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.
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 out-muscle 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?
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.
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