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|Midnight Frost(Mythos Academy #5) by Jennifer Estep|
"After we locate the ambrosia flowers, we will wait until midnight to pick them, as per Professor Metis's instructions," Covington said. "Then, we will rest until dawn and hike back down the mountain. Rachel, do you want to say a few words about what everyone can expect on the trip?"
She nodded, got up from her chair, and stepped to the front of the room.
"The journey itself isn't all that dangerous," Rachel said. "It's about a two-hour hike from Snowline Ridge up to the top of the mountain where the ruins are located. Now, I'm sure you've all heard the stories. Locals claim the ruins are filled with all sorts of strange magic and curious creatures. I've never seen anything like that, but we still need to be careful. The winter weather has eroded many spots along the trail, so twisted ankles and broken legs are always a concern. We've been lucky in that it hasn't snowed much in the last few weeks, so hiking shouldn't be too difficult, but there is a storm front blowing in. We need to be off the mountain before the snow starts."
"So the ruins don't actually have any magic mumbo jumbo?" I asked. "Are you sure?"
Rachel shook her head. "Not in the way that you mean. The only magic they have is whatever is in the soil and rocks that helps the flowers grow and bloom year-round, even during the harshest winter. That magic makes the ruins beautiful, but not dangerous."
I stared at the wildflowers. I didn't know about that. Yeah, they were just flowers, but I could almost feel a force emanating from them, some sort of raw, wild energy. As I looked at the photo, the petals and leaves started moving, as though the wind was whistling over them. Slowly, all of the flowers turned in my direction, the streaks, stripes, and stars on their bright petals scrunching up into faces that were staring at me. Suddenly, a scent filled my nose - a light, floral scent that was somehow sweet, sharp, and crisp all at the same time . . .
I shook my head, and the sights, sounds, and scents vanished. My psychometry was acting up again. It was only a photo. But what would I feel when I saw the ruins and flowers in person? I didn't know, but I was going to find out.
Covington hit another button, and the photo disappeared. Ajax leaned over and hit the lights on the wall.
"We will leave at noon tomorrow," Covington said. "That should give us ample time to get up the mountain, make camp, and find the ambrosia flowers. Don't you agree, Rachel?"
"I'm going too," Rory cut in.
Covington hesitated. "I'm not sure that's such a good idea. From what Ajax has told me, time is of the essence. The more people who go, the slower the group will be. Besides, why would you want to go anyway?"
She looked at the librarian like the answer should have been obvious. "Because there are going to be Reapers there - Reapers that I can kill."
Eyes wide, Covington glanced at Rachel, who sighed.
"Rory, you don't know that Reapers are going to be there," Rachel said.
"Of course they'll be there," I said. "We all know this is some sort of Reaper trap. That's why they used the poison in the first place - so we'd have to come here to get the ambrosia flowers to make the antidote. It wouldn't surprise me at all if Vivian and Agrona were already at the ruins, waiting for us to show up so they can try to kill us."
The three adults exchanged glances, but they didn't contradict me. We all knew they couldn't. The Reapers had lured us here. Now, all we could do was see what sort of trap they had set - and hope we could somehow survive it.
The others started talking about the things we needed to do, what we should pack, and the route we would take up the mountain to get to the ruins. Rachel and Rory did most of the talking, with Ajax and Covington chiming in. Alexei also offered some opinions. Apparently, he'd done a lot of hiking growing up in Russia. Daphne and Carson put their heads together and started whispering, while Oliver once again pulled out his phone and started texting on it.
Restless, I got to my feet and started pacing around the conference room. Eventually, I found myself peering up at the large gryphon carving on the wall. I didn't get the same familiar, comforting vibe from it as I did the ones outside the Library of Antiquities back home, but gryphons were protectors. For some reason, staring at the carving made me feel a little better about our chances of finding the ambrosia flowers.
After a few minutes, Covington drifted over to me. "You seem very interested in that carving."
"I guess you could say that. What's with all the gryphons?"
He frowned. "What do you mean?"
I gestured at the carving and all the others in the room. "I mean, it seems like there are statues and carvings of gryphons everywhere on campus. On the walls in here, beside the library steps, on top of the rock waterfall in the middle of the dining hall, on either side of the main gate. We don't have nearly this many images of them back home."
"Oh," he said. "That's because there are actually nests of gryphons here in the mountains. Legend has it that when this academy was being constructed, the builders were quite inspired by the creatures. Even to this day, you can see them flying over the academy, although no one knows exactly where they make their homes. Maybe higher up on this mountain or on some of the neighboring peaks."
"Do you have any contact with them?"
He shook his head. "No. For the most part, they avoid us, and we do the same, although every once in a while, a student or professor out hiking will be attacked by one. Rachel should have mentioned them when she was talking about things to look out for on the mountain. Gryphons are wild animals, dangerous, vicious, and completely unpredictable."
I thought of Nyx. I wondered if Covington would think the same of her - that she was a wild, dangerous, vicious creature. Maybe she was, but she was my friend too, my family, and I loved her just as much as I did Grandma Frost and the rest of my friends. I felt the same way about Nyx's mom, Nott, even though she was dead, murdered by Vivian, just like my mom had been.
"Of course, the Reapers don't care how dangerous the gryphons are," Covington added. "Rumor has it, Reapers come to the area several times a year to trap wild gryphons to add to the ones already in their service, although I don't see how the Reapers manage to control them."
I knew how. Nike had told me the Reapers fed creatures like gryphons, Fenrir wolves, and Nemean prowlers a special poison to keep them under control. Without the daily dose of the poison, the creatures would die, horribly and painfully, so they were forced to serve the Reapers, even if they might not want to. I wondered if the Reapers used some version of Serket sap for that too.
"But Reapers or not, everyone knows that gryphons would just as soon bite your head off as look at you," Covington finished.
He made it sound like the gryphons were the monsters, instead of the Reapers. I didn't think that was true, but I didn't say anything else. It wasn't like I'd had a lot of experience with gryphons. Maybe they were as dangerous as Covington had said. Or maybe they were simply misunderstood, like so many other mythological creatures. Either way, I doubted that I'd run into any gryphons at the ruins. If they were as smart as I thought they were, they'd take one look at us and the Reapers who were probably going to ambush us and fly the other way as fast as they could.
"All right," Ajax said, waving his hand to get everyone's attention. "I think we've got all the details sorted out. Let's go. We've still got a lot to do."
We grabbed our things and left the conference room. Still, just before I stepped through the door, I glanced over my shoulder a final time at the gryphon carving. For a moment, the gryphon's head seemed to slowly swivel through the stone, until the creature was staring straight at me. Its eyes narrowed, and its claws seemed to grow longer and sharper the more I looked at it, as if it wanted nothing more than to break free from the wall, launch itself across the conference table, and tear into me -
"Come on, Gwen!" Daphne called out.
I blinked, and the carving was just stone once more. I shivered and hurried out of the room, not daring to look at it again.
We spent the rest of the day getting ready for our trip. Rachel went back to the dining hall, and she made Rory promise to actually go to her afternoon classes. Covington took the rest of us shopping over in Snowline Ridge, and we geared up with snowsuits, hiking boots, toboggans, gloves, scarfs, backpacks, sleeping bags, climbing rope, and more. We all had our own weapons, but everyone except me bought an extra sword or a few daggers. Everyone wanted to be as ready as we could for whatever might wait for us up on the mountain.
By the time we finished shopping, it was time for dinner, and we trooped back over to the dining hall. Ajax went with us, so we didn't have any problems with the other kids. In fact, everyone seemed to go out of their way to give us as wide a berth as possible. Nobody wanted to mess with an adult who was as strong and as skilled a fighter as the Spartan coach.
After that, we grabbed our luggage from the library and headed down the hill to the dorms. I'd thought that the Powers That Were would have arranged for us to stay in some empty rooms, but Ajax kept right on walking past the buildings and veered onto a path that wound over to the far side of campus. The buildings grew fewer and farther between, although the rows of pines became thicker. Eventually, we reached a small stone cottage nestled in the middle of the trees. It was fronted by a white, wooden wraparound porch. The shutters and gingerbread trim were painted a pale green, although the roof was made out of black slate. Gray smoke puffed up out of the chimney and drifted into the winter sky, mixing with the dark clouds already gathered there.
We stepped onto the porch. The cottage door opened, and Rachel came outside, along with Rory.
I looked at Ajax. "What's going on?"
"Rachel has an extra room, and she offered to put you and Daphne up for the night." Ajax pointed to a similar structure sitting in another stand of trees farther up the hill. "That cottage is empty. The boys and I will stay there. Besides, I thought it would give you a chance to . . . talk with Rachel and Rory. About your father."
Oh. So he knew the whole sad story then. I wondered which one of my friends had spilled the beans to him. I'd told Daphne, who'd no doubt filled in Carson and the others.
"Is that okay?" Ajax asked. "Or would you rather stay with the rest of us?"
I looked at Rachel and Rory. I could feel the curiosity and tension radiating off both of them - and the longing too. "No," I said. "I'd like to stay with them, if it's okay with Daphne."
"Are you kidding?" she said. "Of course I want to stay with them. Um, hello, nice warm cottage, beds, sheets, hot water, and, best of all, no guys around to snore in my ear all night long."
I wanted to point out that Daphne snored louder than a race car revved up in high gear, but I didn't say anything.
We said our good-byes to the guys and watched as they trudged up the hill and disappeared into the other cottage. Then, we shouldered our stuff and moved toward Rachel and Rory's place.
Rachel gave us a bright smile and led us inside. "I'm glad you girls are staying with us. Rory and I don't have much company these days."
"Yeah," Rory sniped. "Funny how your parents turning out to be Reapers totally kills your social life."
Rachel grimaced, but she didn't contradict her niece.
The cottage was as warm and inviting on the inside as it was cute and charming on the outside. Pale green throw rugs covered the hardwood floor, and a fire crackled merrily in the fireplace in the main room. Glass knickknacks gleamed on the tops of the antique tables, while a variety of flowers, vines, and trees had been carved into the heavy wooden furniture.
Photos were also arranged on top of the tables, and I drifted over to get a better look at them. One showed Rory sitting between Rachel and another woman who looked just like them, their arms linked together. That must be her mom. Another photo showed Rory with the same woman and a man I assumed was her dad, since he had the same sandy hair and blue eyes as my dad. Rory was grinning in the pictures, but her parents' smiles seemed sad, just like my dad's had always looked to me.
Rory noticed me staring at the photos. She scowled at me, and I moved away from them.
Rachel showed us where the bathroom was, along with the spare bedroom where Daphne and I would be sleeping.
"Have you guys lived here long?" I asked, putting Vic and my messenger bag down on the bed. "Because it's a really cool place."
Rachel smiled at me. "I had just moved in and started my job as one of the junior chefs when . . ." Her smile slipped, then vanished altogether.
"When my parents went all Reaper in the library," Rory added.
Rachel tried to smile again, but after a moment, she gave up. "Covington was kind enough to convince the Protectorate to let me keep my job so Rory and I could stay on here."
"Yeah," Rory sniped again. "He's a real stand-up guy. He just did that so he could keep an eye on us in case we're Reapers too. Him and the rest of the stupid Protectorate."
Rachel sighed. "Rory, you know that Covington has been nothing but nice to us since . . . everything happened."
Her niece snorted. "Whatever. It doesn't change the fact that he killed them. I don't care how nice he's been - or the fact that you have a massive crush on him."
Rachel's cheeks started to burn. Rory kept glaring at her aunt. After a moment, the Spartan girl shook her head.
"And you can't even deny it. Whatever. I'm going to my room."
She stomped away. A few seconds later, a door slammed deeper in the cottage. Rachel winced, then once again tried to smile - and once again failed.