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.
Kali pressed a 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 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 suddenly 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.
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