Taking a bite from his sandwich, he winced: What was his sister thinking when she decided to make a tuna and strawberry jelly sandwich? His appetite quickly disappearing, the seven-year-old put away his lunch and decided to spend the rest of the recess watching his new class-mates.

Some boys were busy kicking a ball through the patio while a blonde, sweet-looking girl was reading a book. Other girls were chatting near the door and finally, a brown-haired boy dressed in red ran in circles around them, holding a wooden sword on each hand. Despite being his first day at school, Genis already knew his name: Lloyd. He also knew that he was the class "dunce" and pretty bad at every subject, especially Math. The teacher had even asked him to help the older boy with some exercises earlier.

Other than that, he hadn't spoken with any of his classmates. Why would they be interested in playing with him? Not only was he the youngest student, he was also a half... an elf! That's what Raine had told him that morning as she tried to serve him some burned eggs for breakfast: If they wanted to stay in Iselia for a long time, they should never let the people of this village know their true race. That's why they had to hide their ears and pretend that they were elves.

Sighing in boredom, Genis took out the wooden toy his sister had bought him a week earlier for his birthday. The Iselia's shopkeeper had told him that it was a kendama and that he was lucky, because the store had just gotten the new Nova model. With a quick move upwards, he made the ball pop out of the cup so he could catch it as soon as it fell down. After a few tries, Genis attention was so focused on the kendama that everything around him seemed to fade. Oddly enough, he felt a strange energy flowing around him and the toy suddenly felt warmer...

- "Hey! Are you going to sit there all day?"- The childish voice of one of his classmates took him out of his trance. Genis looked up and found Lloyd grinning at him, his cheeks flushed from running around.

- "Wha...?"

- "I said, are you going to sit there all day?"- But the voice that emerged from the boy's lips was deeper and suddenly the school's patio was replaced with the burned remains of Exire's main square. Instead of his classmates, Zelos and Presea were next to him, their faces indicating that they had already greeted the warrior standing in front of him with an amused face. His right arm was stretched out and waiting for his best friend's response.

- "Maybe. It is quite comfortable down here..."- replied the wizard as he took Lloyd's hand and stood up.

Lloyd was a lot taller than Genis remembered, even if the height difference between them wasn't as wide as it used to be. Still dressed in red, his face and eyes were the exact shape as Kratos', while his brown hair looked a bit more groomed than before. In general, Lloyd looked different... more... Genis couldn't find the right word to describe him...

- "What are you looking at?"- asked Lloyd, suddenly flashing his infamous childish grin. Genis laughed.

- "It's just that for a moment you looked... mature."- Replied the half-elf with a mischievous smile- "But I guess Zelos was right for a change and I was just hit too many times on the head"

- "Shut it, Genis!"- buffed Lloyd. Suddenly touched by the familiarity of the scene, Genis approached the swordsman and hugged him.

- "Man! H-How much I missed this... you"- said the young wizard a few seconds later, releasing Lloyd and feeling his cheeks flushed from embarrassment.- "I... I'm sorry... It's just that I..."

- "Don't worry, Genis"- said Lloyd with a warm smile- "I've missed you too..."

- "I think this is the last one!"- Exclaimed Sheena as she carried a small child in her arms.- "Let's get out of here!"

Raine nodded as she finished healing the child's mother- "All right. Ofelia, you'll have to lean on me, are you ready?"

- "I guess..."- replied the woman as she tried to stand up and winced- "My foot! it hurts..."

- "The spell I cast on you will allow you to walk, but you'll have to endure the pain for a while."- Commented the healer coldly- "I'm sorry... but that's the best I can do for now..."

- "Raine! Hurry!"

- "It's Sheena... the corridor must be clear... let's hurry!"

Raine and Ofelia moved slowly until they left the room. Thick smoke invaded the corridor, making it hard for both women to see... or breathe. Raine took out a handkerchief and pressed it over Ofelia's lips.

- "This... will... help..."- she panted between coughs. Trying to remember the exit, Raine moved blindly across the corridor, pulling her collar up to avoid smoke getting into her lungs.

- "Watch out!"- Raine barely heard the warning as a part of the ceiling collapsed in front of her, fiery sparks flying everywhere.

- "We need to find another exit quickly!"- whispered the healer as she covered her eyes from the sparks, forcing her to breathe some smoke. Coughing violently, she turned around and touched the walls, trying to find a hole or window that would let them escape.

A ray of light in front of them stopped their search: Someone had made a hole through the roof and was descending through it. Blinded by the smoke, Raine barely saw a flash of pink that approached her and took her arm tightly.

The last thing the Professor remembered before loosing her battle against unconsciousness was the feeling of leaving the ground...

- "Raine? Raine!"- A loud voice and some shaking made her leave the darkness. The bright sunrays let her know that she had been unconscious for several minutes and a forced breathe of fresh air announced that she was free from the burning building. As she tried to focus her vision, she could only perceive a pair of gentle blue eyes reflecting relief.

- "Wh... what happened...?"- She whispered.

- "You inhaled too much smoke and passed out"- replied her companion with a sweet voice- "Don't worry; the woman you were helping is alright too. Sheena took her to a safe place, so she would reunite with her daughter."

Feeling a headache starting, Raine pressed her hands over her temples and sighed. She could still feel her whole body shaking with fear, shock and above all... anger. Why did this tragedy have to happen? Why had the people from Exire suffer this just a few hours after they had returned to Aselia? This should have been a night of joy... not of nightmare.

- "Are you alright?"- asked the voice interrupting her train of thought.

Sighing again, Raine looked up and lost her breath: Those gentle blue eyes were actually framed by the face of a beautiful woman with long, blonde hair and wearing a white dress. As she tried to sit up, Raine noticed a pair of pink, shiny wings- Blinded by the smoke, Raine barely saw a flash of pink that approached her and took her arm tightly - "Colette!"

- "I'm sorry we had to meet in these circumstances, Professor Sage"- answered the angel with a shy smile.

- "Don't apologize"- said Raine as she took her former student's hands- "If it wasn't for you... I'd had perished on that fire. Thank you..."

- "It was nothing compared to all the times you helped me back then..."- Colette then hugged Raine tightly- "I'm so happy to see you! When we saw the fire at the distance, I was afraid you'd be hurt..."

- "Hurt... Genis!"- exclaimed Raine as she released the angel and clumsily stood up- "Wh... where is my brother?"

- "Relax, Raine"- said Sheena as she appeared through some bushes- "He's fine... actually, he's coming this way right now"

Raine moved towards the bushes and, just as Sheena had said, she spotted her brother walking towards them. He looked tired, and two cuts crossed his cheeks. She also saw Presea limping on her left leg with the help of a very dirty Zelos (believe it or not). The half-elven Professor lost her breath, though, when she saw the last member of the returning party- "Is that...?"

- "Lloyd!"- exclaimed Colette as she ran towards the man she had spent every day of the last ten years with, embracing him tightly.- "I'm glad you are safe!"

- "Of course I am!"- he grinned, returning the gesture- "It'll take more than a couple of thieves and a witch to defeat me... especially if I fight along our friends"

Colette moved towards her old companions- "Zelos! Presea!"- She squealed as she hugged them tightly. Then, as she looked towards her half-elven friend, her eyes widened- "Goddess! Genis! You've become so big and cute!"

- "Trust Colette to be kind enough to not admit the truth"- Snickered Zelos, earning a glare from the blushing young mage.

- "Shut up, Zelos!"

Lloyd was laughing at his friends' bickering when he saw a dark haired girl emerge from the bushes- "Hey, Sheena!"- he called out as he aproached her.

- "Lloyd!"- Exclaimed the ninja hugging her old friend- "I can't believe you are here! How did you...?"

- "Well... our contact from Mizuho told us that Exire was returning to Aselia, so we decided to drop by and surprise you..."- his eyes darkened- "...but I guess that in the end we were the surprised ones..."

- "I know..."- she whispered with a sad smile.- "I'm afraid that this will affect Genis and Raine the most..."

- "Speaking of her, where is the Professor?"

- "Raine?"- Sheena turned around, but only found the bushes in front of her- "B-But... she was here just a second ago... where...?"

A pained scream answered her question.

"This is it! They've finally found us!"- trembling with fear, she ran towards the door hoping she would escape in time. After all these months of happiness, somebody had informed them about their current location. They knew she was hiding there, so they had started a fire to force her to leave the house and get caught.

"I can't use the door! But where...?"- Virginia tried to remember where the windows were. She hoped she would be able to escape through one of them and run as far as she could towards the woods. Kloitz had told her once that in case they got separated, they would meet there after the danger had passed.

A loud noise interrupted her train of thought: Looking up, she noticed that part of the roof, severely damaged by the fire, was starting to collapse. Before she could turn away, dust and debris fell over her eyes. Screaming with pain, the elven mother raised her arms to protect her face, dropping her "daughter" at the same time.

- "No! Raine!"- Virginia dropped on her knees and looked for her doll, but without her sight, she could only depend on her trembling hands feeling the floor.

- "Virginia!"- a familiar young girl's voice called her from the other side of the room- "We must get out of here! The house will fall down soon!"

- "No!"- screamed Virginia as she continued her desperate search- "My baby! I can't leave without her!"

- "Raine is safe!"- said that voice getting closer and soon enough Virginia felt a hand grabbing her arm with force- "She is outside with Genis and their friends! Come on!"

- "She can't be safe! She's just a little girl! And I dropped her! I failed her again!"

- "Come on!"- the voice sounded terrified- "Come on, Virginia!"

Blind and tired, Virginia couldn't fight against the voice much longer. Sobbing with fear, the elven mother was dragged across the room until she could finally breathe something besides smoke. Falling on her knees, she screamed- "My daughter! Kloitz, I abandoned our daughter! I won't be able to forgive myself! I did it again!"

The voice next to her sighed- "Calm down, Virginia... I-I'll look for her..."

Raising her hand, Virginia grabbed her savior's arm and pleaded- "Please! I beg of you! Save my child!"

- "Alright..."- said the voice standing up- "I'll go..."

Virginia sat there for a couple of minutes... that somehow felt like hours for the terrified elf. She couldn't see anything at all and she felt tired and weak from all the smoke she had inhaled. - 'Why they won't they leave us alone? Why can't I protect my children?'

Suddenly, she heard a pained scream coming from inside, accompanied by the loud noise of the building finally falling down. Following her instincts, Virginia threw herself to the floor and covered her head. - "Raine! RAINE!"- She mumbled as she feared the worst.

- "It's OK..."- another familiar voice, who was also female but sounded older than the last one, whispered- "Virginia..."

- "No! My child! My daughter! She's inside! What happened?"

- "Th-the house has just collapsed. B-but don't worry... your daughter is safe"

Sitting up, Virginia asked- "Do you mean that she did it? Was she able to save my daughter?"

- "What! What are you talking a... No!"- The voice gasped and stood up, running towards the house's ruins. Rubbing her eyes, Virginia was finally able to perceive something: Just as she imagined, she found that silver-haired woman who had been visiting her everyday for a couple of weeks, kneeling in the middle of the ruins and holding what looked like the burned corpse of a young girl.

A girl with bright red hair...

- "May you rest in peace, Stella"- whispered Exire's mayor as he placed a flower over the tattered box that contained the remains of the half-elven girl.

- "You were such a sweet girl..."- sobbed Stella's grandmother- "It is not fair that you left this world before me... and in the hands of those... barbarians"

Genis winced at her comment: He hadn't spoken a single word since Raine had informed him about Stella's death. He felt that everything that had happened was his fault. After all, Exire and its residents would still be safe if he hadn't brought Sheena to return it back to Aselia.

- "She always wished to live near the "big pond" below her"- added Stella's mother- "So it is our wish that her resting place would be beneath the waves of the Great Sea"

- "And so it will be"- finished the Mayor, as he carried the box with the help of some men towards a small boat -actually, it was the group's old Elemental Cargo from ten years ago- that was waiting for them in the shore.

Cries and sobs were heard as the men pushed the boat into the water. With the help of Undine, Sheena made the waves carry the remains of Stella far away. Genis blinked a few tears when he felt Raine's hand over his shoulder.

- "It is time..."- she whispered. The young wizard nodded as he unclipped his kendama.

- "Fireball!"- he screamed as he directed the fire attack towards Stella's box. Soon, it was engulfed with flames.

Good bye Stella...

Please forgive me...

Besides Stella's tragedy, there were no more people to mourn in Exire. Although many houses and buildings were practically destroyed, the people were glad to have survived such a brutal attack... but were also terrified by the possibility of Zumika's return.

- "We have to do something"- said Lloyd as he walked around Maxwell's monolith. - "We've got to stop Zumika at all costs!"

- "It won't be easy"- added Presea softly- "She had an exphere on her chest..."

- "B-but... we destroyed all of them!"- Exclaimed Colette- "We spent almost seven years searching for them!"

- "That wasn't a regular exphere, anyway"- added Zelos- "At least... it didn't look like a regular exphere... not even like a Cruxis Crystal".

- "We'll have time to figure that out later"- said Raine coldly- "Right now, our priority should be the people of Exire."

- "Right"- said Zelos- "I'm going back to Meltokio tomorrow morning and will discuss with His Majesty about this situation. It's vital to have this city protected at all times and the Royal Guards can help us with that task"

- "I'm going with you"- added Sheena- "I'm still the Emissary of Peace. I can't return to Mizuho until I make sure that Exire will be safe"

- "I'll look for Regal at Altamira "- commented Presea- "We'll help with the reconstruction of this city... just like we did ten years ago in all the places affected by Cruxis."

- "Good. And what about you, Professor?"

- "I..."- Raine glanced towards her crying mother, who was sitting between the burned remains of her house, looking desperately for her doll.- "I don't know..."

- "You should return to Iselia with us."- said Colette, but Raine shook her head.

- "But... the people of this town..."

- "We are going to be just fine, Raine."- said the Mayor as he placed a hand over her shoulder- "You told us that moving back here wouldn't be easy. We were aware that there'd still be people here who wouldn't accept us right away..."

- "But they are fewer, thanks to all the journeys your brother and you have been doing all these years."- Added the woman who Raine had saved earlier. - "And let's not forget that we are not alone anymore: The Chosen and his friends are by our side."

- "Errr... I don't use that title anymore."- Corrected Zelos- "But you are right, my sweet lady."

- "And that counts for you two too."- said Sheena- "And Colette's right, you should return to Iselia. It'll be the best for your mother... and for Genis too."

Raine looked at her brother, who was still standing next to the seashore.

- "All right"- she sighed- "Let's return to Iselia."

To be Continued.