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.
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