When Kali woke, Hades’ eyes were already open. It was still early, but Kali was itching to move. She was hungry, as her growling stomach could attest, and she was in dire need of a bath. Despite offering to help her, Hades left her to bathe in peace and fixed some breakfast.
Even though her injuries had all miraculously healed, even the skin that the hydra had melted away, the hot water soothed her aching muscles. She was feeling stronger that morning than when she had first woken up. Her energy levels seemed to be more or less back to normal after a night of actual sleep. But was she really up to stepping back into an arena? Camelot was different, she knew, but it was very soon to try to jump into more combat.
Kali sank under the water for a long time, listening to the sound of the sea in her heartbeat, before she was calm enough to leave the room. Hades had been a constant comfort in her mind since she had left his side, and he wrapped a robe around her shoulders when she emerged. He didn’t tell her that she could change her mind. He didn’t say that she didn’t have to do this. Instead, he bragged that he had outdone himself, and took her through to see the spread he had put together.
A laugh escaped Kali as she looked at the platters of food on the table. “I know it’s been a while, but I can’t manage even a quarter of that!”
“I didn’t know what you wanted. So, I went with everything.” He shrugged, unrepentant, and pulled out a chair for her.
Hades distracted her with conversation and refilled her plate as many times as he could before she realised what he was doing. It wasn’t until he pointed out that she had eaten almost half of what he had put out that she even noticed. She was still hungry, but she couldn’t possibly hold this much food. It took some time for Hades to convince her to pick up her fork again. He hadn’t been certain, but it seemed that her power was still difficult for her to sustain. It took a tremendous amount of energy to heal her previous wounds, and to keep her power contained. A growth in her appetite was the first logical outcome.
Brushing it aside, Kali had told him that if she put on weight then she would blame him. He just laughed at her, relieved that she was trying to take every new development in her stride. Eventually, they finished breakfast and Hades took her to Camelot. She had put on the armguard and glove and changed into some more practical fighting attire. Hermes’ winged boots stayed where they were; she didn’t want to be accused of having an unfair advantage. The armoured bodice and trousers were in her bag for the same reason. Even though she felt naked without them.
Before each fight, the demigods were encouraged to pay homage or give thanks to a god of their choosing. Obviously, most demigods chose their patron. Kali did not want to hurt her father, and she knew that he had probably put a lot of energy into keeping her alive. But the statue she paused at on her way to the Colosseum belonged to Hephaestus. She would prefer to thank the god himself, and she hoped she would have time later. But, for now, she placed one of her broken knives on the shrine and mumbled a quiet thank you.
The Colosseum was already full of demigods, separated into their classes to receive their briefings. No one knew who would be fighting each day in advance. They were told the schedule and when to show up, but not who their opponent would be. Of course, if they spoke to each other then they would realise fairly quickly. But many preferred to be surprised, usually so they couldn’t psych themselves out.
Most of them were training or just chatting. Not everyone took the tournaments seriously, which was frustrating for those that did. Especially when one of the slackers ended up in a fight with a demigod that cared about the outcome. Luckily, not everyone was required to fight. The gods nominated a number of their line to represent them in the tournament. If they didn’t have enough to make up the numbers, they could choose from outside. Either outside Camelot, or from other lines.
Kali, as the only child of Apollo currently enrolled, had little choice in participating. She had been prepared for that before, but things had changed. It took everything she had to walk through the Colosseum gates and towards the rest of her class.
Before she made it more than a few feet into the Colosseum, a hand gripped her arm. Without thinking, Kali grabbed her staff and jabbed at her assailant with a speed that surprised her. The hand dropped away, though the staff did not make contact, and Kali turned to see Ares standing beside her. His hands were raised at his sides, and a meek smile strained his lips. “Easy, sunflower. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Sorry.” She said shortly. The words reminded her of their first encounter and she blushed slightly. But her staff was still ready in her hands. When she noticed that her hands were shaking, she lowered them slowly and relaxed her stance. That small movement took more energy than she expected, and she still couldn’t look away from what her brain was still convinced was a threat.
Ares rubbed the back of his neck and looked down at her. “So, you’re back.”
“Looks like it.” She replied stiffly. She bit her lip and hated how fast her breathing was coming. He had startled her, that was all. She needed to pull herself together.
Ares regarded her thoughtfully with gentle eyes and lowered his voice. “Hm…you ready for this?”
“You’re doubting me already?” Kali tried for a smile, though she thought it probably came out as more of a grimace. Even so, her voice was steady and certain.
He grinned wolfishly, relieved, and shrugged. She knew he was trying to get a rise out of her when he taunted, “Well, you have missed a few sessions. Are you sure you’re still on your game?”
“I won’t lose today.” She insisted, lifting her chin. He met her eyes and his grin faded to a smug satisfaction. Just because she had known that he was baiting her didn’t mean that it wouldn’t work.
A tentative voice broke their staring contest. “Kali?”
“Ben?” Her eyes found him immediately, standing a little way off and gaping at her. Without a second thought, Kali ran over to him and threw her arms around him. She hugged him tightly and whispered, “I’m so glad you’re alright.”
“Huh. Maybe I was wrong about Apollo’s kids just being healers.” Kali turned back to Ares, startled, and released Ben. “Clearly the rumours were true. A hydra, huh? And with those puny daggers?” He took a step closer, looming over her, but she didn’t falter. He grinned, saying “It takes a lot to impress me, sunflower. But you keep pulling it out of the bag.” In an undertone, just for her, he added “Don’t you dare lose that fire of yours.”
She stared at him, at a loss, but steeled herself and nodded. “I meant what I said.”
He looked her up and down, and was clearly pleased with what he saw. Kali hoped it was the stubborn set of her jaw that brought the glint to his eyes, but she tried not to think on it. With another grin, Ares stated “Suddenly, I am looking forward to today.”
With that, he strode away to begin briefing one of the other groups. Kali followed Ben to their class and ignored their stares, just asking him what had happened. He ran through what he remembered, telling her that Hades had appeared out of nowhere and destroyed Eris, then taken her away. Hermes had gotten there a little while later and taken them all back to Camelot in a winged chariot. He had even put his arm around Ben.
“You know you mean a lot to him.” Kali had interjected quietly, with a smile.
Ben smiled awkwardly, admitting “I guess. I just…there are a lot of us. I didn’t really think he cared about us, you know.” He shook himself and continued, “Anyway, most of the others are still here. Some of them went back to their lives outside, but…most of them wanted to stick around to thank you.”
Kali asked shakily “How much did you…how long were you there?”
“I saw you tame the bloody griffin; I got the whole show.” He grinned, but his eyes were hard. “You saved me, Kali. I don’t think I would have gotten through another round. Gary…the kid before you…” He hesitated. “He was one of my brothers. He was here a while ago, but he wasn’t that strong, so they sent him to one of the other schools.”
“She’s gone, Ben.” Kali said quietly, trying to reassure herself as much as him.
“Thanks to you.”
Kali hesitated; Hades had told her that they had altered the events to protect her from Zeus. If anyone knew that she had killed a god, it would not end well for her. Instead of replying, Kali just looked away and mumbled “I’m sorry I couldn’t save him.”
To her surprise, Ben knelt in front of her and held out his dagger. Kali glanced around her and saw that many demigods were watching, and a few had moved closer. She thought she recognised some of their faces, and a handful of them knelt beside Ben. She knew what they were doing, offering their weapons to her like this; they had covered it in History not too long ago. It was a gesture akin to swearing fealty. Pledging their allegiance to her.
The greatest insult would be to walk away, or refuse. Whether Kali thought she was worthy of their thanks or not, she could not deny them their right to choose. So, she took Ben’s knife reverently and returned it, hilt first, to him. She repeated the motion with each of them and was relieved to hear that her voice was steady when she said, “I hope to be worthy of your loyalty.”
Thoroughly shaken, Kali hardly noticed any of the onlookers. Rumours hummed through the Colosseum and she knew that everyone in Camelot would hear about this soon enough. But her embarrassment was beaten back by pride. She had defended these people and earned their respect. Kali held out her arm to each of them as they stood and embraced them, as family.
Before any formal introductions could be made, Ares barked at them all to get in line. Ben and Kali moved back to their class, who were all nonplussed by the display, and the others moved back together. Ares then addressed the group as a whole, reminding them of their duty and what this was in honour of.
“It is not only a test of your mettle, and what you have learned here. This festival is a celebration of your lives and the things you have faced this year. It is about growth, survival, and rebirth. Over the last few days of the year, I suggest you think hard about how you got to where you are, and give thanks to those who have helped you. Think about where you want to be next year and set yourself targets to work towards.” He paused, looking out over all of them with an oddly kind smile. “But for now, have fun and give them hell.”
Kali knew she would probably have to make up for the two days she had missed. She would probably be fighting a lot that day. But she still froze when Ares called out that the first fight of the day would be hers. And Hannah’s. The other girl stopped halfway through a stretch and glanced at her. The first fight would set the stage for the whole day.
At least, Kali thought, she wouldn’t have to hold back. As the other demigods drew away and went towards the stands, Kali jogged lightly and stretched out. Her muscles were tight but that wouldn’t last long when she jumped back in. Hannah seemed to be psyching herself up, so Kali called out “Hey, you’d better not go easy on me. If you’re not all out, it’ll be no fun when I beat you.”
Hannah stared at her, her mouth hanging open, for several moments before a grin spread across her face. After another moment, Hannah laughed “You’ve only beaten me a couple of times in practice. I’m not gonna go down easy.”
“I’m counting on it.” Kali glanced in Ares’ direction with a grim smile. “I think he is too.”
The rules for the early bouts were fairly straightforward. You could choose whatever weapons you wanted, and no lethal injuries were allowed. There would be a few rounds with the same combatants, and the winner was decided by the majority. In some Events, later in the day, the crowd chose the winner based on their entertainment value. Flashier moves were rewarded, and it was difficult to know who the victor was until it was announced. Of course, the more popular you were overall with the crowd, the better you would fare in those fights.
The later combat rounds were…brutal. The rules were dropped, and the fight would continue until there was a decisive outcome. That meant one of the fighters had to concede the fight or be unconscious or incapacitated. No one had ever died in the tournament, but there had been some close calls. But the tournaments were a good way to set up your future. Talent scouts would come to Camelot from all over, along with as many demigods as could make it. If you wanted a career within the immortal community, it was almost vital to impress someone at the festival.
Kali hadn’t exactly thought that far ahead, but she had her own reasons to stay on her feet. As soon as the drums started, any hesitation she may have felt was gone. When her name was called out, an answering roar of approval came from the stands. Faces she knew and faces she didn’t shouted her name and cheered her on. She shuddered inwardly; the atmosphere wasn’t so different here than in the cavern with Eris.
Taking strength from the morning sunlight and the cool breeze, Kali raised her arm. They had been told to treat this as a performance as much as a fight. She spun her staff experimentally and the light gleamed on the iron reinforcements at the edges.
And then it was time. The horn sounded, and Hannah wasted no time in charging at her. Kali had expected it; Hannah was always the same. Her strength and speed usually caught Kali off guard, but Kali wasn’t thinking as much that time. That meant her reactions were much quicker. If anything, she was pre-empting her opponent before she’d even started moving.
Intuition? Instinct? Or some kind of precognition, as Chiron has once suggested? Kali didn’t know, and she didn’t care. She just continued to dart aside and parry Hannah’s blows with a blank mind. In their first round, Hannah didn’t manage to land a single blow on Kali. In less than a minute, she was on the floor and she didn’t even know how she had gotten there.
Cheers rose from the stands and Kali held out a hand to help Hannah up. Wide brown eyes, so similar to Ares’, looked back at her but there was no malice there. Hannah gripped her forearm and stood with the shock clear on her face. But a grin tugged at her mouth and she nodded determinedly as the horn sounded again.
The result was the same. Kali broke through with a direct swing that Hannah hadn’t expected, and the sword clattered away. Before Hannah could even consider going after it, Kali had pushed her back onto the ground with the butt of the staff.
In the last round, Hannah managed to get a couple of hits in. Neither of the girls were pulling their punches and she thought she heard a bone crack under one of the strikes. But Kali barely flinched. The third fight was longer than the others, but Kali still kept up the pace. If anything, she was only getting quicker. She blasted through Hannah’s guard and followed up with a thrust to her chest to knock her off balance. The blow sent Hannah to her knees, winding her, and Kali kept her down.
Hannah had never lost so completely. She always managed to get her share of strikes in. But Kali had decimated her defence, and danced around her attacks.
Kali held out her arm to Hannah again, and she took it without hesitation. “No hard feelings?” Kali asked, quietly.
Laughing, Hannah replied “I should never have conceded to you in the technical stages. You bet there are hard feelings! I’ll get you back in training.”
With that, Hannah punched her arm and then grabbed her wrist, raising her arm in a show of victory. The roars from the stands grew until Kali could hear nothing else, and Hannah shouted, “They already love you; if you make it to the performance rounds, you are so getting a title this year.”
Kali grinned but did not answer. She doubted she would make Champion; there were too many other demigods more accomplished than her. And she was more focused on getting through the tournament than winning favour. Even if she had remembered to perform for the crowd, her instincts were in overdrive. She had reacted to Hannah’s swings before she’d even seen her move.
Hannah bowed and strode out of the arena with her head high. Even in defeat, she was proud and determined. Kali respected that about her. But her mind went blank when she saw who was waiting at the edge of the stands.
Swallowing hard against the lump in her throat, Kali took a tentative step towards them before Ares’ grip on her arm stopped her. She had forgotten that she couldn’t step out of the Colosseum. Their reunion would have to wait.
Kali looked up at him and conjured a small, grateful smile. As much as she didn’t know how much of this she could take, she had been looking forward to the festival with everyone else. She wasn’t going to back out or throw in the towel. When Ares addressed the crowds from her side, she closed her eyes and focused on her breathing.
Hades was a constant shadow in her mind and his familiar presence steadied her. Kali was certain that he was the only thing helping her keep it together through the fights that followed. It was different fighting her classmates and comrades to the creatures in Eris’ mockery of an arena. But the thrill in the air was uncomfortably similar.
In the more comfortable environment, though, it was also addictive. The cheers, the crowds, being able to let loose and let her prowess speak for her. It was exhilarating. Freeing. Not to mention the fact that every opponent she went up against was no match for her. She had never been this advanced in her classes. But her survival instincts had been tested and strained, and it seemed that she couldn’t turn them off. She was no longer overthinking her movements, or her decisions. She wasn’t second guessing what she should do, or what her opponent was throwing her way. And that change made all the difference.
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