A/N: Due to the wording at the end, this could be considered one ending to this story. However, that does not mean I will not simply leave it as that. So yes, I couldn't contain it to three chapters, in other words. XP So, one more will officially finish this. Thanks for sticking with it for this long.
"It's no use."
Natalia looked up sullenly from the hole she had busied herself in digging in blind hopes of unearthing their missing companions. It had been at least an hour or so since they had commenced the search and now as dusk drew ever nearer, they found that the odds, too, were waning like the daylight.
The brisk gales had picked up since the avalanche, which did not aid their cause in the least. Light patches of powdery snow constantly drifted about on the wind and covered what little progress they had made. Not only that, but the temperature had notably plummeted after the sun disappeared behind a thick quilt of clouds, greatly ominous in appearance as they crept out from behind the tops of the mountains like an evil haze.
"If they were trapped in the snow banks beneath us, we certainly would've found, or at least heard them by now." Jade continued, "There is always the possibility that they were simply not caught up in the avalanche as we were, but the chances of that are very slim. The only other option I can surmise is one of a more grim nature." He finished, his gaze wondering to the ledge of the dark precipice.
The silence between them hung heavily in the air like a sinister presence. Guy and Tear had also ceased their burrowing at Jade's notice; Tear rested on the ground, looking down drably, absently petting the just as downhearted Mieu who had nestled in her lap. Guy angrily sifted his hand through the snow, letting the silence carry on a bit longer before asking, a bit on edge, "Well… Now what do we do?"
"Miieeuu… I'm scared for Master!" the cheagle chirped.
Thinking realistically, Tear said, "At the moment, there's not much we can do."
"But that doesn't mean we can renounce our efforts." Natalia added.
Guy nodded in agreement, brushing the stray crystals of snow from his clothing as he stood up. "Natalia's right. We can't give up on them, but at the same time, we'll have to stop and find some shelter for the night."
Jade sighed lightly, suggesting, "There is always the option that, if we hurry, we could make it back to Keterberg before dark, secure adequate supplies and renew our search tomorrow."
Natalia gasped at this proposition. "I cannot even accept the idea of that plan! If we retreat back to the city now, we would be abandoning them when they need us the most! They surely would not make it through the night if we were to leave."
"Princess, calm down." He urged passively, his own patience running close to thin. "First of all, we cannot be completely sure that they are even alive at this point. Certainly, I would imagine none of us want to believe such a grim truth, but if one is missing-in-action, it is better to assume them dead." He said with a straight face, eyes and tone colder than the howling winds. He went on just as stern, "Secondly, even if they survived, we have to put our stock in what we know we have—in other words, we have to keep ourselves alive so we can avoid a complete loss and finish the mission they started."
A bitter silence stretched between them. Mieu suppressed a shiver, cuddling deeper into Tear's lap. Finally, Guy lowered his eyes, absently kicking at the snow around him. "Judging by your tone, I'd say you've encountered this sort of situation before, huh?" he asked despondently before looking him in the eye. "I know what you're saying is the smart thing to do, but I'd rather be an optimistic idiot than risk the chance of losing either of them. It's just the way I am."
Jade nodded in understanding, emotions detached as he simply acknowledged the thought behind Guy's decision. The wind now whispered at their backs; he looked to Tear. "I can easily assume Natalia's position on this matter. What about you, Tear?"
Tear looked worrisome and pensive, absently biting her bottom lip. Her eyes turned downcast as she spoke, "With my background as a soldier, I can't deny that Jade's plan would be the most intelligent and efficient use of our energy and time..." Before the others could entertain the idea of a tie, she continued, looking upward from her disheartened stare. "…But as a friend, I couldn't bear to leave anyone out in this harsh wilderness, especially at night. I would rather we stay."
More or less acquiescing to their desires, Jade nodded again, saying, "Then we should find a cavern or at least something to block out the wind. We can build a fire, catch some prey for dinner, and use the fire not only for warmth and cooking, but should Luke and Anise still be alive, the smoke should signal our location as well."
Guy was openly much more pleased with this idea. He grinned. "I remember there being a small cave on the path we took just before fighting the God-Generals. We could set up there."
Feeding off the blade master's enthusiasm, Mieu chirped, "Mieu! I'll gather some fire wood!"
"No," Jade quickly reproached. "We cannot afford anyone to split up, especially as the daylight weakens."
"But we're gonna need to make good use of the remaining daylight." Guy pointed out, suggesting, "We could go in teams—Natalia and I can be in charge of catching dinner."
"You're right." Tear stated, "So then Jade and I will gather some wood and start a fire… Is that all right, Colonel?"
He shrugged, "But of course, it's splendid to plan ahead. However, don't you think you're putting the cart before the horse? We still have to find an ample site."
The duo's progress—using the word to the lightest degree—was slow and arduous to begin with, and as the light waned and the winds grew colder, things only got worse. Not just that, but they could feel a heavy fatigue creep into their bodies and spirits.
Anise, being unable to walk on her broken leg and incapable of riding Tokunaga in her injured state, had managed to climb onto Luke's shoulders like a small child, her staff ready in one hand, lightly gripping Luke's hair for balance with the other. She kept her weary brown eyes peeled for any sign on danger.
Luke cradled his tender arm close to his body, tucked under his now tattered jacket. He held his sword awkwardly in his right hand as he trudged through the snow. His right eye cracked open as much as he would allow it, he depended almost entirely on Anise to be his eyes.
"Anise," he asked weakly, "Where are we? Do you know?"
She frowned, squinting to see ahead. "I have no idea. There's nothing to be seen—no trees, no rocks, no rivers, nothing!" she sighed. "Not to mention the—move to the right a little, the snow looks a bit less thick there—blizzard's picking up."
"Fantastic." Luke grumbled, taking a small step to the right.
Anise shook her head, thinking. "We need to find some shelter to last us through the night, and with it getting darker and darker it's gonna be hard. But we have to keep going! We can't stop!"
He rolled his eyes. "Easy for you to say."
"…Oh," she nervously giggled. "Sorry."
As they went on, thin patches of pine began to sprout in the distance as the tight path between the mountains began to widen, revealing icy valleys. Anise beamed as she looked ahead, pointing enthusiastically, "Luke, look! Doesn't this place look familiar?"
"I don't know, you tell me. You're my eyes, after all."
She paused. "I'm not sure… Oh, but we could look for our foot prints in the… Noo, that wouldn't work, not with all the new snow coming down…" she muttered, resting her chin on her hand in thought. She watched the frost-born crystals fall in a peaceful silence, the soft crunch of their footsteps in the snow the only sound to be heard for miles. She shivered slightly, bringing her arms in closer.
Luke sighed heavily, pinching his eyes—or rather, his one exposed eye—shut from time to time as tiny flakes would impede his vision. He shook his head free of the crystals that clung persistently to his hair.
Anise' heart plunged. Luke lurched forward suddenly, stumbling helplessly through the snow; she gripped his shoulders with all she had. In an instant, he had collapsed into the banks. She cried out in pain as his limp body crashed onto her broken leg, hastily scurrying out from underneath him without thinking. Tears welled at the edges of her eyes, "Dammit, Luke! Would it kill you to be a bit more careful?!" she shrieked, nursing her leg.
A few moments passed before her pain had subsided a decent amount; she returned to her right mind. She sighed, looking in Luke's direction. "…Sorry, Luke, I didn't mean that." She paused, waiting for his response, but when he offered her none—not even a movement to acknowledge her—a foreboding shiver swept through her entire being. "…Luke?"
Hesitantly, she gently nudged his shoulder with her hand. A wave of relief swept over her when she felt his steady breathes exiting his body, but soon realized with insurmountable dread that he would be quick to freeze unless she could think of something—fast.
"Okay, okay, in order to keep warm, you've gotta know what's making you cold, and then fix that…" Anise quickly told herself, looking down, her eyes jumped back and forth as if she were reading through her thoughts. "Okay, so we're cold because it's cold…" she paused, "Can't fix that. Uum…"
She picked her head up, absently biting her lower lip. The evergreens shivered slightly in the wind, the snow sleeping atop their piney arms eroding into white wisps. Her eyes lit up. "The wind! So, we need a wind breaker…" Taking a hard look at her few resources, she remembered the igloos made by the children in St. Keterburg and how incredibly warm they were, despite being made out of snow.
Anise shook her head, casting her doubts aside; she had to make use of whatever she could. Both of their lives depended on her.
Hastily, she threw a clot of snow into the air, to assure from which direction the wind was coming. Nodding in affirmation, she used her arms to pull herself through the snow, keeping her broken leg taut straight until she was on the other side of Luke. She began to pack handfuls of snow together, slowly creating a makeshift barrier to partly shelter them from the howling gales.
She cringed slightly as her small hands soon became numb, but she disregarded it—they would've become numb from the cold sooner or later, anyway. Her wall finished, she scurried back over to Luke's side and gripped his hand tightly. She could feel the nerves in her hand scream as the warmth of his hand pierced her numbness. A tiny, relieved smile crossed her face; he was still alive and warm.
Anise continued to work quickly, covering Luke in a quilt of snow—she stopped, again checking on him—then set to work on covering herself as she lay next to the young noble. Once finished, she cuddled up close to him, a soft pink blush spreading across her face.
In case Luke was conscious, she explained, "We need to keep each other warm; it's the only way." Then she muttered to herself, "Besides, if Tear found us like this, I think she'd kill both of us."
Her comments were met with an icy silence, and she sighed, instinctively cuddling closer to him. "Hypothermia can set in when you fall asleep—it may be too late for you, Luke, but that's not a fault of yours." She whispered, "I've got to stay awake for the both of us, so we both can be warm enough to live. I don't want to die, Luke, and I don't want you to die either. So I've gotta stay awake..."
…She was asleep within minutes.