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|Midnight Frost(Mythos Academy #5) by Jennifer Estep|
"Anyway," she chirped in a brittle, too-bright voice. "If there's anything you need tonight, just let me or Rory know. We're right down the hall."
"Sure," I said. "We'll let you know."
She nodded, then hurried out of the room.
For a moment, Daphne and I were silent. Then, the Valkyrie shook her head.
"Wow," Daphne said. "And I thought you were moody. I'd say Cousin Rory has one-upped you in that department, Gypsy. Hello, family drama."
I rolled my eyes, grabbed a pillow off the bed, and threw it at her.
Daphne and I spent the next hour getting ready for bed - showering, brushing our teeth, combing our hair, laying out our clothes, and packing our gear for tomorrow. Once that was done, Daphne said she was exhausted and crawled into bed. Within minutes, she was snoring. So was Vic, whom I'd propped up against the nightstand on my side of the bed. His snores rumbled in time with Daphne's, as though they were competing to see who could be the loudest and keep me awake the longest. So far, it was neck and neck.
Since I wasn't going to fall asleep anytime soon, I slid out of bed, grabbed my cell phone, opened the door, and stepped out into the hallway. I called Grandma Frost. She answered on the first ring.
"How are you, pumpkin?"
"I'm fine," I said in a low voice so I wouldn't wake Daphne. "Just a little tired. But I guess that's to be expected. It's been an interesting day."
I told my grandma everything that had happened, everything that everyone had said and done - and all the things I'd learned about my dad.
"Is it true?" I asked, my stomach churning. "Was my dad really a Reaper?"
Grandma didn't answer me for a moment. "Yes and no," she finally said.
"What does that mean?"
She drew in a breath. "It means that your father grew up in a family of Reapers. His father, his mother, his brother. They were all Reapers, and they all embraced the evil that comes along with following Loki. The Forseti family was rather famous for being Reapers - and vicious ones at that."
My hand tightened around the phone. "And my dad?"
Grandma drew in another breath. "Tyr did too - for a while. Then, he met your mother. The Reapers actually sent him to kill her."
"What happened?" I whispered.
"They fell in love," Grandma replied. "Your dad had already started to grow tired of being a Reaper, of the endless battles, the constant fighting, always hurting the people around him. And your mother felt the same way, especially after being Nike's Champion for so many years. So the two of them decided they'd create a new life for themselves - one completely separated from the mythological world. For a while, it worked."
"What happened?" I asked. "And don't tell me my dad died of cancer. I don't believe that. I haven't for a while now."
"I know, pumpkin," she replied. "And I know I promised not to keep any more secrets from you either. But your mom and I didn't want to hurt you."
"Reapers killed my dad too, didn't they?"
Then, a sigh. Finally, she answered me. "Yes. A group of Reapers managed to track down Tyr and Grace after you were born. They attacked, and your father sacrificed himself so you and your mother could live."
So many thoughts crowded into my mind - about my dad, about the Reapers, about how he and my mom hadn't been able to escape them or the mythological world no matter how much they'd wanted to, no matter how hard they'd tried. I wondered if I was doomed to the same sort of life, if Logan and I were destined to repeat my parents' fate - or if we already had.
I couldn't stand still, so I tiptoed to the end of the hallway and peered out into the main room. Rory must have gotten over her snit because she and Rachel were sitting in front of the fireplace, playing some sort of board game.
"And what about Rory's parents?" I asked.
Grandma sighed. "I don't know much about them, only that they followed a different path from your dad. They were Reapers, and they always stayed Reapers."
"But why didn't they tell Rory anything about being Reapers? Why didn't they make her one of them? Why didn't they raise her to be a Reaper too?"
"I don't know," she said. "Maybe they wanted her to decide to become a Reaper of her own free will. Maybe they were secretly hoping that if she didn't know about them, she might choose a different path in life. I can't answer that for you - or her."
I stared at Rory. Rachel said something, and a smile spread across Rory's face, softening the scowl she always seemed to wear. For a moment, she almost looked relaxed . . . and happy. I wondered if it was because none of the other kids were around to sneer at her - or judge her for the horrible things her parents had done.
"Thank you for telling me this."
"You're welcome," Grandma said. "Although I should have told you a long time ago, pumpkin. But with your mom being murdered and you going to Mythos and everything that's happened these last few months . . . it never seemed like there was a good time to bring it up. You'd gone through so much already. I didn't want to cause you any more pain."
"I know you were trying to protect me," I said. "But we both know you can't do that anymore. At least now I know the truth about my dad, even if I don't like it."
"That you do."
We were silent for a few moments before she finally spoke again.
"Be careful tomorrow," Grandma Frost said. "I know your friends are going to be with you, but I don't like the thought of you going up to those ruins. Especially since the Reapers know you're coming."
"I'll be careful. Ajax is taking a lot of precautions. We'll be ready for whatever the Reapers have in mind."
"I know, but that won't keep me from worrying."
"How's Nickamedes?" I asked, realizing she hadn't said anything about him while we'd been talking.
She hesitated. "He's getting worse. He has a fever. Not too high right now, but Metis says it's just a matter of time before his temperature shoots up and the poison starts overpowering her healing magic. He also . . . he can't feel his legs sometimes. The numbness comes and goes. It's another sign of the poison spreading. Metis thinks . . . the paralysis could be permanent, even if the ambrosia flowers flush the poison out of his body."
I rubbed a hand across my head, which was suddenly aching. Here I was, worried about my family drama, as Daphne had said, when Nickamedes was suffering - because of me. But I pushed my worry for him aside and embraced the other emotion blazing through me - determination to find the flowers and get them back to the academy in time.
"I love you, pumpkin," Grandma Frost said. "Be good, and be careful."
"I will. I love you too, Grandma."
We hung up. I went back into the bedroom, shut the door behind me, walked over, put my phone on the nightstand, and crawled into bed next to Daphne. I knew that I should rest, that tomorrow would be even longer and tougher than today, but it was still a long, long time before I was able to tune out the snores and fall asleep.
For once, I didn't dream of Logan stabbing me. Instead, there was just a deep, quiet blackness that I let myself drift along in until it was time to get up. Maybe my subconscious realized that I'd be in enough danger tomorrow without dreaming about more of it tonight.
We gathered in the dining hall for a late breakfast before shouldering our gear and heading out. Covington was waiting for us at the main entrance. Once again, I stared up at the gryphons perched on either side of the gate. The creatures stared at me like always, but today, their gazes seemed dark and hooded, as if they had some inkling of the Reapers' plans and how dangerous it was going to be for us on the mountain. I sighed and looked away from them. Yeah, I had a feeling it was going to be a Gwen-fighting-for-her-life kind of trip.
A large black van was waiting outside the gate, and we climbed inside. Covington steered the van through Snowline Ridge, passing by all of the shops before the road narrowed and started curving upward. Eventually, he pulled the van off the road into a paved lot that fronted a park. A sign by the entrance read SNOWLINE RIDGE RECREATION AREA. It featured a carving of green pine trees and the rocky gray mountain looming above them. Covington stopped the van. Ajax turned around so he could look into the back where the rest of us were sitting.
"We all know what we're up against," Ajax rumbled. "And we all know what's at stake. Nickamedes is hanging on - for now. But the sooner we get the antidote to him, the better."
I'd called Grandma Frost this morning. She'd tried to pretend that everything was okay, but I'd heard the strain in her voice, and she'd finally told me that Nickamedes had gotten much worse overnight. Metis was now using all of her energy to heal him, but the poison had already started to overtake her magic. Grandma had reluctantly told me that we only had about three more days, maybe less, before Metis's magic failed completely, and the poison raged unchecked through Nickamedes's body.
"But if any of you don't want to do this, I'll understand," Ajax continued. "At the very least, it's going to be dangerous. At the very worst, well, I don't think I have to tell you how bad that could be."
"Worse than the Reapers murdering my mom and killing Nott? Worse than them using my blood to free Loki? Worse than them trying to put Loki's soul into Logan's body?" I asked, staring back at Ajax. "We've been through plenty of bad stuff already. This will just be another twisted version of it. Right, guys?"
I looked at my friends. They all nodded their heads in agreement.
Daphne cracked her knuckles, causing pink sparks of magic to hiss in the air around her. "Gwen's right. The Reapers will bring it - and so will we."
Ajax stared at us all in turn. Whatever he saw in our eyes seemed to satisfy him because he finally nodded. "All right," he said. "Let's do this."
We got out of the van. It seemed even colder now than it had yesterday, or maybe that was because I knew there wouldn't be a hot shower and a warm bed waiting for me at the end of this day. Instead, we'd find someplace to camp in the ruins, which meant a fire, some tents, and a sleeping bag spread over the snowy, rocky ground - and that was if the Reapers didn't attack us first.
Rachel led us through the parking lot and over to a trailhead, which was marked with a small sign. The wind had worn most of the paint off the wood, but I could still make out the figure of the goddess Eir on the marker, her finger pointing up, as though she was personally directing us to the ruins. I shivered, shouldered my backpack, and fell in step with the others.
Rachel took the lead, followed by Rory, then Covington. Daphne and Carson followed the librarian, with Oliver and Alexei behind them. I was in the back with Ajax trailing along behind me. We walked in silence.
I wasn't really an outdoors sort of girl, preferring to curl up in my room and read comic books and graphic novels, but even I had to admit this was a pretty place to hike. There was more snow on the mountain than down at the academy, several inches in some of the higher drifts. Snow-crusted pine trees lined either side of the trail, while needles that were longer than my fingers and pinecones bigger than my fist stuck up out of the white powder here and there. The sharp tang of the trees' sap permeated the air, mixing with the crisp scent of the snow. A few birds fluttered back and forth in the branches, softly chirping to each other.
Every once in a while, a dark shadow would zoom over the trail and across the forest, causing the other birds to scream and take flight from their warm roosts. The third time it happened, I looked up, trying to figure out what was causing the birds to freak out.
Ajax touched my shoulder. "Gryphons," he explained. "Don't worry. They rarely attack humans, especially a group as large as ours."
Well, that didn't exactly make me feel better, but I nodded and walked on. There was nothing else I could do.
But the farther up the mountain we trudged, the more I became convinced that someone was following us.
I don't know exactly when I noticed it, but I sensed a shadow on my left, moving parallel to me through the forest. This vague shape I could almost see out of the corner of my eye. If I sped up, the shadow sped up. If I slowed down, it did too. Several times I looked straight ahead before snapping my head to the left, trying to get a better look at whatever it was. But I only saw trees and more trees. If Ajax thought my behavior was strange, he didn't comment on it. Then again, it wasn't the weirdest thing I'd ever done.
Finally, I got fed up with trying to spot the mysterious shadow and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. If there was a Reaper or someone or something else out there, it seemed content to follow alongside us and not attack. I guessed I'd have to be happy with that - for now.
We'd been hiking for about an hour when Rachel called a halt near a stream. The water running between the two banks was sluggish, since a thin layer of ice covered most of it. But it was a nice spot, and we sat down on the flat rocks along the bank and dug some snacks out of our backpacks.
"Everybody take a breather for a few minutes," Rachel said. "We still have at least another hour to go before we make it to the ruins at the top."
We'd grabbed some trail mix from the dining hall this morning, and I tore into my packet. Dried mango and apricots mixed with tart cherries, big chunks of dark chocolate, slivered almonds, and honey-toasted oats. The flavors exploded on my tongue, a perfect mix of sweet and salty, with a great crunch and a hint of sour from the cherries. Yum. So good.