The first day of school is always the worst.
A new school year means new classes, new books, new professors, new projects to prepare and papers to write. Plus, you have to decide what you’re going to wear and how you’re going to act and what kind of person you’re going to be—and be seen as—until school breaks for the summer several long, distant, dreary months in the future. There’s so much freaking pressure to get every little thing right starting from that very first day. And that’s just for regular kids.
That pressure is turned up to extremes at Mythos Academy.
“Are you excited for the first day of school?” a light, happy voice asked.
I stuffed one last textbook into my dark green messenger bag, then slid it over to one side of the kitchen table. I looked up to find Rachel Maddox, my aunt, smiling at me. “Not really.”
Instead of being put off by my sour, surly tone, Aunt Rachel’s smile widened. “Well, you should be excited. It’s a brand-new school year and a brand-new start for us. Everything’s going to be great, Rory. You’ll see.”
“You mean like all the other kids, professors, and workers suddenly forgetting that my parents were Reapers of Chaos and all the horrible things they did?” I snorted. “Not bloody likely.”
Aunt Rachel’s warm smile vanished like a candle flame being snuffed out by a cold wind. She dropped her gaze from mine and turned back to the stove, flipping the blackberry pancakes that she was making special for my first day of school. And hers too, since she worked as a chef in the Mythos dining hall.
I winced, guilt churning in my stomach. Aunt Rachel was twenty-seven, only ten years older than me, since I had turned seventeen a few days ago. She had always been more of a big sister to me than an aunt—at least until my parents were murdered last year.
My mom and dad, Rebecca and Tyson Forseti, hadn’t been brave, strong, noble Spartan warriors like I’d thought. The two of them had secretly been Reapers, working with others to bring Loki, the evil Norse god of chaos, back here to the mortal realm. And my parents hadn’t been your average, run-of-the-mill Reaper bad guys. Oh, no. They had been Reaper assassins, the worst of the worst, responsible for killing dozens and dozens of innocent people.
I had been absolutely horrified when I’d learned the truth about them, especially since the whole time, all my years growing up, I had never realized what kind of evil warriors—what kind of evil people—they truly were.
My parents had fooled me as easily as they had everyone else, leaving behind a deep, jagged wound that just wouldn’t heal. Even now, a year after their deaths, their betrayal still coated my heart like a cold frost, freezing out all my previous love for them.
Sometimes I couldn’t feel anything but that cold numbing me from the inside out. Other times, I was so angry at my parents for all their lies that I half expected red-hot steam to spew out of my ears like I was a cartoon character. In those moments, I wanted to lash out at everyone and everything around me. I just wanted to hurt someone or something the same way my parents had hurt me, especially since I was still dealing with the consequences of all their evil actions. Maybe I also wanted to lash out because I was a Spartan, and fighting was what we were naturally hardwired to do. If only dealing with my emotions were as easy as battling Reapers.
I didn’t know which was worse, not feeling anything or feeling way too much. Or maybe it was going back and forth between the two extremes. Either way, the cold numbness and hot anger had been my constant companions ever since the day I found out about my parents.
But I wasn’t the only one who’d been devastated by the truth. So had Aunt Rachel, who had always looked up to her big sister, Rebecca. Aunt Rachel had been hurt just as badly as I had been, but she’d stepped up and taken me in anyway, despite all the horrible things my parents had done. She had even put her dreams of going to culinary school in Paris on hold so she could stay here in Colorado and take care of me. Aunt Rachel had been so good to me this past year, and she did her absolute best to protect me.
I didn’t mean to snap at Aunt Rachel. Really, I didn’t. That was my hot anger boiling up through the icy numbness and getting the best of me. Sometimes, though, it was hard to even look at her, since she had the same long, glossy black hair, green eyes, and pretty features that my mom had. The same black hair and green eyes that I had as well and the same features that haunted me every time I looked in the mirror.
More than once, I had thought about dyeing my hair neon-pink or wearing violet contacts so I wouldn’t look so much like my mom anymore. Who wanted to be the daughter of notorious Reaper assassins? Much less look exactly like one of them? Nobody, that’s who.
But that was me, Rory Forseti, and this was my life, like it or not.
I didn’t want to be like my parents, and not being like them meant not snapping at Aunt Rachel the way my mom had done so many times over the years, especially in the weeks right before she died. Or at least, trying to make things better when I did snap at Aunt Rachel. So I forced myself to sit up straight and plastered a smile on my face.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m just a little…nervous. I’m sure you’re right. This is my second year at Mythos, so it’s bound to be easier. Besides, Loki has been defeated, so everyone can finally relax and get on with their lives without worrying about him or Reapers or mythological monsters anymore.”
Aunt Rachel turned back to me, a smile spreading across her face again. “Exactly! And everyone knows how much you helped Gwen and her friends defeat Loki at the Battle of Mythos Academy. They know that you’re a good person, Rory. A hero, just like Gwen is.”
My dad, Tyson, and Gwen’s dad, Tyr, were brothers, which made Gwen my first cousin. Gwen Frost was kind of a big deal in the Mythos Academy world these days. Okay, okay, so she was more than just a big deal. She was like a freaking princess now. Since, you know, she’d found a way to trap Loki and keep everyone safe from the evil god forever.
Several months ago, Loki and his Reapers of Chaos had stormed onto the Mythos Academy campus in Cypress Mountain, North Carolina, in one last, desperate attempt to recover an ancient artifact that would restore Loki to full health so he could enslave us all. But Gwen had beaten the god, tricked him into almost killing her, so that she could sacrifice herself to trap him and save us.
If I closed my eyes, I could still see Gwen lying on the floor of the Library of Antiquities, looking deathly pale, bleeding out from the stab wound she’d inflicted on herself with Vic, her talking sword, in order to stop Loki from taking control of her body, her mind, and her powerful psychometry magic. But Gwen had pulled through, thanks to some help from her friends and Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. Gwen truly was Nike’s Champion, the person who worked for the goddess in this realm, in every sense of the word.
And now she was everyone else’s Champion too—the hero of all heroes.
In an instant, Gwen had gone from just another Gypsy girl to an outright celebrity. Gwen had told me that every time she walked across campus or worked at her job in the Library of Antiquities or even went out for coffee with her boyfriend, Logan Quinn, people were always staring at her and whispering about her. I’d seen it for myself when I visited her over the summer. Now everyone treated Gwen like she was royalty instead of a regular student. Some of the other kids—adults too—would even come up and ask her for autographs and pictures. Gwen hated all the attention, and she just wanted to get on with her life.
I knew the feeling, even if my life was as dark as hers was golden.
The fake smile slipped from my face, and I slumped in my chair.
Aunt Rachel slid a stack of pancakes onto a plate and set it on the table in front of me. “Rory? What are you thinking about?”
I picked up my fork and forced myself to smile at her again. “How great these pancakes look and smell.”
She grinned back at me and sat down at the table with her own plate of pancakes. “Thanks. I used the wild blackberries we picked when we visited the gryphons at the ruins a few days ago.”
I nodded. The Eir Ruins were located on top of the mountain that loomed over Snowline Ridge. Named for Eir, the Norse goddess of healing, the ruins were a magical place, always full of blooming wildflowers and green herbs, no matter how cold and snowy the Colorado weather was. Even better, the ruins were home to the Eir gryphons that Aunt Rachel and I had befriended several months ago.
I loved hanging out with the gryphons, who were like the pets I’d never had. If, you know, pets were enormous mythological creatures who could eat you if they really wanted to. And I especially loved riding on the gryphons’ backs as they soared around the mountaintop and over the evergreen forests below.
“Maybe we can go to the ruins this weekend,” Aunt Rachel said. “After we’re both settled into our routines for the new school year.”
This time when I smiled at her, my expression was genuine. “I’d love that.”
She reached over, grabbed my hand, and gently squeezed my fingers. “I have a good feeling about today. You’ll see, Rory. Everything’s going to be great. For both of us.”
I didn’t know about that, but her cheerful voice and happy expression made a tiny bit of hope spark to life in my chest. I squeezed her hand back. “Of course it will.”
* * *
We ate our pancakes, along with the bacon, scrambled eggs, and cheesy hash browns that Aunt Rachel had also whipped up for breakfast. She was a terrific chef, and everything was delicious, especially the light, fluffy, golden pancakes. Aunt Rachel had also made some blackberry syrup, which added even more sweet yet tart flavor to the pancakes.
The good food lifted my mood, and by the time we finished breakfast, I was feeling really hopeful about starting school. So I grabbed my messenger bag from the table, slung the strap across my chest, and left.
Aunt Rachel and I lived in a small stone cottage nestled in a stand of pine trees on the outskirts of the academy. I stepped onto one of the ash-gray cobblestone paths and walked across the lush, green, landscaped lawns, past the student dorms, and up the hills, heading to the main part of campus.
It wasn’t quite eight o’clock yet, but the sun was shining brightly in the clear blue September sky, further lifting my mood. We were so high up on the mountain that the air was still cool, and I stuck my hands into the pockets of my forest-green leather jacket to keep them warm. It didn’t take me long to climb the last and steepest hill and reach the main quad.
Mythos Academies were located all around the world, from the one here in Snowline Ridge, Colorado, and the one in Cypress Mountain, North Carolina, to those in London, England; Frankfurt, Germany; Saint Petersburg, Russia; and beyond. But all the campuses looked more or less the same, and each one featured a quad that served as the heart of the academy.
Five buildings made of dark, almost black stone ringed the grassy quad in front of me—math-science, English-history, a dining hall, a gym, and a library. These same five buildings were arranged in the same starlike pattern at every Mythos Academy, including the North Carolina campus where Gwen went to school and where the final battle with Loki had taken place.
But plenty of differences existed among the various academies. The buildings at Gwen’s school resembled old, creepy Gothic castles, while the ones here were shaped like enormous cabins, made of heavy boulders and thick logs that had been fitted together. Wide windows were set into all the buildings to take advantage of the spectacular views of the pine trees that covered the grounds and the high, craggy mountain that loomed over the campus.
But the things I liked best about the quad were the statues of mythological creatures perched on top of, around, and beside all the buildings. Nemean prowlers, Fenrir wolves, Eir gryphons. All those creatures and more looked out over the quad, their gray stone eyes seeming to follow the students as they moved in and out of the buildings.
Most of the other kids didn’t care what the buildings looked like, and they completely ignored the statues, but I enjoyed the rustic feel of everything, and I especially loved seeing the mythological creatures. They might be frozen in place, but I knew they were only a few seconds and a little bit of magic away from breaking free from their stone moorings and leaping down to the ground to protect the students, just as they had during the battle at the North Carolina academy.
I nodded at the Fenrir wolf statue sitting on the steps closest to me. The wolf studied me for a moment, before one of its stone eyes slid down in a slow, sly wink. I grinned back at it, then drew in a deep breath, letting the cool air seep deep down into my lungs.
To everyone else, this was just another Mythos Academy, but a sense of wildness, of freedom, existed here that I’d never experienced while visiting any of the other academies. I could see it in the shadows that pooled around the statues, smell it in the crisp, clear air, and hear it in the sharp, whistling wind that ruffled my ponytail.
It felt like home to me.
Since this was the first day of school, the quad was packed, and practically everyone had a coffee in one hand and a phone in the other. All sorts of mythological warriors attended Mythos Academy, but the majority of the guys were Romans and Vikings, while the girls were mostly Amazons and Valkyries. Bright, colorful sparks of magic flashed in the air around many of the kids, especially the Valkyries. For some reason, Valkyries almost continuously gave off magic, and showers of sparks streamed out of their fingertips with every gesture they made and every text they sent.
Each kid, each warrior, had their own skills, powers, and magic—everything from enhanced senses to being able to summon up lightning to the ability to heal other people. But in general, Romans and Amazons were superquick, while Vikings and Valkyries were superstrong.
I was none of those things.
I was a Spartan, like my parents, and it was another way I didn’t fit in with everyone else, since Spartans were rare—and very, very dangerous. Almost all the other kids were carrying at least one weapon, whether it was a sword or dagger belted to their waist, a staff propped up on the bench beside them, or even a bow and a quiver full of arrows peeking up out of their gym bag.
But I didn’t have any weapons. I didn’t need them, since I could pick up any object and automatically know how to kill someone with it.
Seriously. I could kill someone with a toothpick if I wanted to. A plastic fork, a paper clip, an ink pen. Whatever was handy. Not that I would ever actually do that, as it would be difficult, even for me, especially when it would be much easier to take away my enemy’s sword and use their own weapon against them. But if I had to, I could defend myself with whatever was lying around, no matter how small and innocuous it might be.
I didn’t know how it worked for other Spartans, how their magic manifested itself, but anytime I was in a fight, I could see what the other person was going to do before they did it. How they were going to move their feet, how they were going to shift their weight, even how hard they were going to swing their sword at me. It was like we were both part of the same movie, only I was three steps ahead of the other person.
And the same thing happened when it came to weapons, whether it was a traditional sword or something as flimsy as a toothpick. As soon as I touched a sword, I could tell how well made it was, how balanced, how strong, and I intuitively adjusted my feet, my grip, and my swings to maximize the damage I could do with the weapon. Ditto for the toothpick, the plastic fork, the paper clip, the ink pen, and anything else I could get my hands on.
And it wasn’t just that I instinctively knew how to hurt people. Something about my Spartan blood made it seem natural, like it was something that I was supposed to do. Holding a sword or a staff or drawing back a bowstring seemed as right and easy as breathing to me.
Sometimes that scared me a little.
I didn’t want to be like my parents. I didn’t want to hurt innocent people. I didn’t want to be a bad person.
I didn’t want to be a Reaper.
I wanted to be…well, I wasn’t quite sure yet. I wanted to do something with my life the way Gwen had. I wanted to do something important. Something that mattered. Something that would aid other people.
And maybe, just maybe, something that would help make up for all my parents’ mistakes.
But I couldn’t do any of that standing here, so I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and stepped out onto the main quad.
“Here goes nothing,” I muttered.
I walked along one of the cobblestone paths, winding my way toward the English-history building, since that’s where myth-history was, my first class of the day. I loved myth-history and learning about all the gods, goddesses, warriors, and creatures, and I wondered what new things the professor would talk about this year, especially given the recent battle and Loki’s imprisonment—
“Look!” a voice hissed. “It’s Rory Forseti!”
I was halfway across the quad when I heard my name.
I froze and looked over to my right, dreading what I would see. Sure enough, a group of Valkyries wearing designer boots, jeans, and matching plaid jackets were gathered around one of the iron benches that dotted the quad. They were all quite pretty, with perfect hair and makeup, and their phones and purses were even more expensive than their clothes.
Dezi, Harley, Kylie… I recognized several of the girls, since they were all second-year students like me. None of them had liked me when we started school last fall, and they had outright hated me after it came out that my parents were Reapers.
The Valkyries realized that I was staring at them. But instead of turning away and pretending they hadn’t said my name, they all pointed at me, making pink, green, and blue sparks of magic crackle in the air around them. My heart sank. I knew what was coming next.
“I can’t believe she came back here this year.”
“Did she really think that just because she helped out in North Carolina, we would forget what her parents did? Or what they were?”
“They were Reapers, through and through, and rotten to the core. And she’s probably even worse than they were…”
The snarky comments went on and on, each one sharper, crueler, and more vicious and hurtful than the last. Even worse, the Valkyries’ loud voices drowned out everyone else’s conversations, causing the other students to turn and stare at me as well. In less than a minute, I was the center of everyone’s attention, and they were all talking, texting, and whispering about me.
All I could do was stand there frozen in place with my mouth gaping open, looking like a clueless fool. I’d actually gotten my hopes up. I’d actually thought that this year would be different, better, normal. That I’d done enough good things to change everyone’s opinions of me. But I’d been wrong—dead wrong.
I was such a freaking idiot.
Of course the other kids wouldn’t forget that my parents were Reapers—not for one lousy second. How could they when Reapers had terrorized them all for so long? When they had lived in fear of Reapers their whole lives? When Reapers had killed their friends and family members for generations on end? One battle wasn’t going to change all of that history, all of that bad blood, all of that fear, anger, and hate.
Nothing could ever change that.
But the worst part was that I had hoped it would. I had hoped for the fresh start that Aunt Rachel had said we would have. I had wanted it more than anything.
My first class hadn’t even started yet, and my school year was already ruined, soaked in blood and burned to ash by my parents’ evil actions, like so many other things in my life.
In many ways, my feelings about Mythos Academy mirrored those about my parents. I loved so many things about the academy—the scenery, the statues, the sense of being home—just as I had loved my mom’s quiet strength and my dad’s unending patience. But part of me also hated the academy, especially all the other students knowing about my Reaper parents. Sometimes I felt like I had a big red bull’s-eye strapped to my chest, one that gave all the other kids permission to mock me.
The cruel comments, snarky whispers, and hateful stares continued. A hot, embarrassed blush flooded my cheeks, and my anger bubbled up to the surface again. But I knew from past experience that there was no point in fighting back against the other kids. It would only make me even more of a target than I already was. Besides, they had just as much right to their anger as I had to mine. So I gritted my teeth, ducked my head, and hurried forward, determined to get inside the English-history building as quickly as possible—
A shoulder slammed into mine, making me stagger to one side of the cobblestone path.
“Watch it!” I snapped.
“Why don’t you watch it?” a low voice growled right back at me.
Normally, I would have kept on going, since this wasn’t the first time someone had accidentally-on-purpose rammed into me while I was walking across the quad, thinking that it was hilarious to pick on the girl with the dead Reaper parents. All the taunts, whispers, and stares had filled me with a familiar, sickening mixture of guilt, shame, and embarrassment, but those emotions quickly morphed into a cold, hard knot of anger in my chest. Dirty looks and whispers were one thing, but actually plowing into me was something else, especially when I was already struggling with my emotions.
Once again, I felt that need to lash out, and I decided to give in to it, since my day was already ruined. Someone wanted to mess with me? Well, I was tired of taking everyone else’s crap, and I could give as good as I got.
I whirled around to confront the person who’d run into me and realized that it wasn’t one of the snotty Valkyrie girls like I’d expected. It was a guy—and he was gorgeous.
Seriously, he was tall and muscled and just plain gorgeous in his black boots, black jeans, dark gray henley, and black leather jacket. Rich honey highlights ran through his dark blond hair, which stuck up at odd angles, as though he constantly ran his fingers through it, but the slightly messy, unkempt look totally suited him. He had the kind of great cheekbones, perfect straight nose, and strong jaw that you’d see on a movie star. But his eyes…his eyes were simply amazing—a light, bright, piercing gray. I’d never seen eyes like that before, and I tried to figure out what their color reminded me of. Rain-soaked clouds, maybe, or the gleaming edge of a freshly sharpened sword…
The guy glared at me, breaking the spell. I blinked and forced myself to ignore how cute he was. Instead, I studied him again, and I realized I’d never seen him before. Last year, after all that mess with my parents had happened, I had made it a point to know every single student at the academy, especially the ones I should avoid. But this guy? He was new.
Oh, I was sure there was a perfectly logical explanation. Lots of students transferred from one academy to another, especially at the start of the school year and especially at the start of this school year, since the North Carolina academy was still undergoing repairs from the earlier battle.
Still, I kept studying the guy, this time trying to figure out what kind of warrior he was. He couldn’t be a Roman, since his magic would have made him fast enough to avoid running into me. My gaze dropped to the black duffel bag dangling from his hand. The bag’s long, distinctive shape was meant to hold a battle ax, and a couple of smaller axes were hooked to the outside of the bag as well. So he was a Viking. They were the only warriors who used axes like that. No wonder he’d almost knocked me down. His Viking strength would have let him knock me into next week if he’d wanted. Maybe he hadn’t slammed into me on purpose after all.
The guy’s eyes narrowed. “What are you staring at?”
Embarrassment spurted through me that he had caught me gaping at him. But I ignored the fresh, hot blush stinging my cheeks, crossed my arms over my chest, and glared back at him.
“What are you staring at?” I snapped. “I was walking along, minding my own business, when bam! You plowed right into me. And now you’re not even apologizing for almost knocking me down.”
Anger sparked in his eyes, turning them a darker storm-cloud gray, which, of course, only made him look that much more handsome. “I didn’t plow into you. You weren’t watching where you were going. If anyone should be apologizing, it’s you, cupcake.”
My arms dropped to my sides, and my hands clenched into fists. “You did not just call me cupcake.”
He arched an eyebrow. “What? You don’t like that nickname? Well, it’s true. Look at you, with your designer clothes and expensive bag and perky little ponytail. You’re a cute little cupcake of a warrior, just like the rest of the girls here.”
More anger surged through my body, and I stepped up so that I was standing inches away from him. “I am a Spartan,” I hissed. “One who is perfectly capable of kicking your ass, right here, right now, Viking.”
He arched his eyebrow at me again. “A threat? Aw, that’s so cute. Maybe some other time. Right now, I’ve got to get to class, and so do you. Unless you want to be late on the first day of school.”
I started to snap back at him, but a series of bells rang out across the quad, cutting me off and signaling that we had five minutes to get to class.
“And that’s my cue to leave. Later, cupcake.” The Viking snapped his hand up to his forehead in a mock salute. He hefted his bag onto his shoulder, making all the small battle axes hooked to the outside clank-clank-clank together, and moved past me.
I whirled around, but he was moving fast, heading for the gym on the opposite side of the quad. He was already out of earshot, unless I wanted to scream insults at him. I was still so angry that I opened my mouth to let loose, but then I realized that everyone was staring at me again, including the Valkyries who’d been mocking me earlier. The girls all rolled their eyes and snickered, adding to my humiliation. Everyone had seen my confrontation with the Viking, and they were already gossiping about it.
Great. Just great. I had wanted things to be different this year, but I was right back where I’d started, with everyone talking about me, the supposed Reaper girl in their midst. And it was all his fault.
I glared at the Viking’s back, but there was nothing I could do about him now. So I sighed, turned around, and trudged across the quad toward the English-history building.
As I walked along, one thought kept running through my mind. I had been absolutely right before.
The first day of school is always the worst.
Especially at Mythos Academy.