Two days later...


Two humans sat outside the small, populated cave their group now lived in. They wore blue clothing - one light, the other dark. They sat quietly.

It was two days after the devastation ripped through the countryside and set everything aflame. Everything was either barren, charred, dead or still burning. The ground they sat on was already scorched, entirely grass-less and cleared of flammable materials, so they knew the fire could not burn there.

The cave itself wasn't as big as they liked, but it was enough for everybody to fit in and still have some space. The tension inside was very palpable, you could smell the fear as everybody hoped they would survive. Some paced around nervously while others cried silently for mercy. Others still tried to lighten the mood with idle chatter, interrupted by the occasional scrape of steel as those who were willing to fight sharpened their blades.

Ruby, sitting at the mouth of the cave near his Defender friend, who was in a light blue outfit (Ruby wore dark blue, his favorite color) stared off into the orange blaze. Soon it would be time to send the Defenders off on another expedition to find food. They had come back empty-handed three times now. Was it hopeless? “No,” Ruby said to himself, shaking his head. “We must persevere. Something will save us in the end.” He did give the Userpedian masses credit though; many of them carried food that they would hold onto for lunch, or dinner, that came in very handy for the situation. Long-lasting stuff, preserved things.

A long, drawn-out sigh escaped his lips. He looked over to his friend and said simply, “What now?”

Valentin, close friend of Ruby, looked up from tuning his guitar. “Not much we can do until all this destruction dies down. Unless you want to try and send everyone through the flames.”

“Don’t joke like that...”

“I’m not. We can’t leave this cave until there’s nothing left for the fire to burn. If we try, we’ll be burned to death.”

Ruby sighed again. Valentin was right - there was no clear path to safety outside the cave, and it could take days, or weeks, before the final flame extinguished itself. He needed to chill out a bit. At least they were safe here.

Ruby took out his guitar and began to play, trying to remember the tune as he strummed. Valen, recognizing the tune, smiled and began to play too, the duo of unplugged electric guitars wafting their sound down into the cave, providing background music to the bustling underground.

The air inside was surprisingly cool! The residents enjoyed it, but couldn't understand how it was so refreshing. While it could not protect them from the dry, hot air all the time, something was still cooling the air.

On the other hand, a girl with seemingly green skin was growing tired. Every now and then, she would perform some sort of ritual and spread the moisture and cool air around the cave. However, she was feeling to run low on her elemental energies, and she wanted to rest.

“Sit down, Bean,” said her taller brother nicknamed ‘Plum’, “you’ll wear yourself out.”

Bean nodded quietly and sat down, uncorking a bottle of freshwater she had kept in her pocket and taking a quick swig. “Do you think we’ll ever make it out alive?” she said, her voice quivering as she bundled up her hair.

Plum sighed, and sat close, comforting her. “Don’t be silly... Ruby and the rest will make sure we get out of here and find somewhere safe... the way things were.” He looked up to the mouth of the cave, the guitar music breaking through to his attention. “I hope.”

As the two people at the mouth of the cave played, ‘venting’ through their music, one of them had to stop to wipe sweat that had seemed to appear at his brow. “Man,” Ruby said as he inspected the sweat in his palm, wondering where it was coming from, “It was cooler just before, where’s all this heat coming from?”

Something clicked in his head. “Is it cooler underground?”

Valentin looked behind him into the cave. “Shall we take a look?” They both climbed to their feet and slowly descended, the blaze outside making dancing shadows out of them as the flickers lit up the cave.

Valen shook his head. “It gets us away from the fire, but it’s still warm down here. Though...” He took a few deep breaths of the air. “I think there’s a bit of moisture in here.”

“What, water? But all the water must be dried up by now.”

“Damn,” Ruby said, clenching a fist, then unclenched it. “If we did have access to water though, we might be able to better feed everyone.”

“Er, Ruby?”

“Yeah Valen?”

“If we had water we’d clear a path for all of us too.”

“Oh. Yeah, that’s true. Sorry, I've been putting survival first. But where would we head?”

“Well... why don’t you send out a scouting party?” Valentin grinned. “I could use the exercise, there’s nothing to do in here except talk to young boring people.”

Ruby turned to look into his friend’s face. They had been friends for many years, and had helped each other out. In his eyes, Valentin had fully earned his rank as Higher Defender, and was glad that while that rank commanded respect, it did not go to his head. He was a good man, when you got to know him.

“Valen... You've been there to help me out for many years. And, in a way, I guess I owe you for keeping me sane.” He rested a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t go get yourself killed, alright? Things wouldn't be the same without you, pal.”

Valentin smiled. He wouldn't let his leader down. “Thanks sir. Ruby.”

“I’ll meet you out at the Mouth with some volunteers.”

Sure enough, when the dark-clothed Ruby emerged from inside the Userpedia camp, he had brought two recruits with him. One was carrying a longsword, wearing black and gray painted armor, and the other recruit carried a wooden bow by his side, personalised with ornate carvings. The latter was younger, and less experienced, but knew how to kill. In theory, at least. Hopefully they would not need to, but the world out there was unpredictable now.

Valentin set off with these effective Redshirts, cloth masks on to keep the smoke away from their respiratory system, staying clear from the wildfires but stepping around the much smaller flames, those coming from a blackened tree for example. Everything the three saw was on fire or dead, or simply not green.

He spotted a small hill in the distance, simply brown and rocky, and ordered the two there, being careful not to walk into the flame. It was slow-going, but a bit easier than Valen had thought - not everywhere was on fire, and some places were simply extinguished from lack of food for the fire.

They did reach the hill at the end, and as they began to climb its pockmarked, hot face, Valentin realised - this was one of the meteors that had landed! It was big! Not massive, but still impressive.

Valentin reached the top first, having the most stamina, and surveyed the area around. In the distance, he saw, above the flicker and heat of the flame, the cave they had been packed into. All of them looked around, searching for some possible exit from this perpetual nightmare.

Hmm, Valen thought to himself, wondering what direction they had travelled in after the initial disaster. The road they had followed to that cave was roughly pointing north, he understood. So, he looked north, beyond the cave. Seemed to be desolate there, too. But, he also noticed there were less flame in that direction... why was that?

The swordsman, who introduced himself as “Nin Ji” earlier, spoke up. “Let’s head up that way, looks like there are people to help us!” He pointed north-east with his sword, the blade just beside Valen’s right arm, which caused him to step away, then slap him.

“Watch it, you could cut somebody’s head off with that!” He squinted and pointed in the direction of where Ji was pointing.

Indeed, there did seem to be some life apart from the Userpedians in this burning land. He couldn't see much... but he did recognize one figure moving about the flames in the far distance... orange... bulky. That’s all he could make out. Hell, everything here was either orange or brown, he’d probably fit in great. But there was something about the figure that seemed menacing.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” concluded Valen, looking back to the cave. “Let’s report back to Ruby with our findings.”

The trip back was uneventful, thankfully. There was no more sign of the mysterious figure. As the light faded from the skies and the flame’s flicker became that much more pronounced, there was less worry from the Defenders and Heroes. Ruby was dubious, but pleased - if the lands north were less ‘on fire’, perhaps they could settle there.

There was still the problem of clearing the path north, however, which WAS still on fire. A blast of cool air rushed past Ruby’s face, in the dark occupied cave, which seemed like a revelation. And it was: it seemed that Valentin was not the only elementalist around here. He would have to find that person in the morning and see just how much power they had. He passed into sleep shortly, satisfied that they would eventually find a way out of this situation, for the better.

If everything went perfect, that is.

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