Chapter Twenty-Two

It was very late into the night, but the light of the moon and stars brightened the outdoors enough that they could see the way back to their shelter behind the waterfall. It was very fortunate that they were able to navigate their way back to it so easily; Elle doubted that they would have been able to find a comparable shelter without a long search.

"You do those dance things all the time in the future?" Elle asked Mye, perplexed.

"Oh yeah!" Mye screeched as they traipsed down a hill towards the water. "Like all the time! Dancing is so much fun, everybody does it back at home."

"And that strange thing that played the….video, did you call it?"

"Music video," Myori reminded her.

"Yeah, that - anyways, what was it? It was rather amazing, we don't have any of those back in Yalth…at least, I have never seen one."

Mye giggled. "Elle, that was a television - or a TV, whatever you like better - and they weren't around in like, medieval times. They're a future thing."

Alassea giggled too. "It's funny how your time is closer to the future than mine or Myori's, but you still get so confused about elictracity and everything."

"It's electricity," Mye reminded the girl.

"Oh, yes, electricity," she echoed, pronouncing the word as though she wasn't sure it was real.

"Yep, but like, don't go around telling people about electricity or anything," Mye said quickly. "'Cause like, you could totally throw off the future."

"What?" Elle frowned at this possibility. They could change the future? "Where are you getting all of these ideas from? How does one "throw off the future"?" She stopped and glanced expectantly at Mye, who looked as though she wanted to burst out laughing. All of the girls stood in a circle and waited curiously for Mye's response, though Myori looked more amused than interested.

"Well like, you know - oh wait, you don't…but anyways, like, say you met one of my ancestors when you went back to Yalth, right?"

"Right." Elle bit her lip. She didn't want to go home, not now. She wanted her time with Mye, Myori, and Alassea to drag on for as long as possible; having only memories of her first ever friends back in Yalth would be torturous.

"Okay, like, if you killed my ancestor, that would lead to me like, not being born in the future."

Elle blinked. "Why would I kill your ancestors? And if I did that, then how could you even be here now?" She tugged on her hair in frustration, irritated with herself for finding something so seemingly simple as the past and future confusing.

"I don't know, stuff like that is totally complicated and crazy." Mye shrugged.

Frowning in puzzlement, Elle thought of another question. "But what if I end up doing something in my lifetime that messes up your future so that you don't exist? What if when I rule over Yalth I make a mistake that somehow leads to the death of one of your ancestors for real?"

"Your time has already happened in Mye's time, so I don't think that you have to worry about that," Myori pointed out. "Whatever is going on in the future is a product of what has already happened."

Elle frowned. "But -"

Alassea suddenly burst out laughing. The girls quickly turned to look at her, confused as to what was wrong. "I'm sorry," she cried, tears streaming down her cheeks. "But - Elle…you just look so f-funny -" Alassea doubled over, wheezing slightly.

"I look funny?" Elle's eyes widened. What was wrong with her? These girls had seen her in her worst states - dirty, her hair uncombed, fighting, tired, and everything else, but not until now had she been ridiculed. She felt her cheeks turn pink form embarrassment, but she fought to keep a cool, unfazed demeanour.

"You just look so confused, it's hilarious!" Alassea choked out.

Mye and Myori began to laugh, too. "She's right, you looked pretty funny," Myori agreed, leaning on a tree for support. "It's weird, because you always seem so self-assured and everything."

Humiliated as she felt, Elle forced a laugh. "Ha, yeah probably," she lied, willing her face to stop feeling so uncomfortably hot. She had never been one to laugh at herself easily, never. She prided herself in being knowledgeable on nearly everything and never mystified, and that had just been taken away from her.

A wave of resentment towards Alassea washed over her, and she almost wanted to snap at the girl for voicing her amusement at her face. She looked confused more often than she did, why wasn't she the one being laughed at?

"Hey, we should keep going," Elle said finally, wanting the girls to stop. "We have less than an hour before the next challenge, and we need to rest up a little bit."

The others nodded agreeably, even Alassea, who had been tetchy lately about taking orders, and together they made their way back to the waterfall beneath the late-night moonlight.

***

Elle blew a strand of hair out of her eyes and glanced up at the roof of the cave beneath the waterfall. It was still dark out; from what she could tell by the moon's position against the fluid midnight blue above them as they had walked back, it was approximately two in the morning. At three, they would get their next challenge. What would it be?

"Any ideas of what the next challenge might be?" Elle asked as they sat silently in the darkness, each possibly contemplating the same thing as she.

"I hope it's another dance thing!" Mye squealed across from her. "That was so much fun!"

"I don't think it will be," Alassea remarked practically to Elle's right. "They wouldn't give us the same thing twice, would they?"

"Probably not." Elle heard Myori sigh.

Elle bit her lip to keep from snapping at them in annoyance. How could they not have any idea of what to expect? A million ideas were running through her own mind - battles, horse races, archery contests - but she wanted to give the other girls a chance. She didn't want to hear Alassea whining about "Leader Land" again - it was far too humiliating for her.

"They might make us do another dance, though," Mye pointed out. "Like, they could totally up the challenge and make us dance faster, and oh! They could -"

"I still don't think they'll make us do more dancing," Alassea interrupted unexpectedly. Her voice then grew anxious. "I hope it isn't too physical; you know I'm not very good at that stuff."

Elle rolled her eyes. Honestly, why couldn't she do something useful with herself instead of read all day? Wasting time was practically a felony back in Yalth, and certainly something that she herself never did, oh no. When she had nothing else to do, she would practice fighting - and she knew it wasn't for nothing, she was a pretty good fighter for someone who had taught herself everything just by watching others.

"I guess we'll just have to wait and see," Myori said offhandedly. "I mean, Silmy's -"

"Silmarwen's," Alassea corrected her.

"- Silmarwen's - " Myori said slowly, as though puzzled about something. "- minion coming to challenge us wasn't expected, so we'll probably be surprised with the next task, no matter how much guessing we do."

"Yeah, that's true," Elle agreed, slightly annoyed with herself for not thinking of it first. "So should we spend our time before the challenge training?"

"Training?" Alassea inquired blankly. "For what?"

"The…challenge?" Elle retorted sardonically. "It's not as though it involves reading, Alassea." Elle, feeling as though she had finally gotten back at the girl for taunting her about leader land, shot Alassea a look of intense satisfaction that she forgot couldn't be seen in the darkness. Her pride in herself, however, was shattered when she saw her friend's hurt expression.

"Elle!" Mye cried. "It's like so not Alassea's fault of how her life was back in Greece! Her dad was like, a freak who didn't want her to do anything and he kept her away from other people!"

"Oh, and my father and mother gave me freedom?" Elle snapped. "Yeah, sure, they gave me freedom - freedom to have no choice in who I marry, freedom to be who I wanted to be, freedom to have fun. I really think that they did a terrific job raising me, spending the odd hour or so with me when there was time and ignoring me the rest of the time, unless they wanted me to do something."

"Elle, you're being ridiculous," Myori said sternly in a voice of forced calm. "Get over yourself. Nobody else here had it any better than you did - in fact, you had the easiest life back in Yalth or wherever it was that you lived."

Elle hesitated for a moment before replying to contemplate Myori's words. Get over herself? "Right, Myori, you just keep on thinking that, but until you actually live my life through my eyes, don't make any judgements."

"Can we please stop fighting?" Alassea spoke up timidly. "I -"

"Shut up," Elle stormed. "Just shut your mouth Alassea. What is wrong with you lately? One minute you're normal and the next you act possessed or something. I used to think you were a nice person, but now that I know you, I get why you had no friends back in Greece."

The silence in the cave couldn't have been any more deafening than if it had been empty. Not a breath of a word was to be heard in the cavern of rock, just the purest hush. Quiet as death.

Elle was horrified and ashamed of herself. What had she done? Why had she said that to Alassea, one of her first and only friends? What was the matter with her? Can't I do anything right? she wondered numbly. Why do I do these things? She opened her mouth to apologise, but not a sound came from her lips - the words just didn't come.

The awkwardness was broken by the sound of footsteps echoing near the mouth of the cave. Elle got to her feet and unsheathed her sword, the blade sliding out of her sheathe piercing the humid air. The noise of the other girls rising from the grotto floor were heard in the darkness around her, and from what she heard, they had their weapons out, too.

"Your next challenge is in five minutes," announced a thin, seemingly bodiless voice. "Be outside by then or face the consequences." Footsteps reverberated off of the stone walls again, and there was more silence.

"I…guess we should go now," Mye piped up, her voice devoid of her usual cheeriness. "Can't risk the consequences."

"Yeah," Myori agreed. "Let's go."

The girls began making their way towards the opening in the cave, not a word spoken between them. Elle guessed that they were all thinking about what she had said, and she again felt mortified. She had to apologise to Alassea, there was nothing else for it…her friend had to know that she didn't mean it. Because she didn't. On the contrary, she liked Alassea very much - her pride simply got in the way of her better judgement.

But how to go about it? Elle supposed that Alassea was very hurt and wouldn't want to talk to her at all. Still, she had to give it a try…if she didn't, she would regret it. Elle listened for Alassea's light footsteps and cautiously moved closer to her as they neared the entrance to the cave. The cadence of water cascading over the falls grew louder with every step they took, and it was at this time that Elle worked up the courage to apologise to Alassea.

"Uh…Alassea?" Elemmire muttered, not looking at the blonde.

"Hm?" she responded shortly, her expression hard to see in the shivery chalcedony-coloured light that the moonlight shining through the waterfall cast upon them.

"Look…I - I'm…sorry," Elle murmured almost inaudibly. "I didn't mean what I said back there, it just…" she trailed off, hoping that she would understand.

"Oh, I bet you are," Alassea said in tone of ice.

"What?" Elle glanced towards Mye and Myori, who were about five or six yards ahead of them and nearing the entrance to the cavern behind the falls - just far enough away that they didn't hear them speaking.

"I know what you're up to, Elemmire," she continued in that same icy voice. "I'm not dumb."

"What? What am I up to?" Elle demanded. "What are you talking about?"

Alassea's eyes met hers in the pale light; eyes of a frosted blue that clashed with the hazel of Elle's. "You know what I'm talking about," she said slowly. "You want me on your side again so that the other two won't think you're an insensitive snob. You don't really like me."

"No! Alassea, of course I - you know that - Alassea -"

"Just shut up, Elle," Alassea growled. "I don't want to hear anything you have to say anymore." With that, she began striding to catch up with Mye and Myori, who didn't appear to have any knowledge of their conversation at all.

Elle trembled slightly as she emerged from behind the waterfall, the last of the group, mulling over Alassea's words to her. She would never, ever admit it, but at this point, she almost feared the once-meek girl. There was just something about her voice that chilled her to the bone - but what? If she hadn't been feeling so nervous about the challenge, unsettled about Alassea, and worried that Mye and Myori might have turned against her, she might have laughed at herself. Afraid of Alassea? That had to be the most pathetic thing she had ever heard.

Sighing quietly, she glanced at Alassea, who no longer looked so cold and unfeeling, but rather as she used to: Uncertain, timid, and agreeable. Her eyes narrowed. Something was definitely going on with Alassea, and it was something bad. Something that had to be figured out, and fast. But Elle doubted that she would be able to do it - there was no way Alassea would talk to her now.