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|Midnight Frost(Mythos Academy #5) by Jennifer Estep|
"Is everyone else seeing this?" I asked.
"Sshh," Oliver said. "You're spoiling the moment."
I elbowed him in the side, and he grinned. Then, we both fixed our gazes on the flowers once more.
As soon as the petals of the three flowers touched each other, they all seemed to wilt, as though they couldn't stand to be that close together. I sucked in a breath, wondering if something was wrong, if they weren't going to bloom because we were here and we needed them so badly. But as soon as the flowers wilted, a silver light began to burn in the center of each one of them, and the purple and gray streaks on the petals burst into cold flames. For a moment, the colors swirled together, a starry mix of silver, purple, and gray that grew brighter and brighter until I had to close my eyes and look away from the intense light. Then, as quickly as it had begun, the colors and lights abruptly faded away.
I opened my eyes - and was amazed at what I saw.
Somehow, the three small flowers had fused together into one large, beautiful blossom. The petals were now a shimmering silver and had a vaguely metallic look to them, almost as if they would ring like a bell if you tapped on them with your fingernail. White, purple, and gray streaked down the petals, as well, the colors clustered together like they were one stripe. It was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen.
Nobody spoke for several moments.
"It's incredible," Daphne finally whispered.
"That it is," Covington said, a strange, almost envious note in his voice. "That it is."
We all fell silent again.
"Well," I said, stepping forward and carefully tugging the flower - vine and all - free of the rock wall and the gryphon's beak. "I don't care how beautiful it is. All that matters is that it did what it was supposed to. Now we can use it to help Nickamedes."
"Of course," Covington said. "Of course."
I carefully slid the ambrosia flower into a long, slender, plastic tube that Ajax had bought when we'd gone shopping for supplies yesterday. Hopefully, the tube would protect the flower so we could get it back to the academy in one piece.
"Now what?" Rory asked.
"We get some sleep," Ajax rumbled. "It's been a long day, and we still have to hike back down the mountain in the morning."
We all headed back over to our camp. Ajax added enough wood to the fire so that it would burn through the rest of the night, while everyone else slipped into their tents and sleeping bags.
Half an hour later, I was in a tent with Daphne. Rachel and Rory would also sleep in here with us later, after they took their turns standing watch. I scooted closer to Daphne for warmth, despite the fact that she was already snoring. Every once in a while, a pink spark of magic would escape from her sleeping bag and flicker up into the air like a firefly before winking out.
I zipped up my sleeping bag, making sure I had one hand on Vic and the other on the tube with the ambrosia flower. The sword's eye opened, and he regarded me with a serious expression. Vic had been quiet today, and we hadn't talked much, but I knew he'd been resting up for the battle that was sure to come. The sword realized the most dangerous part of the journey was still ahead - getting down the mountain and surviving whatever trap the Reapers were planning.
"Don't worry, Gwen," Vic said. "You go to sleep. I'll keep an eye out. No Reapers will creep up on you tonight. I promise."
"Okay, Vic," I mumbled. "I'll leave it to you."
I closed my eyes and let the blackness of sleep take me away.
The cold woke me.
Sometime during the night, I'd wormed my way up out of my sleeping bag, and the chill in the air had crept down the back of my neck like a ticklish finger. I shivered and snuggled back down into my sleeping bag, until the warmth of my body, combined with the silky material, drove away the worst of the cold. It was early, and Daphne, Rory, and Rachel were all still asleep in the tent with me, but I could tell it was getting lighter outside. It must be close to dawn. With any luck, we'd be back at the academy by noon, then back in North Carolina sometime late this evening.
I lay in my sleeping bag, but it wasn't too long before the others started stirring. Thirty minutes later, we were all gathered around the fire, which had dwindled down to embers overnight. We were all still half-asleep, so nobody felt much like talking. Instead, everyone cracked open some bottled water and dug through their backpacks to find some breakfast. Once again, I tore into a packet of granola. The dried fruit, dark chocolate, oats, and nuts weren't quite as flavorful as they had been yesterday, but they kept my stomach from grumbling too much.
Once we were all more or less awake and fed, we made sure that the fire was completely cold, took down the tents, and packed up our things. Rachel adjusted her pack on her back, then stared up at the sky. The early morning sun had already disappeared, replaced by a heavy veil of dark gray clouds.
"That storm's finally blowing in," she said. "We need to be off the mountain before the worst of the snow starts."
We nodded. None of us had any desire to be trapped up here. It was already cold and blustery enough. I couldn't even imagine how much worse a foot or two of snow would make things. Despite the cold, I didn't put my gloves on. I wanted to be able to pull Vic out of his scabbard without any problems in case of a Reaper attack.
As we shouldered our packs and got ready to head out, I couldn't help the feeling of unease that swept over me. It all seemed too . . . easy. Except for the attack on the train, the Reapers hadn't made a move against us while we'd been at the ruins. I wondered why - and what they were really up to.
We were about to leave the courtyard when I saw that mysterious shadow out of the corner of my eye.
One second, I was thinking about how long it would take us to hike down the mountain and when and where the Reapers might attack. The next, I realized there was a figure hovering on the edge of my vision - one that seemed to be staring straight at me.
I snapped my head to the left - but no one was there. All I saw were crumbled walls and overturned rocks, with the flowers spread out like a colorful blanket in the middle of the courtyard.
"What's the matter, Princess?" Rory asked, noticing me looking around.
I shook my head. I wasn't sure what to tell her. Sorry, I seem to be seeing things that aren't really there didn't exactly seem like the right thing to say -
I froze, really, really hoping I was just imagining those sounds.
But the high, eerie shrieks came again, echoing from one side of the courtyard to the other and back again, and I knew that I wasn't hallucinating - and that we were in serious trouble.
A second later, a shadow fell over me, blotting out what little sun there was, and a bird swooped down out of the sky. It was an enormous creature, easily twice as big as I was tall, with glossy black feathers shot through with streaks of red; long, curved black talons; and black eyes that contained a hot, burning spark of Reaper red.
A Black roc - and it wasn't alone.
A girl was strapped in a leather harness that was attached to the creature's broad back. A black robe fluttered around her body over her matching black snowsuit. Frizzy auburn hair, bright golden eyes, sneering smile. She looked exactly the same as she did in my nightmares. And just like the roc, her gaze shimmered with that spark of Reaper red. The girl looked at me and grinned.
"Hello, Gwen," Vivian Holler said. "I thought I might find you here."
I immediately threw my backpack down and drew Vic out of the scabbard on my waist. I started to charge forward, but Alexei held his hand out, stopping me. He shook his head in warning, then drew his twin swords out of the scabbard on his back and stepped in front of me. The others dropped their bags and pulled out their weapons, as well, ready to fight the Reaper girl.
When she realized that we weren't going to immediately swarm all over her, Vivian pouted, as though she was disappointed by our restraint. That told me that she'd wanted us to charge her. I wondered why, since it seemed that she was alone. My gaze scanned over the ruins, but I didn't see any other Reapers lurking behind the piles of rubble. They were here somewhere, though. They had to be. Vivian would never try to fight us all by herself. She wasn't that stupid - or brave.
Vivian stared at Alexei, her eyes lingering on the twin swords in his hands. "A bodyguard, Gypsy? Really? Even I don't have one of those. Kind of sad that you feel the need for one, though." She clucked her tongue in mock sympathy. "Then again, I can take care of myself, and we just can't say the same for you, now can we?"
"Oh, I don't know," I drawled. "I think I'm doing okay. After all, you haven't managed to murder me yet. Kind of a big epic failure on your part, isn't it? Especially since I'm so weak and pitiful and helpless? What's wrong with you that you can't kill one geeky girl, Viv? Aren't you supposed to be this great warrior with such powerful magic? Bet Loki's not too happy about all that - that his Champion hasn't been able to carry out this one simple order. Who knows? If you keep sucking like you do, he might decide to name a new Champion. Maybe even take away your telepathy magic. And wouldn't that just be so humiliating for you."
Her golden eyes glimmered, and that eerie Reaper red spark burned a little brighter and hotter in her gaze. Her hands tightened around the roc's reins, like she was thinking about urging the creature forward and making it plow into me. After a moment, Vivian relaxed her grip, but I knew I'd pissed her off. Good. I was planning to do a lot more of that - before I killed her.
Still, I couldn't help feeling that Vivian had already sprung her trap - and all that was left was for the teeth of it to sink into our throats, like the snap-snare had done to the baby gryphon's leg. Once again, my eyes scanned the ruins, but I didn't see anyone, and the only sound was the whistle of the winter wind whipping around the crumbled stones.
Vivian unbuckled herself from her harness and slid to the ground, grabbing a sword out of the scabbard that was tied to the roc's harness. She stepped in front of the bird and held up the sword by the blade, so that the hilt was showing. After a moment, I stepped up next to Alexei and did the same thing with Vic.
"Lucretia," Vic hissed.
A Reaper red eye snapped open on the hilt of Vivian's sword and glared right back at him. "Vic," she purred in a low, feminine voice. "So nice to see you again, especially looking so dull and tarnished. But you are getting up there in years, aren't you?"
"Dull? Dull and tarnished? Why - why you - " Vic was so incensed that all he could do was sputter.
Lucretia laughed at his anger, her dark chuckles mirroring the ones coming out of Vivian's mouth.
Finally, when they'd both quit laughing, I looked at Vivian again. "What do you want? What is this all about?"
Vivian pouted once more. "Getting down to business already, Gwen? If you want to die sooner rather than later, well, that's fine with me."
She grabbed the sword's hilt, then lifted Lucretia high overhead. I tensed, wondering what she was doing, but I got my answer a second later when another Black roc dropped down from the sky.
It plummeted into the ruins, landing beside Vivian's. Another familiar figure was riding the enormous bird - Agrona Quinn.
She too looked the same as in my nightmares - silky blond hair, tan skin, intense green eyes. She wore a long black robe that fluttered in the wind, showing off her silver snowsuit and boots underneath. Despite the cold, she wasn't wearing gloves, and a ring flashed on her left hand, just as it had in my dreams. She must be wearing more of the Apate jewels she'd stolen from the Library of Antiquities. The ones she'd used to control Logan and turn him against me.
But the thing that caught my eye was her right hand. It almost looked like one of the roc's curved claws. Agrona's fingers were purple, swollen, and twisted together at an awkward angle. She noticed me staring at her hand, and she scowled and dropped it down out of sight, not wanting me to see her weakness.
I frowned, wondering what was wrong with her hand, and then I remembered - I'd done that to her.
During the fight at the Aoide Auditorium, I'd used Vic to smash Agrona's hand to try to destroy the heart-shaped Apate ruby she'd been wearing as a ring. It looked like her hand hadn't fully healed from the injury. It must have been because I'd used Vic to break her fingers. The damage was incurable since he was a powerful artifact in his own right. Maybe it was wrong, but a wave of dark satisfaction filled me that I'd been able to hurt Agrona like that. She deserved it for what she'd done to Logan and his dad. She deserved that - and worse.
"Agrona," Ajax growled. "I should have known you'd be behind this."
She smiled, but the expression was anything but pleasant. "So nice to see you again too, Ajax. Tell me, how is my dear stepson doing? I'm disappointed not to see Logan here among your little band of warriors."
"He's fine," I cut in before anyone could say anything. "Despite what you did to him."
Agrona laughed. "Of course he is. He's so fine that he's not by your side like you want him to be. Right, Gypsy?"
I didn't say anything, but once more, my stomach tightened with worry that the Reapers had somehow captured Logan, like Vivian had claimed. I held my breath, waiting for Agrona to crow about how Logan was being tortured to death right now.
Agrona must have seen the hurt, anger, and fear in my face because she laughed again and waved her good hand in the air. "No matter. Logan isn't important anyway. Not anymore. But some of you are - or rather the things you brought with you." Her green eyes focused on Vic, and a spark of jealousy flickered in her gaze.