Awakening

Awakening

Book One of the Eklektos Series

Prologue

She waded into the opaque grey water and felt her feet slowly fade into numbness. She couldn’t turn back now. Even if she wanted to change her mind, it was too late. The river was thicker than she had thought, and much colder. The chill seeped into her bones. The sensation was strange and unpleasant, but this was what Neva wanted. This was what she had chosen. It wasn’t the first time she had taken this walk; of that she was certain. The river had haunted her dreams for months and now…now it was time.

The water rippled around her and swirled around her feet as she continued to drag herself forward. When the water reached her waist, her resolve faltered. Was running away really the right thing? As she hesitated, the river seemed to gain a life of its own and tendrils of thick grey sludge crawled up her, coating her tunic.

The cold deepened into her very soul and she knew she would never be warm again. Fear gripped every part of her until she could not remember anything else. Why had she been so lonely? How could she have known in her short eighteen years that things would never get any better? Was marriage really such a terrible fate?

Too late, the water seemed to whisper.

Too late, she echoed. Her fear of the unknown fate that lay beyond begged her to flee. But she had chosen this. Her short life had been full, and yet empty. The cold ache in her chest was not from the water; she had known it all her life. Her impending marriage had only cemented her decision. It was selfish, she knew. Her family would be devastated. They would never understand. She knew that they must want her to be happy. Was it really so terrible a fate?

Of course it was, she reminded herself. The touch of a man had always made her skin crawl. The very concept of belonging to one…letting him possess her…it was abhorrent. She could not bear to think of it. Her family would hear nothing against it and she had no say in her own life. This was not the place for her. The more she thought it over, the more certain she became that this was not her Time. In another place, another life, she could have everything she could ever ask for. This was not her Time.

As the water touched the skin on her face, she sucked in a breath. So cold. But a small smile found its way onto her lips. Freedom. Her eyes closed, and her world slipped into darkness.

___

Chapter One

Kali shot up in bed and nearly tumbled right onto the floor. Her head was spinning, and she was gasping as though she had run a marathon. The dregs of her dream were already ebbing away, but the terror wasn’t so willing to let her go. She buried her face in her hands and found that her cheeks were wet. Tears? She groaned and wiped them away.

Checking her phone with bleary eyes, Kali moaned when she saw the time. She had overslept again. Struggling out of bed, she tallied up all her usual symptoms. She felt like she was hung over, but without the fun the night before. Her head was pounding and when she opened her curtains she winced as the light sent sharp pains through her. The position of the sun only reminded her that she needed to hurry up.

Grumbling under her breath, Kali grabbed the nearest black trousers she could find and rushed to get dressed. She steadied herself against the wall as she tried to find a safe path across her cluttered bedroom floor. She knew she should do something about it, and her mum wouldn’t stop whining at her to clear it up, but it was too much hassle. She’d get around to it eventually.

Kali grabbed her bag off the back of the door, and thumped on her mother’s bedroom door on her way past. The curses she heard from the room made her laugh; her mum was always late for work and today would be no different. Kali brushed her teeth in a hurry to get out of Lynette’s way and then took her time walking down the stairs. Her head was swimming, and she had a strange but familiar ache in her chest.

Before she left, Kali filled the kettle for her mum to make her usual coffee. With a quick glance around to try to remember what she was forgetting, Kali swept out of the house with a grimace. No doubt, she would notice as soon as she needed it and not a moment sooner. While she walked, she twisted her hair up into a messy bun and winced at the extra pressure on her scalp. It was already promising to be a long day.

She just caught the bus, though she had to jog over when she saw it pulling in. She scowled to herself and avoided eye contact with the driver and her classmates. Instead, Kali pulled out her phone and used the camera to check her hair. It wasn’t that bad, but she grimaced at herself anyway; she looked ill. Her skin was practically grey against the white blouse she had to wear, and her brown eyes looked lifeless. How Kali wished she could have inherited her mother’s blue eyes. Her father’s had been gold, she could remember that much about him, so she didn’t know how she got stuck with such a boring brown.

The route the coach took went past an old park. Seeing it every day, Kali didn’t need to look closely to see that the once-red paint was gone from the adventure playground. The wooden seats of the swings were splintered and were almost split completely in half, and the carousel was rusted beyond recognition. Kali couldn’t bear to stop in the park because she hated to see what had happened to it. She remembered when she was a little girl, not even three, when she used to go to that park with her father. It was one of the only memories she still had.

The journey passed in a blur, as it usually did. Dazed as she was, she nearly missed the stop for the school. It was only when one of her classmates nudged her on their way past that she sprung to her feet. Flashing him a grateful smile, though she couldn’t remember his name, she followed the group off the coach. She let the distance between them grow as she walked and focused on the music blaring in her ears.

Kali couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched as she walked through the school gates, but she shook herself. She was just being paranoid. As usual. She hadn’t been able to shake the feeling of danger since Jade…

She rubbed her temples gently and headed straight to the bathrooms on the ground floor of the main building to sort out her hair. She couldn’t have it up when her head was hurting this much so she put it in a loose plait over her left shoulder to keep it out of the way. She softly touched the long scar on her left cheek and clenched her jaw before lifting her chin to look at the similar cuts on her neck. They should have healed by now. Kali had never scarred before so why were these so stubborn?

Frowning at her reflection, she turned away with a sigh and went to the main hall, relieved that there was no one around. Playing piano, or any musical instrument, was one of the few things that could calm Kali down in almost any circumstance. It was like the songs got inside her blood, her soul, like the music was a part of her. That was one of the reasons that she was so happy when she could spend time on the grand piano in the mornings. Today, unfortunately, was not one of those days. Instead of stopping to lose herself in the music, she trudged towards her form room.

Most of the students inside were clumped together in their own little groups. Kali sat in the front row, in the seat nearest the door, and busied herself doodling in a notebook. Her mind drifted back to her most recent dream and she frowned. Her hand shook slightly on the symbol she was drawing, and she closed the book. Even though she couldn’t remember much more than grey water, she couldn’t get it out of her head. It felt familiar, and the lingering feelings were unsettling.

The first class of the day was Psychology. Kali sighed; she was already bored with Psychology. Her first year had been fun and interesting, and she had surprised herself when she had gotten a B. But this year she had a different group, and most of the other students used it as a social club. Kali found it difficult enough to concentrate without their inane chatter distracting her.

Kali had never been very good at making friends, so she mostly sat on her own in classes. That might have been part of the reason the others annoyed her so much. She knew that she was jealous of the easy friendships they had made. Her other schools had been the same. But Kali hadn’t stayed anywhere more than three years before coming to this school. She had been there since starting her GCSE’s, but she hadn’t wanted to be there. And no one wanted a friend who was always miserable. Besides, she had managed to upset the popular girls in her first week. That had more or less cemented her social status.

Sophie, the queen bee, always went out of her way to make Kali’s life miserable, like she didn’t have reasons enough for that anyway. Sophie’s snide remarks and occasional attacks used to really bother Kali but now she just ignored them. Perspective was a gift and a curse in that. For the most part, Kali just kept her head down and stayed quiet. She couldn’t afford to rise to all the challenges Sophie threw her way. Things tended to happen when Kali got angry or let her frustrations get the better of her and she only had one year left to get through her A Level’s and get the hell away from that place. She wasn’t going to mess things up now, not if she could help it.

As miserable as Kali was, even though she knew she didn’t really belong anywhere, she knew that somehow everything would work out. It had to. As she tried to convince herself over and over again: everything happened for a reason. No raindrop lands in the wrong place. There is a purpose and a meaning to be found in life…

She had to believe that was the truth because if there was no point to life then all the suffering people went through was meaningless. And she couldn’t handle that.

The day was as uneventful as it usually was. She had an interesting chat with her Physics teacher – a rather eccentric but highly intelligent man – at break-time after the lesson and then she went to the library until her next class. Kali got on far better with the staff at the school than she did with the students. At first, most of the teachers had assumed she was a trouble maker because of how many schools she had bounced through. After her first quiet, polite months they reassessed their opinions. While they had initially avoided being near her, now they even sought her out just to chat.

The music room was Kali’s favourite haunt, mostly because everyone left her alone if she was in there. And she just felt at home surrounded by so many different instruments. The soundproof rooms meant that she could sing or play as long as she liked, and no one would hear her. It was her escape whenever she was having a hard day and she would go there during lunch, and after school.

When the end of the day finally came around, Kali sat at the lonely piano and closed her eyes. She sat there for a long time, letting her fingers pick out a tune of their choosing. The song lingered in the air long after she stopped. Kali rubbed her aching head, wishing that the painkillers she had taken would just go ahead and work already.

Playing with the loose strands of her hair that fell around her face, Kali sat on the floor with her back against the wall and stared blankly into space. Her mind was busy, but her thoughts were so jumbled and frantic that she couldn’t focus on any one thought, so she just let them flow freely. It was strangely calming, like staring at a rough sea in a storm, and Kali stayed where she was until her skin prickled uncomfortably. She glanced around her but, as always, she was alone.

Suddenly uncomfortable, Kali stood up and stretched her aching muscles with a groan. Her shoulders clicked, and she moved to pick up the only acoustic guitar that was in the music cupboard. She managed to get halfway through a song before moving to another instrument. She stopped again after only a few bars and moved through almost every one of the instruments in the music room. She just couldn’t settle on any of them.

Kali was restless; something was wrong, and she didn’t know what, but she knew that she should be doing something. Anything. She checked her phone and saw that it was almost four o’clock. She had planned to meet her mother at half past six, when she would be done at the Safari Park they both worked at, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to just sit still for much longer. Kali decided to just head out and take her time getting there, so she slung her bag over her shoulder and started walking.

It took thirty-eight minutes for Kali to get to the outskirts of the park, and another nineteen to fight her way through the crowds. That meant that the last dolphin show of the day had just started when she got there. A grin found its way onto Kali’s lips; she had never actually been able to watch the shows.

Kali hadn’t been swimming since she had encountered a shark. She had been five, maybe, and her mother had taken her to the beach. They had been messing around, splashing and playing, when it had appeared. Kali hadn’t been afraid; her childish mind had even been certain the creature had come to play with her. She couldn’t remember much but her mum had never let her near the sea again. She guessed that was a reasonable reaction, though she desperately wanted to go back there. Surely, she was old enough now to know not to try to swim with a goddamn shark.

She shook herself as she listened to the introductions. Lynette was described as a mermaid, capable of taming any beast of the sea. Kali rolled her eyes; her mother was no mermaid. She was, however, very talented among the trainers at the park. The dolphins all loved her and Kali never tired of hearing the stories about them.

Kali was amazed by the tricks the dolphins were doing but it made her uncomfortable nonetheless. She shifted where she stood and folded her arms around herself. These majestic creatures weren’t here to entertain people. Getting them to literally jump through hoops…was that maybe just a bit demeaning? More than that, it seemed…cruel.

That thought changed the whole tone of the show to her, and Kali wanted to leave. She didn’t want to watch this. But her feet were rooted in place. They seemed happy, right? Grimacing, she shrank back against the wall and waited for the show to finish. Eventually, the dolphins were done and it was time for the killer whales. Kali watched with awe as she saw the newest arrival swim powerfully into the pool. He was a lethal slab of deadly instincts, and he was magnificent.

Kali’s eyes were drawn to the crowd, pressing against the barriers. One little girl who couldn’t be older than eight was leaning into it with a look of pure adoration on her face. As Kali watched, she felt herself moving though she hadn’t made any conscious decision to do so. As she sprinted down the stairs, the barrier in front of the girl rippled. For a fraction of a second, Kali was sure that she saw it disappear.

The girl was standing at the edge of the pool one moment. And the next she was in the water.

Kali was already only a few feet away when it happened. She had lost her bag and her coat on the way down, and she jumped up at the barrier. Kali heard the girl’s mother scream, but she didn’t slow. Scrambling up the screen and onto the top, she dove into the pool without hesitation. As she hit the water, she could hear her mother screaming something from the other end of the pool. Too far to get to the girl. At least, too far to reach her before the whales did.

Most of the killer whales were vicious and the only person they would let in their pool without getting territorial or violent was Kali’s mother. They could be so obedient and playful with Lynette, but you could never afford to forget that they were predators first and foremost. That was why Kali had never been allowed to help in the pool. And now, the deadliest creature in the water was hurtling towards her.

The water was clear enough and Kali swam hard after the golden streak she knew was the girl’s hair. She was still thrashing uselessly but she couldn’t have much time left, terrified as she was. A terrible shadow loomed ever closer and the male, Ramu, was closing in on the girl. Kali screamed at it, the words something she could not recognise, and it turned its attention to her.

Instinct took over and she froze. She didn’t even realise that she had lost all her air when she called out to him. The girl continued to sink, but Kali didn’t dare move. Everything inside of her screamed, but it wasn’t until the whale nodded that she rushed to catch her. Nodded?

Kali was terrified. Terrified that she wouldn’t be able to get the girl out of the pool. Terrified that it was already too late. Terrified that Ramu would change his mind and rip them both apart. But he swam alongside her and nudged her when her she had wrapped her arm around the girl’s waist. Without thinking, she put her arm over his back and tightened her grip on the child.

Ramu rose slowly to the surface of the pool and Kali realised just before they broke through into the air that her lungs weren’t aching. She wasn’t screaming for oxygen. How long had she been in the water? Pushing everything else aside, she dragged the girl over the edge of the pool and scrambled up beside her.

The rise and fall of the girl’s chest had long since stopped. They hadn’t been under that long; they couldn’t have been, but fear had driven the air from her lungs as soon as she had gone into the water. Kali knelt beside her, ignoring the way her clothes stuck to her, and touched the child’s pale face.

CPR. How do you do CPR? Kali had only ever seen it on TV, but something must be better than nothing until the paramedics came. She pinched the girl’s nose and blew air into her mouth, before pressing her hands to her chest in imitation. Her hands were hot, burning, and Kali heard herself whispering words she didn’t recognise. She closed her eyes and focused on the warmth that was building up inside of her. She forced the energy to her hands without a second thought and opened her eyes to see that colour was returning to the girl’s face. Just as the medics finally fought their way through the crowds, the child coughed and spluttered, trembling violently on the floor.

___

Chapter Two

Kali scurried back, letting the words die in her throat and the last of the heat seep out of her. Suddenly, she felt cold and grey, as though all the colour had ebbed away with the warmth. The cold wasn’t the chill of the water; it was inside of her. She stared blankly at the girl, now surrounded by the paramedics. Someone was at her side, silently handing her a towel, and Kali looked up to see that it was her mother. Lynette wasn’t even looking at her, her cold expression fixed on the little girl.

Holding the towel, Kali made no move to dry herself. Instead, she continued to stare at the girl who was now on a gurney. Her throat constricted when she tried to speak so it took her a few tries before she managed to croak “Will she be okay?”

Lynette nodded slowly before managing to prise apart her lips and unclench her jaw enough to mutter “It looks that way.”

A woman, clearly the girl’s mother, rushed over to Kali and her mother and grasped Kali’s hands tightly, saying ‘thank you’ over and over. Kali just looked at her, shaken, and whispered that it was nothing. But the girl’s mother just touched Kali’s face with tears in her eyes and whispered “You saved Katie! You saved my baby! God bless you.”

Kali watched her go, unable to process anything that was happening, and then looked back at the pool. She dropped the towel that she still hadn’t used and moved to the edge of the water. Ramu lifted his head above the surface and looked at her steadily so she slowly placed her hand on his nose. After a moment, he softly butted her hand and then slipped back below the surface and away from the people gathering to see what was happening. Kali’s mother was watching her carefully and she pulled her back away from the medics, who were still checking on the little girl, Katie. Her eyes were almost accusing when she asked, “Why did ­Ramu help you?”

“I…think I asked him to.” Kali said slowly, trying to get her head around the idea while wondering why her mother looked more angry than surprised.

After silently keeping up that cold stare for a moment longer, she stated “She wasn’t breathing when you pulled her out.” Kali just shook her head, worried at the fierce expression on her mother’s face, and Lynette continued “You don’t know how to do CPR.”

She shook where she stood. What else could she have done? After a few seconds of trembling under her mother’s glare, she stammered “I’ve seen it on TV. I don’t know what I did.”

“I do.” She stated grimly. “Why were you here?”

Kali recoiled slightly from her mother’s cold tone and stammered “I…don’t know. What’s going on?”

Lynette ignored the question and just repeated “Why were you here?”

“I just…felt like I should come here early…I…” Kali murmured shakily and then uncertainly said “I’m sorry?”

“What?” For the first time since Kali had gotten out of the pool, her mother smiled slightly and insisted “You saved that girl’s life; no one else would have reached her in time, but you did. Don’t be sorry for that. Ever.”

“Then…why do I feel like I’ve done something wrong?” Kali asked, trembling, and wiped a tear from her cheek.

Lynette clenched her jaw for a moment and then muttered “We can talk about it later. You should go and change before you freeze to death. I still need to finish my shift; will you be alright until then?”

Kali nodded weakly, though she wasn’t sure that she would be. She shuffled to the locker rooms to get the spare clothes her mother kept, feeling the obvious dismissal. They weren’t exactly Kali’s style, but they were warm, and they were dry, so she couldn’t complain. She peeled off her white blouse – which now looked and acted more like a second skin than a shirt – and pulled on a tight grey t-shirt bearing the safari park logo and baggy black tracksuit bottoms.

The air conditioning in the changing rooms made her shiver but at least her clothes were dry. Her shoes, however, weren’t. She thought about going barefoot but that wouldn’t be a good idea when she ventured outside where there were other people. Instead she put on some thick, dry socks and just hoped that would be enough to protect her feet from the moisture. Her feet squelched a little in the shoes as she walked but it was bearable, and Kali had a lot else on her mind to distract her.

As much as she didn’t want to go back into the crowd of people who had seen her dive into the pool after Katie, her bag and her blazer were still in the stands. So, she kept her head down and slipped out as soon as she found her things, heading for the reptile house to see Gloria.

Gloria was a twenty-five-foot python and she was magnificent. Everyone was terrified of her except Kali and the head keeper, Colin. He and Kali were quite close and when he saw her come in he winked and beckoned her over even though he was giving a talk to a group of visitors. He smiled at their nervous faces as he told them that he would be getting Gloria out, so they could see her properly. “Now I would like to introduce my beautiful assistant, Kali, who will be handling Gloria while I do what I do best: talk.”

Kali stifled a giggle and picked Gloria up, letting the snake coil around her arms and neck while the group in front of them gasped and backed away slightly. Kali whispered softly to Gloria and then smiled at their audience and asked quietly if anyone would like to stroke the snake. A couple of people shuddered and shook their heads violently, but someone stepped forwards nervously and Kali coaxed him into brushing his hand along Gloria’s body.

After some talking and a few more brave volunteers managing to get close enough to the gorgeous snake to touch her, Colin moved them on to the next part of the tour. He came back quickly and ruffled Kali’s hair, receiving a scowl, and he laughed at her expression before frowning and muttering “Your hair’s wet.”

Kali blushed and mumbled “Yeah. Long story.”

“Is it something to do with the ruckus at the pool?”

“Kinda.” She smiled at Colin; he was so easy-going and good-natured that it was hard not to smile at him. She hesitated, looking at his expectant face, and admitted “Well, completely.”

“What happened?”

“A kid fell in.” She muttered grimly.

“Huh?” He started; the barriers were fairly high and there were guards to stop people climbing them, if anyone was crazy enough to try. Colin’s expression slowly grew scared and he murmured “Wait, wasn’t it the whales today? Ramu’s first public appearance?”

“Yeah. Don’t worry, though. Nothing happened.” Kali sighed, absentmindedly stroking the python curling around her neck.

Colin waited a moment, his hazel eyes glittering slightly as he chuckled “So…remind me why you’re soaked?”

“I pulled her out.” She felt his scowl more than saw it and kept her eyes averted, muttering “What?”

“You do realise you could’ve been killed! Those whales aren’t like the dolphins! They weren’t reared here, they’re predators not performers, no matter what Lynette might be able to get them to do!”

Kali was taken aback by his tone; she hadn’t expected him to be worried about her and she flushed at his reprimand. She argued “I know how violent and territorial they are. I know. But she was just a little girl, Colin! What was I supposed to do?”

“I don’t know. But did you even think about the fact that you could’ve been hurt?” He sighed but his expression softened slightly.

“Honestly? No, I didn’t. I saw she was about to fall in and I just ran to get her but by the time I got to the railing she was already in the water. I didn’t think about it at all. It was simple; no one else would have been able to get her in time.” She stated, making it sound like it really had been the easiest thing in the world. She said nothing of the terror she had felt, the fact that she had known that they both could have been ripped to pieces. She didn’t even know why she had jumped into the water without a second thought. All she knew was that she had, and she wouldn’t have any regrets if she had gotten herself killed doing so. Just as long as the girl, Katie, was alright.

“It’s a good thing you were there then, Kali.” He smiled warmly and put his hand on Kali’s shoulder. She knew that he would have hugged her if Gloria hadn’t been doing it for him. He hesitated and then asked, “Is the kid okay?”

“The medics said she’d be fine.” Kali smiled, trying not to think about what might have happened if she hadn’t reached Katie in time.

Seeing Kali’s troubled expression, Colin smirked and teased “So you retreated here to escape from the attention until Lynette’s finished and can take you home?”

“No, I just couldn’t bear to be away from you for so long.” She said sarcastically, sticking out her tongue at him. Gloria shifted slightly around Kali’s shoulders, so she sighed and handed the python to Colin to put back in the tank. “Snakes have a comforting effect on me, to be honest.”

He raised an eyebrow as he took Gloria from Kali’s outstretched arms and commented “You’re a very strange girl.”

“You have no idea.” She grinned as though joking but when he turned away to sort Gloria out her eyes darkened, and she bit her lip nervously. When Gloria was safely back in her cage Colin turned to Kali and put his arm around her shoulders when he saw how unsettled she was looking. She sighed, and Colin asked if she was really alright. She just nodded but he wasn’t convinced so he gave her a little squeeze and then asked if she’d be okay there on her own for a while. “It’s just that I’m meant to be giving another talk on some of the smaller guys in a minute so…”

“Don’t worry about me, Colin. I’m alright. And I won’t be alone; I have Gloria, and Vince.” She nodded to the boa constrictor in the other tank across from Gloria’s, a gorgeous snake, even bigger than Gloria was.

Colin smiled and shrugged, but suggested “I have to do the next shows on my own. How about a kiss for courage?”

Kali forced a laugh and muttered “Kiss yourself.”

He touched his chest as though wounded and then jogged after the tour group, leaving Kali standing between the cages on her own. She sighed weakly and rubbed her temples; her headache was coming back again. She sat cross-legged in the middle of the floor and hummed quietly to herself, trying to distract herself from how cold her feet were.

Kali remembered Katie’s mother’s face as she sat there, seeing the tears and the sheer relief on the woman’s face. She had looked even paler than Katie had when Kali had first pulled her out of the pool. She had been beside herself, Kali had felt it when the woman took her hands in hers. It had shaken her to her very core, the thought that she could have lost her daughter. It was all Kali could do not to just collapse where she stood with the sheer force of that woman’s feelings crushing her. For a brief moment, Kali wondered if her own mother would have been as distraught if she hadn’t surfaced from the pool. Before she could dwell too deeply on that thought, she pushed it away.

Luckily, there were many other things to distract herself with; Kali’s world, the one she had worked so hard to create, was crashing down. Strange things had always happened around Kali, but this seemed different somehow. It was like something in her was awakening and there was nothing she could do to stop it. She had been able to see what was going to happen, actually see it in her mind. She didn’t have a working inner eye, so it couldn’t be an overactive imagination. The picture had been crystal clear.

She hadn’t been holding her breath in that pool, but she had felt perfectly fine. Maybe time had been moving slower than she had felt it. Adrenaline could do that, she knew. Maybe she hadn’t been under the water very long. That would explain the fact that her lungs weren’t screaming out. But she had spoken to Ramu. He hadn’t attacked them because he had understood her, she was certain of it.

Then there was Katie. Kali knew that she hadn’t been breathing when she pulled her out of the water and her little heart had not been beating. Kali had no expertise in first aid, and her mother had implied that there was something else she had done. Maybe she had just managed to fluke CPR. Those annoying adverts were clearly more informative than she had thought. But then why was her mother so upset?

As she buried her pounding head in her hands, Kali felt sunlight warming her back. She turned slowly and saw a man standing in the room. His face was angelic but strong, with cheekbones so defined that they could have been carved from stone. Their eyes met, one set so dark and the other a startling golden colour, and Kali had the feeling that he was seeing everything about her. Seeing right into her soul. She stood slowly and could not shake the feeling that she knew this man, like an echo. There was something about those startling eyes.

Kali still could not place him but then he spoke, softly saying “You should learn to trust your instincts, Kali.”

His voice was musical, deep and melodic like a cello, and something stirred in Kali’s blood as though it were trying to leap out of her and meet this man. He simply stood, so casual and relaxed, leaning against the wall and watching her with his brown hair falling over his face. Kali found her voice finally and said experimentally “Something is wrong.”

“Yes.”

“Something is coming for me.” She stated, knowing it was the truth but seeking confirmation nonetheless. The man just nodded slowly, a smile dancing on his face. “Why?” Kali frowned, wondering what she had done to warrant so much attention. She thought back over the day’s events but pushed it to the back of her mind; she was confused enough already.

The answer was simple: “Power.”

She frowned, not sure what he meant but unable to phrase the right question. He seemed to understand her confusion and he stared blankly at her for a moment or two, losing his apparent ease. He hesitated as though he could not believe that she really didn’t know what he was talking about. After a moment, he scowled, asking quietly “Where is Lynette?”

“The pool.” She answered automatically. The man nodded in thanks and then turned on his heel and left Kali standing alone again, staring blankly at the space he had been.

Kali was already moving before she had made up her mind. Eavesdropping had always felt dishonest to her, but Kali knew that she would never hear the whole story from her mother. And she knew that man. Something was going on, and it involved her. She justified her actions right up to the doors of the changing rooms behind the pool. She crossed her fingers and took a deep breath before pushing open the door and slipping quietly inside. She winced as her boots squelched but she was lucky; her mother and the man with gold eyes hadn’t noticed her yet.

Creeping away from the door and into the shadows behind some lockers, Kali pressed herself into the wall. Holding her breath, she edged closer to where the voices were coming from until she could hear what was being said. The first thing she heard clearly was her mother insisting “She didn’t need to know!”

“Of course she did.” The reply was soft, the man’s tone far calmer than Lynette’s had been. “Did you truly believe that if she did not know who she is, who I am, she could live a normal life?”

Kali frowned, confused but needing to know more, to understand, and crept slowly closer. She needn’t have bothered; her mother was almost shouting as she replied “I thought she had been spared all of this! She is almost never attacked, she stays under the radar, and she hasn’t had any episodes! She hasn’t been getting any of the usual symptoms and…she’s almost eighteen. If something was going to happen then it would have done a long time ago.”

“You foolish woman.” The man sounded tired. “Lynette, she may have managed to keep hold of herself, but only barely, and the effort is tearing her apart. You say she has had no symptoms, so you must be blind to the pain she feels.”

“Don’t you lecture me about my own daughter!” Lynette snapped fiercely, and Kali almost shivered just at the thought of the look that she knew would be on her mother’s face.

“She is our daughter.” The man’s voice was soft and calm but there was an edge to it that had not been there before, like a warning.

Lynette ignored the darkness that had crept into his voice and retorted “You didn’t raise her! I did!”

There was a silence and Kali considered moving closer again, but she was still reeling from the knowledge that this man was her father. She had known, of course, when she saw his eyes but…she had been told that her father had died when she was very young. Locked up in her own thoughts, she almost missed his quiet reply. “You knew my reasons for leaving, for staying out of her life for so many years, and I have never been far away.” Another pause, and then the man, Kali’s father, sighed softly and stated, “You had no right to keep this from her.”

“I wanted to keep her safe.” Lynette’s voice was weaker now too but stubborn and somehow immature, like a child having a tantrum.

“She is the most powerful being outside of Camelot. Did you honestly think that you could hide her from the gods? They are already searching for her and it is only a matter of time before they stumble across something.” Kali frowned and held her breath, wanting, needing, to hear more.

Lynette’s voice was dark as she asked, “They want to hurt her?”

“They want to court her. You know that we are drawn to power; it is not something we can control. It just rolls from Kali in waves. I should not be surprised but…” He sighed for a moment and then continued “Thankfully, Hades has always been immune to such things, so he has been helping me keep things under control. But it has not been easy. The older she gets, the harder it is to hide her scent, and her power is still growing rapidly. The only thing we can do now is send her to Camelot where she will be protected from their advances. The rules are far stricter there than they are out here. I had hoped to avoid it but…even I can see no other way out.”

Lynette hesitated and then slowly asked “Is there something that you aren’t telling me?”

“She shines like the sun. I can see her burning up from the intensity of the power that is inside of her.” He sighed and then admitted “I am afraid.”

“But if she goes to Camelot? If they teach her, train her?” Lynette sounded worried, but Kali’s ears heard something she thought she recognised as relief.

“It will help. But you must not go with her.”

Lynette made a noise of disbelief and exclaimed “She can’t go all the way there alone! What if something happened?” Though she sounded insistent, Kali wondered if there wasn’t something almost hopeful in her mother’s tone. The tiniest hint that she wanted to be free of the burden that was her daughter.

“Lynette, my dear, think about this.” He said patiently and then reasoned “If they see you, realise that you are her mother when she is so obviously a daughter of Apollo, they will kill her on sight.”

Kali sagged slightly against the wall and stared blankly ahead of her; what world had she suddenly shifted into? Everyone was going mad, and the worst part was that it all fit so perfectly together in her mind. Her father was Apollo, a god, and other gods wanted to find her and ‘court’ her just because she was powerful in some way? She was to be going to a school to be trained somehow even though they would kill her immediately if they knew who she was? And somehow all that craziness made perfect sense.

She was going completely insane, Kali decided. Strangely, the part that bothered her most was her mother’s reaction. Lynette seemed to be almost glad to be rid of her and have her life back. Kali hoped that she was imagining it but…

Considering whether she should be fighting her sudden urge to flee, Kali looked at the door across the room. She wondered absently if her parents – that word felt strange in her mind – would notice if she bolted for it. She took a slow step away from her hiding place and felt a hand softly close around her wrist as a voice murmured “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

___

Chapter Three

Kali almost jumped out of her skin, but she managed to contain her reaction to a small jerk. Her head smacked against the wall and she winced but held back her cry. She looked at the man touching her wrist and saw that he literally melted into the shadows. His grip was tight on her, and she wondered if he thought she would run from him.

For some reason, she didn’t really mind that he was still touching her. His hand had loosened somewhat when she had relaxed against the wall and now it was almost comforting, like an anchor. Without the contact, Kali might have wondered if he was even real. Watching the shadows clinging to him, a chill ran through her and seeped into her bones. But it was nothing new to her.

A long moment passed between them in silence, and Kali realised that she had been gazing at him. She blushed, and dropped her eyes, but the voice came again. Soft and deep, the man murmured “You are calmer than I would have expected.” At her silence, a tinge of amusement trickled into the man’s tone and he sighed “Tut, tut, little dove. Eavesdropping hardly suits you.”

“Says the man skulking in the shadows.” She muttered, flashing him a smile. She was met by silence and felt that the man was weighing her up. “How long have you been listening and watching without anyone knowing that you’re there?” She continued quietly, her voice barely a whisper.

“Ah.” He replied, the hint of amusement growing in his gentle voice. “Touché.”

Kali smirked slightly, pleased with herself, but her smugness was short-lived. The man in the shadows suddenly gripped her wrist tighter and pulled her into the darkness with him. She heard him breathe an apology in her ear, and he covered her mouth. “I know this is difficult, but it would be better if you remained silent.”

Her breath caught in her throat as he pressed her gently against the wall. His lips brushed her ear at his quiet warning, and Kali took a deep breath to steady herself. She had never been in such close proximity to a man and, even if he was practically invisible, he was a stranger. So why was her face was flushed, and why was her heart racing? She didn’t feel uncomfortable even so close to him. Even in the darkness.

Kali could only look at him and she could feel his hesitation. “You…are not afraid.” He stated, curiously. Kali didn’t know why she wasn’t; this situation should be unnerving in the least. But, with a small sigh, the man put something small in her hands and crushed them around it. A chill crept over her body and the first hint of fear gripped her. But the sensation evened out soon enough into something that felt like a cool breeze against her skin. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was almost refreshing.

While the feeling took hold, the man was silent. Kali could feel his eyes on her and opened her mouth to ask what he was doing but he pressed a finger to her lips. Lightning crackled across her skin at his touch, and she gasped softly. He froze, looking down at her. Her eyes found his even though she could not see him. In that instant, time stopped.

“Don’t move until I come back over to you.” He suddenly whispered, and the moment was broken.

The man stepped out of the shadows towards Apollo, who had just rounded the corner, and they embraced like brothers. But Kali just took another deep breath and tried to control her trembling. What was the matter with her? She looked down at her hands and saw that they were shadowy. Even as she looked down at them, her eyes wouldn’t quite focus.

Kali came back to her senses as Apollo fixed his glittering eyes on the man. Even in the middle of the room, the darkness would not release him. She couldn’t get any kind of idea what he looked like. Not even his height was discernible. “When did you get here, Hades?”

“A few minutes ago, perhaps. Not long. I didn’t think it wise to…interrupt.” Hades said calmly, the shadows still masking his expression.

“You’re getting sloppy, old friend.” Apollo’s eyes narrowed, and his voice took on a decidedly suspicious note. He was clearly testing the waters when he continued “When I heard a noise back here, I thought I would have to deal with some pesky mortal.”

Kali stiffened when his eyes floated over the place she stood, but Hades merely chuckled softly, admitting “It has been a while since I have walked on such slick tiles.”

“Are you telling me that you slipped?” Apollo froze in place, a boyish grin tugging at his mouth.

With a formal tone, Hades replied “I am saying nothing of the sort. Draw whatever conclusions you see fit.”

Apollo laughed, a full belly laugh, and Hades chuckled quietly in response. Kali watched them, frowning, and wondered if Hades was always this evasive. Mostly, though, she reeled at the revelation of the other man’s identity. “In any case, thank you for coming.”

Kali felt eyes flicker back over her hiding place and fought the urge to move further away. Her leg twitched, and she bit her lip. Before she could decide whether or not to leave, Hades’ silky voice washed over her. “I take it your demigod did not see things your way?”

“Does she ever?” A dark note had crept into his voice, and Apollo scowled.

Hades waited patiently, letting the time drag on. Kali thought that he sounded agitated when he prompted “And you would like me to…?”

“I need to know how far she’s come. Lynette told me that she doesn’t know what she is.” Apollo shook himself out of his inner grumblings and ran his hand through his dark hair, flicking it off his face. He sighed and his voice was softer, sadder, when he murmured “I saw her, and she didn’t recognise me.”

“Her mother kept it from her?” Kali could tell from the slight inflections in Hades’ deep voice, even as quietly as he was speaking, that he was frowning.

“Yes. She would have been killed today by her actions, and she had no idea that her blood would protect her. Her birth right.” Apollo paused, and Kali held her breath. “But she still risked her life for that child.”

Quietly but firmly, Hades stated, “She will make a fine Hero.”

“If that is the path she chooses.” A proud smile was playing about his lips and Kali fought the tears that were welling in her eyes as she realised that her father was proud of her. It shouldn’t matter, and she told herself that she didn’t need his approval; he had left her. His next words were more ominous, and his face fell back into a dark scowl. “If the others do not get to her first.”

Casually, Hades asked “Hermes is still intent on finding her?”

“He is the best in all the realms at finding people. I have managed to mask her presence so far but…I fear today’s events would have been a beacon for him.” Apollo hesitated for a moment, weighing up the question he wanted to ask, before proceeding. “The girl…did she…?”

“She had reached the ferryman. Kali could have died, dragging her back the way she did.” Hades’ voice held the same touch of humour she had heard earlier on, and it did strange things to her. “Charon is not best pleased that his flawless record has been tarnished.”

“I was afraid of that.” His voice was decidedly ominous, and Kali frowned, wondering what was going on. Charon was the ferryman of the dead? So, if she bought into any of this, that meant she had brought the little girl back from the edge of the Underworld? And Hermes was ‘after’ her? “I’ve tried to dissuade him but…you know what he’s like. As soon as he caught wind of her, he was hooked. Then I put obstacles in his way and it just made him want to find her more. Hermes has always loved the chase.”

“No more than you do, old friend.” Hades teased, though his voice was quiet again. “And Ares?”

Apollo grimaced. “Worse. But at least he isn’t very good when it comes to tracking her.”

“That will change now.” Kali shook her head and tried to focus on her breathing. This didn’t make any sense. Even if the gods they were talking about were real, and she was growing more and more willing to believe that they were, she was nobody. She was nothing. She slid as silently as she could into a sitting position, just so she wouldn’t pass out. She hardly heard the rest of the exchange until Hades said, “Are you taking her with you?”

“Not tonight. Lynette said she wanted time to explain things.” His tone implied that wasn’t an obligation he shared or agreed with. If anything, it sounded like he had let it go for an easy life. Knowing that her mother was where she got her stubborn nature, Kali wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. “If I’m taking Kali away from her mother, she at least deserves to know why.” Apollo added, sounding grim.

Knowingly, Hades said “You want me to watch over her.”

“Not tonight.” He sighed wearily and ran his fingers through his brown hair one more time. “But if you can check in on her in the morning, I would be in your debt.”

“I do like open ended favours…” Hades stopped for a moment, clearly thinking. Finally, he stated “As you wish. Now, go and talk some sense into your woman.”

Apollo nodded restlessly, muttering “Wish me luck.”

With a weary sigh, he turned from Hades’ shadowy figure and strode away. Kali was vaguely aware of her mother’s voice, but it sounded much further away. There was a kind of roaring in her ears that she couldn’t quite get past and her head was suddenly swimming. If she hadn’t already been on the floor, she was sure she would have fallen then. 

A finger brushed her forehead gently, and a weight lifted from her shoulders. Kali could feel her breathing even out slightly, and warmth eased back into her limbs. She hadn’t realised that she had been trembling until the shivers ceased. Hades’ voice felt like a caress when he murmured “Well…you are not a quivering wreck, so that went better than expected.”

“Oh please. It takes more than my dad coming back from the dead and turning out to be a god to unsettle me.” Keeping her voice low, she aimed for bravado but fell dangerously short. She noticed her hands shaking again and grimaced, “No, wait, I was wrong. That might be just on the level.”

“Breathe, Kali.” He was still standing over her, a hand touching a strand of her damp hair. She could feel him towering over her, but she didn’t feel threatened. If anything, she felt almost secure. Hades sounded almost apologetic when he added “The Skotádi can be unpleasant.”

“Skotádi?” She repeated the word curiously, letting her tongue curl around the pronunciation. It was strangely familiar, but she couldn’t quite place where she had heard it before. Like an echo of a dream she’d once had.

“Darkness.” He replied. After another short pause, he confessed “Even the gods find it difficult to subdue the effects. You are surprising resilient.”

Kali wasn’t sure how to take that, so she filed it away in her mind. Instead, she muttered “Gods.” It was real, then? Or she was even crazier than she thought. All of a sudden, she remembered that the man who was so close to her, leaning over her, was one of them. A god. She bit her lip but quickly shot Hades a sly smile, asking “So…am I supposed to bow?”

A genuine laugh escaped him, surprising her. When he cleared his throat, she wondered if it had startled him as well. After a moment, he said “That depends entirely on what you want, Kali. I certainly don’t expect your deference.”

“What do you expect?” She asked quietly, looking back over her shoulder and into the shadows.

“You’re starting to sound afraid of me.” He said quietly, his even tone sounding almost troubled. With a small laugh, he admitted “That took longer than usual.”

“I am not afraid.” Kali stated absolutely, turning fully to face him. The tiniest hesitation showed on her face when she clarified “Not of you, at least.”

Silence followed her words, until he finally changed the subject, offering “You must have questions.”

Relieved as she was, Kali hesitated. “Is that really okay? I mean…don’t you have somewhere better to be?”

“Good point.” Kali’s heart dropped into her stomach; of course he had somewhere better to be. But before she could respond, his hand curled around hers. “Hold on tight.”

At his whisper, Kali felt a tug in the pit of her stomach. She squeezed her eyes shut and found herself clutching at the front of Hades’ shirt when her feet seemed to leave the ground. It was barely a moment, but his chuckle washed over her, and she blushed. When he released her, she could feel a cool breeze on her face. Curiously, she opened her eyes and gasped.

Kali backed up a few steps into the wall behind her, looking out over the roof of the main building of the safari park. The height didn’t bother her, but she was dizzy from whatever Hades had done to bring them there. She braced herself against the wall but took a deep breath of the crisp evening air.

From the shadows, Hades watched her. When she seemed to have regained her balance, he murmured “I thought you might like some air.”

Her heart fluttered as he softly brushed his fingertips against her hair. When she finally found her voice, she murmured softly “He called you Hades. I was always interested in mythology growing up…my mother didn’t approve, but…you’re the Lord of the Underworld? God of the Dead?”

“I am.” His answer was quiet, but Kali was sure there was a hint of amusement in his low voice.

She just nodded and then said, “And my father is Apollo.”

“He is.” Again, that same even answer with a tinge of something she couldn’t quite place.

Kali bit her lip, keeping her voice low even though they were alone. “And you mentioned Ares and Hermes…” She sighed and shook her head, breathing “This is impossible, right? I’ve lost my mind?”

“I wouldn’t say so. You know that you have never been like other girls. When you were a child, before you thought that you should hide who you were, things used to happen. To you, and around you. Things your adult mind cannot explain, and reasons away. Your natural talent with a bow. The fact that you heal much more quickly than you should. Your uncanny ability to know when someone is lying to you.” He almost seemed to hesitate for a moment, but his voice was still even when he added “The freak tidal wave that destroyed your school after your teacher struck you.”

“How did you…” Kali swallowed the lump in her throat. That was another memory she had tucked away. “I never told anyone that.” She said, her voice small.

Again, Hades’ fingers found a lock of hair curling at her shoulder. “Apollo found out from the man when he looked into what happened there. He has a way of getting the truth out of people.”

To distract herself, Kali asked “So…I’m a demigod? Like Heracles, from the myths?”

“Not exactly.” He chuckled again, and Kali got the sense that he was laughing at her comparison.

Despite his amusement, Kali frowned. “But, I thought-”

“Your mother is a demigod. One of Poseidon’s children. You are…” His eyes caught her, though she couldn’t see them, and she held her breath while he searched for the right word. “More.”

Her mind flickered back to what Apollo had said; if anyone knew Lynette was her mother, they would kill her on sight. It was like a bucket of cold water over her head compared to the warmth that had been blossoming in her chest. “And that means that people will want to kill me?”

“Yes.”

A strangled laugh left her. “You don’t sugar coat it, do you.”

She could feel his smile. A shadow of it formed in her mind. His soft voice seemed tender and caring when he murmured “From the little I have observed about you, I wouldn’t have thought you would appreciate veiled lies or half-truths. Even for the sake of comfort.”

“If Hermes and Ares want to find me…court me?” She glanced his way to see his reaction but, unsurprisingly, he was still cloaked in darkness. If anything, the shadows around him were only deepening in the waning sunlight. “They would at least think I’m a demigod. If it’s so forbidden, then why would they risk it?”

“The relationship is not taboo in the slightest.” Hades said carefully, weighing his words. “What is feared is the offspring of such trysts. Demigods are not meant to be able to conceive with a god, but it is not unheard of. And it never ends well for either side. Zeus passed a decree a few centuries ago, prohibiting reproduction in these partnerships. In the few times it has happened, the gods have taken measures.”

“Oh.” She stated quietly, sagging slightly against the wall and staring determinedly at the floor. Her head was reeling from everything that had already happened that day and she knew that the day wasn’t even over yet.

Hades brushed a strand of hair from Kali’s face and murmured “How are you feeling?”

She trembled at his touch but valiantly said “Well, I’m re-evaluating my stance on brutal honesty.” She took a deep breath before trying for a smile. “Otherwise…could be worse? Is there anything else I should know?”

“The rest can wait.” Hades watched her for a long moment, his indistinct form still hidden from her. “Are you ready to go back?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t think I can move.” Her hands were pressed hard against the wall like she was trying to hold onto it to keep from falling.

Hades slipped his arm around Kali’s waist and held her protectively to him. In that position, her head was resting on his chest and she could hear his steady heartbeat. It was a strange sensation to feel the hard muscles of his chest but see only darkness. Her eyes told her he couldn’t be there, but she could feel him shifting under her fingers. He sighed shakily, muttering something she couldn’t make out, and his arms tightened around her.

With another light tug in the pit of her stomach, they were in the reptile house. Kali didn’t ask how they had gotten there and she didn’t let herself dwell on the feel of his arms around her. She didn’t even try to right herself. She just smiled shakily and muttered “You’re taller than I thought.”

Hades chuckled, surprised, and Kali could tell that he was smiling again when he murmured “You are an interesting young woman, Kali.” He took her hand gently and slowly moved it to his lips. He kissed it lightly and she could feel his grin. “Do try to stay out of trouble long enough for us to meet again.”

Kali blushed, looking down with a smile, and murmured that she would do her best. Hades grew more serious as he lowered her hand again. He sighed, “Be careful of the gods. All of them have their own agendas.”

“And what is yours?” She asked softly.

He just chuckled softly again and replied “You shall probably find out soon enough. Until we meet again, Kali.”

With that, he was gone. Kali still had not managed to see more of him than just a faint outline but too much else had happened for her to really mind. Her head was spinning with what she had heard, but everything inside her felt numb. She knew from experience that whatever she was feeling would hit her soon enough. For now, she let her mind hum over things and determinedly ignored them.

Just as Kali approached Gloria’s cage and started to whisper softly to the snake, Lynette strode into the room and told her daughter that they were leaving. Kali just stared at her blankly for a moment, but she was already at the door. She started and rushed after her mother, following her through the park to the car. Lynette didn’t look back.

___

Chapter Four

Kali had been feeling dazed, but still she couldn’t help but be angry with her mother. Searching her feelings, it wasn’t quite anger. She felt betrayed. Lynette had lied to her about everything, and she was still acting as though nothing had changed. The only reason that Kali knew anything at all was because she had listened in. She should still be freaking out, in the dark, and Lynette had left her alone.

The ride home in the car passed in strained silence. The air was thick between them. Lynette barely noticed how quiet Kali was being, so preoccupied with her own uneasiness. When she did, she thought it was just because of the incident in the pool. By the time they got home, after the longest fifteen minutes of Kali’s life, Kali wasn’t even sure if she could speak at all anymore.

When they got into the house, Kali curled up in her usual chair in the living room and Lynette sat stiffly in the one opposite. Kali waited for a few moments for her mother to speak until she realised that she wouldn’t. She decided to force the conversation to start and muttered “Am I going crazy?”

Lynette looked at her sharply, her eyes demanding an explanation, and Kali continued slowly “The things that have happened today aren’t possible in the world that I know. The only explanation is that I’m losing my mind…right? I mean, I spoke to a killer whale, I could breathe underwater, and…that kid’s heart wasn’t beating when I pulled her out. I…it was like I brought her back to life somehow. Tell me how any of that is possible.”

“You said you did CPR.” Lynette offered weakly.

Kali clenched her teeth, literally biting down on her anger, and insisted “And you said I didn’t.”

Kali just looked at her, waiting, and when Lynette realised she wasn’t going to get to stall any longer she sighed. Her face relaxed but it looked as though something inside of her broke when she said, “I don’t know what to say.”

“Say something! Anything that will make my life make some kind of sense again. Because this isn’t even the first time!” Now that she had started, Kali’s voice wouldn’t stop shaking. But she was getting angrier with everything that her mother said, and the anger gave her strength even though tears were streaming from her eyes. She desperately wanted to hear the truth from her mother, just once, so she persevered. “There are so many things that I’ve just pushed aside and figured I’d imagined them. But I didn’t imagine this!”

“Kali…” She hesitated on the verge of revealing something she didn’t want to and then shook her head. “Sometimes life just throws something at you that you can’t explain. Some people would call them miracles.”

“Miracles? That’s your answer?” Kali took a moment to breathe, trying to calm down and stop shaking, and then growled “That thing that attacked me when I was with Jade in August was no miracle.”

Lynette’s eyes drifted, as they always did, to the scar on Kali’s face. And then they dropped. She sighed wearily, tired of the conversation. If she guessed that Kali knew what she was holding back she didn’t show it. She was ashamed, but she couldn’t bring herself to talk about Camelot, so she muttered “We’ve been over this, Kali. What do you want me to tell you?”

“Tell me how any of this could make sense! Tell me that there is some kind of explanation for what happened today!” Kali brushed tears from her eyes angrily and yelled “Tell me!”

“I can’t.” Lynette said calmly, her voice almost cold, and Kali froze. Tears were still wet on her cheeks, but she couldn’t make herself move to wipe them away. A few seconds passed in silence, but it was an eternity to Kali. Eventually Lynette stood up slowly and murmured “I have to get ready for my date.”

“Can’t you cancel?” Kali asked quietly, hoping that her mother would turn around and make her feel like she mattered more than her boyfriend.

Once again, she was disappointed. “I can’t. It’s our anniversary.”

“Already?” Kali frowned; her mother hadn’t even mentioned that she was seeing anyone until last month. “Fine.” She muttered bitterly; why would she confide in her daughter anyway? Kali took a breath and then said as casually as she could manage “Oh, I forgot. A man came to see me in the reptile house when I was waiting for you. Did he find you?”

Lynette paled visibly, and her voice was quiet as she asked, “What man?”

Kali shrugged quite convincingly, stating “He never told me his name. He had weird eyes though; they were gold. He seemed to know who I was.”

“I don’t know of anyone with eyes like that.” Lynette insisted.

“So, he didn’t speak to you?” Kali pressed the matter subtly, acting confused. “He asked after you and went to the pool.”

“I must have missed him.” She muttered through gritted teeth and then insisted “I need to get ready now. I’ll see you when I get home and we can…talk.”

“Yeah.” Kali’s voice was empty then and she just stared at the floor, unable to look her mother in the eye.

When Lynette left the room, Kali didn’t move. She couldn’t remember how to. Her mind was too busy trying to process what had happened. Time seemed to be moving so slowly; she couldn’t believe that she had been at school only a few hours ago.

Her mother came downstairs after a little while in a pale blue dress that matched her eyes. Normally Kali would have complimented her, but she barely saw her. It wasn’t until long after Lynette had left, her ‘goodnight’ still echoing in Kali’s ears, that Kali managed to look up.

Kali sank back into her chair for a moment with her eyes closed, employing every single relaxation technique she had ever learnt until she could breathe again. None of it worked, so she put her earphones in and turned up her music so she couldn’t hear anything else. But every song that came on seemed to pull her with it. Eventually, the heavy beats were too much for her to ignore.

With a man singing about revolution over some heavy guitar riffs, Kali pushed herself up. The feeling that something was out of place still lingered, and she was restless. Now that she knew she wasn’t just paranoid, it only made things worse. She had to move. She needed to be doing something. Anything. She had to get out of her head or she would make herself crazy.

She grabbed a band hoodie on her way out and locked the door behind her. She couldn’t just sit there anymore. The sun had set but Kali didn’t have room for fear anymore. She hardly noticed the darkness around her or the chill in the air. The cross rhythms and steady bass of the music in her ears drove her on until her walk turned into a run. Picking up speed, she ran until she couldn’t spare the energy to think anymore.

When her mind was finally silent, and the music changed to something calmer, Kali dropped. On her hands and knees, she shook under the crushing weight of reality crashing back into her. Sweat covered her and the chill of the air almost stung now that she was still.

Muttering a curse under her breath, Kali rocked back onto her knees and took out her earphones. Her limbs were trembling and her breathing was heavy, but her mind was blissfully empty. For the first time, she took in her surroundings with a frown. The park? It was mostly empty now, but it wasn’t a good place to be. All the lads that fancied themselves as thugs frequented it, and that was trouble that she didn’t need.

After a moment, Kali noticed that she wasn’t as alone as she had initially thought. A little way off, leaning back on one of the benches, was a man. She couldn’t get a clear look at him, mostly because her vision was blurring from the exertion of her run, but he didn’t look like a wannabe ‘gangsta’.

“Rough night?” He called over to her in a slightly gravelly voice.

Kali started, embarrassed; he must have noticed her looking at him. But it also struck her that he could definitely take her in a fight. His tight t-shirt just highlighted the fact that he was made of muscle. That much, at least, she could see from where she knelt on the grass. Not wanting to be rude, she replied “Something like that.” But she slowly got to her feet without taking her eyes off him.

Before she started backing up, the man said “Easy, sunflower. I’m not gonna hurt you.”

Kali felt some of the tension leave her body, and she relaxed slightly. She had always been able to tell when someone was lying to her. He didn’t mean her any harm. Her legs were still shaking a little, and her head was swimming. Even if this man wasn’t a threat, it was still immensely stupid to be there. She scowled inwardly; what had gotten into her? Now that she wasn’t worried that the man on the bench would pounce on her, she muttered an awkward goodbye and turned to leave.

Seeming surprised, he called “You’re leaving? Just like that?”

“I know that must be strange for you, but not every girl is slain by your muscles.” She grinned, though her eyes roamed over his frame again curiously. He really was toned to perfection. It was just a shame that guys like that seemed to love themselves more than anyone else.

“That’s true. Most of them fall for my good looks and charm. They just stay for my body.”

His confident, slightly arrogant, tone sent a thrill through her, but she forced a laugh. Definitely loved himself too much for her taste. She would be willing to bet that he oiled his biceps daily. Luckily for her, he was way out of her league. “I wouldn’t want to intrude on your alone time.”

“Please, intrude away.” He indicated at the space on the bench next to him and Kali hesitated for a moment.

She was almost relieved when a pungent smell reached her from across the park. She managed to hold back urge to gag, but her expression soured. She could smell the drugs clinging to the idiots walking their way from a mile off. With another glance at the stranger, Kali suggested “Maybe you should think about moving along as well.”

He looked over towards the kids and raised an eyebrow at her. “Don’t insult me, little one.”

“Little?” Kali felt a blush creep onto her cheeks and just blinked at him. She had always been tall for her age, and her frame was anything but petite. She couldn’t remember anyone ever calling her little. But, she thought, looking at him…now that her eyes had accustomed to the dim light and she wasn’t so tired…he was well over six feet tall, and his muscular build was impressive. She probably was little next to him.

Her eyes moved back to him despite her best intentions. Brown hair in an undercut style, and a strong jaw. Good looks, indeed. And that wolfish grin, which had only widened at her awkward response. Damn, why did he have to be so attractive? No wonder guys like him were so egotistical; he had literally no flaws.

Before Kali could get too distracted by the unfair balance of beauty in the world, she was dragged back out of her head by shouts. She closed her eyes and groaned another curse, but it was too late. Taking a deep breath, Kali turned towards the whooping idiots making their way over.

“Hey, sweet thing. Here for a good time?” One of them called out, swaggering over to her.

Grumbling inwardly, Kali turned to him and raised an eyebrow, retorting “If I were, why would I waste my time with you?”

“Aww, don’t be like that, babe.” The nearest guy reached out his hand to touch her and she snapped. Without thinking, she grabbed his wrist and twisted it painfully until he cried out. Holding him in place, Kali said “I have had a really bad day. How about you leave?”

It sounded reasonable enough to her, but the boy swore at her and flailed until she let him go. She was more worried about breaking his arm, but he clearly didn’t appreciate her consideration. Still swearing, the bratty kid swung his fist at her, but she was already moving. It had been a long time since she had been in a fight, but apparently her body still knew what to do. It didn’t take any kind of conscious thought for her to block his wide swing and move into his space. Her swift, sharp kick sent all the colour out of his body and he hit the floor with a wheeze.

She glanced at the others, expecting trouble, and saw that they were all unconscious near the bench. The man she had spoken to before had sat back down and was just watching her. Kali took a long minute to process how quickly he had dealt with them. A hint of concern touched her, and she asked, “They all alive down there?”

He raised an eyebrow at her, but shrugged, “They’ll wake up in a couple of hours with a hell of a headache, and a cracked rib or two.”

Keeping her eyes on him, she moved closer to check on the guys on the floor. They may have been punks but there were five of them. He hadn’t even broken a sweat. “Guess those muscles aren’t just for show, huh, big guy?”

“They have their uses.” He winked, unashamed, and Kali blushed again.

She took a deep breath and held out her hand, saying, “I’m Kali.”

“Ares.” He clasped her hand and she froze. Ares. The god of war.

___

Chapter Five

Kali screamed internally at herself. She knew that running off on her own was a bad idea at the best of times, but this? How was she supposed to anticipate running into a literal Greek God, sitting on a park bench?

Kali fixed her expression back into an easy grin, hoping that the unease hadn’t shown on her face. She raised an eyebrow, mocking his use of the gesture before, and teased “Like the star sign?”

“Like the god.” His eyes were fixed on hers and the smile dancing on his lips was enough for her to know that he had seen through her bluff. Ares’ hand was still around hers, despite her feeble attempt to pull it back, and he looked curiously down at their joined hands. With a tiny movement, he pulled her to him and she fell towards him. He still sat casually on the bench but now she was leaning over him, and his face was barely an inch away.

There was a hint of stubble on his otherwise perfect face, and it was sexier than she had expected. His brown eyes were surprisingly gentle. And close enough that she could lose herself in them. And his lips were still pulled up in an almost taunting smile. Ares had a hand on her arm and the other on her hip, holding her up. She was dangerously off balance. If he let go, she would be on top of him.

Realising that, Kali struggled slightly to right herself, but Ares’ hand tightened on her arm. She glanced at him, letting her uncertainty show in her eyes, and mumbled “You said you weren’t going to hurt me.”

“Am I hurting you, sunflower?” He asked, his grin taking on a decidedly smug quality. He let her drop slightly towards him and obviously breathed in her scent. Feeling her tension, he laughed and moved her closer, whispering “You’re always so in control, aren’t you? Maybe you should try letting someone else lead once in a while. You might like it.”

Kali hesitated, and trembled when Ares slowly moved his hand from her hip to her thigh. She bit her lip and looked helplessly down at him. After an agonizing second, she whispered “I have had a really bad day.”

“So, let me make it better.” He said simply, with the same infuriating smile. Kali hesitated; she didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know what she wanted. Her eyes darted to Ares’ lips of their own accord, and he moved in with a smirk. His lips brushed hers once, then twice, and he slipped his hand around the back of her neck. She fell forward towards him and he laughed into the kiss.

Ares hadn’t expected her to be like this. He hadn’t been prepared for her. He wasn’t normally attracted to women he had to save, but her show of strength so suddenly replaced by her hesitation – the helpless way she looked up at him called to every predatory instinct to hunt her, and to protect her. To own her. Damn, he had it bad. But she tasted like salt and smoke and fire. She would be a wild one. And he would have fun taming her.

He lifted her up, still claiming her lips, and switched their positions on the bench. She moaned into the kiss and her teeth grazed his bottom lip. The tentative suggestion of the wilder nature he was sure she was hiding nearly shattered his control. Making up his mind, Ares deliberately tangled his hand in her hair and bit her lip, drawing blood. Kali drew back with a startled gasp, her eyes flying open, but he pulled her back to him and touched his tongue to her lip.

Though she still trembled at the contact, Ares could see that her expression was clearer now. Her sensible side was kicking back in. And the colour on her cheeks made it clear that she was mortified that she had just put herself in such a compromising position with a relative stranger. When he had lifted her, he had pulled her legs around his waist. Now, she tried to scramble back away from him.

Smirking, Ares hooked his hand under her thigh and pulled her back to him. Kali’s hands pressed against his chest in a futile attempt to keep him at a distance. “Enough. I’m…that’s enough.”

“You’re killing my ego. Enough? After just a kiss?” The laugh she might have considered sexy before now carried a sinister undertone. “I don’t think so, little one.”

She brought her knees up between them as an extra barrier and tried to squirm out of his grasp. “Stop.”

“Make me.” He taunted, wrapping his hand in her hair and tilting her head back. Fear distorted her features for a heartbeat and Ares wondered if he had misjudged her. But anger suddenly burned in her eyes and only grew when his grin returned.

Without hesitation, Kali rammed her knee as hard as she could into his stomach. She couldn’t muster much force because of the way he had wedged her in, and Ares didn’t flinch. He even laughed. Snarling, Kali gripped his wrist with both hands and scratched at the skin with her rough nails. If anything, his hand just tightened in her hair. Despite her struggling against him, Ares buried his face in her neck and nipped at her skin and murmured “You’re not even trying.”

Kali managed to get her arm in a position to jab her elbow against his jaw. That time, the contact seemed to at least affect him, and his head shot back slightly. Although, the pain that shot through her arm made Kali think she might have hurt herself more than him. Her thoughts stopped when Ares drew a small knife in one fluid movement.

“Well that got your attention.” He slowly moved the blade and the strange golden blade glinted in the dim streetlights. Kali was frozen in place when he touched the blade gently to her neck. Cold spread through her, but her eyes were locked on his. He chuckled softly and moved the blade back again. He tossed it carelessly and caught the blade, offering the handle to her.

It was a trick, of that Kali was certain. But if she had the knife then it meant he didn’t. So, she went for it anyway. Ares didn’t pull it back out of reach as she had expected, but she still didn’t trust him. The instant her hand closed around the hilt, she kicked out at his groin and punched him in the throat with her empty hand. His grip finally loosened on her hair and she struggled to slip out past him. She managed to get off the bench before his hand closed around her wrist, and she was yanked back.

In spite of her best efforts, Kali couldn’t help but cry out when she felt something tear in her shoulder. She barely noticed when she collided with the bench, or when she tumbled back onto the ground. Seeing Ares’ face looming over her, Kali slashed out with the knife still gripped in her left hand. There was a shadow of concern in his eyes, but it was quickly replaced by surprise when he looked down at the gash in his wrist. “I wasn’t sure you’d actually do it. Deeper than I expected…I thought you’d be more squeamish, little one.”

Kali didn’t know what she expected, but Ares didn’t seem at all fazed. He brought both her hands together, earning him a strangled cry, and pinned them over her head. The dagger was still in her hand, but it was beyond useless now. When he moved closer, Kali spat blood in his face. Pain had coloured her tone to something she hardly recognised when she grunted, “You said you wouldn’t hurt me.”

“I’ll make it up to you.” He winked with an almost charming smile, before bringing his bleeding wrist to her mouth.

Panic flooded through Kali and she twisted and writhed, ignoring the pain that was screaming at each jerky movement. She squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her jaw. But she knew that he was too strong. His hand was like a vice around her wrists and he was an immovable weight on top of her.

Until, suddenly, that weight was strangely absent. Kali opened her eyes and saw Ares brushing dirt from his blue jeans, about a hundred metres away. A silky voice that sent shivers down Kali’s spine said “A blood tie, Ares? Feeling threatened already?”

“Hades?” Kali croaked, rolling onto her knees.

He was at her side in a heartbeat, and his fingers tangled around a strand of hair by her collar. “Can you stand, Kali?” He asked gently.

“Hands off. That one’s mine.” Ares snarled, and charged towards them.

Kali was shaking but his words gave new life to the rage she had felt before. Fire spread from her hands and blazed in a line towards the god, burning its way through the gravel path. Ares stopped in his tracks and Kali fell back, scrambling away from the flames. She felt an arm around her waist, and Hades lifted her to her feet and whispered “You’re safe, Kali. But you should leave.”

Without looking back, Kali took his advice and ran. When she finally ground to a halt, she had no idea where she was or how to get home. The silence crashed over her like thunder and she stumbled to the floor. Her scraped knees were the least of her worries. Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, there wasn’t a single part of her that didn’t hurt. Her right arm in particular felt like it had been wrenched out of its socket and searing pain engulfed her when she twitched her fingers. Aside from that, she had probably cracked a couple of ribs and she was battered and bruised all over.

There was a short garden wall not too far from where Kali was slumped, so she dragged herself over to it. Once there, she wasn’t sure it had been worth the effort, but she propped herself against it nonetheless. Hot tears streaked down her cheeks now that she was alone. It wasn’t so much the pain as the humiliation that had brought them. Closing her eyes, Kali tried every meditation technique she had ever read online but her cheeks still burned. She hadn’t been thinking straight. She was vulnerable. He had taken advantage of her. But she had let him.

By the time Hades approached her, the flow of tears had ebbed and her shame had faded somewhat. She wasn’t surprised that he was the one that came for her; the energy he kept on a leash felt so different to Ares’ obvious strength. Even so, she hadn’t fully relaxed until he murmured her name.

She buried her head on her knees and whispered, “Thank you.”

“I see you met Ares.” Hades said, casually. “I assume he was a little more persistent than you expected.”

Kali bit her lip and looked at her trembling hands. “I…it was my fault.”

“No means no, regardless of when you say it.” He was standing beside her, she could feel how close he was, and his voice was harder.

“It was still stupid.” She mumbled, pushing away a traitorous tear that had tracked down her cheek.

Hades sighed, and she felt him slide down the wall to sit by her side. “You cannot blame yourself for the occasional moment of weakness, Kali. Even the gods make poor decisions from time to time.”

“Would it be so bad to feel wanted…just for once?” Her voice was smaller than Hades had ever heard it. He slowly put his arm around her shoulders and tucked her against him.

His words came slowly. “Whatever you decide you want, you would do well to remember that Ares does not think like you. None of the gods do. They may blend in with mortals, but their ideals and their laws are not the same.”

“You talk about them like you’re not the same. What do you get out of helping me?” She asked quietly, carefully resting her head on his shoulder.

Again, Hades seemed to hesitate before he answered. “I offered Apollo a favour. He seems to trust that my nature is more restrained than his other options, and that I will be able to control myself around you. It gives me leverage if I need something in return.”

“I don’t understand. I’m not…special. Guys don’t notice me, let alone like me. And, to be honest, I prefer it that way.” And she did; the idea of giving up a part of herself to be with someone felt wrong. Especially after watching her mother jump from guy to guy, trying to find someone to fix all her problems. “Now, I get approached by a god. A literal god. None of this makes any sense.”

Kali felt Hades shrug beside her. “Power calls to power. You happen to be bursting with it, and Ares cannot help but take notice.”

Kali noted his words and found something like disappointment rush over her. She bit her lip. “But not you?”

His quiet chuckle made her think he could see right through her. With a sigh, he said “As I said, I have more control. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel the pull towards you.”

“Because of my blood. Who I am doesn’t seem to matter here. Just what I am.” She moved her head back onto her knees, putting a little distance between them. She didn’t know what she wanted or what to do. But everything had changed, and she couldn’t even be a person anymore.

“Your light calls to the darkness in me.” Hades whispered so quietly that Kali wasn’t certain she had heard it. “But I don’t know you well enough for anything else, Kali. Not yet.” His arm was still around her and he pulled her gently back to him. She noticed then that everything he did was slow and precise, always giving her plenty of time to stop him. As if she could think straight over the sound of her heart pounding in her ears when he was this close. She dared to glance up at him and could feel his gaze on her when he continued thoughtfully, “But, I wonder, is it not often the same for mortals? The concept of love at first sight is not so different. No one ever seems to know exactly what draws them to their soulmate. Perhaps it is not so important what grabs your attention, but what keeps you coming back.”

Hades’ hand stroked her hair gently and she blushed, casting her gaze back down. Even though she couldn’t see him, just the feeling of his gaze made her tremble. Eventually, she mumbled “I guess I never thought of it like that.”

“With gods, or mortals?” He chuckled, still letting his fingers brush and curl through her hair.

Closing her eyes, Kali muttered “Either.”

Hades made a thoughtful sound beside her and he sounded almost pleased, though she didn’t know why. With a deep sigh, Kali found herself leaning into his chest. “Why am I so tired?” She mumbled wearily.

“You overdid it rather a lot today.” Kali could hear the smile in his voice and it warmed her.

Her eyes struggled open and she pleaded “Don’t tell Apollo.”

“Easy, love.” He whispered, and she felt his lips brush her temple. “Rest. I’ll keep you safe.”

Truth. Reassured, she let herself sink into his arms and stopped fighting the urge to fall asleep. It would overpower her soon enough anyway, so she gave in. The last thing Kali was aware of was Hades’ steady heartbeat and his hand in her hair.

___

Chapter Six

When Kali opened her eyes, she was in her own bed. Her boots were nearby, but she was still wearing the clothes from her excursion last night. She sat up slowly, wincing as a sharp twinge shot through her arm. Otherwise, there was a dull ache in her ribs and she felt a little tender. But, thinking back on last night, she knew it could be worse.

She had always healed quickly, too quickly, but she was glad of that now. Without it, she had no idea what condition she would be in. It didn’t even feel that strange to her, but she had learned over the years that she should hide it.

The pain returned when she stood and stretched, but she stuck with it. Kali’s shoulders clicked but the pain didn’t worsen. It was fairly steady so hopefully she’d get used to it until it faded. As long as she didn’t overdo it, it would probably be back to normal in another day.

The events of last night came back to her again and she shivered. If Hades hadn’t gotten there when he did, how far would Ares have gone? It terrified her to know that she had been completely powerless to stop him. What only made it worse was that she was sure he hadn’t even been trying.

She dropped back onto her bed and put her forehead on her knees, breathing hard. “Get it together.” She muttered to herself, hoping the sound of her voice might steady her. A panic attack would do nothing but hinder her. Not that she had really decided what she was going to do yet. That was something else she would need to think about.

One more chance. She would give her mother one more chance to tell her what was happening. Either way, her father…Apollo…had seemed intent that she go to the camp for training. And if it would help with the headaches and everything else she tried to work through every day, then she was willing to give it a try. But it would bring her closer to Ares, and the other gods. It didn’t seem like a logical move, to go right up to people who would want to kill her and would be more than capable of doing so.

With her mind racing over those thoughts, it took Kali a while to realise that her head wasn’t hurting. Maybe it was because she had expended so much energy? Or was it that she had slept better than she could ever remember last night? She blushed when she remembered that she had snuggled up against Hades and buried her face in her hands.

But Hades had put his arm around her. He had come for her even though she’d heard Apollo tell him he could leave her for the night. She didn’t know how he had known she’d needed him, but he had hauled Ares off her when she had been sure there was no way out. Surely, that meant it was more than just a favour for Apollo?

Kali shook her head and tentatively stepped out of her room. She was up earlier than usual so she was sure there was no chance of bumping into Lynette, but she was still careful not to make too much noise. When the floorboards creaked as she passed the door to the master bedroom, she froze and held her breath. But the silence remained, and she continued through the dark house to the living room.

On the table was a new vase full of colourful tulips. Kali rolled her eyes; the new boyfriend was clearly doing his best to woo her mum. Though, she reminded herself, they’d already been together for a year. It didn’t sit right with her, but she knew Lynette hadn’t been lying. But she hadn’t even told Kali his name. Curious, Kali wandered over to the flowers and plucked the card out.

Her heart plummeted when she saw that the pin holding the card was in the shape of a winged staff, with two snakes coiled around it. A caduceus? Sure enough, the name on the card was her own. There was no message, just her name, but her hands were trembling when she put it back on the table. Hoping that she was wrong, Kali used the search function on her phone to check her suspicions.

The flowers were from Hermes.

Kali ran back up the stairs and knocked anxiously on her mother’s bedroom door. There was no answer, not even the usual grumbles and curses. Tentatively, she opened it and found the room was empty. She frowned and moved back into the hallway, calling “Mum? Are you home?”

Silence. If Hermes knew where she lived, and Ares had found her just down the road, was it possible that one of them had taken her? Her heart in her throat, she hurtled down the stairs and collided with Hades’ chest. She had realised at the last moment that he was there, feeling his presence more than seeing him. But it was too late to change her trajectory, so she just buried her face in his chest instead.

“Easy, little dove.” Hades murmured. She could hear his smile in his voice. “This is a warmer welcome than I was expecting.”

Blushing, she stepped back away from him and stumbled on the bottom stair. Hades caught her with a chuckle, and she felt his arm slide around her waist. She realised that she had essentially thrown herself into his arms. But he had caught her, hadn’t he?

Cursing her distracted thoughts, Kali let Hades pull her up and averted her gaze. Even if she couldn’t see him, she still had a feel for him. It was clearer and clearer each time he was near her. But she shook herself and stated “My mum isn’t here. Is it…could Ares or Hermes have done something?”

“They could have, but I don’t see a reason they would.” He replied quietly. Kali could hear the resignation in his voice and her stomach plummeted.

“But…she wouldn’t just…” Kali’s voice trailed off. If it was an anniversary, it was more than just plausible that Lynette would spend the night out. With everything else that was happening, she hadn’t even considered that. So, while she’d had her whole world fall down around her… “How do I get to Camelot?”

Hades was silent for a moment but suggested “Perhaps you ought to think this through a little more.”

“Hermes knows where I live. Ares can’t be far behind. And my dad” she hesitated; it still felt strange to think about, “made it pretty clear that there is nowhere else for me.”

Another moment of silence, before Hades said, “You will not be able to speak with your mother for quite some time once you leave.”

“She didn’t tell me.” Kali admitted, the words suddenly bursting out of her. “For all she knows, I’m still having an existential crisis because my entire world is a lie. To be honest, I’m not so sure I’m out of the woods on that yet either. But she left. I needed her…” Her voice shook, and she looked down at her hands again.

“She is still trying to convince herself that Apollo was lying about your power.” He murmured, but he moved beside her on the sofa. Without thinking, Kali leant against his side again; his closeness comforted her.

“Yeah, maybe.” It didn’t matter. She could run around in circles trying to understand why her mother did the things she did. But the bottom line was that she had left her there alone. Instead of opening up and putting Kali first, she was clinging to the lies she had told her all her life.

The hurt tightening in her chest faded somewhat when Hades shifted to put his arm around her. Without thinking, Kali mumbled “Why do I feel so comfortable around you?”

“Comfortable?” He chuckled, though the sound was somewhat bitter.

Blushing, Kali refused to look at him. But she valiantly continued “I can never normally relax around anyone. But being near you…steadies me.”

“Your honesty is going to be the death of me one of these days, Kali.” He sighed gently. “If you are serious about going to Camelot, then I can only help you so much. Apollo asked me to keep you safe but there are certain trials I cannot interfere with. I can give you the entrance, but you must reach it alone.”

“I’m not afraid.” She insisted.

“Did you know that your father is incapable of telling a lie?” Hades said lightly, his tone giving nothing away. “He can evade as much as he likes but if you drag an answer from him, it is always the absolute truth. Most of his children over the years have inherited that particular weakness.”

Kali shuffled uncomfortably, but retorted “Considering how much you dance around answering a question, you’d be a hypocrite to lecture me about putting on a brave face, right?”

“Lecture?” He laughed, and Kali could feel the rumble in his chest. “Kali, love, you are one of a kind. And I hope you never lose that fire in your eyes. But you should be careful how you speak to the others. They will likely not allow you the liberties I do.”

That was something Kali had been wondering, so she threw caution to the wind and asked, “Why do you?”

He laughed, and his hand brushed her neck as he curled her hair around his fingers again. “I could hardly protect you if I were too busy getting offended by your familiar mannerisms.”

“Familiar?” She echoed, frowning curiously. His fingers at her neck were distracting, but the word resonated with her. Familiar was exactly how he felt to her. Instead of letting her mind focus on that, she brushed it aside and grinned at him. “I can’t be the first one to speak to you like this.”

Hades did not answer, and they sat in silence for a long time before he murmured “What are you planning to do?”

“I don’t know. I’m angry.” She mumbled, leaning forward with her arms on her knees. Staring straight ahead of her, she grimaced and said “I gave her every chance to tell me the truth. I can’t understand how she could just lie to my face.” She clenched her jaw and shook her head, glancing back over her shoulder at the dark space Hades occupied. “I can’t stay here…and things have been getting worse lately. If going to this camp or school or whatever it is will help me, I shouldn’t walk away from that. Right?”

“I cannot influence you in this, Kali. No matter how much I would like to.” He sounded almost pained.

Kali nodded, knowing she shouldn’t try to put the choice on anyone else. She stood slowly, and felt Hades move to the other side of the room. “Everything I thought I knew about my life has been a lie. She told me my dad was dead. It took me years to start believing her, but I did. Every time anything happened that I couldn’t explain, she told me it was all in my head. She even took me to see therapists and doctors to test for post traumatic stress, and a whole list of other disorders to explain them away.” She took a deep breath, holding back the tears that were threatening to overwhelm her again. Before they could take hold, she insisted “Will you tell me how to get there?”

The tears glittering in her eyes when she looked at him then made him hesitate. He laughed quietly at himself; how could he say no when she looked like that. He wondered if she even realised that she had followed his movements around the room. If she knew how terrified she should be in his presence. He wasn’t as immune to her charms as he wanted her to believe.

Eventually, Hades replied. “The nearest entrance would be the amphitheatre in Caerleon, in Wales. I cannot tell you more but, from what I’ve seen, you’ll find the way.”

Anxiety nagged at her. “What about Ares and Hermes?”

“They should be occupied elsewhere, at least until sunset.”

Putting on a brave face, Kali smiled again and stated, “I’ll see you there, then.”

“I’m sure you will.” Cool lips brushed the back of her hand and Kali’s heart leapt into her throat. Before she could react, the shadows lifted from the room and she knew that Hades was gone. She hadn’t realised how dark the room had been. For the first time in her life, she hadn’t even noticed the sunrise.

Kali knew she should move fast but after last night she needed a shower. Savouring the feeling of the water scalding her skin, she took longer than she intended. By the time she was finished, it was already nearly eight. If she was unlucky, someone would call her mum before nine to ask why she wasn’t at school. But the shower had been worth it, and she felt refreshed and ready to face the day.

She wrapped herself in a warm towel for a few moments but did not bother trying to dry her hair. It would do what it wanted regardless. Instead, she just pulled it into a long plait over her left shoulder and got dressed. Comfortable jeans, a band t-shirt, and a hoodie were the first clothes she happened across, so she flung them on and started to get her things together.

While she packed, her mind drifted over everything that had happened. Everything she could remember was shifting in her mind now that she knew the truth. Memories she had convinced herself were dreams. Things that had been explained away as an overactive imagination. Anger boiled her blood, but she had no outlet for it, so it just simmered under her skin. She was surprised smoke wasn’t coming out of her ears.

With new purpose, Kali grabbed a notepad and a pen from her school bag and started to write. Tears splattered the paper before she finished, but her hand didn’t falter. She didn’t even read through it. She simply signed it and left it on the table for her mother to find.

With one last look around the living room, Kali took a deep breath and left the house. Her hands were shaking when she locked the door behind her. Her rucksack was uncomfortable, especially when she was trying to avoid jostling her shoulder. But she hitched it up again and double checked the train times on her phone. Music blared in her ears and she hummed along while she walked; the songs in her ears gave her strength.

Kali had already plotted out her course to Caerleon and she kept running over it in her mind. It was bad enough being chased by gods and other creatures without getting lost somewhere on the way to Wales as well. She hated going anywhere on her own; so much could go wrong. But the music kept her nerves at bay and helped her focus. Not to mention calming her frantic thoughts. She hadn’t even left the postcode yet, and she was already panicking about what could go wrong.

She was too warm in her leather jacket, but she didn’t have the room in her bag for it. When she got to the station, she was overheating so the hoodie ended up around her waist. Her ticket was purchased quickly, and she managed to ignore the small queue that formed behind her. Now she would just have to hope that she wouldn’t make too many mistakes or go to the wrong platform.

After a short wait at the station, she got onto the train and settled herself against a window in the second carriage from the back. Evidently it wasn’t a very busy time of day, or perhaps she was just lucky, because Kali was almost alone in the carriage. There were two women gossiping about their colleagues at the other end of the carriage and a man seated a little way from her just staring out the window. Kali knew she had over an hour on that train, but she kept one eye fixed on the screen that would tell her where they were.

After a while, her eyes wandered. She found herself observing her fellow travellers briefly as her mind drifted back to uncomfortable things. She massaged her shoulder absentmindedly and her eyes fell on the women. They were in their late thirties, perhaps. One was slightly plump with rosy cheeks and a blonde bob cut, and the other was her polar opposite. Kali frowned curiously and watched them for a few minutes, wondering what their lives were like. Her music was too loud to catch their conversation, but they seemed animated and relaxed.

She pulled her gaze away, realising that the sick feeling in her chest was jealousy. Instead, she looked at the other passenger. The man was quite attractive, she realised as her eyes fell on him, and there was a glint in his hazel eyes that was slightly mischievous when they flicked up to meet hers. Kali flushed, embarrassed to have been caught watching him, and looked back out the window again. But before she looked away she admired his defined features. He was slim and quite tall, with sandy hair and a boyish face and there was something about him that captured Kali’s attention. There was something different that she didn’t see in the two women at the other end of the carriage, but she just couldn’t place it.

Kali turned up her music and forced herself to ignore the other passengers, gazing at the sun as it winked from behind the clouds. Eventually she got unsteadily to her feet and got off the train, navigating through the bustling people and the confusing signs to the next platform she needed. The train was already there, waiting, so she got on it and made herself comfortable. There weren’t many people on this one either and Kali was relieved. This time, she didn’t pay any attention to the other passengers. Her nerves were making her restless and she just wanted this to be over, wanted everything to be normal again. But, at the same time, she refused to live a lie anymore. 

A few stops later, Kali was on the platform in the underground. She stood against the wall to avoid being jostled too much by the people. The train was packed, but she was only on it for a few stops. She could handle it. She stayed standing with her bag on her back and her eyes on the floor. Anything to avoid having to interact with any of the many people pressing in around her. The air was stale, and Kali had to turn up her music to hear it over the noise of the train. When she finally managed to escape the confines of the cramped carriage, she took a deep breath and decided that she did not like public transport.

Kali stood staring at the station map for a long time, trying to get her bearings. The back of her neck prickled, and she glanced around her uneasily. It was only then that spotted the man leaning against the wall beside her, watching her. His hazel eyes were smouldering now, and his sandy hair fell across his face, casting it in shadow, but Kali knew it was the same man from the first train she had been on. She wondered if it could be a coincidence, but something told her he was following her.

As soon as that thought entered her head, she became certain of it. She looked away from him and forced herself to turn away to find the last platform she needed. Her carriage was completely empty until the man stepped onto the train and gave her a wink and a grin. Kali just looked at him for a moment and then stood up, leaving her bag where it was, and walked slowly over to him. His smile widened, and Kali grimaced to herself. But she didn’t want to hide, and she wasn’t going to run.

Before she could come to her senses, she closed her hand around the handle of the knife in her pocket. The knife she had cut Ares with. Moving with a confidence she did not feel, Kali swept the knife up and pressed it to his throat.

His eyes glittered, mesmerising her for a moment, and he laughed “Did you like the flowers?”

Hermes.

___

Chapter Seven

It shouldn’t surprise her that the God of Travellers found her on the journey to Camelot. Fear made her hand shake slightly, but she brushed it off and forced her face into an indifferent scowl. “Tulips aren’t really my thing. But I suppose the gesture was nice?”

“I’m not going to hurt you.” He said with a smile.

Kali’s face hardened, and she grimaced “I’ve heard that before.”

“It’s a shame that Ares found you first. I would have liked the chance to woo you before you got all jittery.” His eyes flickered down towards the blade at his throat as though he only just noticed it was there, and his grin widened. Mirth filled his colourful eyes and he said “You know, I’m immortal. That blade won’t cut me.”

Kali surprised him by grinning, coolly stating “It cut Ares.”

The mischievous grin faded to a look of interest, but no apprehension. Kali hated how little power she had in this situation. They might as well be having coffee as her holding a knife to him. Even knowing that it would cut him, he didn’t seem remotely bothered. Instead, he looked at her with twinkling eyes and admitted “I heard he tried to do a blood tie. You must really be something.”

“Hades said that too.” Kali murmured thoughtfully. “What’s a blood tie?”

“Hades, huh?” Hermes still stood patiently, leaning casually against the side of the train. They were moving now but Kali’s hand stayed steady. Even if it was an illusion, she needed to feel like she was in control of something. He watched her for several moments, his eyes still twinkling, before saying “A blood tie is the only way Ares could keep the rest of us off you. You’re not in anyone’s territory, so you don’t have a god’s protection. By exchanging blood with you, Ares could bind you to him and stop anyone else trying to claim you.”

She didn’t know why he was telling her any of this. But if it undermined his competition, it was probably worth it to him. Still though, her stomach turned at the memory of Ares trying to force his bleeding wrist over her mouth. “So, if he’d given me his blood…”

“You would be his.” He replied simply.

Anger boiled her blood. Her hand tightened on the knife, but she dropped it to her side. She hung her head, as though defeated, but her voice was still strong when she snarled, “Do I not get a say in any of this?”

“Ares must have been sure you’d succumb to his particular charms. Or perhaps you drove him into a corner.” He laughed, still not moving from his position against the side of the carriage. “But it is usually inevitable that the gods get what they want.”

“I guess you’ll both have to be disappointed, because I have no intention of giving either of you what you want.” Kali walked away towards the seats, but she wasn’t surprised when he followed. They had the carriage to themselves, but so far he was being a gentleman.

He sat opposite her, spreading himself out in the available space in the same way a cat would. Kali smothered a laugh at the thought, and Hermes’ smile returned. But his eyes pinned her down when he continued the conversation. “Those are some harsh words, considering you don’t even know me.”

“That’s the thing. You don’t know me either. But you’ve decided you want me because of…what, exactly? How I smell?” She glared right back at him. He hid his power under his winning smile, but Kali could still feel it pulsing in the space between them. She just didn’t care.

Hermes didn’t know if she was brave or stupid, but the reckless glint in her eyes drew him in. “Something like that. Though I will admit you are very attractive when you’re angry.”

“You people can’t just decide you’re going to control my life.” She muttered, but the anger was dropping out of her as quickly as it had flared up. It was getting difficult to summon the energy to really care about anything anymore.

“Who said I want to control you?” Hermes saw the spark fading from her eyes and goaded her. “That’s Ares’ thing, not mine. Personally, I’d like to see you wild.”

Kali rubbed her forehead, fighting another headache, and met the god’s gaze. “Will you please just leave me alone?”

“I’ll think about it.” He shrugged, and the colours of his eyes seemed to swirl as Kali looked at him. She looked away before she could get caught up in the dancing light. Grinning at the dizzying effect he was certain he had on her, Hermes crossed his arms across his chest and asked slowly “So, Hades approached you too?”

She coughed unconvincingly and hoped that her blush wasn’t too obvious. “I wouldn’t say that. He’s doing my dad a favour by not letting you guys accidentally rip me apart while you’re fighting over me.”

“And your father is…?” He asked, expectantly.

“Apollo.” Kali admitted, thinking that it hardly mattered if he knew now. It wasn’t a lie. She felt her lips straining to return his smile, in spite of her determination not to. He was too charming for his own good. “I figured it must be obvious to everyone, except me.”

“Oooooh. Bitter?” He winked but leant forward with a thoughtful expression. “I can see why he’d ask Hades to watch out for you. He’s lost a lot of his kids over the last couple of decades. Probably why he hid you away from us too.”

Instead of being drawn into his conspiratorial whisper, Kali leant back. But he had piqued her interest. With a growing sense of foreboding, she asked “Lost?”

“It’s a dangerous world out there. Even without over-zealous gods vying for your attention.” Hermes said carefully, avoiding a real answer. But Kali understood.

“I don’t really believe in coincidences…” She sighed on a shudder. Afraid to know the answer, she took a deep breath and asked, “Am I in danger from you, Hermes?”

Hermes laughed again and stretched back in his chair. “I think I stand a better chance winning your hand fair and square, on this occasion. So, no. No danger from me just yet. Although, you feel stronger than his normally do. Different somehow.” His smile was different, inquisitive, and Kali just shrugged and turned her gaze to the window, watching as the houses and fences gave way to trees and rolling hills.

“I will admit, I would very much like to taste your lips, Kali.”

The confession came so suddenly that Kali felt her face and neck turn immediately red. Flustered, she stammered “You can’t just say that to a girl!”

“Should I take that as a ‘not yet’?” Hermes whispered, leaning ever so slightly forward and Kali fought the urge to laugh, but she was still too embarrassed.

She arranged her features into a stern expression, and insisted “You should take it as a ‘do you want my knife to familiarise itself with your testicles’!” She flashed the knife again for good measure, hoping she seemed at least slightly intimidating.

“‘Not yet’ it is.” Hermes grinned, his eyes gleaming. “Pity. But I think I’ll have fun changing your mind.” He winked and then stood, steady despite the constant moving of the train. He bowed his head slightly and then turned and walked away into the next carriage and out of sight.

Kali frowned after him and bit her lip. She had no idea what he had gotten from that conversation, but she was terrified that she had said the wrong thing. Not because she cared about his opinion, but because her life could literally hang in the balance. When she got to Camelot, she would need to be very careful who she spoke to and what she said.

Kali let herself get lost in her thoughts for a while, she wasn’t sure how long. When she managed to snap out of her reverie, she only had a few minutes left of the train journey. It was drizzling in Cardiff and she pulled her hoodie back on and zipped it up. The temperature was so different there than at home. Kali shivered when she looked at the sky; she couldn’t even see the sun through the grey clouds overhead. An omen? She pushed the thought aside and just pressed on to find a taxi, where she could be warm and dry for a little while longer.

It was about fifteen miles to Caerleon and a quick internet search told Kali it should take less than an hour, depending on traffic. The taxi driver was friendly and tried to make conversation as he drove, but Kali was tense, so her replies were short. She wasn’t great with people at the best of times. Now, she had too much else on her mind to keep forcing a smile. The more her nerves nagged at her and the edgier she got. She was sure the driver was as glad to be rid of her as she was to escape the car by the time they arrived.

All Kali wanted to do was run as she approached the amphitheatre, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted to sprint onwards or flee back. What lay ahead of her was unknown and daunting, but it was where she knew she belonged. What was behind was everything she had ever known. But what she had known had been a lie. Besides, she had come this far. Kali pushed her dark hair off her face and let it tumble over her left shoulder. Steeling herself, she took a deep breath and took her first fateful step.

It wasn’t raining heavily but the damp clung to her clothes and Kali shivered slightly. She usually liked the rain, but this kind of drizzle sent a chill through to her bones. She glared up at the sky but was soon distracted by the pull she felt towards a tunnel she could see. She instinctively pulled back, but she knew this must be the path to Camelot.

As soon as she had stepped into the tunnel, it closed behind her and she was plunged into darkness. The sudden silence knocked her breath from her lungs, and she had an image of being buried alive. Squeezing her eyes shut, Kali forced herself to breathe and did her best to compose herself. But it was a hard image to shake off.

The tunnel was winding seemingly at random, and it was mostly downhill. Luckily, there was only the one tunnel for a long time, so Kali didn’t need to worry about getting lost. When it did eventually start to branch off, she didn’t know which way to go. Every path seemed to have a different lure, calling to her. She finally decided to stay on the main path and ignore the smaller branches. At least that way she could remember where she had been.

Stumbling through the darkness, Kali’s hand gripped the hilt of the knife in her pocket. After walking for what seemed like hours, she saw a figure just ahead. The girl had obviously seen her, but she made no effort to help or hinder Kali’s progress. As Kali got closer, she saw the girl was rather shapeless and about a head shorter than her. But she was also clearly muscular and much wider than Kali was. Her pale hair was slicked off her face in a tight ponytail, and she wore no makeup to hide her poor complexion.

The girl stepped forward and said “You’re what he’s hung up on? Really?” She scowled with revulsion and then muttered “I’m Tracy. You on your way to Camelot?”

“I am. You meant to be my guide?” Kali asked, already knowing the answer.

“Not exactly.” Tracy grinned, showing slightly uneven teeth and Kali saw that a couple of them were even missing. The smile was aggressive, and Kali didn’t quite know what to make of her, but she could guess whose kid Tracy was and why she was there. And Kali doubted that this welcome was a pleasant one.

Sure enough, Tracy continued to say “See, my Dad was detained, but he wanted you to have a proper greeting when you got here. He asked me to pop along and make sure you were…comfortable. Just until he gets here to see you himself. Mighty keen, he was, that you should get to see him before you got all swept up in the system at Camelot.”

“So, you’re here to…stop me?” Kali asked slowly, not all too sure yet what her chances would be against this girl who looked not unlike a barrel.

Another unpleasant show of bad teeth followed. “Just delay you a bit. He said I could do it however I wanted so I’d guess ‘violently’ would be the best bet. ‘Specially as you’re just one of Apollo’s; I hear they’ve never been too good with fighting. You’re all healers and singers and you never seem to want to hurt anyone.”

Kali frowned but knew that if Tracy was underestimating her, she stood a chance. She sighed wearily and put her bag on the floor. She looked at Tracy for a moment before asking “Do we really have to do this?”

“Yeah. I think we do.” Tracy grinned but it looked more like a snarl as she lunged towards Kali and slammed her against the wall.

She tried to punch Kali in the face, but Kali twisted away, and Tracy’s fist smashed into the wall instead. She grunted with pain and rounded on Kali again with a snarl. Tracy swung another punch and this time Kali wasn’t quick enough to avoid it and she spun away as Tracy’s fist collided with her cheek. The other side of her face smacked against the wall of the tunnel. Kali scowled and spat out blood before trying to kick Tracy in the stomach.

Tracy doubled over at the impact, but the fact that she had practically rock-solid abs had saved her from the brunt of the blow. Without straightening up, the demigod charged at Kali and knocked her to the floor, falling on top of her and trying to pin her down. Before she could get a good enough grip, Kali managed to buck Tracy off her. When she tried to get back on top of her, Kali managed to kick her in the face. Tracy howled with pain as her nose crunched under Kali’s boot and Kali scrambled hastily to her feet. But her ankle twisted painfully when Tracy pulled it out from under her, and she fell back to the floor.

Kali decided to end the fight then; she was bruised, bleeding, and she knew that this girl was just buying Ares enough time to get to her himself. Kali couldn’t let that happen. She couldn’t let Ares get there are bind her to him. Even knowing what he had to do didn’t mean she’d be any less powerless to stop it.

With one fluid movement she rolled over, pulled the knife out of her pocket, and slashed Tracy across her stomach. The look of shock that flashed across the demigod’s face sent a wave of nausea through Kali. She was certain that a camp for demigods would need miraculous healers, but she couldn’t believe that she had just stabbed someone. It was self-defence, maybe, but Tracy didn’t really mean her any harm.

Tracy fell heavily to the floor and Kali caught her, regretting it when the girl’s weight settled on her. Cursing, she pressed her shaking hands against the slash to try to stem the blood. In her panic, she didn’t notice her hands were glowing until a wave of exhaustion washed over her. Tracy was looking at her with wide eyes, until they both realised that the bleeding had stopped.

Without missing a beat, Tracy leapt up and slammed Kali against the wall. Pain flared across her back, but Kali snarled and hurled herself at the girl. She managed to get onto Tracy’s back and held on like a monkey, wrapping her arms around her neck. She squeezed the girl’s throat with all of her strength, not relenting even when Tracy slammed them both back into the side of the tunnel.

Eventually, the thrashing stopped and Tracy fell to the floor. Kali released her hesitantly and was relieved when she stayed down. But she wasn’t going to hang around. If this was where Ares wanted her, there was no way she would stay there.

___

Chapter Eight

Kali looked guiltily at Tracy’s unmoving body, slumped at her feet. But she shook herself; there was no way she could carry the other girl. Even if she knew how far she was from the exit, she couldn’t just drag her through the tunnels. And if she woke up, it would be another fight. No, Tracy would have to stay where she was.

Just as she made the decision, a snuffling noise grabbed her attention. She froze at the sound, her heart thudding, and listened intently to the sniffing and snorting. She slowly bent and retrieved the knife from where she had dropped it, trying to make as little noise as possible.

The snuffling stopped. Kali found she was no longer breathing in the new silence and the lack of sound was even more terrifying. She knew whatever had been there was still close. It had to be. But now she couldn’t hear it, so she had no idea where it was.

Unless it had gone? It could have been drawn by the sound of the fight, but the tunnels probably echoed. Maybe it had given up and wandered off. Whatever it was.

Her hopes were dashed when she heard a low growl ahead of her. Her heart stopped as a bear-sized dog with bloodshot eyes prowled into her line of sight. Its teeth were bared, and its hackles raised, and Kali could have sworn that it was drooling when it fixed its eyes on her.

Kali was exhausted, but fear rushed through her and everything else fell away. She had seen a creature like this before. And she could remember what those teeth felt like. Her mother had insisted it was a normal dog after she had chased it away. But this was no dog.

The eyes she had thought were bloodshot gleamed and she realised that they were a solid red. And in the darkness of the tunnels, they were glowing. It prowled closer, and she knew that her legs would not obey her. As she looked at the beast, its jaw widened, and another row of teeth pushed its way through its blackened gums. Two more glowing eyes seemed to sprout on the outside of those it already had. Its hulking body hunkered down, widening. The closer it got to her, the more its appearance changed. Every change just brought more terror, paralysing her.

A word came unbidden to her mind: hellhound.

Without the slightest bit of warning, the beast broke into a run and lunged for Kali’s throat. She threw herself back instinctively and it missed her by barely an inch. She fell hard and scrambled back, but it was already coming at her again. Another snarl made her dive to the side, but she misjudged the distance to the wall in her panic.

Not only had she smashed her already battered shoulder and ribs into the wall, she hadn’t managed to get out of the hound’s reach. Teeth clamped around her left forearm, and she screamed as her bones cracked under the pressure. The creature did not release her, pushing itself forward. Its eyes pierced her as surely as its teeth, drilling into her and bringing all of her fears to the front of her mind. She could hardly think straight. But even though her terror nearly consumed her, she knew that she’d felt worse.

With that certainty, Kali reached for the knife she had dropped in the dirt. She groaned with the effort it took to keep the hound from reaching her throat. Its jaws tightened on her arm and the cry it tore from her was more animal than human. She barely recognised the sound. But her fingers closed around the knife and she did not hesitate.

The knife came down into the hound’s skull, and Kali embedded it to the hilt and twisted. She fell back as the creature howled, and pressed her hands to her face in horror. It had released her, but she couldn’t move. She could only watch as the creature ran in a circle before collapsing to the ground. It whined and twitched once, twice, and then crumbled away to ash in front of her.

Without warning, her stomach turned and she was violently sick. Her throat burned, and she shuddered when she wiped her mouth on her sleeve. She could barely fathom what she had just done. What she was capable of doing. Maybe she was defending herself. Maybe it was instinct. Maybe it was her or the hound. But she had killed it.

Another wave of nausea threatened to consume her, but she closed her eyes and forced herself to breathe through it. Shutting down on her whirling thoughts, Kali pushed herself up. She had a few problems that she needed to find a way around. Her main concern was how many more of those hounds, or other creatures, were in the tunnels. Hades had mentioned there would be trials, but she hadn’t considered that there might be monsters.

She was already weak from her fight with Tracy, and subsequently healing her. If that was what she had even done. She probably had concussion, and her arm was definitely broken. Not to mention, she was bleeding heavily. She couldn’t imagine that Tracy would have gone too far from the camp, though. So, she couldn’t have much further to go. But she also couldn’t leave the girl there, in case there were any more hounds around. If nothing else, the blood would surely draw them.

Kali teetered uncertainly for longer than she should have before carefully putting her bag back on her back. She eased her mutilated arm through the strap, doing her best to muffle her cries. Then, with a grumble and a sigh, she did her best to sling the demigod’s arm around her shoulders. Taking several deep breaths, Kali hauled the girl up with strength she didn’t know she had.

Progress had slowed to a crawl as she struggled to drag Tracy through the tunnel with her. She froze at every sound echoing around them. When Tracy stirred slightly, Kali nearly dropped her. But the girl just mumbled something incoherent and snorted.

“At least someone is having fun.” Kali muttered, trying to find strength in the sound of her voice. But she sounded as she felt; lost and alone, in the dark. But she pressed on; she had lost her fear of this kind of darkness a long time ago, and she was used to being on her own. This was nothing.

Even so, when she saw the first glimmer of light she thought she might cry. The relief nearly knocked her off her feet, and she let Tracy fall to the ground beside her. She awkwardly dragged the girl’s dead weight another few feet before giving up. That would have to be good enough. Someone else could bring her the rest of the way.

Limping forward into the light, Kali wondered how many more steps she had before she collapsed. Her head was swimming, at least partly because of the blood loss. The pain in her arm was encompassing pretty much everything else, but she was still aching all over. But, she insisted, it could be worse. As long as she was still moving, it could be worse.

Kali struggled up the slope and blinked into the sunlight. She paused in the archway, at the edge of some kind of arena. She closed her eyes and took a long breath of the fresh air. It felt like she had been in that tunnel for days. Glancing up at the sun, she could tell that it had only been a couple of hours. The light warmed her and she found the strength to go on.

Even with her injuries, she was curious. She ignored the ever-growing weakness that washed over her and looked around the arena. It looked like there was some sort of lesson there and Kali saw Ares standing in the centre of a group of teenagers. Kali felt embarrassment and rage boil over inside of her, and she grabbed her knife again. Without thinking, she threw it with surprisingly good aim at Ares.

The god of war caught the knife before it could bury itself in his chest and looked at it with some surprise. But he did not look pleased to see her. He smirked as he walked over, leaving a group of confused demigods staring at her with awe. “I’m so glad you could make it.”

Liar. She raised an eyebrow, clearly mocking him, and forced her lips into a defiant smile. “Someone should probably go get Tracy before she gets eaten. I left her near the exit for you.”

“Eaten?” He frowned, taking in her injuries with new interest. “By what, exactly?”

“My guess was a hellhound, but I’m not exactly well-versed in the different types of demonic dogs around these parts.” A laugh caught her attention and she saw two men standing nearby. Ares had taken up all of her attention before, but they must have come over with him. Her pride wouldn’t allow her to ask Ares for help after everything he had put her through. Not to mention, she was afraid of him. Instead, she turned her attention to the two warriors and asked, “Would one of you mind taking me to wherever I’m meant to be?”

The larger of the two crossed his arms and suggested “You might want to think about sitting down.”

“Thought about it.” She said evenly, too tired to keep up her grin. “Shall we?”

The slighter of the two, though still quite burly, nodded and indicated that she should follow him. The other stayed behind and just looked at Ares with raised eyebrows, obviously asking what that had been about. Kali no longer cared what was happening behind her; it was taking everything she had to keep moving.

As Kali stepped out of the arena with her guide, she looked out at the clearing and saw it expanding around her. In the middle of the camp was a lake, lined with stone benches, and with an intricate fountain at its centre. A number of buildings were unfolding, all irregular shapes and sizes. She couldn’t guess what any of them might be for. Some were tall and others long or deep. All of them were in completely different styles, like they had been dropped out of time. Kali felt dizzy watching it all grow.

When things finally stopped shifting and changing, Kali managed to get her bearings. It was only then that she realised that her guide was taking her to the largest building, closest to the lake. It was circular and surrounded with columns and archways and from what Kali could see it was about three stories high.

Her guide was watching her silently, and she made no attempt to start a conversation. Even if she wasn’t so close to passing out, she wouldn’t have known what to say. She just kept her concentration on putting one foot in front of the other and followed his lead.

They were about halfway between the arena and the circular building when Kali noticed a man on a white stallion, riding towards them. But, as he approached, she realised that he wasn’t on a horse at all. She stared at him blankly for several moments until she was sure of what she was seeing and stated, “You’re a centaur.”

“I am. And you are…?” His expression was guarded but pleasant enough and his eyes were a bright piercing blue. It almost hurt to look at him, but there was nothing malicious there.

“Impressed.” She admitted weakly. The man who had been guiding her chuckled and retreated to watch from a safe distance. Kali shifted uncomfortably; a real centaur. If gods were real, why wouldn’t they be as well? She shook herself and tried a smile as she said, “I’m Kali.”

“A pleasure. I am Chiron.” He bowed his head slightly, letting his white hair fall like a curtain over his face for a second with a small smile.

Kali knew that name from the myths she had read as a child and her jaw dropped. If anything in them was remotely accurate then she was honoured and terrified to meet him. She couldn’t think of an appropriate response, so she awkwardly mumbled “Nice to meet you.”

“You seem to have met some trouble on your way.” When Kali didn’t reply, he prompted “Do you know what attacked you?”

She clenched her fists and glanced away, mumbling “I think it was a hellhound, sir.”

“And the beast?” He asked lightly.

“I…” She bit her lip. It took her a moment to swallow the lump in her throat before she admitted “I killed it.”

There was a pause, and Kali didn’t want to look at him to see his condemnation. But after a brief silence, Chiron casually enquired “Any other trouble in the maze?”

“Maze?” She blinked, her eyes moving back to his face to read his expression.

He smiled expectantly, explaining “The tunnels. They are designed to mislead and waylay demigods as they try to reach us. You seem to have had no trouble with the puzzles along the path.”

Kali hesitated; she hadn’t seen anything like that. Had she gone the wrong way? Had she done something wrong? Eventually, she tentatively said “Puzzles?”

“And traps. You encountered nothing?” Chiron seemed surprised, but there was a curious smile on his lips.

Kali thought about it for a moment before suggesting, more to herself, “Maybe Tracy disabled them all.”

“Tracy?” Again, his tone was even and light, revealing nothing.

Her heart plummeted into her stomach. Maybe she shouldn’t have mentioned it. It would probably be easier if everyone didn’t know that Ares wanted her. But she had already started, so she mumbled “A demigod apprehended me on my way here.”

“I see.” The first hint of disquiet crept into his voice, and he sternly stated “I will arrange for someone to find her immediately. If a hellhound entered the tunnels, she may be in danger.”

Pain was forcing its way into her head and she could hardly think straight, but she managed to say “I brought her near the entrance and told Ares. I’m sure it’s sorted.”

“She attacked you, and you brought her to safety?”

She coughed for a moment and whiteness took her mind, but she was used to that. Of everything she was feeling, that was the closest to her baseline. Breathless, she replied “She wasn’t trying to kill me. She was just delaying me.”

“Forgive me for indulging my curiosity. Any further questions can wait until the healers have tended to your wounds.” Chiron said gently, catching her arm as she fell to one knee. She could feel her energy slipping out of her grasp, and it was only getting worse. But she forced herself back up and lifted her chin slightly to look at Chiron ageless face, seeing it lined with concern. “Can you walk?”

“Takes more than a little cut like this to keep me down.” She grinned valiantly, but he did not let go of her arm as they began walking back towards the arena.

The centaur’s features softened into a fond smile, and he said “The infirmary is not far. But you do not have anything to prove. You secured your place just by reaching us here.”

Kali just nodded, barely able to spare the energy for a reply, and continued to shuffle alongside Chiron. She knew that she was slowing him down. It would be much easier for him to just take her there and be done with it. But she had made up her mind to get there with her own two feet. They hadn’t failed her yet, and she needed to prove to herself that she was still alive.

When she faltered, it was more to do with the hospital smell than her own condition. She hated it more than almost anything else. For some reason, she had expected the infirmary to be different. Less clinical. Chiron slowed, but did not comment. On the way there, he had casually pointed out areas of the camp and made polite conversation that she tried desperately to keep up.

By the time they reached the Infirmary, which looked surprisingly normal, Kali was beyond exhausted. She had no idea how she had made it all the way there. From the way he kept glancing at her as they walked, she thought that Chiron was equally surprised. But the moment she was shown to a room, the world went dark around her and she was falling into blissful oblivion.

___

Chapter Nine

The feeling of sunshine on her face, warming her skin, was what pulled Kali back into consciousness. She was still groggy, but the sunlight wouldn’t let her roll back over. Blearily, she opened her eyes and froze when she saw who was in the room with her.

“Good morning, Kali.”

“Good morning.” She almost flinched at how rough her voice sounded in comparison to his. But, she thought, she shouldn’t expect any less from the God of Music. A long silence followed, and Kali wondered if her father was as unsure how to act as she was. She glanced down at her hands, clenched in her lap, and conjured a smile. “How can I help you?”

“I was hoping that we may have a chance to speak before you meet with the others.” He said, with a serene smile. “I am Apollo.” Kali bit her lip but didn’t respond, and Apollo watched her carefully before murmuring “I am your father.”

Kali averted her gaze from his expectant face and mumbled “I know who you are.” She didn’t know how she felt about any of this. Didn’t know how she was supposed to respond.

“That is a relief. I was uncertain how much your mother would tell you.”

“Hades didn’t tell you, then.” Kali muttered, with a bitter smile.

Apollo’s voice was confused and…suspicious? “Hades? You have met?”

“Ares attacked me. Hades intervened.” Kali made a valiant effort to look back at him, but his presence almost seared her vision. Nonchalantly, she stated, “When I asked, he told me how to get here.”

“It seems I owe him a larger favour than I had intended.” He sighed wearily. “No matter, you are safer now.”

A small laugh escaped her throat. “Am I?”

“Safer is not the same as safe.” He admitted carefully. After a long moment, he tilted his head and said “You are taking this surprisingly well.”

“I am very tired.” She corrected him. Kali knew that she wasn’t exactly handling anything yet; she was just storing it away to deal with later. Rubbing her brow, she groaned “Do you mind if we skip that conversation and get to what I’m meant to tell people? I mean, I’m not overly keen on getting torn apart because of my own ignorance.”

Apollo seemed surprised for a moment before his calm smile settled back on his face. “As long as they believe you are my daughter, which you are, there is nothing else to be done. It is not something that the gods look out for as only comes about so rarely.” A flicker of unease touched his features and Kali realised that he wasn’t very good at hiding his emotions. Something they had in common, apparently. She shook herself out of her thoughts to hear him warn “Avoid spending too much time near Poseidon; he is shrewd and most likely to recognise the sea in your blood. Otherwise, learn what you can.”

Absentmindedly, she nodded. “So…what now?”

“You have three hours to yourself. Now that you are awake, you will be called to meet with Zeus and he will expect you at sunrise.” He paused to let that sink in, silently noting the panic that flared in her eyes. “The largest building by the lake is known by the demigods as the mess hall. The meeting room is on the first floor. There are stairs on the outside of the building, around the edges. Do not be late.” He turned and began to walk to the door.

Kali panicked and called out “Wait! I…what am I supposed to call you?”

He paused mid-step but didn’t look back at her. His voice was quiet, unassuming, as he replied “If you feel comfortable, I’d be happy with father. But we can start with Apollo.”

More than anything, Kali wanted to run and hug him. She wanted everything to be the way it was supposed to be. She wanted to be able to forgive and forget, and move forward. But she couldn’t pretend that she was alright with anything that had happened. No matter his reasons, he had left her. Her mother had lied to her for her entire life. Everything she knew was an illusion. A lie. So, instead of doing what she knew he was hoping for, she mumbled “Thank you, Apollo.”

“I will see you later, Kali.” He hesitated for a heartbeat before glancing back and smiling down at her. “Well done for getting here in one piece.”

Kali sat staring at the door where he left for a long time once he had gone, taking the sun with him. Eventually, grumbling to herself, she rolled out of bed. Three hours until sunrise. But Apollo hadn’t told her that she had to stay there. Wherever there was. Looking around the room, she shuddered; it looked like a hospital room. The clinical smell lingered in the air, and the walls and floor were white.

She stumbled as she explored the room; her limbs were still heavy with sleep. Or maybe it was the shock of the last day. She didn’t know how long she had been asleep, but so much had happened in the twenty-four hours before she had collapsed. Her brain still needed time to catch up.

Kali just wanted a long bath and a warm bed. She couldn’t risk going back to sleep; Apollo’s warning not to be late was ringing in her ears. But maybe she could at least have a shower?

The thought of finally being clean gave her new strength, and Kali forgot her troubles for a while under the boiling water. She had never been one for long showers, but it felt like hours the she stood under the steam. Once she emerged, she felt refreshed and ready to face the day.

Someone had already taken her old clothes away, and changed the bed sheets, while she had been in the shower. The thought of a stranger in the adjacent room while she showered wasn’t exactly comforting. But she dressed quickly and assessed her injuries, finding with relief that she had none. Even her broken arm was completely healed. Either she had been asleep for a week, or someone had helped it along.

Wasting no time in getting the hell out of the hospital, Kali grabbed her bag and hightailed it to the door. There were signs to the exit and she had no trouble finding her way. But the corridors were silent and strangely empty. Even at the crack of dawn, there should be people there. Especially when someone had been around to change her bed.

Kali breathed a sigh of relief as she stepped out into the morning twilight. She desperately wanted to explore but she could smell the sunrise on the horizon. Instead, she started making her way towards the large domed building she could see, by the lake.

When she had arrived, she had been too exhausted for the shock to really register. Now, she looked around her in awe at the camp, which still seemed to be unfolding around her. The buildings were of odd design, new and old and ancient all at the same time. There were elements of every time period in each of the buildings and some of it worked well but some of it was just a mess. Thirteen monuments had been built in the clearing and Kali assumed that there was one for each of the Olympians.

Stares followed Kali as she made her way to the Mess Hall and she tried to pretend she couldn’t hear the demigods whispering about her as soon as she passed them. How had news travelled so fast? Surely, she should have just blended in with so many people her age around. There were some demigods fighting, practising, and some sitting on the grass relaxing or reading. But all of them stopped to watch her pass.

By the time Kali got to the Mess Hall and gone up the stairs that encircled the edge, she was feeling a little weak again. It was rather precarious without any sort of railing and Kali worried that she would fall. She couldn’t help but wonder how Chiron got up there.

All the information was overloading her brain. Things were just moving so quickly, and it was all rather straining mentally for her. Her brain seemed to be trying to shut down to block out all the new data it was receiving. While her mind was lagging behind, her heart was hammering in her ears. She felt detached, separated from herself, but just focused on breathing as she approached a large door. Her hand hovered over the polished oak for several moments before she finally managed to make herself knock.

The few seconds of silence that followed crashed over her. What if she was in the wrong place? What if she was too early? The sun had just crested over the edge of the camp but…

A deep voice she recognised called “Enter” and Kali released the breath she had been holding. She was sure that had been Chiron’s voice, and he had been nice when she had arrived. And yet the energy she could feel emanating from the room as she opened the door was daunting. To say the least.

Kali took a deep breath to steady herself as she stepped inside, and the door swung silently shut behind her. She had never been all that good at meeting new people, but she could normally hide her nerves rather effectively. Now, though, her heartbeat thundered in her ears and her breaths were short and shallow. Her legs shook slightly as she walked towards the chair that had been pulled out for her.

As she forced herself to look up from her hands, her eyes fell onto a large round table made of smooth stone. There were intricate carvings covering every surface. When her eyes fell on the image of a sword buried in a stone at the centre of the table, she remembered that Apollo had called this place ‘Camelot’. “The round table?”

“Indeed.” Chiron replied with a smile and Kali started; she hadn’t meant to speak but the words had slipped out. She tried for a strained smile and Chiron indicated to the seat she had stopped behind. As she sat, she snuck a look around the room and her eyes were drawn to a shadowy corner. Hades’ presence calmed her slightly, though something felt different about him this time.

The sound of a man clearing his throat grabbed her attention and her eyes snapped to the man sitting opposite her. He was on the other site of the massive table, but his presence loomed right over her. She didn’t know how she hadn’t noticed before. She suddenly felt claustrophobic, but she clenched her jaw against the fear boiling over inside her.

The man’s eyes were stormy in colouring and in the way the irises swirled. That was enough of a clue for Kali to know who he was. But he flaunted his power in a way that the other gods Kali had met did not. She could feel it just oozing out of him and he wore it like a cloak while other gods masked it to blend in more. Even across the large room, it smothered her.

But even with that, Kali did not think that he was any more powerful than Hades was. Still, if she was right then he was the King of the gods and she bowed her head to him and focused her attention on him as she thought she should. He looked almost confused but seemed to be amused by her and he stated, “You know who I am?”

“I believe so.” Kali replied, pleased when her voice did not wobble or crack in any way. She had half expected it to be no more than a croak from the way her throat was constricting but it sounded more or less normal. Zeus pinned her down with his gaze, like a bird of prey. “Describe your journey here.”

His tone made it clear that he didn’t want any embellishment, so Kali bit her lip and spoke frankly. “I entered the tunnels in the amphitheatre, and followed them here. I don’t know how long I was down there but after a little while, a demigod apprehended and attacked me. I managed to subdue her, eventually, but then what I would describe as a hellhound came at me.”

She faltered, and Zeus’ scowl deepened menacingly. Chiron, standing at Zeus’ side, prompted gently. “And then?”

“I…think I killed it.” She admitted, quietly.

Zeus scoffed and raised an eyebrow, incredulously. “You destroyed a hellhound? Using what?”

“A knife.” A knife that she was dearly missing. She didn’t feel safe in this room.

Zeus watched her silently for several minutes. Kali managed, to her surprise, to remain silent until he finally continued “A knife? And then?”

“I grabbed Tracy and dragged her to the exit. Didn’t even try to get her up the slope, though.” Guilt shifted in her stomach, and she glanced down at her clasped hands. “Is she OK?”

Zeus rose from his chair with a grimace and boomed “I’ve heard enough.” Kali shrank back slightly in her chair, startled by the sudden change, but Zeus didn’t bother to look at her. Instead, he turned to the gleaming centaur beside him and waved a hand. “Chiron, wrap this up.”

As Zeus swept out of the room, his feet didn’t seem to touch the ground and a perpetual breeze sent his cloak billowing behind him. Kali wondered if it was for effect, or if he just couldn’t fully control the blustering winds. As the door slammed, she glanced back to where she could feel Hades waiting.

“Tracy will live. The greatest injury was to her pride, I am certain.” Chiron continued the conversation as though nothing had happened. “Tell me, why would Ares send one of his children to apprehend you?”

Kali looked back down at the table and traced the celtic knotwork automatically. “I think it would be best to ask him; I would only be speculating.”

“Speculate away.”

Kali sighed, but she knew it wasn’t a request. “Tracy said that he wanted to see me before I got swept up in the system here…and he approached me before I left to come here.”

“Is that why you made the journey? To be closer to the God of War?”

Was he testing her? Kali grimaced and insisted “To be safer from his advances. And it wasn’t the only reason, but I won’t pretend that it wasn’t a factor.”

“Then why are you here? You must be able to fit in with life in the mortal world, or you would have found your way to Camelot much sooner. Why now?” Chiron’s voice was pleasant, but his icy eyes drilled into her.

Kali looked away again, a deep unease settling over her. Reluctantly, she murmured “I didn’t know.”

Suspicion and surprise coloured his features. “You were unaware of your heritage?”

“I found out the day before I left to come here. I thought my dad died when I was three. I don’t want to live a lie anymore. Nothing ever felt real in my old life. Now that I know why, I can’t just go back.” She could hear the plea in her voice; she was afraid that they were going to send her away. She didn’t belong here either.

For a moment, she felt the brush of cool fingers against the back of her neck. The contact steadied her, but she lowered her face to let her hair mask her blush. A soft voice murmured in her ear “I’ll see you soon, dove. Not long now.”

Kali felt Hades’ presence fade, and she snuck a glance at Chiron again. But she couldn’t figure out if he had even noticed the exchange. He had been watching her impassively for a little while, and he continued to mask his features as he asked, “Why do you think your father kept his distance?”

“I would like to believe it was to protect me.” She said, quietly. “From what I’ve heard…there aren’t many of his children around anymore. But, honestly, I doubt it is as simple as that.”

The only sound in the silence that followed was the light clopping of his hooves on the hard floor as he paced slowly around the room towards her. “How many crossroads did you pass on your way here?”

Kali blinked. “Um…metaphorically, or…?”

“In the tunnels. The maze?” Chiron prompted patiently.

Again, Kali was at a loss. “I didn’t see any crossroads. I just followed the tunnel here.”

Chiron made a thoughtful sound. “And did you encounter any traps?”

Kali just shook her head.

“You have no need to be nervous. Reaching us here, alone, is all that was required to secure your place.” He smiled down at her kindly and moved towards the door. “Come, let me show you where you will be staying. We can continue the discussion on our way there.”

Oh goody, Kali thought to herself, but she had the sense to remain silent. Instead she nodded and followed Chiron out of the room and back down the stairs. Even with how precarious and narrow they were, Chiron didn’t show even a hint of discomfort or difficulty. Kali did her best not to stare, but she guessed that he probably noticed by the amused smile that had settled over his features when he finally began to speak once more.

“We sent someone to investigate the tunnels. There was a pile of ash, and rather a lot of blood. More than just yours. And yet, Tracy had not a scratch on her. Can you explain?”

Kali stopped in her tracks for a moment and took a deep breath. “I stabbed her. We were fighting, and I panicked, and I made a poor choice.” Putting it like that didn’t seem sufficient. Looking down at her hands, she could swear that she still saw Tracy’s blood all over them. “As soon as what I had done sank in…I tried to stop the blood and, I don’t know how but, I healed the wound.”

“Has anything like that happened before?” Again, his voice was light and gave nothing away. He continued to walk, keeping a pleasant smile on his face. They could have been discussing the weather.

“Once.” Kali admitted, walking after him and trying to ignore the other demigods they were passing. Everyone was still openly staring at her. It was starting to make her feel like an exotic animal at the zoo. “I’m still trying to piece it together.”

“Very well.” The look he sent her way made her feel like he was sizing her up. Testing her. His voice was too measured, too even, when he asked, “And Ares is the only one to have approached you?”

She hesitated, not wanting to go into it, but he would find out eventually. If he didn’t know already. Lying would get her nowhere. Acknowledging it out loud was still uncomfortable, though. “Not exactly. Hermes has expressed an interest…I guess. He sent me flowers, and I met him on my way here. Before I reached the amphitheatre.”

“You are as evasive as your father…”

“I’m sorry. I’m not…I shouldn’t mislead you. I just…I’m still trying to process all of this and…” She paused, remembering what Hades had said about her father’s limitations. Without thinking, she sighed and continued “When you can’t really lie, you pick up habits to work around it.”

Chiron nodded and sighed wearily. “I understand. Trying to have a direct conversation with your father is like trying to hold an angry snake. He twists and turns until I am dizzy. But he has had thousands of years to practice. You have not. Is that clear?”

Chiron’s piercing eyes had her shifting uncomfortably, and she nodded. “Crystal, sir.” She tried for a smile and insisted “I’ll work on it.”

He just laughed “Why do I suspect you intend to work on your evasion, and not on being more forthcoming?”

“I can work on both.” Kali sent him a slightly mischievous grin, testing the waters, and was relieved when he chuckled again.

They had stopped in front of a normal looking apartment building, and Chiron held out a simple canvas bag to her. “Welcome to Camelot, Kali of Apollo.” She took the bag with a grin; there was a warmth spreading in her chest like a bubble. Chiron studied her for a long moment and said “Any of the apartments in this building are available for you, so choose whichever you like. A guide will be by in an hour to show you around. We will also need to carry out some physical assessments of your abilities.”

“What…day is it, sir?”

“Sunday. Your classes will begin bright and early tomorrow morning.” Another reassuring smile that she didn’t quite know what to make of. “Your schedule is in that bag, along with a few useful items. There is a small inventory, describing the items, so please familiarise yourself with them before your guide arrives.”

With a final nod, he handed her a small silver key and trotted away. Kali took a deep breath and weighed the key in her hands for a long moment. This was really happening. The key was small and simple, nothing special really. But it was. To Kali, it was the symbol of a place that was hers. A place she could belong.

___

Chapter Ten

Kali took her time opening the main door of the building, savouring every moment and storing it away. She had already decided she would have the top floor, and she walked slowly up the stairs. It was bright in the building, with light pouring in from every side, and the walls were white with a gold border. Fitting for Apollo, Kali thought.

When Kali reached her door, she took a deep breath and used the key to unlock it. She entered with a small smile, but froze in the act of closing the door behind her when she felt someone else in the room. Mentally crossing her fingers, she murmured “Hades?”

“Lucky guess.” The reply came in Hades’ deep voice, soft as a caress.

Kali grinned and turned towards him, leaning back against the door. “I made it.”

A gentle chuckle answered her. “Not exactly in one piece. I figured you wouldn’t have any trouble with the maze, but I can’t say I expected a hellhound to attack you down there.” There was a slight pause before Hades quietly asked “How are you holding up?”

“I’m not in any pain.” She said, cryptically, casting her eyes down.

“Kali…” He stopped, and Kali felt arms close around her, drawing her into his chest. His voice was soft, and his lips brushed her hair as he murmured “I know it is difficult, but you did what you had to do to survive.”

Trembling, Kali struggled to keep herself together, but tears began streaking down her cheeks. “I know I need to move on, or get over it, or whatever…I just…”

Hades’ hand closed around the back of her neck and his fingers tangled gently in her hair. “There is nothing wrong with feeling the way you do about this. You shouldn’t have to be a cold-blooded killer. You did what you had to, but you can still empathise with a creature most see as a monster.” A thumb brushed a tear from her cheek. “That says a lot about you, you know.”

“You’re…different here.” It was true; even holding her, there was something…between them. She could feel him, but he wasn’t as solid as he’d been before. His scent was diminished somehow.

He didn’t sound surprised. If anything, his voice was teasing. “Am I?”

“I feel like you’re further away from me than before. The shadows are…deeper here.” Even so, she couldn’t help but sink into his embrace.

“You are very astute.” He whispered into her ear, and then went very still. “Give me a moment, dove.”

After a few seconds, his form solidified under her hands and she felt his grip tighten slightly around her. Breathless, she stammered “What…happened?”

His finger curled a strand of her hair absentmindedly, and he explained, “I did not wish to be seen observing earlier, so I masked my presence more thoroughly than usual.”

“But…” She hesitated for a heartbeat, confused. “I could still feel you.”

His chuckle rumbled against her chest and she blushed furiously at her own words. “Yes, you could.” He murmured silkily. “And I have to say, you were very sneaky in that meeting.”

“I don’t know what you mean.” She replied, unconvincingly. Despite her best intentions, a small grin crept onto her face and she quickly gave up when he laughed again.

“I assume that Chiron believes you cannot lie, like your father? That was a good idea.” Slowly, almost reluctantly, his arms lowered, and he took a small step backwards, away from her. “I shouldn’t stay…”

Kali’s heart plummeted. She was surprised by how bereft she felt as it crossed her mind that he didn’t have to look out for her there. After all, Apollo had only asked him to make sure she arrived safely. “Am I going to see you again?” She mumbled, casting her gaze down.

“Absolutely.” He replied certainly, with a gentle laugh. “I’m afraid to say that you’re stuck with me now, love. Though it would be best if you didn’t mention how…unaffected you are by me.”

“Unaffected?” She muttered, more to herself. That wasn’t a word she would use, but it was probably best not to correct him. She shouldn’t forget that he was a god.

“Poor choice of words?” He made a thoughtful sound in the back of his throat, and murmured “How do I affect you, I wonder?”

A thrill rushed across Kali’s skin despite herself, but she forced herself to shake her head and ignore her racing heart. “You’re a scoundrel.”

“Scoundrel? You wound me!” He exclaimed.

Kali rolled her eyes, but she couldn’t suppress the grin that was trying to creep onto her face. She dropped her face again, to hide her expression, and stated “Liar. You’re grinning like the bloody Cheshire cat right now.”

“Oh am I, indeed?” He tried to feign indignation but instead he laughed until his jaw ached.

“I can feel it.” Kali finally looked up and her answering smile was like the sun breaking through clouds.

He paused, quietly asking “You can feel when I’m smiling?”

She could feel a strange smile passing over his lips but not quite touching them and she blushed. After a moment, she suggested “You have a very expressive voice.”

“Voice, huh?” A soft chuckle followed his words, and he sighed. “You really are full of surprises, aren’t you.” He touched her chin and held her gaze for a long moment, until she was breathless. And then he released her again and she felt him move towards the door. “But listen to me, taking up all of your time. I should let you look through your things and get settled.”

“You don’t have to leave…” She murmured hastily, not quite finding the willpower to look at him.

He moved back to her side and took her hand slowly. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Kali.” Cool lips brushed the inside of her wrist, before he slipped away again. That time, she could not summon the words to respond until long after he had already gone. Her skin burned and tingled. She stared at the door for a long while before sinking weakly onto the sofa in the room.

When her head wasn’t stumbling over every word he had said, Kali took a proper look around her new apartment. It was larger than she had expected. She had an open plan living room and kitchen, with a small table she could have dinner on. There was a sofa, an armchair, a coffee table, a bookcase, and a chest of drawers in the room. Two doors led off the living room: the bathroom, and her bedroom. Everything was decorated fairly plainly, with light wood units and cream walls. It wasn’t extravagant or fancy, but it was hers. She picked her bag up from where she had left it, by the door, and busied herself by opening up the welcome pack Chiron had given her.

There was a small booklet which explained the items, and Kali read through it with mounting interest. There was an intricate silver ring with a small sunstone set in a strangely familiar knotwork design. This was her ID band, according to the booklet. The sunstone was for Apollo, so everyone would be able to identify her. It glimmered enchantingly in the sunlight streaming through the windows, and Kali couldn’t help but smile at the dancing colours.

There was a map of the camp, a diary, and her lesson schedule enclosed. But the most fascinating item looked like a hearing aid. After reading what it was in the booklet, Kali wasted no time in putting it on. It was a translator. As there were so many different people from different parts of the world at the school, it was necessary that they all have a tool to understand each other. Whilst wearing the ear piece, the students would be able to understand any spoken language.

Finally, she came across the questionnaire she was supposed to fill out. It was mostly personality profile questions, from what she could see. Though she was also meant to list any skills, mortal or otherwise, that she had. She tried to be as honest as possible, but that part stumped her. She wasn’t sure she really had any skills. She was good with animals, but that was more to do with them being good with her. There were a lot of things that she could just do…but they weren’t achievements, they were just natural for her.

While she was mulling it over, still chewing on the end of a pen, there was a knock at her door. She started, panicking somewhat, until she remembered that Chiron had said someone would be round to give her a tour when he dropped her off. With all her dawdling, an hour had passed without her even realising. She hadn’t even started to unpack her things.

Gritting her teeth, Kali fumbled with the door before she opened it to reveal a face she knew well. Standing before her was someone she hadn’t seen or heard from in…four years? “Tom?”

His jaw dropped, grey eyes wide, and he struggled with himself for a moment. Kali could see that he didn’t know what to do, so she took a second to look at him. The same serious eyes, and the same floppy hair. The same baby face, though he had clearly had more luck growing a bit of stubble to hide behind than when he was sixteen. It took Kali too long to realise that this must have been where he disappeared to.

“Kali. You’re…here.”

“So are you.” She valiantly tried to smile, but his eyeline caught her attention and she ducked her head. Her hair fell expertly over her face, covering the more recent scars, and she mumbled “I guess you’re my guide today, then?”

“Yeah…” He scratched his head awkwardly, leaning against the doorframe. “I can’t believe I didn’t see that you were a demigod. It seems so obvious now, looking back.”

Tom’s smile hadn’t changed either. It was still slightly lopsided, a small scar on his lip making one side lift more than the other. She’d thought it was charming when she was younger. Everyone in her class had a thing for Tom, and she could see why, even if she’d never fallen herself. He was her partner in crime, and her confidant. He was the brother she’d never had, and she would have followed him anywhere. Then, one day, he just didn’t show up at school and she never heard from him again. He went from being her best friend, to just dropping out of her life without a word. And she’d never understood why.

“So, how’ve you been?” Kali asked, biting her lip with a weak smile.

“I’m so sorry, Kali.” He whispered, closing the distance between them and pulling her into a too-tight hug. “I should have just taken you with me.”

In spite of her best intentions, tears welled up in her eyes and Kali shook with the effort to keep them back. She buried her face in his shoulder and muttered “You didn’t even say goodbye.”

“I know.” Tom replied wretchedly. “Everything just happened so fast and…I have no excuse.” He hung his head and dropped his arms, taking half a step back to give her some space. There was no sign of his signature smile now, and Kali had never seen him look so weary. In the four years, he looked like he had aged at least ten. He sighed heavily, and his serious eyes met hers as he asked, “Do you think there’s any way you might be able to forgive me?”

“Damn it with the puppy dog look.” Kali mumbled, looking away. She scowled and insisted “That might work on everyone else, but not me!” She shoved him lightly out the door and followed, locking the door behind her.

Tom laughed and suggested “How about I show you around the camp, and we can catch up on old times?”

Kali couldn’t find any reason to deny him that, at least, and she really had missed him. It was bad enough that she was holding onto her abandonment issues with her dad. Maybe she could have a chance to move forward and have Tom back in her life. But…even if he had a reason to leave, he should have told her. If she had meant anything to him, surely he would have?

As they walked, Kali struggled to drag herself out of her head enough to listen to what Tom was saying. He pointed out a lot of the buildings and explained what he did there. He filled the silence with random tidbits of gossip and information about the gods. But it was obvious that she wasn’t completely there.

After a long silence, while they wandered almost aimlessly through the camp, Tom murmured “So…those scars…how did you get them?”

Kali paled and stared determinedly at her hands as they walked. There was a flash of talons, icy pain burning through her, the sound of her pounding heart filling her ears. She closed her eyes against the memory briefly, forcing it from her mind. The marks on her face and neck had stubbornly decided not to go away, even though months had passed. Constant reminders of her failure, and her loss.

“Kali?” He prompted, his voice gentle. It was the kind of tone Kali would use with a spooked animal, so she dreaded to think what expression she was wearing.

She realised that she hadn’t answered, so she composed a weak smile onto her face. “I’m not sure. If I had to guess, I’d say a harpy? But the memory is still hazy. It was before I knew about any of this. I’m still piecing it together.”

“Of course…” He hesitated, but asked “Were there many incidents?”

“I’m not sure.” Kali forced herself to shrug nonchalantly and then stated, “I’m still trying to figure out which ones were normal, and which weren’t.”

Tom hung his head, reaching to put his arm around her. “I should never have left.”

“I can take care of myself, Tom. You did what you had to do.” She murmured, barely managing to keep the bitterness out of her voice. The last thing she wanted to do was reassure her best friend that he’d been right to leave her behind. But she didn’t shrug off his arm. “Do people always stare at you this much?”

Tom glanced at her, noting the half smile she wore, and chuckled. “They’re not staring at me, Kali. But, no. They’re normally more subtle. There are always new kids in and out, so you’d think they would be used to new faces by now.”

As it was a Sunday, there were no lessons. That meant that the demigods were all out relaxing and practising. Sitting on the grass, splashing by the fountain, and sparring in the courtyards. But every one of them looked their way as they passed, like an outside force possessed them to do so. Some of them were trying to be subtle, glancing up from their conversations or books every few seconds. Others dropped their weapons and openly stared.

Gods were drawn to power, so perhaps something inside the demigods recognised that she wasn’t quite the same as them. Considering how different the gods felt to her, Kali thought, that wasn’t such an outlandish theory. But it made her worried; how long would it take the gods to realise what it was her father wanted to hide from them? Maybe Camelot wasn’t the safest place for her after all.

“Hey, it’s OK.” Tom nudged her. “They won’t bother you while you’re with me.”

Kali bit back the retort on her tongue, and then stopped in her tracks when she saw the stables. She sighed wistfully, and Tom chuckled “I thought you’d like to see the horses.”

“I probably shouldn’t.” She mumbled, more to herself. At his curious look, she smiled and lied “If I stop here now, I’ll stay all day.”

He seemed mildly disappointed but nodded. “Yeah, fair point. But I’ll bring you back later on to say hello, when we’re done.”

“Sure.” She forced another smile. “So what lessons do you do at a place like this?”

Tom sighed gently and rubbed his head. “I knew you weren’t paying attention earlier.” He laughed nervously and said “Guess this is a lot to take in, huh?”

“Well…” Kali started, trying to figure out a way to explain why she had been so distracted, but Tom held his hands up to stop her.

“It’s okay. I don’t mind, really. I’m still trying to process you being here myself. And you’re all grown up, too.” He smiled sadly, and Kali knew that he was struggling with missing so much. They had been friends for almost six years and he had been at her side almost every day.

“I wouldn’t go that far.” She mumbled sheepishly.

He ran a hand through his blonde hair, averting his eyes, and said “You’re not the same scrawny, clumsy kid that I used to drag around everywhere. You’re still a midget, don’t get me wrong, but-” He trailed off when Kali shoved him into the side of the library, snapping “I’m five foot nine, you ass!”

After a moment of silence, they both burst out laughing and Kali doubled over. Tom stumbled as he moved to push her back and they spent a few minutes play-wrestling, trying to get the upper hand. Eventually, they gave up and Kali dropped onto the grass, wearing her first real smile since they had left her room. “That’s better.” Tom said, nudging her cheek with his knuckle.

He slowly sat down next to her and put his arm around her, quietly asking “Are we gonna be OK?”

“Yeah…” She mumbled, resting her head on her knees. “I think so. But…you really hurt me, Tom.”

“I know. I’m sorry, Kali.” He pulled his arm away and turned to face her. “I’ll never leave you again. I can promise you that.”

Kali’s fragile hope could shatter at the smallest gust of wind, but she made a leap and decided to trust him. His grey eyes were honest, and his words resonated with sorrow and determination. “Okay.” She said. “Then we’ll be alright in no time.”

___

Chapter Eleven

To escape the prying eyes, Tom dragged her towards the library he had pointed out earlier. When he suggested they go inside, Kali quickly agreed. She loved books anyway, but she would have gone almost anywhere to be away from the demigods staring openly at them.

He led her inside, into a high hallway with almost no light. The main room at the end opened out with grand archways and towering bookcases. It was a three-story building, but it was just one giant hall lined with mountains of bookshelves and the occasional ladders. There were some ledges that seemed for form a first and second floor, but the domed ceiling and the intricate chandelier that hung from it were in full view. Deep mahogany furniture was trimmed with deep green material and brass buttons throughout.

Stopping in the middle of the room, Kali gazed around her in wonder. Everything inside her went quiet, and she basked in the sheer grandeur and scale of it all. But stunned and amazed as she was, she was calm. This place was so peaceful. The only light came from the occasional hooded lantern and the grand fireplace. There were no windows, but there were skylights lining the ceiling, letting sunlight fill the library but for the long shadows cast by the ledges.

A hand on her shoulder snapped her out of her reverie and Tom laughed quietly. He rolled his eyes and whispered, “You didn’t hear a word I just said, did you?”

Kali barely wanted to breathe in case she would break the eerie stillness, so she shook her head. He grinned again and nodded his head towards the door, moving before she had a chance to answer. She was reluctant to leave, but even more reluctant to speak so she let him pull her from the library without argument. When they were back outside, Kali glanced wistfully at the door, but Tom insisted “There’s someone I want you to meet before I take you back to Chiron.”

“What do you need to take me to Chiron for?” She asked apprehensively.

“Just a couple of assessments. Standard stuff.”

“Oh.” She said simply. “But I still don’t know what we do here.”

“Then you should have listened.” He stuck his tongue out but relented at the scowl on her face. “Alright, so some of it is pretty normal. We do Psychology with Dionysus one week and Biochemistry the next. Apollo takes Music and then Healing. Then you have Artemis with Archery, and Tracking. Um…Cartography with Hermes, and Survival Skills. Things like that alternate every week to cover all the topics.”

“Are there any that stay the same every week or do they all change?” Kali wondered aloud, worrying that she would lose track of where she was supposed to be. Even with the timetable, she knew she would find it hard to focus.

Tom grinned, knowing how scatterbrained she could be. “Ancient History with Zeus – though he never takes that himself.” Kali tried and failed to keep the relief off her face and Tom laughed, before continuing “Ares does Weapons Training and Unarmed Combat in the Colosseum every week. Demeter does Horticulture; about plants and what they’re good for. I never really followed that one, but I guess it could be interesting to some people. My mum does Maths and Strategems.”

“Athena?”

“Of course.” He grinned, clearly proud, and Kali smiled. Tom had always wanted to belong to something just as much as she had. It was nice that he had found that here.

“So,” she prompted, “all the gods have a class?”

He nodded, putting his hands in the pockets of his tracksuit bottoms as they approached the fountain. “All the Olympians do, yeah. Even the Lord of the Underworld teaches the languages, but don’t let that scare you off.”

“Hades.” She murmured, more to herself. Her wrist tingled slightly at the memory.

“One and the same. He’s kind of intimidating but apparently most of the stories are made up.” Tom smiled, unaware that Kali didn’t need his reassurance.

As they drew closer to the fountain, Kali saw her first satyr. At least, she assumed that’s what he was. He looked like a normal guy about Tom’s age from the waist up, with auburn hair and olive skin. But he had long brown fur which encased his goat legs and ended in slate-coloured hooves. As they approached, his head flicked up and Kali saw hazel eyes that couldn’t decide if they were deep green or earthy brown. He grinned in their direction and bounded towards them, raising his hand to Tom.

“Sage!” Tom called, and grabbed the satyr’s arm firmly before pulling him into a bear-hug. He bleated as his frame was enveloped by Tom; he was the same height but much leaner and Kali was surprised he didn’t break in half. But he was smiling when he freed himself from the greeting.

Tom gave his lopsided grin and said “Sage, this is Kali.”

Kali shuffled awkwardly to Tom’s side and Sage frowned slightly, asking “Kali? Like your little sister, Kali?” He held out his hand to her and she shook it with a small smile, noting the two curly horns that peeked out of his auburn hair. She glanced at Tom and asked, “You spoke about me?”

“Might have mentioned you.” He shrugged sheepishly, and Sage let out a laugh that was more like a bleat and interrupted “Mentioned? He barely stopped talking about you his first few weeks here.”

“Sage, mate, if you don’t shut up right now then I might have to break your nose.” Tom muttered, glaring threateningly at his friend.

Sage just laughed again, and Kali smiled softly and muttered “I missed you too, Tom.”

That time she knew that he blushed, and he pulled her into an awkward hug and clapped her on the back briefly before almost pushing her away. She suppressed a giggle at his attempt at not showing any actual emotion. It was difficult for her not to mock him for it, but it didn’t seem fair when he was vulnerable. Sage shot her a grin and rolled his eyes at Tom and then sat down on the edge of the fountain and said “So, Kali, what do you think of the place?”

“It’s a lot to take in.” She admitted with a weak smile.

“I can imagine.” Sage smiled sympathetically. “I know it isn’t easy to leave everything you know. But at least everyone here understands that, so you’re not alone.”

Kali felt some of her tension ease at his words. “I didn’t think of it that way.”

He laughed, another bleat, and said “Don’t get me wrong, you’re the oldest new recruit I’ve ever seen arrive here. But at the end of the day, we’re all family and we’re all in this together.”

“Thank you, Sage.”

“Anytime. Anyone that can put up with this idiot is someone I can get along with.” Sage smiled kindly and his eyes warmed to a soft brown. He shot Tom a glance, asking “Don’t you need to take her to the Colosseum?”

“Yeah…” Tom stood reluctantly, shuffling his feet. “I guess I lost track of time a little.”

“Colosseum?” She paled slightly and just looked at Tom, waiting for confirmation.

He laughed. “Don’t look so panicked. Like I said, it’s just some assessments. Combat is kind of a thing here, as I’m sure you noticed.”

“So, my assessment is to do with fighting?” She said through the lump in her throat. Her stomach was knotting, making her feel sick; she wasn’t a strong fighter. And she knew that there would be an audience to watch her fall on her arse.

“Some of it is.” Tom laughed again, ruffling her hair. “So, we’d better hurry before too many of the demigods realise what’s going on.” He winked and jogged off away from her and in the direction of the arena.

Kali just muttered a curse under her breath and nodded to Sage, who was trying not to laugh out loud at the look on her face, and then sprinted after Tom. She caught him up quickly and tackled him to the floor before he noticed that she had caught up. She tumbled poorly and bruised her shoulder, but managed to scramble to her feet. Laughing, she broke into another run towards the arena with Tom hot on her heels.

When they reached the Colosseum, Kali doubled over and tried to regain her breath, unsuccessfully. Laughing made breathing difficult. Tom skidded to a halt beside her and looked like he was nursing a stitch, but he laughed and jabbed playfully at her side. Kali danced back, but paused when she saw Tom’s grin fall from his face. It was replaced by a serious expression, and Kali saw that Chiron was standing a few feet from them. His white fur was glowing in the afternoon sun, and his long white hair was now tied in a ponytail at the nape of his neck. Harsh blue eyes fixed on Kali until any hint of amusement had drained out of her.

Nerves wracked her, and her heart pounded in her ears.

“Are you ready?” Chiron asked quietly, turning to look at Tom. Straightening up and letting his hand drop from his aching side, Tom swept his floppy hair off his face and nodded. Chiron then murmured “Very well. Go and choose your weapon.”

Kali started; she was fighting Tom? Chiron looked down at her and she valiantly painted a smile on her face. She managed to keep it there under his harsh stare until Chiron’s gaze softened and his lips twitched reluctantly. Kali sighed with relief and her smile grew less strained, but Chiron said “You are about to begin your first assessment. You will be sparring with Thomas so that I may see how proficient you are. It has been quite some time since any of Apollo’s children have been here, so we are…unsure as to how you will fare in some areas. Now, choose your weapon.”

“Weapon?” Kali bit her lip. Hoping she didn’t sound as stupid as she felt, she mumbled “Won’t that be a bit dangerous?”

“Not at all.” Chiron smiled considerately and explained “Our healers will have no trouble repairing any damage you may cause. The training weapons are unsharpened, but they can still break bones so please treat this as a real combat situation.”

“Alright.” She replied, chewing on her lip. Even if she knew that whatever damage she did would be easily remedied, she wasn’t all that keen on hurting anyone. Especially her friend. Then again, she reasoned, he was a child of the goddess of strategic warfare, so she wasn’t likely to be able to hit him anyway.

With that thought at the front of her mind, Kali allowed a small grin to touch her lips. She wasn’t a trained fighter and she always kept a tight leash on her temper. What would it be like to let that loose, and just see what happened? She couldn’t really hurt anyone here, in such a controlled environment. Besides, there was one tiny petty part of her that was angry enough to lash out. If this assessment was necessary to put her in the right class, then surely she needed to stop holding back and do her best?

Kali closed her eyes for a moment to centre herself. She could feel a fire burning in the pit of her stomach and she clung to it, feeding it. All of her anxiety, and fears, coalesced into that little ball of energy and she pulled it all together. She knew that she would need those flames if she was going to fight anyone.

Approaching the long rows of weapons where Tom stood waiting, Kali saw with a small smile that he had chosen a sword. She didn’t know the finer details of this kind of old-school weaponry, but it was nice. It had a long blade, and a fairly large hilt so that he could wield it with both hands. It didn’t look too heavy, either, though she probably wouldn’t be able to swing it.

She meekly looked at the array of spears, axes, and swords. Nearby there were hammers, maces, and staffs. Another table held knives, and assorted weapons that she couldn’t name, let alone wield. She was sure that even this was a test, but it was one that she had no idea how to pass. A bow, she knew what to do with. But she had only ever seen things like this on the internet and in museums.

There was only one way to fight with a knife: dirty. She would have to get in close, and that required stealth or skill. Or both. She had neither. Knives were out. The hammers and maces looked heavy. They relied on strength: something else she was lacking. Another sword might work, but there were so many different varieties laid out. The blades were all different sizes, some were curved, and some didn’t have guards. It was too complicated; which was the right fit for someone like her?

Eventually, feeling pressured, Kali just grabbed a spear. The one she chose was one of the shorter ones as she wasn’t sure how to wield something that was taller than her. At least with a weapon like that, she could choose which end to use. If Chiron was surprised by her choice, he didn’t show it. Kali did notice the slight crease of Tom’s brow, though, and wondered what he had expected her to pick up.

It was too late to change her mind as she faced him in the centre of the Colosseum, so she pushed it out of her thoughts. Kali glanced at Chiron and he nodded with a small, encouraging smile. Another deep breath, and she faced Tom, stating “I’m ready.”

Circling each other slowly, the two of them waited. Kali was patient, much more willing to react than act, and it was Tom who finally struck first. His blade met thin air as Kali spun aside and she knocked his arm out of the way with the shaft of the spear, but she knew that had been a test. He had just wanted to know how she would react, how fast she was, and if she would be easily afraid. Kali could see that he was pleased with how much he learned with that single failed attempt.

She refused to let him psych her out. Of course, he knew much more about all of this than she did, but that was only to be expected. Instead of worrying, she focused on the fire building within her. It burned painfully, and she could have sworn that her breath was smoke when she exhaled before Tom swung again. She brought the spear up in both hands to block this time and was relieved that the sword didn’t snap through the wood. Before Tom had a chance to recover, she kicked him in the stomach and managed to smack the middle of the spear into his jaw when he lost his focus.

Tom stumbled, and Kali grinned but something warned her to hold back. She wasn’t fast enough or sure enough to really take advantage of the opening. After only a second or two, Kali knew that Tom’s staggering was feigned and, sure enough, he shot her a grin when she did not advance.

After that, he barely gave her a moment to think. She was preoccupied with dodging and blocking a flurry of attacks. Her arms seemed to move on their own and she struggled to keep up. She was trying to get some distance, where she might have more time to react, but when she tried to step back Tom followed. His blade was flashing in the sunlight and Kali was finding it easier and easier to not care about hurting him. If she could ever lay a blow on him in the first place.

What she needed was to switch their positions, to make him retreat while she went on the offensive. She knew he was keeping up such a constant stream so that she wouldn’t be able to think. Only reacting was too limiting. Realising that, Kali changed tactics. Allowing frustration and weariness to show on her face, Kali lowered her guard just enough that she only just blocked the most recent of Tom’s strikes. She could see triumph in his eyes and knew that he believed she was slowing and getting tired.

Then, as a small grin curled his upper lip, Kali rolled aside and tripped him with her spear. He was surprised enough by her sudden recovery that he fell, staggering to the floor. Before he could try to right himself, Kali’s knee was on the wrist of his sword arm and the blade of her spear was at his throat. They were both panting and sweating; that fight had lasted longer than either of them had expected. Kali was definitely worse for wear than Tom. But it was only when she had pushed herself up and offered Tom her hand that she realised something: she had won.

But Kali realised, with a sinking feeling, that the assessment wasn’t over. Chiron trotted over and nodded, saying “Well done. That was…illuminating.” He waved Tom back towards the weapon racks, and turned back to Kali. “Now I wish to see how you fare with no weapons. Stow your spear and return to the centre of the ring.”

When she faced Tom once more, his face was set grimly. He did not like losing. Kali recalled how competitive he had been at school, but that could only have gotten stronger at Camelot. She bit the inside of her lip anxiously; he would be much more serious that time. But her insides were still churning, and her victory had done nothing to quench the inferno now raging inside her. She fixed her eyes on Tom and saw him frown curiously as Chiron told them to begin.

Without hesitation, Kali dropped and tried to sweep Tom’s legs from underneath him. To her annoyance, she hadn’t caught him off guard. He hopped over her leg and moved in to take advantage of her lower position. He went for a knee to the face, which Kali growled about, but she dropped back and rolled up onto her feet. Grounding herself, she ducked under another punch and kicked him in the stomach with as much might as she could muster.

He doubled over with a groan but caught her leg and twisted her onto the hard ground. Kali landed painfully on her shoulder and cried out with frustration, but flicked her foot up into his chin as he tried to move in. That gave her the chance to push herself back up and get a little distance. A metallic taste was in her mouth, and Kali felt a little dizzy. Her skin was prickling painfully, and the sun beat down on the pair of them as they circled each other slowly. But she grinned as she waited for an opening.

She was vaguely aware of the buzzing crowds that had filled the stands of the Colosseum. She could feel more than hear their excited chattering, but she didn’t want to think about them. She didn’t want to know that they were watching her. Tom noticed her glance away, and took full advantage of her distraction. He charged in with surprising speed, but Kali managed to drop to avoid his attack. She surprised even herself by tackling him in response, her shoulder colliding with his stomach. The momentum knocked him off his feet and Kali fell with him. In the tussle, Tom he gripped her wrists and rolled so that her body was beneath his before she could get up as they hit the floor.

Somehow, she managed to bring up her legs and tip him off her with an effective jolt and she kicked him in the chest when he tried to move back. He leapt smoothly to his feet and Kali snapped into a crouch, looking up at him and preparing to defend herself. She drew on the last reserves of her strength, calling on the simmering embers inside her. As he lumbered towards her like a bear and she twisted aside before punching him in the stomach.

It wasn’t until her fist made contact that Kali saw the flames encasing her hand.

Tom cried out, surprised, and scrambled to pull off his blazing shirt. She saw his skin blistering where her punch had scorched him, and she gasped, falling back, as she looked at her hand. The flames extinguished themselves slowly, but Tom’s face was creased with pain and Kali felt numb. Tom looked at her and took a shaky step towards her and Chiron calmly called out for them to stop.

Kali stumbled to her feet and moved to Tom’s side. She half-expected him to push her away but he grinned weakly. “Don’t worry; I’ve had worse.” There was truth in his grey eyes, but there was also pain. He took a shaky breath and muttered “Not bad, Kali.”

“Don’t waste your energy.” She mumbled, chewing her lip.

“When did you learn to fight like that, anyway?” He shot her a smile that did not reach his eyes, and his voice held a note of shock.

Kali looked down, hiding behind her hair. “I have no idea.” She admitted quietly.

Chiron, standing patiently at Kali’s side, softly interjected “Instincts.” Kali just looked at him, frowning, but he nodded and insisted “You fight based solely on what your body is telling you to do. You move when it tells you to move. It is interesting that you should find it so natural to fight when your siblings are usually healers. And not many of Apollo’s children have his way with fire.”

“I thought that Hephaestus was the god of fire?” Kali said weakly. She had to suppress a slightly hysterical laugh; that was what she was confused about? Which god it belonged to, not the fact that she had somehow conjured it? Then again, it wasn’t the first time. It also wasn’t the strangest thing that had happened in the last week; she was talking about gods to a centaur after all.

Chiron smiled gently and the look in his eyes was one that Kali was already getting used to; almost pitying but essentially kind. He simply said “Hephaestus is the god of useful fire. Apollo is the god of wildfire, which is a different beast entirely.”

“Oh.” That was as much of a reply as Kali could really manage.

“As I said, it is unusual that you have the ability to control fire. And the way you fight suggests some precognitive ability also. Something else that most of his children do not inherit.” His eyes were no longer warm but searching. After a moment of looking at Kali, he just shrugged and suggested “But perhaps you will not be quite as skilled at healing or some of his other abilities that your siblings excelled at.”

“Speaking of healing…” Kali murmured, looking hesitantly at Tom. “Shouldn’t we get Tom to the hospital to sort out that burn?”

His eyes swept over Tom, then he looked to the edge of the arena, where Sage was hovering. At Chiron’s glance, the satyr rushed over and pulled Tom’s arm over his shoulders to support him. Sage winked at Kali, and Tom valiantly smiled before dragging his feet away. Hospitalising Tom wasn’t exactly how she would have planned their reunion to end up. But he didn’t seem to be holding a grudge. And there was a small part of her that was smug; even if he’d been holding back, she’d done well.

But Kali’s worried gaze faltered and darkened when she remembered the crowd. She risked a glance and bit her lip; it wasn’t just demigods that had gathered. Ares and Hermes were both there as well.

Hermes was leaning casually against the railing of the stands, openly laughing. His eyes glittered even at a distance, trying to lure her in. Ares had stood by the main exit with his arms crossed over his chest. He made no attempt to hide his attraction, and his eyes slid over her. Kali shuddered slightly and turned to Chiron with a forced smile, saying “Are there any more tests?”

“Your physical assessment is over, for now.” He replied, with a knowing look. Gesturing towards the exit, he walked alongside her and put himself between her and Ares. With a casual nod at the god as they passed, Chiron led her quietly from the Colosseum and towards the centre of the camp.

___

Chapter Twelve

Kali barely noticed how much she was aching until she finally sat down at the Round Table. Chiron had brought her back to the meeting room above the mess hall, but now they were the only ones inside. Without the additional pressure, Kali traced the intricate lines carved into the table. She sighed wistfully and murmured “Is any of this real?”

“All stories and myths must come from somewhere.”

She smiled hesitantly; that wasn’t a real answer. But it wasn’t a lie. Rubbing her shoulder, Kali winced and took a deep breath. She could feel bruises all over her, and everything was tender at best.

With a smile, Chiron shot a measured glance her way and calmly said “I assume you are not used to such levels of strenuous activity?”

“That would be a safe bet. Walking, and occasionally jogging,” if she was late for the bus, maybe “are about my limit.” Aside from fighting for her life in unexpected places.

“Then you will be in for a rough few weeks while you acclimatise to your new routine.”

Kali shrugged with an almost genuine grin. “I adapt quickly.”

“Likely a reflection of your accelerated healing. Growth and regeneration…you should be fighting fit in no time.” He scrutinised her thoughtfully for a minute, taking note of the new information. “If you consent, I wish to ask you a few questions.”

He was astute, even with such an offhand comment. Kali tried not to let her nerves show on her face. “Like the questionnaire you left?” She asked, with mounting trepidation.

“Yes.” He nodded approvingly. “Have you completed it?”

“Almost.” But she would be going over it with a fine-toothed comb before giving it back.

“Good. I will be collecting it at the end of the week, so you have some time. It may seem unimportant, but we like to know our students here. Please answer as honestly as you can.”

Kali gave him a meek smile, and he nodded. For the next hour or so, though to Kali it seemed longer, Chiron asked her seemingly random questions about herself. About things she liked and disliked, things she could do, things she struggled with. She considered them carefully before answering, turning each one over in her head for hidden meanings. Apollo had said she should be safe as long as people knew she was his daughter. But Chiron was sharp. She couldn’t afford mistakes.

Nothing jumped out at her as being dangerous, so she answered the questions honestly. Eventually, he brought up the topic of her suitors.

“What is your opinion of Ares?”

Kali bit her lip. What did she really think of him? He was attractive; he was a god, so he ought to be. He was strong. His eyes were kinder than she had expected. But he was volatile. He moved to violence quickly and without remorse or regret. He expected her to fawn over him, and was shocked when she didn’t, so he was obviously arrogant and entitled. “He has a different set of morals to me.”

“Elaborate.”

Carefully, she continued “He uses any means to get his way, without considering the emotional effect it might have on other people.”

“And you think this is wrong.” Chiron stated. His voice was even, and his face passive, but Kali was afraid to speak plainly. She couldn’t lie now, though.

“I think it is unpleasant.” She admitted finally, staring at the etchings on the table again. She gazed at a carving of the Lady of the Lake holding Excalibur, and she frowned. “But I think that immortals can’t be held to mortal standards. Why should the God of War care about someone like me? My lifespan must be like the blink of an eye to someone that has seen the birth of my entire race.”

“And Hermes?”

She sighed wearily; Hermes was harder to read but she suspected he was just as dangerous. “Life is a game to Hermes, maybe because that’s the only way he can get through it. He sees more than he lets on. He knows people. He knows how to pull the strings from near and far to get what he wants. And it scares me that he might already be pulling mine.”

“It sounds as though you are not interested in their courtship.”

“I thought I’d already made that clear.” She moved her hands into her lap and clenched her fists slowly. “I don’t want to be the latest in a long line of conquests for anyone. Mortal or otherwise.”

Chiron moved from his place at the table and said, “I believe that is all I require for today.”

Following his lead, Kali slowly got to her feet. Chiron clopped towards the door and opened it for her, holding out his hand. “The rest of the day is yours to do as you will. Your classes begin tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Chiron.” She grinned, relieved, and Chiron found his lips curving into a warm smile in response. It did not surprise him that she had caught the eye of Hermes and Ares. She had a magnetic personality and an honest heart. But he was glad to see that she clearly had no idea how dangerous she could become. A more ambitious demigod could easily play the hot-headed Ares against his tricky comrade. Luckily, Chiron could see that she was not so conniving.

Kali’s heart was pounding when she left, but she kept her smile up until the door closed behind her. Taking several shaky breaths, she wobbled down the stairs and was hit by the warming aroma of food. Her stomach growled in response, and she realised she hadn’t eaten anything all day. It hadn’t even occurred to her. But there were so many people in the mess hall.

Instead of stopping, she avoided the glances they were sending her way and swiftly exited through the high archways. She was mentally and emotionally drained; if she had to try to navigate and dance around people, she’d rather go hungry. The fresh air was soothing against her face and she hovered outside, teetering on the decision of where to go next.

Shoving her hands in her pockets, Kali trudged towards the hospital to check on Tom. She dragged her feet, worried that he might not want to see her, but her concerns were unfounded. Before she even reached the fountain, she saw Sage and Tom bounding through the camp towards her. A knot loosened in Kali’s stomach when they both waved and called out to her.

She didn’t even need to mention food; they practically ran to the Mess Hall on their own, dragging her along with them. Kali was giggling by the time they got there and the three of them were sitting at a table together with food before she really knew what was going on. She just sniggered and said, “I guess you were hungry, huh?”

Tom laughed and started stuffing his face with whatever he could reach. Kali turned to Sage to roll her eyes at Tom, but he was eating with similar gusto. Something slid into place, and she couldn’t help but laugh at the two of them. She watched Tom wolfing down some pasta and giggled “You really haven’t changed a bit in the last three years, you know that?”

He stopped and looked at her, his fork halfway to his mouth, and swallowed his last bite before saying quietly “You have.”

Kali’s eyes widened for a minute, but Tom just went back to eating and she frowned at the table for a moment. She could hardly recognise herself after a couple of days. Of course, four years had to have had a big impact on the girl Tom had known.

“Still veggie, huh?” Tom asked, shooting her a disapproving look.

Kali shrugged and laughed awkwardly “You sound so surprised. You don’t get any vegetarian demigods?” She laughed, somewhat nervously.

Tom reasoned “Not with all the training we need to do.”

“Well…” She bit her lip awkwardly, and mumbled “I guess that makes sense. I just…” Kali pushed her food around on her plate for a moment. Her mother had always pushed her away from eating meat for a lot of reasons. But was that maybe more to do with staying hidden than for her health? “I’ll think about it.”

Tom frowned a little at her silence but shrugged. Without another word, he turned back to his food and started eating again. Sage nudged her and pointed to his own plate, which held the same spinach and ricotta cannelloni as hers. With a wink, he made a start on his own plate, and Kali smiled gratefully.

Curious, she busied herself looking around the mess hall. The room itself was just like any school cafeteria that she had been in, and she had seen a few. There was a large central pillar, where the food was served, and she had no idea where the kitchen could be. Tables littered the room, and the large staircase circled the interior. As she looked around, she finally allowed herself to observe the demigods around her They were all still sneaking looks at her when they thought she wasn’t looking, and she groaned inwardly.

Already, Kali could see that most of the demigods stuck with their own. It wasn’t difficult to see which group was which. A group of muscular kids scowling darkly in her general direction were Ares’ children, Kali guessed easily. The two tables in the middle of the hall with the most beautiful children Kali had ever seen had to be Aphrodite’s.

As Kali observed, she assumed that the animated discussions must be about their hair and nails. She rolled her eyes and started to look away until she noticed a girl in a brown dress hit the floor by their table. One of the girls, with blonde hair cascading down her back and smooth tanned skin, laughed cruelly, and Kali scowled. The moment Kali saw tears in the large green eyes of the girl on the floor, she cursed darkly and strode over to them.

As she stepped away from the table, she heard Tom ask what she was doing but she didn’t reply. Instead, she fixed her eyes on the blonde who was still laughing unpleasantly. Kali wasn’t sure what she was going to do, but she had been that green-eyed girl once and she just couldn’t sit by and let it happen.

Her feet took her to the girl’s side, just as the blonde tripped her up again. Kali gripped the girl’s arm before she could fall again and lifted her back into an upright position, murmuring “Easy, I’ve got you.” Helping her get settled back on her feet, Kali smiled warmly.

The girl blinked her green eyes, which suddenly looked rather large, and Kali noticed that her ears were pointed. There was a slight green tinge to her skin, and it felt almost like bark under her arm. When the girl continued to stare at her wordlessly, Kali shifted slightly and said “I’m new here and you look like the sort of person I could get along with. What’s your name?”

“Willow.” Her reply was so quiet that Kali almost didn’t hear it.

“Hi Willow, I’m Kali. You’re a nymph, right?” Willow just nodded, and Kali grinned at her blank face.

An uncertain smile finally lifted Willow’s lips, and Kali breathed a sigh of relief. Putting herself out there was more difficult than she’d like to admit, even in a situation like that. Ignoring the eyes around them, Kali muttered “Do you know Sage? He’s a satyr, and a friend of mine.”

She pointed over to the table where Tom and Sage were sitting, and Willow nodded again. “Come on, let’s get some food and have a seat.”

Gently taking the nymph’s arm, Kali started to walk with her across the room. She only stopped when a girl’s voice shouted “Hey, you! Where do you think you’re going with my nymph?”

Kali raised her eyebrow and muttered to Willow to just go to the table before turning to face the blonde girl. She sighed wearily and started “Look, I don’t know who you are, but-”

“I am Amanda, the daughter of Aphrodite, and the head of the student council.” The girl interrupted, flicking her golden curls over her shoulder and looking haughtily at Kali.

“Would you mind letting me finish?” Kali looked pointedly at the blonde, Amanda, until she blushed indignantly, and then continued “As I was saying, I don’t know who you are, but I really couldn’t care less. You can’t own another person. Willow is not your anything.”

“Well, you are new, and you obviously haven’t figured out how things work around here yet so let me fill you in.” Amanda fixed a sickeningly sweet smile on her plump lips. “You’re Apollo’s, I heard, so you should fit in just fine. But if you aren’t from an Olympian, then you have no right to be here. If you’re not even a demigod, like Willow and your little satyr over there, you are less than nothing. They’re just wasting resources that should be given to those of us who deserve to be here.”

Kali blinked, taken off-guard, and stared at Amanda. When she was finally certain that the girl was being serious, she raised an eyebrow and asked sarcastically “Do they teach you to be this conceited or is it just a gift?”

“Excuse me?” She raised her eyebrows, looking angry and confused. She just stared at Kali for a moment with wide eyes and then sneered “You still don’t get it, do you?”

Kali snapped “No, you don’t get it. I don’t give a crap what kind of warped sense of entitlement you have or why. But everyone here deserves their place, or they wouldn’t be here. Their worth is not for you to decide. So do yourself a favour and back off, before you get yourself hurt.”

Amanda flushed angrily, spluttering “Are you threatening me?

“If I was then you wouldn’t have to ask that question.” Kali replied with a small smile that she knew would infuriate the flustered bimbo in front of her. Then she shrugged and continued “I was just giving you some friendly advice. What you do with it is up to you.”

With that, Kali turned from Amanda just as she opened her mouth to retort and walked back over to her table. She ignored the sniggers from behind her and the murmurs that followed her across the canteen. She even ignored the stunned look on Tom’s face. She just sat back down and shot Willow a kind smile before rubbing her temples gently to ease her headache. After a moment, Tom seemed to come back to his senses and he muttered “Gods, Kali. You really have changed.”

“What?” She asked innocently, looking at Tom’s bemused expression with a smile.

Tom just spluttered “Kali, last time I saw you I had to fight all your battles. You wouldn’t even stand up for yourself, let alone anyone else.”

“Yeah, but you left, didn’t you.” Kali said simply, regretting it instantly when hurt flickered through Tom’s grey eyes. She sighed and muttered “That’s not what I meant. It’s just that a lot has happened since we were at school together, Tom. And I just got so tired of being everybody’s punch bag. Besides, there are scarier things in this world than some little bitch in dire need of an attitude adjustment.”

Tom replied “Well, yeah. I’m just surprised that you were the one to pull her up on it.”

“I don’t like people who feel the need to make those around them feel like crap just to make themselves feel bigger. It isn’t right.”

Sage grinned, saying “You won’t hear any argument from me.”

Thankfully, Tom dropped it to shovel more food in his mouth. In the new silence, Kali valiantly struck up a conversation with Willow. Once she pulled the nymph out of her shell a bit, Kali saw that the girl had a lovely smile and that she was quite sweet. She didn’t have much to say but her wide eyes took everything in, with an almost childlike wonder.

The rest of the day passed slowly, wandering through the camp with her new friends. Kali did her best to avoid the continued stares of the other demigods. But it was all so strange to Kali that it went by in a blur. She could hardly keep up with everything. She knew that she was going to be getting lost for weeks, even with Tom’s directions.

By the time she got back to her room, Kali was exhausted. She barely managed to change before she collapsed into her bed. In her last lucid moments, she went over her day and marvelled that a place like Camelot could exist in the world she thought she knew. But the strangest thing to Kali about Camelot was how familiar it felt. She had friends. It felt right. It felt like she was where she belonged. And that was going to take some getting used to.

___

Chapter Thirteen

Light drifted through the curtains, the first glimmer of sunlight cresting over the forest that surrounded Camelot. A smile was on Kali’s lips as she sat up. As warm and comfortable as her bed was, she was already buzzing with nervous energy. Her life had always been boring and predictable; she always knew what each day had in store for her. But now? Anything could happen. For the first time in her life, she had no idea what to expect.

Kali teetered on the border between excitement and terror as she went through her morning routine. The normal activities helped steady her, but she was still jittering when she left her apartment. She had donned her uniform and grabbed a bag, and she was ready to face the day. Her optimism dwindled somewhat as she began heading towards the Colosseum for her first class.

There was still plenty of time before Weapons Training, so Kali took a detour and wandered to the lake. It made more sense to her, knowing her mother’s heritage, that water always had a calming effect on her. Biting her lip, Kali thought about her phone. Out of habit, she had thrown it into her bag before she left her room. But she had put it on silent mode and hadn’t looked at it since she left her mum’s house.

Taking a deep breath, Kali braced herself for the guilt. She dreaded to think how many times her mother had called. She must have been worried sick. What must she have thought when she found an empty house? She hesitated but she couldn’t put it off any longer. She pulled it out of her bag with a stone in her stomach and unlocked it.

Nothing. No calls. No messages. No sign that anyone had noticed she was gone.

The silence was worse than any hurtful message she could have received. Staring at her empty inbox, Kali felt all of her energy just drain away. It was for the best, she knew. She had to be careful that no one found out who her mother was, or she’d be in danger. That had to be why there had been no calls.

Kali dragged herself out of her spiralling thoughts as more demigods started rushing through the camp. They were all so loud, moving around in their packs, and she felt like she was in slow motion. It was dizzying, watching them all scurry about. She slipped silently in line behind a group, turning off her phone and putting it back into her bag as she walked. She did her best to put it out of her mind; she would have enough to think about with her new lessons.

The air was cold in Camelot, even for early October. But the skies were clear, and a pale sun winked down at her as she stepped into the arena. The chill bit into her bare arms, but Kali didn’t mind. That feeling was the only thing keeping her focused.

Kali hadn’t quite taken in the sheer scale of the arena when she had first arrived. The Colosseum. She couldn’t fathom how many seats there must be up in the stalls, overlooking the arena floor. As she wandered through one of the grand archways, her hand found a pillar to her right and she leant against it to steady herself. It was a simple smooth pillar, solid stone, but it buzzed with life. The excitement of the spectators had seeped into it over the years. Kali could almost hear cries echoing through the stonework.

Unnerved, she stepped away and dropped her hand to her side. She couldn’t put it off any longer. Lifting her chin, Kali strode into the arena and towards the group of demigods about her age that were chatting near the centre. She only managed to take four steps before a hand closed around her wrist and a voice called “This isn’t a social club. Get moving.”

Ares’ grip was strong on her arm, and he pulled her against his body and pinned her in place. He laughed quietly in her ear and murmured “Good morning, sunshine.”

“It was.” She growled, keeping her eyes on the floor. Struggling slightly against his forced embrace, she tried to test his grip but there was no give.

“Don’t be like that. I’ll start to think you don’t like me.”

Kali looked up at him, keeping her face blank, and mocked “Heaven forbid I hurt your delicate ego.”

His grin did not falter, and he leaned in towards her. “You seemed to enjoy my company just fine, when we met.” Ares’ voice was low, intimate, and he whispered in her ear. “Or would you like a reminder?”

With a sharp, sudden movement, Kali jabbed her elbow into his throat and twisted away. The amusement on his chiselled features told her that he had allowed it, and she spat angrily “You took advantage of me.”

Crossing his arms, Ares leant against the column nearby and smirked “Oh, I’m sorry. Did I treat you like an adult capable of making her own decisions?”

“You lied to me.” She insisted, though a part of her couldn’t help but agree with him.

“Did I hurt your feelings, little one?” He asked, with an almost tender expression. His hand reached out to cup her cheek, and Kali hesitated. But she hated the familiar way he touched her. She hated the way he looked at her like he had some say in her thoughts or feelings. She hated the thought that this man would try to control any aspect of her life.

Slapping his hand away, Kali snapped “I will hurt more than your feelings if you touch me again.”

Blinking, Ares looked at his hand and then at the girl in front of him. And he laughed. Seething, Kali turned to leave but his hand closed around her wrist just long enough for her to feel the calluses on his palms. She whirled around to face him, her eyes full of fire, and he stepped back and held up his hands. “Let me make you a deal.”

“I want nothing you offer.”

“That seems surprisingly short-sighted of you.” His grin was back, but Kali noted that his hands were in his pockets. “I run assessments at the end of every month, to see how the demigods are coming along with their training. If you impress me, and I mean really impress me, then I’ll back off and wait for you to come to me.”

Suspicious, she replied “You’ll leave me alone?”

“If you impress me.”

“What do you get out of it?” She struggled against the urge to back away; he scared her, but she didn’t want to let him see just how much. “Deals normally go both ways.”

His answering grin showed every one of his perfect white teeth. “Win or lose, I get to see what you’re made of. That’s enough for me.”

“Then I want the knife, too.” She demanded, lifting her chin.

“Greedy.” He laughed, looking down at her. He noted the glint in her eyes, and the set of her jaw. He also noticed her balled fists trembling at her sides. “Alright. We’ll see how you do, sunshine. But don’t hold your breath; your kin have always been healers first.”

“We’ll see.” Kali grunted, and she turned away from him. Without a backward glance, she strode into the Colosseum and joined the line of demigods running around the edge of the arena. She fell in behind a thickset girl with an auburn ponytail, and desperately struggled to keep up the pace. When they finally stopped, the girl ahead of her wasn’t even out of breath. But Kali’s legs were like lead, and her lungs were straining.

Kali felt some small measure of relief when she saw she wasn’t the only one out of breath. But Ares started calling out exercises and her heart sank again. Music blared through the stadium and Kali let it run over her, using it to give her the energy she needed. The first hour of the class was spent with push ups, sit ups, squats, and other exercises she had never heard of.

Much to her surprise, through sheer tenacity, she was not the bottom of the rung in the class. There were several demigods there that had collapsed during the first stage. A guy about her age lay on the ground near her, with his face in the dirt. Light brown dreadlocks covered his face, and she would have wondered if he was still breathing if not for the laboured movement of his chest.

Part of Kali was relieved that she wasn’t the least fit member of the group. But she scolded herself for using others as a comparison. “No excuses.” She muttered to herself, as she pushed herself through another sit up. It was all too easy to sit back and be complacent. She needed to be the strongest that she could be. It didn’t matter if she was top or bottom compared to the others in the group. She was only competing with herself.

She managed to struggle through five push ups before her arms gave out. The sit ups were better. Pull ups were worse. She had no upper body strength to speak of, so the “warm up” was not something she was suited to. But faltering there would not make wielding any kind of weaponry any easier. A fact that was made even clearer after running through basic drills with a group of demigods using quarterstaffs.

The class ended earlier than Kali intended, as soon as they started pairing off. She ended up facing off against a boy a little younger than her with a smile that could only be described as cruel. After trying to fend him off for maybe thirty seconds, he got her into some kind of hold. And then he broke her arm. When he followed up with a crack across her head, Kali was almost relieved to be falling into the darkness.

Unfortunately, she startled back to consciousness spitting sand from the arena floor. The searing pain in her arm was greatly diminished, but her muscles were still aching and weak. Someone offered her a hand, and she took it automatically.

As she stood, she was surprised to see the boy with dreadlocks helping her up. She muttered an awkward thanks and closed her eyes briefly against a dizzy spell.

“Anytime.” He replied quietly. Mutters and disgruntlement reached her ears, talking of favouritism. Kali frowned but was met with a kind smile from the young man in front of her. “Don’t listen to them. They’re just jealous.”

Kali blinked, pausing halfway through massaging her right arm. “Jealous?”

“Not everyone has such a close relationship with their…divine parent.” He explained simply, his full lips still arranged in a gentle smile.

Confused, she stammered “I wouldn’t exactly describe it that way.”

“He healed you himself, the instant you hit the floor.” He shrugged, taking a step away from her now that he could see she was steady, and continued “It may not be the most orthodox father-daughter relationship, but he clearly has a vested interest in your wellbeing.”

Kali bit her lip but said nothing. She couldn’t exactly argue with him, considering Apollo had apparently healed her himself. Not to mention that he had exchanged some kind of favour with Hades to keep her safe. Perhaps that did mean something. But before she could consider too deeply, Ares’ voice jolted her back as he shouted for everyone to get back into their pairs.

For the last twenty or so minutes of the class, she managed to avoid another serious injury. But she was battered at every turn and everything hurt. She spent more time in the dirt than on her feet. At the very least, she could be proud of herself for not giving up. Her life was full of taking small victories where she could find them.

“Hey there.” A voice called from behind her. She turned to see the same guy that helped her up earlier in the class. “I don’t think we were introduced earlier. Call me Jem. Everyone does.” Jem held out his hand with a grin and she took it briefly. His charming smile faltered slightly at how little effect he seemed to be having on her.

“Thanks for the assist.” She muttered awkwardly.

“Anytime.” He shrugged, smiling again, and started walking beside her. As they approached the stables for their next class, he kept up a gentle stream of conversation. Kali did her best to reciprocate, appreciating the friendly face, but she was tense. Their lesson would be with Poseidon. Her grandfather. She didn’t know how it worked, but it was always possible that he would somehow sense their relation. Kali just had to hope that he was too busy in his own domain to teach some demigods about horses.

She was out of luck.

Poseidon’s immediate impression of Kali was that she had the sea in her blood. His swirling blue eyes narrowed as she approached, and she couldn’t help but shuffle slightly as she walked. But she didn’t falter, even as nervous as she was. A small bubble of something she couldn’t name swelled in her chest. She had always been looking for belonging, for family. And here it was in front of her. Not what she expected or could ever have guessed. But she couldn’t say anything.

Poseidon was magnificent. Just his presence alone called scenes of stormy waters and crashing waves to her mind. His hair moved in currents that she could almost feel as she drew closer to him. The thing that caught her the most was his eyes; the same glittering blue as her mother’s. For a long time, he just looked at her. Even Jem excused himself to join another boy about his age. Poseidon’s severe brow furrowed, and he asked, “What is your name, child?”

“Kali, sir.”

“Welcome to Camelot, Kali.” He said gently. He rubbed his beard thoughtfully, considering, before frowning again. “How much experience do you have with animals?”

“A fair bit.” She answered honestly but neglected to mention the safari park.

His eyes sparkled with keen intuition, and she bit her lip. Her guilty conscience would make any falsehoods all the more obvious, she was sure. But he said nothing. “And with horses?”

Was he suspicious? She couldn’t tell. Anxiety gnawed at her, but she forced herself to be calm. With a small smile to match his, she replied “Enough to know that I like them.”

“Good. You will not be riding today. Go to the third stall on your left and find the horse you will be taking care of for today’s lesson.” He was still frowning. “Her name is Maple.”

Kali muttered “Yes, sir.”

He watched closely as Kali jogged over to the stall. The horse, a good-natured but shy beige filly, sidled up to her immediately. Poseidon called over one of his stable hands and instructed him to take over for the rest of the lesson. With a glance back towards the newest addition to the group, he walked into the fountain and melted into the water.

Seeing him disappear, Kali shivered. Her mind whirled over what she had said and done, even in their brief interaction. Suddenly, the camp was not so welcoming. The danger around her was very certain, and she remembered all too suddenly that she did not belong there.

As she walked behind the bulk of her class, she could hear them talking about the next lesson. Specifically, about how afraid she would be. The girl she had clashed with the previous day, Amanda, seemed to be in her group. Leading the rest of the demigods across the courtyard, she was weaving quite the tale. If she had not already met Hades, she might even be nervous. The menacing aura, the chill that followed where the dreaded Lord of the Underworld walked…Kali was a little impressed at the convincing stage whispers.

Instead of scaring her, the realisation that she would be seeing him again steadied her. Not to mention, the building they were entering looked like a completely ordinary school. In such a normal hallway, fears about gods and monsters seemed almost silly. As she trailed behind the group, they collectively went up to the first floor and through the second door on the right.

The room itself was like any other classroom she had been in, except the darkness. The blinds at the front of the classroom were all shut tight, the only light coming from the windows at the back. Seeing the long shadows, Kali paused in the doorway with a small smile.

Clearly, she had dawdled too long; someone barged her out of the way and strode past her. She was startled to see the boy from her first class. Trevor, she vaguely recalled. She had heard someone shout it when he had broken her arm, though she had been a little preoccupied at the time. She clenched her jaw and watched him sidle up to Amanda and her group.

Sighing, Kali turned away and walked to the nearest seat. Most of the demigods were clustered at the back of the room. Kali assumed it was to make it easier to read, as that was the only light. But the sunlight would only distract her, so she welcomed the shadowy corner she was in. She dropped her bag at her feet and sat patiently, ignoring the hisses and the whispers coming from behind her.

After a moment, she smiled; Hades was there. An unmarked, leather-bound book appeared on the desk in front of her, and her smile widened. Worn lettering decorated the spine, and Kali breathed in the slightly musty scent that all poetry books should have. Hades moved away with a quiet chuckle, and Kali opened the book.

It was easy to lose herself in that room. With Hades’ calming presence and the cool dim light, she was so relaxed that she could almost fall asleep. She was still anxious, but it was hard to let her fears bother her all of a sudden. The sound of Hades’ deep voice rumbled through the room, and Kali sighed in spite of herself. She could feel his eyes drift back over her and she blushed furiously, but she felt the lock of his gaze, holding her in place.

Before she could make a fool of herself, Kali was startled out of the stare when something sharp struck her shoulder. She flinched instinctively, but leapt out of her seat when fangs sank into her leg. Her things scattered across the floor by her desk, but her attention was on the viper clinging to her leg. She ignored her burning cheeks and the cruel laughter from the back of the room and gathered up the snake. “Sorry, little one. I didn’t mean to startle you.” She murmured softly. How she hadn’t noticed it sooner, she didn’t know.

Untangling it from around her leg, she ignored the fading sting of venom from the wound. It wasn’t the first time she had been bitten by a snake, and she was sure it wouldn’t be the last. When she sat back down, curling the twisting viper around her neck, the jeering slowly died down. She threw an unimpressed glance back over her shoulder, but froze when Hades gently placed her book back onto her desk.

A chill settled over the room. Kali looked curiously towards where Hades had moved, much closer to where she was sitting. His voice was a little too measured and precise when he finally spoke. “Any further disruptions will not be received well. Shall we continue, or are there other fruitless pranks to endure?”

The silence that followed was absolute. Hades let it continue long enough that any sign of humour had drained completely before proceeding once more. No one dared speak until the class was over and the door was firmly shut behind them. Kali found it strange how effective such a small reprimand had been. Then again, she thought, the gods were all…well, gods. It made sense that the demigods would do as they were told in the face of displeasure from any one of them.

Not for the first time, Kali wondered if she ought to be a little more respectful in her interactions with them. She trailed behind the group towards the next classroom, forgetting about the snake until Jem, the boy she had spoken with earlier, nervously approached. Reminded that she wasn’t alone, she automatically tuned in to the hissing conversations around her.

“I hate it when he does that. Did you really have to make him mad?”

“How was I supposed to know she likes snakes?”

“Her father is the god of snakes, you imbecile.”

She frowned. Why did her love of snakes have to come from something she didn’t even know about her father? Why couldn’t she just like them because she liked them? At Jem’s suggestion, they went outside to release the snake back into the grass before Maths & Stratagems.

Athena very rarely took the class, always busy with some project or plan. The demigod who usually covered Athena’s classes greeted Kali formally as she walked in. He introduced himself briefly to her, with a polite bow, and pointed her to an available seat. She sat down, next to Jem and another boy she hadn’t seen, and the teacher whirled away to the front of the room to begin the lesson.

Hadriel, as he had told her to call him, was quite passionate about what he was teaching. It was difficult not to get caught up in his enthusiasm. Kali found herself taking an interest in things that she had never really considered before. She still found it slightly difficult to concentrate; she always did when she had to sit still indoors for so long. She had been fine in Hades’ class and she wondered if her restlessness had anything to do with the sun and her father. It seemed likely, especially the more she considered the possibility.

As the class went on and focused more on strategy and how to plan things out, Kali’s anxiety caught back up with her. She was a little bored, making note of names of ancient strategists and trying to remember which led which theory. Her mind quickly wandered back to her current situation. While she waited for the class to finish, Kali tapped her thigh with her pencil restlessly. She felt like she had too much energy in her body and nowhere for it to go.

When they were finally released from the classroom, Kali was relieved to breathe fresh air again. There were no more lessons for an hour, so most of the demigods were heading to the mess hall in the centre of camp. Jem and his friend hung back with her. When the rest of the group cleared out, Kali smiled uncertainly at him and he looked downright relieved. It was good to know that she wasn’t the only demigod who felt awkward around new people. Jem then remembered his manners and started “Oh, right. Kali, this is Carl. He’s one of Hephaestus’ finest.”

Carl blushed slightly, and Kali shook his hand, noticing how rough and callused his palm was. She forced a smiled and asked, “So do you work the forge a lot?”

“My hands give me away?” He smiled briefly when she grinned and then stated “I spend most of my free time there. I’ve even gotten used to how hot it is in there.”

“I haven’t seen it yet.”

Carl smiled hesitantly and stammered “Oh. M-Maybe I could show you around…sometime?”

“Sure, that’d be cool.” She grinned again, oblivious to the fact Carl had been trying to ask her out, and then turned to Jem and asked, “Are there any rules about the Arena or can we use it whenever?”

He shrugged, flicking his dreadlocks off his shoulders. “As long as there’s not a class on, otherwise you’d need permission. But they ‘advise’ us to not use it alone in case someone gets hurt.” He shot her a confused look. “How come?”

She looked away and muttered shiftily “I was thinking of doing some training outside the classes to catch up a bit.”

“Fair enough. You probably won’t get much privacy, though.” She frowned slightly, and he continued “Or hadn’t you noticed how everyone keeps watching you? I’d bet people would find an excuse to be there if you were training.”

She just scowled and muttered “I had noticed, yeah. You’d think you didn’t get any new demigods here.”

“Usually only kids. Give it time, it’ll die down.” He grinned, and Kali noticed dimples in his cheeks.

“I just hope it’s sooner rather than later.” She sighed and then looked up at the sun; they still had half an hour left, and she was itching to be moving. But Jem wasn’t wrong about privacy. Shifting uncomfortably, Kali realised that most of the demigods were watching her again. She wished she had excused herself when Jem spoke to her and gone to the library where there would be fewer people. It hadn’t occurred to her at the time.

Glancing around to avoid the stares, she spotted Tom walking a little way off with Sage. She excused herself from Jem and Carl and ran over, half-tackling Tom with a hug. Catching him off guard, they both tumbled to the ground. Sage almost fell over, laughing himself into a stitch. When they had all recovered, Kali admitted “I was hoping you’d do me a favour.”

Tom’s eyes narrowed slightly; it wasn’t like her to ask him for anything. “Go on?”

“Would you mind helping me train?”

“Sure.” He seemed relieved, rubbing the back of his neck. “Fitness, or combat?”

“Combat.” She paused, biting her lip. Her fitness could really use some work. There was no point knowing how to fight if she couldn’t keep up. Reluctantly, she groaned “Well…both, I guess. I need to catch up, fast.”

Tom laughed. “Catch up? Kali, I’ve seen half the idiots in your group. You’re already caught up.” Frowning, he asked “What’s going on?”

She hesitated. She didn’t want to go into it; he would tell her she was being ridiculous. He wouldn’t accept her motivation if it was for someone else. Instead, she searched herself for another honest answer. “I need to get stronger. I…I don’t want to feel helpless anymore.”

Kali hated the pity that clouded Tom’s features then. His eyes flickered back to the scar on her face, and she clenched her jaw. After a moment, Tom looked out towards the fountain and nodded. “I’ll train with you. Just be careful what you wish for; you know I won’t go easy on you.”

“I’m counting on it.” Kali forced her mouth into a grateful smile. She winced suddenly as a shrill bell rang through the camp, letting them know to start heading to their next classes. Jem had mentioned that she’d get used to it, but she wasn’t holding her breath. Her ears were buzzing as she muttered “I’d better go. See you later?”

He nodded “Yeah. Arena after classes?”

“Sure thing.” She punched his arm gently and grinned at Sage before heading back to the school building.

___

Chapter Fourteen

Ancient History should have been fascinating. Growing up, Kali had always loved reading about Greek Mythology. Any mythology interested her, but something always resonated in her about the Ancient Greek legends. But sitting in another stuffy classroom, nothing the teacher said seemed completely true. Hades had mentioned that not all the myths were accurate, but it wasn’t the differences that Kali found odd. It was the fact that in every tale the gods could do no wrong. It sounded like propaganda.

Most of the other students were just lapping it all up or weren’t listening. But there were a few like Kali who thought that whoever had written this history had been wearing rose-tinted glasses. Jem and Carl were sitting with her and they seemed to be tired of listening to it. Jem was just staring at the wall ahead with a pen loosely in his hand and Carl seemed to be sketching some sort of weapon. Kali glanced at it for a moment but didn’t want to make Carl uncomfortable, so she sighed and went back to listening to what the teacher was saying.

The half-truths and veiled lies were making Kali uncomfortable. The worst part was that the teacher, one of the librarians, didn’t even seem to realise there was anything wrong with them. Which was probably why she was teaching the class. But Kali was sure that the truth had to be somewhere; they could teach the new generations what they liked but they must have preserved what happened. For the rest of the lesson, Kali tried and failed to pay attention.

When they got out, it was time for Horticulture with Demeter. The goddess of nature often took the lesson herself; she would have been in the greenhouses anyway. Demeter was the only one of the gods that Kali had met so far that looked dirty. She liked to do most of her work by hand, not from afar with her powers, and it showed. She had a smudge of soil on her nose and some small twigs in her earthy brown hair. Her beige dungarees were baggy and covered with mud. But her eyes sparkled pea green and her smile was infectious. When Kali got to the greenhouse with the others, the goddess strode over and shook her hand before steering her inside.

As soon as Kali was in the greenhouse, all the plants turned towards her and leaned in as she passed. She hesitated but Demeter took her arm and pulled her through them, stating “Don’t mind them; they’re not used to having so much sunlight so close.”

Kali just looked at her, puzzled, and the goddess laughed and explained “Your father is the god of the Sun, among other things, Kali. They react even more to his presence here.”

“But…plants have never done that around me before.” She said uncertainly.

“These plants are so used to the presence of gods and demigods that they act as they should.” Demeter replied, moving briskly through the rows of planters. “Understand?”

Kali bit her lip. “Not really.”

“Good. Before we begin, I want to see how much you know about what some of my plants can be used for.” Demeter smiled kindly and Kali found herself warming up to the goddess quite quickly.

“Oh…okay…I don’t know much about horticulture.” She warned her, not wanting to disappoint when everyone seemed to expect so much from her. She was already baffled, and she had only just arrived.

Demeter just smiled, her eyes twinkling, and stated “You will.”

That class flew by quicker than any of the others. Kali didn’t know she could learn so much in one hour. Instead of just carrying on as normal, Demeter had decided to recap everything they had learnt so far – many of the students seemed glad of this – so Kali took rushed notes and tried to keep up. By the end of the class her head was crammed with plant names and properties and formulas for all sorts of salves and potions. She knew she would have to copy up her notes while she still understood them otherwise she would never be able to decipher the messy scrawl.

Even though she was nursing a headache, Kali was smiling. She always loved a challenge, she liked having to struggle to keep up. Demeter had made no allowances for any of them and rushed through at top speed. The goddess clearly expected her students to do their own work and research in their own time; if they didn’t then they would fall behind, and she wouldn’t wait for them.

 As Kali was, once again, swept up with the rest of her classmates leaving the greenhouses she heard some of them complaining. Carl and Jem were beside her again – though she had barely noticed them during the class – and they just rolled their eyes, but a couple of others were agreeing. Halfway back into the main camp, the group ended up stopping on the grass.

Amanda turned to face the rest of the class and whined “Just because she’s a goddess she completely forgets that not everyone can keep up at that speed! I must remember to bring it up at the student council meeting. It’s not right, and it’s not fair!”

Carl grumbled something about double standards under his breath and Kali and Jem both smirked appreciatively. Trevor stormed up and stood over Kali, giving her a toothy grimace and shouting “You think it’s funny, do you? She’s talking serious stuff here and you’re just sniggering like kids!”

Amanda walked over, her eyes boring into Carl’s until he looked away, and said haughtily “This is stuff that we really want to know, and she just rushes through it and expects us to know what she’s talking about! And you think it’s a joke?”

“You’re the joke.” Kali snapped. She refused to back down to a bully like Trevor, though her arm panged a reminder of their first meeting. Stepping past him to address the blonde demigod directly, she continued “She doesn’t expect you to know what she’s talking about; she expects you to take it away and work on it yourself. If it’s something you really want to learn then surely you would have been doing that anyway?”

Amanda blustered, trying to find the words for a response. Kali was already sick of this girl’s attitude and she knew no one else was going to say anything. Even if it meant a fight, she couldn’t let something so pathetic stand. Before Amanda could calm down enough to regain the use of her tongue, Kali stated “You’re old enough for her not to have to mollycoddle you. But if you want to be treated like a child then maybe you should tell Demeter that yourself, instead of just bitching about it when you think she’s out of earshot.”

There was a long silence and Amanda was fuming. Kali almost expected the pristine blonde curls to catch fire, but they didn’t. Amanda’s cheeks were bright pink, and she was furious at being embarrassed in front of the whole class. It was like her lips had been fused together but she managed to pry them apart and sputtered “You…you have no…”

“Save the comeback; I don’t really care enough to wait half an hour for it.” Kali said honestly.

Amanda somehow managed to turn an even deeper pink and then, quite suddenly, she slapped Kali across the face. Most of the students were shocked by that, though a couple of Amanda’s ‘friends’ laughed, but they were even more surprised by Kali’s reaction. She was still for a moment and then she smiled broadly and said quietly “That is the first time you’ve been honest since I met you. I’m impressed. There may be hope for you after all.” Then she laughed and turned away from the confused girl in front of her. The others automatically moved out of her way and their wide eyes only made her grin widen.

It didn’t take long for Carl and Jeremy to catch up, but Kali had already stopped laughing and was just sitting on the edge of the lake, looking thoughtful. Jem was still chuckling to himself and Carl was grinning, and they sat on either side of Kali. To Kali’s surprise, Jem’s twin brother Jack followed them over as well. He didn’t say anything; he just handed Jem a small purse of coins and flicked his floppy hair out of his eyes to wink at Kali.

Taken aback, Kali waited until he had walked away again and turned to Jem with eyebrows raised. He simply said, “I won our bet.”

“I have a feeling I should be worried.” She said drily. “What exactly was this bet of yours?”

When he grinned, she could see all his teeth and she sighed. After another moment or two of that wicked smile, Jem admitted “I bet my brother that he would find you hot by the end of today. Which is, I’m guessing, why he winked at you.”

Scowling, Kali muttered “You should bet him that he won’t be able to get me to go out with him by the end of the week. Do that every week and you’ll make a fortune.”

Jem laughed but shrugged, insisting “You’d be surprised. Even if you don’t like him now, which I doubt, he can be pretty persuasive.”

“I doubt he is more persuasive than Ares or Hermes.” She muttered bitterly.

Jem and Carl frowned, and Kali just shook her head at their questioning glances and looked up at the sun. She suddenly stood up and said she’d see them at dinner, leaving them both bemused behind her as she ran towards the Colosseum.

She was frustrated to see that Ares was there, with a group of demigods running drills. Once Tom arrived, he explained that Ares always had extra sessions at the end of the day, but the Colosseum was available for anyone to use. Biting her lip, Kali glanced over, but the god of war didn’t seem to have noticed them. She nodded at Tom. “I’m ready when you are.” She wasn’t going to run away and hide.

For the next hour or so, the three of them ran through various conditioning exercises and basic techniques. She was incredibly unfit compared to Tom and Sage, but she refused to falter. Through sheer stubbornness, she made it through everything they suggested. When they finally moved onto using the quarterstaff, Tom was surprised by how quickly she picked up what he’d taught her. He was more surprised that she was still standing.

Even though he had known how determined Kali was to get better, he hadn’t expected her to come at it so hard to start with. At times he even struggled to keep up with her; she was relentless even with moves she had just learnt. But once he realised how hard she was willing to work he really started to enjoy their session. As inexperienced as she was, she still pushed him to work harder than most of the guys in his own class. It wasn’t that she was particularly skilled; it was the sheer fire and intensity she brought to everything she did. She had always been like a kid sister to him, but now he found himself looking up to her and respecting her.

When they were finished, Tom looked just as worn out as Kali did. Sage hadn’t broken a sweat. Laughing, he said “I haven’t seen him work so hard in years. You really don’t do half measures, do you?”

“Not if I can help it.” Kali admitted and shrugged. Everything hurt, and her head was spinning, but she grinned. Glancing at Tom, she jabbed him weakly in the stomach and said, “Come on, tubby.”

“I’m not too tired to put you on your arse again, Kali.”

“Unlucky for you; I know that’s a lie.” She giggled, prodding him again. Before he could retaliate, she danced out of reach and excused herself to get changed. She staggered over to the small block of flats with the sun painted over the front door.

Each block of flats held the rooms of the children of each of the gods. Aphrodite’s was, unsurprisingly, the largest but it was closely followed by Ares’ and Hermes’ buildings. The rooms were apparently very different in the other buildings, but Kali hadn’t seen any of them yet. Her own rooms were spacious and bright, almost too bright when she was trying to sleep. They were quite bare; she didn’t have many belongings to fill them with yet. But a new plant next to the table in the living room area caught her eye as soon as she entered the room. She smiled slightly as she spotted what were obviously gift baskets beside the plant and approached them.

Before she did anything else, Kali moved the plant into the corner of the room and used the watering can that had been conveniently placed beside it. She assumed it was a gift from Demeter; she apparently gave all the students a plant to brighten up their rooms when they arrived. The gift baskets would be from some of the other Olympians. Again, Tom had mentioned when he was showing her around all students received housewarming gifts and things they may need.

Kali decided she could look at the gifts when she got back from dinner. She tried not to pay any attention to the baskets and boxes as she got dressed. The temptation to open them was challenged only by her reluctance to be late for dinner.

Not quite used to where everything was, Kali spent some time looking at food around the central pillar before finally going to find a seat. She spotted Tom and Sage chatting nearby, so she went to sit with them and the three of them were soon joined by Jeremy and Carl. Eventually, a very quiet Willow wandered over without any food. She only sat down when Kali kicked out the chair next to her for the nymph.

Tom seemed to know pretty much everyone at Camelot, so no introductions were necessary for him, but Sage and Willow hadn’t met the two demigods in Kali’s class yet. Carl seemed nervous, but Jem took everything in his stride and didn’t seem to share the opinions of his siblings about satyrs and nymphs. It wasn’t long before they were all joking and talking, even Willow, and Kali wondered how it was suddenly so easy. She had never been good at talking to big groups of people, especially if they didn’t know each other, but this just felt so simple.

Tom asked Kali what she was grinning so much at and she just shrugged and didn’t reply. Sage smiled slowly, like he knew exactly why she was happy, and they went back to chatting. Kali took a few moments away from making conversation to eat and noticed the warmth of the sun on her back. She frowned gently and turned to see her father’s back retreating through one of the archways encircling the mess hall.

Sighing softly, Kali stood and excused herself for a moment before leaving the table and following Apollo away from the crowds. It had been brightly lit inside the mess hall where they were having their dinner but outside the sun had set and the sky was dark. Kali shivered slightly, even in her jumper, and saw that Apollo had stopped by his statue. She scowled darkly but jogged over, guessing that he wouldn’t want to be kept waiting.

When Kali stopped in front of her father he looked grim and she stated “Poseidon.”

“He knows.” Apollo’s voice was weary. “You are lucky he cares more about family than rules. He will not speak of this. But you should be more careful. The more who know of this, the more likely it will get back to Zeus.”

“I understand.” Kali muttered irritably.

He scowled darkly and asked, “Do you?”

“Yes.” Her answer was short and so was her temper. She had spent most of her life taking care of herself and she didn’t need him suddenly acting like her father. But she said nothing of this and just met his glare with a defiant stare of her own. Apollo’s lips twitched slightly into a brief smile and he stated, “I will see you tomorrow, Kali.”

Kali didn’t trust herself to speak so her jaw remained tightly clenched until Apollo had wandered off and out of sight. She sighed bitterly and returned to the mess hall though she had lost her appetite. Suddenly she was hit by a wave of exhaustion; it had been one of the longest days of her life. All she wanted to do was go back to her rooms and bury her head in the pillows until sleep took her. She spent just enough time in the mess hall to excuse herself permanently before slipping away from the crowds.

It was early, too early to sleep really, but Kali only just managed to make herself get changed before falling into her bed. She pulled the covers up over her head with a small smile and was swept away by her dreams. A quiet voice called her name and pulled her deeper into her slumber, letting the darkness surround her like a shroud.

___

Chapter Fifteen

Kali was in a cave. She couldn’t see anything at first; she never could, but she knew that her eyes would get used to the dark eventually. When they did, she knew what she would see. The rough walls of the cavern, a pitch tunnel that she never dared approach, and the man in chains. The same dream she had been having for as long as she could remember. It had changed with time; at first, she had been too afraid to even move. The first few years she started having this dream it had been a nightmare. The darkness had forced itself inside of her, swallowing her, and she had clung to the wall and screamed. It had not come to her often, but it stayed with her since that first visit.

As she grew older, it became more frequent. After a while, she managed to open her eyes in the dream and look at where she was. But she could not move, and all she saw was an empty abyss. Eventually, she managed to see that there was a structure, the abyss was a place. She felt the wall behind her and realised it was rock, realised that the emptiness was some sort of cavern. That cave tormented her conscious mind as much as it did her dreams, haunting her. Many nights she was afraid to sleep in case she was dragged back there.

It took some time for her to stand and step away from the wall. When she did, she was terrified of losing herself to the emptiness around her. The only reason she found the strength was because of the figure she had seen kneeling in the centre of the cavern. She had never seen him before, so preoccupied with not losing her mind in the hollow loneliness that consumed her when she was there. It was all encompassing. But, when she saw him, she could feel how hopeless he was. She knew that she could not abandon him to that place.

Kali had come a long way from that first tentative step away from the wall. She had approached the man with shackles on his wrists and sat with him in silence for what felt like hours at a time. She dreamt of him at least once every week now and it was almost as though he was calling out to her. There were parts of that place that still terrified her but as long as she sat with him she was not afraid; he would protect her. They never spoke but they understood each other without needing words.

It always felt so real but when she woke up and stepped out of the house into the world, the intensity of it all ebbed away. He still haunted her thoughts, but she knew he was just some figment of her imagination. She had seen a therapist, more than one, because of her ‘issues’ at her last schools and had mentioned the dreams once. The woman had told her that they were manifestations of her anxiety and her feelings of isolation, probably because of the loss of her father. Kali had tried to believe her, but the dreams were persistent, and they always felt so real.

Kali did not move; waiting for her sight to adjust; she still feared the consuming darkness. She had seen what lurked in the shadows, waiting for prey, once before and she did not want to encounter that particular beast. Not even in her dreams. This was the first night since before she had left for Camelot, before she had found out that the real world was a lie, that the man in shackles had called to her. So much had happened, things were so different, but he seemed so constant.

As soon as she could see the faint outline of him kneeling on the hard ground, where he always was, she moved to his side. She felt beings in the shadows around her but paid them no heed. She did not realise how uneasy she had been until she had arrived in that dark place. When she saw him, a weight lifted from her shoulders and she let go of a fear she had not known she was bearing.

It was that night that he spoke to her for the first time. His voice was barely a whisper and hoarse from so long without use, but it was oddly soothing when he murmured her name quietly. At the sound, she just looked at him blankly and a pained smile touched his lips. She could barely see, even accustomed as she was to the dark of that cave, but his silvery green eyes were bright as he looked upon her. He said her name again and she felt a tear spring unbidden to her eye, but she could not move.

“I did not think to see you again.” He said slowly, his voice so quiet she could barely hear him. “You are so far away. I thought perhaps you had left. But even now you have come to me.”

Kali knew that the language he was speaking was nothing she had ever really heard before, but she could understand every word and found herself replying in the same tongue. Her voice was almost as quiet as his as she hesitantly asked, “Is this…real?”

“I cannot answer that.”

“Who are you?” She asked desperately.

He said nothing and Kali wondered if he even had an answer to that question anymore. When she had given up waiting for a reply, he whispered “I am the endless shadow, hiding from the light. I am the silence that deafens in the never-ending night. I am the betrayer, betrayed by my own kin. I heal all but commit man’s gravest sin.”

The words echoed through the cavern and sent shivers down Kali’s spine. She could not shake the feeling that she had heard those words somewhere before. She just looked at him, looking into his shining eyes, and resisted slightly as she was pulled away and knew that she was waking up. His eyes shone with regret and Kali fought to stay just a moment longer, but she opened her eyes and she was lying in her bed. Before she even got up, she grabbed a notepad and pen and wrote down the riddle before she forgot it.

She lay back again and wondered, not for the first time, if it had maybe been more than just a dream. This life was so new to her that she just didn’t know if something like that was possible. But the thought that the dark cavern really existed terrified her, and the thought that the man in shackles was really imprisoned there was almost too distressing to think about. Kali pushed the thought aside as she had so many times before and forced herself out of bed.

It was still dark outside; one thing that Kali didn’t like about this time of year was getting up and going outside before the sun had risen. Pale light struggled through the gap in her curtains, but Kali turned from it and started getting ready. Her first lesson was Weapons Training with Ares again, so she pulled on a fresh pair of tracksuit bottoms and another red t-shirt and those clumsy army boots.

When Kali made her way into the living room of her flat, she remembered that she hadn’t yet looked at the gift baskets that had been left in the middle of the room. She had planned to last night, but she had just been so tired that it had slipped her mind. A small smile crept across her face as she sat on the floor and pulled the first one towards her. They were meant to be things that she needed for the classes, but she was still excited; presents were presents after all.

There were three baskets and a few boxes sitting on the floor of her living room and the first basket she looked at was tied with a purple ribbon. She picked up a bottle of wine from it and looked at it, puzzled about how this could be relevant to one of her classes. She wasn’t much for drinking but it looked like an interesting bottle so she replaced it beside the two others that were there and decided that she would try them at some special occasions. She read the card and saw that this was from Dionysus, the god of wine, the theatre and madness. Though he specialised in the kind of madness brought on by certain drugs and substances, he was actually the main authority on all forms of insanity. Also in his basket were some books about mental illness and about biochemistry. Kali flicked through one of the textbooks briefly and then picked up the box in the bottom of the basket. The note attached to the box told her enough to know that she probably wouldn’t be using this in her free time; poisons and ingredients to damage the mind of your opponents. Useful though that may be in certain situations, Kali doubted she would be able to sink so low; it seemed dishonest and unnecessarily harmful.

The next basket was pink and was filled to the brim with makeup, accessories, and general beauty products. Not to mention a number of bottles of perfume that Kali had never even heard of. According to one of the many notes in this basket, these and the list that had been written down were the fragrances that would complement her own natural scent perfectly. She was sceptical but assumed that the goddess of love, lust and beauty would know what she was talking about. All the makeup and products were meant to be perfect for her, but she had decided to reserve judgement until she had tried them.

Part of her wanted to hate this particular goddess; Amanda had only highlighted what Kali had assumed Aphrodite and her family would be like. But Jem was of the same stock, and he was more interested in other aspects of beauty and love. Still, she guessed that Aphrodite was reflected more in her Barbie doll daughter when she read the note that said makeup was compulsory in her classes. Kali scowled and put aside that basket, reaching for the third and final basket.

This one was not decorated with a ribbon but with flower buds that were growing from the woven wood of the basket itself. Kali did not need to read that label to know that this was from Demeter. Inside was a selection of aromatherapy oils and a large compendium of plants and their uses. She half-smiled and made a mental note to write up the notes from the horticulture class while she could still read them.

There were two boxes on the floor and Kali opened the one that was embossed with the symbol of Hermes – the caduceus – first. It held a variety of lock picks and a Swiss army knife with many attachments that Kali didn’t even recognise and had no idea what they would be used for. She guessed that she would find that out in the ‘Survival Skills’ classes with Hermes which she would be starting the following week. There was also a miniature globe and a selection of maps which were clearly to be used in the cartography classes.

The final box smelled of the sea. When Kali lifted it, she could hear waves crashing. The box itself seemed to be made of coral of some sort. Inside was an intricate looking compass and other navigation tools. There were also sea shells littering the bottom of the box and three books – one about sailing, one about horses, and one about the sea itself and the creatures within. The latter seemed to have been written by Poseidon himself, or at least those in his court, and when Kali looked through it she saw that it went into great depth and detail about the politics of his kingdom.

Before heading to the arena for Weapons Training, she put the gifts in her bedroom. She was not looking forward to seeing Ares again, but she felt almost ill thinking about the class she would be having with Apollo later in the day. She tried to stop thinking about it and just jogged across the camp towards the Colosseum for the class.

Weapons Training passed in much the same way as before. No matter how stubborn she was, there was only so hard she could push her pathetic muscles. But she knew she would improve, with hard work and a little patience. The latter didn’t come naturally to her, but she had time. She was picking up the weapon drills with little difficulty, and she found she enjoyed it. Even more so, she enjoyed that Ares was keeping his distance. If she wanted to catch him off guard, she had to hide her improvement from him as much as possible.

Finally, the time came for Kali’s first Archery class with Artemis. She had been looking forward to it greatly; any relation to the God of Archery was sure to be able to shoot an arrow. She could relax and be herself. No hiding. Not to mention, Artemis and Apollo had no secrets from one another so she already knew who and what Kali was.

Even as a child, Kali had always admired Artemis. As the maiden goddess, she was unmarried and drew her worth from herself. She was the complete opposite of Kali’s mother in that. Kali could remember imagining Artemis as an older sister when she was struggling. In some ways, meeting her was like greeting an old friend. But it was also embarrassing that her imaginary friend turned out to be a real person. A powerful goddess, at that.

Artemis treated Kali like she was no different to the other students. She was attentive, with a warm smile and a no-nonsense attitude. There would be no special treatment, and that was the way Kali preferred it. Things were similar with Apollo later in the day, in the Music class. Unlike Artemis’, her father’s distance bothered her. She didn’t know how she wanted him to act, or what she wanted him to say. More than anything, she was angry with herself for being so worried, or expecting anything at all.

After Music, Kali wanted to be alone. Instead of seeking out Tom, she sat at the edge of the lake. It was a popular spot, but she managed to find a quieter section, further from the mess hall. She simply sat watching the reflections of the sunlight in the water until it was time to go to Psychology, where she ended up sitting with Jem and Carl. The two boys were pleasant company, which helped her shake off her lethargy enough to seek Tom out for some training before dinner.

For the little time they had before dinner, Kali simply focused on channelling channel her feelings towards something that would make her fight rather than give up. Her distracted thoughts put her on the floor more than she would have liked, but any progress was good progress.

The closer Kali got to the mess hall, once they had called it a night, the more her anxiety spiked. Clearly, she wasn’t ready to face such a rowdy place in her current headspace. Before she could think of any excuses, Sage turned to her with a smile, saying “See you tomorrow.”

She grinned, relieved, and gave him a quick hug before heading back to her rooms for the evening. Despite a night of dreamless sleep, Kali didn’t feel much better come sunrise. Her first class would be Unarmed Combat, and she was afraid of the fire that had burst from her the last time she fought someone up close. Even in a practice bout with Tom, it had just erupted from her without warning.

But she knew she couldn’t shy away from it forever. More than anything else, that new little “talent” was one that she had to learn to control. Fear wouldn’t do her any good. Not that knowing that made it any easier to snap out of her uncertainty.

Kali shuffled her feet on the way to the Colosseum, forgetting about breakfast, and reluctantly joined the group running laps. Ares was, thankfully, busy with one of the other groups they shared the arena time with, so Kali managed to keep her head down and focus on keeping up. One of the teaching assistants, Jared, went through the “usual” gruelling drills with them until it was time to pair off to practice.

Her head was a jumble of guards and forms, so Kali was relieved when she was pulled aside with a couple of others in the group. Jared spared them half a steely glare before shouting “Eliza, make yourself useful and get over here.”

“What?”

“Got some greenies could use a hand.”

The girl, Eliza, looked over at them with clear disdain and stomped towards the group. With bright red hair and tanned skin, she didn’t look much like her father. The only thing that set her with the rest of her siblings was her muscular build.

Jem, an almost permanent fixture at her side, decided that would be a suitable time to tell Kali everything he knew about their coach. The only thing she really picked up from Jem’s hurried whisper was that Eliza had been at the camp since she was a child. She was only seventeen, younger than Kali, but was in one of the older classes because of her experience.

“I thought only Aphrodite’s brats liked to gossip.” Eliza called out, her glare fixed on Kali. “You here to fight, or not?”

Kali was slightly taken aback, but she knew she shouldn’t have been surprised by the hostility. Clearly, a lot of Ares’ demigods had issues expressing themselves without resorting to violence. Shooting Jem a small smile, Kali stepped forward and said “I’m here to learn.”

In a heartbeat, Eliza had tackled her and pinned her to the ground. Startled, Kali didn’t struggle and just lay dazed. Smug, the girl leaned in and said “Lesson one. There are no countdowns in a real fight.”

She released her and Kali pushed herself to her feet, feeling bruised. Again, Eliza swung without warning and Kali barely managed to pull herself out of the way. Trying to remember the forms they had been shown, she blocked the next attack and was rewarded with a knee to the gut. She fell back, tasting blood, but pushed herself back to her feet with a grimace.

Eliza watched her with unveiled disgust, grunting “You’re not even that strong; he usually likes women that can actually handle themselves. I don’t know what he sees in you.”

“Trust me, neither do I.” Kali admitted, breathing heavily.

Eliza scoffed and then threw herself back at Kali without hesitation. Kali had guessed she would and was more prepared this time. She didn’t want to be ‘worthy’ or Ares’ attention, but she did resent the implication that she wasn’t good enough for him. This girl didn’t even know her. As her irritation swelled into anger, Kali’s focus sharpened.

Forgetting the jumbled techniques she had tried to absorb, Kali just clenched her jaw and reacted. Chiron had said that she was a ball of instincts, so she should use them. Smoke curled the ends of her hair and she launched through a wide swing Eliza sent her way. The girl was being reckless because she was fighting someone with less experience. Kali would make her regret it.

Kali lost count of how many blows they exchanged. Hardly any made real contact, and Eliza was sweating just as much as Kali was when she finally managed to flip her. Once again, Kali rolled back up onto her feet, but Eliza held up her hands and muttered “You were holding back.”

“I usually am.” She coughed, sitting back on the hard ground.

“Huh.” Eliza paused to breathe, clearly battling herself. Begrudgingly, she asked “So what did you do to get him to notice you?”

Kali just looked at her, panting. “What?”

“You must have done something. To impress him, gain his favour, that sort of thing.” Eliza’s tone was dark again, but she wouldn’t look at her.

Kali sighed irritably and stated “Ares knows that, as far as I’m concerned, he can take his favour and shove it.” The last words were directed to where he was stood watching, and he laughed openly. Grimacing, Kali muttered “I didn’t do anything to get him to notice me; I didn’t want to be noticed.”

“So…you don’t like him?” Eliza frowned, confused, and Kali realised that she had thought that Ares’ advances were welcome.

Kali actually laughed weakly and said “No offense, but he’s a creep.”

“I’m not going to argue about that.” She admitted quietly, pushing the red hair that had been spiralling out of her ponytail away from her face.

Kali smiled slightly, and asked “Does this mean you’ll go easier on me?”

“Probably not.” Eliza grinned, the first smile Kali had seen from her, and Kali chuckled. She worked well under pressure, so this arrangement would suit her fine. But she was already exhausted, and they had barely even begun.

For the rest of the class, Eliza walked the underachievers through the stances they had been learning. When they were finished, Eliza was hovering awkwardly so Kali grinned and said “See you at lunch.”

Without waiting for a reply, she left with the rest of the group. She’d need to hurry if she wanted to change into fresh clothes before their next class. Especially if she still wanted to be able to follow someone there so she wouldn’t get lost. Again.

___

Chapter Sixteen

Hermes surprised her by being completely professional in his class after lunch. She kept shooting him suspicious glances, sure he was up to something, but he was the picture of innocence. When the class was over, he called her over and gave her a reading list, to catch up if she was interested.

When she took the paper from him, his hand closed gently around hers and he pulled her closer. To her surprise, he pulled her into his side and put his arm around her, like a friend. Before she could process things enough to react, he said “So I hear Ares has posed a little challenge for you, for this month’s assessment.”

“How do you…of course you would know that.” She scowled, looking away. His arm was still around her shoulders, and he was steering her out of the classroom. She squirmed slightly, but forgot that she wanted to escape when he started speaking again.

“He isn’t easy to impress.” Hermes pointed out, grinning at her pout. Didn’t she know how tempting those lips of hers were?  “You’ll have to do something pretty spectacular if you want him to honour his end of the bargain.”

“Yeah? Like what?” She flinched inwardly at her tone; this was still someone she should respect but she was acting like a bratty kid.

His grin widened “Like put him on his back.”

Her eyes snapped back to his face in disbelief and she stopped in her tracks. “Hermes…he’s a god. In case you hadn’t noticed, he’s too strong for me.” Grimacing, she added sarcastically, “At this rate the only way to get him on his back would be to sleep with him.”

“I thought you would have a little more imagination than that.” He teased, feigning disappointment. When he was certain he had her attention again, he lowered his voice and leaned closer. In their current position, his lips brushed the side of her neck and he loved the way her breathing hitched at his proximity. Still, he let her step away, his wolfish grin still in place. Quietly, he continued “You should know that Ares has even more pride than you do. He doesn’t think things through, and he’s stubborn. Regardless of his strength, he would be the easiest one of us for you to overpower because he is certain that you are weak.”

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Kali muttered “Thanks for the heads up.” She knew he was just trying to get on her good side. She still couldn’t understand why, but she wasn’t going to question it. That didn’t mean that she was going to let him touch her again.

When Kali looked back up, Hermes’ face was hovering mere inches from hers. He looked deep into her eyes, murmuring “Grateful?”

She was sick of being on the back foot. Sick of being hunted and feeling like prey. No matter what the contact did to her, it was only because she wasn’t used to being chased by a man like him. That was all. It wasn’t about him. Just like his attraction wasn’t about her.

Kali moved fractionally closer as though to kiss him and then whispered, “Not that grateful.”

Hermes just laughed and moved back again with a shrug, like it didn’t really matter. She would never admit it to him, but she couldn’t help but admire his confidence. Confidence that she had never had. He was utterly certain that he would be able to bring her around to his way of thinking. It was a strangely attractive quality. Even as angry as she was that he pushed her off balance, out of her comfort zone, she wouldn’t argue that a part of her liked the attention.

More whispers followed her after that, but it was hard to find the energy to care. The gossiping, at least, was like every school she had been to. It was almost a grounding factor. Which was sorely needed, when her life made no sense to her. Everything had changed so much, so quickly, and the ground was still spinning beneath her.

A comforting presence at her back steadied her as she shuffled towards the centre of the camp. Kali sighed, closing her eyes, and whispered “Was this a mistake?”

“That’s still for you to decide, love.”

Hades’ voice was sombre, and Kali glanced towards him. In the waning sunlight, the shadows were deep and her eyes refused to focus. Before she could conjure her voice, she was startled by someone calling her name. She turned to see Tom waving at her, and felt Hades slip away in silence.

Oblivious to her disappointment, Tom asked “Ready to head to the Colosseum?”

Kali thought back to what Hermes had told her, and sighed. She could never surprise Ares if he saw her training. But if she didn’t train, she couldn’t improve enough to surprise him. “Is there anywhere else we can train?”

“Why?”

“I just…” She hesitated, biting her lip. “I don’t want him to see my progress.”

Tom rolled his eyes; she had never been good at hiding her motives. “Because…?”

“I want to make him hit the floor.” She said in a rush, the words tumbling out before she could decide if she wanted to make some other excuse. “And I want to do it in front of everybody, in the assessments at the end of the month.”

Tom stared at her for a long time, trying to tell if she was serious. “You do realise he’s the god of war, right? As in, god.”

“I know it sounds crazy. But he won’t be expecting anything from me.” Even if she doubted Hermes’ motives, his logic was sound. “If he underestimates me, I can surprise him. I just…I want him to leave me alone, and this is the only thing I can think of.” Kali’s face was set, but her eyes were uncertain and her voice shook.

“Kali, you know I could never say no to you.” That was a lie, but she wasn’t prepared to call him on it. “But I’m telling you now, getting stronger isn’t the way to get him to leave you alone.”

Her hands shook. Ares had lied to her before. Maybe he meant what he said, but he could change his mind. But she had to believe that he would honour their deal, especially when it seemed he believed it was impossible for her to impress him. If he really wanted her, then he had to know that she would never tolerate more lies. “Where else can we train?”

“I know a place.” Sage said quietly. Throughout the exchange, he had been silent. His eyes held none of the doubt or disbelief that Tom’s did. Just a peaceful determination Kali was getting used to. He always seemed to understand more than she said. It should worry her, she supposed, but he had become a soothing presence for her. Somehow, she knew she could tell him anything without fear of judgement. Unlike Tom, he had never looked at her with discomfort, or pity.

Together, the three of them left the clearing and slipped into the forest. Distracted by the sights and sounds, Kali tripped over her fair share of tree roots and even a stump. Still, the evening sun danced through the canopy. The fallen leaves glittered in the golden light, and Kali was captivated. She had never spent much time around nature, but she had already fallen in love by the time they reached a small glade.

“There should be enough space for you here.” Sage stated calmly, settling himself on the overgrown trunk of a fallen tree.

As positive as Kali had been about the area, she began to regret it once they got started. She ended up on the ground more than ever. Mostly because she couldn’t pay attention to her surroundings. When dodging one of Tom’s strikes, she smacked her head on a low branch. When lunging forward, she tripped on a tree root. When they were doing push ups, her hands slipped out from under her on the damp leaves blanketing the ground.

When Kali flung a fallen branch through the trees with a shouted curse, Sage laughed and insisted it was his turn to train her. But his training took the form of meditation. Sitting still was not one of her strengths, but he didn’t mind. Even though Kali hated to do anything that required effort to improve, it didn’t take long to see the point of it. If anything, that made it even more important that she learn.

Still, she wanted to give up after the first evening. It was mentally exhausting, yet she still couldn’t settle to sleep. Many more nights like that and she wouldn’t be any good to anyone. She coasted through her classes that Friday, barely aware. Clumsy, and distracted, she would have gotten lost if Jem hadn’t physically steered her to classes.

The last class on Friday was Ancient Greek, with Hades. That was one classroom she managed to find on her own. Stepping in that room was soothing. Whether that was about the lack of sunlight or the god she was becoming all too comfortable around, she couldn’t say.

But Hades was joined by two visitors.

Kali soon learned, from more of Jem’s gossiping, that this was a weekly occurrence. Heracles and Achilles, two of the most prominent heroes of Greek Mythology, travelled back from the beyond most weeks. She recognised them immediately from when she had first arrived. Achilles had been the one to walk her to meet Chiron when she arrived.

Blushing furiously, Kali remembered what a mess she had been. And she had been almost rude when he showed her to Chiron. Granted, she had been tired and injured, but still! Achilles had to be one of the most well known heroes of all time. She was mortified that she hadn’t made a better impression. Burying her face in her hands with a groan, she wondered absently if one of Sage’s meditation techniques would help her mood.

Hades’ voice rumbled through the room as he began the lesson. Kali snuck a peek at Achilles to find him watching her curiously. She hurriedly looked back at her desk, pretending to focus on her pen. But she couldn’t ignore his presence. Both he and Heracles felt so different to the demigods in her class. It wasn’t just their physical strength, though it was obvious at a glance that they had an abundance of that. There was a power deep in them both that none of the other demigods had.

Frowning, Kali wondered if the gods had perhaps diminished in power over time. With less of a foothold in the world, had they themselves become weaker? Most demigods Kali had met were little different from regular people, apart from the training. They had abilities, sure, but she couldn’t see why they would be seen as more than just natural talents. The stories made Heroes seem so much more than she could see around her.

She scribbled a note to herself as a reminder to look into her new theory, before she forgot about it. After that, Kali relaxed and focused on the sound of Hades’ voice. Ancient Greek was a captivating language, even more so when he spoke it. Kali had managed to grasp the feel of it, even if she couldn’t understand the words themselves. Languages had always been something she picked up quickly.

Every time she snuck a peek at one of the heroes, they were watching her subtly. She wanted to talk to them; she had so many things she wanted to ask them, but she restrained herself. She didn’t want to come across as some needy fan; she was already awkward enough. Besides, she had to be careful not to expose herself. She still didn’t know what “normal” demigods could see and what talents were just hers.

At first, Camelot had felt like a place she could be free, a place she didn’t have to hide how different she was. But with each passing day, she realised that she needed to be more careful there than anywhere. One slip was all it would take for the gods to know what she was. The most dangerous place for her to be was where she felt like she was safe.

She remained wrapped up in her thoughts until Jem shook her arm at the end of the class. She scrambled to pack her bag, but allowed herself a look back at Hades before she left. As always, shadows around him started to shift as their eyes met again. Kali heard Jem ask if she was alright, and tore her gaze away. She hoped he would assign her breathlessness to being startled, but kept her gaze averted.

She considered heading straight to the glade to wait for Tom and Sage, but Carl distracted her by asking quietly “Are you coming to the arena to watch them?”

“Watch who?” She asked absentmindedly, barely listening to what he was saying. She hadn’t even noticed him join them in the hallway.

“The heroes. They always fight when they’re here. I think Ares likes them to so that we can all see what we could achieve. But they have been at it for centuries so mostly it just makes us want to never piss those guys off.” He chuckled nervously and Jem watched him with a curious smile, but Kali was suddenly intrigued.

She hesitated a moment and then nodded, saying “I’m in. When will they be fighting?”

“Pretty soon after classes finish usually.” Carl replied and then nervously suggested “We could go now if you want?”

Kali smiled and shrugged. “Up to you.”

This was something that she very much wanted to watch. As they walked across the grass, Carl said that it made most of the demigods a bit demoralised; none of them could ever be that good. But Kali thought that it would be the best motivator; something to work for. She liked to set herself the highest goals, like her determination to defeat Ares. She needed something driving her forwards.

When what looked like the entire camp had packed themselves into the stands of the Colosseum, Heracles and Achilles arrived.

___

Chapter Seventeen

There was no introduction. It was like they weren’t even aware of the crowd that had gathered to watch them. They were not there to entertain the demigods; they were there to train and test each other. Kali respected them for the lack of showmanship or theatrics. The tension was palpable.

When they began, all thought left her mind. She found herself leaning forward, like every demigod there. Her eyes followed every flicker of their blades and every step in their dance. It was overwhelming. The sensation, the thrill. Kali was captivated by the rhythms and the drumbeats that she was certain none of the other demigods could hear.

Achilles was fire. Relentless. Hungry. Always on the offensive, overreaching himself recklessly but with the skill for his chances to pay off. Heracles was stubborn like the earth. He remained steady, despite his partner’s unrelenting attacks. His energy was contained, and it kept him grounded while Achilles’ rushed out to meet his opponent as often as his blade did. They were both disarmed eventually and it was clear that Heracles would be the winner as soon as the first few blows were dealt after that. It wasn’t very long before Achilles was pinned to the hard earth, Heracles standing over him.

Heracles lifted Achilles back to his feet, and they both turned to face their audience. Both men were drenched in sweat but they stood tall, letting the crowd drink their fill of the authority they commanded. It was clear that the demigods had enjoyed watching the brutality in the ring, but many faces were unnerved by the display. These men were not gods, but they were mountains that most would never scale. But Kali found her fire.

As she watched them, she realised she had been looking at it all wrong. She had been trying to figure out how to trigger it. How to control it. She even went to Chiron to ask if any other demigods had similarly active abilities, so she could learn. But there was no one at the camp like her. Not anymore.

It had happened when she was afraid, and angry. But she hadn’t been able to replicate the results. Watching the heroes, it clicked. It was never fear, or rage. It was something that swelled inside of her chest and refused to submit or back down. The closest thing she could use to describe it would be…pride.

Slipping away from the crowd that swarmed the heroes, she strode to the far edge of the Colosseum. Pride was something she had tried to push down. It was easy with her insecurities to believe she was worthless, so what use did she have for pride. But she closed her eyes and tried to summon it.

She was the daughter of a god. She was strong. And she would put Ares on his back in his own arena.

As her skin prickled, she grinned. Heat curled around her, and the rain that had started to fall sizzled against her bare arms. Now that she understood it a little better, the feeling was compulsive. The pull of the flames, driving their way outwards. It felt alive.

Kali shook herself and forced the feeling back down. Soon, she would try to call the flames and control them. But she knew better than to try when she was so tired. If she could barely walk in a straight line, what hope did she have of summoning more than a spark? Besides, she couldn’t very well practice in the Colosseum.

As the days passed, her evenings were soon taken up by physical training with Tom, and spiritual training with Sage. She was swept up in the rhythms and patterns of every day in the life of a demigod. She struggled to keep up with her classes, spent time with her new friends, and tried to hold back in the arena. Eliza despaired at her lack of progress, and even asked if she wanted extra help. But she could tell Eliza liked to be the stronger of them.

The only thing that set her apart from the rest of her group was the attention she received from Ares and Hermes. When Ares pushed her, she turned to Sage’s meditation techniques. It was easy to remind herself that he had hurt her. He was controlling, and dangerous. And she had one chance to prove that she wouldn’t let him do whatever he wanted. She had to keep her eyes on her goal.

Hermes, however, was much better at playing the game. He still hadn’t kissed her, but he made it very clear he wanted to. She would have worried about falling prey to his charms if she hadn’t found herself thinking of someone else more and more often. Hermes seemed not to notice, though he did mention that it had never taken so much time for a woman to come around to his way of thinking.

“I’m starting to worry that Ares already swayed you. His brutish confidence is something women find attractive, or so I’m told.” His eyes twinkled, and Kali was struck again with the feeling that he was seeing far more than she was willing to reveal.

Rolling her eyes, she brushed aside the feeling and asked “Do you really believe that all women want is a man with confidence?”

“I don’t care what all women want. Just you.” He leant in suddenly, his fingers lightly touching her chin. Hermes waited there for an agonising moment, watching as her eyes widened and her breathing hitched. Then, just as abruptly, he danced away with a grin. It wasn’t until he had moved that Kali realised she hadn’t pushed him away that time.

Grimacing, she knew that he had noticed as well. But she was getting so used to his antics that he seemed almost harmless. It was easy to forget that behind the charming features was a cunning being more ancient than she could conceive.

“Just me?” Kali laughed, trying to shake off her unease. “For now, maybe.”

“Maybe.” He grinned, moving in closer again. Too close.

“You’re incorrigible.” She replied, returning his grin. But she shrank inwardly at his proximity. Putting her hand on his chest, she pushed him lightly back. More than anything else, she was surprised that he moved. Her dealings with Ares always turned into a power struggle. She couldn’t help but compare them, even though she knew what Hermes chose to show her was all to his design.

“You don’t seem to mind.” He winked. Not waiting for her denial, he swanned away, leaving her watching after him.

Jem sidled up to her, raising his pierced eyebrow, and teased “I thought you weren’t interested in getting involved with him?”

“I’m not!” She grinned reluctantly, then found herself laughing. If anything, the game he was playing made him feel like an old friend. “That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate his appeal.”

“He has had a long time to practice his charms.” Jem smiled, a little too knowingly.

“And a lot of targets, I’m sure. I won’t be one of them.” She reminded him, and herself. Thoughtfully, she added “Especially while his flirting is more about his ego than about me.”

“Then why are you blushing?”

“Because I’m embarrassed.” She insisted; it was mostly true. “Believe it or not, I’m not used to getting attention from guys. I just…don’t really know what to do with it.”

Jem looked sceptical, but he seemed to buy the theory that she couldn’t lie. Something she didn’t plan to correct anytime soon. Shrugging, he simply said “I just don’t understand why you’re not interested. He’s a hell of a god.”

“Jealous?” She joked.

Jem surprised her by nodding, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Have you seen him? Who wouldn’t be?”

She shifted where she stood. It hadn’t occurred to her before, but any demigod would probably kill to be in her shoes. Jem was right, Hermes was very attractive. So was Ares, if she was being honest. They ought to be; they were gods.

“Looks aren’t everything.” She muttered to herself later, standing in front of her mirror. She didn’t take the time to look at herself often; her scars still brought back memories that she preferred not to relive. But she couldn’t ignore the person looking back at her. It had been less than a month, but she had changed so much.

Over the last four weeks, every moment of her free time had been dedicated to training. She had been a little overweight, her skin pale and sickly. The only thing she had ever liked about herself was her hair, and that was only on the occasional good day. But she looked…healthy? Strong? Vibrant was the only word she could decide on. She was a saturated version of herself. Or perhaps she had always been a muted version of what she was supposed to be.

Biting her lip, she threw on one of her baggy shirts and tracksuit bottoms to go for a run. She would find sleep hard to come by unless she wore herself out, she knew. There was too much on her mind, too much energy coursing through her. She could count the hours until the assessment. It was laughable, really, how much she had pinned on her success. If she couldn’t impress Ares, it wasn’t like she had to give up.

Kali returned to her room long after curfew, restless and uneasy. She sat against her front door, burying her head in her knees, and tried to focus on her breathing. It took longer than usual, but she managed to slow her heart rate back to an acceptable level. Soon, she promised herself, it would be over. She could sit back and just enjoy learning anything and everything she could.

She righted the toppled vase on the table, wondering when she had knocked it over. But she could clean up later. She should at least try to sleep, or she would be useless in the assessments. Stumbling through her bedroom door, she absentmindedly wondered when she had closed it. She didn’t normally, unless the guys were coming over.

Stopping by the bed, she felt a chill. The window was open? Kali’s skin prickled. She forced her dry throat to swallow, clenching her jaw. Someone had been in her room. Rooted to the spot, she frantically looked around her for anything out of place. Her wide eyes darted about until they focused on a drawer that was slightly open.

Prepared as she was, knowing that something was out of place, she still couldn’t stifle the scream that escaped her when she pulled the drawer open. A mass of black swarming spiders filled the drawer, so dense she could not see her clothes beneath. Her throat closed off, choking her, as she scrambled away. Her mind fragmented at the thought that she had to close the drawer. They would come for her. She had to close it. But she couldn’t make herself move closer.

Instinctively, she threw herself back, away from the dresser, needing to escape. Her mind was blank, and tears immediately sprung to her eyes. The sound of breaking glass startled her, and she turned sharply to see a jar shattered on the floor in front of the door. Pouring across the floor from the shards of the container were thousands of tiny black bodies, scurrying towards her.

Sobbing, she screamed internally but she could not draw the breath to make a sound. She scrabbled back to a wall, watching helplessly as smoke surged around her. She curled up into a ball, her fingernails digging into her scalp, and focused her mind on Hades. With every fibre of her being, she wished he was there, and cried his name with her soul.

In a heartbeat, he was at her side. Without a word, Hades scooped her into his arms and held her protectively to him. He sighed into her hair, murmuring words her mind didn’t recognise but her heart knew. She buried her face in his chest, shakily whispering “You came.”

“You called to me.” He replied simply, holding her as if she were as light and delicate as a feather.

“You’re stronger than I thought as well.” She joked, weakly. His gentle laugh reassured her, and her heart settled as she filled her lungs with his scent. She felt his body still against her, and she shivered for a completely different reason when he whispered “Careful, love. I’m not quite the gentleman you think I am.”

A wave of dizziness swept over her, fatigue making her limbs heavy. “Where are they?” It was hard to conjure any remnant of the panic she had felt before, but she had to know.

“I asked them to leave.” He replied, his voice still low.

The intimacy wasn’t lost on her, but she was too drained to let her insecurities hold her back. There was nowhere she would rather be than in his arms. “Thank you, Lord Hades.”

He whispered something in a language she couldn’t quite hear, but it felt like a prayer. When Hades touched her chin and lifted her face slowly, her heart stopped. Heat rushed through her, and Hades brushed his lips across her jaw. “You are going to be the death of me, Kali.”

Reluctantly, he lowered her onto the sofa. When he started to move back, her hand clamped onto his wrist. She felt his surprise, but her fingers wouldn’t obey her. She loosened them enough to move her grasp to his sleeve instead. He was frozen in place, leaning over her, and she couldn’t meet his eyes as she begged “Please don’t go.”

“You’re trembling, dove.” He sighed raggedly. In a smooth motion, he moved to sit beside her, linking his fingers with hers and pulling her to lean against him.

With her body pressing against his, Kali realised that he seemed just as shaken. “So are you.” Biting her lip, she looked up at him. Her eyes refused to focus, but she didn’t need them. It was pitch black in the room around them either way, and she could feel his presence so clearly.

“I don’t like when someone hurts you.” His voice held an edge that sent a thrill through her. “What are you thinking?”

Kali started, feeling the heat rise to her cheeks. Hades’ eyes were on her face, unwavering, searching. Calling her. She must be feeling more fragile than she realised; she was letting her mind wander to places she usually shut down. She couldn’t find the energy to care if this was a terrible idea.

Instead, she moved her trembling hand to his face and shakily found his lips with her fingers. Before she could talk herself out of it, again, she brushed them with a tentative kiss. Hades didn’t move, but the shadows themselves whispered around her, pulling her closer.

“Kali…not like this.” His hand wound itself in her hair, and he rested his forehead on hers. She could feel the tension in his body as he struggled with himself. “If I let this happen, I’d be taking advantage of you. I know you don’t want a reckless kiss in the dark when you’re shattered, in more ways than one.”

I want you, she admitted to herself. Out loud, she sighed “What do you want.”

He brushed a tear from her cheek with his thumb, and his low voice was a promise. “I want everything you are willing to give me. But I want your eyes open.”

Kali buried her face in his neck, smiling at the lie in his voice. He gently stroked her hair, and she felt herself slipping into the soothing darkness as he whispered “Rest, my love. I’ll keep you safe.”

___

Chapter Eighteen

When Kali woke up, warmth filled her at the realisation that Hades was still there. Her head was on his lap and he was playing gently with her hair. Blushing, she sat up slowly, averting her gaze. She felt a trickle of amusement from him as she looked away. She supposed it was a silly habit when she couldn’t even see him in the first place.

“Sleep well?”

She nodded quietly, still a little groggy from sleep. After a moment, she bit her lip, mumbling “I’m scared.”

Hades sighed deeply, taking her hands. “I know.” He whispered. He couldn’t tell her that her fears were misplaced. Ares was volatile, unpredictable. Entitled, in the same way all the gods were. Her path was a difficult one, but it was hers. He could not sway her decisions, only be there to catch her if she fell. If she let him.

“Are you going to be there?”

He chuckled softly; it was like she could read his mind. “If that’s what you want.”

At her tentative nod, Hades took her hands and kissed her fingertips. As always, he was gone before she could respond. Burying her face in her hands, she went over what had happened last night. She had kissed him. Her only excuse was that the stress had fractured all common sense.

Aside from agonising over the feel of his lips, Kali felt dread creep across her skin at the thought of going back in that room. She knew there was no way she could touch the door handle. She had managed to conquer some of her fears, at least enough to muddle through and function. But clearly she still had a long way to go.

Relief flooded through her when she saw a pile of folded clothes on her table. Her boots were where she always left them, by the door. It was chilly, but she could make do without a jacket. She would have to use some of the gifts still sitting in Aphrodite’s basket in the corner, but she could cope with that. She rooted around for some body spray and things to do her hair, glad that not everything was packed with glitter.

The clothes were black, Kali noted with a grin. They were also new. She felt a little self-conscious as she pulled on the tank top; it fit a little too well. Looking at herself in the mirror only highlighted how much weight she had lost. Or rather, how much she had toned up. But hiding away was something the old Kali did. The Kali who was never good enough, even for herself.

Kali could see the scars on her arms and throat clearly, but she forced herself to stand firm. One day, she hoped she could learn to see them as symbols of something positive. She wasn’t there yet. But she no longer saw only failure and weakness in them. Kali twisted her long hair up into a bun so it couldn’t be used against her and nodded firmly. She was ready.

Despite her determination, Kali found herself checking her boots and the corners of the room before she left. Her eyes darted around her every time she entered a new area, just to make sure. Thankfully, the first class was in the Colosseum. Large open spaces were easier to deal with. It also meant she didn’t have to sit all day with her nerves. It would be over soon.

Ares had three groups at a time in the arena during all his classes. Every one of them would be assessed in that time, so he wouldn’t be able to run the lesson. A list was posted on the wall with the order they would be seen in. It didn’t take a genius to see it was just alphabetical order. They were expected to warm up before their turn came around, but otherwise they were welcome to watch.

Jem nudged her arm as they walked together into the stands. “You’re way too stressed about this. It’s not like you need to beat him, he’s just seeing how you’re doing.”

Kali just nodded, keeping her mouth shut. Before she could think of a suitable reply, she felt a pebble bounce off her shoulder. A loud voice called “Hey, snake lover, how’d you sleep!”

She flinched, biting down on her temper. But it bubbled and boiled over as she turned to see Trevor and a few other kids she didn’t even know laughing at her. Before she could talk some sense into herself, she launched herself over the chairs. Trevor scrambled back, all signs of humour gone, but someone caught Kali before she was within striking distance.

“Whoa there.” Tom hauled her back, reminding her that when it came to physical strength he outmatched her.

Twisting to look at him, her anger was forgotten. “Tom? Sage? What are you doing here?”

“What’s got you so riled up?” Tom asked, ignoring her question.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m just stressed.” She glared at Trevor, watching as he and his friends moved around to another spot. They were laughing and jeering again, but she smirked at the glance he threw back to make sure she wasn’t following.

Sage followed her stare and chuckled. “Stressed, huh?”

She sighed and turned her back on her classmate. “Let’s just have a seat.”

“Good luck, Kali.” A timid voice murmured. Kali was stunned to see Willow, the nymph she had tried to befriend, standing behind Sage.

“Willow?” Kali slowly reached to touch her hand, marvelling at how tiny she was. She knew it couldn’t have been easy for her to come to such a busy place.“Thank you for coming. It means a lot to me. But if it’s too much, don’t force yourself, OK?”

Willow just nodded, looking nervously around her. When they sat, she perched herself behind Sage and shrank down, trying not to be seen. When Jem and Carl came to join them, after Carl’s turn with Ares was over, the nymph shrank away with a quiet apology.

Her friends distracted her from her growing nerves until it was Jem’s turn. She only had a couple of people left before her, so she excused herself to warm up. Kali noticed Willow hovering by one of the pillars near the exit as she jogged, and she stifled a grin. She knew how difficult it was for Willow to be there, and it made her heart swell. But she couldn’t let herself get distracted. She needed to focus if she wanted to accomplish what she had set out to do.

Even with all the time she’d had to prepare, she didn’t feel ready when her name was called. Ares stood waiting at the centre of the arena for her. All she wanted to do was wipe the sneer off his face. She avoided looking up into the stands; she didn’t need to get more self-conscious. She had noticed Hermes cheering for one of his kids from her class earlier, and she spotted Apollo looking tight lipped and tense. Part of her wondered whether he was more worried about her doing badly or doing well.

“Ready to get this over with?” He smirked at her red cheeks, deliberately berating her.

His tone told her that he had already decided the outcome. Kali would be only too pleased to prove him wrong. Her eyes were burning into Ares’ as she took her staff from him. “One way to find out.”

Ares grinned, watching her change her stance. His first strikes were slow, testing her. Before he had a chance to start fighting seriously, Kali dragged her staff on the floor and threw some of the sand up into his face. She twisted the staff to swing for his head through the slight camouflage.

It didn’t surprise her that he caught her weapon in his hand before she could make contact, but she snarled. Ares laughed, gripping the staff. She pushed against him for a moment, letting frustration show on her face. As soon as she saw the smug smirk she was waiting for, she summoned her pride and blasted a stream of fire along her staff into his face. If he thought she would give up so easily, he was wrong.

A smile curled Kali’s lip as Ares recoiled, narrowly dodging the fire and the strike she followed with. Her staff crumbled away in her hand, but she concentrated on a swirl of fire around their feet. A gust of wind swirled up from the heat, billowing more loose sand and dust up around them. She darted for Ares’ weapon, snatching it from his loose grip. With as much speed as she could muster, she swung it down towards his head.

The wood splintered and shattered on the arm Ares threw to intercept the strike. Within a heartbeat, Kali shifted to jam the shard that remained into his throat. He moved to stop her and she dropped back before he could make contact. She could feel the pressure of his strike ripple over her and knew that he had used a bit more force than he intended.

The look of relief on Ares’ face when she danced back startled her, but she couldn’t lose focus. He was on the back foot, but she could see no way of gaining the upper hand. He still looked immaculate and she was pouring with sweat. Frustration was getting the better of her.

Hermes had told her there was a way. It had to be possible. There was no way she could outmuscle him, so she had to be smarter. Use her strengths to turn his against him. But her mind went blank when he closed the distance between them. She had no idea how she dodged his strikes. All she could do was keep moving and hope that she could keep her concentration.

Fire slid across the ground like a snake, unseen until it wound tightly around his legs. Gritting her teeth, she rolled back onto the ground to avoid another blow. Reaching forward, she grasped at the edges of the blazing coil. She yanked on them with all her might. The resistance she felt from him was infuriating, and she yelled “Just FALL!”

His legs locked. With a look of shock, Ares found himself on his back on the ground before he knew what had happened. Her voice still rang in his ears, carrying with it the echo of…compulsion? He heard a manic laugh bubble from Kali and slowly looked up to see her tumble forward. She caught herself on her hands, but her response made him certain she had no idea what had happened.

This demigod had dominated his will without giving him a chance to fight back. And she didn’t even realise what she had done. She looked up at him with a cocky smile, calling “Impressed?”

Without even getting to his feet, he was in front of her in a heartbeat. His lips crashed into her and he pulled her to him feverishly. She fell back and he let her, seeing her trembling for all the wrong reasons. “What do you think?”

She clenched her jaw. “Our agreement?”

“There was an easier way to get me on my back, you know.” He grinned, plucking the knife out of the air and holding it out to her.

“I have a feeling it wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying.” She retorted. When he laughed, she snatched the knife from him quickly, worried it was another trick. But he remained still while she scrambled back to a safe distance. They both knew there was no such thing as a safe distance away from him. But the illusion was important.

“I look forward to showing you just how wrong you are, sunflower. But, for now, I’ll honour our agreement. I’ll wait for you to come to me.”

Frowning, Kali rose to her feet. It was what she wanted, but she had fully expected him to change his mind when it happened. “You had no intention of letting me impress you. Why are you keeping your word?”

“Things have changed. You’re not just a demigod to conquer anymore.” He stepped slowly closer, and his hand was softer on her cheek than before. Different somehow. He tilted her face up towards his, looking into her eyes. It took Kali a long moment to remember that this was Ares. The knife in her hand found its way slowly to his throat just as his lips brushed hers.

Stepping back, it was then that Kali remembered their audience. The Colosseum had never been so silent. Hermes was grinning with something Kali could only call triumph, and Chiron’s face was lined deeply with a frown. He watched all the assessments, she knew, to keep track of things. But his clipboard was down and icy eyes pierced her, even at that distance.

Kali hated herself for seeking out her father’s face among the stands. But he was nowhere to be seen. The roaring in Kali’s ears grew louder, her heart pounding. The adrenaline was wearing off and she was just standing uselessly at Ares’ side. As soon as that thought hit her, that she was at his side, she snarled and stormed out of the arena.

She strode away, walking with purpose but no destination. She had just reached the fountain when she heard a voice call to her. But, she realised, it wasn’t so much hearing as feeling.

Get to the temple. Quickly.

There was an urgency to his tone that had never been there before, yet she faltered. She couldn’t sense him near her, but his voice was crystal clear in her mind. Hades?

Go. Now.

Startled out of her curiosity, she responded to the ripple of concern that made its way to her. Without caring how it might look, she bolted towards the white marble structure she had thus far avoided. Hades was still a shadowy presence with her, somehow, and she resolved to ask later.

Just as Kali stumbled across the threshold of the temple, fire burst around the entrance behind her. The heat rushed at her and she fell backwards, tears springing to her eyes. Her father’s face was twisted with rage as he bellowed “What were you thinking!”

“You…you attacked me?” She stammered, feeling numb with shock. Apollo’s golden eyes were almost red, glowing with an inferno.

“Do you have any idea what you just did? What you risked!” He roared, reaching towards her. When his quaking hand met with resistance he could not break through, he snarled “Which one of them sent you here? Ares?”

Kali sat where she fell, staring up at him, stunned at the realisation he would hurt her. The fire, perhaps, was an extension of his anger. Maybe that could be written off as an accidental blast. But the way he reached to grab her? He could and would harm her. The crushing awareness that she was nothing, even to him, suffocated her. Even as his daughter, she was barely an insect to him.

Her heart was in her throat, but she recalled what Hermes had said about the other demigods of Apollo. Tears spilled onto her cheeks, but she managed to whisper “Is this what really happened to the others?”

“What did you say?” As Apollo’s rage swelled, the air seared around him and the flames brightened to a sharp yellow. Even sheltered as the temple was, the room was like a furnace as he hissed “The only reason you are still alive is that I have lost too many of my children to kill you. Do not test me.”

“Test you?” Kali spat, pushing herself to her feet. On quivering legs, she stepped forward to the edge of the temple. Despite the trembling, her voice was strong. “You may have contributed to my birth, but you do not control me.”

Apollo struck the pillar in the entrance, making Kali flinch back, declaring “I can and I will if you do not prove yourself capable of a little restraint. There have already been too many questions.”

“Then coming here in this state wasn’t your smartest move, was it?” She said quietly, trying to ignore the Truth she heard in his words.

Apollo’s eyes dimmed to their usual gold as he stared at her. He couldn’t deny that his actions here were only drawing more suspicion. Stuttering, he replied “And that display with Ares was certainly not yours.”

Raising her chin, she stepped slowly out of the confines of the temple walls. Through gritted teeth, she snarled “If you’re going to kill me, you may as well get it over with. I will not be anything but what I am. It isn’t my fault if you wanted a puppet instead of a daughter.”

For the first time, he noticed the tears streaming down her cheeks. Clenching his jaw, he turned his back and muttered “You should be more careful in future. You have already drawn more attention to yourself than is wise.”

“Thanks for the advice.” She muttered sarcastically, under her breath. Kali watched him leave, foreign emotions raging a storm within her. She withdrew from them, letting the numbness settle over her, and stumbled a few short steps before slumping back to the ground. She sat where she fell and let the chaos reign freely. She knew from experience that it would be worse if she tried to fight it, or even keep up with it.

When she finally pulled herself to her feet, she had missed most of the classes before Break. She still couldn’t face the thought of staggering in through the middle of a lesson. Instead, she went to the library to find some of the books that had been recommended when she had first arrived.

___

Chapter Nineteen

The library was almost empty, Kali found with relief. Pale sunlight peeked through the heavy curtains, dancing on the polished wooden floors. It was easy to find deep shadows to escape the sun, and she wasted no time in doing just that. She breathed deeply, savouring the musky scent of the dusty tomes around her. The last bit of tension fell from her shoulders; this place felt like home. Not the house she had lived in with her mother, or any memory she could pick out. It was a deep-rooted sense of security and belonging.

In the month since she had arrived, Kali hadn’t stepped foot back inside this place. She had been so focused on her training that she couldn’t find it in herself to make time for such luxuries. Looking around, she knew there would never be enough time to explore this place fully. That didn’t mean she wasn’t going to try. With what time she had until the next class, Kali knew she wouldn’t have long enough to get lost among the aisles just yet. Promising herself she would return, she focused on following the list she had crammed in her bag.

Bookshelves towered over her, blocking out the light and beckoning her deeper along the twisting pathways. The rustling pages and creaking shelves distracted her, but eventually she managed to find most of the books she had come to find. The last one was a compendium Demeter had insisted would help. Kali wasn’t sure when a compendium of plants from other realms would be of use, but she was learning not to question the gods.

Eventually, Kali asked one of the waif-like creatures that were the librarians for directions. Skin like paper crackled as a bony finger pointed the way. Kali gratefully followed the golden trail that had appeared, but hesitated at the conveniently placed ladder. The compendium was nearer the top of the bookcase.

Kali put her other books down and looked up. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she muttered some words of encouragement to herself and stepped tentatively onto the first rung. It held. She tested her weight. It held.

As she climbed slowly, Kali felt more than saw her vision distort. A wave of nausea washed over her and she stopped, gripping the ladder. This was not the time for a panic attack. Clenching her teeth, she managed to climb a little further, determined not to give in. Her head swam, and her foot missed the next rung.

Instinctively tightening her grip, Kali managed to hold on as she slid down until the jagged splinters forced her to let go. Then she was falling. She had the strangest feeling of being weightless before arms closed around her.

Embarrassed, Kali shifted slightly but Hades only held her closer. “You are making a habit of this, my love.”

She trembled as he whispered into her hair. When he put her feet back on the ground, she mourned the loss of his arms around her. Hades steadied her as her trembling legs refused to respond, catching her against his chest with a quiet chuckle.

He slipped his hand into hers, entwining their fingers. “Join me for a drink?”

Kali’s eyes widened slightly but she cast her gaze down to hide her expression. That was answer enough for him. he chuckled again and led her through the shelves. Kali hadn’t realised there was a café, hidden in a shadowy nook. The library really was a labyrinth of secrets.

Kali could feel Hades’ smile as she looked around and savoured the warmth of his hand in hers. She didn’t know why it meant so much to her, just his hand around hers. It was suddenly more important than anything else in the world. His thumb feathered across her knuckles and her heart raced.

The only light in the alcove came from lanterns on the tables. There were already two drinks on the table, and Kali sat with a grin. Surrounded by books and dim flickering lights, no distractions or interruptions. It seemed so easy to melt into the background, unnoticed and undisturbed, in that place.

“It would be nice, I think.” Kali murmured. Glancing up at Hades, she felt his questioning eyes and continued “To disappear into the shadows.”

Hades’ smile was obvious in his soft voice as he changed the subject, murmuring “What do you think of the library?”

“It’s the most peaceful place I have ever been.” She admitted wistfully.

“Even with the rickety ladders and the deadly falls?” He teased.

Kali blushed and argued “Clearly even they have their uses.”

A quiet chuckle escaped him. “True enough. But is the place not too dark for you?”

Kali watched the way the light flickered, entranced by the dancing flame. The darkness around them only enhanced the glowing white core of the fire. “A small flame in the dark can be brighter than the sun.”

Hades paused, unreadable for the first time since she first met him. Biting her lip, Kali continued “In all honesty, the sunlight is unsettling for me. I can never concentrate; it buzzes and hums. There are corners of this place that feel as though the sun could never reach them.”

When he finally replied, his tone made it seem that he was speaking more to himself than anyone else. “I suppose it is good to hear that you are not opposed to the darkness.”

Kali took a moment to hide her smile in her mug, drinking more of her hot chocolate. Cursing her racing heart, she murmured “Thank you for your warning. Earlier, I mean.”

“How are you feeling?” He asked gently.

“Shaky. Other than that, I don’t really know.” She bit the inside of her lip and looked up at him across the table. “How did you warn me?”

“The same way you called to me last night.” His invisible gaze held hers captive.

Kali blushed at the reminder, but pressed “I didn’t know I did call to you. Let alone how.”

Hades was silent for a while, and Kali had the sense that he was choosing his words. Eventually, he began, “It isn’t widely discussed. In all honesty, I’m not sure how to explain something that comes so naturally to me, but I know it is unusual for a demigod to possess the skill.”

“Unusual?”

“Unheard of.” He corrected her quietly. “Perhaps that can remain the case?”

“More secrets.” She mumbled, looking at the hands she had twisted in her lap.

“Our secret.” Those words sent a pleasant shiver through her. He paused, pleased with her reaction. His voice was deep and soft as he continued “After all, it is forbidden for a god to communicate this way with mortals. I am entirely at your mercy should you wish to report this.”

Kali giggled. She couldn’t get enough of his playful tone; something she was certain was only hers. And yet, curiosity got the better of her as it frequently did. “Why is it forbidden?”

“Zeus fears anything he cannot control. The gods are under his ruling, so he believes he is in command of our actions. The demigods have more freedom. The idea that the Olympians could spark an uprising without him knowing about it has long been at the front of his mind. If he knew that I had spoken to you, of all people, he would be furious.”

The idea seemed to entertain him. “Me of all people?”

Kali wasn’t sure if she should be offended until Hades murmured seriously “You are no fool, Kali. You know how he fears your influence in his ranks already. Simply by having captured the interests of Hermes and Ares so completely, you have more sway than any demigod before you.”

“I don’t have sway over Hermes or Ares. Their interests don’t mean that much to them. I don’t mean that much to them.” She added quietly. The whole situation still bothered her.

“You should hope that isn’t the case, after your fight with Ares today. No demigod could have done what you did.” Hades frowned, troubled.

Impulsively, she reached out to touch his face gently, whispering “You shouldn’t worry so much; you’ll get wrinkles.”

Kali blushed furiously at her bold move, but couldn’t bring herself to pull back away from him. Her fingertips burned at the contact. When Hades took her hand in his, feathering his thumb across her knuckles, she was sure he could hear her heart pounding.

Laughing gently, Hades murmured “How do you know I don’t already have wrinkles?”

He slowly let go of her hand and she pulled it back with a silent sigh, already missing the feel of his skin. She thought about what he had said and admitted “I suppose I don’t. I don’t really know anything about you.”

Silence, then a sigh. “Kali…you need to understand that none of the gods are perfect. We all have our flaws.”

She hated the hard edge she could hear in his voice. Before he could continue, Kali insisted “I haven’t noticed any of yours yet.”

“Yes, you have.” His voice softened as he enquired “You do not see it as a flaw that I am always in shadows, even where there are none?”

“No. I don’t.” She answered honestly. She looked down at the empty mug in her hands and murmured “But if you think it is a flaw then why not change it?”

That time, his quiet laugh held a bitter note. His voice was so soft that Kali struggled to hear his reply. “It makes relations with Zeus much easier. When he looks at me, he is reminded far too much of someone he would rather forget.” She felt him examine her closely. “It doesn’t bother you, not seeing me?”

She started to answer that it didn’t, but something stopped her. After a moment of hesitation, she admitted “I’m not sure. I suppose it depends how long it goes on. I mean…will I ever get to see you?”

“Is it so important to you to know how I look?” He asked gently.

“No.” She replied honestly. “But it is important to me that you might eventually lower your guard and let me see you. I don’t need to know where your scars are or the colour of your eyes. I don’t need to see your smile because I can feel it. But…without trust there can’t be anything else.”

Kali looked away, wishing she had the courage to back up her words. Her mouth was unruly; it often admitted things she wasn’t ready to divulge. She hadn’t even admitted to herself how she felt about him, or how she wanted him to feel about her. She knew, of course, but saying it out loud would change things. She hadn’t known him long, but from the moment they met, he felt familiar. Like he was already a part of her. They were connected, somehow.

When she knew Hades was going to speak, she braced herself for whatever he would say. But she was unprepared for his words: “My eyes are blue.”

Her eyes snapped up to his shadowy face for just a heartbeat, and she whispered, “Thank you.”

“I thought you said you didn’t need to know.” Another laugh, warm and almost musical.

That laugh. Kali smiled, content, and answered “I didn’t. But maybe I needed you to tell me.”

Hades’ cool fingers traced the back of her hand. They soothed her heated skin, but did nothing to ease her racing heart. He lifted her hand, brushing a kiss across the inside of her wrist. “I would enjoy spending more time with you soon.”

Kali expected him to disappear, but he lingered for her reply. “As would I.”

“Until then.” His hand faded from hers, and she was alone again.

The bell rang, shrill even in the sacred confines of the library, and jolted Kali out of her reverie. She grabbed the books and scrambled to put them in her room. She was almost late to Horticulture, earning her a stern frown from Demeter. Her rushed apology seemed sufficient; the goddess sighed with a fond smile when she was done.

She found Jem quickly, and it didn’t take him long to notice how distracted she was. When she knocked over yet another planter, he sidled over to her and whispered “Still thinking about that kiss?”

Kali’s hand twitched as she remembered, for the hundredth time, Hades’ lips on her wrist. She looked at Jem, flushed, uttering “Huh?”

“You know, you’re not doing a good job convincing anyone that you aren’t hooking up with Ares.” He glanced over to make sure Demeter hadn’t noticed their hushed discussion. “You’ve been walking around like a moonstruck idiot all morning.”

“Ares.” Kali felt like a bucket of cold water had been tipped over her as she realised what he meant. In all the excitement, she had almost forgotten. “The assessment. Right.” A smile tugged at her lips as she remembered the surprise on Ares’ face as he landed on his back.

“Well I guess we can talk about that, as you’ve brought it up.” He said, a goofy grin on his face. “What the HELL Kali!”

Kali winced, though her smile remained. She glanced over towards Demeter, who seldom responded well to chatting in her classes. The goddess seemed not to have noticed and was continuing pottering around the greenhouse. The threat of divine punishment deterred him, barely, until they could escape for lunch.

On the way to the mess hall, Kali was bombarded with attention. Demigods she had never spoken to were giving her high fives, or pats on the shoulder. Nods of acknowledgement followed her wherever she looked. Some demigods kept their distance, looking disgruntled, and others stared at her with what she could only describe as awe.

All she wanted to do was lock herself away in her room. For a few minutes, she was too taken aback to comprehend their actions. Then, the attention startled to overwhelm her. More than that, it was terrifying. Before they reached the mess hall, Tom and Sage joined them so that they could help escort her. Between Tom, Sage, Jem, and Carl, she managed to get a little peace from prying eyes at lunch.

“It’s like they forgot it was just an assessment.” Kali muttered sheepishly.

Tom was the first to break the silence as the guys stared openly at her. “Kali, are you crazy? Assessment or no, this is Ares we’re talking about.” He ruffled her hair and she shoved him away.

“Ares could destroy me in the blink of an eye if he wanted to.” She insisted. After a moment, she averted her eyes. The thought had been eating at her since he had kissed her again, so she admitted “He probably let me win anyway.”

“Of course he did. There’s no way you could actually beat him.” A voice called out, surprising them.

“Eliza.” Kali stood up to hug her with a smile.

Sage’s expression was less friendly. He stomped a hoof, irritated, and countered “You weren’t there. Kali was amazing.”

Eliza just rolled her eyes and sat at the table with them. “She’s an okay fighter, sure. I know that better than you; I’m actually in her classes.”

“I train her every day. I know what she’s capable of.” Tom argued, no sign of his signature smile.

“Since when do you train?” Eliza asked, shooting an incredulous look at Kali. When she didn’t deny it, Eliza scowled and shook her scarlet hair out of her eyes, stating “Look, it doesn’t matter. No one beats my dad. He let her win because he wants her to fall for him.”

Tom and Sage started to stand up, but Kali held out her hand; it wasn’t the first argument they’d had with Eliza and it wouldn’t be the last. “Hey, it’s OK. Eliza’s right.” A little too opinionated sometimes, but Kali couldn’t fault her for speaking her mind. Even though her opinion belittled the work she had put in.

For once, Eliza read the atmosphere. Reluctantly, she added “But…I mean, you still passed your first assessment. So that’s good.”

“Yeah. Her friends are having a little lunch party.” Tom said, pointedly.

Eliza ignored him, looking around the group. With a sour expression, she asked “The nymph didn’t show?”

“Willow wasn’t feeling up to it. Been a heavy morning.”

“So much for friends, huh.” She turned to Kali again with a stony expression. “After everything you’ve done for her, she couldn’t even sit at the table with you?”

Kali smiled patiently. Not everyone understood anxiety, but she did. She knew it wasn’t easy for Willow to be there. It wasn’t easy for her, and she didn’t even have to deal with outright discrimination wherever she went. “She doesn’t owe me anything. I’d rather she takes care of herself.”

“Takes care of herself? That jumped up little nymph is too lazy to even show up here half the time.”

The first frown crept onto Kali’s face. “Eliza, you can’t mean that.” She said quietly, feeling the pressure building around them.

Eliza stared at Kali for a moment before she deflated. “I just…don’t like when people hurt you. Your friends should be here for you. That’s all.”

“And I get to be here for you guys too. Including Willow.” She said finally.

Eliza was quiet for the rest of the lunch break, and Kali hoped she was mulling over what she had said. She was entitled to her views but most of the time she just didn’t think before she spoke. She wasn’t a bad person, she was just careless. Sometimes, she got so caught up in her own issues that she forgot to consider other peoples.

The afternoon was a hectic haze. Jem and Carl took it upon themselves to be her bodyguards, which was laughable in itself. Ben, the only child of Hermes in their class, eventually joined them to help. Though that was only after laughing for several minutes while he watched them.

Carl was no good at talking to people, and couldn’t make eye contact. Not to mention being one of the shortest guys in their class. Jem was tall but he was popular, so everyone knew that he wasn’t interested in fighting.

Ben had a bad reputation for finding his way into places he shouldn’t be, and he always carried a knife. When a couple of demigods challenged Kali to a duel, he swept over and fixed them with a cold glare. They didn’t seem intimidated, but they quickly decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. Kali couldn’t understand why, but she was grateful for a reprieve.

“Finished enjoying the show?”

“Your knights aren’t the most effective, cute as they are.” He threw a wink at Jem, and Kali made a note of the resulting blush. It would be nice to have something to respond with the next time he brought up her suitors.

Ben joined them on the way to the arena to watch the Heroes’ weekly session. His presence was enough to deter some of the attention. Kali didn’t know much about Ben; he mostly kept to himself, but she was sure she would hear all there was to know from Jem sooner or later.

Ben didn’t sit with them, but he hovered nearby. The nonchalant way he leaned against the wall was betrayed by the intensity in his eyes when the fight began. There was something hungry in his expression. Something Kali couldn’t place. Whatever it was, it resonated in her.

Kali turned away and snuck out of the arena, doing her best to avoid attention. She’d had more than enough of the dizzying atmosphere for one day. The last thing she wanted to do was watch more fighting. She felt sick at the thought of going home, but she needed the quiet.

She impulsively checked the corners and the ceiling as she climbed the stairs to her apartment. Inside, she inspected every nook she could see before settling herself down on the sofa. There was a soft grey blanket folded neatly beside her. Tentatively, she tried to reach out to Hades. It took a few attempts to find the delicate silver cord that led her to him.

She whispered a quiet thank you, hoping she was doing it right. Warmth trickled back to her. She felt his words more than she heard them. “Sweet dreams, Kali.”

___

Chapter Twenty

In Monday’s first class, Ares handed her a leaf sword to start off with. It was an awkward, clumsy weapon. Kali couldn’t get used to the balance. There was something about holding a sword that was different to the staff. It was a blade. For cutting, hacking, slashing. The staff could break bones, but a blade felt…real. She wasn’t playing with a stick she found in the woods.

Her hopes of partnering with Ben were dashed. He was nowhere in sight. Not to mention, Ares was working closely with any demigods that had switched to new weapons. Kali was relieved he seemed to be honouring their agreement. Leering was at a minimum, and he didn’t try to touch her at all. Not even to correct her stance. Ares seemed different as well. Quiet. Reserved, even.

Kali hadn’t been able to focus on her other classes before, so it felt like she was in every class for the first time. The next week went by in a dizzying whirl as she struggled to catch up and get her bearings. Sailing and Navigation wasn’t as interesting as she hoped; with her ancestry, she expected to be fascinated. Even so, she took diligent notes and tried to pay attention.

For the first time since Kali had started, Athena was teaching Maths and Stratagems. Usually, Hadriel took every class. Kali preferred him, in all honesty; Athena was intimidating. Her harsh grey stare pinned Kali down, analysing her through the class. When it was over, Kali was prevented from fleeing when the goddess asked her to stay behind.

Once they were alone, Athena scrutinised her, searching for answers to the questions she had yet to ask. Kali knew well enough to stay silent. Eventually, Athena stated “You defeated my brother in battle.”

“Hardly.” Kali muttered under her breath.

Her voice was a whip, snapping “Your modesty is admirable, but irritating.”

“I’m not being modest. He let me win.” She could feel that Athena found very little admirable about her. The goddess didn’t like her one bit. Perhaps it was because she was beneath her, with perceived delusions of grandeur. Kali didn’t know why, but this was one being she would be very careful with.

Athena’s lips twisted sourly. She must have heard that Kali couldn’t lie, but she still did not believe her. “He has never taken such an action before. Even with demigods he has courted.”

“Other demigods he’s courted haven’t said no.” She replied, a little too quickly. Her palms were sweaty, but she refused to wipe them. She needed to appear logical. She needed to get out of that room in one piece. She could fall apart later.

“Interesting.” Athena murmured to herself. She turned back to Kali with a new intrigue sharpening her gaze. Kali shrank back under the weight of the stare. That look, astute and severe, sent shivers down her spine. “You may leave.”

Kali muttered an awkward “thank you” and hurried out of the classroom. It took everything she had not to break into a run. It didn’t occur to her until much later that Athena was Tom’s mother. She wasn’t sure if that made her obvious dislike better or worse.

Throughout the days, Kali couldn’t help but notice how wary many of the demigods were of her. The initial awe wore off quickly. More whispers and stares followed her than on her first day. Aphrodite’s daughter, Amanda, had been ignoring her since their altercation in the first week, but even she could not resist the urge to stare. Only when she thought Kali wasn’t looking, of course. Her bodyguard, Hannah, was not so subtle.

Trevor had taken to assaulting her at random intervals. Luckily, he was loud. He lumbered like a bear, calling a war cry, every time. It was easy enough to dodge and avoid him. But despite her laughing it off, it scared her. He scared her.

Jem and Carl seemed uncomfortable with the extra attention, so Kali started slipping away at lunch. Most of the time, she hid in quiet corners of the library. To her disappointment, she didn’t run into Hades, but she managed to study for the time she was there. When the stresses of the day built up, she would return there after dinner to explore and unwind.

On Tuesdays, Kali had Hunting with Artemis. Kali knew she was a disappointment, and she hated it. They were focusing on tracking, and moving through the forest unnoticed. Kali always felt clumsy on flat concrete pavements. She didn’t pay much attention to her surroundings, and was easily distracted, so she struggled more in this class than anywhere else. But what she was dreading most was what would come later – hunting.

She pushed it out of her mind, focusing on the current tasks. She could worry about the rest when it happened. It wasn’t always clear what Artemis was pointing out for them to notice, and Kali found it impossible to move through the woods without making a sound. Eventually, she would be expected to move without leaving a trace. It was a relief that she wasn’t the only one struggling with that.

Most of the gods had been leaving their classes to demigods for the last few weeks. In addition to Athena, Dionysus and Aphrodite had appeared in the camp during the days after the assessment. Kali hoped she was paranoid, but it seemed too much of a coincidence to have nothing to do with her.

Dionysus was intelligent, and mad. His presence was intoxicating. The way he spoke drew you in, terrifying and beautiful. Kali didn’t like it. The heady feeling of being in his proximity, almost out of control, she hated it. But she could understand why he rarely took his own classes. He wrote the lectures, and the books, but he kept his distance. Kali felt fragile for days after just an hour in a room with him, and she knew her classmates were the same.

When Kali finally met Aphrodite, it was during “The Art of Seduction”. The other class she taught was Fashion; Aphrodite argued that she couldn’t teach anyone about love, so beauty and lust were all she had left. She certainly seemed to have a lot of wisdom to impart in those areas.

The main topic of conversation in the class was confidence. It was more important to love yourself. If you couldn’t, why should anyone else. Self-confidence was an attractive quality, apparently. Aphrodite took it upon herself to imbue all her students with it in some form or another. Kali wasn’t certain, but it was difficult to disagree with her when she spoke with such certainty. Her poise was poetry in itself, and at least half the class forgot that they were supposed to stand up to leave when the bell rang.

Kali helped Jem shake Carl out of his stupor, and Kali tried to get Aphrodite out of her head. The woman was a masterpiece in every way. Kali could never compare. Suddenly, she realised what other demigods felt when they watched the Heroes fighting. She would never be at her level. The sophisticated grace, the vibrant glittering eyes, the lustrous hair. Everything about her was sculpted for perfection. The ultimate woman.

“Intimidating, isn’t she?” Jem rumbled, obviously smug about his parentage.

“That’s one word for it.” She replied, chewing her lip. Thinking about her father, Kali glanced at Jem and murmured “Do you ever feel like you’re in her shadow? Like you can only ever be a second rate version of her?”

“Sometimes. But I’m nothing like my ma’s. And Jack and I are so different, you could forget we’re related.” Jem smiled warmly. “I cast my own shadows, so I’m not scared of being in hers.”

“Well said, Jeremy. But you’re late for my class.” Hermes clapped, pulling Kali back to the present. Jem hurried in, still dragging Carl along behind them, but Hermes stopped Kali. He poked his head into the classroom and barked some instructions, then turned his full attention to her.

“Thank you for your help.” She said quietly, in response to his expectant smile.

Hermes’ only response was to hand her a polished wooden box. Kali looked at him, suspicion clouding her features, and his grin widened. “A little bird told me it is your birthday on Sunday.”

“I don’t understand.” She stated, watching him carefully. He was up to something. She was certain of it.

“Is it not customary where you are from to celebrate such a thing with gifts?” His voice was light, an impish smile on his cheeks. If Kali didn’t know better, she would think he was excited. But she’d never been one for birthdays.

“Yes, and no.” She muttered awkwardly. Ignoring the uncomfortable heat in her cheeks, Kali shook her head. “I can’t accept this.”

Hermes took her hands, placing the box in her grip. “Kali, I don’t need an excuse to want to spoil you. But please indulge me, just this once. If it makes you feel better, you can consider it making good on any debt you feel you have to me, for my assistance.”

Hesitantly, Kali touched the cool, smooth surface of the box. Focusing on the intricate silver clasp, she looked anywhere but at Hermes. As the box opened, her strained smile froze on her face. Her lips parted on a gasp as her fingers glided over the cold steel blade of one of the knives lying within.

The pair rested in a bed of royal blue silk, gleaming in the weak November sunlight. Fire opals lined the hilt, catching the light and glistening like fire, mesmerising her. She was afraid to touch them. They were much too beautiful to be weapons, yet the design was practical. She risked a glance at Hermes, meeting his twinkling eyes. They had been hazel before, she was certain. But suddenly they flickered with orange and yellow flames, mirroring the daggers.

Dazzled, Kali held his gaze. She hardly registered his arm sliding around her waist as his mouth met hers. His kiss was warm. Gentle. He parted her lips with his tongue, and her mind went hazy. He was spicy and sweet, unexpected. A sting of desire shot through her, sharp and insistent. It surprised her enough that she forgot, for a moment, who this was. Her heart stuttered and she pulled away from him.

“Interesting.”

The backs of her hands were tingling, and Kali was too aware of her lips. Despite the softness of his kiss, they felt bruised and swollen. Panicking, Kali stammered “W-what did you do.”

“I gave you a taste of what you’re missing.” He replied silkily. His gaze didn’t leave her face, waiting for her reaction. Making note of how his words affected her.

Taste. Her eyes darted back to his lips. He tasted earthy, sweet like butterscotch, but somehow spicy. She couldn’t place it, but she knew it didn’t belong to him. Her head was too cloudy to catch the train of thought before it eluded her. Her breathing was coming too fast, and she could hear her heart pounding. Clutching her head, she shouted “Stop it.”

“You seem flustered.” Hermes touched her cheek but she flinched at the contact. His hand scalded her skin.

Kali scurried back, into the wall, and snarled “I am not yours to touch.”

“And whose, pray tell, are you?” Hermes’ concerned smile faded and he regarded her with smug curiosity.

Kali reminded herself that Hermes was dangerous, and far too observant, but she couldn’t collect herself. It took everything she had not to call out to Hades as the world spun beneath her feet. She’d had dizzy spells before, but this was different. Faint, she pressed a hand against the wall to steady herself. Hermes held out his hand to her, suggesting “Perhaps you should take a little time to yourself. You don’t look well.”

“I won’t give you the satisfaction.” She grimaced, pushing herself away from him. Against her better judgement, she pushed her way into the classroom. Jem’s expression was unsettled, and his lips were pressed together for the whole time. It took everything she had to concentrate through her nausea, so she was glad of the quiet. But it was the first time Jem had contained himself from chatting in class.

When they got out, Jem steered her in the direction of the hospital. “You need to see one of the medics.”

That wasn’t going to happen. Kali shook her head, trying for a smile. “I’m just woozy. It’s nothing serious.”

“Now, Kali.”

She was startled by his tone; she had never heard him so serious. She bristled at his attempt to command her, but forced herself to take a breath. He meant well. He wasn’t an overbearing person, he was just worried. Even so, she stared at him. “Jem…what’s going on?”

“Stop being so stubborn, for once in your life!” He exclaimed, surprising her. He shifted where he stood, muttering “You just…you don’t look right. You don’t feel right.”

It took Kali a moment to realise why he was uncomfortable, but the way he was shifting was familiar. Faltering, she studied him. “Other people’s emotions affect you, don’t they?”

“Sometimes. I…I get a sense of them. It doesn’t matter.” He shook himself, standing his ground. His dark eyes were kind, but his voice was firm. “You’re a mess, Kali. But it’s not…you normally feel like salt and smoke. This is sickly sweet, cloying. Tainted.”

Kali felt it too. Hell, she could taste it. Like caramel, stuck to the roof of her mouth. Fighting the urge to be sick, Kali wondered if he was right. But her hands shook at the thought of going to the hospital. “I’ll go and lie down, OK?”

He was clearly frustrated, and Kali felt guilty for making him worry about her. To her relief, he sighed “Fine. But if you come back to class like this, I’ll tell Tom. Maybe he’ll have a better chance of convincing you to take care of yourself.”

Despite the way she was feeling, Kali had to smile at that. Tom had never had much luck trying to get her to be careful or take care of herself before. But she said nothing. Instead, she stumbled away and headed for her apartment building. She barely made it inside before stuttering to a halt at the bottom of the stairs. Doubled over, pain bolted like lightning, arcing through her nervous system. She saw white.

Mentally tugging on the silver thread inside of her, Kali wordlessly called out for Hades. She was relieved that she’d been practising; she didn’t think she would’ve had the strength if it hadn’t become second nature to check in. It was only then that she allowed herself to collapse, knowing that Hades would catch her.

___

Chapter Twenty One

An orange sun hung low in the sky, setting the horizon on fire. Hermes watched as the shadows deepened, a small smile lifting his lips. He wandered slowly to the Embassy, settling himself against one of the pink quartz columns. The glittered, refracting the light in all directions. The shadows did not move.

Sunlight curled around him, creeping like smoke. Hermes held out his arms, a grin painted firmly across his face. “Apollo, old friend.”

“Hermes.” Though he spoke quietly, Apollo’s voice boomed out across the courtyard, unsettling flocks of birds nesting in the forest.

Hermes cringed. He had been expecting this sooner or later; he just hoped it would be later. “You’re going to ask me to leave Kali alone?” Apollo’s jaw worked on a reply, but Hermes wasn’t going to wait for the reminder that he owed Apollo anything. “You’d rather Ares win?”

“She isn’t a prize. She is my daughter!” Sinister music was filling the air around him. The pillar at Hermes’ back reverberated, almost as though it trembled in his wake.

Hermes watched his friend, amused, and reminded him “You used to join in these games yourself, Apollo. Ares is treating her far worse than I am.”

“Ares doesn’t stand a chance.” He retorted.

“Glad you agree.” Hermes smiled and walked leisurely toward the bridge, following their usual routine. He didn’t need to look back; Apollo always followed his lead.

“Hermes…” Apollo faltered, sighing deeply. “You’ll destroy her. I know you; you’ll make her fall in love with you and you’ll break her heart.”

Without turning back, Hermes replied honestly “You pose far greater danger to her than anyone else.”

“She’s all I have left.” He whispered. Apollo placed his hand on Hermes’ arm, bringing them both to a halt. “They grow old and die, while we suffer on. We can never allow ourselves to truly love them. I don’t want her to go through that. Not even with you.”

“Then why are you trying to be part of her life?” He looked harshly into his friend’s eyes and his usually carefree voice was hard. “She lost you once already. Even if you wanted to protect her, she never had a say in the matter. Now you’re back in her life and ruining her opinion of you. How long can you keep it up this time?”

Apollo scowled and dropped his gaze. Hermes’ words stung, but he could not deny the truth in them. He didn’t know what the right course of action was anymore. “She wants nothing to do with me.”

“How can you be so dense?” Hermes said scornfully, teasing “I thought you were all knowing and all seeing?”

“Get to the point!” He snapped, the embers rising in his eyes.

Hermes’ tone was openly mocking and the pale stars twinkled with amusement as he joked “Come on, Apollo. What happened? Did you two have a fight? Did she tell you that you’re an idiot?”

“Hermes!”

“Look, just cut the girl some slack. I’ve seen how hard you are on her; it’s too much. I know you just want her to be the best she can be but you’re pushing too hard. She barely been here a month.” Hermes shrugged again, leaning casually against the glistening pillar by the entrance of the embassy. “I’m guessing she doesn’t appreciate it. Now you think she hates you, and you’re angry because whatever she said to you is true. You never could accept when you were in the wrong.”

“I…” He stuttered, not knowing how to answer without acknowledging that what Hermes said was true. His golden eyes dimmed. Apollo was glad when Hermes interrupted before he had to respond, even though he knew he wouldn’t want to hear what the thief had to say.

“Kali idealised you when you left, made you out to be this amazing guy. In all honesty, I can see why she’s disappointed. You’re not really living up to that image. She lived in the other world for a long time and now she’s been thrust into this one; everything she thought she knew turns out to be a lie.”

“Not everything.”

Testing the water, Hermes put his arm around Apollo and laughed “If I know Lynette, she would have told her anything but the truth about this place. She probably didn’t tell her anything at all.”

Apollo sighed wearily, and his temper faded. Instead, his eyes were a regretful yellow. “When did you get so insightful?”

“I think I’ve just been around you too much.” His eyes flashed playfully. Apollo hadn’t denied it.

“Hermes.” Apollo stated, too tired to dance around questions anymore.

“What can I say? I’m a thief. We’re an observant bunch. Besides, when you’re trying to steal a heart you have to pay attention to what makes it tick.” Hermes shrugged modestly, carefully schooling his expression. He knew that seeing into people was one of his greatest skills and it always had been. A thief had to be able to size up their mark at a glance to be successful.

Apollo’s face hardened, dark now that the sun had completely set, and he stated “That doesn’t change the fact that I want you to stay away from her. She is different, special. I don’t want you hurting her.”

“Maybe you’re right; she is different. Maybe this time isn’t the same as the others, Apollo. Did you ever think of that?” Hermes’ eyes were innocent, honest even, but the god of truth always knew.

Apollo scowled, sighing “You wouldn’t be using the epithym root if this time was different.”

Hermes grinned roguishly. “It doesn’t matter why the feeling is there, as long as it is. Isn’t that what you said? We can conjure what we need, until the echo of it becomes real and true.”

Apollo grimaced; that was what he had always said. He no longer had the energy to continue. Some distance from Camelot might help clear his head, he decided.  Sighing deeply, he clapped a hand on Hermes’ shoulder and wandered into the simple crystal building.

Hermes watched him go, his grin widening. Apollo still didn’t realise he had confirmed his suspicions. When he did, there would be trouble. But Hermes had always been good at trouble. But his smile faltered when he realised the shadows were as deep as ever. Even though the sun had gone down, and Apollo had left the realm. He felt a shiver and his eyes narrowed; this certainly was an interesting development. “Well, this is an evening of revelations indeed.”

Hades’ voice slid quietly from the shadows. “Epithym root?”

“Hello old friend. Been a while since we could talk outside the confines of Camelot.” Hermes’ eye darted around, looking for the subtle shift in the shadows to find him. It was a game he played often, but his friend’s voice was anything but playful. “You’ve been so busy lately.”

“You would force your desire upon her?” Hades said, ignoring Hermes’ attempt at conversation entirely. He could have been asking about the weather, but Hermes suppressed a shudder; he knew not to trust that veneer of calm.

“Force?” Hermes tried for a laugh. “You wound me. I won’t touch her while she’s under the influence of it. I’m simply building the attraction. She’ll associate the overwhelming sensation with me, and she’ll come to me on her own.”

“I will tell you this only once. You will not use trickery to bend her to you. Conjuring falsified emotions from her will only bring her pain. I will not tolerate it.”

As the shadows deepened, fear tingled Hermes’ spine. “Hades, need I remind you that you have no more claim over her than the rest of us. You cannot sway my actions, or enact punishment, concerning any demigod.” It was a friendly reminder, lest Hades land himself in a difficult situation. But Hermes was intrigued by the unexpected situation. Pushing his luck, he added “Though, I suppose that classification doesn’t include Kali, does it.”

Silence crashed over them. Hermes wondered, not for the first time, if he had misread the limit of Hades’ patience. “Woo her as you will. But if I catch a scent of this drug again, you will wish you could die.”

___

Chapter Twenty Two

Kali sat up quickly, clutching her head. The remnants of restless dreams fled from her, leaving her with faint sense of dread. The memory escaped her, as it often did. The harder she tried to grasp them, the faster they flew out of reach.

She took in her surroundings groggily, and realised she was on the sofa in her living room. It took her a moment to realise that someone must have moved her there. A sickly butterscotch taste lingered in the back of her throat and her stomach clenched.

Kali sat up slowly, clamping a hand over her mouth as bile swelled in her throat. Shaking hands reached for the glass of water perched on the table, and she risked a small sip. Cool liquid soothed her, washing the taste away. She noted the hint of peppermint and a sharp pang of ginger as she put the glass down.

After a few seconds, the churning in her gut settled. Her pounding head convinced her to lay back down and she curled around herself. Sleep took her, and she did not wake again until the sun rose. She struggled out of the room, her fatigue clinging to her like a second skin. She ended up partnering Eliza during their joint Unarmed Combat but her friend was not the type to go easy on her. She didn’t even have the energy to argue with Ares when he pulled her aside and assigned Eliza a different partner.

By the time she stumbled into Hades’ classroom, she couldn’t pretend that forcing herself outside wasn’t a mistake. She couldn’t bear the thought of seeming weak. But who was she kidding? She was a wreck. If anyone tried to prove a point by challenging her today, she wouldn’t stand a chance.

She sat in her usual seat. The cadence of Hades’ voice washed over her, and Kali let her mind go blissfully blank. She felt his eyes drift over her and smiled to herself, remembering that they were blue. She wondered what shade they were. She could imagine them being deep and fathomless, or vibrant like sapphires.

A quiet, sarcastic voice to her left startled her. “Dreaming about that kiss?”

“What?” She turned to her friend, eyes wide. Her heart stuttered and her stomach twisted.

Jem wasn’t looking at her. His eyes were on the paper on the desk in front of him, and his jaw was clenched. “Hermes. He kissed you, right?”

“How did you…” She looked down at the desk, shame burning her cheeks. She had no idea how Jem even knew that Hermes had kissed her; she thought they were alone. But it didn’t matter.

She hated that she had let Hermes kiss her. Most of all, she hated the feeling that she was betraying Hades. Part of her wondered if that was the reason for the visceral reaction she’d had afterwards. Kissing him had felt inherently wrong. Even if her body had responded, despite everything inside of her rejecting his attention. The pages on the table started smoking slightly and the pen in Kali’s hand melted around her fingers.

Suddenly, Kali felt cool lips brushing her neck through her hair. A hand on her lower back soothed her, and a soft whisper reminded her to breathe. His warmth eased her rigid shoulders, but she felt fragile. Hesitantly, she reached for that shining silver cord that led her to him. I’m sorry.

She could feel his sorrow, and a sting of anger. But not directed at her. He was angry for her. For whatever had caused her this pain. The bell cut into the silence between them and Kali jumped as she remembered where they were. Hades silently slipped away from her side as the demigods darted for the exit.

Jem sighed, finally turning to look at her as he packed away his things. “Did you even sleep last night?”

“Of course I slept.” She mumbled. She hadn’t moved. 

Jem put his notebook carefully into his organised back and stood slowly. “You look like shit. Go lie down. I’ll tell everyone where you are.”

Without another word, he walked to the door; Kali assumed he didn’t want to deal with another stubborn argument from her. Carl grimaced at Jem’s lack of tact, but it was clear he agreed with the sentiment. He shrugged awkwardly and muttered to Kali that he’d see her later. With half a glance back at her, he followed Jem out of the room, leaving her alone with Hades.

“You look beautiful, Kali.” He murmured quietly from her side, once they were gone. He interpreted her silence as disbelief and smiled to himself, murmuring “You of all people would know if I were lying.”

A reluctant smile tugged at her lips. She giggled, warmth easing her coiled muscles. For a moment, the pressure on her chest lifted and she could breathe again. But hot tears prickled the corners of her eyes. “I’m sorry.”

“For what happened yesterday? Even if you choose Ares or Hermes, you never have to apologise to me. Even if I…” He trailed off, leaving her longing for the words he couldn’t bring himself to say. After a moment, he finished “I will always respect your choices.”

The edge to his voice sent an ache through her chest. Throwing caution to the wind, she whispered “What if I chose you.”

“Kali…” He cautioned softly.

“I can’t keep pretending I’m not in love with you.” As the words snuck past her guard, she knew they were the truest words she had spoken. She laughed inwardly at the absurdity of it. She loved him. Before she could remind herself of all the reasons he would never be hers, she moved to kiss him.

Her heart stopped when cool fingers, feather-light, touched her cheek. Shadows curled around them. Formless as they were, their pull drew her closer to Hades. But as the shadows pulled her in, Hades broke away. His fingers still lay on her cheek and she felt the tremor go through him before he dropped his hand.

Bereft at the loss of contact, Kali curled in on herself. What was she thinking? She of all people should know better than to force her affections on someone. She shuddered, standing from the chair and turning away. Her hand flew over her mouth. “I’m sorry.”

“I can’t let this happen when you’re still not completely yourself.” He murmured quietly, looking anywhere but at her.

Kali picked up on his words, even through the numb fog threatening her senses. Not myself? Tentatively, she asked “What do you mean?”

“I should not be telling you this.” He muttered, but he pressed on nonetheless, standing beside her. He spoke slowly, as though he were scared of startling her. “There is a substance…epithym root. It’s a minor aphrodisiac to humans but to gods it borders on toxic. Demigods, somewhere between.” He paused; there were only so many rules he could break. Hermes had reminded him of that. He couldn’t tell her explicitly, so instead he prompted “It tastes like salted treacle.”

She knew. Every fibre of her rebelled, rejected it, but she knew. “So…when he kissed me…” Palpitations threatened to consume her. But she clenched her fists, forcing the panic into her fire. How dare he? She screamed it from the depths of her mind, and smoke curled around her trembling hands.

She focused everything she had on that feeling. Pride was easier. Pride felt less like giving up. Gritting her teeth, Kali dared a look at Hades. Usually, she could get a sense of his feelings. Like an aura, echoing across the chasm between them. Yet he was silent.

“If this-” A lump in her throat stopped her in her tracks. Working around it, she choked out “Drug?” The trickle of regret confirmed it, as did a hard sigh. Breathing heavily, she channelled the unnameable emotion into her pride again. Bolstering her resolve best she could, she found the strength to continue “If the root he used works differently on demigods…I mean…he wouldn’t have bothered unless it would be a pleasant sensation?”

“He knows your parentage. In part, due to the extent of your reaction to the root.” He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear to ground her. “However, Hermes doesn’t give information away unless it is to his advantage. Your secret will be safe.” For now. The words hung silent in the air between them.

“Do you care?” She asked, desperate. Did he also see her as less? Beneath them? Not worthy of even granting a semblance of consent or respect? She didn’t want to hear the answer, but the words tore themselves from her regardless. “How they treat me, do you care?”

With a shuddering sigh, Hades leant forward and rested his head against hers. “I care.”

“Why?” She pleaded, pressing her eyes closed.

It took Kali a moment to realise that the trembling she felt was not her own. Hades’ voice was ragged, catching her off guard. “Ask me tomorrow. If you still want to know, ask me tomorrow.” He took her hands, his grip firmer than usual, and pressed her knuckles to his lips. The shadows caressed her one more time before he slipped out of her grasp.

___

Chapter Twenty Three

The sun rushed in through the open window and danced across polished wooden floors. Kali stretched, easing the tension out of her muscles slowly. She was starting to get used to sleeping on the sofa, but it wasn’t as comfortable as she would like. Then again, the sofa wasn’t to blame for her restless night.

Her mind was buzzing. No matter what she did, she couldn’t switch it off. When she woke, nausea settled deep in her chest, refusing to give any quarter. Like a bubble that refused to burst, rising up in the back of her throat. Too many thoughts stampeding through her mind. It was too much to keep track of. So full that it was empty.

Over the wordless clamouring, she recalled that it was her birthday. Biting her lip, she impulsively glanced over to the drawer she had stuffed her mobile phone in. She had staved off the urge to check it every day since arriving in Camelot. Some days were easier than others.

Turning her back, she hovered at her bedroom door. Hesitated, her hand an inch from the door handle. With shoulders tensed, she darted inside and grabbed an armful of clothes from the drawers. Whatever was in reach would do. She was in and out within seconds, but her skin still crawled. Flinging the clothes onto the sofa, she threw herself into the shower without stopping to undress.

When the prickling sensation across her skin finally abated, Kali peeled herself out of the soaking clothes and busied herself with her things. The sunlight was a pale wintry yellow, peeking through the skylight. She followed the trails of glittering dust particles when she ran out of things to do before it became too much. Just one look, she told herself. It didn’t matter. Either way, it didn’t matter.

When she turned it on, Kali wished that the battery had died. She hoped that something would interrupt her. But it was still early enough that the only sound that could be heard in Camelot was birdsong. Groaning at her lack of control, Kali waited for the messages to update. She watched, chewing on her bottom lip.

Nothing. Part of her argued that it was still early. It had only been her birthday for a few short hours. But still her heart plummeted; the truth weighed heavily on her, constricting her chest with an iron band. She sighed wearily, muttering “Why would this year be any different?”

Tossing the phone onto the table, Kali strode out of the room. Without completely making up her mind, she wandered through the camp. Her feet took her to the Colosseum. Sunday was the only day the demigods got a lie in, and the arena was empty.

As soon as she stepped into the arena, the cool grass giving way to coarse grit, Kali realised she had forgotten shoes. She looked down at her bare feet, curling her toes around the layer of sand and dirt. She would regret it later, she was certain, but it was too late to do anything about it.

Kali closed her eyes as she walked forwards and focused on feeling the dirt beneath her. Feeling its pulse through the soles of her feet. A gentle, albeit chilly, breeze swept around her. Kali felt a smile come to her as she heard the tinkling tune it brought. Like laughter, in the form of a wind chime.

As the breeze swirled and dances, Kali moved with it, tracing its currents. Her direct contact with the earth beneath kept her grounded, and helped her remember her breathing. Following the wind, Kali started to go through the drills she had practised with Tom and Sage. It was demanding to concentrate so fully on her movements, but her mind was blissfully quiet.

While Kali focused, the god of war marched slowly over to the Colosseum. He always knew the moment she stepped into his territory. Her blood sang to him. Instead of approaching her, he sat casually in the stands to watch her train. She seemed not to notice him; he had never seen her smile the way she did as she danced with the wind. He recognised the forms as she practiced, but she never moved with such grace and poise in classes.

The way she moved was methodical. Peaceful, even. Restraint wasn’t something he thought her capable of, from the way she acted around him. She was all fire, unrelenting will and passion, even when her flames simmered. But watching her then, the smooth continuous motion was all water. A still surface running deep with emotion. 

Her energy was intense; even with the deceptive veneer of calm, she radiated potential. He had brushed off her victory over him with his peers, but he knew Kali was dangerous. To all of them. That only made him more determined to conquer her. He had never kept a bargain with a demigod before. Hell, he didn’t usually keep them with the other gods. All he knew was that if he lied to her again, there was no chance he’d win her over.

Grimacing, Ares knew it was about time to acknowledge the two Heroes sitting a few rows behind him. Heracles and Achilles had been planning on going a through rounds to start the day, until they realised someone had beaten them to it. The arena was massive, but they couldn’t risk it. Still, they appreciated the opportunity to observe her. Kali had sparked many conversations since they saw her emerge from the tunnel.

Ares climbed up the stalls and slumped irritably next to the Heroes, still keeping his eyes on Kali. He didn’t want to miss a second of the new side he was seeing. Keeping his voice low, Ares grunted “Where were you yesterday? The kids were looking forward to watching a real fight.”

“My fault, I’m afraid.” A voice from the shadows murmured softly.

Achilles turned, surprised “Hades! I thought you were going to be late.”

“I can’t risk leaving you two to wreak havoc unchecked, so I managed to slip away. Charon will make me pay for it later,I’m sure.” Hades sighed audibly and turned his attention back to Ares. “There were some matters I had to attend to. If you’re desperate, they’ve already said they can delight the demigods with some violence today instead.”

“I guess that’ll have to do.” Ares muttered irritably. He had never been fond of Hades; Ares liked to think that he was above the laws of death, and Hades was always quick to prove him otherwise. Of all the gods, Ares lost most family to his nature. There was little comfort in an honourable death when he could never join them in it.

Ares shot Heracles a menacing scowl, noting how closely he watched Kali, and snarled “Eyes to yourself, wonderboy. She’s taken.”

Heracles chuckled; he had no reason to fear the God of War. Not anymore. Before he could reply, the four men heard a quiet voice from the arena mutter “Like hell I am.”

She had known for some time that they were there. Hades was like a beacon for her whenever he was nearby; there was no way she could have missed him. Kali was honestly impressed with herself that she managed to retain her concentration. She considered staying, but the morning had drawn on towards a more respectable time. More demigods would be arriving soon, to take advantage of a quieter Colosseum.

Refreshed by the crisp air, Kali walked towards the beckoning woods edging the camp. Prickling pinecones reminded her to take extra care where she was walking, but she pushed ahead. Forging her own path, Kali was hopelessly lost after a few short minutes. But with the sun warming her back and a cool breeze fanning her face, she didn’t mind.

Kali lost track of time by the time she lost the sun overhead to the dense canopy. The wilds closed around her, but she was not afraid. The lilting cadence of the trees compelled her onward. Hypnotic melodies ensnared her, beckoning her deeper.

Time ceased to exist as Kali continued to walk. Without the sun as her guide, it could have been hours and she would never know. She felt detached, severed from her body, watching herself ambling onwards until she found herself kneeling by a river. The water was completely still, yet it was flowing. It was clear, yet there was no bed. Confusion took her, but it was a long groggy moment before she realised; there was no scent of water in the air. There was no song of running water. No humming insects. No thick feeling of humidity. Her eyes could see, but her other senses were blind to it.

As Kali stared into the unfathomable depths, the world around her slipped into grey. The colour fell out of her, leaving her shivering and numb. Like her life was seeping out of her along with the vivid hues. Scattered echoes whispered around her, formless and alien. A sudden onslaught of murmurs pressed into her mind, suffocating her, and Kali found her fingers reaching towards the surface of the water.

Disoriented, dazed, Kali desperately tried to draw back. But the distress she was conjuring didn’t ring true. Her mind was frozen in terror, screaming at her to flee. But her body was numb. Empty. Cold. Apathy flooded her. Even so, a tremor shook her hand. The rest of the world was silent and still, so her eyes instantly snapped to the movement.

A memory, crisp and clear and vivid, took her. The sensation of lips caressing her knuckles. Her fingertips. Her wrist. Her eyes forced themselves closed against a wave of dizziness and silence thundered down upon her. Her eyes opened on a gasp. The river was gone.

As the haunting atmosphere lifted, her muted emotions crashed back into her with reality. The sudden transition was a punch to the gut. Scrambling to her feet, Kali managed to stagger a few steps before the nausea took over. Bending double, Kali was violently sick, holding herself up against a tree. The vile taste was sharp, burning her throat.

As soon as she was granted a reprieve, she fled. Sprinting with no concern for her bloodied feet, desperately trying to find the sun again. Once she broke the treeline, Kali stumbled to her hands and knees. Her breaths were coming fast, too fast, and her head swam dangerously. As she stared at the saturated grass, white spots dancing in front of her eyes, a shadow drew near.

Much to her surprise, a delicate and weathered hand appeared in front of her face, holding a steaming mug. Her eyes fluttered unsteadily upward to see Demeter crouching in front of her. When she blankly stared, the goddess smiled kindly. “Drink up. It will help.”

As Demeter sat beside her, flowers sprouted around them. As the fresh blooms weakly tilted towards Kali, the goddess scrutinised her closely through thick goggles. Still holding out the green mug, Demeter waited expectantly until Kali finally closed her shaking hands around it.

 Kali shuddered inwardly as Demeter inspected her like a weed. Instead of dwelling on the unpleasant feeling, Kali took a hesitant sip of the scalding liquid. It had little taste, but it helped restore warmth to her limbs. Looking up into the gentle earthy eyes of the woman sitting beside her, Kali murmured her thanks.

Frowning, Demeter murmured “That’s quite alright, dear. You have seemed drawn for a few days; are you sleeping?”

Kali shrugged, relieved for a ready excuse. Demeter didn’t seem interested in the reason she had fled from the woods. But she couldn’t help but wonder if the goddess was onto something. The river was something she was certain she had seen before. Perhaps it was another dream. She took another sip of the herbal tea to give herself time to think on her reply.

Her sleep had been disturbed more than usual recently. When she visited the man in shackles, she always felt more exhausted than when she went to sleep. The strain on her psyche as her mind tried to unravel and deal with her abandonment issues took its toll. Sighing, she carefully admitted “I have been sleeping. I just don’t always get any rest.”

“Bad dreams?” Demeter asked gently, her eyes searching.

“Something like that.” Kali muttered, her mind drifting down into that dark place again. The thought of the river sent chills across her skin. She shook herself and looked back up at the goddess’ calculating stare. Kali attempted a smile, saying “I’m sorry for missing your classes yesterday. I’ll make sure to catch up.”

“Good.” With that, Demeter stood fluidly, pausing to croon over a rosebush.

As the hustle and bustle of the camp surrounded her, the river seemed more and more like a dream. Even as she wiped the sweat from her brow, she wondered if she hadn’t imagined it. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she pushed on towards the fountain.

Kali was vaguely aware of someone drawing closer behind her. She tensed herself to respond, but her shoulders relaxed when a voice she knew shouted “There you are!”

“Eliza.” She turned, forcing a grin. She was sure it was strained; her head was still spinning. But Eliza didn’t seem to notice.

“I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” Eliza reproached, her face twisted in a childish sulk. “I thought you’d be in the Colosseum!”

“I went for a walk. We can go now, if you want?” She suggested. A bit of time in the arena was sure to clear up any lingering disquiet.

“Fine.” She grunted, then shook herself. The smile that followed was as honest as Kali’s had been, so she decided not to comment. Eliza never kept her annoyance to herself for long. They walked in companionable silence to find the Colosseum was packed. Still, Eliza insisted that they get some training in. Kali hated the crowd, but her friend left little room for discussion.

Taking their stances, the girls hesitated for the briefest of moments before throwing themselves into a fight. Any observers would surely never believe the girls were close friends. Kali laughed, dancing away as her partner’s expression contorted. All Eliza wanted to do was wipe the grin off her face, and make her take the fight seriously.

Ares walked by and Kali faltered for a moment, but that was all the time Eliza needed to tackle her. Kali’s head cracked on the ground, and she let out a gasp of pain. Tender, she took her time sitting back up instead of springing to her feet the way she usually would. She tried for a smile but it was more of a grimace as she croaked “Liza, I think you broke a rib.”

“You should have dodged better, then.” She sneered, leaning over her. “You always did fight with luck, not skill.”

Kali bristled. Luck? She chewed on a retort before tossing it away; it wasn’t worth it. Eliza rolled her eyes, hands on her hips, and sniggered “Come on, naptime is over. Or do you want to give up before I get the chance to completely humiliate you?”

Wiping blood away from her mouth, Kali tested her weight. Her legs were a little shaky, but nothing major. She shook her head, regretting it when she saw stars for a moment, and replied “It’s cute that you think you could.”

“You think I’m gonna go easy on you just because it’s your birthday?”

“My birthday.” Kali’s smile faded. She had forgotten. Her heart sank like a stone when she remembered her blank message screen. But even in her discomfort, she did not miss the irritation flash across Eliza’s face. “How did you know?”

“You must have mentioned it…” Eliza bit her lip and flushed angrily, knowing she was caught out.

Kali pushed herself to her feet, finally. She busied herself brushing the dirt from her legs so she wouldn’t have to look at her friend, mumbling “I think I’m done, for now. But I’ll get you back to even the score again later.”

“What’s up with you?” Eliza asked, her expression twisting sourly.

“Nothing.” Kali smiled valiantly and admitted “I’m not so into birthdays. We never really do anything; it’s just another day.”

“Let’s go to your room.” She suggested with feigned nonchalance.

Kali started, staring at the girl. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “You want to go to my room?”

“Yeah. We can hang out?” Eliza tried, wearing a pained smile.

Despite the bold attempt, Kali wasn’t going to budge. “Eliza.”

“Oh come on, K. They’ll kill me if they know I let it slip…” Kali just looked at Eliza shifting uncomfortably in front of her until she exclaimed “Fine! We’re having a surprise party and you’re damn well going to be surprised when you get there! Now come on!”

With that, Eliza grabbed her arm and dragged her in the direction of her apartment. Kali didn’t bother trying to protest; she recognised the stubborn look on her friend’s face by now to know there was no use. She forced her grimace into a pained smile and let Eliza pull her along.

___

Chapter Twenty Four

One of the many things that did not come easily to Kali was being the centre of attention. Some people, especially at Camelot, seemed to think that she was good at everything. But she was useless in social situations. She was just lucky enough to have met people that accepted her so easily that she didn’t have to try. They put in the effort and seemed content that she was just there. She felt guilty sometimes, coasting by; she knew they deserved better.

Kali was tense on the walk across camp, but she was determined to be positive. Eliza was grumbling under her breath and Kali hated to seem ungrateful so she schooled her expression into one of optimism. When they arrived, Kali didn’t need to fake the blushing cheeks and the nervous laugh. Eliza relaxed, and the others quickly reminded her that it was enough for them that she was there. She didn’t have to pretend to be any more than she was.

Kali was surprised by how happy she was for the fuss. She usually didn’t really take note of her birthdays; it didn’t seem like that big a deal. She spent most of them alone anyway, so there was little point in celebrating. But with her friends beaming at her, with all their hard work decorating the space around her, it felt special.

Willow and Sage had grown and weaved banners of twisting vines and flowers, braided with intertwining branches. They covered the walls and the ceiling, so it was like walking into a fairy grotto. Tom and Carl had strung up fairy lights under Jem’s watchful eye while Eliza had kept her busy.

Jem wasted no time in telling her that Ben had smuggled a bunch of helium balloons in, which were floating in the centre of the room. There were a few platters of food arranged in a buffet on her kitchen counter. And under the balloon was a small pile of brightly wrapped packages. Presents.

Taking it all in, Kali was overwhelmed. Tears sprung to her eyes and she bit the inside of her lip to keep it from wobbling. Carl was closest to her so he got the first hug, then she made her way around the room. Tom was last, a big bear hug that told her he knew. He understood. Tom had been the only person that had ever made note of her birthdays when they were kids. Brushing off the overpowering well of feeling, buffeting her from all sides, she muttered “Prick.”

Tom laughed. “Knew you’d like it.” Tom ruffled her hair and asked how she was feeling. “Your hippie friend said you had some trouble yesterday?”

Kali half-smiled at the fact that anyone with dreadlocks was immediately a hippie to Tom. “Nothing major.” The lie stuck in her throat. Nothing major? She could feel Jem glowering, but she shook herself and said “Just wasn’t feeling right. Jem convinced me to get some rest.”

Tom frowned, but he didn’t push it. “Maybe he is good for something, then. Are you alright?”

“Half left.” She joked, faking a smile.

“Kali…” He stopped himself and sighed “Just be careful.”

She faltered, but replied “Don’t worry so much.”

“That’s the benefit of being the big brother. Worrying and pissing you off.”

“You’re an expert at both.” She muttered drily.

Tom smirked “I try.”

Kali giggled, wiping her treacherous eyes, and they guided her to grab some food. Once they were all settled, Tom decided a distraction was in order. He elbowed Sage in the ribs and the satyr glowered at him. Tom’s stony eyes fixed on him pointedly until the penny dropped.

“Presents!” Sage bleated suddenly, shooting to his hooves.

Tom snorted, everyone soon joining in when Sage blushed right to the roots of his tight curls. He cleared his throat, stamped a hoof, and attempted to sound dignified as he explained “It is time to open the presents.”

He then trotted to Kali and took her hand, linking their fingers. Kali smiled; Sage was the most cuddly member of their group. His skin had an almost earthy texture, and he was always warm. She let him pull her towards the little table in the middle of the room. And suddenly Kali was the centre of attention. She shifted uncomfortably, muttering “You know, you guys really didn’t have to do this.”

“Of course we did! It’s your birthday.” Jem laughed.

Kali didn’t notice that everyone suddenly seemed as nervous as she was. She squeezed Sage’s hand once before letting go, taking a deep breath. Sage had folded himself back onto the floor beside her, his bravado gone. He didn’t even seem to notice that he was munching away at the paper plate his food had been on earlier.

Before Kali could ask, Willow mumbled “Could you open mine first? The suspense is getting too much.”

Kali had to admit that the nymph did look even greener than usual. Huge eyes blinked at her as a fragile twig finger pointed at a rectangular box tied with a pale green bow. Kali smiled warmly and reached for the gift. Instead of returning the grin, Willow bit her lip and sat back down, looking away so she wouldn’t have to see the look on Kali’s face.

Kali took a breath and slowly untied the bow, savouring the silky feeling of the silk against her burning fingers. Inside the box was a wooden notebook with an intricate wooden clasp. Surprised, Kali caressed it gently. A smile, like sunlight cracking through the clouds, lit her face. “Willow, it’s wonderful.”

Willow’s eyes widened. “Y-you mean it?” She stammered. “I grew it out of a w-willow tree. I mean…I had some h-help binding it but…y-you really like it?”

“I love it. I just need to find something special enough to write in it.” She hugged her carefully; she was always worried Willow might snap under too much pressure. “Thank you.”

Jem grabbed another box from the table, this one wrapped in ochre tissue paper and tied with a red ribbon. Grinning, he waited for Willow to sit back down and said “My turn.”

Kali giggled and opened the box. Inside was a gorgeous red shawl and Kali gasped at how the gold streaks caught the light when she picked it up. “It’s so soft.” She immediately wrapped it around her shoulders and snuggled into it.

“You made it, didn’t you?” Tom asked casually. He took Jem’s unusual silence as confirmation and admitted “I’m impressed.”

Eliza looked more surprised by Tom’s reaction than by Jem’s skill with shawls. Jem muttered defensively “If you must know, I earned my pocket money growing up by helping our ma’s with their shop. We could sew, knit, embroider, and weave before we could ride a bike.”

“You’re not going to give him a hard time?” Eliza asked Tom, grinning slyly.

Tom simply shrugged. “Why would I? That’s a masterpiece. Besides, I don’t believe in getting down on someone about something that I can’t do myself. Which, by the way, doesn’t happen often! Like I said; I’m impressed.”

“And so modest too.” Kali muttered. She grabbed Jem and pulled him into a hug, whispering “It’s gorgeous. Thank you.”

She wrapped it around her shoulders, her jaw beginning to ache, and took the little bundle Carl offered. He shifted uncomfortably under her smile and muttered “If it doesn’t fit then I can fix it…but I had to guess measurements so…”

“Carl, you’re babbling again.” Jem chuckled.

Carl flushed and clamped his lips together. Kali unravelled the cloth and pulled out a dark brown belt. Carl eagerly showed her the slots for her new long knives. “You can take them wherever you go. Then, people won’t keep attacking you.”

“Carl, that’s really sweet.” The design itself was simple; Carl wasn’t one for embellishment. But there was a subtle beauty to be found in its practicality. “It has so many loops I can use to keep everything with me.”

Eliza pointed out “Plus, it looks pretty damn cool. Just saying.”

“It does.” Kali put it on immediately, though she was a little worried about the message it would send if she wore Hermes’ daggers. Still, she knew it would mean a lot to Carl, so she sheathed them at her hips. “Carl…this is awesome.”

Carl flushed bright red, and his blush only intensified when she hugged him. Jem patted his arm and Carl tried to hide his burning cheeks in his glass of cola. To take the focus off him, Sage mercifully threw a set of beautifully carved panpipes to Kali. She caught them with a curious smile and sighed wistfully. The engravings were shifting through the wood and Kali could hardly keep track of them. There were no words she could find to describe the beauty of the pipes, so she just said “You’ll teach me how to play?”

“Of course. It’ll be a novelty to teach Apollo’s kid how to play an instrument though.” He bleated a laugh and Kali smiled appreciatively.

Eliza shuffled over and grabbed a roll of paper from the table. “It’s nothing special. Just a poster.”

The poster was inked in thick black lines, and a stylised art style. But it pictured a comic strip of Kali and Eliza crossing swords. It ended with Kali on the ground, and Kali laughed; that was the more frequent outcome of their matched. But looking at the panels, Kali thought Eliza had captured their personalities pretty well.

“Shit, Eliza. I didn’t even know you could draw.”

“Yeah. Well. You know.” She started chewing the end of her braid, and Kali knew it was time to take the focus off of her before she burst into flames. Clapping Eliza one more time on the shoulder, Kali turned her attention to Tom. She felt Eliza tense slightly so she removed her hand with an apologetic smile.

Tom had been sitting back casually, watching the gathering unfold. When Kali turned to him, his smile faltered and he shifted. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I can see a box on the table.”

“Maybe you should pick it up and open it then.”

Sage whinnied “For crying out loud! After all this time, if you don’t give it to her, I will!”

“Sage, I swear I’ll break your nose again if you don’t shut up.” He sighed and grabbed the box, handing it to her gently. “You’re so lazy on your birthday.”

Kali laughed, but the cold prickle of dread began to crawl across her skin. She shook it off; she must be tired if she was already that strained. Even with the mild panic, it didn’t take long for her curiosity to get the better of her. She fiddled with the small box and opened it slowly. She froze.

“Tom…”

“What? What is it?” Jem asked impatiently.

Kali ignored him and just looked at Tom, whispering “This is…”

“I wasn’t sure it was yours until I noticed you didn’t have it anymore.” He took the charm bracelet from the box in Kali’s hand and fastened it carefully around her wrist. “I know how much it meant to you.”

Sage let out a sob and Kali turned to see that he was shaking, tears streaming down his cheeks. When Kali giggled, he stomped his foot indignantly and sniffled “You should have heard him going nuts about it when he found it. He thought he’d…never…be able to…” Sage clamped his hand over his mouth in a weak attempt to contain his blubbering.

“Remember what I said about breaking your nose?” Tom threatened quietly, but there was a lopsided grin quirking his lips.

“Tom…” She hesitated, an unpleasant memory forcing itself into the front of her mind. She fought a wave of nausea and swallowed the lump in her throat. She looked blindly at the bracelet, finally back where it belonged. “Where did you find this?”

His face darkened, the smile falling from his lips in a heartbeat. “It isn’t important. I just…came across it. When I was on a random quest.” He shrugged “I guess it was Fate?”

“Fate?” Kali repeated, clenching her jaw to keep from trembling. She managed to look back up and meet his eyes, joking “That logical and rational mind of yours can actually understand the concept of Fate?”

He laughed, ruffling her hair, and Kali punched him in the arm. Mockingly, he winced at the force she had put behind it. He sniggered “If it wasn’t your birthday, I wouldn’t let you get away with that.”

“I’ll remind you of that when it happens again tomorrow.” Kali teased, the tension easing slowly from her.

As the chatter started up again, Kali took a moment to catch her breath. Closing her eyes, she caressed the silver lion charm. It warmed against her skin and Kali imagined that it was as happy to be back where it belonged. It had been a part of her as long as she could remember, until someone had taken it. She would almost have rather died than part with it. If she had been alone, she probably would have. But her friend, Jade, had convinced her it wasn’t worth her life. More importantly, it wasn’t worth both their lives.

When she lost it, it was like a piece had been ripped away from her. A piece she hadn’t thought to recover. A piece that was slotting back into place like it had never been gone.

Kali desperately wanted to know how Tom had found it, but one look at his stubborn jaw told her how far she would get with that particular line of questioning. She was tempted to chance her luck anyway until Tom stood up and looked at her expectantly. When she made no move to follow suit, he rolled his eyes and asked “Were you listening to a word we were saying?”

Kali knew that her blank expression would tell him enough, so she didn’t bother to admit she’d had no idea they were talking, let alone what about. Eliza grabbed her forearm and pulled her to her feet, chuckling “Come on, birthday girl. Colosseum time.”

“Oh, sure.” Kali grinned. Before they left the room, she grabbed a sweat band to pull on over her bracelet so it wouldn’t get caught on anything if she decided to train. Then she joined the others in the excited chatter about the upcoming fight.

___

Chapter Twenty Five

Heracles and Achilles had decided to mix things up for a change. When they reached the Colosseum, Kali and her friends saw that the arena was full of different size beams, criss-crossing at various intersections. The lowest was a couple of metres high, and the highest must have been at least fifteen metres off the ground.

Kali was so distracted that she didn’t notice Ares approach until he was standing over her. She started, instinctively taking a step back, and looked up at him, expecting his usual sneer. But she was surprised; his features weren’t possessive or arrogant. He almost looked nervous. Ares glared at Eliza pointedly and she shrivelled. Without a backwards glace, Eliza dragged Kali’s friends to some seats, leaving Kali alone with the God of War.

He drew himself to his full height and cleared his throat. Wincing, Kali braced herself for whatever heavy handed nonsense he was going to spout at her. Maybe he had decided there was a time limit on their deal, and he was going to declare that her reprieve from his advances was over. “So…are you looking forward to the festival?”

Kali blinked twice, staring at him. “Um…what?”

“The new year festival.” At her blank expression, he realised she had no idea what he was talking about. He chuckled to himself; she really was single-minded. Shaking his head, he asked “Did you have your head under a rock this last month?”

“I was…distracted?” She paused, wracking her memory. Suddenly, something clicked about his strange behaviour. “Are you…making small talk?”

Ares sighed. It was a long, drawn out, suffering sound. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he grunted “I am trying to be polite.”

“Why?” Polite wasn’t in his vocabulary. It didn’t fit him.

“Sometimes, you can be very difficult.” He groaned, rolling his eyes. Without another word, he thrust a staff she hadn’t noticed he was holding towards her. He turned and left, not even waiting for her reaction. She fumbled to catch it and watched him leave, baffled by his behaviour. But the staff quickly summoned her attention.

The wood was deep and rich, and it shifted under her hands. The sensation made the weapon seem alive, like it was trying to mould itself to her. Kali’s hands trembled slightly, and flames gently licked at her skin. She was startled for a moment and instinctively dropped the staff, pushing the fire back down. She was surprised and relieved to see that the wood was unblemished. Kali frowned, glancing back at Ares’ turned back, and picked the staff back up. Once again, she had the strangest sensation that it was adjusting to her grip.

As she shuffled through the crowd to reach her friends, she wondered about the festival. She couldn’t recall hearing anything about it. She did keep her head down most of the time, though. Besides, the first month was completely taken up by her desperation to beat Ares.

Just as Kali reached her friends, a hush settled over the arena. As the two Heroes made their way onto the beams, Kali noticed Carl’s eyes fix on her new staff. He grimaced, and she shot him a questioning look. Before he could respond, a gong reverberated through the stands and silence fell once more. What followed was something Kali would never forget. The agility of the heroes as they navigated the maze of beams was truly something to behold. So graceful, yet powerful. The way they used the levels against each other and to gain the higher ground, sometimes in the literal sense.

The fight seemed to go on forever. Some way in, Jem muttered “Do they never get tired?”

Kali knew he was directing that question to her, but she could not look away from the spectacle in the ring. Carl and Jem drifted away from their seats at some point, but Tom, Eliza and Kali were transfixed. Heracles and Achilles seemed to have forgotten that they were effectively putting on a show. It wasn’t about that. It was about testing themselves and being pushed to the limit. Eventually, even they were slowing slightly. But their fight would not end until one of them touched the ground.

Those of Hermes’ offspring running bets on these matches had favourable odds that Achilles would be the victor. He was always so agile on the ground, and faster than Heracles. But Heracles’ inner balance was a force to be reckoned with. He was like a mountain where Achilles was the wind. With time, Achilles could surely whittle away at Heracles’ defences, but his reserves were draining, and Heracles’ patience was paying off. All he had to do was wait for Achilles to wear himself out and the battle would win itself.

Sure enough, it wasn’t much longer before Achilles overextended himself with a jab and couldn’t quite right himself in time. Heracles parried easily and then knocked his fellow hero in the back. The scramble that followed as Achilles struggled to control his fall was anything but graceful. After the rest of the exchange, it was almost comical.

Kali was vaguely aware of the groans of her fellow students as they realised they had lost their money. But when Heracles had dismounted, she was sure he looked right at her. She shook herself and followed Tom and Eliza with the crowd milling out of the arena. When they were clear, Kali thought about the calm certainty Heracles exuded and murmured “All of the stories paint Heracles as a berserker. I mean…some made him almost seem like a monster. But I haven’t seen any sign of that in the arena.”

“Well he has been dead a long time.” Tom reasoned fairly. “Maybe it’s had a mellowing effect on him.”

“I guess…” Kali said uncertainly. It made sense that time would erase much of the men they were before. But Achilles was just as reckless as he had been painted.

Tom laughed at Kali’s frown as they wandered to the fountain where Jem and Carl were sitting. They were both looking uncharacteristically grim. Jem tried to hide his expression when the others approached but Carl’s jaw was clenched.

Eliza was oblivious to the tension and scowled “Where did you guys disappear to?”

Jem shifted uncomfortably and glanced at Carl before shrugging. “Just got bored watching, you know.”

Eliza lost her temper easily, and it was starting to rise already. “So you just walked off without a word? Even though it’s Kali’s birthday!”

“Eliza, it’s no big deal.” Kali smiled, placing a hand on Eliza’s shoulder, but she knew that Jem was lying. She didn’t want to pry; just because she could tell didn’t mean people weren’t allowed their secrets. She needed to start letting them go every once in a while.

Eliza shrugged her hand off, but she had calmed slightly when she muttered “No big deal?”

“It’s not natural!”

They all looked at Carl, surprised by his sudden outburst. He had been sitting on the fountain but now he stood, looking ready to fight. His muscular frame suddenly looked quite intimidating and his honey eyes looked fevered. Kali took a careful step towards him, as she would a wild animal, and murmured “Carl?”

“That…thing. It’s not right.” He backed away, clearly not wanting her to be any closer.

Kali stopped and looked down at her hand, baffled. “The staff?”

“It’s…it wasn’t…”

Before he could finish, Eliza sniggered cruelly. “Sorry, you’re freaking out because there’s a weapon around that was grown instead of forged? You’re such a snob.”

“What do you mean grown?” Kali was intrigued, though Carl’s disgust confused her.

“Not just grown.” Jem said quietly. He wasn’t sure why it was such a big deal to Carl, but he was slightly unnerved by the process involved as well. “It isn’t like a tree…don’t try to make it sound so mundane.”

Kali looked around at them all, waiting for someone to enlighten her. After a moment, Tom rolled his eyes and explained “To make a weapon like that, you have to use blood. Ares doesn’t share the details.”

“Yeah, you use the blood of the wielder to make the perfect weapon for them! That staff matches Kali perfectly. It grows as she grows. It’s a rare honour to have a weapon like that.” Eliza retorted flippantly. Tom just looked at her and glared; he didn’t appreciate her constant bad attitude.

Carl shuddered, his eyes back on the staff, and said quietly “Don’t call it that. It isn’t a weapon.”

Kali brushed that aside for now and looked back at Tom. To diffuse the challenge that was brewing between him and Eliza, she drew his attention away and asked “Ares used my blood to make this?”

“Don’t tell me you agree with Carl!” Eliza rounded on Kali, her eyes glinting with barely controlled rage.

“Eliza! Enough!” Kali snapped. She took a breath to calm herself and continued “I was just wondering where he got my blood.” With what happened the first time she had met Ares, it was more than a little concerning that he had it. She didn’t know what other rituals or customs they had involving blood.

Tom gently stated “Everyone bleeds in the arena, Kali. Ares has his ways.”

“That’s still pretty creepy.” She frowned and ran her hand across the wood of the staff. It didn’t feel wrong to her. It felt warm, and balanced. Nothing about it made her uncomfortable. “Carl…it may be slightly unorthodox but…”

“It’s not natural.” He interrupted.

“I’m sorry you feel that way. And I understand. But…I’m going to keep it. It’s a good weapon, regardless of how it was made. And I don’t think there is any other staff that would suit me better.” Kali hesitated at the scowl on Carl’s face and gently added “Don’t you want me to be able to protect myself?”

“Of course I do!” With a real weapon. The words didn’t need to be spoken; the scowl on his face said them well enough. Carl sighed, defeated, and mumbled an apology. The silence that fell between them after that was thick.

They were all relieved when Sage bleated awkwardly, breaking the tension. He shuffled anxiously; he always hated confrontation. Combat was different; combat could be resolved quickly and easily, with no emotional mess. Kali shot him a grateful smile as he coerced everyone to the mess hall for dinner.

Eliza was still fuming that anyone dared question what she viewed as the highest honour Ares could bestow, but Carl relaxed. Kali wondered if he had ever been able to disagree with his friends without it turning into an argument. Jem was sticking close to his side, and his relief was obvious.

To nobody’s surprise, Kali hovered by one of the entrance pillars and made her excuses. Tom asked if she wanted some company, but she just laughed. “You don’t have to offer out of some warped sense of duty, Tom. Go eat.”

“Oh thank the gods. I thought you were going to say yes!”

Kali laughed “Next time I will, so be careful!”

“But…Kali, it’s your birthday.” Eliza stated accusingly, turning back with her arms folded.

Kali bristled. “I remember. But surely that means I can do what I want to do, not just what you want me to do?”

Eliza’s face twisted like she was sucking a lemon. She sighed heavily, muttering something under her breath, and waved a hand as if to dismiss her. Sage gave her a quick hug and reminded her to get something to eat when she felt up to it. He glanced anxiously at the others, and linked his arm with Willow’s to guide her away from a probably awkward conversation.

Kali smiled slightly to herself and turned to Jem and Carl. Jem was unruffled as always, but he still had his arm around Carl’s shoulders for support. They were best friends, first and foremost. After a moment, Kali asked quietly “Are we okay?”

“Don’t you hate me?” He mumbled. He shuffled uncomfortably where he stood and refused to meet her gaze. Jem was watching her carefully.

“For having an opinion? Of course not.” Kali smiled gently; she could understand better than he probably expected. She was more outspoken than she used to be, but it still took a lot for her to speak up. Gathering herself, she told him something she wished someone had said to her. “Carl, I could never hate you. You can always tell me if you disagree with me, or if you don’t like something I say or do. You can tell me anything. You know that.” She gave him a quick hug, then hurried away, leaving the two of them watching her go.

Kali didn’t know what she expected to find in the Colosseum so soon after the fight, but Heracles and Achilles were both still there. They were surrounded by a gaggle of fans, gushing praises and begging for approval. Several groups were sparring around the arena; perhaps fired up by the bout or maybe trying to catch the Heroes’ attention. Kali tried her best to ignore them all and found her own space to test out her staff.

After a few swings, Kali was satisfied that this was the most intuitive quarterstaff she had ever held. It sang through the air at the slightest movement. She glanced around self-consciously to see if anyone was watching, relieved that they all seemed absorbed in their own pursuits. She didn’t know how long the beams would be up, and footwork was something she desperately wanted to work on.

Awkwardly, Kali used what little upper body strength she had gained since her arrival to pull herself onto the lowest beam. She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath to steady herself as she found her centre. Her balance had never been her strong suit. Standing still was manageable, but her coordination was shaky at best. She had found that glaringly obvious during the training in the woods; she would concentrate so hard on what her hands were doing that her footwork often faltered. Beams would be a big challenge for her.

When Kali opened her eyes, she flinched backwards suddenly; Achilles was standing on the beam in front of her. Startled, she twisted her ankle slightly as she floundered, but she managed to stay on the beam. Her heart was pounding; she hadn’t detected his presence in the slightest. Not a sound. Not a single vibration of the beam beneath her feet.

Kali wanted to look around, but she could not tear her eyes from Achilles. She hadn’t been so close to him since she arrived in Camelot, and she had forgotten the intoxicating aura of power he exuded. She had admired his authority in the Colosseum from a distance every week. But he was a much different beast up close.

“On your guard, little demigod.” Achilles mocked, his low voice barely a whisper.

His smirk was not necessarily unkind, but Kali could not unclench her jaw to respond. Raising her staff, she nodded curtly, desperately trying to ignore her racing thoughts. Surely, he did not intend to fight her? She watched his movements the way a cat watched a fox, waiting for him to reveal his intentions.

Heracles leant against the beam beside Achilles, his massive form dwarfed only by his overpowering aura. “You’re the one that put Ares on his back.”

Kali involuntarily glanced at him. In that instant, Achilles swung at her and she dropped from the beam to avoid the blow. She rolled, to save the impact on her legs, and he was on her before she fully stood. As he pressed the fight, his grin widened. “You know, you’re meant to stay on the beams.”

“I don’t remember you explaining any rules for this engagement.” Kali grunted, desperately fending off more blows. He wasn’t even sweating, and she could hardly catch her breath. If she had intended to think about her actions, she didn’t have a chance. Her mind shut down and her instincts took over, parrying and deflecting and dancing aside with speed she did not know she possessed.

Achilles was fierce. It should have gone without saying, but Heracles always deflected him with such ease that he had seemed playful. But his speed and tenacity were terrifying. It was all Kali could do to keep up, and she knew he was holding back.

In no time at all, Kali was exhausted. If she could collect her thoughts, she might be able to put up a fair defence, but there was no reprieve. She had never felt so completely outmatched. After only three more blows, Achilles swept her legs easily and Kali hit the floor. She lay there, dazed for a moment, and Achilles stepped back. He paid her no attention as she gathered herself, just turning to Heracles to ask “How long?”

“Forty-one seconds.” Heracles stated. He held out a hand to help Kali up, but she staggered to her feet without it. Kali groaned inwardly; she thought she had been getting stronger, but she had lasted less than a minute against Achilles. She was surprised when Heracles continued “Not bad at all. Better than expected. You must be pretty fired up; your adrenaline must have increased your reaction time considerably.” Without taking his eyes off her, he held out a hand to Achilles and clicked his fingers.

Achilles shrugged “I guess I lost the bet.” He winked at Kali. “I said I’d have you in less than thirty.”

Kali tried to smile. “Sorry to disappoint.”

“It’s not a problem. There are other bets that I think I’ll be able to cash in on.” He flashed a sadistic smile. “Rematch?”

Kali blinked twice, not sure she heard him correctly. When she was sure he was serious, she muttered a soft curse and readied herself for another round. Achilles’ grin only widened, and he threw himself into an attack. After the first two blinding strikes, he pulled back and started shouting suggestions. Kali scrambled to process his instructions in time to act on them, and was rewarded with several smarting blows before she adjusted to his teaching technique.

Every time she lost her focus, she stared up at him from the floor. Achilles held out a hand and pulled her up by her staff, giving her no reprieve before beginning again. Soon, the fight turned into more of a dance. Achilles was constantly laughing, and the playful glint shone like a ray of sunlight in Kali’s golden eyes.

Time passed. She lost count of how many times she forced her guard back up, but she only hesitated when she noticed that the sky was black. She hadn’t even felt the sun set. As Achilles started towards her once more, Kali held up a hand and slumped back down. Her head was spinning so she lay back in the sand and struggled to get some control over her pounding heart. Even her encounters with Ares hadn’t drained her like this. She grinned.

“She’s still smiling?” Achilles gasped, feigning disbelief. “Are you a masochist or something? You just keep getting back up.”

Kali laughed, ignoring the stabbing pain in her ribs, and admitted “I guess I must be.”

Achilles roared with laughter, but Heracles just held out his hand. Kali giggled and took it, letting him pull her up. His power hit her like an avalanche the instant she touched his skin, and all humour was gone. Her racing heart stopped, dropping into the pit of her stomach. As soon as he released her hand, it thudded to her side.

“Heracles, what are you doing to her?” A silky voice called from near the entrance.

Heracles smirked and turned, holding out his arms. “Hades!”

At his voice, Kali’s head snapped up to see him. Her breath caught in her throat. Sapphire blue eyes, vibrant and piercing, caught her immediately.

She could hear that he was speaking, playfully scolding Heracles for showing off, but the words melted into the background. Her mind was blank as she struggled to process that he was just walking casually towards them. Just walking. Like it was the most natural thing in the world. Out of the shadows.

___

Chapter Twenty Six

As she forced herself to remain still, Kali couldn’t quite get over how Hades looked. His hair was long and black, like the shadows he blended into. If she had tried to imagine what he looked like, she would have guessed that correctly. The broad shoulders and muscular arms were a delicious surprise. He was much less bulky than Ares or Heracles, but his tight black t-shirt showed off his physique exquisitely. He looked refined, but there was something rugged and intense lurking just beneath the surface.

She bit her lip, hard, to keep her eyes from roaming. Instead, she pulled her gaze back to his unfathomable eyes to see them fixed on her face. Hades stood in front of her, silently waiting. Suddenly, she dropped her gaze and managed to murmur “Your eyes really are blue.”

A long finger touched her chin and she shivered. Whenever he had touched her before, it had felt like there was a fine layer of something between them. The contact, out of the shadows, was electric. He lifted her face back up to look at him, letting his hand linger. “You doubted me?”

She shook her head weakly, but she couldn’t find the words to answer him. Instead, she just watched his face as his lips curved up into half a smile. She didn’t realise she had stopped breathing until air rushed back into her lungs. That smile. His bone structure was captivating, the arched brow and the high cheekbones and the strong jaw, dusted with stubble. The sensation of his smile had always haunted her, but to see it.

Kali flinched when Achilles cleared his throat pointedly from behind her. With the surprise of seeing him, really seeing him, she had forgotten that they weren’t alone. She glanced around to see the two Heroes looking thoroughly entertained. Kali lowered her face again to hide her blooming cheeks behind a curtain of hair.

Heracles and Achilles exchanged a look before Achilles muttered “Well…I think that’s our cue to skedaddle back downstairs…you kids have fun…get him back before curfew.”

Hades sighed at the joke and banished them with a wave of his hand. He bowed slowly, stealing her gaze with his striking eyes, and held out a hand to her. “Shall we?”

The eye contact was doing something strange to her. Her heart hummed. Biting her lip, Kali nodded and took his hand, savouring the feeling of him entwining their fingers. She knew her face was glowing like the sun, so she kept it down as he led her away from the Colosseum. Deep breaths.

She was pulled out of her cascading thoughts when Hades asked, “Is my appearance so unpleasant that you cannot bring yourself to look at me?”

Her eyes locked on his, shocked. “No! You’re…that is to say, I…” She blushed when she saw his teeth flashing in his grin. Hades’ lips curved slowly into a grin, all too aware of Kali’s fluttering heart. A deep throaty chuckle escaped him when the blush returned to her cheeks. At the sound, Kali whispered “You are too cruel, Lord Hades.”

“I certainly have my moments.” He chuckled quietly, pulling her towards the fountain to sit with him. His blue eyes glinted in the glimmering moonlight as he teased “You blush so easily. Is that the effect I have on you, I wonder?”

Her blush deepened, her eyes dropping to his mouth. She scolded herself for her honesty before she even got the words out as she breathlessly replied, “You know what effect you have on me.”

“Hmm…do I?” He stood quickly and dragged her to him. He pressed her body against his and held her there, looking down into her eyes. His hand cupped her cheek to keep her from shying away again. His expression was suddenly serious as he quietly suggested “Perhaps you should enlighten me as to exactly what effect I have on you, Kali.”

“Why?” His lips were so close, distracting her. Before her good sense could get in the way, she whispered in a rush “You said to ask if I still wanted to know. Why do you care?”

“Why do I care?” He echoed slowly. His hand feathered over her cheek until he brushed the edge of her lips curiously. “You felt guilty because someone else kissed you. Why?”

Her lips were dry. “You already know why.” She replied, looking helplessly up at him.

“Tell me again.” His voice was unyielding. “You said something when we last spoke. Did you mean it? Why do you feel guilty that Hermes kissed you?”

“Because I belong to you.” She whispered. She wanted to hide, but he was too close. Too close to think straight. Too close to remember why she shouldn’t tell him. “Because I love you.”

The silence that followed her tiny declaration was absolute. She couldn’t regret it, but she knew she should never have admitted such a thing. Hades was a god. She was nothing. Even if he was attracted to her, there was no chance that love was in his plans. Hanging her head, she tried to sound indifferent, saying “You can put me in my place whenever you’re ready.”

Hades tangled his fingers slowly in the hair at the back of her neck, gently pulling to bring her eyes back to his. His gaze was fierce when he murmured “That is what I’m after, Kali.”

“Hades…”

“You said you expect me to put you in your place?” He slowly caressed her cheek and moved so close that his lips were only a breath away. A smug smile tugged at his lips when he saw hers tremble before he continued You’re in it.”

Agonisingly slowly, he closed the distance between them. His hand slipped around her waist and his lips were featherlight as they brushed hers. The world melted away. After the first tentative touch, Kali leant into him helplessly. His kiss was soft and slow and dizzying. The few kisses she’d had before had been childish, needy, meagre. Inadequate in light of the fire his lips sent raging through her.

The kiss lasted only a moment, but Kali was shaking and breathless. Hades looked at her, fighting the smug smile her heavily lidded eyes brought him. She realised he was waiting for her reaction. All she could think was that she didn’t know how something so delicate could awaken so much need in her. There was nothing else to do but pull him to her to steal another kiss.

Hades’ response was a soft growl in the back of his throat. With no care for restraint, he crushed her body to his. When his teeth grazed across her bottom lip, Kali clutched his shoulders to steady herself. He chuckled against her lips, and slowly moved back. When they parted, smoke was curling at Kali’s feet and coiling around them both.

Hades rested his forehead against hers, taking one more kiss, and muttered “You didn’t kiss Hermes like that, did you? Otherwise I may have to kill him.”

Kali giggled breathlessly. She was relieved to feel Hades was just as affected by what had happened as she was. With a shuddering breath, he murmured “I have been yours since the moment we met.”

Despite the pleasant shiver his words gave her, Kali could feel his turmoil. She gently pressed her shaking hands onto his chest, feeling his heart beating a rhythm to match hers. “You can tell me anything.”

“Being with me would not be easy for you. You won’t always be safe.” His forehead still rested against hers and he closed his eyes, insisting “It would be selfish of me to pursue this. You deserve better than I can give you.”

“Is it Zeus?” He nodded reluctantly, and she kissed the corner of his mouth. “Would you prefer to keep this between us?”

He slowly pulled her into a tender embrace, his fingers tracing circles on her lower back. “I don’t want to hide you in the dark.”

“I’d happily trade the sunlight for you.” She whispered, opening the weight of her emotions to the bond they shared.

He flinched, like she had punched him in the gut, and his arms tightened around her. His voice was uncharacteristically thick with emotion. “Kali, I will not have you in my shadow. If you are mine, you stand at my side. There is no other way.”

His words made her tremble, but she could feel the chaos that raged inside him. Reluctantly, she suggested “Do you want to wait?”

“No.”

Kali giggled at the force he put into the word and teased “I thought immortals were supposed to be patient.”

“I am not. Not when it comes to claiming what is mine. I don’t want to have to sit back and let anyone else touch you. I want to be able to protect you. I want you at my side.” His arms loosened and he took a small step back, putting distance between them. He sounded very tired as he continued “Zeus will not stand for this. Until things quieten down with him, it would be better for you if he did not feel more threatened. I am the biggest threat to him, and I always have been. I am not a safe option for you.”

“You’re worth the risk.” Kali took his hand, but she knew his mind was made up.

“As are you. I would gladly endure his wrath for your sake. But I will not have you live in fear for my sake.” Hades brought Kali’s hand to his lips, turning it to kiss her wrist. “For now…know that I am yours, body and soul. But I won’t kiss you again until I can be sure that the king will not be a problem.”

Kali bit her lip, her gold eyes locked on his sorrowful blues. She wanted to respect his choice, but she knew it wasn’t what he wanted. She whispered his name, her lips trembling, and he snarled darkly before pinning her to one of the pillars around the mess hall.

The kiss was explosive. Passionate and filled with an aching need that set Kali aflame, quite literally. It was almost as violent as Ares’ had been, but it was so much more. Kali needed everything about it. Hades’ lips broke away and trailed down her neck and nipped at the sensitive skin, making her cry out. He returned to her lips, swallowing the noise. Between kisses, he chuckled “I’ve been dying to hear you make that sound.”

When they parted, she was still holding onto his shirt. Giggling, she murmured “So much for not letting anyone known.”

Hades rested his head against the pillar over Kali’s shoulder. “They can’t see us, Kali. I thought you knew.”

“You hid us?” She buried her face in his chest and breathed him in.

“In the Colosseum.” His arms curled around her and he tangled his fingers in her hair. “I didn’t want to take the decision away from you. If Ares watched our interactions, it would be obvious I had feelings for you.”

Kali wondered if she should be upset, but she was touched. A thrill went up her spine at the thought that they were invisible, in the middle of camp. Blushing furiously, she snuggled deeper in his embrace. His soft chuckle told her he knew why, but he didn’t push the topic. They stayed there for several minutes, not wanting their time together in the shining moonlight to end.

Eventually, Kali made it back to her room. Hades waited at her door and murmured “I had planned to be romantic, tonight. Seeing you without the shadows between us affected me more than I anticipated.” He ran a hand through his hair, admitting “You make me crazy, Kali.”

She blushed with pleasure, but his tone made her ask “Is that a bad thing?”

“It’s a dangerous thing.” He sighed, taking her hands. Kali shivered at his touch and her eyes roamed his face again. She had a feeling she wouldn’t have the chance to see him freely for a long time.

“Tonight was…” she stumbled over the words; there weren’t any to describe how special his gift had been. “Thank you, Hades.” She finished quietly.

Hades picked a wooden rose out of the air, handing it to her. “Happy Birthday, Kali.” He bowed to kiss her hands, lingering long enough to make her tremble, and promised “I will see you in the morning.”

He reluctantly pulled the shadows back around him, but kept his eyes on hers. As soon as he was cloaked from her sight, he melted into the darkness and he was gone. Kali stood in the same spot, every inch of her tingling, for a long minute before she remembered to close the door.

If she hadn’t trained with Achilles, Kali knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep for replaying every moment of the evening. As it was, she didn’t even manage to change for bed. She placed the staff and rose carefully in the trunk in her living room, with the rest of her gifts, and stumbled onto the sofa. Her last thoughts before her head hit the cushion were of Hades.

___

Chapter Twenty Seven

“Escape and evade.” Ares’ voice rang out, harsh as the crack of a whip in the otherwise silent evening. “You all know the rules. Reach the mess hall without getting dead, and then make it back here. Standard infiltration exercise. Credit for not being stupid and raising any of the alarms. More credit for beating the crap out of anyone that does find you, before they can do anything about it.”

Ares’ eyes rested on Kali’s empty expression and he continued “You five were chosen at random for the first round. Every other demigod you meet out there is an enemy. It doesn’t matter if they are friends, lovers, or family. They are expected to bring you down and they will do nothing less if you are found. Some are not above the use of deadly force to accomplish this.”

“How long do we have?” Kali asked, her voice even.

“Sunset to sunrise. There will be no penalty for taking all of that time, but the task will be completed before the sun hits the top spire of the mess hall. Regardless of what happens, the exercise will not end until all five of you are back here, or your time has run out.” Ares puffed himself up and advised “You will retrieve the flag I have placed on the spire and bring it back here with you. Simple enough for you?”

Ben, whom Kali hadn’t seen since the assessments, muttered “They know our objective?”

“No, but any more questions and they’ll probably find you before you even move. Now find something to use as a weapon if you don’t have one and get going.” With that, he was gone. The five demigods glanced at each other silently for a moment before agreeing that they should probably do as Ares said.

Ben was the first to move, grabbing a small hammer from the workbench and drawing his own knife. He glanced at Kali and muttered “I’ll keep watch until you’re ready.”

Kali nodded and scanned the room for anything useful. She had taken to carrying her staff everywhere, hanging on her belt with the long knives, so she had no need for a weapon. Ben evidently carried his knife everywhere as well, but the others seemed to be unarmed. Trevor could use his fists, but Lily and Jack were not fighters. They looked around them blankly; they didn’t seem to have a clue what they could use. Kali grabbed a rake and threw it to the strawberry blonde girl, thinking that a gardening tool would be quite apt for a daughter of Demeter.

Jack flashed a hopeful smile, showing his perfect white teeth, and Kali rolled her eyes. He still hadn’t stopped flirting with her every chance he got since his bet with his brother. His short hair showed off more of his attractive features than his twin’s dreadlocks, but Kali wasn’t interested. His flirting was less confrontational than the gods’ at least, but no more welcome.

After a few moments, Jack had managed to find a broken shovel to use as a staff. Trevor had tied some planks of rotting wood to his arms and was holding horseshoes. Kali could only assume they were an improvised version of brass knuckles. Not pretty, but effective. She muttered to Lily and Jack to stay close and then moved outside the stables to meet Ben.

He beckoned them over into a clump of foliage and relayed the situation in a hushed voice. There were demigods dotted around the whole camp, as far as he could see. No building was without some coverage, and there was a group near the stables. “As far as I can tell, they’re in small groups but they’re not communicating with each other. If we take some out, I don’t think it’ll lead the others to us.”

Trevor clapped the horseshoes together with a bloodthirsty smile. “So, I don’t have to hold back?”

“Uh…sure.” Ben replied, rolling his eyes. “We’d do better with a distraction. Unless we plan to take out every demigod here, which I wouldn’t advise.”

Trevor looked disappointed as the rest of them agreed. Kali said “I could start a fire by the Colosseum if I get close enough. They must know who they’re looking for, so fire would draw them to me. Then our path back here will be open.”

“Awesome. I’ll go with you and lay a few traps around.” Ben stopped and shifted uncomfortably before looking at Jack and Lily. He took a moment, clearly trying to think of how to phrase his next question without insulting them. “Can you two fight?”

“I’m a lover, not a fighter.” Jack winked at Kali again and she sighed. Lily just shuffled awkwardly, which was answer enough.

“Trevor won’t be able to handle everyone on his own. What if they stumble into a group?” Ben looked at Kali, asking “Could you make it on your own?”

“I can help!” Lily burst out, the blushed and lowered her voice and continued primly “I mean…I can make sure we don’t walk into people.”

Trevor just sneered at her. “I didn’t know you were a tracker.”

Lily turned beetroot red and declared “I can feel the earth if I try really hard. So, I can tell if there are people nearby and we can be really quiet.”

“Great.” Kali smiled encouragingly. She turned to Trevor with gritted teeth. “I assume that’s alright with you?”

He scowled, but shrugged his beefy shoulders. “As long as I get to crack some heads tonight.”

“You’ll get your chance.” Kali said drily.

“Alright. You three head towards the mess hall. We’ll meet you there if everything goes well, but if you have a chance to get the flag, go for it. Otherwise, we’ll sort it when we get to you.” Ben directed the group like a natural born leader. Jack and Lily nodded enthusiastically, but Trevor rolled his eyes and strode away, dragging Lily along with him. Ben turned back to Kali. He seemed much less secure with the others gone. “So…what do you think?”

“I think it’ll work.” She put her hand on his shoulder for a moment with a gentle smile.

Ben grinned again, reminding Kali of Hermes. It was easy to see the relation; Ben had the same mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “Thanks. I’m actually surprised you let me take charge.”

Jack snuck back over, putting his arm around Kali’s waist, and winked “Maybe she likes a man telling her what to do.”

Kali shrugged his arm off and ignored him, muttering “Let’s go.”

Jack laughed and then ran back to where Trevor was pulling Lily along. The three of them moved around the tree line and Kali watched as Lily crouched to the ground. Trevor seemed to be following her advice, at least for the time being. She wondered if that would continue as time progressed.

The only thing Kali was concerned about with Ben’s plan was leaving Trevor on his own with the others. His attitude made her uncomfortable and she worried that he might end up dragging them into trouble to satiate his urges. He was clearly itching for a fight. If not for his obvious loathing for her, she would have suggested he go with her to the arena. But she was relieved to have Ben instead; Trevor still made her skin crawl.

It wasn’t long after they left the others that Ben looked at her sideways and said, “I can see why he likes you.”

Kali started, stopping in her tracks. “Jack?”

“No.” Ben laughed quietly and explained “I meant my dad. And Ares.”

“Does everybody know about that?” She scowled.

“They don’t exactly try to hide it.” He laughed again. “So how many gods are after you really? It can’t just be the two of them.”

“What makes you say that?” She asked quickly. Ben’s expression suggested perhaps a little too quickly.

“You feel different to the rest of us. That energy you give off…it’s like you’re just more alive.” Ben grinned wolfishly: Hermes’ grin. Again, Kali was struck with the similarity; with that smile, he was the image of his father. “There’s no way it’s just Ares and Hermes trying to get your attention.”

Kali blushed and averted her gaze. It had been three weeks since Hades had kissed her, and she still hadn’t told anyone. She couldn’t get through an hour without recalling his searing kiss, or his dazzling sapphire eyes. Hermes and Ares continued to circle her like vultures, waiting for her to crumble. Jem had pointed out that even Carl was in a similar position and that she was leading him on. She still seethed at the memory of that conversation; apparently, she was being too nice, and he was reading into it.

Ben broke her out of her inner grumblings by admitting “Hell, if my dad wasn’t into you, I’d probably give it a try myself.”

“That’s where you draw the line?” Kali laughed, hoping he was joking. If nothing else, Jem would be heartbroken. Besides, what he said about her energy being different to the other demigods was a concern. If he had noticed, how long would it take for someone more dangerous to sense it and connect the dots? It had already been almost two months since she had arrived, and Zeus wasn’t any the wiser. She hadn’t seen him since her entrance meeting, but she was sure he must have spies everywhere. Kali was worried how much longer her safety would last.

Sensing that she was distracted, Ben fell silent. They continued to make their way around the camp, trying to avoid notice. Ben took a couple of demigods by surprise on the way around and silenced them quickly. Kali had never thought much of his skill in the arena, but he clearly excelled with stealth. She still struggled with that, so she was relieved to have him helping her.

As they neared the Colosseum, Kali saw that Tom was there with a small group. She should have known that he would be there; he wouldn’t pass up a chance to test her. Or to show off. Kali signalled to Ben to split up and he nodded, leaving her to continue that way alone. With Tom around, Kali knew that she would be the better distraction. At least as long as she could make it out again.

Kali crept as close as she could before conjuring her fire. A brilliant trail of molten flames snaked through the grass in a winding trail, cutting Tom off from the two demigods he had paired with. From Tom’s expression, Kali guessed they weren’t all that strong. If she was quick, she could take them out and then focus on him. She finished stoking the blaze, wafting the smoke into a column on an updraft.

Nodding to herself, she took a steadying breath and launched towards the larger of Tom’s partners. As she lunged, he tried to restrain her but she was too fast. A quick strike to the chest winded him, and she used her momentum to trip him with her quarterstaff. He lay, groaning, and did not move. Tom and the skinny boy both saw her then. Tom grinned and walked towards her, but the other boy turned tail and fled. Kali shook her head, laughing that she could elicit that kind of response.

“He’s probably getting some of your friends, right?” She asked, still laughing.

Tom’s playful grin spread across his face and he took his stance, waiting for her. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll finish this before they get here.”

Kali grinned and mocked “So cocky.” But she widened her stance and readied herself for what she knew would be a fearsome exchange. “I’m ready when you are, Tom.”

His grin faltered and he frowned, looking over Kali’s shoulder. She laughed “If you think I’m going to fall for that, you’re going to be disapp-” she choked as white hot pain sliced through her. Gasping for breath that would not come, Kali looked down to see a blade protruding from her stomach, dripping crimson. The image fractured in her mind.

Blood? Her fruitless gasping halted as her throat bubbled, and feeling left her. Her vision tilted and she realised numbly that she was on her knees. Tom was screaming something she couldn’t hear. His arms were around her as she fell to her side. It occurred to her that she had never seen that expression on his face. But she couldn’t figure out why he was so afraid. He was pulled out of her sight.

Everything around her was sluggish, while her mind was alert. For the first time in her life, she noticed every tiny detail. She was fascinated by the grass shifting from green to scarlet. Each blade glistened like rubies. Or poppies, she thought, blossoming around her. 

Kali was only vaguely aware of the foot on her back. Of the sword being pulled out of her. She spluttered, rolling onto her back, seeing stars. Then a face loomed closer. It took her a moment to place the name. It was Tracy. She could count every freckle. She wondered absently how the other demigod had lost her missing canine. Tracy’s whisper was so crisp and clear in Kali’s ear. “You’re going to die here.”

Watching Tracy’s face pull out of view, Kali thought about that. She was going to die. She weakly tried to push herself up but she didn’t have the energy. She just didn’t care. She was going to die. A flag fluttered in the corner of her eye and she sank into darkness. She was going to die. She saw herself sinking into the clear water of a river, shrouded in smoke. A memory of a dream she used to have. It used to seem freeing but the water enveloping her in her mind was terrifying. She saw the stars glittering above her in the night sky, reminding her of the night Hades had kissed her.

Her eyes snapped open. “No.” Kali grunted, warmth suffusing her limbs. “No. I’m not done yet.” She forced herself to move. She wasn’t ready to die yet. She wasn’t going to let herself be killed in such a way. She had more to do before she could accept that. And she would never give Tracy the satisfaction. Fire prickled in her and her breathing turned to steam in the cold November air. Her energy surged and the wound was prickling and itching, but the bleeding seemed to have slowed.

Smoke was filling the air around her. It took a moment for her to remember the fire she had set. Tom was lying on the floor nearby, still breathing. But Kali knew she couldn’t drag him away in her condition. She saw the other demigod she had knocked down staring blankly at her. “Get him to safety.” Her voice was scratchy and hoarse, but it boomed through the air and the boy jumped to attention.

Kali allowed herself enough time to make sure he was doing as instructed before turning weakly towards her objective. There was a fog in her head that she couldn’t quite shift, but she could see the flag fluttering on top of the mess hall. She had work to do. If she gave up, she would fail, and Tracy would have won. She would never let that happen. Not while she still drew breath. With that pledge at the front of her mind, she staggered onward to the edge of the mess hall.

Voices came to her from inside and she grimaced; she couldn’t fight in her condition. She could barely stand. The words swam around her for several moments before her brain could make sense of them. But when she did, she found her energy swarming back to her. Rage had a way of drawing upon reserves she didn’t know she had. Fanning the simmering embers into wildfires, spreading through her limbs.

Lily, Jack, and Ben were tied to a pillar on the far side. They were bound and gagged, and Ben had clearly gone down hard. Trevor was standing in the centre of the mess hall, grinning, with Tracy. Kali listened for a moment to the heroic and daring tale of her defeat, furious at the lies the demigod spouted.

Kali grit her teeth at the audacity as her skin prickled and burned. Ben’s eyes widened as he spotted her, and he shook his head frantically. She knew he was trying to get her to calm down and be smart. She knew that she needed to get them out, so they could all finish the exercise. But it took every ounce of willpower she had to tear herself away.

As Kali worked her way around, moving as quietly and quickly as she could, she heard the uncertainty in Trevor’s voice. “You’re sure he won’t see?”

“Of course not. My dad’ll only be watching his toy. Especially now that she’s bleeding all over his arena.” She added gleefully. “I bet he’s even there himself trying to find an excuse to have his hands on her. All he’ll see when this is over is you holding the flag in the stables. You win, and Kali fails. She might even die.”

“Hopefully.”

Kali seethed. She tried to focus on her anger and pride; it hurt her that someone could hate her that much. She had beaten Tracy before, but she had carried her to safety. She had been exhausted and injured, but she made sure her attacker was okay. And she had never done anything to Trevor. For them to want her dead, actually dead…

Kali pushed the feeling aside and tried to hold onto her rage; it was the only thing keeping her moving. Tracy had stabbed her. Trevor had betrayed them. That was what mattered. Kali repeated that to herself until she got to the others. It was a relief that their captors were so distracted; there was no way Kali had managed to be stealthy.

She put one of her knives in Ben’s hands so that he could start cutting himself free, muttering “Ares said we have until sunrise, so we’ve still got plenty of time. But all five of us need to make it back. And I’m not leaving that bloody flag.”

The other three nodded and Kali muttered “Jack, how’s your climbing?” She waited for another nod and continued “I’m going to deal with those two. I’ll get Trevor over here. You two grab him while Jack gets the flag. We knock him out and drag him back to the stable. Lily can feel out a safe path for us, so we can avoid more trouble. Any questions?” The three demigods shook their heads. “Good. Ben? I’m going to want that knife back when we’re done.”

He chuckled but continued to work on the binds. Kali circled back around the mess hall a little way before giving up on stealth completely. Her head was swimming, but she had decided on the plan. Her condition didn’t matter. She would see it through.

First, she trapped Tracy in a ring of flames that towered over her. A dark smile twisted her lips as she heard Tracy screaming, terrified. Before Trevor could turn around, she charged at him. The surprise of seeing her, drenched with blood, gave her the opening she needed. Her momentum went a long way in keeping him on the defensive. She drove him back, refusing to let up long enough for him to get his balance back. It didn’t take long until he was close enough for Ben and Lily to grab him. They wouldn’t be able to hold him long, but Kali didn’t need much time. She booted him in the stomach, and then ruthlessly drove her knee into his face when he fell forward. He was out like a light.

Kali dropped to the floor, retching, and felt something rip open. Coughing made it worse, but she managed to push herself up. Shaking as she was, she told the others to leave her behind, but they refused. Jack made quick work grabbing the flag, handing it off to Lily so that she could concentrate on looking out for demigods. It seemed the fire had done a lot of work in keeping their path clear. Ben and Jack were almost as relieved as Kali when the stables were in sight; Trevor was even heavier than he looked.

They just managed to get inside the doorway to the stable before Trevor woke up and banged Jack and Ben’s heads together. They reeled away, and Jack tripped. Lily rushed to his side and Trevor rounded on her like a wounded bear. Throwing herself into the fray, Kali tried to wrap her arm around his neck, but she just didn’t have the strength to make an impact. Instead, Trevor tossed her over his shoulder, keeping a hold of her arm. Kali screamed as she heard and felt the resounding crack.

Her response was to bring her boot up sharply between his legs. His feet left the floor. He fell to his knees, and his face soon followed. Ben and Jack looked horrified and squirmed back a few paces as Trevor just lay there, winded. His arms were trapped underneath him as he fell so Kali knelt on his back and used her good arm to drive his face into the floor.

Tears were streaming down her face and her arm was clutched to her bloody side. Trevor was struggling helplessly beneath her, but she just forced his face harder into the ground. Ares casually wandered over and looked at Trevor with distaste. “You failed.”

He lifted Kali off his back, but Trevor still couldn’t move. Ares chuckled and said “Get yourself to a medic.” His tone was gentler than Kali had expected. She dropped as soon as he let go of her, but he caught her before she reached the floor. He sighed and shook his head, saying “You should have stayed down when she ran you through.”

Ben came over at a harsh look from Ares and put Kali’s good arm around his shoulders, helping her walk to the hospital. He didn’t get far before Tom scrambled over and took her without a word. His cheeks were wet, and his eyes were red as he silently pulled her along and she sagged against him. She barely heard him when he whispered, “I thought I lost you.”

“Dumbass.” She croaked. “You can’t get rid of me that easy.”

Tom was breathing hard. Through gritted teeth, he pleaded “Don’t scare me like that again, Kali.”

“You’re shaking.” She pointed out, though he wasn’t the only one.

“I can’t lose you too.” He admitted quietly.

“You won’t.” Kali buried her face in his shoulder and held onto his arm; it was the best hug she could manage when it was all she could do to keep upright. She could feel his panic, and knew it wasn’t enough. Dragging the last dregs of energy she had, she rasped “You’re stuck with me until the end. Whether you like it or not.” Her breathing was ragged, and she finally, blissfully, slipped out of consciousness.

___

Chapter Twenty Eight

Kali woke in a bed for the first time in weeks. To her distress and relief, it was a room she didn’t recognise. After a few hazy moments, she worked out she must be in the hospital. Sure enough, she was hooked up to some kind of monitor and there was a drip in her arm. She still felt wretched, but she pulled it out and unhooked herself the instant she could move.

She noticed Tom sitting with his head in his hands at her side. “I hate hospitals.”

Tom’s eyes snapped to her face and he forced a laugh, reaching for her hand. “You’re more yourself. But you still look like crap.”

“You’re one to talk.” She replied. She wanted to joke with him, to reassure him, but all she could muster was concern. He had deep bruised around his throat, and his voice was even huskier than usual. Instead of pushing, Kali asked “How long was I out?”

He shrugged “About twenty three minutes.”

She wasn’t surprised by the specific count. She didn’t quite have the energy for a comforting smile, but she tried. “I was hoping I was done with the healing part already. My arm is killing me.”

“That’s not surprising; it’s broken.” He ruffled her hair slowly, trying his best not to jostle her. “That drip had some painkillers in it, but it probably didn’t have time to kick in before you took it out.”

“I’ll do better without it.” Kali insisted quietly. She looked around at the pristine white room and shuddered “Can I leave yet?”

“It’s odd how much you hate hospitals, considering your dad invented them.” Tom teased, but his signature smile was nowhere to be seen.

Kali scowled again; the irony was not lost on her. Her hand drifted to her stomach, feeling the bandage under her shirt. The pain had lessened to a dull ache, which radiated around the middle from her back. They must have done something to repair most of the damage. Her head pounded and her gut clenched at the memory of the blade slicing through her. She changed the subject. “How are the others?”

“I don’t know. Think they were mostly unscathed though.” His expression darkened as he added “You sure bore the brunt of it.”

She bit her lip and asked gently “How are you?”

He shrugged “Fine.”

Kali hesitated, but she didn’t need her talents to know he was lying. She squeezed his hand gently and muttered his name. After a moment, he hung his head and grunted “I never want to see you like that again.”

Barely a heartbeat passed, and Tom hugged her. His face was scrunched up and Kali knew he was trying not to cry. Despite the pain radiating through her, she returned his embrace with equal force. She didn’t know who she was trying to convince when she insisted “Tom…I’m okay.”

He just nodded and squeezed her lightly. When he moved back, he motioned to her arm and said “You’re using that already?”

“It’s still killing me. But it should be okay in the morning.” Kali took a deep breath and slowly murmured “You know…that’s the first time in my life I actually thought I was going to die. She told me I would die, and she wasn’t lying. She believed it.” She looked down at her hands, her voice a whisper, and admitted “That’s the first time I’ve come that close. And…I realised that I don’t want to die. I want to live.”

Tom’s eyes were wide. “God, Kali. Of course you want to live! Was that ever in doubt?!”

She laughed softly, more at herself than anything else. “It’s not really that simple. But the clarity in that moment…every detail was so defined. I could track every thought in my head, and I knew that was what death must feel like. My body was empty, but my mind was so awake. Like it was savouring every sensation because it was the last time.”

She stopped, trembling. She knew she was scaring Tom, that he didn’t know how to respond. Her voice was stronger when she continued “And then…I said no. I didn’t beg for my life. I didn’t ask anyone to spare me. I told them, whoever was listening, that I wasn’t done yet. That they couldn’t have me.”

A silence stretched between them as Tom floundered for a response. Before he could find any words, another voice resonated from the doorway, stating “Good.”

Kali looked up and saw Hades standing there, watching her. Without thinking, she pushed herself to her feet and started towards him. Before she took the first step, he was at her side and sweeping her off her feet. Kali buried her face in his chest, finally letting the tears that had been building up tumble down her cheeks.

Hooves clapped against the polished floor, halting with a gasp at the door to the room. Kali twisted her hands in Hades’ shirt to steady herself and looked over to see Sage exchanging a startled look with Tom. Before he could start asking questions, Tom moved to the doorway and pushed him out, closing the door behind them.

Hades and Kali were alone. She was shaking violently, so Hades slowly sank to his knees, bring her with him. She sat with him, sobbing into his shirt, while he held her.

When her tremors finally subsided, Hades cupped Kali’s face in his hands and brushed away the remaining tears with his thumbs. His voice was so soft as he whispered “No one is taking you anywhere.”

She hated how much her voice shook when she mumbled “I missed you.” It had been too long since she had seen him, or even heard his voice. Ever since he kissed her, he had been avoiding her. She knew why, but that didn’t make it any easier. Their good night messages were too fleeting to fill the void he left.

“And I you.” He had hoped some distance might help him think, but all he could think about was how much he ached to be near her. He breathed her in and tangled his fingers in the silk of her hair. Being so close to her made him crazy, but it was also calming. It steadied him.

“Hades…they wanted me dead.” Her eyelids brimmed with tears once more but she hastily brushed them away. She swallowed the lump in her throat and mumbled “How can anyone hate me that much?”

Hades’ eyes turned cold and shadows seemed to creep out of him, filling the room with darkness. “I want to tear those two demigods limb from limb.”

“Please don’t.” She said quietly.

Hades was surprised that she didn’t even quake in his presence. “They hurt you.” He watched her carefully. His voice was liquid darkness, wicked fury and malice. Even the shadows trembled, but not her. He could not meet her golden eyes any longer, but he insisted “I cannot accept what they did to you.”

Kali reached to touch his cheek, hating that he was trying to hide from her now. “Hades…”

He seemed to sag slightly at the way she said his name. After a moment, he met her eyes again and sighed “If you ask me to spare them, I will. But I want you to know that it is only for you. Forgiveness is not in my nature, Kali. And it is all I can do to keep from destroying anyone that hurts you.” He caressed her cheek and murmured tenderly “You, my love, are all the light in the world. How anyone could hate you is beyond me.”

He caressed her cheek, but Kali scrambled back, panicked, as a stream of fire hurtled towards them. Hades calmly moved his hand to catch it, the flames dwindling as they reached him, but Kali’s heart was in her throat. Tears sprung back to her eyes as she struggled to catch her breath, her stomach giving her sharp reminders of her injury.

Kali looked up to see Apollo fuming in the doorway and stood shakily. Hades rose slowly with her and said coolly “Would you like me to stay?”

“I think I’ll be OK.”

Apollo cut her off, snapping “Get out.”

Hades chuckled quietly and bowed, his eyes never leaving Kali’s face even as he melted into the shadows. Kali turned to her father as he seethed “What do you think you’re doing?!”

“Recovering, if it’s all the same to you.” Kali scowled, gritting her teeth.

Apollo drew himself up to his full height. “You nearly exposed yourself tonight!”

“I nearly died tonight!” Tears sprang to her eyes again. She gripped her arms to stop the shaking, but Apollo didn’t notice. The concept of death was foreign to him. He couldn’t understand how the experience had affected his mortal daughter.

“That wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t been so reckless!” He shouted, grabbing her arms.

Kali shook him off, wincing as his hands burned her skin, and her eyes went cold. She couldn’t afford to get too worked up or she’d throw up again. Instead, she stared at him, realising that his anger had nothing at all to do with the exercise. “Why don’t we skip this and you can say whatever it is that’s really got you so angry.”

He snarled “Have you given yourself to him?”

“I haven’t ‘given’ myself to anyone. But that’s really none of your business.” She snapped, embarrassed. She turned away from him. She wasn’t going to discuss that with her absentee dad. Especially when he was like this.

“I’m your father. It’s my job to protect you!” He groaned and steered Kali to sit on the bed. After a moment of silence, he held his hand over her broken arm and Kali could feel a warmth spreading through it. She grimaced; apparently to him the conversation was over. She stood up again and slapped his arm away, his bewildered expression only infuriating her more.

Apollo’s face went quickly back to anger and he insisted “You cannot pursue him, Kali. He is the most dangerous of us all. He will never be yours. When you live in the darkness, the darkness lives in you!”

Kali refused to break his stare and shook her head. “You’re wrong.”

“I know you want to believe that, Kali. I understand. But you cannot save him.” Apollo grabbed her cheeks, forcing her to look at him. He was desperately trying to make her see that he was right, but Kali didn’t care. She was tired of him trying to control her. And she knew that he was wrong.

She pulled his hands from her face and dropped them. “He doesn’t need saving.”

Apollo shook his head, as though he believed that would change the truth he heard in her voice. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“Actually, I do.” She was quieter now. Not angry, not trying to force him to believe her. His opinion didn’t really matter; she knew what she was choosing. What she had already chosen. “And I love him.”

Apollo looked like she had slapped him. He took a breath, trying to match her calm and nearly managing. “Kali…I will only say this once. If you are with him, you will be destroyed. Perhaps by Zeus, or perhaps by Hades himself. There are no happy endings with any of the gods, but he will ruin you in ways you cannot imagine. You must swear to me you will not pursue him.”

She shook her head. “No.”

His temper flared back up quickly. If anything, the fact she could remain so calm only made it worse. “Let me put it this way. If you enter into a bond with him, I will not stay to watch him rip you apart.”

Kali froze. She was winded for a moment and she felt sick, like she had been punched in the stomach. But it wasn’t about Hades anymore. If that was his threat when she chose something he didn’t like, then she knew what her answer should be. Still, her voice shook so hard she could barely get the words out. “I’ve lived most of my life without you. You will never understand me. You can’t accept anything that doesn’t fit with your perfect standards. And I will never be what you want me to be. If you’re going to leave again because you don’t like who I am, don’t expect me to cry myself to sleep.”

For just a heartbeat, there was silence. Then Apollo’s face contorted with rage and he raised his hand to strike her. Kali didn’t even flinch. Before he struck her, Hades was by her side again with his hand around Apollo’s wrist. His eyes were sad, but his voice was firm. “She may be your daughter, old friend. But if you ever raise your hand to my woman again, you will lose it.”

Your woman?”

“That is what I said.” Hades stated simply, his steely eyes flashing a challenge.

“You are making a claim on her then!” He was shaking with the effort to contain himself, but he made no move against Hades.

Hades nodded slowly “Yes.” He glanced over at Kali’s blushing face and smiled gently. “I am.”

Apollo turned back to his daughter and spat “You would choose him over your own blood?”

“I choose myself!” Kali looked him in the eye. Her voice was stronger as she continued “Don’t try to make it my fault that you expected a puppet instead of a daughter.”

Apollo glared, but said nothing. He could not tell her that she was wrong. And he could not set his pride aside and admit that he might be wrong. Instead, he just shook his head with disgust and stormed out. Kali had realised a long time ago that her parents weren’t perfect; they were only human. But Apollo was meant to be a beacon for truth and light. He was meant to be everything good in the world, and everything Kali held close to her heart. His principles were important to her. She didn’t know how many more times she could be disappointed. Clearly, he wasn’t the only one with faulty expectations.

After a moment, Kali shook herself out of her thoughts and bit her lip. “How much did you hear?”

Hades just looked at her, unashamed. “Did you really think I would leave you alone when he was like that?”

“Thank you.” Kali said quietly. “For trying to protect me.”

“Kali…he was not lying when he told you what he did. I said things would be complicated if you were to be with me.” Hades sighed, running his hand through his long hair.

Kali watched him; there was something about the action that made him seem vulnerable. She took a deep breath and said “You already know my answer.” His eyes still seemed uncertain so Kali continued “I’ve already told you that you’re worth the risk.”

“Come to me tonight. By the fountain. Seven o’clock.” He was not asking. He looked at her lips as they parted slightly with surprise. He knew from the look in her eyes that she wasn’t sure she heard him right. His hand fluttered to her cheek, tucking a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. His fingers lingered there a moment longer before he shook himself and suggested that she rest. Then Hades turned and left without another word, not letting himself get close enough to touch her again. He knew that, if he wasn’t careful, he really could break her.

___

Chapter Twenty Nine

There were still a few hours until sunrise, but Kali couldn’t sleep. Instead, she climbed onto one of the deep windowsills and closed her eyes. Leaning against the glass, her mind raced as she waited for the sun to rise. Her stomach prickled and her arm throbbed, but most painful were the new burns on her arms.

The thing she hated most about hospitals wasn’t the overpowering clinical smell. It was the lack of distractions. There was nothing to keep her out of her own head. She clutched at her hair, pushing her forehead onto her knees, struggling to breathe. Out of the corner of her eyes, she could see the drip still hanging by the bed. Sickness rooted itself in her throat and she shuddered, desperately trying to ignore the veins tingling in her hands and arms.

After what seemed like forever, her thoughts dimmed to a low buzz in the back of her mind. Someone cleared their throat in the doorway and Kali started, slipping off the windowsill. She groaned heavily before pulling herself up to see Hannah watching her. She automatically widened her stance. “What do you want?”

“Rude.” Hannah crossed her arms, but casually shrugged “He wants you in class.”

“Of course he does.” Kali grimaced, carefully stretching to test her muscles. Rolling her shoulders, she winced and muttered “Do I have time to shower?”

“You got ten minutes.” Hannah frowned; she had clearly been expecting a fight. Sure enough, she admitted “I was looking forward to dragging you out by your hair.”

A smile tugged at the corner of Kali’s mouth. “Sorry to disappoint.”

Hannah chuckled. The sound startled Kali; it was an almost foreign concept for her. Any kind of mirth from a girl like Hannah was strange. Hannah narrowed her eyes to inspect Kali and confessed “Tracy told us what happened. She said you guys fought…but I’ve seen you fight. It didn’t sound like that’s the way it went down. What happened?”

“She stabbed me.” Kali stated, grabbing her shoes. She turned her back to her classmate, busying herself with her things, and added bitterly “In the back.”

Hannah scowled. “Right…and I hear Trevor broke your arm.”

“What’s your point, Hannah?” Kali groaned; she was tired of trying to deal with subtext.

Hannah just watched her for a moment longer in silence. She pursed her lips and walked out of the room, calling “Don’t take too long.”

Kali frowned, confused. She couldn’t find the energy to care what was going on in Hannah’s head, so she pushed it aside. Her body had exhausted itself with the healing, and she felt tender all over. The pain in her arm had lessened to a dull ache, provided she didn’t move too quickly. Her stomach rebelled every time she stretched it, but the pain was edging closer to nausea.

Instead of braving the endless gleaming hallways, Kali shoved the window open and tumbled outside. By the time she dragged herself back to her apartment, the shower seemed like a bad idea. Gritting her teeth, she settled for cleaning up in the sink; at least then she wouldn’t have to worry about the dressings. It took much longer than she had anticipated to get herself feeling moderately human, and she wasn’t entirely convinced it had been worth the effort.

By the time Kali finally arrived at the Colosseum, everyone was already there. She ignored Ares when he grunted “you’re late” and jumped into the group running around the arena. She normally kept to an easy jog, sticking with Jem and Carl near the middle. She had thought it was to pace herself to get all the way through Ares’ warmup. But she wondered if she had just been lazy. Her friends looked worried, but she ignored them and pushed herself into a run.

The three students in Kali’s class that worked hardest were Hannah, Ryan, and Duncan. Hannah and Ryan wanted their dad’s approval, and the only sure-fire way to win Ares’ affection was through combat prowess. Duncan was Athena’s, and he had a genuine interest in different combat theories and practices. He wanted to learn, so he worked hard. They were the ones that always led the group, so Kali decided that her target going forward was to keep up with them.

“Hey! What’s the hurry?” Carl grabbed her arm with a grin as she jogged by and she flinched at the sudden contact.

“Your arms.” He gasped, horrified, when he saw the coiling burns. She caught his eye briefly and carefully untangled herself from his grip. She started to smile but it froze before it reached her eyes as she remembered Jem’s reprimands. “Just warming up.”

Carl faltered slightly and Jem stepped in, saying “Jack told me what happened, Kali. You should take it easy. I bet no one thought you’d even be here today.”

“Ares said I had to show.” She shrugged and fell into formation beside her friends, drawing her sword as Ares began his standard technique drills. Her stomach hurt so much she thought she might be sick, but she just gripped her training sword harder and grit her teeth.

Indignantly, Jem exclaimed “Trevor didn’t have to.” He winced as Ares fixed him with a terrifying scowl, falling sheepishly silent.

When Ares had gone back to demonstrating, Kali moved into the next form and muttered “I heal faster.”

“That’s not the point!”

“Actually, it pretty much is the point.” Kali hissed quickly. She was watching Ares carefully but after a moment she glanced at Jem and sighed “Look, it’s not a big deal. I want to be here.”

Angrily, through gritted teeth, Carl spat “Why do you have to be here, but Trevor gets a pass?”

“Ares gave up on him.” Hannah mumbled, surprisingly Kali from her right; she hadn’t noticed her standing with them. Kali wasn’t sure why she had deigned to enlighten them of the facts considering she had always been hostile before. But she wasn’t complaining when Hannah continued “He doesn’t have to be here because Ares doesn’t care about his progress anymore.”

The boys averted their eyes, clearly afraid of angering her, but Kali looked at her sharply. She knew that what Hannah said was true; she always knew. Even so, she asked “What do you mean?”

Hannah scowled briefly at Jem and Carl; they were practically cowering. But she shuffled uncomfortably under Kali’s piercing gaze and admitted “Trev was lucky to be here anyway. Bia, his mum, she’s just a goddess of violence. It’s good in any and all forms. For us, for Ares, war is more than that. Honour matters. Every new development in war has been influenced by him in some way. Including the rules of engagement.”

Kali frowned slightly; she had never really considered that. Ares had always seemed so heavy handed and often barbaric. But what Hannah said made a lot of sense, now that it had been pointed out to her.

“Don’t get me wrong; he doesn’t have any problem with what Tracy did.”

“Stabbing me in the back wasn’t honourable.” Kali said, so very quietly. She dropped her sword arm so they wouldn’t see it shake and took a deep breath to keep her head clear.

“He wasn’t exactly thrilled.” Hannah looked away awkwardly. “But his argument was more about the fact that she was sloppy because she didn’t confirm the kill. She just left you there.”

From the front of the arena, Ares barked “Enough!”

Hannah, Jem, and Carl all nearly jumped out of their skin and snapped their eyes forward. Kali looked up and could see that Ares’ eyes were not angry when he watched her. He was worried. She pondered that as she lifted her sword again, but it took most of her focus to continue with the exercises.

It wasn’t much longer before Ares told them all take a break; they’d be partnering up to spar in a few minutes. While the others grabbed a drink or sat down, he beckoned Kali over to him with a finger. “You’re different today.”

“Different how?”

“Motivated.” He said, a grin spreading across his face. He brushed some hair off her face and, when she flinched, he taunted “Got scared, did you?”

Kali looked down for a moment and murmured “Yeah. I did.” Her eyes flickered back up to his and she was surprised to see that his mocking smile was gone. Seeing him without his cloak of overpowering arrogance, Kali made up her mind. She took a deep breath and asked, “You run extra drills after classes every day, right?”

His eyes narrowed and he cocked his head slowly. “I do. It is usually only my own kids that show up. Sometimes Athena’s.”

She considered for a moment. “Room for one more?”

“You’ll be the weakest one there.” He waited for Kali’s reaction and chuckled when she met his eyes with a hard stare.

“Not for long.” She muttered fiercely. He had no doubt that she was right.

Ares crossed his arms and leant back against the wall, just watching her. After a moment, he smiled to himself and muttered “You’re real spooked, huh.”

She lifted her chin, her pride kicking in. Maybe fear was the driving factor for this change, but he didn’t need to rub it in when she had already admitted to it. She glared and declared “I want to get stronger. I didn’t think you’d disapprove.”

Ares looked her up and down. He wasn’t leering for once; it was more calculated. He was gauging her resolve. He seemed to be pleased with what he saw because he said gruffly “Come every day or you’re wasting your time. And mine.”

“Why aren’t you hitting on me?” She asked curiously, taken aback by his unusual sincerity. 

“You don’t need it today.”

She blinked “I’m surprised you care.”

“So am I.” He admitted honestly. Ares pondered something for a moment before adding “If you’re serious about getting stronger, you need to stop with the stupid eating habits. No more low protein meals. Get yourself a steak.”

“That an order?” She looked away, biting her lip. He was right, of course. She just didn’t want to admit it.

He laughed; she was cute when she sulked. “No. Just some advice. But I suggest you take it. If you really want to get stronger, you need to stop holding yourself back. Get over whatever dumb issues you’ve created for yourself, or don’t bother.” When Kali didn’t reply, Ares pointedly asked “If you were at full health, how quickly would that wound Tracy gave you have healed?”

“I…don’t really know.” She admitted reluctantly. Her mother had always been vegetarian. Kali could now guess that diet was to limit her so that she wouldn’t be found. To weaken her. To protect her. Kali had learnt to hide her differences as a child. She had been hiding for so long, without even knowing it, that the habits were ingrained. But she had no real reason to keep hiding. The healing, at least, could be passed off as just being because of her father.

“You wanted my advice, didn’t you?” Kali nodded, though she hated to admit it and Ares continued “You’re no threat to anyone the way you are now. And I’ve been waiting for you to actually want this. You have good instincts, and you pick things up fast. But you haven’t shown me any real fighting spirit in class. Not since our challenge.” He smirked at the memory and ran his hand through his hair. “I saw how you were with that egotistical prick, Achilles. You need that fire of yours every time you train. If you’re ready to commit yourself, prove it to me.”

“I was just trying to keep up…” She said, but she could feel the wisdom in his words. She just didn’t know how to bring that out of herself.

Ares raised an eyebrow. “And you think no one here can push you enough? You’re pretty arrogant, aren’t you? You might be able to keep up with Athena’s little champion sometimes, but that doesn’t mean anything in here.”

Kali considered that for a moment. “You know, you’re not a terrible teacher when you’re not being a creep.”

“Careful, Kali.” He flashed an almost feral smile, showing all of his teeth. “I really do enjoy a challenge.”

She chewed her lip, grimacing. “I hope you don’t make me regret this, Ares.”

“In all honesty, I rather enjoy watching you fight to survive.” He chuckled again but it seemed as though he was laughing at himself. “You probably don’t know this, but I can feel every soldier dying on the battlefield. I can witness their last moments. I think it gives them some small amount of peace. It’s been happening more, recently. Too much. But you really worried me.”

Kali froze. Did that mean he had heard hers? Had she really been as close as she had thought? She pushed her thoughts aside and grunted “What are you trying to tell me, Ares?”

“You were going to die, Kali. Even with the way you’re supposed to heal. You would have let yourself pass on, even though you should never have gotten that close. I don’t know how you wormed your way so deep under my skin, but I would rather you didn’t die. When you decided to start fighting back, I was more relieved than I’d like to admit.” Ares moved closer and pulled her into an embrace. Taken aback by the sudden gesture, she stood frozen in place.

Ares’ lips brushed her ear through her hair as he whispered “I want to watch every moment of you struggling to keep hold of each fleeting breath. I know you’ve chosen, so I’ll respect that for now. But a god’s desires are not as fleeting as those of a mortal. If you wished it, I would be yours for as long as you’d have me.”

For just a moment, Kali wondered what choice she might have made if this was the side of himself that Ares had chosen to show her from the start. If she hadn’t met Hades, would she have been charmed by the softer side of the God of War? She had only ever seen him as a bully before. Heavy handed, and cruel. But suddenly she was quite flattered that she had caught his eye.

When Ares released her in silence, Kali hesitantly touched the back of his hand and whispered a soft thank you. He chuckled again and shook his head. Still quietly laughing, he walked away to start the class back up. Ares shouted at the hovering demigods to partner up. When they hesitated, he roared “Get on with it!”

Everyone jumped to attention, that single reprimand keeping their momentum going until the end of the class. Ares didn’t say another word and just walked around, watching each group. Kali could have sworn he seemed almost vulnerable. They were all relieved when it was time to get out of there and head to their next class.

___

Chapter Thirty

As much as she hated to inflate Ares’ ego, she couldn’t argue that he was right about one thing. Her eating habits needed to change. She often forgot to eat, and spent most of the time walking around like a zombie. If she skated by, it was only because her body automatically made up for her stupidity.

Being a vegetarian was one thing, and she couldn’t bear the thought of hurting an animal. She didn’t think that would change anytime soon, nor did it need to. But that didn’t mean she could cut meals or ignore protein altogether. Getting by wasn’t good enough anymore.

Usually, Kali would spend breaks in the library. But she reluctantly found herself heading to the mess hall. Jem and Carl broke off after class to head to the Forge; Carl muttered something about his latest project and Jem trailed after him. They had both been quieter than usual after Ares’ display that morning. Kali couldn’t blame them for being uncomfortable.

Tom and Sage spent most of their time eating, Kali had noticed, so it was no surprise to find them in there. As she approached their table, she could hear them talking about another trip being cancelled. Tom, his mouth full of pasta, suggested that there would be another Quest coming up soon.

They both scrutinised her when she brought a bowl of black bean chilli to their table, but she ignored their surprise to repeat “Quest?”

“Sometimes I forget you’re still new.” Tom said, avoiding her gaze. He was still troubled about the evening’s events, Kali knew. He nearly buried himself in his plate and waved at his friend to take over. “Sage, you’re better at this stuff.”

Sage rolled his eyes, drawing Kali’s attention to the strange goat pupils she normally tried to ignore. With an irritated bleat, he explained “The gods can’t always get involved in problems, so they have demigods sort things out for them.”

“No, they have Heroes sort them out.” Tom puffed out his chest, smirking smugly at the table.

A clack of irritated hooves interrupted him. “Am I telling it, or are you?”

Kali giggled; sometimes they argued like a married couple. To get things back on track, she prompted “Heroes? Like Achilles and Heracles?”

“Yes, and no.” Tom answered, deflating somewhat as he raised an eyebrow at her. “You really don’t pay much attention, do you? The whole point of the festival is to strengthen your Hero application.”

Shuffling in her seat, Kali swallowed her pride and tried for a grin. “Two questions. Hero application? And festival?”

“Seriously?”

Kali shrugged meekly, trying to swallow her blush, and Sage laughed. Tom muttered something under his breath and Sage shoved him lightly and explained“The festival is to welcome in the new year. There’s a big tournament and, more importantly, food stalls everywhere. There are all kinds of performances, and kids from the other schools come to watch and join in.”

“Other schools?” Kali asked.

“You didn’t really think this is all the demigods in the world, did you?” Sage asked gently, and his teasing smile told her he knew that was exactly what she had thought.

“I…didn’t really think about it?”

Tom rolled his eyes, leaning over to ruffle her hair. “The strongest come here. But the minor gods have kids who don’t make the cut, and there are tons of kids with just a demigod parent who still need the support.”

“That makes sense.” Kali nodded, reassured by his familiar contact. Things were slowly crawling back to normal, she thought.

Tom’s signature smile slipped back onto his face, lifting the left corner of his lip. With his chin held high, he asserted “Being a Hero is the best any demigod can hope for. Sure, you can keep your head down and try to pass off as a normal human. Or you can embrace your differences and do some good in the world.”

“Quite the poster boy, isn’t he?” Sage muttered, but his expression was fond, so Tom ignored him.

Turning back to Kali, meeting her eyes for the first time since he left the hospital, he insisted “You should think about it. You’d be wasted doing anything else.”

Before Kali could give any real thought to his serious grey star, Eliza interjected “What you talking about?”

Tom’s jaw tightened, but he quickly replied “Just had another trip cancelled. Thinking something’s going on they’re not telling us.” He determinedly ignored Kali’s searching gaze until she gave up.

“Thought you’d be talking about the exercise last night.” Eliza quickly launched into describing every rumour she had heard in great detail. Kali cringed inwardly but kept a smile plastered on her face. Tom’s jaw was clenched; he was still shaken, and he knew that Kali was struggling. As Eliza obliviously prattled on, Kali was relieved when an unannounced visitor dropped by.

“I heard what happened last night.” Hermes called out as he swanned over to them. Eyes from all around the mess hall followed his swagger, spellbound by his presence. Kali rolled her eyes; she would have expected a god of thieves to equip subtlety.

“I was wondering if your brush with your own mortality might have made you realise what’s really important in life. What you really want.” He dropped into the chair next to Kali and leant back, putting his boots up on the table. “Namely, me.” Hermes sassily flicked his hair off his face and gave her a roguish wink that would have made Jem swoon.

After a few seconds of silence, Hermes’ glittering eyes narrowed. “Right…I did expect a giggle, at least.” With a furrowed brow, he watched her closely, murmuring “You’ve been distracted the last couple of weeks, but something is definitely different today…” He looked her up and down and she tensed under his scrutiny. “What is it…what…hmm…”

Finally, Hermes stilled, his face an unreadable mask. Kali’s heart thundered in her chest; she never could tell what he was thinking. The tiniest smile quirked his lips before he leaned back and roared with laughter. Kali flinched; that wasn’t the reaction she had anticipated.

When Hermes slapped his thigh and buried his face on the table, still shaking with laughter, Eliza couldn’t take it anymore. “What? What’s funny?” She wouldn’t dare speak to a god that way, so the outburst was directed to Kali.

“Why didn’t I see that coming?” He continued to laugh and ruffled his hair. He calmed slightly for a moment and fixed his gleaming eyes on Kali. “I suppose I can live with it being him. If he’s serious about you, that is.”

With a wicked grin, Hermes yanked Kali to him and lowered his face to hers. Before Kali had time to turn away, the pressure around her wrist lifted. A loud clatter accompanied Hermes’ collision with a table on the other side of the mess hall. It had cracked under the strain, and Hermes sat in the middle of the splintered wood, laughing gleefully.

Nonplussed, Eliza turned to Kali and stammered “You didn’t do that.”

“No. No she didn’t.” Tom sighed. He moved into the empty seat next to Kali and purposely turned his back to Eliza. “So I guess what I thought I saw earlier really was what I thought I saw, huh?”

Eliza blinked and looked back and forth between them, nonplussed. When neither of them budged, she prompted “What does that even mean?”

Tom and Sage exchanged half a glance before they returned to shovelling food back in their mouths at an alarming rate. Before Eliza could push further, Hermes had brushed himself off and skipped back over to the table. The mess hall was steadily getting colder but Hermes grinned. Kali muttered “Don’t do that again.”

“I’m not an animal; I won’t go after another god’s girl. Well…not that god, anyway.” He bowed low but glanced back up to say “Just let me know if you need to come up for air at any point. Some girls are worth being chopped up into little pieces for.”

Hermes lingered long enough for his persistent eye contact to unsettle her. When she gave up and looked away, he smirked and strolled away. The mess hall was silent; none of the demigods had a clue what was going on or how to respond. But, Kali noticed with a grimace, yet again, all eyes were on her.

“So…in the hospital earlier…” Tom asked, a gentle smirk softening his already rounded features. “How long has that been going on?”

Surprised, Kali’s heart fluttered. A tiny smile on her lips, she murmured “I fell for him the moment I met him. Before I got here. It hasn’t really been going on though. I mean…he kissed me on my birthday but-”

“Whoah! Seriously!” Eliza interrupted indignantly. “Who are we talking about and why didn’t you tell me?”

Kali floundered, the spell broken. “It felt…private. I didn’t want to…” spoil it, she finished silently, trailing off. She hadn’t wanted to feel like she was bragging. Their moment had been just that: theirs.

“Well, who is it? Dionysus?” Eliza demanded. Dionysus was frequently found wooing as many demigods as he could. Kali cringed away at the concept but she knew Eliza wouldn’t let it go. Not that she’d guess correctly, no matter how many chances she had. Kali had noticed that the demigods of Camelot really didn’t consider Hades among the gods. 

Tom had reached the same conclusion, so he sighed wearily and said “It’s Hades.”

Sage bleated a protest, but Kali smiled weakly at him. She decided to follow his lead and focused on eating her mostly untouched food while she still had time. The air hummed around her with barely concealed fury and she smiled to herself.

The whispers and stares should have frustrated her. On another day, they probably would have. But Kali felt like she was floating. Even with her gut twisting and the burns snaking sharply on her arms, in stark contrast with her skin. Even with the reminders of everything that should be coiling her nerves inside her chest. A woven cord of silver light kept her warm.

The dull murmurs hushed at the clattering of hooves slowly echoing through the circular room. Not for the first time, Kali marvelled at the acoustics. Even with the pillars, the sound was crisp and clear. Haunting, even. It was no surprise that Chiron’s presence was so commanding as to silence every demigod in the room when it was heralded by his hoofbeats.

Kali hadn’t been in close proximity to the centaur since she had arrived, but she had not forgotten his piercing gaze. She barely suppressed a shudder as he towered over her, but his smile was as polite as ever. “Would you accompany me for a moment, Kali?”

She blinked twice, wondering if she should be worried. With a forlorn look back at her friends, Kali stood and walked alongside Chiron, dwarfed by his form. She anxiously fiddled with the lion charm on her bracelet as they walked. Valiantly, Kali cleared her throat and said “How are you? I don’t think we’ve spoken since I arrived.”

“You are correct. My duties do not take me to the students often. Though my door is always open if you need me, Kali.” He replied evenly, his polite smile fixed carefully in place.

She nodded, but did not reply; she had finally realised where they were headed. Kali had never noticed the high ceilings and doorways of the school building until she walked through them with Chiron. Sure enough, they approached the room Hades used when he taught.

Chiron tapped on the door politely, but the first crack in his mask appeared when Hades opened it. Gone was the cloak of shadows he wore, and Chiron faltered visibly when deep blue eyes met his icy ones. Hades stepped to the side, holding out a hand to indicate that they could enter.

Even though they could see Hades clearly, the shadows were still deep in the room. They followed him, curling at his shoulders, echoing his form. Chiron’s white fur gleamed, a lighthouse in the fog. But Kali noticed the change in him. The smile was tighter, his shoulders were curved, and his tail flicked restlessly.

“Forgive the intrusion, Lord Hades. I felt your presence would be beneficial.” Chiron shuffled his hooves slightly, but his voice was stronger as he continued “There have been some unsightly rumours of late. I have been tasked with unveiling the truth of the matter.”

“Unsightly rumours?” Hades raised an eyebrow. His expression was serious, but the glint in his eyes made Kali wonder if he was enjoying this. “I can’t say that I’ve heard anything troubling enough to unsettle you, Chiron.”

A muscle in his jaw twinged, and Kali wondered how he kept his face in such a tranquil mask. One day, if she could muster the courage, she might ask him. Chiron slowly allowed his gaze to drift to Kali’s face. His voice was gentle but firm as he requested “Kali, please clarify the nature of your relationship with Lord Hades.”

Kali faltered for a moment. As she opened her mouth to conjure some kind of response, a cool hand softly touched her arm, reassuring her. “You don’t have to answer his question, Kali.”

“I don’t care who knows I’m in love with you.” Kali replied sincerely, looking into his eyes. Silver warmth bloomed through her chest in response, bolstering her confidence. She turned back to Chiron to respond. “As to my relationship with Hades…that’s really up to him.”

Chiron clasped his hands behind his back and lowered his eyeline as he turned back to Hades. Instead of the firm authoritative steps, his hooves almost shuffled on the wooden floorboards. “My Lord, you have never been one to dabble in such distractions. Forgive me, but I must ask what your intentions are with this young woman.”

“I fail to see how our intentions are any concern of yours.” Hades’ voice was no longer playful, and the change was catastrophic. The barest hint of humour made all the difference, and Chiron instinctively sidled away. Kali, as always, was oblivious to the pooling shadows.

Chiron took a long time to carefully choose his words. “Baseless rumours can be harmful to all involved. Especially if they reach the ears of those who may be sensitive to such things.”

“Baseless rumours and conjecture are dangerous.” He agreed thoughtfully. Kali felt a tingle as his voice echoed in her mind. Are you sure about this?

I am. She tried to pour every ounce of conviction she had into her reply, the way he had shown her. But it’s OK if you’re not.

Allow me to clear things up.” Hades said, his voice reverberating around the quiet room. Slowly, he removed his gloves and caught Kali’s gaze. His eyes asked the same silent question as he held his hand out to her. A smile she knew in her heart played on his lips as he noticed her flushed cheeks. Under his gaze, she felt like they were the only people in the world. She took his hand.

Chiron’s hoof tapped at the floor and his eyes narrowed. Hades gently tugged on Kali’s hand, moving her to stand at his side. An icy stare was centred on her hand, wrapped in Hades’, and a clipped voice muttered “I see.”

“I doubt that.”

Chiron’s expression soon darkened “My Lord…what are you plotting?”

Hades laughed, but his eyes were fierce. “You make me sound like the villain Zeus has painted me to be in his fanciful stories.” If anything, Hades’ laughter unsettled Chiron more than his anger. The gentle rebuke had a deeper effect than Kali would have expected, leaving her to wonder what the relationship was between the two. “You know better than most that I wish no part in the Olympians’ politics.”

Chiron glanced down, shifting his stance. His sharp eyes flickered back to Kali and he summoned his civil smile once more. “Kali, I have kept you from your classes long enough.”

Kali recognised the dismissal immediately. She looked up at Hades and murmured “I’ll see you later?”

He kissed her hand with a promise. “Seven o’clock. Don’t be late.”

Time crawled by for the rest of the day. She tried to concentrate but her heart was elsewhere. When her last class finished, she remembered that she had committed to the extra combat classes. She was already regretting her decision, but the prickling sensation in her stomach served to reinforce her resolution.

The extra session was a jumble of bruises for Kali. Ares had been right when he told her she would be the weakest member of the group. She had always been tall and slightly bulky; she wasn’t petite by any stretch of the imagination. But these demigods dwarfed her. And none of them were afraid to chew her up.

Despite spending most of the session on the floor, Kali enjoyed it. Her opponents were much more varied than she had anticipated; each fought with their own style and weapon combinations. No two fights were the same. Except the outcome. Reaffirming her resolve, Kali knew that she could and would get stronger there.

But, as she stumbled back to her rooms after the session, she finally let her thoughts wander onto more pleasant things. 

She had a date.

___

Chapter Thirty One

Kali had always loved Autumn sunsets. The soothing, dazzling colours setting the horizon ablaze filled her with wonder, no matter how many times she saw them. But Camelot was teaching her to love the ever advancing Winter nights.

The late November air was brisk and bracing. But, as Kali looked upwards, she forgot about the cold. She knew that she would never tire of that sight. Of millions of stars filling every corner of the sky, as far as the eye could see. Endless eternity, stretching out beyond any concept of space or time. The sky over Camelot was humbling. Miraculous, even.

Outside Camelot, the night sky had been black and white. Beautiful, but simple. Tiny specks of light in an all encompassing void. But Kali didn’t have names for all the colours she could see above her. It was no wonder people didn’t believe in magic anymore, Kali thought. If they could see a sky so full of majesty, they might just rethink their views. Anything seemed possible, looking up at those stars.

As that thought crossed her mind, her senses awoke to a familiar presence. Her eyes found him immediately, drinking in every aspect of the smile he wore. When she realised he had been watching her, that the tender smile on his face was for her, Kali’s heart swelled to bursting. His smile widened at the blush colouring her cheeks and he moved fluidly to her side.

Hades tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear, sending shivers across her skin. She looked at their hands as he linked his fingers with hers. How something so simple could mean so much, she would never know. A smug smile teased the corners of Hades’ mouth again as he murmured “Shall we?”

Kali squeezed his hand in response; she couldn’t trust her voice when her heart was in her throat. As they walked, she realised that the demigods were giving them a wide berth. Curious, Kali looked up at Hades and managed to ask “Are we hidden?”

“Not this time.”

Their eyes met and he held her gaze for an eternity before moving slowly closer. She knew he was giving her a chance to stop him. Instead, she rushed to close the gap. Surprise flashed across his face for a heartbeat before he laughed into the kiss. His hands left a trail of fire across her back as he pulled her closer. His lips were gentle but hungry, making her tremble. She thought she had imagined the way it had made her feel. That in the time apart she had exaggerated. But she knew she could never get enough of him.

In the back of her mind, Kali registered a familiar tug in the pit of her stomach. Hades’ hand tangling in her hair distracted her, but he slowly drew back. She grazed his bottom lip with her teeth, a soft protest, and drew a ragged laugh from him. He brushed her lips once more, muttering “Watch your step.”

Puzzled, Kali glanced behind her and instinctively pressed herself closer to him. He laughed warmly as her hands gripped the light material of his shirt. “Surprise.”

When the initial shock faded, Kali found herself laughing. “You did that on purpose.”

“Perhaps.” He replied with a low, satisfied chuckle. She giggled, loosening her grip as he took a small step back. She turned, sighing contentedly as he put his arms on her waist, and leaned back against him. When she stole a glance back over her shoulder, a curious smile was playing on his lips.

In front of them was the edge of a cliff Kali had never seen, overlooking a thick forest. At the edge of the woods, she could make out a gleaming white stone path. A bridge crossed a large winding river, the water shimmering and sparkling under the starlight. The path continued to a building, a temple perhaps, of glittering pink crystal. As Kali breathed in the sight, a strange echo reverberated around her. A memory?

Hades drew her hair off her neck slowly and let his lips brush her skin as he murmured “I thought you would appreciate a better spot to see the stars.”

The haunting echo dissipated slowly, and Kali relaxed back against him and whispered, “What is this place?”

He seemed to consider her question for a moment before stating “Venus.”

“Venus?” Kali studied him over her shoulder, laughing. It sounded silly even to her when she asked, “Do you mean to say we’re…on another planet?”

“Would it be so strange if we were?” He smiled deviously and purposely brushed his lips against her ear as he replied “After all, you are currently in the arms of a god.”

“That is true…” Warmth crept over her at the promise in his voice. His chest was solid against her back. Immovable. When they were this close, it was hard to believe that he was always melting into shadows. Feeling the heat of his body against the chill of the evening was a new kind of torture for her.

“You can accept everything else without question, but the idea of being in another realm stops you in your tracks?” He chuckled, teasing her gently.

Kali blushed but she knew it had little to do with his words and everything to do with his fingers lightly brushing her side. She entwined her fingers with his to ground herself before replying. “When you put it like that, I guess it doesn’t sound as odd. But the whole concept of space and other planets has always been a little hard to fathom for me.”

“I should probably explain.” He laughed again, his deep voice soft as a caress. “The concepts of outer space and other planets were invented by mortals, desperately trying to make sense of things they could never hope to understand.”

She shivered slightly, her skin prickling at the thought. Her smile had faltered and a frown furrowed her brow. “So…what really happens when people travel to space, if there’s no such thing?”

“They drift in the emptiness between the realms.” Hades moved back slightly and turned her to face him with a light tug of her hand. In one smooth movement, he conjured a black jacket out of the shadows and wrapped it around her shoulders. Watching her troubled expression, he continued “I suppose that is more or less what space is – nothingness. But the human collective consciousness is a terribly powerful thing.”

Kali tilted her head, trying and failing to puzzle through his words. Hades smiled fondly at her silent questions and explained. “Where the nine realms exist, your scientists dreamed of planets. It’s ingenious really, how the world evolved under such an illusion. Now, mortals dedicate their lives to reaching these things they think they see in the skies. No matter how inhospitable we made them appear. And, somehow, their technologies have crossed through the abyss and into other realms. It is something none of the gods could ever conceive of.”

“That…isn’t right.” She stated decidedly, her gut twisting uncomfortably. Kali didn’t want to disagree with him, but what he was describing was against everything she believed. She could hardly fathom that level of manipulation. “People have dedicated their entire lives to studying something that never existed in the first place.”

“It’s true that many great minds have splintered at the reality once they discover it. That is why what I have told you is not widely discussed.” He had known that she would not be comfortable with such a grand deception. “But the people you are talking about have pushed humanity beyond all the limits imposed upon them. Everything they have worked to achieve has brought them further than they ever knew. They will not find hunks of rock and gas floating in the sky. But they made contact with the hellscape of Mars, and still push further. Soon they will design machines that will reach Olympus itself. They have nearly harnessed the powers of the gods, and they built them from scratch. I would hardly say that is a waste.”

Kali had been drinking in everything about him as he spoke. His animated expression captivated her, melting her temper. She couldn’t argue that he made an interesting point, but she would have to spend some time mulling it over. The thing that caught her most was his tone. “You really admire normal people, don’t you?”

“My interactions with mortals have been different to those of my brethren.” He said quietly. Hades took her hand and began to walk slowly with her along the edge. He thought carefully and admitted “I wouldn’t say admire is necessarily the right word. They interest me.”

“So, observing them is…like a hobby?”

“Take it how you will.” Hades knew that his ways would not always be her ways. They were different. It might not be easy for either of them to adjust, but he would not hide that from her. He sighed and sat slowly on a blanket that had appeared on the grass with them. “I could easily pretend to be something I am not. But I will never tell you simply what I think you want to hear.”

“I know. It’s one of the things I love about you.” Kali sat gently beside him and took his hand again. Their eyes met and her heart thudded. She could get lost in his stare. Shaking herself, she stammered “Tell me about the other realms.”

“So demanding.” His subtle smile held a wicked edge and he pulled her closer. Kali fell willingly against his chest and gazed up at him. She had no defence against that smile. The tiniest quirk of his lips affected every nerve in her body. After a moment, she murmured “I’m afraid if I don’t keep you talking, I won’t be able to think straight.”

“Remind me why that would be a bad thing?” Hades murmured, letting his fingers curl in the hair cascading over her shoulders, but he relented. Instead of pressing his advantage, he turned to open a picnic basket. Kali blushed; a picnic? Hades casually pulled out a steaming mug and handed it to her with a soft expression.

Kali had forgotten the chill with Hades’ jacket enveloping her with his scent. But the warmth of the drink was welcome, as was the sweet, creamy aroma. Hades waited for her smile before asking gently “What would you like to know, my love?”

They shared a long look until Kali let her curiosity take over. “You said there are nine realms?”

He chuckled; he loved the glimmer of excitement in her eyes. “All connected by what you might know as the world tree. Camelot is situated in Venus, along with the lesser camps for demigods who require less attention. It is a mostly peaceful place, and many of the gods who are not welcome on Olympus have made this world their home.” As an afterthought, he continued “Olympus is Zeus’ domain, home to most of the Olympians. It is a sight to behold, if a little extravagant. You would know it as Jupiter.”

Kali let his voice wash over her. She leaned into his side as he spoke, a content smile dancing on her lips. He fell silent briefly, breathing her in. Before he resumed his explanation, Hades filled two bowls with stew and placed a plate of freshly baked bread on the blanket between them. Kali giggled, wondering what else he had hidden away in the hamper.

He held his bowl to meet hers and continued “Neptune, as you might have guessed, is Poseidon’s realm. Only the sea gods are ever truly welcome there. Unlike the other gateways, Neptune’s are fluid and constantly changing. It is not uncommon for unwary travellers to find themselves in his domain. Very few are allowed to return unscathed; those who do tell tales of lost cities, of Atlantis.”

“Mars is home to monsters. Some are born of my realms, but they all seem to find their way there. It has heavy deposits of iron, and that has become their weakness. I doubt it has been explained to you, but no creature can be mortally wounded except by a material native to it. Mars is named for Ares because it is a place of constant war. He frequents it more than most, and often trains himself and his soldiers there.”

“What about Pluto? That would be yours, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes. Pluto is the Underworld.” He scowled as he added “My realm is possibly the largest. Though it is the smallest planet, if it can even be called that anymore.” He sighed. “Mercury is what humans call Tartarus.”

Kali giggled slightly at his grumbling. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that Pluto was officially not considered a planet at all anymore. Instead she said “I thought Tartarus was part of the Underworld.”

Hades seemed to hesitate for a moment before saying “It is and it isn’t. The only active portal to Tartarus is in my domain. But not only the dead are sent there. And no god can control the gate.”

Kali could feel his tension so she snuggled up against his side. She had already finished her stew while Hades had been speaking. She had been thoroughly pleased to find that is was a combination of winter vegetables, and it had the perfect blend of flavours and textures. “Thank you for dinner.”

Surprised, he glanced at her briefly before draining his bowl and putting it aside. “I’ll admit I wasn’t sure if a picnic would be the best idea, considering the temperature.”

“It’s wonderful.” She sighed happily. The cold air hadn’t bothered her all day with the warm glow in her heart. She couldn’t remember ever feeling as relaxed as she did then; by Hades’ side, under a blanket of starlight.

He wrapped her in his arms and stroked her hair softly. Kali trembled at his touch and his smug smile was dancing across his lips again. She blushed and his fingers found her chin, bringing her face to his. The way he moved tormented her. The kiss was brief and lingering, and Kali felt like her skin was on fire. But Hades still seemed more or less unaffected, always in control. She pouted and grumbled “How can you be so calm?”

“Calm?” He laughed, but it was a bitter sound. “I have had so much practice keeping my emotions under lock and key that I thought they were completely gone. I cannot remember the last time I felt anything. With you, it takes every ounce of control I possess to keep myself in check. And I’m not ashamed to say that it slips more and more every time you touch me.”

Kali’s lips parted on a gasp, and his eyes flickered to them instinctively. The echo his words sent tremoring through the silver cord that joined them resonated in her core. She knew he was telling the truth, and her heart pounded at the confession. Beyond a doubt, she knew that she, and only she, could break through his calm exterior.

The new confidence in her eyes caught his attention immediately and his brow furrowed slightly. He had expected her to flee from him. Every word he said, every time he reached for her, he waited for her to flinch. Instead, she met his gaze head on. She closed the distance. She chose him. Kali deliberately wound a strand of his dark hair around her fingers and softly murmured “Don’t you know yet that I’m yours?”

Hades closed his eyes, turning his face into the palm of her hand. His shuddering sigh tickled her wrist, and he murmured her name quietly. A warning that she had no intention of heeding. “Kali…be careful.”

“I don’t want to be careful.” She admitted quietly, with absolute certainty. “I want you.”

Hades groaned softly and his hand curled around the back of her neck. His thumb brushed across the pulse in her throat, sending a shock through her. She gasped and he claimed her lips, pushing her down on the grass. The delicate way he handled her made her feel precious, but his muscles were tensed with restraint. Kali lost herself as her mind instinctively reached out to him. The same way he would weave their fingers together, her consciousness entwined itself with his.

He shuddered and buried his face in her neck, blinded by her. She could feel his hesitation, his fear, and faltered until he murmured “You believe so deeply that I deserve you.”

I believe that we were made for each other. Her heart replied, sending the words before her mind could conjure them. Out loud, she added “I’m just sorry that you had to wait so long.”

It was presumptuous of her, Kali knew. He was a god. He was eternal, and she was a speck of dust, scattered in the wind. But from the moment they had met, she had felt connected to him. She knew that she was born to love him. And joining with him the way she had, she knew he thought she had the other half of his soul. Even as he hated himself for chaining her to something tattered and ruined, he could feel that she was his.

Hades trembled at her words and moved to rest his forehead against hers. He held himself up just over her body, and she wrapped her arms around him. They stayed that way for an eternity, until their hearts were beating the same rhythm. Eventually, Hades moved to lay at her side, linking their fingers.

The sky was full of blues and purples and reds, dancing between the stars. Their colours, Kali thought to herself warmly. “I wish I could stop time and make this night last forever.”

Her wistful whisper drew a tender smile from Hades, and he cupped her cheek. His fingers brushed her neck just long enough to make her shiver before he said “I have something for you.”

Kali started, surprised, but she had to bite her lip to hide her smile. Hades stood, taking her hand and pulling her with him, and extracted a small box from the pocket of the jacket Kali was wearing. She giggled, butterflies dancing a jig in her stomach. The only sign that he was nervous came when he thumbed the box before he handed it to her.

Inside the box, on a purple silk bed, lay a necklace. An intricate symbol was carved into a shimmering surface, glittering strangely in the moonlight. Kali was certain she had seen it before, but it eluded her. The metal was cool to the touch as she reverently brushed her fingers across it. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. What is this symbol?”

“It is my emblem, and the symbol of my realm. The talisman is platinum, inlaid with black diamond. Both are native to the Underworld, so this bears a strong connection to my home.” His silky voice washed over her, and she couldn’t resist the urge to interrupt him with a kiss. He laughed softly; he knew that patience was not her virtue.

Kali could feel his hesitation, or anticipation, when she slowly pulled away. He brushed her cheek tenderly and murmured “If you should choose to accept it, you would be able to come and go in my realms as you please. It would express to your other suitors that they have missed their chance. Permanently.”

Kali’s hand trembled over the pendant and she searched his unfathomable eyes to confirm if she had heard him correctly. Her heart swelled and she took a moment to find her voice as her teeth irritated her bottom lip. Holding his gaze, she teased “Do I have to put it on myself?”

“I’m not sure you understand…” He hesitated at her easy acceptance. He could feel her certainty radiating from her, but Hades couldn’t believe that she would agree as if it were the simplest thing in the world. After a moment, he stated “This would be considered akin to a wedding band. Likely, it holds more significance.”

“Hades, I’ve been in love with you since the moment we met. I am yours. Only yours. As long as I live, I don’t intend for that to change.” She blushed as the words left her but kept eye contact; she didn’t always know what to do with the strong emotions cascading within her, but she could never be ashamed of them. After he remained silent, she smiled slyly and conjured a pout, mumbling “Don’t you know it’s bad form to offer jewellery to a girl and then take it away?”

She had been trying to get him to smile, and she failed. But Hades carefully drew the hair off her neck and deliberately fastened the chain. Her heart was racing so fast it made her chest ache. Kali slowly looked back at him, and his expression was unreadable when his eyes fell onto the pendant resting by her heart. She trembled at the intensity of his gaze. Her mind tentatively brushed his and she realised that he was afraid to move. If he did, his resolve to give her the time he thought she needed would shatter.

“Hades…” Kali’s voice was sultry as she turned fully towards him. Though he appeared relaxed, his jaw was clenched as he looked back up to her face. A smile touched her lips as she murmured a challenge. “What are you waiting for?”

A shadow passed across his face and barely a heartbeat passed before he claimed her lips for his own. A hand was tangled in her hair, forcing her head back as his lips moved down her throat. His teeth nipped at her, making her cry out. A dark chuckle followed, and Hades muttered “I have waited so long to hear you make that sound.”

“Where are we?” Kali asked breathlessly. She hadn’t felt a thing when he had moved them, but the chill was gone from the air and Hades’ scent was everywhere. She could see candles were the only source of light, casting their flickering glow through the room.

Hades showed no sign of answering the question; he had no need to. He simply slipped his coat from around her shoulders and let it fall to the hard wood floor with a soft thud. He kissed her again, slowly but with such purpose that she could hardly breathe. When Kali wrapped her arms around him, he swept her up, carrying her effortlessly to the bed. His lips trailed across her skin, leaving fire in their wake.

Pressing his forehead against hers, Hades sighed raggedly. “Are you certain?”

“I’ve never been this certain about anything in my life.” Kali replied, but she felt him holding himself back.  “Hades, I will never regret choosing you. But if it’s too soon, or I need to stop, I trust that you’ll listen.”

Feeling his relief, Kali let her trembling hand brush his chest and moved to kiss the hollow at the base of his neck. His voice was determined and desperate, his hand tangling in her hair. “You make me spiral out of control in every possible way. I was not exaggerating when I told you that I believed my emotions to be gone until I found you. You are my sun, moon, and stars. Being away from you has been torture.” His gentle kiss was a dizzying contrast to his hammering heart. “Stay with me tonight.”

Kali was taken aback for a heartbeat, but she allowed a low, seductive laugh to escape her and replied “Only tonight?”

Hades’ face lit up with unconcealed joy. “I love you, Kali.”

Her heart stopped. She didn’t care if he saw the tears in her eyes, reaching her shaking hands to caress his face. “I love you too, Hades.”

As he pushed her back down on the bed, he entwined their fingers and his mind reached out to her. Yet again, she was overcome by the intimacy of being so open to him. She could not find the will to deny him the thing she needed the most. As the candles burned brighter, Kali did not hesitate to join with him: mind, body, and soul.

___

Chapter Thirty Two

Waking up in Hades’ arms was surreal, somehow. Skin on skin. His hand was lazily trailing through her hair, and every caress sent electricity humming through her. She had never truly realised how empty she had been before he made her whole.

His hair was wild and untamed on the pillow and Kali could not resist the urge to brush a long strand from his face. When she tucked it behind his ear, his hand circled her wrist and he brushed his lips across her knuckles. The tiniest gesture, but her heart melted all over again.

“I’m already late, aren’t I?” She mumbled, burying her face in his chest sleepily.

“For training?” His voice had a husky tone she had never heard from him. She sighed; how could he get sexier? Thoughtfully, he said “If you get dressed quickly, we can afford another minute.”

Kali snuggled into his side and Hades tightened his arms around her in an embrace. “I’ll take what I can get.”

“You could stay.” He replied quietly as he kissed the top of her head. His hands were weaving distracting patterns on her sides.

Kali sighed and mumbled “I need to get stronger.” She had made herself a promise. A promise she was sincerely starting to regret at the thought of leaving the warm bed. Kali struggled with herself for a moment until she found the words. “I won’t be helpless anymore. I just…I have so much further to go.”

“You’re wonderful the way you are. But if you want to get stronger, I won’t stand in your way.” Hades replied sincerely. He purred as she dragged her lips across his collarbone, muttering “Though I wouldn’t object to keeping you to myself a little longer.”

Kali giggled breathlessly. “Nor would I.”

A long lingering kiss was his only reply. His hands were cool and soothing against her burning skin, and she forgot for a moment why she needed to leave. Reluctantly, Hades broke the kiss to murmur “Alright, now you’re going to be late for Weapons Training.”

Kali groaned. She had been very close to making a deliciously bad decision. “Why would you tell me that? Now I feel obligated to get out of bed.” She started to push herself up but a strong arm snaked its way around her waist. She could feel Hades’ lips in her hair, and she sunk back against his chest with a smile.

He chuckled quietly, the way she reacted to him making him smug, and whispered “What if I won’t let you?”

“You said you wouldn’t stand in my way.” She murmured, but she turned towards him and his lips claimed hers. They slowly sank back into the pillows and when they parted, Hades smoothly reasoned “I’m still lying down.”

Kali laughed and rested her head against his shoulder, sighing “I love you.”

“And I love you.” He moved back and kissed her forehead.

“But I really need to go.” She added miserably.

Hades sighed, but his grin remained in place, warming her. “I know. Your things are on top of the dresser.”

Kali saw the bundle of clothes and her smile widened, her jaw aching as the unfamiliar muscles worked overtime to keep up. She kissed him quickly and rushed to get changed, all the while wishing that he would convince her to stay. She was glad that he respected her choice, but her stubbornness was getting in the way of a beautiful morning.

Just as Kali’s fingers hesitated at the doorknob, Hades appeared at her side. He had dressed while she had been rushing around and he put his hand over hers and wrapped an arm around her waist, whispering “I don’t like watching you leave.”

In a heartbeat, they were outside the Colosseum, in the shade of the trees. A cold wind bit at her, the sudden change in temperature startling her. Shaking it off, Kali kissed Hades one more time. “I’ll see you soon.”

A cocky smile lifted the corner of his lips. “Try not to be too distracted.”

“I won’t make promises I can’t keep.” She kissed him again with a smile and he grinned as he told her to get going. Before they both changed their minds. With a quiet giggle, Kali managed to pull herself away and jogged into the arena, keeping her eyes fixed firmly ahead so that she wouldn’t turn back. She knew that her face must be glowing, and not even the glare Ares shot her was enough to dampen her spirits.

Once again, Kali aimed to keep up with Hannah. When she pulled alongside, the girl shot her a suspicious look but eventually it softened into an awkward smile. Kali returned it, however strange it was, and said, “Don’t slow down on my account.”

Hannah’s smile widened and she picked up the pace. Kali fell behind but she kept her eyes up and forced herself onward. She could feel Ares seething, so she kept her head down and refused to look his way. Nothing was going to stop her being happy today. Eventually, Ares called out for them to partner up and grabbed Kali’s arm when she was looking around for Jem.

A spark stung them both where his large hand encircled her arm. Ares immediately released her, confused. After another moment, his confusion changed to shock as his eyes fell on the necklace at her throat. “What…is that?” He muttered, his gaze still fixed on her throat.

Kali’s heart stuttered with fear at the foreign expression in his eyes. “Are…are you alright?”

His eyes flickered up to hers and lingered a bit too long, but he chuckled. “Worried about me?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” She muttered, looking away. After a second, she glanced back at him and tried for a smile, stating “Worried what you’re thinking, and what you might do.”

At that, he laughed. But his eyes were strained somehow. “You’re safe from me now, sunflower. At least until he realises the mistake he’s made in binding you to his side.” He started to reach to touch her face, but his hand froze, barely an inch from her skin. His face was thoughtful and his eyes unwavering when he said “You should just hope that he’ll release you someday. The dark is no place for you.”

Ares dropped his hand and walked purposely away, pausing only to call “You’re with Hannah today. Try not to die.”

On the other side of the arena, Kali spotted Jem sparring with Carl. Kali started to raise a hand to wave but Carl’s eyes moved away immediately, and his face was hard. A knot formed in her chest. Jem hadn’t seemed to notice her, but she dropped her hand. She refused to let anything get to her when her heart felt as light as it did.

Instead, Kali forced herself to think of happier things. With a lump in her throat, she moved over to where Hannah was running her own personal drills with her sword. She touched Hannah’s shoulder and threw herself to the side as Hannah instinctively swung at her. Kali drew her own weapon and the resounding strike clattered through the arena. Kali felt her arms shake as Hannah pushed the bound weapons towards her, but she darted back out of reach to catch her breath. She should have known better than to surprise her.

They had sparred only a couple of times during the extra sessions, but Kali was already getting a grip on the way Hannah fought. The difference in their levels was massive. Hannah had technique, strength, and practice on her side. Kali only had her tenacity. But defeating Hannah was a more attainable goal than keeping up with Achilles, or Ares. And Kali could see that the gap was already narrowing with each passing day.

The fight was exactly what she needed to shake off her irritation at her friend’s jealousy. Jem had told her how Carl felt about her. She just had to hope that he would work through it in his own time. If he didn’t…Kali would do her best to believe that it was his loss.

As Kali walked through Camelot to the next lesson, her head was high. She spotted flyers pinned up on some of the buildings. Adverts for band members, requests for market stalls, volunteers for the cafes and bars. Even appeals for demigods to donate their time to help set up. All for the upcoming festival.

It would be nice, she thought, to get involved. If it was as important as Tom and Sage had said, she wanted to have some part in it. To be part of a larger something. She would rather avoid playing music, but she could at least help set up. As the rest of her class moved on, she paused to scribble her name on one of the application posters. She hurriedly scrawled the meeting information on her arm, in the hopes that she would remember it later, and jogged to catch up with her class.

At the stables, they were met by the commanding presence of the God of the Sea. Kali had not seen Poseidon since that first meeting, but his image had burned itself into her. Golden brown skin, too weathered to belong to a divine entity, and eyes that reflected a stormy sea. Kali had thought she got her dark hair from her father, but Poseidon’s was almost the exact same shade and even more unruly.

His welcoming expression warmed knowingly as she scanned him for similarities. At his side stood Kai, the demigod usually covering for him, and he embraced him briefly before beckoning to Kali. She faltered, anxiety rooting her in place, but he waited with a patient, reassuring smile.

When she finally joined him, she was hit by the scent of salt and wind and freedom. Her hands trembled at her sides with the overwhelming essence of him. Breaking off from the rest of the group as subtly as his commanding presence would allow, he walked with Kali through the stables. Poseidon seemed completely at ease, but Kali wasn’t sure what to think. He was barely contained in a form designed to suppress the absolute chaos of the sea. If he noticed her scrutiny, he did not show it.

 Jovially, he asked “Do you have a favourite horse?”

“I…don’t spend much time with them.” She admitted quietly. She had always loved horses, but she didn’t know if their responses to her were ‘normal’ enough. So she tried to keep her distance.

Poseidon stilled for a moment. “Of course. Your father would not approve if you showed your heritage, would he.”

“He’s just trying to keep me safe.” She mumbled, ashamed that she hadn’t embraced Poseidon’s legacy. The coiling red burns tattooed on her arms prickled and she grumbled inwardly at Apollo’s idea of safety. She knew she wasn’t always the one he was trying to protect.

“So you can lie.” His voice boomed like thunder, but it was full of mirth. Kali didn’t know how to take him. “I have had some strong words with Apollo about his recent conduct. I know I haven’t been around, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care. I wanted to check on the situation for myself instead of relying on silly rumours.”

“You…care?” Apollo had told her that Poseidon cared more for family than rules, but he had disappeared as soon as they met. It was difficult to associate that behaviour with affection.

“Current events have made it difficult to arrange my lessons. Normally, you would be spending more time outside Camelot, on the sea, with me. Spending time here, grounded, would make my brother ask too many questions. You draw far too much attention to yourself as it is, so I chose to keep my distance. But do not think I do so without regret.” His mirth had dissipated as quickly as it had appeared; his moods were as deep and tumultuous as the sea, it seemed.

It wasn’t the first time Kali had heard tell that events were troubling, but she had no idea what was going on. She made a note to talk to Tom about it, but the rest of his words were not lost on her. Biting her lip, she let her curiosity get the better of her. “So why are you here now?”

“I wanted to make sure you were happy.” Poseidon replied simply.

Of all the things she might have expected him to say, that wasn’t on the list. There was a silent question in his voice, so Kali searched herself for an honest answer. Happy had never been something she could say. It was a simply pure emotion, and she was always too complicated. But, to her surprise, she whispered “I am happy.”

The currents in his eyes swirled and pulsed hypnotically as he studied her. “It is good to see that Hades has finally met his match.”

Kali was taken aback by his words, sure than she had misheard. “You’re not going to tell me it’s a mistake?”

“Why would I?” He asked, genuinely puzzled. Comprehension dawned on his face like a sunrise on the horizon. “Ah. Apollo doesn’t often think before he speaks.” That was an understatement, but it was bad form to speak ill of his fellows. From what he had observed, Kali had never had much in the way of support from either of her parents. A sting of regret nipped at him, but he pushed it aside. Instead of pity, he offered a challenge. “Do you think it’s a mistake?”

“No.” She answered immediately. Kali had never been more sure of anything.

“Then why would my opinion matter?” He asked kindly, his serene smile growing with relief at the certainty in her voice. “Either way, I know Hades better than most. He deserves some joy in his life, and you clearly bring that to him. If he brings you the same, nothing could make me happier.”

Kali didn’t realise she was crying until Poseidon wiped a tear gently from her cheek. She stared at him numbly, shaken. He spoke as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. He spoke like he respected her decisions. Like her choice mattered to him.

“Tornado.” She whispered suddenly. At the slight furrow creasing his brow, she cleared her throat and explained “My favourite horse is Tornado.”

“Wild and free. Just like you.” He smiled fondly, looking out towards the stormy grey stallion. Quietly, he added “He also does not deserve to be cooped up here.”

By the time lunch came around, Kali was restless to be in Hades’ arms. She was surprised she didn’t bump into doorframes wherever she went; she had been distracted all day. Her new baseline had her grinning like a lovesick idiot. But she knew she would have to function just a little longer. She could manage, reluctantly. She needed to be sure that she didn’t become too reliant on him; she wanted a partner, not a crutch.

Even so, she found herself frequently reaching out through their bond. Featherlight contact, to remind herself that he was there. When he knew she was comfortable with it, he began to do the same. Her heart ached, and she longed for his touch, but the gentle brush of contact was enough to soothe her.

The stares that followed her were more hostile than usual. When she mentioned the girls glaring daggers at her to her friends, Tom couldn’t contain his laughed. “You’re just breaking hearts all over the place.” He finally spluttered. “Hermes and Ares had quite extensive fan clubs. Turning them down has probably earned you a lot of spiteful little enemies.”

“Girls can be so pathetic. Fan clubs?” Eliza looked disgusted at the concept, though Kali knew she had once harboured a crush on Hermes herself.

Kali laughed at her friend’s sour expression and shrugged “Forgive me if I don’t seem worried.”

A timid voice drew her attention away from Eliza’s grimace and Tom’s laughter. “Kali? Can I have a sec?”

“Talking to me again, then?” She asked tartly, turning towards Jem. She was surprised to see him looking sheepish; he had never been anything but confident before. His bowed head took the wind out of her sails. “I’m sorry about this morning.” He spoke with sincerity, keeping eye contact with her. “Carl isn’t doing well, and I figured he needed me more than you did. But it was wrong of me to avoid you without explanation.”

Kali sighed, running her hand through her hair. How could she be angry when he made such an honest apology? “I understand. Thank you for telling me.”

“I know what I said before made things awkward. And, in retrospect, that probably made this worse. I just don’t like seeing him get his hopes up. Carl’s never been good with people, and you’re always so nice. He thinks it means more than it does.” He looked ashamed, fiddling uncertainly with his hands. Awkwardly, he explained “With his eye and limp, he was never exactly popular with girls.”

Kali looked at him strangely, wondering what he meant. She’d never noticed a limp. And why would anyone have a problem with his eyes? They weren’t as boring a brown as hers. But she said nothing as Jem struggled with himself. He settled on vaguely mumbling “I’ve known Carl my whole life. We grew up together. We even came here together. He’ll come around. He’s just gonna need a bit of time.”

Rubbing her brow, Kali sighed “Jem…you don’t need to explain yourself to me. Just make sure he’s okay and we’ll hang when you’re both feeling up to it, yeah?”

Relieved, he launched at her with a hug. Kali chuckled quietly, patting his back. He told her that he would insist on having all the gossip, every detail, when things calmed down. But he hurried away instead of sitting with them, presumably to find Carl.

___

Chapter Thirty Three

The end of the day couldn’t come quickly enough. By the time she arrived at the Colosseum for the extra class, she was anxious to be away. The first time she hit the floor, she remembered why she was there. She managed to regain her focus, though she still spent more time on the ground than not.

It was a comfort to her that Hades hadn’t tried to talk her out of going. She knew that he could protect her. He could probably move mountains. But she wanted to be able to fix some of her own problems. And she wanted to be of use to him too. She was relieved that he didn’t expect her to sit idly by, like some ornament left on the shelf.

There was really no marked improvement that she could see from the previous session overall. But she had to trust that would come with time. She couldn’t afford to lose hope or give up. She just kept reminding herself that It wasn’t about them; it was about her. It was about taking control of herself and being the best she could be. Even as she brushed the dirt off her clothes, wincing when she caught a tender bruise, she smiled. She was adamant the extra training would have an impact soon.

Kali practically fled the Colosseum at the end, ignoring her injuries and sprinting back to her rooms. She spared time for a quick shower, but the extra minutes were agony. She rushed to grab some clothes, but paused when she caught sight of herself in the mirror.

Her hair was still wet and wild, tumbling down her back, and it had grown so much. She had tried for a long time to grow it out, and it was finally past her waist. She grinned, imagining Hades’ hands tangling in her gentle curls. With that in mind, she haphazardly threw on a knitted jumper that could pass for a dress. She didn’t bother with socks; she just slipped into her boots and rushed outside.

Kali didn’t have to go far; Hades was leaning casually against the side of her building, waiting for her. His face lifted into a shameless smile and he lifted her in a hug the moment she was in reach. She laughed and met his lips with a breathless kiss.

“I thought we were meeting at the fountain.” She murmured, snuggling against him.

“Patience isn’t one of my virtues either, Kali.” Hades chuckled quietly, almost mockingly, at the weaknesses she revealed in him. “I couldn’t have waited another second to see you.”

“Did you want to come upstairs?” She asked nervously, moving her hands onto his chest. The blush on her cheeks was obvious as she rambled “I don’t exactly have any special dinner or…anything really. But I was thinking it would be nice to just stay in and talk?”

His heart felt lighter with her in his arms, and his smile was free and honest. She could feel his voice rumbling through her at his reply. “That sounds wonderful to me. But you’ll need to eat something, or you’ll get grouchy.”

She thumped lightly against his chest, feigning outrage. “I don’t get grouchy!”

He laughed, kissing her again. “Proving my point, there.” He seemed to think, though Kali wondered if that was an excuse to hold her a little longer. Not that he needed one. Eventually, he asked “What’s your favourite takeaway?”

“Pizza.” She replied immediately, hope clear in her eyes. If not for the grin spreading across Hades’ face, she would have been embarrassed. As it was, she was too distracted to focus on anything but the curve of his lips.

He noticed; Kali didn’t try to hide it, and his grin took on a smug edge. But instead of gloating, he said “Pizza it is.” When Hades pulled a phone out of his pocket, Kali blinked blankly. The idea that he even owned a mobile phone was too strange. He asked what she wanted as he dialled, and she leant into him to trail a kiss across his jaw. She could have sworn that his voice faltered slightly on the phone and her eyes glinted impishly.

He glanced down at her and visibly took a deep breath before continuing the call. Kali allowed a soft giggle to escape before kissing him again. She slowly moved her lips across his throat and up to nibble on his ear. His arms tightened around her, but she bit her lips over a playful grin and slipped out of his arms. The phone disappeared and he let his eyes wander over her, devouring her.

Hades hadn’t even noticed that her hair was wet until he suddenly noticed the water dripping onto her neck and chest. He took a hard breath at the thoughts that came with the observation. Part of him was still worried that he would hurt her if he didn’t control himself.

But the glint in her eyes was driving him crazy. She was teasing him. Her untamed joy, and the flames of desire in her gaze. She didn’t just love him; she wanted him. And she was wearing his mark like she was born for him. Everything about her in that moment was screaming out for him to chase her as she backed towards the door. His eyes darkened and he saw the grin on her face widen. Not falter. She never shrank away from him, even when the shadows of his own mind threatened to consume him completely.

“You…” He stalked a couple of steps towards her, his eyes burning into her, and continued “You are driving me crazy.”

Her smile only grew, even with the intensity of his gaze. Her voice was husky as she replied “Good. At least we’re on even footing then.”

A ragged sigh escaped him. “You are so far under my skin that I don’t think I could ever claw you out if I tried.” And then his lips were on hers again, his hands almost painful in her hair. She moaned into their kiss and found her legs around his waist as he lifted her again, pressing her against the wall. The playful challenge she had worn was replaced by helpless desire in an instant. Control was a game she didn’t mind losing. 

As Hades’ hand brushed the outside of her thigh, Kali longed to be locked away in his rooms again. Clearly, he was just as impatient as she was; just as the thought crossed her mind, the scenery around them shifted. He faltered slightly but Kali pulled him back to her, her mind hazy with need. He allowed the kiss, but firmly broke it off and murmured “That was unexpected.”

“Hades…?” She whined indignantly, but he brushed her hair off her face and chuckled “Kali, my love. I did not bring us here.”

That caught her attention, despite her sudden exhaustion. “What do you mean?”

He grinned again, his features softening as he gazed down at her. “I mean that your power is growing. If I was not responsible for pulling us here, then I am sure you realise what that means?”

“But I couldn’t…teleport. Even if I tried.” She insisted, refusing to acknowledge what she could feel was the truth in his words.

“You wanted us here.” He dipped his head to taste her lips again, making her weak at the knees. A decidedly cocky note crept into his voice when he continued “At least I can rest in the knowledge that you want me as much as I want you. So much so that you would cross through the worlds to get closer to our bed.”

Despite the implications of what she had apparently done, those words gave her pause. Heat rushed to her cheeks and her eyes glittered, a smile dancing on her lips. “Our bed?”

“Of course.”

“I like the sound of that.” And she did. Warmth crept through her and she sank into Hades’ arms, resting her head against his chest.

“Good. I like saying it.” His heartbeat was steady, grounding her, and she sighed contentedly when he stroked her hair. He whispered certainly “If you are mine and I am yours, then everything that was once mine is ours. Especially this room.”

Kali allowed herself to bask in him. She still couldn’t quite fathom it. The sense of Rightness she felt in his arms. Several moments passed before she reluctantly asked “How did I…?”

“Later.” He insisted gently, kissing the top of her head. “You ought to rest and eat something. We can go back to Camelot, and I’ll pick up dinner. Then we can talk?”

He kissed her, his lips lingering longer than necessary. Kali shivered at his touch, but she could feel her energy slipping away. “I feel…drained.”

“Sun-stepping will do that to you. Especially between worlds.” He laughed, but the look in his eyes was akin to reverence. “Honestly, I am surprised that you can even stand.”

She narrowed her eyes slightly, guessing “But not surprised that it happened?”

“I suspected it might happen eventually, as you grew stronger.” He admitted with a shrug. “But not yet.”

“What else did you think I might be able to do?” She asked, allowing a teasing smile to touch her lips as she met his eyes.

“Not yet, wildfire.” He murmured quietly, but the glint in his eyes didn’t match his words. Kali giggled despite the heat stealing through her at the promise in those vibrant sapphires. He leant back against the wall, bracing himself, and insisted “You need to eat, and I need to cool down before I forget that I am a gentleman.”

Kali couldn’t help herself when she noticed the tension in his shoulders. She knew he was using the wall to ground himself. She loved that he wanted her so, despite her exhaustion, she bit her lip and took a step closer, murmuring “You weren’t very gentle last night.”

His gaze sharpened into something almost predatory, and he stiffened, locking his muscles in place. But his grin was practically feral when he replied “And you weren’t complaining.”

“I’m still not.” She smiled, biting at her bottom lip. Despite the teasing quality of her voice, she sounded weary. After a moment, she sighed “I’m dizzy.”

Hades held his hand out to her. “Come here. I need to feel you in my arms anyway.” He gathered her close to his heart, as if she were the most precious thing in the world, and held her with a long sigh.

With a familiar tug, the shadows pooled around them and Kali found that they were back in her rooms in Camelot. Hades placed her down on the sofa, lingering for a moment to kiss her, before disappearing. Kali must have drifted off because it felt like a heartbeat before he was back with his arms around her. A glance over to the kitchenette told her the food was there waiting for them, and her stomach grumbled its approval.

She reluctantly stood up and kicked off her boots. Before she approached the food, she hesitated. Glancing anxiously at her bedroom door, Kali turned back to Hades and murmured “Could we sit in there for a bit?”

“Are you certain?” He asked, keeping his voice neutral. He knew she had been sleeping in the living room ever since the spider incident.

“I can’t stay out here forever. And I feel safe with you.” She sounded like she was convincing herself, but her voice was strong. She met his eyes, nodding firmly. “I want to try.”

The first few steps were difficult, and she faltered at the door handle. But with Hades’ hand reassuringly placed at the small of her back, they entered together. After a few short moments, they were sat on the bed with the pizza boxes. Kali’s legs were firmly kept within the confines of the bed, but there was no other sign of tension in her.

“This feels so normal.” She admitted, her eyes bright. Sitting and laughing together, cuddling close, it was more than she had ever dreamt she could have.

He chuckled softly and sighed “You have to be the only woman in the world with a God wrapped around her little finger, without a care for his power.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.” She blushed, remembering the previous evening, but managed to keep her voice even enough to continue. “It’s a part of you, and I won’t pretend that I don’t care for it. But…you know it’s not the Lord of the Underworld I want. It’s you.”

“I know.” His smile changed from his frequently smug grin to something softer. “I did not realise that I wanted to be treated the same as any other man until you showed me.”

Kali wrapped her arms around him, leaning close to whisper “I wouldn’t say any other man…”

“Good answer.” His grin returned and he kissed her cheek, snaking an arm around her waist to hold her against him. They ate mostly in silence, curled up together, until Kali suddenly said “Ask me a question. Anything.”

He laughed quietly but Kali wondered if he sounded almost bitter when he said “Honesty is easy for you, isn’t it.”

“No.” She caught herself and thought for a moment. “Well…maybe.” She struggled for a few more seconds as she considered whether that was true. Was it easy for her? Eventually, she decided “It’s not easy to offer to answer whatever you might think to ask. It terrifies me, to be honest. But I want you to see me. And I want you to know that it’s safe for you to do the same. So…no, it isn’t easy. But it is simple.”

He watched her, holding her steady gaze, for a long while. His startling blue eyes were shadowed, and his power seemed to curl around him. As Kali started to wonder if she had upset him, he said “Marshmallows. Good or bad?”

A surprised laugh tore itself from her throat before she knew what was happening. That was the question he went for? She pondered for all of two seconds before deciding “Good, but only the mini ones and only in hot chocolate.” She laughed again, oblivious to the way Hades’ breath caught in his throat as he watched her eyes glitter with amusement. “Tell me something.”

“Anything?” A heartbeat, before “I have never seen a movie.”

Kali’s eyes went wide, an exaggerated expression of shock only betrayed by her still gleaming eyes. “Never?”

“Never.” He grinned wolfishly and leant forward to kiss her; he couldn’t restrain himself from touching her anymore. When they parted, her smile was smaller, but her eyes were still alight with joy. He was so entranced by the sight, the knowledge that he did that to her, that he barely heard her reply “You’re not missing much. I’m betting your everyday is more exciting than most films I’ve seen.”

“Your turn, my love.” He considered for a moment and then said, “Tell me something small that you lie about.”

Immediately, she blushed. There weren’t that many things that she lied about, but most of them were silly. Even so, she thought about it and mumbled “I pretend to like wine because it makes me seem more sophisticated and I think it makes me look more mature.” She looked down at the glass she had barely touched and stammered “But this one is nice.”

“But you’d still prefer a hot chocolate.”

“Or juice?” She hung her head, wanting the ground to swallow her up. “Gods, I sound like a child.”

“Just me, love.” He reminded her, kissing her softly. She giggled as he waved a hand theatrically at her glass, replacing the dark red liquid with a bright orange one. Her laughter faded to quiet contentment when he added “And trust me when I say that nothing about you seems childish to me.”

To distract herself, and ignore her blush, she continued the game. “What’s your favourite food?”

His arrogant smile was enough to show her that he had noticed the slight wobble in her voice, but he didn’t comment. Instead he replied “Food isn’t really a necessity, but I am partial to a good steak. Otherwise…I enjoy blueberries.”

“Blueberries? Good to know.” Her blush had subsided again, and she couldn’t contain her laughter. “I prefer strawberries, but blueberry muffins are the best.”

He put his arm around her and rolled his eyes when she continued to giggle. “My turn?” His smile faltered and gave way to a pensive frown. “Do you believe in second chances?”

“Absolutely. Sometimes even third and fourth ones.” She didn’t hesitate, and her tone left little room for argument when she added quietly, “No one deserves to keep punishing themselves for their mistakes forever. Do you? Believe in second chances, I mean.”

He did not meet her eyes, but he replied evenly. “I would like to.”

Kali didn’t need to feel his conflicting emotions to know there was more in those words than he was willing to say. Instead of pushing, she leant against him and said, “If you could steal any of the gods’ powers for a day, whose would you take?”

“Zeus’.” He replied, with absolute certainty. “Not because I’m interested in what he can do; just to see the panic on his face while he scrambles around like a mortal.”

She laughed, nearly doubling over. “You answered too quickly!” She exclaimed, barely getting the words out through the giggles. “You’ve definitely thought about that before.”

He felt his laugh bubble up his throat and escape before he could try to school his expression. He touched her face, chuckling along with her, and sighed “There has not been this much joy in my life since…as long as I can remember. I didn’t think I knew how to laugh like this.” He could feel her heart was full to bursting, but he cut her off before she could respond “I suppose you would want Ares’ so that you could teach him a lesson?”

“I don’t know, if I could then I’d probably lean more towards Demeter’s magic.” She hastily wiped a tear from the corner of her eye before it could betray her. A few deep breaths later, and she managed to elaborate “Believe it or not, I really don’t like fighting.”

“No? You always seem enthusiastic in the arena.” He remembered the way she fought with Achilles, and the fierce passion she brought to everything she did. ‘Enthusiastic’ didn’t quite cover the aura she projected in the heat of combat.

Another silence followed while Kali battled to make a coherent sentence from her jumbled thoughts. But Hades was patient, and she finally managed to mutter “Ares said once that my siblings are always healers and…I wouldn’t admit it to him, but I can see why. I want to protect myself…I’m scared of being caught short and I never want to feel powerless. Not again. But I’d much rather be helping people than hurting them.”

Kali took a breath to steady herself and gather her thoughts, adding “I don’t really see the necessity for such senseless violence. If everyone just took a step back and decided to stop hurting their fellow man, no one would need to fight.” Another moment passed in silence and she admitted “At first, training was a good way of venting. I liked the challenge and the sense of achievement. I liked having clear cut goals. I still do. But violence breeds violence.”

Hades waited to make sure she was finished before he gently prompted “And you are worried what it says about you if you find it fun.”

She just nodded; that was a truth that she was afraid to admit out loud. Hades touched her chin with a finger and lifted her face to his. Just before he kissed her, he whispered “You are like wildfire when you fight. And it is glorious. There is no shame in that.”

“But…I don’t want to hurt people.” She bit her lip, her uncertainty clear. This was something that had been in the back of her mind for longer than she wanted to admit.

Hades moved to look at her, his hand brushing the hair from her face and curling it around his fingers. “When you fight, what do you think about?”

“I don’t really know. Staying on my feet, mostly.” She mumbled, not quite looking him in the eye.

“That is survival, not violence.” His hand moved to her cheek, steadying her. “Enjoying combat and the challenges involved cannot change your nature. The way I see it, there is no reason you can’t heal people and still defend yourself and others.”

Her eyes were bright, hopeful, and she whispered, “You really think so?”

“I do.” He smiled certainly and then chuckled to himself, admitting “You are so full of compassion. I can’t even imagine you walking away from an enemy you had defeated without trying to help them up.”

His faith in her filled her heart to bursting. Shoving away a couple more tears that had dared to streak down her cheeks, she said “You know, ever since you told me about the other realms, I’ve been thinking…I really can’t wait to see the worlds with you.” She was trying to force the subject onto brighter things, but that didn’t make her statement any less true. “Hades…which is your favourite?”

He didn’t need to think about his answer. “Of all the realms…would it surprise you if I told you The Underworld is my favourite? It is less refined than Olympus, perhaps, but it has its charms. I’ll show you soon. This weekend, if you’d like?” He couldn’t wait to share his world with her, but he managed to keep his tone calm and even.

The way her face lit up before she kissed him again was enough of an answer for him. He twisted her hair around his fingers, pulling her close. With Kali sharing his mind, he knew that there was no need to say anything. They were one mind, one heart. Kali’s hands fluttered to the collar of his shirt and her lips were urgent on his. They both knew he couldn’t deny her when he needed her closeness as much as she did.

When the evening eventually came to a close, it ended as Kali hoped it always would: in Hades’ arms.

___

Chapter Thirty Four

Kali woke with a start to find herself on a hard, stone floor. Sweat still beaded her forehead and the echoes of nightmares twisted her thoughts. She was panting, like she had run a marathon, and her head was full of cotton wool. It took her a while to push herself up off the floor; she was weary, and her limbs were sluggish. All that remained of her dream was a distant rush of wings in the back of her mind.

Shivering, Kali stumbled slightly on the flagstones and tried to get her bearings. She must still be dreaming, she thought to herself; she had never seen these hallways before. A flutter of a banner at the other end of the corridor gave her pause. White pillars and archways of marbled stone lined the length of the hallways. Something about this place…maybe she’d had this dream before?

Glancing down at herself, Kali realised she was wearing a pale gold silk dress. She knew it was silk from the way it shimmered in the flickering firelight, and the texture against her skin. Strange; she was usually limited to sight and sound in her dreams.

Her hair was so long, long enough to sit on, and it was fastened in several places with gold clips of various designs. A bracelet adorned her right wrist, similar in design to her own charm bracelet. She brushed the lion engraving curiously.

That made sense if she was dreaming, she knew, to have her bracelet. But this still felt different. An unsettling chill crept over her as she was pulled out of her reverie by intangible whispering. Her eyes were drawn back towards the banner waving ahead of her, and she took a tentative step. Her bare feet made no sound against the cold stone floor. It was only then that she noticed that there was no noise at all in this place, but for those unnerving whispers. A breeze washed over her and drew her attention back to the place the banner had been. Now, a woman stood there instead.

At least, Kali thought it was a woman. The figure was clothed in elegant white robes with gold trim, but they were hunched over, and Kali couldn’t see their face. Even so, she knew this person. Knew them from the very core of her being. Her mind was empty, but her body was striding towards the robed figure and her mouth moved to call out a name she had never heard, and yet recognised. As she struggled with herself, she managed to force her legs to stop moving and the figure stilled. The hallway went dark. The clean white stone turned grey and grimy, crumbling. The gentle breeze became a harsh, roaring wind. The robes were tattered and any sign of what colour they had once been was faded away. But the woman still stood, waiting for her.

Kali backed herself against a pillar to try to resist the wind tearing at her hair and clothes. Looking at herself again, she seemed to be back to normal. She was relieved; her jeans were more aerodynamic than the flowing dress would be. Hunkering down, she did her best to assess her surroundings, but it was hard to see with her eyes streaming against the onslaught.

The woman, standing straighter, extended her hand and beckoned Kali closer. Fear choked her for a moment and, if anything, Kali wanted to flee in the other direction. Something deep inside her begged her to retreat. But Kali was tired of being afraid. And it was only a dream. Her fears couldn’t hurt her there. And it was more likely that this was something she needed to confront. To work through. So she set her jaw and took her first tentative step towards the woman.

The wind picked up and Kali thought for one terrifying moment that her feet were going to lift off the shattered walkway. She didn’t know what this place was, but something terrible had happened here. And it must have been abandoned for a long time. Dead trees littered the horizon and the land was barren. She couldn’t see much with her hair wrapping itself around her face with each new blast of wind, but she didn’t need to see. She just needed to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward. The wind grew in force, a howling beast. Yet, something in the sound was sad to her; the wind was mourning.

As soon as the thought hit her, her fear melted away in favour of compassion. The wind eased. She straightened her back and closed her eyes, breathing slowly. The wind still whipped around her, but she willed herself to be calm. To stop fighting the currents. Sure enough, in mere moments, the wind was but a whisper. Welcome back, it seemed to say.

When Kali opened her eyes, the gentle smile fell off her face with a startled cry when she saw the robed figure in front of her. She hadn’t even heard the figure move or felt its presence. Before Kali could get her bearings, the figure sank into a deep bow, its head nearly touching the ground, and croaked “My Lady. You have grown.” The hood fell back as the figure stood, revealing a creature Kali could only describe as a hag. “It is time.”

“Why am I here?” Kali stammered, trying and failing to keep her voice even as panic set in again.

A humourless laugh. “The threads of fate are not so easily unwoven, my dear. You of all people should know that.”

“I don’t understand.” Kali was shaking now. Everything the hag said sent waves of fear coursing through her, despite her best attempts to stay calm. She glanced around her at the dead wastes and swallowed the lump in her throat. “What is this place?”

“This is nowhere.” The creature dismissed her question with a wave of a crooked hand.

Kali frowned and focused on the hag again. Leathery skin pulled taut, empty white eyes, withered hands. Scattered patches of thin hair. She didn’t feel like the creature was evil or cruel, regardless of appearances. But something about this place, this person, terrified her beyond reason. She knew that she had never seen this creature before, nor seen any creature quite like her, so why was she afraid? And why was it that something felt so familiar about her? Despite the chill in her bones, Kali grit her teeth and asked, “Do I know you?”

She was met with a shrill cackle, harsh and cold in the empty wastes around them. The crone made no attempt to answer Kali’s question. Instead, she rasped “The time comes for the queen’s return, from quaking seas and skies that burn. In the darkness, light shines through and time, once still, will rise anew.”

The words echoed around Kali and rippled through her. Something inside her seemed to answer the call and her blood boiled. White hot pain seared through her and Kali fell to her knees and choked “What did you do?”

Silence met her, and she screamed as the fire inside her spread through every nerve in her body. It was like something was trying to claw its way out of her, bursting through her veins. She writhed and looked up to see empty eyes staring back at her. “What…did you do?” She begged.

“The answers you seek lay within.” This time, the creature’s eyes were almost pitying. They were the last thing Kali saw before the world around her went blissfully dark.

* * *

Hades regretted summoning Apollo, even before he had finished sounding the first letter of his name. Kali would not thank him for it. But, when another tremor rocketed through her, he knew he had little choice. She was writhing and twisting in his arms, her body feverish and her eyes rapid beneath their lids.

The whirlwind of fire that blasted out of her had destroyed most of the room and torn him from sleep. He had extinguished the flames at first, but another wave exploded out of her when she screamed. He knew she would mourn the loss of her things when she woke. Making sure she survived long enough was his main priority.

Agonizing seconds passed with no response, and Hades wasn’t sure that Apollo would answer. For a heartbeat, Hades considered Commanding the god to his side. It was as easy as breathing for him to enforce his authority over the younger gods. He used it so rarely that he was sure they had forgotten. Forgotten the root of his powers. He had promised himself not to give in to that side of himself, the whisper that pulled him constantly towards the Old Ways he tried to forget.

Before he could begin to form a decision, there was a tentative knock on the door. Apollo could feel nothing inside the room, the blanket of Hades’ darkness so absolute and consuming that not even a glimmer of Kali’s outbursts had leaked out. With a fraction of a glance towards the knock, Hades flung the door open. The God of Light was dragged through the darkness towards them.

“What did you do!” Apollo roared, fixing burning eyes on the man holding his daughter.

A deafening silence settled over them as a dark fury radiated from Hades. Apollo cowered visibly and bowed his head. “My apologies, my Lord.”

“Help her.”

Apollo bowed his head and the embers flickering in his eyes evened out into a soft, steady glow. With a deep breath, Apollo held his hand over Kali’s face and a frown creased his forehead. “She is…” A wreath of fire surrounded them, interrupting him, but Apollo just tilted his head slightly to the side and continued “Too strong.”

The fire continued to rage around them, despite all of Hades’ attempts to stifle it. Focusing on dampening the power pouring out of Kali’s unconscious body, he grunted “Can you help her?”

“Yes but…this shouldn’t be happening.” He was still calculating, detached, barely seeing his daughter through the puzzle in front of him. “She shouldn’t have this much power.”

“Apollo, concealing both of your powers will not be easy for long.” Hades snapped, bringing him back to the urgency of the situation. Kali wasn’t immortal. This could quite literally rip her apart if they didn’t move quickly. Even the God of Death couldn’t bring her back from that. “Do what you have to do. We will figure out the rest later.”

He blinked, startled for a moment, and nodded deeply. “Of course.”

Without another word, Hades fused his consciousness to Kali’s. In doing so, he anchored her to him and shielded her from as much of the roaring energy threatening to consume her as he could. Apollo was right; she shouldn’t have this much power. A firestorm was cascading through her and burning her up from the inside out. Her body wasn’t made to contain such a thing.

He was vaguely aware of Apollo’s energy surrounding her and strengthening her but a voice inside him whispered that it would not be enough. At this rate, she would go mad from the intensity of the pain searing every inch of her. Putting his faith in Apollo, in Kali’s father, he wrapped her mind in a blanket of soothing darkness before it could snap. And there he stayed, in the inky blackness he had always known, with the woman he loved in his arms.

___

Chapter Thirty Five

Waking up had never been much of a problem for Kali. As soon as the slightest hint of sunlight had peeked through her curtains, she was awake and ready to face the day. But there was no sunlight here. She was exhausted, and the thick darkness that cloaked her was her only balm from a world of fire. Something told her that she was safe there, in her blanket of night.

But there was a prickling sensation at the edge of her awareness. Heat, and pain, and an ancient unfathomable rage. Just outside of her consciousness, she felt it screaming. Burning. It roused her and called to her. She was afraid but…there was a compulsion in the call that she couldn’t ignore. Her mind rushed forward to meet it and a voice hummed and resonated inside of her. A voice that seemed to say, “Welcome home.”

Kali flinched and opened her eyes blearily. She felt arms around her and a voice she knew muttered “She’s awake.”

Calm washed over her as Hades said, “Leave us.” Of course, it was his arms she could feel around her.

“I will return later.” A stubborn edge that Kali knew well laced the words, but she turned away from the voice and clasped Hades’ hands.

“Hades.” She mumbled, trying to sit up but struggling to fully wake. Panic set in; this was not something she often experienced. Her mind was laden with fog that she couldn’t shift. Her throat felt thick, but she managed to mumble “What’s going on?”

He brought her hand to his lips and whispered “Easy, my love. You’ve had quite the ordeal today.”

She found enough energy to move her head enough to look around and saw that she was lying on the sofa of her living room, with her head resting in Hades’ lap. The fog was lifting, and she caught a distinct smell of charcoal in the air. IT was one of her favourite scents, but something about it made her sick. Something was wrong. Another glance around the room showed her the blackened edges of her bedroom doorframe. Her voice was still hoarse and her words were choked. “What’s going on?”

Even as he knew that she wouldn’t appreciate him sugar-coating the truth, Hades worried that she wouldn’t be able to handle too much all at once. This uncertainty wasn’t familiar to him and Kali sensed his hesitation and braced herself. Feeling that, Hades nodded to steady them both. “Your powers…got away from you last night. And they nearly consumed you.”

“Got away from me?” She repeated his words slowly, unease gripping her, and forced herself to sit up. Her movements were still sluggish, but she had a little more control with each passing minute. Without another word, Hades helped her stand and they walked together towards the bedroom.

Kali froze when she tentatively pushed what was left of the door inward. It was blackened and cracked, barely upright on its warped hinges. The smell she had been desperately trying to ignore wafted out at her and she nearly gagged. But all the energy left her body again when she saw the devastation that was once her room.

Her throat was thick, and she felt nausea sweep through her. She managed to keep the contents of her stomach where they were, but the sick feeling wouldn’t abate. Tears blurred her vision as her eyes fell on the pile of ash that had been her wardrobe. But encompassing all of this was a tinge of trepidation. “I did this?”

“You did.” Hades’ voice was a gentle rumble against her back. Through their bond, she could feel his relief at her recovery but also a kind of admiration.

She blinked away tears and glanced back at him over her shoulder to ground herself. “How was it?”

“Magnificent.” He whispered reverently, and Kali felt warmth returning to her. Seemingly as an afterthought, he casually added, “Though I would have preferred if the intensity behind it hadn’t nearly killed you.” His teasing smile faded, and his eyes were harder when he sighed, “Kali, something tore this out of you. What’s the last thing you remember?”

“I don’t know…” Kali hated how her voice shook. She clenched her jaw and forced herself to take a deep breath. She would not look at the remains of the room around her. “I was with Heracles and Achilles, getting knocked on my arse. Then we had dinner…” She shook herself. Focus. “The last thing I remember was falling asleep in your arms and…dreaming.”

“Dreaming?”

She shook the niggling feeling out of her mind and forced a laugh. “That shouldn’t be so strange, should it?”

“Close your eyes and clear your mind.” Hades commanded, softly. When he could sense that she had done so, he continued in an even voice. “Give me the most honest answer you can. If you’re unsure, tell me. Ivory or Horn?”

“Neither.” She replied immediately.

Hades frowned “Are you sure?”

“No? Well…I think so?” Kali had been certain when she answered but she didn’t even know what he was asking. Her lip trembled with doubt.

“Hey, easy. It’s okay.” He gathered her in his arms and kissed her forehead. “We don’t have to do this now.”

She nodded mutely and buried her face in his chest, shivering. More tears sprung to her eyes and she didn’t have the energy to fight them this time. She whimpered “Did anything make it out?”

“You did.” The tremor in his voice made her realise how worried he had been. Kali started and met his solemn gaze. The tears glistening in her eyes squeezed his heart, but he did his best to mask his expression. He needed to be there for her.

Kali was still shaking but she wrapped her arms around Hades’ neck and pulled him close to her, hugging him tightly. He stiffened for a heartbeat before relaxing into her arms and burying his face in her neck. She ran her hands through his hair and whispered “I’m not going anywhere. I promise. I’m yours and I will be right here with you. Now, and forever.”

That was a promise she surely couldn’t keep. But she made it anyway. And she made it with every intention of finding a way. In a thousand years, a thousand lifetimes, she knew she would still love him with every fibre of her being. She knew it in her soul. And she opened that part of herself to him so that he would feel her certainty. So that he would know he would never lose her.

He relaxed slightly in her arms, releasing the tension she hadn’t realised he’d been holding, and he took her hand. Moving back slightly from the embrace, he kissed her and rested his forehead on hers. They stayed like that for a long time before he murmured “Are you ready?”

“No.” She mumbled. “But I can’t keep putting it off, can I?”

“Is that all I am? A distraction?” He jested with mock outrage and a sardonic smile lifted one side of his mouth.

She nodded, a hoarse giggle escaping her. “And a very diverting one, at that.”

Hades didn’t miss the way her voice shook, and he squeezed her hand. Reassured by his presence, she took a long, hard breath, and turned back to the room.

The devastation around her nearly overwhelmed her again but…she had done this? She knew that she had barely started to tap into her more unique abilities. But she had honestly thought that there couldn’t be much more than she had already done. Fire was dangerous enough. She shied away from the thought that she could do damage on this kind of scale.

“So much for Apollo’s kids being healers…” She muttered. But her voice was edged not in bitterness, but awe. That kind of power, destructive though it was…that was inside her? She was capable of that? Her body still stung and burned slightly, and she scratched absent-mindedly at her arm; a prickling pain refused to subside. The motion caught Hades attention and he frowned slightly, concerned.

Kali awkwardly pulled the shoulder of her top down to humour him; he had told her that Apollo had healed a lot of damage already. But what they saw was not what they had expected. At the top of her right arm, just below the shoulder, was a strange circular symbol. Kali couldn’t make it out, but it looked like it had been carved into her skin and a golden glow emanated from it. From her. Like the cracks in her skin revealed the light within.

Curiosity flickered over Hades’ face, but Kali was relieved to see that he didn’t appear to be concerned. Her hand wandered to her left ear, just over her pulse, where a similar burning feeling persisted. Hades’ eyes followed. He touched Kali’s wrist and pulled her hand away, revealing another, smaller, mark that had appeared.

Looking in the mirror Hades handed her, Kali valiantly stated, “Well, it is kind of cute. Just the sort of tattoo I’d get, if I were that way inclined.”

“I don’t recognise this one.” He brushed his thumb over the mark on her neck, sending a shock of electricity through her, before continuing “But the other one looks like a map.”

“A map?” Deep breaths. Kali thought, rubbing her forehead to try to calm her reeling mind. Ignore the fact that none of this makes any sense. Unless I’m dreaming, and I’m sure I’m not, this is happening. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t possible! She ground her hand into her forehead once more to snap herself out of it and croaked “Okay…so how and why would I have something like that on my arm?”

“That is a very good question. And one that I cannot answer.” He looked truly baffled, and Kali was as amused as she was afraid. Her turmoil was easy to sense, so Hades lifted her into his arms and said “But it is a question for another time. For now, we need to get you some new clothes.”

“New clothes?” Her voice shook. Her things were gone. “Do I need to talk to Chiron for more uniform?”

He nodded solemnly, his hands dancing in circles at her back to keep her grounded, in the moment. “Yes. And while you’re at it, I’d suggest requesting a day off to go shopping to replace your things.”

Kali bit her lip, mumbling “How long was I out?”

“It’s Saturday.” He glanced out the window at the moon at its peak and added, “Just about.”

“I should apologise to everyone for missing my classes…” She hung her head and pressed her hands to her face to muffle her sobs. “Why can’t I stop crying?”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You feel like you have lost almost everything tying you to a life you have always known.” His voice washed over her, and his strong arms steadied her. “But that life is still there, Kali. The memories and feelings attached to the objects still reside within you. You didn’t lose them.”

“You’re right.” She said, in a small voice. But that doesn’t make this any easier.

I know, my love. The words were a caress in her mind, and Kali buried her face in his chest. Breathing him in, she felt her sobs begin to subside and her breaths started coming easier. Eventually, she was composed enough to turn back to the room. Her jaw was set, and she was determined to get through. It took a while, and more than once she felt her world shattering when she would find the remains of yet another piece of her life that she couldn’t get back. The loss of her music, which had been filled with photos, was especially difficult to accept. But Hades stayed at her back; a supportive shadow.

When they were finished, Hades told her that he would arrange to replace the furniture. But he knew that Kali would want to be in control of at least something. That was why he had suggested that she get her new clothes herself. Money was no issue, and it would be best if she could build something of her own out of the ashes. There were still a few hours until sunrise, so Hades brought Kali to their room in the Underworld to rest and recover. Kali was certain that sleep wouldn’t come easily after her nightmares had nearly destroyed her. But before she knew it, she was waking up in Hades’ arms feeling warm and safe.

A free day ahead of her, and the soot finally washed from her hair, Kali could face the morning with a little more optimism. What was done was done. Everything happened for a reason. She was just going to have to make sure that she made some good from this. Her clothes, at least, were old and didn’t even fit her that well anymore. She could do with replacing them and finding a style that matched her a little better.

“That smile suits you.” Hades whispered in her ear, wrapping his arms around her waist.

“Wallowing was getting boring.” She insisted, trying to reinforce her intentions to keep moving forward. She allowed herself a moment to lean back into his embrace and sighed contentedly. But if they didn’t go soon, she would lose her resolve. And she was far too ready to sink back under the blankets and never resurface.

Feeling her nerve teetering, Hades took her hand in his and murmured “Are you ready to go?”

A nod was about all that she could manage as her stomach twisted painfully, but Hades whisked them back to her room on a whisper. Looking around her, Kali could see no sign of the fire at all. The bed was new, and a similar design, and all the furniture had been replaced. They were all slightly closer to Hades’ tastes than the original units. If Kali hadn’t been so overwhelmed, she would have laughed. As it was, another nod was all she could manage.

“A blank canvas.” Hades whispered, still holding her. She turned in his arms and kissed him, more tears forming in her eyes. He brushed them away with his thumb and said “I’ll wait for you here. Take your time.”

That earned him a small smile, but Kali muttered “There are only so many hours in the day, Hades.”

He just smiled and shrugged, and Kali managed to stride purposely from her room and all the way to Chiron’s office before she faltered. Deep breaths, she reminded herself. You can do this.

But her hand hovered over the door for what felt like hours before someone cleared their throat behind her. Kali’s heart plummeted as she turned to see Chiron standing patiently at the end of the hall. He was smiling, but those piercing eyes narrowed, and she knew he was wondering why she was so nervous. “Would you care to take a walk?”

“Of course.” She stammered. “That would be nice.” Nice? She scowled at how stupid she sounded, but she followed behind Chiron as he made his way back out into the open air. They walked in silence and Kali wondered for a moment why he would even have an indoor office. Sure, the halls were more than large enough to accommodate him, but he didn’t strike her as being comfortable cooped up.

“Paperwork.” The words broke Kali’s pondering and she looked at him blankly.

Certain that she must have misheard, she said “Pardon?”

“You were wondering why I’d have an office inside the building, were you not?” He glanced at her surprised face with a knowing smile. “When Zeus was younger, he would cause gusts and storms whenever I was working. It became inconvenient to constantly rewrite important documents. Any official business, I decided to relocate into a more secure area.”

She frowned and, before she could stop herself, she asked “Can’t he still do that inside your office though?”

“Yes.” He sighed wearily, telling Kali just how frequently he had done just that. Kali giggled and caught herself, averting her gaze. This time, Chiron’s smile reached his eyes and he stated, “I am glad to see that your new position has not changed you, Kali.”

Kali started slightly; she hadn’t seen it that way. After a moment under Chiron’s watchful gaze, she admitted as such, and added “I know it may sound strange, but I don’t think of him as the Lord of the Underworld. If I did, I would probably go crazy wondering why he’d even look at someone so far out of his league.”

“Which, I suspect, is why you caught his eye.” A frown creased between his eyes. Chiron’s face fell back into its polite mask and he waved a hand, saying “But enough of such things. You wished to speak with me?”

The difficult part. Kali gulped visibly and bowed her head. “Yes…I…would like to beg a favour, if I may.”

“Speak…” His tone gave nothing away, but Kali was certain he was suspicious.

“I had an accident in my room…with my fire.” She added, hastily. “I’ve lost…everything.” She averted her gaze and focused on her breathing again to push down the tears, frustrated. “I was hoping that I could have replacement uniform.”

She had expected him to be angry, or to lecture her, but his eyes were kind when he looked down at her. He seemed to consider for a moment, waiting for her to continue, and prompted “And you were hoping that you could be allowed to leave, for a time, to replace what was destroyed?”

“Well…yes.” She hung her head and mumbled “I know that this is my own fault, but I swear I’ll be more careful. I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.” She hoped.

“It explains, at least, why you are walking about bold as brass in one of Hades’ shirts.” He watched her bite her lip and sighed, rubbing his neck. Zeus wouldn’t be happy if he found out, but Chiron always had a weakness for dedicated students. Especially when they reminded him of Achilles, as Kali did. It was no easy thing to admit to your mistakes and ask for help. “Very well. I will have your new items sent to your room. You may leave today, provided you are back in time for your classes in the morning. And I would suggest you discuss your abilities with your father before you experiment on your own again.”

“Thank you, Chiron.” Kali had been certain he would reprimand her and refuse to let her leave. She was uncomfortable with the lie, though it wasn’t that far from the truth, and her heart was pounding. But she beamed at him and the tight knot of anxiety in her chest eased again.

With a quick bow, Kali left Chiron and headed to the arena. She had considered putting it off until she got back, considering how little time she had, but the last thing she wanted to do was insult the gods. Hades had once said to her to show respect, no matter how friendly they seemed. He would likely be the only exception, now that she wasn’t “stringing along” Ares or Hermes.

Glancing up at the sky, Kali could see that it was only about eight o’clock. On a Sunday, shops wouldn’t open for a while anyway. In any case, she needed to apologise to Ares, Demeter, and Hephaestus for missing their classes on Saturday. She scratched nervously at her neck and pulled her hair back over her left shoulder to conceal the mark. Ares would notice it if she wasn’t careful, she was sure, and she didn’t want questions she couldn’t answer.

___

Chapter Thirty Six

Ares was, as expected, training in the Colosseum. Kali couldn’t remember ever seeing him anywhere else. But she had never seen him train on his own before. He was always teaching students, or watching the demigods practice. That morning, he was alone, and he was either ignoring her or hadn’t noticed her arrival. Kali knew that she shouldn’t have been surprised by the strength in his swings, or the ease with which he moved his enormous sword, but she was. Impressed would have been the more accurate word.

“Keep staring at me like that, and I might decide to make something of it.” Kali started at his sudden words. That might have made her blush once, but his voice was lacking its usual warmth. She hadn’t even realised it was normally there until it was gone. He turned to her with disinterest and raised an eyebrow. “Why are you here?”

“I came to apologise.” She mumbled.

He turned away from her again and stated “There is no need. I should have known that your newfound determination would ebb. It was foolish of me to believe you wanted to get stronger.”

Her shiver had nothing to do with the chill in the winter air. His empty tone was laced with a rage that she had never heard before. He had a bad temper; she had been on the receiving end of it before. But this was different. She should be angry at his assumption, but she hung her head; she knew that she had let him down. Tears burned in her eyes. She was sick of feeling fragile and useless. And she would not let the god of war see how weak she really was.

She turned to leave, her head still low so that her hair would cover her face, but stopped when Ares barked, “Why did you come here?”

Kali did not turn to face him again and she clenched her fists to keep the tremor out of her reply. “I told you…I wanted to apologise. For missing yesterday’s sessions.”

“And your excuse?”

“I…” She surreptitiously wiped her eyes and swallowed the lump in her throat before turning back to him. “It doesn’t matter.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.” He snapped, impatiently. But Kali didn’t miss the way his eyes swept over her, when before he had avoided looking at her directly.

“My fire got away from me a little…that’s all. I’m not quite as fireproof as I thought, apparently. It did a number on me.” She clenched her jaw before adding “And destroyed pretty much everything I own.”

Ares watched her silently for several moments before moving closer. He was close enough to touch her, but he didn’t. He saw her bowed head, and the tears sparkling in her eyes, and he frowned. She glanced up to look at him and he raised a hand to her cheek, stopping just an inch away from her skin. He hesitated there too long and murmured “One more chance, little one.”

“Why?” Kali’s eyes were wide as she looked up at him, and if not for the talisman at her throat he would not have been able to keep from kissing her. As it was, it was a struggle.

“You know why.” And she did. Ares sighed and finally dropped his hand. “Now I’m sure you have better things to do than waste your time with me.”

It would be dangerous to correct him. Kali hated seeing anyone look vulnerable or lost…but anything she said would just encourage him. She wondered for a moment if she really had been stringing him or Hermes along before Hades had admitted his feelings for her. She wouldn’t have known how to effectively reject them anyway, but she wasn’t sure she had ever really tried.

Forcing herself to stay silent, Kali nodded in an attempt at showing respect and hurried away. She had preferred Ares when he had been brash and arrogant. The more of his vulnerabilities he exposed to her, the harder it was to remember all the reasons she had never wanted him. She loved Hades, more than she had even thought possible. But she didn’t know how to handle Ares’ feelings for her. Hermes at least brushed everything off with humour. Ares was so intense, and she didn’t like the idea that she was hurting him.

Kali was so lost in her thoughts that she nearly walked past Demeter’s greenhouses. Catching herself, she knocked tentatively before entering. All the flowers in the greenhouse curved towards her and Demeter matched their motion with a smile. “You have grown stronger.” She said, simply.

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that, my lady.” Kali forced her lips into a polite smile and then bowed her head humbly. “I apologise for missing another class yesterday. I had something of an accident.”

“I assume your fire is under control again?” A stern, motherly frown was on her face.

Kali nodded deeply. “Of course. I wouldn’t dream of endangering your work.”

“Then I shall see you tomorrow afternoon. One of your classmates can give you their notes to catch up, I am sure. And Kali?” The goddess called her back as she turned to leave. Kali waited patiently with the strained smile still fixed in place as Demeter examined her meticulously. Kali stiffened as Demeter’s eyes passed over her neck, but the mark seemed to escape the scrutiny of her earthy green eyes. “There is a box of herbal tea by the entrance for you. It should help with any nightmares you may or may not be having. Brew a cup before bed.”

“Thank you, my lady.” Kali murmured sincerely. Demeter waved a hand to dismiss her and went back to tending the plants around her as Kali retreated. She found the box of tea waiting, as the goddess had said. She took it reverently and threw another look over her shoulder, but Demeter was already hidden somewhere deeper among the plants.

Her last stop was the forge. Even on a Sunday morning, it was a buzzing hub of activity. Kali spotted the god in his usual place, in the furthest corner. It was the hottest area of the forge, and the most out of the way. Even during classes, Hephaestus never looked up or paused his work. He probably hadn’t even noticed who was or wasn’t in the class at all, Kali grumbled to herself. But it was safer to apologise nonetheless.

Sure enough, he didn’t even glance her way when she spoke. He just said, “Who are you?”

“I’m one of your students. In Carl’s class.” She figured that the only ones he might keep track of would be his own children, and she was rewarded with half a glance.

“You’re the one he’s all messed up over. Hades’ girl.” It wasn’t a question, but Kali automatically nodded. Hephaestus turned back to the sheet of metal he was hammering, and she was sure that was a dismissal until he added quietly, “You are burning up. Hotter than my forge.”

She froze, staring at his massive hunched back. He didn’t seem inclined to speak any more and Kali was almost afraid of what he would say if she waited any longer. Instead, she murmured another brief apology and started to back away towards the busier area of the forge. The hammer strikes did not pause, pounding the same steady pulse. But a gravelly voice told her to take the bundle on the workbench.

Kali started, looking back at Hephaestus again. She shuffled forward and reached for the parcel that had appeared with shaky hands. The heat of his corner was starting to get to her, and she wondered absently just how hot it had to be for her to be sweating. Another half glance from him seemed to be appraising her, and she could only guess it was for the same reason. Kali froze in place while he assessed her and only moved again when Hephaestus barked “Leave.”

Relieved, Kali struggled to keep her pace measured until she was back outside. The cold hit her like a bucket of ice and she trembled. Suddenly, a coat wrapped itself around her shoulders and Hermes stepped out from behind her. His usual sly grin was on his face and he winked, pulling a reluctant giggle out of her. “That’s more like it!” He exclaimed. “You looked shaken when you came out of the armoury. Everything alright?”

“What could be wrong?” She lied with a smile.

Hermes raised an eyebrow. “Riiiight. So, I hear you’re going shopping. What happened? Hades a bit over eager and ruined your clothes?”

Kali laughed out loud at that, though part of her was almost disappointed that it wasn’t true. “Something like that.”

“Kali.” His tone was suddenly much more serious, and her smile faltered at the sound. Hermes didn’t do serious. Yet his hazel eyes were clear of mischief, and his playful grin was nowhere to be seen. “If you are going alone, you should be very careful.”

“What’s going on, Hermes?” Kali’s skin prickled with unease; she had never seen Hermes like that.

He seemed to hesitate for a moment before confessing, “Ben. He’s missing.”

Not again. Kali’s eyes widened, and she searched his face for any hint that this might be just another inappropriate joke. But, even without the truth she saw in his eyes, she thought she knew him well enough to be sure that this was something even Hermes wouldn’t laugh about. “What do you mean, missing?”

“My little rebel sneaks out a lot. He hasn’t come back this time.”

She itched to take his hand to comfort him, but she fought the urge. As with Ares, anything she did would just be seen as encouragement, regardless of her choice clearly hanging around her neck. Instead, she offered “Do you want me to look for him?”

“No, love. It’s too dangerous, though I appreciate the sentiment. I want my son safe, but not at your expense.” Hermes replied gently. Her balled fists did not escape his attention, but he didn’t comment. Instead, he continued “Just be on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary, and make sure you come back in one piece. It would be awfully boring here without you. What would I have to wind Hades and Ares up about then?”

“I’m glad you’ve still got your priorities straight.” She threw a teasing smile over her left shoulder and was rewarded with a half-smile. The tension in her shoulders at his unusually serious expression faded somewhat. Kali continued a bit more solemnly, “Thank you for the warning. I’ll be careful.” She bit her lip, a frown creasing her forehead. Worry clawed at her; Ben was her friend. To hear that he had disappeared, and she hadn’t even known?

Her voice shook “I’m sorry to hear about Ben…I really hope that you find him soon.”

“He’s a tough kid. He’ll be fine.” Hermes ran a hand through his hair and glanced at her with a hint of mischief in his eyes. “So…Apollo spilled the beans on that fire of yours. Are those clunky boots the only shoes that got out?”

“My wardrobe was essentially incinerated. Along with everything else.” Irritation flickered across her face, a feeling she preferred to the tears that had been overwhelming her. She grumbled “Why did he tell you?”

Hermes gave her a victorious smirk and raised an eyebrow. “He didn’t. You just did.”

Kali’s eyes widened. She thumped Hermes’ chest lightly with feigned outrage, though as usual she was fighting a smile. “Dick.”

“You love it.” He winked. “Here, a little gift.” He conjured a shoebox with a click and thrust it into her arms.

“Hermes…” She frowned, a warning tone to her voice.

“No strings. No strings.” He held his hands up with a nervous laugh. They were past the fountain by that point and Kali was achingly close to her flat, but she stopped obediently when Hermes leant against another wall. His twinkling eyes fixed on her face and he admitted “Someone once told me that women love shoes and I can’t bear to see those horrible things on you for another minute.”

Kali tried to scowl but she couldn’t quite mask her giggle. “You’re incorrigible.”

“You love it.” He stated again. Another wink, and he pranced away, saying “See you later, trouble.”

A couple of minutes later, Kali was finally back in her room and trying to decide what she should take with her. Hades spotted the armful of gifts she was carrying as soon as she came into the room and buried his face in his hands. “I thought you were just going to apologise.”

Kali giggled, suggesting “I’m really good at sincere apologies…?”

“You have everyone here wrapped around your little finger, you know that?” Apollo scowled from the corner of the room. Kali hadn’t noticed that he was there, and she jumped at his accusing tone. She shrank automatically into Hades’ side; the last time she had seen him hadn’t been pleasant. But she relaxed when he muttered “You’re looking better, at least.”

“I’m assuming I have you to thank for that?” She asked quietly, not quite meeting his eyes.

Ignoring that, Apollo huffed “Show me your arm.”

Kali bristled at his tone, but she did as he said. Apollo’s scowl only deepened. Without another word, he glared at the mark that was visible on her neck and grumbled “I still don’t think it is a good idea to go off on your own.” He seemed to struggle with himself before finally admitting “I don’t know what either of those marks mean. But there is someone that might.”

A long silence followed that comment, until Kali remarked “We’re not all psychic, you know. Are you going to share, or just sit there being cryptic?”

That earned her another glare, but Apollo finally grumbled “When you’re done playing around, shopping, head here.” He handed her what looked like a business card. “This card will reveal the entrance to the club, and allow you access. Don’t lose it.”

“Who am I supposed to be talking to?”

“He’ll find you when you’re inside. Just don’t go in there looking like that; I don’t want you to embarrass me.” Apollo faltered for a moment before placing a recurve bow and a quiver full of arrows on the small table. “Don’t go anywhere without these. The quiver will refill so there will always be twelve in there at a time.”

Apollo hesitated and Kali wanted to ask him if he could help her, but her pride wouldn’t allow it. She was still stung by their last conversation. The serpentine burns had faded to a soft brown, but the echo of pain remained. Apollo glanced at Hades, who had been silent through their exchange, and sighed before leaving the room in silence. Kali wasn’t sure if she was relieved or upset, but Hades’ arms were around her before she could dwell for long.

“Only you would be able to turn an apology into a gift.” He kissed her temple and smiled when she leant back into him. There was a new trunk in the corner of the room which Hades told her was from Chiron. It had all her new uniform inside, and the chest itself was meant to be nigh indestructible. “Apollo wasn’t wrong when he said that you have all the gods wrapped around your finger. I would be willing to bet that seeing you looking vulnerable for the first time since you arrived threw them off guard.”

“I don’t look that bad.” She mumbled, awkwardly averting her gaze to hide the flush on her cheeks.

“Most of the gods are very protective by nature. You’re not very good at lying so I’m sure they would have noticed how shaken you are today.” He kissed her gently and murmured “Am I going to have to be worried about someone stealing you away?”

Her eyes snapped back to his face at that and she turned in his arms to face him fully. “You’re not really worried about that, are you?”

His eyes were shadowed, but he chuckled “I can protect what is mine, Kali.”

“Good.” She placed a lingering kiss on his lips and whispered, “You are the only man I want.”

He dipped his face to hers again in response. But time was getting on and they both knew they didn’t have the luxury of getting distracted. “Either way, I do have a couple of things for you.”

Kali blushed and insisted, “You didn’t have to.”

“I know. I very seldom do anything that I have to do.” He released her and stepped towards the table where she had piled the rest of her things. Hades casually indicated a leather duffle bag and a small pouch on the table, saying “Besides, these are more practical than frivolous.”

Her face was still pink when she mumbled “You’re already paying for everything today anyway. And I really don’t know how to feel about that.”

“I’ve already told you, what’s mine is yours.” His voice sent shivers through Kali’s body.

“It just seems like a very uneven trade, right now.”

“Kali…all the riches in all the worlds do not compare to your smile.” His sincere gaze set her heart racing, a fact that his smug smile proved he knew. He paused to watch her and shrugged. “And, not to brag, but there is nothing you could spend today that would even dent what is on the card I gave you earlier.”

“God of riches. I remember.” She rolled her eyes with a grin. “But I am, unfortunately, limited by how much I can carry today.”

A triumphant smirk spread across his face and he said, “What do you think the bag is for?”

___

Chapter Thirty Seven

It was mid-morning when Kali and Hades appeared in a narrow alleyway, somewhere in London. She had never been all that interested in the different districts and areas, so she hadn’t asked where they were going. All she knew, and all she cared about, was that there were lines and lines of shops to choose from.

Kali suppressed a shiver; a cold, biting wind swept through the alley and she huddled into Hades’ chest. “I think my first stop will be to get a coat.”

The bundle that Hephaestus had given her had included a pair of leather trousers, and a bodice of sorts. Both were apparently armoured and highly resistant to heat, but a note from Aphrodite had explained the design of the items. Apparently, she couldn’t bear seeing any of her students wearing something so unfashionable. That meant that the top was more like a corset, with a matching sleeveless bolero jacket.

Her arms were bare, but for the armguard and archery glove that had remained untouched by the goddess. They were similarly resistant to heat and fire, and they were the most comfortable of their kind that Kali had ever worn. She particularly liked the scaly pattern carved into the leather. But they offered little protection from the cold.

Peeking her head out from their hiding place, Kali saw that frost was clinging to the railings of the gates nearby. And freshly fallen snow lay untouched on several paths. Definitely getting a coat first.

“I wish I could stay.” Hades murmured into her hair.

“Me too.” She admitted, quietly. Shaking herself, she insisted “I’ll be fine. I promise. Besides, you can’t keep skipping these meetings. If they have to send someone to get you again, Zeus might have an aneurism.”

“Are you trying to convince me to go, or to wait?” He chuckled, and Kali laughed with him; he had a point there. But he did need to leave.

Kali forced her niggling worries from her mind and promised, “I’ll call you if I need anything, okay?”

“Have fun, my love.” With that whisper, the shadows drew around him and he faded from her sight.

She slung the duffle bag over her shoulder, still disconcerted by how light it felt. Even though she knew that she had her staff, knives, and bow in there…it could have been empty. Smaller items had been stored in the side pockets but no matter how much she put in, there was still room to spare. Even her staff, which should have been too big end to end to fit in the first place, sat comfortably in the bottom of the bag. It was an amazing item, and Hades had refused to explain how it worked. All that he would say was that she had no excuse not to get everything she needed.

As snow crunched beneath her feet, Kali hoped that the boots Hermes had given her were waterproof. She shuffled her feet to admire them again. More delicate than the combat boots she had been trudging around in, but not so dainty that they couldn’t take some punishment. Kali especially liked the wing design that moulded the leather into a cuff around the top of the boots. She hated to admit it, but Hermes did have good taste.

Looking around her, her eyes were immediately drawn to all the Christmas lights and decorations that she could see. Her ears picked up the faint hum of carols in the street, and jolly, jingling tunes blaring out of the shops she walked past. She hadn’t really thought about Christmas in Camelot. There was the festival for the new year, but it hadn’t even occurred to her that December meant Christmas.

Kali wandered into a few generic clothing shops before deciding that the current fashions were of no interest to her. A-line tops and “petite” baggy jumpers would never sit right over her frame. And the colours were all greys and pastels, and mustard. After only a couple of minutes, she stepped right back out onto the street. Not even the threat of hypothermia would make her buy one of those puffy coats.

The next street Kali came to was much more promising. There was a huge indoor market full of stalls with all sorts of different accessories and trinkets. Beyond that, a bridge over the river would take her to some cafes and clothing shops that she had never heard of. And, she nearly drooled, an alternative footwear outlet. That made up her mind for her and she strode purposely past the market, telling herself that she would get to it later.

The first shop she reached had a long burgundy trench coat in the window. It looked like leather and would nearly reach the floor. Too cumbersome, she tried to convince herself. But she stood gazing at it and she just couldn’t tear herself away. She dreaded to think how much a coat like that would cost. Once, she wouldn’t have even let herself look at it because she could never afford it.

If I have to come down there and physically drag you into that shop, I will. Hades’ voice rippled through her mind, startling her, but that was all the nudge she needed. She laughed and pushed open the door. The displays were crammed with so many different styles and designs. Even just on her way to the coat, which she’d spotted the second she entered the shop, she had picked up a hoodie, two pairs of trousers, and several tops. She had replaced them all as soon as she’d grabbed them, but she knew she’d probably end up going back for them before she was done.

When Kali eventually got to the shoe shop, she was laden with bags. Despite feeling that she wouldn’t be able to spend Hades’ money, she had managed to completely forget her misgivings and his urging. It was actually fun. It had been so long since she had been shopping. She had never been able to relax and just get whatever she wanted before. There had always been so many factors to consider. So many reasons to hold her back. She hadn’t gone crazy, but she wasn’t restricting herself the way she had expected either.

She stopped in a café opposite the shoe shop before going in. Partly to get off her feet for a bit, and partly to transfer the shopping bags into the duffle bag. It was busy in there, so she was confident that no one would really be paying attention to what she was doing. Even if they did, any normal person would explain away something so unusual. Sure enough, no one looked at her strangely or challenged her while she was there.

Sitting alone in the café, Kali marvelled at how free she felt. She had never liked being in a new place on her own before. The thought of getting lost, or having to interact with people she didn’t know, always used to give her panic attacks. The discomfort wasn’t gone, but it didn’t cripple her the way it used to. She closed her eyes and reached out to Hades with a soft caress and smiled when he returned it. Maybe it was because she was never really alone anymore.

Finally, finally, she went into the shoe shop with just her too-light duffle bag over her shoulder. She had never considered herself girly, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t like shoes. She took longer in that shop than in the rest of them combined, trying to decide on which boots to get. Eventually, she bought a pair of vegan leather ankle boots with chrome heels. They were too high to be comfortable, but she convinced herself that she would be able to run in them if she had to. Besides, she couldn’t wear flats to a club.

With that in mind, she went looking for a jewellery shop. A glance up at the sky told her that she had been wandering around for almost four hours. Embarrassed, Kali shoved the feather braid she had picked up from the market into the nearest side pocket of the duffle bag and pulled out an item she hadn’t used in a long time.

She had retrieved her mobile phone from where it had been sitting since her birthday before she left. Her fingers found her web browser and she typed what she was looking for into the screen. Directions from her location to the Immortals club. Just as she was leaving the shop, pleased that she had completed her secret mission, her eyes fell on a glittering blue pendant. She let her fingers brush over the necklace and thought of her mother. Tentatively reaching to Hades, he gently reminded her that she didn’t need his permission. With conflicting feelings, Kali bought the necklace and slipped the gift box into her pocket. She had no idea how she could get it to her mother, but she still hated how she had left.

Pushing her turmoil aside, she turned her attention back to her phone and did her best to navigate the streets to the underground. Her sense of direction was still terrible. Even with the map, she got lost. Twice. But with her face glued to her phone, she didn’t care if anyone was staring or laughing at her. It was nearly three o’clock by the time she got to where her phone told her the postcode was.

She sent a sly invitation to Hades to help her change, even though she was going to stay in the leather trousers and corset. She felt a tremor through their bond, and he murmured that she was cruel to tease him when they both knew he had to work. But she could sense that he wasn’t really complaining. She whispered to him that she was nearly done; just the chat at the club and then she would jump on the train back home.

Theoretically, she should have been able to get there in an instant. Just as she should have been able to transport herself to London without his help. She had tried sun-stepping a couple of times over the last week with no luck. Hades told her she was overthinking it, but she didn’t really know how else she was supposed to make it work. She didn’t know how it had happened in the first place. But, she thought, there was no harm in trying again on the way home.

She grabbed a panini from another coffee shop that was just about to close. The girl behind the counter was not impressed, but Kali slipped into the bathroom quickly to change her shoes and apply some eyeliner. She had the panini, and another hot chocolate, to take away and both were devoured in a matter of seconds. Shopping was more tiring than Kali remembered. Though maybe that had more to do with how much wandering around she had been doing without a break.

After walking for about five minutes, Kali was sincerely regretting the shoes. She wasn’t changing, and she was not returning them. She would not admit that these boots had gotten the best of her. But she just wasn’t used to heels and her feet were already burning. Kali spent most of her time in flat boots or barefoot.

When she approached the general area of the club, Kali pulled out the “invitation” her father had given her. She hadn’t seen anything when she had swept past the area earlier on. But with the card in her hand, a gleaming golden door had appeared. It was pulsing and glowing, not that she could miss it blocking up half the pavement.

The door was smooth and unblemished. There were no markings, and no signs of a knocker or a handle. Kali approached it and reached out a tentative hand to touch it. The surface of the door rippled like water beneath her fingers, and she stepped closer. Apollo, as usual, hadn’t bothered to tell her anything, but it was pretty clear that the way in was to step through the doorway. With one hand gripping the card that would grant her entry and the other clamped around the strap of her bag, Kali took a deep breath and stepped through the door.

___

Chapter Thirty Eight

The transition was…strange. There was nothing quite like it that Kali could use to describe the experience. The portal was not quite fluid but not quite air. The world distorted until a new one twisted into view and took its place. She found herself gasping after the brief, but unexpected, pressure had torn the air from her lungs. She immediately turned to make sure that there was a way out. The gold door loomed behind her, though it was set in a wall instead of standing alone in the street. A sigh of relief escaped her; she didn’t appear to be trapped.

The first thing that caught Kali’s attention, when she finally took in her surroundings, were the stars. The roof of the club was designed to match the night sky, with all the constellations in full view. But, she soon realised, it was no design. The stars glittered and shifted as she watched them. They were real.

A wistful sigh escaped her as she continued to gaze up at the sky. Even though Camelot had the fullest sky she had seen, she couldn’t believe the patterns and stories she could read in these stars. She didn’t even notice when someone approached her until a lilting voice hummed “Hello, sister. Welcome.”

She started, looking at the man beside her with wide eyes. Her stare was dragged to his eyes, which were as full of stars as the room around them. Kali cleared her throat and tore her gaze away before she could be sucked into them.

The strange man bowed deeply before fixing those startling eyes back on her. In a gentle voice, he requested “Allow me to show you around, sister. The first time in a new place can be daunting.”

“Is it that obvious?” Kali asked sheepishly, watching the man rise from his bow.

“You keep looking at the door, trying to make sure it has not disappeared. Most of my guests move past that after the first few visits.” He glanced sideways at her and added “And I would have seen you had you been through this Gate before.”

On the street, she hadn’t been afraid. On this side of the door, where she knew there would be a whole array of powerful non-mortal beings…on this side of the door, her usual insecurities were back in full. She could defend herself well enough, but she hadn’t realised how much she relied on the rules at Camelot keeping her safe from her suitors. This man…he was as handsome as any god was expected to be, and his eyes glittered and shifted constantly. It took every ounce of control Kali had to look back at him without being caught in them again. But she managed.

A wicked grin touched his lips, transforming his face, but his eyes were inscrutable. Cold, even. She suppressed a shudder but murmured her thanks for his offer. The last thing she needed was to get lost and there seemed to be several rooms and hallways. Various different creatures socialised, danced, and drank in every corner. Centaurs, satyrs, nymphs, and several other beings that Kali didn’t recognise. Some, she could hardly fathom. Even so, she kept her eyes from lingering too long on any of them. But the more she saw, the more certain she was that there were no mortals in this place.

That disturbing grin had become more familiar to her as they walked, and his strange presence wasn’t quite as unsettling. The longer she spent near him, the more Kali wondered if they had met before. He was certainly strange, less human than the other gods she had spent time with. It would make sense, she thought, if he spent less time around humans and demigods than the Olympians. If anything, it was strange how normal the other gods seemed.

“A drink, sister?” The cool, melodic voice was a little like Apollo’s. Again, she wondered who this man was. Who he was to her. Instead of dwelling, she took the seat he pulled out for her.

“Thank you.” She mumbled awkwardly. After a moment, she turned to her companion and finally asked “Why do you call me sister?”

A tinkling laugh that did not quite match the masculine features of her guide followed. “We are all family, are we not?”

“That is true…” She really wasn’t sure how to respond to this god, if he was a god. After a moment, she asked “May I have your name?”

A menacing tone crept into his voice. “Careful, sister. Names are powerful things. Especially here.”

Kali hesitated at the chill that shot through her bones. A flash of irritation flickered inside her at the threat she could feel in his words, with a slow smouldering ember rising to match. But she bit it down and said gently. “I didn’t mean to offend.”

The ominous aura that had surrounded him dissipated as quickly as it had formed, leaving Kali almost dizzy. “Forgive me. I forget that you do not yet remember our ways.”

Remember? “I’m not sure I follow.”

His grin only widened, but his eyes remained ever indecipherable. “It is unimportant. And it is certainly not why you came here today.”

Kali shrank slightly under that unfathomable gaze but admitted “I’m looking for information.”

“I know.” At her questioning glance, he chuckled and added “You do not look comfortable enough in this place to be here for recreation. That leaves business. You do not have the bearing of a hunter, so you have come here to seek out the infinite wisdom of a man whom can only be found here.”

“So, can you help me?”

His answering grin showed every single one of his perfect white teeth. This time, his eyes gleamed and Kali nearly flinched. As it was, she drew back slightly from him in her seat at the bar.

“My dear…did young Apollo not teach you about the price such a thing may accrue?”

Kali felt the heat drain from her and knew that she must have gone white. That eerie grin was ever present and she couldn’t quite suppress her shudder. He had offered to show her around the club…someone who dealt in favours would surely demand payment for such a thing. She scowled inwardly but with the scowl came the warmth of flames from her core. She should have known better, but it made her angry nonetheless that he had taken advantage of her ignorance.

For the first time since she had met him, Kali let her eyes meet his and lifted her chin. “What, pray tell, is the going rate for information?”

“That depends entirely on the information.” If she thought he would falter at her directness, she was sorely disappointed. His expression did not even waver. “If your father could not help you, then it must be something fairly obscure?”

The stars swirled and twisted dizzyingly, but Kali refused to be distracted. She could not deny that the information she was looking for wasn’t exactly easy to come by. If it was, she wouldn’t have had to go there and seek him out. “Possibly even too obscure for you, from what I’ve been told. I don’t know if you can even help me. Or what good your information would do.”

“Now you have my attention.” He let out an exaggerated sigh before his glittering gaze pinned her down, like a hawk to a mouse. “Let me see them, then.”

Kali shrank back instinctively and stammered “See them?”

“The symbols. One on your neck and one on your arm.” His singsong voice crept into her head and somehow she knew he was trying to use some kind of compulsion. But even knowing didn’t help her resist it; she didn’t even see a reason to try to hold back. “Come now, you came all this way. If I see them and have nothing to share, there will be no charge.”

She knew that she had little choice. Part of her was fuming, but he sounded so reasonable that she found herself taking off her new coat to reveal her bare arms. His eyes narrowed slightly at the symbol on her arm that Hades had said looked like a map. Glancing at it again, Kali still didn’t know how the circle with lines criss-crossing through it was like a map.

The man nodded silently and looked pointedly at her neck. Again, Kali automatically pulled her hair up and out of the way to display the mark emblazoned there. After several seconds, the man murmured “Thank you, sister.”

Kali sagged slightly in her chair, suddenly exhausted. She glared at him, clenching her jaw, and saw that his smile was finally gone. “You will need some time to recover. The Command can be tiring if you fight against it. Especially with one as wilful as you.” The smile that followed his words was more natural and…proud? “It has been a while since I have needed to pour so much energy into so simple a thing.”

“Do you at least have an answer for me?” She asked, hating how weary her voice sounded.

The smile faded. “I cannot help you.”

“Oh.” She said simply, dropping her gaze to where her hands were clasped in her lap. She wasn’t sure what she was feeling: frustration, surprise, disappointment? She hadn’t known what answers she would find but…to find nothing? She took a deep breath and looked up at him with what she hoped was a smile, saying “Well…thank you for your time.”

“Do not look at me that way.” He said weakly. “You’re not angry with me for stringing you along?”

Kali blinked; she hadn’t considered that. “I didn’t think you were. It isn’t your fault that you don’t have the answers I’m seeking.”

“But I do have them.”

Again, she could only blink in response. Silence dragged on for several moments before she managed to mumble “I thought you said-”

“I cannot help you.” He repeated, a frown creasing his ageless face. This time, he added “I know what those symbols are, sister. I just cannot tell you.”

“Can you tell me…never mind. I don’t even know what’s happening to me, and I don’t know where to start to try to figure it out…” She rubbed her forehead. There were questions she could ask that she knew he could answer. She just didn’t know what they were. But maybe… “There is something else that I’d like help with…”

Surprise flickered across his features, replaced quickly by intrigue. “Oh?”

Steeling herself, Kali said “A friend of mine is missing. Would you be able to find him? Is that something you would know about?”

“It is.” He paused expectantly, and Kali could guess what he was waiting for.

She looked him in the eyes and asked steadily “What is your price?”

A long silence followed, and his twinkling eyes were fixed on hers, searching her. Even with his stare stripping her bare, Kali stubbornly kept eye contact until he sighed “Nothing.”

She frowned, confused, and admitted “I don’t understand.”

“I don’t expect you to.” His eyes flickered to the mark on her neck. “On second thought…I will give you the location all of the missing demigods are being held on one condition. You do not go to that place.”

She chewed the inside of her cheek for a moment, but she could live with that. She nodded certainly. “I can live with that. I’m not so arrogant that I think I’m immortal or invincible. I’d prefer to leave a rescue to someone that could actually pull it off.”

He rubbed his brow, the strained smile long gone, and handed her a folded piece of paper.

“Thank you.” She whispered, putting it in her pocket without examining its contents. She looked back at him, a smile touching her lips, and thanked him again.

“Don’t…look at me like that, little sister.” He muttered softly, his expression almost pained.

Her honest smile only grew at his awkward mumble so she looked down at her drink. The idea that she was making him uncomfortable almost made her giggle, considering how unnerving some of his mannerisms were to her. Before she even realised that he had moved, Kali felt a hand slowly rub the top of her head. It was soft and hesitant. She would have expected to be afraid or angry but…she found herself closing her eyes and tilting her head towards the contact. It felt familiar.

Familiar? Kali’s eyes snapped open and the hand withdrew. It was gone so quickly that she wasn’t even sure that she hadn’t imagined it. But something still niggled in the back of her mind, taunting her. Frustrated, she tried to grab hold of the strands, but they stayed stubbornly out of reach.

“The map on your arm…shows the pathways between all of the worlds.” His words broke her out of her inner grumblings and her eyes flickered to his face. He still looked pained as more words tumbled from his lips. It was almost as though he had to say them quickly before he could come to his senses and stop himself. “I cannot say why you have it etched into your very soul. I cannot tell you what it means for these symbols to surface now. What it means for the world. Or for you, dear sister.”

When his eyes met hers, they were full of grief but shining all the more brightly. His voice was harder. “I cannot give you ancient knowledge. But I can tell you that in recent years I have only seen that mark twice. Once in a book, and once as the twisted symbol of a cult. One of your friends has had contact with them and can tell you more. You will find details of the book on the paper in your pocket.”

“And the price?” She asked, trying and failing to hide her trepidation.

“I haven’t told you anything.”

His voice was firm. Immovable. Kali realised that there would be no arguing with him, so she just smiled again and turned her eyes up to the sky. The stars reached out endlessly. It would take centuries just to count them all. Even with the people all around and the music thumping in the background, this place was so peaceful. But she needed to head back while the sun was still up if she wanted to try sun-stepping home.

Reluctantly, Kali stood and turned to her companion. “Thank you for your time but I really should be going.”

“Of course.” He rose from his seat and bowed before offering his arm to her, saying “Allow me to return you to the entrance.”

“Thank you.” She said with a smile, though she was wary again as she took his arm. She was glad though; what with all the people and the different areas of the club, she would almost certainly get lost a few times on her own. She could feel several sets of eyes on them both as they manoeuvred the crowd and wondered again who this man was. But it seemed she would be left wondering.

Soon enough, they reached the entrance and her guide gave another deep bow. With a flourish he presented her with a rectangular golden card. “I hope you will find a reason to visit again, sister.”

“I’ll try. I’m at Camelot most of the time though so I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get back.” She took the card, forcing a smile, but she was still somewhat shaken from his words. She wasn’t sure that this was a place she would be returning to.

His unnerving grin returned, but those gleaming eyes were still tense. “No rush. We have all the time in the world, after all.”

As confused as his words made her, Kali decided not to push the subject. The gods often liked to forget that mortals didn’t have as much time as they did. But that niggling feeling in the back of her mind had returned. She brushed it aside and slipped the card into her pocket, checking that the folded piece of paper was still there as well. As soon as she got back to Camelot, she would find Hermes. He could find Ben, and any others that the Stargazer had mentioned, and bring them home safely.

“Stargazer?”

“Well…” She shifted awkwardly; she didn’t know how he had heard her thoughts and she didn’t like the invasion. Even so, she mumbled “It was the first thing that came to mind.”

“Hmm…it will do.” He seemed pleased, though his expression hardly changed. With those words, he swept into another brief bow and turned on his heel. Alone again, Kali didn’t relax until she was safely out of that place. She threw out a hand to steady herself when she was through the Gateway but this time the dizziness didn’t fade. There was a low brick wall near her, so she stumbled over and perched there, hoping to clear her head. While she sat, she rushed to change out of the shoes that were burning her feet and slipped the winged boots back on.

Fatigue sapped at her strength and she wondered vaguely if Gateways like that one took more energy than she had anticipated to move through. Her mood didn’t improve when she noticed that the sun had gone down and she would need to get back the long way. She rested her head on her knees, telling herself she would rest a moment and then head back.

It wasn’t until Kali felt her eyelids drooping that panic flickered in the back of her mind. Her weariness only grew until it threatened to smother her. Even that panic was far back in her consciousness. She didn’t even really mind if this wasn’t the most practical or safe place to take a nap. Her knees against her forehead were much more comfortable than she thought they should be. Her sluggish mind strained desperately to call Hades but the last shred of strength ebbed from her, and darkness took her.

But even in her dream, her mind was still clouded and smothered. A cave, the cave, unfolded around her but she could barely stagger over to the man in chains. As soon as she reached him, she all but collapsed at his feet. A thin sheen of sweat covered her brow, and her limbs trembled with effort as she pushed herself into a sitting position.

His steady silver gaze examined her face, and it struck her then how much she had missed him. She had not visited him in a long time, perhaps because she was happy with Hades? But the shine of his silver-green eyes in the otherwise encompassing darkness was edged in her soul. It was all she had left of home.

She dropped her gaze, scowling at herself. She missed the manifestation of her loneliness and abandonment? How messed up was that? Even with everything she had lost recently, holding on to what was basically a nightmare couldn’t be healthy. But her eyes snapped back to his face when contact delicately feathered along the walls of her mind.

She hesitated, and stiffened when his gaze flickered to the necklace she wore. His expression did not change. Nor did the touch on her mind retreat. Just a dream, she reminded herself. She held her breath and stretched her mind out to the edges of his. All of a sudden, his eyes caught her with an intensity she had never seen before and words came crisp and clear in her mind.

You are under the influence of a god. His voice seemed full of barely suppressed rage, but Kali could not be sure. Even in her mind, his voice was rough and weak but the tone was deep, rich, and warm. She realised that even when he had spoken to her once before, she hadn’t really heard his voice. It had been so hoarse, barely a whisper. Her mind was still dulled by fatigue and she blamed that for how distracted she was by the feel of his voice in her head. She barely registered the danger in his words until he continued Where is your protector, little one?

Hades’ face swam to the front of her mind, but it dissipated as quickly as it had come. Why doesn’t this feel wrong?

Why should it? A throaty chuckle echoed in her mind. Forgive me; it is difficult for me to speak. But I can withdraw if you wish?

No. Kali answered slowly. Only Hades had ever been in her mind, but this felt as natural as speaking here. More so because the silence in this place did not like to be disturbed. The darkness deepened around her and icy fear gripped her as she felt herself slipping away again. She could barely move her arms but she tried to reach out to him anyway. His hand lightly brushed her hair from where it fell over her face.

I will stay with you. His promise was the last thing she heard before she fell further into the darkness. As she drowned in the inky gloom, her mind shattered around her. She screamed.

___

Chapter Thirty Nine

Kali awoke to drums. Deep. Steady. Consuming. She was aware of the drums long before she fully woke. Hard cold stone bruised her hip, and the heat of bodies pressing close smothered her. She shifted slightly, the scent of sweat overwhelming. Her eyes opened blearily and she pushed herself up, waiting for the memory to return. But this cage was new to her.

The only light was from the fire pits that circled the cavern, flickering through the thick steel bars that surrounded them. There must have been almost thirty prisoners, all demigods. Except Kali. They all had a haunted look in their eyes and they were jittering. Afraid.

Most clung to the bars, watching something that Kali couldn’t see. Some were silent but others were yelling out indistinct words. Kali could hear a cackle and she could hear cries of what she could only assume were fury and pain. Her head pounded but she moved to the bars, gently easing her way through the others in there with her, to see what was outside. Her blood ran cold. A low voice next to her murmured “Welcome to the arena, kid.”

A woman with blood red hair sat atop a throne of skulls, laughing as she watched a demigod struggle against a group of five skeletal warriors. Kali’s fingers turned white on the bars as she watched in silent horror at the display. This was not the arena of Camelot. There were no rules here. And the demigod fought desperately right up to the point a sword blossomed from his chest. Kali struggled against the bars, but the rest of the prisoners just drifted away or bowed their heads. A hand fell on her shoulder and she tore her eyes away from the fallen demigod to see a face full of sorrow looking down at her. The man could not have been more than twenty-five, but he seemed generations older when he murmured “There’s nothing you can do.”

“I refuse to believe that.” Kali turned back to look out across the cavern and struggled with the bars, trying to find any weakness to exploit. Her mind frantically sought Hades’ but there was a fog around her, something dampening her connection to him. She was alone. The hand closed around her arm and pulled her away firmly. She pulled back, but her eyes were dark.

The demigod sighed tiredly and whispered, “If she sees that she is causing you pain, it will only give her more pleasure.”

Kali’s eyes flashed red, flames crackling in their depths, and she raised her head slowly. All she could see was the boy bleeding, face down in the sand. The sword was still protruding from his back. Sharp pain sliced through her at the memory of that shade of red. She growled “Why are we here?”

“To join them. Or to die. I don’t think she really cares which.” His voice was bitter but resigned and Kali knew that he did not expect to get out of that place alive.

Another cackle ripped through the air and the woman pointed over to them and screeched “Bring over the next volunteer!”

A faceless creature approached and opened the cage, grabbing the nearest demigod. Kali saw a face she recognised and frantically pushed her way through the others in the cage. Hermes had been right about Ben; he hadn’t run away or wandered off. He was here. And he was struggling against the faceless creature’s talons as he was dragged towards the gate. Kali tore the creature’s grey claws off of her friend and fixed her gaze on the figure still sitting on the throne. She raised her chin defiantly and snarled “I’m next.”

Ben stammered her name and tried to pull her back, but the woman’s lip curled into a cruel smirk and Kali held her gaze. A challenge. She nodded, and Kali was hauled across the cavern. She twisted out of the creature’s grip and ran to the boy in the arena but she knew he was already gone. He was dead. And she didn’t even know his name. A cackle rang out and Kali felt claws around her arms, pulling her back towards the skull throne. This time, she let them yank her onward. The stench was almost more than she could bear but she focused on the drums and they gave her strength. With each forced step closer, she became more and more certain that the woman was a goddess.

The goddess held up her hand and the drums fell silent. Kali swayed slightly but fixed her blazing eyes on the black soulless ones in front of her. The faceless creature forced her to her knees and she struggled back up, pushing it away. Another cackle. Perhaps she was amusing the goddess sufficiently because the creature backed off and the woman stepped down from her throne, declaring “You have spirit! I will enjoy crushing it.”

“Who are you?” Kali demanded, her voice steady though she was quivering with rage.

The goddess smirked. “Do not grow accustomed to making demands, girl. It will not serve you well in the days to come.” A long nail grazed Kali’s cheek and then she continued “But on this occasion, I will grant your request. You wish to know who I am?” She moved back up to her throne and shouted “I am Eris. Goddess of Strife. Wreaker of Havoc! I glory in death, despair, pain-”

“I get the point.” Kali snapped, cutting off the guttural speech. Eris froze and just looked down from her pedestal, stunned. Kali took the momentary silence to say “So why are we here?”

She stood tall once more and began the next section of her well-rehearsed speech. She stated “You…were chosen. You are all being given the opportunity to join our army. To free your pathetic people from their reign. From the lies they have kept you under for generations. To rise up against the tyranny of Olympus.”

“Right…so taking out the bit designed to stroke my ego…and the bit highlighting your inferiority complex…” That earned her a slap across the face. Kali chuckled darkly to herself and pushed herself up slowly from the floor, continuing “Why the arena?”

“Training.” Eris growled.

Kali’s eyes were full of hate and rage, but she found herself shrugging. Her nonchalance was clearly infuriating the goddess but she was anything but calm. Instead of falling into despair, Kali fed the fumes boiling her blood and channelled the darkness she could feel spreading inside of her. She had never felt anything like this. “It doesn’t seem like you’re interested in training. Besides, I’m sure most of us have had more than enough of that. I know I have.”

“In which case the arena serves as mere entertainment.” Eris spat and then insisted “As well as a means of persuasion. I’m sure you will come around to my way of thinking after a few rounds. They all do. Unless they die first, like that pitiful brat.”

Kali snarled and Eris cackled once more. But she soon fell silent when Kali stood tall and yelled “I have a proposition for you, Eris.” The goddess looked uncertain for a heartbeat before waving her hand, as if giving permission for her to continue. “What is the record of this so called Arena?”

“Six rounds.” She looked smug. “That one joined us before he could be defeated at the end of the seventh.”

Kali groaned inwardly but her face was set. “For each round past six that I survive and prosper, you will let someone leave alive and unharmed.”

Eris cackled, not bothering to try to contain her mirth. Her beady black eyes fixed on Kali’s stubborn face and she challenged “Why would I do that?”

“If I survive that long, and still have the energy to keep fighting…aren’t I worth the extra effort?” A smug grin touched Kali’s lips; she knew that it would annoy her captor more than anything else she could do.

Sure enough, a snarl twisted her features. But her eyes were sharp, and Kali felt as though she were akin to a rabbit, pinned by a bird of prey. The guttural voice spat “What makes you so special?”

“I have three Olympians actively seeking my attention.” It was the first and only time she would ever use such a thing to her advantage. Surely, it was far more impressive than any of her own abilities or achievements would be to a creature like this. Another smirk touched her lips and she lifted her chin cockily. “Work it out for yourself.”

“Very well. On one condition.” Those cold eyes narrowed, but a cruel smile was on Eris’ lips. “If by some miracle you do survive. And I do free any of my pets. You agree to sign my contract on the spot.”

Kali’s heart was pounding now, and she could feel sweat beading on her forehead. But she took a long breath and met Eris’ eyes. “How many?”

“How many?” The twisted smile didn’t falter for even a heartbeat. She was so in control, sprawled across her throne of bones.

She raised her voice, demanding “How many prisoners am I worth to you?”

Eris pretended to consider the question, scrutinising Kali in a way that made her cold. “Five.”

She tried “Ten.”

“Five.” Eris’ smile was back. She didn’t need to bargain with a mere demigod. She would set the terms and Kali would have to abide by them.

Kali’s jaw worked for a moment but she nodded curtly. But she insisted “And if I am able, I will continue to fight after that point. And you will continue to release them.”

Another cackle rang through the cavern and Kali wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or terrified by the curious gleam in Eris’ eyes. “Very well. We have an accord.” Eris’ arm snapped forward and she grabbed Kali’s face with her claws, tearing a startled cry that Kali could not quite suppress from her throat. She pulled Kali closer until the fetid breath made her want to be sick. “We shall see just how worthy you are. Most of the useless inbred fools here are granted a short reprieve between each round. If you want even one of them released, you can stay in the arena until you submit or die.” She tossed her aside and Kali landed hard, looking up at the goddess with anger hard on her face and fire crackling in her eyes. “But…I am generous. I will begin to release them after your third round.”

Kali knew that she was mocking her. The only reason she had entertained such a thing was for her own amusement. Perhaps she wanted to see what Kali could really do. This would motivate her more than fear – even Eris could see that.

But there was something else that Kali didn’t quite notice. The rage, the fire and smoke in her eyes, gave the goddess pause. She was clearly intrigued by the newest “recruit” but she was also wary in a way that she had not been in decades. Centuries, even. Her pride forced her to sweep it aside and fix her cruel sneer back on her face. But she could not deny that a tremor of fear had rippled through her at the primal fury she could feel rolling off the demigod in front of her.

Eris raised a hand, her mouth in a cocky snarl that didn’t meet her tense eyes, and faceless creatures grabbed Kali’s arms. She struggled instinctively but they quickly threw her over the edge of the pit, into the arena. Shortly after, Kali saw a bag drop by her feet. Her bag.

“You may equip yourself with whatever you brought with you when you arrived here.” Eris cackled, obviously noting how light the bag felt. So light that it must be empty. She sneered “I hope you came prepared.”

Kali look up and met Eris’ eyes defiantly as she pulled her knives out of the bag. “I did.” But she was disappointed when her words had little effect. A hint of confusion before understanding dawned. If anything, Eris’ smirk only grew after that.

Kali’s rage still simmered and prickled under her skin. The mark on her arm was searing her skin under her jacket. This whole place made her sick. The dead stares of the others in the cage, the gruesome gleam in Eris’ eyes, the stench of those who had been before. Just thinking about it turned her stomach. But a chill set in as she realised what she had done. There was surely only so long that she could last in there. Throwing herself to the wolves wasn’t the smartest plan she’d ever had. And what made her think that she could survive one round, let alone meet the challenge she had issued? Her eyes were drawn to the dark stains in the arena and she felt her heart in her throat.

But then she heard a rustling from the twenty or so demigods in the cage, all murmuring her name. Kali. Kali. Kali. She glanced over to see Ben pressed against the bars, his fist raised. His mouth forming her name. Kali. Kali. Kali. She lifted her head as tears burned in her eyes, but she would not let them spill onto her cheeks. She had made a challenge all right. And she was too stubborn to back down. Those she would protect would give her the strength she needed. She swallowed the lump in her throat. She would not fall.

The gate on the other side of the arena began to lift and Kali hurriedly strapped her knives to her calves and gripped her quarterstaff. Her knuckles were white against the shifting wood, but she just cleared her mind and focused on her breathing. The drums were inside of her. She would not fall.

She hoped.

___

Chapter Forty

Apollo grimaced, strain clear on his usually perfect features, and snapped “Why can’t you find her?”

“Why can’t you?” Hades replied quietly. Too quietly. Apollo knew all too well the rage that simmered behind his expressionless face, and he paled.

Hades hadn’t said a word when he had suddenly risen partway through the council meeting. Zeus had blustered and flapped until Hades had told him, very reasonably, where he could shove his “propriety”. At the first syllable of Hades’ calm and controlled words, the room had gone silent. He had fixed his empty gaze on Apollo and the two of them had melted away in a storm of shadows. Apollo still didn’t know how he could do that from the sealed room, without any contact.

“My divination can’t reach her…” He admitted, taking half a step back in case Hades loosed the tether shackling his emotions. “Last night, if she wasn’t dreaming through the gates, that means someone else slipped past you and hijacked her mind. I don’t know anyone with that kind of power.”

Through clenched teeth, Hades grunted “There is no guarantee this is related.”

“And there’s no guarantee it isn’t!” Apollo cried, desperately. “Someone triggered that mark. They would have known there was only one place she’d go to find answers!”

Icy blue eyes bore into him. The response was still in that quiet deadly tone that made the God of the Sun’s blood run cold. “You had better hope I find her soon. Do not forget that you sent her there, friend.”

Throwing caution to the wind, he whispered “You aren’t the most powerful being around, Hades. What if you can’t find her?”

Apollo knew that he had gone too far when Hades’ eyes shifted from their usual blue to a solid black. Darkness poured out of him and Apollo instinctively threw up his strongest shields. His radiance was snuffed out in an instant. For one humiliating moment, Apollo was reminded of the power that Hades commanded. The power Hades locked away.

The all consuming darkness from the depths of Tartarus.

A heartbeat was all it took to reduce the god to a shivering wreck on the floor of Kali’s living room. And he remained that way for a long time once Hades had vanished once more.

This time, Hades’ shadows crackled with black lightning and he arrived with a resounding boom in the middle of the Immortals club. The electricity sizzled over his skin as he strode towards the man he had come for. Ignoring the cries of those scrambling to get away from him, he fixed his eyes on a man he may have called brother in another life.

“Where is Kali?” His aura of calm was deteriorating more and more each second. His words came out in more of a snarl than a question.

“Kali?” He frowned in mock concentration and then gasped “Oh, your Persephone.”

Hades snapped. In an instant, his hand was at the Stargazer’s throat and they were on the other side of the club. He slammed the man against the wall and growled “Don’t…call her that.”

Why not? That’s what the myths said, isn’t it? You fell in love with someone you could never hope would love you back, and then tricked her into being with you?” His empty grin widened to show all of his teeth, even as his feet dangled uselessly beneath him, and he exclaimed innocently “Who’d have thought they’d be prophets? I figured it fit pretty well when I saw her wearing your mark. No way in hell a girl like that could be chained to a monster like you.”

Hades’ hand tightened around his throat and he all but roared. “You truly think it wise to bait me? You would do well to remember that I am not so bound by your laws as the rest of your brethren.”

My brethren, is it?” He asked quietly, the smile falling off his face to be replaced by a grimace. His response was clipped. “She was here. Now she’s not.”

“Show me.” The Command escaped him before he could stop himself, and Hades placed his left hand on the Stargazer’s head for clearer access. The Stargazer tried to struggle half-heartedly but they both knew who had the stronger mind. It was not the first time they’d played this game.

Seeing her, even in a memory, nearly broke him. He should have known the instant the bond weakened. He should have been closer. He had backed off to give her more space, knowing that she would need more time to embrace the intimacy fully. It was the most natural thing in the world to him to share his every emotion and impulse with the woman he chose. But it would be alien to her. So, he had withdrawn to limit the presence he would cast in her consciousness. Even with her, he was just a shadow.

He should have felt the instant their bond was dampened but he hadn’t. If it had been torn away, he would have known. He would have been there within less than a heartbeat. It wasn’t until he actively tried to check on her when he felt a tremor of fear burning him through her that he realised. And he couldn’t tell when it had changed. It could have been seconds, or hours.

They had last spoken a little while before she had arrived at the club. Something could have happened the second she left. In the Stargazer’s mind, he only had limited access granted by his demand, but he could see that she had left safely. The Stargazer wasn’t responsible.

When he saw that she left the club, Hades exited the same way without another word. He was vaguely aware of the Stargazer dropping gracefully to the floor. Guilt stung him, but he could apologise later. This was too important, and he was too caught in his raging emotions to stop. Once he was outside, he could feel a faint trace of her. Like an echo. He approached a low brick wall and closed his eyes, focusing until he could pick up one other presence that he recognised: Hypnos.

The ground quaked beneath him and the stars trembled. That treacherous upstart dared to touch what was his? For what felt like an eternity, the darkness poured from him and blotted out the stars. The silence smothered every sound of the nightlife. It was a living thing, thirsting for freedom and domination, and Hades could find no reason to reign it back in.

But the rage dwindled at the touch of a hand on his shoulder. “Hopelessness does not suit you, old timer.”

“Why are you here?” Hades asked coolly, masking his relief at his friend’s presence.

Hermes grinned wolfishly. “Come on, now. You know I’m the best tracker around.”

* * *

The smoke rolled in and Kali backed away, reluctant to touch it. She was still waiting for the creature to appear; it must be creating the fog as a camouflage of some sort. Unless it was some kind of poison. She racked her mind, trying to recall any information on a creature like that, but she came up empty. In fairness, they didn’t really teach about monsters at Camelot. Something, she thought, she should remedy when she got back.

If she got back, her mind whispered to her, betraying her forced attempt at optimism. She had managed two rounds already and she knew Eris wouldn’t want to let anyone go. This one would be much harder. She pressed her hand to her shoulder briefly and grimaced at the redness staining her hand from one of the hellhounds’ claws. Her ribs were still throbbing from dodging a bit too vigorously against the skeleton warriors as well. Her quarterstaff had been invaluable in breaking them into dust, quite literally. She was just lucky they were stupid shambling things and couldn’t take advantage of her slipups. At least she would be able to test just how much and how quickly her body could heal.

A chill crept over her skin as the fog grew closer but still she waited. There was no way to avoid it and she knew she was resistant to most poisons. The creature would have to show itself eventually and then she could figure out how to kill it. Unless…the fog was the creature? The way it crept towards her, twisting its way through the arena…it didn’t seem natural. It moved against the air currents of the cavern.

Now, Kali’s mind was racing. She had never heard of such a thing but there were a lot of things she’d never had any concept of until recently. That didn’t mean they hadn’t been real before she knew about them. If Tom were there, she would ask him how you could disperse fog. He was always a font of useless information like that. What even IS fog? Not that it would necessarily help her with whatever magical fog creature was now invading her mind and her lungs.

As soon as Kali had taken half a step back from the encroaching fog, it had swarmed up and around her. It forced its way through her mouth and nose and she writhed and gasped. What was the point in putting on a show for the goddess anyway? The thought came unbidden to her mind as she frantically gasped for air. She had nothing to prove. There was no way Eris was really going to let anyone go. She was suffering for nothing. Just give up. Submit.

The air rushed back into her lungs for one glorious moment as the fog retreated. Before Kali could get her bearings, it hit her again with the force of a wrecking ball and smothered her face. I don’t want to die. This isn’t worth it. Submit.

Again, there was a heartbeat of relief before the fog forced itself down her throat again. Her head was swimming and the pressure inside her mind was agony. She had never felt something so intense, pushing out every coherent thought. Whispers in her mind told her that this was not worth it. Nothing was worth this. She had the power to end it. She knew that.

But she could hear the words were not hers. If she could just get another reprieve…But what are you really fighting for? Your pride? Not the prisoners. The only way to help them would be to kill Eris and she is a GOD. She will never release them. Why are you fighting? Give in. Submit.

Her lungs ached and screamed for oxygen. She was on the hard ground with her hands clutching her throat. A thick liquid streamed from her eyes, nose, and ears. You can make it stop. I can make it stop. I am stronger than this. Kali’s mind was full of mist, sharp pain digging into her head with every word the creature hissed at her. But she could hardly tell now which thoughts were her own. Somehow, she found enough air to choke the words out loud “I am stronger than you.”

Laughter rattled around her and she had another glorious breath before the bombardment resumed and she fell, shaking, onto her side. No one is coming to save you. You have the power to end this if you will only submit. Even death would be better than this. You are weak. Your training means nothing here.

Kali shook her head, her own nails now digging into her scalp. She couldn’t tell how long it had been since the creature had released her last, but she could almost feel her body shutting down. Her lungs were on fire and her mind was no longer her own. The agonizing pressure was accompanied by a numb, fuzzy feeling that terrified her. You think you are different? You are better than the hundreds of demigods I have broken here. They were weak? Your hubris will be your downfall. You will betray everyone you love.

Whiteness took over her mind. Not light, just emptiness. And then she was falling. Deeper and deeper into familiar darkness. She could feel the creature lingering still in her mind but now its screams echoed through her. This was not the fog’s doing. Kali still couldn’t breathe, but her panic was gone when she realised that she didn’t need to stay there. She slipped willingly back into the darkness. Back to him.

Just before she landed, the creature managed to break contact and slipped out of her mind. She couldn’t blame it; this place used to terrify her as well. She stayed where she landed, shivering, for several moments until she heard a voice murmur “This is your safe place?”

Kali glanced up at the man in shackles and tried to smile but her lips barely twitched. He sighed and whispered “You should go back. Your lips are turning blue.”

“I don’t know how to win this.” She admitted, her voice as small as she felt.

He looked into her eyes for a moment and she felt something moving through her mind. She recoiled with surprise but his featherlight touch was gone almost instantly. After a heartbeat, he said simply “You have the power to defeat it.” His eyes were sad as he added “You do not have much time left.”

Kali was shaking as she stood. She knew she was in control of returning to her body. This illusion was of her own making, so it would make sense if she was the only one that could step out of it. But stepping back into that arena was the hardest thing she had ever done. She knew she was trembling but…even there, her head was light. She closed her eyes and tried to clear the fear from her mind. She failed, but she knew she was back because she was suddenly coughing and spluttering on the floor of the arena.

Rage and something else, fear, swirled around her. The fog seemed to be in two minds. Trying to retreat but desperately wanting to extinguish the fire inside of her. Its shock at her return to consciousness was enough to loosen its grip on her. Or maybe it had been the darkness in the edges of her mind that had startled it enough to release its hold. She had no idea how, but the brief lucid moment was enough for her to call upon her power. At the first sign of the embers glowing in Kali’s eyes, the creature shrank away.

Kali was still on the floor, so she pressed both her hands into the ash that covered the arena as the fire filled her mind. As it always seemed to, instinct took over. She had no idea when she thought back over what happened how she had controlled it. But the ashes glowed and smouldered until the entire ground was aflame. The fog shrieked and wailed. Before Kali could move to attack, even if she had known how, the mist retreated and hurled itself back through the arena gates.

If Kali could have spoken, she probably would have screamed after the creature. She would have called it a coward and demanded it face her. But her throat felt like it had been torn to shreds, and she was still savouring the delicious taste of the stale cavern air. She could not stop her hands from shaking but the flames, at least, were dying back down. A roar echoed from the throne as a cheer rose from the cage. Kali looked up with tears and blood streaming down her face and sat back on her heels. She raised her right arm in triumph to match theirs and somehow managed to stagger to her feet again. Her chin was held high, defiant, and she looked at the goddess. She waited.

The silence dragged. Kali could see the goddess was struggling with herself. That was clearly the trump card. Kali couldn’t even imagine how many demigods had faltered there. She easily could have been one of them. She was still trying to shake that voice from her head, even though she knew the creature no longer remained.

What Kali didn’t know was if Eris was going to uphold her end of the bargain. Her throat worked furiously as she tried to find her voice again. It felt like several minutes had passed before she managed to croak “That one makes three, Eris.”

The snarl from the goddess meant Kali was certain that she heard, but still no reply came. If she were to be honest with herself, Kali was glad of the break. This was the most time she’d had to recuperate since she had stepped out of the cage. But the silence gave her mind too many chances to keep whispering her doubts back at her. What if Eris didn’t keep her end of the bargain? What if Kali would just have to keep fighting until either her mind or her body broke?

Kali threw caution to the wind and shakily took a step forward. Her voice was still quiet, but she knew the goddess would hear her. She knew how to push her the right way. People like her were easy enough to read. “How many has that creature failed to turn?”

“None.” Eris spat out, furious. “They either submit, end their own lives, or go insane from the pressure on their psyche. You should not be here. What trickery is this?”

Kali swallowed hard but called “I am a woman of honour, Eris. My word is my bond.” She managed to stand, raising her chin to match the goddess. Her voice came stronger and she stated, “If you keep your end, then I will keep mine.”

“Release one.” She snarled. “And begin the next round.”

Kali didn’t see who was thrown from the cage, or where they were sent. All she saw was the gate lifting once more, bringing with it an unearthly screech and the rush of wings.

___

Chapter Forty One

The winds buffeted her from all sides and her eyes were streaming. Dust and debris from the arena floor whipped around her, flaying her exposed arms and face. Five harpies swarmed around her, flying faster and faster around the edges. Occasionally, one would dart in and grab at her. As they would only pull her hair so far, cackling and chirping shrilly, Kali knew they were just playing with her. If anything, that only made her angrier.

The creatures were as ugly as ever and Kali struggled against the memory of the only other time she had encountered one. Brown and red feathers had mixed with hair sprouting at odd angles from its scalp. A hooked nose resembling a beak was stretching the skin of its face. Its vulgar form was as embarrassing as it was horrifying. Beady eyes and thin lips. A terrible grin revealing pointed bloody teeth. And the wings, tipped with long bony talons to match the distorted feet. That creature had been alone, and its claws had been more than enough to handle the two girls. Kali’s friend hadn’t made it out with just a few scratches, like she had.

Her reasoning had gone out of the window when she saw the first one fly from the gate. She didn’t know whether rage or fear was the prevalent emotion whirling through her. Either way, her eyes were smoking, and the metal blades of her knives were glowing with heat.

It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes since the fight had begun but she was already exhausted. Fighting the wind was taking a tremendous toll on her and she could barely stand. If this was a test of endurance, she would definitely lose.

How much time had passed since she had woken in the cage? It felt like days, but it couldn’t be more than an hour, surely? How much longer would she have to keep this up? How much longer could she last like this? Kali had never thought herself as the rescuing kind but every fibre of her being was crying out for Hades to save her. But she couldn’t even reach him. The silver cord in her mind was still there, shining, but she couldn’t move her thoughts far enough along it to get to him. Did that mean he couldn’t find her either?

Kali cried out with frustration when a harpy swooped past and tugged sharply on her scalp again. She had wanted to try to get them when they came in close. Another missed chance. Throwing caution to the wind, quite literally, Kali made a dive for her bag. A claw scraped across her back with another shrill cackle and she slashed out behind her, finally making contact. The cackle turned into a scream and the harpy flapped uselessly as fire spread from the gash in its right wing.

Finally. Kali leapt at the creature with a smattering of blue feathers, ignoring the wind that had only picked up speed, and drove her knife into its other wing. She pressed the harpy back towards the edge of the arena and ripped the knife in a line, tearing the wing to shreds. Its feet clawed at her legs, but she didn’t even feel them. As soon as she released the creature, the near tornado lifted its flailing body and smacked it into one of the others.

In the confusion, Kali scrabbled back to her bag and managed to get hold of her bow. She slung the quiver over her back and drew an arrow. Judging trajectory had always been a natural talent of hers. A child of the god of archery should expect no less. She watched the path the harpy had taken and fired an arrow at a seemingly random spot outside the circle. But she knew it would hit its mark. Sure enough, it spun past one harpy and straight into the throat of one of the others.

Kali did not pause to see the arrow embed itself in its target. Instead, she fired off six more arrows in quick succession and was rewarded by several shrieks as two harpies fell out of the sky. One had fallen, broken on the ground. Its red hair spilled around it like blood as it twitched for a moment before lying still.

She did not get the chance to fire again. Even as the second harpy dropped from the sky, claws embedded deep into the shoulder she had bruised earlier. She cried out as her feet left the floor, tearing into her flesh. Dropping the bow, she swiftly drew her knife again and plunged it upwards blindly. Blood poured over her and she realised her knife had pierced through the creature’s throat and into its skull.

It released her and she plummeted to the floor. They had been further up than she had realised and she landed awkwardly, despite her attempts to roll out of it. She was trembling and thought she might throw up, but she stumbled over to her bow and finished the orange creature that had lifted her with another searing arrow.

The blue harpy whose wings she had ripped earlier was charging at her on the ground. It might have been comical if not for the rows of gleaming teeth, and the too-small black eyes. Without hesitation, Kali fired three more arrows through its throat and eyes until it stopped moving. She didn’t check her quiver, confident that her father had been right about the arrows returning.

Two left? She saw a speckled brown creature impaled on the top of the gate and realised that was the other one she had shot out of the sky. Just one, then. She didn’t have to search long before she saw a bright red streak hurtling through the dust towards her. It was too fast to dodge. Without thinking, Kali dropped her bow and let the fire that was struggling against her to burst free. Wreathing herself in flames, Kali braced for impact. The instant before the second blood-red harpy collided with her, she saw the terror in its eyes. It tried to pull up, but there wasn’t enough time.

Its efforts to pull back only lessened the impact it made, though it still knocked the wind out of her. Kali grabbed hold of the harpy and wound her left hand in its matted feathered hair. It flailed and scratched at her face and her arms with its talons and claws. But Kali held on. Her weapons were on the ground, forgotten, and she just punched the creature.

When Kali heard it screaming, desperately trying to claw itself away from her, she froze. That moment was all the creature needed to remove itself from her grapple. Kali let it go, looking down at her blood covered clothes. She barely felt the cuts that covered her; the pain would come later, she knew. For now, she looked around at the bodies around her and fell to her knees.

An overwhelming wave of nausea took her, and she fell forward onto her hands in the dirt. She had done this? Her hands were covered in blood. Not just hers, but theirs. Mostly theirs. A cheer rose in the distance and the screams stopped. She glanced up through blurred eyes and saw the final harpy was unmoving on the floor, fire still ravaging its body. The demigods in the cage were cheering and calling out her name in adulation. Victory.

Only Eris seemed to notice her distress, which Kali knew from the smirk twisting her features. Kali was winning, but she and the goddess both knew it was destroying her. Eris cackled and let another prisoner go without any hesitation this time. This show was worth the effort of finding more again later. Her lip curled unpleasantly, and Kali shuddered but forced herself to her feet.

Another roar from the demigods made her lift her arm, feigning triumph. This, fighting, was as much to give them hope as it was to buy time. Luckily, the tears streaking her cheeks were camouflaged by the sweat and blood, and they were too far away to see her trembling.

Kali didn’t realise that the gate was already open again until the floor began to rumble. An inhuman roar echoed and she turned dazedly, too late, to see that her newest opponent was already on top of her. She could barely process what she was looking at before it rammed into her with the force of a train. Her vision went momentarily dark but the gleaming red eyes and bone white horns of the Minotaur were permanently etched into her mind. Along with a terror she had never experienced before.

She flew across the arena and the world came crashing back to her, along with the ground. She tumbled and her flayed skin bore the brunt, but she didn’t feel it yet. She knew that would come later. For now, she gasped and groaned and clutched at her stomach. She retched weakly but another rumble reminded her that she didn’t have time for pain. Even just standing up straight sent fire through her ribs and she suspected she may have cracked a couple. But the roar shook her to her senses.

Leaping to her left, Kali landed hard but she scrabbled back to her feet. She was already running before she was fully off the ground, sprinting towards the nearest weapon she could see. Her quarterstaff still lay where it had fallen after her earlier bout with the skeletons and she dove for it as the beast bore down upon her. Feeling its hooves much too close, she rolled blindly and swung wildly. Only luck granted her staff contact with the back of the unsteady hindquarters, making a satisfying crack.

The sound that came from the bull’s head on top of the ridiculously muscled male torso was beyond inhuman. It was completely alien to Kali’s ears and she quaked where she lay. But she didn’t have enough strength to make the beast fall with such a strike. Instead, she took advantage of the brief stumbling as the creature righted itself to stand and take in her surroundings.

With a howl and a snort, the Minotaur turned to face her again and she felt all of her muscles lock up. It was a wall of muscle and fury and precision. Its ivory horns were carved and stained, and its black fur was matted with old blood. Kali seriously doubted that it was the creature’s own. More likely, it was the blood of any demigod that had the misfortune of being in its path.

A tiny squeak escaped her as she took an involuntary step backwards. Its menacing glare intensified and it took its cue to charge again. She managed to leap to the side, again choosing left, but this time it swung an arm out at her to grab her throat, lifting her high off the ground. The creature was at least eight feet tall, fully erect, and her feet were dangling pathetically beneath her. In the back of her mind, she remembered her knife still strapped to her left leg. But both her hands were desperately grabbing at the creature’s arm as it continued to choke the life out of her.

She knew, without a doubt, that the Minotaur could easily crush her throat. So why didn’t it? Her eyes flickered over to Eris as she wondered. She wants me to give up. After all that Kali had gone through, Eris wasn’t even really trying to kill her. She wanted her to submit, not die. Even as she came to that conclusion, her vision swam before her eyes and she gasped for air. This beast didn’t even know its own strength; it could easily kill her by accident, in the heat of a fight.

Drawing on what must be the last embers of her energy, Kali conjured a white-blue fire around her hands. A terrible howling scream filled the cavern and the beast flung her away. It roared and raged, its eyes mad, and ran wildly in circles long enough for Kali to stagger back to her feet and limp a little further away. It focused on her movement and screamed as it rushed at her.

Kali thought she could hear Eris calling out, commanding the creature, but she couldn’t make anything out over the blood roaring in her ears. Her limp forgotten, she sprinted away until the creature was almost upon her and then darted back again. It careened forwards, right into the gate, catching one of its horns between the bars. In its struggle to escape, one of the ornate horns creaked and eventually snapped.

In the same moment, Kali slid behind the creature with both of her knives back in her hands. First, she used them to slice through its hamstrings. She danced back to avoid its wild strikes before moving back in to slit its throat. As soon as she was in reach, it grabbed her arms and lifted her but the light was already fading from its eyes. She managed to break free, though looking back she had no idea how, and drove both her daggers down through its skull.

The Minotaur crashed to the ground with a decisive boom, and silence followed. It lay, still twitching, and a cry echoed through the cavern from all of the demigods still imprisoned. This time, Kali dropped both of her daggers and staggered back. Tearing her eyes from the body that was slowly bubbling as it decomposed in front of her, she fell to the ground and was violently sick.

She retched weakly, even when there was nothing left, and eventually crawled shakily over to the fallen horn. She was crying and shaking so badly that she could hardly see, but her hand closed around the horn. Her mouth formed words that even she couldn’t hear or understand, and she sobbed.

But that was not a luxury Eris would allow her champions. The grate was already lifting and Kali chanced a look at the goddess, now standing over the edge of the arena. Refusing to be on her knees, she just about managed to stand, but the glint in Eris’ eyes nearly sent her straight back to the floor. “I hope you have some of that fire left. Your next opponent should be no match for you with your gifts.

The last word was spat out like an insult, but the evil grin that accompanied it sent chills through Kali to her bones. Her mind was already whirring to try to get ahead of the situation. Fire? What creatures were weaker against fire?

Kali knew she wouldn’t have to wait long to find out. She scurried hastily to grab her staff and then her bow, crouching finally by her bag. Anticipation was a sharp ache in her chest and every part of her was still in agony. She knew that the Minotaur should have gored her in the first collision but the bodice she wore wasn’t even scratched. The Harpies claws should have shredded her legs, but the trousers were also unmarked. She should be in much poorer shape than she was. And she had healed from most of the earliest wounds. Her “gifts” were keeping her alive, both inherited and given. But now her arms were still bleeding. Now her head was swimming and her ribs were screaming at her to stop. And her limbs wouldn’t stop shaking. How much more of this could she take? How much more killing could she handle?

A few precious, agonising seconds passed before she heard it. A slithering, hissing noise. A noise that triggered every primal instinct to flee. She normally loved snakes but when three heads came into view she knew this was not a creature she could tame. It was monstrous in size and each head alone was probably at least six feet in length. But with only three heads, it must still be an adolescent. A fully grown Hydra, Kali remembered, had a minimum of nine heads. Ancient ones could have up to a hundred.

Fresh tears brimmed in her eyes at the thought that this creature had been torn from its mother and twisted into this. A Hydra should be incredibly intelligent but this one’s acid green eyes were…wrong. She shuddered and it took every ounce of control she had not to break into a run and try to scramble up the walls of the arena. Her daggers were not suited for hacking heads, and her staff would be all but useless. She couldn’t win.

Her hand crept into a side pocket of her bag and retrieved the small pouch that Hades had insisted she take before she left. She was shaking so badly that she struggled to pick up any of the small black diamonds that lay within. As soon as her hand closed around one, she drew it out and crushed it with a prayer. An audible gasp filled the arena and she knew that it had worked. She had vanished. And now that she knew she was momentarily safe, she finally gave into her urges and she ran. She fled faster than she thought possible, away from the monstrous snake that occupied half the space of the arena.

___

Chapter Forty Two

It only took Hermes a matter of seconds to find Hypnos. Hades had grabbed the scruff of his shirt and they both appeared over the minor god instantly. Even the easy-going messenger had to shake himself to clear his head after such a violent shift. But Hypnos did not seem surprised. Either he knew what Kali was to Hades when he took her, or his own lethargic nature meant he hadn’t even processed their sudden arrival. Hades jumped at the former, but Hermes suspected the latter was more accurate.

Hypnos looked up at them slowly from his mountain of pillows and it seemed to take him an eternity just to blink. Confusion touched his heavy-lidded eyes, but he didn’t speak. Hades was practically oozing rage, so Hermes stepped up and asked “Where is the demigod you attacked tonight?”

“Attacked?” He asked slowly. A frown half formed on his face before his eyes drifted closed again but Hermes struck him hard across the face. The minor god groaned tiredly and muttered “Go away.”

“We tried it your way.” Hades said darkly from behind them. Hermes shivered but turned back to Hypnos with a shrug and a grin. “You had your chance.” He muttered before shrinking back and letting Hades take his place over the god. Something like recognition flashed across Hypnos’ droopy face and his eyes opened fully for the first time.

“She was yours.” He visibly paled and tried to move back but shadows struck him from every angle and latched onto him. They coiled around his body from his toes to his chin, until only his mouth and eyes were free. No sign of drowsiness remained; only terror.

“Ah, now that expression is much more to my liking.” Hades smiled grimly. “You will tell me where she is.”

Hypnos’ voice was still slow, but it trembled. “I don’t know what Eris does with them.”

“Eris?” Hermes asked with dread, but Hades tightened the leash around the god until his eyes bulged. Hermes hurried forward to his side and muttered “Don’t you want to check he’s telling the truth first?”

Without a word, Hades hand lashed out and gripped Hypnos’ face. A startled cry was torn from the god, and so were his memories. When he had what he needed, a large grey longsword appeared in Hades’ hands and Hypnos’ head rolled onto the pillows. Hermes watched it bounce down the cushions towards the ground with morbid fascination.

Snapping Hermes out of his reverie, Hades spat “Eris would never demean herself to step into the mortal world. One of her cowed minions would have come.”

“Depending what she would have sent…there won’t be any trace to follow.” Hermes murmured carefully. Weaker beings didn’t leave enough of a mark on the world to linger more than a few minutes. Their options were severely limited if they couldn’t pick up on anything else where she was taken. He didn’t need to tell Hades that.

Before Hermes knew what was happening, they were back in the street near the Immortals club. He staggered slightly upon landing; the rides were getting rougher and rougher the more Hades lost his control. But it didn’t take long to realise that there was nothing left to find. Hades was pacing, the shadows growing with each passing second. Fear was not an emotion the messenger was used to, but the void had a way of forcing itself inside of you, swallowing you. He had known how far gone Hades was when he had found Apollo curled up in a ball.

But he didn’t know how to diffuse this situation. The only thing that would keep Hades from swallowing the world would be finding Kali, safe and sound. Luckily, another voice broke the heavy silence with exactly what they needed.

“Brother!” Hades flinched but froze mid-stride to await the Stargazer’s words. “She is in trouble?”

Hades knew that he was a broken man, and he was failing her. There was only one option left to him and it was one he couldn’t afford to take. And yet, here he was. “Can you find her?”

“You really do love her. Huh.” He seemed genuinely surprised, but the expression was swiftly replaced with a triumphant smirk. The Stargazer sneered, “You accept the price?”

Hades snarled but his face was set determinedly. His eyes held all the blackness of the void as he spat “One. Chain. Only.”

The information flooded through him and he disappeared again with a thunderous crack. Once Hades was gone, the Stargazer sighed “Fool. I would have helped her for nothing.”

* * *

Kali shrieked and dropped to the ground. Even as the dirt scoured even more skin from her shoulders, it would hopefully do the same for the acid that was searing into her flesh. Her skin burned and blistered and, in places, fell away. Even as she felt the creature approaching, her fear and blood a pungent odour it would follow, she nearly lost consciousness from the pain.

How she managed to start moving again, she would never know.

She knew that hydras had poisonous breath and venomous fangs, but spitting acid? Sure, she had cut off its head in possibly the most painful way, but this was just unnecessary! One of her knives was useless and melted beyond recognition. She only had one weapon, and two heads to go. Why, oh why, didn’t she have a goddamn sword!

Kali’s breathing was coming in shallow bursts now and her vision was spotted. She had used three of the diamonds so far, but they were only giving her a minimal advantage. This creature didn’t rely on eyesight the way humans did. Each of the heads seemed to be modelled after a different snake, and one of them had pits on each side of its head which Kali recognised from her time in the safari park. The pits would sense infrared light, heat, like night vision goggles. The diamonds may bend the light away from her, but they couldn’t hide her own body heat.

That was the head she was going after next.

Using her fire would slow down the creature’s regenerative abilities significantly, but if she didn’t hurry it would still get its head back before she was finished. A hydra would only fall once all of its heads were gone. She needed to pick up the pace.

The pain flared with every tiny movement, but she needed to keep moving. Kali knew if she stopped, she would die. It was as simple as that. Hopefully, she had enough regenerative energy of her own to regrow the skin. She tripped, her legs getting heavier by the second, but staggered up and kept running. Still invisible, only one head could pinpoint her exact location. So she used the other head to block herself from view.

She danced around it like that for a few seconds before leaping as high as she could into the air, aiming for the snake’s neck. The wing designs on her boots suddenly burst free from the leather. Kali cried out, drawing the hydra’s immediate attention and ire, but the boots carried her much faster than she could have moved alone. Before she or the hydra knew what had happened, her knife was embedded in its throat.

As with the first head, Kali drew on the fire that her pain was only feeding. A white jet extended from the blade, through the thick neck. She screamed at the effort it took to tear the knife through the leathery hide. But just like the first head, this one fell to the ground with a horrendous, acrid smell.

Without any kind of command, the boots dragged Kali back and out of the way of the final head. She struggled for balance, but this was much easier if she didn’t fight it. The boots clearly had a mind of their own. Kali startled herself when a laughed bubbled from her chest. She was more light-headed than she had thought.

With the help of her flying boots, and one more diamond that she crushed between her fingers, the last head should be no trouble at all. Both of her knives were misshapen and distorted, but they were only a means to an end in this fight. The poor mutilated blades only had to pierce the hydra once more, and they did not fail her. As before, she decapitated the final head and cauterised the wound in one swift move.

And in another swift move, she dropped down to the ground and fell to her front. Cheers rose around her but this time she could not move to join them. She was panting weakly into the dirt and her mind roved over her body, taking stock of the damage.

Her ankle was swollen, and her legs felt as bruised as the rest of her, but they seemed mostly uninjured. Many of the scrapes and scratches on her arms were at least partially healed. But she was certain she had at least two broken ribs. And her shoulder was still on fire, threatening to blot out everything else. Her throat felt like it was in shreds, and swallowing was all but impossible. Her head was killing her, probably from the times it had smacked against the floor during her fights.

How long had it been since she had eaten, or slept? It felt like days, but it couldn’t be. Every muscle shook with the effort it took her to push back onto her knees. She was vaguely aware of the cheers rising, and a group of people chanting her name. She stared blindly around her and stayed put. She wouldn’t have been able to stand, even if she could gather the energy to care.

A face swam into view and Kali was confronted with dark red eyes and cracked grey skin. Thick lips stretched into a manic smile as Eris examined her. Instead of her usual cackle, Eris chortled. Kali didn’t even flinch as the goddess’ fetid breath wafted into her face. Eris straightened up to her full height, well over six feet, and called “Bring the griffin.”

“Griffin.” Kali whispered the word with awe, hoping she hadn’t heard right.

When a shadow blocked out most of the arena floor, she knew that her prayers had fallen on deaf ears. The torches went out, plunging the cavern into darkness. But Kali could see the talons the size of machetes, and massive paws, scrambling around her. Bucking and twisting in its chains was the largest creature she had ever seen. It was impossible. She hadn’t seen it come into the arena, and she had no idea how it had entered. There was no way it would have gotten through the gate.

Kali’s eyes fell on the thick, heavy chain that was bolted to the centre of the arena floor. Her eyes moved slowly over each link, all the way up to the barbaric metal collar on the majestic creature in front of her. It twisted and struggled, crying out in frustration and anguish. The cry was fearsome but heart-wrenching.

Watching the griffin struggle, Kali knew that she wouldn’t be able to fight it. Even if she would be remotely capable of hurting this magnificent creature, she certainly didn’t have the heart. But the way it was writhing, it could easily trample her regardless of her intentions. She wouldn’t be fast enough to get out of the way. Especially slumped on the arena floor where she was.

Instead, Kali closed her eyes and tried to reach out to the griffin with her mind. It seemed beyond distressed at the binds and tears ran unabashedly down Kali’s cheeks. It wasn’t pity that coloured her emotions, but a deep and endless sorrow. A sorrow laced with an ancient rage deep within her. Who would chain a creature so inherently free?

She had tried to open her mind to the griffin but that seemed only to draw its attention to her. It lunged at her, but her Kali didn’t falter. She was actually glad that she was so exhausted because her reaction time was sluggish. Instead of flinching or grabbing for her weapons, she sat where she was and watched with a calm she did not feel.

Harsh, calculating eyes pierced her. Kali endeavoured to communicate that she would not hurt the creature, though the idea that she could was laughable at best. Even so, the reassurance slowed it and it drew close enough that Kali could see every detail in its thick, storm-grey feathers. Striking golden eyes narrowed, considering her, but it was uncertain. Her mind felt honest, but she was soaked in blood and it had endured much in this place.

The griffin struggled uselessly and glared at her. It didn’t take an animal whisperer to know what it wanted. Needed. A creature of the sky should never be chained to the ground. Kali struggled to her feet as slowly as possible, but a sharp clatter in the cavern startled it into acting. It lunged forwards, straight for Kali, and she felt warmth surround her.

As the griffin trilled and cooed its confusion, Kali found herself standing at its side, nearer the smooth transition of feather to fur. Her boots carried her upwards and she landed slowly on the creature’s back. Her hands disappeared in the soft stormy feathers between the wing joints. The physical contact made it easier to connect to its consciousness, and she dared not waste time lest it buck her off.

You are so beautiful. She sent towards the griffin on a whisper. Her heart was breaking at the sight of the shackles, carving into the fur. Its back legs were chained along with the collar, and on closer inspection she could see the blood staining its fur and feathers. Everything inside her screamed that someone had bound this beast. A tiny, tentative plea echoed back through the limited connection.

Kali’s rage blotted out everything else. Such a creature, reduced to a plaything for a minor god. A pitiful coward who wouldn’t even fight for herself. She reached forwards to touch the collar and it disappeared, shattering into dust. Every link followed like a chain reaction and the griffin reared back, tossing Kali to the ground, immediately taking to the sky.

But there was nowhere to go. It was an enclosed space and the griffin was still trapped there with them. Kali hadn’t thought that far ahead, and she covered her mouth to smother the sob that escaped. There was no way out.

With no option of escape, the griffin set its sights on destroying the one that had put it in chains. It flew like a bullet towards Eris and Kali had never seen such a terrifying and magnificent sight. If Eris were killed, would they be able to get out?

Her hopes were dashed before they were even fully formed when a single blow of the goddess’ midnight blade sent the griffin hurtling back. A scream tore itself from Kali’s throat and warmth surrounded her again. She was immediately at the creature’s side, whispering to it to stay calm. Promising that she would heal it and they would both be free.

Her hands grew hot against the feathers covering the griffin’s chest. The wound wasn’t deep, but it seemed to paralyse the creature. Soon. She whispered into its mind, stroking its ruffled feathers. I swear you will be free of this place soon.

Nails dug into her scalp as Eris hauled her up and away from the griffin. “You broke our agreement.” She snarled, the hot breath on Kali’s neck making her skin crawl. She didn’t have to suffer that discomfort for long; Eris threw her back against the other side of the arena. Kali’s earlier injuries all flared back to life and she looked up blearily to see Eris approaching the griffin.

“COWARD!” Kali was on her feet and her voice was the only sound in the cavern. For several aching seconds, the goddess just stared at her. But Kali could see the hatred building in her eyes. “Is that why you send your pets? You’re afraid that a puny demigod will get the best of you? Face me yourself!”

Time seemed to stop as Eris appeared directly in front of her. Kali had just enough time to know in her soul that she was in serious trouble before a hefty boot made contact with her stomach. She flew back into the arena wall and dropped to the floor. She valiantly struggled to her feet but immediately dropped again. She felt like she had been hit by a train.

“I guess Ares was holding back more than I thought.” She choked on a laugh and immediately regretted it. She coughed and spat blood onto the dirt as Eris stepped in front of her again. Her hand fumbled desperately in the dirt around her and closed around the broken horn of the minotaur. A calloused hand gripped her throat. As the goddess pulled her up, crushing her throat just as hard as the minotaur had earlier on, Kali managed to ram the horn deep into the fleshy area between Eris’ neck and shoulder.

Her success was short-lived when Eris sneered in her face. The hand at her throat loosened slightly, giving Kali a brief reprieve. But before she could blink, Eris drove her fist into Kali’s stomach. The blow alone sent her hurtling backwards again. That time, Kali’s head cracked against the railing of the gate, and she collapsed in a heap.

As she gasped for air, spots clouding over her vision, she heard a familiar voice say her name. Though she had never heard that tone of alarm from him, she recognised it immediately and snarled. She was NOT close enough to death for last words for the God of War. Not now, not ever.

Fury and dread filled her with equal measure, infusing her with strength. Heat scorched her from the inside out and she shuddered with the intensity of it. As Eris stood over her once more, a flash of fire burst from her and blasted the goddess back. But it didn’t end there.

A tornado of scorching blue flames swirled furiously around Kali. They shot into the sky like a beacon and the roof began to crumble above them. Sunlight poured in, bathing Kali in its brilliance, and her feet lifted from the ground. Her hair was flowing out around her and her eyes were glowing the same golden colour that was now intertwined within the fire.

Those terrible gold eyes snapped back to Eris’ face, divine Judgement, and radiant flames entombed the goddess. The sound of her screams filled the arena. The demigods could just make out the shape of the goddess writhing on the floor as she was consumed. It only took seconds for her to disappear completely, crumbling away into white ash.

Kali glanced at the cage and it disintegrated around the demigods in an instant at her silent Command. Most of them fled, as afraid of her as they had been of their captives. Maybe even more so. Ben, however, staggered forwards and called out to her.

At least, she assumed that’s what he was doing. She couldn’t hear anything over the roaring in her ears. Her thoughts were swirling around in her head too quickly for her to keep up. Every inch of her was on fire, inside and out, and it hurt more than she could even comprehend. As soon as it began to register, her world tipped sideways and she plummeted out of the sky. The whirlwind of fire began ebbing away and the world went white. Kali was unconscious before she hit the floor.

___

Epilogue

In one of the many forgotten corners of the world, there stood a sinister structure. Surrounded by endless deserts and dunes, it was all but invisible to those who didn’t know the markers. A lone figure stepped out of thin air a few feet from the entrance. Despite the blistering heat, he wore a heavy black robe with a hood that fell over half his face.

The man sprinted, flailing unceremoniously through the thick sands, towards the looming building. Once at the long smooth wall, he bent double to catch his breath. A shaky hand reached out to a seemingly random place on the wall. He knocked a strange combination, cursed loudly, and then tried again. It took four attempts for him to be rewarded with a click and a hiss.

The sandstone wall slid aside, revealing a long wooden corridor. The floor was polished mahogany, and the walls were lined with similar panels. There were no lights, and no decorations. Just that long, empty corridor.

A group of robed figures swept towards him, moving silently but for the swish of their cloaks on the floor. The one in front drew himself up and asked, in a booming voice, “What was so urgent that you abandoned your post to report it?”

“This has better be good, overseer.” Another added, cold amusement curling around the words. “I’m sure you remember what happens when you disappoint him.”

Though the other men were all talking at normal volume, the newcomer hurried in close to whisper hurriedly to each of them. The silence that followed was absolute. Several seconds passed before they all started speaking over each other in a panic. Hardly any words were audible until one spluttered “How could a demigod get the better of her?”

“Eris was reckless. Careless. Maybe she just underestimated them?” One suggested, at an obvious loss for other possibilities.

“That shouldn’t have made a difference!” Another replied angrily, insisting “It was a demigod.” The final word was spat out with clear disdain.

“Maybe she went easy on them? They got lucky.” A fourth man muttered, sounding much more laid back than the rest. He even put his hands behind his head as they continued sweeping through the hallway.

Desperation tinged the next response as the first man, the shortest and youngest, said “Maybe a god snuck in, disguised as a mortal?”

A low mutter “She was stupid, but not that stupid.” There were some noises of agreement until one decisively hissed, “Clearly she was!”

A smooth voice that brought horror to the collaborators declared “You all have too little to do if you have time for gossiping.” A serpentine tongue darted from his mouth to moisten his lips, which were stretched into an unsettling smile. “Please, do share with the class.”

“My lord.” The voices chorused in near unison. The one robed figure, the smallest of the group, that spoke a second too late cowered under the piercing glare of their master.

Once he was satisfied with his minions’ quivering, the man turned back to the one he deemed the leader of the group. His dark robe was embroidered subtly with threads of orange and blue, designating his rank. After an expectant pause, the acid green eyes of their master narrowed. “There is news?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Then tell it.” Each word was punctuated, but a low hiss underlined them.

An almost imperceptible tremor passed through the speaker and the group held their breaths. “Eris…has fallen.” He offered simply.

A cunning smile shadowed his lips, though his expression hardly appeared to change. His beguiling voice was silky, and a plot was already forming in his eyes. “Which one of them interfered?”

Dreading the outcome, the speaker hesitated a moment too long and was met with a backhand. Startled, he whimpered “It wasn’t one of the gods, sir.”

Silence. And then, “Explain.”

The only man that had remained silent in their earlier whispers stepped forward and knelt swiftly, his head bowed low. “Forgive me, my lord, but one of the demigods rose up against her. I saw everything. She defeated your hydra, charmed the griffin, and then burned Eris away into nothing.”

“You were the overseer?” Calm and measured, he sounded even deadlier than usual.

To his credit, he did not flinch. His head bowed deeper over his knee and he replied steadily, “Yes, my lord.”

Every man held their breath. Their master was known to be cruel when it suited him, and this was a mistake that someone would have to pay for. After several agonizing minutes, there was still no change to the expression on his stony face. No one dared to move.

But he surprised them. He raised his head to the ceiling, and he laughed. That sound alone was more terrifying than what they had faced in their initiations. “Finally.” He breathed, a horrible glee etched across his face. “Back to your posts; we have work to do.” Acid eyes glowed in the unlit passage. “My sister is awake.”

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