The Mariel (mɑː.riːel) were created by Maris, the Goddess of Water, and were granted the souls of Undine which transfers mastery over the element of water. They are a combination of human and fish that seems to defy the laws of nature. Their populations are scattered in city states across the sea floors of Aserra’s temperate and tropical oceans. For a single year of their long lives, they undergo a transformation that allows them to live on land and reconnect with their cousins, the other elemental races.
Mariel physiology originated with the same basic form as the other elemental races, but with significant changes made to adapt to aquatic life. Their lower body was swapped from bipedal legs to a fish-like tail that is an extension of the tailbone. Mariel are still possessed of a bipedal pelvis, with finned vestigial legs that assist in various forms of movement. Mariel swim in a sinuous up-and-down style, like other aquatic mammals, though they do share traits with both fishes and mammals due to their chimeric origination through divine powers. Along with the scales and other piscine features, the exposed skin of Mariel is thicker and tougher than their cousins on land, mimicking the skin of porpoises, to a degree. Body fat deposits are typically low, though the highest and lowest latitude populations tend to carry a little fat for warmth in cooler water. This is why their range is limited to warm oceans.
Unlike aquatic mammals, Mariel have a dual-functioning respiratory system. They primarily breath through gills located on their ribs, which carry oxygenated water to the lungs. There are three long gill slits on each side of their ribcage. Mariel can also breathe air through their upper respiratory system. Underwater, their sinuses are sealed shut, but they can open their nostrils to breathe above water. This is almost involuntary—underwater, their nostrils clamp shut, but when they raise their heads out of water and are exposed to the air, their nostrils open and gills clamp shut. Mariel can exercise control over these mechanisms, but they are usually beneficial reactions to a change of environment.
In addition to the dual-function respiratory system, to allow for submarine living Mariel need a swim bladder of sorts. To accomplish this without adding extra organs, the lungs were adapted to have yet a third purpose. Mariel lungs are divided in half by a diaphragm that holds water to control depth. They can expel or take in water from their gills as needed, while the top halves of the lungs still process water in and out for respiration.
Another remarkable trait of the Mariel is the once-in-a-lifetime transformation to a bipedal form for approximately 5 years of their life. The transformation is not only physical, but biological as it causes changes at an epigenetic level.
The Mariel are most remarkable for their fish-like lower bodies, but their essential form is the same as the other elemental races. Their frames are lean, lithe, and sinuous, melding fluidly into their piscine lower halves. The total length of Mariel, on average is around 6’1” (185cm) for males and 5’9” (175cm) for females. Transformed into a bipedal form, this translates to 5’10” (177cm) and 5’6” (167cm), respectively.
The Mariel have a diverse range of superficial features. The skin of their bipedal upper body has a broad spectrum from fair to dark skin, depending on the latitude of the population. Northernmost and southernmost temperate populations will be fair skinned while their tropical and equatorial counterparts will be darker skinned. As for scale colors, the patterns on their scales can mimic fish species in their region. Tropical Mariel often have brightly colored scales and fins, while temperate Mariel have silvery and metallic colors, often highly iridescent. Fin shapes can vary widely as well, either being as spiny and sharp as a stickleback or long and flowy like a betta fish.
Eye colors are always bright and intense: they range through blue, green, yellow, violet, and red. Brown or hazel eyes are not typical of Mariel. Their eyes can be strikingly pale or intensely pigmented in these colors and shades in between. Their hair color can also include colors unnatural to other races, often complimenting the colors of their scales. This can include shades of red, orange, yellow (or bright blonde), green, blue, and violet. Silver and black hair are more common in less vibrant temperate populations, but brown hair is not typical of any group.
They retain the indicative long, tapered ears of the elemental races, but the thin skin of this body part has become fin-like in its tissue structure. While still the same shape, the helix of the ear is covered in scaled tissue, while the inner pinna and other structures are translucent tissue similar to that of the fin webbing. Other aquatic features include webbing between the fingers, gills along the ribs, and scaling along prominent points along the body. The scaling for the tail begins at the top of the pelvis, climbing high up the sides and dipping down in a V-shape above the pubic bone. Along the back, the scales cover much of the lower back and usually cover the spine. Collarbones, the sternum, shoulders, forearms, elbows, the cheekbones, jawline, and around the hairline are also often scaled.
Tail and Fins
The structure of Mariel fins is essentially an elongated tail. The bipedal pelvis is still intact, along with vestigial legs that emerge from the side of the pelvis and lay close to the body. These “legs” are short, minimally articulated, but still reminiscent of bipedal legs. They are finned and assist in movement along the seafloor, gripping walls, and also have a role in intimacy. In swimming, these fins act as rudders on the underside. At the center of the pelvic region, between the finned vestigial legs, is a cloacal opening that houses the excretory orifices and entrance to the reproductive tract.
The Mariel tail is mainly muscle with a highly flexible spinal column, similar to the Asath. It is around the same length as legs, with an additional several inches, not accounting for the fins. Mariel possess a dorsal fin along their back that runs from the lower back to a third of the way down the tail. The fins at the end of the tail, due to their fish-like form, despite the arrangement that is more akin to aquatic mammals, is the caudal fin. The caudal fin comes in many different shapes and sizes depending on the traits in the population.
Mariel are one of the shorter-lived elemental races with a lifespan of approximately 300 years. Like their cousins, the Mariel reach full maturity around the age of twenty-five and cease apparent signs of aging until around the age of 250, at which point the aging process continues until death.
Elderly Mariel began to have issues with their dual-respiratory system and tend to stay below the surface to avoid their body’s weakened response to air exposure. It is easier for the elderly to remain fully aquatic.
Puberty and sexual maturity for Mariel is reached around the same ages as it is for humans, but female Mariel are fertile only for one season of every year until around the age of two-hundred and fifty. Male Mariel are capable of reproducing from puberty to death, as in humans. Over the course of her life, a female Mariel may have two to five children. They tend to space their children over the course of their adult lives, ideally with five or ten years between each. Due to the transformation at the age of twenty-five, young Mariel are strongly discouraged from reproducing before that time.
Despite their piscine lower bodies, Mariel do not lay eggs. Their reproduction is entirely mammalian, bearing typically one baby after a nine-month gestation. Baby Mariel are nursed for around five years, and are kept underwater until that age, at which point they begin to develop the capacity to breathe out of water.
Interracial reproduction is especially complicated with Mariel. Only during their limited time on land are they able to reproduce with humans and other terranean races due to the epigenetic changes of their transformation.
At the age of twenty-five, all Mariel begin to undergo a forced transformation that will return them to a bipedal form for five years of their life so that they can act as an envoy for their people to their cousins on land. This transformation is unavoidable, but what a young Mariel chooses to do afterwards is up to them. This period serves as an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange and learning news of the world, but not all individuals are up to the task. Many communities have forged relationships with communities on the shore where the shier youths can choose to remain to wait out their five years, rather than traveling.
During their twenty-fourth year, Mariel begin to feel and observe symptoms of the coming transformation. Many are moved to outposts near coastlines by their elders so they can transition safely. Some of the early symptoms are increased appetite, shedding of scales, pain in the lungs that drives them to the surface to breathe, necropsy of the fin webbing across the body, growing pains in vestigial legs, and other symptoms. As the transformation progresses, the vestigial legs develop into human legs while merging with the musculature of tail, all scales are shed, the diaphragm in the duel-chambered lungs recedes, and the gills seal tightly shut with a thin layer of skin over the top. This process is incredibly painful, and the worst of it takes place over only several days. The energy required is immense, and both the initial and secondary transformations seem to have that energy channeled directly from Maris herself. At the end, the only visible Mariel traits that are retained are intense hair and eye colors that mark them as unique amongst the other races.
Over the course of the next five years, they will be able to travel the land, gather news, meet with other elemental races, and do any tasks that their home community has assigned to them. As they near their thirtieth birthday, they will feel an intense draw to the ocean. Their scales begin to emerge on the skin and there will be an ache in the lungs and legs. The transformation will not progress until they are immersed in ocean water, however.
A few Mariel choose not return (or can be kept in this form by force). For various reasons, a young Mariel may not return to the ocean in time for the transformation to occur. Either they have built relationships with individuals on land that they are not willing to abandon, perhaps they fear the pain of a second transformation, or they have been held against their will. If by their thirtieth birthday they do not return to the ocean, the transformation will never complete. Nearly every time this happens it includes the complete rejection by Maris herself. These Mariel who choose not to return are often stripped of the Undine portion of their souls by the goddess, thus losing their ability for water elementalism. Any pains that urged them to return to the water will subside, but any scales that emerged will remain, forever marking them for what they once were. These individuals can potentially live a normal Mariel lifespan, but often are so afflicted by regret that they develop severe depression that can lead to suicide (typically by drowning).
It is also during this year that Mariel can reproduce with bipedal races. As the transformation includes an epigenetic shift (the activation and deactivation of specific genes), this change is reflected in their gametes (for both genders). Male Mariel on land at this time can impregnate females of other races, while female Mariel can become impregnated by males of other races. However, the complications for female Mariel are far greater than for males. If a pregnancy occurs early enough in her stay on land, the woman will be able to safely deliver her baby. If pregnancy begins near the end of her stay on land, the transformation will undoubtedly cause a miscarriage anywhere after the first few weeks.
Then, there is the emotional cost of having children during this period. No child born of this union can immediately return with the mother. While a half-Mariel will have their own transformation and choice presented to them later in life, their mother has to make a choice of leaving them behind or forgoing her own return (and assuring her spiritual demise). Mariel men who have fathered children with another race face the same dilemma at the time of their transformation, but their children will not be capable of inheriting water elementalism, so they are discouraged from entering the sea to join their father later in life. For these reasons, young Mariel are discouraged from having romantic relationships with any individuals on land, but there have always been those who disregard these warnings and pay the price.
Without the availability of fire, Mariel cannot cook their food, so their diet is completely raw. There is a wealth of food in the regions they inhabit, however. They cultivate forms of aquatic vegetation that they eat frequently. Fish, shellfish, and invertebrates make up the rest of their diet. Mariel have their own forms of animal husbandry and keep fishes, cultivate colonies of stationary shellfish, and keep other animals for food and eggs. Hunting and gathering also contributes to their diet. There are many species they eat that they are unable to keep and cultivate. Mariel typically do not eat any birds or mammals, however, as their guts have a hard time processing the denser meats. During their time on land, they may require a little adjustment to the new foods, but it typically doesn’t take long, especially considering the ravenous hunger that overtakes them post-transformation.
The Mariel association with Undine and the element of Water lends itself to a culture that reflects the nature of that spirit. They tend to be an emotionally sensitive people, but restrained in their responses. Mariel are raised in a culture that teaches them to judge their emotions before responding, rather than acting on instinct.
Gender and Relationships
Mariel have an egalitarian culture with a system of matrilineal inheritance, like most other elemental races. They tend to monogamous pairing, though each population may have different marital expectations with shorter-term relationships or plural marriages being the norm. Mariel are also very accepting same-sex relationships. Like their element, they tend to be fluid in their concept of what a marriage or romantic partnership should be.
The Mariel were created with the purpose of serving Maris as guardians of the world's oceans. They do not worship the goddess, nor do they pray in hopes of favors, rather they seek to embody her will and commune with Maris, as well as their inner Undine.
As guardians of the oceans, Mariel are tasked with making certain that the rest of the world does not threaten to damage to oceanic ecosystems by pollution, over-fishing, or disturbing delicate areas with ship traffic. To achieve this, Mariel have been known to lure, attack, or otherwise thwart threatening seafarers. Historically, their tactics have proven useful, and very rarely do the Mariel need to act.
The Mariel language is the furthest from the Ancient Tongue as any of the elemental races, solely because spoken word proved to be hard to convey in an aquatic environment. Instead, Mariel language developed an entirely different set of sounds in gestures, clicks, whistles, and high pitched noises from a specialized voice-box, based in the grammar of the Ancient Tongue.
As all Mariel undergo a transformation that brings them out of the ocean for a brief period, they are educated from an early age in languages spoken by the peoples on neighboring landmasses. The collective knowledge of these languages is enriched by each individual who spends five years journeying and returns home.
Government and Social Roles
Mariel established city-states throughout the world's temperate and tropical oceans early after their appearance in Aserra's oceans, with more city-states created as the population expanded. Their cities can be found throughout the Tonult, the Gulf of Kalesten, Gulf of Thiskel, and the Riath Sea. For safety in the ocean, Mariel populations gather in these locales rather than spreading into nations like many land-based races. There is generally significant distance between cities, but they maintain communication with their neighbors, and there is a network that brings young Mariel on the brink of their transformation from city to city to the nearest safe shore.
Leadership amongst the Mariel often falls to a selection of respected elders in each community. As they are egalitarian, gender does not prohibit any Mariel from becoming an Honored Elder. The selection is a democratic process wherein interested residents of a city-state give a potential Honored Elder a vote of confidence before they ascend to such a position. For this reason, most Honored Elders have a notable history amongst their community that makes them deserving of a position of trust. Likewise, Elders who who abuse their position of power or make choices against the will of the people can be removed from their position by vote. Typically, Honored Elders hold their position until death or abdication.
Water Elementalism is the power to control the movement of water from the minute to the massive scale by mental effort. This talent is granted by their Undine souls. It comes as naturally as breathing in its most basic form, though more complex actions require years of training. The manipulation of currents helps with aquatic movement, building, gathering food, and a multitude of daily tasks.
In combat, control over the currents can be used to shield, strike, disorient, and suffocate. As Mariel rarely fight each other, this is usually turned toward aggressive wildlife, or surface threats from sailors. During the War of the Gods, Mariel used their power to sink enemy ships, cause tsunamis and affect local weather by bringing cold or warm currents to regions that would spawn storms. Creating tsunamis and affecting weather changes are tasks that require many Mariel working in concert.
Water elementalism can also be used to heal Mariel, but this healing ability does not help other creatures. On the reverse, skilled healers can also learn to manipulate water in the body to exhibit control over muscle movement, or remove water from a body to desiccate. This is a talent that takes decades of devoted practice and deep understanding of anatomy to master.
During their five years on land, Mariel still are able to use their elementalism, but often struggle at first to adapt their skill to the surface world. However, this struggle tends to provide them with more insight into their own ability. Mariel who do not return after their five years on land are often stripped of their Undine portion of their souls, thus losing their ability. Half-Mariel born of a Mariel mother can learn to use water elementalism on land much more adeptly than an ocean-born Mariel.
In general, Mariel have limited contact with the other races, with the exception of Marfod who often live nearby or amongst them. Their youths who spend five years on land serve an important diplomatic role, often conveying important messages to allies on land and returning home with news of the world. They generally hold their elemental cousins (with the exception of Danaij) in high regard. With humans, their relationship can vary. With their youths coming ashore, there are human communities that have long supported the Mariel and ensured their safe venture into the world, or sheltered those that are too afraid to journey far. However, Mariel have on occasion gone to war with sea-faring humans who have threatened their region's ecosystem.