In Monday’s first class, Ares handed her a leaf sword to start off with. It was an awkward, clumsy weapon. Kali couldn’t get used to the balance. There was something about holding a sword that was different to the staff. It was a blade. For cutting, hacking, slashing. The staff could break bones, but a blade felt…real. She wasn’t playing with a stick she found in the woods.
Her hopes of partnering with Ben were dashed. He was nowhere in sight. Not to mention, Ares was working closely with any demigods that had switched to new weapons. Kali was relieved he seemed to be honouring their agreement. Leering was at a minimum, and he didn’t try to touch her at all. Not even to correct her stance. Ares seemed different as well. Quiet. Reserved, even.
Kali hadn’t been able to focus on her other classes before, so it felt like she was in every class for the first time. The next week went by in a dizzying whirl as she struggled to catch up and get her bearings. Sailing and Navigation wasn’t as interesting as she hoped; with her ancestry, she expected to be fascinated. Even so, she took diligent notes and tried to pay attention.
For the first time since Kali had started, Athena was teaching Maths and Stratagems. Usually, Hadriel took every class. Kali preferred him, in all honesty; Athena was intimidating. Her harsh grey stare pinned Kali down, analysing her through the class. When it was over, Kali was prevented from fleeing when the goddess asked her to stay behind.
Once they were alone, Athena scrutinised her, searching for answers to the questions she had yet to ask. Kali knew well enough to stay silent. Eventually, Athena stated “You defeated my brother in battle.”
“Hardly.” Kali muttered under her breath.
Her voice was a whip, snapping “Your modesty is admirable, but irritating.”
“I’m not being modest. He let me win.” She could feel that Athena found very little admirable about her. The goddess didn’t like her one bit. Perhaps it was because she was beneath her, with perceived delusions of grandeur. Kali didn’t know why, but this was one being she would be very careful with.
Athena’s lips twisted sourly. She must have heard that Kali couldn’t lie, but she still did not believe her. “He has never taken such an action before. Even with demigods he has courted.”
“Other demigods he’s courted haven’t said no.” She replied, a little too quickly. Her palms were sweaty, but she refused to wipe them. She needed to appear logical. She needed to get out of that room in one piece. She could fall apart later.
“Interesting.” Athena murmured to herself. She turned back to Kali with a new intrigue sharpening her gaze. Kali shrank back under the weight of the stare. That look, astute and severe, sent shivers down her spine. “You may leave.”
Kali muttered an awkward “thank you” and hurried out of the classroom. It took everything she had not to break into a run. It didn’t occur to her until much later that Athena was Tom’s mother. She wasn’t sure if that made her obvious dislike better or worse.
Throughout the days, Kali couldn’t help but notice how wary many of the demigods were of her. The initial awe wore off quickly. More whispers and stares followed her than on her first day. Aphrodite’s daughter, Amanda, had been ignoring her since their altercation in the first week, but even she could not resist the urge to stare. Only when she thought Kali wasn’t looking, of course. Her bodyguard, Hannah, was not so subtle.
Trevor had taken to assaulting her at random intervals. Luckily, he was loud. He lumbered like a bear, calling a war cry, every time. It was easy enough to dodge and avoid him. But despite her laughing it off, it scared her. He scared her.
Jem and Carl seemed uncomfortable with the extra attention, so Kali started slipping away at lunch. Most of the time, she hid in quiet corners of the library. To her disappointment, she didn’t run into Hades, but she managed to study for the time she was there. When the stresses of the day built up, she would return there after dinner to explore and unwind.
On Tuesdays, Kali had Hunting with Artemis. Kali knew she was a disappointment, and she hated it. They were focusing on tracking, and moving through the forest unnoticed. Kali always felt clumsy on flat concrete pavements. She didn’t pay much attention to her surroundings, and was easily distracted, so she struggled more in this class than anywhere else. But what she was dreading most was what would come later – hunting.
She pushed it out of her mind, focusing on the current tasks. She could worry about the rest when it happened. It wasn’t always clear what Artemis was pointing out for them to notice, and Kali found it impossible to move through the woods without making a sound. Eventually, she would be expected to move without leaving a trace. It was a relief that she wasn’t the only one struggling with that.
Most of the gods had been leaving their classes to demigods for the last few weeks. In addition to Athena, Dionysus and Aphrodite had appeared in the camp during the days after the assessment. Kali hoped she was paranoid, but it seemed too much of a coincidence to have nothing to do with her.
Dionysus was intelligent, and mad. His presence was intoxicating. The way he spoke drew you in, terrifying and beautiful. Kali didn’t like it. The heady feeling of being in his proximity, almost out of control, she hated it. She could understand why he rarely took his own classes. He wrote the lectures, and the books, but he kept his distance. Kali felt fragile for days after just an hour in a room with him, and she knew her classmates were the same.
When Kali finally met Aphrodite, it was during “The Art of Seduction”. The other class she taught was Fashion; Aphrodite argued that she couldn’t teach anyone about love, so beauty and lust were all she had left. She certainly seemed to have a lot of wisdom to impart in those areas.
The main topic of conversation in the class was confidence. It was more important to love yourself. If you couldn’t, why should anyone else. Self-confidence was an attractive quality, apparently. Aphrodite took it upon herself to imbue all her students with it in some form or another. Kali wasn’t certain, but it was difficult to disagree with her when she spoke with such certainty. Her poise was poetry in itself, and at least half the class forgot that they were supposed to stand up to leave when the bell rang.
Kali helped Jem shake Carl out of his stupor, and Kali tried to get Aphrodite out of her head. The woman was a masterpiece in every way. Kali could never compare. Suddenly, she realised what other demigods felt when they watched the Heroes fighting. She would never be at her level. The sophisticated grace, the vibrant glittering eyes, the lustrous hair. Everything about her was sculpted for perfection. The ultimate woman.
“Intimidating, isn’t she?” Jem rumbled, obviously smug about his parentage.
“That’s one word for it.” She replied, chewing her lip. Thinking about her father, Kali glanced at Jem and murmured “Do you ever feel like you’re in her shadow? Like you can only ever be a second rate version of her?”
“Sometimes. But I’m nothing like my ma’s. And Jack and I are so different, you could forget we’re related.” Jem smiled warmly. “I cast my own shadows, so I’m not scared of being in hers.”
“Well said, Jeremy. But you’re late for my class.” Hermes clapped, pulling Kali back to the present. Jem hurried in, still dragging Carl along behind them, but Hermes stopped Kali. He poked his head into the classroom and barked some instructions, then turned his full attention to her.
“Thank you for your help.” She said quietly, in response to his expectant smile.
Hermes’ only response was to hand her a polished wooden box. Kali looked at him, suspicion clouding her features, and his grin widened. “A little bird told me it is your birthday on Sunday.”
“I don’t understand.” She stated, watching him carefully. He was up to something. She was certain of it.
“Is it not customary where you are from to celebrate such a thing with gifts?” His voice was light, an impish smile on his cheeks. If Kali didn’t know better, she would think he was excited. But she’d never been one for birthdays.
“Yes, and no.” She muttered awkwardly. Ignoring the uncomfortable heat in her cheeks, Kali shook her head. “I can’t accept this.”
Hermes took her hands, placing the box in her grip. “Kali, I don’t need an excuse to want to spoil you. But please indulge me, just this once. If it makes you feel better, you can consider it making good on any debt you feel you have to me, for my assistance.”
Hesitantly, Kali touched the cool, smooth surface of the box. Focusing on the intricate silver clasp, she looked anywhere but at Hermes. As the box opened, her strained smile froze on her face. Her lips parted on a gasp as her fingers glided over the cold steel blade of one of the knives lying within.
The pair rested in a bed of royal blue silk, gleaming in the weak November sunlight. Fire opals lined the hilt, catching the light and glistening like fire, mesmerising her. She was afraid to touch them. They were much too beautiful to be weapons, yet the design was practical. She risked a glance at Hermes, meeting his twinkling eyes. They had been hazel before, she was certain. But suddenly they flickered with orange and yellow flames, mirroring the daggers.
Dazzled, Kali held his gaze. She hardly registered his arm sliding around her waist as his mouth met hers. His kiss was warm. Gentle. He parted her lips with his tongue, and her mind went hazy. He was spicy and sweet, unexpected. A sting of desire shot through her, sharp and insistent. It surprised her enough that she forgot, for a moment, who this was. Her heart stuttered and she pulled away from him.
The backs of her hands were tingling, and Kali was too aware of her lips. Despite the softness of his kiss, they felt bruised and swollen. Panicking, Kali stammered “W-what did you do.”
“I gave you a taste of what you’re missing.” He replied silkily. His gaze didn’t leave her face, waiting for her reaction. Making note of how his words affected her.
Taste. Her eyes darted back to his lips. He tasted earthy, sweet like butterscotch, but somehow spicy. She couldn’t place it, but she knew it didn’t belong to him. Her head was too cloudy to catch the train of thought before it eluded her. Her breathing was coming too fast, and she could hear her heart pounding. Clutching her head, she shouted “Stop it.”
“You seem flustered.” Hermes touched her cheek but she flinched at the contact. His hand scalded her skin.
Kali scurried back, into the wall, and snarled “I am not yours to touch.”
“And whose, pray tell, are you?” Hermes’ concerned smile faded and he regarded her with smug curiosity.
Kali reminded herself that Hermes was dangerous, and far too observant, but she couldn’t collect herself. It took everything she had not to call out to Hades as the world spun beneath her feet. She’d had dizzy spells before, but this was different. Faint, she pressed a hand against the wall to steady herself. Hermes held out his hand to her, suggesting “Perhaps you should take a little time to yourself. You don’t look well.”
“I won’t give you the satisfaction.” She grimaced, pushing herself away from him. Against her better judgement, she pushed her way into the classroom. Jem’s expression was unsettled, and his lips were pressed together for the whole time. It took everything she had to concentrate through her nausea, so she was glad of the quiet. But it was the first time Jem had contained himself from chatting in class.
When they got out, Jem steered her in the direction of the hospital. “You need to see one of the medics.”
That wasn’t going to happen. Kali shook her head, trying for a smile. “I’m just woozy. It’s nothing serious.”
She was startled by his tone; she had never heard him so serious. She bristled at his attempt to command her, but forced herself to take a breath. He meant well. He wasn’t an overbearing person, he was just worried. Even so, she stared at him. “Jem…what’s going on?”
“Stop being so stubborn, for once in your life!” He exclaimed, surprising her. He shifted where he stood, muttering “You just…you don’t look right. You don’t feel right.”
It took Kali a moment to realise why he was uncomfortable, but the way he was shifting was familiar. Faltering, she studied him. “Other people’s emotions affect you, don’t they?”
“Sometimes. I…I get a sense of them. It doesn’t matter.” He shook himself, standing his ground. His dark eyes were kind, but his voice was firm. “You’re a mess, Kali. But it’s not…you normally feel like salt and smoke. This is sickly sweet, cloying. Tainted.”
Kali felt it too. Hell, she could taste it. Like caramel, stuck to the roof of her mouth. Fighting the urge to be sick, Kali wondered if he was right. But her hands shook at the thought of going to the hospital. “I’ll go and lie down, OK?”
He was clearly frustrated, and Kali felt guilty for making him worry about her. To her relief, he sighed “Fine. But if you come back to class like this, I’ll tell Tom. Maybe he’ll have a better chance of convincing you to take care of yourself.”
Despite the way she was feeling, Kali had to smile at that. Tom had never had much luck trying to get her to be careful or take care of herself before. But she said nothing. Instead, she stumbled away and headed for her apartment building. She barely made it inside before stuttering to a halt at the bottom of the stairs. Doubled over, pain bolted like lightning, arcing through her nervous system. She saw white.
Mentally tugging on the silver thread inside of her, Kali wordlessly called out for Hades. She was relieved that she’d been practising; she didn’t think she would’ve had the strength if it hadn’t become second nature to check in. It was only then that she allowed herself to collapse, knowing that Hades would catch her.
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