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|Midnight Frost(Mythos Academy #5) by Jennifer Estep|
We shouldered our bags and followed the stream of students through the station and out into town. Ajax walked in front, with Carson and Daphne behind him, then me, then Oliver and Alexei bringing up the rear.
In many ways, Snowline Ridge was pretty much a carbon copy of Cypress Mountain. Designer shops, coffeehouses, and expensive cafes lined the wide streets, each storefront window showcasing luxury clothes, jewelry, electronics, and more. I even spotted a couple of parking lots full of Aston Martins and BMWs, along with sturdy SUVs and expensive pickup trucks with four-wheel drives to help navigate the icy roads in these parts. I guess the students here couldn't have cars on campus either.
But there were plenty of differences that let me know this wasn't home. For one thing, walking down the streets was like stepping back in time to the Old West. Many of the old-fashioned, wooden storefronts looked like they'd come straight out of some cowboy movie, right down to life-sized carvings of grizzly bears that stood guard on either side of the swinging saloon doors you pushed through to get inside. Then, there were the items the shops sold - custom-made cowboy boots, turquoise lariat ties, ten-gallon hats, diamond-crusted belt buckles the size of dinner plates. Everything had a Western feel to it, and I half-expected some tumbleweeds to come rolling down the street, despite the snow underfoot.
Finally, we left the shops behind and reached the edge of the academy grounds. Just like at home, a stone wall ringed the entire academy, although the main iron gate stood open to let the returning students back onto campus. My friends stepped through the gate without even glancing around, but I stopped and peered up.
Sure enough, two statues perched on top of the stone wall on either side of the gate. But they weren't the sphinxes I expected - these statues were gryphons.
Eagle heads, lion bodies, wings, curved beaks, sharp talons. These statues looked as fierce, majestic, and lifelike as the ones back home.
It was almost as if the statues could hear my thoughts, because as I watched them, they began to move. Their wings twitched, the feathers ruffled back and forth in the cold winter wind, their talons dug a little more into the stone at their feet, and their eyes narrowed as they glared down at me -
"C'mon on, Gwen!" Daphne said. "It's freezing out here!"
I blinked, and the gryphons were simply stone once more. Well, the figures might be different, but it seemed as though these statues would be watching me as closely as the ones back home did. In a strange way, that comforted me.
"Gwen!" Daphne yelled again.
I gave the gryphons a little salute with my hand, then hoisted my bags higher onto my shoulder and followed my friends onto the grounds.
The more we walked, the more I got an extreme sense of deja vu.
Just like back home, a series of ash-gray cobblestone paths wound every which way across the grounds. I imagined that all of the lawns would be as smooth, green, and manicured as they were at Mythos, except for the fact that they were buried under a couple of inches of snow right now. We also passed several dorms that could have been carbon copies of the ones in North Carolina. So far, the only big difference I could see between the two academies were the dense pine trees that dotted the grounds like rows of soldiers, instead of the sprawling maples and oaks I was used to. Well, that and the fact that the hills were a lot steeper here. We'd barely been walking for five minutes, and I could already feel the burn in my legs.
"What's wrong?" Alexei asked, noticing me glancing around.
"I think it's weird how much this academy looks like our academy," I said. "If it weren't for all the snow, I'd think I was back home."
He shrugged. "They all pretty much look like this. Dorms, stone paths, a main quad with several buildings."
"Really? Every single one of them?"
Alexei shrugged again. "All the ones I've been to. St. Petersburg, London, New York, North Carolina, and now here. But there are always some differences. You'll see."
We walked on. We finally crested the hill we'd been climbing, and I blinked in surprise.
Because before me lay the main quad of Mythos Academy - sort of.
Like Alexei had said, it looked a lot like our quad. Five main buildings arranged in a starlike pattern, a series of paths winding in between the structures. Math-science, English-history, a dining hall, a gym, a library. They were even arranged in the same spots as they were back home, and the outsides looked remarkably similar. Same dark gray stone, same gloomy outlines, same statues covering them all.
But the more I looked, the more I noticed the differences Alexei had mentioned. Instead of being smooth and unbroken, the stone of the buildings looked like boulders that had been piled on top of each other. The rocks were more black than gray and interspersed with dark logs that were thicker around than I was tall. Wide windows were set into all of the structures, I supposed to take advantage of the sweeping views of the pine trees that ran up to and seemed to merge into the mountain above. Everything seemed rough and raw, as if the buildings themselves were hollow rocks and tree trunks that had broken off the jagged mountain peak above and had finally tumbled to a stop here.
A series of bells rang out, the high, clear sounds booming like claps of thunder throughout the quad and bouncing from one structure to the next. A minute later, the doors of the dining hall opened, and students started pouring out.
"Breakfast just ended, and everyone's heading to their morning classes," I murmured.
"That's right," Ajax said. "Come on. There's someone I need to speak to about making the arrangements for our trip tomorrow."
The coach set off across the quad, and we all fell in line behind him. I wasn't all that surprised when Ajax headed for the Library of Antiquities. A silver plaque on the front told me what the building was, but I would have known anyway. Oh, the shape was a bit different, since this library had three large wings joined together by a large, square tower in the middle, but it was still the largest and most impressive structure on the quad.
The others trooped up the steps, but once again, I lingered behind. A pair of gryphons perched on boulders on either side of these steps, and they looked just as fierce as the ones I'd come to think of as my protectors back home. It took me a moment to realize they were actually a bit smaller, although their features were that much sharper, as if whoever had carved the statues hadn't finished sanding down the stone and smoothing out the anger in the gryphons' expression. But it wasn't just their appearance that was different. It was the feeling that radiated off them - the same sort of intense wildness I'd felt ever since we'd stepped off the plane.
Oh, I imagined that if I touched these gryphons, they would break free of their stone shells just like I always thought the ones back home would. But instead of attacking, I got the sense that these creatures would immediately spread their wings, take to the sky, and revel in the freedom of the open horizon. I don't know why I thought that, but once the idea was in my mind, I couldn't get rid of it, and it almost seemed as if I could feel the wind tearing through my hair -
A hand clamped down on my arm, and a shower of pink sparks exploded, making me twitch my nose to hold back a sneeze.
"Oh, come on, Gwen," Daphne said. "Stop staring at everything. You're acting like you've never been to a different academy before."
I tried to pull my arm out of her firm grip, but it was no use. Not with her Valkyrie strength. "You're forgetting that you're right - I never have been to a different academy before."
She glanced around. "Well, I don't see what's so fascinating about it. Now, come on. Everyone else is inside already."
Daphne strong-armed me up the steps, inside the building, down a hallway, and into the main space of the Library of Antiquities.
Once again, I was struck by a serious sense of deja vu - because this library looked eerily similar to the one I'd been in last night. A second-floor balcony ringed with statues of gods and goddesses. A main aisle that led to the checkout counter in the middle of the library. Study tables on either side, with shadow-filled stacks sitting all around them. There was even a coffee cart parked off to one side, although no students were gathered around it since it was still so early.
But there were differences here too. The inside of the library was square and only five stories tall, making it seem short and squat in comparison to the one back home. The tower that I'd noticed outside took up the center of the library, with the three wings sticking out from it, like spokes on a wheel. More thick logs of lumber were stacked on top of each other, forming the walls and the supports for the floors above. Colorful rugs with a variety of Native American symbols stitched on them covered the floor, seeming like carvings that had been burned into the stone. I looked down and realized I was standing on the chin of Coyote. I murmured my apologies and stepped off the rug.
But perhaps the most impressive feature was an enormous stone fireplace to the right of the checkout counter. It was made out of the same dark boulders as everything else and was easily thirty feet wide and flanked by cushioned chairs and couches. I could picture students gathered there, studying in front of the crackling flames. All put together, the library reminded me of some rustic hunting lodge. It wasn't home, but I liked the look and feel of it all the same.
Daphne let go of my arm and headed over to where Carson was standing with the others. I slowly turned around, looking from one side to the other.
Finally, I peered up. Instead of being a dome, the ceiling here was divided into three sections, one for each wing, and they all rose up and flowed into the square ceiling that made up the tower in the middle. I tipped my head back even more, wondering if there was a fresco on the ceiling here too and if perhaps I could see it, since it was so much lower. There was a painting, and shadows cloaked much of it just like they did back home, but to my surprise, parts of the ceiling were crystal-clear - and the images revealed were all artifacts.
Sigyn's bow. The Horn of Roland. The Swords of Ruslan. The artifacts that Daphne, Carson, and Alexei carried were as clear as day to me, along with Vic, who was in my hand. I even saw something that looked like Ran's fishing net, which I still had stuffed in my messenger bag. It looked like the same fresco as in the library back home, although this time, all I could make out were the artifacts - and not my friends carrying them.
My gaze dropped to the second-floor balcony. It took me a moment to find Nike's statue in the square pantheon, even though it was in more or less the same place here as it was back home. I stared at the goddess, and it seemed that her statue shimmered, as though it was some sort of heat mirage. I blinked, and I noticed that Nike's head was tilted back, her gaze locked on the artifacts that I could still see on the ceiling. I blinked again, and the goddess's eyes were fixed on me once more. I frowned. It almost seemed as if she was trying to warn me about something -
"Beautiful, isn't it?" a low voice murmured.
I whirled around to find a man standing a few feet behind me. "Excuse me?"
He jerked his head upward. "The fresco on the ceiling. It's beautiful, isn't it? The landscape of the mountains and the academy nestled in the middle of them."
Was that what he saw? Because that definitely wasn't what I had gotten a glimpse of. Not here and not at home either. But if there was one thing I'd learned during these last few months, it was to keep my mouth shut with strangers - no matter how nice and harmless they might seem.
"Sure," I said. "I've never seen anything like it."
"Me either," the man said, smiling at me.
He was on the short side, several inches shy of six feet tall, and whip-thin. His hair and eyes were a light hazel, but his skin was much darker, a rich, reddish brown, as though he'd spent a lot of time outdoors over the years and had a ruddy tan that would never, ever fade. A small brown goatee clung to his chin, softening the sharp point of his face. He wore a dark blue, three-piece suit that reminded me of something Nickamedes would wear, although he had on a pair of sturdy brown hiking boots instead of the glossy wing tips the librarian almost always favored.
The man's smile widened as he kept looking at me. "Are you new here? I don't think I've ever seen you before. Can I help you find something in the library?"
I opened my mouth to answer him when someone interrupted me.
"Covington! There you are!" Ajax's voice rumbled through the library, and the coach walked down the aisle in our direction.
To my surprise, Ajax clapped the other man on his shoulder, almost sending Covington barreling into one of the bookcases before he managed to recover his balance.
"Ajax! What a surprise. It's good to see you," Covington said, returning Ajax's clap with a much weaker one of his own. "How are things in North Carolina? When I got your message that you were flying out here on the spur of the moment, I was worried something was wrong."
Ajax grimaced. "Unfortunately, something is wrong. Is there someplace private where we can talk?"
Covington nodded. "Of course. Just let me finish helping this young lady, and I'll be right with you."
"Actually, I'm with him." I pointed my finger at Ajax. "And so are my friends."
The others realized that Ajax and I were talking to someone, and they headed in our direction. Covington's gaze took us all in. He kept the smile fixed on his face, but I could tell he was wondering who we were and why we were there. I was wondering the same thing about him. Sure, he seemed nice enough, but I'd learned the hard way that was what Reapers did - they pretended to be your friend right before they stabbed you in the back. Vivian had done it to me, and Agrona had done the same thing to Logan by marrying and pretending to love his dad.