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|Midnight Frost(Mythos Academy #5) by Jennifer Estep|
Finally, we made it to the end of the line. All of my other friends had already paid and were waiting for Rory and me to do the same. The Spartan girl was in front of me, and she slowed her steps, as though she didn't actually want to pay for her food, but she eventually made it over to the cash register.
The woman sitting behind the register perked up at the sight of Rory. She wasn't that much older than us - probably in her mid-twenties - but she was exceptionally pretty, with long, glossy black hair, green eyes, and porcelain skin. She wore a white chef's uniform, and I wondered if she'd helped cook the food.
"Hi, Rory," the woman said. "How's school going today?"
"Hey, Aunt Rachel," Rory muttered. "Everything's fine."
Aunt Rachel? This must be the aunt whom Grandma Frost had told me about - the one Rory lived with. Her mother's sister. The only family she had left. Well, besides me.
Rachel's eyes flicked to me, and she noticed how close I was standing to her niece. Her face brightened a little more. "Who's your new friend?"
"Hi there," I said in a cheery voice, just to needle Rory. "I'm Gwen."
Rory shot me another dirty look, but Rachel didn't notice it. Instead, she reached over and took my hand in hers.
Her feelings and emotions hit me a moment later.
Normally, I was careful about touching people, since my psychometry kicked in the second my hand brushed across someone else's, but Rachel caught me off guard with her impromptu, enthusiastic handshake. I thought about pulling back but decided not to. I had a lot of questions and not a lot of time to get answers to them since we'd be leaving in the morning to trek to the ruins. I wanted to know more about Rory, and flashing on Rachel was one way to find out. Besides, worst-case scenario, it would tell me whether or not they were Reapers and how much I could trust them.
Rachel's feelings blazed into my mind. For a moment, I was overwhelmed by images of her. Laughing, talking, smiling, growing up over the years, even learning how to fight as a Spartan. But the deeper I sank into her memories, the more I noticed another person in them - an older girl who resembled her. That must be her sister - Rory's mom. All three of them looked just alike. I could also feel all of Rachel's love for her older sister - and how much she looked up to her.
But there was a darkness in the other girl - a darkness that Rachel worried about more and more as the years passed. A darkness that only intensified when she met a boy her own age, and the two of them had Rory. At first, Rachel thought that Rory would be enough to pull her sister out of the darkness - but she wasn't. The images grew more and more disjointed after that, turning into a wall of solid red in Rachel's mind - a wall of blood.
Her sister's blood.
In front of me, I was dimly aware of Rachel looking at Rory. Suddenly, the memories and feelings changed, and I saw Rory growing up over the years - and all the love that Rachel had for her niece.
But the main thing I felt was how tired Rachel was - and how very sad. She was trying to do the best she could with Rory, but she was constantly worrying that she wasn't doing a good enough job, that her love wasn't enough for Rory, that it wasn't enough to help ease the pain of losing her parents.
Rory's parents were dead? When? How?
Before I could look for the answer, Rachel pulled her hand away from mine, and the memories and feelings vanished. I blinked, trying to get my bearings and sort through all of the images and emotions I'd seen and felt at the same time.
I must have had a strange look on my face, because Rachel's eyes narrowed with suspicion. But I gave her a bright smile, paid for my food, and walked over to the table where my friends were sitting. Footsteps smacked on the floor, and Rory hurried up beside me.
"What was that about?" she hissed. "What did you do to my aunt?"
"Nothing," I said. "She didn't feel a thing."
I didn't add that I'd felt everything Rachel was experiencing at the moment, especially her last, strongest emotion - her surprise and happiness that Rory seemed to have a new friend. I wondered what she would think when she realized who I was - and that Rory and I weren't exactly friends.
Rory gave me another suspicious look, but she sat down at the table with us. Nobody said anything, and we all dug into our food.
The bison cheeseburger was surprisingly good. Really, I couldn't even tell it wasn't regular old beef. The meat had a bit of a spicy red pepper seasoning, and the heat pleasantly warmed my mouth. The lettuce and other vegetables had a nice, fresh crunch to them, while the thick layer of mayonnaise on the grilled bun provided a bit of a cool contrast. The fries were hot and crispy, with just the right amount of bacon and melted cheese on them, and the ranch dipping sauce was the perfect blend of creamy tartness. The only thing that was disappointing was the fudge, which was satisfying, but not nearly as rich and sinfully decadent as what Grandma Frost made.
I was so busy stuffing my face that I didn't notice the dirty looks coming our way - at least not immediately.
I was finishing the last bite of my fudge when a surge of emotion washed over me - anger. Hot, burning, sizzling anger. At first, I thought it was directed at me, that there was some Reaper in here, so I turned around in my seat, trying to see who was glaring at me and why. I spotted a group of guys staring at our table. It took me another minute to realize they were actually glaring at Rory - and they weren't the only ones.
We were sitting at a table at the back of the dining hall, but everyone who walked by shot Rory a dirty look. I heard the mutters too.
"Reaper girl . . ."
"Can't believe she came back for another semester . . ."
"Why doesn't she just drop out . . ."
Rory also heard the angry whispers. Her shoulders tensed up, her knuckles went white around her fork, and her gaze flicked back and forth, as though she expected one of the other kids to attack her at any time.
Once again, I had a strange, sick sense of deja vu. The whole thing reminded me of how the kids at Mythos had treated me a few weeks ago, when I'd been falsely accused of being a Reaper, when Vivian had blamed me for all the evil things she'd done - including killing some of our classmates.
Finally, the stares and mutters weren't enough, and a couple of guys approached our table.
"Well, well, well, look who's actually eating in the dining hall for a change," one of the guys sneered.
"Well, well, well," Rory sniped back. "Look who's still failing English lit - and every other class. That would be you, Duke."
Duke's face turned a mottled red with anger. He was a tall guy with a thick, beefy build, the sort who would have played linebacker at my old public high school. He wasn't carrying a weapon, but I got the vibe that he was a Viking from the way he kept cracking his knuckles, as though he was looking forward to driving them through Rory's face. Vikings were strong and had a rep for using their fists to solve problems instead of weapons.
"Yeah, well," he snarled. "I might not be as smart as you, but at least my parents aren't Reapers. At least they didn't go on a killing spree in the library. You can't say the same about yours, though, can you?"
I froze. So did all of my friends. We glanced at each other, then at Rory. Her parents had been Reapers? They'd killed people? On campus?
Well, that would explain why the other students treated Rory like she was no better than the dirt under their boots.
Rory's face was completely blank and closed off as she pushed her chair back and faced Duke. "I've told you before not to talk about my parents."
Duke's hands curled into fists. "I'll talk about them however I want to. And you too, you Reaper bitch."
Those were the same words that had been spray-painted on my dorm room door and walls more than once. They made me see red now, just like they had then. Because I'd learned something when I'd touched Rachel - that she and Rory weren't Reapers any more than I was.
"Hey," I said, pushing my chair back and getting to my feet, as well. "Leave her alone. She wasn't doing anything to you."
Duke looked at me, and he sneered again. "Who's your friend, Rory? I haven't seen her or any of these other losers around before."
"This is Gwen," Rory said in a loud voice, making sure all the kids at the nearby tables heard her. "My cousin. Her dad was a Forseti. My dad's brother, as a matter of fact."
Hatred flashed in Duke's dark eyes. "Oh," he sneered. "Another Forseti. So your dad was a Reaper too, huh?"
For a moment, the air left my lungs, my vision went dark, and white spots swam before my eyes. The world seemed to grind to a screeching halt before abruptly sputtering back into gear.
My dad had been - he'd been - my dad had been a Reaper?
It wasn't possible. It couldn't be. It just - it just could not be.
Rory looked at me, a mixture of anger and pity in her eyes, and I knew it was true. Every awful word that Duke had said was true. Her parents had been Reapers - and so had my dad.
How long had he been a Reaper? Had he killed people? Had my mom known? Had Grandma Frost known? All of these questions slammed into my mind one after another, the force of them making me wobble on my feet.
"What's the matter?" Duke taunted. "Don't like hearing the truth about your horrible family?"
He stepped toward me, but Rory moved in front of me, blocking him. She lifted her chin and glared at him. Duke sneered at her, and his hand curled into a fist again, as though he was thinking about hitting her.
Another chair scraped back from the table, and Alexei moved in front of both of us.
"That's enough," he said in a chillingly quiet voice. "Walk away."
"Yeah, dude," Oliver said, moving to stand beside Alexei. "Get lost. Now."
Daphne and Carson got to their feet, as well, and Duke realized he was outnumbered. Still, he glared at Rory like he'd love nothing more than to wade through my friends to get to her - and me too.
"Whatever," he finally muttered. "She's not worth it anyway. None of the Forsetis are."
He stalked over to his friends, and they all sat down at their table and put their heads together. From the laughter, curses, and jeers, I knew they were talking about us - about my dad.
Suddenly, the dining hall seemed hot, small, and stuffy. I couldn't breathe, and what air I did manage to draw in came right back out in a series of choked gasps. I reached down, fumbled for my messenger bag, and straightened up.
"Gwen?" Daphne asked, her black eyes full of concern.
I shook my head. "I just - I need to be alone for a few minutes. Okay?"
Alexei started to come with me, whether I wanted him to or not, but Oliver put a hand on his arm.
"It's okay," Oliver said. "Let her go."
I hurried out of the dining hall without another word.
I wound up in the Library of Antiquities, just like I usually did back home whenever something was on my mind. Some new torture the Reapers had put me through, some horrible new secret I'd learned, some new way my heart had been broken once more.
I wasn't really paying attention to where I was going, so I was halfway down the main aisle before I spotted Ajax and Covington standing behind the checkout counter, talking. I didn't want them to see me and wave me over, so I slipped into the stacks and headed up to the second level to Nike's statue. I threw my messenger bag down and curled up in a ball on the floor at her feet.
Vic was sticking out of the top of the bag, and he opened his purplish eye and regarded me with a serious, pitying expression.
"I take it you heard all that in the dining hall?" I asked.
"I did. I'm sorry, Gwen."
"Did you know? About my dad?"
Vic winced, telling me what I already suspected. He'd known this whole time that my dad had been a Reaper, and he'd never said a word to me - not one word. I wondered what else he knew that I didn't, how many other secrets he'd been keeping to himself.
He opened his mouth. "But it's not as bad as you think - "
"Shut up, Vic," I muttered. "I don't want to hear it right now."
Vic stared at me a moment longer, then slowly closed his eye.
I didn't bother raising my head and speaking to Nike. She wouldn't answer me. Not now, not here. Besides, I didn't want to talk about things. Not yet. Just when I thought I knew all there was to know about my family, something else like this popped up. I wondered how many more secrets I could take before I started screaming and never stopped -
A shoe scuffed on the floor behind me.
My head snapped around, and I stretched my hand out toward Vic, ready to draw the sword and defend myself against the Reaper that was no doubt sneaking up on me.
Even as I reached for the sword, I cursed myself. Stupid, stupid, stupid, Gwen! Ajax had told us to stick together, but I'd rushed off in a snit like a complete idiot, just like I always did, and some Reaper had seen this as an opportunity to try to kill me, probably the mysterious figure I'd noticed in the stacks earlier . . .
I blinked and stopped my hasty scramble, my arm stretched out in midair - because the balcony was empty. My gaze zoomed left and right, and up and down, but the scene didn't change, and no Reapers erupted out of the shadows. I slowly lowered my hand. I kept looking around, peering at all of the logs, rocks, and statues, but no one was there. Still, I felt someone was watching me - a real, live someone and not just all the statues that had their heads turned in my direction.
I scooted around so that my back was pressed up against Nike's feet and made sure Vic was within easy reach, just in case any Reapers appeared. Then, I went back to my brooding.