Thirty minutes after receiving a hearty farewell from our stinky friend, we found ourselves scaling old Mt. Ortharus, all of us moody and tired, and with no comprehensive plan whatsoever. Head foggy, I stupidly asked Phoebe why we couldn't have had the Grae Sisters take us to the top - she giggled at me, looked up the steep slope ahead of us, and said she didn't think their cab did off-road.
As darkness started to blanket the mountainside, we were approaching a forested patch, and decided to set up for the night and carry on at daybreak.
The Elite 4 sat and fumbled with the map for some time, openly debating how long it would take for us to reach the peak of the mountain, and later moved on to planning what actions would be taken on our arrival.
Grace, Astrid, Sophie and I, however, took a walk together in a deep, disturbing silence. I was feeling a remaining annoyance towards Sophie, and it seemed that Astrid wasn't too happy with her either. Grace continued to look pale, though she had certainly perked up a little since we took her from the hospital. She too seemed uncomfortable in our collective company.
"Guys... Do you really think we have a chance at this thing?" Grace asked in a quiet voice, breaking the silence but just barely.
A slight crushing feeling began to bear on my shoulders as I tilted my head to look in the direction of our ancestors - though I could no longer see them - who were frowning and snapping at each other, but communicating nonetheless. Truth was, since I'd heard that WE, the four of us, were key to defeating the enemy, my confidence in the mission had depleted despairingly.
I turned towards Grace, planning to reply to her question since nobody else seemed eager to, when a pair of hands leapt out from the surrounding foliage and dragged Sophie out of view.
"Sophie!" Grace, Astrid and I all cried at once, bounding in the direction she had vanished.
A beautiful, pale girl sat hunched under a drooping dark tree, Sophie sprawled in front of her, clutching her mouth with one hand and her throat with the other. A circle of flowers and leaves sat crookedly on her head, almost touching her eyebrows.
Instinctively I brushed my hand over the handle of Solaris.
"Come no closer!" hissed the nymph, her eyes bulging with what could only have been nervousness. "Leave this mountain! Go no further! Do as I say immediately, or I will kill her!"
"Why?" I demanded, careful to not stamp right up to the nymph. "Why do we have to leave?"
"Because if you don't leave now, I will alert my masters."
"You masters?" repeated Grace. "You obey the Titans?"
The nymph nodded anxiously, maintaining her grip on Sophie's throat and mouth. "I must. It is the only way my people can survive on this mountain."
I gripped my spear in preparation. I'd had enough of being pushed around by enemies. It was time we injected some fear in them. Spill some blood, make the knees of Shadoe and Kyos tremble when we finally came face-to-face.
Astrid put a hand on mine just as I started to jerk Solaris from my waist.
"I am Astrid, decendant of Artemis."
The colour drained even further from the nymph's face.
"And decendant of Aria," Astrid added somewhat unnecessarily.
The nymph swallowed. "I do not have to obey you -"
"You must obey your masters, nymph, you said so yourself. I'm the closest thing to your master here. If I'm not good enough however, I can easily get Aria for you."
"She's here?" whimpered the nymph, her hold on Sophie weakening visibly. Sophie's eyes darted to the face of her captor with a flicker of hope.
"She's close," said Aria.
The nymph slowly let go of Sophie, trembling, eyes fixed on Aria. "I'm sorry, Ms. Astrid."
Sophie stood up now and towered over the nymph. "It won't be necessary to get Aria, Astrid." She turned to the cowering girl below her. "You'll tell all your nymph friends not to bother us, yes?"
The nymph nodded frantically. "I will. You can complete your journey with no further interferance from us."
"Good." Sophie stalked off in the direction of the Elite 4. Grace and I followed her cautiously, followed by Astrid who gave the nymph a little wave goodbye as we left.
When we got back the others were on their feet, and rushed over as they caught sight of us. "Where did you get to? We were getting worried," said Melody.
"We ran into a little trouble is all," I said quietly.
"It's not trouble when you have it under control," snapped Sophie, and I looked toward my changed friend, feeling a flutter of worry. "It was always under control."