Chapter Thirty Eight
The transition was…strange. There was nothing quite like it that Kali could use to describe the experience. The portal was not quite fluid but not quite air. The world distorted until a new one twisted into view and took its place. She found herself gasping after the brief, but unexpected, pressure had torn the air from her lungs. She immediately turned to make sure that there was a way out. The gold door loomed behind her, though it was set in a wall instead of standing alone in the street. A sigh of relief escaped her; she didn’t appear to be trapped.
The first thing that caught Kali’s attention, when she finally took in her surroundings, were the stars. The roof of the club was designed to match the night sky, with all the constellations in full view. But, she soon realised, it was no design. The stars glittered and shifted as she watched them. They were real.
A wistful sigh escaped her as she continued to gaze up at the sky. Even though Camelot had the fullest sky she had seen, she couldn’t believe the patterns and stories she could read in these stars. She didn’t even notice when someone approached her until a lilting voice hummed “Hello, sister. Welcome.”
She started, looking at the man beside her with wide eyes. Her stare was dragged to his eyes, which were as full of stars as the room around them. Kali cleared her throat and tore her gaze away before she could be sucked into them.
The strange man bowed deeply before fixing those startling eyes back on her. In a gentle voice, he requested “Allow me to show you around, sister. The first time in a new place can be daunting.”
“Is it that obvious?” Kali asked sheepishly, watching the man rise from his bow.
“You keep looking at the door, trying to make sure it has not disappeared. Most of my guests move past that after the first few visits.” He glanced sideways at her and added “And I would have seen you had you been through this Gate before.”
On the street, she hadn’t been afraid. On this side of the door, where she knew there would be a whole array of powerful non-mortal beings…on this side of the door, her usual insecurities were back in full. She could defend herself well enough, but she hadn’t realised how much she relied on the rules at Camelot keeping her safe from her suitors.
This man…he was as handsome as any god was expected to be, and his eyes glittered and shifted constantly. It took every ounce of control Kali had to look back at him without being caught in them again. But she managed.
A wicked grin touched his lips, transforming his face, but his eyes were inscrutable. Cold, even. She suppressed a shudder but murmured her thanks for his offer. The last thing she needed was to get lost and there seemed to be several rooms and hallways. Various different creatures socialised, danced, and drank in every corner. Centaurs, satyrs, nymphs, and several other beings that Kali didn’t recognise. Some, she could hardly fathom. Even so, she kept her eyes from lingering too long on any of them. But the more she saw, the more certain she was that there were no mortals in this place.
That disturbing grin had become more familiar to her as they walked, and his strange presence wasn’t quite as unsettling. The longer she spent near him, the more Kali wondered if they had met before. He was certainly strange, less human than the other gods she had spent time with. It would make sense, she thought, if he spent less time around humans and demigods than the Olympians. If anything, it was strange how normal the other gods seemed.
“A drink, sister?” The cool, melodic voice was a little like Apollo’s. Again, she wondered who this man was. Who he was to her. Instead of dwelling, she took the seat he pulled out for her.
“Thank you.” She mumbled awkwardly. After a moment, she turned to her companion and finally asked “Why do you call me sister?”
A tinkling laugh that did not quite match the masculine features of her guide followed. “We are all family, are we not?”
“That is true…” She really wasn’t sure how to respond to this god, if he was a god. After a moment, she asked “May I have your name?”
A menacing tone crept into his voice. “Careful, sister. Names are powerful things. Especially here.”
Kali hesitated at the chill that shot through her bones. A flash of irritation flickered inside her at the threat she could feel in his words, with a slow smouldering ember rising to match. But she bit it down and said gently. “I didn’t mean to offend.”
The ominous aura that had surrounded him dissipated as quickly as it had formed, leaving Kali almost dizzy. “Forgive me. I forget that you do not yet remember our ways.”
Remember? “I’m not sure I follow.”
His grin only widened, but his eyes remained ever indecipherable. “It is unimportant. And it is certainly not why you came here today.”
Kali shrank slightly under that unfathomable gaze but admitted “I’m looking for information.”
“I know.” At her questioning glance, he chuckled and added “You do not look comfortable enough in this place to be here for recreation. That leaves business. You do not have the bearing of a hunter, so you have come here to seek out the infinite wisdom of a man whom can only be found here.”
“So, can you help me?”
His answering grin showed every single one of his perfect white teeth. This time, his eyes gleamed and Kali nearly flinched. As it was, she drew back slightly from him in her seat at the bar.
“My dear…did young Apollo not teach you about the price such a thing may accrue?”
Kali felt the heat drain from her and knew that she must have gone white. That eerie grin was ever present and she couldn’t quite suppress her shudder. He had offered to show her around the club…someone who dealt in favours would surely demand payment for such a thing. She scowled inwardly but with the grimace came the warmth of flames from her core. She should have known better, but it made her angry nonetheless that he had taken advantage of her ignorance.
For the first time since she had met him, Kali let her eyes meet his and lifted her chin. “What, pray tell, is the going rate for information?”
“That depends entirely on the information.” If she thought he would falter at her directness, she was sorely disappointed. His expression did not even waver. “If your father could not help you, then it must be something fairly obscure?”
The stars swirled and twisted dizzyingly, but Kali refused to be distracted. She could not deny that the information she was looking for wasn’t exactly easy to come by. If it was, she wouldn’t have had to go there and seek him out. “Possibly even too obscure for you, from what I’ve been told. I don’t know if you can even help me. Or what good your information would do.”
“Now you have my attention.” He let out an exaggerated sigh before his glittering gaze pinned her down, like a hawk to a mouse. “Let me see them, then.”
Kali shrank back instinctively and stammered “See them?”
“The symbols. One on your neck and one on your arm.” His singsong voice crept into her head and somehow she knew he was trying to use some kind of compulsion. But even knowing didn’t help her resist it; she didn’t even see a reason to try to hold back. “Come now, you came all this way. If I see them and have nothing to share, there will be no charge.”
She knew that she had little choice. Part of her was fuming, but he sounded so reasonable that she found herself taking off her new coat to reveal her bare arms. His eyes narrowed slightly at the symbol on her arm that Hades had said looked like a map. Glancing at it again, Kali still didn’t know how the circle with lines criss-crossing through it was like a map.
The man nodded silently and looked pointedly at her neck. Again, Kali automatically pulled her hair up and out of the way to display the mark emblazoned there. After several seconds, the man murmured “Thank you, sister.”
Kali sagged slightly in her chair, suddenly exhausted. She glared at him, clenching her jaw, and saw that his smile was finally gone. “You will need some time to recover. The Command can be tiring if you fight against it. Especially with one as wilful as you.” The smile that followed his words was more natural and…proud? “It has been a while since I have needed to pour so much energy into so simple a thing.”
“Do you at least have an answer for me?” She asked, hating how weary her voice sounded.
The smile faded. “I cannot help you.”
“Oh.” She said simply, dropping her gaze to where her hands were clasped in her lap. She wasn’t sure what she was feeling: frustration, surprise, disappointment? She hadn’t known what answers she would find but…to find nothing? She took a deep breath and looked up at him with what she hoped was a smile, saying “Well…thank you for your time.”
“Do not look at me that way.” He said weakly. “You’re not angry with me for stringing you along?”
Kali blinked; she hadn’t considered that. “I didn’t think you were. It isn’t your fault that you don’t have the answers I’m seeking.”
“But I do have them.”
Again, she could only blink in response. Silence dragged on for several moments before she managed to mumble “I thought you said-”
“I cannot help you.” He repeated, a frown creasing his ageless face. This time, he added “I know what those symbols are, sister. I just cannot tell you.”
“Can you tell me…never mind. I don’t even know what’s happening to me, and I don’t know where to start to try to figure it out…” She rubbed her forehead. There were questions she could ask that she knew he could answer. She just didn’t know what they were. But maybe… “There is something else that I’d like help with…”
Surprise flickered across his features, replaced quickly by intrigue. “Oh?”
Steeling herself, Kali said “A friend of mine is missing. Would you be able to find him? Is that something you would know about?”
“It is.” He paused expectantly, and Kali could guess what he was waiting for.
She looked him in the eyes and asked steadily “What is your price?”
A long silence followed, and his twinkling eyes were fixed on hers, searching her. Even with his stare stripping her bare, Kali stubbornly kept eye contact until he sighed “Nothing.”
She frowned, confused, and admitted “I don’t understand.”
“I don’t expect you to.” His eyes flickered to the mark on her neck. “On second thought…I will give you the location all of the missing demigods are being held on one condition. You do not go to that place.”
She chewed the inside of her cheek for a moment, but she could live with that. She nodded certainly. “I can live with that. I’m not so arrogant that I think I’m immortal or invincible. I’d prefer to leave a rescue to someone that could actually pull it off.”
He rubbed his brow, the strained smile long gone, and handed her a folded piece of paper.
“Thank you.” She whispered, putting it in her pocket without examining its contents. She looked back at him, a smile touching her lips, and thanked him again.
“Don’t…look at me like that, little sister.” He muttered softly, his expression almost pained.
Her honest smile only grew at his awkward mumble so she looked down at her drink. The idea that she was making him uncomfortable almost made her giggle, considering how unnerving some of his mannerisms were to her. Before she even realised that he had moved, Kali felt a hand slowly rub the top of her head. It was soft and hesitant. She would have expected to be afraid or angry but…she found herself closing her eyes and tilting her head towards the contact. It felt familiar.
Familiar? Kali’s eyes snapped open and the hand withdrew. It was gone so quickly that she wasn’t even sure that she hadn’t imagined it. But something still niggled in the back of her mind, taunting her. Frustrated, she tried to grab hold of the strands, but they stayed stubbornly out of reach.
“The map on your arm…shows the pathways between all of the worlds.” His words broke her out of her inner grumblings and her eyes flickered to his face. He still looked pained as more words tumbled from his lips. It was almost as though he had to say them quickly before he could come to his senses and stop himself. “I cannot say why you have it etched into your very soul. I cannot tell you what it means for these symbols to surface now. What it means for the world. Or for you, dear sister.”
When his eyes met hers, they were full of grief but shining all the more brightly. His voice was harder. “I cannot give you ancient knowledge. But I can tell you that in recent years I have only seen that mark twice. Once in a book, and once as the twisted symbol of a cult. One of your friends has had contact with them and can tell you more. You will find details of the book on the paper in your pocket.”
“And the price?” She asked, trying and failing to hide her trepidation.
“I haven’t told you anything.”
His voice was firm. Immovable. Kali realised that there would be no arguing with him, so she just smiled again and turned her eyes up to the sky. The stars reached out endlessly. It would take centuries just to count them all. Even with the people all around and the music thumping in the background, this place was so peaceful. But she needed to head back while the sun was still up if she wanted to try sun-stepping home.
Reluctantly, Kali stood and turned to her companion. “Thank you for your time but I really should be going.”
“Of course.” He rose from his seat and bowed before offering his arm to her, saying “Allow me to return you to the entrance.”
“Thank you.” She said with a smile, though she was wary again as she took his arm. She was glad though; what with all the people and the different areas of the club, she would almost certainly get lost a few times on her own. She could feel several sets of eyes on them both as they manoeuvred the crowd and wondered again who this man was. But it seemed she would be left wondering.
Soon enough, they reached the entrance and her guide gave another deep bow. With a flourish he presented her with a rectangular golden card. “I hope you will find a reason to visit again, sister.”
“I’ll try. I’m at Camelot most of the time though so I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get back.” She took the card, forcing a smile, but she was still somewhat shaken from his words. She wasn’t sure that this was a place she would be returning to.
His unnerving grin returned, but those gleaming eyes were still tense. “No rush. We have all the time in the world, after all.”
As confused as his words made her, Kali decided not to push the subject. The gods often liked to forget that mortals didn’t have as much time as they did. But that niggling feeling in the back of her mind had returned. She brushed it aside and slipped the card into her pocket, checking that the folded piece of paper was still there as well. As soon as she got back to Camelot, she would find Hermes. He could find Ben, and any others that the Stargazer had mentioned, and bring them home safely.
“Well…” She shifted awkwardly; she didn’t know how he had heard her thoughts and she didn’t like the invasion. Even so, she mumbled “It was the first thing that came to mind.”
“Hmm…it will do.” He seemed pleased, though his expression hardly changed. With those words, he swept into another brief bow and turned on his heel. Alone again, Kali didn’t relax until she was safely out of that place. She threw out a hand to steady herself when she was through the Gateway but this time the dizziness didn’t fade. There was a low brick wall near her, so she stumbled over and perched there, hoping to clear her head. While she sat, she rushed to change out of the shoes that were burning her feet and slipped the winged boots back on.
Fatigue sapped at her strength and she wondered vaguely if Gateways like that one took more energy than she had anticipated to move through. Her mood didn’t improve when she noticed that the sun had gone down and she would need to get back the long way. She rested her head on her knees, telling herself she would rest a moment and then head back.
It wasn’t until Kali felt her eyelids drooping that panic flickered in the back of her mind. Her weariness only grew until it threatened to smother her. Even that panic was far back in her consciousness. She didn’t even really mind if this wasn’t the most practical or safe place to take a nap. Her knees against her forehead were much more comfortable than she thought they should be. Her sluggish mind strained desperately to call Hades but the last shred of strength ebbed from her, and darkness took her.
But even in her dream, her mind was still clouded and smothered. A cave, the cave, unfolded around her but she could barely stagger over to the man in chains. As soon as she reached him, she all but collapsed at his feet. A thin sheen of sweat covered her brow, and her limbs trembled with effort as she pushed herself into a sitting position.
His steady silver gaze examined her face, and it struck her then how much she had missed him. She had not visited him in a long time, perhaps because she was happy with Hades? But the shine of his silver-green eyes in the otherwise encompassing darkness was edged in her soul. It was all she had left of home.
She dropped her gaze, scowling at herself. She missed the manifestation of her loneliness and abandonment? How messed up was that? Even with everything she had lost recently, holding on to what was basically a nightmare couldn’t be healthy. But her eyes snapped back to his face when contact delicately feathered along the walls of her mind.
She hesitated, and stiffened when his gaze flickered to the necklace she wore. His expression did not change. Nor did the touch on her mind retreat. Just a dream, she reminded herself. She held her breath and stretched her mind out to the edges of his. All of a sudden, his eyes caught her with an intensity she had never seen before and words came crisp and clear in her mind.
You are under the influence of a god. His voice seemed full of barely suppressed rage, but Kali could not be sure. Even in her mind, his voice was rough and weak but the tone was deep, rich, and warm. She realised that even when he had spoken to her once before, she hadn’t really heard his voice. It had been so hoarse, barely a whisper. Her mind was still dulled by fatigue and she blamed that for how distracted she was by the feel of his voice in her head. She barely registered the danger in his words until he continued Where is your protector, little one?
Hades’ face swam to the front of her mind, but it dissipated as quickly as it had come. Why doesn’t this feel wrong?
Why should it? A throaty chuckle echoed in her mind. Forgive me; it is difficult for me to speak. But I can withdraw if you wish?
No. Kali answered slowly. Only Hades had ever been in her mind, but this felt as natural as speaking here. More so because the silence in this place did not like to be disturbed. The darkness deepened around her and icy fear gripped her as she felt herself slipping away again. She could barely move her arms but she tried to reach out to him anyway. His hand lightly brushed her hair from where it fell over her face.
I will stay with you. His promise was the last thing she heard before she fell further into the darkness. As she drowned in the inky gloom, her mind shattered around her. She screamed.
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