Chapter Forty One
The winds buffeted her from all sides and her eyes were streaming. Dust and debris from the arena floor whipped around her, flaying her exposed arms and face. Five harpies swarmed around her, flying faster and faster around the edges. Occasionally, one would dart in and grab at her. As they would only pull her hair so far, cackling and chirping shrilly, Kali knew they were just playing with her. If anything, that only made her angrier.
The creatures were as ugly as ever and Kali struggled against the memory of the only other time she had encountered one. Brown and red feathers had mixed with hair sprouting at odd angles from its scalp. A hooked nose resembling a beak was stretching the skin of its face. Its vulgar form was as embarrassing as it was horrifying. Beady eyes and thin lips. A terrible grin revealing pointed bloody teeth. And the wings, tipped with long bony talons to match the distorted feet. That creature had been alone, and its claws had been more than enough to handle the two girls. Kali’s friend hadn’t made it out with just a few scratches, like she had.
Her reasoning had gone out of the window when she saw the first one fly from the gate. She didn’t know whether rage or fear was the prevalent emotion whirling through her. Either way, her eyes were smoking, and the metal blades of her knives were glowing with heat.
It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes since the fight had begun but she was already exhausted. Fighting the wind was taking a tremendous toll on her and she could barely stand. If this was a test of endurance, she would definitely lose.
How much time had passed since she had woken in the cage? It felt like days, but it couldn’t be more than an hour, surely? How much longer would she have to keep this up? How much longer could she last like this? Kali had never thought herself as the rescuing kind but every fibre of her being was crying out for Hades to save her. But she couldn’t even reach him. The silver cord in her mind was still there, shining, but she couldn’t move her thoughts far enough along it to get to him. Did that mean he couldn’t find her either?
Kali cried out with frustration when a harpy swooped past and tugged sharply on her scalp again. She had wanted to try to get them when they came in close. Another missed chance. Throwing caution to the wind, quite literally, Kali made a dive for her bag. A claw scraped across her back with another shrill cackle and she slashed out behind her, finally making contact. The cackle turned into a scream and the harpy flapped uselessly as fire spread from the gash in its right wing.
Finally. Kali leapt at the creature with a smattering of blue feathers, ignoring the wind that had only picked up speed, and drove her knife into its other wing. She pressed the harpy back towards the edge of the arena and ripped the knife in a line, tearing the wing to shreds. Its feet clawed at her legs, but she didn’t even feel them. As soon as she released the creature, the near tornado lifted its flailing body and smacked it into one of the others.
In the confusion, Kali scrabbled back to her bag and managed to get hold of her bow. She slung the quiver over her back and drew an arrow. Judging trajectory had always been a natural talent of hers. A child of the god of archery should expect no less. She watched the path the harpy had taken and fired an arrow at a seemingly random spot outside the circle. But she knew it would hit its mark. Sure enough, it spun past one harpy and straight into the throat of one of the others.
Kali did not pause to see the arrow embed itself in its target. Instead, she fired off six more arrows in quick succession and was rewarded by several shrieks as two harpies fell out of the sky. One had fallen, broken on the ground. Its red hair spilled around it like blood as it twitched for a moment before lying still.
She did not get the chance to fire again. Even as the second harpy dropped from the sky, claws embedded deep into the shoulder she had bruised earlier. She cried out as her feet left the floor, tearing into her flesh. Dropping the bow, she swiftly drew her knife again and plunged it upwards blindly. Blood poured over her and she realised her knife had pierced through the creature’s throat and into its skull.
It released her and she plummeted to the floor. They had been further up than she had realised and she landed awkwardly, despite her attempts to roll out of it. She was trembling and thought she might throw up, but she stumbled over to her bow and finished the orange creature that had lifted her with another searing arrow.
The blue harpy whose wings she had ripped earlier was charging at her on the ground. It might have been comical if not for the rows of gleaming teeth, and the too-small black eyes. Without hesitation, Kali fired three more arrows through its throat and eyes until it stopped moving. She didn’t check her quiver, confident that her father had been right about the arrows returning.
Two left? She saw a speckled brown creature impaled on the top of the gate and realised that was the other one she had shot out of the sky. Just one, then. She didn’t have to search long before she saw a bright red streak hurtling through the dust towards her. It was too fast to dodge. Without thinking, Kali dropped her bow and let the fire that was struggling against her to burst free. Wreathing herself in flames, Kali braced for impact. The instant before the second blood-red harpy collided with her, she saw the terror in its eyes. It tried to pull up, but there wasn’t enough time.
Its efforts to pull back only lessened the impact it made, though it still knocked the wind out of her. Kali grabbed hold of the harpy and wound her left hand in its matted feathered hair. It flailed and scratched at her face and her arms with its talons and claws. But Kali held on. Her weapons were on the ground, forgotten, and she just punched the creature.
When Kali heard it screaming, desperately trying to claw itself away from her, she froze. That moment was all the creature needed to remove itself from her grapple. Kali let it go, looking down at her blood covered clothes. She barely felt the cuts that covered her; the pain would come later, she knew. For now, she looked around at the bodies around her and fell to her knees.
An overwhelming wave of nausea took her, and she fell forward onto her hands in the dirt. She had done this? Her hands were covered in blood. Not just hers, but theirs. Mostly theirs. A cheer rose in the distance and the screams stopped. She glanced up through blurred eyes and saw the final harpy was unmoving on the floor, fire still ravaging its body. The demigods in the cage were cheering and calling out her name in adulation. Victory.
Only Eris seemed to notice her distress, which Kali knew from the smirk twisting her features. Kali was winning, but she and the goddess both knew it was destroying her. Eris cackled and let another prisoner go without any hesitation this time. This show was worth the effort of finding more again later. Her lip curled unpleasantly, and Kali shuddered but forced herself to her feet.
Another roar from the demigods made her lift her arm, feigning triumph. This, fighting, was as much to give them hope as it was to buy time. Luckily, the tears streaking her cheeks were camouflaged by the sweat and blood, and they were too far away to see her trembling.
Kali didn’t realise that the gate was already open again until the floor began to rumble. An inhuman roar echoed and she turned dazedly, too late, to see that her newest opponent was already on top of her. She could barely process what she was looking at before it rammed into her with the force of a train. Her vision went momentarily dark but the gleaming red eyes and bone white horns of the Minotaur were permanently etched into her mind. Along with a terror she had never experienced before.
She flew across the arena and the world came crashing back to her, along with the ground. She tumbled and her flayed skin bore the brunt, but she didn’t feel it yet. She knew that would come later. For now, she gasped and groaned and clutched at her stomach. She retched weakly but another rumble reminded her that she didn’t have time for pain. Even just standing up straight sent fire through her ribs and she suspected she may have cracked a couple. But the roar shook her to her senses.
Leaping to her left, Kali landed hard but she scrabbled back to her feet. She was already running before she was fully off the ground, sprinting towards the nearest weapon she could see. Her quarterstaff still lay where it had fallen after her earlier bout with the skeletons and she dove for it as the beast bore down upon her. Feeling its hooves much too close, she rolled blindly and swung wildly. Only luck granted her staff contact with the back of the unsteady hindquarters, making a satisfying crack.
The sound that came from the bull’s head on top of the ridiculously muscled male torso was beyond inhuman. It was completely alien to Kali’s ears and she quaked where she lay. But she didn’t have enough strength to make the beast fall with such a strike. Instead, she took advantage of the brief stumbling as the creature righted itself to stand and take in her surroundings.
With a howl and a snort, the Minotaur turned to face her again and she felt all of her muscles lock up. It was a wall of muscle and fury and precision. Its ivory horns were carved and stained, and its black fur was matted with old blood. Kali seriously doubted that it was the creature’s own. More likely, it was the blood of any demigod that had the misfortune of being in its path.
A tiny squeak escaped her as she took an involuntary step backwards. Its menacing glare intensified and it took its cue to charge again. She managed to leap to the side, again choosing left, but this time it swung an arm out at her to grab her throat, lifting her high off the ground. The creature was at least eight feet tall, fully erect, and her feet were dangling pathetically beneath her. In the back of her mind, she remembered her knife still strapped to her left leg. But both her hands were desperately grabbing at the creature’s arm as it continued to choke the life out of her.
She knew, without a doubt, that the Minotaur could easily crush her throat. So why didn’t it? Her eyes flickered over to Eris as she wondered. She wants me to give up. After all that Kali had gone through, Eris wasn’t even really trying to kill her. She wanted her to submit, not die. Even as she came to that conclusion, her vision swam before her eyes and she gasped for air. This beast didn’t even know its own strength; it could easily kill her by accident, in the heat of a fight.
Drawing on what must be the last embers of her energy, Kali conjured a white-blue fire around her hands. A terrible howling scream filled the cavern and the beast flung her away. It roared and raged, its eyes mad, and ran wildly in circles long enough for Kali to stagger back to her feet and limp a little further away. It focused on her movement and screamed as it rushed at her.
Kali thought she could hear Eris calling out, commanding the creature, but she couldn’t make anything out over the blood roaring in her ears. Her limp forgotten, she sprinted away until the creature was almost upon her and then darted back again. It careened forwards, right into the gate, catching one of its horns between the bars. In its struggle to escape, one of the ornate horns creaked and eventually snapped.
In the same moment, Kali slid behind the creature with both of her knives back in her hands. First, she used them to slice through its hamstrings. She danced back to avoid its wild strikes before moving back in to slit its throat. As soon as she was in reach, it grabbed her arms and lifted her but the light was already fading from its eyes. She managed to break free, though looking back she had no idea how, and drove both her daggers down through its skull.
The Minotaur crashed to the ground with a decisive boom, and silence followed. It lay, still twitching, and a cry echoed through the cavern from all of the demigods still imprisoned. This time, Kali dropped both of her daggers and staggered back. Tearing her eyes from the body that was slowly bubbling as it decomposed in front of her, she fell to the ground and was violently sick.
She retched weakly, even when there was nothing left, and eventually crawled shakily over to the fallen horn. She was crying and shaking so badly that she could hardly see, but her hand closed around the horn. Her mouth formed words that even she couldn’t hear or understand, and she sobbed.
But that was not a luxury Eris would allow her champions. The grate was already lifting and Kali chanced a look at the goddess, now standing over the edge of the arena. Refusing to be on her knees, she just about managed to stand, but the glint in Eris’ eyes nearly sent her straight back to the floor. “I hope you have some of that fire left. Your next opponent should be no match for you with your gifts.”
The last word was spat out like an insult, but the evil grin that accompanied it sent chills through Kali to her bones. Her mind was already whirring to try to get ahead of the situation. Fire? What creatures were weaker against fire?
Kali knew she wouldn’t have to wait long to find out. She scurried hastily to grab her staff and then her bow, crouching finally by her bag. Anticipation was a sharp ache in her chest and every part of her was still in agony. She knew that the Minotaur should have gored her in the first collision but the bodice she wore wasn’t even scratched. The harpies’ claws should have shredded her legs, but the trousers were also unmarked. She should be in much poorer shape than she was. And she had healed from most of the earliest wounds.
Her “gifts” were keeping her alive, both inherited and given. But now her arms were still bleeding. Now her head was swimming and her ribs were screaming at her to stop. And her limbs wouldn’t stop shaking. How much more of this could she take? How much more killing could she handle?
A few precious, agonising seconds passed before she heard it. A slithering, hissing noise. A noise that triggered every primal instinct to flee. She normally loved snakes but when three heads came into view she knew this was not a creature she could tame. It was monstrous in size and each head alone was probably at least six feet in length. But with only three heads, it must still be an adolescent. A fully grown Hydra, Kali remembered, had a minimum of nine heads. Ancient ones could have up to a hundred.
Fresh tears brimmed in her eyes at the thought that this creature had been torn from its mother and twisted into this. A Hydra should be incredibly intelligent but this one’s acid green eyes were…wrong. She shuddered and it took every ounce of control she had not to break into a run and try to scramble up the walls of the arena. Her daggers were not suited for hacking heads, and her staff would be all but useless. She couldn’t win.
Her hand crept into a side pocket of her bag and retrieved the small pouch that Hades had insisted she take before she left. She was shaking so badly that she struggled to pick up any of the small black diamonds that lay within. As soon as her hand closed around one, she drew it out and crushed it with a prayer. An audible gasp filled the arena and she knew that it had worked. She had vanished. And now that she knew she was momentarily safe, she finally gave into her urges and she ran. She fled faster than she thought possible, away from the monstrous snake that occupied half the space of the arena.
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