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|Midnight Frost(Mythos Academy #5) by Jennifer Estep|
We kept looking. Alexei, Oliver, and Rachel reappeared, all of them carrying an armload of firewood. A few minutes later, Rachel started a fire in a stone pit close to the tents. I took a break from the search to go warm up. I turned this way and that, letting the heat from the crackling flames soak into the front and back of my body, before diving into the flowers once more.
Another hour passed. By this point, camp had been made, and we were all searching for the ambrosia flowers. But no one was having any luck.
"Anything?" Ajax called out, his voice tight with frustration.
We all shook our heads. He sighed and crouched back down, peering over the flowers in front of him and comparing them to the image on his phone, like the rest of us were doing.
I finished sweeping a section and stood up to stretch out my back. I was close to the right edge of the courtyard, and my heart sank once again as I looked out at all of the plants and vines. We hadn't even covered half of the courtyard yet. We could search for a week and still not come across a single ambrosia flower - and Nickamedes didn't have that kind of time left.
I sighed and leaned against a half-crumbled wall. At least, I tried to. I winced as something sharp dug into my back, poking me even through my purple snowsuit and all the layers I had on underneath. I turned around and realized it wasn't a wall I'd been leaning against - it was a statue of the goddess Eir.
I straightened up and stepped back. "Whoops. Sorry about that. I didn't mean to block your view or anything. I can imagine how much you like to look out over your flowers."
Of course, the statue didn't respond. Instead, it seemed to stare at me.
Somehow, the goddess's head had turned in my direction until her empty stone eyes were firmly fixed on me. I sighed. Every statue stared at me. That was just a part of my life at Mythos. I'd thought that I'd quit being creeped out by it, but apparently not. Or maybe my unease was because a goddess was looking at me - a goddess whose ruins I was standing in right now. It wouldn't surprise me if her eyes suddenly popped open, and a series of poisoned darts shot out and slammed into my chest. That was what always happened in the movies.
I held my breath for a moment, but Eir kept staring at me. Apparently, I wasn't going to get pumped full of poison darts after all. Good. That was good.
The goddess looked at me a moment longer - and then her head began to move.
Seriously, the stone - it just - the statue just turned. One second, Eir was peering straight at me. The next, a series of small scrape-scrape-scrapes sounded. By the time I blinked again, the goddess was looking in the opposite direction. Not only that, but I swore that I saw her raise her hand, her finger pointing toward the back corner of the garden - almost like she wanted me to go see what was over there.
I eased away from the statue. The goddess kept pointing toward that one spot, although her head swiveled back around in my direction. After a moment, her eyes narrowed, as if she was upset that I hadn't already followed her instructions. Once again thinking of poisoned darts and other nasty traps, I decided to do what she wanted. Probably not a good idea to anger a goddess when you were in her house. Or at least standing in what was left of it.
"Okay, okay, I'm going, I'm going," I said. "Give me a second."
I maneuvered around to the other side of the statue. Then, I leaned down so I could get a better look at the spot where she was pointing. Once I had a bead on it, I headed in that direction.
Everyone else was still busy searching for the flowers, so no one noticed me walking along the crumbled right wall of the courtyard. Every so often, I glanced behind me, but the statue of Eir kept pointing in the same direction. Finally, I reached what seemed to be the right spot. I crouched down, my eyes sweeping over the patch of flowers in front of me. Thick stands of vivid purple lilac mixed with some sort of curling vines that were topped by large, grayish morning glorys. No white flowers and nothing that looked like it could remotely be Chloris ambrosia. Frustration filled me, and I looked over my shoulder at Eir.
"Don't tell me you sent me over here on a wild goose chase," I muttered.
The statue's eyes seemed to narrow a little more, as if she was displeased with me and my snarky tone. Well, she wouldn't be the first person - or the last.
"Okay, okay," I muttered again. "Who am I to question a goddess?"
So once again I looked at the statue, trying to see exactly what she was pointing at, and I realized her finger wasn't aimed down at the ground but rather at the rock wall in front of me.
I turned my head, raised my gaze - and almost shrieked when I realized I was face-to-face with another gryphon carving.
Seriously, I looked up - and it was this freaking close to my nose. I rocked back on my heels and almost toppled over before I managed to find my balance. I drew in a couple of breaths to calm my racing heart. Get a grip, Gwen. It was only a carving, one of dozens I'd seen so far in the courtyard. It wasn't like it was a real gryphon.
But the more I looked at it, the more I realized it wasn't just a carving of a gryphon - it was one of Eir too. The gryphon stood in front of the goddess with its head bowed. A few small, fragile-looking flowers had actually grown out of the part of the rock that formed the gryphon's beak, making it look like the creature was presenting Eir with the flowers. Okay, that was a little strange, but my unease didn't keep me from peering even closer at the blossoms.
I used my phone to pull up the photo of the ambrosia flowers. Green vine, white flowers. So far, so good. Now came the real test. I held my hand up and gently turned one of the flowers so that I could see inside it.
Purple and gray streaks ringed the petals.
My heart started to pound with excitement, but I made myself study the flowers that much closer. They were tiny, each one barely bigger than my thumbnail, and I compared them once again to the photo on my phone. Green vine, white flowers, purple and gray streaks.
This time, I knew I hadn't made a mistake - and that we had a chance to save Nickamedes after all.
"Hey!" I called out, a grin spreading across my face. "I found them! I found the ambrosia flowers!"
The others hurried over, and we all peered at the blossoms growing out of the rock wall.
"That's them, isn't it?" I asked.
Ajax held his own phone up against the flowers. "It looks like them to me. Rachel?"
She nodded her head in agreement.
"How did you ever think to look in this remote spot?" Covington asked, staring at me instead of the flowers. "We all assumed the Chloris ambrosia would be in the courtyard itself, not out here on the edge."
I shrugged. "I'm just lucky, I guess."
The librarian looked at me suspiciously, but he didn't say anything else. The others started slapping me on the back and congratulating me, but I could still feel Covington's gaze on me. I wondered what Ajax had told him about me - and what he knew from the gossip he'd heard. But there was nothing I could do about Covington and what he thought about me, so I looked at Ajax once more.
"Now what?" I asked.
"Now we wait until midnight," Ajax rumbled.
Now that we'd found the ambrosia flowers, there wasn't anything left for us to do but wait, like Coach Ajax had said. I pulled out my cell phone and tried to call Grandma Frost, but I didn't have any reception this high up on the mountain. So I hunkered down with the others.
We heated up our dinner - a thick, hearty roasted potato soup that Rachel had made this morning, along with grilled chicken sandwiches topped with fresh vegetables and a spicy, horseradish mayonnaise on herbed focaccia bread. We washed the meal down with some warm apple cider and hot chocolate. Then, I grabbed marshmallows, graham crackers, and thick bars of dark chocolate out of my backpack, and we had s'mores for dessert.
"Only you would think to pack a bag full of sugar on a trip like this." Daphne snorted, but it didn't keep her from fixing herself three s'mores.
I grinned. "What can I say? I brought the important stuff."
After dinner, Carson, Oliver, and Covington left to go find enough firewood to last us through the night, while Ajax, Rory, Daphne, and Alexei started talking about weapons and fighting techniques. Ajax started demonstrating some moves, and soon, they were all grappling and tossing each other around. That left me sitting by the fire with Rachel. She stared at me for a long time.
"Is there something you want to say to me?" I finally asked.
She shrugged. "You don't look much like a Forseti. Tyson, Rory's dad, had light, sandy hair and blue eyes. So did your dad."
I reached up and tried to smooth down my brown hair, but it only frizzed back out again. "Everyone says I look like my mom. Violet eyes are smiling eyes. She used to say that a lot."
Rachel smiled a little. "She sounds like a nice woman."
"She was. She was the best."
"What happened to her?"
"She was murdered by Reapers."
Rachel winced. "Oh. I'm so sorry."
I nodded, accepting her sympathy. "What was . . . what was my dad like? Did you know him?"
Rachel shifted on the rock she was sitting on. "No, I didn't know Tyr all that well. Not as well as I knew Tyson. Then again, I never dreamed that he was a Reaper or that my sister, Rebecca, had followed him down that path. So maybe I didn't know him at all - or her."
She laughed, but it was far from a happy sound. She fell silent for a moment, then looked at me again. "From what I remember, Tyr seemed like a nice guy. He was always making a joke, always trying to get everyone to laugh, even Tyson, who wasn't much for smiling or any sort of humor."
"What happened?" I asked. "My Grandma Frost told me that my dad had a falling-out with Tyson. Do you know anything about that?"
Rachel shook her head. "No, I'm sorry, but I don't. One day, Tyr left, and he never came back. That was when I started to notice how angry Tyson was all the time - and how angry Rebecca seemed to be, as well. But then Rebecca found out that she was pregnant with Rory, and things were better for a long time after that. Rebecca and Tyson . . . they really did love Rory, despite what they did."
She choked on the last few words. Memories darkened her eyes, and I knew she was thinking about her sister, the fact that she'd become a Reaper, and all the people she'd hurt and killed.
"Just because you love someone doesn't mean they'll never hurt or betray you," I said. "Trust me. I know that better than anyone."
Once more, I thought of Logan and that horrible, awful moment when he'd turned around at the Aoide Auditorium and I realized that his eyes were Reaper red. That Vivian and Agrona had done something terrible to him. That I might be too late to save him. It had been one of the worst moments of my life. And now, Logan was gone, and that hurt too. Because this time, he'd left of his own free will, and not because of some Reaper magic mumbo jumbo. He'd gone because he'd wanted to, leaving me with nothing but nightmares.
Rachel gave me a wan smile. "Sad, isn't it? How true that is. That love can hurt so much sometimes."
I didn't say anything else. There was nothing else to say. We'd all been wounded by the Reapers, some of us more than others, and we all had to deal with it in our own way. Still, I scooted a little closer to Rachel, and I stayed by her side until the others finished their sparring and joined us.
It grew darker and colder as the sun set and the hours slowly passed. Everyone else snuggled down in their sleeping bags, but unlike the others, I was too on edge to sleep. So I sat by the fire, hunched over as close to the flickering flames as I could get. I'd offered to keep a lookout while the others got some shut-eye. We hadn't seen any sign of the Reapers, but that didn't mean they weren't there somewhere, waiting for the right time to strike. I also kept an eye out for the baby gryphon and the mysterious shadow. But if they were around, they were as invisible as the Reapers were.
Finally, my phone beeped at eleven forty-five, telling me it was time to wake the others. Everyone moaned and groaned a little, but they all got up. We fished some flashlights out of our bags, clicked them on, and headed to the back corner of the courtyard.
The ambrosia looked the same as before - a tiny patch of white flowers somehow blossoming in the middle of the rock wall.
"Are you sure that we have to pick it at midnight?" I asked. "Because it looks the same to me as it did this afternoon. Small and kind of puny."
"That's what Metis said," Ajax replied. "That it has to be picked at midnight, preferably in the middle of a hard frost."
"Well, at least we have the frost," I muttered.
The temperature had been steadily dropping all night long. The lower it went, the more the frost gathered on the rocks and crumbled walls. Now, the entire courtyard looked like a sheet of silver ice - cold and beautiful - although the flowers remained strangely untouched by the gathering frost, as though this were a summer night instead of the dead of winter.
We waited as the minutes slowly ticked by, our breath steaming in the air and then falling away to the ground in clouds of ice crystals. For the longest time, the ambrosia flowers didn't do anything but shiver in the cold like the rest of us.
"One minute until midnight," Oliver announced, peering at his phone, the white glow lighting up his face like a ghost's.
We all stared at the flowers, watching for any change, for any sign that they would do whatever they were supposed to, what Nickamedes needed them to do.
And slowly - very, very slowly - the flowers began to grow.
At first, I thought it was just my imagination. But I blinked and then blinked again, and I realized that they were actually . . . moving.
Three small, individual flowers seemed to stretch toward each other, as though the petals were somehow being pulled together by the silvery glow of the full moon so very high above.