The sound of metal on metal clattered through the Colosseum, and the crowd held its breath. Steel flashed in the winter sun, glinting in the pale light, and Ben’s opponent squinted for a brief but fateful moment. Ben darted in, dancing on a breeze into the opening he had made for himself. Duncan’s sword still jabbed uselessly forward, but Ben was already long gone. Partway through his belated transition from guard to thrust, the nimble rogue had snuck into Duncan’s guard. There was no sign of hesitation on Ben’s face as his dual blades made their way effortlessly to Duncan’s throat.
When Duncan’s sword finally clanged to the hard ground of the Colosseum, it echoed in the silence that followed. And then, one by one, the audience began to clap in a crescendo until the sound was a roar that filled the camp. It wasn’t that they wanted Duncan to lose. Not at all. But none of them had ever seen something so fearsome from Ben.
In the upper stands, leaning back with a smirk, Hermes held out a hand to Athena. The goddess wore an expression like she was sucking a lemon, which only tightened when Hermes chuckled, “Come on. We had a deal. Pay up.”
“You did this.” She accused, through clenched teeth.
Hermes’ eyes were twinkling but he schooled his expression until it was all innocence. Then, he shrugged with a sweet smile. “Tell me how.”
Something that could only be described as a snarl tore itself from Athena’s throat. Only Hermes could ever make her lose her temper, her infinite calm, like that. From the row behind, Poseidon was practically shaking with the effort it took to suppress his laughter. To his credit, Hermes kept his mischief in check most of the time, but this had been too good an opportunity to pass up. A vein looked like it would pop in Athena’s temple and her grey eyes conjured a storm. But she stiffly picked a long metal tube out of the air and handed it over.
Ares, much less disciplined than his fellows, broke then. He doubled over in his place next to Athena and all but roared. Athena’s stiff position did not change but Ares’ outburst set off a few chuckles from the others. Hermes was one of them, earning him a piercing stare. He even thought that he saw Athena’s hand drift towards where she kept her spear.
She clearly thought better of disrupting the festivities, because her glare softened to stony indifference and she turned back to look out over the Colosseum. She nodded calmly to Duncan; he had fought well, even if he still had a way to go. Hermes stood beside her and tipped his hat to Ben. His grin was visible even at that distance.
Hermes shot Athena a sidelong glance, glad to see her composed mask back in place. Unable to resist, he muttered “You should really know better than to bet against me by now. Strategy or not, you don’t know people. Or how spirit can factor into a fight.”
“Especially with these youngsters.” Ares elbowed her in the side, a familiar mannerism that he knew she despised, and Hermes threw him a conspiratorial wink.
A cold wind was all the warning they got before Zeus exploded again. It was lucky that the Golden Box was suspended so much farther from the Colosseum floor than the rest of the stalls. Any closer, and they might have lost a few demigods with the whirlwind that accompanied his shriek. For a solid hour, Zeus screeched complaints that no one could quite understand, though they all knew the object of. All the scheduled duels had to be suspended for safety reasons until Zeus finally calmed down enough for his words to make some semblance of sense again.
“Hermes! Make yourself useful for once in your life!”
“Gee, thanks dad.” He exaggerated the last word like a bratty teenager before leaping into the sky and letting his shoes fly him down to the upper ring of the stalls. Awkward expressions met him, and many demigods averted their gazes; were they actually pitying him? He’d had plenty of time to get used to Zeus’ particular charms and they had long since stopped surprising him.
He paused when a chime sounded in his head, followed by a voice he had been waiting to hear. Messenger.
A grin spread across Hermes’ face; he could make a little time to see Hephaestus first.
* * *
Looking down at the sleeping face of the woman he loved, Hades had never felt so afraid. Before he found her, he would never have thought it possible to need someone. Just a flash of her smile. The rosy blush of her cheeks. The way she tried to hide behind her hair. He couldn’t breathe without it now. Without her.
Dark anger filled him as he recalled his struggle to break through the wards that had been keeping her from him. When she disappeared, he had very nearly lost his mind. A possessive rage had taken most of his senses. But most of all, it was the fear that gripped his mind. Even for the Lord of the Underworld, death mattered. In death, she would never be his equal. Only a puppet. And that was the best-case scenario.
Hades suppressed a shudder and slowly brushed a strand of hair from Kali’s fevered face. He cursed himself for his weakness; he could do nothing for her. If he had gotten to her sooner…he buried his face in his hands as he relived it again. Eris’ ashes were still glowing white hot when he arrived, and it didn’t take a genius to see that Kali had been responsible. Especially when she was still plummeting from the sky.
The moment his arms had wrapped around her, some of the ache in his soul had lessened. There hadn’t been a mark or injury in sight, and his relief was almost as painful as his panic had been. But it was short lived; her eyes had not opened once in the days since.
That time should have passed in the blink of an eye to an Immortal. But to Hades, centuries may as well have gone by. Especially as there was no way to tell if she would wake, let alone when.
“You need to stop doing that to yourself, mate.” A soft voice came from the doorway.
Hades didn’t turn to look at the intruder; he’d heard him coming for several minutes. “I thought you weren’t coming until tonight.”
“I tried.” Hermes shrugged. “They’re calling you again.”
A half-smile passed over Hades’ lips. “Say what you mean, Hermes.”
“Okay…Zeus is screaming the place down about how you’re disgracing all of the Olympians by disrespecting this tournament.” Hermes’ laughed to himself and his grin was wicked when he continued “Though, if I’m being honest, he flits between that and sounding like a jilted lover, wondering why you won’t return his calls.”
Hades rubbed his brow wearily until he noticed the wrapped bundle in the other god’s hands. “What have you got there?”
“Hephaestus gave them to me.” He pulled out a gold upper arm cuff with an intricate, and rather delicate, design. “I appraised it on the way here…I think it might help.”
Darkness coiled around them both and Hades’ voice was hardly a whisper. “You told him?”
“Of course not!” Hermes exclaimed, looking almost insulted. He kept even more secrets than he told; it was his job. “He said that she was burning up when he met her, before she left. He notices that kind of thing.”
“How is your boy?” Hades asked emptily, the deep shadows dropping away. He didn’t really care much for the wellbeing of the demigod, but if Kali had tried to protect him then she would want to know. Besides, he was one of Hermes’ favourites.
Hermes laughed “He’s doing well. I managed to get one over on Athena because of his fight this morning. He still can’t stop talking about what happened.”
“You said he wouldn’t remember.” Hades was too tired to sound angry; he had barely any emotion to spare anymore.
Hermes shrugged and explained, “He won’t remember how Eris died. But I wasn’t going to take away Kali’s victories in the arena.”
He couldn’t argue with that. Watching through the eyes of the prisoners, she had been magnificent. Many of them had said she was like an avenging angel. She was garnering quite the reputation amongst them. And yet… “I don’t think she would see them that way.”
“True. But she wouldn’t want to forget them either.” Hermes’ usually easy-going voice was stern, but Hades couldn’t tell him that he was wrong. Kali would rather keep every horrible detail than forget something that made her who she was. No matter how painful.
Hades held the gold cuff in his hands and turned it over. He may have appeared thoughtful if he could muster any expression. He asked flatly, “You think this will help?”
“I think it might serve as a reign for her powers. It might subdue them enough to stop them ripping her apart. She might be able to pull herself back…” Hermes sighed, sounding as weary as Hades. “She’s stronger than this, Hades.”
“What day is it?” He asked absentmindedly, wondering how long she had been asleep.
Hermes briefly checked the watch he wore and stated “27th December. Monday.” In a softer tone, he added, “You’ve already missed two days of the festival…”
“She missed Christmas.” Something that Hades had never taken stock of suddenly seemed so very important. He had wanted to share the silly human holiday with her.
“When she wakes up, I think she’ll care more about being home than the date.” With a heavy sigh, Hermes let a weary grimace slide across his chiselled features. Quietly, he murmured “Give yourself a break. Come watch the tournament, just for an hour. Apollo could do with some time with her.” As an afterthought, Hermes suggested “Maybe he’ll find something else.”
Hades nodded absent-mindedly but Hermes doubted he’d heard a word. He sighed again and put the bundle with the other items Hephaestus had asked him to bring her on the table by her bed. There wasn’t much room there now, with the mementos he had gathered from the arena. Kali was like a magpie and he’d figured she would want those unique little treasures. Hades hadn’t exactly approved, but he’d understood.
Once Hermes left, Hades turned the cuff over in his hands one more time before taking Kali’s right hand in his. He slid the twisting gold design up her arm until it rested halfway between her elbow and her shoulder. The coils glowed and tightened slightly against her skin, securing themselves in place. Hades watched Kali’s face and searched for any hint of change.
Did she seem calmer, or was his mind just grasping at straws? He had barely left her side since he found her and there hadn’t been any sign that she was getting better. She hadn’t deteriorated, but nor had she woken up. Even Apollo couldn’t heal her because she wasn’t sick or injured. Yet again, Hades was completely powerless to protect her.
With a groan that echoed in his soul, Hades stood up and kissed Kali’s forehead gently. Hermes was right, of course. If he didn’t show his face soon, Zeus was sure to be banging down his door. The last thing they needed was for him to see Kali in her current condition. It was too dangerous. But Apollo was not the right person to bring in. When his disappearance was noticed, and Zeus asked him where he had been, he’d be unable to lie. Trusting Apollo with any secret, even one he wanted to keep, was a perilous mistake.
Instead, he tugged on one of the few other pathways he had forged over the years. The sound of waves filled his mind, bringing a scent of saltwater and clear air along with it.
Poseidon looked much more like himself during the festivities. In classes, he would try to tame his unruly mane of hair and his skin was smoother. He even muted the colours in his eyes. Now though, his dark hair flowed out around him, following a current that wasn’t there, and his face was weather-beaten and tanned. Hades saw a solitary starfish clinging stubbornly in the Sea God’s thick beard.
“Hello Cedric.” He muttered, before turning his attention to Poseidon.
Vibrant eyes, swirling and glittering with a thousand hues of blues and greens, were fixed on the girl in the bed. “This is why you have been hiding away?” He did not wait for an answer before plopping unceremoniously into the empty seat by the bed.
“Let me know if there is any change.” Hades requested gently. He trusted Poseidon more than most of his fellows, but he was still reluctant to leave Kali’s side.
Poseidon raised one thick eyebrow but just waved his hand, shooing Hades away. His brow was furrowed, and he hadn’t let his eyes off Kali once since entering the room. Comforted by his diligence, Hades braced himself and faded from sight with one last glance at Kali.
* * *
Tom finished his latest fight with a flourish that he knew his mother would not approve of. His swordsmanship had improved dramatically over the last month and he was firmly back in his place at the top of her ranks. He had once been her go-to for any quests or situations, but he had gotten lazy and predictable. Cocky.
After losing to Kali, and then failing to save her, he had thrown himself back into his training. He was stronger now than he had ever been before, and he was working hard to keep it that way. But, even though he had easily won his most recent bouts in the tournament, the only face he cared about seeing was missing from the crowd.
When he heard Kali was missing from her classes from Jem, he had panicked. Jeremy hadn’t seemed to think it was a big deal, thinking she must just be with Hades, but Tom knew her better. She would never throw the chances she had been given away over a guy. Not even a god. Not after promising herself she would get stronger. He had gone straight to her room and broken down the door when she hadn’t answered.
Finding a god cowering on the floor of her room had been…unexpected. Apollo had been all but curled up into a ball, but Tom had found out that Kali was missing. For the first time in a long time, the careful strategist was gone, and he was bursting with a need to act. She was family, and she was in danger. But when he had appealed to Athena, his mother, she had told him that Kali was not worth his energy. She had forbidden him from leaving the camp.
Tom still burned with his hopeless anger. Sage had stayed with him, both doing their best to put their faith in the gods. But it was the longest day of his life. And it hadn’t ended there. Hermes had turned up out of the blue with a group of demigods, all of them shaken up and beaten down. A massive chariot of ivory and gold, flying on wings of its own, had burst through the camp. Ben, a demigod Tom knew only because he was a friend to Kali, had stepped out at Hermes’ side.
With a hesitant look at Hermes, Ben had hurried straight to them and told them that Kali was safe. She was alive. Hades had taken her home to recover. Tom had sunk to his knees with the sheer relief, but Sage had remained still. Tom had never seen his friends’ eyes so tense, but his confusion evaporated when Ben told them what had happened. What she had done.
Some of the teachers had taken the demigods to the hospital to be looked over, and rumours hummed through the camp. Every demigod told the same story, though coloured with their own opinions and perspectives. And there was one name on everyone’s lips. Kali. But their descriptions were not the Kali he knew. An avenging angel. A wild animal. A warrior. A goddess.
To him, Kali was a lost little girl looking for a home. A home he had wanted to give her. She was like a little sister to him, and he wanted to protect her. Cherish her. Even when they were training together, he had never wanted her to fight. It had never really occurred to him; she was a demigod too. There was just as much chance that she would be called on by the gods. That she would be dragged into their wars.
Tom dragged himself back out of his head and banged his shield with the hilt of his sword. Another cheer rose from the spectators, and he bowed. Playing the part of a Champion was not as easy this time, but it was still his duty. Last year, he had looked up eagerly to try to see his mother’s reaction to his prowess. Now, he was just glad that they were so far away, so he didn’t need to seek out their approval. At twenty-one, this would be his last tournament. And he would leave it victorious.
He watched the other bouts in silence, with Sage at his side, before they were up again. Fighting side by side with Sage was where he was strongest, and they remained undefeated. But Sage, just a satyr, wasn’t eligible to be a Hero. Tom always chose him as his partner, despite being approached by every demigod in his class. Sage was unassuming, but deadly with his axes. Everyone always underestimated him, regardless of watching him decimate the opposition in every tournament. A year of Sage’s quiet and considerate nature made the others forget his skill.
The Colosseum closed, and Tom and Sage were the last ones standing in their pitch battle at the end of the day. No one was surprised; everyone expected great things from Tom. Athena’s golden child. Before Kali, he had been one of the oldest demigods to arrive at the camp. The things he had faced on his way, and during his Trials, were beyond many of the other demigods there. Some even dared to call him the next Heracles, though he knew that was far beyond his abilities. But winning the tournament and being named a Champion for the third year in a row was another achievement. Another addition to his eligibility to become a Hero.
Everyone was rooting for him. Ever since he had arrived at Camelot, he had made no secret that his goal was to be a Hero. To defend people, and fight for the gods. It was the best a demigod could hope for, if they had the will and the talent to make it a reality. Many had the abilities of a Hero, but most demigods didn’t put themselves forward. Now, though, Tom wondered whether he really had what it took. This last year would be crucial to prove to himself, and the gods, that he was worthy of the title. He could not let himself lose sight of that.
But as the sun set over he and Sage, still standing back to back in the Colosseum, neither of them had their eyes on the prize. The heat of battle could only distract them for so long. When it passed, they thought not of their victory. They thought only of what they feared they could not save.
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