While their journey had been undeniably exciting thus far, the Embers had mostly seen nature with which they were already familiar. They had marched through grasslands, passed by trees, and seen insects crawling and flying about. All of these could be found back home in the Land of Hope. The rushing water of the river was new to them, but it was still just water. They had yet to see anything truly novel. Until the fifth morning of their travels, that is.
They were accustomed to the sun rising over the mountains at a certain hour. But with no mountains ahead of them, or even trees, the four Embers awoke as the light peeked over the mostly flat horizon. They had fallen asleep shortly after making it through a thick region of woods the night before, when it was too dark to see what existed beyond the forest. But now, it was fully illuminated.
KEI2’s hazel eyes adjusted as he stretched out his limbs. He rose to his feet, and saw CAM4 and FER5 slowly preparing to do the same. ERL7 was already wide awake, sitting a short distance ahead of them, watching the sunrise. KEI2 always enjoyed the feeling of mornings. He loved waking up and knowing the day was a completely blank slate, and could be filled with absolutely anything. But of course, this was only partially true back home. Now, the thrill of the morning had doubled for him, because the events of the day were actually unpredictable. Especially today, as an unfamiliar land awaited them straight ahead.
A seemingly boundless desert stretched in all directions. It was an expanse of sand, with odd plantlife scattered around. The sun shone on it through a cloudless sky, and the golden dunes reflected its vibrance.
“What is that?” asked KEI2, gazing at the desert through squinted eyes.
“There’s no grass,” noticed CAM4. She was standing now, observing the unusual land.
“Hrrf,” said FER5. He was a bit exhausted from all their walking, but his adventurous spirit took over, commanding his body to rise. He strode past KEI2 and CAM4, and stopped next to ERL7. He looked down at his best friend, whose eyes were still glued to the fantastic sight in front of him. ERL7’s tail wagged, and his ears were perked up. His tiny paws were fidgeting, like he just couldn’t wait to sprint ahead and explore.
“What do you think is out there?” ERL7 asked innocently.
“Hmmff,” breathed FER5, which everyone understood to mean it could be anything.
ERL7, like a curious young child, turned his head back toward KEI2 and CAM4, as if asking them for a more concrete answer.
“I’m not sure what’s out there, bud,” said KEI2. “Looks like a yellow ocean… but it’s motionless. And there’s some weird spiky plants all around.” He was referring to the cacti, which were nowhere close to the Embers’ concept of how a plant was supposed to look. They had seen only tall trees and the occasional wildflowers.
“Hopefully we’ll find the truth,” said CAM4. She began walking toward the desert with determination. KEI2 stood behind for a moment. He was honestly a bit scared of the truth. He was comfortable with his origins being unknown, and worried his simple life might be tainted by uncovering the secrets of his past. As CAM4 had mentioned time and time again, something about the Embers was unusual, perhaps even unnatural. And maybe they would be better off remaining ignorant.
The group walked through the dwindling patches of grass, which eventually turned to sand. They each had a moment of shock as their feet sunk into the tiny grains.
“This feels so weird!” remarked ERL7. “What do you think of it, big guy?”
“Rrrggf,” grunted FER5. Even through the coarse soles of his massive feet, he felt the unusual sensation. It was unlike any other surface he had felt.
“What is this stuff?” asked KEI2. “It seems like… super tiny rocks.” His mind had suddenly switched from existential questions to marveling at the sand.
“It can’t be rocks,” laughed CAM4. “Rocks would feel much harder than this.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” said KEI2.
The group walked a great distance through the desert. Long shadows were cast behind them. ERL7 would occasionally walk in one of their shadows, because it was the only shade that could be found.
“That’s one weird tree,” said ERL7, gesturing at a cactus. “Do you think the thorns are meant to keep me from eating the bugs inside?”
“This is a totally new kind of place,” said KEI2, “We don’t even know if bugs live here. Anything could live here.” Suddenly, a small green lizard scurried past the four of them, as if it had been waiting for the perfect moment to make an entrance. It moved with incredible speed, and then buried itself in the sand.
“That definitely didn’t look like a bug to me,” said ERL7.
“It looked like…” said KEI2. “It could’ve been an Ember.”
The four of them were scanning the ground, looking for where the lizard had disappeared, when they suddenly noticed a strange shadow. They looked up to see it originated from a flying creature, circling the sky above them. It had an impressive wingspan, and even FER5 felt a bit intimidated by the noises it produced. This owl was on the hunt.
The lizard poked its head from the sand to check if the coast was clear. It noticed the owl, and darted away as fast as possible. Its tiny four-toed feet maneuvered the sand soundlessly. But unfortunately for the lizard, the owl spotted it with ease.
The Embers watched as the owl released an even scarier predatory call, swooping down and following the lizard. CAM4 began to step in the direction of the chase. She had a fondness for all natural creatures, and her instincts told her to protect the lizard. But KEI2 held her hand, pulling her back.
“We don’t know what these things are,” he said firmly. “We probably shouldn’t interfere. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
CAM4 nodded understandingly. She watched the chase continue with bated breath. The owl grew closer and closer to the lizard. There was a loud SNAP. The Embers looked away. But when their eyes returned to the scene, they saw the owl had caught nothing in its beak. The lizard had buried itself in the sand yet again, using what was evidently a defense mechanism. The owl waited patiently, glaring at the sand with its narrow yellow eyes.
“You don’t have to do this,” said CAM4, attempting to reason with the owl. “Please! We can find you food somewhere else.” The owl paid little attention to anything but the sand surrounding him. He began pecking at it, trying to locate the hidden lizard.
“There’s no way these things are Embers,” said ERL7. “Embers don’t hunt other Embers.”
“Yeah,” KEI2 agreed. “These creatures are different.”
“Rrrgh?” asked FER5. He was wondering how long they planned to stay watching the owl. He was bored of spectating this squabble.
“Well we gotta see what happens to the little green guy!” said ERL7. “I hope he makes it out.”
“Don’t get your hopes up,” KEI2 warned him. “The green guy is fast and good at hiding, but I think the feathered guy might outlast him.”
The owl rotated its head in a completely new direction. It was no longer focused on finding its prey. It stretched its brown wings and took off immediately. The lizard emerged slowly, grains of sand sliding from its green snout. It glanced in the same direction, and began scurrying the opposite way.
“Well that ended quickly,” said CAM4, perplexed. “Maybe they were just playing a game?”
“No… I think something scared’ em off,” said KEI2.
Surely enough, another creature was approaching them. His broad shoulders shifted back and forth as he paced on four muscular legs. This beast was possibly the same mass as FER5. The Embers could tell from a distance that he was powerful and authoritative. His breath was low and grumbly, and his bronze mane fell gracefully on either side of his head. He was a lion, the strongest beast living on this edge of the desert. Lizards, owls, and other creatures feared crossing paths with him. And now, the Embers were the only creatures in his line of sight.
“Should we be scared?” asked ERL7. He quickly crawled onto KEI2’s shoulder.
“I’m not sure,” said KEI2. He looked at the approaching animal, cautiously analyzing him.
The lion came to a halt. His face was calm, but in a domineering way. His tail swung back and forth, and his girthy paws were positioned sturdily in the sand. ERL7 peeked his eyes from behind KEI2’s left horn. CAM4 held onto KEI2’s hand.
FER5 took a step forward, grimacing at the lion. He stood in front of his friends, as if to say mess with them, you mess with me. The two hairy brutes locked eyes. They were in a stand-off. The lion weighed his options. He could possibly fight the big blue monster, and have four tasty creatures as his prize. But these colorful beings were foreign to him; they clearly did not belong in the desert. What if they were not so tasty? Or worse yet, what if they made him sick? But his only other option would be to leave, which would lead these newcomers to believe themselves threatening to him. It was no longer a matter of getting a fresh meal; he had to maintain his dominance of the desert.
The lion lunged forward and let out a roar that nearly deafened the Embers. FER5 thrust his hands forward to try and stop the lion, but he nearly toppled over when the hefty cat lept on him. FER5 pounded the lion’s face with his rugged blue fists. Each punch became more vigorous, until the lion took a few steps back. It circled FER5, waiting for the next moment to strike.
“Stop!” said CAM4. “You don’t have to hurt him! We need to tell him that we’re just passing through, and mean him no harm.”
“I dunno if he’s gonna listen,” said ERL7, fearfully watching his friend’s actions.
FER5 struck the lion with another blow to the head, and the lion growled in anger. The two beasts ran toward each other, pushing their body weight against one another. FER5 used his horns as a weapon. One of them was broken and stubby, but the other was completely intact. After a few jabs, he pierced the lion’s skin. A small burst of blood splattered on the cat’s blond fur, and he let out a wail.
The lion bared his teeth, and began swatting at FER5 with his claws. FER5 used his arms to block these lashes, but his arms received some painful scratches. He stomped his foot, aggravated. The lion mimicked him with his hind legs. But before their quarrel could progress any further, they heard a booming voice coming from above them.
“STOP,” said CAM4. She was hovering higher than ever before, and speaking with unrecognizable boldness. KEI2 watched in awe as she slowly lowered herself back to the ground, and stood between FER5 and the lion.
“We are not here to hurt you,” she said to the lion, making grand gestures with her arms so he might understand her message. “We came from another land. We just want to get through. We are not going to stay in your land, or cause any problems. We will not steal your food. We will not bother you. Please let us leave.” She looked straight into the lion’s cold eyes. She showed no fear in her expression or posture, nor did she show any intention to hurt the lion.
KEI2’s mouth hung open. ERL7’s tail was twirling in nervousness. One lash from the lion would severely hurt CAM4 in her current position. FER5 stood behind her, out of breath from the fight.
“Hrrgh,” said FER5. He was offering a truce.
The lion looked at the four Embers. He studied them carefully. It eventually sunk in that they were not challenging his authority, and he could easily find a tastier meal elsewhere. So with one final roar, he turned around and walked confidently into the distance.
There was an awkward silence as CAM4’s three friends looked at her with a bit of shock. She was not one to come out of her shell and show so much passion, but clearly her affinity for nature’s creatures was enough to motivate her.
“We have to treat these creatures kindly,” she said. “Even if they seem like threats, we should approach them with kindness first. If we want to find some answers, we can’t go picking fights with everyone we see.”
“I mean to be fair,” said ERL7, hopping onto FER5’s shoulder. “That thing definitely came picking a fight with us first.”
“True,” replied CAM4. “But a little bit of honesty did the trick, didn’t it? Nobody needed to get hurt.”
“FER5 says you make good points, but he’d still like some recognition,” said ERL7. “That was his first fight ever.”
“He did amazingly,” said KEI2. “Thanks for protecting us, buddy.” He placed a hand on FER5’s furry arm, which was a bit bruised. The Embers collected themselves and marched onward through the desert, feeling somewhat shaken by their encounter with the lion, but also feeling a bit braver than before. They were prepared to take on more threats throughout their coming quest.
The Embers walked through the mostly barren land for several days, passing more cacti, lizards, and the occasional owl. They slept under the stars, and enjoyed the shade supplied by the night sky. They exchanged stories, most of which were fairly similar. A few more days passed, and they grew bored of the endless dunes and repetitive sights. They even wondered if they had somehow managed to turn completely around, because there was nothing surrounding them besides sand, beige rocks, and the same old prickly plants.
Despite the fact that Embers do not require nearly as much nutrition as the average animal, they were certain they’d need food or water sometime soon. Their stomachs were as empty as the desert, and their throats as dry. Just as ERL7 was about to give out (despite having spent the majority of the trip riding on his friends’ shoulders), they stumbled upon something extraordinary.
“Woah,” said ERL7. “What’s this thing?”
The top of some large unnatural structure was visible through the sand. It appeared to be the color and hardness of the tan rocks scattered throughout the desert, but it was smoother and more symmetrical. The structure seemed to have a circular door on top. This was the first time the Embers had ever seen anything of the sort. To their knowledge, they had never laid eyes on any formation not made by nature, until this very moment.
FER5 courageously approached the door and gripped the stone handle. He pushed and pulled. Nothing happened. Then he spun the handle, and the door twisted off like a massive lid. He set it to the side.
“I’m glad you’re part of the group,” said KEI2. “None of us could’ve lifted that.”
“Rrrmm.” FER5 shrugged, implying there was no need to thank him.
The four Embers, one by one, peered inside the structure. They were completely unprepared for what they were about to discover. The knowledge hidden in this secret building would change their view of themselves, their species, and the world.