Chapter Twenty Seven
“Escape and evade.” Ares’ voice rang out, harsh as the crack of a whip in the otherwise silent evening. “You all know the rules. Reach the mess hall without getting dead, and then make it back here. Standard infiltration exercise. Credit for not being stupid and raising any of the alarms. More credit for beating the crap out of anyone that does find you, before they can do anything about it.”
Ares’ eyes rested on Kali’s empty expression and he continued “You five were chosen at random for the first round. Every other demigod you meet out there is an enemy. It doesn’t matter if they are friends, lovers, or family. They are expected to bring you down and they will do nothing less if you are found. Some are not above the use of deadly force to accomplish this.”
“How long do we have?” Kali asked, her voice even.
“Sunset to sunrise. There will be no penalty for taking all of that time, but the task will be completed before the sun hits the top spire of the mess hall. Regardless of what happens, the exercise will not end until all five of you are back here, or your time has run out.” Ares puffed himself up and advised “You will retrieve the flag I have placed on the spire and bring it back here with you. Simple enough for you?”
Ben, whom Kali hadn’t seen since the assessments, muttered “They know our objective?”
“No, but any more questions and they’ll probably find you before you even move. Now find something to use as a weapon if you don’t have one and get going.” With that, he was gone. The five demigods glanced at each other silently for a moment before agreeing that they should probably do as Ares said.
Ben was the first to move, grabbing a small hammer from the workbench and drawing his own knife. He glanced at Kali and muttered “I’ll keep watch until you’re ready.”
Kali nodded and scanned the room for anything useful. She had taken to carrying her staff everywhere, hanging on her belt with the long knives, so she had no need for a weapon. Ben evidently carried his knife everywhere as well, but the others seemed to be unarmed.
Trevor could use his fists, but Lily and Jack were not fighters. They looked around them blankly; they didn’t seem to have a clue what they could use. Kali grabbed a rake and threw it to the strawberry blonde girl, thinking that a gardening tool would be quite apt for a daughter of Demeter.
Jack flashed a hopeful smile, showing his perfect white teeth, and Kali rolled her eyes. He still hadn’t stopped flirting with her every chance he got since his bet with his brother. His short hair showed off more of his attractive features than his twin’s dreadlocks, but Kali wasn’t interested. His flirting was less confrontational than the gods’ at least, but no more welcome.
After a few moments, Jack had managed to find a broken shovel to use as a staff. Trevor had tied some planks of rotting wood to his arms and was holding horseshoes. Kali could only assume they were an improvised version of brass knuckles. Not pretty, but effective. She muttered to Lily and Jack to stay close and then moved outside the stables to meet Ben.
He beckoned them over into a clump of foliage and relayed the situation in a hushed voice. There were demigods dotted around the whole camp, as far as he could see. No building was without some coverage, and there was a group near the stables. “As far as I can tell, they’re in small groups but they’re not communicating with each other. If we take some out, I don’t think it’ll lead the others to us.”
Trevor clapped the horseshoes together with a bloodthirsty smile. “So, I don’t have to hold back?”
“Uh…sure.” Ben replied, rolling his eyes. “We’d do better with a distraction. Unless we plan to take out every demigod here, which I wouldn’t advise.”
Trevor looked disappointed as the rest of them agreed. Kali said “I could start a fire by the Colosseum if I get close enough. They must know who they’re looking for, so fire would draw them to me. Then our path back here will be open.”
“Awesome. I’ll go with you and lay a few traps around.” Ben stopped and shifted uncomfortably before looking at Jack and Lily. He took a moment, clearly trying to think of how to phrase his next question without insulting them. “Can you two fight?”
“I’m a lover, not a fighter.” Jack winked at Kali again and she sighed. Lily just shuffled awkwardly, which was answer enough.
“Trevor won’t be able to handle everyone on his own. What if they stumble into a group?” Ben looked at Kali, asking “Could you make it on your own?”
“I can help!” Lily burst out, the blushed and lowered her voice and continued primly “I mean…I can make sure we don’t walk into people.”
Trevor just sneered at her. “I didn’t know you were a tracker.”
Lily turned beetroot red and declared “I can feel the earth if I try really hard. So, I can tell if there are people nearby and we can be really quiet.”
“Great.” Kali smiled encouragingly. She turned to Trevor with gritted teeth. “I assume that’s alright with you?”
He scowled, but shrugged his beefy shoulders. “As long as I get to crack some heads tonight.”
“You’ll get your chance.” Kali said drily.
“Alright. You three head towards the mess hall. We’ll meet you there if everything goes well, but if you have a chance to get the flag, go for it. Otherwise, we’ll sort it when we get to you.” Ben directed the group like a natural born leader. Jack and Lily nodded enthusiastically, but Trevor rolled his eyes and strode away, dragging Lily along with him. Ben turned back to Kali. He seemed much less secure with the others gone. “So…what do you think?”
“I think it’ll work.” She put her hand on his shoulder for a moment with a gentle smile.
Ben grinned again, reminding Kali of Hermes. It was easy to see the relation; Ben had the same mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “Thanks. I’m actually surprised you let me take charge.”
Jack snuck back over, putting his arm around Kali’s waist, and winked “Maybe she likes a man telling her what to do.”
Kali shrugged his arm off and ignored him, muttering “Let’s go.”
Jack laughed and then ran back to where Trevor was pulling Lily along. The three of them moved around the tree line and Kali watched as Lily crouched to the ground. Trevor seemed to be following her advice, at least for the time being. She wondered if that would continue as time progressed.
The only thing Kali was concerned about with Ben’s plan was leaving Trevor on his own with the others. His attitude made her uncomfortable and she worried that he might end up dragging them into trouble to satiate his urges. He was clearly itching for a fight. If not for his obvious loathing for her, she would have suggested he go with her to the arena. But she was relieved to have Ben instead; Trevor still made her skin crawl.
It wasn’t long after they left the others that Ben looked at her sideways and said, “I can see why he likes you.”
Kali started, stopping in her tracks. “Jack?”
“No.” Ben laughed quietly and explained “I meant my dad. And Ares.”
“Does everybody know about that?” She scowled.
“They don’t exactly try to hide it.” He laughed again. “So how many gods are after you really? It can’t just be the two of them.”
“What makes you say that?” She asked quickly. Ben’s expression suggested perhaps a little too quickly.
“You feel different to the rest of us. That energy you give off…it’s like you’re just more alive.” Ben grinned wolfishly: Hermes’ grin. Again, Kali was struck with the similarity; with that smile, he was the image of his father. “There’s no way it’s just Ares and Hermes trying to get your attention.”
Kali blushed and averted her gaze. It had been three weeks since Hades had kissed her, and she still hadn’t told anyone. She couldn’t get through an hour without recalling his searing kiss, or his dazzling sapphire eyes. Hermes and Ares continued to circle her like vultures, waiting for her to crumble. Jem had pointed out that even Carl was in a similar position and that she was leading him on. She still seethed at the memory of that conversation; apparently, she was being too nice, and he was reading into it.
Ben broke her out of her inner grumblings by admitting “Hell, if my dad wasn’t into you, I’d probably give it a try myself.”
“That’s where you draw the line?” Kali laughed, hoping he was joking. If nothing else, Jem would be heartbroken. Besides, what he said about her energy being different to the other demigods was a concern. If he had noticed, how long would it take for someone more dangerous to sense it and connect the dots? It had already been almost two months since she had arrived, and Zeus wasn’t any the wiser. She hadn’t seen him since her entrance meeting, but she was sure he must have spies everywhere. Kali was worried how much longer her safety would last.
Sensing that she was distracted, Ben fell silent. They continued to make their way around the camp, trying to avoid notice. Ben took a couple of demigods by surprise on the way around and silenced them quickly. Kali had never thought much of his skill in the arena, but he clearly excelled with stealth. She still struggled with that, so she was relieved to have him helping her.
As they neared the Colosseum, Kali saw that Tom was there with a small group. She should have known that he would be there; he wouldn’t pass up a chance to test her. Or to show off. Kali signalled to Ben to split up and he nodded, leaving her to continue that way alone. With Tom around, Kali knew that she would be the better distraction. At least as long as she could make it out again.
Kali crept as close as she could before conjuring her fire. A brilliant trail of molten flames snaked through the grass in a winding trail, cutting Tom off from the two demigods he had paired with. From Tom’s expression, Kali guessed they weren’t all that strong. If she was quick, she could take them out and then focus on him. She finished stoking the blaze, wafting the smoke into a column on an updraft.
Nodding to herself, she took a steadying breath and launched towards the larger of Tom’s partners. As she lunged, he tried to restrain her but she was too fast. A quick strike to the chest winded him, and she used her momentum to trip him with her quarterstaff. He lay, groaning, and did not move. Tom and the skinny boy both saw her then. Tom grinned and walked towards her, but the other boy turned tail and fled. Kali shook her head, laughing that she could elicit that kind of response.
“He’s probably getting some of your friends, right?” She asked, still laughing.
Tom’s playful grin spread across his face and he took his stance, waiting for her. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll finish this before they get here.”
Kali grinned and mocked “So cocky.” But she widened her stance and readied herself for what she knew would be a fearsome exchange. “I’m ready when you are, Tom.”
His grin faltered and he frowned, looking over Kali’s shoulder. She laughed “If you think I’m going to fall for that, you’re going to be disapp-” she choked as white hot pain sliced through her. Gasping for breath that would not come, Kali looked down to see a blade protruding from her stomach, dripping crimson. The image fractured in her mind.
Blood? Her fruitless gasping halted as her throat bubbled, and feeling left her. Her vision tilted and Kali realised numbly that she was on her knees. Tom was screaming something she couldn’t hear. His arms were around her as she fell to her side. It occurred to her that she had never seen that expression on his face. But she couldn’t figure out why he was so afraid. He was pulled out of her sight.
Everything around her was sluggish, while her mind was alert. For the first time in her life, she noticed every tiny detail. She was fascinated by the grass shifting from green to scarlet. Each blade glistened like a sea of rubies. Or poppies, she thought, blossoming around her.
Kali was only vaguely aware of the foot on her back. Of the sword being pulled out of her. She spluttered, rolling onto her back, seeing stars. Then a face loomed closer. It took her a moment to place the name. It was Tracy. She could count every freckle. She wondered absently how the other demigod had lost her missing canine. Tracy’s whisper was so crisp and clear in Kali’s ear. “You’re going to die here.”
Watching Tracy’s face pull out of view, Kali thought about that. She was going to die. She weakly tried to push herself up but she didn’t have the energy. She just didn’t care. She was going to die. A flag fluttered in the corner of her eye and she sank into darkness. She was going to die. She saw herself sinking into the clear water of a river, shrouded in smoke. A memory of a dream she used to have. It used to seem freeing but the water enveloping her in her mind was terrifying. She saw the stars glittering above her in the night sky, reminding her of the night Hades had kissed her.
Her eyes snapped open. “No.” Kali grunted, warmth suffusing her limbs. “No. I’m not done yet.” She forced herself to move. She wasn’t ready to die yet. She wasn’t going to let herself be killed in such a way. She had more to do before she could accept that. And she would never give Tracy the satisfaction. Fire prickled in her and her breathing turned to steam in the cold November air. Her energy surged and the wound was prickling and itching, but the bleeding seemed to have slowed.
Smoke was filling the air around her. It took a moment for her to remember the fire she had set. Tom was lying on the floor nearby, still breathing. But Kali knew she couldn’t drag him away in her condition. She saw the other demigod she had knocked down staring blankly at her. “Get him to safety.” Her voice was scratchy and hoarse, but it boomed through the air and the boy jumped to attention.
Kali allowed herself enough time to make sure he was doing as instructed before turning weakly towards her objective. There was a fog in her head that she couldn’t quite shift, but she could see the flag fluttering on top of the mess hall. She had work to do. If she gave up, she would fail, and Tracy would have won. She would never let that happen. Not while she still drew breath. With that pledge at the front of her mind, she staggered onward to the edge of the mess hall.
Voices came to her from inside and she grimaced; she couldn’t fight in her condition. She could barely stand. The words swam around her for several moments before her brain could make sense of them. But when she did, she found her energy swarming back to her. Rage had a way of drawing upon reserves she didn’t know she had. Fanning the simmering embers into wildfires, spreading through her limbs.
Lily, Jack, and Ben were tied to a pillar on the far side. They were bound and gagged, and Ben had clearly gone down hard. Trevor was standing in the centre of the mess hall, grinning, with Tracy. Kali listened for a moment to the heroic and daring tale of her defeat, furious at the lies the demigod spouted.
Kali grit her teeth at the audacity as her skin prickled and burned. Ben’s eyes widened as he spotted her, and he shook his head frantically. She knew he was trying to get her to calm down and be smart. She knew that she needed to get them out, so they could all finish the exercise. But it took every ounce of willpower she had to tear herself away.
As Kali worked her way around, moving as quietly and quickly as she could, she heard the uncertainty in Trevor’s voice. “You’re sure he won’t see?”
“Of course not. My dad’ll only be watching his toy. Especially now that she’s bleeding all over his arena.” She added gleefully. “I bet he’s even there himself trying to find an excuse to have his hands on her. All he’ll see when this is over is you holding the flag in the stables. You win, and Kali fails. She might even die.”
Kali seethed. She tried to focus on her anger and pride; it hurt her that someone could hate her that much. She had beaten Tracy before, but she had carried her to safety. She had been exhausted and injured, but she made sure her attacker was okay. And she had never done anything to Trevor. For them to want her dead, actually dead…
Kali pushed the feeling aside and tried to hold onto her rage; it was the only thing keeping her moving. Tracy had stabbed her. Trevor had betrayed them. That was what mattered. Kali repeated that to herself until she got to the others. It was a relief that their captors were so distracted; there was no way Kali had managed to be stealthy.
She put one of her knives in Ben’s hands so that he could start cutting himself free, muttering “Ares said we have until sunrise, so we’ve still got plenty of time. But all five of us need to make it back. And I’m not leaving that bloody flag.”
The other three nodded and Kali muttered “Jack, how’s your climbing?” She waited for another nod and continued “I’m going to deal with those two. I’ll get Trevor over here. You two grab him while Jack gets the flag. We knock him out and drag him back to the stable. Lily can feel out a safe path for us, so we can avoid more trouble. Any questions?” The three demigods shook their heads. “Good. Ben? I’m going to want that knife back when we’re done.”
He chuckled but continued to work on the binds. Kali circled back around the mess hall a little way before giving up on stealth completely. Her head was swimming, but she had decided on the plan. Her condition didn’t matter. She would see it through.
First, she trapped Tracy in a ring of flames that towered over her. A dark smile twisted her lips as she heard Tracy screaming, terrified. Before Trevor could turn around, she charged at him. The surprise of seeing her, drenched with blood, gave her the opening she needed. Her momentum went a long way in keeping him on the defensive. She drove him back, refusing to let up long enough for him to get his balance back. It didn’t take long until he was close enough for Ben and Lily to grab him. They wouldn’t be able to hold him long, but Kali didn’t need much time. She booted him in the stomach, and then ruthlessly drove her knee into his face when he fell forward. He was out like a light.
Kali dropped to the floor, retching, and felt something rip open. Coughing made it worse, but she managed to push herself up. Shaking as she was, she told the others to leave her behind, but they refused. Jack made quick work grabbing the flag, handing it off to Lily so that she could concentrate on looking out for demigods. It seemed the fire had done a lot of work in keeping their path clear. Ben and Jack were almost as relieved as Kali when the stables were in sight; Trevor was even heavier than he looked.
They just managed to get inside the doorway to the stable before Trevor woke up and banged Jack and Ben’s heads together. They reeled away, and Jack tripped. Lily rushed to his side and Trevor rounded on her like a wounded bear. Throwing herself into the fray, Kali tried to wrap her arm around his neck, but she just didn’t have the strength to make an impact. Instead, Trevor tossed her over his shoulder, keeping a hold of her arm. Kali screamed as she heard and felt the resounding crack.
Her response was to bring her boot up sharply between his legs. His feet left the floor. He fell to his knees, and his face soon followed. Ben and Jack looked horrified and squirmed back a few paces as Trevor just lay there, winded. His arms were trapped underneath him as he fell so Kali knelt on his back and used her good arm to drive his face into the floor.
Tears were streaming down her face and her arm was clutched to her bloody side. Trevor was struggling helplessly beneath her, but she just forced his face harder into the ground. Ares casually wandered over and looked at Trevor with distaste. “You failed.”
He lifted Kali off his back, but Trevor still couldn’t move. Ares chuckled and said “Get yourself to a medic.” His tone was gentler than Kali had expected. She dropped as soon as he let go of her, but he caught her before she reached the floor. He sighed and shook his head, saying “You should have stayed down when she ran you through.”
Ben came over at a harsh look from Ares and put Kali’s good arm around his shoulders, helping her walk to the hospital. He didn’t get far before Tom scrambled over and took her without a word. His cheeks were wet, and his eyes were red as he silently pulled her along and she sagged against him. She barely heard him when he whispered, “I thought I lost you.”
“Dumbass.” She croaked. “You can’t get rid of me that easy.”
Tom was breathing hard. Through gritted teeth, he pleaded “Don’t scare me like that again, Kali.”
“You’re shaking.” She pointed out, wheezing, though he wasn’t the only one.
“I can’t lose you too.” He admitted quietly.
“You won’t.” Kali buried her face in his shoulder and held onto his arm; it was the best hug she could manage when it was all she could do to keep upright. She could feel his panic, and knew it wasn’t enough. Dragging the last dregs of energy she had, she rasped “You’re stuck with me until the end. Whether you like it or not.” Her breathing was ragged, and she finally, blissfully, slipped out of consciousness.
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