Chapter Thirteen – Off To War
Click. No updates.
Click. Still blank.
Frowning, checking the connection. Top notch. Why nothing?
Lee glanced around bustling RDA lab. Time was slowing. Click. Click.
He slapped his hand down on the desk. Around him, assistants looked up. Hunching his shoulders, Lee glared at the screen.
SLU-INT-61 to SLU-EX-06
STATUS REPORT REQUEST NO 12. PLEASE RESPOND. SLU-EX-06 WAS DUE FOR RDA-LOC-05 DOCK YESTERDAY. ANY FURTHER DELAY WILL BE CONSIDERED A BREACH OF CONTRACT.
Lee sent the message with vindictive glee. In the centre of the lab there was a clunking, a whir. Lab assistants jumped up, shooting him confused looks.
The SLU died back to its ever-present hum. Lee slumped, twisting his chair and giving it a baleful stare. How was he supposed to give inside information when there was no information inside? The ISV orbiting Pandora was silent. With every message costing money, the RDA was getting annoyed with Lee and the other lab assistants; as if it were somehow their fault their messages were pinging into what seemed to be a void. The lab had received no distress signals, none of the usual scheduled updates. Perhaps something had gone seriously wrong. Sun-storm, maybe.
Lee could feel himself sweating. All he wanted was a single update. A status report. A full explanation. He could feel something must be happening, some exciting story, and waiting had never been his strong point. He didn't want to jump every time he clicked, every time it stuttered on the load as if there was something big coming. He wanted to see something when he looked up. Something. "Anything."
Lee blinked, rubbed his eyes at the assistant. "Nothing," he said. He glanced at his screen, sighing, "nothing."
"We got a reply."
"What!" He snatched the printout from her hand.
SLU-EX-06 to SLU-INT-61
STATUS REPORT. SLU-EX-06 HAS DOCKED AT RDA-LOC-05. CRYOBAY LEVEL 01 AND O2 OF 3 CRYOBAYS DISEMBARKED. AVTR-145AJ20,AVTR-145TK27, AVTR-349WS31 UNLOADED. CARGO SEC-01 TO SEC-12 UNLOADED. VALKYRIE 0349-45 UNDOCKED.
"Looks like everything's in order," the assistant said.
Lee nodded, looking down at the print out, his breath coming in disordered gulps. The assistant walked off. Still he stared at the words. Only a few lines instead of a full page report?
Lee jumped. Next to him, a co-worker gave him a crooked grin. "You've been acting weird for the past two weeks, ever since you came back from leave."
"Dill, I don't know what you're talking about."
"You check your comms obsessively," Dill said, slinging himself over the back of his chair, picking his teeth. "Admit it. You got whipped in the city. What she look like?" One brow quirked. "He?"
Lee blinked. "There's nobody."
"Oh, sure, sure," Dill said, swinging around with a wink.
Lee hesitated a second, then blurted. "It's a she."
He stared at his knee, confused as to why he'd even said anything. As Dill swung back around, smirking, Lee came to a conclusion: this was a great alibi.
"Yes," Lee said, more firmly. "I met her in the city."
Lee's eyes slid over Dill's shoulder.
"Yeah. She has a body, y'know."
Dill looked at him blankly.
"I mean, a great body."
Lee would later be left to ponder the paradox of him using his secret contact as his alibi.
Standing ankle deep in the Pandoran sea, coral biting into the soles of his feet, the young hunter Ateyo glanced at the sky. He sung an old war song softly, "Off we go to war! Yet stranger words I understand, Were said when I was a child, Believing everything but dreams were false!" The Sky People's star was racing to the horizon. His clan brothers were pulling themselves from deeper waters, grumbling.
Standing beside Ateyo, his elder brother crossed his arms. "Brother, you better start explaining yourself."
Ateyo kept his eyes on the horizon. "We have all heard the story of the Omaticaya, and how they fought the stars." The grumbling warriors grew quiet. Ateyo glanced back at them, unable to hold eye contact with the glinting irises in the dark. He was not a natural leader, like his brother. Licking his lips, his eyes went back to the horizon. "Eywa has spoken to me."
All murmuring ceased.
"Excuse me?" the strongest swimmer splashed forward, his voice low. "Eywa has called to you?" he laughed.
Ateyo felt his face tighten. "Tsahìk believes me."
"Old Seril is full of ideas," Ateyo's brother said.
"Seril is Tsahìk for a reason," Ateyo snapped.
"That does not mean you follow him blindly."
"I am not following Seril alone. It is Eywa who calls me most of all! It is Eywa who calls all of us, through me!"
His brother grabbed Ateyo's bicep, pulling the young hunter around to look him in the eye. "You child!" he growled, "You claim that Eywa has stronger confidence in you than the Tsahìk?" He leaned close. "What has gotten into you?"
Ateyo jerked his arm away. "Stranger words, I understand, we said when we were children."
His eyes went back to the horizon. Not a fifteen minute swim away, his clan's home rose from the water, glowing in the pre-dawn darkness. Ancient corals, long dead formed the island, culminating in the living skeletal form of their Hometree. The leeside faced them, the white beach shining.
Between the outcrop that the war party stood on and the shore, glowing shapes slipped through the dark waves. Ateyo crouched, splashing his hands in the water.
Warriors stepped forward. "What are you doing!"
Ateyo crawled away, splashing. His feet curled; tiny barbs from the coral biting into him. His blood disappearing, salty like sea water. But it would brings the beasts.
A black shape rolled through the water nearby. Another bopped bobbed up, lowing.
Ateyo stood up. "We go to our cousins on the coast, the Cave Clans, and we ride to Toruk Makto and aid him."
Warriors laughed. The strongest swimmer, Txur stamped his feet, throwing up water and declared, "Little hunter Ateyo! Collecting clams all day! Did you not hear? The fight is long finished." He began to turn away.
"Look to the sky, brothers and sisters," Ateyo said. His voice echoed over the dark water. "Look, just to the right of Kelutral's tallest branch. That is the star. It moves with a speed no other star in the sky has. It is a Sky Person's beast! They have returned."
Confused heads turned. There was mutterings; some were slipping back into the water, angry.
But then Ateyo's brother gave a loud yell. He turned to the young hunter with wide eyes. "Ateyo ... what did Eywa say?"
Two Days Later...
Once the old Hometree had been protected, Jake bid all of the warriors to hurry back to the Nest to recuperate. Without his ikran, Atan he would ride a pa'li to Hell's Gate. He was increasingly aware that he had mere hours to get Tomas, Norm and all the others out of Hell's Gate, so that when the Omaticaya stormed the place nobody he cared for would get hurt.
Neytiri wanted to go with him. As other warriors were lifting off into the sky Neytiri placed her hands on Jake's elbows.
Without her having to ask, Jake said, "We have until dawn to save them. While I ride, I will speak with Norm and find out if he has been able to get them water, and how he thinks we should save them." Jake focused on her eyes. "You need rest." He reached up, stroking fingers on her cheek. "All the warriors need rest. Take them back to the Nest, make them sleep. Maybe let Ghost visit her babies. Then fly as fast as you can to Hell's Gate."
"Faster if I fly there direct."
Jake nodded, "But you've barely slept since yesterday, I know, and same goes for all our other warriors. I wouldn't be a good olo'eyktan if I let you all fly into battle asleep on your ikran."
Neytiri pulled back. "You, also, have slept little."
"It can't be helped. I have to ride pa'li and you know that takes longer."
Her tail lashed. Without warning she turned, hopping up onto Ghost. The pale ikran stretched out its neck and shook its head angrily. Neytiri patted her neck, making soothing noises. Her eyes caught Jake's. She dipped her head, and with a great flap Ghost pulled into the sky.
Jake turned to the pa'li, stroking its nose. "Sleep well last night? You've got a long trip ahead of you." He climbed on and the two crashed away through the underbrush.
As he rode, Jake pressed his fingers to the neckband that allowed him to contact the others and pushed a finger against the button for Norm. As it crackled once, something it had never done, Jake frowned. "Norm?" The crackle dimmed to a low pitched white noise. "Norm!"
Jake dropped his hand, urging the pa'li forward. He briefly considered contacting Neytiri, but knew that if it was a problem with his radio, then that wouldn't work and if it was a problem with Norm's, then that would just cause Neytiri undue stress. He knew her well enough that she'd go straight to Hell's Gate if she had just one more reason.
Jake glanced at the sky. It was late in the afternoon and as usual completely clear. A flock of forest banshees screeched past.
He'd heard the old Earth myth that animals knew long before calamity fell.
What did the forest banshees know?
Ote'lo sat up as Tayena urged the direhorse to a halt. His head titled back, taking in the great fence that had appeared before them. Ote'lo dismounted and clasped his hands together, shooting a nervous look at the fence. He knew from bedtime stories that touching that fence would set your arm on fire without flames. "Teyena ... How do we get through?"
The girl hissed and grabbed his hand. "You really are a little one," she snapped. "Did your mother never let you outside of Hometree?"
Ote'lo shook his head.
"Well," Tayena said, crouching and pushing aside a fern. "Some of us liked to play around here. You ever played 'I'm braver than someone who'?"
Ote'lo shook his head again.
"You have to say you're braver than someone and then prove it. We proved it by get close to the Sawtute. Very close."
She made a pleased sound and pulled aside a fern to reveal a hole. "We had to dig a bit, but most of it is a cave," she said proudly.
Ote'lo frowned at the hole. "It goes under?"
"Just get in," she told him. Taking sharp breaths, Ote'lo crawled headfirst into the dirt. It quickly went dark. There was grunting behind him as Tayena squeezed herself in. Within a few shuffles the dirt was replaced by cool stone which was slightly damp to the touch. Ote'lo stopped, choking.
"Hurry up!" Teyena growled.
Ote'lo shook his head. "I –I – c-can't," he stuttered.
A hand reached up the leg of his trousers, pinched his tail and he yelped forward. "I'll keep doing it!" she warned.
Stone was brushing his shoulders, it was that tight. His breath came in short, earthy gasps. "I can't, I can't," he said.
There was a pause, then, Teyena said softly, tenderly, "You'll die, we'll both die if you don't move forward."
It was the motivation he needed.
The two young Na'vi crawled out into Hell's Gate and crouched behind a large container, peering around it. A few squat buildings were yards away, and curving behind and around them the flat black tarmac of the runway. Sniffing the air, Teyena nodded and they stood, trying to look casual as they walked towards the squat buildings. "Swing your hands," Ote'lo said, "Norm-man always did that."
They reached the buildings. Ote'lo hissed as he laid his hand from the corrugated iron – it was searing hot. He looked down at his red palm. They edged around the storehouse. The tarmac shimmered with heat.
"Good thing we wore foot coverings," Teyena whispered. She poked her head around the corner and gasped. Ote'lo crouched and looked around.
Beside the Valkyrie was a group of human soldiers who were leaping upon what looked like their own. And slumped on the ground, with their hands and feet tied, the hostages squirmed on the hot tarmac as it burnt their skin.
Ote'lo jumped forward. He felt Teyena's hands scratching his back as she tried to stop him. The humans didn't notice him.
Ote'lo recognised the voice of one of the humans roaring, throwing his arms around his assailant. "Norm," he muttered, eyes wide.
A solider shattered the butt of his gun against the scientist's head, felling him. Ote'lo gave a cry of horror.
Time slowed. As one, the soldiers and the fighters all turned and took in the two beings beside the store house. At distance, they looked human enough – if humans were normally that lithe, that poised and in Teyena's case, almost seven feet tall.
Ote'lo heard his sister Hnene moan in anger. His hand twitched forward, and if he could touch her. His feet carried him forward.
Norm was on his knees along with the rest of them. Ote'lo took in the human's altered features, the shorter hair. He figured that the bad humans must have done it to Norm – after all, to a Na'vi person, hair was sacred. Norm would not remove his, even in human form, lightly. Would he?
Teyena was yelling behind him, her boots slapping the tarmac, telling him to stop. She managed to over take him, pushing him to the side, turning to the humans.
Silence is danger. Hnene's mate had told Ote'lo that when he was tiny. Before Ngera had been shot in the face at the school in an era that felt so long ago to Ote'lo.
"You must crouch like so," Ngera said. Ote'lo mimicked the older Na'vi, whose eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled.
Ngera took Ote'lo hand, told him to listen to the forest. They crouched until their legs ached, and the sounds of the forest grew.
Then the growl of a hunter. The whole forest went silent instantly, and still. Ote'lo opened his eyes to see a palu'lukan prowling past.
"Silence is danger," Ngera said once the hunter was gone. "Never fear what people say 'evi. Fear what they don't. Trust me when I say that the day adults don't say something, then something terrible has happened."
On the day Ngera had died, Hnene had taken her vow of silence.
Now, Ote'lo's ears were empty. He could hear nothing, although his ear drums ached like after the loud music of harvest festivals. The faces of the hostages twisted, and they were yelling silently as the soldiers tightened their grip on their guns.
Ote'lo felt droplets roll down his cheek, and touched his wet skin. He looked down at his hands, finding not tears but blood.
He looked to the side in bewilderment seeing Teyena land on her knees. Her mouth was moving but no sound came out.
Ote'lo turned around to see the man who had shot her. He was muscular, wearing a white shirt that blazed in the sunlight. He lowered his weapon, sauntering forward the last few steps, grabbing Teyena's shoulder and pulling her around. He whipped off her hat, revealing her pointed ears. Her queue tumbled down her back.
The man looked over her at Norm and the others. He said something, but again Ote'lo heard nothing. Then with one last word, the man lifted the gun and pressed it to her forehead.
Ote'lo screamed as blood, brain, hair and bone exploded silently. There was no sound at all.
Night had fallen long ago. Jake had reached a part of the forest filled with vine-covered stone and giant boulders. He was too far away, but luckily the hard ground allowed the pa'li to speed up the pace. The forest passed in streaks of light on either side of them.
Jakes eyes were heavy. He didn't know if he should sleep on the pa'li while bonded and riding, worried that the animal would not take the most direct route.
A small cliff appeared beside him, the rock sparkling slightly in the bioluminescence. Jake closed his eyes briefly.
He jerked awake and could not tell what time it was. The cliff was still beside him, but that meant nothing since Jake knew there were miles of these in the Pandoran jungle.
It was very dark.
The pa'li suddenly halted and Jake nearly flew over its head. As it was he gripped onto its antennae and looked around in confusion.
It was too dark.
Leaves were rustling but Jake could hear no creatures – no chuckle of the viperwolves, no prolemuris squeaks, no clicks or clacks or humming from all the various small animals and planimals and whistling plants of the forest. He turned to eye the war bonnet fern. He could hear crashing and something thudding. The sound was becoming more defined, coming closer, he realised.
Out of the bush a viperwolf burst, ignoring Jake and running parallel to the cliff as fast as it could. The pa'li pawed the ground, snorting.
The sounds of activity were rushing closer. Jake made the pa'li approach the bushes, and it walked unwillingly, snorting.
Crashing through the warbonnet fern emerged a huge creature. Jake could barely take in its size – much bigger than an ikran, almost as big as a toruk before the pa'li was swept out from under him. The pa'li screamed as the shadowy form lifted it high into the air, rumbling. A second paw – or claw, or tentacle, or wing reached for Jake, hitting him with the force of a tree trunk and winding him. Jake saw stars as he was slammed against the cliff face, and he was positive he had several broken ribs.
The beast jerked through the ferns in agitation, crushing Jake against the stone and snuffling and growling. In the darkness Jake couldn't be sure but it seemed to move without purpose, with confusion. Its shape rippled, at one point smooth skinned which reflected light as if it were wet, the next spikes swelling from its spine.
He crawled to his feet, deciding it would be best to just edge around it – whatever it was and make his escape. He had plenty of time to be brave later. He was pushing apart the ferns, glancing back at the snuffling monster, only to come face to face with eyes, eyes that actually glowed. Jake didn't count them but there were far too many, spread out so that Jake couldn't tell what was its head.
The beast growled and then exhaled hot, putrid breath all over Jake's head and shoulders. He coughed at the smell. It was distinctly fishy.
At least six glowing eyes swivelled to look at him.
"Aw, shit," Jake breathed.
The monster lunged forward and the world went completely dark.
At the Nest, the Omaticaya gathered. In the late afternoon, Neytiri found herself on the shore, leading the grieving through the funeral rites for the three dead children who had been shot by the RDA. Taking an atokirina for each, she crouched and rested the sacred seed upon the smooth cyan cheeks.
She stood up stiffly, raising her arms in prayer. They felt as if attached to the floor by ropes, and shook as she held them up. She wanted desperately to cry, to ride out on Ghost to Hell's Gate. Her son could be in a grave.
She drifted to the fireplaces on the cliffs on the northern side of the lake of the Nest. She chewed, choked. She curled up under a fern and dug her fingers into the damp earth, asking Eywa to help her sleep. She clenched the dirt, promising to kill her son's kidnappers.
The sea was a still grey slate when the sun arose. The thunderous crashing of the beasts over the coral platform that sat inches under the surface of the sea had long ago turned to a dull roar in Ateyo's ears.
It seemed as if the sun jumped into the sky. Almost instantly, the sea changed from the colour of smoke to a layer of glass over a kaleidoscope of coral.
Straight ahead lay the coast. The sight made Ateyo lose concentration. Being only a real hunter for a season, he had not yet made this journey before. He could not understand the solid swathes of green over the walls of stone that rose terraced from the sea. Under him, the beast twisted and Ateyo snapped his eyes back to the comforting sight of coral.
Ateyo looked up, fighting to bring his beast to a halt. His clan brothers and sisters stopped easily, and Ateyo felt his cheeks burn as he and two others fought to bring their beasts under control. Eventually becoming still, Ateyo managed to look over the Cave Clan riders who had ventured out across the sea to meet the war party.
"Brothers and sisters," Ateyo's brother called out awkwardly. "I am Kitani."
The Cave Clan rider at the front of the small group urged his beast forward a few steps. "Your Tsahìk is Seril who walks on water?"
Ateyo glanced at his brother, who shrugged. Kitani faced the scout again, "We all walk on water," he said ironically, his eyes dropping to the surface of the water, lapping softly over the coral for miles on all sides. He narrowed his eyes at the scouts. "Seril is not with us."
The scout was frowning. "Why have you brought a war party, Kitani of the water walkers? Do you wish to fight us?"
Kitani looked to Ateyo. "No. It seems Eywa has called for our help on behalf of the Omaticaya."
The scout's frown deepened and he shared looks with his comrades. "The tree-dwellers?"
The scout's mate, perched on the highest point of the spine of his beast reached out and touched his shoulder. "Liraya wasn't lying," she said. "If the water-walkers have heard the same thing."
The scout gently pushed his mate back and faced the war-party. "We had a young hunter say she spoke to Eywa. She ran away when our Tsahìk called her a liar. This has happened in your clan as well?"
Kitani bowed his head. "Yes. My brother is a young hunter also, but he convinced Seril that Eywa has indeed found a voice."
The scout lifted a hand to cover his eyes from the rising sun. "Then you better come with us. If this is true ... then we haven't much time. I suppose you came here so that we would take you to the Omaticaya."
The scout nodded and turned. It did not take long to reach the shore, even though the coral eventually dropped away and Ateyo shivered in the cold water. "Hold your breath and follow," the scout said, his shoulders bobbing above the water, his beast already submerged but for the arch of its spine, with his mate laying flat against it.
Ateyo took a deep breath, opening his eyes wide as about fifty beasts and the hundred-odd riders plunged down. The scouts of the Cave Clan easily melded themselves along the spine of their beasts, which turned into dark shapes that sliced through the blue like black blades. Ateyo pressed his cheek to his own beast's neck, flattening his ears to keep out the water and letting the beast use its own luminous eyes to follow their guides to a cliff face and down, down, fighting the pounding tide. They came to the rim of a cavernous black hole: a cave. Not any cave, but an entrance to the Cave Clan's home.
The cave curved rapidly upwards, a hole pounded through rock by millions of years of water. Soon light filtered down, and the ache around Ateyo's head loosened. All pressure released as he burst through the surface.
He could hear a collective inhalation from the war-party, but it wasn't just because they'd had to hold their breath for much longer than any of them were used to.
If he didn't know better, Ateyo would have thought it was night time. All above and around was darkness dotted by countless spots of light. There was far off singing, a morning prayer by the invisible clan. Floating on the surface of the water luminous plants reached up tentacles taller than any man from a bowl-like base, and at the top of the tentacles flowers undulated and cast lilac puddles of light across the water.
The Cave Clan scouts called for them to take their beast to the edge. "I hope your beasts remember in their souls how to do this," the head scout laughed as his beast pulled its two forepaws out of the water and laid them on the stone with a slurp. The scout's beasts walked up the vertical stone, their huge bodies defying gravity.
Ateyo gulped, but urged his beast forward with all his strength of will. It seemed unwilling, but he knew it was his own fear that held his mount back. Sighing, he pressed himself to its skin and they pulled dripping up the wall.
Ateyo realised pretty quickly that he shouldn't have worried about the beasts and gravity. He was the one who was in need of limbs covered in thousands of minute fibres that would allow him to cling to any surface, to become any texture or colour. He could feel his brother laughing at him as he wrapped his arms around the neck of his beast, undecided if it was the fear or the embarrassment that felt worse.
And then he was the right way up again. "Wake up Ateyo!" Kitani called.
Ateyo opened his eyes. The beauty of the first cavern, he now realised, was not going to continue. In front of them it appeared as if some disaster had befallen the Cave Clan. Huge slabs of stone were propped against the floor and walls of the next cavern at incongruous angles. Light shone through the gaps of each with the shadows of Na'vi passing through. There was no colour but the lights, only grey and black. Terrible darkness seeped into the edges of everything, and Ateyo shivered at the sudden cold.
He looked at the scouts, taking in their pale skin in this new light. He did not understand why any Na'vi would want to live in this place.
The scouts lead them down into the valley of fallen stone. Pale Na'vi children scampered over knife-edged stone, through holes and laughed at their cousins from the sea. "Stay here," the scout said. "I will get our Olo'eyktan, Matsak."
"There is no Eywa in this place," Ateyo heard one of his clan brothers' whisper to his mate. "Where are the plants? The animals?"
"And the Na'vi themselves are so strange," she replied. "Their skin is barely blue, they have far too many spots. Their eyes are too big – and did you see their hands?"
Before anyone could answer her, a group of Na'vi had emerged.
Matsak, the Olo'eyktan had not come alone. It seemed all of his clan had decided to accompany him. He looked far too young, was Ateyo's first thought. Matsak was barely a man. However his wide eyes sat over dark shadows and hollow cheeks. He ran his eyes over the newcomers, looking tired.
"Who is in charge?" Matsak demanded in a voice much stronger than his appearance.
"I am," Kitani said, dismounting. "I am Kitani of the Reytskxe Clan, who live on the coral and you call the water-walkers. Our Tsahìk is Seril, our Olo'eyktan my father, Fri'txka."
Matsak looked at Ateyo. "That is a hunter, not a warrior."
Ateyo glanced down. "That is my brother, Ateyo," Kitani said. "He spoke with Eywa who told him we had to go to the Omaticaya Clan."
Matsak hissed and his tail curled tightly. "And you ask for passage through our domain instead of asking for the grace of at least five clans who are already friend to Toruk Makto of the Omaticaya? You ask us, who have so recently felt so much calamity?" He raised his hands and gestured to the stones all around them. "I suppose you think this is what our home normally looks like? You are wrong."
"Eywa told Ateyo that the Omaticaya's enemy could see them if we went across the land, that we would be of more use if we went by other means." Kitani glanced at the rocks that rose in giant shards around them. "What did happen here?"
"After the huntress Liraya was exiled for blasphemy, the ground shook with the anger of Eywa," Matsak said, his face tightening. "Many of our caves have been blocked, and we do not even know if our Utral Aymokriyä survives within the stone." He stepped forward, pacing from side to side as he spoke, "So many of our clan died – our Olo'eyktan, our Tsahìk. I'm sorry, but I cannot allow for my clan brothers and sisters to go off to war. Not now."
Kitani gaped, and Ateyo knew his brother would probably say something stupid. So he slipped off his beast and stepped towards Matsak who glared at him. "Olo'eyktan Matsak. We're not asking your clan to fight. We're simply asking that you take us to the Omaticaya."
"We have not had time to see how much damage has been done," Matsak said softly. "The way is probably blocked."
Ateyo forgot custom and grabbed Matsak's hand. The man looked down at their hands, puzzled. "I have spoken with Eywa," Ateyo said urgently. "And she says that the Omaticaya are our first line of defence against the Sky People who ride stars, who will make it so that there are no Utral Aymokriyä on all of Pandora if they get their way."
Matsak pursed his lips, closed his eyes and was shaking his head. Ateyo suddenly felt as if he were older than this clan leader. Matsak's eyes were those of a little boy forced into a role he was not yet ready for.
"We are sorry that this has happened to your clan," Ateyo went on, "and perhaps after this we will come and aid your clan. But before, we must make sure that Eywa is kept safe." He heard Kitani hiss behind him but ignored his elder brother, the would-be-clan-leader and focused his eyes on Matsak's.
"We don't have to fight?" Matsak clarified. Ateyo nodded. "Fine. We will take you there."
Ateyo released his hand, stepping back and smiling.
Matsak immediately called upon his best men and women. Children disappeared through the stones to get food and water bags. As the Cave Clan arranged for the expedition, bringing rope and bladder lanterns, Matsak said to Kitani, "I will come with you. The journey will take around four days, that's the fastest we can go, I promise you."
Kitani thanked him. Within half an hour, the Cave Clan had assembled fifteen beasts to lead the Reytskxe Clan through the underground labyrinth.
In the dark tunnels, time began to lose meaning. Ateyo didn't know when the feel tired or awake without the motions of the sun and the stars and the moons, and so settled into a dream-state. Oftentimes his beast would crawl on surfaces that weren't as horizontal as he liked. Ateyo began to miss the salty tang of the sea – all he could smell and taste was stone, cold stone.
Occasionally they would move through tunnels filled with fine glowing webs that disintegrated at the touch. Sometimes things would flap away from them, neither plant nor animal, other times pale things would slither into cracks in the walls. Lichen would form brilliant patterns of light but went dark if they dared touch. Five times the beasts had to wrap their limbs around ropes and slide across endless crevasses with their riders alternately crying and whooping. There were several times when the group had to retrace their steps when a passage was blocked, making Ateyo nervous that they would not arrive in time to be of any use.
During a rest break as the Cave Clan guides slept, Ateyo crawled over to Kitani. Kitani's mate patted Ateyo's cheek and smiled in the darkness. "Oel ngati kameie," she whispered. "Look how handsome he gets!"
Kitani shook his head. "Don't tease," he told her.
She grinned and kneeled behind Ateyo and began to fix his hair. "I am not teasing. You mustn't feel so threatened by your younger brother, Kitani. You should be proud he is growing a backbone."
Ateyo glared at her over his shoulder. "I didn't come to be insulted."
She smiled over the braid she was retying. "I wonder what happened to the other prophet?" she said softly. "Lira... Liraha?"
"Liraya," Ateyo said after a pause. He looked over all the sleeping forms towards the Cave Clan members. "This clan sees things so strangely. They banish those with the word of Eywa, and then blame their problems on her. As if Eywa would shake the Earth!"
"I was talking to one of the guides," Kitani whispered, "Apparently their Tsahìk didn't die in the Earthquake – she actually disappeared a while ago. It was before the prophet made her claims. The prophet also said that she should become the next Tsahìk – that is why they exiled her. She was tute a kurakx, outcaste, and they didn't like her trying to take such a position."
His mate frowned, leaning past Ateyo's shoulder. "Outcaste?"
"We don't have them," Kitani said, "It was while you were asleep, they had to explain it to me. The idea is ... that not all Na'vi are equal."
Ateyo and Kitani's mate gave him an uncomprehending stare.
"Well," Kitani went on hurriedly, "not that Eywa makes them unequal, but what they do makes them unequal. So, the Olo'eyktan, Tsahìk –" his eyes searched the darkness for examples, "Toruk Makto, they are high caste."
Ateyo shook his head, "but even they are equal to all other Na'vi in the eyes of Eywa. Their position is made by Na'vi, but Eywa is not Na'vi so she does not See it."
"That is what I said!" Kitani said.
"What made the prophet an outcaste?"
Kitani looked down. "I must not say it; I doubt it is even true."
His mate crawled across to him and laid her hand on his elbow. "If we are to stay in their graces it is best if we understand them. Tell us."
"Well," Kitani said, his lips curling in disgust, "They said the reason the prophet huntress Liraya was an outcaste, was that her grandmother had mated with her first cousin."
Ateyo looked sharply away, feeling sickened. "That is forbidden. That is against the Balance."
"Yes," Kitani said. "And it gets worse. She had five fingers and five toes on the end of each limb because of it. They say she was cursed from birth – she was the most beautiful, to tempt all the young clansmen into passing on her-" he grimaced, "alien features. They thought that her hearing Eywa was probably a madness due to the curse."
Ateyo could not meet his brother's eyes. "Brother ... you do not think that I ... that I am an alien for speaking with Eywa?"
He felt his brother's wind-dry hand on his neck. Ateyo held his brother's eyes. "No, of course not," Kitani said, his voice rough. He softly slapped Ateyo's cheek and grinned at him. "It's not as if you have too many fingers and toes! So you're clearly not insane!"
Ateyo left his lips quirk and leaned against his beast, his eyes closing as its warm side rose and fell with its breathing. He couldn't help worrying though: Eywa did not speak to the Na'vi, not even to the Tsahìk, it was the accepted truth. She was beyond words. So why had she suddenly begun to use them – and to the Na'vi nobody wanted to listen to?
Ateyo was in the pool with Eywa. When She spoke he flipped in the water, inhaling a mouthful of brine. Spitting it out he looked around. He was alone.
He sat up, holding the tendril tight in his hand as his breath quickened.
"Eywa?" He squeaked.
"So young," She whispered breathlessly.
Suddenly it did not feel as if he'd come clutching into her warm embrace, but as if she were clutching at him. The sound of the sea disappeared with a roar, the sky before him turning dark but he could see something within, from Eywa.
A face. But far too blurry for him to recognise it, to even tell if it were male or female. He could feel his muscles tensing as She struggled to organise Herself. The face became slowly clearer.
It was a man. His eyes were narrowed and cheeky, his hair that of a young boy's and not of an adult. His facial markings were like Ateyo had never seen before, the stars appearing in what seemed to be randomised patterns so that Ateyo could not even begin to imagine what clan he was from. The edges of him shimmered, his nose and lips shifting as if this were a hazy memory. He spoke one alien word: "Grace..."
"Toruk Makto," Eywa added.
The face quickly disappeared and a second image, much more fuzzy appeared, and Ateyo wondered if he could even believe it if it had been clear.
It was a landscape. A landscape dotted with strange stones, squares with triangles on the top, smoke hugging the valley. The ground beneath him came into view, covered by a dry shrivelled weed the colour of bones. Just down the hill from him a giant block of stone rolled forward up the hill as if by magic, flattening all in its path, beeping. His focus looked down to the ground, a small green shoot coming into view. A surge of emotion that was not his – unadulterated joy. But then it was gone and the smoke was blotting out the sky. A roar. He looked up, a metal bird flying past.
"The Sky People did this," Eywa said. "You must go to Toruk Makto."
All too soon they had to continue on. However, there was relief in the form of shafts of light that fell in rows from cracks in the high ceiling of long caverns. Despite the fact that they were heading downhill, Matsak said, "We are nearing the surface."
Ateyo looked down at the soft dust that rose in clouds around the beasts, particles glinting in the light.
Aside from the trail of the war party and their guides, a single set of tracks meandered across the cave floor. Ateyo broke the line, following them to the bank of the unground river running against the wall, where the tracks disappeared.
Behind him one of the beasts groaned and made its way to him. It was Matsak, who struggled to control his beast in the same way Ateyo did – but it was not so surprising, considering how young Matsak clearly was. Barely old enough to be a clan leader, let alone have his own mate. In spite of this, the young olo'eyktan quickly brought the beast to a stop. He looked to Ateyo through the shaft of light that cut between them.
"They could be hundreds of years old," Matsak said. "No clan has been in this territory for a very long time."
"Is this ... Omaticaya territory?"
Matsak glanced upwards. "The Omaticaya live as far above the ground as they can." He smiled. "We are very close. The exit is just at the end of this cave."
Ateyo twisted to see the front of the line, waterproof bladder lanterns bobbing. "I don't see anything –"
"The rock that is our roof," Matsak said, "Is in blocks that go up – in the gaps comes the light. At the bottom of this hill, there is a pool – we swim down, under the rim of one of the stones, then through the next gap we go up, and up because that water is a river to the surface. Well – according to legend."
"Such strange ideas," Ateyo said, shaking his head, "Only a child could have imagined them."
Matsak pushed his beast around and called over his shoulder, "No, Eywa did."
Suddenly there was a yell from the front of the line. With more control than Ateyo had ever seen a lone rider have over his beast, Matsak twisted his stead around and rushed to the end of the cavern to the water's edge. Kicking up dust in a less controlled manner, Ateyo followed, allowing his beast to shoulder through the crowd.
At the edge of the water a strange item was crammed between two rocks, the rushing water only pounding it further into the crevice. The thing was massive – as the lanterns lit up the clear water, its giant form was revealed to be about twice the size of a fully grown beast. Stranger still, it was bright yellow for the most part, and had sharp square edges. This was not a rock, and yet it had never been alive. If Ateyo didn't know better, he would have said someone had made it.
"What is it?" Kitani demanded.
Matsak jumped down from his beast, ignoring as it roared its way over boulders to the water's edge and began to drink. He held up a hand to his clansmen and women and guests, leaping nimbly over rocks towards the water and the thing. Reaching out a shaking hand, he rested his palm against the yellow protrusion from the water.
"It is cold," he called, leaned forward, sniffing, his ears twitching for a sound, his tail whipping behind him. He licked the surface and said, "It tastes like blood." He stroked its yellow exterior. "It hasn't been here long – a few hours, maybe. A day at most."
"Olo'eyktan!" one of the scouts shouted, "Please get away from it! It could be dangerous!"
Matsak turned and hissed at the man. Then he turned to face the thing again, grabbing onto a tube that ran down the side and used it to haul himself on top of it. He disappeared around the other side. "HAH!" he yelled. "There are more!"
He crawled back into view and stood on the top. "There are more under the water. I think – it seems, perhaps, that the way is blocked."
There was mumbling of dissent at this. "How will we get to the surface?" Kitani said.
Matsak jumped back onto the rocks and returned to the group. He widened his eyes at the scouts. "Aren't there ... to the north?"
A couple looked to the wall as if it had answers. "Well, considering the stones – but this land is very old, it is not like our brothers and sisters to the south –"
Ateyo frowned at the wall of stone, trying to understand what the Cave Clan members were talking about.
"...will rest until you return," Matsak was telling the scouts.
The couple's beast turned with ease and began to rush back up the slope. Everybody else dismounted, allowing the beasts to rush to the water, fighting each other to lap noisily. The Na'vi gathered on the sandy floor in a rough circle. A few of the scouts pulled from packs dried roots and set about making a fire.
Ateyo pulled his own knapsack into his lap, pulling out one of the packages of food given to him by the Cave Clan. It reminded him of the cake the Reytskxe Clan made from the plankton that swept near their home during typhoon season. Except this was made of crushed grubs called teylu. Ateyo took a reluctant bite. He hoped that on the surface, the Omaticaya would have plankton bread, fish, soft corals to feed him with. He'd heard little about the land-dwelling Na'vi and he wondered constantly about that world above him. He missed the smell of brine, he missed walking across the water covered coral plains for miles so that it was only him, blue against the blue sky and the blue water, not this place where every time he turned around he came face to face with someone. The caves were dirty and cramped, even the big ones. Surely land was very similar to the sea – just blue above and flat below, and nothing else.
In that sky, Toruk Makto would be flying. Ateyo did worry about that – how would they find that great warrior when none of them could fly?
He took another bite, swallowed with difficulty then wrapped the offending biscuit up again and shoved the bag over his shoulder. He stood and wandered over to the water, keeping from the beasts, a few of which had leapt into the water. He squeezed himself between boulders towards the yellow thing, sat on a rock and looked at it.
He cocked his head to the side, ears pricked. Although it was completely alien, there was something familiar about it. His head continued to tilt until he was looking at it almost upside down.
Despite being yellow, it reminded him of something in his vision from Eywa. A giant stone that could move all by itself – the magic of the Sky People. He scampered to his feet, looking at it the right way. The smooth lines, the precise edges – yes, it really was like that vision!
His ears flattened to his skull.
His beast splashed into sight, pulling itself onto the Sky Person's boulder and shook itself. Ateyo flinched as giant droplets rained on him. There was a laugh behind him.
It was his brother and his mate. "Little brother," Kitani said, "the scouts are back – they have found a way. Come on, you're holding everybody up!"
Ateyo clicked to his beast, which turned its eyes upon him. In the darkness they glowed. It seemed to sigh, sliding off the yellow thing and onto shore, and was unusually docile as he mounted.
The new route to the surface required the party to retrace their steps for an hour or so. They then had to squeeze through painfully narrow cracks in the rock. For the few lone riders, their beasts had to be pulled from the front and pushed from behind just to cooperate.
The final tunnel appeared, vague light reflecting off the walls from an unseen source.
Ateyo felt giddy at the sight, urging his beast forward. At the silent command, the beast leapt forward, crushing other beasts and riders into the wall, scrambling past rock. Ateyo cried out as the slick skin beneath him grew ridges with knife-edges that cut into his thighs – he curled his feet around the newly appeared spikes and lifted himself off the beast. His feet bled and burned, so it was all he could do to hold on as his beast, now out of control, ignoring him, climbing over everyone else, bellowing towards the light.
Ateyo looked forward, hoping that the exit would appear so that his beast would calm. Wheeling around a bend a circle of red come into view, the intensity hitting the back of his retina. Ateyo yelled again, snapping his eyes shut.
He did not see that the exit was small. He did not see the wall of stone that ground into his face, throwing him off his beast.
By the time he looked up, squinting, the red in his eyes not from the sunset but his own blood, his beast had disappeared into a giant wall of what looked like kelp and coral.
Cave Clan members reached him.
"What is this place?" he asked, brushing blood from his eyes.
"That is jungle," Matsak said. "The Omaticaya are in there."
Ribs were broken. There was a deep gash on his back, but the blood seemed dry. He was face down in a puddle of his own drool and leaf-litter.
He winced, kneeling. It was still dark. He still had time.
Looking around, he swore. No pa'li. In the ground were deep depressions and scratches, the freshly turned mud glistening like wounds. Getting up, Jake could feel the ruined feathers in his hair pulling from where they had dried into his blood. Checking the sky, he turned ninety degrees and began to march himself through the forest.
The thing about the Reytskxe Clan and Cave dwellers is, for the most part, they don't track. To make their hunts they learn migration paths, breeding patterns. They feel for vibrations. Traps are set. The best they knew was clear prints in age-old sands. So they didn't see the subtle scratches along serrated leaves, dabbled sap, scents and other such signs that would have shown the hunting tracks of the Omaticaya that riddled the forest.
Ateyo sat in silent panic while Kitani wiped the bleeding gash on his forehead. Back home, in the sea, such a wound would have had a sea slug slapped on it and he wouldn't have thought about it further. But here, he dripped, red lines like a warrior's paint down his chest.
The Cave Clans scouts stood blinking their over-large eyes in the disappearing sunlight, clearly too polite to leave before they were sure the Reytskxe were on their way. The herd of beasts huddled against the cliff from which they had burst from, scratching at the stone, suspicious of the forest plants. The beasts rippled in the purpling light, taking on smooth hairless skins that reflected the plants which were beginning to glow, which only made the huge animals look slicker.
At last Matsak stood beside Kitani and looked down at the two brothers. "I have a suggestion," he said.
Kitani lifted his hands from Ateyo's forehead, making a sound of exasperation. He slapped two red handprints onto his knees and looked at the young Cave Clan olo'eyktan.
"This cliff will provide a vantage point," Matsak said. "Take your warriors along it, and maybe you will see something, or hear something, that will lead you to the Omaticaya." He glanced at Ateyo, who was licking his bloody lips. "I am no Tsahìk, but if you can get your prophet-brother to Eywa, she may give you directions."
Kitani stood, nodding. "You are a good strategist, olo'eyktan."
Matsak dipped his head. Then he moved a step towards his beast. "Our clan cannot be without its best scouts, when we are so lost. Good luck, Kitani and brother Ateyo of Seril's Reytskxe Clan."
Kitani called to his warriors, who leapt onto their steeds and scrambled up the rock-face. Kitani's mate helped Ateyo up, and he sat in front of her, behind his brother on the beast's shoulders.
The cliff rose above the canopy. The jungle spilled below them, a spangled phosphorescence of twisted plants. The cave from which they had emerged had been at the top of a steep incline on the side of a wide valley, and as such the cliff was the lip of this furrow in the land. The early evening sat heavy, the last vestiges of purple light reaching up from the horizon like a sigh. The beasts began to move along the rock ledge, riders sitting straight-backed, ears pricked and eyes wide.
There was a murmuring as a flock of forest banshees came careering past a curve in the valley, bare meters from the cliff-top. One swerved, making one of the beast-riders jerk back on his beast, his mate raising her spear.
The flock plunged low out of sight, spreading out across the valley and disappearing against the jungle.
The riders began to urge their beasts onwards. Wind screamed through the valley, buffeting them.
The beasts seemed to meet a wall, bouncing back as an ear splitting roar echoed throughout the valley.
Around the bend, rushing above the lip of the rock, a huge shape flapped into sight. Ateyo's neck craned, eyes wide. Beasts' eyes lifted like torches, following the strange new flying creature, illuminating red-yellow wings which buffered wind. Already high over-head, the fiery-flying creature flipped over backwards, tunnelling down towards the war-party.
They scattered, screaming.
Ateyo could hear the almost hollow sound of its jaws as it landed, swinging head side to side and snapping. And above his own war-party's threatening whoops, Ateyo heard a roar, not of animal, but man.
Ateyo leaned forward, almost slipping off his brother's beast's shoulders to grab Kitani's shoulders, shake and yell, "It's Toruk Makto! Stop the attack! Toruk Makto!"
Kitani yelled, "TORUK MAKTO!"
The toruk roared again as a spear pierced through its wing, spreading them in a threatening display. Now, Ateyo could see perched the silhouette of Toruk Makto. Tumbling from his brother's steed he tripped forward, hands held out.
"Toruk Makto," he called.
Ateyo could feel spittle on his lips, he spoke so fast. "I am Ateyo, brother of Kitani," he gestured to his brother, "the next olo'eyktan of Tsahìk Seril's Reytskxe Clan. We come from far away, from the coral islands off the coast, and we have come via the Cave Clan's domain to come help you against the Star-riders who have, Eywa has told me, returned, and we know we didn't help you fight them the first time, because you did not call upon us, but – "
"Woah," cut in Toruk Makto. Ateyo blinked. Was this an Omaticaya word? Ateyo did not know it.
Toruk Makto jumped down from the toruk, walking to its head and stroking it, making it fold its wings and settle. Then he looked up at the Reytskxe, who were banding together before him.
Ateyo took a step forward. Toruk Makto lifted his brow, then lifted his hand and crooked his finger. Ateyo did not recognise the gesture, but walked up to Toruk Makto nevertheless.
The toruk exhaled, making Ateyo pause.
Toruk Makto smiled. His hand went back to its nose, "You can touch him if you like."
Ateyo reached forward, shaking. Toruk Makto took his hand, laying it on the toruk's nose, spreading his palm flat against the warm, dry skin.
Ateyo sucked in a breath and jumped back. He stared at Toruk Makto's hands. His eyes darted to Toruk Makto's, confused. "You have too many fingers."
Toruk Makto looked to his own hand, startled, and laughed. "You're right."
Ateyo blurted, "Why?" Behind him, Kitani hissed at him.
Toruk Makto's eyes flicked to Kitani. Ateyo noticed another thing about Toruk Makto, little black lines of hair over his eyes, eyes which seemed slightly odd. Breathing quickly, Ateyo couldn't help but run his eyes down Toruk Makto's markings, noticing how they matched no star-system known to him. Ateyo also noticed the numerous scratches and bruises that covered Toruk Makto's body, the wheezing breaths he took, the way three of his left ribs seemed to protrude just slightly.
"You're hurt!" He looked over his shoulder at his brother, who signed to the others. Warriors with healing supplies hurried forward.
Toruk Makto held out a hand. "Have you got bindings?"
"Yes, of course," said one of the healers, approaching nervously. "Let us help Toruk Makto."
"Don't call me that," Toruk Makto said weakly. "I'm Jake Sully. Just Jake."
"Jahake?" Ateyo repeated, feeling the strange new sound sit like a fish bone in his mouth.
"Jake," Jake repeated.
There was murmuring amongst the war-party as they repeated this odd new name. He nodded, allowing healers to kneel at his side and begin to wrap strips to sail-fish skin to bind his broken ribs. Once done, they shuffled back. One of the healers whispered in Ateyo's ear, "His ribs are strange too."
Jake's ears twitched, clearly hearing the gossip. His scratched face looked worn and tired. He looked at the beasts. "What are they?"
"They are our beasts.
Jake looked at the war-party. There were a thousand questions to ask, but no time to ask them, much less have them answered. So he climbed back onto his toruk. "If you continue along this ledge you'll come to a waterfall," he said. "Follow the river upstream. You'll eventually get to Hell's Gate, the home of the Sawtute. I'll have some of my warriors meet you."
"Irayo, Toruk Makto ... we will do all you ask of us, for Eywa."
Jake nodded at the young hunter Ateyo, then leaned down, arm extended. Jake saw the young Na'vi man's eyes flick to the leader of the war party, Kitani, who looked mildly annoyed. Ateyo tripped forward, touching Jake's hand.
Jake looked down at Ateyo's hand. "You said you come from the sea?"
Ateyo nodded nervously.
Jake's eyes flicked back down. He held Ateyo's wrist, holding up the young hunter's hand so he could see it more clearly.
"I'm not the only one with strange hands," he said with a wry smile, eyes never leaving the webbing between Ateyo's fingers.
Then he urged Toruk into the sky, fingers at his throat. "Neytiri?"
A muffled sound. "What is wrong, Jake?" she said, voice high.
"Don't worry," he said. "There's a clan, they say they come from the sea, who've come to help us!"
A pause of radio static. "How they know to come?"
Jake shrugged, then remembered she couldn't see him. "Eywa spoke to one of them."
There was silence as both of them tried to accept this impossibility.
"Anyway," Jake said, "An hour or so before dawn, you'll need to ride out. Can you get a few warriors to go to the river that passes Hell's Gate? At the bend, where –"
"I know of where you speak," Neytiri said. "We can leave now."
"No," Jake said firmly. "You still have a couple of hours sleep."
He could almost hear the disapproval in Neytiri's silence.
"At dawn," she said carefully, "We will make sure the Sawtute know that we are Na'vi."
Jake bared his teeth into the wind, grinning. His toruk flapped silent over the night-time jungle. He gave his war cry and then ended the transmission. Although war was never his aim, when faced with it, Jake felt a part of him was at home. From dreams as a young man to now: Jake was a fighter in his very blood. And even with his new body, that blood still ran in his veins. Above all, Jake Sully had something worth fighting for.
Author's Note: I'm back. Yes, it's been a long time. For those of you who are still on this journey with me and Jake, welcome back, and thank you.