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|Killer Frost(Mythos Academy #6) by Jennifer Estep|
I’d gone through about half of the artifacts when I stopped and looked over at Linus. “Are you sure that what the Reapers want is on this table? That nothing was left behind at the airport? Or lost somewhere along the way? Because there is nothing here that justifies the sort of massive, full-scale attack they launched this afternoon.”
Linus’s thoughtful gaze moved from one artifact to another. “This is everything we recovered from the Reaper ski lodge in New York, as well as a few more items that we discovered and confiscated from other hiding places. It has to be here somewhere.”
I nodded, sighed again, and reached for the next artifact.
Another hour passed, and I still didn’t have any luck. I put down the latest sword I’d flashed on and looked down. Five more objects lay on the table. I sighed, a little louder and deeper this time. The way my luck was going right now, the mystery object would be the very last thing I picked up. Naturally.
So I shuffled forward and grabbed the next artifact, a small, slender, half-used candle made out of white beeswax that had belonged to Sol, the Norse goddess of the sun—
And I immediately knew that I had finally found what the Reapers were after.
For a moment, my vision went absolutely, blazingly, blindingly white, as if I were staring straight into a star. Then, heat blasted over me, so hot, searing, and scorching that I felt like I was holding the sun itself in the palm of my hand. The intense light dimmed down to a single spark—white-hot and beating steadily, almost like a heart. In fact, it seemed as if that single, solitary spark contained all of the candle’s magic, condensed down to one bright, glistening point. But it wasn’t only heat and light that the candle offered. It was power, it was strength.
It was life.
All I could do was stand there, clutching the candle, and let the intense rush of power wash over me again and again, each wave a little hotter and brighter than the one before, and sweeping more and more of me away with it, as though the violet spark at the center of my being was melting like the white wax of the candle should have been. It took my breath away. Still, try as I might, I couldn’t make myself let go of the candle, I couldn’t unwrap my fingers from the smooth wax, and I knew that I was in serious danger of falling so far down into the artifact and the immense power it contained that I might never come back to myself again. I felt like I was drowning in the heat, being burned alive from the inside out . . .
A cool bit of metal pressed into my palm, and I realized that I was clutching the silver laurel and mistletoe bracelet with my free hand. The sharp tip of one of the leaves had pricked my palm, drawing a drop of blood. Somehow, despite the intense heat, light, and power that the candle was giving off, the bracelet remained strangely cool and untouched by the other artifact’s magic . . .
But the sharp prick cut through the waves of power and helped me come back to myself. I shuddered out a breath and managed to open my eyes. Sure enough, I was clutching the candle in my right hand, but my left hand had wrapped around the laurel bracelet on my wrist. I kept one hand on the bracelet, letting the feel of the cool metal ground me, as I carefully set the candle back down onto the table. It took me several more seconds before I managed to uncurl my fingers from around the white wax and step back, out of reach of the candle. Because right now, I wanted nothing more than to pick it up again, to feel all of that heat and power and life coursing through me.
“Well, Gwendolyn?” Nickamedes asked. “What did you see?”
“This,” I said, pointing at the candle and not daring to touch it again with my bare hands. “This is what the Reapers are after.”
Linus, Metis, and Nickamedes all leaned forward, peering at the candle. It looked the same as before, a slender taper of snow-white wax that had burned halfway down. I shuddered and averted my gaze from it, not even wanting to look at it right now. I’d held a lot of powerful objects since coming to Mythos, but the candle was one of the strongest—and most dangerous.
“Are you sure, Miss Frost?” Linus said. “It doesn’t look like much.”
“Trust me, looks can be deceiving, especially in this case.”
I shivered again, thinking of the immense power that had flowed through me, that steady, white, burning spark of strength. If not for the laurel leaf on my bracelet digging into my palm, I might have drowned in that intense heat, in that sense of absolute, utter, unstoppable power. I might have been lost forever, my mind trapped by the candle’s overwhelming sensations, and never been able to find my way back to myself.
I fingered one of the leaves, wondering why the bracelet had remained cool against my skin when every other part of me had felt like I was burning alive.
Maybe because Eir had told me that the silver laurels could be used to destroy as well as to heal? I wondered if whatever magic the leaves contained was enough to overcome the power flowing through the candle. Or at least counteract it in some way. That was the only explanation I could think of.
“Hmm,” Nickamedes said, pushing his chair back and getting up from the table.
He shuffled off into another part of the basement, and I could hear his cane tap-tap-tapping as he moved from one aisle and one shelf to the next. A few minutes later, the librarian reappeared, cradling a thick, slightly dusty book in one hand. He put the book down onto the table, then started flipping through it. The old, worn pages crackled as he slowly turned them, and a faint, musty odor drifted up from the book, one that reminded me of the soft scent that always seemed to cling to the corners of the deepest part of the stacks on the main library floor.
“Where is it . . . where is it . . .” Nickamedes muttered to himself as he flipped through the pages. “Yes . . . yes. Here it is.”
He cleared his throat and began to read.
“The Curing Candle of Sol, the Norse goddess of the sun, is thought to be one of the most powerful artifacts in existence, one of the Thirteen Artifacts that helped the Pantheon win the Chaos War centuries ago, since its magic was used to heal many warriors on the field during the final battle. However, after that battle, it disappeared and was thought to be lost forever. Many reproductions have surfaced over the years, but none have been the genuine article.”
Metis stared at the candle. “So how do we know this one isn’t a fake as well?”
I thought of the great, burning, terrible power that had filled me the second I had touched the smooth wax. “Trust me. That one is the real deal.”
Nickamedes cleared his throat again and continued with his reading.
“What makes the candle unique is that it is filled with the healing power of both the sun and the goddess Sol herself. Whoever holds the candle will reap those benefits—finding strength, health, and vitality. It is thought that the power of the candle is so strong, it can heal any wound, no matter how severe. There are some who believe that the candle can even bring the dead back to life . . .”
Nickamedes’s voice trailed off. He read a bit more to himself, then shook his head and looked up from the book. “That’s the most important passage. The rest speculates on the history of the artifact, and some of the people who may or may not have used it over the years.”
We all stared at the candle again. Not for the first time, I wondered how something so small and innocentlooking could contain such great power. How had the Reapers found it? Where had they uncovered it? Did they even realize what it was before the Pantheon had seized it, along with the other artifacts at the ski lodge up in New York? I didn’t know the answers to my questions, and I supposed they didn’t really matter. What did was that we had the candle—and that the Reapers wanted it. And now, we all knew exactly what they planned to do with it.
“So the Reapers think the candle will return Loki to his full strength.” I spat out the words. “They failed in trying to put his soul into Logan’s body, and they didn’t get their hands on the Chloris ambrosia flower to heal him. So now, they’re coming after the candle and hoping it will finally do the job.”
Silence. No one said anything, but we all knew how bad it would be if the Reapers ever got their hands on the candle.
Finally, Linus cleared his throat and turned to Nickamedes. “How soon can you put the candle on display in the library?” he asked. “Out in the middle of the main floor, someplace where everyone can see it.”
Nickamedes frowned. “But why would you . . .” Understanding flared in his blue eyes.
He, Metis, and Linus all looked at each other, grim expressions on their faces.
“Are you out of your mind?” I hissed, finishing the librarian’s thought. “Why in the world would you want to put the candle on display? Um, hello, there are Reapers everywhere at Mythos, despite all the statues and other magic that is supposed to keep them out. You put that candle on view, and you are just asking for it to get stolen . . .”
My gaze zoomed over to the candle, which was still sitting on the table. Then, I looked at Linus, finally understanding what he was really up to. “You want to use the candle as a trap. That’s why you want to put it on display. So the Reapers will come after it.”
He nodded. “Exactly right, Miss Frost. If what you and Nickamedes say is true, then the Reapers will have no choice but to try to steal the candle from the library. As you’ve said, they’ve run out of options trying to heal Loki from his time spent in Helheim. So they’ll come after the candle, and we’ll be waiting for them when they do.”
I shook my head. “No. No way. It will backfire on you. Things always do when the Reapers are involved. Vivian and Agrona will find some way to get their hands on the candle, no matter how many guards you put around it or how clever your trap is.”
Linus’s face darkened, and anger shimmered in his pale blue eyes. “And Agrona and Vivian are precisely the reasons I’m doing this. The two of them are the leaders of the Reapers. If we manage to capture or kill them, then we can stop the second Chaos War before it ever really gets started.”
Loki’s face loomed up in my mind the way it had so many times over the past few weeks. One side of his face so smooth and perfect with its rippling golden hair, chiseled cheekbone, and piercing blue eye. The other side so ruined and melted with its limp strings of black hair, smushed skin, and burning red orb. All put together, his features were horrible and twisted, the stuff of nightmares. But they weren’t nearly as rotten as his soul—and the evil god’s burning desire to kill or enslave every single member of the Pantheon, starting with me.
Sure, capturing or even killing Vivian and Agrona would severely hurt the Reapers, but there was no stopping the coming war—not until Loki was dead. And I knew that letting the Reapers so much as look at the candle would lead to nothing but trouble.
“But you don’t understand—” I started.
Linus made a sharp motion with his hand, cutting me off. He straightened up to his full height, his gray Protectorate robe elegantly hanging off his shoulders as though he were some sort of ancient king, imposing and in command.
“I’m sorry, Miss Frost, but my decision has been made,” Linus said. “We’re putting the candle on display as soon as possible. The Reapers can try to steal it at their peril.”
I argued with Linus some more—okay, okay, until I started to lose my voice—but I didn’t change his mind. The Protectorate leader saw this as a way to finally turn the tide against the Reapers, and he wasn’t about to pass it up. Part of me understood where he was coming from, but the other part of me thought he was just being stupid. If he was smart, if the Protectorate was smart, then Linus, Nickamedes, and Metis would figure out some way to destroy the candle for good, so that Loki could never, ever get his hands on it. Not put it out in the main part of the library for all the Reapers to see— and start plotting a way to steal it and take it to the evil god.
But there was nothing I could do, and an hour later, I found myself leaning against one of the walls of the library’s office complex, watching Nickamedes hand a glass case over to Raven, who was one of the more unusual staff members at the academy.
Raven was an old woman with a face full of wrinkles and long white hair that seemed to melt into her floorlength white gown. In contrast, her eyes were as black, bright, and shiny as a Black roc’s, while faint, white scars marred her hands and arms, as though she’d been in a fire long ago. Today, she had a black leather belt bristling with hammers, screwdrivers, and other tools slung low around her hips. It matched the black combat boots she always wore. Apparently, putting together artifact cases was another one of her many odd jobs around the academy, like running the coffee cart in the library, sitting in the infirmary, or watching over any Reapers who were being kept in the prison at the bottom of the math-science building.
Raven was stronger than she looked because she lifted up the heavy glass case with no visible effort and carefully set it on top of Sol’s candle. Raven secured the glass to the wooden stand, locking the artifact away. She dusted off her hands, turned, and realized I was watching her. She paused a second, then nodded at me. I nodded back. I’d never heard Raven utter so much as a single word, and a nod was about as friendly as she’d ever been to me. I always meant to ask Nickamedes or Metis if they’d ever actually heard her speak, or if she even could speak, but I’d never gotten around to it.
Still, I stared at Raven as she walked past me. For a moment, her face seemed to flicker like, well, a candle flame, as though she was wearing a mask of wrinkles, and there was a younger, prettier face lurking underneath her old, wizened features. I blinked, and the image was gone, snuffed out like that same candle flame, and Raven was simply Raven again.
Nickamedes moved off to talk to Linus, who was standing in front of the checkout counter, talking to some of the Protectorate guards. But I stayed where I was by the offices, my gaze still locked on the candle. I couldn’t believe how innocent, how ordinary, it looked sitting there on its black velvet stand.