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|Killer Frost(Mythos Academy #6) by Jennifer Estep|
“And, unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find where the Reapers are keeping her,” Linus finished.
And just like that, my heart plummeted back down into my stomach and kept right on dropping, like an elevator sliding out of control.
“Of course you haven’t.” I couldn’t keep the bitterness out of my voice. “And you won’t.”
But I will, I silently vowed. I’d already put my plan into motion, and I was moving on to the second stage of my scheme as soon as Linus left.
“I really am sorry about this, Miss Frost,” he said. “And I think you understand that, underneath all the attitude.”
“Maybe,” I snarked back. “But that doesn’t make it any easier on me. And especially not on my grandma, now, does it? If you have things your way, attitude will be the only thing I have left.”
My gaze shot past him to the candle, which was sitting in the same case in the same spot as yesterday. None of the students sitting at the study tables or the professors standing in line at the coffee cart paid any attention to the candle, but that didn’t mean some of them weren’t Reapers, secretly trying to figure out how to get their hands on the artifact, should I not come through for Vivian.
“Well, that, and the great view,” I snarked again. Linus turned to the side to see what I was staring at.
When he realized I was looking at the candle, his own eyes narrowed, and a spark of anger shimmered in his gaze. He whirled back around and stepped even closer to the counter, leaning down over it so that his face was level with mine.
“I know you’re angry and upset,” he said. “But I also know how you think, Miss Frost.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you are what I am kindly going to refer to as a loose cannon, the sort of person who thinks the rules do not apply to her, just like your mother was before you,” Linus said.
My hands curled into fists on top of the counter. “If you say one more word about my mom, I will knock your teeth out of your mouth, head of the Protectorate or not.”
A rustle sounded behind me. I glanced over my shoulder. Alexei had slid off his stool and was standing a few feet off to my right. I wondered whose side he would be on if I really did attack Linus. It saddened me to realize that I wasn’t sure it would be mine. On the other side of the counter, Inari and Aiko drifted a little closer to Linus, clearly ready to protect his back.
“Fair enough,” Linus said. “But let me be crystal clear, Miss Frost. Should you make any sort of attempt to interfere with the Protectorate guards watching over the candle, should you be foolish enough to make an attempt to actually steal the candle yourself and take it to the Reapers to trade it for your grandmother, then I will throw you in the academy prison quicker than you can blink. And you will stay there until I decide otherwise. Nike’s Champion, or not.”
He stared at me, his gaze cold and hard, and I glared right back at him. I knew he meant every word he said, but I didn’t care. I was going to do whatever it took to save Grandma Frost. Truth be told, winding up in the academy prison would probably be a far better fate than what the Reapers had in store for me. But those were the risks I had to take.
“Are we clear, Miss Frost?” Linus’s tone had become as angry and frosty as mine.
“Oh yeah,” I snapped. “I get it. Message received. Loud and clear. Now, can you leave? I’ve got work to do.”
Linus gave me one more angry, suspicious stare before he pivoted on his heel and strode away from the checkout counter. He walked over to the case and stared down at the candle. Then, he glanced over his shoulder and watched me watch him. Linus pivoted on his heel again and stepped over to the coffee cart where Raven was mixing up frappes and espressos for the professors in line. Linus pulled Raven aside and started speaking to her in a low voice, no doubt telling her to keep an eye on me in case I went anywhere near Sol’s candle. I rolled my eyes. No doubt that would be another one of her odd jobs now.
“Well, that went well,” Vic piped up from his spot below the checkout counter.
Nyx yipped her agreement. I arched my eyebrow at the sword, but I didn’t respond to his sarcasm.
A hand dropped lightly onto my shoulder, and I looked up to find Alexei standing beside me.
“He’s just trying to help,” Alexei said.
I opened my mouth to let loose another snarky retort, but the sympathetic look on his face made me hold back my angry words. Instead, I sighed.
“I know,” I said. “I know he’s trying to help. That’s what makes this even harder. We’re all trying to do the right thing, and none of us seems to be on the same side. Logan told me that once, and it’s more true now than ever before.”
Alexei frowned at my cryptic words, but I didn’t clue him in to their real meaning. He’d find out soon enough.
When I stole Sol’s candle from the Library of Antiquities.
For the next hour, I went about all my usual chores, as though everything were fine, as if this was a typical night in the library. Shelving books. Helping other students find reference materials for their homework assignments. Picking up odd sheets of paper, pencil stubs, and other trash that the kids left behind in the stacks.
Finally, I made it down to the last pile of books that needed shelving. I grabbed the metal cart and steered it around the checkout counter, heading back toward the stacks.
Alexei slid off his stool and started to come with me, the way he had every other time I’d ventured away from the counter tonight, but I waved him off.
“There’s no need for you to follow me,” I said, bitterness creeping into my voice again. “We all know what the Reapers want, and it’s not me. Trust me. This is probably the safest I’ve ever been in the library.”
Alexei took a step forward, like he was going to come with me anyway, but he nodded and sat back down on his stool. Good. I didn’t want him to see what I was really up to right now. I didn’t want anyone to see.
I pushed the cart back into the shadow-filled stacks, and I really did shelve the books, like I was supposed to. All the while, though, I kept glancing around, my eyes scanning the spaces between the rows of books, to make sure no one was watching me. At first, I thought someone might be following me, since a shadow always seemed to be lurking just out of my line of sight, but a couple of quick zigzags through the shelves took care of that, and anyone who might have wanted to spy on me.
A few times, I passed couples back in the stacks, their bodies pressed up against the shelves, eagerly kissing and doing other things I didn’t want to look at too closely. I quickly moved past those aisles. Every once in a while, I would pass a Protectorate guard sitting at a table in some remote corner, as though he or she was a professor who’d come back here to get away from the noise that surrounded the coffee cart and study tables instead of really being on the lookout for any Reapers. A few of the guards gave me respectful nods, but most of them stared at me with narrowed, suspicious eyes. No doubt Linus had told them to watch out for me.
Well, he was right about that, at least.
Finally, I shelved all of the books. I left the cart at the end of one of the aisles, looked around one more time to make sure no one was watching or following me, then moved even deeper into the stacks.
Most of the artifacts were located on the first floor, but I snuck up the stairs to the second level. Nickamedes didn’t send me up here all that often, but I’d shelved my share of books on this floor. More important, I’d dusted the artifact cases on this level. And right now, I was looking for one very specific item.
I stopped and looked left and right at the top of the stairs, but no one else seemed to be on this level, although I could hear a soft, faint, tapping sound coming from somewhere, probably drifting up from the main floor. I left the stairs behind and eased over to the balcony, looking down at the students below, but everyone was clustered around the study tables or coffee cart, getting their caffeine buzz on, and no one was paying any attention to me.
Being as quiet as possible, I made my way around the balcony, looking at all of the shelves that lined the walls. They were filled with books, like the stacks below, although the volumes on this level were more obscure titles that rarely got used, except for the occasional overachieving student who really wanted to wow Professor Metis with an unusual research source.
My eyes scanned over each shelf, then the artifact cases that crouched beside them. No, no, no, no . . . I kept walking around the balcony. Had Nickamedes moved the artifact I was looking for? That would be just my luck, especially since I needed this one item in order to get the others I was interested in. My plan wouldn’t work at all without this particular artifact, and if I couldn’t find it, I didn’t know what I would do.
Finally, just when I was about to get seriously worried, I spotted it. I let out a relieved breath and stopped in front of a case that was standing by itself along the wall.
A silver key lay underneath the glass.
It was a small, old-fashioned skeleton key, simple in design, with only two grooves carved into it, although fancy scrollwork had been etched into the metal. Nickamedes had me put the key on display a few weeks ago, since it was the focus of one of Metis’s myth-history lectures, and all the second-year students had to do some research on its history, origins, and the magic that it supposedly possessed. I hadn’t paid much attention to the key or the assignment, not with everything that had been going on with the Reapers, me, Logan, and everyone else. But thanks to my psychometry, I never forgot anything I saw or heard, and ever since I’d decided to steal Sol’s candle, I’d been flipping through my memories, calling up images of every single artifact I’d ever seen inside the library and trying to figure out which ones would help me the most. And when I’d remembered this one, I knew that it was the key—literally—to my entire plan.
I glanced at the small, white identification card that was propped up next to the key, although I already knew what it said.
Janus’s Master Key supposedly belonged to the Roman god. In addition to being the god of beginnings and endings, Janus is also associated with doors and gates. It is thought that Janus himself created this key, which will open any door, gate, or lock, no matter how strong or
complicated it may be . . .
Vic had wondered how I was going to steal Sol’s candle from the library. Well, this was my answer. Or, at least, the first part of it. With this one key, I could open any artifact case in the entire library, which would give me access to another item I needed. In a strange way, Vivian had given me the idea by wearing her Janus ring at the park. I’d replayed that confrontation with her over and over again in my mind, and when I’d started thinking about the artifacts that might help me, I’d thought of Janus and then his key.
Maybe what I was doing was wrong. Maybe the risk of making Loki stronger was too great to take. But I’d do anything to save my grandma—even this—so I forced myself to push my doubts aside. Nike had always said that she believed in me, that she had faith in me, in my instincts, in my decisions, as her Champion. Now, it was time to have a little faith in myself. I’d been smart and strong enough to survive everything the Reapers had thrown at me so far. I’d find a way to get through this too.
At least, that was what I kept telling myself.
Still, thinking about the goddess made me realize exactly where I was on the second floor. I slowly turned around.
Nike’s statue stood directly across from the artifact case.
Of course she would be here. She always seemed to be in all the places I ended up. I wondered what kind of karma, destiny, or fate that might be. If it was my own free will drawing me to her time and time again, or something else entirely.
I walked over and looked up at the goddess’s face. I held my breath, wondering if she might appear to me, if she might open her eyes and wink, or smile, or give me some sort of indication that I was doing the right thing. But she didn’t, and her face remained as smooth and remote as ever. I let out my breath. Well, if she wasn’t going to give me any guidance, then I’d have to trust my instincts. And they were screaming at me to find some way to save Grandma Frost.
Because I knew I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t—
no matter what the price might be.
So I turned away from Nike and went back over to the case. I looked around again, but the balcony was as deserted as before, although the murmurs of students talking drifted up from the first floor below, along with that soft, faint, tapping sound again, which seemed to be getting louder. I paused, listening to the sounds, especially the other kids talking, but they seemed to be the usual sorts of conversations and not more excited murmurs like, Oh, look at the Gypsy girl up on the second floor getting ready to steal an artifact.
Since the coast was clear, I reached out, put my hand on the case, closed my eyes, and concentrated, trying to see if any spells or protection measures had been placed on the wood or glass. But I didn’t sense anything, and the only flash I got was of Nickamedes standing by and watching while I put the key into the case a couple of weeks ago.
I opened my eyes and dropped my hand. Well, it was good there was no magic mumbo jumbo on the case, but there was still a small metal padlock that hooked the glass to the wood—one that I couldn’t pop open with my driver’s license like I did all of the flimsy door locks in the dorms. I was no lock pick, so I couldn’t get past it that way. Maybe I could find out where Raven had put her tool belt, and see if she had a pair of bolt cutters or some sort of metal saw—
“Gwendolyn?” a low, familiar voice called out behind me. “What are you doing up here?”
I bit my lip to keep from shrieking with surprise—and fear. I quickly plastered a bored, nonchalant look on my face and turned around. Nickamedes slowly walked toward me, and I realized that faint tapping sound I’d heard earlier had actually been his cane hitting the floor.