Joanna of the Atykwe

Each little chirp echoing through Kelutral increased my joy tenfold as everything was now a part of me . . . well, until I succeeded in the next rite. I didn't know how much pain I would endure or what awaited me in the land of unconsciousness but I would do my best to make my matriarch proud. My Xeki roamed in her new home within the canopies as she relaxed her day away or did whatever ikran did when moving away from the nest. I couldn't help myself from heading up to make sure she was all right after I'd awoken from my nap as concern for my new friend poked me to keep tabs on her. Oh, and be certain that I hadn't blissfully dreamt all of it in my head. Of course, I'd found her asleep in her new dome within the branch and had assured myself she'd be all right, make new ikran friends, and would see her tomorrow as dusk approached. My destination was the base of Kelutral as Xuret awaited me to prepare for the last rite and I was already running a little behind due to my deviation.

His acute hearing picked up my footsteps as I entered the assigned alcove for preparation, scooting inside quickly before he reminded me about tardiness. His piercing stare was already enough to show he knew I was tardy without having to say anything. I was never one to be late, always extremely early to the point that it drove him to scratch his head, and he didn't chastise me. Instead, he merely pointed to a log bench in front of him as he sat cross-legged on the ground while mixing together a white goop within a wooden bowl with his fingers.

"I am glad you heeded my advice because your mind will take the next test" Xuret stated simply without breaking his gaze away from his work as I sat down on a log bench, my tail swishing in curiosity to the bowl. My arm muscles stung lightly since they'd done the most work from rowing to guiding Xeki home; they had earned their break. My scrapes and bruises had been taken care of by Zika at her healing hut, as well as Xeki's by Kunu's salve, and I took pride in each that I'd earned because the road to success had not been easy (not that it should be). The next rite would be soon and my teacher had summoned me to show the decorating technique given to each student before undergoing the last rite. Each body painting was unique to each individual and the hunters wore the most elaborate spread due to the completion of Uteho'awkx so that meant we had to get started in order to finish with time to spare.

"What do I do?" I asked nervously as this part had been kept hidden until today and I didn't know very much about it. Tsu'tey had admitted that his dream hunt had consisted of a battle with a shadowed enemy that held the outlined anatomy of a human but an ikran had stepped in to banish the ominous darkness surrounding him. Ikran were seen as protective and loyal entities, powerful against their enemies and they were admirable traits that Tsu'tey carried throughout his life. Each experience was different but it consisted heavily on what you could decipher from the dream with the matriarch's help. The other two students, Raya and Tzumu, were midway through their white designs as they sat within the open alcove at the base that had been reserved for our small group. Two wooden bowls filled with white paint laid by Xuret's legs as he moved to kneel on the ground, testing the consistency of the liquid in the current bowl in his hand. I reached down to dip my fingers into the paint of one of the bowls on the ground to start things off and regain any lost time since I'd arrived a little late.

Xuret immediately slapped my hands away like a stern parent, baring his sharp teeth at me in reprimand, and I rubbed the tops of each as he stated firmly, "Only instructors decorate their student."

With that said, he dipped his fingers into a bowl with white paint and grabbed my left leg to paint two thick stripes in a vertical angle south of my kneecap. I was a little surprised to the physical contact since we were fighting each other for weeks in the training fields but that had been a given. It was a new fact to seal away as the rites of adulthood brought everyone together, giving way for a congratulatory pat on the back or painting your student as the social norm of touching was allowed for the briefest of moments. I watched the direction of his fingers and each dab along my skin with an intrigued eye since this would only occur once in my lifetime. And who knows, I might just see the same elaborate paint on a child of my own one day. He drew circles on top of my foot as the lines transformed into an endless flow of art as each circle began with one line and closed by making a new trail that traveled north, explaining evenly without breaking concentration, "You are the result of my teachings and you carry what I've taught you, along with your Omaticayan teacher. I am proud to see each of my students succeed so carry that honor well."

"Does that mean I can finally share a joke with you?" I asked freely with a witty smile as I hoped to score that triumphant result but he slathered the paint onto my lips, causing me to yelp with dismay as I closed my mouth to prevent it from entering. Well, that was one way of shutting me up. In an ironic way, that was a humorous action in itself since he'd never done anything like that to quiet my playful preens as he resorted to lecturing. When he resumed painting my legs once more with vertical lines, I sighed woefully to my new untidy appearance and mumbled under my breath, "I'm going to look like the bowl exploded on my mouth."

"Judging by your character, I would believe it" he replied casually without remorse to the crazy paint that resembled a circus clown and I searched for a rag to wipe it off before it dried. I would never live down being 'the woman with the crazy white painted face', especially within a public space where Nitari would be. It would bring extreme shame to me if I ever brought her embarrassment or disappointment; she was our leader, after all. There was nothing in sight for use and lifted my hand to rub it off somehow but once again, my teacher thwarted me with a reprimanding slap of the hand and scolded, "Stop squirming, I will remove it. I can't have my student appearing atrocious in front of the tsahìk."

"Do you think I made her proud? She's done so much for me, I hope this is a small repayment for what she's given me" I sighed softly because everything I did was for her and I certainly wouldn't be happy if I'd stayed with the Omaticaya, knowing I could never be one of their clan. If anything, I would've been sitting next to the foraging tapiri and twiddling my thumbs in uselessness due to my own hindering stubbornness. Nitari had approved of my Xeki and I would continue to do everything in my power to show her that I was one of her people, one that would contribute to the clan however she could. I was no longer a child in their eyes after enduring Uteho'awkx and if I survived the next rite of Uniltaron, I was a full-fledged hunting adult.

Xuret grabbed my right arm to draw dots over the tops of my hand and replied earnestly as he narrowed his eyes with focus, "Keeping the clan safe is the key to her happiness, everything my aunt Nitari does is for us. We all make her proud in our own ways but you must carry yourself as an adult now. Your sarcasm and stubbornness has lessened since arriving, although I'm sure advisor Tsu'tey helped with some of that beforehand, but you must carry yourself with dignity and elegance."

I agreed on his opinion since my personality had slowly been shifting throughout the months but something bit at my mind and I spoke uncertainly for clarification, "But I'm a new huntress, it will take years to master such and most traits like that are a natural given to high-ranked individuals."

"Have I steered you wrong?" he asked calmly while adorning my abdomen with dots, followed by intricate swirls that melted into another design alongside my back. It was hard not to giggle to the ticklish sensation and bit my lips behind my teeth to muffle any that tried to surface. I answered with a negative since he was a stickler when it came to being entirely correct and he paused his painting to gaze at me to admit honestly, "Eywa sees all and your path continues to be one that only my aunt can See, she describes each person's life journey as a tapestry that is continuously being written by the All-Mother. I will never understand her abilities but she has helped to mold the lives of many, including my own, for the better. As family, her wishes are my own and I will carry out what she asks of me."

"You're fortunate to have such a person like her, I. . .my immediate family and I parted ways many seasons ago when we didn't agree on my life choices" I admitted softly with solemnity to the past but I had overcome it because it led me to a better life than I could've imagined. They might have been biological relatives that held my genetics but that didn't make them family in the loving sense that Nitari's clan provided. All of my sacrifices weren't in vain and the Atykwe offered me support in a way that I never imagined (as well as the Omaticaya), securing my loyalty for their kind treatment of me. I halted his hand before he could resume the intricate painting by gently grasping his wrist and promised wholeheartedly with determination, "The clan is my family now and I will do everything that I can to keep it safe and prosperous. I am very proud as well as humbled to be Atykwe and my life is Nitari's."

"Spoken like a true clan sister" he stated approvingly with a faint smile on his lips and pulled his wrist free with a gentle tug to add in, "Now, let us finish before the rite starts."

(Third person POV)

She stood alongside the other two students, the familiar setting from the moment bringing a sense of déjà vu to Joanna as the clan watched the rite from all around them just as they had in the morning. They stood united as one at all hours and their binds would never be broken. Nitari stood at the front with a brown clay urn in her hands, one hand supporting the bottom while the other held the top as gold inscriptions heavily decorated it. They were all gathered inside the base of Kelutral as the matriarch had chosen three empty alcoves to hold the students during their dream hunt but it would begin there in front of their clan, the hearth's flames casting its orange glow over them all. She smiled kindly at each of the nervous faces glancing at her since they knew nothing of what would occur and spoke softly to hearten their spirits, "Tonight, you will face your last challenge to cast aside the role of a child and we will welcome you into adulthood with loving hearts. Each of you will swallow the worm your teachers handed you in that leaf and afterwards, place your hand inside this urn."

Her palm lay flat over the top of the urn that hid the poisonous arachnoid and she explained slowly to instruct, "You will feel a painful prick and will fall into the realm of unconsciousness to seek Eywa's guidance. You will find your animal spirit, whether an ikran, nantang, or even a tapirus, waiting for you somewhere in this realm."

Joanna smiled widely at the latter since she'd spent quite some time among the lovable grazers, remembering their personal nicknames, and the matriarch finished by lending a tip, "Keep an eye for details in your dream, Eywa will show you what is important and we will be here awaiting your return. May the All-Mother keep you safe on your journey."

This time, Joanna was lucky number two on the drawing board and strolled up to the matriarch without hesitation when her time came to finish the last step in her journey. She'd fought an ikran by the side of a rock stack that overlooked the ocean so she would head in with the same courage to tackle the next rite. Apologizing to the little purple glow worm wiggling between her fingers, she swallowed it in one gulp (imagining she was eating a gummy worm) before placing her hand inside the dark urn to await the pinch. Nitari quickly withdrew Joanna's hand when she saw her flinch to prevent another sting, carefully making sure that each student only received one sting from the arachnoid. Her task was to protect each of them from further stings that could poison them and require immediate attention and Nitari had yet to fail at that responsibility.

Joanna returned to the spot where she'd been but halfway there, the synergistic effects from both creatures had begun to take their physiological toll on her mind. Her central nervous system depressed quickly into a sleepy state and she felt her feet give way involuntarily, falling onto the ground but Xuret was there to catch her as a dutiful teacher. Her vision blurred within seconds as she began seeing double and in two blinks of an eye, Xuret's face was obscured by a black cloud as it sent her into the realm of unconsciousness.

She didn't have a recollection of time as her consciousness surfaced by the beachside where white sand pooled between her toes, reminding her of home as the blue waves gently crashed onto the sand. However, she could only see the colorful huts of the Atykwe over the horizon on the right and when she attempted to move, the homes receded further. Halting, she realized that morning had not arrived to bring her a new day because she'd been bathed in dim lighting not too long ago. Her mind was wandering through her personal depiction of the clan and she had to find her way to her animal guide.

Her gaze was mysteriously drawn towards the left and that's where she spotted a natural formation that she'd yet to discover on the Atykwe lands. There was no way it could've been this close to their land without her noticing as she'd explored the close vicinities along the shore and knew this was a major clue. It was certainly different than the white and gray cliffs surrounding their land in the distance and she approached the large landmark with cautious steps. The warm rocks under her bare feet were not the smooth or jagged types she'd encountered on Pandora, resembling volcanic basalt columns that protruded from below sea level to form its own cliff. It was a beautiful area as the hexagon shaped rocks formed intricate stepping stones for travelers and she ascended higher to the cliff, her mouth widening into a smile when she made a new discovery halfway through.

It was a cave.

The calm tide splashed along the bottom of the cliff, coating the slate gray basalt rocks in a pristine shine as the foamy waves failed to enter the cave itself. Its natural formation from centuries prior had not allowed it to reach sea level yet as it stood meters higher than the water, telling Joanna that it would be completely dry inside. She ascended the stone path with careful steps, admiring the natural column formation that spread around the cavern's sides in similarity to old Greek structures before transforming into vesicular rock over the top as tiny pores dotted the volcanic rock. It was a gorgeous contrast from its smooth columns to the gritty enclosure, beckoning her in welcome to explore inside.

Joanna had never seen anything that could've resembled a temple of any sort until now, the majestic cavern giving her a sense of ethereality that made her hair stand on end. The Atykwe cavern provided safety with its friendly antiquity but this cavern exuded a different ambience of revering and peace to travelers. Its high position above the glittering ocean also gave the cave a perfect view of the horizon and a vantage position for defense. Venturing inside, Joanna's stature was dwarfed by the sheer size of the cave and walked further inside as that same unknown force beckoned her in its direction.

She had only felt that way under Eywa's direct judgment, during the soul transfer, and would follow Her guidance as she observed everything around her for clues to keep on her journey back home. The rocky ground lay flat under her feet, broken in several areas from the passage of time (maybe even an earthquake) as stalagmites decorated the ceiling to form natural chandeliers. The path split into three passages further along at the end but Joanna didn't falter on which one to choose, taking the route on the right to continue onwards. Time had no reign in the realm of dreams as the sun's tilt failed to angle elsewhere while she traveled down the path that was lit by its light.

Another light source soon met her gaze at the end of the passage, surprising her when little blades of green grass poked through the ground with each step. The natural sunlight from the other source must've allowed for growth within the passage, different from the mouth of the cave where nothing grew. She narrowed her eyes and placed hand over them to filter some of the bright light that engulfed the exit, blinking rapidly to prevent it from stinging. Her vision adjusted to the open area quickly to check for any dangers but the sighting that greeted her brought the same awe and respect that the ikran nest had brought.

A Tree of Voices.

She'd only visited the Tree of Souls but Tsu'tey had told her countless stories about the treasured willow tree they'd lost that sheltered old memories of past generations as each clan held one on their lands. The spirit that guided her filled every fiber of her being with warmth to show its approval, bringing a modest smile to her face at seeing the pink tendrils sway gently in the sea breeze. It was an invisible comforting hug that she wanted to melt into, the blades of grass tickling her feet as the blue sky hovered above. Joanna approached the beautiful tree slowly, apprehensive that she wasn't worthy of even glancing at such a revered tree in her dreams. The na'vi had protected such sights from humans under the threat of death and she'd only gone to the Tree of Souls with Tsu'tey since her dreamwalker status would've kept her from wandering there alone. Joanna halted in her spot because she'd never been this close to such a beautiful tree that was heavily valued by the na'vi, wondering what Eywa would think of her if she attempted tsaheylu within a dream. Was it even possible? Who knew. Many na'vi believed She spoke to them within dreams to deliver messages of goodwill and omens for the future.

Her growing hesitance was a darkness that brought immediate pain to the center of her chest, prompting her to touch the left side in reflexive reaction. There were lingers of doubts that she could prove herself worthy to be one of the clan and her eyes widened to see navy veins sprouting over her cyan skin from the center of her chest. Her fingers tried to rub them away but they spread over her shoulders and over her arms, striking further fear that allowed the ominous roots to spread with the speed of a wildfire. The hue darkened into a malevolent onyx black that contrasted against her skin when it descended down her elbows and her own negative thoughts echoed in her ears to fuel that power. How could she fight something like this?

A beacon of hope floated her way as Joanna demanded for the sinister markings to leave, wondering if her doubts had allowed for those seeds to blossom into that. She didn't want to keep second guessing herself about the future but as a dreamwalker by origin, would she ever be good enough? Her hectic fears paused when an atokirina entered her line of vision, its ethereal white body beckoning her to place her palm out. Instinctively, her right palm rose to provide the atokirina its simple desire and the woodsprite landed delicately in the center.

Immediately, its bright bioluminescence caused the black roots to recede back towards their origin site with haste and her hand returned to its healthy original color. Joanna watched with silent awe as its tiny little tendrils floated down her forearm, banishing that festering darkness by bathing her limb in its warm luminescence. She'd never witnessed such a sight and thanked each delicate flutter of its body that kept the darkness at bay. The tiny atokirina was soon joined by one, two. . .dozens as they left their home at Tree of Voices to coat every inch of her body where those dark rivers ran. The doubts, worries, and fears that lingered from the echoes of the past banished as she could feel their caring love that distinctly proved otherwise. The dark voices from past conversations and private thoughts banished, being replaced by others that held only laughter and encouragement. She didn't recognize most of the voices but caught a few words from her history with Tsu'tey, Cheryl, Nitari, and others she held dear. They were protecting her.

She was one of them, one of The People, since the moment she drew her first breath on Pandora.

Inhaling deeply with tearful gratuity, she basked in that love Eywa held for all of Her children and expelled all of those negative thoughts from her psyche. If they would hinder her success and relationships with her clan, she wanted none of it. Her eyes caught sight of an ill-omened black orb exiting her body from where it had taken hold, sharply ordering it to leave as she held her arms close to her chest to protect the little atokirina that shielded her. Although they had protected her from that black mass, she wouldn't hesitate to do the same for the wandering woodsprites.

The dark orb dissipated into nothing after a few seconds, leaving her alone in the grassy field with the benevolent atokirina and smiled with pure appreciation for their help, "Thank you for helping me. I. . .I see now that doubting myself will only bring that and I won't."

Her smile widened when she realized the meaning by their interference and asked tentatively with a low voice, "Does this mean. . .are you my protecting spirit?"

The multitude of voices strengthened but this time, her friends familiar voices faded to leave behind others that she'd never heard- from the past or future, she didn't know. There were songs and conversations in symphony, voices of all ages mixed in that delighted her ears as to who they were. Were they all from the Atykwe? The continent of Pyrrha? Or all of Pandora? They were in great multitude and it brought joy to her heart to hear all of them, wishing she could clear them individually to partake in the conversations.

The white bioluminescence began to fade as the little atokirina disappeared from sight, although she held them inches from her sight, and her senses became duller. No, she couldn't go back yet, the atokirina still lingered around her with their protective warmth. For a moment, her clarity in the dream realm sharpened and witnessed the atokirina departing from her body to float over her in a glowing white veil that brought immediate warmth to her heart. They were departing but she would meet them again among the living and in dreams, smiling with longing as they danced gracefully in the air to return to the Tree of Voices. With them, they carried the jovial sea of voices that she yearned to hear again one day as the atokirina flew through the air in a beautiful cloud of glowing white.

And just like that, the dream ended.

Her hearing sharpened first, followed by the sense of smell as murmuring voices and the smell of strong spicy incense filled her nose to ensure she was back among her people. Joanna awoke to find herself lying on the ground, drawing a sharp breath into her lungs as she awoke to the realm of the living to rejoin her friends and clan. Her vision remained blurry for a few seconds as she blinked but her fingers traced over a straw mat to clue her into where she could possibly be and assumed Xuret had placed her onto it after slipped into her dream-like state.

Sitting up slowly to regain her bearings, Joanna's golden eyes focused as she expected the clan around her but found herself inside one of the alcoves at the base of Kelutral. A bladder lantern burned within the nook to provide lighting since the glow of the hearth couldn't penetrate the shadows at that distance and she spotted Xuret sitting beside her patiently, a relieved expression on his face. She smiled amicably to their reunion, wiping the side of her mouth absentmindedly in case she'd drooled in her sleep and he held a cup of water to her lips as he spoke softly, "I am glad to see you are all right. You took a little longer than the previous student."

"I . . . time seemed to go rather fast, I was very well protected" she admitted sheepishly since the atokirina had done a beautifully kind gesture for her and wondered just how long she'd been unconscious. Grateful, she leaned forward to take a sip of the cool water as her mouth had dried (an effect of the poison, she assumed) and lifted her hands to grasp the cup. Instantly, the sting of the arachnoid brought pain to her hand with its lingering myalgia and she found it wrapped in a brown cloth bandage.

"Healer Zika treated you and the water was to be given to dull the pain" he informed in regards to the minty taste of the liquid and she nodded quietly, finding it rather yummy for pain medicine. She rested her stung hand in her lap to keep it comfy from any accidental bumps that would trigger extra pain and hoped it wouldn't swell too badly. He placed his palm on top of her head as he lowered the bowl on the ground, his normally stoic gaze softening as he congratulated her achievement, "You have finished your rite and have proven yourself worthy of your new rank. There is nothing more I can train you with and you will report to Nitari tomorrow morning for your first counsel."

She smiled with intense relief as the cathartic experience was unique and adventurous to say the least. This would never happen again in her lifetime and treasured each memory that had led up to her current moment, awaiting orders for the next step to finalizing the passage to adulthood. Her ears stood on end perkily with anticipation because the lively night had yet to begin and she asked eagerly with glittering eyes, "What happens now?"

"Well, you must wait to hear Nitari's closing speech and there is a celebration for all of you so enjoy yourself" Xuret explained calmly since he'd done this many times but each of his students had always been anxious to see the end of their hard work. He was more than certain she and Anaya would eat until they couldn't walk, already certain that he'd never see a banana fritter that night if they found the platter first. The duo could devour food in minutes and blamed their endless energy on their eating speeds, not surprised in the slightest to the two women as they'd become close friends since Joanna's arrival.

She raised her sore hand to gently move it with emphasis, his gaze lowering for a brief second towards it and Joanna groaned woefully, "With this? I can't dip banana fritters in sauce and hold a leaf plate at the same time, I'll have to sacrifice one."

"Not all meals have to have banana fritters" he sighed with dismay to her favorite snack as he fought a smile for his ex-student, resorting to a lecturing frown to stifle her soft laugher. He would no longer have to hold himself detached from his charge since she was now free to roam on her own and do as she wished; he truly hoped he wouldn't see her playing in the sand with Anaya come tomorrow morning. There was a passionate drive within the woman to accomplish everything that she needed and now, whatever Nitari wished, so Xuret wanted that particular trait to flourish to its fullest. That was where her potential was held and one day, Joanna would see it as well.

"But you can't agree that they're worse without them" she disagreed with a playful smile as banter took her mind away from the pain, finding delight with his low hiss as he tried to avoid partaking in her humor. Anaya brought her the most delight in conversation but Xuret and Arat were quite calm in their demeanors while moments spent with the matriarch filled her with warmth and a thirst for tales. She missed Tsu'tey greatly at times like this, he'd been her unyielding rock for months and would've had her smiling from ear to ear with his own banter. Her ears dipped slightly since she'd yet to find her footing in holding a conversation with Xuret and admitted modestly with a small smile, "Joking eases tension for me and with the bite, it's rather helpful."

"Do you want me to help you find Anaya?" he asked gently since the two women offered each other support and Joanna felt at ease by her side at all times. They might have been born as two different species on separate planets but Xuret had never seen two people become quick friends as they had. She smiled widely to the idea since they were now officially clan sisters and Joanna couldn't wait to try out the name with her friend, the past hours seeming like days since they last had eaten together.

He helped her stand on unsteady legs and she balanced herself before stepping out of the alcove, being met by Zika as she'd been assigned to be Joanna's personal healer. Each student was granted a healer in case of adverse reactions from the poison or glow worm and quick action was necessary to stabilize a student's health. Thankfully, Joanna hadn't needed such as the only thing she retained was pain and smiled at the kind herbalist as her right hand steadied over her yellow sash in case she needed anything. Her left hand roamed over her shoulder to check on the carotid pulse on her neck for a quick measurement of her heart rate and Zika asked gently, "How are you feeling?"

"I never want to see an arachnoid ever again" she chuckled softly but her expression faltered when a jolt of pain worked its way to her elbow joint and the healer smiled sympathetically. Zika was lucky to have tended to students that had only held pain, swollen hands, and the occasional headache from the poison so she was confident that Joanna was in the safety margin for side effects. Her left hand massaged the aching forearm in an attempt to alleviate the pain and Joanna winced visibly to honestly admit, "My hand really hurts."

"The pain will subside by drinking the entire elixir but no intoxicating beverages, it will lower its potency" she advised carefully as she took the small bowl from Xuret's hands to give to Joanna, directing her to swallow all of it. Her patient gladly obeyed in order to be rid of the throbbing ache, gulping down the minty medicine, and showed her the empty bowl once finished. Zika placed a hand on Joanna's forehead to check her temperature for any rises since she'd last seen her in the alcove and felt no dramatic changes. Deeming her fit for clearance from her watch (at least for tonight), the healer smiled approvingly and advised her carefully, "A little fresh air will do you good and food will give you much needed energy. If you don't feel better by morning or you've developed a fever, come find me immediately."

Zika pulled a small dried ikei canteen from the satchel she carried with her today, always having her entire medical arsenal at her disposal for any emergency. Analgesic droughts were always in stock for adults or children and she handed it to Joanna, placing her hands over Joanna's pain-free left as she ordered gently, "Make sure you drink this before going to bed and after you've had food in your stomach. It will help you sleep through the night and keep away any lingering pain."

Joanna was relieved instantly to the last bit of help from the healer, her fingers curling over the small bottle, and smiled gratefully, "Thank you so much, Zika, truly."

"It is no problem, young one" she smiled widely with warmth, reminding Joanna of Tsu'tey's pearly smile as the two shared that similar physical characteristic. Joanna counted herself fortunate at finding one last piece to grasp onto that would prevent his memory from fading. One of her worries were forgetting how he looked like with the passage of time, remembering how many nights she spent outlining the darker blue stripes on his face while trying not to get caught by the unsuspecting hunter. Once that was all out in the open, she'd enjoyed tracing her fingers over his skin to see where they all led while he'd smiled to her innocent curiosity.

Nitari finished advising Tzumu as the newest adult of the clan since he'd gone first and with a motherly squeeze to the shoulder, turned to Joanna to continue the process. The young huntress pulled herself from Xuret's supportive grasp to meet her leader on her own two feet to give her that respect and the matriarch smiled warmly. Her guidance of Joanna brought her fulfillment as the young woman tackled all obstacles set before her and would keep advising her since she'd yet to cause a flicker of doubt in Nitari's heart. She was a child to be proud of and although she didn't have blood relations to speak of, Nitari would subtly take her under her wing. Orphaned children of young ages remained with one parent but if catastrophe struck and both were lost, they were taken in by family or another that desired another child. Joanna was a particular case as she searched for her sense of family as an adult and Nitari would light her way to it, her gentle voice containing her muted excitement on the festivities, "Our newest huntress. How was your journey, Joanna?"

"Safe and. . .warm" she admitted softly to the overall sense of her dream and spotted the gathered students off to the side with similar expressions. Seeing everyone brought calmness to her heart as she'd never been happier to see her clan, smiling faintly as she murmured modestly, "I'm very glad to see you again."

"Eywa must have either liked or been confused by you to hold you in the dream realm for quite a bit" she chuckled warmly with a tender smile since her nephew had been close to scratching his head on her lengthy stay. The matriarch placed a hand on both Xuret's and Joanna's cheek to compliment the two with a proud tone, "You have never disappointed me with your students, nephew, and am glad to see everything went well for both of you. Joanna, never doubt what you can accomplish because I am always striving for your success."

Releasing the two adults with an affectionate pat to the cheek, she looked to Joanna and reminded with a knowing smile, "Remember to drink your drought, young one. You and I will discuss your dream later but for now, join your new brothers and sisters."

She ushered her towards the new students to bundle them together in one single group at the center of the clan. Each of them held a bandaged hand and worn faces of exhaustion from the day's events but the proud congratulations from clan members rejuvenated their energy as that encouragement fueled them to continue. Joanna willed herself to stay standing on her own two feet, blocking away the pain that was slowly dulling away, and smiled widely at the nearest residents for their words. How could she not love her newest brothers and sisters?

Nitari joined Joanna's hands with the other two students, the bond forming from the youngest members of the clan to the oldest as each age group had done this for countless seasons throughout time. At the center, Nitari laid one hand on Joanna's chest and the other on Tzumu's chest as she spoke proudly over the adult crowd to conclude the rite of Uniltaron, "You have fulfilled the clan's rites and passed Eywa's judgment once more, releasing the binds holding you to childhood and forming new ones that will carry you onwards as adults. Enjoy the celebration because this night was well-deserved for each of you through your hard work. May this matriarch ask for you to share your spirit animal?"

Who could ever deny the kind matriarch such a request, especially with her polite mannerisms? Tzumu had seen one of the azure whales that wandered the deep ocean, which caused him to laugh since he enjoyed watching them since childhood while Raya had received a pa'li in hers, a symbol displaying friendship and courage. Joanna wrung her fingers when her turn came to sharing her vision, glancing at the curious crowd that stared at her with bright eyes, and her brow furrowed as she stated tentatively, "I had atokirina in mine, nothing else."

Nitari lingered her gaze on Joanna's thoughtful face, understanding the meaning of the woodsprites but raised a hand to keep clan members from asking for further deliberation. A dream hunt could be either public or private and in this case, Nitari wanted it to be private. Usually, clan members could ask questions to help the students find hidden meanings but Joanna's had been a little unexpected and Nitari knew that would bring rise to many. That vision was meant to be picked apart piece by piece and only Nitari could make certain of it, with the help of the oldest lorekeeper, Laara. She dispersed the students and her clan to let them carry on their merry way, smiling encouragingly when Joanna glanced back with hesitance to move forward. The young woman was definitely flourishing as she'd imagined and would keep an eye on her development as she did for every member of her clan.

"Honorable choices, I am proud of each of you so run along to enjoy this night" Nitari encouraged with a warm chuckle to shoo the young ones along with a soft wave of her hands and Joanna smiled politely before departing. She wanted to find her friends to join in the happy celebration and eat until she felt ready to explode. Despite the pain in her arm, she'd never felt more happy and alive in one single moment as her training came to an end.

Xuret helped her search for Anaya since leaving her alone could send her tumbling through the moving crowds as the poison weakened an adult's strength for the first few hours. Her decorative white paint stood out amongst the sea of cyan and Joanna warmly received compliments on her rite, each resident urging her to fill her stomach for energy as she chuckled with thanks for their kind words. Minutes of searching through the crowds of her clan brought her to where Anaya nibbled on two kinds of cooked saltwater fish, one steamed and another roasted. Young children gathered around her in a circle as they tested their own little pieces on a leaf plate, their eyes bright with intrigue for the huntress, and she mused aloud with a perky smile, "I think the roasted one is spicier but the steamed one is so soft to the touch. They're both very yummy though."

"Yummy!" the children echoed happily in unison with broad grins and Joanna chuckled to their jovial faces. Their little fingers dug into the fish to nibble on the soft pieces of meat with peppy 'mmm's leaving their lips.

"Why am I not surprised to Anaya's location?" Xuret mused aloud to her whereabouts, always finding her in the oddest of places as she tried to find answers to all of her questions. Arat was usually the one that kept a vigilant eye on her to make sure she didn't do anything daring but when he wasn't around, it fell to him. He didn't know how but through association, that task had been unwillingly assigned to him. This time, Anaya had found herself by one of the short vertical logs that served as tables for the food trays as she tested each of the dishes around the area with a perky smile. With Joanna around to keep her company, he didn't expect too much mayhem from the two women at this hour of the night and politely excused himself from his ex-student, "Enjoy your night, Joanna. You have truly earned it."

"Thank you. . .brother" she smiled sincerely because she couldn't have done it without him and would share that credit without hesitance. Xuret smiled faintly for her thanks and with a courteous bow of the head to both women, departed to find his own brother and friends within the festivities. Joanna breathed deeply with happiness to the carefree ambience floating in the air and watched her teacher walk away to disappear within the lively crowds.

Anaya caught sight of her painted friend and raised her leaf plate to proclaim cheerfully to the food bounty she'd been given that night, "The food is absolutely delicious, you have to get your share. After all, we wouldn't be having this celebration if it weren't for your success."

The children quickly told Joanna what the best pick of the food platters were and she found herself chuckling amusingly when they chose almost everything. What could she say? Their cooks were fabulous. She found a leaf plate within the large wicker basket used to keep them clean from dust or bugs during meals and passed by each of the wooden platters, picking an item from each to savor the hard work and love put into making it. Saltwater teylu in a buttery marinade was always a favorite but chowder made from clams and fish drew Joanna like a happy honey bee because it bested any made on Earth with its purity. The taste was obviously different due to the alien foods but the creamy and thick consistency had Joanna coming back for more when she'd discovered it weeks ago. Also, she could add little crackers made of grain to soak in the soup for an extra taste as well. Zika's husband- who was a talented cook- made it himself as a specialty so she knew it was good.

She quickly picked food for her plate since there were other clan members gathering with an eager eye to see the platters and she wouldn't deny them of the chance. Anaya was stumped between deciding on what type of banana fritters to choose, those doused in sweet brown syrup or stuffed with sweet cream; it was a conundrum. Joanna made the choice for her confused friend by grabbing one of each to place on her plate and chuckled softly to suggest, "Try each and decide which one is best. If both, come back for one of each again."

"Two heads are better than one" Anaya laughed amusingly with agreement as she used the Terran term she'd heard Joanna use when they were working on a project together. She excused herself from the little gang of children as they sought for the wooden cups stored within the baskets and both women couldn't help but lend a hand to the little ones, earning happy thanks in return. They filled their cups with whatever drink they desired to help them on their way since their short statures would've kept them there for a while until their parents arrived and the duo watched them depart back to where their families were with a warm smile.

"There are no words for this deliciousness" Joanna sighed blissfully when she and Anaya managed to find an empty log bench to sit on to eat their meals, watching the moving crowds that had decided to dance first and eat later. Joanna's toes curled into the earth gleefully to the sweet taste of a fresh roll mixed with crushed grains that gave it an added texture. Oh, how she wished her Xeki could've eaten this to share in the wonderful flavors. Dipping the bread into the creamy white chowder complemented it divinely and she smiled amusingly to Anaya's nimble bites on her fish to preserve her meal.

"This is what happens every time we gain new adults into the clan, we welcome them with open arms and food made with love" Anaya explained warmly and licked her lips since mirrors were lacking, using that easy method to tell her whether sauce was smeared on her face. Joanna chuckled to her comical appearance since she wasn't releasing the food in her hands and the huntress laughed at her own quirkiness. Anaya hadn't felt such camaraderie with another female in the clan, apart from her own mother and the matriarch, and stopped her cleaning attempts to smile brightly, "You are my sister now, just as your ikran is family to my own, and we will spend the rest of our lives on this beach."

"I will love that, we can crack open a fera seed to drink the sweet water as we lie back and watch our ikran roll in the sand" Joanna chuckled humorously to the idea since her training was officially over but she would practice every day to hone her skills. She would need to find a hunting team to join since the rainy season would require more hunters to venture into the forest for sustenance when their stored food supplies ran low. Nonetheless, she was optimistic towards the future as she'd gained a new family, an ikran, and would protect all of them fiercely from harm. The charming sound of flutes echoed through the calm air as the drum beats fell silent and she smiled widely with excitement to suggest to her sister, "Or find materials to make Arat another statue to match that funny smiling fish."

Anaya bit back her laughter as she swallowed her food in one gulp, preventing an accidental choke and filled the air with her ecstatic giggles to the idea. This is why she loved Joanna's company as the two were kindred spirits of humor and adventure, happily awaiting what the future would bring for them. Her fingers were coated with sauce from her roasted fish but she shook one with eager merriment as she blurted with the utmost agreement, "That one!"

Both women laughed to the image of Arat's horror stricken face at seeing an exact double of the fish statue he was adamant on keeping out of his alcove.

"And you will be able to pick a mate now" Anaya beamed impishly with a wag of her brow and Joanna chuckled to the sly tone in her voice, bumping her shoulder with hers. Over the past weeks, the two had plenty of time to bond and Anaya had learned the truth about Tsu'tey's true relationship with her friend as they collected clams from the sea by using reeds for snorkeling. Unfortunately, the man was from the Omaticaya and Joanna could not move away from the clan unless someone intervened on her behalf- Anaya hoped nobody would. She wanted to keep her friend to maintain their sisterhood bond and suggested helpfully with a kind smile, "There are many strong men and now that you can adorn yourself like a true woman, you will catch a few gazes."

Joanna winced with an immediate frown crossing her lips since the idea of courting hadn't entered her mind as her heart lingered on the hope of seeing Tsu'tey one day. On the other hand, who was to say that he wouldn't find his other half in his clan? The fatigue in her weary body gave way for her emotional shell to detach from her strong mental barrier as the glow worm had numbed some of her awareness. She blinked away the sudden tingling in her eyes, biting into the bread she'd soaked in the chowder to warm her stomach, and admitted solemnly to the idea of courting, "I'm not ready to think of such right now or anytime soon. My heart is already filled with love for another and I'm keeping myself occupied by helping the clan only."

"I understand love can be very complicated" Anaya supplied softly with sympathy to her friend's woe of the heart and finished her last nibbles of the fishes on her plate, gently tapping her fingers on the empty spots coated with specks of oil. Her gaze briefly lifted to stare into the dancing crowds and she confessed her own progress with courting with a sheepish smile, "I've refused my share of suitors, not that there's been many since my chattiness can drive them away. I might not have the best qualities but apparently, I have very good childbearing hips."

"Oh, Anaya" Joanna chuckled gently to her subtle joking, laughing when she wiggled her hips to emphasize the only trait males found interesting with her. What would she ever do without her upbeat jokes? How did others not find the gabby Anaya endearing? Maybe her quirks brought the two together like two peas in a pod. Joanna smiled brightly against the glow of the burning fires that bathed the base in ample lighting, grateful to her recent luck in life, and sighed out her last chuckles to confess amicably, "I don't think I've met anyone who has made me laugh as much as you have but don't you worry, we'll find a man that will love every bit of you."

Her cyan cheeks darkened against the orange glow of the fire, biting into the cream filled banana fritter to simmer the growing blush on her face as the sweetness took most of it away. Joanna hadn't seen her this modest for quite a while, the last being when a bird flew off with her clothing while she'd swum in the sea, and she'd gone back home to fetch her a new set of dry clothes. Anaya chuckled softly to the unfathomable idea of having a line of suitors because most sought the other women and spoke tentatively, "You are a very good friend, Joanna, even with the short time that has bonded us well. If I could ask a favor from you. . ."

"Of course, you don't need to ask" she smiled earnestly to help her friend in any way possible (wrestling dangerous prey included) and watched her cheeks darken further. There was something dwelling on the mind of the chatty huntress and gently tried to coax her out of that shell by asking gently, "Anaya, what is it?"

Anaya's demeanor turned bashful as her ears dipped and decided to trust in her friend just as Joanna had done about her harbored affection for the advisor of the Omaticaya. She leaned in to keep everything confidential, not that the music didn't add to it, and Joanna blinked curiously when Anaya finally asked quietly, "If Arat ever requests to court you-"

"I don't find him attractive, Anaya" Joanna refused gently in case she was trying to push him in her direction because her eyes were solely for a grumpy hunter that crushed enemies without fear but became unnerved by little children. Her misconception was realized when she heard Anaya sigh in relief from her spot and her ears perked upwards to Joanna's answer. Oh, now she put two and two together as to why she asked about Arat in the first place; why, that sly little friend of hers. Joanna couldn't help but reassure she'd never get a foot within the hunter and clasped her shoulder to offer a friendly squeeze as she soothed, "That's a guarantee. Although I don't understand, you've known him since childhood, so why. . . .why haven't you asked him?"

"The men usually initiate courting and we either accept or refuse" she explained sheepishly and quickly devoured her other banana fritter to hide her nervousness, her cheeks bulging comically as she chewed quietly. Joanna finished her soup with regret as she picked the bowl clean with her remaining bread, hungry for another bowl of the tasty chowder. The sweet fritter did nothing to fade away the old memories of Anaya's past because she couldn't change it and her best efforts in the present didn't seem to improve any of it. She placed her empty leaf plate on the floor, her shoulders sagging depressively as she admitted sullenly, "Arat is being molded for a role as future advisor and I . . . I'm not exactly the quietest on clan matters. I come from a musical family and tradition is strict when molding our new leaders. Nitari brought many great changes to our clan and is wise beyond her years, even though she started her training late, but she is a powerful icon for us. She changed the courting procedures within classes for future generations but sometimes, there are a few that want to retain the old ways."

Her ears flattened against her head because Arat's parents fell into that category and although they respected Nitari highly for what she'd brought to the clan in terms of strength and valor, Anaya held none of that. What could she provide to show she was worthy? Her brow furrowed as she looked into the dancing crowds, her soft features appearing even more delicate in the orange glow of the fires and she mused forlornly, "I am not strong like Nitari and Arat's family is quite embedded in tradition, I've never been an option in their eyes. Yes, my rank speaks very well for me but they see me better equipped as his friend- not an equal to carry on his lineage. I've. . .they've made it quite clear."

Joanna was almost tempted to bawl her eyes out to the somber tone in her voice as both of them rowed the same boat of unluckiness in love in the sea of loneliness.

"Have they not seen you hunt and watch over Arat? That should be enough" Joanna sizzled to hearing her heart wrenching dilemma and wondered if rank was what defined your future life with some of the families in the Atykwe. She remembered several anti-dreamwalker na'vi suggested breaking Neytiri's life bond and replacing Tsu'tey to keep the bloodline pure but all three refuted it, especially poor Neytiri as she snapped that she was a person and not an heir maker. There was no need for Mo'at's input as she sent them scrambling for cover with her glare alone for daring to question Eywa. Nitari allowed for na'vi to mate as they wished but at the same time, she couldn't force parents of two individuals to sanctify a union and that is what Anaya sought. Joanna sighed with empathy for her friend, her ears flattening against her head to match Anaya's as she murmured sympathetically, "Oh, I'm tempted to wrap you in a blanket and feed you sugary food just to remove that sad look off your pretty face."

Anaya chuckled softly to her comforting words, the sadness over her obstacles in life subsiding for a brief moment, and she whispered appreciatively, "Thank you for staying by my side, I couldn't ask for a better friend."

"Sister, they couldn't tear me away" Joanna assured with a confident smile and caught a glimpse of Arat moving through the dancing crowd, no doubt searching for Anaya. He'd added a few colorful feathers of cerulean to his hair to brighten his appearance for the celebration and Joanna waved her left arm for his attention, her white paint lending her aid to beckon him like a lighthouse to shore. Anaya's eyes lit up to his presence and Joanna saw the two in a different light than before, seeing the quiet but strong devotion between the two and smiled encouragingly, "Go to him, enjoy this night."

Anaya was torn between both but Joanna added a quick shoo of her good hand to scoot her along in his direction because they deserved it, chuckling softly to the haste in her steps. Again, that could've been regular Anaya since she was giddy to head anywhere but the two were definitely glad to see one another as they disappeared into the crowds. She'd never have imagined the two regarding each other in such a way but Arat was very subtle and quiet in his demeanor with others, Anaya being the exception. They fit together quite well, especially with their varying personalities and hoped the two would find a solution that could grant them that happiness they sought. She already knew how agonizing it felt to be denied of the one you loved with every fiber of your being and wouldn't wish that feeling on anyone. Even now, she yearned just to hear Tsu'tey's voice and his stiff remarks about his awful dancing skills. At this hour of the night, her valiant warrior was either spending time with friends at the clan's hearth or relaxing in his hammock with a hundred thoughts in his head on what he could do to improve the Omaticaya's wellbeing.

Nitari approached Joanna from behind with silent steps as the young woman pondered on Tsu'tey's whereabouts. She had finished with her duties as hostess of the night, conversing with each student about their rites to learn more from each to further guide them along when the next morning came. The matriarch knew slumped shoulders meant either exhaustion or regrets and drew her attention from whatever plagued the young huntress' mind with her soft voice, "If you are weary, you can go to sleep, young one."

Joanna turned around instantly and almost fell off the log from the force, quickly correcting the mistake by using her left hand to propel herself up into a standing position. The corners of Nitari's lips lifted slightly as she caught it but always felt humbled by Joanna's respect, and adoration on the side, as she tried to prove herself capable. The new Atykwe adult didn't have to do any of that after exceeding her expectations because there had been flickers of doubt before meeting 'Joanna Reynolds' after the battle with the tawtute but Eywa had been correct. The aliens had brought destructive malevolence to their world but they also carried seeds of hope that blossomed within those that abandoned their own species to protect theirs and Nitari would groom the one that Eywa had guided her way just as Mo'at did hers (the same for the other clan leaders that had adopted others).

Joanna placed her empty leaf plate on the log bench before bowing politely with a friendly smile and replied earnestly, "In a moment but everyone's so happy, I can't just leave them."

The matriarch agreed to her response since the jovial mood heartened any weary spirit, the small seashsell strands dangling from her crown of hair chiming against the breeze as she watched her people with warmth in her golden eyes. She never tired of moments like this, treasuring each that didn't bring pain to her people and advised wisely, "Your mind and body must be strong for the clan from this day onwards but I am happy to know your heart is joyous, especially after enduring both your rites. I wanted to discuss your dream hunt's experience to further clarify the meaning. I left you for last since you fill my heart with merry warmth and a matriarch needs a good laugh between her duties."

Joanna appreciated her words immensely since there were times she wondered if the matriarch would finally tell her to shoo because Nitari always made time for her between duties. She'd never interacted very much with a tsahìk but Nitari was more than that, it wasn't something Joanna could truly put into words as the condensed meaning defied a name. Clasping her hands in front of her to show attention, she agreed to her request without hesitation and commented tentatively, "I will oblige in any way that I can. You have many tasks as tsahìk and olo'eyktan, a true leader and an honorable icon for your people, you humble me."

Nitari dismissed her courteous words with a hearty laugh and smiled fondly to admit, "My mother always told me that happiness lay with your family and Eywa. Life is not an easy journey but when you've found your family in the clan, taking care of them eases a lot of the burden. My life is never more interesting than that of the newest hunter, a singer, or a mother of two children; we are all interweaved in this life as one and carry into Eywa's arms just the same. No one is above or below another, always remember that."

She laid a dainty palm on top of Joanna's head and sighed gently with a motherly smile on her smooth face, "You are a young one, Joanna, ready to experience life but you carry the wisdom from your old. You have learned what is fit to thrive and what brings blight upon others, you continuously learn wisdom and have cast aside unfavorable traits, many things. The smallest of actions can change the future and you're contributing to the clan quite well, you've made our Anaya quite happy since arriving and I am quite fond of learning about the stars from you."

"I've found my home and that's more than I could've ever asked for" Joanna admitted gratefully with tears rising in her eyes because her family was here. She finally found her sense of belonging, remembering her childhood days in the library when she would read about the ocean before its pollution and wishing to bathe in a pure sea without manmade contaminations. Who would've thought Pandora would lead her straight to it? The hardships she'd endured had paid off with a trip to the lush alien moon and her defiance to her biological species had granted her entrance into an entirely new culture that brought her the closest to home she'd felt in ages.

"And we welcome you with our hearts, we are all one on this beautiful shore" Nitari comforted warmly with her nurturing aura as she'd met dozens of new babies and adults to welcome into the clan for many seasons. She remembered her own rites of passage, both as an adult and tsahìk, and the pure joy she felt for having her family beside her but solemnity tainted it due to the old traditions that followed rankings. There had been no public congratulations for her as only the high classes received the prestige of accomplishment but her heart had been happy for them nonetheless as she watched from within the crowds with her own swollen hand. When she became tsahìk, she vowed to abolish the class distinctions as everyone was equal under Eywa's eyes and remembered the first students she'd inducted into adulthood- all from different origins.

Joanna was the newest distinction in her clan and there would be no indifference or favoritism as other generations had done before. Nitari withdrew her hand with a kind smile, smoothing out any frizzes in Joanna's hair with a motherly touch, and requested sweetly with her soft-spoken voice, "Now, will you humble this matriarch with your dream hunt?"

"I . . . well, I found myself in front of a large cave near our shore that led to a Tree of Voices" she began slowly as she tried to explain every detail from her dream, using her hands as a visual aid if she missed something. Nitari listened carefully to each word, her brow lightly furrowing in concentration as Joanna divulged the entire trip from the ocean to the cave, "I didn't see myself worthy of approaching the tree due to my past mistakes and feared Eywa would perceive my entrance as disrespectful. My lingering insecurities caused a black darkness to spread over me, I've never seen anything so . . . ominous, but a little atokirina came to stop it. It caused that cold constricting feeling to leave my body as it brought my skin tone back, along with friendly warmth. Soon, I was covered in shield of them as they expelled that malevolence from my heart and every negative thought they had brought."

She smiled faintly with fond remembrance to their aid, wistful that she could no longer feel their tender warmth in her heart and confessed with curiosity, "They lingered on my body after it faded into nothingness but I could hear. . .voices. The ones containing the voices of my friends and yours faded when I asked if the atokirina was my protecting spirit. They weren't clear but rather, blended together in a choral symphony and inaudible despite the volume they exuded in my mind. I did try to hear but my time in that realm finished and they left in a cascade similar to flower petals, a blinding white light ending it all."

Nitari read into it clearly but would need further meditation on how to approach her path subtly and Joanna couldn't help but confirm the itch in the back of her mind concerning the atokirina, "Did my rite go as planned? I expected to see, well, an animal-"

"Yes, young one, most see an animal but remember that Eywa has many children that live in all realms whether it's the sea, earth, or sky" the matriarch assured with a soft chuckle to any lingering doubts since the atokirina did qualify as beings they shared their world with. The atokirina were elusive enough that all considered them sacred spirits but they also served as protective spirits for the living as well, not simply in dreams alone.

Joanna's face relaxed in relief after expecting a pa'li or tapirus (the logical choice given her previous pet herds) and counted herself lucky for having such a spirit. She hadn't seen an atokirina since that day she and Tsu'tey faced the thanator and longed to meet one of the precious woodsprites, wondering if they traveled to the beach or stayed within the forest alone. Her fingertips wrung together as she felt embarrassed for asking so many questions of the matriarch and kindly asked for clarification, "What does it mean, if I may ask?"

"Atokirina are pure, neutral beings that carry out Eywa's will, quite similar to a matriarch" Nitari deliberated with her knowledge of the revered beings and always enjoyed a visit from the ethereal wanderers when she couldn't reach the willow trees. She was due to visit her old friends soon and would bring Joanna to them when the time came to reunite her to Tsu'tey through the distance, smiling serenely to soothe, "You hold no malice or selfish ways, only seeking tranquility for the clan as you expel every unfavorable trait from your heart. You will change people's views about the dreamwalkers, that not all are evil and you will guard us against any sudden dangers."

"Of course, I'd never let anything happen" she vowed firmly without hesitation as the thought of any of her friends, the matriarch, or children, in fear or danger brought fierce protectiveness from her heart. She'd waited years to find her home and after securing her nest on which to build on, would destroy anything that threatened to hurt her beloved clan and their world. Placing a palm over her heart, she bowed her head and assured with an everlasting promise, "You're my family, I will always protect you."

Nitari was satisfied with her response and she would be there to guide her path as Eywa had accepted her into their clan. There was much for the matriarch to do if she hoped to achieve what the All-Mother asked but the timing had to be perfect. Otherwise, young Joanna could veer off her path but Nitari would fix any type of detours as she'd done back at the Omaticayan lands. She smiled appreciatively for her loyalty, stating softly, "I believe you, young one. You have confided your encounters with the atokirina to me so I am not surprised to your spirit partner."

A rabble of children ran by with happy laughter that nabbed Nitari's interest as they greeted her politely, her eyes brightening when they told her they were going to find an empty campfire to sit by. Joanna smiled brightly to their untamed excitement as the group of six left giddily, shouting amongst themselves on who would get the front seats, and Nitari chuckled warmly to their enthusiasm, "Oh, how the little ones delight me. I will be telling the story of my mate's rite to the youngsters in a moment, would you like to join me? Although, you should sleep your exhaustion away."

"How can I deny hearing a good story, especially about Olo'eyktan Akon?" Joanna piped up cheerfully because she was always eager to hear a story about the two since the deceased leader's memory was never forgotten, especially by his loving mate. There was no melancholy tone whenever she spoke of him, her tone full of pride and respect for the man she loved for decades and Joanna wanted to learn as much as she could to honor his memory. He and Nitari made the clan as strong as it was now, he was the beloved patriarch of them all, and Joanna was the newest addition to their growing children.

"Yes, the children never tire of hearing about his adventures either" Nitari chuckled fondly since her mate had opened an entirely new world for her and everything she did was to continue the work they'd started together. The previous generation of her clan had expected her to doom their clan but she flourished it into a new era of strength and honor that represented the ancient ways as Eywa intended.

Joanna gave one last glance into the dancing crowds of her people and smiled brightly to the new sense of belonging, the intense glow of the open fires representing the flame of loyalty in her own heart. She was home, they were her people.

She was finally Joanna of the Atykwe; one of The People.

End of Volume 1.

Inspired by: "Immediate- Turning Home"

A/N: The area Joanna visited in her mind was inspired by the exact appearance of Fingal's Cave on Staff Island in Scotland so you guys can look it up and get an exact picture. Its rock composition is amazing and seeing as how it's right along the ocean made it the perfect example for a Tree of Voices. We'll be seeing more of this cave in the future. As much as I love Joanna's character, I've taken quite a shining to how I've designed Nitari's character as the protective rock of the entire clan. She's their pillar of strength and when her old mate was alive, he represented the brave aspect of the Atykwe. We'll be shifting the time frame to a few months forward as we see how Joanna and Tsu'tey have fared throughout the passing time as we begin volume 2.

Thanks for the many reviews on the last chapter, I love you guys and Tsu'tey happily munches on cookies for each of them.

lacrima-tuja: It's about time she was part of that clan, right? And yes, I can't wait to bring the two back together.

Arwenia: For each update, my chapters are usually 20 or more pages long (this one was 22). This is the only story that has that amount, the second would probably be my Assassin's Creed story. This one has a lot of culture, settings, characters, and other stuff to put in so it always has me editing. I edited the rite in my outline about two times because I didn't like how it was, originally, they were meant to climb the stack from the outside but decided to make them work for it a little more. Thanks so much for loving the story, I always love reading your reviews.

Crystal: Unfortunately, I have a maximum load already with my current stories in progress- about 6, I believe- and I've never delved into that genre (my only story in anime is for Bleach). I'm sorry I can't fulfill that challenge but it's a great idea for another writer in that fandom since they would have a good hold on the background of both realms.

Dracoessa: Little Jaktiri will unknowingly help the two come together without lifting a finger in the chapter after the next. The matriarchs are crafty so they won't be telling either Joanna or Tsu'tey information about their visits.

Laithano: Yep, she has her own little ikran to call her own.

Claycarole: I'm glad I could take you through that wild ride with words. Xeki will in fact meet Swizav when Tsu'tey visits but she'll find him irritating, not hesitating to voice it to Joanna. Doesn't that remind us of their own riders that started out that way?

Dracoessa: We'll see where Joanna's path has led her and the others in the next chapter as we fast forward a few months.

distant-echoes: I know, I'm missing the dynamics between the two horribly and could only imagine the happiness between them when they reunite. I didn't think my OC's would be such a hit with the readers and I'm glad you like Xuret's character. I haven't thought of a spin-off for our stoic rite teacher but I can write a short story of him to post in the vignette spin-off of this story or include him more in the chapters since he is part of Nitari's family.

Lucas Bane: Thanks so much for the vote of confidence and Cameron can use parts of the environments I've built for his own future sequel because I want it to be great. Lol. Joanna's ikran greatly represents the sea she's loved since her childhood with her sapphire hue but yes, Nitari's ikran is a knockout despite his older age. I will totally keep my word on their meeting, it should be in the next two chapters.

Emmalime: Yep, he'll get the news and although he's happy for her success, the poor dear knows that she's no longer a part of his clan.

compa16: I'm glad you loved the chapter!

CrissYami: I'm so happy to hear that readers miss their interactions, I'm definitely glad I posted this story rather than keeping the first chapter in my hard drive.

Sarabqh: I can't say but I hope the clues in future chapters will help because it will definitely give you an answer by the end of the second volume.

camelotprincess1: The part with Xeki breaking in her new home came from my pet turtle, who has to have the bottom of her tank just right to fall asleep or she'll be lifting rocks and hiding under large shells until she deems it fit. Joanna and Tsu'tey will meet again in the chapter after next so it's coming.

mmgig85: Yeah, their departure was sad and abrupt for Tsu'tey, who thought he actually had more time with her. They won't be kept apart for too long now.

Owlrose: And I'm glad to be back (Diablo 3 did hypnotize me for a few days though). I can't wait to reunite them either as I get to work on a new plot for the new volume since Joanna's acceptance has been completed and we can head on to a new journey.

Mia: Thank you for loving the story, I hope you liked this chapter too.

Next Time: A New Path In Life

"Well, we must dry these little limbs and dress her warmly for last meal because sempu wants his little Leti to stay healthy" Zika chuckled affectionately as she hugged her daughter, Leti's lips pouting because she wanted to keep splashing in the cool water and searching for little crabs hidden in the sand. Nitari chuckled softly to her crestfallen expression, caressing her right cheek with the palm of her hand to fade that little pout. Leti smiled brightly at the matriarch, loving the attention from her leader, and Zika excused herself politely to finish her tasks for the day, "May Eywa watch over you two."

Joanna cooed her farewell to Leti as she peeked over her mother's shoulder with a perky smile, the two leaving the shore with the boys running behind them and Nitari mused with a calm voice, "You grow much attached to children. Mo'at told me of your caretaking experience with them. Have you given any thought of seeking a mate? You've been with us for more than a season now."

"I. . .," Joanna hesitated because she did imagine a future where she could have a little one rolling around in the sand as they called her name but the one she loved lived elsewhere, apart from her clan. Despite the passage of time, she held their memories dear and couldn't imagine a day where she wouldn't think of him. They hadn't seen each other in months, more than a season, and she could only wonder if she'd be forced to move on towards a future where another would fill his spot in her heart. The idea nauseated her and her ears flattened somberly as she admitted softly, "My heart still belongs to another from the Omaticaya. I truly found myself falling in love with him, part of me even hoped to. . .well, build a family with him."

Her continuous meetings with the matriarch had pieced together portions from her past and personality that Nitari couldn't access through her meditations with Eywa. There was no question whether she trusted the matriarch and saw her as a motherly figure due to her caring demeanor, a stark difference to her own biological parent. Nitari saw a piece of herself in the young huntress as she'd had her precious family but yearned to be included in the activities of the clan that only high classes were privileged to, feeling ostracized in her own home, while Joanna had yearned for a true sense of home and family. In the end, they both achieved their goals and gazed into the glittering sea before them with content as it spelled home. Nitari smiled sympathetically to her woe of the heart since she wanted all of her children to find their destined life partners and sincerely stated, "I did regret pulling you from Tsu'tey but it was for your best interest and I know he wanted the same for you."

Joanna blushed deeply for having her secret known without admitting it by the matriarch since she and Tsu'tey had tried to keep themselves distant in public. Her words and facial expressions, however, tended to be her undoing since she spoke highly of the hunter in a way that reminded the matriarch of her own youth when she'd courted her mate. The same glowing cheeks, bright eyes, and broad smile had been on her face decades ago just as they were on Joanna's when she'd reunited with her at the Omaticaya. Nitari merely chuckled to her flustered expression as the secret turned her cheeks lilac and teased gently, "Oh, Joanna, I am a matriarch and have been through your stage in life myself. I know these things naturally."

Joanna chuckled with relief that she wasn't chastised for her heart's desire but apologized with true honesty, "I didn't want you to be disappointed in me for seeking his affection despite my lack of rank and it is why I underwent Iknimaya without approval. My heart wanted to stay with his so we could build a future but you and Eywa had different plans for me, better ones than what my stubbornly brash mind wanted. You inspire me to be better than what I am."

"All will come with good timing, young one" Nitari assured with encouragement because the young woman was still flourishing under the clan's guidance, whether by Anaya's hunting tips or Zika's medicinal teachings. Joanna had definitely been a short-tempered spitfire when she arrived on their world, especially against Tsu'tey, but he'd helped to clear away the first layer of self-destructive traits just as she'd diminished his. The young huntress appreciated all of the help, never hesitating to return the same kindness, and Nitari asked warmly for clarification, "So I can assume that you do not want me to assign possible suitors for you?"

"With all respect, tsahìk, I don't see myself finding a mate very quickly" Joanna admitted modestly with respect for her leader as she watched the gentle waves strike the shore, darkening the white sand with the liquid of life. The soft breeze swayed the small green seashells dangling on the earrings in her ears and she smiled fondly in regards to the tireless hunter, "I loved Tsu'tey dearly and I've yet to meet anyone who can capture my eye like he did. I actually never thought anybody would feel that way about me and he was a person at a much higher rank than me. . .but he did and I felt such honor for that. My heart is a very deep cup to fill," she paused and finished meekly, "I hope that doesn't make me sound picky."

Nitari offered a sympathetic gaze because everyone was entitled to love who they chose and soothed gently, "No, it is completely understandable. I was expected to find a mate quickly after performing my dream hunt but I refused to do so until I deemed myself ready."

Joanna's eyes shone with captivation to her words for sagely advise and Nitari continued, "I was adamant that I find myself, my passion, before I was ready to share a life with another who understood me as well as I could myself. I didn't have a class in mind but I was certain the artisan ranks would suit me. . .oh, how wrong I was."

Nitari chuckled bashfully, youthful femininity lighting her face as she smiled modestly to tell her tale, "The clan heir had befriended me a short time before my rite after my mother designed an item for him and we met for the first time despite living on the same beach. He fascinated me like no other man, not because of his rank, but what lay in his heart. He held such kindness and camaraderie that reminded me of my own family, he encouraged me to find my true passion and not to settle with what everyone else deemed fit for me. It was no secret between us that we held each other with great affection but traditions were different then."

Joanna often heard about the leadership of the older generation but her friends didn't comment much because they were still their elders and had to be respected, regardless of their opinions. Nitari slowly shed light on the past through the conversations and this one added another piece to their history, "The previous clan leaders wanted highly ranked individuals for future clan leadership to keep lineages elegant and charismatic- it is one reason why some tsahìk's are weaker or stronger than others. It is why I was endeared with young Mo'at when I saw a healer's child in an uprising position that would keep a clan strong with good guidance and she is marvelous. Others, I am sad to say are concerned about other matters rather than interpreting the will of Eywa; again, they might prefer hunting or history to be their focus point. Back to this little story, my Akon managed to charm a yes from me to court but not everyone was happy to the possibility of an artisan's daughter as a future tsahìk."

Joanna gaped in shock to the revelation since Nitari was always so beautifully graceful and kind to everyone she met, a diplomatic but sympathetic soul. She'd never really known much about the origins of Nitari and Akon, simply that one had belonged to a rank that wasn't fit to fall under tutelage for future leadership. The matriarch always appeared immaculate and respectful, a confident aura that had caused Joanna to believe that her parents had been the previous leaders of the Atykwe. Apparently, it had been the opposite but it was hard to fathom such a thing could be thought about Nitari's abilities and Joanna remarked with disbelief, "But you're such an adored matriarch. You are my role model, I do not understand how you could be questioned or seen in such a way when you interpreted my path before even meeting me."

"Again, these were different times and I changed that slowly when I rose to my new rank" she stated softly with a fond smile towards the peaceful sea but in her mind, the image of her mate lay within the diamond glitter of the blue water. Eywa had been kind in his passing and Nitari had laid his body to rest in a solitary place that overlooked their entire land so he would never be far from their home. She hadn't the heart to carry him to the Tree of Souls, far inland where he would be away from their people, choosing the Tree of Voices as his final resting place. Her voice lowered as she ruminated privately about her past, "The person I am now was carefully molded over the years but I kept firm to my virtues. I was a frightened girl for daring to question our strict traditions, afraid I would be exiled for doing so, but my Akon would not take no for an answer. There was such love in his eyes that I couldn't crush that same love I harbored for him."

They had shared so many conversations about their union.

Thank you again for your review and I will see you all next time to begin the next arc of this story!