Dusk set in, blanketing the sky in dull orange, and the Nightflame festival began in earnest. Every winter, farmers living farther away or in smaller villages gathered in Pilopia to celebrate the festival. Lights were turned off everywhere so that one may behold the natural beauty of the stars under the night sky. Fireworks were set off at dusk in the past, but a frightful fire had set some cottages ablaze one winter and they had since been banned.
Zov’ha arrived at the festival decks set up beside the plunge pool. Large casks containing country ale served unlimited tankards to intoxicated farmers who were dancing and singing, welcoming the start of the season. Enormous heating devices kept the deck and pool warm allowing the festival-goers to strip down and take a dip in the small pond.
Lint and Marana were seated comfortably on wooden chairs. The Machanov man was wearing a swimsuit, his lean, hairy body supported by multiple mechanical embellishments. Both hands being bionic, he held a pipe in one and a tankard in the other, and below the knees, bionic machines supported his legs. The left side of his torso was also enhanced with metal ribs that housed, what looked like, a bionic lung connected to metal pipes and wires.
Marana, too, sat without her bodysuit — being almost wholly mechanical, she did not need clothes to cover herself. Zov’ha could clearly see the bionic organs, blood vessels, and wires through her transparent glass body. ‘Ready for a dip in the plunge pool?’ she asked as Zov’ha approached them, her tongue heavy from excessive drinking. ‘Come, join us!’
‘No,’ Zov’ha muttered, uncomfortable with the thought of getting into a pool with strangers. ‘I need to speak with Mar…’
‘C’mon, love,’ Lint interrupted her, though sober, even after his third tankard, and all the dooz he had been smoking. ‘Been here, what, two days and haven’t seen ya around. What, you scared of us?’
Marana giggled and Zov’ha felt her cheeks become hot and her mouth dry up. A faint sense of losing Marana as a friend coiled around her heart, and she swallowed, thinking of what to say. But she simply shook her head and turned to Marana, hoping she would break away from Lint and spend some time with her. Wishing that Marana would understand her gesture, she muttered again, ‘Marana, come with me.’
‘Festival’s just startin’, girl!’ Marana replied, raising her tankard. ‘Shed that bodysuit so we can chill in the pool…’
It was growing dark, and Zov’ha knew that no one would see her —- everyone around the pool had stripped down to their swimsuits anyway. ‘I’m not doing that…’ she mumbled. Or should she? It was a festival, and why shouldn’t she enjoy herself? The dilemma persisted as she nervously looked around her. Glowing banners and flags cast dull light on the pool. All other lights had been turned off, and the stars in the sky were becoming more prominent as the sun quickly set.
‘Na, she’s just shy of all the fur she’s hidin’,’ Lint chuckled, and Marana joined in giggling.
Zov’ha felt her blood boil, but at the same time, she felt extremely embarrassed — this was new to her and she had never felt this way before, as far as she could remember. Controlling her thoughts so as to not evoke the Frost Ash within her, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and said with a little more confidence, ‘Marana, can we please talk?’
This time Marana obliged — pecking Lint on the cheek, she placed her tankard on the wooden floor and rose up to follow Zov’ha away to a quiet corner.
‘Woah, you look salty,’ Marana said, standing a little away from Zov’ha as if she was uncomfortable around her. ‘There's a pool for that… I don’t know… what? Take a dip?’
Zov’ha didn’t reply immediately. Whatever Marana mumbled did not make any sense to her. Should she really talk to Marana when she was this drunk? But this was the only time she had since she had decided to leave early the next morning. There was no other time to do this. ‘What is wrong with you?’ she asked, emphasising on every word.
‘What?’ Marana’s voice was pitchy, and she dragged the word until she croaked.
‘You’re acting strange.’ Zov’ha complained. ‘Hanging around with a complete stranger, keeping away from your friends…’
‘Hey, Lint’s not a stranger!’ Marana argued, swaying a little. Her expression changed from being mirthful to sour. Her eyes knotted in drunken wrath. ‘We went school togeth.. Schoolmates… y’know you… you’re new!’
‘Marana, I just want to talk about what happened at the waterfall,’ Zov’ha avoided looking at her directly. Looking around to avoid direct eye contact, she continued, ‘I’ve been wanting to talk to you about this for quite some time now but you’re always with Lint. If I were you I’d stay away from him. I don’t trust him. There’s this feeling I have that he’s up to no good. Just stay away from him, will you?’
Zov’ha realised that she had spoken really fast, as if vomiting all the words that she had wanted to get out. Marana, in her state of mind, took some time to process what had been said, and her expression eased a bit. Shedding the aversion she had shown earlier, she walked up to Zov’ha and put an arm around her hunched shoulders; Marana had to tiptoe, as the other woman was taller. ‘Thanks for carin’ ’bout me,’ Marana whispered, her breath stinking heavily of country ale. ‘But don't worry, Lint’s a nice guy. I’ve known him a while, y’know.’
Now it was Zov’ha who was uncomfortable. Shifting her feet uneasily, Zov’ha looked away slightly, ‘I’m sorry about the incident at the waterfall. I never meant to snap at you like that.’ She heard Marana chuckle in response. ‘It’s just… what you called me… Zov. I have some unwarranted bad memories associated with it. I can’t explain it, I…’
‘Hey, I understand, a’ight?’ Marana said. Zov’ha looked at her sideways, annoyed how she had started to sound more like Lint. ‘Look, why don’ya join us and…’
‘I’m leaving tomorrow morning,’ Zov’ha interrupted her. ‘I’m going back to the city. I’m not staying back for the rest of the festival. I need to report back to the guild… and get my head straight.’ She slid out from under Marana’s arm, glancing at her one last time before heading off towards the cottages. ‘I’ll see you in Aeroz.’
The Nightflame festival had a charm of its own, Zov’ha realised, as she sat on the roof of the two-storeyed cottage she was housed in. Leaning against the wall of the backyard, she had found a neglected ladder that led directly to the roof. After speaking with Marana, she had ventured to the community hall in search of Sinovan, to let him know of her plans to depart in the morning. Realising that he may have been in the plunge pool with the others, and it was too dark to stumble about the village now that the festival had begun in full swing, she had gathered for herself a bottle of a strong spirit before heading back to her chamber and then to the roof.
The only lights visible in the landscape were the colourful fluorescent flags by the pool, glowing faintly in the night far away at a distance. The sky, on the other hand, was resplendent with stars. The centre of the galaxy was afire, bathing the top of the sky in a brilliant show of strength, as if taunting the rest of the universe with the power it contained. Orbita Cygnus, the lonely orbital city, lay in ruins to the west, a tiny white semicircle in the sky. Zov’ha felt a sudden dread after staring at it for so long, and she looked away and shut her eyes. The spirit had begun to make her feel light-headed, and maybe even a bit nauseated.
‘Zov’, she heard a voice, and jerked upright. Looking around her, and neither seeing nor hearing anyone, she began to think she was hallucinating. Maybe she had had too much — even a quarter of the bottle seemed to have been too much for her to take. Hugging herself she continued watching the stars. She missed the warmth of her poncho that Sinovan had gifted her after she had saved him and Segran from the raiders outside Aeroz. She decided to purchase a few more of the same kind the moment she reached Aeroz. The bodysuits she had were comfortable enough, but they did not provide enough insulation for this sort of winter.
This sort of winter? She suddenly remembered that this was hardly cold at all. I came down from the mountains where it snowed, and everything I touched was ice! I’ve grown soft living in that cosy city. Maybe it is not a good idea to return to Aeroz. Maybe it is time to move on.
‘Zov,’ came the voice again. This time she jumped to her feet.
‘Who is it?’ she croaked, her throat dry. She was finding it hard to balance herself. ‘Show yourself!’
But there was no reply. Now she began to well up… am I going mad? Hearing voices? As if the visions and dreams were not enough! She sat down again slowly. It was in her mind, she decided. And she would face it. Tears streamed down her face. Whimpering, she wiped the tears from the fur on her cheeks and closed her eyes. ‘Who are you and what do you want?’ she whispered through heavy breaths to no one in particular.
And then, as if in a reverie, she saw a castle lit faintly with candles and neon lights. There was that face again — the Calcar boy. He was handsome, with sharp features and a lean physique. His dark red skin glowed in the scarce lighting, and his eyes burned like fire.
‘Zov, the people need you…’ he said, determinedly.
‘Yar’cax?’ Zov’ha whispered as the name simply came upon her lips from a distant memory. Yar’cax? Who is that? How do I know him?
‘Zov,’ he repeated, ‘the people need you… we need you.’
‘Zov!’ another voice came, but this time it was a woman’s and it came from behind her. Gasping she shook herself from the reverie and turned around. It was too dark to make out anything but she was certain someone was peeping out from where the ladder had been. ‘Zov, you there? It’s me… Marana!’
‘Coming!’ Zov’ha wiped her face again, even though Marana would not be able to see her face. Clearing her throat, she picked up her bottle and headed towards the ladder.
Marana had left Lint by the pool, only now realising that his presence had created further rift between her and Zov’ha. She felt that it had been a mistake calling him here — but she had needed the break. She had needed time to recuperate from the absurdity of the happenings in the weeks gone by. But now she was here to mend things… or at least help Zov’ha, if she needed assistance. Things would be better back in Aeroz.
Efiros lay beside Zov’ha, enjoying the constant head strokes he received. Surprised by Marana’s changed attitude, which was now what it used to be before Lint’s arrival, Zov’ha spent the rest of the night in the small, yet cosy, lobby of the building, talking to her about anything their intoxicated brains conjured up.
‘I figured it out,’ Zov’ha said, staring at the burning logs in the fireplace. ‘Someone named Yar’cax used to call me ‘Zov’. I think he was really close to me. Maybe a friend, or a brother… or a lover. I’m not sure.’
‘What happened to him?’ Marana whispered, genuinely concerned.
‘I don’t know,’ Zov’ha felt uncomfortable again. She felt a great sadness come upon her as she thought about the young Calcar man. His smooth red skin and strong jawline was all she remembered now from the dream. She shook her head, turning to Marana, and tried to change the topic. ‘It doesn’t matter. I want to talk about something else. People keep referring to the Divine Purge,’ Zov’ha managed to say, taking a sip from her bottle, which she was now sharing with Marana. ‘What was it? Why did it happen?’
‘What… you’re tellin’ me you don’t know shit about the greatest tragedy of humankind?’ Marana looked surprised, her eyes wide open and lips parted. Her electric blue hair was no longer styled upwards and was now limp and puffy. ‘Alright, I’ll tell you…