Spartan Destiny – Jennifer Estep

“This is going to be a piece of cake.” My friend Mateo Solis cheerfully said those horrible words. I looked at him a moment, then glanced at Zoe Wayland and Ian Hunter, two other friends. Zoe shook her head, Ian groaned, and I sighed, sharing their opinions. “What?” Mateo asked. “What’s wrong?” Zoe threw her hands up into the air. Pale blue sparks of magic shot out of her fingertips before winking out. Valkyries always gave off more magic whenever they were upset or emotional about something. “Are you kidding?” she said. “You just totally jinxed us.” “Yeah, dude,” Ian chimed in. “Never, ever say that anything is going to be a piece of cake. That’s when bad things happen.” “Superbad things,” I agreed. Mateo looked at all three of us in turn.

“I didn’t realize you guys were so superstitious.” “Um, hello, we go to Mythos Academy,” Zoe said. “We deal with mythological monsters, creepy artifacts, and killer Reapers all the time. Being superstitious is right in our wheelhouse. And after all the bad stuff that we’ve seen over the past few months, we’d be silly not to be superstitious.” “Totally,” Ian chimed in. “Absolutely,” I agreed. Mateo rolled his eyes, not sharing our dire and pessimistic opinions. “Whatever. But right now, we have a mission, so let me get to work.

” He didn’t wait for a response before opening his laptop. The screen’s soft white glow highlighted his dark brown hair and eyes and made his skin gleam like polished bronze. Mateo cracked his knuckles and stretched his arms out in front of him like a runner preparing for a race. Then he hunched over his laptop and started typing, his fingers flying over the keyboard almost too fast to follow, thanks to his amazing Roman speed. Mateo, Zoe, Ian, and I were members of Team Midgard, a supersecret group that was trying to stop the evil Reapers of Chaos from taking over the mythological world. Tonight, Hiro Takeda, the adult leader of the Midgard, had tasked us with breaking into a building and watching over a mythological artifact that Covington, the Reaper leader, might want to steal. Mateo was sitting cross-legged on the ground, his laptop perched on his knees, with Zoe, Ian, and me crouched down all around him. The four of us were hiding in the shadows behind a row of dense bushes, which also helped to block the gusty wind. It was just after ten o’clock, and the November night was absolutely frigid. A cold, hard frost had already coated the grass, as well as the bushes, adding a silvery sheen to the evergreen leaves.

Mateo was wearing his usual clothes—a dark blue Bigtime Barracudas long-sleeve T-shirt, along with a jacket, khakis, and blue running shoes—but Zoe, Ian, and I were dressed all in black, from our long-sleeve shirts and jackets to our jeans and boots. The three of us looked like cat burglars straight out of some heist movie. In a way, that was exactly what we were tonight. “And…done!” Mateo hit a final key, then looked up from his screen. “I’ve hacked into the building’s alarm system and put the security cameras on a continuous loop, so all anyone staring at the feeds will see is books, artifacts, and furniture, instead of you guys sneaking around. I also don’t see any guards or Reapers either outside or inside the building.” I nodded at him, then glanced at Zoe and Ian. “You guys ready?” They both nodded back. “Then let’s go,” I said. Mateo stayed behind in our hiding spot, so that he could monitor the alarm system and the security-camera footage, but Zoe, Ian, and I crept out from behind the bushes, which ran along the wall of a dark gray stone building.

In the distance, several hundred feet away, another, larger building, also made of dark gray stone, rose up out of the grass. That was our target. I peered into the shadows that blanketed the landscape, but everything was still and quiet. There was no sign of the Reapers or anyone else, and I didn’t even hear so much as an owl softly hooting in one of the trees. I nodded at Zoe and Ian again, and together, the three of us stepped away from the wall and headed toward the other building. We moved quickly and quietly, keeping low and staying away from the golden glows of the streetlights that lined the nearby walkways. I glanced around, expecting Reapers to rush out of the shadows and attack us, but everything remained still and quiet. We made it over to the target building and plastered ourselves up against the wall, hiding in the shadows again. “Okay, guys.” Mateo’s voice crackled through my earbud, since that was how we communicated during missions.

“Still no sign of any guards or Reapers, so you are clear to proceed.” “Thanks,” I whispered back to him. “Zoe, you’re up.” She crouched down, slipped a black backpack off her shoulders, and unzipped it. Then she reached inside and pulled out a crossbow. Unlike the large, heavy, wooden ones that the Mythos students trained with in gym class, this crossbow was made of black plastic and was barely bigger than my hand. Round blue crystals ran down the barrel, giving the weapon a bit of sparkly bling. Zoe grinned and showed off the crossbow for Ian and me. “Something new that I’ve been working on. Small but mighty, just like me.

” Everyone on Team Midgard had a specific role that best suited their interests, talents, magic, and skills. Mateo was the computer guru, Ian and I were the fighters, and Zoe was our genius inventor. She struck a pose with the crossbow, showing it off a moment longer, then reached into her backpack and fished out a small silver grappling hook attached to a long length of rope. Zoe slid the barrel of the grappling hook into the end of the crossbow where the bolt would normally go and fed the attached rope through a small loop on the side of the weapon. Then she dropped the rest of the rope onto the ground. “Mateo,” Zoe whispered. “Are we still clear?” His voice sounded in my ear. “All clear. Go.” Zoe stood up, still holding her gadget.

Then she raised the weapon, took aim, and squeezed the trigger. The silver grappling hook shot out of the end of the crossbow and zoomed upward, taking the attached rope along with it. Clang! The grappling hook arced over a balcony on the second floor and caught on the stone railing. Zoe unhooked the remaining rope from the crossbow, slid the gadget into her backpack, and hoisted the bag onto her shoulders. She tugged on the rope to make sure that the grappling hook was securely anchored, then gestured at Ian. “Vikings first,” she said. Ian grinned, took hold of the rope, and started climbing. Thanks to his Viking strength, he quickly scaled it up to the second floor, swung his leg over the railing, and climbed onto the balcony. “Spartans next,” Zoe said. I wasn’t superstrong like Ian was, but I had scaled more than one rope in Takeda’s gym class, so I started climbing.

Several seconds later, I reached the second floor, and Ian helped me over the railing and onto the balcony. Instead of letting go, Ian’s hands dropped to my waist, and he stepped even closer to me. The warmth of his body mixed with my own, driving away the chilly night air. With his perfect cheekbones, straight nose, and strong jaw, Ian Hunter was one of the handsomest guys I had ever seen, and the moonlight only enhanced his features, as though he were a beautiful statue that had somehow come to life. The soft, silvery glow also made his gray eyes glimmer like stars and brought out the honey-colored strands in his dark blond hair, which was always slightly, adorably rumpled. “Too bad we’re on a mission,” Ian murmured. “This would be the perfect spot for a kiss. Or two. Or three.” He was right.

The secluded, shadowy balcony was the perfect spot for a kiss. Or two. Or three. Then again, Ian and I hadn’t exactly been picky about our surroundings. After several false starts, we had finally gotten together a few weeks ago, and we had been sneaking kisses whenever and wherever we could. “Mission first,” I teased. “Kissing later.” “How about just one?” Ian whispered. “For luck?” “We don’t need luck,” I said, but I grinned and wrapped my arms around his neck anyway. He grinned back and lowered his head.

My breath caught in my throat, and a dizzying sensation exploded in my heart. I parted my lips and stood on my tiptoes— “You guys are alone for, like, five seconds, and you’re already making out? Ugh.” Zoe’s voice sounded from below on the ground, as well as echoing in my earbud. I sighed, dropped my arms from Ian’s neck, and stepped back. “Rain check?” He grinned at me again. “Rain check.” The two of us looked over the railing at Zoe. Her arms were crossed over her chest, her foot was tapping on the grass, and blue sparks of magic were streaking out of her fingertips, all obvious signs of her annoyance. “Anytime you guys want to stop mooning at each other and pull me up, feel free,” she sniped. “We’re on a mission, remember?” Ian gestured for Zoe to grab the rope.

She took hold, and he used his Viking strength to pull the rope and her up to the second floor. I helped Zoe over the railing. Then, together, the three of us hurried over to the double doors on the opposite side of the balcony. Zoe slung her backpack off her shoulders and set it down again. This time, she pulled out what looked like a small gun with three metal prongs sticking out of the end of the barrel. The lockpick gun was another one of her inventions. “Mateo?” she asked. “Are we still good?” “Yep.” Mateo’s voice sounded through my earbud. “I’ve shut off all the alarms.

Still no sign of any guards or Reapers either outside or inside the building. All you have to do is unlock that door, and you guys are in. Piece of cake.” Even though he couldn’t see her, Zoe still rolled her eyes. “You just had to say that again, didn’t you?” “I live to annoy you,” he replied in a smug voice. Zoe snorted, but her hazel eyes softened, and her lips curved up into a smile. She and Mateo had been friends for a long time, and they were always teasing and snarking at each other, but the vibe between them had slowly changed from friendly to flirty over the past few weeks. Except for me, no one else seemed to have noticed the shift, though, not even the two of them. I waggled my eyebrows at Zoe, who scowled and turned toward the doors. Despite my encouragement, so far she hadn’t acted on whatever feelings she might have for Mateo.

“Okay,” she said. “Just give me a few seconds to open all these locks.” Three separate locks ran down the double doors, anchoring them together. Zoe leaned forward and pressed her lockpick gun into the first lock near the bottom of the doors. Several soft click-clickclicks sounded, as the gun did the work of picking open the lock, instead of Zoe having to do it herself. “Isn’t this exciting?” a light, lilting feminine voice sounded. “I just love black-ops missions!” Zoe finished opening the first lock and gave me a pointed look. So did Ian, who was keeping an eye on the grounds below, making sure that no one was sneaking up behind us. They both stared at me a moment longer, then Zoe moved on to the second lock in the center of the doors, while Ian studied the landscape again. I winced, then reached down and pulled a sword out of the black leather scabbard that was attached to my belt.

I grabbed the sword by the blade and lifted the weapon up where I could see it. A woman’s face was inlaid in the silver hilt. A delicate arched eyebrow, a round bulge of an eye, a pointed cheekbone, a sharp hooked nose, heart-shaped lips, and a curved chin. The hilt featured half of a woman’s face, including a deep, dark, emerald-green eye that was focused on me. Babs, my talking sword, liked to, well, talk. A lot. Especially at inappropriate moments like this one. Although I supposed I couldn’t be too hard on her, since I had gotten distracted and had almost kissed Ian a few minutes ago. “Um, Babs?” “Aye?” the sword asked in her lovely Irish accent. “You do realize that black-ops missions are supposed to be supersecret, right?” She sniffed.

“Of course I realize that they’re supposed to be supersecret. I’ve gone on tons of black-ops missions over the centuries. You aren’t my first warrior, you know.” “Then you should know that in addition to being supersecret, black-ops missions are also supposed to be superquiet.” Babs opened her mouth to argue, but I raised my eyebrows. She winced, and an embarrassed blush stained her metal cheek a dull pink. “Right,” she murmured in a much quieter voice. “Sorry about that. From now on, consider my lips sealed.” She made a big show of opening her mouth wide and then snapping it shut.

I imagined that if she’d had a hand, she would have pantomimed locking her lips together and throwing away the key. “Thank you, Babs,” I whispered. Her green eye brightened, and she smiled, although she didn’t say anything else. I lowered the sword to my side. Zoe made quick work of the second lock and then the third one at the top of the doors. She slid her lockpick gun into her backpack and drew out two more items: a silver dagger with a blue jewel set into the hilt and a wide blue leather band with a light in the center. Zoe pressed in on the blue jewel, making electricity sizzle along the dagger’s blade. Satisfied, she slid her electrodagger—another one of her inventions—into a black scabbard on her belt. Then she secured the blue leather band on top of her head over her wavy black hair and turned on the light in the center. The headlamp’s soft blue glow brought out the lovely color of her mocha skin, and small, white crystal hearts spelled out the words Valkyrie Power on either side of the light.

Ian gave her an amused look. So did I. “What?” Zoe asked. “You know that Rory and I will take care of the fighting and that there are plenty of lights on inside,” Ian said. Zoe sniffed. “Well, it never hurts to be prepared. Besides, I plan to defend myself against any Reapers we might run into, as well as actually being able to see where I’m going. Now, come on.” She opened one of the doors and slipped inside. Ian grabbed the battle ax hooked to his belt and headed after her, leaving me alone on the balcony.

Instead of following them, I looked out over the grounds below again. Towering trees with bare, skeletal branches that scraped together in the steady breeze. Dense evergreen bushes that quivered in that same wind. Black wrought-iron benches perched here and there. Streetlights lining cobblestone paths that snaked across the grass. More buildings in the distance, each one dark and deserted for the night. And all of it covered by that hard frost that tinted everything a soft, sinister silver, even the edges of the deepest, darkest shadows. Everything was still, cold, and quiet, just as it had been for the last thirty minutes. Nothing was out of place, and nothing was out of the ordinary, but I still felt like something was wrong. Like we were missing something obvious and that our mission was about to go sideways.

But try as I might, I couldn’t figure out what we had overlooked— Something moved at the edge of the grass, not too far away from the bushes where Mateo was still hiding. My eyes narrowed, and I peered in that direction, trying to see into the black shadows that blanketed that part of the grounds. As a Spartan, my instincts were pretty good when it came to picking up on potential danger, but I saw the exact same things as before: trees, bushes, benches, lights, paths, buildings, frost. Nothing unusual and absolutely nothing to be worried about— Babs cleared her throat, interrupting my thoughts. “Isn’t this exciting?” she whispered again. I kept scanning the grounds, but I still didn’t see anything. “Yeah. Exciting.” “Well?” she asked. “What are you waiting for?” She was right.

Zoe and Ian were already inside, and it was my job to watch their backs. So I pushed my unease aside and changed my grip on Babs, so that I was holding the sword by her hilt. I looked out over the grounds a final time, but everything was the same as before, so I turned away from the view, raised Babs into an attack position, and stepped through the door. * * * Zoe and Ian were waiting for me. The door opened onto the building’s second floor, which was shaped like an enormous square. A balcony with a stone railing wrapped all the way around this level and overlooked the first floor below. The lights were turned down low on this level, and my friends were crouching in the shadows at the end of a large bookcase, making them almost invisible except for the silvery gleam of their weapons. Zoe had set her backpack on the floor and was clutching her electrodagger, while Ian was still holding his battle ax. Worry pinched their faces. “What took you so long?” Zoe asked.

“Is something wrong?” Ian whispered. I shook my head. “Nope, nothing except for me being paranoid like usual. Let’s get into position and see if the Reapers show up. Mateo, where is Aphrodite’s Cuff?” That was the artifact we thought the Reapers were going to try to steal. Mateo’s voice sounded in my ear. “It’s on the first floor, at the end of aisle nine, the same as when we did our initial recon here earlier today. I can see the cuff on the security cameras. It’s sitting in its case. No sign of the Reapers yet.

” “Roger that.” I looked at my friends. “You guys go down to the first floor and get into position around the artifact. I’ll stay up here on the second floor and keep an eye on everything below. I’ll let you know if I see anything suspicious. When the Reapers show up and try to steal the cuff, we’ll move in, surround them, and force them to surrender.” Zoe and Ian both nodded, then got to their feet and moved around the bookcase. They sidled along the wall, pushed through a door, and slipped into a stairwell, disappearing from sight. I waited until the faint echoes of their footsteps had faded away before stepping away from the bookcase, crossing the open floor, and hunkering down next to the balcony railing. I looked around, but nothing was moving on this level, so I peered through the spaces in the railing at the first floor below, keeping watch until Zoe and Ian could creep down the stairs.

The building’s lights had been dimmed for the night, although the ones on the first floor were still bright enough to let me easily see everything down there. A long counter surrounded by tables and chairs and a silver cart clustered together in the middle of the first floor. Several cushioned chairs and couches were sitting off to one side, arranged around an enormous freestanding fireplace that was made of the same blackish stone as the rest of the building. Colorful rugs covered much of the floor, while thick wooden beams supported many of the walls and the upper levels. Bookcases ringed that center section and spiraled out through the rest of the first floor, the tall, wide shelves looking like rows of soldiers standing at attention and guarding the furniture in their midst. The shadows were particularly deep and ominous in those sections, and blackness cloaked many of the aisles. But even in the darkest spots, bits of glass winked like sly eyes, inviting people to brave the shadows and come admire the artifacts on display. I studied every single part of the first floor, from the furniture in the center, to the fireplace off to one side, to the far ends of the bookcases, and back again, but I didn’t see anyone. No guards, no Reapers, no one. Maybe Mateo was right.

Maybe this would be a piece of cake. Either way, the mission was an important test, one to mark how far the Midgard had come as a team in the last few months, and I wanted to complete it successfully. Spartans were rather competitive that way. Since the first floor seemed to be clear, I studied the second level again, making sure that I was still alone up here. And I was—except for the statues. White marble statues ringed the balcony. Most of the figures were towering, imposing creations, and they clutched everything from stone weapons to food to a few small animals that were frozen in place, just like the main figures themselves were. I examined each one of them, in case someone was hiding in plain sight, but they were all just still stone. Finally, I glanced up at the statue that was closest to me, a woman with long hair that trailed past her shoulders. She was quite beautiful, despite the serious look on her face and the old, faded scars that crisscrossed her hands and crawled up her arms.

Still, the longer I stared at her, the more cold worry trickled down my spine. “What do you see that I don’t?” I whispered. Of course, the statue didn’t respond, but her lips seemed to press together, as if she were even more worried than before. I looked at her a moment longer, but she wasn’t going to give me any answers, so I turned my attention back to the first floor. A door creaked open, and Zoe and Ian crept along the main aisle that led from the double doors over to the cluster of furniture. They both had their weapons up and at the ready, and their heads swiveled back and forth, scanning everything around them. I looked over the first floor again, but everything was the same as before. Ian glanced up at me, and I nodded, telling him the coast was clear. He gestured at Zoe, and the two of them headed toward the artifact case that contained Aphrodite’s Cuff. As they crept along, I got to my feet and moved from one statue and shadow to the next, tracking their progress and keeping an eye out for guards, Reapers, or anything else that might threaten my friends— Click-click-click-click.

I froze. For a moment, I wondered if I had only imagined the sound, but then it came again, a little louder and closer than before. Click-click-click-click. I frowned, trying to place the familiar noise. If it had been a little louder and heavier, I would have thought it was footsteps, but those faint whispers sounded like…toenails softly hitting the floor. Click-click-click-click. The sound came for a third time, and I realized it wasn’t toenails. It was something far, far worse. Claws. And in my experience, the only things that came with claws were mythological monsters.

Since I had joined the Midgard, I had dealt with more than my fair share of monsters, including Typhon chimeras and Serket basilisks. The chimeras and basilisks were horrible, deadly creatures in their own right, and I had no idea what other monsters the Reapers might be able to summon. But I had a bad, bad feeling that I was about to find out. My gaze snapped from one section of the first floor to the next, but I didn’t see any monsters or anything else suspicious. Still, I knew that someone—or something—else was in here with us. I crouched down and peered through the gaps in the railing again. Down below, my friends had found the appropriate artifact case at the end of one of the aisles, and Zoe pulled a small padlock out of her pocket and attached it to the case. Like her dagger, the Valkyrie’s electrolock would shock anyone who dared to touch the case, making it another layer of protection for Aphrodite’s Cuff, which was housed inside the glass. Once that was finished, Zoe and Ian looked around, debating where they could hide and still see the case at the same time, since our mission was to keep a watch on the artifact, then surround and capture the Reapers when they tried to steal it. Ian flashed me a thumbs-up, indicating that everything was going according to plan.

I nodded back, although my own worry kept increasing. I didn’t hear those claws hitting the floor anymore, which meant that whatever monster they were attached to had most likely hunkered down somewhere. Ian must have sensed my worry, because he stared at me, a questioning look on his face. I held up a clenched fist, telling him and Zoe to hold their positions. I still didn’t see anything on the first floor, but I couldn’t shake the uneasy dread that had curled up in my stomach, so I decided to check in with the final member of our team. “Mateo?” I whispered. “Are we still clear? Mateo?” Static crackled in my ear, but he didn’t answer me. Mateo wouldn’t abandon his position, and he certainly wouldn’t take out his comms device unless… Something was wrong. Ian and Zoe both frowned. They had heard the crackling static through their own earbuds.

Ian hefted his ax a little higher, and Zoe did the same with her electrodagger. “Guys,” I whispered. “Head back toward the stairs, but walk, don’t run. Someone else is in here with us, and we don’t want to tip them off that we know they’re here.” “But what about protecting the artifact?” Zoe whispered back. “That’s the mission.” “I know, but we can’t protect anything if we’re dead. Us getting out of here alive is the most important thing right now,” I replied. Ian and Zoe both nodded, then headed back the way they’d come. Once again, I crept along the second-floor balcony, following their progress and keeping an eye on everything below.

Ian and Zoe made it back to the center aisle. They both looked left and right, but they didn’t see anything, and neither did I. My friends glanced around a final time, then stepped into the aisle to head back toward the stairs


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