Sounds of fauna filled the morning air; stilling as a heavy, tusked beast passed only to immediately liven again. Peering into the mist it took carefully placed markers on trunks of trees and the forest floor to keep course. Every once in a while the beast would give a snort, shaking it’s rider from her early morning daze.
Dense greenery soon broke to reveal a river.
Sethunya slid off her companion, landing with a soft thump onto the damp bank. “Thank you, Davke.” Reaching into her bag she took out a few ripe fruits. “Safe returns home.” With one last pet she faced the river where large lily pads lay scattered across the surface. After securing her bag she took her first leap; then another and another. Occasional ripples from large creatures moving below reached the pads now and again, but she kept on until she stood on the opposite shore. When she glanced back, Davke was gone.
A little ways under the canopy of trees she came across familiar moss covered steps carved into the trunk of a large tree. Ascending the steps she soon met three bridges; two of interwoven vines and one a horizontally growing tree high off the ground. She took the second vine bridge and continued navigating the pathways until she came upon the high village she was looking for. Enormous trees dominated with their large branches serving as natural bridges. Some trees housed as many as five families from base to canopy with some families having balconies or added hammocks for leisure. This early in the morning several other beings were already milling about, but one in particular was staring right at her. The older woman was at the base of a branch in front of an open door way with her hands on her hips and an impatient foot tapping away. “Sethunya!”
“Yes, I’m coming!” Sethunya quickly made her way to the woman beckoning her inside. “Come, come. Have you brought it?” The woman asked. “Of course.” Sethunya answered easily. Once inside, the door silently swished shut. Lights powered by bio-luminescent organisms filled the space as cool, dry air provided climate control. Sethunya followed the woman to the top level where her kitchen was brimming with mouth watering scents. “I know you probably haven’t eaten, so eat this.” The woman quickly presented a wooden bowl of stew in front of her before holding out an expectant hand. Sethunya tried not to laugh as she fished the small sack out of her bag and handed it over. “How much was it?” The woman asked. “Not much. I gave them some extra for how hard it was to find.” Sethunya answered between bites. “Very good.” The woman gingerly placed the pack in her pocket and gave it a pat, “I’m heading off. I’ll leave you to lock up.”
And with that Sethunya was left to her own devices. She took her time finishing the stew while enjoying the ambiance of the woman’s home. It was warm and welcoming with the smell of spices forever hanging in the air. Items from all across the realm were carefully placed around highlighting the woman’s travels with some giving no hint as to where they originated. An ave’s caw broke through her serenity reminding her of the time. Descending to the ground level she quickly set the house to lock itself down and stepped into the forest.
Moving along she soon came across a moss shaped square in the middle of the path. With a crouch she pressed her hand into the center; a faint glow appearing around her fingers before the square moved. It revealed a stairwell leading to a small underground river where beings were sat in wooden boats carrying them on the current. Sethunya snagged an empty boat to float along until she used an oar to push herself to her stop. As soon as both her feet were firmly planted on the dock, her boat was carried off leaving room for another.
The term ‘əiliεjεεvə‘ was engraved across the entrance of a tunnel. A few steps into the tunnel she was met with a number of changing tubes on either side while directly ahead stood two overlapping slabs of stone. Sethunya stepped inside a tube to done a body suit before approaching the slabs on which another moss patch stood. Once again she placed her hand on the square and rocks seamlessly slid apart to reveal an open floor space where beings were working on various projects.
Hanging plants cast different areas of the room in varying light, but she crossed straight ahead the to where a lone slab stood. When the slab shut behind her she was cast in a darkness only faintly lit by bio-luminescent organisms. Since no one else had arrived yet she worked in silence on copepods. As time went on others filed in for their respective work. Every now and again a few words would be to spoken to share findings or gather second opinions, but for the most part they were all focused.
When Sethunya finally emerged from the bio-luminescent room she made her way to the most well lit part of the main floor where another being stood working diligently. With a mask over their face, only the high pony tail of red curls tipped her off to who it was. As she got closer she could see her friend was operating on a large amphibious creature. Not wanting to distract them, she waited until Marjani handed the patient off to a waiting being to speak, “Working hard?”
Marjani pulled her mask down; eyes twinkling when she smiled. “Always. Just getting some routine procedures out of the way.” Another creature was being brought over and she quickly pulled mask up again before changing gloves. “Done for the day?”
Sethunya nodded. “Yeah. I won’t have results for a while.”
“Slide a mask on, then.” Marjani gestured to the masks and Sethunya complied.
“Need any help?”
“Sure. Put on gloves and stroke their head behind the ears.” Marjani explained while reading a translucent screen hanging above the operating table. “Okay.” Leaning down she double checked the animals vitals as an aid approached. The two quickly swapped positions freeing Marjani to lay out needed tools and all three got to work.
Sethunya couldn’t help but peek every once in a while- always amazed at how Marjani never seemed to miss a beat. She herself preferred working with less complex organisms and moments like this; catching a glimpse of the insides the patient, reminded her why.
A few hours later the two stepped inside cleansing tubes standing on either side of the exit before being granted clearance into the tunnel to access the changing tubes. Sethunya stepped out wearing a pair of breathable short pants and a cut top; her still damp ink black hair barely grazing her jaw. Marjani wore a short wrap skirt and a band of fabric around her bust; her curls now free’d from their bind to cascade down her back.
As they approached the small river, Marjani snagged a boat for them to take the slow, yet steady drift. “Were you able to find what Ishtar wanted?” She asked while using the oar to navigate the underground system. “How else could I get such a filling breakfast?” Sethunya joked, giving her stomach a pat. “Ooh, she’s always making the best meals.” Marjani sighed at the memory. “We’ll have to plan a day to the high village. I’m sure Ishtar’d be willing to trade for something.” Sethunya teased. Marjani snorted, “I bet.”
When they reached Marjani’s stop, the females ascended to the ground level where they soon came to a river much larger than the one Sethunya crossed earlier. Large lily pads spread across the surface, but none close enough to reach from the shore line. Marjani untied a small boat from a neighboring tree and drug it into the water for Sethunya to climb in before paddling them along. Resting her chin on the edge, Sethunya let her hand dip generously in the water, creating ripples in their wake. A large aquatic creature with bright shimmering scales lazily moved beneath the boat just close enough to graze her fingers. Sethunya smiled to herself, casting a glance at Marjani to see her waving at a few passersby.
Soon they came to a small collection of lily pads. Marjani stepped on to one pad and Sethunya followed suit. After pulling the boat up they stepped on the largest. “This is always weird for me.” Sethunya admitted as Marjani stood near a crater in the center of the pad. “Awe, come on. It’s fun!” Marjani gave a wink before dropping down the stalk. Sethunya tip toed to the center and sat down on the edge. With two deep breaths she closed her eyes and slid down until she felt her butt land on cushion.
“One day you’ll be able to take the plunge.” Marjani was already climbing down a ladder from the very top level to the next one where guest lodging was set up before taking a set of stairs down to the main level. “Yeah, yeah.” Sethunya waved her off, looking up the stalk to catch a glimpse of sky.
Marjani’s home was opposite to Ishtar’s in countless ways- aside from the obvious of Ishtar’s being based in a tree and Marjani’s in a water lily. Ishtar’s home was visibly sturdy with windows, doors, and a skylight. She had a chimney built into the tree and soft grass lining the floor of every level save the first. Her furniture and possessions were collected from all over the lands keeping a comfortable and warm atmosphere carrying the scent of spices. In contrast, Marjani’s home gave the appearance as if it might pop. The main level of her home was surrounded by a completely transparent wall while the lower and top two levels were of stalk material with few windows. A stalk was connected to the kitchen to provide an escape for smoke and her floors were a mix between soft moss and lily leaves. Her furniture was far more plush and comfortable while her possessions were things she’d either been gifted or caught her attention over the years. If there were a way to describe the dominant scent of Marjani’s home it would of been: fresh and delicious…with the delicious being smoked meats.
“Are you hungry?” Marjani asked curiously.
“Always.” Sethunya answered.
“Okay, get started in the kitchen and I’ll grab some meat.” Marjani left the main living area to walk into an opaque, bubble shaped side room. Taking off her skirt to reveal an undergarment underneath, she plucked a spear off the floor before approaching a large circular cut out providing access to the water.
Sethunya laid out Marjani’s spices and set to work on making a rub she may or may not have created by mashing together Ishtar and Marjani’s recipes. Seeing something from the corner of her eye she looked up to spot Marjani swimming past with a spear in hand.
The two of them had come from quite different parts of the realm. Sethunya was raised in the stone villages whereas Marjani was from the fluvial villages. One of the things that fascinated her about their species was how divergent beings could be. Sethunya could hold her breath for what she considered a reasonable amount of time meanwhile Marjani could hold her breath for as long as the suns brought warmth, it seemed. This; of course, was due to the extra lungs Marjani’s body produced in early development. In comparison Sethunya’s body was far more resistant to trauma among other things.
A loud slapping sound pulled Sethunya from her thoughts and she walked into the side room to see Marjani dragging a baby Catalka out of the water onto the lily leaf floor. Even at such a young age the Catalka was over half their size. Sethunya watched as Marjani began divvying up the remains before returning to the kitchen to make sure all her prep work was finished. Every few minutes Marjani would bring another part of the Catalka for Sethunya to add to the meal or store away until nothing remained. By the time Marjani was done, dinner was ready and the two ate sprawled on large cushions with a view of the depths. Homes similar to Marjani’s provided a steady glow revealing the life drifting near.
“Do you ever worry about the creatures?” Sethunya asked.
Marjani finished chewing before answering, “Not really. Depending on the season I’ll close the water portal. That’s about it.”
“-What’s that?” Sethunya abruptly perked up. “Hm?” Marjani asked, but Sethunya was already at the barrier attempting to peer through the water.
“It’s a Zhimel.” Marjani approached Sethunya and cupped her hands against the barrier before letting out a haunting call. After a moment a much more powerful call was returned and the more Sethunya focused, she was able to make out a large mass maneuvering closer.
“They’re coming in this early?” There was tinge of apprehension in Sethunya’s voice.
“Some never leave.” Marjani let out another call.
The Zhimel gracefully swayed, it’s calls increasingly reverberating through both beings’ bodies until it reached it’s peak with the creature coming to rest directly before them. “Oh my…” Sethunya suddenly felt breathless. Once a year during the Festival of Suns a Zhimel would be brought on land and shared among the neighboring villages. For most living above surface it was the closest they’d ever get to one and as a sacrifice it was already gone. The few times it could be spotted in the water were fleeting as the Zhimel rarely chose to approach the surface. Sethunya swallowed. The one in front of them was majestic, never brushing against the home as if aware of it’s own strength. It’s purple eye was focused directly on them having located the source of the call.
Marjani let out a softer, tweaked call and the Zhimel responded in kind before slowly swimming away. Sethunya kept her eyes trained on the figure until it disappeared beyond the depths. “I can’t believe it actually came over.” Sethunya sunk into the cushions, barely remembering her food. Marjani merely smiled and returned to her plate.
Later that night Sethunya was laying in the guest lodging while Marjani was on the fourth level down getting comfortable in her own lodging.
The following day the two had just finished changing into their bodysuits and were entering the main room when they spotted a forming crowd. Making their way through it soon became apparent what was happening.
On a platform carved into the hard rock stood one of the elders with their hands clasped behind their back.
“What’s this about?” Marjani whispered. Sethunya shrugged, “Either really good news or really bad news.”