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|Midnight Frost(Mythos Academy #5) by Jennifer Estep|
I sucked down a breath and raced after them. Yeah, maybe running blindly into a cave wasn't the smartest thing to do, but I couldn't leave Logan to the gryphons' mercy - or lack thereof.
So I ran forward and found myself in an enormous cavern. The walls were made out of some shiny, reflective, phosphorescent rock that gave the interior a soft, golden glow, almost as if there were lanterns flickering in the stone. The ceiling rose a hundred feet above my head, while piles of pine needles and dried summer grasses lined the floor inside, stretching from one side to the other like the flowers in the courtyard ruins. It was also surprisingly warm in the cavern - much warmer than it should have been - and I sighed in relief as the higher temperature chased away the chill that had sunk into my bones.
Too bad the gryphons were waiting for me.
There must have been a dozen of the creatures in the cavern, and before I realized what they were doing, they all crowded around me, forming an unbreakable ring and cutting me off from the exit. My steps slowed, then stopped, and I looked from one creature to the next, expecting them to leap forward and tear into me, the crazy Gypsy girl who'd been stupid enough to run right into the middle of their nest.
"Um, Gwen?" Vic asked. "You know how not good this is, right?"
"You just better hope they don't like to eat shiny things too," I muttered.
But instead of chomping down on me, the baby gryphon skipped over and put his head against the back of my leg, nudging me forward. I swallowed again, but all I could do was go where he wanted me to.
The baby kept pushing at me until I was near the back of the cavern. The adult gryphon who had grabbed Logan was there, standing next to a series of shallow pools. The surface of the water gleamed like a coin under the golden glow from the rocks, adding to the airy, enchanted feel of the cavern.
The gryphon had laid Logan down next to one of the pools of water. A bit of steam rose from the surface, and I cautiously stepped forward, pulled off my glove, leaned down, and dipped my hand into it. To my surprise, the water was warm, and I realized that the cavern must house some sort of natural hot springs - and that maybe the gryphons didn't plan on eating us after all.
"You didn't bring us here to hurt us, did you?" I asked the adult gryphon as I straightened back up. "You brought us here to keep us warm . . . to save us from freezing to death in the storm."
The gryphon nodded, agreeing with my words. I hesitated, then slid Vic back into his scabbard, pulled off my other glove, and slid them both into a pocket on my snowsuit. Slowly, I walked toward the gryphon and stretched out my bare hand. The creature watched me approach with solemn eyes, as if he knew exactly what I was going to do. I drew in a breath, reached out, and gingerly touched his wing.
Images and feelings flooded my mind. I felt the gryphon's strength, his pride, his love of sailing through the clouds. The gryphon had been flying high when he had heard his baby wail. The creature had swooped down into the trees to see me and my friends helping. A wave of intense gratitude washed over me, that I'd helped save his baby from being turned into a Reaper slave.
There were other images too, of the gryphons hiding in the ruins, watching my friends and me fight against the Reapers. So it was they I'd sensed peering at me. I felt the creature's burning hatred of the Reapers and his sadness at how the Reapers forced the Black rocs to do their bidding. And finally, I saw the gryphon watching me help Logan through the forest and his admiration for how I kept going, even though he knew we wouldn't make it through the night without finding some sort of shelter.
I opened my eyes, dropped my hand, and looked at him. "Thank you," I whispered. "For bringing us here. For saving us. You didn't have to do that."
The gryphon stared at me, and I felt a wave of pride wash off him - that yes, he did have to bring us here. That he'd felt honor-bound to help us just as we'd helped his baby.
I carefully ran my fingers across the gryphon's wings. The creature let out a little snort, but I could tell he liked it. The baby nudged his head against my legs again, and I dropped down to my knees and petted him too. Then I turned my attention to Logan, who hadn't stirred the whole time we'd been in the cavern.
The gryphons gathered around and watched while I unwrapped Ran's net from Logan and carefully placed it to the side. He didn't come to, not even when I unzipped his snowsuit and pulled his clothes up so that I could check his wound. Blood had seeped through the crude bandage I'd wrapped around it, and I slowly untied the cloth and peeled it away. Thankfully, the wound had finally clotted, and Logan wasn't bleeding anymore. I didn't know how much more blood he could afford to lose.
I used Vic to slice up the last of my extra clothes, then went over and dipped the cloth into the hot springs. I'd expected the water to have a sour, sulfur stench, but instead it smelled light and floral, with a fresh, clean, almost vanilla scent. I used the cloth to wipe the dried blood off Logan's wound. The roc had left a nasty gash in his side, and he probably needed stitches, but that wasn't something I could do. It didn't look like the wound was infected, though. Maybe Logan would be a little stronger in the morning - or at least well enough to walk the rest of the way down the mountain.
I used the last of my cut-up clothes to bandage his wound again, then covered him back up with his other clothes and made sure he was comfortable on the bed of needles and grasses. I also pulled my sleeping bag out of my backpack and covered him with it. Logan slept through the whole thing. I stroked his black hair back from his forehead, then leaned down and kissed him on the cheek. Logan sighed, but he didn't wake up.
I unbuckled the scabbard from my waist and propped Vic against one of the rock walls so he could see out into the cavern and keep watch. Just because I was surrounded by gryphons didn't mean Vivian and Agrona couldn't show up with more Reapers and rocs.
"Get some sleep, Gwen," Vic said, realizing how exhausted I was. "I'll stand guard tonight, just in case one of these oversized fuzzballs decides to make a move."
The gryphon leader snorted at that, but one by one, the creatures all settled down around me, the combined warmth of their bodies adding to the steam rising up from the hot springs.
There was nothing else to do but wait for the storm to pass and morning to come. So I lay down and drifted off to sleep, with the gryphons cocooning me.
I fell into a dark, dreamless sleep and woke up sometime later.
At least, I thought I was awake - until I realized I was standing in the middle of the cavern staring down at my sleeping body lying next to Logan's. I blinked and blinked, but the image remained the same. I turned around and around, but all of the gryphons were sleeping, as well, and I was the only one who seemed to be awake - or whatever this was. It didn't feel like another nightmare, though. It felt . . . real.
"Crikey," I muttered, echoing Vic's earlier sentiment.
I glanced around the cavern, but everything was the same as before. Gryphons arranged in a circle around me, the pools of water giving off heat, the walls glowing with those strange golden rocks. Finally, I looked toward the mouth of the cavern. For a moment, all I saw was a solid sheet of white as the snow continued to pour down outside. But then the flakes parted, as though the wind were whipping them back like curtains, and a figure appeared outside the cavern.
Her long, white dress was the same shade as the snow swirling around her, although the curled ringlets of her hair glimmered with a polished, bronze sheen. Wings arched up over her back. They too were the same white as the snow, but the soft feathers didn't ruffle, despite the fierce wind. She stood there, her hands clasped together, like she was patiently waiting for me to notice her. Her eyes met mine, and, once again, I was struck by what an unusual, vivid color they were - all the different hues of purple and gray mixed together to create one vibrant, twilight shade.
Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, stared at me for a second longer, then turned and walked out of sight of the entrance. Well, if the goddess wasn't going to come in here, I supposed that I would have to go out there to her.
I tiptoed through the sleeping gryphons, even though I probably didn't have to. Since, you know, I was in this weird sort of a world, and they weren't. At least, I didn't think they were, since I was awake and they weren't. Or I was dreaming, and they weren't. Or whatever exactly it was that I was doing that they weren't. I shook my head and pushed the thoughts away. Thinking about how real or not this dreamlike world was always gave me a headache.
I reached the entrance. To my surprise, the snow had stopped falling, although more than a foot of the white powder covered the ground like fluffy frosting on a cake. I stepped outside and realized I didn't feel cold, despite the fact that I'd left the warmth of the cavern and the gryphons' bodies behind.
I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye and turned in that direction. The goddess was perched on a wide, flat rock several feet away. Her face creased into a smile.
"Hello, Gwendolyn," Nike said.
I looked around at the snow, the rocks, and the pines that towered above us. Everything looked exactly the same as I remembered from when I'd first gone into the cavern. I don't know how much time had passed, but it must have been close to dawn, because the streaks of silver and lavender in the sky were slowly giving way to a pale orange sunrise.
"Hi," I finally replied to Nike. "So we're doing that weird dream thing again, huh?"
The goddess kept smiling at me. "If that's how you wish to think of it."
"If I try to think of it any other way, I'm pretty sure my head will explode."
She laughed, the sound washing over me like the high, lilting melody of wind chimes tinkling in the breeze. She patted the rock, and I walked over and plopped down next to her. We sat there in silence for several moments.
"So," I asked. "Does this mean that Logan and I are going to get off the mountain alive?"
"Why would you think otherwise?"
I shrugged. "Well, it was a little touch and go there for a while. What with all the snow, Logan being injured, me trying to get us both down the mountain. It hasn't exactly been a fun trip."
"No, I suppose it hasn't," Nike murmured. "But you did what you needed to do."
"What do you mean by that?"
But the goddess didn't answer me. Instead, she got to her feet. "Come," she said. "Let us walk."
Mystified, I got to my feet and followed her deeper into the forest. Nike seemed to glide over the snow, as if she were a cloud drifting along, and I noticed she didn't leave any footprints behind in the dense powder. I turned around and realized I wasn't leaving any indentations in the snow either. In fact, I couldn't even feel the wet weight of it pressing against my legs. Creepy. I shivered and hurried to catch up with her.
Nike stopped at the edge of a large clearing, and I crept up beside her. Snow was piled all around us, the drifts two and even three feet deep in places, but inside the clearing, wildflowers had somehow bloomed, their green stems sticking up through the powder, and their blue, pink, purple, red, and silver petals glistening like jewels that had been spilled across a white marble floor.
A woman stood in the middle of the clearing. Her long, velvet gown was the same rich green as the pines, although the edges of the fabric seemed to shimmer with all sorts of opalescent colors - pinks, blues, purples, reds, silvers, golds. She wasn't beautiful, not like I considered Nike to be, but her face was kind and gentle, although her lips were turned down with a hint of sadness. Her black hair was short, with ends that curled under. Her skin was as pale as snow, which made her eyes seem that much greener. Something about her features seemed familiar, as though I'd seen her before, although I couldn't quite place when or where.
As I watched, the woman moved through the clearing. She didn't have on any shoes, but the snow didn't appear to bother her, and she didn't leave any footprints in her wake. Her head was bent, and she was speaking softly, as if she was talking to the carpet of wildflowers that surrounded her. I couldn't make out her words, but the flowers seemed to respond to her voice, their stems turning and their bright petals arching toward her, as if they were trying to show off their best sides just to please her.
"Who's that?" I whispered.
"That," Nike replied, "is Eir."
So that was why her face looked so familiar. I'd seen it in the carvings and statues at the ruins.
"That's the Norse goddess of healing?"
Nike nodded. "Eir is one of my oldest, dearest friends - and strongest allies."
We watched Eir move among the wildflowers. Suddenly, a shadow darted across the snow, and a gryphon dropped down from the sky - the same gryphon who had saved me and Logan from the snowstorm. I wasn't quite sure how I knew that, but I did.
The gryphon bowed low to Eir, then gently tugged some wildflowers free from the snow and presented them to her, just like in the carving I'd seen at the ruins - the one where the ambrosia flowers had been. Eir smiled and returned the creature's bow before carefully taking the flowers from his beak. She brought them up to her face and inhaled deeply. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I almost thought I could smell the same thing she did - the sweet scents of the flowers mixing with the cold crispness of the snow.
Eir whispered something to the gryphon, and he soared back up into the air, darted toward a nearby tree, and grabbed something out of the top of it. He landed in the clearing again a moment later. Eir bent down and plucked a green plant from his beak - something that looked like a clump of mistletoe. After a moment, she turned. Her green eyes met mine, and I was again struck by the kindness in her face. She radiated the emotion the same way Nike exuded victorious power. Eir started walking toward us, while the gryphon padded along at her side.