Water droplets dripped down as if to mark the passing of time, a tranquil echo throughout the dark, rocky space. The dripping was soft, soon swallowed up by the cold dampness and returning to silence.
Without warning, a new sound disrupted the quiet. It was the boisterous irregularity of splashing puddles, a contrast to the dripping droplets. Then the unmistakable sound of human breathing. And cloth scraping against metal.
"It's slippery. We'd better move slowly."
"Yes, you're right."
Alphen and Shionne. They strode through the gloomy cavern in contrasting clothes of black and white.
Not everything in the cave was natural—in places there were signs of human activity, from sculptures to masonry such as walls and stairs, seemingly half-melted into the stone. Their complex forms created a peculiar dance of shadows in the swaying light of the fire.
There were no signs of anything else moving besides the two of them, so silent as to be uncanny, and yet they walked on unbothered. As if nothing could frighten them as long as they were together.
"This one has an interesting shape."
Alphen spoke as they passed an engraved portion at the head of a toppled column.
The ruins in these caves were parts of Dahna's lost history. They were evidence of the civilization that had been destroyed 300 years earlier when the Renans subjugated the planet. How many ruins and relics like these remained, and how much could be reconstructed from them? Neither of them could even begin to guess.
"Rinwell might be able to explain if she were here."
"Yeah. It all looks the same to me. It's kind of embarrassing."
Had he ever seen any of this before? He'd seen the world of 300 years past with his own eyes. He should actually know it better than anyone alive. But even if he tried to recall them, such memories completely eluded him. It was probably more a matter of interest than memory. And there was nothing he could do about that.
Shionne's voice brought him back to his senses. At some point they'd begun to descend a staircase. Their lamplight was reflected on the surface of the water up ahead. The path seemed to start going up again; he could see the top of the stairs on the other side of the water.
"Let's go along the wall."
The two decided to advance along an outcropping of the wall slightly above the water's surface. If they proceeded carefully, it wouldn't pose any real danger. The water reflected back an image of the pair—like a mirror.
Shionne stopped moving.
Alphen took note and also came to a stop. Just as he was about to ask what was wrong, he realized what she was looking at. The surface of the water. So similar to a mirror. Alphen's face stiffened.
The hollowing was what remained of matter after it had been drained of its astral energy. A void that only reflected its surroundings. When the two worlds merged, the vast expanse of hollowing that encompassed Rena had been brought to the new world. Though most lay underground, people sometimes discovered stretches of it, just like now. The hollowing became an all-new issue after the merging since it made roads untraversable and plots of land unlivable.
Considered to be the death of matter, much remained unknown about the hollowing, and it was considered best not to touch it at all. The two remained silent and resumed their transversal of the outcropping.
Upon reaching the other side, Shionne let out a small breath of relief. After continuing for a while, she opened her mouth to change the mood.
"Come to think of it, I wonder if our letters arrived safely."
"Don't worry, the merchant I entrusted them with is reliable. It'll be fine."
Suddenly something came to mind, and he asked her a question.
"That reminds me, Shionne. Why did you ask Kisara to tell Dohalim rather than sending a letter to him instead? You could have done the same with Rinwell too..."
She seemed troubled for a moment, then a look of exasperation mixed with anger came over her face. He was such a simpleton.
"Because I found it unfair."
"Unfair? You found what unfair?"
This time she clearly raised her voice when speaking.
"Listen. They don't get to see each other as often as we do."
Alphen finally understood, and his face grew tense. No, she couldn't be angry at him now.
"Do you think I'm meddling too much?"
"Oh, n-no, I... don't think so."
With that cleared up and ready to move on, Shionne suddenly stepped on a small stone. Her foot slipped, sending her upper body backwards.
Her hand extended reflexively in response to his voice. Alphen seized her arm and pulled her back forcefully. He got so carried away that he ended up hugging her against him. His incredibly earnest expression—the exact opposite of what it'd been moments before—came into Shionne's view.
"Are you okay?"
Even after she'd regained her balance, Alphen continued holding her hand.
She'd been unable to come into contact with others for so long due to her cursed "thorns." Now things had changed so much that she would reach out to others without thinking. Though she was still on guard around those she wasn't close with, it was a major change from just a year earlier. Though her slip had been a close call, this awareness of the past and present made Alphen happy.
How did she feel about him? Shionne suddenly—albeit carefully, so as not to seem cold—let go.
"Let's k-keep moving. We're almost at the exit."
With that, she walked off briskly. As if to avoid letting him see the look on her face.
Alphen followed frantically behind, worried she might stumble again.
Upon leaving the cave, they found themselves bathed in gentle sunlight in an open area thick with plant life. A familiar sight on Dahna. But in the distance was something that hadn't always been there.
A strange-looking structure. Neither Dahnan nor Renan. It had been constructed by the Helganquil—the true Renans. Just like the hollowing, it was irrefutable proof that the two worlds had merged. Similar to the hollowing, the majority were buried underground in various places around the world, with just the top exposed aboveground.
Dots of light danced silently before the pair as they looked on. Astral energy. According to what they'd heard from Rinwell, these lights were likely the remnants of astral energy that had failed to materialize at the time of the merging of the worlds. They were energy that had overflowed when the Twin Worlds and their five elements had became one world with six. It was a harmless and not particularly rare phenomenon, but it was yet another one that hadn't existed before the events of last year.
"Seeing this really reminds me how much the world has changed."
"Yeah," said Alphen. "The only thing that hasn't changed is people's hearts and minds."
Shionne heard a hint of cynicism in his voice and frowned.
The battle a year earlier had changed the very nature of the world. They and their companions had played a major role in it all, which brought with it some degree of public notice. At the center of it all was Alphen, who especially couldn't go anywhere without drawing attention. From Dahnans and Renans alike.
Shionne knew it wasn't something he'd asked for.
She wanted to be close to him. Just as he had once saved her, she now wanted to support him. But Alphen never tried to rely on her. Shionne found it vexing.
Just as she began to speak, a scream rang out from the thicket.
"AHH! H-Help, someone!"
"What was that?!"
By the time Shionne called out, Alphen was already running.
They drew their weapons as they ran. Alphen with his sword, Shionne with her gun. It was clear they would be necessary from the sound of the scream.
They spotted the person whose scream they'd heard right away. As well as the cause of that scream.
A zeugle. A big one, too. Its whole body was covered in thick bristles. Rising up on its hind legs, its front legs were lined with rows of razor-sharp claws. They could tell at a glance that it was a formidable enemy.
Its ferocious gaze was focused on a Dahnan in traveler's garb. Collapsed to the ground out of fear, he desperately tried to scramble backwards.
Since the merging, none of the zeugles could be controlled by the Renans anymore. This made Dahnans and Renans equals in a sense—they were equally likely to be attacked. Though for Dahnans, this was nothing new.
Zeugles now attacked everyone, regardless of whether they were Dahnan or Renan. Not that this single point of equality was something to rejoice about, of course.
The zeugle roared. Alphen decided to stop overthinking. Saving this person came first.
Raising his voice to draw attention, he charged in, sword drawn. From behind him, Shionne provided suppressing fire. She hit her mark, but the bullet was blocked by the thick fur and didn't go deep.
So Alphen leapt in to slice its abdomen directly. But what should've been a deadly strike was thwarted by its claws, which responded with a sharp sound. Sparks went flying. The claws blocked his metallic sword. If they struck flesh, it could prove fatal.
This was a very strong foe, indeed.
But Alphen had faced stronger beings on countless occasions. This was hardly beyond his abilities. The corners of Alphen's mouth rose defiantly.
Did the zeugle sense it too? The beast suddenly shifted its focus from Alphen. It swiveled its head toward the traveler and went soaring into the air. In a single leap, it closed the gap between them.
As Alphen cried out, glaring gunfire passed overhead and hit the zeugle hard. Once again the shots failed to pierce its flesh, but they did knock the zeugle out of its mid-air pounce.
A red light glowed in Alphen's hand. The Blazing Sword, his signature weapon. A torrent of flame that even burned the wielder.
Kicking up dirt, he drove a red-hot blow into the zeugle from behind. No bristly hair could block this. The zeugle shrieked, its whole body engulfed in flames. Burned from inside and out, it was no longer breathing by the time it hit the ground.
"Are you okay?"
Alphen addressed the traveler, who was still sprawled on the ground. Though dumbfounded at first, once he came to, he began nodding so furiously that his head seemed as if it would fall off.
"Th-Thank you! I got careless and lost my way, and then that zeugle found me. I still can't believe I was saved by the legendary Blazing Sword!"
The Blazing Sword. The name made Alphen tense up. But having just escaped an utterly terrifying situation, the traveler failed to notice.
He'd be proud to tell his friends, he said. With that and a repeated bowing of his head, he was gone. Alphen stood silently until the traveler was completely out of sight.
Meanwhile Shionne stared at him.
As far as the Dahnans were concerned, "The Blazing Sword" was the very symbol of heroism. The moniker came from his blade. His signature weapon. Alphen didn't like being called that. It was one thing Shionne knew very well.
Once he drew his sword, everyone knew who he was. Alphen understood this as well. Nevertheless, the two of them knew that the Blazing Sword was necessary since they had lost it once before. Alphen would use the sword without a moment's hesitation to help someone, despite what it meant for him. That's the kind of person Alphen was. And that's why she...
"Something wrong, Shionne?"
He sounded worried. Yes, he was always like that. Putting himself second.
She wanted to do the same for him. She felt that way again right this moment.
"No, it's nothing."
Shionne gave a small shake of her head and smiled.
"Alright, let's go."
"For sure, I can't wait to see everyone."
"It doesn't look like we're forgetting anything."
"Indeed, I always know I can count on you."
"It'll be the first time we've all seen each other in awhile."
"Yeah. I'm looking forward to it."
A new journey in a new world. New encounters await with the start of a new story.
To be continued in Tales of Arise: Beyond the Dawn...