The snow crinkled under Laguna's boots; its uneven texture forced him to put more care into each step as he pushed onward and upward. His heavy parka was all that shielded him against the constant chill. No matter his efforts however, the wind remained merciless. He was swiftly toppled over yet again, falling to one knee. And again, a hand reached out to help him back up.

He followed the arm up to its wide, muscular torso, and from there to his friend's face. The river-like scar trailing down from his temple was the same. So too were the piercing blue eyes beneath his coat's hood. And yet, where so long ago he would have expected an unimpressed frown, there was only compassion. Neither was there any smart remark with regard to him repeatedly losing his footing. Indeed, Ward no longer had the capacity to do so, which only made Laguna all the more disappointed not to hear it. His other friend obliged him in short order.

"Ellone's going to be so impressed," Kiros smirked as he came up on his other side.

"Better believe it!" Laguna played off the jab. He took Ward's hand and pulled himself back to his feet.

It had been roughly a month since he'd departed from Winhill. Not a day went by that he didn't ache to be by Raine's side again. But then, without Ellone, how could things ever be the same? He'd fully committed himself to bringing her back, and had sworn as much to his beloved that night. No mountain, however steep and treacherous, would stand in his way. With travel across the Horizon Bridge completely cut off, it was their only viable route into Esthar.

After collecting the payment for his last article, much of which they'd spent on hiking equipment and apparel, Laguna and his crew had set off along the north-bound express line for Dollet. From there, they'd caught a ferry across the sea to the town of Grendel on the Eldbeak Peninsula. They'd rented a set of snowmobiles the next morning and begun a grueling, week-long journey across the Hawkind Plains to Trabia. Nights had been uncomfortably frigid, even with the insulated tent they'd shared along the way. Wildlife had largely stayed clear of them; the occasional snow lion to run across their path had been no match for Laguna's machine gun.

They'd finally sprung for a hotel upon reaching the city, and after several days of recuperation, were back on the road again. It had taken just as long to make their way so far out into the Bika Snowfield. However tumultuous the journey had been thus far, Laguna understood just how much more there still was to go. And yet, there was no doubt in his mind whether they would make it. For the first time in more than 2 years, he'd rediscovered the camaraderie he'd left behind with his position in the army. No matter the challenges in store for them beyond the Vienne Mountains, there was no one else he would rather face them alongside. And this time, for a cause he knew was worth fighting for.

The pass soon led them to a scenic overlook of the forested plains in the distance. Esthar lay in wait several hundred miles further. It was a journey they'd committed to taking on foot; the increasingly steep incline had forced them to abandon their snowmobiles further down the range. It mattered little to Laguna. He would travel any distance for Ellone, by any means. As he surveyed the road ahead however, one obstacle to dwarf all others towered above the frosted landscape.

A gargantuan rectangular prism hovered in place over the plains. Even from so many miles away, its sheer size was staggering; it stretched up high enough to rival several of the surrounding mountains. Besides the fact that it was floating, its dark metallic frame implied it to be a man-made construct. Laguna couldn't imagine the amount of effort that must have gone into building it. Neither did he need to ponder long as to who its architects were; the crescent moon emblem of Esthar was emblazoned on its fore. That he could see it clearly from so far away was a testament to the structure's size.

"What is that?" Kiros spoke for him.

"That's… big."

Truly, there were no other words he could muster. As he glanced sideways to Ward, he could tell it was the same for him, regardless of his inability to verbalize them. Suddenly, all began to darken. Laguna turned his gaze up, expecting to see a cloud having passed in front of the sun. Instead, the calm blue sky had been overtaken by a blood-red hue.

"What the hell?!" he reeled.

"Look!" Kiros blurted out.

Laguna followed his friend's outstretched finger back to the massive monolith in the distance. High above, a thick red stream shot down from the heavens, plummeting to earth like a meteor. Whatever its true nature, he recognized their impending doom speeding closer by the second.

"Get down!"

He hit the deck. Kiros and Ward followed suit without hesitation. The deafening explosion came moments later, utterly shattering the mountain range's calm. Despite being untold miles away, the blast's momentum still reached him. He dug his fingers deep into the snow against the gale-force wind, fighting to stay in place. Ultimately, his efforts were for naught. He was swept away and sent hurtling back down the mountain trail, twisting and turning as he tumbled over and over. His head was spinning. His ears were ringing. And sure enough, as he continued to tumble, his vision shortly followed. He slipped into blackness, desperately clinging to what little hope there still was of seeing his darling daughter again.

Wait for me, Ellone…




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