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|Killer Frost(Mythos Academy #6) by Jennifer Estep|
Dark wooden furniture, antique sofas, crystal vases full of black and bloodred roses. It was the same opulent living room I’d woken up in the night she’d kidnapped me after I’d found the Helheim Dagger. The one with all of the creepy Black roc paintings, statues, and carvings decorating everything from the walls to the tables to the sofa legs. The room looked the same as I remembered, right down to the chair in front of the desk, the spot where I’d woken up and realized that Vivian was Loki’s Champion and that she was working with Preston Ashton.
Only this time, another figure was sitting in that same chair, flanked by two Reapers.
“Grandma!” I said, running past Vivian and over to her.
Grandma got up out of the chair, and I threw myself into her arms.
“I’m okay, pumpkin,” she whispered into my ear, even as she smoothed down my hair. “I’m okay.”
Tears scalded my eyes, but I forced myself to blink them back. Now was not the time to show any sort of weakness, not in front of the Reapers. I drew away from her and gave her a critical once-over. An ugly, purple, fist-shaped bruise marred her right cheek, and more cuts and bruises dotted her hands and arms, probably from where she’d struggled against the Reapers in the park. But overall, she looked okay.
“Touching,” Vivian said. “Really. But let’s get on with things.”
She snapped her fingers at the Reapers who’d entered the room behind us. “Bring them.”
The Reapers already had their long, curved swords out, ready to use them, but Grandma and I didn’t give them any trouble as they marched us over to the far side of the room, out the balcony doors I remembered, and down a set of stone steps. After that, we left the backyard of the mansion behind and trooped out into the woods beyond.
Daphne was right. It looked different in the day than it had that terrible night when I’d realized how thoroughly Vivian had tricked me. The woods were only woods now, filled with trees and leaves and rocks and snow, and not crawling with creepy, eerie shadows the way they had been back then. Of course, the Reapers and their swords surrounding me and Grandma Frost on all sides weren’t really an improvement, but at least I could tell where we were going now—and we were headed straight toward the Garm gate, just as I’d suspected.
Still, as we moved deeper and deeper into the woods, my gaze flicked up to the trees that towered above our heads, but I didn’t see any Black rocs roosting in the tops of the sturdier oaks and maples, peering down at me as though I was a worm they wanted to gobble up.
“What happened to all your rocs?” I asked. “You seemed to have a ton of them on the road the other day, but I haven’t seen a single one since I’ve been here. So disappointing.”
I made my voice sound as innocent as possible, although my question was anything but. I had a very specific reason for asking about the Black rocs, and where they might be lurking, and the answer might determine whether or not Grandma Frost and I made it out of here alive. Still, I made myself look totally bored, as though I didn’t really care one way or the other about the answer and was simply mocking the Reapers for kicks.
Vivian shot me a dirty look. “We’re still rounding them up, thanks to you.”
Which was exactly what I wanted to hear.
I grinned. “Aw, so sorry to make more evil work for you to do, Viv.”
Her golden eyes narrowed, and her hand dropped to her sword, as if she’d like to pull Lucretia and attack me right now. Yeah. I knew the feeling.
But Vivian controlled herself, and so did I, and we kept walking.
It didn’t take us long to reach our destination. We left the path behind, stepped into a large clearing in the middle of the woods, and there it was.
The Garm gate.
Once, it had been a smooth, circular, unbroken slab of black marble that had been set into the middle of the forest floor. A hand holding a balanced set of scales had been carved into the very center of the stone.
But that was then, and this was now.
The black marble was cracked, jagged, and split two ways from where Loki had used the Helheim Dagger to escape the prison that the other gods had placed him in so long ago. I rubbed my chest, which was suddenly aching, thinking of the scars there, the ones that were shaped like a weird X that slashed over my heart, the same X shape that had ruined the marble before me. The stone couldn’t recover from Loki tearing through it any more than I could forget about my scars and how
I’d gotten them from Preston and Logan.
My gaze drifted over to a particular patch of stone, one close to the center of the jagged tears. My heart twisted as the memories washed over me. Nott had been killed right there, when Vivian had stabbed her in the side. I’d cradled the Fenrir wolf’s head in my hands and stared into her eyes as she’d slowly died. It had been one of the worst moments of my life.
And this was shaping up to be another one.
Because a familiar figure was standing in the exact spot where Nott had died. His back was to us, but I would have recognized him anywhere. He slowly turned at the sound of our footsteps echoing across the stone and faced us head-on.
Somehow, I held back a shudder and forced myself to study the evil god.
Loki was wearing a black Reaper robe that rippled around his body like water, as though the material were made out of some especially fine silk, instead of the more mundane cotton the other Reapers wore. He looked the same as I remembered him the last time we were here at the Garm gate, the same as I’d seen him dozens of times in my dreams—my nightmares.
One side of his face was smooth, perfect, and utterly gorgeous, with its aquiline nose, great cheekbone, alabaster skin, and bright blue eye. His long hair was a beautiful gold that flowed down and brushed the top of his right shoulder. But the left side of his face was completely horrible, smashed and twisted together, as though it had been made out of the same wax as Sol’s candle—wax that had been melted down into something almost unrecognizable as a man’s face. The hair on that side of his head hung in thin, matted, black and crimson strings, while that eye was red—that awful, awful Reaper red.
Loki was almost seven feet tall, but his shoulders were slumped forward and uneven, and parts of his body stuck out at awkward angles, because he had been forced to stay in one cramped position in Helheim for so long. Perhaps it was my imagination, but he seemed weaker than I remembered him being before, thin and brittle, as if he would shatter if he moved too fast. I wondered if it was because the ritual with Logan hadn’t worked, and Loki’s soul had been forced back into his own twisted, broken, ruined body.
Agrona was standing by his side, one of her hands resting lightly on his left elbow, almost as if she was ready to support him should he stagger.
This time, I couldn’t hide my shudder. Loki might be weakened, but I could still feel the power rolling off him in thick, malevolent waves. I couldn’t imagine actually being that close to him, actually touching him, but for Agrona, no doubt it was some sort of great honor.
The other Reapers spread out, forming a circle around us, with me, Grandma Frost, Vivian, Agrona, and Loki in the center. I looked past the Reapers into the forest beyond, but if Oliver and Daphne were out there somewhere, they were hidden too well for me to spot them. “So,” Loki began, his voice smooth and seductive. “This time, I’m faced with not one, but two Frost scions.”
I reached down and gripped Grandma’s hand. Neither one of us said anything. What exactly did you say to the . . . the . . . the thing that had defined so much of your life? The evil that you’d fought against so hard and for so long? That you had sacrificed so much trying to stop? I didn’t know, but Grandma raised her chin in defiance and met his hateful, two-toned gaze with her own steely violet one.
Loki paused, as if he expected Grandma to say something, but then, he shook his head. I could hear each and every one of the vertebra in his neck crack-crack-cracking, and the sharp motion made him wince and hunch over. It took him a moment to straighten back up.
“Well,” he purred again, his gaze zooming over to Vivian. “At least you get another chance to finally correct your failure, your many failures to kill her, to kill both of them.”
Vivian ducked her head, as though she was ashamed. Agrona plastered a smile on her face. “Yes, my lord. Vivian can finally do that now. How wonderful of you
to point that out to all of us—”
He turned to her. “And you weren’t any better, with all of your pitiful attempts to kill the mother and grandmother. You never revealed your true self to them, and yet you still never managed to kill them, either one of them. Not to mention what a catastrophe the soul ritual with the Spartan boy turned out to be. A ritual that I am still suffering the effects of, thanks to you.”
Now, Agrona looked as chagrined—and frightened— as Vivian. And the rest of the Reapers didn’t look any more certain—or brave. Perhaps Loki had been a harsher, more ruthless master than they’d ever dreamed he would be. It would serve them right if he wanted to kill and enslave all of them too.
Agrona opened her mouth, probably to make some excuse, but Loki held up his right index finger, stopping her.
“The candle. Now.”
Agrona and Vivian both looked at me, and the
Reapers with their swords crept a little closer.
“All right,” I said, holding up my hands so they could see that I wasn’t trying to pull some sort of trick. “All right. It’s in my pocket.”
I reached inside my jeans, my fingers curling around the white wax for perhaps the last time. Once again, I felt that bright, burning flash of power, of health, life, and strength, but I forced myself to push the sensation away and focus on what I needed to do.
DIE, I thought with all the desperate anger in my heart, trying to send the silver laurel leaves one final message, one final expression of my own free will and what I wanted them to do. Kill Loki. Destroy him. Hurt him as badly as he’s hurt the people I love.
For a moment, the candle went as cold as ice against my fingers. But by the time I sucked in another breath, the wax was simply wax again. I didn’t know if it was the laurels at work, or my own imagination playing tricks on me, but I’d done everything I could. All I could do now was hope that I’d made the right choices—and that I hadn’t just doomed myself, Grandma Frost, and everyone else.
I slowly pulled the candle out of my pocket and held it out where they all could see it.
Vivian wrinkled her nose. “That’s it? Really?” “What did you expect?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I thought it would at least have some jewels or something on it. Most of the more powerful artifacts do.”
“Shut up, you stupid girl!” Agrona snapped.
She stepped forward and snatched the candle out of my hand. “This had better be the real thing, and not some sort of trick on Linus’s part.”
I straightened up. “It’s the real candle. Not a trick. I
wouldn’t risk my grandma’s life on a trick.”
Not on this trick, anyway.
Agrona took the candle, then turned toward Loki. She walked over to him and bowed low, holding the candle out and up over her head, presenting it to him like some sort of gift. I supposed that’s exactly what it was—a chance to restore him to his full health, strength, and power so that he could finally lead the Reapers in their second Chaos War against the Pantheon.
Loki took the candle from Agrona and held it up, examining it from all sides. I couldn’t keep myself from holding my breath, wondering if he’d notice the silver leaves embedded in the wax—and realize they weren’t part of the original candle.
“At last,” he murmured, both of his eyes brightening. “At last, I can return to what I was before . . . and become even greater than ever.”
His words sent a shiver down my spine, and worry surging through my body, but there was nothing I could do now but hope the leaves did what Eir had told me they could—destroy him.
Finally, finally destroy him and all the terror he wanted to unleash on the members of the Pantheon. On my friends. On my family.
Loki clutched the candle tight with both hands. I thought he might need Agrona or Vivian to light it for him, but apparently, that wasn’t how it worked. He stood there, his gaze fixed on the wick, his hands wrapped around it and the laurel leaves I’d pressed into the wax.
At first, nothing happened, and I started to wonder if the leaves would keep the candle from working, if one artifact could completely cancel out another like that. If that happened, then Grandma Frost and I were dead. Loki would order the Reapers to kill us where we stood.
But just when I was about to reach for Vic and try to fight my way through the Reapers, a single black spark sputtered to life on the candle’s wick. Despite its color, the spark was bright, as bright as a star burning in the middle of the day, so bright and so intense that I almost had to look away from it.
But I forced myself to watch as the spark grew brighter and brighter still, and Loki slowly began to change—to heal.
His body grew straighter and even taller than before, and several sharp crack-crack-cracks sounded, as if his bones were being wrenched back into the correct places after being out of joint for so long. Loki let out a long, loud, contented sigh, as if it actually felt good to have his body be pulled back into its proper alignment.
But more than his body, it almost seemed as if I could feel his very presence expand—and grow blacker and fouler at the same time.
When I’d touched Logan while he’d been under the influence of the Apate gems, while he’d been connected to Loki, there had been a solid wall of Reaper red in the Spartan’s mind, and that’s what I felt when I looked at Loki now. Bit by bit, piece by piece, Sol’s candle was making him stronger and stronger and restoring all the parts of him that had been chipped away by his centuries trapped in Helheim.