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|Killer Frost(Mythos Academy #6) by Jennifer Estep|
But today, instead of riding the public bus down the mountain to the nearby town of Asheville where my grandma lived, I was in the back of another black SUV owned by the Protectorate. Alexei sat beside me in the back seat, while Sergei was driving. Nyx was nestled on the floorboard at my feet, napping, and I had Vic laid out flat across my lap, while I stared out the windows, waiting for Vivian and a group of Reapers to appear at any second and attack us.
“Relax, Gwen,” Alexei said. “Nothing’s going to happen today.”
I looked at him. “Really? Because that’s exactly what Linus said to me yesterday, right before the Reapers ambushed the Protectorate convoy. Funny, how you’ve forgotten about that already, especially since you were in the van that they smashed up.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” Alexei said. “But you’re overlooking the obvious.”
“Really? What’s that?”
He shrugged. “We don’t have anything the Reapers want this time.”
I wanted to point out that that wasn’t true—not by a long shot. The Reapers had already tried to get their hands on Vic, as well as the Swords of Ruslan, which were sticking up out of the black backpack at Alexei’s feet. Besides, even without our artifacts, Vivian would have been perfectly happy to kill me, and I felt the exact same way about her. But I kept my mouth shut. I knew Alexei and the rest of my friends were trying to go about their days and lives as though everything was normal, the way they always did, as though we weren’t in danger of being attacked and slaughtered at any second. So I decided to stay quiet and let him keep the illusion— even if I knew exactly what a thin, pitiful smokescreen it really was.
“My boy’s right,” Sergei chimed in, his hazel eyes meeting mine in the rearview mirror. “At the very least, the Reapers will need some time to lick their wounds. Linus and Inari are down in the academy prison right now, questioning the ones we captured yesterday after the attack. After that, the Reapers will be shipped to a more secure facility.”
I wished I had their confidence, but I didn’t—I just didn’t. I didn’t see the future like Grandma Frost did, but I couldn’t help feeling that time was running out to find a way to kill Loki. The silver laurel bracelet, Sol’s candle, all the other artifacts that Logan and the Protectorate had recovered from the ski lodge up in New York. There were too many powerful things floating around out there, and too much of a sense of the centuries-long conflict between the Reapers and the Protectorate finally building to its ultimate conclusion for me to relax. Not now.
Not until Loki was dead—or I was.
Still, I made myself smile at both the father and son, hiding my turbulent thoughts from them as best as I could. “You’re probably right.”
We rode in silence the rest of the way down the mountain. Grandma Frost lived in a three-story, lavender-painted home near downtown Asheville, among other similar houses that had been cut up into apartments. Sergei pulled up to the curb and parked in front of the house. Aiko was sitting on the porch reading a comic book, her gray Protectorate robe draped around her slender body like a winter cloak to help ward off the chill of the day. Two more Protectorate guards stood down the street at the bus stop, wearing gray leather jackets instead of their usual robes. I supposed they were trying to blend in and look casual, although they weren’t succeeding, since they still looked exactly like the tough warriors they were.
Sergei’s phone chirped, and he picked it up from the console and stared at the message on the screen. “Linus needs me at the academy. I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave you two here for a little while.”
“We can always take the bus back,” I said. “You don’t need to drive all the way back down here just to pick us up. Even I don’t think that the Reapers would be bold enough to highjack a bus full of regular mortals who don’t know anything about the mythological world.” Sergei shook his head. “You’re probably right, but it’s better not to take the chance, Gwen. If I haven’t returned by the time you want to leave, tell Aiko or one of the other guards, and they’ll drive you and Alexei back
to the academy. Okay?”
I wanted to point out that riding the bus would have been far more anonymous than cruising around in an SUV right out of some spy movie, but I kept my thoughts to myself. “Yeah. Okay.”
I woke Nyx up from her nap, and we got out of the car, along with Alexei, waved good-bye to Sergei, and trooped up the gray steps to the house. A bronze plaque beside the front door read Psychic Readings Here since Grandma Frost used her Gypsy gift to tell people’s fortunes and make a little extra cash. Alexei stayed on the porch to talk to Aiko, but I opened the door and went inside the house.
“Pumpkin?” Grandma called out. “Back here in the kitchen.”
I grinned. Thanks to her ability to see the future, Grandma always seemed to know when I was coming over. Nyx let out a happy growl and strained on the end of her leash, ready to run forward, since she loved Grandma as much as I did. I walked through the living room, down the hallway, and into the kitchen, which was my favorite room in the house with its white-tile floor and sky-blue walls.
Grandma Frost was dressed in her usual Gypsy gear— a purple silk shirt, black pants, and black shoes with toes that curled up slightly. Rings studded with various gemstones glinted on her fingers, while a green scarf was knotted loosely around her throat, the silver coinfringed ends trailing down her chest.
She stood in front of the stove, clutching a couple of gray oven mitts. A timer tick-tick-ticked on one side of the counter, next to a jar shaped like a giant chocolate chip cookie.
I drew in a deep breath, enjoying the scents of butter, sugar, and melted chocolate that filled the air, along with a hint of spicy cinnamon and sweet vanilla swirled together. My stomach rumbled in anticipation.
“What smells so good?”
“Cookies,” she replied, her face crinkling into a smile. “Chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, and sugar cookies. I thought that you and Alexei might like a snack, and I made enough for you to take some back to Daphne too.”
Daphne loved Grandma’s sweet treats as much as I did, and I always had to fight her off for the last cookie. Logan too. But I didn’t mind sharing with them. Too much.
The timer dinged, and Grandma Frost pulled the trays of cookies out of the oven. A blast of heat filled the kitchen, adding to the cozy atmosphere. We sat at the table, eating cookies and drinking glasses of cold milk, while Nyx plopped down on her tummy and gave us sad, mournful looks, wanting us to share our food with her.
Despite everything that was going on, I felt myself slowly relaxing. I hadn’t been over to Grandma’s much lately, not with all the problems of the past few weeks, and it felt good to sit here and share this quiet time with her.
Even if I knew it wouldn’t last—and that Vivian and Agrona were probably plotting some way to steal the candle right now.
The thought soured my good mood. I finished the rest of my chocolate chip cookie, but I had a hard time choking down the sudden, hard lump in my throat that fear and worry left behind.
“What’s wrong, pumpkin?” Grandma asked, picking up on my unease.
There was no use trying to hide anything from her, so I drew in a breath and told her everything that had happened since the Reaper attack yesterday, including the fact that Linus had put the candle on view for everyone at the academy to see—Reapers included.
When I finished, I let out another tense breath. “I
don’t know. I . . . have a bad feeling about things. I think putting the candle on display is a big mistake. I feel like it’s just asking for trouble. At least, more trouble than we already have with the Reapers.”
Grandma reached over and put her hand on top of mine. As always, I felt that wave of warm, familiar, comforting love surge off her and wash over into me.
“It’ll be all right, pumpkin,” she murmured. “You’ll see. Everything will work out okay in the end.”
Her violet eyes grew glassy, and I felt that old, knowing, watchful force stir in the air around her. Grandma was having one of her visions, so I kept quiet and held her hand. After a few seconds, the blank look disappeared from her face, and she smiled at me again, although her features seemed dimmer and sadder than before.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She patted my hand. “I’ll be fine, pumpkin. Perfectly fine.”
The door at the front of the house creaked open, and Alexei walked into the kitchen. Grandma got to her feet to get him some milk and cookies, so I didn’t get a chance to ask her about what she might have seen. She probably wouldn’t tell me anyway, since it was hard for her to have crystal-clear visions about friends and family.
Grandma Frost also got out some chicken that she’d cooked special for Nyx. The wolf pup perked up as soon as she took the food out of the refrigerator, and Nyx started dancing around her feet in anticipation.
Grandma laughed. “Patience, little wolf. I’ll feed you soon enough.”
Nyx plopped down on the tile, threw back her head, and let out a squeaky howl, encouraging Grandma to hurry up already. We all laughed, except Vic, who was well into his latest nap.
Alexei started joking with Grandma, and I let their cheery conversation wash over me. Everything was fine— everything was great—and I knew I should be making the most of this happy moment while I could. But as I sat there in Grandma Frost’s kitchen, surrounded by my friends, I couldn’t help but think that this was the calm before the storm.
Despite my worries, another hour passed, and before I knew it, it was time for me, Nyx, Alexei, and Vic to head back to the academy, since Nickamedes still expected me to work my usual shift. Truth be told, I wanted to be at the library so I could keep an eye on the candle. Oh, I knew that Linus had guards posted in and around the library, as well as throughout the rest of campus, but I’d feel better if I could see the artifact for myself—and try to stop Vivian and Agrona when they finally tried to steal it.
Grandma Frost packed the extra cookies into a tin, also shaped like a chocolate chip cookie, which I tucked into my gray messenger bag.
“You make sure to give your other friends some of these before Daphne eats them all,” she warned me.
“I’ll try, but you know how Daphne is,” I said, laughing.
She smiled back at me. “That I do. I love you, pumpkin.”
“I love you too, Grandma.”
I hugged her good-bye, and she did the same thing to
Alexei, making a faint blush bloom in his face. She’d just let him go after pinching his cheek when a car horn sounded outside.
“That must be my dad,” Alexei said, leaving the kitchen. “I’ll go tell him that you’ll be out in a minute.” “Yes, pumpkin, you need to scoot if you want to make it back to the library on time,” Grandma Frost
said. “Besides, I’ve got dishes to wash.”
“All right,” I said, sliding Vic back into the scabbard belted around my waist and taking hold of Nyx’s leash. “I’ll call you if anything happens.”
She nodded. “You do that, pumpkin.”
Grandma Frost went over to the sink, stopped up the drain, and turned on the hot water, humming a soft tune. I stared at her a moment longer, feeling so grateful that she was in my life and wondering what I would ever do without her, before leaving the kitchen and walking down the hallway. I put my hand on the front doorknob and turned it, ready to step outside and go back to the academy—
Nyx let out a low growl. Surprised, I looked down and realized that the pup was turned back toward the kitchen. She let out another low growl, as though she wanted to tear into something with her baby teeth. A cold finger of unease crawled up my spine.
“What’s wrong, girl—”
I jumped at the sharp, sudden bang from the kitchen. A muffled sound followed a second later, along with a soft, but steady scrape-scrape-scrape—almost like someone’s feet being dragged across the tile floor.
I froze, wondering if I was hearing what I thought
I was. “Mmph!”
A muffled voice sounded from the kitchen, and I knew that Grandma was in danger.
I dropped my messenger bag and Nyx’s leash and threw the door open, surprising Alexei and Aiko, who were talking on the porch. They stared at me with wide, startled eyes.
“Reapers!” I screamed, yanking Vic out of his scabbard.
Then, I turned and ran into the back of the house as fast as I could.
“Grandma? Grandma!” I yelled as I raced down the hallway and into the kitchen.
I couldn’t hear anything over the rapid drum of my own heart, so I raised Vic high and burst into the kitchen, ready to cut into any Reapers who might have broken into the house.
But no one was there.
My head snapped left and right, but Grandma Frost wasn’t in front of the sink, washing dishes like she should have been. Instead, one of the metal sheet trays she’d baked the cookies on rested on the floor. That must have been the cause of the crash I’d heard. It looked like someone had interrupted her, since the water was still running in the full sink, overflowing down the sides and spattering onto the floor. It took me a moment to realize that the back door was cracked open. I tightened my grip on Vic, threw open the door, and took a step forward—
A sword whistled toward my head.
I ducked and brought Vic up into a defensive position.
My sword met the one of the Reaper who’d been lurking out of sight beside the back door. He raised his weapon for another strike, but I twirled Vic up, around, and down, and stabbed him in the chest with the sword. The Reaper screamed and fell to the ground.