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?”
“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 the 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. Heroes. The examples of everything a demigod could hope to become. Holding her breath, Kali vowed she would not waste the opportunity.
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