Kali had walked through with her friends earlier, but she hadn’t really paid much attention to her surroundings. Now, her eyes searched for every detail. There were stalls and stands dotted about all over the place, decorated with twinkling lights and glimmering ornaments. Some of them were covered with shimmering fabrics that drew the eye. Some glowed in the pale sunlight. So much effort had been put into the decorations, all over the camp.
Though it had never rained in Camelot, the entire camp was covered in a blanket of snow for the Winter Festival. Snowflakes were drifting steadily from a clear blue sky. Several large marquees had been set up to provide some additional cover for the stalls. White trees glittered and shone, scattered around the open areas. As Kali approached the closest one, she could see white sparkling fruit growing on the branches.
A soft wistful sigh escaped her, even as she shivered. Aside from her bracer and arm guard, her arms were bare. Kali jogged towards her apartment and sat on the stairs for a moment as soon as the door shut behind her. The sudden silence and isolation threatened to smother her. So much had happened, and she wasn’t sure she could keep up with it all.
Arms enveloped her, and she leant back in Hades’ chest. “This isn’t a failing, or a weakness.”
“I know.” She mumbled, though she didn’t feel it. “I don’t even know what’s happening right now. I’m just…numb.”
He stroked her hair, murmuring “Don’t push yourself too hard.” His deep blue eyes met hers and he held her cheek tenderly. “You don’t need to be alright now. However long it takes you to get back on your feet, I’m right beside you.”
“Thank you.” A rumble of thunder in the distance made her chuckle softly. “I’m guessing he’s noticed you slipped away.”
“He is always so demanding this time of year.” Hades sighed wearily and kissed her head. “You did wonderfully in there, you know. Especially after everything. Watching you, I would never believe you’ve only had two months of training if I hadn’t seen you outside.”
“Two months?” Was that all? She couldn’t believe it, but she knew it was true. She had only arrived in Camelot in October. But since then…she hardly recognised herself as the same person. She had grown, that was certain, but into what?
Another crack of thunder nearly shook the building and Hades rolled his eyes, sighing again. With a lingering kiss, he melted away into the shadows and she was sitting alone. But his warmth didn’t quite leave her.
Eventually, she managed to shake herself out of her inner ramblings and went into her room. She changed her clothes, which were grimy and worse for wear, and grabbed her new coat. But Kali didn’t stop to look in the mirror; she didn’t want to see the evidence of the change in her. She didn’t want to see a monster staring back at her.
She had barely taken five steps from her door when she saw a familiar face heading her way.
“There you are.” Tom grinned and pulled her into a brief hug before ruffling her hair. “I thought you’d like to see some more of the festival…” He trailed off, staring at her throat with unveiled shock in his eyes. His voice was barely a whisper when he said, “What the hell is this?”
Kali pulled back away from him, spooked. “What do you mean?”
“This. This mark. Where did you get it?” His face was hard, and his grip tightened on her arm. She had never seen him look so alarmed.
She touched her neck; she’d been wearing a top with a higher collar earlier in the day and she’d almost forgotten about the symbol. Frowning, she looked at Tom and realised “You’ve seen it before.” She suddenly remembered the Stargazer’s words. “He was talking about you? Tom, I need you to tell me anything you know about this symbol. Please.”
“Kali…” He shrank back slightly, but her hands had altered their positions so that she was the one holding him in place. The urgency in her tone was not lost on him. Shaking his head, he stammered “What are you mixed up in?”
“Nothing! It just appeared.” She cried, desperately. The tiniest detail about this seemed so important now, with what she had gone through already to come up empty. “Tom, you must tell me! What has you so spooked? Where have you seen this before?”
“The same place I got this.” His hand circled her wrist and he lifted it, his expression grim.
She stared at her arm blankly until she noticed the glimmer of gold against her skin. “My charm bracelet?” At his grim nod, she shook her head. “What do you mean?”
Tom just looked at her, lost, before muttering “Kali…I can’t. Not now.” He hesitated before glancing reluctantly over at the Colosseum. “Not here.”
Kali followed his gaze and clenched her jaw for a long moment. Finally, she nodded grimly and muttered “Okay. Okay, lets just enjoy the festival. I’ve had enough news and change today anyway…I don’t think I could handle whatever you’d have to say right now.” She valiantly tried for a smile, and added “I still need to sort out some presents for you guys, considering I missed Christmas.”
For the next couple of hours, Kali and Tom wandered through the markets. Sage caught up with them after a short while, and the three of them managed to shake off the darkness of the last weeks. It was oddly freeing to just walk through the camp with her friends, without any greater purpose or meaning. They laughed, and explored, and Kali forgot the weight of the stares that still followed her.
When she was finally called back to the Colosseum, Kali wasn’t as tense or afraid. She left her bags with Tom and Sage, and they promised to catch up before her fight began. With each step closer, she could feel dread cling to her a little tighter. But with the warmth of her hot spiced apple tea in her veins, she shook it off. This place was her home. She was safe. Even if it was still difficult to believe it, she knew deep down that nothing could hurt her in Camelot.
Her mood brightened even further when she found out that her opponent would be Eliza. Even in an “anything goes” round, fighting her best friend could only ever be fun. They sparred often, and they always challenged each other. Strange as it seemed, there was no one she’d rather grapple with than her friends. The only better partner she could think of would have been Tom, but he had already completed his rounds.
Kali approached Eliza with a warm smile, but she was ignored. Kali just laughed to herself; Eliza was clearly focused on her training. It was flattering, really. Instead of pushing the matter, she stretched a little and tried to prepare herself to step back into the arena.
Roaring cheers soon informed her that there had been a victor for the fight that had been going on. From the intensity of the shouts, it had clearly been a decisive ending. That was one thing that Kali didn’t think she’d ever get used to; the thirst for blood. The crowds demanded it. Sure enough, the winner limped out and into the waiting area behind a stretcher. Kali bit her lip, wondering if she should help the demigod lying there.
Before she could waver too long, Ares stuck his head in and barked “Both of you, it’s time.”
A medic of some kind was already muttering over the stretcher, so Kali tried to steady herself. One long, deep breath, and she forged her way out into the spotlight once again. The sun was already setting, though it was barely four o’clock, so lights illuminated every inch of the Colosseum. It was like stepping out onto a stage.
Kali barely paid attention to what Ares was saying. Her introductions were getting more dramatic each time she entered the ring, so she tuned him out. Instead, she watched Eliza and wondered on what Tom had said. What could have happened while she was away to cause so much friction? Tom was normally so easy-going, it was hard to imagine what could have snapped his patience.
Before Kali even realised that Ares had declared that they could begin, Eliza had leapt towards her. With a speed that surprised them both, Kali parried and danced away. She had chosen one of the training swords for this bout because Eliza always insisted on ‘even footing’. It wasn’t her personal preference, but she did like the idea of defeating Eliza when she couldn’t make excuses.
As they fought, Kali grinned and danced around Eliza. She dodged more blows than she deflected, and Eliza was clearly frustrated. The longer they fought, the more tense and sloppy Eliza became. It was clear to Kali from the start that she would be able to win. The rounds were best of three, unless there was something severely debilitating before that could be decided. Unless Eliza had some kind of dramatic comeback, the gap between their levels was obvious. Kali was a little surprised by how quickly Eliza fell.
As the gong sounded to indicate the round had closed, Kali approached Eliza and held out a hand. For a heartbeat, Kali worried that her friend wouldn’t forgive her for the defeat. But her scowl turned to a smile, and Eliza gripped her arm and allowed Kali to pull her up. And then she used the momentum to plunge her sword up and into Kali’s side.
Eliza was flung across the open space as Kali’s side erupted with pain. Darkness swallowed her, and in her half-conscious state it took her a moment to realise that Hades’ arms were around her. It took her another minute to realise that the pain was nearly gone. She was vaguely aware of the din of the crowd and of Ares bellowing for order. But the roiling emotions that swirled in and around her took most of her focus.
Are you alright? She asked weakly, pressing her face into his chest. The world melted away as he sighed and relaxed. There was still a hard line of tension at the edge of his thoughts, but the unbridled fury seemed to ease.
His arms tightened around her. I cannot take much more of this, my love.
I need to finish this. She couldn’t process what had just happened. She didn’t want to process it. Eliza was her friend. She wouldn’t…but she had. Kali wasn’t sure that she wanted answers. But she couldn’t let her win.
I know, he sighed before pleading, but it is the last one.
I love you. Hades loosened his hold on her and kissed her tenderly, before moving back several steps. He did not leave the arena, but he allowed just enough space for the rest of the fight.
As Kali stood, she noticed that Eliza was still picking herself up off the floor. Medics were rushing towards her, and Ares was shouting that the fight was over, and Eliza was disqualified. There was a rage burning in his eyes, barely contained, that Kali had never seen before. Without thinking Kali approached him and put her hand on his shoulder. “I can still fight.”
His eyes snapped to her face and he looked at her like she was insane. And then he noticed Eliza’s sword in her hand, still dripping with her own blood. Kali was standing mostly straight, though her breathing was slightly laboured. There was blood all over her, but it didn’t appear to be getting any worse.
In an undertone, he muttered “This is how you heal?”
“Looks like.” She replied weakly, trying and failing to smile.
Ares seemed uncertain, concerned, and glanced up at the gold box in the skies. “Broadcasting it here might not have been your smartest move.”
“You should know by now that I can’t back down from a fight. Besides” she faltered, letting herself look over at Eliza, who was staring openly at her. “I didn’t know.”
His eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. She could tell he wanted to ask if she was sure, but he thought better of it. With a heavy sigh, he turned back to the crowd and announced that the break was over, and the fight would resume. Kali picked up a shield from the table and kept Eliza’s sword.
Eliza looked afraid but angry, and shouted “You can’t even give me this, can you?”
“You want me to go easy on you?” Kali asked coldly, looking at her with empty eyes. She couldn’t afford to let her emotions take her over or she wouldn’t be able to move.
As the gong sounded to start the fight, Eliza charged and grabbed the sword Kali had been using from the ground. She raised it in a messy middle guard and screamed “I want you to leave and never come back!”
With that, Eliza swung at her wildly, again and again. As Kali blocked or side-stepped every blow easily, Eliza grew more and more furious. Kali had known that Eliza wasn’t as talented as she thought she was, not that she would ever tell her friend something like that. She had hidden the breadth of the ever-increasing gap between their levels. But no more. She didn’t even bother to attack. She simply stood there, and waited for Eliza to tire herself out.
Cruel? Perhaps. It would certainly be mortifying for Eliza. After a while, Kali felt tears burning in her eyes as she blocked another wide swing. She sighed, but this time she deflected the blow instead of just taking it on the shield. With a small movement, she knocked Eliza’s arm back and slid into her space. She punched the hilt of the sword into Eliza’s chest and heard something crack.
Eliza fell back and dropped the sword, clearly winded. The pain was clear, but Eliza could not draw breath to cry out. Looking at her, Kali could see that she wouldn’t be able to fight anymore. She was in no danger of dying but trying to move would be excruciating. She plunged the sword into the ground at Eliza’s side and walked away.
Kali made it five steps on her own before she stumbled, and Hades caught her against his chest. They melted away into the shadows. When they emerged by the fountain, Kali saw Tom stagger nearby. Sage ran to the edge of the fountain and doubled over for a moment, but managed to collect himself before he threw up. Clearly, they hadn’t expected to be brought along for the journey.
Squeezing Hades’ hand gratefully, Kali stumbled over to the two of them and embraced them both. They stood together in silence for a long time while they all gathered themselves. Steeling herself, Kali stepped back and said, “Tell me what happened with her when I was gone.”
They exchanged an uncertain glance, and Tom finally murmured “I don’t think that’s the best idea…”
“Please, Tom.” She asked, not bothering to hide her trembling.
“Turns out she wasn’t exactly thrilled at the stories that have been flying around here recently.” He said, reluctantly. He seemed almost defeated but continued “She was pretty angry that you were getting more attention. And she was relieved when there was a rumour that you weren’t coming back.”
Kali shook her head, insisting “She knows that I don’t want it. It isn’t like I went in there, guns blazing. I was taken, for crying out loud.” Tears finally spilled onto her cheeks and she pushed them away, exclaiming “Do you know how many times I nearly died?”
Tom’s face darkened, and he took her hand. All his protective instincts told him to soften the blow, but he was too angry. “All I know is that we were worried sick about you the last couple of weeks, and she was happy. Said she hoped you’d go out a hero like you wanted, and she’d finally be out of your shadow.”
“She said that?” Kali asked weakly, her voice as small as she felt. She just wanted to curl up into a ball and pretend that none of this had happened.
Sage scowled at Tom but added “She also said that maybe Tom would notice her now you were out of the way.”
Tom shifted awkwardly and muttered “You could have left that part out.”
“But…” Kali shook her head. “You must have misunderstood. She’s my friend.”
Sage scratched his horns and sighed “Friends don’t hope that you’ll fail. They support each other.”
“Friends don’t go for the kill in a fucking tournament!” Tom grimaced, remembering again that he’d watched someone run her through twice now. Yet again, he hadn’t been able to do a thing.
“She knew I’d be alright. You guys have all seen me heal before.” She looked up at them, pleading, even though she knew it wasn’t true.
Tom’s voice was hard. “Not like that, Kali. Not even close.” He stated firmly, and there was a hint of wonder in his eyes, but also suspicion. He was smart; it was only a matter of time before he figured out that she was no demigod.
“I never thought she was in my shadow…” Kali murmured quietly. She didn’t have the energy to care about anything anymore. She was exhausted, sitting on the edge of the fountain. But she was still trying to talk herself in circles until anything made sense. “I know that she’s been a bit on edge and…she likes things done a certain way…”
“Her way.” Tom interrupted angrily.
Truth. Kali shook, and cried “But…how could she resent me that much and I not even know?”
“Not everyone is as big on communication as you are?” Tom suggested, weakly.
Sage sighed and hugged her, enveloping her with smells of earth and horses. “Not everyone is as honest with their feelings as you are, Kali.”
“I…need to talk to her about this.” She mumbled, making up her mind. If she said it out loud, she wouldn’t be able to back out. “If that’s how she feels…I need to hear it from her.”
“I think you already did.” Sage said gently,
Kali shook her head weakly. “That was…she doesn’t like losing, that’s all.”
Tom groaned “Kali…”
“I need to hear it from her.” She snapped. She sighed and squeezed his hand. She knew she was lying to herself. There was no use denying the facts. But…she needed to give Eliza one more chance to prove her wrong. To explain how any part of this made sense.
As she stood and started to walk purposely away, she heard Tom murmur “Haven’t you punished yourself enough?”
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