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|Midnight Frost(Mythos Academy #5) by Jennifer Estep|
"There," Daphne said a few minutes later. "It's done."
She dropped her hand from the gryphon, leaned back, and let out a long, tired breath. When I looked at the gryphon, the creature's leg was completely healed. Except for the blood still matted in his fur, you would have never known that the gryphon was injured to start with.
The baby gryphon seemed to sense the change too. The creature scrambled to his feet and shuffled back and forth, as if he was testing out his once-injured leg to see how good a job Daphne had done of healing him.
"Hey," I said, stretching my hand out to him once more. "You might want to take it easy - "
But it was too late.
With a loud screech, the gryphon flapped his wings and darted up into the air. Daphne and I scrambled to our feet. The creature hovered in midair for a moment before letting out another screech, zooming up, bursting through the tops of the pine trees, and disappearing into the cloudy gray sky far, far above.
All I could do was crane my neck up and look at where the gryphon had been. I'd wanted to spend more time with the creature, but he was a wild thing, just as Covington had said. I should be grateful the gryphon had let me, Daphne, and Rory help him. At least now he was free of the trap and his leg was healed. I would have to be satisfied with that. Plus, it had been rather amazing to watch him blast up into the sky like a rocket.
"Well, that was weird," Rory said. "Do you guys do stuff like that all the time?"
Daphne and I looked at each other, then at her.
"More often than you might think," Daphne said.
Rory wandered over, squatted down, and looked at the snare-snap I'd kicked to the side. Daphne and I stared at the device too. As Rory had said, it looked like a bear trap - but with more teeth. The gryphon's blood glistened on some of the sharp, pointed edges, making me sick to my stomach.
Daphne nudged me with her shoulder. "You going to do your thing on that? It might give us a clue about the Reapers."
I didn't want to use my psychometry on the trap, but she was right. So I crouched down, reached out, and touched part of the metal that was free of blood. Images of the gryphon struggling to get free of the trap flickered through my mind, but I pushed them aside, trying to see who had planted the trap in the first place. For several moments, the only memories I saw were of the trap lying on the forest floor, hidden under a pile of leaves and then the snow that had fallen on top of them. I concentrated, going even further back.
A pair of hands popped into my head. I focused in on the memory, trying to pull it into even sharper detail, but all I saw was someone placing the trap in the woods, then piling the leaves on top of it. Frustration surged through me because I didn't even see the person - only their hands. Even worse, they were wearing black gloves, so I couldn't get any sort of sense about whom the hands belonged to, whether it was a man, a woman, a kid my own age.
I opened my eyes, let go of the trap, and got to my feet.
"Anything?" Daphne asked.
I shook my head and put my gloves back on. "Nothing. Just some Reaper putting the trap here."
Rory stared at the trap, then kicked it and sent it flying into a nearby tree. She glared at the metal like she wished she could somehow kill it. Daphne and I glanced at each other, but we kept quiet. We knew all about being angry at the Reapers and not being able to do anything about it.
Daphne reached down and grabbed her bow. "Well, if we're all done playing veterinarian, we should leave. We need to get back to the others."
Rory, Daphne, and I walked back to the stream. Apparently, everyone had been busy doing their own thing, and no one seemed to notice how long we'd been gone. Oliver didn't even look up from his phone when we walked past him. He was texting again. I was surprised that he'd found a signal this high up on the mountain, but, hey, good for him.
Five minutes later, everyone was ready to go, and we started back up the steep, winding trail. I looked left and right and even peered up into the clouds above, but I didn't see the baby gryphon anywhere. I also didn't spot the mysterious shadow that had been in the forest earlier, following alongside us. Maybe it had just been a curious animal after all, wondering what the humans were doing hiking through its turf.
Except for a few brief snatches of conversation, everyone was quiet. My friends kept scanning the forest on either side of the trail, and Ajax kept sneaking glances over his shoulder, as though he expected someone or something to come up on us from behind. We all had our weapons close at hand too - in case the Reapers decided to attack before we reached the ruins.
But the minutes slipped by and turned into an hour, with no sign of the Reapers. I was about to whine and ask how much farther it was when we crested a high ridge. The others slowed and then stopped, and we spread out in a straight line across the trail so we could all see the sight before us.
A swinging rope bridge stretched, swayed, and slightly sagged between either side of a deep, wide chasm. In the distance, the crumbling remains of what looked like a grand stone mansion covered the landscape.
"We're here," Rachel said. "Welcome to the Eir Ruins."
Covington's pictures hadn't done the place justice. Beautiful, blackish stone stretched out as far as the eye could see, the boulders piled in precise heaps, as though the building walls had been dominoes that had fallen on top of each other in a particular pattern. Thick, green ivy vines snaked over, around, and sometimes even through the rocks and the snow that covered them. Farther out in the ruins, I could see small, bright splashes of color, probably the wildflowers and other plants that bloomed in the main courtyard, despite the harsh winter weather.
"Well," Alexei said. "I suppose we should get going."
"Yeah," Carson said in a faint voice, peering over the edge of the trail and staring down into the chasm. "Let's, um, do that."
Rachel gestured at the ropes. "The bridge is fairly sturdy, but I'm not sure it's strong enough for all of us to cross at once. So, just to be on the safe side, we'll go over in groups of two. Rory and I will go first, since we're most familiar with the area. Wait until we're on the other side before sending the next group over."
Ajax and Covington nodded.
Rachel went over to the bridge, grabbed the ropes on either side, and stepped onto the weathered wooden planks. The bridge was free of snow, given all the wind that constantly swirled around it. Rory followed her, and the two of them quickly crossed over to the other side with no hesitation and no problems. Carson's face had a decidedly greenish tint to it, and I could hear his stomach gurgling, but the band geek hurried forward, and he and Daphne crossed second. They were followed by Oliver and Covington.
Then, it was my turn. Alexei stepped up beside me and flashed me a confident smile. He went first. I waited until he'd gone a few steps before walking out onto the bridge behind him.
Just like Rachel had said, the swinging bridge seemed sturdy enough. The wooden boards might have been bleached a pale gray by the sun and wind, but they didn't have any cracks or chips in them, and the ropes were thick and heavy. So I put one foot in front of the other, slid my gloved hands along the rope, and tried not to look down.
I'd made it to the middle of the bridge when a gust of wind whipped up from the chasm below. The sudden rush of air made the bridge sway from side to side. My stomach lurched up into my throat, and my hands tightened around the ropes. All I could do was stand there and hold on.
Alexei glanced over his shoulder at me. "Come on, Gwen," he said. "It's just a little wind. This is nothing compared to the winters in Russia."
"Yeah," I repeated in a faint voice. "Nothing."
Another gust of wind screeched up from the canyon. The high, piercing sound made me think of the baby gryphon, and I remembered that this was exactly how he had felt while he was soaring up and down on the wind currents - and how much he loved the sensation. Sure, he had wings, and I didn't, but thinking about the creature gave me the courage to keep walking forward, one step at a time, until I was on the other side. I hurried forward away from the end of the bridge. Thinking about the gryphon might have made crossing the bridge a little easier, but it wasn't anything I wanted to do again anytime soon.
"Please tell me there's another way down the mountain," I said to Rachel as we watched Ajax navigate the bridge by himself.
She smiled. "Not a fan of the swinging bridge?"
"There is a trail on the far side of the ruins," she said. "I haven't been down it in years, though. It's much steeper, and it would take twice as long for us to get down the mountain that way. And that's only if there haven't been any rock slides on that part of the mountain to block the path."
In other words, I was going to have to go back over the bridge when we left whether I wanted to or not. Yippee-skippee.
Once Ajax had crossed, we left the bridge behind and entered the ruins. I'd been right when I'd thought the stone was beautiful. Up close, I could see the flowers and vines that had been chiseled into the smooth surface of the fallen boulders. Even in places where the walls had crumbled and the rocks had scattered over the snowy ground, everything still seemed neat, precise, and clean, as though someone had meant for the ruins to look exactly the way they did. I wondered if it was the goddess Eir or some other magic at work.
And once again, I was surprised by the number of gryphons.
They were everywhere, just like they'd been at the academy. Carved into splintered pieces of rock, painted on parts of walls, looming up out of piles of rubble in statue form. I even saw something that looked like a giant stone column with a gryphon perched on the top of it, as though it was keeping watch over the ruins. The gryphon's eyes met mine and then seemed to follow me. Creepy, as always.
Rachel led us through the ruins, pointing out interesting things, like songbirds that had been chiseled into one of the boulders or the bears that lumbered across another. She even showed us some patches of dill, sage, and other herbs that she picked and took back to the academy to use in the kitchen.
Finally, though, we reached the courtyard in the very heart of the ruins. Once again, Covington's photos didn't do the area justice. The toppled walls and crumbled bits of stone formed a sort of rocky garden at the edges of the courtyard. Then, the flowers took over. Hundreds of thousands of flowers, vines, and small trees crowded into the enormous space. After the endless rows of green pines along the trail, it was like a rainbow of color had exploded at my feet. Pinks and blues and purples and reds stretched out for a hundred yards. The only things that broke up the relentless riot of color were the stream that wound through the courtyard and the stone fountain in the middle. But even they seemed to somehow reflect back the cheery brightness of the blossoms around them. Perhaps the most amazing thing was the scent - a sweet, sharp, crisp aroma that made me think of flowers and water and snow and wind all at the same time.
"If there are any Chloris ambrosia flowers, they should be here," Rachel said. "This is where the goddess Eir had her garden, and as you can see, all sorts of flowers still flourish here today. They're the real magic of the ruins."
I snorted. Well, that was an understatement. A sea of blooms filled the courtyard. I'd never seen so many different types of flowers in so many different colors, shapes, and sizes before. It was a breathtaking sight, but it made my heart sink all the same. Because how were we supposed to find one flower in a field of thousands? I doubted even Hercules could have completed such an impossible task.
The others must have had the same depressing thought because everyone was silent as we stared out at the blossoms. For a moment, the only sound was the sharp whistle of the wind as it gusted through the courtyard, causing the flowers to flutter and a few petals to swirl up into the air like colorful snowflakes before slowly spiraling back down again.
"Come on," Ajax rumbled. "Let's get started. We need to find the ambrosia flowers before nightfall."
Alexei and Oliver helped Rachel set up our tents in a clear patch of ground on one side of the courtyard, then the three of them went in search of some firewood. Ajax and Covington stood guard at the edge of the courtyard, while Daphne, Carson, Rory, and I started looking for the ambrosia flowers.
I moved from one vine and one patch of flowers to another, comparing the plants in front of me to the image on my cell phone. Chloris ambrosia looked sort of like honeysuckle, as Carson had said. A pretty, curling, green vine topped by a white, trumpet-shaped flower. The only difference was the streaks of lavender purple and light gray on the inside of the white petals. So it wasn't enough to pick out the patches of white flowers in the courtyard, wade over, and look at them. You actually had to take the time to lift up the flower, peer inside, and see if it had the streaks of color. And of course every time I went over to a flower and picked it up, it was just white inside and not purple and gray.
Farther into the garden, Carson let out a series of violent sneezes that told everyone how much his allergies were acting up. Rory gave him a slightly pitying look, but they both went back to the search.
"I've never seen so many flowers before in my life," Daphne muttered, picking her way through some vines a few feet away from me. "We're never going to find the ambrosia. All I see are white flowers. Not to mention all the ones that are cream, ivory, eggshell, and every other white and off-white color."
"We have to keep looking - for Nickamedes."
Daphne's eyes darkened. "I know. I'm just worried we won't be able to find it."
"We'll find it," I said, trying to make my voice more confident than I really felt. "We have to."