A/N: Firstly, a thousand apologies for the lateness of this chapter. The last few months at my job were… hectic to say the least, but I've now finished for Summer and have time to catch up and complete some long neglected projects. Most of this chapter has actually been written over the past few weeks, but I just haven't had time to review and publish it. A big thank you to all of those who have reviewed or favourited it, it's only your actions that have periodically reminded me I actually started this over seven months ago. New chapters should appear more regularly now, I just hope I haven't made you all feel abandoned by the lack of progress. So here's chapter 9, and I shall vow to get chapter 10 up as soon as possible.
Avatar and the original scriptment are property of 20th Century Fox.
Josh moved silently through the jungle. The pale cast of light from the local stars, the closest Pandora ever came to true darkness, served to only heighten the iridescence of the scene before him. The night was alive with the sounds of a thousand creatures, each predator or prey for something else, always in a perfect balance.
His feet kept a steady pace on the thick tree trunk Zuleika had led him along, toes finding grip where only a few weeks before he would have stumbled and crashed to the undergrowth beneath. They were like panthers, two hunters running through the night. The damp moss blossomed beneath each footstep, delighting Josh as always.
Zuleika jumped like a cat, pulling herself onto a higher branch that ran perpendicular to their own as if it were only a step above. Josh watched as her athletic form vaulted through the air, the pinpoints of light on her skin radiating a sense of power. She landed without making a sound, turning from a low crouch to grin at Josh, beckoning him to do the same.
He followed without pause, swinging his body upwards and landing neatly beside her. Zuleika only smiled wider, taking off once more with Josh in pursuit. They were equal now, as physically matched as any Na'vi could be. Josh felt the cool night air whip past his face, the foliage merely a blur as he focused on everything before him, golden eyes picking out his path ahead but never losing sight of Zuleika. She had years of experience to use, but his genetically exaggerated muscles gave him the power to catch up when he could.
They moved higher still, switching branches at a dizzying pace until they were running silently along the top most branches, of the canopy the ground far beneath them, lost in darkness until it seemed as if a thousand eyes stared up at them from various points. Josh didn't pause, didn't stop to carefully edge along as he had on that first encounter. He had come to trust his own body, the training Zuleika had put him through allowing for nothing else. His tail had become invaluable, an extension of his body so natural that it felt as if he had been born with it. And as they ran, Josh supposed he had. This was his body now, born into an alien world with alien people.
Zuleika jumped suddenly, wrapping her arms about a collection of vines that hung nearby. She slid down effortlessly, legs wrapped around the thick stems to provide some measure of control. Josh followed quickly, descending head first so that he matched her pace. He had completed rappelling courses in his marine days, but he never thought he'd put his skills to use like this, showing off for a ten foot tall blue alien girl. She grinned at his childish ways, coming to a silent stop just above the ground. Josh gripped the rope about his midriff, allowing his legs to continue as he pivoted so that he came to a halt centimetres above the ground beside her in a silent flourish.
Zuleika unslung her bow from across her back, fingers wrapped around the small quiver of arrows attached to it. Josh followed her actions, feeling the tenseness before a combat situation rise up within him, just like old times. This was hunting. Na'vi style.
Zuleika pointed to the ground, forcing Josh to move closer to see what she had seen. Tilting his head in the soft moonlight he could make out the faint depression in the moss that covered the floor, the rear hoof of a small creature. He nodded, pointing in the direction he assumed it had moved off in and Zuleika smiled, letting him take point.
Josh kept his eyes peeled for more tracks, making sure to place his own feet on fallen tree trunks and hard rocks, avoiding trampling any potential clues. Zuleika followed patiently, allowing Josh to prove himself worthy without her aid. Half of hunting was tracking the animal, and she knew Josh had to prove himself before she could consider him a true warrior.
A thousand sounds seemed to emanate from a thousand different directions as Josh felt his senses heightened. The trickle of water from a stream that ran nearby, the hyena like calls of a pack of nantang that gave them both a wide berth in their nocturnal hunts; they all served to form a symphony of sound from which Josh had to pick out his target. This was a primordial land, the danger and excitement of such a personal hunt suffusing his soul with emotions he'd never felt back on Earth, even when hunting his fellow man.
Inching towards a particularly large deadwood Josh raised his head, spotting a solitary hexapede grazing amongst a patch of particularly juicy grasses. Notching his bow with a clean arrow he looked towards Zuleika, seeking her permission and reassurance one last time. She studied his form, checked his shot would be true, before closing her eyes for a heartbeat. Josh took a deep breath, feeling the strength in his shoulders and chest, feeling smooth wood of the arrow shaft poised between his fingers.
The hexapede raised its head, fans extending from its neck as it scanned the jungle for potential threats. Josh released his grip, the arrow whistling through the air before burying itself into the side of the stunned animal. Instantly he and Zuleika were moving, claiming the kill before any scavengers could interfere.
Zuleika knelt beside the wailing animal, clamping it against the ground with her knee while pulling a dagger from a sheath that lay across her chest. Josh watched on as she spoke to Eywa, thanking her for providing this meal. Ending the hexapede's struggle with a clean cut across the neck, Zuleika daubed the warm blood on the end of her finger tip before turning to face Josh. He knelt before her, closing his eyes and keeping his breath steady. She drew a line beneath each of his eyes, just as N'deh had done at Hell's Gate when he had made his own kill. Josh opened them slowly when she had finished, looking deeply into her own golden irises.
"Now you See, as yerik Saw," Zuleika said, placing a hand on Josh's shoulder.
Josh had the honourable task of carrying the animal back to Kelutral, the carcass slung over his shoulders. Zuleika walked beside him, occasionally glancing to his eyes. Eventually he could take no more, nudging her with the nose of the hexapede.
"What?" he asked, a smile playing across his lips as he adjusted the load about his shoulders.
Zuleika looked away before answering, her thoughts pre-occupied with other matters.
"You are tsamsiyu now, warrior of Na'vi people. When we return I will tell olo'eyktan you are ready to participate in the big hunt, Tsumongwi need many warriors to hunt talioang."
"Thank you Zuleika, I could never have done any of this without you. You've been a good teacher."
"And you have been a skxawng," she joked, pushing him and the dripping carcass away. "But you have also learnt well. Better than the dreamwalkers who came before."
They laughed together for a few moments, enjoying the presence of each others company before returning to Hometree. At the evening meal, his offering to the People would be prepared by one of the women when they returned, served to all members of the Tsumongwi. Tonight he became one with the People.
"And now they've asked me to help take part in this big hunt."
Josh rocked animatedly in his chair, reciting the past days events to Giese over the comm link. The doctor couldn't believe his ears, the excitement in his own voice nearly matching Josh's own.
"Not bad kid, not bad at all. This is a big event for the Na'vi. The sturmbeest migrate through this area once a year and the entire clan takes part in the preparations, for them to have invited you to take part shows you've definitely earned their trust. We've never even been close to getting this kind of access to their behaviour before."
"Tell me about it," Grace cut in, placing a hand on Josh's shoulder to calm him down. "Lucky bugger."
"I'm going to talk with Marcia and see if we can't request a Samson from Selfridge, get some of this on film for the folks back home. You'll be famous kid," Giese said.
"Yeah well, you'll have to meet me out there. Zuleika said we have to make some kind of pilgrimage to the Hallelujah Mountains before it starts, I'm not sure what it has to do with the hunt but she said it was a kind of rite of passage for all new warriors."
Josh, in his excitement, missed the knowing look between the two doctors. Giese signed off quickly, already setting in motion the necessary paperwork to schedule a science sortie. Grace helped Josh over to his link chair, setting him up.
"You sure you're up for this?" she asked with a mothers concern, tapping away on the holographic pad to begin the pre-link checks.
"Hell yeah," Josh merely replied, already focusing his mind on the task ahead.
Tsu Te led the small group of newly appointed warriors along a narrow path that wound around the face of a particularly large outcropping of rock. Josh had spent many hours riding direhorses so found little difficulty navigating the steep slope, keeping pace with those around him.
To one side, a rock wall rose high into the misty clouds, its surface enveloped by a carpet of vines and climbing plants. And on the other side, a drop that Josh didn't even want to consider looking down. The others talked amongst themselves occasionally, words of excitement or encouragement, anything to fight off the nervousness that seemed to seep from each fresh warrior.
As they rounded the last bend on the small track Tsu Te signalled for them all to stop and dismount, each member urging their mount to ride home without them before breaking tsahaylu. Josh looked around as he walked behind the others, the seemingly dead end they'd found themselves in unsettling him.
Before them lay the legendary floating mountains of Pandora, rising up into the heavens. Chunks of rock that had broken free from their moorings were anchored by vines that stretched between them like rope ladders.
"Now what?" Josh asked, obviously in the same boat as the other youngsters.
"Now we climb," Zuleika said, pushing to the front.
"I was afraid you were going to say that," Josh said, watching Zuleika leap into the tangle of vines and begin to ascend with feline grace.
The others wasted no time, clambering up the network of rocks with similar ease before he followed them all. Four hundred feet higher Josh could feel the dense atmosphere begin to thin, the wind whipping at his queue. A sudden thundering roar shook the boulder he was clung to, the sound bringing back flashes of a mortar strike. Looking down he saw a neighbouring rock grinding against another, a huge rockfall floating upwards as the two stones struck each other. Watching the pieces float idly past his head Josh couldn't help but smile. This was one heck of a beanstalk to climb.
Soon they reached a plateau, the tree they having climbed ending at the highest point its branches could reach. Josh took the momentary pause to catch his breath, much like the others. A gust of wind brought with it the spray from a nearby waterfall, catching them all unaware. Josh laughed, revelling in the cooling breeze.
Tsu Te didn't wait for the others though, he leapt at a vine that swung within range, clamping on with hands and feet before shimmying upwards. Josh grinned at Zuleika before leaping at a passing vine, racing her towards the floating mountain above that was to be their destination.
They emerged into a grotto, slick with spray from the clouds that drifted between the huge chunks of rock this high. Once more Tsu Te didn't pause as he clambered up another rock face, his efforts echoing off the alien chamber. The noise of thunder had steadily grown as they had ascended but now Josh could hear something else, an all together more worrying noise. It sounded like they were approaching a very loud party and he didn't see any balloons.
Finally they reached the mouth of the grotto and Josh could look out upon the scene before them. A hundred bansheerays soared through the air, with twice as many huddled upon the rock outcroppings beneath, something hanging like bats with their powerful front claws. Even as they stood watching more arrived, fighting over scraps of food the newcomers brought back. And above it all, a cacophonous din that seemed to make their very ears ring.
"This is ikran kelku," Zuleika explained, standing beside Josh much to Tsu Te's chagrin. "Their home. It is only place they land, never in forest. The only way to approach bansheeray is when it has landed."
"Why would you want to approach a bansheeray?" Josh questioned back.
Zuleika smiled and placed a hand on his shoulder, obviously enjoying keeping the big secret from him. Tsu Te pushed past between them, flashing canines at Josh before jumping down onto a lower ledge.
Tsu Te crept along the rock face, keeping to the shadow of boulders to hide himself from the curious gaze of several rays. As graceful and deadly as the ikran were in the air, when perched on the ground they appeared clumsy at best. The huge wing membranes that let them soar through the thick Pandoran air were folded tight against their bodies, the colourful patterns appearing ugly now they weren't stretched out.
Keeping to the back of one particular bansheeray, Tsu Te approached silently. The huge bird was preoccupied preening itself, the head unable to turn to watch the approaching threat until it was too late. Josh wondered why they landed at all if they were this easy to sneak up on.
In one last bold dash, Tsu Te leapt from his hiding place. Scooping up one of the ray's long antennas he connected it to his own queue quickly. The bird let out an almighty screech, tensing and shuddering its great wings. Tsu Te stepped closer, gently stroking it with the back of his hand to calm the beast as the bond fully formed. As it relaxed he climbed up onto its back, securing himself with arms and legs. With a loud whooping cry he urged it upwards, the tsahaylu making them behave as one. Instantly the ikran pushed off from the rock face with strong legs, wings unfolding to catch the air and propel it higher with each powerful stroke.
Josh watched as the rider and mount dived, soaring through the air, before pulling up. Gliding past the onlookers, Tsu Te banked, the tailwind causing them to step back at its intensity. He raised a hand in an exultant salute, shrieking in pure delight as the bansheeray followed his lead.
"Now you," Zuleika said, nearly pushing Josh towards the remaining bansheerays.
Either they had exceptionally short memories or Tsu Te's actions were entirely normal for most of the ikrans had barely moved at the sight. Zuleika had pointed out a particularly healthy looking specimen not far from the edge, its green and blue flecked skin standing out against the sea of others.
Approaching cautiously Josh could feel his heart begin to beat faster, the knowledge that he was about to attack a creature a darn sight bigger than himself creeping into his thoughts. With a last determined breath he vaulted at the bansheeray, grasping wildly for its antenna. As he brought both bundles of nerve fibres together Josh felt his heart began to race faster, his sense of sight and smell expanding in all directions. The big bird calmed down along with him, the bond between them growing stronger with each passing breath.
Climbing onto its back Josh tried to emulate Tsu Te, locking his knees tight against the wing joints before thinking up.
With a giant thwap they were flying, accelerating like a bullet out of a barrel. Josh could barely hold on, gripping tightly to the twin antennae. He shouted out in raw terror, the ground beneath vanishing to be replaced by a mile long drop into oblivion, and his banshee reciprocated in kind, its own voice drowning out any other sound. Looking down Josh felt his stomach lurch as the ray began to descend, plummeting in a crazy spiral that threatened to toss him loose.
Zuleika watched with a horrified expression as Josh and his mount tumbled towards the ground, unable to correct their course.
Josh could feel the wind biting at his face, the incessant squeaking and shrieking so much he couldn't even think, let alone fly.
"Shut the hell up," he finally shouted at the overgrown bird, anger getting the better of him.
Instantly the bansheeray was silenced, its obsidian toothed jaw locking shut as they hurtled downwards with only the sound of the wind around them.
"Level out. Fly straight," Josh commanded once more.
As before, the bansheeray obeyed his commands, its majestic wings holding in a gentle gliding pattern as Josh reseated himself to hold on better. To say each command he realised he had thought it first, the words in his mind transferred through the tsahaylu. Eager to test it out he thought "bank left" and immediately felt the ray follow his minds path.
It was an incredible experience; being able to guide a giant bird purely by thought and Josh loved every second of it. Soon he didn't even have to think about saying the words, he merely felt the urge rise and the bansheeray would follow. With a sudden gust of wind he found another bansheeray swooping overhead before falling into formation beside him. Atop its back Zuleika smiled with delight, pleased at how quickly Josh had learnt.
Raising a hand she pointed towards the western valleys, banking away to follow the other hunters who had all had less trouble in taming their respective ikrans. Josh banked in a steep turn to follow her, catching up quickly.
"I'm your wingman, baby," he called out over the sound of rushing wind. Her face scrunched at the alien term but she smiled nonetheless, enjoying the freedom only an ikran could bring.
Soon they would join the hunt, but first they had to collect some supplies.