The Embers knew they were nearing the end of the desert as the sand dunes grew smaller, and the temperature became more forgiving. The winds picked up slightly, reminding them of home. But they were far from home. They were miles away from any sense of comfort, or any promise of a normal tomorrow. They were in the midst of an adventure, and had traveled too far to return without uncovering more secrets.
The group’s latest discovery was only fueling everyone’s curiosity. KEI2 had feared coming across anything so grim, but now that he had a taste of what forbidden knowledge awaited him, he was ready for more. ERL7 had a bit more pep in his step. He had conquered some of his own fears by helping his friends investigate the dead Ember, and he was feeling more capable than ever before. FER5, who rarely let himself display any signs of cheeriness, was maintaining a clear-cut smile. His thick tail swung with some extra excitement. He kept his chin up, alert and ready for whatever they might stumble upon next.
CAM4 had the boldest smile of all, and walked with a vindicated strut. She had initiated their quest for truth, and now that they had found a significant clue, she was confident her group was on the right track. Her optimism had paid off, and she was happy to see her friends equally invested in the endeavor.
Without warning, ERL7 sprinted ahead.
“Where are you goin’ pal?” asked KEI2, raising an eyebrow.
“Hrrf,” answered FER5. He gestured with his horns to a point on the horizon. KEI2 and CAM4 squinted, and they could not believe what they saw through the sandy haze. An oasis of water, surrounded by beautiful greenery, was not far at all.
ERL7 was tripping over his own paws, running quickly but clumsily. His dehydrated tongue was dramatically flopping from side to side with each leap and bound. He looked as though he could collapse at any moment. The little Ember was tired, parched, and ready to wash the scratchy sand from his fur. Upon reaching the oasis, he dove head-first into the water, taking no time to enjoy the scenery.
He was immersed in astoundingly clear water, which was cool enough to offer some refreshment, but just warm enough to feel like a comforting hug. His muscles loosened, and he let himself calmly drift for a moment before returning his head to the surface. CAM4 and KEI2 had never seen him soaked before. He appeared even smaller when his hair was straightened by the water. The contrast between the whites and violets of his fur were not quite as stark now. As the sunlight gleamed brightly off the oasis, he looked like the silhouette of a rather gaunt monkey. The other Embers could not help but laugh.
Upon reaching the oasis, KEI2 took a seat and dipped his feet in the relaxing water. He reached down and scooped some into his red palms. He slurped the water, trying not to spill any through his fingers. He had never been more grateful to be drinking. He was just as desperate for hydration as ERL7, although he had done his best to hide it.
CAM4 sat down next to him. She began cupping water and drinking some herself. After sipping for several minutes and enjoying the tranquil sounds of the oasis, she looked at KEI2.
“We’ve been friends for a long time, haven’t we?” she asked.
“We really have,” said KEI2. He appreciated the softness in her voice. She had been speaking with authority and vivacity for the past few days. He had no issue with CAM4 being expressive, but it was nice to hear her sounding relaxed again.
“I wouldn’t want to be doing this with anyone else,” she said. “I mean, FER5 and ERL7 are great adventure buddies. But I can’t imagine anyone replacing you.”
“That means a lot,” said KEI2. “If it weren’t for you, I definitely would’ve turned back by now… or I would’ve never left home in the first place. Thanks for keeping us all going.”
“My pleasure. I hope this is worth it in the end. I hope we find something incredible.”
“I think just by doing this together, we already did.”
CAM4 could tell KEI2 was coming from an emotional place with his last statement. But she could not quite tell if he was implying anything beyond the fact their adventure had been memorable thus far. Despite the many unusual qualities in Embers, they shared one trait in common with most other species. Romance could be a challenge and a mystery, full of nuances and misunderstandings.
In the world of the Embers, there was no real pressure to find a partner. Embers had no traditional families, and no labels for those who chose to form permanent attachments. So the only driving factor behind any relationship would be love. And oftentimes, friends would tip-toe around the notion of love to avoid any potential damage to the friendship, and go ages before realizing the love was mutually shared. And from the perspective of an outsider such as ERL7, who was eavesdropping on their conversation with one ear poked from the water, it could not be clearer that this was the predicament of KEI2 and CAM4.
FER5 studied the oasis with his eyes, which were mostly covered by his fur as usual. The others slowly turned to look at him, wondering why he had not yet touched the pleasant water. In fact, he was standing a cautious distance away from it.
“Don’t just stand there, ya big oaf!” ERL7 shouted to his friend. “Jump in!”
Luckily for everyone who did not wish to be hit by a tremendous splash, FER5 did not jump in. Instead, he kept his eyes locked on the water.
“Are you alright?” asked CAM4. She stood up and walked toward him.
“Hrrf. Mrrrgh,” growled FER5 in an even deeper tone than usual.
“What are you talking about? There’s no one else in the water!” said ERL7.
“He sees someone in the water?” asked KEI2, pulling his legs out quickly.
“Yeah,” said ERL7. “But he must have a fever from the desert. There’s no one in this water but me!”
KEI2 stood next to CAM4. They both saw something below the surface of the water. FER5 was not delusional; there were somehow lights and shapes moving around in the depths of the oasis. The water was evidently not nearly as shallow as they first perceived, because these unusual shapes were rather far down.
“What are those things?” asked KEI2. “Are they alive? I can’t tell.”
“Wait, there’s really something in here?!” ERL7 began swimming out of the water as hurriedly as he had run toward it.
In a matter of seconds, the four friends were standing side by side, peering into the oasis with eyes illuminated by the bizarre lights. They beheld a truly alien series of movements. The lights danced, flickered, swam around, switched places, and behaved in a beautifully strange manner. The four Embers stepped gradually closer to the water, enticed by the hypnotising motion. For a brief moment, they needed no explanation. They were in a state of pure wonder. Perhaps they could have left the oasis, and forever remembered the lights as an anomaly on their journey. But as always, curiosity crept into their minds and got the better of them. They had to know what was swimming in the water.
“Whatever’s down there doesn’t seem to be coming any closer to us,” observed KEI2.
“Not getting any further away either,” said ERL7, a bit timid.
“Do you think the lights are trying to communicate something?” asked CAM4.
“Maybe,” said KEI2. “Or maybe they don’t even know we’re here.”
“Well why don’t we go introduce ourselves?” asked CAM4.
“Oh no,” said ERL7. “I definitely won’t be swimming down there. You guys tell me what you find.”
“No offense, but I wouldn’t even let you attempt it,” laughed KEI2, noting that the lights were moving at a depth nearly twenty times the length of ERL7’s body. “And FER5 probably shouldn’t either. I’m not sure he’s ever swam in water this deep… he might sink and never come back!”
ERL7 gulped. He knew KEI2 was exaggerating, but there was some truth to his words.
“We have experience holding our breath underwater,” said CAM4, grabbing KEI2’s hand with a bit more affection than he was accustomed to. “Remember the ponds back home? We would go swimming on hot days, and see who could stay below the longest.”
“Yeah… good times.” KEI2 turned to face his friend, whose golden brown eyes were looking sweetly into his own. He remembered how those eyes shone on sunny days back in the Land of Hope, and the wonderful times they did indeed have swimming in the small ponds.
“Let’s go!” said CAM4. She dove into the water headfirst.
“We went from being scared of the lights to assuming they’re friendly very quickly,” said ERL7.
“Sometimes, you gotta face your fears,” said KEI2. He knew this wisdom could come back to bite him if the lights ended up being dangerous. But he wanted to instill more bravery in ERL7, as well as himself. He dove after CAM4. His fingers pierced the water, and his eyes adjusted quickly.
Most Embers from the Land of Hope, even those with no aquatic traits, could adapt to water fairly easily. They did not need to come up for air as often as standard land animals, and their vision did not become blurred. In fact, it was much easier for CAM4 and KEI2 to discern the details of the scene now that they were underwater. The lights were utterly mesmerizing. Every possible color could be found. But as the two friends swam closer, it became clear that each light had a figure. These were creatures, glowing with remarkable radiance.
As the creatures’ elegant movements came to a halt, each one found a fixed position on the rocky walls of the oasis. They slowly turned to gaze at KEI2 and CAM4 with curious expressions. The creatures varied in size, shape, and color. One had the same body shape as KEI2, but he glowed a brilliant orange. His eyes were large, yet narrow. And his temples were a translucent green, which made the inside of his head partially visible. Another creature looked like a small mound of slick snow, and had a prominent face with many teeth. One had a lovely violet hue, but a body that appeared to be made of stone. Each of these creatures produced beautiful light, but they all dimmed in the presence of KEI2 and CAM4.
If he could have spoken, KEI2 would have told CAM4 that these beings were almost certainly Embers. He could tell by the way they behaved so uniformly, yet were completely diverse. One look at CAM4’s expression told him that she had precisely the same thought.
One of these odd water Embers floated forward. She resembled a rutabaga, stem and leaves and all. She had four appendages which were somewhere in the grey area between arms and tentacles.
“Who are you?” she asked in a voice just as quirky as her appearance.
CAM4 gestured toward her own closed mouth, indicating that she could not speak underwater.
“They’re Land Dwellers,” came a booming voice from the back. A large female Ember came forth. She looked like an especially fuzzy cross between a hippopotamus and a manatee.
“We haven’t had visitors like them in ages,” said a soft-spoken Ember. He was black, with yellow slits for eyes, and a lanky limbless body.
KEI2 used a combination of hand gestures to imply that he and CAM4 were shocked by the existence of this underwater tribe.
“Ahh,” said the orange Ember, swimming closer with his hands held formally behind his back. He spoke with a demeaning tone of voice. “You didn’t know Water Walkers existed, did you? Of course not. Land Dwellers are famously ignorant.”
“Your breed is spread thin these days,” said the large fuzzy Ember. “Our last visitor told us all the Land Dwellers migrated to a hidden land to live together.”
KEI2 nodded in verification.
“You are blessed with the gift of exploring all the lands of Earth, yet you remain in one place?” asked the orange Ember.
“Clearly not, since they are here,” said the slithery black Ember, coming to their defense. “These two do not represent their entire subspecies. And we mustn’t judge them. We never travel outside of this oasis, after all.”
“True, but that is because we will die if we leave this water. Those Land Dwellers take for granted their access to infinite habitats. Ah, if I could be one of the Water Walkers in the ocean, what a swell time I would have exploring…”
“While you blab away, JON6, these two are running out of air in their lungs,” said the petite white Ember. He looked directly at KEI2 and CAM4. “Let’s make this quick and simple. We are Water Walkers, a specific breed of Ember. There are several breeds, and each can be found in certain places across Earth. From what we understand, Land Dwellers have limited knowledge of the world. But trust us, it is even grander than you can imagine, full of more Embers than you ever knew existed. To find them, you simply have to look in the right places. We have never left this water, but other Embers have stopped here on their travels from far and wide. We have heard magnificent stories. But in the last hundred years or so, it has been quiet. No Land Dwellers have come to visit. Something happened. I fear something most unfortunate happened. I hope your questions have been answered, because we cannot offer you much more.”
KEI2 and CAM4 looked at one another, astonished. They exchanged a few silent expressions, communicating that they still had questions, but none could be answered by this isolated tribe. KEI2 placed his hands together, expressing gratitude toward the Water Walkers. Then he and CAM4 began swimming back to the surface. As they departed, the aquatic creatures began to glow once again. They resumed their peculiar dance of lights, which was still a rather beautiful mystery. The depths of the oasis were filled with wondrous colors yet again, and would remain undisturbed until another curious soul or two came along. But from what the Water Walkers had said, such a thing was quite rare these days. In the minds of KEI2 and CAM4, the world felt a bit greater and a bit darker. And that was all the more reason to explore further.