There was no introduction. It was like they weren’t even aware of the crowd that had gathered to watch them. They were not there to entertain the demigods; they were there to train and test each other. Kali respected them for the lack of showmanship or theatrics. The tension was palpable.
When they began, all thought left her mind. She found herself leaning forward, like every demigod there. Her eyes followed every flicker of their blades and every step in their dance. It was overwhelming. The sensation, the thrill. Kali was captivated by the rhythms and the drumbeats that she was certain none of the other demigods could hear.
Achilles was fire. Relentless. Hungry. Always on the offensive, overreaching himself recklessly but with the skill for his chances to pay off. Heracles was stubborn like the earth. He remained steady, despite his partner’s unrelenting attacks. His energy was contained, and it kept him grounded while Achilles’ rushed out to meet his opponent as often as his blade did. They were both disarmed eventually and it was clear that Heracles would be the winner as soon as the first few blows were dealt after that. It wasn’t very long before Achilles was pinned to the hard earth, Heracles standing over him.
Heracles lifted Achilles back to his feet, and they both turned to face their audience. Both men were drenched in sweat but they stood tall, letting the crowd drink their fill of the authority they commanded. It was clear that the demigods had enjoyed watching the brutality in the ring, but many faces were unnerved by the display. These men were not gods, but they were mountains that most would never scale. But Kali found her fire.
As she watched them, she realised she had been looking at it all wrong. She had been trying to figure out how to trigger it. How to control it. She even went to Chiron to ask if any other demigods had similarly active abilities, so she could learn. But there was no one at the camp like her. Not anymore.
It had happened when she was afraid, and angry. But she hadn’t been able to replicate the results. Watching the heroes, it clicked. It was never fear, or rage. It was something that swelled inside of her chest and refused to submit or back down. The closest thing she could use to describe it would be…pride.
Slipping away from the crowd that swarmed the heroes, she strode to the far edge of the Colosseum. Pride was something she had tried to push down. It was easy with her insecurities to believe she was worthless, so what use did she have for pride. But she closed her eyes and tried to summon it.
She was the daughter of a god. She was strong. And she would put Ares on his back in his own arena.
As her skin prickled, she grinned. Heat curled around her, and the rain that had started to fall sizzled against her bare arms. Now that she understood it a little better, the feeling was compulsive. The pull of the flames, driving their way outwards. It felt alive.
Kali shook herself and forced the feeling back down. Soon, she would try to call the flames and control them. But she knew better than to try when she was so tired. If she could barely walk in a straight line, what hope did she have of summoning more than a spark? Besides, she couldn’t very well practice in the Colosseum.
As the days passed, her evenings were soon taken up by physical training with Tom, and spiritual training with Sage. She was swept up in the rhythms and patterns of every day in the life of a demigod. She struggled to keep up with her classes, spent time with her new friends, and tried to hold back in the arena. Eliza despaired at her lack of progress, and even asked if she wanted extra help. But she could tell Eliza liked to be the stronger of them.
The only thing that set her apart from the rest of her group was the attention she received from Ares and Hermes. When Ares pushed her, she turned to Sage’s meditation techniques. It was easy to remind herself that he had hurt her. He was controlling, and dangerous. And she had one chance to prove that she wouldn’t let him do whatever he wanted. She had to keep her eyes on her goal.
Hermes, however, was much better at playing the game. He still hadn’t kissed her, but he made it very clear he wanted to. She would have worried about falling prey to his charms if she hadn’t found herself thinking of someone else more and more often. Hermes seemed not to notice, though he did mention that it had never taken so much time for a woman to come around to his way of thinking.
“I’m starting to worry that Ares already swayed you. His brutish confidence is something women find attractive, or so I’m told.” His eyes twinkled, and Kali was struck again with the feeling that he was seeing far more than she was willing to reveal.
Rolling her eyes, she brushed aside the feeling and asked “Do you really believe that all women want is a man with confidence?”
“I don’t care what all women want. Just you.” He leant in suddenly, his fingers lightly touching her chin. Hermes waited there for an agonising moment, watching as her eyes widened and her breathing hitched. Then, just as abruptly, he danced away with a grin. It wasn’t until he had moved that Kali realised she hadn’t pushed him away that time.
Grimacing, she knew that he had noticed as well. But she was getting so used to his antics that he seemed almost harmless. It was easy to forget that behind the charming features was a cunning being more ancient than she could conceive.
“Just me?” Kali laughed, trying to shake off her unease. “For now, maybe.”
“Maybe.” He grinned, moving in closer again. Too close.
“You’re incorrigible.” She replied, returning his grin. But she shrank inwardly at his proximity. Putting her hand on his chest, she pushed him lightly back. More than anything else, she was surprised that he moved. Her dealings with Ares always turned into a power struggle. She couldn’t help but compare them, even though she knew what Hermes chose to show her was all to his design.
“You don’t seem to mind.” He winked. Not waiting for her denial, he swanned away, leaving her watching after him.
Jem sidled up to her, raising his pierced eyebrow, and teased “I thought you weren’t interested in getting involved with him?”
“I’m not!” She grinned reluctantly, then found herself laughing. If anything, the game he was playing made him feel like an old friend. “That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate his appeal.”
“He has had a long time to practice his charms.” Jem smiled, a little too knowingly.
“And a lot of targets, I’m sure. I won’t be one of them.” She reminded him, and herself. Thoughtfully, she added “Especially while his flirting is more about his ego than about me.”
“Then why are you blushing?”
“Because I’m embarrassed.” She insisted; it was mostly true. “Believe it or not, I’m not used to getting attention from guys. I just…don’t really know what to do with it.”
Jem looked sceptical, but he seemed to buy the theory that she couldn’t lie. Something she didn’t plan to correct anytime soon. Shrugging, he simply said “I just don’t understand why you’re not interested. He’s a hell of a god.”
“Jealous?” She joked.
Jem surprised her by nodding, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Have you seen him? Who wouldn’t be?”
She shifted where she stood. It hadn’t occurred to her before, but any demigod would probably kill to be in her shoes. Jem was right, Hermes was very attractive. So was Ares, if she was being honest. They ought to be; they were gods.
“Looks aren’t everything.” She muttered to herself later, standing in front of her mirror. She didn’t take the time to look at herself often; her scars still brought back memories that she preferred not to relive. But she couldn’t ignore the person looking back at her. It had been less than a month, but she had changed so much.
Over the last four weeks, every moment of her free time had been dedicated to training. She had been a little overweight, her skin pale and sickly. The only thing she had ever liked about herself was her hair, and that was only on the occasional good day. But she looked…healthy? Strong? Vibrant was the only word she could decide on. She was a saturated version of herself. Or perhaps she had always been a muted version of what she was supposed to be.
Biting her lip, she threw on one of her baggy shirts and tracksuit bottoms to go for a run. She would find sleep hard to come by unless she wore herself out, she knew. There was too much on her mind, too much energy coursing through her. She could count the hours until the assessment. It was laughable, really, how much she had pinned on her success. If she couldn’t impress Ares, it wasn’t like she had to give up.
Kali returned to her room long after curfew, restless and uneasy. She sat against her front door, burying her head in her knees, and tried to focus on her breathing. It took longer than usual, but she managed to slow her heart rate back to an acceptable level. Soon, she promised herself, it would be over. She could sit back and just enjoy learning anything and everything she could.
She righted the toppled vase on the table, wondering when she had knocked it over. But she could clean up later. She should at least try to sleep, or she would be useless in the assessments. Stumbling through her bedroom door, she absentmindedly wondered when she had closed it. She didn’t normally, unless the guys were coming over.
Stopping by the bed, she felt a chill. The window was open? Kali’s skin prickled. She forced her dry throat to swallow, clenching her jaw. Someone had been in her room. Rooted to the spot, she frantically looked around her for anything out of place. Her wide eyes darted about until they focused on a drawer that was slightly open.
Prepared as she was, knowing that something was out of place, she still couldn’t stifle the scream that escaped her when she pulled the drawer open. A mass of black swarming spiders filled the drawer, so dense she could not see her clothes beneath. Her throat closed off, choking her, as she scrambled away. Her mind fragmented at the thought that she had to close the drawer. They would come for her. She had to close it. But she couldn’t make herself move closer.
Instinctively, she threw herself back, away from the dresser, needing to escape. Her mind was blank, and tears immediately sprung to her eyes. The sound of breaking glass startled her, and she turned sharply to see a jar shattered on the floor in front of the door. Pouring across the floor from the shards of the container were thousands of tiny black bodies, scurrying towards her.
Sobbing, she screamed internally but she could not draw the breath to make a sound. She scrabbled back to a wall, watching helplessly as smoke surged around her. She curled up into a ball, her fingernails digging into her scalp, and focused her mind on Hades. With every fibre of her being, she wished he was there, and cried his name with her soul.
In a heartbeat, he was at her side. Without a word, Hades scooped her into his arms and held her protectively to him. He sighed into her hair, murmuring words her mind didn’t recognise but her heart knew. She buried her face in his chest, shakily whispering “You came.”
“You called to me.” He replied simply, holding her as if she were as light and delicate as a feather.
“You’re stronger than I thought as well.” She joked, weakly. His gentle laugh reassured her, and her heart settled as she filled her lungs with his scent. She felt his body still against her, and she shivered for a completely different reason when he whispered “Careful, love. I’m not quite the gentleman you think I am.”
A wave of dizziness swept over her, fatigue making her limbs heavy. “Where are they?” It was hard to conjure any remnant of the panic she had felt before, but she had to know.
“I asked them to leave.” He replied, his voice still low.
The intimacy wasn’t lost on her, but she was too drained to let her insecurities hold her back. There was nowhere she would rather be than in his arms. “Thank you, Lord Hades.”
He whispered something in a language she couldn’t quite hear, but it felt like a prayer. When Hades touched her chin and lifted her face slowly, her heart stopped. Heat rushed through her, and Hades brushed his lips across her jaw. “You are going to be the death of me, Kali.”
Reluctantly, he lowered her onto the sofa. When he started to move back, her hand clamped onto his wrist. She felt his surprise, but her fingers wouldn’t obey her. She loosened them enough to move her grasp to his sleeve instead. He was frozen in place, leaning over her, and she couldn’t meet his eyes as she begged “Please don’t go.”
“You’re trembling, dove.” He sighed raggedly. In a smooth motion, he moved to sit beside her, linking his fingers with hers and pulling her to lean against him.
With her body pressing against his, Kali realised that he seemed just as shaken. “So are you.” Biting her lip, she looked up at him. Her eyes refused to focus, but she didn’t need them. It was pitch black in the room around them either way, and she could feel his presence so clearly.
“I don’t like when someone hurts you.” His voice held an edge that sent a thrill through her. “What are you thinking?”
Kali started, feeling the heat rise to her cheeks. Hades’ eyes were on her face, unwavering, searching. Calling her. She must be feeling more fragile than she realised; she was letting her mind wander to places she usually shut down. She couldn’t find the energy to care if this was a terrible idea.
Instead, she moved her trembling hand to his face and shakily found his lips with her fingers. Before she could talk herself out of it, again, she brushed them with a tentative kiss. Hades didn’t move, but the shadows themselves whispered around her, pulling her closer.
“Kali…not like this.” His hand wound itself in her hair, and he rested his forehead on hers. She could feel the tension in his body as he struggled with himself. “If I let this happen, I’d be taking advantage of you. I know you don’t want a reckless kiss in the dark when you’re shattered, in more ways than one.”
I want you, she admitted to herself. Out loud, she sighed “What do you want.”
He brushed a tear from her cheek with his thumb, and his low voice was a promise. “I want everything you are willing to give me. But I want your eyes open.”
Kali buried her face in his neck, smiling at the lie in his voice. He gently stroked her hair, and she felt herself slipping into the soothing darkness as he whispered “Rest, my love. I’ll keep you safe.”
You may or may not have noticed that the edits are officially caught up with the previous chapters posted (now marked ARCHIVE). Thank you once again for your patience. I hope the new shortened versions are working for you, and that you’re looking forward to seeing the continuation. I know I am.
As always, if you made it this far, consider hitting that Like button, or drop a comment to let me know what you thought.