Kali wasn’t the last competitor to arrive back at the Colosseum, but she wasn’t far off. Ares rolled his eyes but nodded approvingly at her attire. Whether that was because the bodice was very flattering, or because he agreed with the sentiment, she didn’t want to know. Ben whistled and said, “You look cold.”
“Not for long.” Kali said, flashing an almost feral smile and snapping her fingers. A flame danced on the tip of her thumb and spread across her shoulders to her other hand.
Crispin took a slow step to the side, and Ben laughed. “That’s one way to do it, I guess.” He grinned but raised an eyebrow and muttered “Well, look at the competition.”
Taking stock of her surroundings for the first time, Kali saw the other demigods assembling. There were nine others that had been undefeated through the day, and their partners. It would be a free-for-all, and there were essentially no rules. Killing was out, but otherwise you could do whatever it took to get the job done. Whichever team was left standing at the end was declared victorious. Only the team leader could be Champion, but there were various accolades for all members.
Hannah had teamed up with a surprisingly young demigod, who looked not unlike a doll. Perfectly neat curls, rosy cheeks, and shining eyes. Stood with them was a guy Kali thought was in Tom’s class. He wielded a spear and a buckler, while Hannah had chosen a mace.
Tracy was also amongst the crowd, standing with Trevor and a boy with more teeth missing than were left. The demigods were primarily male, and most of them looked like they were descended from Ares or Athena. It shouldn’t be surprising, really. Still, though, Kali weighed them up. Mostly spears and two-handed swords, with the occasional sword-and-shield combination.
“I wonder what terrain we’ll have.” Crispin murmured quietly, scanning their competition.
“Terrain?” Kali asked, nonplussed.
“You’ve never seen the pitch battles, have you?” Ben interrupted, eyes gleaming. “Well, Kali, you’re in for a treat.”
As if his declaration was the signal to begin, the ground beneath their feet began to tremor and shake. Demeter walked slowly to the front of the stands, but Kali hardly recognised her. She looked less like the matronly gardener and every bit the goddess she was. As she held her arms high, power convalesced around her.
From the arena floor, the sand and dirt parted and cracked. Rocks sprung forth, trees burst from the round, the earth creased and folded into hills and valleys. At the very centre, a plateau overlooked the rest of the space.
Kali stared in awe; this was the power of a god. Demeter had completely reformed the space in a matter of seconds. The sandy, bloody, smell had given way to fresh grass with hints of pine. A soft summery breeze rustled the leaves in the trees. In an instant, they were transported to another world. But the roaring crowds dragged her back.
Weighing up the competition, Kali muttered “We’re taking the plateau.”
“The others will have the same idea.” Crispin warned quietly, but he did not disagree.
Ben shrugged, spinning his knives in his hands. “They’ll be coming for us regardless. May as well have the terrain advantage when they swarm.” A grin curled at the corners of his mouth. “People are saying you’re the one to beat.”
She did not feel the same pride he did, but she was determined to bring them victory. Kali turned her attention to the Winter Prince. “When we’re up there, I need you to focus on limiting the bodies in range of us. Can you ice the edges of the plateau?”
A small smile touched his lips. “If you wish it.”
“I have my bow. Ben, focus on taking out any that make it up to the platform before they can find their feet.” He was observant, fast, and deadly. He could do it.
“My pleasure, boss.” His mischievous grin was reminiscent of his father’s.
That only left getting to the platform in the first place. But the announcement from Ares told her they didn’t have much time left to plan. Kali glanced back over her shoulder and her eyes found Tracy. An echo of pain slithered across her stomach and she sighed wearily. “Any ideas on getting there?”
Ben just laughed “Run?”
“Sounds good to me.” She smiled, shaking her head. “Cris, do you have a limit on your ice?”
“Not with you around, I suspect.” He answered cryptically.
She looked at him, curious, but it was not the time to request an explanation. Instead, she accepted his words and requested “You take the right. We have a clear path from here, but we’re in the open. There aren’t many ranged fighters, so use your ice to stop them getting to us from that side.”
For the left, she and Ben could take care of any challengers. Kali decided to pick them off at range while Ben mopped up any stragglers she missed. They barely finished their hushed plans before Ares called out his countdown.
Three. Two. One.
Kali’s mind was blank as they surged forward across the plains. Arrow after arrow, she fired into feet and legs, slowing some and crippling others. As she fired at the picture-perfect girl she had seen with Hannah before, another demigod charged in front of her. He dove into the path of the arrow, which drove itself into his shoulder as he landed at the girl’s feet. Kali was certain he had been on Tracy’s team.
It didn’t make sense for them to work together. Although, Tracy had never been the sharpest pencil in the box. Kali kept running, pushing it from her mind, and focused on the demigods sprinting towards them. A mammoth of a man fell with a squeal and a thud, and Kali shouted for Crispin and Ben to start climbing. They had reached the edge, and they weren’t the only ones scrambling up. But, Kali realised with mounting concern, she hadn’t planned for the climb.
Improvising was her specialty. She couldn’t have burned the arena floor, but Demeter had created grass. Two coils of fire twisted from Kali’s hands, winding through the grass in a large semicircle around them. Flames and smoke billowed at their pursuers, and Kali turned to follow her partners. She could hear the clashing of blades, but she needn’t have worried. By the time she met them, bodies littered the plateau.
Kali quickly stabilised the worst of them; it was a tournament, not a battlefield. They proceeded to roll the unconscious bodies down the edge, aiming to intercept hopeful climbers. It was Ben’s idea, and Kali couldn’t argue with the results.
With Crispin’s ice tripping their opponents up at the last possible moment, the rocky terrain did most of the work for them. The other demigods were tenacious, Kali had to admit, but none could get past her arrows and her teammates. It didn’t take long at all to wipe out most of the teams. They were considering going hunting for whoever was left when a voice called out to them.
“Boys. Come to me.”
Ben and Crispin flinched as the lilting tone reached their ears. A shiver travelled down Kali’s spine at the sound; there was something haunting about it. Unnaturally compelling. The echo reminded her of her meeting with the Stargazer…when he had surpassed her defiance.
Enraged, Kali walked to the edge of the plateau to see who dared try to affect the minds of her friends. The girl looked out of place among the seven burly figures flanking her. Seven? Kali looked back at Ben and Cris, and they nodded curtly. Relief flooded her, but she masked her expression and muttered “Shall we give her what she wants?”
“Boys. I’m waiting.” The haunting voice brought a dissonant melody to Kali’s ears, and she recoiled from it. She was itching to shut her up, but she would have to leave that to the others. Crispin walked as though entranced to the edge, and slid down gracefully on a stream of ice. Ben’s descent was more of a scramble.
Around them, Kali could hear the crowd murmuring and gasping. She smothered a laugh; they thought she was in trouble. Based on the stunning smile she could make out far below, so did the doll. But she clearly hadn’t paid attention in their History classes. Everyone in the camp had to know about the pledge the four demigods had taken. No pitiful demigod could turn them against her.
Ben and Crispin moved as one to incapacitate the girl. She was unconscious before her smile faded. The demigods around her faltered, swaying on their feet, but she had been the competitor. Her team didn’t matter, as far as the rules were concerned. Kali was the last one standing; she was the Champion of the day.
All around them, the crowds roared their approval. As they chanted her name, Kali was dragged reluctantly back through fire and blood. Her vision blurred, washing all colour from her surroundings, and Eris’ foul stench assaulted her.
A cold wind brushed her face, reminding her where she was. Kali turned her gaze upwards with hope, to bask in the cold sunlight. Not trapped. She clenched her trembling hands into fists and held her head up. But she heard nothing of the speech Ares made to close the day’s tournament events.
Crispin and Ben had returned to her side, and she wondered if it had been callous to bring them into the arena with her. They had suffered far longer at Eris’ hands. But they stood firm with her, regardless. As Ares speech reached a crescendo, they took her hands and lifted them into the air in a sign of triumph.
The world careened back into focus, sharp and saturated. Cheering faces surrounded them. Whichever way she turned, Kali was met with adoration and reverence. The pressure of their approval threatened to crush her, and they showed no sign of dissipating. Demigods swarmed the exits to shake her hand, and tell her they had been rooting for her.
They congratulated Kali on her victory. They thanked her for defeating Aphrodite’s upstart. From the hurried conversations she was forced to endure, she gathered that many of the more traditional demigods thought Hannah’s partner perverted the spirit of the festival.
It didn’t matter to her; all she cared about was getting somewhere quiet and out of sight. The adrenaline had long since worn off, and she was exhausted. She could not even muster the energy to remind them all that her partners deserved the accolades, though their ignorance incensed her.
Hades wrapped her mind in a soothing blanket of shadows, reassuring her. She was certain that was the only reason she managed to get through the crowd without resorting to violence. Ben slipped away easily, but Cris stayed by her side. His polite smile was more strained than the last time she had seen it, but he handled the admirers with ease.
Once they were free, he excused himself with a deep bow and Kali was left alone. As the sun finally set, strong arms slid around her waist. She leant back against Hades’ chest and closed her eyes, giggling when he murmured “Do I get to keep you to myself now?”
“I certainly hope so.” She turned and kissed him, ignoring the demigods milling around them. She knew her friends would understand, so the threaded her hands through his and whispered, “Let’s go home.”
Despite her best efforts, sleep refused to come to her that night. Eventually, she gave up and decided to insist that Hades watch his first movie with her. It was an awkward, hilarious, retelling of one of the butchered myths. To her delight, Hades spent most of the film laughing. The way Zeus had been depicted was certainly the main cause for that, but she didn’t care. In his arms, the only thing she cared about was sharing whatever she could with him.
Over the next few days, they settled into an easy routine. To keep Zeus contained, Hades would need to attend the events at the festival. Kali mourned his distance; the thought of being out on her own had never scared her more. But their bond was stronger than ever, and she could feel his presence as though he were by her side. Her acute awareness of him was a comfort to them both.
There was an archery contest the following day, for which all the gods needed at least one representative. That was not optional for her, being the only child of Apollo. Kali had forgotten, what with the excitement of recent events, but one of the runners fetched her before it began. It was hardly fair, Kali thought, to have her compete. Her father was the God of Archery.
Their idea of balancing the event against her was to increase the distances on her targets. They were each marked on speed, precision, and power. With a weary sigh, Kali drew her bow and flashed an apologetic grin at her opponents. At least, she thought, she did not have to hold back. She glanced briefly up to the golden box, barely looking at the targets, and began the course.
Once she had completed, and won, the archery tournament, she was free to enjoy the festivities at her leisure. Tom, ever the over-achiever, had entered himself into as many events as he could. Kali spent most of her time with Sage, exploring the markets and returning to the Colosseum only to watch Tom’s performance. Sage seemed especially nervous, searching for a gift for Tom, and he explained that it was an important custom of the New Year.
He folded her arm over his as they walked, appreciating her closeness, and said “It is said that if you receive a gift on the first day of the year, that luck will carry forward. I don’t follow much with the superstition but…Tom needs all the luck he can get, the big oaf.”
“I’m happy you two found each other.” Kali murmured, an honest smile gracing her lips.
Sage looked at her like a deer in headlights for a moment, and then hung his head. “Kali, he doesn’t know. And I’d prefer to keep it that way. I am content to simply be at his side.”
“I thought…you two are so right together.” He tilted his head in response, an unusually forlorn look in his strange eyes. Feeling his turmoil, Kali hugged him and quietly promised “I don’t understand. But if that’s what you want, I’ll keep your secret.”
He relaxed once more, wearing his aching heart with practised care. Kali wondered how she had never noticed the silent yearning that surrounded his every movement. There were things in the world she knew she didn’t understand, but there should never be a reason to keep someone from the one they loved. The barrier he thrust up around himself didn’t sit right with her.
Kali quietly vowed to help Sage, however she could. Even if the only thing she could do was be by his side. Questions pushed themselves to her lips, but she knew from his rigid shoulders that he would refuse to answer them. Swallowing hard, she pulled him to another stall, forcefully changing the subject.
On the final day of the festival, New Year’s Eve, there would be award ceremonies and celebrations lasting through the night. Sage mentioned that the highlight was always the firework display at midnight, heralding the New Year. Kali wondered if Hades would be able to spend it with her; it sounded like something he would need to see in with the gods.
Her mind went back to the gift she had picked up for him before everything had been turned upside down. She had wanted to surprise him, but things had changed, and she had lost her courage. Perhaps the festival would give her the excuse she needed to get past her shattered nerves.
Hello there! Apologies for the huge delays between chapters! I won’t bore you with the details, but I’m working on it!
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