Chapter Twenty Three
The sun rushed in through the open window and danced across polished wooden floors. Kali stretched, easing the tension out of her muscles slowly. She was starting to get used to sleeping on the sofa, but it wasn’t as comfortable as she would like. Then again, the sofa wasn’t to blame for her restless night.
Her mind was buzzing. No matter what she did, she couldn’t switch it off. When she woke, nausea settled deep in her chest, refusing to give any quarter. Like a bubble that refused to burst, rising up in the back of her throat. Too many thoughts stampeding through her mind. It was too much to keep track of. So full that it was empty.
Over the wordless clamouring, she recalled that it was her birthday. Biting her lip, she impulsively glanced over to the drawer she had stuffed her mobile phone in. She had staved off the urge to check it every day since arriving in Camelot. Some days were easier than others.
Turning her back, she hovered at her bedroom door. Hesitated, her hand an inch from the door handle. With shoulders tensed, she darted inside and grabbed an armful of clothes from the drawers. Whatever was in reach would do. She was in and out within seconds, but her skin still crawled. Flinging the clothes onto the sofa, she threw herself into the shower without stopping to undress.
When the prickling sensation across her skin finally abated, Kali peeled herself out of the soaking clothes and busied herself with her things. The sunlight was a pale wintry yellow, peeking through the skylight. She followed the trails of glittering dust particles when she ran out of things to do before it became too much. Just one look, she told herself. It didn’t matter. Either way, it didn’t matter.
When she turned it on, Kali wished that the battery had died. She hoped that something would interrupt her. But it was still early enough that the only sound that could be heard in Camelot was birdsong. Groaning at her lack of control, Kali waited for the messages to update. She watched, chewing on her bottom lip.
Nothing. Part of her argued that it was still early. It had only been her birthday for a few short hours. But still her heart plummeted; the truth weighed heavily on her, constricting her chest with an iron band. She sighed wearily, muttering “Why would this year be any different?”
Tossing the phone onto the table, Kali strode out of the room. Without completely making up her mind, she wandered through the camp. Her feet took her to the Colosseum. Sunday was the only day the demigods got a lie in, and the arena was empty.
As soon as she stepped into the arena, the cool grass giving way to coarse grit, Kali realised she had forgotten shoes. She looked down at her bare feet, curling her toes around the layer of sand and dirt. She would regret it later, she was certain, but it was too late to do anything about it.
Kali closed her eyes as she walked forwards and focused on feeling the dirt beneath her. Feeling its pulse through the soles of her feet. A gentle, albeit chilly, breeze swept around her. Kali felt a smile come to her as she heard the tinkling tune it brought. Like laughter, in the form of a wind chime.
As the breeze swirled and danced, Kali moved with it, tracing its currents. Her direct contact with the earth beneath kept her grounded, and helped her remember her breathing. Following the wind, Kali started to go through the drills she had practised with Tom and Sage. It was demanding to concentrate so fully on her movements, but her mind was blissfully quiet.
While Kali focused, the god of war marched slowly over to the Colosseum. He always knew the moment she stepped into his territory. Her blood sang to him. Instead of approaching her, he sat casually in the stands to watch her train. She seemed not to notice him; he had never seen her smile the way she did as she danced with the wind. He recognised the forms as she practiced, but she never moved with such grace and poise in classes.
The way she moved was methodical. Peaceful, even. Restraint wasn’t something he thought her capable of, from the way she acted around him. She was all fire, unrelenting will and passion, even when her flames simmered. But watching her then, the smooth continuous motion was all water. A still surface running deep with emotion.
Her energy was intense; even with the deceptive veneer of calm, she radiated potential. He had brushed off her victory over him with his peers, but he knew Kali was dangerous. To all of them. That only made him more determined to conquer her. He had never kept a bargain with a demigod before. Hell, he didn’t usually keep them with the other gods. All he knew was that if he lied to her again, there was no chance he’d win her over.
Grimacing, Ares knew it was about time to acknowledge the two Heroes sitting a few rows behind him. Heracles and Achilles had been planning on going a round to start the day, until they realised someone had beaten them to it. The arena was massive, but they couldn’t risk it. Still, they appreciated the opportunity to observe her. Kali had sparked many conversations since they saw her emerge from the tunnel.
Ares climbed up the stalls and slumped irritably next to the Heroes, still keeping his eyes on Kali. He didn’t want to miss a second of the new side he was seeing. Keeping his voice low, Ares grunted “Where were you yesterday? The kids were looking forward to watching a real fight.”
“My fault, I’m afraid.” A voice from the shadows murmured softly.
Achilles turned, surprised “Hades! I thought you were going to be late.”
“I can’t risk leaving you two to wreak havoc unchecked, so I managed to slip away. Charon will make me pay for it later,I’m sure.” Hades sighed audibly and turned his attention back to Ares. “There were some matters I had to attend to. If you’re desperate, they’ve already said they can delight the demigods with some violence today instead.”
“I guess that’ll have to do.” Ares muttered irritably. He had never been fond of Hades; Ares liked to think that he was above the laws of death, and Hades was always quick to prove him otherwise. Of all the gods, Ares lost most family to his nature. There was little comfort in an honourable death when he could never join them in it.
Ares shot Heracles a menacing scowl, noting how closely he watched Kali, and snarled “Eyes to yourself, wonderboy. She’s taken.”
Heracles chuckled; he had no reason to fear the God of War. Not anymore. Before he could reply, the four men heard a quiet voice from the arena mutter “Like hell I am.”
She had known for some time that they were there. Hades was like a beacon for her whenever he was nearby; there was no way she could have missed him. Kali was honestly impressed with herself that she managed to retain her concentration. She considered staying, but the morning had drawn on towards a more respectable time. More demigods would be arriving soon, to take advantage of a quieter Colosseum.
Refreshed by the crisp air, Kali walked towards the beckoning woods edging the camp. Prickling pinecones reminded her to take extra care where she was walking, but she pushed ahead. Forging her own path, Kali was hopelessly lost after a few short minutes. But with the sun warming her back and a cool breeze fanning her face, she didn’t mind.
Kali lost track of time by the time she lost the sun overhead to the dense canopy. The wilds closed around her, but she was not afraid. The lilting cadence of the trees compelled her onward. Hypnotic melodies ensnared her, beckoning her deeper.
Time ceased to exist as Kali continued to walk. Without the sun as her guide, it could have been hours and she would never know. She felt detached, severed from her body, watching herself ambling onwards until she found herself kneeling by a river.
The water was completely still, yet it was flowing. It was clear, yet there was no bed. Confusion took her, but it was a long groggy moment before she realised; there was no scent of water in the air. There was no song of running water. No humming insects. No thick feeling of humidity. Her eyes could see, but her other senses were blind to it.
As Kali stared into the unfathomable depths, the world around her slipped into grey. The colour fell out of her, leaving her shivering and numb. Like her life was seeping out of her along with the vivid hues. Scattered echoes whispered around her, formless and alien. A sudden onslaught of murmurs pressed into her mind, suffocating her, and Kali found her fingers reaching towards the surface of the water.
Disoriented, dazed, Kali desperately tried to draw back. But the distress she was conjuring didn’t ring true. Her mind was frozen in terror, screaming at her to flee. But her body was numb. Empty. Cold. Apathy flooded her. Even so, a tremor shook her hand. The rest of the world was silent and still, so her eyes instantly snapped to the movement.
A memory, crisp and clear and vivid, took her. The sensation of lips caressing her knuckles. Her fingertips. Her wrist. Her eyes forced themselves closed against a wave of dizziness and silence thundered down upon her. Her eyes opened on a gasp. The river was gone.
As the haunting atmosphere lifted, her muted emotions crashed back into her with reality. The sudden transition was a punch to the gut. Scrambling to her feet, Kali managed to stagger a few steps before the nausea took over. Bending double, Kali was violently sick, holding herself up against a tree. The vile taste was sharp, burning her throat.
As soon as she was granted a reprieve, she fled. Sprinting with no concern for her bloodied feet, desperately trying to find the sun again. Once she broke the treeline, Kali stumbled to her hands and knees. Her breaths were coming fast, too fast, and her head swam dangerously. As she stared at the saturated grass, white spots dancing in front of her eyes, a shadow drew near.
Much to her surprise, a delicate and weathered hand appeared in front of her face, holding a steaming mug. Her eyes fluttered unsteadily upward to see Demeter crouching in front of her. When she blankly stared, the goddess smiled kindly. “Drink up. It will help.”
As Demeter sat beside her, flowers sprouted around them. As the fresh blooms weakly tilted towards Kali, the goddess scrutinised her closely through thick goggles. Still holding out the green mug, Demeter waited expectantly until Kali finally closed her shaking hands around it.
Kali shuddered inwardly as Demeter inspected her like a weed. Instead of dwelling on the unpleasant feeling, Kali took a hesitant sip of the scalding liquid. It had little taste, but it helped restore warmth to her limbs. Looking up into the gentle earthy eyes of the woman sitting beside her, Kali murmured her thanks.
Frowning, Demeter murmured “That’s quite alright, dear. You have seemed drawn for a few days; are you sleeping?”
Kali shrugged, relieved for a ready excuse. Demeter didn’t seem interested in the reason she had fled from the woods. But she couldn’t help but wonder if the goddess was onto something. The river was something she was certain she had seen before. Perhaps it was another dream. She took another sip of the herbal tea to give herself time to think on her reply.
Her sleep had been disturbed more than usual recently. When she visited the man in shackles, she always felt more exhausted than when she went to sleep. The strain on her psyche as her mind tried to unravel and deal with her abandonment issues took its toll. Sighing, she carefully admitted “I have been sleeping. I just don’t always get any rest.”
“Bad dreams?” Demeter asked gently, her eyes searching.
“Something like that.” Kali muttered, her mind drifting down into that dark place again. The thought of the river sent chills across her skin. She shook herself and looked back up at the goddess’ calculating stare. Kali attempted a smile, saying “I’m sorry for missing your classes yesterday. I’ll make sure to catch up.”
“Good.” With that, Demeter stood fluidly, pausing to croon over a rosebush.
As the hustle and bustle of the camp surrounded her, the river seemed more and more like a dream. Even as she wiped the sweat from her brow, she wondered if she hadn’t imagined it. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she pushed on towards the fountain.
Kali was vaguely aware of someone drawing closer behind her. She tensed herself to respond, but her shoulders relaxed when a voice she knew shouted “There you are!”
“Eliza.” She turned, forcing a grin. She was sure it was strained; her head was still spinning. But Eliza didn’t seem to notice.
“I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” Eliza reproached, her face twisted in a childish sulk. “I thought you’d be in the Colosseum!”
“I went for a walk. We can go now, if you want?” She suggested. A bit of time in the arena was sure to clear up any lingering disquiet.
“Fine.” She grunted, then shook herself. The smile that followed was as honest as Kali’s had been, so she decided not to comment. Eliza never kept her annoyance to herself for long. They walked in companionable silence to find the Colosseum was packed. Still, Eliza insisted that they get some training in. Kali hated the crowd, but her friend left little room for discussion.
Taking their stances, the girls hesitated for the briefest of moments before throwing themselves into a fight. Any observers would surely never believe the girls were close friends. Kali laughed, dancing away as her partner’s expression contorted. All Eliza wanted to do was wipe the grin off her face, and make her take the fight seriously.
Ares walked by and Kali faltered for a moment, but that was all the time Eliza needed to tackle her. Kali’s head cracked on the ground, and she let out a gasp of pain. Tender, she took her time sitting back up instead of springing to her feet the way she usually would. She tried for a smile but it was more of a grimace as she croaked “Liza, I think you broke a rib.”
“You should have dodged better, then.” She sneered, leaning over her. “You always did fight with luck, not skill.”
Kali bristled. Luck? She chewed on a retort before tossing it away; it wasn’t worth it. Eliza rolled her eyes, hands on her hips, and sniggered “Come on, naptime is over. Or do you want to give up before I get the chance to completely humiliate you?”
Wiping blood away from her mouth, Kali tested her weight. Her legs were a little shaky, but nothing major. She shook her head, regretting it when she saw stars for a moment, and replied “It’s cute that you think you could.”
“You think I’m gonna go easy on you just because it’s your birthday?”
“My birthday.” Kali’s smile faded. She had forgotten. Her heart sank like a stone when she remembered her blank message screen. But even in her discomfort, she did not miss the irritation flash across Eliza’s face. “How did you know?”
“You must have mentioned it…” Eliza bit her lip and flushed angrily, knowing she was caught out.
Kali pushed herself to her feet, finally. She busied herself brushing the dirt from her legs so she wouldn’t have to look at her friend, mumbling “I think I’m done, for now. But I’ll get you back to even the score again later.”
“What’s up with you?” Eliza asked, her expression twisting sourly.
“Nothing.” Kali smiled valiantly and admitted “I’m not so into birthdays. We never really do anything; it’s just another day.”
“Let’s go to your room.” She suggested with feigned nonchalance.
Kali started, staring at the girl. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “You want to go to my room?”
“Yeah. We can hang out?” Eliza tried, wearing a pained smile.
Despite the bold attempt, Kali wasn’t going to budge. “Eliza.”
“Oh come on, K. They’ll kill me if they know I let it slip…” Kali just looked at Eliza shifting uncomfortably in front of her until she exclaimed “Fine! We’re having a surprise party and you’re damn well going to be surprised when you get there! Now come on!”
With that, Eliza grabbed her arm and dragged her in the direction of her apartment. Kali didn’t bother trying to protest; she recognised the stubborn look on her friend’s face by now to know there was no use. She forced her grimace into a pained smile and let Eliza pull her along.
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