I SHOOK out my hands and stepped from foot to foot, the sand and grass squishing under my sandaled feet. My skin was slick with an overly sweet sweat, and my stomach churned. I adjusted the metal helmet on my head, the heavy horsehair making it feel unbalanced, and patted the clasps of my cuirass and fingered the leather flaps. Earlier, my slaves had shaved my body and rubbed me down with pomegranate oil, polishing my skin into living bronze.
I stood in the middle of a chaotic mass of students, all outfitted for battle. The match took place on a bluff overlooking the Vathia Ocean. A dangerous and welcoming storm churned above, and the wind whipped the sparse grass on the wide plain. Through the roiling black clouds, his presence lit my soul, and I closed my eyes and drank in the radiance of being this close to my father. Zeus’s realm was in the heavens, and today we would share its power.
My father rarely monitored these matches, since they were only small contests for the academy, but he had agreed to preside over this one, because I had turned eighteen a week before and was finally able to compete. As coming-of-age gifts, my mother had given me the golden wool cloak I wore, and my father had given me my sword, made by Hephaestus.
A god-blade fit for Perseus, a son of Zeus. I was a man.
Lightning cut through the clouds, and thunder cracked. That was the signal.
The ranks shuddered, and as a mass everyone sprinted toward the middle of the clearing. The skirt of my tunic slid across my legs as I flowed with the tide, my sword and shield at the ready. I took up the battle cry, our shouts covering the noise of our rattling armor. I knew I was yelling at the top of my lungs—I could feel my breath in my chest, throat, mouth, and as it passed my lips—but I couldn’t hear myself through the cacophony of voices.
I sent my consciousness into the sky, and the air pulsed and churned around me. Zeus’s voice was the thunder, and his presence saturated the clouds. With each boom my insides trembled with the fear of being among the gods ingrained in all mortals, but I also felt a pleasant sense of nostalgia, memories of playing with my father in the storms as a boy. We hadn’t played together for a long time. I ground my teeth and grinned.
The teams collided at inhuman speeds. With little thought, I created a gradient in the air currents and used the resulting tunnel of wind to sweep away all those with red tabards in my path, plus one unfortunate teammate in blue. They tumbled from me, pinwheeling wildly from my course, and I laughed.
As I opened myself to the air, my ears popped and the hair on my arms tingled and stood up. Bortos, a boy in red, charged toward me and then disappeared into a cloud of darkness. Quickly, I drew a line from the sky to where I guessed he would be and split a path for the energy to follow.
Lightning seared into the inky cloud.
The air crashed back to equilibrium, and I felt rather than heard the concussive force of thunder that resulted. The black cloud dissipated, and Bortos slumped to the earth, smoking, and was still. As I stepped past him, the smell of burned flesh tinged the air.
My father would make sure none of us died from our injuries.
Tremors in the ground were my only warning before a towering figure, who could only be half giant, stomped into view, and I barely leaped to the side before I was almost kicked like a ball. I rolled to my feet and readied my sword and shield.
Wearing blue, Zoticus, the dark and gargantuan son of Ares, stalked up and took on the challenge instead. With a manic gleam in his black eyes, he charged, slamming into the giant. I raised a brow and turned to find another fight. Those two could handle it without me.
A shift in the air sent me into a reflexive crouch, and I flung my shield up. Metal clanked against metal—a blur flew past overhead. Seizing the storm, I anchored lightning through my flying opponent.
With a flash and a crack, the flyer plummeted out of sight. The air bloomed with the sharp smell of heaven’s smoke.
I had only a moment to recover when Selene, a daughter of Poseidon, marched in my direction, her pale blonde hair tied up in a Thessalian knot and her silvery arms covered in rust-colored smudges. Moving as quicksilver, she pulled back her arm, shaped it into a sword, and thrust it toward my head.
I flinched and squeezed my eyes shut as her sword arm breezed by my face.
Opening my eyes, I glanced to my side and followed the length of her weapon. Her arm seemingly disappeared into translucent space near the ground. She leaned forward as if she was pushing something down. I stared, fascinated. Invisibility was rare—it seemed as though I was looking from the other side of a glass, the grass indenting and light bending.
Selene jerked her arm back, her silvery fingers now dripping with blood. She wiped them on her blue tabard, leaving dark red smears.
“Thanks,” I said.
She considered me for a moment with mercurial eyes and then nodded. “You’re welcome, Perseus.” She moved back into the masses with her liquid grace.
The world rocked and pulsed, and color flashed everywhere. Explosions of fire dotted the hillside, and the giant hurled someone over the side of the cliff and into the sea. A flash of blond hair and a blue tabard disappeared over the edge. Palamedes, maybe? I wasn’t sure what had happened to Zoticus.
Thinking no one would challenge me on whether or not it was cheating, I shot my awareness into the storm, asking for a cyclone from my father—one of the benefits of sharing a similar power with my divine parent.
Immediately, gale-force winds dropped on my head, squeezing me. I used the currents to swirl myself up into the air, spinning as I reached the top. Getting high enough so I could observe the entire field, I stabilized the flow of air to keep myself stationary. Sheet lightning periodically blinded me, and thunder threatened to tear me apart. The storm stretched all the way to the coastal mountains and far out to sea, the water gray and roiling. My hair whipped my neck, and I laughed as I scorched the landscape with lightning, attempting to only hit the red team.
The winds wavered, and I panicked and juggled the currents but was no longer able to support myself.
I dropped out of the air. The wind rushed by my face as I fell, and I couldn’t get my legs under me. I hit the earth with a thump.
I barely managed to hang on to my weapons as my vision blurred. I gasped in a few breaths and leaped up into a defensive stance, trying to recover my wits and warily looking around me. My face flushed. I hoped no one had seen that.
The way clear, I kept an eye to the skies and shot down another flying opponent. Absorbed in throwing bolt after electric bolt, I didn’t notice the hissing approaching me until it was almost too late. I turned to face the rearing mass of green and black and narrowly dodged a viper strike. In one smooth motion, I dragged my blade across two of the snakes’ necks, but the instant my sword penetrated their scales, they vanished. Too late, I realized the snakes were illusions.
I sensed movement behind me, but before I could turn, I was hit. A clanging rang through my head, and my vision exploded with colors. The ringing overwhelmed my ears as my world faded to black. The last thing I remembered was how sharp the grass was on my face, as if they were tiny swords.
A ROCKING motion jarred me. The movement was followed by a clanking of metal and then another bump, and distant talking. I awoke on the floor of a wagon. The sun was out, and birds were singing. The storm was gone, and so was my father.
I opened my eyes slowly, my vision blurring. The wagon jolted me again, and I puffed out a groan, trying to move my arms. I became aware that I was lying on them, now awkwardly askew and numb. I shifted and released my limbs, grunting as pins and needles spread and faded. I had been dumped on my weapons, and my helmet had been removed.
I hauled myself to a sitting position against the side of the wagon, and my head spun sickeningly. My stomach lurched, and I threw my head over the side, gut spasmodically heaving hot, sour liquid into the swirling dirt below. I scrambled to get my knees under me, clenched my eyes shut, and tried to wait it out, my breath hitching.
Light laughter, maybe my name, and some words I couldn’t process drifted to my ears as my head seemed to swell with hot air. My stomach lurched again, and I dry heaved before my head stopped spinning. The bumping of the wagon wasn’t helping. I panted, spitting in the dust.
At last the dizziness passed, and I slumped to the floor with a groan. I wiped my mouth on my leather arm guard, and then slowly moved my head around, and when that went all right, I felt gingerly at the sore spot on the back of my head. It was tender, and pressing on it sent a sparkle of lights across my vision, but otherwise I appeared to be all right. I ran my hands through my long wavy hair, but there wasn’t any blood, and I didn’t think I had any broken bones.
Lying next to me was my helmet, and I picked it up, marveling. It had a huge dent in the back, and with its concave shape, I couldn’t figure out how they had taken it off my head. I dropped it in disgust.
Realizing I wasn’t alone, I lowered my gaze. In the wagon were several people curled up here and there and piles of armor. A hairy dwarf was balled up an arm’s length away from me, his weapons dumped over him. Across from me sat a woman with flaming red hair and a man wearing full plate. I didn’t know either of them. My mother had told me that in order to get enough participants to create two teams, she’d had to send out invitations to all of the kingdoms.
My heart sank. I was the only student from the academy in the sick wagon. I rested my forehead on my knees, feeling my cheeks burn. At my age and with my abilities, I should be in Advanced Gymnasium, but I knew I was short for a demigod… and weak. My slaves had shaved my face this morning, but they hadn’t needed to. I was sure there was something wrong with me, and my mother strongly hinted for me to go see a cleric, but I had refused.
The woman’s arm was a bleeding mess, with rags wrapped around it and her blue dress stained brown, and the man had a makeshift splint on his leg over his armor. They were both covered in bloody scratches and had crumpled red tabards next to them. They caught me eyeing them.
“Hail, Son of Zeus!”
I lifted my hand in greeting. “Hail. Are we heading back? Is the match over? Who won?”
The blue team had won, so my shoulders eased a bit. The human man and the woman, a daughter of Eos, were from northern Epiro. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, even though they admitted that they had gotten completely cut up by a fair-haired boy in blue who wielded swords like spinning shark’s teeth.
I laughed. “That was Palamedes. He knows how to use anything as a weapon.” I made a face. “Sometimes he shows off and attacks us with grapes and candlesticks.”
Palamedes and Zoticus were both in Advanced Gymnasium, but I was in Intermediate, so I rarely got to see them fight. On top of that, they trained separately and weren’t allowed to fight against one another, since their island realms had been at war for centuries. It had been a treat to see them in action. I was sorry I had missed them attacking the giant.
By the time we arrived at the academy, I had pretty much recovered. We rolled up to the white-pillared buildings, and I hopped out of the wagon. I only had a slight headache, so when the clerics approached me in their long robes, arms outstretched in an offer of healing, I waved them away and went inside. I marched upstairs to wash up, and then met everyone in the mess hall to celebrate.
Picking a table near a corner, I slid onto a bench with my tray. My food was lit by the white light coming from Antolios’s eyes, exposing all of the shadows of my stewed greens and fish.
“Hey.” I glanced at him as I shoveled in a bite.
“Hey,” Antolios said.
A roar went up, and we both turned our heads toward the middle of the room. Visitors and students held up cups of wine and challenged each other to drink. Leonidas stood on a table and spread his wings, spinning around and slapping people with white feathers. Antolios picked up his cup with long pale fingers and drank deeply of his wine.
“Weren’t you on the blue team?” I said.
“Aye.” He took a bite of fish.
“I didn’t see you.”
“I was there,” he said around a mouthful. He brushed a loose strand of curly golden hair from his face and put it behind his ear.
I grunted. I wasn’t sure why I bothered with the son of Apollo. My head throbbed at my temples and I lost my appetite, so I slid off the bench and ambled toward the kegs of wine.
Palamedes stepped in front of me. His golden hair was wet against his head, but his clothes were dry, and the only thing marring his handsome face was the sneer tugging at the corner of his pink lips. “Hey, Sparky, I heard you got dumped in the sick wagon.” The students collecting around us laughed. “And you threw up.” His smirk grew.
“Get out of my way, Palamedes.” A flush crept up my neck as I tried to push past him.
Palamedes thrust a hand out, and I crashed into it. He glared down at me with the most beautiful green eyes I had ever seen. “You shouldn’t have been allowed to play. You could get hurt.” He formed a fist, and when I balled mine, he threw his head back and laughed. “What are you going to do to me, Sparky?”
A deep voice rumbled behind me. “Leave him alone.”
I gazed up into Zoticus’s black face and forked black beard. Even though he was younger than me, he was humongous. Turning to Palamedes, I smiled and placed my fists on my hips.
“You had a nice bath in the ocean, Son of Aphrodite,” Zoticus said. “Was that not enough to cool you off?” His voice was mild, but it vibrated through my chest.
Palamedes scowled and stomped past us, leaving the mess. Now that the altercation was over, the group around them broke up with a disappointed sigh and wandered back to the party.
I turned to Zoticus. “Thanks.”
“Any time.” Zoticus slapped a huge palm on my shoulder. His skin was so dark it reminded me of obsidian, and his big black eyes were soft as he bent his boxy head to mine. “How long were you out?”
I shrugged and dropped my gaze to my feet. “Since after I was in that cyclone?”
“Did you get healed?”
His thick brows were lowered in concern when I glanced back up. “My father would have healed me if I was in trouble.”
“Hm.” Zoticus straightened and guided me to the door. “Let’s go to the infirmary anyway.”
“I’m sure I’m fine.”
We strolled out of the mess toward the medical wing. “Probably,” Zoticus said.
After getting healed, my headache disappeared, but in more ways I felt worse. Even though my team had won, as I walked out of the infirmary, I couldn’t help but feel as if my first match had been a failure. I had known most of the students since we were small children, but I was still getting picked on by some and coddled by others. I trudged upstairs to my private rooms and spent the rest of the night alone.