Far to the left of Soleterea, in a land of swaying treetops and open-palmed leaves, a celebration of a different kind commences. Though the music of Thalistan was something ancient and earthly, something basal that seeped within the soil they walked. A constant seismic bassline that rumbles the ridges of warm tectonic plates beneath their feet.
It formed the structural rhythm for the shimmying trees, their swaying full-bodied trunks, culminating in a percussive beat that bumps against the taut drum-skin of the fruit and plucks their stems like strings. They snap then, falling into the waiting arms of their harvester, enticed by their tune, the rapturous hymnals they sung to the natural composition that their earth provided, their voices low and syrupy-thick as the humidity that swaddled them during their toil.
The wind carries their voices, lifting them high into the treetops where the ripest fruit was nestled warm and out of reach, their elusiveness making them all the more sweeter when they were finally caught. The kind of fruit that would burst into their mouths as soon as their teeth touched the rind.
This was their harvest song, one that took a different shape to the song that lulled the earth to sleep or roused it to awakening. It was the song they sang when the earth's pregnancy had ripened in full and was now heavy and plump with its nutritious bounty. So they sang, coaxing the guava and sweet green banana to them, tapping their feet to the winding rhythm of the earth and the wind in a language only they could comprehend. For it is their gift, this intimate knowledge of the earth, whom they could trace as well as a lover.
And the fruit drops like coins in a fountain, with a faint sombre ring that seems to stretch forever, idle as a hum. A vibration shivers through the fruit as the harvesters line them in their crates in neatened piles, bodies rocking as they are lifted deftly and deposited into the back of the loading cart.
Their continuous low, flat note provides a backdrop bass as the wagon wheels bounce over battered dirt trails. These were wizened roads, roads that were natural-born and unrefined, worn into submission like a pair of old shoes by the several heels and hooves that came before it. They lay untarnished by nurture, patterned by the intricate shadows of great fan leaves and braided tree-trunks whose silhouettes cut into designs of foliate lace.
The junction appears like a raised split in the carpet, cutting a partition between dry, withered sandskin and the adolescent granite that replaces it. The lumbering vehicle kicks dust off its sand-speckled wheels as, with a hop and a skip, it grinds against the unspoken threshold to city proper with a slippery smoothness.
Chalcedon looms not long after this transition, a cluster of pyramidic towers bearded with verdure. Green vegetation intermingles effortlessly with this red and gold-bricked metropolis, as many-windowed buildings filter patchy spotlights in yellow and orange hues, gobbling sunrays to feed power to the gridlines that form the underbelly of the porcelain streets.
The vents pipe heavily with the scent of incense, the brewing of medicinal herbs into pharmaceuticals and the processed spices of its shopping district as the driverless wagon takes a sharp turn into the food emporium warehouse and its engines sputter sleepily to a close.
Elenaia Paw enters through the front doors of the food emporium. They were wizened oak polished with resinous-scented lacquer, an ointment to the creases of age. The doors were soldered with a wrought iron frame in the silhouette of a tree and each time a body approached the serpentine scrollwork of branches would immediately unfurl to allow for entrance.
Mariam walks alongside her, a gloomy sulkiness stretched like overcast over her features that could not be strictly attributed to the heat that swipes their bodies with a gold-buttered glow. "Did you have to ask me along?" her younger sibling laments as they are enclosed within the globule of air-conditioned coolness. "You know how I detest shopping,"
Elenaia retrieves one of the gingham-lined wicker baskets at the entrance. "I could use some of your exceptional strength on the journey home," she expresses, with appreciation towards the taut musculature of her sister's form, her sinews emboldened by the obvious tension in her shoulders. Their tall willow-frames and ligneous complexions were heavy hints to their descendancy from the Thalit, though Mariam had broadened thick as an oak stump from years of guiding sails over choppy Malakian waters. "And since I'll be the one cooking the food…"
She allows the inferral to complete itself. Had she lived at home still she would've had the added appendages of her mother and her mother before her. Thalit families were large and predominantly female and so domestic work was halved, portioned and shared into slices as easily digestible as mango flesh. But at the clinic it was just her and Mariam, the latter whom had never been truly able to rend herself from the sea that was in her and the unruly temperament that followed, where each meal was determined by the deftness of one's fishing line.
"I was thinking of some kidney bean curry," Elenaia decides aloud as she lifts and spreads her food tokens like a gambler's deck. "With greens and potatoes,"
"As you wish, sister dearest," came Mariam's piquant response. Her sarcasm had seen some saltening since she had been away at sea, like the tip of her tongue had become infused with the briny air. Aunt Ariadne would not be impressed.
Considering the matriarch of her old home still stained the roof of her mouth with an aftertaste of iron. Her old aunt was a stern woman, broad as a boulder and just about as immovable. She'd been the final wall to breach upon her decision to depart from her ancestral land. She still wore the cotton dress that she'd sewn for her since completing her medical apprenticeship. The loose charms on the complex-patterned beadwork tinkled around her ankles, detailing the jovial sprawl of sunflower fields she used to roll through in her youth. The white muslin clung to the edge of her breasts, a spectral grip, as though embedded on her skin was the warmth of the last memory you ever held dear and you weren't ready to let go. Not yet. She regarded the scrape of the fabric against her skin with much the same weary, the same woeful guilt.
"Will Odella be joining us?" Elenaia continues on, as they traverse the maze-like aisles to the spice rack where she reaches for fennel and ginger. "I want to ensure I have enough for three, or more, seeing your appetite," she quirks a heavy brow, though it was not said unkindly.
"You must ask?" Mariam quips, with a grin that leans heavily to one side. "The woman has practically moved in,"
"Oh, and is this one for keeps, Mary?" Elenaia inquires, for her sister's large appetites certainly encompassed more than just food.
"The plan is still the same as it always has been since I graduated Moonacre. I want to see the sun, ride the waves and make love to beautiful women." She glances sideways at her sister with that incorrigible twinkle in her blue-grey eyes. "But I am willing to make some amendments to that last decree,"
"How fortunate for Odella,"
They trade the warmth of a smile as they shop, filling their basket to the brim and trading their tokens at the counter. Hers were backed by her status as primary domestic duty holder in the home and so there wasalways a recurrent stack of tokens she could trade for rare or out of season goods as most domestic workers of the community did. Anita was always the one manning the till at this hour though she seemed out of place without her two springy-haired sons fastened to her ankles. They were regulars at the clinic, having become known for contracting all manners of childlike ailments from their still feeble immune systems.
"And just how are you and the twins doing, Anita?" Elenaia asks, with a gentle flowering concern in her voice.
"They're doing much better now, thank you, that bath scrub you gave us last week has really helped to ease that terrible rash they picked up in the jungle the other day," Anita shudders behind her desk in remembrance.
Elenaia nods, mind harkening back with reluctance to that day they came to her, arms and legs bubbling with liquified boils that near exhausted the elasticity of their youthful skin. "Well you let me know if you ever need a refill, free of charge," she hastens to add as she withdraws her basket from the counter.
"Have you seen the news recently?" Anita wants to know, her lips were drawn thin. "They're saying another one of us got snatched just this week,"
By us, she of course was referring to her status as a non-elemental, categorised by their perceived lacking of any magical ability. Their presence in the public consciousness was often minimal and even readily and disparagingly disregarded, but the recent string of disappearances had been enough to insert them beneath the harsh blare of the magnifying glass. From what Elenaia could tell, general opinion was contradictory on how to receive this newfound spotlighting. There were many who shrank away, migrating like nocturnal animals at the first blade of sunlight behind locked doors and drawn blinds.
"By the gods, that is truly terrible Anita," she exclaims, her palm flattened firmly against her chest. "Has anyone talked to the sheriff? I'm sure he is wanting just as much to get to the bottom of this as we all are,"
"Tch, I wouldn't count on it, Matron, I'm sure the sheriff is hardly tormenting himself over the case of a few dozen lost Huskies,"
The use of the self-referential slur sent her reeling like a sudden shove to the chest. "I'm- I'm sure that's not true-"
"Ela," Mariam asserts, cool and smooth and unflinchingly pragmatic. "Are you ready to go?"
It was the most subtle form of trying to muzzle her from pressing the issue further. "Yes," she answers and hooks the handle of her basket on her elbow. "Yes, I'm ready,"
That evening they take a tram to the outskirts of their village and walk alongside one another, crowned with the bounty of their harvest. Their heads balance the weight of a coronet woven in wicker to take the weight off their arms as their celestial audience looks on at their ritual blasphemy, their flickering forms bejewelling the pathway home.
"You shouldn't press them to talk about such things," Mariam advises her as they detour towards the forest path "you know how they are, non-elementals are private on a good day but things are sensitive right now. Most people are on high alert,"
"I know," Elenaia says, just as she knew the only reason most would even talk to them was on account of who their father was.
They had just passed through the aisle of the old wood whose trunks were knotted like braids when Mariam tugs her sleeve and cries "Elenaia, look!"
She pivots her head just swift enough to see one of the glowing orbs unlatch itself from the sky like a button popping off a garment and cascade towards the scintillating spire of the palace.
"Stars are falling, you know what that means,"
She did know and the anxiety of it strummed at her heartstrings like a sitar. Whenever stars fell there were certainly Solarites soon to follow. "Don't tell father what you saw," she pleads, her limpid brown eyes moving erratically.
But Mariam was already moving further ahead, the basket she carried not even close to toppling in spite of her speed. "If we saw it then he likely did too," she simply rationalises "I'm sorry, Ela,"
If she knew her father well he wouldn't have to see it. He had plenty of informers burrowed into every street corner ready to siphon off information to fill his ears and lengthen his pockets.
So she carries on, defeated, deciding it best just to focus on her next steps of making dinner as behind her more stars began to descend. They leave streaks across the sky like tear lines. The heavens mourn them.
That same night she takes a walk through the jungle. She often does that, as though by the act of losing herself she might re-find herself later, fuller and wiser and more whole through the experience.
The sight of the falling stars troubled her as she knew it would trouble most of her father's people. No one truly knew how a star became a Solarite only that as soon as one fell another of them sprang up in its place.
Some speculated that they hatched them like eggs, others considered more elaborate conjury involved. If anything, many at least agreed that they looked like stars. Even now Elenaia could envision them, the image had singed upon her brain like a marque. The light-bulb fluorescence of their hair, their eyes, migraine-inducing even in the thick of darkness and the metallic summer hue of their skin tones.
Her Aunt Ariadne had told her that the Solarites were gifted to them from the gods, as were the elements bestowed upon them shortly after their arrival. Her father had alternate ideas, however, having been skipped over this supposed gift, this godtouch, though he dare not speak them in the presence of prying ears.
Elenaia traces her finger over her first marque on her backhand, a right of passage for every Thalit who came of age. The tree stump symbol and its ornate geometric patterns in loops and spirals. Seven rings for the year they were first welcomed into their path as a practitioner of earth magic. Mariam would have seven waves in her place, though Malakians didn't mark themselves like they did, but she was of Thalit blood and she would know their customs regardless of the path she chose.
She sensed the wood begin to thicken around her as the sounds she heard became more animal. This was the part of the country that she liked best when she could be in tune with the earth's natural symphony, the screech of insects and the disturbance of treetops as birds launched themselves from the branches. Her energy-force felt more elevated here and her magic churned inside her centre like a cobra constantly coiling and unfurling again, just waiting for a point of focus to lunge upon.
As she walks, she strokes her fingers against some of the close-lipped buds of wildflowers and watches them yawn awake into flamboyantly-coloured corollas, heady with scent. Fireflies were already beginning to cluster around the faint buzz of her energy and with a delighted giggle, Elenaia allows them to enlighten her path through the forest of her jungle as they bounced through mid-air like rocks skipping over a lake before halting with a suddenness against a thick heavyweight. An accentuated silhouette in the darkness that Elenaia soon discovered to be a person.
Startled, she slowly encroaches upon this shadowy figure, her eyes adjusting to the dimmed haze of firefly-heat to make sense of their position on the ground, the status of their consciousness. She called out to them and then knelt before them when there was no response, her eyes scanning first for danger and then re-focusing at the task at hand. She slides on the gloves she always kept diligently on her person for matters of emergency, wishing she'd had the foresight to procure her medkit.
The body was bulging with protrusions of congealed black lumps that were starred with glints of moonlight. They looked like shimmering mollusc shells, like suckling leeches. Elenaia thought that they might be leeches until she lifted one, only for a small sticky head to detach from the body as the mass in between stretched into a thin, dangling thread. Occassi blood, she thinks and releases the dried portion perched between her fingers like she'd touched hot metal. She was suddenly thankful for her dutiful usage of gloves.
Her mind roams the large cache of medical archives she'd had compacted in her brain from years of study, retrieving what she knew of Occassi physiology. Not much, she soon realised. Their hides were thickened, insulated walls built to ward off any form of entrance. Hard as a carapace with the same smooth, flexible properties of regular skin. If something penetrated this one, let alone multiple times, then it might already be too late for him.
Something knocked obstinately against her brain, begging for entrance, willing her against making such a conclusion. It was soon to be replaced by the nervous ringing of lawful duty that would see her turn over this dying Occassi to the authorities. She could see that he was not marked like the others and drew her own conclusions. Elenaia had her own duty however, to that of her provision of care. Not often did these two duel for the rights of her loyalty but it was her impenetrable dedication to her field that often emerged victorious.
So she upturns the Occassi onto his side, every movement inched felt like the budging of a statue. The earth fights against her as she does so, longing to keep its prisoner ensnared between the unruly tangle of green roots and swelling fungi. She longed for the aid of Mariam's arms, their rugged coastline of muscle, but she knew that her sister would only urge her to abandon her aid of this man if only for good reason.
Once secured on his side she dusts him off for dried earth and grass shoots and checks his injuries for entrances and exits. Most had been plugged behind the adhesive barrier of his ichor, the thick caterpillar bodies still oozing and wriggling from their burrows. His pulse was as sluggish as it should be and his breathing was regular. Though peeking shyly out from his neck was a protrusion not quite like the others. A flat rounded surface made of wood. She reaches for it and seizes the solid edge only to feel her way around the circumference of a bullet.
Her hand snaps back like a stretched band upon realisation. Not enough was it to simply stumble upon an Occassi in the thick of the Landour jungle, but a hunted one. Her mind began to calculate the probabilities of any Argentine Brothers still lingering behind him. He would have to be moved for certain, but her clinic would almost definitely be out of bounds.
A sudden strained, throaty gasp screeched like a violin bow off-key as eyes of fluorescent blue threw open their shutters.
Elenaia flings herself back, a ragdoll without a parachute, before her escape is barred by one gnarled grip around her thin brown wrist.
After a few rapid-fire blinks, the Occassi's colossal pupils slice into vertical slits as they dart, analytical, over the oval shape of Elenaia's face. "Who are you?" he demands in a gravel-laced baritone. His Thal was perfect, but accentless, which only further added to her sense of apprehension.
"I'm a healer," she says and for some reason decides to trace over her healer's marque, a strip of lotus flowers that crept from wrist to thumb, as though he might know what it meant. When he doesn't quite respond to it, she speaks on. "I found your body in the forest, I can help you,"
There is a slight flex of something indecipherable across his saturnine features.
"Can you walk?" she asks him.
"Hmm," he grunts in response "I have a shack not far from here, few feet or so away,"
That surprised her, not many people would make a home so deep into the jungle, even she who knew and loved it so well would not dare venture too far north into the territory that had long been claimed by monsters of legend. The Occassi are monsters of legend too, she thinks and realises she did not yet know how he sustained his injuries, once more increasing her fear. "Who did this to you?" she asks him without thinking.
He only stops to look at her and it felt like her muscles were being slowly peeled to the bone. "There are medical supplies at my lodge," he says, after some moments. He stands up with little difficulty, even manages a few steps before he staggers and Elenaia rises to cushion his descent.
"That bullet in your neck, it's setâre wood," she deduces, having long heard tales of the mystical tree and its evergreen star-pointed leaves, native only to the orange deserts of Seraj. "If there are Argentine Brothers here perhaps we should-"
"You will find no life around here for miles," he interjects, his face crackling like aged stone with every pain-filled step he took. "I made certain of that,"
She does not ask for elaboration and soon finds she doesn't really wish to know. With the weight of him supported by his own legs, she finds it easier to move him now, though he still bore down upon her like some oppressive gravitational force, trying to press her down into the crust of the underworld from whence he came. That was what she'd heard of them after all, that the Solarites had come soaring, flying, a dancing beacon of wonderment, while the Occassi had unearthed themselves from somewhere dark and deep.
His lodge is about as far as he'd specified, protruding like a splinter from the earth, all wood and stone and bearded moss. The air around it was dank with moist earth and temple incense, something resinous and ancient, something that smelled almost holy.
The damp scent continued once they'd pushed past the doors but it was tempered by the distinctive aroma of smoke and burning wood. She discovers the fireplace as the source for this as they move into his living quarters.
"Do you have a dining table?" she inquires, eager for something long and flat to lay him against.
Their surroundings were stiff, orderly, a soldier's lair, everything was to be added for necessity and to no excess. It seemed inhospitable somehow, like a magazine spread of what someone imagined a home to appear like, structured to be captured at only the most flattering of angles.
"Through to the left here," he directs her and she follows through, aiding him into his dining area. The kitchen reeked of animal flesh. The scent stuck her, close-fisted, and the muscles in her stomach collapsed in response. There were few meat eaters this far West in Thalistan but the decaying miasma was unmistakable, made far more unsettling by the fact that the kitchen was as pristine as the rest of the house.
The dining table, however, was a masterpiece, a singular object of decadence in otherwise self-effacing surroundings. Elenaia longed to trace her fingers across the floral vignette that was carved into the body and legs of polished mahogany wood. The gold leaf finish was entirely unblemished but the appearance of the wood appeared distinguished.
"Lie down on your back," she tells the Occassi and he obeys, resting his gargantuan form against the table with an ease as though it were pillowed with dandelion down. She eyes his meagre display of herbs hemmed against the kitchen wall, crudely strung together by fraying twine and makes a selection to burn in all four corners. Sage, lavender, cinnamon, thyme. She locates a matchbox in one of the kitchen drawers and flecks sparks against her fingertips as she lights them up.
The smoke rises up like a gyrating body, tossing its silk veil over the vicinity of the room. Elenaia raises her hands and guides the smoke to her patient's body so that they might direct the energies she needed in order to promote the healing effect.
The Occassi breathes in, his chest expanding, as already the viscous discharge of his ichor begins to eject itself from his injuries in an oily slick. The stench of his bodily fluid was crude and vomitous as though swimming within it were the fossilised remains of several prehistoric carcasses. Elenaia steels her nose against the odour and allows the melange of palliative incense to permeate it.
She rummages his bottom cupboard for a disorderly stash of medicinal herbs and salves she regards with the scorn of a specialist. She would have to improvise, it would seem. She makes a deliberate selection from the supplies, her distinguished magical senses able to ferret out exactly what it was she needed, and churns them into the balsam treatment she knew from recipes handed from mother to mother to mother.
She smears his chest with the mossy green substance and the Occassi grunts, his xylophone abdomen twitching and jerking, as the narrow peak of several bullets eject themselves from his chest allowing his skin to sew up neatly. When it was done she attempts to clean his blood away, procuring a rag from the kitchen counter. As she swipes the first trail of slick the substance corrodes through the edges of the fabric until there was little left but an uneven square.
"Don't," he implores her, her wrist now shackled in his pacifying grip. "Your gloves will withstand my blood but the cloth won't,"
She stops, nods slowly, and retracts her hand away from his grip before he catches it again. Anything to get away from this strange house and this strange man and this strange world she should never have encroached upon.
"You saved my life," says the Occassi, a collision of confusion and consideration in his voice as though he were affirming the information and what to do with it.
"The balm only healed your wounds," she explains with her chin demurely angled downward. "Your body did the rest,"
"Regardless," he presses on with a casual dismissal of her modesty. "It is custom for one to repay the services of valour and aid in times of battle. What is your name, Matron?"
She blinks suddenly, his accurate usage of her title surprising her. "Paw,"
"Well, Matron Paw," he samples her name like the fine crust at the edge of a delicacy. "It appears I owe you a debt,"