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|Killer Frost(Mythos Academy #6) by Jennifer Estep|
I nodded, and we headed toward the far edge of the quad. Once again, I was aware of everyone staring and whispering about me. So I raised my head and tried to look as strong and confident as possible, although my legs trembled, and my knees threatened to buckle with every step I took.
As we walked down the hill to the lower quad, we passed more and more Protectorate guards, each one wearing a gray robe and carrying at least one sword. The guards were going to be the first lines of defense, with the students and adults on the quad serving as backup and the library being our final fallback point.
We found Linus, Sergei, Inari, Alexei, and Oliver standing behind a cluster of maple trees about fifty feet away from the main gate. Like everyone else, they all wore gray robes and were carrying swords. Two swords, in Alexei’s case, since he had the twin Swords of Ruslan clutched in his hands.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
Linus jerked his head at the gate. “Nothing at the moment, but our sources in Cypress Mountain say they’ve seen a multitude of SUVs gathering in some of the parking lots and that several Black rocs carrying riders have been spotted overhead.”
My head snapped back as I peered up into the sky, but I didn’t see any of the creatures flapping their wings and zooming through the air above. Perhaps the gryphons could at least keep the rocs and their riders away from the academy long enough to give us a fighting chance.
“You two should get back up to the main quad,” Linus said. “Where it’s safer.”
I looked at Logan, and we both shook our heads. “This is our fight too, Dad,” Logan said.
“He’s right,” I said.
I didn’t add what we were all thinking—that I was supposed to be the one to kill Loki. To do that, I had to get close to the god, which meant being at the front of the fight.
“Well, at least get out of sight then,” Linus said. “For now. Please.”
This time, Logan and I did as he asked, sliding behind the stand of maples and out of view of anyone who might be looking through the main gate. Alexei and Oliver moved to join us, the two of them flanking me.
Then, I hunkered down beside my friends and waited for Loki and the Reapers to attack.
Someone had grabbed a pair of binoculars from somewhere, and we all took turns peering through them and then passing them along to the next person. Finally, it was my turn. I focused the lenses on the gate and the sphinxes that were perched on either side of it.
The sphinxes’ features were sharper than I ever remembered them being before, so sharp, so real, so lifelike that I thought I could almost see their hearts beating in their stone chests—
Caw-caw-caw. Caw-caw-caw. Caw-caw-caw.
I froze, my hands tightening around the lenses, before slowly lowering them.
There was no mistaking the high, eerie cries of the Black rocs, and a few seconds later, the birds came into view, dozens of them, all with at least two Reapers on their broad backs. One by one, the birds spiraled down from the sky and landed in the middle of the street on the far side of the academy wall.
And they weren’t alone.
In the distance, I heard the rumble and screech of vehicles heading our way. A minute later, it looked like all of the cars in Cypress Mountain were parked outside the gate.
The Reapers weren’t hiding in the shadows anymore—
“Here they come,” Linus said. “Everyone, get ready.” Every single warrior checked his or her sword and other weapons one more time. I tightened my grip on Vic and handed the binoculars over to Inari, who slid them into one of the pockets in his cloak. Then, we all
looked toward the gate.
One of the rocs hopped forward, and through the iron bars, I could see the two riders on its back—Vivian and Loki.
They were both wearing black Reaper robes, and Vivian had Lucretia strapped to her waist. Loki wasn’t carrying a weapon, but then again, he didn’t need one.
Vivian slid off the roc first, then turned to help Loki. Agrona got off another roc and moved to aid her protégé. It took them longer than I thought it would to unbuckle the god from the roc’s harness and get him on the ground. It took Loki longer still to shuffle toward the gate.
Loki paused outside the gate and peered in between the bars. Somehow, I could have sworn he was staring straight at me, despite the distance that separated us.
And I realized just how much havoc the silver laurel leaves had wreaked on him.
Before, one side of the god’s face had still been beautiful, perfect, normal even.
It was as though the smushed, burned, melted look of one half of his face had infected the other. Now, all of his features were red, raw, and waxy-looking. All of his blond hair had fallen out, leaving only a few black and crimson strands behind to cling to his scalp, which was as red, mottled, and melted as the rest of his features.
That was bad enough, but it was his eye that caught my attention. The once-blue orb was now as red as his other one, both of them burning, burning bright, as though hot coals were embedded in the sockets instead of eyes. My stomach dropped down and flipped over at the sight.
Loki managed to straighten up to his full height, but his body seemed much thinner and frailer than before, and he wavered slightly on his feet, as if his muscles were constantly being pulled in a dozen different directions at once, and he had a hard time maintaining his balance. A faint snap-snap-snap sounded with every move he made, every breath he took, as though his bones were constantly cracking, popping, and trying to settle back to where they were supposed to go.
It was an awful sound, but one that filled me with satisfaction all the same. Because I’d hurt him—badly. And that made me happy. Maybe it was wrong, but I wanted him to suffer. I wanted him to wound as much as he and the Reapers had hurt me and the rest of my friends.
But he was still Loki, still a god, still far more powerful than any of us could possibly imagine. And he seemed ready to prove that to everyone—especially me.
Loki took a few more steps toward the gate. He paused, then looked up at the stone sphinxes positioned on top of the wall on either side. Loki stepped forward and put a hand on one of the iron bars.
The sphinxes immediately sprang to life.
One second, the creatures were just statues, just solid stone, still and frozen in place. The next, they’d torn themselves free from the rest of the wall, jumped up onto their feet, and were glaring down at Loki, low growls rumbling out of their throats in a clear warning for him to step back or else.
A shocked gasp escaped my lips. Ever since I’d come to Mythos, I’d heard rumors that there was some sort of protective power attached to the sphinxes, some sort of magic mumbo jumbo that would make them actually come to life if there was ever a major Reaper attack. It looked like those weren’t just rumors after all.
But it didn’t matter.
Loki waved his hand, as though he were swatting away a bothersome fly. A surge of power rippled off him, so sharp and intense that I could almost see the waves cutting through the air. A second later, that power slammed into the sphinxes, crumbling them to dust.
A second shocked gasp escaped my lips. The statues were gone. Just like that. The first wave of defense had fallen and was now nothing more than stone chips flying off the walls.
Loki reached up and dusted a few bits of the sphinxes that had landed on him off his shoulders. Then, he stepped forward and wrapped both hands around the gate.
And I watched as the metal began to bubble, burn, and melt away.
I didn’t know exactly what sort of magic Loki had, but it caused the iron bars to disintegrate like they were made out of paper instead of solid metal. Once that was done, Loki slowly moved out of the way, and the first wave of Reapers surged through the opening, their swords up and ready to attack.
“Here we go,” Linus said, signaling the other members of the Protectorate.
They all gave him grim nods, then left their spots in the shadows and behind the trees and ran toward the Reapers. For their part, the Reapers picked up their pace and let out wild, loud cries.
The battle had finally begun.
Logan, Alexei, Oliver, and I held our positions behind the trees and watched the fight unfold in front of us.
Fueled by the ease with which they’d infiltrated campus, the Reapers crashed into the Protectorate guards, almost overwhelming them with that first brutal charge. But Linus managed to regroup the warriors, and they held the Reapers at bay, although the clash and clang of swords ripped through the air.
I watched while Sergei slammed his two swords into first one Reaper, then another, before whirling toward a third enemy, as though the Bogatyr were doing an elegant dance instead of fighting for his life.
“We should be out there helping them,” I muttered, my hand tightening around Vic’s hilt. “Not hiding here in the shadows.”
“You said it, sister,” Vic piped up, his mouth moving underneath my palm.
“Linus told us to stay back,” Alexei said. “We want to take out as many of them down here as we can. We can’t afford to let Reapers overrun us on the main quad. The more of them we kill down here, the safer everyone up there will be.”
I nodded. I knew that. Really, I did, but it was still hard to crouch down, wait, and not be in the middle of the fight.
So we watched while the Reapers and the Protectorate guards cut into each other. My eyes flicked from one of the warriors to the next, but I didn’t see Vivian or Agrona anywhere in the fray. They must be hanging back and protecting Loki. No doubt he wanted the warriors to clear a path before he expended any more of his energy trying to kill us.
And slowly, it started to happen.
One of the Protectorate guards fell under a Reaper’s slashing sword. Then another. Then another. Soon, it was all the guards could do to keep the Reapers from advancing. And then, one of the Reapers broke through the ranks of the Protectorate and started running up the cobblestone path toward the main quad.
Logan, Alexei, Oliver, and I all checked our weapons for the last time. It was up to us to stop the Reapers now. “Wait,” Logan murmured, his eyes locked onto the
Reaper racing toward us. “Wait.”
In the distance, another Reaper broke through the Protectorate line and started hurrying this way. Then another one. Then another one, until there were half a dozen Reapers headed in our direction.
“Hold your position,” Logan murmured again, his icy eyes almost glowing with anticipation of the battle to come. “A few more seconds . . . they’re almost here . . . now!”
The four of us leaped out from our hiding spot and attacked the Reapers. Alexei engaged the first two, the twin Swords of Ruslan whipping back and forth from one enemy to the next, just like his dad was doing with his own swords down at the gate. Logan punched one Reaper in the face, making the warrior stagger back, before whirling around and burying his sword in the chest of the next closest Reaper. Oliver engaged the one Logan had punched, ramming his sword into that man’s stomach. And that was all that I saw before one of the warriors rushed at me, and I stepped up to battle him.
Clash-clash-clang! Clash-clash-clang! Clash-clash-clang!
I parried each one of the Reaper’s blows before slamming Vic into the warrior’s chest. He collapsed to the ground, but I barely had time to raise my sword again before another Reaper stepped up to take his place.
Back and forth and around and around, my friends and I fought the Reapers. Every time I thought we were finally making some headway, finally turning the tide in our favor, another wave of Reapers would surge toward us. They just kept coming and coming, pouring through the gate and even climbing over the stone wall and dropping down to this side.
And I realized we were going to lose this round.
There were too many of them, and we were too spread out, trying to keep them contained here by the gate. I whipped first one way, then the other, lashing out with Vic over and over again, bringing down Reaper after Reaper after Reaper, but it wasn’t enough. Around me, Logan, Alexei, and Oliver were fighting just as furiously, and it was all the four of us could do not to get separated.
Eventually, the Protectorate guards got pushed back to our position, and then we all started giving ground, inch by inch, foot by foot. And still, the Reapers kept coming. To make matters worse, the Black rocs had finally hopped over the stone wall, and the enormous birds added to the chaos of the fight, stabbing their beaks at any members of the Protectorate who got close to them. One of the guards fell down screaming, clutching at the ugly wound a roc had opened up in his gut.
“To the quad!” Linus finally yelled out, wounding the Reaper in front of him and backpedaling at the same time. “Fall back to the quad!”
And so we turned and began our first retreat of the fight.
We raced up the hill to the main quad. The Reapers were right behind us, and I could hear their footsteps smashing against the stone paths, and their cruel shouts cutting through the air, chasing after us like a pack of Fenrir wolves nipping at our heels.
“Death to the Pantheon!”
“Take out the Protectorate guards first! Then whoever’s left!”
“Kill everyone you can!”
And on and on it went. I gritted my teeth and tried to shut the shouts out of my mind, but I couldn’t. I’d been in battles before, but nothing like this.
Nothing so horrible.
Still, I made myself run faster and pump my legs that much harder as I struggled up the hill. Of all the times I’d trudged up that slope, it never seemed as steep as it did right now. Every breath came in a painful rasp, and the cold winter air seemed to burn my lungs worse than ever before.
“Come on, Gwen!” Alexei shouted beside me. “Hurry! They’re right behind us!”
I didn’t dare look back, but I sucked down another breath and finally surged up over the top of the hill. The quad stretched out before me, seemingly deserted, but I knew that the other guards, students, and adults were holding their positions, waiting for the Reapers to step into the middle of the area before flanking the warriors on all sides.