Chapter Twenty Five
Heracles and Achilles had decided to mix things up for a change. When they reached the Colosseum, Kali and her friends saw that the arena was full of different size beams, criss-crossing at various intersections. The lowest was a couple of metres high, and the highest must have been at least fifteen metres off the ground.
Kali was so distracted that she didn’t notice Ares approach until he was standing over her. She started, instinctively taking a step back, and looked up at him, expecting his usual sneer. But she was surprised; his features weren’t possessive or arrogant. He almost looked nervous. Ares glared at Eliza pointedly and she shrivelled. Without a backwards glace, Eliza dragged Kali’s friends to some seats, leaving Kali alone with the God of War.
He drew himself to his full height and cleared his throat. Wincing, Kali braced herself for whatever heavy handed nonsense he was going to spout at her. Maybe he had decided there was a time limit on their deal, and he was going to declare that her reprieve from his advances was over. “So…are you looking forward to the festival?”
Kali blinked twice, staring at him. “Um…what?”
“The new year festival.” At her blank expression, he realised she had no idea what he was talking about. He chuckled to himself; she really was single-minded. Shaking his head, he asked “Did you have your head under a rock this last month?”
“I was…distracted?” She paused, wracking her memory. Suddenly, something clicked about his strange behaviour. “Are you…making small talk?”
Ares sighed. It was a long, drawn out, suffering sound. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he grunted “I am trying to be polite.”
“Why?” Polite wasn’t in his vocabulary. It didn’t fit him.
“Sometimes, you can be very difficult.” He groaned, rolling his eyes. Without another word, he thrust a staff she hadn’t noticed he was holding towards her. He turned and left, not even waiting for her reaction. She fumbled to catch it and watched him leave, baffled by his behaviour. But the staff quickly summoned her attention.
The wood was deep and rich, and it shifted under her hands. The sensation made the weapon seem alive, like it was trying to mould itself to her. Kali’s hands trembled slightly, and flames gently licked at her skin. She was startled for a moment and instinctively dropped the staff, pushing the fire back down. She was surprised and relieved to see that the wood was unblemished. Kali frowned, glancing back at Ares’ turned back, and picked the staff back up. Once again, she had the strangest sensation that it was adjusting to her grip.
As she shuffled through the crowd to reach her friends, she wondered about the festival. She couldn’t recall hearing anything about it. She did keep her head down most of the time, though. Besides, the first month was completely taken up by her desperation to beat Ares.
Just as Kali reached her friends, a hush settled over the arena. As the two Heroes made their way onto the beams, Kali noticed Carl’s eyes fix on her new staff. He grimaced, and she shot him a questioning look. Before he could respond, a gong reverberated through the stands and silence fell once more. What followed was something Kali would never forget. The agility of the heroes as they navigated the maze of beams was truly something to behold. So graceful, yet powerful. The way they used the levels against each other and to gain the higher ground, sometimes in the literal sense.
The fight seemed to go on forever. Some way in, Jem muttered “Do they never get tired?”
Kali knew he was directing that question to her, but she could not look away from the spectacle in the ring. Carl and Jem drifted away from their seats at some point, but Tom, Eliza and Kali were transfixed. Heracles and Achilles seemed to have forgotten that they were effectively putting on a show. It wasn’t about that. It was about testing themselves and being pushed to the limit. Eventually, even they were slowing slightly. But their fight would not end until one of them touched the ground.
Those of Hermes’ offspring running bets on these matches had favourable odds that Achilles would be the victor. He was always so agile on the ground, and faster than Heracles. But Heracles’ inner balance was a force to be reckoned with. He was like a mountain where Achilles was the wind. With time, Achilles could surely whittle away at Heracles’ defences, but his reserves were draining, and Heracles’ patience was paying off. All he had to do was wait for Achilles to wear himself out and the battle would win itself.
Sure enough, it wasn’t much longer before Achilles overextended himself with a jab and couldn’t quite right himself in time. Heracles parried easily and then knocked his fellow hero in the back. The scramble that followed as Achilles struggled to control his fall was anything but graceful. After the rest of the exchange, it was almost comical.
Kali was vaguely aware of the groans of her fellow students as they realised they had lost their money. But when Heracles had dismounted, she was sure he looked right at her. She shook herself and followed Tom and Eliza with the crowd milling out of the arena. When they were clear, Kali thought about the calm certainty Heracles exuded and murmured “All of the stories paint Heracles as a berserker. I mean…some made him almost seem like a monster. But I haven’t seen any sign of that in the arena.”
“Well he has been dead a long time.” Tom reasoned fairly. “Maybe it’s had a mellowing effect on him.”
“I guess…” Kali said uncertainly. It made sense that time would erase much of the men they were before. But Achilles was just as reckless as he had been painted.
Tom laughed at Kali’s frown as they wandered to the fountain where Jem and Carl were sitting. They were both looking uncharacteristically grim. Jem tried to hide his expression when the others approached but Carl’s jaw was clenched.
Eliza was oblivious to the tension and scowled “Where did you guys disappear to?”
Jem shifted uncomfortably and glanced at Carl before shrugging. “Just got bored watching, you know.”
Eliza lost her temper easily, and it was starting to rise already. “So you just walked off without a word? Even though it’s Kali’s birthday!”
“Eliza, it’s no big deal.” Kali smiled, placing a hand on Eliza’s shoulder, but she knew that Jem was lying. She didn’t want to pry; just because she could tell didn’t mean people weren’t allowed their secrets. She needed to start letting them go every once in a while.
Eliza shrugged her hand off, but she had calmed slightly when she muttered “No big deal?”
“It’s not natural!”
They all looked at Carl, surprised by his sudden outburst. He had been sitting on the fountain but now he stood, looking ready to fight. His muscular frame suddenly looked quite intimidating and his honey eyes looked fevered. Kali took a careful step towards him, as she would a wild animal, and murmured “Carl?”
“That…thing. It’s not right.” He backed away, clearly not wanting her to be any closer.
Kali stopped and looked down at her hand, baffled. “The staff?”
Before he could finish, Eliza sniggered cruelly. “Sorry, you’re freaking out because there’s a weapon around that was grown instead of forged? You’re such a snob.”
“What do you mean grown?” Kali was intrigued, though Carl’s disgust confused her.
“Not just grown.” Jem said quietly. He wasn’t sure why it was such a big deal to Carl, but he was slightly unnerved by the process involved as well. “It isn’t like a tree…don’t try to make it sound so mundane.”
Kali looked around at them all, waiting for someone to enlighten her. After a moment, Tom rolled his eyes and explained “To make a weapon like that, you have to use blood. Ares doesn’t share the details.”
“Yeah, you use the blood of the wielder to make the perfect weapon for them! That staff matches Kali perfectly. It grows as she grows. It’s a rare honour to have a weapon like that.” Eliza retorted flippantly. Tom just looked at her and glared; he didn’t appreciate her constant bad attitude.
Carl shuddered, his eyes back on the staff, and said quietly “Don’t call it that. It isn’t a weapon.”
Kali brushed that aside for now and looked back at Tom. To diffuse the challenge that was brewing between him and Eliza, she drew his attention away and asked “Ares used my blood to make this?”
“Don’t tell me you agree with Carl!” Eliza rounded on Kali, her eyes glinting with barely controlled rage.
“Eliza! Enough!” Kali snapped. She took a breath to calm herself and continued “I was just wondering where he got my blood.” With what happened the first time she had met Ares, it was more than a little concerning that he had it. She didn’t know what other rituals or customs they had involving blood.
Tom gently stated “Everyone bleeds in the arena, Kali. Ares has his ways.”
“That’s still pretty creepy.” She frowned and ran her hand across the wood of the staff. It didn’t feel wrong to her. It felt warm, and balanced. Nothing about it made her uncomfortable. “Carl…it may be slightly unorthodox but…”
“It’s not natural.” He interrupted.
“I’m sorry you feel that way. And I understand. But…I’m going to keep it. It’s a good weapon, regardless of how it was made. And I don’t think there is any other staff that would suit me better.” Kali hesitated at the scowl on Carl’s face and gently added “Don’t you want me to be able to protect myself?”
“Of course I do!” With a real weapon. The words didn’t need to be spoken; the scowl on his face said them well enough. Carl sighed, defeated, and mumbled an apology. The silence that fell between them after that was thick.
They were all relieved when Sage bleated awkwardly, breaking the tension. He shuffled anxiously; he always hated confrontation. Combat was different; combat could be resolved quickly and easily, with no emotional mess. Kali shot him a grateful smile as he coerced everyone to the mess hall for dinner.
Eliza was still fuming that anyone dared question what she viewed as the highest honour Ares could bestow, but Carl relaxed. Kali wondered if he had ever been able to disagree with his friends without it turning into an argument. Jem was sticking close to his side, and his relief was obvious.
To nobody’s surprise, Kali hovered by one of the entrance pillars and made her excuses. Tom asked if she wanted some company, but she just laughed. “You don’t have to offer out of some warped sense of duty, Tom. Go eat.”
“Oh thank the gods. I thought you were going to say yes!”
Kali laughed “Next time I will, so be careful!”
“But…Kali, it’s your birthday.” Eliza stated accusingly, turning back with her arms folded.
Kali bristled. “I remember. But surely that means I can do what I want to do, not just what you want me to do?”
Eliza’s face twisted like she was sucking a lemon. She sighed heavily, muttering something under her breath, and waved a hand as if to dismiss her. Sage gave her a quick hug and reminded her to get something to eat when she felt up to it. He glanced anxiously at the others, and linked his arm with Willow’s to guide her away from a probably awkward conversation.
Kali smiled slightly to herself and turned to Jem and Carl. Jem was unruffled as always, but he still had his arm around Carl’s shoulders for support. They were best friends, first and foremost. After a moment, Kali asked quietly “Are we okay?”
“Don’t you hate me?” He mumbled. He shuffled uncomfortably where he stood and refused to meet her gaze. Jem was watching her carefully.
“For having an opinion? Of course not.” Kali smiled gently; she could understand better than he probably expected. She was more outspoken than she used to be, but it still took a lot for her to speak up.
Gathering herself, she told him something she wished someone had said to her. “Carl, I could never hate you. You can always tell me if you disagree with me, or if you don’t like something I say or do. You can tell me anything. You know that.” She gave him a quick hug, then hurried away, leaving the two of them watching her go.
Kali didn’t know what she expected to find in the Colosseum so soon after the fight, but Heracles and Achilles were both still there. They were surrounded by a gaggle of fans, gushing praises and begging for approval. Several groups were sparring around the arena; perhaps fired up by the bout or maybe trying to catch the Heroes’ attention. Kali tried her best to ignore them all and found her own space to test out her staff.
After a few swings, Kali was satisfied that this was the most intuitive quarterstaff she had ever held. It sang through the air at the slightest movement. She glanced around self-consciously to see if anyone was watching, relieved that they all seemed absorbed in their own pursuits. She didn’t know how long the beams would be up, and footwork was something she desperately wanted to work on.
Awkwardly, Kali used what little upper body strength she had gained since her arrival to pull herself onto the lowest beam. She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath to steady herself as she found her centre. Her balance had never been her strong suit. Standing still was manageable, but her coordination was shaky at best. She had found that glaringly obvious during the training in the woods; she would concentrate so hard on what her hands were doing that her footwork often faltered. Beams would be a big challenge for her.
When Kali opened her eyes, she flinched backwards suddenly; Achilles was standing on the beam in front of her. Startled, she twisted her ankle slightly as she floundered, but she managed to stay on the beam. Her heart was pounding; she hadn’t detected his presence in the slightest. Not a sound. Not a single vibration of the beam beneath her feet.
Kali wanted to look around, but she could not tear her eyes from Achilles. She hadn’t been so close to him since she arrived in Camelot, and she had forgotten the intoxicating aura of power he exuded. She had admired his authority in the Colosseum from a distance every week. But he was a much different beast up close.
“On your guard, little demigod.” Achilles mocked, his low voice barely a whisper.
His smirk was not necessarily unkind, but Kali could not unclench her jaw to respond. Raising her staff, she nodded curtly, desperately trying to ignore her racing thoughts. Surely, he did not intend to fight her? She watched his movements the way a cat watched a fox, waiting for him to reveal his intentions.
Heracles leant against the beam beside Achilles, his massive form dwarfed only by his overpowering aura. “You’re the one that put Ares on his back.”
Kali involuntarily glanced at him. In that instant, Achilles swung at her and she dropped from the beam to avoid the blow. She rolled, to save the impact on her legs, and he was on her before she fully stood. As he pressed the fight, his grin widened. “You know, you’re meant to stay on the beams.”
“I don’t remember you explaining any rules for this engagement.” Kali grunted, desperately fending off more blows. He wasn’t even sweating, and she could hardly catch her breath. If she had intended to think about her actions, she didn’t have a chance. Her mind shut down and her instincts took over, parrying and deflecting and dancing aside with speed she did not know she possessed.
Achilles was fierce. It should have gone without saying, but Heracles always deflected him with such ease that he had seemed playful. But his speed and tenacity were terrifying. It was all Kali could do to keep up, and she knew he was holding back.
In no time at all, Kali was exhausted. If she could collect her thoughts, she might be able to put up a fair defence, but there was no reprieve. She had never felt so completely outmatched. After only three more blows, Achilles swept her legs easily and Kali hit the floor. She lay there, dazed for a moment, and Achilles stepped back. He paid her no attention as she gathered herself, just turning to Heracles to ask “How long?”
“Forty-one seconds.” Heracles stated. He held out a hand to help Kali up, but she staggered to her feet without it. Kali groaned inwardly; she thought she had been getting stronger, but she had lasted less than a minute against Achilles. She was surprised when Heracles continued “Not bad at all. Better than expected. You must be pretty fired up; your adrenaline must have increased your reaction time considerably.” Without taking his eyes off her, he held out a hand to Achilles and clicked his fingers.
Achilles shrugged “I guess I lost the bet.” He winked at Kali. “I said I’d have you in less than thirty.”
Kali tried to smile. “Sorry to disappoint.”
“It’s not a problem. There are other bets that I think I’ll be able to cash in on.” He flashed a sadistic smile. “Rematch?”
Kali blinked twice, not sure she heard him correctly. When she was sure he was serious, she muttered a soft curse and readied herself for another round. Achilles’ grin only widened, and he threw himself into an attack. After the first two blinding strikes, he pulled back and started shouting suggestions. Kali scrambled to process his instructions in time to act on them, and was rewarded with several smarting blows before she adjusted to his teaching technique.
Every time she lost her focus, she stared up at him from the floor. Achilles held out a hand and pulled her up by her staff, giving her no reprieve before beginning again. Soon, the fight turned into more of a dance. Achilles was constantly laughing, and the playful glint shone like a ray of sunlight in Kali’s golden eyes.
Time passed. She lost count of how many times she forced her guard back up, but she only hesitated when she noticed that the sky was black. She hadn’t even felt the sun set. As Achilles started towards her once more, Kali held up a hand and slumped back down. Her head was spinning so she lay back in the sand and struggled to get some control over her pounding heart. Even her encounters with Ares hadn’t drained her like this. She grinned.
“She’s still smiling?” Achilles gasped, feigning disbelief. “Are you a masochist or something? You just keep getting back up.”
Kali laughed, ignoring the stabbing pain in her ribs, and admitted “I guess I must be.”
Achilles roared with laughter, but Heracles just held out his hand. Kali giggled and took it, letting him pull her up. His power hit her like an avalanche the instant she touched his skin, and all humour was gone. Her racing heart stopped, dropping into the pit of her stomach. As soon as he released her hand, it thudded to her side.
“Heracles, what are you doing to her?” A silky voice called from near the entrance.
Heracles smirked and turned, holding out his arms. “Hades!”
At his voice, Kali’s head snapped up to see him. Her breath caught in her throat. Sapphire blue eyes, vibrant and piercing, caught her immediately.
She could hear that he was speaking, playfully scolding Heracles for showing off, but the words melted into the background. Her mind was blank as she struggled to process that he was just walking casually towards them. Just walking. Like it was the most natural thing in the world. Out of the shadows.
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