On the dark floor of the strange cylindrical building, the Embers saw a decaying corpse. It was sprawled awkwardly across small mounds of sand. Some words and images were scribbled on the walls, but they looked like no more than shadows from above. The light from the desert sun was just enough to make the body’s features visible to the four friends, who were gazing down from the overhead hatch, completely struck with horror.
“He’s dead…” whispered CAM4, on the verge of quivering. A dead body was among many sights these Embers had never witnessed up close. They understood the idea of death from insects and plants, but they had never considered it might apply to creatures of their own size. After all, no one in the Land of Hope had ever died. They all thrived together in what felt like eternal harmony.
“What do you think happened to him?” asked KEI2, trying to remain calm.
“We’ll have to go down there to find out,” replied CAM4.
“No way,” said KEI2. “This is exactly what I was talking about earlier. I told you we’d stumble upon stuff like this. Stuff we aren’t supposed to see.”
“Who says we’re not supposed to see this? Who decided we can’t know the truth?” asked CAM4.
“I’m just saying… What do we stand to gain from looking down there? I don’t want us to end up like him. I don’t want you to end up like him.” KEI2 began to feel a bit protective of CAM4. She was taking on a bold new role, and KEI2 feared her curiosity would lead her into serious danger.
“He’s clearly been dead for a while,” CAM4 observed, looking at the bones protruding from the body. “Whatever killed him is long gone.”
“I suppose so. But if we go down there, someone should stay up here to pull us out. I’m not sure those walls are climbable, and I don’t know if you can hover that high.”
“Definitely,” she agreed. The two of them turned to look at their other friends. ERL7 was cowering behind FER5’s feet, looking rather frightened.
“You okay, bud?” KEI2 asked him.
“Y-yeah,” answered ERL7, the majority of his tiny body still hidden. “It’s just… Life back home doesn’t seem too bad right about now. Nobody dies there.”
“I understand,” said CAM4, pivoting her body to fully face her friend. “But I think we need to know why no one dies back home. Even if finding out makes us a bit scared. There may be others out there we can save from dying. But we’ll never know if we stop searching.”
ERL7 nodded silently, clutching his necklace. It was a small metallic trinket on a thin black string that was hardly visible to anyone but himself. He wore it almost daily, and held it for good luck. He had found it many years ago, deep within the forests of the Land of Hope. It did not resemble anything else in nature, and he always assumed its unusual qualities would bring him good fortune.
As a gesture of commitment to the journey, KEI2 was the first to slide through the opening in the structure. He dug into the circular doorway with his orange claws, and slowly lowered his body. The air touching his feet became cooler as he went further down. He glanced at the floor one last time, trying to assess the distance. He couldn’t make out exactly how far of a drop it was, but he figured it couldn’t be terrible, since whatever creature had lived there surely managed to go in and out with little trouble. KEI2 let go, and fell a bit further than he had hoped. His legs absorbed the impact, and his dragon-like feet kept him balanced. But it was a fairly dramatic fall nonetheless.
“Are you alright?” hollered CAM4 from the top, her voice echoing off the curved walls.
“It’s a pretty far drop,” KEI2 responded. “There’s a door down here! I think this place used to be above ground. That’s how this guy managed to get in.”
CAM4 was unsure if she could hover out of the building, but she was confident in her ability to float down to the floor. She took a calming breath, and her feet lifted off the ground. She began lowering her body through the doorway. KEI2 stood below her, prepared to catch her if needed.
“I’ve got it,” she said with a smile. CAM4 landed gently next to KEI2, and the sand shifted beneath her toes. They had a brief moment of privacy in the darkness of the building, looking into one another’s glinting eyes. But it was hard to be sentimental with a skeletal body laying on the ground just a few steps away.
ERL7 used his lemur-like agility to bounce back and forth between the walls of the stone structure until he had descended to the floor.
“This place is even spookier from down here!” he yelled back up to FER5, who had elected himself for the role of helping everyone out of the hole once they gathered some findings.
“Hrrrmm?” his fuzzy friend asked, curious about what everybody was seeing.
“I think this guy is an Ember,” said KEI2, inspecting the body.
“What makes you say that?” asked CAM4.
“Look at his body. He just seems different from the other creatures we’ve run into. More… what’s the word… evolved.”
They looked closely at the corpse. The deceased Ember had fur that was likely once as colorful as theirs, but had turned into a faded green over time. He had three sizable eyes, one of which dangled slightly out of its socket. His jaw was narrow, and his teeth were mostly broken. His torso was covered in aged wounds. His death was clearly not from natural causes.
While KEI2 and ERL7 continued examining the body, CAM4 began running her yellow fingers across the walls, feeling the engraved messages and images. It initially looked like no more than ancient gibberish, but the longer she spent with it, CAM4 began to realize she could actually read the words inscribed on the walls. She had never written or read anything before, yet somehow the text was making perfect sense. It was a feeling she perhaps would have spent more time enjoying if the content of the inscription did not pique her interest from the very first line.
“Not long ago, there was widespread peace. My species, the Embers, lived across the entire world,” she read. “We existed in every climate. Mountains and valleys. Deserts and tundras. Jungles and forests.”
KEI2 and ERL7 spun around. They did not question how CAM4 could read the text; they just followed along with the pictures as she spoke. The first few images showed groups of Embers having joyous times in various environments. FER5 held his ear closer to the entry as the story went on.
“One day, a devil came down from the sky. It was made of metal, but had a mind of its own.” The illustration showed the clouds parting for an utterly massive robot. Mountain ranges were drawn around it, presumably for the sake of comparison. The robot was nearly the height of an entire mountain.
“The monster introduced itself as The Demolisher. It was there for only one reason… to exterminate all Embers. It boasted incredible powers, and had no trouble killing many of us.” The next image showed a dozen helpless Embers being torched by flames from The Demolisher’s wrist. ERL7 took a step back. He had not expected this tale to take such a graphic turn.
“All the Embers gathered in a hidden grassland. We waited for The Demolisher to find us. When it did, we attacked.” The Embers were shown fighting The Demolisher in the Land of Hope. KEI2 was astonished to see such an accurate drawing. The Embers in the picture resembled many creatures he had personally seen back home. He even spotted one that looked a bit like himself.
“It took a great effort. More lives were lost. But in the end, The Demolisher was defeated thanks to our unity. Sadly, my wounds from the battle were incurable. So I returned to my original home to write down my story, in case any outsiders ever find this place. I will soon perish, but my legacy will live on through the tale of the Embers and their glorious battle.”
The silence in the room was unsettling. Thoughts exploded within the heads of the four friends. And all at once, they began asking their questions aloud.
“So Embers really lived outside the Land of Hope?”
“How long ago did this Ember die? When did his story take place?”
“What happened to The Demolisher’s body after it was defeated? Is it still in the Land of Hope?”
“If this story is true, how come none of us remember a great battle being fought?”
“Could there still be other surviving Embers that never made it to the Land of Hope?”
“No one back home has ever mentioned this story. Surely if it were true, we would all know about it. Maybe this Ember just made it all up?”
“GGGRRRRFF.” A bellow from FER5 was always enough to silence the group when they were speaking over each other. FER5 was ready to discuss everything, but he wanted them to come out of the dark chamber first. He reached one muscular arm down, offering it to anyone. KEI2 was the first to accept it. One by one, the Embers crawled back out into the intensely bright desert with FER5’s assistance.
The dry heat reminded them of their thirst, and they all instinctively started walking again, hoping some water would come sooner rather than later. As they marched, they exchanged more questions, none of which could be answered. The old tale of The Demolisher was their most unfathomable discovery yet. Even the stubborn and scared corners of KEI2’s mind, which normally clung to safety, were beginning to grow curious about the history of his species. Even if the story written on the walls was completely fictional, he could no longer stop himself from wondering… how much had the Embers forgotten about their past? And how much had he forgotten?