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|Midnight Frost(Mythos Academy #5) by Jennifer Estep|
Oliver hit some more buttons on his phone, sending my question. It beeped again a minute later. "No change, according to Kenzie. Everything's quiet there, so far."
I let out a breath. Well, at least he hadn't gotten any worse. If everything went according to Ajax's plan, we'd hike up to the ruins tomorrow. Then, the day after that, we'd head back to Mythos, hopefully with the ambrosia flowers.
Oliver texted something to Kenzie. He started to put the phone away, but it beeped again.
"Who is it now?"
Oliver frowned, as if he didn't like what the screen said this time. "Just Kenzie again. He forgot to tell me something."
I wanted to ask if he'd heard from Logan, but I kept my mouth shut. Before we'd left the infirmary, Metis had said that she had already called Linus Quinn and told him what had happened to Nickamedes. Ajax and the other Protectorate guards had swept the academy grounds, but there had been no sign of Vivian or any other Reapers. Still, I couldn't help worrying that Vivian and Agrona really did have Logan, despite all my friends' assurances that he was safe with his dad.
Oliver typed in another message and put away his phone. Silence descended over the car once again, so I stared out the window. I didn't know where we were in relation to Denver, but mountains ringed the horizon as far as I could see, although gray clouds had begun to gather around some of the higher peaks, as though a snowstorm was blowing in from the west. I didn't see the future like Grandma Frost did, but I couldn't help wondering if it was a sign all the same - that Reapers weren't the only things we had to worry about.
We'd been riding for about thirty minutes, when Ajax steered the car off the main road and onto a smaller highway. Ten minutes after that, we pulled into a parking lot that fronted a train station. A sign read Snowline Ridge Runner - Tourist trains departing daily. The image of a red train climbing up a green mountain had been carved into the wood, complete with white puffs of smoke coming out of the engine.
"What are we doing here?" I asked.
"The roads up to the academy are narrow, winding, and littered with switchbacks," Ajax said. "There are dozens of spots along the way that would be the perfect place for an ambush, and we'd be sitting ducks in any kind of vehicle. Metis and I agreed it would be safer if we took the train. Lots of Mythos folks use it to get down to Denver and then back up the mountain to the academy again. We have a better chance of blending in with the crowd this way, especially since some of the students were in the city yesterday attending a weapons tournament and are returning to the academy this morning."
"That sounds like you and your buses, Gwen," Carson said in a cheery voice.
"Yay for public transportation," I said.
We got out of the car, grabbed our bags, and headed into the train station. The inside was nicer than I expected, with lots of gleaming wooden benches and old-fashioned brass rails running alongside them, dividing the seats into various sections. The walls were made out of the same light, varnished wood as the benches, while the floor was an off-white marble with flecks of gold shimmering in it. A series of ticket counters took up the back wall, but a wide strip of white marble ran above the windows - one that featured dozens of carvings.
Many of the figures were the same creatures I walked by on a daily basis at the academy - dragons, basilisks, gargoyles, chimeras, even a Minotaur. But there were other figures depicted too - bears, wolves, buffalo, coyotes, rabbits, porcupines. All ten feet tall and frighteningly lifelike, as though they were about to bust out of their stone shells and leap down into the middle of the floor.
Once I spotted the carvings, I noticed all of the other things I'd missed before. Two suits of armor, both clutching giant battle-axes, stood on either side of the water fountains, while a series of paintings of some bloody mythological battle hung on the wall beside the doors that led out to the tracks. Small wooden carvings of mythological creatures perched in glassed-in recesses in the walls, all staring out at the passengers who milled through the waiting area.
The carvings, the statues, the paintings, the suits of armor. In a way, it was eerily familiar - and strangely comforting. When I'd first gone to Mythos, I hadn't thought I belonged at the academy, but now I couldn't imagine not being part of the mythological world. The carvings and statues told me I was in my element - so to speak.
We had thirty minutes to wait until the train arrived. The others pulled out their cell phones and started checking their messages, but I wandered over and plucked a brochure out of a rack next to one of the ticket counters. I got a vague flash of other people flipping through the pages, but that was all. The sort of small vibe I would expect, since dozens of folks had grabbed the same slip of paper before putting it back into its slot on the rack.
I scanned through the photos and realized that Snowline Ridge seemed very similar to Cypress Mountain. Both suburbs housed a variety of expensive designer shops, coffeehouses, and bookstores. The only difference was that Snowline Ridge also featured a high-end ski resort that catered to tourists. There was no mention of the academy in the brochure.
I was almost finished reading the information when I got the sense that someone was watching me. It felt as if I could see someone hovering at the edge of my vision, staring right at me. But when I snapped my head in that direction, all I saw was the usual ebb and flow of folks moving through the station. No one seemed to be paying any attention to me at all.
I sighed and slid the brochure back into the rack. I started to head over to my friends when I noticed a girl leaning against the wall a few feet away. She was about my age, seventeen or maybe even a year younger, and her glossy black hair was pulled back into a sleek, short ponytail. She wore black boots and designer jeans topped by a white turtleneck sweater and a forest-green leather jacket that made her look both tough and pretty at the same time. A dark green messenger bag lay on the floor at her feet.
She wasn't the only kid in the station. In fact, I spotted several folks who had to be Mythos students, judging from their pricey clothes and expensive jewelry. Not to mention the colorful sparks of magic that the Valkyries were giving off. But the regular passengers didn't notice the cracks and hisses around them, despite the fact that one Valkyrie was practically dripping blue sparks all over the newspaper the older guy sitting next to her was reading. Daphne had told me once that unless you were a warrior, you just couldn't see the sparks. Apparently, something in our ancient warrior DNA let us spot the colorful flashes that regular mortals couldn't. So that was why Daphne and the other Valkyries didn't worry about giving off magic in public.
It seemed like all of the other kids were gossiping with each other, and more than a few eyed my friends, wondering who they were and why they were taking the train. Everyone seemed to be friendly enough with each other - except when it came to the girl I'd noticed earlier.
The other kids looked at the girl, but nobody approached her and nobody said anything to her. Nobody gave her so much as a cheerful wave or even a polite nod. The girl pretended that she couldn't see the other kids deliberately avoiding her, but her jaw was clenched, and her whole body was tense with anger - and pain.
She reminded me of, well, me. Back when I'd first come to Mythos, I'd been that exact same girl - the one standing all alone, watching the other kids around me, hoping that someone would at least notice me.
She spotted me watching her and turned her head in my direction. Her eyes were a bright, vivid green. The girl scowled at me, crossed her arms over her chest, and looked away.
She had to be one of the Mythos students going up to Snowline Ridge - I just wondered if she was also a Reaper. That might explain why she seemed to be here by herself. Maybe she'd been the only Reaper sent to the station and was busy watching me and my friends instead of hanging out with her own.
Or maybe I was just being paranoid.
So she was standing by herself. That didn't mean she was a Reaper. Still, my gaze kept going back to the girl, who kept right on scowling at me.
"What are you looking at?" she finally growled.
I shrugged. "Nothing. Just killing time."
"Well, go kill it somewhere else. Or I'll make you wish you had."
I raised an eyebrow at her. "Really?"
A flash of purple caught my eye, and I looked down. Vic was sticking out of the top of my messenger bag. The sword had woken up from his latest nap, but instead of yawning like usual, he was glaring at the girl.
"Put me up against her throat, and I'll make her take back her snotty words real quick," Vic muttered.
The girl's scowl deepened. "What did you say?"
"Nothing. Nothing at all."
"Nothing!" Vic huffed in an indignant voice. "I'll show her nothing - "
I reached down and clamped my hand over the sword's mouth to muffle the sound of his voice. Vic would totally make me pay for this later, but right now, I needed him to be quiet. It was one thing for the Reapers to know we were coming. It was another for the sword to start shouting threats and telling everyone exactly where we were.
The girl's eyes narrowed, and she looked past me. A second later, Daphne stepped up beside me. The Valkyrie crossed her arms over her chest and gave the other girl a cool once-over.
"No problem," I said.
"Good," Daphne replied. "The train's almost here. Ajax wants us to head on outside."
"Right behind you."
Daphne stared at the girl a moment longer before striding back over to Carson and the others. I followed her.
Still, I couldn't help glancing over my shoulder. The girl was still scowling at me. But for a moment, I almost thought I saw a flicker of sadness in her eyes, and her mouth seemed to turn down that much more. For some reason, the expression made me want to go back over to her and find out what she was so upset about.
"Come on, Gwen!" Daphne called out.
But my friends were waiting, so I put the girl out of my mind and followed them onto the platform.
Fifteen minutes later, the train pulled out of the station. The engine's whistle pierced the early morning air, sounding as high and sharp as a Black roc's screech. Or maybe it only seemed that way because I knew the Reapers would probably be waiting for us up at the academy and then at the Eir Ruins - if we even made it that far.
Like the station, the train itself featured long, padded wooden benches with brass rails running alongside them. There were even a few tables bolted to the floor here and there throughout the car, so folks could face each other. I was sitting by myself. Oliver and Alexei were on the bench across from me, with Daphne and Carson sitting in front of me. Coach Ajax was in front of Oliver and Alexei, leaning his elbows on one of the tables, dwarfing the wood with his large frame and muscled body. The sunlight streaming in through the windows made his skin gleam like polished onyx.
I had my messenger bag next to me on the bench, with Vic propped up so that he could look out the large picture windows. The sword eyed the passing scenery, when he wasn't busy shooting me dirty looks for clamping my hand over his mouth earlier.
The car we were in wasn't all that crowded. A few other kids were sprawled over the benches in the front, while two adults - a man and a woman - were at a table behind them. Everyone was engrossed in their phones or the laptops they'd opened up the second the train had left the station. I eyed the other passengers, but no one seemed to be paying me or my friends any attention. In fact, none of the other folks in the car even glanced in our direction. Normally, I would have thought that was a good thing, but something about the complete lack of attention struck me as being strange. Or perhaps that was just my paranoia showing through again.
To my surprise, the girl I'd seen inside the station was also in our car, although she made sure to sit in the back, five rows away from anyone else. She had her back to the window, and her legs stretched out on the bench in front of her. She noticed me looking at her again, scowled, and pointedly turned her head and stared out the window.
"Who's that?" Oliver asked, leaning across the aisle so he could talk to me. "She doesn't seem like she's a member of the Gwen Frost fan club."
I shrugged. "Don't know. Don't care."
Alexei touched his arm, and Oliver leaned back to see what he wanted.
We rode in silence for about thirty minutes. The trip was pleasant enough. The train rocked from side to side in a soothing way, although every once in a while, the gears would grind together, making the car shudder and the windows rattle as the engine struggled up the mountain. According to Ajax, it was a ninety-minute ride up to Snowline Ridge, and the others soon took off their jackets, wadded them up to use as pillows, got comfortable, and drifted off to sleep.
The day had barely started, and I was already tired, but try as I might, I couldn't go to sleep, not without worrying that I might have another nightmare. So I stared out at the passing scenery instead.
In some ways, the Rockies were a lot like the Appalachian Mountains back home. Lots of trees, lots of stone outcroppings, lots of rocky ridges. But everything here seemed bigger, more jagged and rugged, the mountain peaks so tall and sharp that they resembled needles you might prick your finger on if only you could reach out and touch the tops of them. There was more snow here too, a couple of inches on the ground, and fresh flakes swirled all around and through the dense, towering pines like bits of hard, white confetti. But it wasn't just the snow and scenery that were different. I felt . . . a wildness in the landscape that I didn't back at the North Carolina academy. Or perhaps it was because Mythos was home and this wasn't -
A hand touched my shoulder.