As much as she hated to inflate Ares’ ego, she couldn’t argue that he was right about one thing. Her eating habits needed to change. She often forgot to eat, and spent most of the time walking around like a zombie. If she skated by, it was only because her body automatically made up for her stupidity.
Being a vegetarian was one thing, and she couldn’t bear the thought of hurting an animal. She didn’t think that would change anytime soon, nor did it need to. But that didn’t mean she could cut meals or ignore protein altogether. Getting by wasn’t good enough anymore.
Usually, Kali would spend breaks in the library. But she reluctantly found herself heading to the mess hall. Jem and Carl broke off after class to head to the Forge; Carl muttered something about his latest project and Jem trailed after him. They had both been quieter than usual after Ares’ display that morning. Kali couldn’t blame them for being uncomfortable.
Tom and Sage spent most of their time eating, Kali had noticed, so it was no surprise to find them in there. As she approached their table, she could hear them talking about another trip being cancelled. Tom, his mouth full of pasta, suggested that there would be another Quest coming up soon.
They both scrutinised her when she brought a bowl of black bean chilli to their table, but she ignored their surprise to repeat “Quest?”
“Sometimes I forget you’re still new.” Tom said, avoiding her gaze. He was still troubled about the evening’s events, Kali knew. He nearly buried himself in his plate and waved at his friend to take over. “Sage, you’re better at this stuff.”
Sage rolled his eyes, drawing Kali’s attention to the strange goat pupils she normally tried to ignore. With an irritated bleat, he explained “The gods can’t always get involved in problems, so they have demigods sort things out for them.”
“No, they have Heroes sort them out.” Tom puffed out his chest, smirking smugly at the table.
A clack of irritated hooves interrupted him. “Am I telling it, or are you?”
Kali giggled; sometimes they argued like a married couple. To get things back on track, she prompted “Heroes? Like Achilles and Heracles?”
“Yes, and no.” Tom answered, deflating somewhat as he raised an eyebrow at her. “You really don’t pay much attention, do you? The whole point of the festival is to strengthen your Hero application.”
Shuffling in her seat, Kali swallowed her pride and tried for a grin. “Two questions. Hero application? And festival?”
Kali shrugged meekly, trying to swallow her blush, and Sage laughed. Tom muttered something under his breath and Sage shoved him lightly and explained“The festival is to welcome in the new year. There’s a big tournament and, more importantly, food stalls everywhere. There are all kinds of performances, and kids from the other schools come to watch and join in.”
“Other schools?” Kali asked.
“You didn’t really think this is all the demigods in the world, did you?” Sage asked gently, and his teasing smile told her he knew that was exactly what she had thought.
“I…didn’t really think about it?”
Tom rolled his eyes, leaning over to ruffle her hair. “The strongest come here. But the minor gods have kids who don’t make the cut, and there are tons of kids with just a demigod parent who still need the support.”
“That makes sense.” Kali nodded, reassured by his familiar contact. Things were slowly crawling back to normal, she thought.
Tom’s signature smile slipped back onto his face, lifting the left corner of his lip. With his chin held high, he asserted “Being a Hero is the best any demigod can hope for. Sure, you can keep your head down and try to pass off as a normal human. Or you can embrace your differences and do some good in the world.”
“Quite the poster boy, isn’t he?” Sage muttered, but his expression was fond, so Tom ignored him.
Turning back to Kali, meeting her eyes for the first time since he left the hospital, he insisted “You should think about it. You’d be wasted doing anything else.”
Before Kali could give any real thought to his serious grey star, Eliza interjected “What you talking about?”
Tom’s jaw tightened, but he quickly replied “Just had another trip cancelled. Thinking something’s going on they’re not telling us.” He determinedly ignored Kali’s searching gaze until she gave up.
“Thought you’d be talking about the exercise last night.” Eliza quickly launched into describing every rumour she had heard in great detail. Kali cringed inwardly but kept a smile plastered on her face. Tom’s jaw was clenched; he was still shaken, and he knew that Kali was struggling. As Eliza obliviously prattled on, Kali was relieved when an unannounced visitor dropped by.
“I heard what happened last night.” Hermes called out as he swanned over to them. Eyes from all around the mess hall followed his swagger, spellbound by his presence. Kali rolled her eyes; she would have expected a god of thieves to equip subtlety.
“I was wondering if your brush with your own mortality might have made you realise what’s really important in life. What you really want.” He dropped into the chair next to Kali and leant back, putting his boots up on the table. “Namely, me.” Hermes sassily flicked his hair off his face and gave her a roguish wink that would have made Jem swoon.
After a few seconds of silence, Hermes’ glittering eyes narrowed. “Right…I did expect a giggle, at least.” With a furrowed brow, he watched her closely, murmuring “You’ve been distracted the last couple of weeks, but something is definitely different today…” He looked her up and down and she tensed under his scrutiny. “What is it…what…hmm…”
Finally, Hermes stilled, his face an unreadable mask. Kali’s heart thundered in her chest; she never could tell what he was thinking. The tiniest smile quirked his lips before he leaned back and roared with laughter. Kali flinched; that wasn’t the reaction she had anticipated.
When Hermes slapped his thigh and buried his face on the table, still shaking with laughter, Eliza couldn’t take it anymore. “What? What’s funny?” She wouldn’t dare speak to a god that way, so the outburst was directed to Kali.
“Why didn’t I see that coming?” He continued to laugh and ruffled his hair. He calmed slightly for a moment and fixed his gleaming eyes on Kali. “I suppose I can live with it being him. If he’s serious about you, that is.”
With a wicked grin, Hermes yanked Kali to him and lowered his face to hers. Before Kali had time to turn away, the pressure around her wrist lifted. A loud clatter accompanied Hermes’ collision with a table on the other side of the mess hall. It had cracked under the strain, and Hermes sat in the middle of the splintered wood, laughing gleefully.
Nonplussed, Eliza turned to Kali and stammered “You didn’t do that.”
“No. No she didn’t.” Tom sighed. He moved into the empty seat next to Kali and purposely turned his back to Eliza. “So I guess what I thought I saw earlier really was what I thought I saw, huh?”
Eliza blinked and looked back and forth between them, nonplussed. When neither of them budged, she prompted “What does that even mean?”
Tom and Sage exchanged half a glance before they returned to shovelling food back in their mouths at an alarming rate. Before Eliza could push further, Hermes had brushed himself off and skipped back over to the table. The mess hall was steadily getting colder but Hermes grinned. Kali muttered “Don’t do that again.”
“I’m not an animal; I won’t go after another god’s girl. Well…not that god, anyway.” He bowed low but glanced back up to say “Just let me know if you need to come up for air at any point. Some girls are worth being chopped up into little pieces for.”
Hermes lingered long enough for his persistent eye contact to unsettle her. When she gave up and looked away, he smirked and strolled away. The mess hall was silent; none of the demigods had a clue what was going on or how to respond. But, Kali noticed with a grimace, yet again, all eyes were on her.
“So…in the hospital earlier…” Tom asked, a gentle smirk softening his already rounded features. “How long has that been going on?”
Surprised, Kali’s heart fluttered. A tiny smile on her lips, she murmured “I fell for him the moment I met him. Before I got here. It hasn’t really been going on though. I mean…he kissed me on my birthday but-”
“Whoah! Seriously!” Eliza interrupted indignantly. “Who are we talking about and why didn’t you tell me?”
Kali floundered, the spell broken. “It felt…private. I didn’t want to…” spoil it, she finished silently, trailing off. She hadn’t wanted to feel like she was bragging. Their moment had been just that: theirs.
“Well, who is it? Dionysus?” Eliza demanded. Dionysus was frequently found wooing as many demigods as he could. Kali cringed away at the concept but she knew Eliza wouldn’t let it go. Not that she’d guess correctly, no matter how many chances she had. Kali had noticed that the demigods of Camelot really didn’t consider Hades among the gods.
Tom had reached the same conclusion, so he sighed wearily and said “It’s Hades.”
Sage bleated a protest, but Kali smiled weakly at him. She decided to follow his lead and focused on eating her mostly untouched food while she still had time. The air hummed around her with barely concealed fury and she smiled to herself.
The whispers and stares should have frustrated her. On another day, they probably would have. But Kali felt like she was floating. Even with her gut twisting and the burns snaking sharply on her arms, in stark contrast with her skin. Even with the reminders of everything that should be coiling her nerves inside her chest. A woven cord of silver light kept her warm.
The dull murmurs hushed at the clattering of hooves slowly echoing through the circular room. Not for the first time, Kali marvelled at the acoustics. Even with the pillars, the sound was crisp and clear. Haunting, even. It was no surprise that Chiron’s presence was so commanding as to silence every demigod in the room when it was heralded by his hoofbeats.
Kali hadn’t been in close proximity to the centaur since she had arrived, but she had not forgotten his piercing gaze. She barely suppressed a shudder as he towered over her, but his smile was as polite as ever. “Would you accompany me for a moment, Kali?”
She blinked twice, wondering if she should be worried. With a forlorn look back at her friends, Kali stood and walked alongside Chiron, dwarfed by his form. She anxiously fiddled with the lion charm on her bracelet as they walked. Valiantly, Kali cleared her throat and said “How are you? I don’t think we’ve spoken since I arrived.”
“You are correct. My duties do not take me to the students often. Though my door is always open if you need me, Kali.” He replied evenly, his polite smile fixed carefully in place.
She nodded, but did not reply; she had finally realised where they were headed. Kali had never noticed the high ceilings and doorways of the school building until she walked through them with Chiron. Sure enough, they approached the room Hades used when he taught.
Chiron tapped on the door politely, but the first crack in his mask appeared when Hades opened it. Gone was the cloak of shadows he wore, and Chiron faltered visibly when deep blue eyes met his icy ones. Hades stepped to the side, holding out a hand to indicate that they could enter.
Even though they could see Hades clearly, the shadows were still deep in the room. They followed him, curling at his shoulders, echoing his form. Chiron’s white fur gleamed, a lighthouse in the fog. But Kali noticed the change in him. The smile was tighter, his shoulders were curved, and his tail flicked restlessly.
“Forgive the intrusion, Lord Hades. I felt your presence would be beneficial.” Chiron shuffled his hooves slightly, but his voice was stronger as he continued “There have been some unsightly rumours of late. I have been tasked with unveiling the truth of the matter.”
“Unsightly rumours?” Hades raised an eyebrow. His expression was serious, but the glint in his eyes made Kali wonder if he was enjoying this. “I can’t say that I’ve heard anything troubling enough to unsettle you, Chiron.”
A muscle in his jaw twinged, and Kali wondered how he kept his face in such a tranquil mask. One day, if she could muster the courage, she might ask him. Chiron slowly allowed his gaze to drift to Kali’s face. His voice was gentle but firm as he requested “Kali, please clarify the nature of your relationship with Lord Hades.”
Kali faltered for a moment. As she opened her mouth to conjure some kind of response, a cool hand softly touched her arm, reassuring her. “You don’t have to answer his question, Kali.”
“I don’t care who knows I’m in love with you.” Kali replied sincerely, looking into his eyes. Silver warmth bloomed through her chest in response, bolstering her confidence. She turned back to Chiron to respond. “As to my relationship with Hades…that’s really up to him.”
Chiron clasped his hands behind his back and lowered his eyeline as he turned back to Hades. Instead of the firm authoritative steps, his hooves almost shuffled on the wooden floorboards. “My Lord, you have never been one to dabble in such distractions. Forgive me, but I must ask what your intentions are with this young woman.”
“I fail to see how our intentions are any concern of yours.” Hades’ voice was no longer playful, and the change was catastrophic. The barest hint of humour made all the difference, and Chiron instinctively sidled away. Kali, as always, was oblivious to the pooling shadows.
Chiron took a long time to carefully choose his words. “Baseless rumours can be harmful to all involved. Especially if they reach the ears of those who may be sensitive to such things.”
“Baseless rumours and conjecture are dangerous.” He agreed thoughtfully. Kali felt a tingle as his voice echoed in her mind. Are you sure about this?
I am. She tried to pour every ounce of conviction she had into her reply, the way he had shown her. But it’s OK if you’re not.
“Allow me to clear things up.” Hades said, his voice reverberating around the quiet room. Slowly, he removed his gloves and caught Kali’s gaze. His eyes asked the same silent question as he held his hand out to her. A smile she knew in her heart played on his lips as he noticed her flushed cheeks. Under his gaze, she felt like they were the only people in the world. She took his hand.
Chiron’s hoof tapped at the floor and his eyes narrowed. Hades gently tugged on Kali’s hand, moving her to stand at his side. An icy stare was centred on her hand, wrapped in Hades’, and a clipped voice muttered “I see.”
“I doubt that.”
Chiron’s expression soon darkened “My Lord…what are you plotting?”
Hades laughed, but his eyes were fierce. “You make me sound like the villain Zeus has painted me to be in his fanciful stories.” If anything, Hades’ laughter unsettled Chiron more than his anger. The gentle rebuke had a deeper effect than Kali would have expected, leaving her to wonder what the relationship was between the two. “You know better than most that I wish no part in the Olympians’ politics.”
Chiron glanced down, shifting his stance. His sharp eyes flickered back to Kali and he summoned his civil smile once more. “Kali, I have kept you from your classes long enough.”
Kali recognised the dismissal immediately. She looked up at Hades and murmured “I’ll see you later?”
He kissed her hand with a promise. “Seven o’clock. Don’t be late.”
Time crawled by for the rest of the day. She tried to concentrate but her heart was elsewhere. When her last class finished, she remembered that she had committed to the extra combat classes. She was already regretting her decision, but the prickling sensation in her stomach served to reinforce her resolution.
The extra session was a jumble of bruises for Kali. Ares had been right when he told her she would be the weakest member of the group. She had always been tall and slightly bulky; she wasn’t petite by any stretch of the imagination. But these demigods dwarfed her. And none of them were afraid to chew her up.
Despite spending most of the session on the floor, Kali enjoyed it. Her opponents were much more varied than she had anticipated; each fought with their own style and weapon combinations. No two fights were the same. Except the outcome. Reaffirming her resolve, Kali knew that she could and would get stronger there.
But, as she stumbled back to her rooms after the session, she finally let her thoughts wander onto more pleasant things.
She had a date.
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