Chapter Forty Four: Homecoming

OOO

"Time is the eleventh of the Elements, the eternal force, the propulsion and the brake. All things have a beginning, and all things have an end as well – what matters are the events that link them."

OOO

"You don't look too eager to be going back to your home." It took Elle a moment to register that Ethan was speaking to her – she glanced at him, at the outstretched hand, and the terracotta cup of water in it. "Just saying." He pressed the cup towards her. "Take it. Sophie thought you could use it."

"…Thank you." For once, there was no smile, nor even a frown, nor anything – Elle's face was totally blank. She sipped at the water. "Why are you still here, if I may ask?" She looked at him again. "Not to be rude, but…I thought you would rather be with your friend over there." She nodded at where Jason was sat, at the other end of the Eostria – he and Jaruse seemed to be having a rather animated discussion about whether it was better to slice or stab at an opponent.

"Hey, I can see Jason whenever I want to – if someone needs my help, though, or a shoulder to cry on, then I'm all ears." He grinned down at her, toothy. "Especially if it's a lovely lady such as yourself." She crinkled her nose at him, but didn't object when he flopped down on the seat next to her, gulping down the water in his own cup. "So, come on. Tell me what's up."

Elle sighed, and then looked up. She met Tifa's eyes, but the girl suddenly looked away – what is it her imagination, or had her cheeks suddenly went vivid red? Never mind, it was none of her business anyway. "Nothing."

"Oh come on, I know I'm not as smart as Sophie or Paul or Marciel or Loara-" The redhead looked the most pleased out of all of them- "But I'm not totally stupid. I can see that something is eating away at you, so come on, spill."

She wasn't the only Gaia who looked at him oddly. "Why would I spill my drink?"

He laughed, a tad awkwardly. "It's an expression back on Earth. It just means, 'spill your heart out to me', 'tell me all your woes'-"

"Ethan, leave the poor girl alone," sighed Sophie, as she emerged from the back room, blankets in her hand – night was falling, and this far over the ocean, and at such a height, they could feel the chill rising as the sun set, and fast.

"Hey, just trying to help here!" he protested, holding up his hands. "Elle, come on, you're getting to go back home! You're gonna see your family, right?" He grinned at her again. "I haven't seen mine since we began…" The momentary cloud that passed over him vanished as soon as it had formed. "But I've been having too good a time to be worried. Besides, they'll be all right-"

"Though they're gonna be worried about us. We've been gone for nearly a month, right?" Tifa eyed Lilienne, sat there away from the others, flicking through her little black book. "When we get back, are there gonna be posters of me covering the neighbourhood?"

"There is an arrangement." The blonde didn't look up. She hadn't been saying much since their earlier escapade. "You don't need to worry – your parents certainly aren't."

"Oh, how reassuring-"

"Tifa, you stop it too, please," sighed Sophie, as she handed her friend a blanket – she grumbled but said nothing more. "Though…" Sophie handed Ethan and Elle theirs. "I am interested to see where you live, Elle."

For the first time since earlier, she smiled. "It is a nice place, I will say that."

"I'm sure it is." The brunette's smile was gentle. "But I must confess, I'm also curious as to why we're going there." Her thoughts drifted back to earlier, when they were nearly a quarter of the planet's circumference away…

OOO

"Are we feeling better now?" Eosea sipped at the wine chalice Chase had poured for her – she had probably packed it away aboard the Eostria before she bequeathed it to them, in case such an event would arise. "Please, I want you all to be calm. Faith is gone now – you are safe, for the moment."

From the way Dallan and the others looked at her, it wasn't Faith they were currently scared of. "What exactly did you do to her?"

Eosea finished the drink, and held it out – Chase poured more into it. "I…sent her away."

"How, exactly?" Dallan didn't flinch when she returned his look.

"What you saw earlier was not the Faith you had come to know up until now – you could say it was her rage taking over. Any of her emotions, really. All that I know is that she had broken a vow, one that binds all powerful beings in creation. She had shed her form to reveal the truth."

"And what exactly does that mean?" Marciel tilted his head

"It doesn't matter, she's gone now – I restored her form to her." She laughed. "Don't look at me like that, it's better than leaving her to run rampant in the state she was in. None of that is important, right now."

"She was about to kill us all, it was kind of important…" mumbled Jason, but she didn't seem to hear him.

"My point is this – Faith is even more dangerous now. If she is willing to break one of these ancient laws, then who knows what else she is willing to do?" The Sage of Light stared at the Mentors. "It is now more vital than ever that you hurry up and get the last two remaining Crystals."

"Time is next, isn't it?" Carmysa smiled at Elle – she smiled back. "So we just have to go to that Temple. Where is it?" Chase and Lilienne looked at each other. "Chase? Lilienne?" They looked at the ground. Carmysa's eyes widened. "Do you not know where it is?"

"It's not one of the more visited Temples," grumbled Lilienne, looking to the side. "I know it's somewhere on Lalle, the eastern continent, but that's as far as my knowledge extends." She looked at them directly. "And Lalle isn't exactly a small continent."

"Which is why you will need help finding the Temple, and I know exactly where you can get it." Eosea drained her cup again – Chase, a frown on his face, filled it up.

"Are you sure you should be having a third glass?"

"Is the sky blue?" she snapped – he jumped back, like a child away from a dog. "As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted-" Lilienne smirked as Chase hung his head- "I can help you find the Temple of Time, or rather, the Elders of Nazh can."

Elle's head jerked up, as if someone had zapped her with a thunderbolt. "Excuse me?"

"The Elders of Nazh will be able to help you reach the Temple of Time," repeated Eosea, apparently indifferent to the sudden vice that had gripped Elle and squeezed all the blood out of her face. "You must ask them – tell them I sent you, and they should be willing to help. Besides, you have a daughter of Nazh in your midst, don't you?"

"We do?" April tilted her head – Elle, and the others, stared at her.

"By the Gods, Lady Lerane must be disappointed in you," sighed the Sage, shaking her head. Then she rose. "Now I must be off, before I do something to the Chosen One of Light that I regret." April gulped and hid behind Jason. "Have fun with the Invokers and the Mediums – do try not to get possessed by any wayward spirits."

A flash of light as bright as a firework, and she vanished.

OOO

"Do you know anything about the Temple of Time, then?" Marciel, who along with Jaruse had also been listening in, held up his hands when Elle glared at him. "It was simply an innocent question."

"And to answer it, no, I did not. I didn't know that my tribe had anything to do with the Temple of Time." Something – maybe the way in which she wouldn't meet their eyes, or how she had suddenly begun to tap her foot – told them that that wasn't the whole truth. "Honestly. I'm just as surprised as the rest of you are that we need to go there."

"Well, at least you'll get to see your family," grinned Ethan, which she did not return. "You could introduce us all to your mom and dad! I bet they'd love a guy as nice and as handsome as me." For once, he had been joking, but even then Elle didn't laugh. The air seemed to leave him at once. "Dude, come on, work with me here."

"Elle." Sophie, soft, gentle Sophie, tried to go for a different approach. "You never speak much about your family."

"Neither do you." Elle was like ice, freezing up water.

"You know, I'm sensing a lot of animosity coming from you," interjected Loara, who looked as pleased as punch by that news.

"My apologies. Let me sleep, and perhaps I'll feel better in the morning." She pulled the blanket over her head, and so the light went out.

OOO

When the sun came up again, though, things hardly seemed to have improved at all – Elle was still sat up in her chair, the blanket over her face, when all the others had arisen. "Do you genuinely think she's still asleep?" whispered Carmysa.

"I have no idea," replied Loara, narrowing her eyes at the sleeping girl.

"She did seem upset yesterday, didn't she?"

"Oh? Really? What a shame, isn't that a pity." The redhead smiled to herself.

"Well, we're going to have to wake her up soon." Lilienne walked into the room, a shawl around her shoulders. "Chase says we're passing over Baltese just now – we should reach Nazh in not too long a while."

"And then what?" Dallan was sat like a brick in the chair, as compactly as he could.

"Well, I haven't been there before, so I'm not entirely sure where we can find these Elders that Eosea spoke of, though I imagine our own little resident demon-caller will be able to help us with that." Elle didn't flinch. "She's totally asleep. And no, before you start, I don't believe the Idolasion are demons."

"That's a relief," sighed Jason, and after that, the group fell into relative silence. The sun rose higher and higher into the sky, and the forest beneath them gave way to wide, open green, streaked here and there with blue ribbons curling across the landscape, sometimes hills, never too high. Then from the windows they saw a shadow on the horizon, dark and green, which quickly became another forest. "It's huge!"

He was right – there was something different to what they were seeing before them, something different to the forest they had just left. Gallera now seemed like a sapling in the shadow of a giant oak. The whole forest seemed to swallow up the horizon, the trees stretching up into the blue above, deep and dark. "My Gods, I thought the stories about this place were just exaggerating things," whistled Chase from the front caravan. "Get ready to land, guys!"

He guided them down with ease, landing right on the edge of the forest, where the fields gave way to the trees, and the light vanished into the darkness. "Elle, time to wake up." Sophie shook the girl gently as the others gathered their things and filed off the Eostria.

"I'm awake." Her face was like stone as she got up and followed the brunette off, into the air outside, already warm with the rise of the day. "So, we're here."

"Yep!" Chase rubbed his hands together. "So, Elle, where exactly is your village?"

"We're at the western end of the forest, aren't we?" He nodded. "Then follow me. There should be a path." She walked into the woods with as much enthusiasm as a clown walking into an office, and they followed her, sudden quiet descending over them as the trees rose up around. "Manalia is a huge forest, you know – one third of this duchy is covered by it, and even then, the rest of the forest extends over two more states, not just Areth. If you're not careful, it's very easy to get lost in it." For the first time in almost a day, she laughed – a sound like winter breaking through a window. "If that happens, you may never get out."

"Quick, Sanchez, off you go and find another way," smirked Tifa, and she looked away when he turned to her, his face slack.

"Leave him alone, Tifa," frowned Sophie, shaking her head as the fourteen of them left to go into the forest – they had dropped Nawaro off back on his island on the way back from Yomoha. They, however, would have enjoyed their current environs immensely. The sounds of running rivers and tweeting birds fell away behind them as the green shadows swallowed them up, and now the silence reigned supreme, broken only by the occasional sound of an animal somewhere in the darkness beyond. "This place is rather unsettling, isn't it?"

"It's like something out of a horror game," agreed Paul, giving a little shiver.

"What horror games have you been playing?" He gave a sheepish grin as Sophie turned and raised her eyebrows at him. "Is 'Pokémon' too babyish for you now?"

"Hey, don't insult 'Pokémon', Sophie," he warned, unusually serious with her. "You love it just as much as I do."

"I know, that's why I can insult it, it's ruined my life."

"What're the two of you talking about?" Paul jumped as Carmysa bounded up like a stumbling deer behind them, her face a sun in the gloom of this forest.

"Oh, nothing, just a game," smiled Sophie, as they kept up the pace – as usual, she and Paul were falling to the back of the group. Carmysa must have been getting tired.

"What kind of game is it?"

"A computer one." Carmysa blinked at them. "It's like a machine." She blinked again. "It's a kind of thing run by electricity."

"Oh, I see." She clearly didn't. "Well, I much prefer flowers and trees to anything like that." She gazed around, her eyes growing misty. "Look at this place, though. It's so…strange. I feel at home here, and yet, it's so gloomy, so dull…"

"Isn't it just marvellous?" The trio jumped as one into the air. Elle smiled behind them, her hand over her mouth – despite her earlier behaviour, she seemed to be like a fish back into water, cold, ancient water at that. "I could think of no better place to live than this."

"Really?" squeaked Carmysa, as another sound rang out in her ears – was that a wolf howling? Surely she was imagining things…

"Oh yes. The peace and quiet here is heavenly." Peace and quiet? More like doom and silence. The group walked on, though, in said silence, the crunch of the forest under their feet barely even breaking it.

"Elle," asked Lilienne, after five minutes, "where exactly is this village of yours?" She sounded uneasy, as if they were walking on a boat's deck and not a forest trail.

"We should be there soon," hummed the blonde, tilting her head from side to side, like a metronome. "We'll find it eventually-"

"Halt!"

"Or perhaps sooner rather than later," giggled the Invoking Adept, as a figure stepped out of the darkness before them. The first thing they noticed was the mask over their face, totally white, like a ghost staring at them out of the gloom – their own eyes, not distinguishable from their current distance, were dwarfed by the large, intricate eye, the ink almost glowing green, in the centre of their forehead. Then they saw the robes of the figure, similar to those of the Sages', yet not as intricate, not as elaborate. They were green too. "Hello there."

"Halt!" the masked one repeated, as they stepped out of the darkness – in their hands was a staff, similar to Elle's, the wood made of white rowan, beads and strings stretched over the hole at the top like a net. "Who are you? What are you doing here? This is sacred ground you are trespassing on-"

"If you gave us time to explain things, then maybe you would realise that we aren't trespassers at all," growled Lilienne, her uneasiness vanishing like mist into the air as she stalked forward, her fists clenched at her sides. "I swear, if you try and act all high and mighty with us-"

"Come any closer and we will use our magic to constrain you," warned the figure, raising the staff. To be fair, Lilienne was rather threatening – when she wanted to be; which was nearly all the time.

""We"?" asked Marciel, suddenly rather nervous – he glanced from side to side, making sure that Jaruse was next to him. "What do you mean, "we"?"

They came from nowhere – five other figures, of varying girths and sights, but all with the same robes, as green as the leaves on the trees around them, the same masks, and the same staffs. "I will warn you again," intoned the first figure, as they took another, careful step forward. "Come quietly with us-"

"I think it's time we stopped this, don't you?" Elle stepped forward, a smile gracing her lips – it was the kind of smile one gives to a relative they dislike. "Please, put your staffs down. We're not trespassers."

The figure stayed silent. Then they craned their head forward, and gasped. "I don't believe it, Elia?"

"Oh, so I know you, do I?"

"Of course you do!" The mask came off – dark-blonde hair tumbled down in waves, and eyes, greener than Elle's, stared back at them in shock. "It's me, Narina!"

At once the smirk slid off Elle's face like ice into water. "Narina!" She couldn't move, for a single second – she just stood there in what must have been shock. Then light flooded into her eyes, and she grinned, a proper grin, not a smile meant to be mysterious. "Narina!" She moved forwards, arms stretched out-

The others thought a vase or something had been broken, when the older girl surged forward – then they realised that it was no cup, but the smack of Narina's hand on Elle's face, that had caused the cracking sound. "You little idiot!" The Chosen One of Time did not move as the other girl stared at her, her teeth bared, her eyes shining. "One and a half months you've been gone for, and nothing! Not one thing! No message, no notification, nothing! We thought you had died out there!" Now her eyes were practically oceans in their own right. "We…we thought you…" She broke down. "Oh, Elia!" Elle still didn't move when Narina surged forwards again and hugged her, pulling her tightly to her chest.

"I feel like we're interrupting something here…" Jason scratched at his chin and looked to the side. He coughed into his hand.

"I agree." Lilienne seemed to have no reservations about watching the two females before her. "Elia-" Things must have been serious. "Would you mind telling us exactly who this girl is and why she just slapped you?"

"I should think not!" Narina glowered at the group as she clutched Elle to her bosom, like a mother protecting her child. "You will come with us to answer for your crimes! Abducting a member of our village, and a child at that!" Her frown deepened. "And I see Elle isn't the only child you've kidnapped."

Chase and Lilienne both blinked as one. They turned to each other. Then they turned back to Narina. "I've been accused of many things in my life," said the male Mentor, still blinking, "but never running a paedophile ring."

"Are you literally the stupidest imbecile on this backwards hunk of rock?" gaped Lilienne. She genuinely looked more surprised than angry. "Seriously? Do you have no idea of who Elle is?"

"All I know is that she left our village nearly two months ago, to journey to the capital and find a forbidden book on our magical arts that we had learnt was kept there, and she didn't come back when she was supposed to."

"That's because I found out something else," muttered the girl – Narina whipped her away from her bosom and stared down at her, thin, tanned hands like vices on her shoulders. Elle grinned up weakly, one half of her face as red as a rose. "I'm a Chosen One." She held up her hands by her side. "Surprise."

Narina's face went white. "Excuse me?" Elle repeated what she had just said. "Excuse me?!"

"You're excused," yawned Lilienne. "Now, how about you answer our questions? Starting with who the hell you are, and why you think you can threaten the Chosen Ones and their Mentors." The other five, still masked, turned to Narina – she waved, tight-lipped, and they stepped back. "That's right, move away if you know what's good for you."

"My name is Narina Miesse Fesaran, and I'm pleased to meet you." Her face and voice didn't agree. "I am an Invoking Mage of the village of Nazh, a guardian of its lands."

"I had gathered that from your garments."

"Oh, did you?" Tifa looked at Narina like she was a god. "Then why did you ask me, oh Mentor of the Chosen Ones?"

Lilienne was silent. "Touché." The others gaped at her. "Now then, are you going to take us to Nazh, or not?"

"Oh yes," grinned the blonde, eerily like Faith, "I simply must take you to the village – you need to answer for your crimes."

Elle moved away and stared up at the older girl. "But, Narina, they've done nothing wrong-"

"Chosen One or not, they still abducted a member of our village, so we must make them answer to their crimes, yes?" Elle looked horrified. "Good, I'm glad you agree. Take them away, and, if they try to fight, take out one of the other supposed Chosen Ones." Narina pointed at Marciel. "Try that one, he looks especially weak."

The black-haired boy practically fainted as Jaruse stepped forward. "This boy is the Vidame of Tanphe." His voice was as sharp as his spear. "Touch him, and I will show you no mercy."

"A likely story." The threat of six Invokers attacking was enough to make even Jaruse lower his weapon, as Elle watched on, helpless, her face ashen. "Take them to the village."

OOO

"I keep telling you, you've got the wrong end of the stick!"

"Elle, please, you're clearly stressed, you're making no sense at all," shushed Narina. "These people, these, these outsiders, they're not your friends – they kidnapped you-"

"They didn't kidnap me! I keep telling you that!"

Narina set the pitcher of water down upon the table between them. The room they were in was light and airy, sunlight streaming through the windows on the eastern side of it. The furniture was sparse and yet not exactly uncomfortable, the table (and chairs) in the centre of the room, a bed behind them, a wardrobe, a chest, another table beside the bed. Everything was pristine and white. "Elle, please don't raise your voice like that." Elle huffed and folded her arms as Narina poured them their drinks. "Really, you would never have behaved like this before you left, your time around those hooligans-"

"They aren't hooligans, they're my friends!"

"-has left you behaving like a common harlot." Elle looked like she had been slapped again. "I thought bringing you back to your room would make you start behaving like a proper young lady – it looks like I still have a lot of work to do."

"You have no work to do, because I won't be here much longer." Elle growled at Narina. "I need to speak to the Elders about them."

"Of course, of course." The blonde tilted her head. "You should be able to hold an audience with them in a week-"

"I – we – haven't got a week!" Narina jumped as Elle slammed her fists on the table, her eyes widening. "There's a manic demon chasing us across the globe, and we have two more Crystals to get, and if we don't then probably the entire planet will be doomed, and, and-" Elle ceased her outburst, took a deep breath, and closed her eyes. "Narina. Please. I beg you." She opened her eyes again, pleading. "I will explain things, everything, to you afterwards, but for now, you have to let the others go, so we can get to the Temple of Time, so I can get the Crystal of Time, do you understand?"

Narina eyed her, and tilted her head. "The Temple of Time?" Elle nodded. "Why on Gaia have you come here then? You yourself should know there's no Temple here other than the normal one." She huffed. "Or have you been away that long that you're beginning to forget your own home now?"

Elle ignored her. "I thought that was strange, but Eosea, the Sage of Light-"

"Oh, so you're on first name terms now?"

"Told us that to get to the Temple, we had to come here." Elle frowned. "Please, Narina, help me."

"Elle, I wish I could, I genuinely do, but I don't know anything about the Temple of Time, honestly."

"You're lying."

Narina stiffened, and turned away from the window she had glanced out of. She looked down at her feet. "I'm not."

"Then look me in the eyes." Narina did not. "I do the same thing when I'm lying." Elle smirked. "I got the habit from you. Now tell me what you know."

Narina sighed, and looked up properly. Her face, frozen in a scowl ever since the encounter in the woods, seemed to have thawed somewhat – now it was just a frown. "How did you know I was lying?"

"Lucky guess." Her mouth fell open- "Just hurry up and tell me."

"No, actually, I shan't." She rose from the table, her face a scowl again, her eyes cold. "Elle, there are some things in life it's better for you not to know about, and the Temple of Time is one of them." The girl opened her mouth- "No protests. You're going to wait here until the Elders are ready to see you, and you're going to do so without making a fuss, got it?"

She hung her head. "So it's just like old times again, isn't it? Be the perfect child." Now she knew how Vivianna must feel all the time – or so she thought.

Narina pretended not to hear her. "I'll go and get you some books to pass the time – we should be able to get three done today if we read efficiently!" She left the room at once, the door clicking behind her as she shut it, and as soon as she was gone Elle stormed onto her feet, thunder crossing her face.

"I can't believe this!" she seethed, pacing back and forth across the white tiled floor – once, not too long ago, she had loved how clean the room looked, how pristine it was, but now it just seemed blank, empty even, a canvas just waiting to be painted upon. "Why won't she listen to me? Why?" She gripped her skull. "I'm a Chosen One now, I'm…someone important, someone deserving of respect…and all she, they, do is still treat me like a child. A picture-perfect little child, who sits still, and wears nice clothes, and speaks only when spoken to, and, and…" She sighed and closed her eyes again. "No. I'm not letting things go back to the way they were."

She walked over to the window and looked out of it – she would have forgiven the others for thinking they were in Arethus, or some other village. There was nothing different, on the surface, about Nazh – there were the same white walls and red roofs, and from here, the villa, she could see the spire of the Temple soaring up into cloudless heavens. Nazh was a world away from the forest around it. "Sorry, Narina, but I have places to be."

Luckily for her, her bedroom was on the first floor of the villa, and there were bushes below it to break her fall. She emerged from them relatively unharmed, brushing the leaves and twigs off of her dress. "Now then, where would they be kept..." She kept to the foliage around the villa as she walked. Elle tapped her finger on her chin. "The villa has cells, doesn't it?" The thought disturbed her, but if her friends – and Loara – were being kept anywhere, it would most likely be in those cells, underneath the Villa Marpolosse "Now just to find a way in-"

"Halt!" The voice was loud enough to make her jump, and she didn't even take out her staff when she saw the five soldiers there, dressed like those she had seen in Arethus and Baltese, standard-military issue. "Who's that? What are you doing trespassing in the Baron's gardens?"

"Ma'am," spoke one of the soldiers, looking up nervously to the older woman. "Isn't this girl the Baron's ward?"

"Is it? But I thought she was away from the village…"

"Clearly, I have returned." She didn't know the soldiers well enough – she had spent too much time in the Temple studying to familiarise herself with them. "Now, if you excuse me, I have to find someone-"

"Oh no you don't," responded the captain, shaking her head. "I'll be taking you to see Baron Somoros at once." She extended her hand. "Come along now, miss."

It was now or never – Elle just had to hope she was near enough to the cells. "I don't think so!" On the last word she took her staff out and spun around to face the wall behind her. "Oh Sogadera, salamander of the burning coals, and guarding of the fiery river! I summon thee to lend me thine powers in battle! Give me thy strength, so that with it, I may smite my foes! Lend to me the power of Fire! I call thy name – come to me!"

Amid the screams of the soldiers, the wall exploded in a shower of flames and smoke.

OOO

Do you have unanswered questions about Elle, her past, and her village? Like who is Narina, what is Nazh's connection to the Temple of Time, and why is Elle the ward of Baron – and Elder – Somoros? You might have them answered in the next few chapters… Might.

Have a nice day, and thank you for reading this!

- Lux Beta