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|Midnight Frost(Mythos Academy #5) by Jennifer Estep|
I used the edge of my hoodie sleeve to fish the bottle out of the shadows, careful not to touch any of the water that had leaked out of it. The plastic rolled to a stop right beside the stool I always sat on whenever I was working in the library. Before anyone could ask me what I was doing, I grabbed the water bottle, closed my eyes, and reached for my magic.
I was dimly aware of someone, maybe Carson, gasping in surprise, but I ignored my friends' shock and focused on the bottle. But I only saw the same things I had from the balcony - Jason Anderson dropping the poison into the water. I concentrated, and, a moment later, Nickamedes's face filled my mind, along with the memory of him reaching for the bottle and taking a swig. He'd just started to put the bottle to his lips a second time when something caught his attention - me screaming at the Reaper. After that, all I felt was his surprise and confusion at why I was fighting a boy in the middle of the library. The final image was of me smacking the bottle out of his hand, not realizing it was already too late . . .
That was all there was. Just a chain of events. Nothing useful, like why Jason had tried to kill me or what poison he'd used.
I opened my eyes and got to my feet, the empty bottle clutched in my hand. I looked at it a moment, then turned and threw it against the glass wall as hard as I could. But, of course, the plastic only bounced off and clattered across the floor, adding to my anger and frustration.
I stood there, fuming for a moment, before I snapped around, marched past the counter, and headed toward the back of the library.
"Gwen? Gwen!" Daphne shouted. "Where are you going?"
I drew in a breath and started to run. I knew what I had to do now, and I didn't want my friends trying to stop me. I raced through the stacks, rammed my shoulder into one of the side doors to open it, and hurried outside. Then, I pounded down the nearest set of steps and ran across the quad.
The dead Reaper boy lay in the same position as before, although now two Protectorate guards wearing gray robes were standing over him. The guards both stopped talking at the sight of me sprinting toward them. I ignored them and fell to my knees beside Jason, the dusty snow melting into my jeans.
"Gwen!" Oliver shouted behind me. "No! It's too dangerous! Don't do it!"
But he was too late, and I didn't care how dangerous it was. I reached for Jason's hand and let the memories come.
Jason Anderson had been dead for the better part of twenty minutes, and much of the warmth had already fled from his body, along with his memories. But I gripped his hand that much tighter and let myself fall into the few images that remained.
Most of the flickers and flashes were of him fighting and running through the library, trying to get away from me and Oliver. I concentrated on the images, but all that filled Jason's mind was a mix of anger that he hadn't been able to poison me and his growing fear that he wouldn't be able to escape and that there was only one option left to him - taking the last pouch of poison. He knew it would be kinder than what Vivian, Agrona, and the other Reapers would do to him if he reported his failure.
My stomach roiled at his grim determination to do whatever was necessary to avoid capture, but I forced myself to clutch his hand in mine and go that much deeper into what was left of his memories. It was almost like watching a movie in reverse. Jason dying, being chased through the library, poisoning the water bottles, and sidling up to the checkout counter in the first place. Once again, I didn't see or feel anything I didn't already know, and the memories were getting fainter and fuzzier with every passing second.
I was just about to admit defeat and let go of his hand when a final memory popped into my head - one of him sitting at a study table looking through a reference book. I almost let the ordinary image slide by and disappear into the growing darkness of his mind when a wave of emotion hit me - heart-quickening excitement.
I frowned. Why would Jason be so thrilled to look through some boring old reference book? I loved books, but even I didn't get excited about something like that. So I zoomed in on the memory, pulling up every single detail I could.
Jason didn't actually read the book so much as he kept shooting little glances all around him, holding his breath and hoping no one would notice the book or what he was up to. Every time he did look at the book, he would skim a few paragraphs, then nod his head, as if he'd already memorized the information and was reviewing it one more time for some important test - killing me. It almost seemed as if he were making himself look at the book and then deliberately glance away over and over again, although I couldn't imagine why. So I forced myself to focus that much harder, trying to see each small detail and learn as much as I could from the open pages in front of him.
It was a thick book, old, dusty, and worn. Probably some obscure reference volume that got pulled off the shelf once a year when some kid needed a source for a term paper. Not exactly helpful, since there were hundreds of thousands of those in the library. I could search for a year and not come across the book.
The next time he glanced at the book, I noticed that the corner of the top right page had been turned back and that a few sentences on that page had been highlighted with a red marker. My eyes narrowed. Nickamedes would so not like that. I'd heard him give more than one student an ear-blistering lecture about dog-earing pages and marking passages.
My heart squeezed at the thought of Nickamedes, but I kept concentrating. Jason turned back to the book again, and I spotted some sort of plant on the left page, although I had no idea what kind of flower, herb, or weed it might be.
Jason's heart quickened that much more, and he snapped the book shut, wincing at the loud crack it made. His hand was splayed across the cover, hiding the title, although I managed to pick out two words printed in dull gold foil on the worn brown leather - Plants and Poison.
No big shock there. What was a surprise was the next image that popped into my mind - one of my own face.
The sight startled me so much that I almost lost the rest of the memory, but I managed to hold on to it. I was pushing one of the squeaky metal carts down the main aisle, heading into the stacks so I could shelve some more books. Jason got to his feet, walked over, and held the book out to me.
"Would you mind putting this away?" he asked.
"Sure," I heard myself say. "Just add it to the pile."
More anger exploded in me. It was bad enough that Jason had tried to poison me and had succeeded in sickening Nickamedes instead. But to actually ask me to shelve the book that he'd used to plot my murder? That was cold, even for the Reapers.
In the memory, Jason smiled at me. I pushed the cart past him, but he kept watching me. After a moment, he went back to his chair, happy at the thought that I'd be hurting before the night was through . . .
The memory flickered and faded away. I kept reaching out with my psychometry, trying to go even further back into Jason's thoughts, but there was nothing left but darkness. So I went forward, sorting through all of the images and feelings again, but there was nothing new. Just the same memories I'd seen before of me and Oliver chasing him; his last, awful act of poisoning himself; and the blaze of hot, pulsing, agonizing pain that had followed. After a few more seconds, even those thoughts and feelings faded, and I knew I wouldn't learn anything else from the dead boy.
I opened my eyes, dropped Jason's cold hand, got to my feet, and stalked back toward the steps. By this point, Daphne, Carson, and Alexei had joined Oliver, and the four of them followed me as I hurried up the steps, toward the side door, and back into the library.
"Gwen?" Daphne asked. "Slow down and talk to us. You're acting like a crazy person."
I let out a hard, brittle laugh. "Crazy? You haven't even seen my crazy yet. And neither have the Reapers."
Pink sparks of magic exploded out of the Valkyrie's fingertips like fireworks, letting me know how worried she was about me. She bit her lip and fell in step beside me.
"You took a big risk touching the Reaper like that," Oliver said, his voice cold, clipped, and angry. "I told you before that we didn't know what other kind of poison he might have on him. But you went ahead and did it anyway, Gwen, just like you always do. And for what?"
I stopped and whirled around so that I was face-to-face with him. "For Nickamedes. That's who I did it for. Just like I would do the same thing if it had been any one of you lying poisoned on the floor instead of him."
Oliver winced, but he wasn't done arguing with me. "Your killing yourself by being reckless isn't going to help Nickamedes."
"I'm not killing myself," I snapped. "I am trying to figure out what sort of poison the Reaper used. And if I have to be reckless to do it, well, so be it. All that matters to me right now is saving Nickamedes. So you can either help me, or you can stay the hell out of my way. Which is it going to be, Spartan?"
Oliver took in my tight, balled fists, my stiff shoulders, my narrowed eyes, my flushed face. After a moment, his gaze softened with understanding.
"All right," he said, holding his hands out to his sides in a placating gesture. "All right. You win. You just - you worry me, Gwen. You worry us all."
I looked at my friends. Daphne and her crackling shower of pink sparks. Alexei and his stoic, impassive features. Carson and the concern that blackened his dark eyes. Oliver and the tension that tightened his face.
I drew in a deep breath to calm my anger and slowly let it out. "You're right. It was reckless. I'm sorry I scared you, but it was the only way I could think of to figure out what kind of poison the Reaper used."
"And did you figure it out?" Carson asked, peering through the snowflakes that had stuck to the lenses of his black glasses.
"Not yet," I said. "But I'm going to. Now, come on. We've got work to do."
My friends and I went back to the main part of the library. By this point, the Protectorate guards had moved Nickamedes out from behind the counter and laid him down on top of one of the study tables. The librarian's eyes were still closed, and his face was peaceful, like he was taking a nap - but I knew better. Metis was standing by his side, holding his hand in hers. Once again, the golden glow of her healing magic enveloped them both. I watched them for a second longer, then moved past them.
I went back around the checkout counter, plopped onto my stool, and logged on to the library's computer system. Vic was still propped up next to Nyx's basket. The sword's purplish eye snapped open, and he regard me with a serious expression, but he didn't say anything. Nyx had curled up in her basket once again, and she raised her head and let out a worried growl, picking up on the tension in the air.
"Gwen?" Alexei asked, his Russian accent a bit more pronounced than usual. His hazel eyes fixed on my face. "You want to tell us what you're doing now?"
"What Nickamedes taught me to do," I murmured, turning away from him to stare at the computer screen.
"And what would that be exactly?"
"The Reaper had a book in the library earlier tonight," I said. "Before he poisoned the water bottles. I'm going to find that book and see what he was looking at."
"How can we help?" Carson asked.
The band geek's soft voice penetrated some of my anger, fear, and concern. I looked up and realized that all of my friends were standing in a row in front of the counter. Daphne. Carson. Oliver. Alexei. All of them ready and willing to do whatever I asked of them. And I realized that they were as worried about Nickamedes as I was - and that I didn't have to do this alone.
I grabbed a pen and a piece of paper, scribbled down my login and password, and handed it to Daphne. "Here. Start searching through the catalog of the library's books. Look for anything with the words Plants and Poison in the title. That's what the Reaper was looking at, and I'm willing to bet that's where he got the idea for whatever poison he used."
She took the slip of paper from me. "Got it. It shouldn't be too hard for me to figure out a search program to make things go a little quicker."
"You are our resident computer genius," Carson said.
Daphne grinned. "Don't you know it, babe."
She leaned over and planted a loud, smacking kiss on his cheek, then came around the counter, dragged a stool over to the nearest computer, and hopped up onto it. A moment later, she started typing, a furious shower of pink sparks exploding out of her fingertips with every key she hit.
"And us?" Carson asked. "What do you want the three of us to do?"
"Once Daphne's compiled the list, we can all spread out and start grabbing the books off the shelves," I said. "We'll bring the books back here to the center of the library, look at them, and see if any of them match the book I saw the Reaper staring at. Hopefully, once we find the book, we'll find the poison he used too - and the antidote."
The library was quiet as we worked. Coach Ajax and the Protectorate guards were still clustered around Metis and Nickamedes, so nobody paid us any attention. They probably thought we were wasting our time. Maybe we were, but it was the only thing I could think of to do to help the librarian. I'd worked in the Library of Antiquities for months now. Surely, all those long hours of finding reference materials, shelving books, and dusting artifact cases had to amount to something - and I was hoping that something would be enough to save Nickamedes.
It only took Daphne about ten minutes to compile a list of all of the books with the words Plants and Poison in the title. Unfortunately, there were dozens of them, spread out all over the first floor. I tore Daphne's list into five sections and handed everyone a piece. We each grabbed a metal cart and headed into the stacks.