But she scolded herself for using others as a comparison. “No excuses.” She muttered to herself, as she pushed herself through another sit up. It was all too easy to sit back and be complacent. She needed to be the strongest that she could be. It didn’t matter if she was top or bottom compared to the others in the group. She was only competing with herself.
She managed to struggle through five push ups before her arms gave out. The sit ups were better. Pull ups were worse. She had no upper body strength to speak of, so the “warm up” was not something she was suited to. But faltering there would not make wielding any kind of weaponry any easier. A fact that was made even clearer after running through basic drills with a group of demigods using quarterstaffs.
The class ended earlier than Kali intended, as soon as they started pairing off. She ended up facing off against a boy a little younger than her with a smile that could only be described as cruel. After trying to fend him off for maybe thirty seconds, he got her into some kind of hold. And then he broke her arm. When he followed up with a crack across her head, Kali was almost relieved to be falling into the darkness.
Unfortunately, she startled back to consciousness spitting sand from the arena floor. The searing pain in her arm was greatly diminished, but her muscles were still aching and weak. Someone offered her a hand, and she took it automatically.
As she stood, she was surprised to see the boy with dreadlocks helping her up. She muttered an awkward thanks and closed her eyes briefly against a dizzy spell.
“Anytime.” He replied quietly. Mutters and disgruntlement reached her ears, talking of favouritism. Kali frowned but was met with a kind smile from the young man in front of her. “Don’t listen to them. They’re just jealous.”
Kali blinked, pausing halfway through massaging her right arm. “Jealous?”
“Not everyone has such a close relationship with their…divine parent.” He explained simply, his full lips still arranged in a gentle smile.
Confused, she stammered “I wouldn’t exactly describe it that way.”
“He healed you himself, the instant you hit the floor.” He shrugged, taking a step away from her now that he could see she was steady, and continued “It may not be the most orthodox father-daughter relationship, but he clearly has a vested interest in your wellbeing.”
Kali bit her lip but said nothing. She couldn’t exactly argue with him, considering Apollo had apparently healed her himself. Not to mention that he had exchanged some kind of favour with Hades to keep her safe. Perhaps that did mean something. But before she could consider too deeply, Ares’ voice jolted her back as he shouted for everyone to get back into their pairs.
For the last twenty or so minutes of the class, she managed to avoid another serious injury. But she was battered at every turn and everything hurt. She spent more time in the dirt than on her feet. At the very least, she could be proud of herself for not giving up. Her life was full of taking small victories where she could find them.
“Hey there.” A voice called from behind her. She turned to see the same guy that helped her up earlier in the class. “I don’t think we were introduced earlier. Call me Jem. Everyone does.” Jem held out his hand with a grin and she took it briefly. His charming smile faltered slightly at how little effect he seemed to be having on her.
“Thanks for the assist.” She muttered awkwardly.
“Anytime.” He shrugged, smiling again, and started walking beside her. As they approached the stables for their next class, he kept up a gentle stream of conversation. Kali did her best to reciprocate, appreciating the friendly face, but she was tense. Their lesson would be with Poseidon. Her grandfather. She didn’t know how it worked, but it was always possible that he would somehow sense their relation. Kali just had to hope that he was too busy in his own domain to teach some demigods about horses.
She was out of luck.
Poseidon’s immediate impression of Kali was that she had the sea in her blood. His swirling blue eyes narrowed as she approached, and she couldn’t help but shuffle slightly as she walked. But she didn’t falter, even as nervous as she was. A small bubble of something she couldn’t name swelled in her chest. She had always been looking for belonging, for family. And here it was in front of her. Not what she expected or could ever have guessed. But she couldn’t say anything.
Poseidon was magnificent. Just his presence alone called scenes of stormy waters and crashing waves to her mind. His hair moved in currents that she could almost feel as she drew closer to him. The thing that caught her the most was his eyes; the same glittering blue as her mother’s. For a long time, he just looked at her. Even Jem excused himself to join another boy about his age. Poseidon’s severe brow furrowed, and he asked, “What is your name, child?”
“Welcome to Camelot, Kali.” He said gently. He rubbed his beard thoughtfully, considering, before frowning again. “How much experience do you have with animals?”
“A fair bit.” She answered honestly but neglected to mention the safari park.
His eyes sparkled with keen intuition, and she bit her lip. Her guilty conscience would make any falsehoods all the more obvious, she was sure. But he said nothing. “And with horses?”
Was he suspicious? She couldn’t tell. Anxiety gnawed at her, but she forced herself to be calm. With a small smile to match his, she replied “Enough to know that I like them.”
“Good. You will not be riding today. Go to the third stall on your left and find the horse you will be taking care of for today’s lesson.” He was still frowning. “Her name is Maple.”
Kali muttered “Yes, sir.”
He watched closely as Kali jogged over to the stall. The horse, a good-natured but shy beige filly, sidled up to her immediately. Poseidon called over one of his stable hands and instructed him to take over for the rest of the lesson. With a glance back towards the newest addition to the group, he walked into the fountain and melted into the water.
Seeing him disappear, Kali shivered. Her mind whirled over what she had said and done, even in their brief interaction. Suddenly, the camp was not so welcoming. The danger around her was very certain, and she remembered all too suddenly that she did not belong there.
As she walked behind the bulk of her class, she could hear them talking about the next lesson. Specifically, about how afraid she would be. The girl she had clashed with the previous day, Amanda, seemed to be in her group. Leading the rest of the demigods across the courtyard, she was weaving quite the tale. If she had not already met Hades, she might even be nervous. The menacing aura, the chill that followed where the dreaded Lord of the Underworld walked…Kali was a little impressed at the convincing stage whispers.
Instead of scaring her, the realisation that she would be seeing him again steadied her. Not to mention, the building they were entering looked like a completely ordinary school. In such a normal hallway, fears about gods and monsters seemed almost silly. As she trailed behind the group, they collectively went up to the first floor and through the second door on the right.
The room itself was like any other classroom she had been in, except the darkness. The blinds at the front of the classroom were all shut tight, the only light coming from the windows at the back. Seeing the long shadows, Kali paused in the doorway with a small smile.
Clearly, she had dawdled too long; someone barged her out of the way and strode past her. She was startled to see the boy from her first class. Trevor, she vaguely recalled. She had heard someone shout it when he had broken her arm, though she had been a little preoccupied at the time. She clenched her jaw and watched him sidle up to Amanda and her group.
Sighing, Kali turned away and walked to the nearest seat. Most of the demigods were clustered at the back of the room. Kali assumed it was to make it easier to read, as that was the only light. But the sunlight would only distract her, so she welcomed the shadowy corner she was in. She dropped her bag at her feet and sat patiently, ignoring the hisses and the whispers coming from behind her.
After a moment, she smiled; Hades was there. An unmarked, leather-bound book appeared on the desk in front of her, and her smile widened. Worn lettering decorated the spine, and Kali breathed in the slightly musty scent that all poetry books should have. Hades moved away with a quiet chuckle, and Kali opened the book.
It was easy to lose herself in that room. With Hades’ calming presence and the cool dim light, she was so relaxed that she could almost fall asleep. She was still anxious, but it was hard to let her fears bother her all of a sudden. The sound of Hades’ deep voice rumbled through the room, and Kali sighed in spite of herself. She could feel his eyes drift back over her and she blushed furiously, but she felt the lock of his gaze, holding her in place.
Before she could make a fool of herself, Kali was startled out of the stare when something sharp struck her shoulder. She flinched instinctively, but leapt out of her seat when fangs sank into her leg. Her things scattered across the floor by her desk, but her attention was on the viper clinging to her leg. She ignored her burning cheeks and the cruel laughter from the back of the room and gathered up the snake. “Sorry, little one. I didn’t mean to startle you.” She murmured softly. How she hadn’t noticed it sooner, she didn’t know.
Untangling it from around her leg, she ignored the fading sting of venom from the wound. It wasn’t the first time she had been bitten by a snake, and she was sure it wouldn’t be the last. When she sat back down, curling the twisting viper around her neck, the jeering slowly died down. She threw an unimpressed glance back over her shoulder, but froze when Hades gently placed her book back onto her desk.
A chill settled over the room. Kali looked curiously towards where Hades had moved, much closer to where she was sitting. His voice was a little too measured and precise when he finally spoke. “Any further disruptions will not be received well. Shall we continue, or are there other fruitless pranks to endure?”
The silence that followed was absolute. Hades let it continue long enough that any sign of humour had drained completely before proceeding once more. No one dared speak until the class was over and the door was firmly shut behind them. Kali found it strange how effective such a small reprimand had been. Then again, she thought, the gods were all…well, gods. It made sense that the demigods would do as they were told in the face of displeasure from any one of them.
Not for the first time, Kali wondered if she ought to be a little more respectful in her interactions with them. She trailed behind the group towards the next classroom, forgetting about the snake until Jem, the boy she had spoken with earlier, nervously approached. Reminded that she wasn’t alone, she automatically tuned in to the hissing conversations around her.
“I hate it when he does that. Did you really have to make him mad?”
“How was I supposed to know she likes snakes?”
“Her father is the god of snakes, you imbecile.”
She frowned. Why did her love of snakes have to come from something she didn’t even know about her father? Why couldn’t she just like them because she liked them? At Jem’s suggestion, they went outside to release the snake back into the grass before Maths & Stratagems.
Athena very rarely took the class, always busy with some project or plan. The demigod who usually covered Athena’s classes greeted Kali formally as she walked in. He introduced himself briefly to her, with a polite bow, and pointed her to an available seat. She sat down, next to Jem and another boy she hadn’t seen, and the teacher whirled away to the front of the room to begin the lesson.
Hadriel, as he had told her to call him, was quite passionate about what he was teaching. It was difficult not to get caught up in his enthusiasm. Kali found herself taking an interest in things that she had never really considered before. She still found it slightly difficult to concentrate; she always did when she had to sit still indoors for so long. She had been fine in Hades’ class and she wondered if her restlessness had anything to do with the sun and her father. It seemed likely, especially the more she considered the possibility.
As the class went on and focused more on strategy and how to plan things out, Kali’s anxiety caught back up with her. She was a little bored, making note of names of ancient strategists and trying to remember which led which theory. Her mind quickly wandered back to her current situation. While she waited for the class to finish, Kali tapped her thigh with her pencil restlessly. She felt like she had too much energy in her body and nowhere for it to go.
When they were finally released from the classroom, Kali was relieved to breathe fresh air again. There were no more lessons for an hour, so most of the demigods were heading to the mess hall in the centre of camp. Jem and his friend hung back with her. When the rest of the group cleared out, Kali smiled uncertainly at him and he looked downright relieved. It was good to know that she wasn’t the only demigod who felt awkward around new people. Jem then remembered his manners and started “Oh, right. Kali, this is Carl. He’s one of Hephaestus’ finest.”
Carl blushed slightly, and Kali shook his hand, noticing how rough and callused his palm was. She forced a smiled and asked, “So do you work the forge a lot?”
“My hands give me away?” He smiled briefly when she grinned and then stated “I spend most of my free time there. I’ve even gotten used to how hot it is in there.”
“I haven’t seen it yet.”
Carl smiled hesitantly and stammered “Oh. M-Maybe I could show you around…sometime?”
“Sure, that’d be cool.” She grinned again, oblivious to the fact Carl had been trying to ask her out, and then turned to Jem and asked, “Are there any rules about the Arena or can we use it whenever?”
He shrugged, flicking his dreadlocks off his shoulders. “As long as there’s not a class on, otherwise you’d need permission. But they ‘advise’ us to not use it alone in case someone gets hurt.” He shot her a confused look. “How come?”
She looked away and muttered shiftily “I was thinking of doing some training outside the classes to catch up a bit.”
“Fair enough. You probably won’t get much privacy, though.” She frowned slightly, and he continued “Or hadn’t you noticed how everyone keeps watching you? I’d bet people would find an excuse to be there if you were training.”
She just scowled and muttered “I had noticed, yeah. You’d think you didn’t get any new demigods here.”
“Usually only kids. Give it time, it’ll die down.” He grinned, and Kali noticed dimples in his cheeks.
“I just hope it’s sooner rather than later.” She sighed and then looked up at the sun; they still had half an hour left, and she was itching to be moving. But Jem wasn’t wrong about privacy. Shifting uncomfortably, Kali realised that most of the demigods were watching her again. She wished she had excused herself when Jem spoke to her and gone to the library where there would be fewer people. It hadn’t occurred to her at the time.
Glancing around to avoid the stares, she spotted Tom walking a little way off with Sage. She excused herself from Jem and Carl and ran over, half-tackling Tom with a hug. Catching him off guard, they both tumbled to the ground. Sage almost fell over, laughing himself into a stitch. When they had all recovered, Kali admitted “I was hoping you’d do me a favour.”
Tom’s eyes narrowed slightly; it wasn’t like her to ask him for anything. “Go on?”
“Would you mind helping me train?”
“Sure.” He seemed relieved, rubbing the back of his neck. “Fitness, or combat?”
“Combat.” She paused, biting her lip. Her fitness could really use some work. There was no point knowing how to fight if she couldn’t keep up. Reluctantly, she groaned “Well…both, I guess. I need to catch up, fast.”
Tom laughed. “Catch up? Kali, I’ve seen half the idiots in your group. You’re already caught up.” Frowning, he asked “What’s going on?”
She hesitated. She didn’t want to go into it; he would tell her she was being ridiculous. He wouldn’t accept her motivation if it was for someone else. Instead, she searched herself for another honest answer. “I need to get stronger. I…I don’t want to feel helpless anymore.”
Kali hated the pity that clouded Tom’s features then. His eyes flickered back to the scar on her face, and she clenched her jaw. After a moment, Tom looked out towards the fountain and nodded. “I’ll train with you. Just be careful what you wish for; you know I won’t go easy on you.”
“I’m counting on it.” Kali forced her mouth into a grateful smile. She winced suddenly as a shrill bell rang through the camp, letting them know to start heading to their next classes. Jem had mentioned that she’d get used to it, but she wasn’t holding her breath. Her ears were buzzing as she muttered “I’d better go. See you later?”
He nodded “Yeah. Arena after classes?”
“Sure thing.” She punched his arm gently and grinned at Sage before heading back to the school building.
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