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|Midnight Frost(Mythos Academy #5) by Jennifer Estep|
Metis stared at me. "The problem is that the only place the flower is known to grow is in some ruins on the top of a mountain above the Denver branch of Mythos Academy."
Alexei narrowed his hazel eyes. "You mean the Eir Ruins?"
Metis nodded again, her mouth flattening out into a grim line. Oliver crossed his arms over his chest. Daphne started muttering, while Grandma Frost sighed, as if she'd known that was what the professor would say all along. Maybe she had, with her ability to see the future.
"Okay, so what's the deal with the ruins?" I asked. "And why do you all look like it would be the worst idea ever to go there?"
Carson peered at me through his glasses. "The Eir Ruins are supposed to be a place of great power, of great magic."
"So . . . tons of people have gone up to the ruins, but some of the folks have come back . . . different," he said.
Daphne snorted. "You mean, most of them were so scared that all they did was babble on about ghosts and spirits and how they barely survived."
"The ruins have a reputation," Oliver added. "You don't go up there unless you absolutely have to."
"Okay, so basically the ruins are some Mythos version of a haunted house," I said. "So what? We've been through worse."
"It's not the ruins I'm concerned about," Metis said. "It's the Reapers' trap."
We all froze for a moment.
Finally, Alexei spoke. "What do you mean? How could it be a trap?"
The professor took off her silver glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Because the poison is working too slowly on Nickamedes. Serket sap is usually fatal within a few minutes, but it was longer than that before Nickamedes even showed any symptoms. And now, my magic is keeping the poison at bay, even though that's not usually possible. I think . . . I think the Reaper gave Nickamedes a small, diluted dose of the poison - on purpose."
"But why would the Reapers do that?" Oliver asked. "It doesn't make sense."
I thought back to when I'd seen the Reaper poison the water bottles, and I remembered something I hadn't thought too much about before. Jason had used white pouches on the bottles, but outside on the quad, he'd had a red paper pouch. And after he'd swallowed the poison inside, he'd been dead in a few minutes, just like Metis had said. Even when Vivian had called, she'd asked him if it was done, if I'd been poisoned - not if I was actually dead yet.
I looked at the professor, and I started to pick up on her train of thought. "Jason wanted to poison me, but he didn't want to kill me, did he? Not right away. Instead, he wanted to give you guys enough time to figure out what kind of poison he'd used. Maybe that's even why he kept looking at the book so much in the library - so I could flash on it and see him reading it when you guys finally found it back in the stacks. Once you did, he knew that you'd go rushing out to the ruins to find the antidote, and when you got there, the Reapers would be waiting."
Metis nodded. "That's what I think. That the Reapers want to lure us out to the ruins so they can attack us."
I frowned. "But why? Why go to all that trouble when they could attack us here? They've done it before."
When they could just kill me, and be done with it. That was the other dark thought that filled my mind, but I didn't share it with the others.
"That, I don't have an answer to." Metis sighed again. "But even if it's not a trap, you can't just go find the flower. Chloris ambrosia has powerful healing properties, but there's a catch - it has to be picked under a midnight moon. That's the only time the flowers on the vine bloom, and the flowers are what I need to make the antidote."
"So let me get this straight," I said. "Not only do we have to get to the ruins, figure out how to survive whatever creepy magic mumbo jumbo may or may not be there, and thwart a likely Reaper attack, but we also have to pick this mythological flower at precisely the right moment or Nickamedes will die anyway. Does that about sum it up?"
Metis nodded. "Unfortunately."
We all fell silent once more, and the only sounds were the crinkle of Raven's magazine as she turned another page and the faint beep-beep-beep of a heart monitor somewhere deeper in the infirmary. I wondered if that was Nickamedes's heart beating - and how long it would be until that sound stopped altogether.
Not for the first time tonight, I wished that Logan was here. He wouldn't have been able to do anything - not any more than Metis was already doing for Nickamedes - but his being here would have comforted me, would have made me feel like the odds weren't stacked quite so high against us and that we had a chance to save Nickamedes after all.
Logan wasn't here - but I was. And I knew what I had to do - as Nike's Champion, and more important, as Nickamedes's friend.
"How long?" I asked. "How long does he have?"
"I won't know until we run some more tests to see exactly how much of the poison he ingested and how strong it is," Metis said. "But I would say a week. Maybe less."
Silence. Complete, utter, absolute, frightening silence descended over the waiting room once more.
I looked at Metis. The professor was putting on a brave face, but anguish tightened her features. How could I not have realized how much she cared about him before? Once again, I wondered how long she'd been in love with the librarian - and why she didn't tell him how she felt. They'd make a terrific couple. But the love Metis had for Nickamedes made me even more determined to save him - for her.
"Well," I finally said. "If it's a fight the Reapers want, then that's what we're going to give them."
"Gwen?" Metis asked.
I straightened up. "How soon can we get to Denver?"
The answer to my question was several hours.
To my surprise, Carson had made all the arrangements. Apparently, his dad did a lot of business with wineries in North Carolina and the surrounding states, and Mr. Callahan was always traveling back and forth from one side of the country to the other. Lucky for us, Carson's dad had flown in a few days before and was currently over in Ashland, visiting some winery there. He'd told Carson to take the jet to wherever he needed.
After a mad dash back to our dorm rooms to pack, we'd gone over to the small airport in Cypress Mountain and had flown out in the wee hours of the morning. Daphne, Carson, Oliver, and Alexei had all pulled out pillows and blankets from the overhead bins, curled up in their seats, and gone to sleep, but I'd stayed awake. Partly because I'd never flown before and was a little freaked out by the whole experience, but mostly because I didn't want to have another nightmare and wake everyone else up with my screaming.
But the exhaustion finally caught up with me. One moment, I was staring out the window, worrying about Nickamedes and wondering whether the Reapers had really captured Logan or not. The next, I woke up with Daphne standing over me, poking her finger into my shoulder.
"Wakey, wakey," she said. "We're here."
I sat up. I'd been using my coat as a blanket, and it slipped off my chest and landed on the floor. "We're in Denver already?"
"Not Denver, a suburb," Daphne said. "Ajax had us land here because he thought it would be a less obvious place for us to start from than the Denver airport. He's trying to throw the Reapers off our trail for as long as possible."
Coach Ajax was the only adult who'd come with us. Metis had to stay at the academy so she could keep using her magic on Nickamedes to fight off the poison until we returned with the antidote. Grandma Frost also remained behind to help Metis and keep an eye on Nyx. It wasn't out of the realm of possibility that the Reapers might attack again while we were away, and I was glad Grandma was going to watch Metis's back. Still, I missed her already. It was a dangerous mission I was on, but I wasn't a little girl anymore, and I couldn't go crying to my grandma every time something terrible happened. I was a Champion now - Nike's Champion - and it was up to me to stop Bad, Bad Things from happening - even if I wasn't sure I was the right person for the job.
But I had to try, for Nickamedes - especially when he was suffering because of me.
Ajax, Oliver, Alexei, and Carson were already grabbing their things, so I got up and did the same. At least, I tried to. I had to wait for Daphne to clear all five of her suitcases out of the way first.
Somehow, she had managed to pack a month's worth of clothes in the time we'd had to go back to our rooms and grab our gear before leaving the academy. All of her luggage was pink, of course. It matched the long, heavy coat, gloves, earmuffs, and boots she was wearing, not to mention the oversized patent leather purse hanging off her arm.
"I know I forgot something," Daphne muttered, opening and closing another one of her bags.
"The only things in your closet that you didn't pack were the hangers that everything was on," I sniped. "We're not going to be gone that long, you know."
"And I know that you should always pack for every possible situation," Daphne sniffed.
I rolled my eyes.
Finally, Daphne hoisted her bags out of the way with one hand, and I managed to grab my stuff, which had been buried under hers. I pulled Vic out of my messenger bag. The sword gave a loud, jaw-cracking yawn and opened his eye. Then, he started blinking rapidly and moving his mouth up and down and wiggling his jaw from side to side.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"What do you think I'm doing? I'm trying to pop my bloody ear," Vic said. "The change in altitude is killing me, I tell you. Killing me!"
I wanted to point out that the sword was the one who killed things, not the other way around, but I kept quiet. Finally, a minute later, something squeaked deep inside the metal, and Vic's face relaxed.
"There," he said. "All better. Now, time to take care of the jet lag. Wake me when there are Reapers to kill."
His purplish eye snapped shut. I thought about shaking him awake, so he'd be as cranky and sleep-deprived as I was, but I decided against it. I didn't want to listen to him complain all the way to . . . wherever it was we were going next.
I slid Vic back into my messenger bag, looped it across my chest, grabbed my duffel bag full of clothes, and plodded down the plane's stairs with the others.
The sun was just creeping up over the tops of the mountains, banishing the gray and lavender twilight that streaked across the sky. A bluish haze colored the Rockies themselves, softening the sharp edges of the tall, rugged peaks, before giving way to the snow that crowned the very tops of the mountains. My breath frosted in the air like a cloud of diamonds, and I suddenly realized how frigid it was, but the landscape was so beautiful that I didn't mind the cold.
"Come on," Daphne said. "Quit gawking. We need to get moving."
I shouldered my bags and followed the others across the tarmac. We stepped into a hangar, and heat blasted over my face, chasing away the chill. We all trailed after Coach Ajax, who was leading the way. Right before we got to the door that would let us enter the rest of the airport, Ajax turned and held his hands out wide.
"We all know the Reapers are probably already tracking us," Ajax rumbled in his deep voice. "What we don't know is how many spies the Reapers have, who they might be, or when they might decide to attack. So watch each other's backs - now more than ever. I want at least two of you together at all times with your weapons handy. Don't let yourselves get separated from each other."
"Why do they think we're here?" I asked. "And who is they and where exactly is here?"
"We're going to the Denver branch of Mythos Academy," Ajax said. "It's located higher up in the Rockies, in a suburb called Snowline Ridge. We should arrive as classes are starting. We'll take the day to prepare, then set out for the Eir Ruins tomorrow."
"And what are you telling the people at the academy about why we've suddenly shown up?" Alexei asked.
Ajax shrugged. "That this is a special field trip for students who are interested in transferring to the Denver branch. We do these on occasion."
"In the middle of the winter semester?" Oliver asked. "Don't you think that's a little weak as far as excuses go?"
The coach shrugged again. "It was the best excuse Metis and I could come up with on such short notice. Besides, the Reapers know why we're here. There's nothing we can do about that."
He was right. The Reapers had wanted us to come here, and now, all that was left to do was to see how things played out - and try to survive whatever trap the Reapers had in mind.
We walked through the airport and stepped outside to a car rental station. Ajax must have called ahead, because a black Cadillac Escalade was waiting by the curb. Ajax signed some paperwork, took the keys from one of the workers, and got behind the wheel. Alexei slipped into the front passenger seat. Oliver and I sat in the middle row, with Daphne and Carson in the back.
Nobody spoke as Ajax drove away from the airport - we were all too busy staring out the windows, already looking for the Reapers we knew were coming. But all we saw were modest homes and quiet streets.
We'd been driving for about ten minutes when Oliver's phone beeped, and he pulled it out of his pants pocket and stared at the screen.
"Who's that?" I asked.
He typed out a quick message. "Just Kenzie, wondering if we'd landed yet."
Kenzie Tanaka was another one of our Spartan friends at Mythos. He'd stayed behind to help Metis with Nickamedes, so it made sense that he'd texted Oliver, wanting an update.