Kali lost count of her victories by the time she was asked to take a break. She knew she should be exhausted, and in many ways she was, but her energy levels had hardly dwindled. Still, she gratefully took the reprieve offered and strode purposefully out of the Colosseum. Tom and Sage hadn’t moved from their spot, and she had seen them chanting her name and cheering her on with the rest.
As soon as they were in reach, Kali threw her arms around them both and buried her face in their shoulders. Tears stung in her eyes, but she didn’t care, and she relaxed into them. Sage laughed and joked, “Get you, with your swagger.”
“I don’t swagger.” Kali pulled back and shot him a look of mock outrage.
“You should.” Tom murmured, his eyes never leaving her face. Wryly, he added “The Champion title will add nicely to your Hero application.”
Kali rolled her eyes, trying to feign some semblance of normality to brush aside how much she was suddenly trembling. “I haven’t made one.”
“You don’t need to, from what I hear.” Sage grinned. Relief was clear on his face now that he could see that she was uninjured.
“I would rather not talk about it.” She mumbled, sensing the direction the conversation was heading.
Sage pouted for a moment, but his smile returned almost immediately, and he shrugged, “Fair enough. But good luck getting anyone else to drop it. Even the other schools have heard about it now.”
“Other schools?” She blanched; how many people would find out about what had happened. Others might be proud, calling them achievements, but she didn’t see it that way. She probably never would. “I was really hoping it would just…I don’t know, fade into the background?”
“Are you kidding? No one here could have done what you did.”
“What? Get abducted?” She shot back at him, her tone turning almost bitter. Being caught so off guard and having no defence against it was still eating at her.
Sage put his hands onto Kali’s shoulders and said gently, “Demigods from all over are in Camelot right now. And all anyone is talking about is how you saved a bunch of demigods, killed a hydra with a knife, and tamed a griffin. Some are even saying you could have killed Eris yourself.”
Kali blushed and averted her gaze. She didn’t want to lie to her friends, but there were eyes and ears everywhere. Eventually, she mumbled “Not likely.”
“Kali!” She turned at Jem’s voice, and let him pull her into a rare hug. He released her reluctantly but gripped her hands immediately. “You were amazing out there!”
“He’s right. I’ve never seen you fight like that.” Sage admitted with an encouraging grin.
Tom remained silent for a long while. When Sage shot him a nervous look, he finally asked “How much of what they say is true?”
Kali wanted to remind him that she had asked not to talk about it, but his terse expression silenced her. Instead, she fidgeted and finally settled on saying “Well…I didn’t really tame the griffin. I mean…I rode it for about ten seconds and unchained it, but I don’t think you can really tame a creature like that.”
“You rode a griffin?!” Jem exclaimed.
She held up her hands, insisting “For ten seconds. At most.”
“And the hydra?” Her expression said it all, and Jem whistled, asking “What else did you fight?”
A stern voice joined the fray, stating “I would be interested in hearing this, also.”
Kali turned to see Chiron approaching, his face the unreadable mask she was accustomed to. The last time she had seen him, he had given her permission to leave Camelot if she promised to be back before classes. A promise she had broken, through no fault of her own. Trying to find the words, she eventually stammered “I…”
“And I will not tolerate modesty.” He interrupted, sensing her hesitation. With a small smile, he continued “The facts are the facts. I can decide how to perceive them.”
“Of course.” She could feel Hades caressing her mind and leant on his support before continuing “I fought two hellhounds, a group of five skeletal soldiers, some kind of mist or fog creature…” she shuddered at the memory, but shook herself. “A minotaur, five harpies, and a juvenile hydra with only three heads.”
He waited until he was certain she would not continue before asking “What of the griffin?”
“I didn’t fight the griffin.” She glanced up at him with half a smile; that was the only thing she could take solace in.
His eyes widened slightly, and Kali wondered if he had thought the stories exaggerated. No doubt, they had been. She dreaded to think how she was being painted. With a thoughtful expression, Chiron stated “You are not proud of your actions.”
She shouldn’t have been surprised that he would notice. She hadn’t even been able to meet his eyes when she named the creatures she had…defeated. She ignored the confusion on Tom’s face and muttered “I should have tried to find a way to end things peacefully.”
“From what I have heard, you bargained with Eris to release the demigods.” Chiron said kindly. “After your interference, no further demigods were injured or endangered.”
“There were more than just demigods imprisoned there.” Kali murmured. Sage put his hand on her shoulder, but she couldn’t meet his eyes.
Chiron watched Kali for a long moment, prouder than he would admit, before saying “Get yourself some food. I am sure you need it after the morning’s exertion.”
He wasn’t wrong; even after the mountain of food she’d had that morning, Kali was hungry again. At his suggestion, they wandered over to the food stalls that had been set up around the mess hall. Kali was excited to see everything, and they wasted no time in dragging her to as many places as they could. She made a mental note to go shopping later; there was so much to see.
There was a bite to the air, so they ended up huddled around a small table with hot drinks and pastries. Kali managed to steer the conversation onto what she had missed, and Jem wasted no time filling her in. The most surprising thing he told her was that Carl and Willow were going out.
This was apparently news to Sage as well, because he nearly choked on the cinnamon latte he was trying. When he finished coughing, he spluttered “But…he didn’t know she existed until a week ago!”
“I wouldn’t go that far, Sage.” Tom said, patting him on the back with a smirk. “It was more like two weeks.”
“Exactly! He was obsessed with Kali.” Sage shouted, bringing his fist down on the table and drawing the stares of everyone at nearby stalls.
“Whoah. Enough of that.” Kali shot them a scowl and shook her head. “I’m sure they’re both happy, right?” She smiled encouragingly, glancing over at Jem. When he shuffled awkwardly in his seat, she hesitated. “Jem?”
It took him a moment to find a diplomatic answer. “He…seems happy enough. Willow seems really smitten, and I won’t pretend I’m not worried that they’re headed for disaster.” He finished quickly and looked down at the table.
Kali frowned, confused. “But, why?”
Jem sighed; he forgot how naïve Kali could be about matters of the heart. To someone as honest with their feelings as she was, it was difficult to understand when people fooled themselves into feelings they didn’t have. “Well…Carl is getting attention. And he isn’t used to that. So that might be why he suddenly likes her even though they’re not necessarily…suited for each other?”
“Because she’s a nymph?” Sage butted in with a menacing glare.
Jem held up his hands, stammering “Because they both seem to be fairly dependant and insecure, and that’s hard to sustain.”
Sage continued to stare at him for a moment before nodded, accepting his explanation. He thought for a moment and admitted “I think Willow had a thing for him before. But he never noticed because he was too busy following Kali around like a puppy.”
“Please stop saying that. Was it really that bad?” Kali asked, wondering how she hadn’t noticed.
Jem shrugged and admitted “Kinda.”
“Gods, I’m completely oblivious, aren’t I.” She buried her face in her hands.
That time, Tom nodded and patted her head, repeating “Kinda.”
“Where’s Eliza, anyway? I figured she’d find us by now.” Kali asked, forging through the awkward silence that had followed the Carl-Willow topic.
“She’s probably still watching the fights.” Sage laughed nervously. There was a noticeable pause before he continued, “You couldn’t drag her away from the arena during the tournament.”
Kali narrowed her eyes and watched him carefully, noticing the way his eyes darted to Tom for backup. “What aren’t you saying?” She asked, cautiously.
“Well done, Sage.” Tom said sarcastically, even giving his friend a slow clap for good measure.
Sage smiled apologetically, but shrugged “Like you expected me to lie convincingly.”
“Good point.” Tom grinned and then turned his attention to Kali. His smile faltered, and he ran a hand through his hair. “So, Eliza has been a colossal bitch recently. We’re not exactly on speaking terms.”
“I know she can be a little hot-headed, but so can I.” Her strained attempt to smile failed at the silence that followed. Sage shifted uncomfortably, and Jem wouldn’t look at her. “What happened?”
Tom was the one to answer, and the look on his face wasn’t one she had seen before. “She isn’t your friend, Kali.”
“What are you talking about? Of course, she is.” She tried to smile again but Tom’s expression was stern, and immovable. Anxiety shivered over her and she searched for the words to get through to him.
“Are you Kali, of Apollo?” A small, timid voice asked from behind them.
Kali turned to the newcomer with a polite smile, replying “I am.”
“Wow…” The demigod stared at her for a long moment before shaking himself. Kali groaned inwardly but she guessed she would have to expect this for a little while. “Sorry, I just…you’ve been called to the Colosseum.”
“Thanks. I’ll be right there.” She grinned at the demigod and he nearly swooned. Based on his build and his sparkling hazel eyes, she could guess he was one of Hermes’ but he was a lot younger than her. He bowed awkwardly and sprinted away, throwing a few glances back at her over his shoulder as he ran. “Guess we’ll have to talk later?”
“Guess so.” Tom put an arm around her in a quick hug and forced a grin. “We’ll see you in the ring.”
Sage bleated quietly, patting her arm. “You’re doing great.”
“Thanks, guys.” She grabbed the last remnants of her pastry and stuffed it unceremoniously into her mouth. What they had hinted at with Eliza made her anxious, but she knew it would blow over sooner or later. Eliza was a good person. She just didn’t always think before she spoke. Maybe she didn’t always take other people’s feelings into account, but it was more out of ignorance than any malicious intent.
The cold winter sun was getting higher in the sky, and Kali allowed herself a moment to bask in it before she stepped back into the arena. She was doing better that she expected, emotionally, after what she had been through. But her heart jittered anxiously in her chest as she walked towards the centre of the Colosseum once more.
“Still with us, sunshine?” Ares asked lightly. Despite his smile, there was a hardness to his eyes that told her he had noticed. Pride stung in the back of her throat, so Kali clenched her jaw and nodded. This was not a place to show weakness.
Ares shrugged, and turned to the crowd. With a booming voice, loud enough to make Kali flinch, he began to announce the next fight would be the beginning of the Performance Rounds. Those who had done well would be paired up randomly and marked on entertainment, as well as ability. She thought back on Hannah’s words and wondered if she really had a shot at becoming a Champion.
She tried to listen patiently as Ares ran through the rules, reminding the crowd how to vote and what to look for. But her blood was pounding in her ears again. The longer she stood there, the more difficult it was to hear anything the God of War was saying. She should listen, she knew. It was important. But she couldn’t see anything but the pale sun beaming down on her. The crowd melted away, and the colour fell out of the world around her.
A roar of cheers brought her back to her senses and she swayed slightly as her feet seemed to slam back into the ground. Taking in her surroundings, she was still standing in the Colosseum. Ares had finished his speech, and now Kali could pick out the words “Winter Prince” from the crowd.
Frost seemed to cling to her breath, and the temperature dropped. Her opponent was clearly known as the Winter Prince for a reason, she grinned, as she saw a familiar face approaching. She had only met the young man earlier that day, when he had knelt at Ben’s side and offered his batons to her.
One of those batons was now held out to her once more, and she tapped it with her staff in greeting. Icy blue eyes, framed by strands of white hair escaping his short ponytail, met hers. His polite smile revealed perfect teeth, and Kali wondered for a moment how he got them so white.
In a rehearsed but warm voice, he said “I apologise that this will be our first official meeting. I am Crispin. It is an honour to face you.”
“Kali.” She said sheepishly. “But I guess you knew that.”
With another smile, Crispin bowed deeply. “You have my word that I will not go easy on you, regardless of my unwavering loyalty.”
“Good.” She replied, hating how awkward she was when he sounded so smooth. “Glad to hear it.”
Ares rolled his eyes loudly and muttered “Whenever you’re ready.” A horn sounded at his signal and he was gone, leaving the two of them in the centre of the Colosseum.
Kali had been looking forward to the performance rounds before her ordeal. The fights would probably be less violent, and her fire could be very showy. She was in with a chance. But it was difficult to focus on anything but the blood roaring in her ears. And the fire roaring in her hands.
A cold breeze fluttered around her and her skin burned in response. Without instruction, fires rose from the ground around them, and the crowd shouted their approval. Crispin did not falter as Kali had expected, and his first flurry of strikes caught her completely off guard. It became painfully clear that he had not been lying about taking it easy on her when his carefully placed jabs knocked the wind out of her.
The batons were frozen, and a strike to the bare skin on her wrist was enough to rob her of her weapon. Sharp pain sliced through her, as though she had been cut, and her muscles spasmed. With a snarl, she lunged gracelessly at Crispin and grabbed at his batons as she tackled him to the ground. She couldn’t quite contain her cry as the weapons seared the palms of her hands. It was not a feeling she had ever experienced; fire did not burn her, but this degree of cold? Apparently, this was enough to melt the flesh from her bones.
Crispin’s face paled as Kali released the weapons and he made a move towards her. Not an attack, but to help her. In that moment, Kali called her staff back to her hands and pulled a rope of fire towards her. She coiled it around herself, to warm the cold which seemed to worm its way inside of her like a poison, and clenched her fist. She could still hear the crowds cheering and shouting, but it was wordless noise. She couldn’t tell whose names they were calling.
With a whip of fire around her left arm, and her staff in her right, Kali widened her stance and fixed her gaze on her opponent. Part of her wanted to back down, to rest. But something inside her would not allow it. It was almost a compulsion. She could not fall here. She knew, of course, that defeat in this ring did not mean death or punishment. And yet, it was not an option.
Unfortunately, Kali could see the same conviction in the eyes of her challenger. Neither of them could just give up. With a light nod, Crispin took a deep breath and then began to move slowly, looking for an opening. There were flames around them and Kali could see that the “winter prince” was sweating. She doubted that was common; from what she had observed he was always pristine.
If the flames were any hotter, they would surely debilitate him. As she was built to endure the heat, so he was for the cold. Therefore, it would make sense if the opposite were also true. But honour was still important to Kali, even when her mind wasn’t entirely her own. Her fear was threatening to consume her, as were her instincts. But she wanted to defeat Crispin with her own hands.
This was a tournament not a battlefield.
The thought sharpened her wits and brought the scene in front of her back into focus. The fires around them dwindled slightly but did not go out. Not waiting for a reaction, Kali lunged at Crispin without warning and launched into a series of attacks. She barely noticed which struck and which were deflected. Though her mind was more her own, her instincts still ruled her actions.
Their battle lasted until they were both on the ground. Kali could still feel the ice in her blood, and her movements had grown more sluggish. The moment Crispin had hit the floor, she careened over sideways. Neither could summon the energy to get back to their feet. Usually, there would have been three rounds. One would have to be enough.
Hades was fuming, but he did his best to restrain himself. He could feel the Kali was as happy as could be expected, under the circumstances, but he loathed seeing her hurt. He supposed the boy’s lack of restraint was understandable. It was even, perhaps, a sign of his respect for her. He groaned inwardly when Kali brushed his mind with reassurance.
I chose to fight. She reminded him gently.
Looking down at the Colosseum, he had complete clarity even from the top box. The distance meant very little. He watched as medics moved to her side and she waved them away feebly. Your lips are blue.
It’s my favourite colour. She argued weakly, stubborn to the last. She felt Hades relax slightly, and knew that Crispin was out of immediate danger. But she couldn’t say the same for herself. She could see that the skin around the welts on her palms were tinged with blue. The veins in the immediate area were darkened and her skin was growing colder by the second.
Two medics fussed over her, and Crispin muttered her name. The fear in his voice surprised her, and she wondered for the first time what his batons had done. They were clearly enchanted. Or perhaps it was his own power that imbued them. Curiously, she closed her eyes and sought out what was invading her bloodstream.
In a manner of seconds, Kali brushed the medics aside and rose to her feet like nothing had happened. Ares had been addressing the crowd, waiting for the results to come in, and he didn’t falter in the slightest when she stood. Crispin just stared at her, with his jaw slack, from his position on the ground. With a smile, Kali held out her hand to him and he gripped it firmly.
By the time he was on his feet, he was composed once more. “I can’t say I expected you to grab my weapons.”
“Seemed like a good idea at the time.” She shrugged, grinning. “But I don’t think I’ll be trying it again any time soon.”
“That would probably be best…” He said, smiling slowly back at her before bowing his head.
The two of them stood either side of Ares for another minute or so in silence before he clapped his hands together twice. Silence swept over the stands and he raised his arms and bellowed “We have a winner!” He paused, for dramatic effect, and grabbed Kali’s wrist without warning. Raising her arm into the air, he stated “Behold, the victor!”
The demigods erupted into cheers and Crispin applauded quietly nearby. Kali was shaking again, not sure how to handle the attention, or the accolades. Hades was with her, steadying her, but it was getting to be too much.
Ares glanced at her and muttered “You won’t be back in the ring for a while. Take a break. Go shopping or something. I don’t want to see you in here until you’re called.” He released her arm suddenly and turned his back on her, calling out to the crowds once again.
Kali didn’t wait to hear what he said. She all but sprinted out of the Colosseum as soon as she was free of his grip, and she didn’t look back. For once, Ares was right. She was going to take some time for herself, doing something that wasn’t about fighting. Something without blood, or pain, or strife. And with that decision at the forefront of her mind, Kali wandered into the camp to experience the festivities she had been looking forward to.
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