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|Midnight Frost(Mythos Academy #5) by Jennifer Estep|
"There are few things Eir loves more than her wildflowers," Nike said. "But her gryphons are one of them."
"So they're Eir gryphons then?" I asked. "Like Fenrir wolves and Nemean prowlers and Maat asps?"
Nike nodded. "Exactly like that, although few mortals remember the gryphons' proper name anymore, just like they've forgotten Eir is the goddess of mercy, as well as healing. But Eir has always had a fond place in her heart for the creatures. That's one of the reasons she built her home here on the mountaintop - so they could make their nests nearby and she could watch over them."
"Why are you telling me all of this?"
Nike smiled. "You'll see."
Eir and the gryphon stopped in front of us. The goddess tilted her head to the side, her green eyes boring into my violet ones as if she could see all the secrets of my soul just by looking at me. Maybe she could. I straightened up to keep from shivering under her intense scrutiny.
"I see it now," she said, her voice as soft as a breeze rustling through the wildflowers. "Why you have such faith in her. She is strong-willed. Young, but very strong."
Nike's smile widened, and, for a moment, I felt like a puppy the two of them were oohing and aahing over in some pet store window. Like I'd just done some sort of trick to win their approval, although I had no idea what it might be.
Eir kept staring at me, as if she expected me to say something.
"Um . . . thanks," I said. "Thank you, goddess. That's a very nice compliment."
"It was not a compliment, merely a statement of fact." She once again tilted her head to the side. "Sometimes, I think I will never truly understand mortals. They are so strange in their sentiments."
The gryphon screeched his agreement, and I wondered what I'd said that was so wrong. But the goddess seemed thoughtful instead of upset, so I supposed I hadn't put my foot into my mouth too badly.
"You were merciful to one of my gryphons," Eir said. "One of the few mortals who has been so in a very, very long time. For that, I have a gift for you."
She took the wildflowers and the clump of mistletoe she was still holding and began to twist them, as if she was going to make a daisy chain with the green stems and colorful petals. A bright silver light flared, leaking out from between her fingers, almost as if the flowers were some sort of metal the goddess was working with. The light was so intense that it hurt my eyes, but I didn't dare look away.
"There," Eir said, a few moments later. "It is done."
Something clinked, and I felt a small weight on my arm. I looked down and realized a thin silver bracelet had appeared on my right wrist. The chain itself was made out of strands of mistletoe, with several small petals dangling off it. All put together, it reminded me of a charm bracelet that Carson had given Daphne awhile back.
The bracelet was touching my bare skin, and I waited for my psychometry to kick in - but it didn't. In fact, I didn't get any big flashes off the bracelet - just the same sort of calm, kind vibe that I got from Eir herself.
Curious, I held up one of the petals. It was small, silver, and more like a leaf than a true flower, but I recognized the shape of it. My eyes flicked up. The heart-shaped leaves exactly matched the ones in the wreath on top of Nike's head. Laurels - the symbol for victory.
"The laurel is a curious plant," Eir said. "And silver laurels are exceedingly rare. I'm the only one who grows them anymore, but even that has been all but forgotten - along with their properties. Mistletoe is also quite powerful, although all that mortals seem to use it for these days is kissing."
She made a face, as though she didn't like the idea, then paused.
"And . . . what are their properties?" I asked, since it seemed as if she wanted me to say something.
"Silver laurels can be used to heal even the most grievous wounds," Eir said. "Or they can be used to kill the mightiest foe. In some cases, silver laurels can even destroy the gods themselves."
My breath caught in my throat, and my fingers curled so tightly around the leaf that the metal edges pricked my skin. Was she saying - did she mean - could I possibly kill Loki with the laurels?
When Nike had shown me the artifacts in the fresco on the ceiling of the Library of Antiquities, I'd thought that I'd been holding a silver arrow or spear, some weapon that would help me defeat the evil god. But what if what I'd seen was the bracelet? What if it was at least part of the answer? I glanced at Nike, and the goddess nodded, as if she knew what I was thinking. She probably did. She always seemed to.
"The other interesting thing about silver laurels is that whether they heal or destroy depends entirely upon the will and intent of the user," Eir said. "So wield them with care, Gwendolyn Cassandra Frost. Because your choices will affect us all."
Her green eyes bored into mine, and she held out her hand to me, as if she wanted to say good-bye. I hesitated, then brushed my fingers against hers. For a moment, her power washed over me, and I felt her wonderful kindness toward all creatures great and small, her love for her gryphons, her delight when mortals used her wildflowers to heal the sick and injured.
And I also felt her utter ruthlessness.
Like victory, mercy could be a great and terrible thing. Giving mercy, accepting it, rejecting it, withholding it - all of those things had a price someone had to pay. And I realized that in her own way, Eir was just as cold, terrible, beautiful, and powerful as Nike was - as all of the gods and goddesses were, including Loki.
Then, Eir's fingers slipped away from mine, and the feelings vanished, although I still got that same calm, kind vibe from the bracelet around my wrist. I stared at the metal leaves and vine-like chain. I wondered if Eir had given Nike the crown of laurels that the goddess of victory wore - and I wondered what I was supposed to do with the ones I now had. How could such simple-looking leaves heal anyone? Or possibly kill a god? How was I supposed to use them? Were they the key to destroying Loki and ending the Chaos War? Or did they have some other purpose? And what was the mistletoe for, if anything?
Those questions and a dozen more burned on the tip of my tongue, but Eir had already returned to the center of the clearing, with the gryphon walking by her side. The goddess bent her head again, and the wildflowers strained toward her once more. A smile curved Eir's face as she started murmuring to them and the gryphon.
"Come," Nike said. "She has given you the only gift she can. Let us leave Eir in peace, as she has asked of me."
We walked back through the woods until we reached the cavern. Instead of going back inside, I stared at the bracelet, then at Nike.
"You're always playing some sort of game, aren't you?" I couldn't hide the bitterness in my voice.
"What do you mean?"
I threw my hands wide. "I mean - this. All of this. Me. My friends. Coming here. The Reapers poisoning Nickamedes. You planned it all, didn't you? So I would come here, and Eir would give me the laurels and mistletoe."
She shook her head. "I did not plan anything, Gwendolyn. The Spartan librarian being poisoned was what was always going to happen. You and your friends made your own choices, and you used your own free will, just the way you always do."
I didn't understand how some things could seemingly be predetermined, while my friends and I still had free will about others. Trying to puzzle it out made my head hurt, like always. Still, I kept staring at the goddess. There was more to all of this than she was telling me, and I let her see the questions and suspicions in my eyes.
After a moment, she nodded her head.
"I admit that I had . . . hopes you would prove yourself to Eir, that you would show her the goodness in your heart," Nike said. "She had been . . . undecided about getting involved in the Pantheon's fight against Loki. But you convinced her to give us a weapon that we needed, that you needed."
I stared down at the silver laurels once more. "A weapon? So is this how I'm supposed to kill Loki then? With these? I thought I had to find a spear or something - that mysterious shadowy thing that's on the fresco on the ceiling of the Library of Antiquities that you showed me."
Nike shook her head. "You know I cannot tell you that, Gwendolyn. I can only give you the tools you need to fight Loki and his Reapers. How you use them is up to you."
"Of course you can't," I sniped. "Because that would just be too freaking easy. Because that would just make too much sense."
She kept staring at me.
"Call it whatever you want," I finally muttered. "It just sounds like gods and their games to me."
"War is nothing but a game, Gwendolyn," she replied. "One with a winner - and a loser."
I didn't tell her I was tired of being part of her games - and most especially the Reapers' tricks. If Nike didn't know that by now, well, she wasn't as smart as she seemed to be - or as powerful. But there was nothing I could do but tuck the bracelet under the sleeve of my snowsuit. I would have to add it to my list of things to research. Sometimes I thought I spent more time in the library looking through books these days than Nickamedes did. My heart twinged at the thought of him. I wondered how he was doing - and whether he was even still alive.
"I know you are upset with me, Gwendolyn," Nike said. "But it is not easy, trying to win a war, especially against an enemy as foul as Loki."
I sighed. "I know. I just hate that I'm caught in the middle of it all. I never wanted this, you know?"
"I know," she replied. "I never wanted it for you either. But it is what must be done."
I frowned, wondering what she meant, but the goddess leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek, the way she always did whenever our time together was coming to an end. It was a brief touch, just a whisper of her lips against my skin, but once again, the cold, fierce waves of her power washed over me, giving me the strength I needed to continue. And this time, the cold didn't seem to vanish - instead, I felt it seep into the silver laurel bracelet, until it felt as if a string of snowflakes was encircling my wrist. But the sensation wasn't unpleasant. If anything, it was a reminder of the goddess - and her faith in me.
Nike straightened up and stepped back, and the snow began to swirl around her once more. "Be well, Gwendolyn."
She bowed her head and clasped her hands together once more. She stood in front of me for a moment longer. Then, she was gone, swallowed up by the snow, as if she'd never even been there to start with.
I woke with a start.
One second, I was outside by myself in the snow. The next, I was in the middle of the gryphons' cavern. I sat up, yawned, and rubbed the crusty sleep out of the corners of my eyes. I glanced to my left to see that Logan was sitting up and staring at me.
"You're awake," I said in a soft voice so I wouldn't disturb the still-sleeping gryphons.
He gave me a wan smile. "You didn't think I'd miss the rest of our trip, did you, Gypsy girl?"
I snorted. "Oh no. Why should I get to have all the fun?"
He laughed, then gestured at the creatures that were sprawled around us. "You, um, want to tell me how we wound up here? And why we're both not a pile of bones yet?"
I told him how Daphne, Rory, and I had helped the baby gryphon on our way up the mountain and how the creatures had returned the favor by saving us from the storm.
When I finished, Logan nodded, but then his face turned serious. "Well, gryphons or not, I want to thank you - for taking care of me. I know it would have been easier if you'd left me behind on the trail."
"I couldn't leave you behind. I would never do that."
His mouth flattened out. "Maybe you should have."
I stared at him. Ink-black hair, ice-blue eyes, muscled body. On the outside, Logan looked the same as always, but I could see the difference in him - in the droop of his shoulders, in the shadows that haunted his eyes, and most especially in his smile. It wasn't the fun, confident, teasing grin I remembered. No, now his smile just seemed . . . sad. The same sort of sad smile that Rory's parents had had in their photos - and my dad in his. I was so sick of seeing those sad, defeated smiles.
I knew Logan was hurting, but I was too. Maybe it was my frustrating conversation with Nike, maybe it was all the nightmares, or maybe it was simply everything that had happened over the past few weeks, but once again, that mix of hurt and anger bubbled up inside me - and this time the anger won.
"Oh, quit feeling sorry for yourself."
Logan blinked. "Excuse me?"
"You heard me," I said, my voice growing harsh. "Quit feeling sorry for yourself. Yeah, something horrible happened to you, and the Reapers tried to turn you into Loki's little soul puppet. But you know what, Spartan? Horrible things have happened to all of us now - and more terrible things are in store. So suck it up and get back in the fight."
"I don't understand," Logan said, his eyebrows drawing together in confusion. "I thought you weren't mad at me."
I let out a breath. "I'm not mad at you because you attacked me. I'm mad at you because you're giving up - because you're quitting. I thought Spartans never quit."
Logan sighed. "But you don't understand. I could be a danger to you and the others. Loki . . . I could still be connected to him. I don't want to risk hurting you again."
I couldn't stop the tears from filling my eyes or the words from tumbling off my lips. "You've already hurt me. You broke my heart by leaving, by going back on your promise to me. You said you'd always be there for me, fighting right by my side against the Reapers, and you left - you just left. Without even giving me a chance to say good-bye, or to tell you that I understood."