The Gang of Five
It is quite fitting that the sweltering hot days of July arrive right when the gang confront the barrens of the Mysterious Beyond in the fifth film showcase.  It is almost like us admins planned it that way or something.  :bestsharptooth

This month in the Monthly Showcase we are featuring the Land Before Time V.  Feel free to share your thoughts and opinions in that topic.  Additionally, there is a new fanfiction prompt challenge for the months of June July, please check out this topic for more information.

Songs of the Hunters

rhombus · 72 · 16423

rhombus

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Fanfiction link: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10967589/13/So...-of-the-Hunters

Chapter 12: Revelations

Littlefoot leaned into Ruby's neck as she nuzzled him.  The recent revelation was like a liberation for him.  A tremendous weight had been lifted from his mind.  The tender moment only lasted for an instant, however, before a certain young longneck interrupted.

"What?"

Littlefoot smiled at Sauria's befuddled expression, "What this means, sister, is that if our father did die then he didn't die here.  Do you see a longneck skeleton anywhere?"

Sauria blinked at this as she looked back towards Charger's fallen mother.  She looked away quickly, not wanting to stare at the reminder of what the sharpteeth had taken from them.  She then shook her head.

"Only Charger's mother was killed here.  That means there is still a chance that the others survived!"

Charger now reluctantly turned away from his mother as he stared at Littlefoot.  His voice came through as a hoarse growl, "You mean that my daddy might be alive out there?"

"And my sister and parents!?" Datum exclaimed.

"Exactly!"  Littlefoot smiled.

The three leaf-eater children all reacted in their own way to this welcome news.  Sauria promptly gave a joyful bellow as she stomped the ground, whereas Charger returned to looking at his mom with an overtly more bittersweet expression.  It was as if he knew that his mother shared his joy from the Great Beyond.  Datum's expression was one of joyful exuberance, which promptly turned to one of contemplation.  That look was something that Littlefoot had seen before from two other rainbowfaces several years before.  As a result he knew that a question was soon to come his way.

"Do you think they made it to the valley?"

Before Littlefoot could respond Thud coughed from behind the rainbowface, which caused the poor leaf-eater to jump in surprise.

"That is what we should check first."

Littlefoot promptly translated for Thud, and then began walking back towards the rest of his pack, "I agree.  But that is not our only concern,"  Littlefoot then gestured towards the leaf-eaters, "they will have to be brought back home somehow.  I don't know about all of you, but I would rather we not leave the territory undefended with the two-footers nearby."

This gave the others pause as silence descended upon them.  It was Sauria who broke the silence a few moments later.

"Maybe the valley could come back for us?"

Charger chuckled darkly at that, "And what?  Be food for the killers that got momma?"

Littlefoot licked his lips, ignoring the obvious hatred for sharpteeth in Charger's voice and scent.  He had earned the right to be angry at Chomper's kind.

"Well maybe we could meet them half-way?  If we meet then half-way then none of us have to go all of the way."

Littlefoot pondered Ruby's idea for a moment when Taunt offered his own thoughts.

"That still leaves us with the problem of leaving the territory undefended."

"Yes," Cera added, "Not to mention I don't think that our guests would want to take their children across the Mysterious Beyond unless they absolutely have to.  They have already risked much to get here to us."

Littlefoot looked confused for a moment, until he realized that Cera was referring to Swift and Thud's children.  They were not yet at the age of safety, which meant that having them travel with another pack would be a tricky proposition.  Swift would constantly feel the need to defend her children from any unrelated dinosaurs, regardless of their intentions.  Not to mention if her pack remained here the entire time and the two-footers attacked...

"Maybe Path could stay here and defend the territory?"

Littlefoot looked with surprise at the small voice that had spoken.  He did not hesitate to let the children speak at pack meetings as he felt that the best way for them to learn to be adults was to learn by practice, but they usually kept silent all the same.  None of them wanted to say something foolish in front of their peers.  Taunt's kids would have a field day...

Swipe seemed to be willing to risk it this time, however her bravado seemed to be short-lived.  The surprised looks from the other children made her shrink back with a self-conscious expression.  It was only when Biter gave his sister an encouraging nudge that she again held her ground.

"That be good idea, actually." Petrie noted, flying down from Chomper's massive snout.

Littlefoot nodded, "Indeed it is, but that would pass on the risk to Path."

Chomper laughed, a horrifying sound, "Those upstarts will learn what a risk is when they meet me!  I will teach them a lesson they will never forget!  No one invades our territory!"

His speech caused the three leaf-eater children to lay on the ground in terror.  They could hear the sharptooth's words clearly and thus knew his intent, but that did not override their instincts on the matter.  In fact Chomper saying his bravado-filled threat in leaf-eater seemed to make it worse.

Spike decided to take this opportunity to speak, "As much as we appreciate your enthusiasm, Path, I think that we should be cautious."

"I agree," his mate offered, "I would feel more confident if we had some... um..."  she whispered to Spike for a moment, who laughed.  This earned him an angry scowl from his mate, which he promptly remedied by giving her a nuzzle and whispering something in her ear.  It was only then that she muttered, "assurances... assurances..."  

As she played with the word a few times Littlefoot realized that she must have forgotten the leaf-eater version of the word, but not wishing to suffer Breeze's scowl he refrained from laughing.

"We need some assurance that they are away from the territory," Breeze finally finished.

"Me can do that!" Petrie affirmed, "Me and children fly around and see if sharpteeth nearby.  We cover more ground than all of you land-dwellers."

Littlefoot smiled.  He now had enough details to come up with a basic idea of how to proceed.

"Alright, everyone, I think that I have a plan..."

-----

One day later:

"Why is the pack not just going to the valley, daddy?  We know that is where the kids have to go."

Petrie adjusted his wings slightly in order to slow his soaring.  Trying to listen and speak while flying against the wind was a difficult task.  The roaring air would drown out any hint of conversation.  After a few moments, however, he was again in a position to respond to Lift's question.

"Well, Lift, it be impolite to drop in unannounced, wouldn't it?"  Upon seeing her about to open her mouth to respond, he again spoke, "Besides me don't want to get wrath of momma!  The valley has ways of dealing with sharptooth flyers."

This caused his son, Dive, to turn his head in an expression of confusion.  His son was obviously seeking some clarification of his father's words, but this action caused him to fall out of formation with the other flyers.

"Watch out, Dive!"

"Whoa!"

In an instant Dive shifted his wings to rise and Lift veered downward, thus avoiding a collision.  The remaining daughter, Valaria, remained in formation and rolled her eyes at her brother's actions.  He was not the most graceful of flyers.

Kind of like Petrie in his valley days...

Petrie smiled a bit with his beak, as he shifted his wings and resumed his journey to the valley.  It was only when he saw that all three of his children were back in formation that he spoke again.

"To answer unspoken question: valley worry that bad sharptooth flyers learn from us and do bad things in valley.  So they find way to sneak on flyers.  Me not figure it out."

Valaria finally spoke, "Are we safe?  Grandma wouldn't attack us, would she?"

Petrie tilted a bit to the left as he addressed her question, "Not if she know who we are.  Me sure she like to meet all you, but you need to make promise to daddy."

Valaria's eyes were curious, "What's that?"

"You promise to daddy that you not fly here alone.  This only short flight for flyer, but long trip for land-dweller."  he shifted to the right in order to take advantage of the rising warm air.  He knew that this thermal should give them all of the lift they needed to coast to the valley.  "They know if me go here that it be important, but they not like sharptooth flyers coming here often," he paused for a moment, "me not visit valley since battle."

This caused a shocked gasp from Dive, but he was careful to maintain control this time, "But you told us that you saw grandma last Cold Time!"

Petrie expected that question, "Yes.  Me saw grandma by Red Coasts, but me not go to valley.  We have different life.  We have to kill life.  Valley not want that in valley."

Lift looked up at her father as she soared on the thermal, "There is something else, isn't there?"

Petrie would have nodded if it wouldn't have ruined his soaring, "Yes.  Mama have new hatchlings... my brothers and sisters... your aunts and uncles," he didn't have to look back to know that his children were shocked, "Mama always protective of us children.  You not want to get in her way."

"We have aunts and uncles?!  Like Seeker does?"

Petrie laughed at Valaria's question.  Despite the difference in specie, she reminded him of his fallen sister in more ways than just her name.  She also had the same spunkiness and curiosity.

"Yes, Valaria.  Me saw mama going to Red Coasts when me fly to hidden runners.  You know what happen there."

The children were silent for a moment as Petrie's answer didn't really invite a counter-response.  If Volant was heading to the Red Coasts then she was obviously looking for a mate.

The flyers continued on their journey for the better part of an hour.  The wind-swept gorges below them made an overwhelming amount of warm air life into the sky, which allowed them to soar without expending much in the way of energy.  This journey was nothing more than the flyer equivalent of a walk in the grass.  This gave Petrie a few moments to consider his situation.

One adult flyer needed to remain with the pack in order to scout for possible problems.  As Petrie and the children knew the leaf-eater language, but Soar did not, it was obvious that she would be the best choice to remain with the pack.

"Are you sure the valley will be a safe place for the kids?  It has been years since you were last there"

Petrie smiled at his mate's question.  She was always protective of the children.

"Me sure.  Me meet flyers and get permission before we enter."

She gave him an amused look.

"By flyers you mean Pterano, do you not?"

Petrie shrugged. "Probably if he meet me first.  That a problem?"

Soar surprised Petrie by suddenly laughing, "Not for the flyers, but I don't think the threehorns will listen to your uncle's assurances!"

This caused him to laugh as well, "Well good thing threehorns can't fly." he then spoke softly, "The kids will be safe, dear.  I won't let any harm come to them."

Soar surprised him again by poking him in the chest with her wing, "I knew it!  My lessons are beginning to have an effect, Mr. Me!"

Petrie feigned ignorance of his break from his usual speech pattern, "Me have no idea what you talk about."

Soar would have none of it and began to fly towards the rest of the pack.  Her half-mocking, half-amused voice called after him, "Very funny, Spotter, but mark my words: I will get you to speak properly one day!"


Petrie smiled.  His speech pattern was as much of a part of him as his personality.  Though he would never admit it to his mate, there was another reason why he maintained his use of me.

Me don't have old body or live in old home, but at least me have that!

He sighed as the gorges that led into the valley became visible in front of him.  The last time that he had seen those majestic cliffs was when his pack had left the valley in victory.  There were so many memories here.  The best years of his childhood had been spent in the valley with his friends, though they often seemed hell-bent on leaving the valley during their adventures.  Those cliffs were both a reminded of what had come before, and of what he had lost forever.  As he gestured for the children to sink towards the gorge, he spoke to them somewhat cryptically.

"Enjoy your childhood... it not last long."

Before any of his children could hazard a response to his words, however, he suddenly veered to the left.

"Go to ground now!"

In a few terror-filled seconds the children went from slowly sinking to the ground to suddenly plummeting towards the orange cliffs.  It did not take long for the children to land with distinct thuds.  Petrie followed a second later.

"Daddy, what is going on!"  Valaria exclaimed.

Petrie didn't respond immediately and instead lowered himself and extended his wings.

"Do as me do," Petrie requested.

A series of high pitched shrieks emanated into the air as Petrie gave his best recreation of the old alert call from the valley.  Its shrill tone echoed across the gorge as the much weaker sounds of his children's shrieks joined his.  As the symphony of shrieks continued for several moments, the children disregarded their father's order about their wings and covered their ears with them.  Finally, however, Petrie stomped to indicate that it was time for his children to stop.  Within moments the shrieks finally came to an end.

Then there was silence.

Petrie paused as he waited for any sign that the valley had noticed his calls.  They were quite a way from the valley so it would be understandable if no one responded to them in a timely manner.  Though Petrie was hesitant to advance much closer to the valley without explicit authorization.  However, as the seconds turned to minutes, he assumed that they were simply too far away for their calls to be heard.  Reluctantly, he gave his kids the news.

"Alright, kids, me guess that we are too far away for anyone to notice us.  That is the alert call.  It alerts the valley that a flyer has seen something important."

"Like food?" Lift asked innocently.

Petrie laughed, "No, like something else try to make them food.  But anyway, we need to get closer to valley..."

"Not until we let you in."

Petrie and the children nearly doubled over in shock at the sudden intrusion from behind them.  Where there had been nothing but rock moments before now stood a young adult flyer.  His coloration was a cross between gray and brown.  That was not what caught Petrie's attention, however.  That face.  He knew that face.

"Brother?"

The leaf-eater flyer laughed, which made Petrie's children hide behind their father uncomfortably, but made Petrie swell with happiness.  He most certainly recognized that laugh.

"I see that me not only one who go back to valley.  Did mama forget to kick you out of nest?" Petrie mocked playfully.

His brother shrugged in a flamboyant way, "Sadly, mother did kick us out of the nest right after the battle, Petrie.  She told us 'If you are all old enough to fight for the valley then you are old enough to find your own place within it.' and then she gave a lesson in how to make nests."

Petrie chuckled, "She not think you all know how to make nests?"

His brother smiled, "You know mother, even when she was kicking us out, she wanted to make sure we were okay," he then added as an afterthought, "She did give me a good whack on the head though when I took some of her twigs for my own nest."

Petrie rolled his eyes at his brother's antics, "You were always an ass, Vero."

Vero smiled, "Some things never change, brother."

Upon feeling a tug at his wing, Petrie looked down at Dive's concerned face.  Petrie could only smile in response.  His children acted so brave in front of the fastbiters, but in front of other flyers their bravado was nowhere to be seen.

"It alright, children.  This be my brother, Vero.  Me no think he eat you."

Vero opened his mouth and closed it in a mock threat, which caused the children to back away.  It was only then that Petrie began to realize something.

"You know sharptooth?"  Petrie inquired with more than a little surprise.

Vero nodded, "Several of us went to the hidden runners in order to learn the language.  Mother thought it would be a good idea to have spies that could listen in on sharpteeth."

Petrie deadpanned, "You spy on us in territory?"

Vero rolled his eyes, "Like we would need to, Petrie.  We hear enough about you and the others from the sharpteeth in the Mysterious Beyond.  You seem to make an impression on everyone that you meet."

A sudden thud behind Petrie alerted him to another arrival.  He had barely turned partway before a voice that he had not heard in nearly a year greeted him.

"So these are the grandchildren!"

Petrie turned and warmly bowed at his mother.

"Indeed, mama.  These are the young biters me and uncle tell you about," he nudged his children in order to get their attention.  After they gave the customary bow to their grandmother, she looked at Petrie with an odd expression.  Smiling, Petrie gave a nod.

"Wha..."

Dive, Lift, and Valaria were suddenly lifted into the air by the elderly flyer as she embraced them between her wings.  She then quickly put them back down before they could even mount an instinctual response.

"Now that that is out of the way, what are your names?"

The three sharptooth children looked up at the elderly leaf-eater as if she were a gigantic monster.  Their beaks were open, but no distinct words came forth.  Undeterred, Volant maintained her stern motherly gaze at the three younglings.  Finally, they began to croak out their names.

"Dive... grandma."

"Lift..."

Volant turned her gaze to the third flyer as it swallowed out of shyness.

"Valaria."

This caused Volant to look up at Petrie with a shocked expression.  In response Petrie could only nod.

"Me thought that sister would have liked that," he looked at Valaria for a moment, "Me just tell her about that story during this Warm Time."

Now it was Petrie's turn to be hugged.

"You didn't mention their names!" his mother exclaimed, "Your sister would have appreciated this."

Petrie smiled, "Me was going to tell you their names, but someone more interested in flying to Red Coasts at the time..."

Volant broke away with a somewhat embarrassed expression, "Speaking of which, I need to return to the nest.  I came out here when I got the alert, but the kids are expecting some food."

Now it was the turn of the children to be surprised.

"Alert?"

"How?"

"We didn't hear anything?!"

Volant smiled as she waved her wing tip at her grandchildren and gave them a teasing smile, "Now, grandchildren, the valley has to have its secrets.  But let's just say that we knew that all of you were coming for quite some time."

"Yeah, so don't get any ideas, brother."

Petrie rolled his eyes as Vero walked beside him, "Me not go to valley to find food, Vero.  Me already know you food.  Me came here for something more important."

Vero stuck out his tongue at his brother, but then promptly took on a more serious expression as Petrie's words registered in his mind.

"What is it, Petrie?" Volant spoke with sudden urgency, "Is everyone alright?"

Petrie frowned a bit at his mother's response.  The pack was certainly okay for the moment, but her reaction made it seem as if the valley were experiencing no difficulties.  Perhaps Bron and the others had not come back...

Petrie hesitated, "Pack okay.  It valley me worry about," upon Volant's confused head tilt, he spoke again, "We find Charger's mama's body."

The two leaf-eater flyers were silent for several moments as they bowed their heads out of respect.

Volant nodded as she sighed and gave Vero the signal to head back to the valley.  It was only after he left with a polite nod that Volant looked at Petrie again.  Her expression was noticeably grim.

"Bron, Uta, Servine, and the rainbowfaces came back a few days ago," she did not notice Petrie's look of obvious relief, "they were sent out to give the healing plants to the hidden runners, but they paid a high price for that.  Several of the kids were lost when they were attacked," she frowned sadly, "I regret not going with them, but I have children of my own again.  Maybe if they had some flyers to look ahead for them...

Petrie wrapped a wing around his mother, "Don't blame yourself, mama.  You have to take care of my brothers and sisters," he then looked at his children, "children are precious things."

Silence descended on the two flyers as they reflected on the situation that lay before them.  It was only after a few moments had passed and he felt his mother was ready for the news that he spoke again.

"Besides, me have some news about Datum, Sauria, and Charger.  Do you honestly think that gang with Seeker's sister, rainbowfaces' son, and Stern Claw's cousin would not find some way out?"

Volant gaped, "Do you mean?"

Petrie nodded and wore a happy expression, "They manage to escape, but now we need to help them get to valley.  You think valley help us with that?"

Her squawks of happiness could be heard all the way to the valley.

-----

Just outside of the pack's territory:

The massive footprint seemed to mock them.

Chomper glared at the depression in the ground with an annoyed expression.  Despite over half an hour of analyzing the artifact, they were no closer to uncovering its secrets.  It was too old to retain any of its creator's smell.  Its contours contained no clues as to the sharptooth's  physical condition or disposition.  In fact, the only thing that they had deduced is that the sharptooth that created this footprint was a female tyrannosaurus.

Despite that there was something oddly familiar about these footprints.

"Look at the smaller footprints."

Chomper slowly lumbered to his left as he looked for the small footprints that Littlefoot had mentioned.  He had no idea what his friend was talking about.

"In the footprint.  By the heel."

The massive sharptooth then tilted his head and nearly planted his face in the footprint in order to examine its features.  At first he was tempted to ask Littlefoot what in the heck he was talking about, but after several moments he began to see hints of what his friend had seen.  Planted in the heel of the footprint were the tell-tale scrapes of a juvenile two-footers footsteps.  In seemed that these children were quite literally following in their parent's footsteps.

"They have children." Chomper noted, "That would explain why they were willing to take the risk.  Our reputation is well known."  He then turned towards Littlefoot's much smaller form in front of the footprint.  The fastbiter appeared to again be deep in thought.  

Knowing not to interrupt his friends when he was in such a state, Chomper continued to stare at his friend with a deferential expression.  It was moments like this that he reflected on the fact that this much smaller dinosaur had been with him when he hatched, and had been like a perpetual big brother to him.  Even when he had been with his parents on the island the shadow of Littlefoot covered everything that he did and thought.  Even though the size difference was now reversed between them, he could not shake his tendency to look up to the sharptooth even though he literally now had to look down upon him.

Sometimes old habits never died.

"That's what I am not sure about, Path.  If they came from far away then they may not have known our exact territory," the fastbiter looked up at him with a contemplative expression, "if that is what happened then they may not really be a threat.  They may be far away by now."

Chomper snorted, "Mistake or not, I just want to make sure that they stay out of our territory."

Littlefoot smiled, "Yeah..."

The two were silent for several moments.  Chomper reflected that the talk of children seemed to put a different spin on the entire situation.  He knew that Littlefoot would do whatever it would take to ensure the survival of the pack, but as a parent he knew the responsibility that having children entailed.  The thought that he and his friends may have to kill and injure another family in order to protect their own was a horrifying one.  Chomper could not really offer anything for that possibility except his support for the pack, but he could help his friend with an issue affecting children that was more close to home...

"Have you decided on what to do with Biter?"

Littlefoot sighed at his friend's question.  It was not even something that he had broached with Ruby just yet, but he knew that a decision would have to be made soon.

"He is a lot like you and I, isn't he?" Littlefoot noted with a mix of pride and sadness, "He wants to fight against what fate has chosen for us, but eventually we have to be what we have to be."

Chomper gave a compassionate growl, "Had the dinosaurs not been from the valley would you have made Biter correct his mistake?"

Littlefoot's eyes went wide as he opened his mouth as if to protest, but he promptly closed it as the thought registered in his mind.  

"No...  I mean..." Littlefoot suddenly looked helpless, "He will have to hunt other dinosaurs one day, but I would not have him break a blood pact."

Chomper tilted his head, "What if he hadn't made a pact?  Would you have him attack his leaf-eater friends?  Would you ask that of him?"

Littlefoot swallowed as he looked down, "I wouldn't, but Ponder..." he trailed off.

"Has a different perspective?" Chomper offered.

Littlefoot nodded, "I think so.  She has a tendency to do things that would make me uncomfortable, so that I am not faced with the decision.  I will need to talk to her, but... she was upset and angry until we found out who those leaf-eaters were, Path," his eyes were wide as he gestured with his hands, "I think Biter's mentioning of the blood pact was the only thing that stopped her from ordering the kids to finish them off."

Chomper growled lightly, "Each biter who crosses a chasm has a mate who pushes him."

Littlefoot looked at him oddly, "What was that?"

Chomper gave a chuckle, a soft growling sound, "Something my mother always said."

Littlefoot nodded absentmindedly as he continued to contemplate his situation.  Chomper did not envy his friend's predicament, but he knew that he could only offer support.  This was something that he and Ruby would have to resolve on their own.

"We will have to hunt on the journey to the valley.  I will have my children make their first hunt then."

Chomper gave his friend a surprised look.  Littlefoot noted his shock and responded immediately.

"Biter cares for his friends, and they are surrounded by sharpteeth.  The more food the pack provides then the less likely it will be that the other children might accidently decide to hunt his friends."

Chomper gasped in shock, "They wouldn't!"

Littlefoot blinked, "Of course not, but Biter doesn't need to know that," he sighed as he looked towards the falling Bright Circle, "he will have to hunt one day or he will be at a great disadvantage... if I have to use his fear for his friends as motivation..."

Chomper followed Littlefoot's gaze and stared at the falling Bright Circle as well.  

"That might be for the best, Seeker.  By the time Biter is old enough to understand what you did, he will be old enough to understand why you did it."

Littlefoot sighed, "I hope so, Path, I hope so."

The two sharpteeth stared at the falling Bright Circle for several moments until the sky finally turned into a brilliant shade of turquoise.  Despite the uncertainties all around them, the certainty of the sun and moon was a comfort.  One day they would all be gone, but the orbs in the sky would remain.  As would their stories.  It was only when the sky had firmly turned into a dark shade of violet that Littlefoot gave the signal for them to see what the rest of the pack had found.

"Well, I think that we have stared at the sky for long enough.  The others should be done with their scouting by now.  Not to mention I am ready for another helping of the swimmer."

Chomper let out an affirmative grunt, "Yes.  Let's go eat!"

Littlefoot chuckled at his friend's single-track mind, "You're beginning to sound more like Finder every day!"  He dodged the inevitable mock bite in his direction.  Chomper's appetite had certainly grown during his Time of Great Growing.  The comparison to Spike was not too far off.

"Look, Seeker!  I found a perfect target.  Its feathers are brown like the ground, its crest is red like blood, and its words are stupider than a yellowbelly!"  Chomper playfully mocked.

Littlefoot laughed at his friend's mockery, "Well, Path, if you want this 'food' then you will have to catch it!"

Chomper gleefully chased his friend back into the pack's territory.  The surrounding field shook with his thunderous footsteps as the two friends reenacted their antics from much younger days.  A welcome relief from the recent turmoil.

Meanwhile the footprint remained like a silent harbinger of things to come.  Little did they know that the creator of that footprint was not too far away.

-----

The Great Valley:

"What is all of this about?"

Tricia looked at Malka with a concerned expression.  Her swimmer friend was normally a source of enthusiasm and kindness, albeit with a tinge of sarcasm, but in light of their tremendous loss she now seemed like a shadow of her former self.  Despite her misgivings with her change in demeanor, Tricia could only bellow agreement with her friend's words.

"I suppose the adults will tell us," Tricia guesses without enthusiasm.  

The sound of running footsteps could be heard, which was followed be the sounds of a dinosaur panting heavily.  Tricia did not need to look beside her to know that Axiom had caught up with her.

"What is going on?"  Came the rainbowface's exhausted questions, "why are the adults having a meeting?"

"It's probably about what happened out there."

All three children looked up at the massive longneck that was walking beside them.  His neck stretched so far into the sky that it looked like it was scraping the clouds from their perspective.  The tell-tale green coloration and dark green stripe confirmed to them all that this was Shorty, ironically the tallest longneck in the valley.

Tricia bowed her head respectfully, "Sorry, Shorty."

The massive longneck shook his head as his voice boomed from above, "No need to apologize.  It was a loss for you young ones as well.  Now we just need to see how to prevent this from happening in the future," he looked momentarily confused, "though we already had a meeting on this a few days ago.  I wonder what changed?"

They didn't have to wait long to get an answer.

"Petrie's here!"

The children looked up at the excited flyer, while Shorty looked down at the brown child.  His wings were beating much faster than necessary to keep him aloft, the sign of obvious excitement.

"Momma told us in nest!  Brother has come home to tell us news!"

Tricia pondered Flip's excited words for a moment.  What news could Petrie have brought that would necessitate flying into the valley itself?  Even when his kids were born they simply communicated that news through Pterano.

"What news could that be?" Shorty's voice rumbled.

"I am curious about that as well."

Shorty and the others looked towards Shorty's back where a large flyer had just landed.  Though Pterano was officially banished from the valley for a few more days, an exception was made in the case of valley meetings.  As it was being banished to the lands immediately outside of the valley wasn't much of a banishment in the first place.

"Pterano," Shorty greeted with a mix of kindness and annoyance, "what have I told you about using my back as a perch?"

Pterano shrugged with great flamboyance, a trait that often annoyed the threehorns, "Why my dear, Shorty, it isn't my fault that you are the tallest thing to land on in the whole valley."  Nonetheless, Pterano gave a respectful nod which indicated that his mockery was in jest and proceeded to fly off of Shorty's back into a slow circling beside the children.  For his part, Shorty rolled his eyes and gave a respectful nod as well.  His eyes then turned towards the meeting circle that lay ahead of them.

In the clearing stood leaf-eaters of every size and description.  The threehorns all stood together in their family units, with only Tricia staying apart with her group of friends.  Charger's father, Servine, stood noticeably apart from the others.  Despite not being among the most dominant of his herd, he was being permitted to stand in the front of the group.  A tremendous show of respect.

Logos and Chronos had settled in several longneck-lengths from the threehorns, with the swimmers taking their places closely behind them.  In an obvious show of support for the two parents, Ura and her latest clutch of children sat immediately beside them, with several of her adult children lounging to the side of the family.  Even though half of Ducky's siblings had already sought out new locations to call home, the massive population of swimmers was still a tremendous thing to behold.

Elsewhere, the longnecks were likewise gathering.  Bron and Uta stood towards the front, with Somni standing beside them.  Ali being noticeably absent in order to watch over her nest.  A flyer lightly landed on Somni's back and, upon receiving a nod from the sauropod, crushed a red treesweet in order to leave a small red stain on his back.  A sign that Somni would vote on behalf of his absent mate.

"Tricia, you should probably go with your parents.  The same goes to all of you children,"  Shorty noted, "I am sure that all of you can talk and play after this is over with."

Tricia couldn't help herself, "Hopefully they won't gab all day, and just get this over with!"

Shorty chuckled as he walked into the clearing.  It was obvious that he didn't disagree with her sentiments.

"Well, I guess that he is right," Axiom spoke with a tired voice,  "I will see all of you later."

Malka looked at her with concern, "Are you alright?"

The rainbowface simply shook her head, "Are you?"

Tricia looked down, "I guess none of us are..." she sighed heavily, "let's meet up after the adults are done, okay?"

Flip then flew down and joined in the collective embrace as the remainder of the gang nonverbally said their goodbyes.  In moments Tricia found herself beside her father as Petrie flew into the center of the clearing.  As was the custom in such circumstance, he was accompanied by six of the largest flyers as if he were a prisoner of the valley.

Because in a way, he was.

-----

Topps cleared his throat as he turned to address the valley, "Petrie has flown a great way in order to bring news to the valley."

There were muttering amongst the crowd as he said these words.  With the newer residents being much less open to this development than the older ones.  Nonetheless, there were no sounds of protest or discontent.

"The flyers have deemed this news to be important so I have called this meeting," he then turned towards the sharptooth flyer, "It has been a long time, Petrie." he then nodded politely, as Petrie did the same.

"It has Mr. Threehorn," Petrie affirmed, "Me pleased that valley look well."

Topps spoke gruffly, "It goes better for some than others.  No doubt you have heard, we lost several children many days ago."

Petrie sighed as he looked up at the rest of the assembled crowd.  He could see the heavily scared threehorn that must have been Charger's father.  He could see Bron and the visible melancholy on Uta's face.  He could see Tricia's unease and obvious annoyance.

He now knew quite well how his words would affect the valley.  They all suspected that their children were dead from the attack, just as much as the leaf-eater children had presumed that their parents had died.  Nonetheless, no matter how difficult the truth, it could only be free once it was told.  With that in mind he opened his beak.

"Me come to valley to give very important news.  You not lose as much as you think."

Petrie could feel the eyes of the entire valley upon him at these words.  Bron and Uta were broken free of their melancholy as Petrie's words registered in their mind.  Their children, assembled beside their parents, were likewise alerted by the flyer's words.  Tricia's eyes opened widely at the possibly implication of Petrie's introduction, whereas Charger's father looked ready to charge the clearing.

"Pack find three leaf-eater younglings in clearing.  Your children be alive."

-----

Elsewhere in the Mysterious Beyond:

"Daddy, when are we going to find more food?  I am starving!"

The massive green tyrannosaurus looked down at his young daughter.  Food had been scarce in the last several days.  It almost made him wish that she had stayed in the plentiful field where they had killed the threehorn.  However, his mate was insistent on returning to a land that they had thrived in before.  This meant a detour through the territory of some old acquaintances.

"We will be at Hanging Rock before long, Tyrania," her mother growled with less impatience than she actually felt, "it is just ahead, though we can't see it in this darkness.  Once we are there then we can have a proper hunt."

Tyrania sighed at her mother's words, but said nothing else in response.

"Are you sure, dear?" The male inquired, "We can go a few more days without a meal, but it is hard on the younglings."

The female growled softly, "We will survive and thrive, dear!  Don't you worry!  After all, we can get some help in finding suitable prey from our helpers."

The father snorted, "I think you put too much confidence in the fastrunners."

"Fastrunners have more speed that sense, dear, but they are good at finding things.  I am sure that they will continue to fulfill the pact that we made so long ago." the mother retorted.

The male snorted as he rolled his eyes, "I hope that you are right.  Their daughter certainly turned out to be worthy of our trust."

The female nodded, "Indeed.  I hope that the rest of the family is as worthy as she was," she paused for several moments as she squinted at the darkness ahead of her, "I think that we are close enough, dear."

This caused the male to squint into the darkness as well.  Despite the near pitch black conditions, the light of the Night Circle was enough to make the figure of Hanging Rock to appear in the distance.  They had finally arrived.  With a deep breath he called into the night at the unsuspecting fastrunners.

"Hear me, Detras and Pearl!  Remember the pact that was made in Cold Times past!  Dein and Terri have returned!"


Go ahead and check out my fanfictions, The Seven Hunters, Songs of the Hunters, and Menders Tale.


rhombus

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NIGHTS 3, 4, and 5: DEMONSTRATIONS OF LOVE

Chapter 13: A Leap of Faith


Petrie stood in silence as the meeting descended into complete pandemonium.  The silence that had preceded Petrie's announcement was replaced by the uproar of confused and agitated voices.  The flyer's news had been welcome news to all who had heard it, but it had also been utterly unexpected. Topps began to walk in front of the agitated meeting in an apparent attempt to call them back to order, but another voice beat him to that task.

"Everyone, be silent!"

Bron's booming voice shook the ground as the longneck rose and slammed the ground with his front feet.  The resulting percussion caused the adults to fall silent immediately.  It was only then that Petrie noticed Servine's advancing form.

"My son is alive?!"

Petrie took on an expressionless face upon hearing the father's tone.  The sound of despair being invaded by hope was obvious for anyone to hear.  It was enough for Petrie to contemplate what he would feel if any of his children were ever to be lost.  How would he and his mate face such a horrible prospect?  It had been one thing to imagine such horrible scenarios as a youngling, but to imagine them as a parent was another thing all together.  His heart broke for the agitated threehorn.

Out of the corner of his eye, Petrie could see the three younglings perched beside their grandmother as they looked towards their father with a look of concern.  Petrie had to will himself in order to complete the task that lay before him.   They be safe, Spotter.  Now me need to let Servine know his son safe.

"Yes, your son safe.  Seeker's son, Biter, find them."  Petrie nodded slightly as the elder threehorn closed his eyes in relief.  The shuddering of the male's sides confirmed that he was struggling to hide his emotion from the other threehorns.  Even in a time of grief or happiness appearances had to be maintained.

But then Petrie frowned.   Should me tell him about Charger's injuries?  As Petrie considered this an old saying from Cera's leaf-eater days popped into his mind.  Something that she had said when Ducky attempted to hide information from her.

Spike bowed his head in shame at his mistake.  His pile of tree sweets had been right next to Cera's and he had lost track of what he was doing until finally both piles disappeared into the bottomless pit that was his stomach.  The gang had tried their best to distract the little threehorn, but she had been determined to eat her tree sweets first before they played any games.  As a result, when she finally arrived at where the tree sweets were arranged, she was in for an unpleasant surprise.

Cera looked at the group with a betrayed look, "Why didn't you tell me about this?"

Ducky looked at the agitated threehorn with a confused expression, "We did not want you to be sad.  Oh, no, no, no."

"We thought we tell you later," Petrie added, "We get more tree sweets to replace ones that Spike ate."

Spike bellowed an apologetic sound as he looked away.  He had never intended to hurt anyone's feelings.

Littlefoot looked at the threehorn with concern, as if he expected her to explode at any moment.  However the next words out of her mouth confused them all.

"My daddy always says that a rough truth is better than a weak lie."

Littlefoot tilted his head in confusion, "Cera?"

Cera groaned, "What it means, flathead, is that it is better to face the truth than to ignore it."

This caused her four friends to shift uncomfortably as they realized that their attempt to remedy the situation has in fact made it worse.

"Now," Cera smiled at them with an almost predatory smile, "We can play a new game.  I call it 'Find New Tree Sweets or Cera Rams You', doesn't it sound fun?"


As he remembered Cera's words, Petrie sighed.  He would give the threehorn the full truth before he could find out in person.

"But Charger be injured pretty bad," Petrie's heart nearly broke when he saw the look that the threehorn gave him, "He not have infection anymore, but he get hurt running from sharpteeth... he have scars and lose eye."  Petrie bowed his head out of respect, "Me sorry to tell you that."

Servine closed his eyes for a moment as if to process all of that information.  Petrie was expecting an emotional outburst or perhaps an angry response from the threehorn, but what he got instead surprised him.

"It is what it is, flyer.  The important thing is that my son lives."  His gravelly voice echoed across the clearing as Petrie could only look on.  The threehorn seemed to collect himself emotionally for a moment before he concluded his words to the flyer, "His mother died protecting others and I shed blood to do the same.  I would expect no less courage from my brave son."

The threehorn, obviously choked up at this information, returned to his place at the front of the threehorn herd.  No other member of the herd formally greeted him or offered comfort as that would imply weakness.  Instead, they increased their distance around him, but made an almost protective circle.  Even when their loved ones were in a moment of weakness, the threehorns could only respond with an outward show of strength.

"What about Sauria?!"

"Datum!  What about our son?!"

Petrie smiled at the advancing longnecks and the rainbowfaces which almost seemed to be running circles around him. "They be fine.  In fact, it be Datum's speaking sharptooth that saved them all."

Chronos gave an audible sigh of relief, as Logos began to cry happily beside him.  Axiom, on the other hand, could be seen running towards several other children who had broken away from their parents.

Petrie smiled.   Happy swimmer... happy flyer... happy rainbowface... and Tricia...  He knew at that moment that he was seeing the new 'gang' that had formed in the valley.  Despite its differing composition Petrie could feel the same kind of comradery radiating off of them that he felt with his pack.  It seemed that Tricia and the others were maintaining the legacy of the Gang of Seven.

As the four friends celebrated the welcome news with uncontrollable excitement, Topps made himself known by clearing his throat.  Petrie could see a momentary odd look from the threehorn before his face took on a more neutral expression.

"This is very welcome news, but now the question is: how do we bring them home?"

Petrie frowned.  That was the question, wasn't it?

"Pack have idea... if you want to hear it."

-----

Cera watched the threehorn from the bushes.  His scars stood out under the noon sun as his friends ate some distance away.  Their absence clearly indicated to the fastbiter what was going on.

They know when to give a threehorn some space.

Cera frowned at this, but remained silent from her vantage point.  She had sent her children with Taunt for a while with the pretext of them needing another hunting lesson from their father.  Her children, being quite enthusiastic about the idea of their father helping them find ground fuzzies, had erupted with approval almost immediately.  Taunt's expression towards her had clearly communicated 'I will get you for this!' but his demeanor indicated that he actually didn't mind watching the kids for a while.

Besides, she knew that Taunt would not understand what she had to do here.

A small flyer, one of the feathered kinds, landed on Charger's back as the threehorn shuddered at the sudden intrusion.  This only deterred the flyer for a moment as it landed along with several others.  As they began to peck at the threehorn's back his actions became more indignant as he rose to his back legs and bucked several times.  It was only then that the flyers flew away for good.

I guess he never heard of how useful buzzer-eater flyers can be, Cera observed.

His rebellion against the flyers seemed to have irritated Charger as he paced anxiously, shaking his head in an annoyed way.  This agitated behavior soon intensified as an audible groan left his lips.  This was followed by rather violent scratching at his shoulder, which caused a bit of blood to fall from one of the scars.  Finally, he again laid down on his belly and proceeded to stare blankly at the grass.  The smell of melancholy radiated from him.

"Those flyers can help you, you know?"

The threehorn rose in surprise as Cera broke her silence and appeared from the bushes.

"They eat blood-suckers, and you have a lot of those on your back."

The threehorn's expression shifted in a few seconds from one of surprise to one of annoyance.  However, by the time the threehorn finally responded, it had shifted to one of faux indifference.  An expression that Cera had often seen and used during her threehorn days.

"I survived a sharptooth; I don't think that a few blood-suckers are going to kill me."

Cera kept her face neutral despite the urge to smile at Charger's bravado.  His reaction brought back many memories.

"Maybe so, but I think your friends would not be pleased if you got an infection again," she gestured at Charger's reopened scar, "based upon what your longneck friend said it was a very close thing."

Charger growled in annoyance, "Her name is Sauria, you damn fastbiter!  She is your leader's sister; shouldn't you know her name?"

Cera now allowed herself a smile.  She had just the opening that she wanted.

"Ah... so the prideful threehorn is willing to defend a flathead?"

Charger looked surprised for a moment but quickly tried to avoid being outmaneuvered in the conversation.

"Uh... well she helped me out... so it is the least that I can do..."

Cera restrained the size of her smile to avoid freaking out the threehorn, which caused her tail to rise in an equivalent gesture of levity.

"Now, Charger, you and I both know that isn't true.  You defended Sauria because you care about her.  Just like how you also care for Datum," his frown did not dissuade her from continuing, "there is no harm in admitting that, Charger."

Charger began to walk away in a dismissive fashion, "Phtt.. why do you even care, fastbiter?"

Cera quickly and silently sprinted and surprised Charger by suddenly appearing in front of him, "I care, Mr. Cheerful, because you remind me of a certain someone I used to know long ago.  And I don't want you to make the same mistakes that she did."

Charger stared down the fastbiter for several moments, with his smell of annoyance rising to high levels.  However, within several moments a rather calm response came from him.

"What mistakes did you make, Cera?"

It was Cera's turn to be surprised.   He picked up on my meaning quite fast.  This is not a dumb one! The fastbiter hid her reaction, however, and quickly responded to the threehorn's query.

"Too many to count, though I only wanted to talk to you about one."

Upon saying this Cera laid down upon her haunches and turned towards the rainbowface and longneck in the background.  The longneck was devouring the lower offerings of a tree while Datum seemed to be examining the tree's bark with all of the careful attention that Cera would expect from Chronos or Logos.

"He is always like that," Charger sighed in a good-natured way, "we once were playing the pinecone game and he demanded that we let him have the pinecone afterwards."

Cera tilted her heard as an invitation for the threehorn to continue his explanation.

"We had no idea what he was doing.  He said something about learning how trees made tree younglings.  Some crazy rainbow-ass nonsense."

Cera laughed out loud upon hearing the insult 'rainbow-ass', which caused the threehorn to look at her oddly.  However, he soon chuckled as well despite his obvious misgivings towards the fastbiter who had interrupted his alone time.

"That was something that Finder told us about as well.  Back when he was a spiketail he focused on little else but green food and his friends.  If he could have told us back then that the hard parts of tree sweets made more tree sweet trees then we would have been saving those up.."

Charger looked surprised, "Datum was right about the trees?!"

Cera laughed, "Yes, young one, your friend wasn't pulling your tail on that one."

Charger looked towards Datum in the distance with a shake of the head, "You can never tell with Mr. Rainbow-ass.  He will tell you some crazy stuff just to pull your tail, but then he will talk about crazy stuff that is actually true."  He sighed at that admission as he laid down again, "I wish that I knew as much crap as he did."

Cera looked intrigued at the prospect of the threehorn admitting to a stranger that another dinosaur had an advantage over him, but merely allowed herself to ask a less incendiary question, "Have you ever asked him to teach you?"

Charger merely shook his head.

Cera could smell a confusing mix of scents from the threehorn.  She was obviously hitting at something here so she decided to give the conversation a nudge.

"You could always ask him for a trade."

Charger's head rose at that suggestion, "Huh?"

"You could teach Datum some things about threehorns," upon seeing Charger begin to shake his head, she continued, "not the sacred stuff, but the other stuff.  The stuff he would learn as an adult being around them anyway.  In exchange you could ask him to teach you about other things... like healing plants, for example."

Charger seemed to consider this for a moment, but he remained silent.

"I know that it would be improper to submit to a rainbowface but that's the great thing about friends: asking them for help is not a sign of weakness."

Charger looked suspicious at this, "I am sure my dad would disagree."

Cera shrugged, "Maybe so, but I doubt that he has given you any lessons about how herds battle sharpteeth yet, has he?"

Charger could only shake his head at that.  He obviously had no idea where Cera was going with her line of conversation.

"It is only when we shed our blood that we know who are true friends are.  It is only in a time of weakness that we know where our allies lie.  A friend will not challenge a fallen comrade."

Charger's eyes went wide, "Is... is that some kind of threehorn wisdom?"

Cera smiled and nodded, "Indeed it is.  My daddy told me that after he told me about what happened to my mother and sisters.  After he lost them he nearly fell into despair but his deputies did not take the opportunity to challenge him for the leadership.  They had seen what he was willing to sacrifice for the herd and put their own personal ambition aside."

She gestured towards the two leaf-eaters that lay ahead of them as she remembered her father's words on that day, "Your friends are not threehorns, Charger, so they do not understand your ways.  My friends never did back in our leaf-eater days either.  However, they don't need to.  All that they need to know is that although you may not always be able to show it you trust them with everything," she smiled down at him, "and before you say it, yes I am sure that they already know.  But they nearly lost you, Charger.  In the event that fate takes you or one of them to the Great Beyond one day, you should make sure that there are no unsaid words between you.  Life is too short for regrets."  Thoughts of Skytail echoed in her mind as she concluded her words.  That was a lesson that she did not truly learn until she was a sharptooth.

Charger looked towards the Bright Circle as silence descended upon the two dinosaurs.  It was several minutes before he spoke again.

"I suppose you are right, Cera.  I guess if all sharpteeth knew the threehorn lessons then they would be much better off."

Cera rolled her eyes at Charger's praise of his own kind, but she was pleased with his acceptance nonetheless.  However, he suddenly changed in demeanor as a sad smile appeared on his face.

"Though I suppose they won't do me much good.  A half-blind threehorn would be a burden on the herd."

Cera wanted to challenge Charger's words, but she knew that they carried some truth in them.  Threehorn herds were based upon the strength and reputation of the herd members.  A half-blinded fighter could be given an honored position due to his deeds prior to the injury, but a child on the other hand...

"But a threehorn that knows about healing plants wouldn't be a burden!"

Cera jumped into the air as the rainbowface appeared right behind them.  When she again touched the ground she could see that the rainbowface had positioned himself next to his threehorn friend.

"Do you think so?" Charger inquired hopefully, "A threehorn healer isn't exactly a common thing..."

Datum scoffed, "Fighters have to be healed somehow or they will die, right?  If one good fighter is useful to the herd then how useful would the healer be that saved ten fighters?  Trust the words of this 'rainbow-ass', there is hope for you yet!"

"Yeah!"  Sauria's higher-pitched voice suddenly made itself known, "So as soon as you drop the 'high and mighty threehorn act' like Cera suggested then we can get started!"

Cera tried but failed to suppress her laughter as Charger turned towards the fastbiter with a helpless look.  They had obviously listened in on a good portion of the 'private' conversation between the threehorn and former threehorn.  In response she could only nod in a good-natured way as she began to walk away.

"I said that your friends could be trusted, Charger, I never said that they weren't devious," an audible protest from Sauria and 'thank you' from Datum could be heard as Charger rolled his eyes, "We will let you kids know when Spotter comes back."

As Cera walked away the awkward hushed tones of the threehorn could be heard in-between the supportive words of the two friends.  It seemed that some encouragement from a former threehorn was just what Charger had needed in order to put aside the past and look towards the future.  It would be a changed future, but then again fate often had a way of changing destinies.  She and her friends could attest to that more than most.  

Before she turned to track down her mate and children, she looked back in the direction of the bones of Charger's mother.  The glorious rays of the Bright Circle greeted her gaze.

You're welcome.

-----

"This is an amazing place, Daddy.  You grew up here?"

Petrie smiled upon hearing his son's words.  He and his three children were perched on one of the ridges overlooking the valley as they waited for the adults to finalize their decisions.  The general idea of the pack and some of the valley residents meeting halfway was agreed upon without much hassle, but the details were another story.

"Yes, son, me and friends grow up here.  It good place for leaf-eaters; much better than where me and others grow up in Mysterious Beyond."  He shuddered at the memories of his friends' initial journey to the valley.  It had been that great struggle that had forged their friendship.

"And much better than where I was during my exile."

Petrie looked over at Pterano, who was perched along with the children.  The presence of Pterano was not an odd occurrence as the old flyer would fly over and exchange news several times during each cycle of the Night Circle, but his presence in this location was certainly a rarity.

"Oh, the canyon not that bad," Petrie retorted, "You still within screeching distance of valley."

Pterano nodded, "Yes, but I was referring to where I was before the terms of my exile were changed.  Before you and the others had your little change."

Petrie hesitated as he considered this and then nodded.  His uncle had told him about that before.  It must have been horrible to be left alone in the Mysterious Beyond with only your remorseful thoughts to keep you company.

"But your exile ends soon, doesn't it, Pterano?"

Pterano smiled at Lift's question, "Yes, little one.  Topps says that I have five days to go, but they made an exception for this meeting."

Valaria rolled her eyes, "Why doesn't the threehorn just let you in?  Haven't you proven yourself?"

Pterano paused for a moment as he interpreted the young flyer's words.  Despite having learned the language during his journeys to visit the pack, he was still a bit rusty.

"Mr. Threehorn is nothing but dedicated, young one."  Petrie smiled at that as Pterano paused to look down at the adults debating below.  A rather impassioned discussion seemed to be taking place between some of the longnecks.  Finally, however, Pterano finished his thought, "Besides punishments mean little unless they are carried out."

Valaria seemed to be satisfied by that answer.  A pack's entire routine was regulated by expectations of discipline and order.  Even the little flyers understood the necessity of such things.

"You can't be serious, Bron!  I nearly lost you once; you can't put me and the kids through that again!"

Petrie frowned as he observed the longnecks below.  Bron was asserting his case to go with the departing dinosaurs with a rather unhappy mate and worried children.

"I understand how you feel, dear, but one of us needs to go for Sauria... and you need to be here for the kids."

Uta was adamant, "We both need to be here for the kids."

Bron sighed and gave her a brave smile, "All the more reason for me to make sure I get Sauria back safely.  Don't worry, dear.  I will be back in a few days and the entire family will be united again."


Elsewhere, the rainbowfaces could also be heard making arrangements.

"Axiom, we will need to go just in case they need healers.  You be a good girl and stay with Mrs. Swimmer."

The little rainbowface put her hands at her sides as she scowled at her mother, "I am a big girl, mom.  I can handle the Mysterious Beyond."

Chronos rolled his eyes, "That maybe so, dear, but you shouldn't have to.  We will feel a lot better knowing that at least one of our children is safe while we are gone."

The little rainbowface pouted, but said nothing more.


"This is a trying time for all of them."

Pterano's words brought Petrie back from his observations.  He could only nod in response.

"Me wonder if pack realize how hard this be.  Me had no idea until me see it."

Pterano looked at his nephew with a curious expression before shaking his head slightly, "You really have changed so much, Spotter."  Pterano was careful to use his sharptooth name when addressing him in his language, "Of course we leaf-eaters are especially concerned.  The number of sharpteeth in the surroundings of the valley have increased over the years."

Petrie shrugged, "More food means more eaters."

Pterano snorted and shook his head, "That may be true, nephew, but it looks very different when you are not one of the eaters."

As Petrie considered his uncle's words, the discussions below could still be heard.

"You will need to stay here, Tricia."

The pink threehorn was not pleased with Tria's command, but her edict was further confirmed by Topps.

"You can see your friends when we bring them back.  There is no need to have you children go into danger."

Tricia growled at this, "But you will be going into danger, Daddy!"  As the elder threehorn looked ready to retort she continued, "Not only are they my friends, but Cera will be there.  Did you not think that I would like to see her again?"

This caught the threehorns off guard.  Topps could only look at his mate with the same dumbfounded expression that she was using to greet him.  The entire situation just got even more complicated.


Petrie sighed as Bron, Topps, Servine, and several other threehorns gathered into a circle.  They were joined by a few flyers.  It seemed that the valley had selected their heroes for this task.  Several upset mates and unhappy children observed the scene.  Chief among them were Tricia's gang of friends.

"Me hope they not do something stupid," Petrie muttered to himself before turning towards his uncle and the children, "Let's go talk to Mr. Threehorn and see when they plan to leave.  Then we go back to pack."

As Petrie flew down into the clearing he could feel an unpleasant feeling in his stomach.  He had no doubt of the abilities of his friends or the valley, but were they equal to the task that they now faced?

For the first time in a long while he feared for the future.

-----

That evening, outside of Hanging Rock:

Orchid stared at the gorge with an intense glare.

This feels so wrong...

"We have to do this, brother.  Unless you plan on breaking our family's oath."

Orchid turned to look at his sister.  With her pinkish-red crest of feathers and soft pink skin she almost looked like a copy of Ruby right before her change.  Her face was fixed with an annoyed expression, while her hands were fixed at her hips.  The overall gesture would have been much more effective if it wasn't for the fact that he was her brother.

"Oh, come on, sis!  I have seen you give me better glares than that," He mocked.

This earned him a face-full of dust as Arial kicked the ground in a frustrated manner.

"I don't enjoy this either, brother, but it is our duty.  Even if we were the sort of fastrunners to break a promise I know that neither of us would want to risk mom or dad.  We are young and fast, but they are not as fast anymore."

Orchid wiped the dust from his eyes and nodded in agreement despite his annoyance at his sister, "Yeah... but that doesn't mean that I can't be angry about the damn situation!"

Arial nodded grimly, "I think we are in agreement on that, brother."

As the two walked further into the gorge, they descended into silence.  The only thing they had going for them was a superior ability to track smaller prey and better knowledge of the area.  It would be up to the tyrannosauruses to make the kill...

"Sis?  Aren't these domehead tracks?"

Arial leaned towards the ground as she examined the small indentations carefully.  They were obviously made by a juvenile over a day ago, but they were certainly domehead tracks.  Her face went from annoyance to grim acceptance.  She had never been responsible for the death of another dinosaur until today, but now she knew that her innocence was over.

"Orchid, go tell mom and dad what we have found... I need to tell Dein and Terri that we found them a meal."

-----

The pack's territory:

"Alright, everyone!  We have all heard what Spotter had to say.  Tomorrow we go to Hanging Rock and send you kids back home where you belong."


Murmurs of agreement echoed amongst the pack as they began to stretch in preparation for sleep.  Petrie's report had been brief and to the point, but the questions that he had received had far exceeded him in verbosity.  All of his packmates wanted to know about the whereabouts of their families in the valley.  It was one thing to hear reports from a distance from Pterano, but it was quite another to hear the descriptions come from Petrie.  It was these little moments that continued to echo in Ducky's mind.

"How is Shorty doing, Spotter?" Littlefoot asked curiously, "Pterano said that he had been growing..."

The flyer laughed at his friend's question.  It seemed that with Littlefoot reaching his maximum size as a fastbiter he was becoming a bit more self-conscious about his size relative to his former kind.

"Shorty huge, Seeker!  He be about as big as Doc was!"

Littlefoot's mouth went agape as he considered this information.  The last time that he had seen his brother was after the battle in the valley.  It was hard to believe that Shorty was already a giant by longneck standards.  

"What about mommy?"  Ducky asked, "...and what about new brothers and sisters?"

Petrie smiled, "They be fine.  Your momma seem to have hand full with kids."  

"With Malka around how am I not surprised?" Sauria rolled her eyes.  Upon seeing Ducky's confused gaze Sauria continued, "She has to be quick witted to put up with Tricia and Flip."

Petrie laughed, "Yeah, me meet him.  He and Tricia argue a lot."

Cera puffed up her chest a bit as some of her kids tried to imitate her arrogant pose, "That sounds like my sister.  Somebody has to keep the flyers in line."

Laughter echoed from several of the other fastbiters as Petrie and his kids could only roll their eyes.  It seemed that some things never changed.


"Do we have to go to bed now, Mommy?  I am not tired."

Ducky looked down at her son, Fisher.  His eyes were innocent, but despite his words the elder fastbiter could see some fatigue in them.  Perhaps she could help that along so the kids could have a good night's sleep before their journey?

Ducky rose and cleared her throat, which caused the others to turn towards her direction.  Everyone was still here except for Littlefoot, Chomper, and Thud's pack who had begun to take a tour of the territory and the areas to defend.  It was a rare thing for another pack to be called upon to defend a pack's territory in its absence, and everyone wanted to be as prepared as possible.

"Fisher here tells me that some of you aren't sleepy."

A chorus of agreeing voices came from the children, both sharptooth and leaf-eater.

"Yeah!" One of Cera's children called out.

"I can stay up a bit longer," Charger grunted.

"It's barely dark out!"  Biter affirmed, despite the fact that it was several hours after nightfall.

Ducky smiled as she gestured towards the clearing and gave her mate a nudge in that direction.  Within moments the other pack members were surrounding Ducky and a very confused Leap.

"What are we doing, dear?" he whispered in confusion.

"We are going to sing a story," she smiled, "and I think that we know just the perfect one to sing for this occasion."

Ducky rose as she took a deep breath, "You children have heard the stories of our leaf-eater days.  You have heard the story of the Stone of Destiny.  You have heard about how we came to our lands.  But there is one story that you have not yet heard... how all of you children came to be in the first place."

Taunt interrupted, "Aren't they all a bit young to learn about the flyers and the buzzers?"

A soft yelp could be heard as Cera nipped at her mate's tail.  Ducky rolled her eyes, she was obviously not going to focus on those parts of the story.

"Speaking of which, I think Taunt would be a good place to start the story," Leap mentioned with some amusement, "After all, if it wasn't for his pranks we might have not come together."

Ducky smiled, "Yep, yep, yep!  I think that is a good idea, dear."

Spike coughed, which caused Ducky to look towards her brother, "Not to be rude, sis, but it will take us quite a while to tell the children about how all of them came to be.  Those are too many songs for one night."

Ducky smiled at her brother's comment, "Very true, Finder, but luckily for us we have several days of travelling ahead of us."

Ruby nodded, "Several days of travel will give us several days to sing.  Now the only question is: which one of you will start this song, so that the singing can start?"

Taking Ruby's question as an invitation to begin Leap rose to his feet and gave a nod to Ducky, which was reciprocated.  He would start off this song and Ducky could sing along.

"Alright, children, let us tell you about how Haven and I became companions."




Go ahead and check out my fanfictions, The Seven Hunters, Songs of the Hunters, and Menders Tale.


rhombus

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Fanfiction link: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10967589/15/So...-of-the-Hunters

Chapter 14: Leaping mad

A few years ago:

"You can try all that you want, sister, but you will never catch as many as me!"

Leap's arrogant boast echoed across the field as Taunt absentmindedly picked at the remnants of last night's hunt.  However, the words of his fellow packmate caught his notice.  This could get interesting...

"Oh yeah?"  Swift's taunting words soon responded to her brother's challenge, "I seem to remember that I caught more ground fuzzies than you yesterday..."  Taunt could almost hear the smile in her voice, "are you trying to redeem yourself, brother?"

Taunt leapt from his food and edged towards the tall grass.  Carefully peeking above the vegetation, he took stock of the scene.  Swift and Leap were face to face, while Ducky and Spike could be seen watching the sibling rivalry play out in front of them.  When Spike laid a ground fuzzy in-between him and his sister and gestured towards the siblings Taunt realized that he was making a bet with Ducky on the outcome of the impending competition.  For some reason this amused Taunt even more.

"It is sad, it is, it is.  They forgot that I beat them both."

Taunt bit down on his hand to avoid laughing out loud at Ducky's words to Spike.  It was obvious from her expression that she had not intended to say that loud enough for everyone to hear.  Her brother, for his part, attempted to hide his amusement with little success.  Now the competition had turned into a three-way contest.

"Well then..."

All four of the fastbiters turned towards Littlefoot's approaching form.  His face was clearly amused as he made no attempt to hide his emotions.  Like Taunt, he appeared to be eager to see the results of this friendly contest.

"Perhaps the three of you can prove who is the best?  It was getting a bit boring around here..."  He looked up at the Bright Circle and used his hand to measure its distance from the horizon.  He nodded after this and turned towards the trio, "All of you have until the Bright Circle touches the ground.  Then we'll count up your ground fuzzies and see who is best...  though...  I think that there should be something more at stake in this competition."

Taunt smiled at this.  Littlefoot was toying with his packmates.  He could certainly relate to that.

Leap sighed with annoyance upon seeing what his boast had gotten him into, "What would this 'stake' be, Seeker?"

Littlefoot smiled, "Oh... I don't know... maybe the winner gets all of the ground fuzzies..."

"What!?"  Ducky and Leap both exclaimed in exasperation, which only made Littlefoot's smile wider.  However, Swift had quite a different reaction.

"Well, dear brother, if you know that you will win then you have nothing to fear, hmmm?"

Leap groaned as he looked towards his sister.  Meanwhile, by the tall grass, Taunt no longer tried to hide his amusement but instead laughed openly.  Oh this was going to be good...

"My sister is going to beat you all, so I hope that you all aren't hungry!"

"Haven couldn't beat me if her life depended on it!"

"I will teach you all, yep, yep, yep!"

"Alright, enough!"

Littlefoot's words boomed from the clearing and the three competitors quickly quieted down.  

"You can all settle this during the hunt.  Save the taunting until then," he smiled broadly, "good luck!"

Taunt watched as the three fastbiters walked close to one another and exchanged a few words that Taunt couldn't discern from his distance.  He could only assume that they were underhanded wishes of good luck considering the circumstances.  He was so enamored in this sudden development that he didn't notice that he had an audience of his own.

"Are you enjoying the show?"

Taunt leapt in surprise, but quickly calmed down when he realized the source of those words, "Damn it, Dad!"

Thud smiled, "I think that pack life is turning you soft, son.  If I were a two-footer then you would be a meal right now."

Taunt scoffed, "If you were a two-footer then I would have heard you."

"...and you would probably have learned better manners," Taunt nearly jumped again as Cera appeared to his side, "Dein and Terri seemed to be quite polite compared to you."

Taunt glared at her, "You do realize that they did try to eat me once, right?"

Cera smiled, "You see?  They aren't all that bad."

Bypassing the chance to help his son, Thud decided to instead defend his honor, "Are you implying that I did not teach my son good manners, Stern Claw?"  His smile confirmed that he was speaking in jest.

Cera laughed, "I am saying that he must have ignored those lessons."

Thud rolled his eyes, "You have no idea..."

Taunt looked at his two tormentors with great annoyance, "Yes, yes, very funny...  Since you all apparently know me so well how about you tell me what I am going to do next?"

Both Thud and Cera looked at Taunt with amused expressions.  It was Cera who decided to speak first, however.

"Knowing you, Leap's little competition will not be enough to keep you amused.  So I take it that you are going to mess with them in some way?"

Taunt looked dumbstruck at his friend's answer.  It was as if she had read his mind.  Was he that transparent?

"Yes, you are that easy to read," Cera confirmed with an amused smile.

Taunt stepped back and cleared any emotion from his face.  He didn't know what was creepier: the fact that Cera now knew him so well as to guess what he was thinking, or the fact that he hadn't noticed this change until it had gotten to this point.  Had it been any other dinosaur then he would be distraught by this development, but in the case of her...

"Ah, the guessing-your-thoughts stage... that brings back memories..."  Thud noted, "You had better watch out, son, or you may soon enter the helping-her-build-a-nest stage."

Taunt groaned.  He was not accustomed to losing in the battle of wits to this extent, "Dad..."

Upon seeing that his insinuation had attracted the glares of both Cera and Taunt, he relented with his hands raised in a placative gesture, "I am just saying..."

Taunt shook himself off at this brief respite, "Well then, if both of you are done reading my mind then I think I will be moving on to the fun part.  I think that our three friends are due for a bit of mischief."

Cera tilted her head, "You never learn do you?  What are you planning on doing to our friends?"

Taunt took a mock bow, "Who?  Me?"

Cera continued to stare at him for several moments, but the orange fastbiter did not say anything further.  She shook her head at this and decided to attempt to get in the last word.

"Alright, have it your way, Taunt.  But just remember that when this come back to bite you in the tail... because it will... that I will enjoy that immensely."

Taunt smiled as he took a final look at his two companions, "We shall see, Stern Claw, but just remember that in order for fate to bite my tail that it will have to catch me first!"

The two fastbiters watched in amusement as the fastbiter sprinted towards whereabouts unknown.  The only certainty was that wherever he went, mischief would follow.  Thud's thoughts matched her own.

"One of these days he will learn a lesson in humility."

Cera snorted, "You are way too optimistic.  I suppose that we might as well watch the action.  Whatever Taunt does I want to be there when it happens."

Thud smiled inwardly as he followed his son's companion to the open clearing.  She is so much like my boy...

-----

"You want Petrie to do what?"

Petrie eyed Taunt with a mix of incredulity and amusement from his perch.  The fastbiter had pulled some interesting stunts in the past, many of which had amused Petrie, but now even the flyer thought that he was taking things a bit too far.

"It should be a simple enough thing to do," Taunt softly cooed, "just go to Leaps's nest and put some of Haven's scent there.  Just like how you tricked me back when I was in Skytail's pack."  The fastbiter looked up at the flyer with a toothy smile.  With Taunt's orange and black coloration it almost looked like a fire was smiling back at him.  

Despite the obvious potential for humor, however, Petrie had his misgivings.

"Leap and Haven already at one another's throats; if me do this then they really be at one another's throats!"

Taunt scoffed at Petrie's suggestion, "Oh, come on, Spotter!  They are good friends and it wouldn't come to that.  I am sure that it will just add to the rivalry... it should make things a bit more interesting around here."

Petrie rolled his eyes, "Only you would think that claiming new territory be boring.  You nearly trampled by longneck herd!  That not enough danger for you?"

Taunt glared a bit at Petrie for the insinuation, "I am just saying that Haven and Leap both could use a bit of competition in their lives.  They are both so damn agreeable."

"Unlike others me know."  Petrie deadpanned.  However, the more that Petrie thought about Taunt's proposal the more that it appealed to the more adventurous part of him.  He did not like the idea of deceiving his friends, but pranks had already been established as acceptable conduct in the pack.  Besides, it not like me or Taunt can't admit things if it get out of control!

Taunt shifted around as he waited on the flyer's answer.  Petrie noted that the fastbiter looked to be at a loss in the absence of Petrie's immediate agreement.  Me in control here... maybe it time for me to play trick of my own?

"Okay, me do it."

Taunt looked up with surprise.  "Really?"

Petrie held back the desire to laugh.  Taunt obviously had expected him to request a higher price than a few ground fuzzies.

"Really.  Me curious how this turn out.  But you better have three really big ground fuzzies.  It never good idea to cheat flyer."

Taunt nodded, "Sure thing!  I will leave them by this tree, just make sure that..."

Petrie waved with his wing, "Don't worry about me!  Me tell no one what me doing!"

Petrie took to the air as Taunt shouted a 'thanks' in the flyer's direction.  For his part Petrie did not look back but rather let the warm thermals carry him aloft.  Within moments he was speeding towards the sleeping areas of his packmates.

Me know how to annoy Haven and Leap, but how me annoy Taunt?

It was at this point that he saw the small form of Ducky down below.  Her head was neck deep in the ground in an obvious attempt to catch a ground fuzzy, while a large pile sat next to her body.  No one else could be seen in the distance.

Hmmm.... this give me idea!

-----

"Eight ground fuzzies!  Let's see my brother beat that!"

Swift shook the dirt off of her as she rose from her latest hole.  Despite several missed chances and nearly being bitten by one of her prey, she had managed to collect her greatest number of ground fuzzies that season.  She was quite confident that there was no way either of her competitors would be victorious now.

She sniffed the furry corpses with satisfaction.  Now the only task that was left was to drop all of the vermin at Littlefoot's feet by sundown.  She looked towards the Bright Circle and cursed.  It looked like she would have to somehow carry them in one trip.

"Need some help?"

Swift groaned upon hearing Taunt's voice.  The last thing that she wanted to deal with was one of Taunt's tricks.

"I can carry these myself, thank you."  She forced out as she grabbed five ground fuzzies with her arms and placed the three remaining specimens in her mouth.  She was rewarded for her ingenuity by fumbling two of the prey and dropping them in front of the orange fastbiter.  He simply folded his arms to his sides and smiled.

"It sure looks like you need some help."

Swift seethed, "What do you want, Taunt?!"

Taunt shrugged, "I am just trying to be helpful."

Swift rolled her eyes, "You would help one of us if we were in trouble, but I know you better than to trust you with a game.  You are not going to get any of my ground fuzzies.  I caught them fair and square!"

Taunt gaped in fake shock, "Oh, you slay me, Swift!"

Swift snorted, "I wish."  Not wasting any time she grabbed the ground fuzzies once again with a more careful hold.  She now found that she could carry her catch without much difficulty.  Now for victory!

"What if I annoy your dear brother?  Would that be worth a few ground fuzzies?  After all, you are going to get their catches as well, and I can tell you that you have them beat by a wide margin."

Swift sighed without opening her mouth.  Taunt was not taking 'no' for an answer this time.  Reluctantly, she tilted her head to tell him to continue.

"Ah, good!  Let me tell you what I have planned for our two friends..."

-----

A short time later:

Ducky growled in annoyance.  Her pile of four ground fuzzies stood in front of her like a silent condemnation.  She knew that this would not be enough to defeat Swift if she had any luck at all.

This is what I get for being a big mouth.  Yep... yep... yep...

Without any preamble she grabbed a ground fuzzy in each hand and placed the other two in her mouth.  She knew that victory was but a remote possibility, but even that possibility would evaporate if she didn't return her catch to the clearing in time.  She quickened her pace as the Bright Circle turned a shade of red as it approached the horizon.

"Me promise not to tell anyone what me do, but me tell you one thing... don't get mad at Leap, he not deserve it."

"What are you talking about, Spotter?"

"You smart.  You figure it out.  Just make sure to  find time to smell the sweet bubbles."


Despite her misgivings Petrie's words continued to echo in her mind.  What exactly had he meant by his cryptic message?  She could deduce that Petrie had been called upon to do something that he promised not to divulge to others, but the little clue that he had given was not enough for Ducky to make sense of the situation.

Well, he told me he was doing something but he did not tell me what he was doing... this must mean that he only promised not to tell anyone what he was doing... but that didn't mean that he promised that he wouldn't tell others that he was doing something...

She could see the clearing approach as the two ground fuzzies in her hands suddenly felt like massive weights.  It was as if she was being weighted down by her failure.  Despite this, she continued to ponder her situation.  It wasn't like her morose thoughts would change the near certain outcome.

Spotter is always good with his words... Ducky chuckled at the irony of Petrie being the pack's diplomat of sorts.  But why would he want to tell me about whatever plan he is attempting?

She shook her head as the voices of the others could be heard in the clearing.  Swallowing hard, she looked up and greeted her packmates with a nod.

"Ah, here is Haven!  How many did you manage to catch?"

Ducky looked behind Littlefoot and closed her eyes when she noticed the two piles.  A triumphant Swift stood beside a pile of eight ground fuzzies, whereas a noticeably irate Leap stood by a pile of six.  Her face flushed with embarrassment.  With a reluctant sigh, she dropped her catch at Littlefoot's feet.

Silence enveloped the pack for several moments as the four mauled fuzzballs rolled to the pack leader's feet.  For his part, Littlefoot merely picked them up and put them in their own pile.  Neither Swift or Leap made a comment on Ducky's poor showing.  They knew that losing this badly was a punishment in itself.

Looking down, Ducky swallowed hard and braced herself for what was coming.  However, what Swift did next surprised her.

"Good try, Haven."

Ducky looked up warily at her packmate has she offered the best forced smile that she could.  Though Ducky appreciated the kind words, she knew that Swift had made her point on this day.

"Congratulations, Swift," Ducky softly offered, "I hope that you enjoy your meal."

Leap sighed as well as he knocked his pile of ground fuzzies towards his sister.

"Likewise, sis... you win this time," he offered a bit less graciously.

Swift smiled at the capitulation of her two rivals, though her conduct indicated more than a bit of subterfuge.  Normally the winner of such a competition would be boasting about it for days to come.  However, Swift was uncharacteristically gracious.

"Thank you both for getting me dinner!"  She exclaimed with a little mirth, as she grabbed one of the ground fuzzies and began to chew it slowly.  Her subdued reaction was enough for Ducky to take notice.

Something isn't right here...

As Ducky looked over at the others, she noted that both Taunt and Swift were eyeing her oddly.  No... not just her.

Her and Leap...  Petrie's words echoed in her head again...

"Me promise not to tell anyone what me do, but me tell you one thing... don't get mad at Leap, he not deserve it."

"You smart.  You figure it out.  Just make sure to  find time to smell the sweet bubbles."


Ducky frowned slightly.  She knew that those two were up to something.

"Well, that was a nice try from all of you,"  Littlefoot's words interrupted the awkward silence,  "perhaps Stern Claw and I should try this tomorrow?  She has been a bit boastful lately..."

Cera's laugh echoed across the clearing, "Only if you want to be shamed, Seeker!"

Littlefoot took a mock bow as he gestured towards himself, "It is nice to know that you care about my dignity, Stern Claw.  Maybe we should also have the one who is not capable of shame join us tomorrow?"

Ducky looked over in Taunt's direction as Thud gave his son an encouraging push into the clearing.  

"Ow!  Damn, you all could have asked, you know?"  His eyes drifted over to Leap and Ducky for a moment, but they quickly focused back on Swift.  However that was enough for Ducky to make a deduction.

Both of them are in on it... whatever it is.

"Haven, are you alright?"

Ducky looked over at Spike's concerned form.  Only concern could be deduced from his scent.  This made Ducky smile slightly.  However, despite her reluctance in lying to her own brother, she knew that she had to use this opportunity that he had provided her.  Carefully, she turned her head so that she could see Taunt and Swift out of the corner of her eye.

Here goes nothing...

"Umm... Actually I am feeling a bit tired.  I think I will go to my resting spot."

Taunt twitched as he looked over towards Swift with a smile.  This was immediately followed by a glance towards Petrie.

Gotcha...

"I am sorry to hear that, Haven.  We were about to sing songs to the Night Circle."  Littlefoot's concerned voice called from behind her.  She was always one of the most enthusiastic singers. "Do you need any healing plants?"

Ducky waved him off with a slight smile, "No, I will be alright, I am just a bit tired..." she stopped for a moment as a moment of inspiration struck her, "...although, Leap, would you join me a moment?"

-----

Taunt could barely contain his excitement.  Not only was Ducky already heading towards her sleeping area, but Leap was with her as well.  This meant that his wonderful little surprise would soon work its magic.  He knew that he had to be there when that happened.

Especially if things go wrong...  A part of his mind cautioned.

"Are you sure about this, Taunt, she seemed a bit ill."

Taunt considered Swift's whispered words.  Yes, Ducky did not exactly seem to be in the best mood to deal with one of his pranks, but when else was he going to get this chance?  ...and it wasn't like he could undo it at this point without giving everything away.

Taunt forced out a whisper, "If this gets bad then I will have to let them know what is really going on.  But I need a distraction."

Not to mention that if we don't get to follow Haven then I won't see her get angry!  Taunt added mentally.

He could hear Swift sigh slightly as she hurriedly grabbed a few ground fuzzies.  This caught Spike's attention.

"Taunt and I are going to bring them some food in case she gets hungry.  I think I can spare each of them a few ground fuzzies."

Taunt repressed a smile.  Nicely done, Swift.

"That sounds good, Swift.  We will start the songs when you two get back."

That was too easy.

-----

"I lied back there."

Had she not been so focused on the task at hand, Ducky would have laughed at the expression Leap gave her.  It seemed that Leap had been totally oblivious to anything going on besides the competition.

"Then what is going on?"  Leap asked cautiously in a low voice, "You were the one who bragged about..."

Ducky smacked herself in the head and shook her head, "It isn't about that, Leap!  Your sister and Taunt are trying to play a trick on us!"

The sudden outburst made both dinosaurs go silent.  Ducky out of embarrassment that she had lost her kind demeanor, and Leap out of surprise at this development.  It did not take him long to put the pieces together, however.

"...and we want to trick them first?"

Ducky smiled slightly as they continued their slow walk to the sleeping areas, "Yep, yep, yep!  Now the question is: how do we trick them when I don't know what the trick is?"

Leap rolled his eyes, "You do realize that you sounded like Ponder just then?"

Ducky growled, "I did not!"

-----

Swift held back a laugh as the sounds of an argument could be heard from their two targets.

"It sounds like they won't need much more to set them off... oof!"

She lay motionless on the ground as the realization of what had happened reached her brain.  She had tripped and possibly given away their location.  So much for eavesdropping now.  She groaned when Taunt's voice greeted her.

"Nice going, graceful..."

-----

Leap attempted to stop upon hearing his sister fall to the ground, but Ducky held his arm tight and pushed him along.  A hissed whisper reached his ear.

"Keep walking, I don't want them to know that we are on to them."

Leap quickly sped up his pace and followed her green companion.  Their pursuit by his sister and the pack prankster only served to highlight how little they knew what they were facing.  They would have to carry on two conversations if they were going to make this work.

"You are an arrogant girl, you know it?"  He yelled with fake anger in an attempt to show that the argument was still going on.  He quickly whispered in her ear, "what do you know about this, exactly?"

Ducky growled loudly, "You're one to talk, two-footer breath!"  she then whispered as well, "Petrie did something at Taunt's request.  He only gave me a few clues."

"Oh, like you are one to talk!"  Leap then looked at her expectantly.  He was now firmly aware that carrying on two 'conversations' was not very easy.

Ducky simply growled as she whispered again, "He told me that whatever happens is not your fault, and that I should stop and smell the sweet bubbles."

Leap looked at her oddly, as the soft crashing of feet into grass could be heard behind them.  They were being shadowed again.

"If you want an apology then you are looking at the wrong dinosaur!" Leap bellowed before he quickly whispered, "sweet bubbles are for mating proposals."

Ducky's eyes went wide.  What was Petrie insinuating when he told her that?

"Well, we are all full of surprises!"  Ducky yelled, not quite sure what to make of the new information, "Maybe you will surprise me one day."  she added with a jerk of the head.  It was only then that Taunt realized that he had reached her sleeping area.

"Wha..."

Ducky ignored Leap's words as she stepped forward into the scrape that served as her sleeping area.  It was nestled below a large tree and surrounded by vines that served as Ducky's emergency armor.  It was perfectly disguised to any approaching strangers, and easily recognizable by any of her friends.  That was what made what she smelt all the more enraging.

Leap's scent.  Leap's scent was everywhere.

She scanned the sleeping area with a stern expression as Leap stood back in more than a little fear.  Had they not known that this was Petrie and Taunt's doing, then he and Ducky would have had a major disagreement.  As it was, he could smell the rising annoyance come from Ducky's form.  To violate another packmate's sleeping area was quite the personal challenge to the fastbiter that received it.  It was a thing only to be done to assert dominance or to...

Ducky rose as she picked up a single sweet bubble.  A symbol of love.

-----

Swift covered her mouth in astonishment as Taunt's mouth went agape.  Petrie was not meant to have done this!  He only wanted him to put Leap's scent on Ducky's sleeping area and vice versa.  Not to fake a proposal from the poor fastbiter.

Damn it, Spotter... this is too much!  What were you thinking?

Taunt bowed his head and rose from his hiding spot.  He would not let this charade go any further.  He was willing to prank his friends, but he refused to hurt them.

He swallowed down the lump in his throat and proceeded to walk towards his two packmates.

-----

Ducky held up the sweet bubble as if it were incriminating evidence that doomed Leap.  For his part, the poor fastbiter could only sputter a response.

"I... proposed to you?"

Ducky snorted softly as the absurdity of the situation caught up to her.  Taunt putting Leap's scent on her sleeping area certainly seemed like something that he would do, but to make a fake proposal was cruel to the extreme.  This made her suspect that something else was going on.  Something that...

Sudden movement from behind Leap caught her attention as the form of another fastbiter become visible.  Through the reflected light of the Night Circle she could see that it was Taunt... but his expression was most strange.

Remorse... fear... uncertainty...  suddenly all of the pieces fell into place in Ducky's mind.

This wasn't Taunt's plan; this was Spotter's!  Which means...

Ha!  Taunt isn't the only one pulling a trick!

She looked up at Leap with a smile on her face.  This made the male fastbiter shift uncomfortably.

"Haven?"

Ducky approached him with deliberate slowness.  Her hand were in front of her in a tentative gesture.  Then, with careful precision, she touched his shoulder with one hand as she touched his chin with another.  A hissed 'play along' was the only hint that he received for what was about to come.

"I accept, Leap.  Will you be mine?"

Leap could feel his mouth hang agape at Ducky's words.  However, the sound of two audible gasps and several ground fuzzies being dropped behind him motivated him to follow along.  After all, he and Ducky both knew that this was just for show, and that was what mattered.

"Forever and always, Haven.  Forever and always."

-----

The present:

Leap repeated the words twice more before his voice finally became silent.  Several seconds later Ducky's refrain likewise ended as the two mates nuzzled one another.  The adults in the pack regarded the scene with approval.  However, the children were less than amused.

"Well, what happened next?!"  Charger exclaimed, "both of you were faking it to freak out Swift and Taunt... so how did you actually become a couple?"

Ducky smiled at the young threehorn's question, "I thought that threehorns didn't care about romantic stories?  Especially sharptooth ones..."  The two had struggled to translate their song into leaf-eater while keeping the same cadence of the words, but the reaction of the sputtering threehorn made it all worth it.

Sauria decided to step in and save her friend's pride, "I'm sure he doesn't care, but I do... When someone starts a story they should finish it."

This caused the fastbiter and flyer younglings to join in as well.

"Yeah, what happens next?" Pouncer inquired.

This cased Lift and Dive to join in as well from their perch in the trees, "Yeah!  Finish the story!"

Ducky gave her mate a knowing look, which he responded to with a nod.  They now knew how they were going to keep the children occupied for the long trip to Hanging Rock.

"We will, children..."  Leap smiled at the assembled children, "we will finish our song... tomorrow."

The sound of groans and protests was nearly deafening upon Leap's announcement, but it was not lost on the other adults that the protests were interspersed between yawns.  The story had served its purpose.

"Alright, children, time for sleep."  Littlefoot asserted firmly, yet kindly.  Ruby appeared from behind him and quickly directed Biter and Swipe from the group of children as the other parents did the same for their younglings, "After we leave for Hanging Rock then we can listen to Haven and Leap's song... and then perhaps some of us can share our songs as well."

This caught Biter's attention,  "What other songs, Dad?"

Littlefoot smiled, "Well, son, for one thing I don't think mom or I have sung about the time that you and your sister hatched... I think that it is about time that we remedied that."

-----

Hanging Rock:  

Arial looked at the scene in front of her with disgust.

What have we done?

The swimmer lay on its side as the two massive beasts began feasting upon its still-breathing body.  The pale brown ground had quickly been cloaked in a sea of crimson.  Now only the sounds of the tyrannosaurus family's feast could be heard.  The sounds of scraping bones and smacking mouths having replaced the pained screams of the dying.

"This is a side to us that you haven't seen until now, children."

Arial looked over at her father who was still where he had been when he had tricked the dinosaur into the gorge.  Like her, he seemed to be forcing himself to look at his handiwork.

"I wish that I never had to see it."

Arial looked over at her brother who was obviously struggling to look at the scene in front of him.  Disgust was apparent on his face as his shaking hands indicated anger.  Though where that anger was directed towards was a mystery to Arial.

Pearl nodded after stepping from her mate's side, "Sometimes we half-teeth have to make alliances, children.  Terri and Dein spared Ruby long ago, and Ruby helped to take care of Chomper."

Arial was bitter, "So great... we get to be used by one side and be hated by the other!"

Detras frowned, but he did not disagree with her assessment, "Sometimes it works out like that.  Your mother and I first came to Hanging Rock to avoid... such awkwardness."

Orchid looked sick, "Awkwardness?!  Those things just gutted the swimmer!"

Detras lost his patience, "Yes, but it is better that he be gutted than any of us!"

Both children fell silent at their father's angry outburst.  Orchid actually looked ready to cry as he looked away from the scene finally, no longer caring about looking brave.  Arial, for her part, continued to stare at the swimmer with anger rising deep within her like a fire.  She was angry at her father for agreeing to this; she was angry at the two-footers for demanding this; but most of all she was angry at herself for being part of this.  It felt like as if some part of herself had died on this night.

Detras sighed as he rubbed his face, "Look at me... I try to be calm about this but I am just as upset as either of you."

Arial allowed herself to look at her father, and was nearly taken aback by his reaction.  He was cradling his head in an expression of exhaustion.  Her mother had joined her mate and embraced him in a show of support.  The anger in Arial's belly had dissipated nearly as quickly as it started.

"What do we do now, Dad?"

Detras was silent for a moment at Arial's question.  Even though he said nothing Arial felt as if she could sense the battle raging in her father's mind.  For a fastrunner who always seemed to know what to do it was jarring change in demeanor.

"I don't think that your mother or I should decide this.  I think that we should decide this as a family."

Both children looked at their father with surprise.  What was their father suggesting?

"Both of you have killed tonight.  Even if you were not the ones to strike the killing blow, you did help the sharpteeth in finding their victim," he sighed, "you have lost your innocence in order to protect your family.  By all rights you are now adults in my eyes."

Arial looked at her father in stunned silence.  She was an adult now?

"So... where do you all think that we should go from here?"


Go ahead and check out my fanfictions, The Seven Hunters, Songs of the Hunters, and Menders Tale.


rhombus

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Fanfiction link: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10967589/16/So...-of-the-Hunters

Chapter 15: A Leaps and bounds

"Ha!  I bet that they won't find us here!"

Littlefoot watched as Datum and his friends ran up the stream.  Splashes followed them as the water covered their tracks in a way that nothing else could.  This made the fastbiter smile.  The pack had used the same trick when they hid from Screech and Thud during their evacuation from the valley so long ago.

"Looks like my trick is still being used."

Littlefoot looked up at the massive sharptooth, "It certainly looks like it."

Chomper snorted as Charger and Datum tried to fit Sauria into a hollowed out log.  The little threehorn eventually settled on ramming the longneck, which finally pushed her fully inside.  The muffled scream indicated that she was not pleased with his solution to the problem.

"I hope that all of the leaf-eater aren't that smart!  Otherwise we will soon go hungry!"

Littlefoot laughed at Chomper's cantankerous tone.  He was becoming more and more like his father every day.

"I don't think it will come to that.  It seems that these are our replacements of sorts in the valley," Littlefoot noted in a nostalgic tone.

Chomper rolled his eyes, "Then should we expect to see them several more times?  I don't look forward to meeting the same fate of those sharpteeth who missed with us!"

The pair watched Datum and Charger disappear into the vines on the other side of the stream.  Had both of them not seen the trio take their positions in the last few minutes then they would have had no idea that leaf-eaters were nearby.  Undoubtedly the pack's children would be out soon in order to 'hunt' for the leaf-eaters.  Littlefoot had told the leaf-eaters that this was a 'game', but it was obvious to the parents that this was also 'practice' for the young fastbiters and flyers.

When else where they going to have willing leaf-eaters to use for tracking practice?

"Are you sure that you want to do this?"

Littlefoot twisted his mouth into a contemplative expression at Chomper's words.  The quandary that was facing him and Ruby was not an easy one, but it was one that they owed their children to get right.

"I think that I will tell Biter and Swipe tonight," Littlefoot said softly.

The tyrannosaurus looked down at his friend as the first of the flyers began scouting overhead.  

Littlefoot sighed, "We will have them hunt during the journey to Hanging Rock.  I know biter won't be happy about it, but it needs to be done."

Chomper nodded silently.  He was angry at his parents for several days after his first kill, but in hindsight he realized that it was a necessary part of his upbringing.  Biter and Swipe would be made stronger by this hardship, but they would have to pay the price first.

After all, losing one's innocence was part of growing up.

"Are you sure that you will be alright without us?"

Chomper snorted at his friend's sudden change in subject.  His friend had already made up his mind about the hunt, and was ready to simply move on to business.

"Seeker, I am a two-footer!"  He stomped his foot with a thunderous boom that made several of the fastbiter children huddle for cover before cautiously resuming their search.  "Of course I will be fine.  And no, before you ask, you don't have to worry about me eating Thud.  He is not as big of a jerk as Taunt."

Several of Taunt's children could be heard laughing at Chomper's words as they began sniffing at the edge of the stream.  Swipe and Biter, meanwhile, edged into the stream and began to observe the currents.  It was obvious by their mannerisms that they were considering the implications of losing the scent trail in the stream.

Littlefoot smiled and rolled his eyes at Chomper's attempt at a joke, "Well that's good, Path.  Eating Taunt's father would have caused some problems."

Splashing could be heard as Biter went in one direction down the stream and Swipe went down another.  It won't be long now, Littlefoot noted.

Rising to his full height, Littlefoot gave Chomper a respectful bow and then stretched in the rising morning sun.  It was about time for the two packs to meet up before they parted ways.

"Just be careful, Path."  Littlefoot spoke solemnly.

Chomper noted his friend's tone and responded in kind.  "You as well, Seeker.  Don't you worry, those two two-footers won't stand a chance against any of us!"

Littlefoot smiled, "I hope you're right, Path.  But for some reason I think that I am missing something."

Splash!

"Gotcha!"

The sound of a victorious roar emanated from Swipe as the other fastbiter children let out groans at being beaten.  Littlefoot's children had taken the evidence before them and made the correct deduction.

Yep, they are ready, Littlefoot affirmed.

"Well that's nice, but can somebody get me the heck out of here?!"

A grunt could be heard as the log rolled onto the ground and proceeded to pick up speed along the stream edge.  It seemed that Charger had been a bit too successful at getting Sauria into the log.  Now fastbiter children were scrambling to get out of the way from the speeding projectile.

Crash!

The log slammed into a boulder, which caused the hapless sauropod to land unceremoniously in the mud.  A subdued groan was the only sign of life as the two leaf-eater children ran to her aid.

"Sauria, are you alright?!"

The sight of Sauria's tail smacking Charger in the head made Littlefoot nearly keel over in laughter.  She was certainly alright.

"That is what you get for pushing me into that death trap!"

As the two dinosaurs bickered while Datum and the sharptooth children looked on in confusion, Littlefoot glanced at Chomper with a knowing look.

"I think that we should probably save Charger from Sauria," Littlefoot laughed, "I don't want my children to be taught that longnecks are scary."

Chomper laughed as he followed his friend to the stream.  He was almost sad to see the leaf-eaters go, but he knew that their lives had to be separate from that of his packmates, regardless of how happy the resulting nostalgia was.

He just hoped that everyone would return in one piece.

-----

That evening:

"Argh!  Do you fastbiters ever stop?"

Pouncer suppressed a laugh at the threehorn's agitated question.  He had to admit that the threehorn was growing on him despite the fact that he was food.  The leaf-eater's arrogance and dry humor reminded him of his mother in some ways.

Well, she did use to be a threehorn...

"Getting tired, Charger?" Pouncer mocked with ease.  He knew that he would not have to wait long to get a response from the threehorn youngling.

Charger gave the small fastbiter an irritated look, but his gasping breath was sign enough of his fatigue.

"No, but I am worried about my friends."

Pouncer was ready to continue the verbal volley but then he took a look behind the threehorn.  Sauria's neck seemed to drag the ground due to fatigue, while Datum was grasping at his bulging legs.  It was obvious that Charger had a point.

"Dad?"  Pouncer offered slightly in Taunt's direction, "I think that the leaf-eaters are getting tired... I am getting kind of tired as well."

As Taunt stopped to look at his son several other voices called out.

"Yeah, my legs are tired!"

"The Bright Circle is about to fall... can we stop?"

"I want to sleep!"

Taunt's face took on an odd expression at the last outburst from one of Spike's kids.  To have the rambunctious kids admit that they wanted to sleep was quite a development, and a testament to how eager they were to stop walking.

Taunt coughed in order to get the attention of the others, but they had already began to slow at the commotion.  It was then that Littlefoot took a look at the situation.

"Well, I suppose that this is the first long walk for the children.  I suppose that we can call it a day."

A chorus of enthusiastic yells echoed across the ravine as the children stopped and began to stretch their legs.  The leaf-eaters, meanwhile, took this opportunity to promptly lay on the ground in exhaustion.  Datum even let out a relieved groan to no one in particular.

That was when Pouncer noticed something.  Why wasn't Biter with his leaf-eater friend?

He looked over towards the back of the procession of children.  It was only when Ducky's five children shifted that he was able to see his friends, Biter and Swipe.

They look so worried!

Biter had an overwhelmed expression on his face as he barely seemed to react to the world around him.  Swipe, meanwhile, was shifting on her feet uncomfortably.  She looked as if she were about to embark on a harrowing journey, whereas Biter looked like he had already embarked on the mission.  It was enough to make Pouncer question what had transpired with Littlefoot's children.

"Alright, children.  Here are the promised ground fuzzies!"

Pouncer ignored his observation of Biter for a moment as Littlefoot began tossing the ground fuzzies that the adults had carried for the better part of a day.  Within moments the vines were no longer wrapped around the pack leader's back and the small mammals were flying into the air.  The fact that the corpses were cold and partially decomposed did not matter to the young, hungry mouths.

Pouncer ignored the disgusted sounds from the leaf-eaters as he grabbed his ground fuzzy from the air and began to hungrily rip its body into shreds.  The taste of blood and sinew was a great relief after a day of nonstop travel.  However, his respite from the hunger was very short lived.  Before he even realized it that ground fuzzy was gone.

"That's all that there is, children!  We will have to hunt tomorrow in order to get more food..."  

It was then that Pouncer noticed that Littlefoot had held his gaze for an extended moment at his two children.  Pouncer curiously looked over at his friends in order to see their reactions.  What he saw from Biter and Swipe surprised him.

Fear?  Why are they afraid?

Pouncer had finally had enough and began to approach his two friends.  What was going on?

"Hey, guys!  What is going..." but he didn't have the chance to finish.

"Okay, everyone!  I think that it is time to finish our song!"

As the chorus of cheers echoed in his ears, Pouncer realized that he would get no answers now.  Ducky and Taunt would soon finish their song, and then it would be time to sleep.  Then another day of laborious travel would begin again...  However, Pouncer was not daunted by this reality.

Morning... I will talk to them in the morning.  My friends are upset and I want to know why!

He made a point to sit next to Biter as the children gathered around the two adults.  Not knowing the drama going on around them, Ducky and Taunt resumed their song with a flourish...

♪♪  As Taunt and Swift departed in haste,
It was only then that we realized what we faced...  ♪♪


-----

Several years ago:

"I think that they're gone."

Leap quickly broke his embrace of Ducky upon hearing of Taunt and Swift's departure.  In the aftermath of this action both fastbiters looked at one another with awkward expressions.  Leap stood on one foot as he scratched his tail nervously with his other foot, whereas Ducky looked away slightly out of embarrassment.  The unspoken question hung over them like a cloud.

What do we do now?

"So... um..."  Leap began uncertainly, "My sister and Taunt now think that we are a couple... should we tell the pack that it was a trick?"

Ducky looked at him uncertainly, "This was Spotter's idea, so I am sure he will tell the others.  He only wanted to trick Taunt and Swift."  Her voice clearly indicated that she doubted her words.

Leap eyed her carefully, "But you told me that he only said that he was going to do 'something' and then he gave you some confusing nonsense about 'stopping to smell the sweet bubbles'.  How do you know that he wanted you to trick Taunt and Swift?  Maybe he just wanted to lessen the impact..."

Ducky interrupted with a laugh, "Your sister is right.  You question yourself too much, you do, you do!"

Leap scowled at her, "I was not questioning me; I was questioning you, dear ."  He practically hissed out the term of endearment as Ducky took on a mischievous expression.  

"Well, in the case you were questioning your better half, dear ," she returned the endearment in kind.

Silence reigned for several seconds as the two fastbiters stared at one another with harsh expressions.  Then, suddenly and without warning, both erupted into laughter.  

"What have we gotten ourselves into?"  Leap choked out between laughs.  Ducky did not seem to have an answer as she grasped her stomach and laughed heartily at the situation.  The entire situation was too crazy to believe, and they had no one else to blame beside themselves.

Well... and Spotter , Ducky's mind noted.  That gave her an idea...

"What if we tell the others, but we wait a while first.  Perhaps a few days?"

Leap looked at Ducky as if she had grown a second head.  What was she getting at?

"That way we can fool all three of them for putting us in this situation," she clarified, "We could even trick Spotter if he thinks that we are actually accepting of the proposal."

Leap sighed and rolled his eyes, "Seriously?  You want us to trick all of our friends, make them think that we are mates-to-be, and then tell them all it was a trick later on?  That would be quite cruel."

Ducky placed her hands on her hips, "And faking a courtship offer wasn't cruel?"

Leap tilted his head in amusement, "And you think the others may have been in on this too?"  The lack of an answer was confirmation enough for the fastbiter, "Still... it seems a bit cold for someone named Haven..." he mocked playfully.

This earned him one of Taunt's trademark obscene gestures, which looked very odd coming from Ducky, "I suppose that I have been around you ankle-biters too long.  I have, I have!"

Leap laughed at her outburst, which caused her to chuckle as well.  Both of them radiated the scent of surprise.  Not only for this situation, but from their reactions as well.  Taunt's prank had affected them more than they had originally assumed.  Leap finally confirmed his approval of Ducky's plan.

"Alright, I suppose that we can keep them in suspense for a day or two... but no longer than that.  By the time we announce it was a trick the others won't be too upset."

Ducky nodded and proceeded to clean up her sleeping area.  It was then that she looked at the small scrape awkwardly and let out an audible groan, which was followed by an amused snort and a malicious smile.

"If we are mates-to-be then they will expect us to sleep near one another... and I already have my sleeping spot... so I hope that you enjoy building things!"

Leap looked aghast, "Why can't I just share your sleeping area tonight?"

As if to answer his question, one of Taunt's dropped ground fuzzies smacked him in the head.

"Ow!  What was that for?!"

Ducky pointed at him as she laid down, "That was for trying to go too fast, Mr. Love !  Even if we know we are not mates-to-be, I don't want our friends to think that we are already mates!"

Leap stuck out his tongue at the green fastbiter, "Well you were a swimmer before, and we know how they are...  Perhaps our friends will think that old habits die hard?"

This did the trick as Leap had to struggle to escape the onslaught of random objects that were being thrown his way.  His insult to her former kind had obviously enraged the former hadrosaur and he soon had the sores to confirm that.  The only good thing was that he now had several sticks from Ducky's resting place to help build his own sleeping area.  The fact that the sticks in question had been hurled at his head in anger did not really concern him.

Well, I suppose that I will take all the help that I can get...

-----

Several minutes later:

Leap grumbled as he grabbed a few sticks in preparation for his own sleeping area.  He would have to make something hasty tonight and try for something a bit more permanent tomorrow.  All this for a damn joke...

Within several moments, however, his makeshift sleeping area was taking shape with sticks arranged in a circular pattern and a carved out niche appearing in the ground where he would lay.  As if to apologize for her outburst earlier, Ducky even dropped off a few more sticks from her own sleeping area.  This would have the effect of making his sleeping area have her scent, which would indicate that its construction was a joint effort.  Now she wants credit for my work!  Leap mocked internally.

Finally, however, Leap's sleeping area was finished.  It was a hastily thrown-together affair, but it would work under the circumstances.  Feeling more exhausted than he realized, he carefully laid down in his freshly dug scrape and allowed a yawn to escape his lips.

"Goodnight, Haven."

Ducky rose slightly to look at her new 'companion'.  Despite her harsh and mocking words earlier she gave him a weak smile, "Goodnight, Leap."

As Leap allowed himself to drift off into the world of sleep stories he allowed himself one final coherent thought.

She would be rubbish for a mate... but I do kind of like her...

Neither of them noticed Petrie lifting off into the air from the nearby tree.

-----

The next day:

Ducky groaned softly as the radiance of the Bright Circle put an end to her slumber.  Ever so slowly she propped herself onto her legs and opened her groggy eyes.  That was when she was greeted by an unexpected sight.

“Congratulations, Leap!  I always thought that you and Haven would be great for one another!”

In an instant Ducky the grogginess dissipated from Ducky’s mind and she was up on her feet.  What is going on?  Oh...

Suddenly the memories from the night before came crashing down upon her like a tsunami.  They had played Petrie’s game and were now trying to trick the others into believing their ruse.  However Littlefoot’s words caused her some concern. Seeker always expected this?  But me and Leap were never...

“Oh, you are up!  I am so glad for you!”

Ducky looked at Cera with bulging eyes.  It was creepy enough to have her act so chipper, but to have all of her friends reacting to this news so happily, without any awkwardness...

Well, it was weird.  That was all that her mind could process at the moment.  They had wanted to freak out their friends and to throw Taunt’s joke and Petrie’s counter-prank all in their faces.  But now it seemed that those plans were in ruins.

“Um... Thank you, Stern Claw,” Ducky offered softly after a moment’s hesitation, “It all happened so suddenly...”

Ruby stepped beside Cera and offered Ducky a hug, “Well, we have all been expecting this for some time.  If we hadn’t been expecting this for some time, then we would be surprised.”

What are they talking about? Ducky thought to herself, I have nothing in common with the arrogant ankle-biter!  How could everyone have been expecting this?

She resisted the urge to shake her head in confusion, but instead graciously accepted the well wishes from her friends.

Has everyone gone mad?

-----

This was easily one of the most surreal moments in Leap’s life.

"When you and Haven decided to leave together I figured that was what you were up to."

Leap could only stare at the green fastbiter in front of him.  Spike's smell was hard to read because of the fresh blood that he wore on his feathers.  The pack had obviously had a morning hunt without them.

"When we saw you two in your new sleeping areas we decided to make the hunt without you two.  We figured that you may need some privacy..."

Leap turned towards the smirking face of Taunt.  He wanted so much to tell him that it was all an act and that the joke was on him...

But he couldn't.  Not like this.  Not with everyone being so happy for them and wishing them well.

"That is enough, Taunt," Spike growled at the intruding orange fastbiter.  This caused Taunt to merely wave his hands in a placative gesture as he backed off.

"Easy... I was just pestering the pack's latest couple over here."  Taunt then smiled at the flyer overhead in a gesture that would have been easy to miss if Leap hadn't been looking straight at him.

So Spotter wasn't trying to trick Taunt?  He was in on it the entire time?  Why that... His thoughts did not have time to develop when Taunt walked by and whispered into Leap's ear.

"I always thought that you two just needed a helpful push.  You can thank Spotter for the idea."

Leap's eyes went wide as Taunt merely strolled on by as if nothing had happened.  His mind was now reeling.  Now he couldn't even throw the situation in Taunt's face.  It appeared that even he had done this in order to get him and Haven to get together and admit their feelings.  How could Leap now turn around and admit that no feelings existed between them? Have and I are friends, but...

"Come along you two!  There is plenty of swimmer to go around!"

In a daze Leap settled next to Ducky as they walked behind the others on the way to the scene of the kill.  They exchanged no words but the look that they shared communicated their thoughts quite well.

How do we get out of this?

-----

That night:

Ducky fell into her sleeping area with a resounding thud.

"How did I get myself into this?"

She sighed and took a deep breath.  She knew that she only had a few moments before the others would be settling down for sleep as well.  This only gave her a few moments to reflect upon her situation and to vent.

"Well, it was your idea to trick all of them."

Ducky jumped up and turned around at the voice.  Leap was already settled into his sleeping area in a relaxed posture, but his eyes were anything but calm.

Ducky suppressed an agitated scream, "My idea?!"  She then closed her eyes and clenched her clawed hands.  She could not discount the truth in his words, but his nonchalant attitude still elicited rage in her.  "How can you be so calm about this?  We can't just tell them that it is all fake!  They all seem so happy for us..."

Leap nodded, "They even seem to have expected it."

Ducky rubbed her hands together in agitation as she looked at the Night Circle.  One could almost see the thoughts rushing through her mind.  It only took her a few moments to reach the same conclusion that Leap had settled upon minutes earlier.

"So... we play along?"

Leap sighed as he shrugged, "I think it would be for the best.  At least for a while."

Ducky quickly agreed, "Yep, yep, yep.  A while... then we can convince them that we... um..."

Leap chuckled, "Grow apart?"

Ducky nodded as she laid down for a final time, "Yep, yep, yep... then we can find out how to torment Taunt and Spotter for this."

Leap rested his head on the ground as the incompressible sounds of distant conversation could begin to be heard.  A yawn escaped his mouth as he muttered, "It seems that we agree on something, Haven."

-----

"It seem like they want to keep the charade going."

Littlefoot laughed at Petrie's report.  When Petrie had first told them of Taunt's trick and his counter prank, the entire pack had been scandalized.  To fake a mating proposal was quite rash even by the pack's standards.  However, once they had head that the two 'companions' wanted to keep the trick going to fool the pack, they had decided to go along with it.  Keeping a straight face when congratulating them that morning had been quite difficult, but the swimmer blood was quite effective at hiding the scent of insincerity.

"Seeker?  You listen?"

Littlefoot shook the thoughts out of his head, "Oh... yes, Spotter I was listening.  Well, I guess that we can keep up the charade as long as they are."

Spike and Swift took the opportunity to walk in front of their leader.  With a sigh, Swift spoke first.

"Even though he can be an ass at times I don't want to hurt my brother."

Spike nodded and stepped forward, "This was fun and all, but I am worried that this could really hurt her.  Haven is such an innocent soul."

Cera rolled her eyes, "So innocent that she would try to throw Swift and Taunt's trick in our faces?"

"Hey!  It was Spotter's idea to put the sweet bubbles... I just..."

Littlefoot shook his head and waved a hand, "Enough.  We will let them know what happened in a few days.  We can just pretend like nothing is amiss until then."

Ruby growled in agreement, "Yes, it might be best to let their emotions calm down."

The others growled in agreement as they proceeded to walk towards the sleeping areas.  It was then that Spike had a thought.

"What if they actually do begin to have feelings for one another?  If we told them it was a trick then..."

Littlefoot chuckled, but immediately took on a serious expression as Spike eyed him with a serious look.

"If that happens then we will welcome that with open arms, but I highly doubt that, Finder.  What do you think that is going to happen?  That they suddenly are going to chase each other through the flowers?"

-----

The next day:

"Alright, now you know what to do, right?"

Leap rolled his eyes, "Yes, dear .  You chase after me like we are having an argument."

Ducky growled in annoyance at his tone, but smiled nonetheless.

"Yep, yep, yep.  We have to make this believable so that they think that things are not going well."  She then pondered for a moment with a perplexed expression, "But what would we argue about?"

Leap smirked, "Besides that we aren't a couple, you mean?"

Ducky scowled, "You know, I used to be so nice and agreeable until you came along!"

Leap gestured wildly at his sleeping area, "And whose idea was this, dear ?  I was just going to tell Taunt that we were on to him."

Ducky placed her hands on her hips and stared coldly at the male.  It was so much his tone that angered her as the fact that he was absolutely correct.  This was her fault.

Leap returned her stare.  I will miss these little arguments when this is all over. That was when he saw something that would work perfectly.

Ducky's newly prepared vines.  She had worked on those for days.

"What are you doing with that!"  Ducky screamed in agitation.

Leap smiled and shrugged, "I guess it is mine now."

In an instant he bolted into the field as a shriek and the sound of crashing feet could be heard behind him.  He no longer had to worry about making the argument seem believable... now he had to worry about his safety.

-----

Littlefoot and the others stared in surprise as Leap and Ducky sprinted across the field where wildflowers were in full bloom.  The sound of unintelligible insults were emanating from Ducky, which would have made them fear for the male fastbiter's safety if it weren't for one particular sign.

Leap was laughing.  

Littlefoot shook his head as an annoyed Spike walked in front of him.

"You were saying, Seeker?"

-----

The present:

The children erupted in laughter at Ducky's words.  They could only imagine how humorous it must have been for the others to mistake Ducky's agitation for romantic play.

Leap smiled and allowed the younglings to settle down first before continuing with the song.

♪♪  Days passed of taunts and misdirection,
but neither of us noticed the signs of affection.  ♪♪

♪♪  Our warmth for one another began to grow,
but each of us had resolved to not let the other know.  ♪♪

♪♪  It was this blindness that each of us stubbornly held,
that nearly destroyed what the prank had helped to meld.  ♪♪


-----

Several weeks after the 'argument':

"You do realize that this is all your fault."

Leap sighed.  This was the same conversation that he had heard since their frolic through the flowers.

"If you hadn't been laughing during that then they would think that we had an argument.  But nope, nope, nope!  You had to mess it all up!"

Leap tried to fight it; he really did.  But he just couldn't take it anymore.

"Why are you laughing?!"  Ducky's hands were firmly on her hips again as she fixed him with an icy stare.  It did not appear to have any effect on him whatsoever.

Leap sucked in a breath as he tried to respond, "I'm sorry, Haven, but it is just so hard to be afraid of you.  When you do that you look as threatening as a baby yellowbelly!"

Ducky's mouth hung agape, "What did you call me?!"

-----

"Again?"

Taunt looked bemused at what Chomper was telling him.  However the small purple tyrannosaurus showed no signs of speaking in jest.

"Yeah!"  Chomper gestured wildly with his small stubby arms, "It was like that time that you called Stern Claw a horn-face.  It was about as funny too!"

Taunt glared at Chomper, "That wasn't funny at all!  I still have the scar on my tail from that!"  He rubbed his tail as if it had been freshly injured, "What makes you think that they were playing?  Perhaps they are having an argument..."

Chomper shook his head, "Then why were they both laughing?"

-----

"You're a jerk, you know it?!"

Leap tried to escape from Ducky's hold, but she had grabbed him securely around the back and had her mouth neck to his neck.  A position in which any attempt at escape might cause injury to either participant.

"My sister informs me that it is one of my better qualities."

Ducky rolled her eyes as she rolled off of him.  It was only then that he could shake the dirt off of his skin.  It wasn't every day that he was thrown headfirst into a mud hole.

Leap carefully checked his body for abrasions before lightly licking a small cut on his back.  One of Ducky's claws had found their target despite her best efforts to be careful.

"Oh, no, no, no!  I hurt you!"

Leap smiled slightly as he shook his head, "Don't worry about it, Haven, it is only a scratch.  You couldn't hurt a buzzer..."

Ducky ignored his insult as she grabbed a tree star and firmly placed it on his wound, "You need to get some healing plants on this just to be safe.  You may be a jerk, but I don't want to hurt you!"

Leap tried to ignore the odd feeling in his stomach as he took position of Ducky's leaf and applied light pressure to his cut.  Despite the occasional argument there had been no actual malice towards each other over the last several days.

Or ever...  An unwanted voice called out in his mind.

"It's... alright, Haven.  I know that you would never want to hurt me.  You just want to let go of this lie..." he hesitated before reluctantly forming the words, "...just like I do."

There was silence from Ducky for several moments while Leap tended to his injury.  It was only when he looked in her direction that she responded.

"Yep...  maybe it is time for us to just be honest with our friends?"

Leap took a good look at Ducky as she averted her eyes.  There was obvious moisture there.

"Haven... are you alright?"

Ducky looked surprised by his question and immediately looked away.

"Nope, I am fine.  I am, I am."  Leap rose to his feet as he did not believe her for a second, but she refused to look at him.

"Haven?"

Ducky clutched her claws to her chest as she repressed a sob.  She knew that she had to end this now before she lost her composure.

"I am going to help Stern Claw find fish.  You make sure to take care of that cut."

Leap stepped forward and extended a hand towards his distressed friend, "Haven!? Wait!"

He never got the chance to reach her before she burst into an outright sprint.  Within seconds she was out of sight, having disappeared into the thick grass.  His hand continued to extend into the air as if it were trying to touch a ghost.

Leap never felt so alone.

-----

"For the love of... tell me what is wrong, Haven!"

Cera didn't mean to lose her patience with her friend, but it wasn't everyday that Ducky came to her in tears.  All thoughts of catching fish or doing anything else had evaporated in that instant.  She had hastily sniffed her for any sign of what was wrong, but no signs of injury were present.  Only feathers that were covered in mud.

"Leap..."

Cera stepped back. If he has done anything to hurt Haven... She clinched her claws and stepped forward.

"Where is he?"

Ducky looked at Cera in shock.  The cold tone in her voice clearly indicated Cera's intent, which only made the green fastbiter feel worse.  As far as she was concerned Leap was not the one at fault.

"No!  It is my fault!  I should have told the truth from the beginning!"

The fastbiter broke down in tears as her body shook with violent sobs.  Cera immediately wrapped comforting arms around Haven as she waited for the sobs to subside.  In the ensuing minutes of feeling Ducky's chest convulse uncontrollably Cera began to tear up as well.  She had not seen her friend so emotional in a long time.  Not since the battle for the valley.

Finally Ducky's shaking began to subside and the steady torrent of tears became a slow trickle.  It was only then that she dared address Ducky again.

"It's okay, Haven.  Tell me what is wrong."

-----

"It was all a lie!  All of it!"

Taunt recoiled in shock at Leap's declaration.  He had never seen the small fastbiter so animated and enraged.  The smell of desperation and regret hung over him like a low hanging cloud.  In the resulting onslaught of emotion Taunt could only mutely listen.

"She wanted us to drop the act.  She wanted us to do it gradually so that we wouldn't hurt everyone's feelings, but as usual I manage to screw everything up!"  Leap clinched one hand into a fist as he closed his eyes and shook with emotion, "Why did I have to keep on joking around with her when she was being serious?  She obviously doesn't have feelings for me, and I should have respected that."

Taunt took a deep breath as he realized the full magnitude of what his prank had caused.  Even though he knew that the gestured was insufficient, he bowed remorsefully out of shame.  He feared that he had inflicted a wound on his friends that he would have regretted even inflicting on his enemies.  It was with a hoarse voice that he finally spoke.

"Do you have feelings for her?"

-----

"So you like him?"

Cera asked the question cautiously, but the sudden jerk from Ducky's body was answer enough.  It seemed that the prank had indeed succeeded in forming an attachment between Ducky and her 'companion'.  The fact that it appeared that Leap did not share this feeling made her feel that much worse. I should have never joined in with this...

"He... makes me laugh.  He does; he does!"  Ducky admitted as she regained control over herself.  The mere act of telling another person about the lie had taken a huge weight off of her shoulders.  "But he makes me so angry at the same time."

Cera chuckled a bit, "I certainly know that feeling."

Ducky looked up at her friend with concerned eyes, "You aren't mad at me?  I lied to you."

Cera sighed, "Haven... there is something that I have to tell you as well..."

-----

"What?!"

Taunt had managed to calm down his friend enough to talk to Leap's pack leader, Thud.  Under normal circumstances seeing his father shift uncomfortably would be a humorous sight.

But not in this case.

"We... we heard from Spotter that you wanted to trick us all so we decided to beat you to that,"  Taunt admitted after some hesitation, "We were going to tell you about the prank after a few days, but then we saw you two acting so happy together."

Thud nodded, "I must apologize, Leap.  In both packs and friendship there is nothing more important than trust."  The elder fastbiter lightly bowed his head, "I must beg forgiveness."

Leap looked stunned, but merely shook his head, "For what?  It seems that we have all been bad packmates."  He sighed deeply, "I just wished that this hadn't hurt Haven.  If I had just played along..."

"And lied to her?"  Thud questioned, "Maybe it is time to stop pranking and lying.  Maybe it is time for you to tell the truth."

Leap looked up at his pack leader with a stunned expression, "But she doesn't like me much."

"Spiketail shit!  That's a lie and you know it!"  Taunt erupted, "You told me that she chased you around and played with you.  Not only that, but she also was deeply concerned about your small cut.  Does that sound like someone who doesn't like you?"

Leap blinked, "Then why did she run away?"

Thud sighed as he placed his clawed hand over his face, "Urgh... I am too old for his crap!"

Leap continued to look utterly confused as Taunt merely clasped a claw on his should and gestured towards some nearby bushes.

"I think that it is time that you made a proper proposal, Leap."

-----

"Are... are all of you sure?"

Ruby placed both of her hands on her hips and gave Ducky an affirmative nod, "I am sure that he feels the same way, but he needs to know that you feel the same."

Swift smiled, "I know my brother and there is no way that he does not care for you immensely.  There was a reason we decided not to tell you about the prank.  We didn't want to stop what was a beautiful thing."

Cera still looked apologetic at the mention of their silence.  This was enough to rouse Ducky to action.

"I forgive you, Stern Claw," she then looked towards the others, "And I forgive everyone else too.  We all made mistakes."

Cera smiled, "Now it is time to show Leap that one of our mistakes wasn't a mistake after all!"

Ducky accepted the sweet bubble from Cera as she embrace her friend once more.  She was immediately joined by the other females in a group hug.  Despite the overwhelming emotions of the moment she allowed herself a mischievous thought.

Now I can tamper with Leap's sleeping area for once!

-----

"You can do it, Leap!  Just be honest when she comes around!"

Leap nodded at Littlefoot's enthusiastic support, but still felt terrible nervousness, "What if she says 'no'?

Chomper jumped up excitedly, "You won't know until you try!"

Spike smiled, "I don't think that she will reject you, Leap, and I know my sister."

Petrie landed beside trembling fastbiter as he dropped a sweet bubble at his feet, "Use this!  Hopefully it cause you less trouble this time!"

Leap picked up the small berry and held it with some trepidation.

"Now drop it into her sleeping area, silly!"  Taunt mocked.

Leap was still hesitant, "But... I want her to be happy.  What if this isn't what she wants?  What if we are wrong?

Thud stepped forward and placed a hand on the smaller fastbiter's shoulder.  He voice was fatherly in its cadence, "If that happens, then it happens.  But would you rather live not knowing what could be?"  Thud smiled, "Look at it this way, if she wants to be with you then she will be happy with you.  If she doesn't want to be with you, then you will know and she can still be happy with someone else.  Either way you will be doing your duty as her friend."

Leap began to bow in gratitude, but then his shoulders were tightly grabbed by his pack leader.

"Now drop the damn sweet bubble and let's see how this goes."

-----

Ducky forced herself to walk forward as the other girls walked behind her.  She was doubtful that she would have been able to go through with this if it wasn't for their support, but even so it felt like she were walking by instinct.  Her legs felt like they were walking on thin air as she neared the crest of the hill.  The hill that would lead to her sleeping area.

You can do this, Haven...

Closing her eyes, she walked over the crest of the hill and allowed herself to feel the gentle breeze from the wind-facing side of the hill.  She could almost imagine herself walking through the night sky.  Being somewhere else entirely.

"I heard that love is blind, but this is ridiculous!"

Ducky's eyes flew open as the distinct form of Leap appeared in front of her.  The other pack members were behind him, each of them wearing expression of anticipation and happiness.  That was not what caught her attention, however.

The bastard has marked my sleeping area again!

Relief filled Ducky like a rushing river.  Her feelings for him were obviously mutual.

"It looks like I beat you to it again, dear !"

Ducky smirked at the insufferable voice that she had grown to love.  She resisted the urge to toss the sweet bubble in his face or to chase the cheeky bastard.  She knew the social etiquette here.  He had made the proposal so it was up to her to accept it or not.

She carefully approached the sleeping area and allowed her own sweet bubble to fall beside the pile of sticks.  As expected his scent now dominated her personal space.  The sweet bubble, meanwhile, had been placed directly in her scrape, where her body would lay.

"It looks like you did it properly.  Better than the first time."

Leap protested, "Spotter did it the first time!  That is what we get for having a flyer do a fastbiter tradition!"

Ducky chuckled, "You know the others didn't do this whole proposal thing?"

Leap groaned upon the realization that she was dragging this out, "Lucky them!"

Suppressed laughter could be heard from the pack, which had now reassembled into one group behind them.

Ducky gave Swift a little wink as she smiled predatorily at Leap, "Your sister tells me that the female can make demands on the male if a formal proposal is made."

"Thank goodness I skipped that then... ow!"  Taunt's words were quickly put to an end by Cera's forceful slap.

"Seriously, dear!"

Ducky shrugged playfully, "I am not, dear, yet!  Hmmm... what should I demand?"

Leap crossed his hands, "See what has happened to your sister, Finder?"

"Yep, you seem to be a good influence on her!" Spike responded with a laugh.

Both fastbiters glared at Spike, which caused the others to laugh heartily as well.  All attempts to maintain silence and decorum had failed due to the playful banter of the ones to be solemnized.  After everything that had happened it still seemed that their friends had the last laugh.

Ducky smiled.  That gave her an idea.

"I will accept your proposal on one condition."

Leap looked at her expectantly, "Anything!  Just name your demand."

Ducky smiled as she embraced Leap, and eyed the stars above, "Every star day of this night you will help me destroy Taunt's sleeping area."

"What!"  Taunt protested.

"...and we will give Stern Claw sweet bubbles to apologize her for Taunt's bickering."

Cera smiled, "Sounds good to me!"

Taunt looked at her as if she had grown a second head, but she merely put her hands on her hips and gave him a cheeky smile.  In that instant Taunt realized that he had lost.

Leap hugged Ducky close as he suppressed a laugh, "I accept.  Forever and always."

Ducky nuzzled him back, "Forever and always."

-----

Back to the present:

Ducky's son, Fisher, jumped up in realization at the conclusion of the song, "So that is why you destroyed Taunt's nest last season!"

Taunt groaned as the others laughed at his annoyance.  Despite the groan, however, he still smiled.  

"It is a little tradition that we do," Leap smiled broadly, "Unfortunately, Taunt has taken it upon himself to prank us on our star days."

Taunt smirked, "Nothing special there.  I prank everyone on their star days!"

Ducky rolled her eyes, "You pay special attention to ours though.  You do, you do!"

Leap and Ducky gave the orange fastbiter a playful glare as he gave a placative gesture in a mocking manner.  The emotional wounds of that incident had long healed, but each would continue to commemorate it in their own way.  However, it was not lost on anyone that Taunt was only responsible for the initial trick.

"It is prank me most happy about." Petrie affirmed, "You should be happy about it too, Fisher.  It make you possible."

All of Ducky's children contemplated that for a moment.  It was an odd idea that a mere prank could have made the difference between existence and having never been hatched.  However it was not the philosophical aspects of that thought that caught the mind of one of Ducky and Leap's sons.  He was thinking of something a bit more direct.

Verok tilted his head in an inquisitive expression, "How did that happen anyway?"

Tranquil echoed her brother's words, "Yeah!  How did all of us come along?"

Leap laughed at his children's enthusiasm.  He considered offering to sing another song, but then he remembered what Littlefoot had told him earlier in the day.  Biter and Swipe would certainly need their rest for what was coming.  The other songs could wait until after a good night's rest and their hunt.

"Well, children, I think that will be an excellent song for tomorrow night."

The expected groans and protests could be heard at Leap's proclamation, but that was not what caught his attention.  Biter downtrodden demeanor only grew more morose with the mention of tomorrow, while Swipe's expression still communicated intense contemplation.  Considering their situation Leap could not fault them for their feelings.

A new song begins for you two tomorrow... make it a good one.



Go ahead and check out my fanfictions, The Seven Hunters, Songs of the Hunters, and Menders Tale.


rhombus

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Fanfiction link: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10967589/17/So...-of-the-Hunters

Chapter 16: A bloody ordeal

"I'm so sorry, Datum..."

The rainbowface backed up to the cavern wall with a look of horror was plastered on his face.  Once he made contact with the wall he collapsed to the floor.  His eyes were focused on his former friend.  The fastbiter who had been protecting him and his friends.  Now all that could be seen of his friends were the prone bodies at the threshold of the cave.

Now it was his turn...

"Biter?  Why?"

The fastbiter frowned as a tear dropped from his face, "My family has to eat, Datum... I will make this quick..."

The sounds of whimpering became louder as the fastbiter approached his prey...


"Psst... Biter, wake up!"

The fastbiter gasped as Pouncer's words echoed in his head.  Instantly realizing that it had all been a dream Biter groaned and rolled over onto his side.  His eyes remained closed, but he did not dare attempt to go back to sleep.

Chomp!

"Ow!"  Biter squeaked as he felt sudden pain from his tail.  Within an instant Pouncer was face to face with a rather irate Biter.  Bared teeth greeted a cheeky smile.

"Now you're up!"  Pouncer whispered as he looked over at the other children.  As only a few groans and shifting bodies greeted his eyes he then looked over at his friend again, "Come on, we need to talk."

"Talk?  Talk about what?!"  Biter practically yelled in annoyance.

Pouncer immediately shushed his friend as Taunt began to talk in his sleep.

"Ha!  You won't be getting that ground-fuzzy back..."  There was a muffled groan as Stern Claw's tail landed on his mouth, seemingly out of an instinctual drive to shut him up.  Within moments the snoring of the couple resumed.  

Biter looked over at the sleeping forms of Pouncer's parents.  It was now obvious that his friend wanted to talk with him in private, without waking the others.  What could he want to talk about?

The hunt.  The thought suddenly came to him.  His father had not openly announced that Biter and his sister would be joining his parents on a separate hunt, but he clearly hinted at it before last night's song.  Biter could feel the adrenaline begin to course through his veins again as the emotions from that day came flooding back to him.

He looked passed the fastbiter that had awakened him and focused on the leaf-eaters that were still sleeping soundly together.  The form of a small rainbowface caught his attention in particular.  His steady breathing a testament to his lack of awareness of what his friend was about to experience.  

Still safe...  He needs to go home so that he will stay that way.

Biter sighed and closed his eyes.  His head was bowed in an expression of exhaustion, as if he had the weight of the world upon his shoulders.  He couldn't talk to his leaf-eater friend about his predicament.  The reality that he had to live was entirely different from Biter's world of death and blood.  A world that he would soon be forced to embrace fully.

But maybe Pouncer will understand?

Biter opened his eyes and looked up at the clearly concerned fastbiter.  His mouth was twisted in an expression of annoyance, but his eyes were clearly sympathetic.  For several seconds their eyes were locked as if they were each trying to read the other's mind.  Finally, however, Pouncer shook his head and gave his friend a 'come here' gesture with his tail.  

Trying to ignore the bitter taste of adrenaline in the back of his throat, Biter followed in silence.

-----

It was only when the sound of footsteps had disappeared that Datum opened his eyes.

Something isn't right here.

Despite his exhaustion during the previous day's journey the agitation between Biter and the others had been noticeable to the small rainbowface.  The normally talkative Biter had grown silent ever since his father had called him and his sister aside that morning.  The few times that he had spoken to his friend he had been greeted with short monotone answers.  Datum was not adept at picking up nuance from the sharptooth language, having only been taught the basics from his parents, but he could deduce when someone wasn't telling the full truth about something.  What could Biter's father have told him that would traumatize him, but not the others?

Maybe they have 'new' plans for all of us?

Datum gasped as that thought appeared in his consciousness.  Biter had admitted to his mother about his friendship with the three leaf-eaters, and he had met him as the result of a chase...

No!  He would never do that! he protested immediately, Besides his family is helping to lead us home.  No... there must be something else going on.

He watched as the two fastbiter children continued to walk through the barren expanse.  It was obvious that whatever they wanted to discuss was a private matter.  Something that was not meant for the ears of their parents... or that of the leaf-eaters...

Datum's eyes narrowed.  Something was troubling his friend and he would be damned if he wasn't going to get to the bottom of it.

As stealthily as he could manage the rainbowface followed the departing duo.

-----

Pouncer sucked in a deep, shuddering breath.

The flat expanse in front of him seemed to mock him.  The lush green of his pack's territory, and its plentiful prey, had been replaced with the austere expanse that lay all around them.  Only scattered patches of grass gave his eyes anything to dwell upon, as the light of the morning sun began had begun to shine upon the world.  It was obvious that the they would soon be greeted by the blistering heat as the Bright Circle rose into the sky.  If it wasn't for the fact that Petrie knew where the rivers and streams were then their predicament would be quite dire.  Instead, it was merely unpleasant.

"It is time that you children learn how to handle yourselves in a journey."

"Awesome!  We finally get to do adult things!"

"Let's see if you are so enthusiastic when we are actually underway, Pouncer.  Growing up is not an easy thing to do."


His father's words echoed in his mind.  His father was notorious for his sense of humor and his delivery of taunts to friend and foe alike, hence his name.  However, there was something about his tone back then that had given Pouncer pause.  A seriousness that was often absent.  After a day of seemingly endless travel he now knew where that seriousness had come from.

But Biter's words had indicated that hard travel was the least of his friend's worries.

"Are you worried about not catching prey?  Because I am sure that your mommy and daddy will understand if you have trouble.  This is your first time after all."

Pouncer was more than a little jealous that his friend was getting the opportunity to hunt before him.  Sure they had hunted ground fuzzies, but never another dinosaur.  Now it seemed that Littlefoot had decided that Biter and his sister was ready.

Biter sighed, "It isn't that, Pounce..."  Pouncer smiled at the mention of his nickname.  If one of his siblings called him that then he would bite them, but Biter was an exception.  However his smile soon fell as he realized that something else was the matter.  Biter's eyes were fixed on the ground as his words faded.

"Then what is it, Biter?  You're the first of us to hunt.  Aren't you proud?"  Pouncer was at a loss due to his friend's behavior.  Had Pouncer had been allowed to make his first hunt then he would be boasting to everyone in the pack.

"Leaf-eaters are like us.  I mean... Datum is my friend... how can I..."

Pouncer's eyes darkened.  Oh, he is worried about that.  Pouncer had never really confronted his friend about keeping his friendship with Datum secret from the pack.  The rapid cascade of events had prevented that.  However there was some annoyance there.  Sure the leaf-eaters were pleasant enough, but they were still obviously food.  It was only his friendship with Biter that prevented Pouncer from reacting with annoyance.  Nonetheless his response was quite blunt.

"Well, Seeker isn't making you eat him, is he?"

Biter jumped up and looked at his friend with shock.

"No!  Daddy wouldn't do that to me!"

Well that got him talking anyway, Pouncer noted to himself.  Now he had to get to the heart of the matter.

"Then what is the problem?"

Biter looked at him with the oddest of expressions.  His eyes appeared angry, but his shoulders sagged in a depressed manner.  It was enough to make Pouncer regret his bluntness.

"I will be killing another dinosaur like him.  How can I do that?" Biter responded in a morose, breathless tone as he took a deep breath.  His next words were more resigned than sad, "Is this what mommy and daddy felt before their first hunt?"

-----

Datum swallowed hard as he saw the scene play out in front of him.  The rock was enough to barely hide his body, but at this point he was shaking enough to give away his hiding spot.  Thankfully the two fastbiter children were too involved in their conversation to pay attention to the vibrating rock.

"It is hard to think of mommy as a leaf-eater... as food."

Datum's face darkened a bit at the words of Biter's friend.  However he could not really be upset with the fastbiter.  Of course he would think of leaf-eaters as food; he was a sharptooth.  Biter was not so detached as his friend, however.

"I can't think of Datum as food!"  Biter protested at his friend's tone, "We played games when you and the others were busy.  We talked about our families... he is just a kid like us."

The rainbowface smiled slightly as his eyes brightened.  He felt more than a little shame for even doubting Biter for a moment.

Pouncer sighed as he pawed the ground.  "We can't think like that, Biter.  Remember what Seeker always tells us..."

"We are the takers and they are the givers.  We should only take what we need."  Biter responded from memory, "I know all of this, Pounce!  But I hate this!  It isn't fair!"

Datum watched as Pouncer slowly walked towards Biter and placed a hand on his shoulder.  Within mere moments Biter's demeanor changed and some of the tenseness of his shoulders dissipated.  This was not lost on Datum.

At least Biter will still have a friend when I go.

It was hard for the rainbowface to believe how close he had gotten to Biter in a few short weeks.  At first his offer of friendship had been made in order to save his friends and himself.  However within days he had found that he enjoyed spending a few hours with the small brown fastbiter.  Datum was just another kid to Biter, and he had welcomed the rainbowface with open arms.  It was something that Datum's leaf-eater friends had trouble understanding, and it now seemed that a similar situation existed on the other side.  It seemed that the other fastbiter children were more inclined to see them as food.  Friendly food, but food nonetheless.  

I am what I am, and he is what he is. Datum clinched his fists with anticipation, My friend helped me and now it is time for me to help him!

Without a word, the rainbowface rose from behind the rock and walked towards the two fastbiters.

-----

Biter froze.  The sudden appearance of his friend filled him with dread.  How much of the conversation had he heard?  

"Why didn't you tell me about the hunt, Biter?"

Biter felt a chill go up his spine.  He had heard everything.  He could see Pouncer step back awkwardly as the rainbowface walked forward as if he were not even there.

"I didn't know what to say," Biter spoke in a pitiful voice.  "I was worried..."

"That I would be angry?  That I wouldn't understand?"  Datum spoke bluntly as he stopped a few feet from Biter.  His expression gave no hint as to his emotions and his scent was an odd combination of smells.  All that Biter could do was nod mutely.

A growl escaped from behind Biter as Pouncer made himself known, "You may not understand leaf-eater, but we sharpteeth have to do what we got to do."

Biter cringed as Pouncer tried to defend his friend's honor.  He now felt like a ground fuzzy being pulled apart by two different sharpteeth.  He had no idea that Datum and Pouncer's viewpoints were not so different.

"My friends would not understand, Pouncer, but I do.  You aren't the only ones to have parents that changed."

Both Biter and Pouncer stared at the rainbowface in shock.  It wasn't until Pouncer spoke that Biter realized what Datum was talking about.

"Star people?"

Datum tilted his head with an odd expression, before suddenly bursting into laughter.

"Ha!  I was wondering how your parents told you about that in the songs... but yes, my parents used to be half-teeth on their... old home."  He rubbed his chin in a contemplative manner, "It is hard for me to believe too, but it is the only way for mommy and daddy to know some of the things that they know."  He sighed deeply and looked at Biter apologetically, "Not even my friends know that part of the story.  The valley would think that we were crazy."

Pouncer snorted at the rainbowface's response.  He was now noticeably more at ease.  "From what our mommies and daddies said, the valley thinks that you rainbowfaces are crazy anyway!"

Datum took a mock bow, but did not respond verbally.  All of his attention was on his friend.  Biter appeared to be slowly recovering from his shock.  Within moments Biter finally ended his silence.

"So you are also keeping a secret from your friends?"  The parallels between Datum's situation and that of Biter was not lost on anyone present, "Why?  Can't you trust them?"

Datum shook his head, "My mommy and daddy made me promise to not tell anyone.  It is hard sometimes, but I have kept my promise."

Understanding that Datum's words were an invitation, Pouncer took this opportunity to speak, "See, Biter?  Even Datum has to do things that he doesn't like sometimes."

Biter shook his head as he again found the strength to speak, "How can you take this so well?  I have to kill someone today."

Datum looked at his friend with sympathetic eyes.  "Biter, one of my friend's has seen his mother die in front of him.  We have all been chased by sharpteeth and barely escaped with our lives.  Then you finally decided to spare me, even when you didn't have to.  Even when bringing me back to your parents would have made them proud."

Biter couldn't argue with his friend's words.  He had thrown away a perfect opportunity to be the first of the children to complete a hunt.  Instead he had decided to have a new friend.  He could not have imagined where that choice would have taken him.

"My parents told me a lot of stories about your parents, you know?  We leaf-eaters may not do song-stories like you sharpteeth, but we still tell our tales.  I seem to remember a longneck who refused to abandon a baby sharptooth."

Biter nodded, "My daddy."

Datum nodded as well, "It looks like that you got your father's kind heart.  But even your father had to kill, didn't he?"

Silence enveloped the three dinosaurs as Datum's words echoed in Biter's mind.  He had never thought of it that way before.  Was that why his father was giving him this test now?  To ensure that he could do what he had to do?  

The sensation of Datum's hand touching his shoulder made Biter's attention shift back to the present.

"Stay safe out there, Biter.  I will still be your friend when you get back."

-----

The three dinosaurs continued to converse quietly as Biter's demeanor quickly became more relaxed and confident.  Between the recounting of Datum's family history and Pouncer's growing appreciation of the rainbowface, it seemed that all that were present had learned a great deal that morning.  It was in this position that Biter's parents discovered him nearly an hour later.

"It looks like our son is feeling better."  Littlefoot noted with more than a measure of relief, "I was worried that I was too hard with him yesterday."

Ruby looked over at her mate.  Despite the early hour and the knowledge that an exhausting hunt lay in front of them, she was quite heartened by the scene in front of her.  She gave Littlefoot a happy smile.  

"You did what you had to do, because no one else could have done what you did,"  Ruby comforted her uncertain mate.  She then studied the interaction between Biter and the rainbowface.  It reminded her of a certain longneck and sharptooth long ago.  "It looks like the rainbowface is as understanding as you were with Path."

Littlefoot nodded, "Well, he does have good parents."

She nuzzled her mate and nipped at his crest playfully, "So does a certain son of ours."

The two relieved parents watched the three dinosaurs for several moments until the sounds of the other packmates waking reached their ears.  The time of the hunt had finally begun.

-----

"Good news, children!  Spotter has spotted two longnecks!"

The cheers were deafening as the mention of food greatly improved the morale of the children.  The aching in their bellies no longer seemed to be as unbearable now that it was known that food was on the way.  When the happy mutterings of the children finally died down Ruby continued her speech.

"You know the plan, children.  Your watchers are Breeze and Finder while we are hunting.  Treat them like they are your own parents, especially for those of you who have them as your parents!"

There was some laughter from Datum at Ruby's sing-song manner of speaking.  The other children, however, quickly muttered their agreement to Ruby's words.  They all knew that they would have to deal with their real parents if they misbehaved under Spike and Breeze's watch.

"That is, except for Biter and Swipe," Littlefoot smiled pridefully at his two children as the other children gave them confused glances, "You two are to participate in today's hunt."

The other children gasped as the two little fastbiters walked forward stoically.  The formality of joining one's first hunt was not something that they had been taught, but rather seemed to come from something more primitive and instinctual.  They knew full well what this even entailed.  On this day they would be taking their first steps to adulthood.

With great nervousness at having the eyes of the entire pack upon them, Swipe and Biter slowly turned towards their friends once they reached the hunting party.  They kept their faces expressionless despite the torrent of emotions that were coursing through their minds.  Finally Spike freed them from their anticipation.

"To those who are about to hunt, may your prey fall before you!"

The roars of the children were deafening as they wished the hunters the best in their own way.  During this vociferous symphony of roars Biter could see the leaf-eaters move back cautiously, except for a certain rainbowface who stood his ground.  Now words were spoken between the two, but the expression in Datum's eyes communicated volumes.

Stay safe.

-----

"Alright, children, what is the first rule when hunting?"

Swipe struggled to keep up with the elder fastbiters as they ran to where Petrie had indicated the longnecks had been sighted.  Despite her aching feet and empty belly she felt hyper-aware of everything going on around her.  Her nervousness over what was expected of her was only matched by her excitement of finally becoming a true hunter.

"Keep your eyes open."

Biter's answer was spoken with a bit of breathlessness, but gone was the melancholy from the day before.  Swipe could only guess that something that the rainbowface had said must have eased her brother's spirits.

"Very good, Biter!"  Littlefoot affirmed as he ducked down to avoid crashing into a limb.  After a few more moments of dodging the oncoming obstacles he spoke again, "Now it's your turn, Swipe.  What is the next thing that we must do?"

Swipe smiled confidently despite her inner misgivings.  It seemed that her father knew of his children's nervousness and wished to distract them until they could perform their duty.  Nonetheless, she had to admit that it was a welcome distraction.

"We cannot let the prey know that we are coming."

Littlefoot nodded as he slowed his pace, "Which means?"

"Travel downwind!"

"Be quiet like the wind!"

"Let your surroundings hide you!"

Littlefoot laughed at the rapid fire answers from his children.  He could tell by their answers that they knew their hunting lessons, but how would they handle the real thing?  

The pack suddenly stopped as Littlefoot held up a hand.  The two siblings glanced at one another in confusion at their father's action.  Nonetheless they remained silent.  They knew full well that their father would not have ordered a stop unless it was necessary.

"Children, come forward."

Swipe cautiously stepped forward as her brother followed close behind.  She now could see that her father and the others had crouched down, and so she did the same.  Within moments they were on either side of their father's arms, and could see what he was looking at.

It's the longneck!

"That is what we are going to be taking down today.  What do you notice, children?"

Swipe was confused by the question at first, but then quickly deduced that her father wanted them to look for anything that could help them in the hunt.  Now realizing this she took a close look at the longneck.

He is moving awfully slow... Is he hurt?

She thought about speaking right then, but decided against it as the longneck let out a low-pitched bellow into the air.  This was followed by the longneck stopping his forward motion and looking in the direction of the pack.  Swipe quickly dove as he did this in order to avoid being seen.

"Is something wrong with his eyes?"

Swipe looked at her brother in confusion, but then quickly rose up to again gaze upon the longneck.  That was when she finally saw what her brother had noticed.  The longneck's eyes had a glazed look to them.

"That's right, Biter."  Littlefoot smiled with pride, "He has what my grandfather called the 'glazed eye sickness'.  He is a goner even if we don't do anything here."

Swipe looked up at her father, "Someone else would eat him?"

Littlefoot nodded, "Exactly.  That is why he walked out here in the first place."

Both siblings now shared a perplexed look at their father's words.  The same though was running through their minds.  Why would a longneck intentionally want to be eaten?

"It is a final walk, children," Ruby suddenly made herself known as she walked behind the children.  It was only now that the two siblings could see that the others were not attempting to hide anymore.  They knew that it was no longer necessary.  

Swipe tilted her head in confusion, "A final walk?"

Ruby smiled softly but there was a hint of sadness in her expression, "It is something that longnecks do when they feel that they are a burden on the herd.  They simply walk away."

Littlefoot nodded at his mate, "Your mother is right, children, that is exactly what a final walk is.  My Grandpa had to explain it to me when an old far-walker decided to walk away.  His eyes had the same glaze to them."  It was now that the children could notice that Littlefoot's eyes also had a glint of sadness to them, "I guess that my Grandma and Grandpa would have made the same walk eventually had the battle not taken them.  It is the longneck way."

Biter now looked horrified, "Is... is that what we do when we are a burden to the pack?"

Swipe felt a shiver go down her spine at her brother's question.  She was only familiar with her parents, their friend's parents, and Thud's pack as elder fastbiters.  As a result the final fate of elderly fastbiters was unknown to her.  She knew of death of course, but she did not associate it with what could happen to those she loved.  Youth bred such dreams of immortality and it only took a dying longneck to shatter such dreams into pieces.

"Don't worry, Biter.  Thud is the eldest of us, and he still has a long way to go before... he would have to consider that..."

Silence descended upon the children as the indirect confirmation shocked them to the core.  Just as this longneck would soon die for their meal, they would die one day as well.  The choosers of the dead would one day be chosen themselves.

-----

Littlefoot remained silent for several moments in order to allow the full magnitude of what had been said to sink in.  Petrie had chosen their target masterfully.  First the children would confront the necessity of death... then they would take their part in the great circle of life.  Looking up at his mate, he could see that she was echoing his thoughts on the matter.  Almost imperceptibly, he gave her a slight nod.

"This will be what we are going to hunt children, but it is not what you are going to hunt."

Biter's eyes glistened with interest, "Then what are we hunting, Momma?"

Littlefoot carefully positioned himself in-between his two children and directed their gaze towards the lumbering longneck.  "You see how the longneck is bellowing every few seconds?" the children nodded in response, "That is because he knows that someone followed him out here that doesn't belong."

Swipe looked at her father in confusion, "Who, Dad?"

Littlefoot smiled as he pointed into the distance, the small figure of a longneck youngling could be seen walking towards the longneck from about a mile away.  The drooping head of the young one confirmed his fatigue.

"This little one seems to be on the adventurous side, and wants to protect his elder.  I suppose that he doesn't understand why the longneck is doing this," Littlefoot's eyes suddenly turned dark as he looked at both of his children, "You are too teach him that bloody lesson."

Biter's glistening eyes made something lurch in the fastbiter's stomach, but Littlefoot did not yield.  He knew that if he did not force his son to do this now then it would be that much harder in the future.

"Kill the youngling, children.  That is your mission."

The time of mercy was over.

-----

Armo heard the bellow from his grandfather and quickened his pace.

He is over here!  he thought with grim determination, I have to talk him out of this!

It had all started during the meal that morning.  His parents were quite somber and few words were spoken.  It was only when his grandfather arrived that he had any indication of what was transpiring.

"Are you sure about this, Father?  Surely you have many more days left?"

The elder smiled sadly, "My son, you always looked on the bright side of things, but all things must come to an end.  Now is my time.  I should go while I can still see you all say goodbye."


Armo shivered at that memory, as his willed himself forward through the forbidding terrain.

"But you can't do this, Grandpa!  We can take care of you!"

The elder was holding back tears as the youngling mourned in front of him.  He was resigned to his fate, but the youngling still had the boundless hope that came with youth.  A commodity that he still respected even if he lost that innocence so long ago.

"Yes, little Armo, but that would not be what is best for the herd.  You know this."

The little longneck let out a sob as he trampled the ground with his front legs.

"Do you think it would be best for your family to have you gone?  We love you, Grandpa!  Did you think about us?!"

His grandfather let out a soft bellow as he nuzzled his grandson, "Of course, child.  But sometimes we have to do things which are unpleasant.  Trust me, I am not looking forward to this.  Try to understand."

Unfortunately it was all too much for the little longneck.  He had experienced his fair share of death as a youngling, as was common with longneck children.  He had seen three of his siblings fall from illness, and one sister who mysteriously disappeared.  That sense of loss was something that he never wanted to experience again.  To have his own grandfather willingly put him through such tragedy again was too much for him to bear.

So he ran.


He had cried for hours by the stream.  The comforting words of his parents and the other adults of the herd did little to console him.  Their utterances could not bring his grandfather back...  but perhaps his words could?

In the instant he considered that option all other thoughts were drowned out by his newfound hope.  He simply had to succeed!  He had no time to waste, however, as his grandfather had walked away from the herd hours before.  If he was going to catch up and convince the elder then he had to move immediately.  Telling his parents or the other herd mates was out of the question.

So, like the Gang of Seven in their leaf-eater days, he struck out on a journey of his own.

There he is! Armo thought happily as the elder's neck appeared over the crest of the hill.  He could not see his grandfather's expression from this distance, but he assumed that he would be displeased.  Nonetheless that would play into Armo's plans.

If he has to bring me back to the herd then he can't do this today.  I can still convince him!

Unfortunately Armo neglected to consider his surrounds in his headlong sprint.  In an instant one of the brown boulders appeared to move.  That was when he came to a horrifying realization.

"Sharptooth!"

-----

Ruby smiled in pride as Biter quickly gave chase to the small youngling.  The reddish form of Swipe could be seen in the distance as Biter closed in on the prey.  The children had chosen a good strategy in having the more camouflaged one start the chase and the other cut off any route of escape.  They would make their first kill quite quickly at this rate.

"Shit!"

Ruby turned around from her duty of supervising the kids from a distance.  The tell-tale sound of Cera's voice being heard from this distance was a clear indication that something was not going according to plan.

"Oh no,"  Ruby muttered quietly in shock.  Now she could see what had caused Cera's ire.

The elder longneck had evaded the ambush by the other adults and had begun to run in the direction of his embattled grandson.  What had started as an easy hunt now had turned into an imminent threat for the children.  She knew what she had to do.

With as much speed as she could muster she ran towards the children.  She had to help them evade the lumbering giant, no matter the personal risk to herself.

"Run, children!  Run!"

-----

The sound of his mother's voice filled Biter with increased motivation.  In the thrill of the hunt all of his prior misgivings were forgotten.  The feeling of his feet pummeling the hard ground, his lungs burning with exertion, and the smell of fear from his prey overrode all other thoughts.  It was intoxicating in a way that Biter had never experienced before.

"Oh crap!"

At the sudden exclamation of his sister the longneck broke off to his left.  This confused the young fastbiter as his sister was supposed to hide until the longneck was nearly upon her.  Why did she break her cover?

The sound of thundering feet some distance away soon answered his question.  It was only then that he looked at the situation behind him.

"Momma!"

In horror Biter could see that his mother had assumed a position between the children and the charging longneck.  Her back was turned away from him, but he could see the tension in her muscles as the beast approached like an avalanche.  Biter had no idea what his mother was planning on doing, but he didn't have to wait long to have his unspoken question answered.

In a swift motion, Ruby dodged one of the massive feet of the longneck and hurled herself at the sauropod's neck.  In an instant that seemed to drag on into eternity she managed to latch onto the base of the longneck's neck with her teeth and claws.  This caused an immediate stream of blood to flow from his trunk-like neck.  

"Grandpa!  No!"

Neither of the two young fastbiter gave their prey much heed as they focused exclusively on their mother's fate.  She had just taken a great risk in order to save them from the rampaging longneck.  However it was in this moment of supposed triumph that tragedy struck.

With a single forceful turn of the neck Ruby was hurled off of the longneck's body.  With an audible thud she landed hard on the surface of the ground.  Ruby was unmoving.

"Mom!!!"

Both children screamed in horror at their mother's fate.  All thoughts of the hunt or their own safety had evaporated in that horrific moment.  All that they could do was watch as the longneck slowly recovered and again took on a firm footing on the hard, sun-baked ground.  Then, with a grim expression, he began to advance towards the fallen fastbiter.  With the rest of the pack well behind the massive longneck there was no hope of a last-minute intervention.  They were about to see their mother killed in front of them.

Biter growled in anger.  Something had been awakened in him.  Something primal.  He would do anything to rescue his mother, but there seemed to be no possibility at his disposal.  That was when he had a sudden realization.

The youngling had stopped running to watch the fight.

Biter turned towards the child with a grim expression and blood red eyes.  His mother still had a chance.

-----

The elder longneck edged towards the fallen fastbiter.  The sounds of groans indicated that it was still very much alive, but just incapacitated.  A situation that he resolved to soon remedy.

This is for my grandson.

"Ah!!!  Help!"

With rising horror he looked towards the sound of his grandson's voice.  Armo was pinned by two fastbiters younglings.  A reddish one had a firm grip on his hindquarters, whereas the other one had his claws planted firmly around his throat.  His heart sank.  He knew that he could not save his grandson now.

"If you want him to live then you have better leave our mother alone!"

The longneck stopped and stared at the brown fastbiter that had just spoken.  Leaf-eater from a sharptooth?

"If you hurt her then I will rip out his throat!"

The elderly longneck's legs began to shake as the loss of blood began to take its hold on his body. It seems that their mother has already put an end to me, he thought morosely,  but my grandson still has a chance.  With grim resolve he ignored the fallen fastbiter and stepped towards his grandson.

"Leave him alone!  He is only a child!"

Biter did not appear to be impressed with the elder's pleading as he tightened his grip on the longneck and moved his mouth threateningly close to Armo's neck..

"I will do it!  Don't get any closer!"

The elder was almost lost with despair at this point.  His grandson was now being threatened with destruction if he took any action on his behalf, and he could feel his life slowly drain from him.  It was at that moment that he had a realization.  I know of only one pack of sharpteeth that speak leaf-eater...

"You... are from Littlefoot's pack, aren't you?"

The brown fastbiter was taken aback by this and nearly lost hold of his grandson's neck.  With a grimace, the elder could see that his grandson's neck now had a minor cut from the fastbiter trying to regain his hold.  However, the young one seemed to be healthy otherwise.  When he spoke again Biter's words came back with a cautious tone.

"Yes... I am his son.  How did you know?"

The longneck snorted as he could feel numbness rise up his tail.  Very soon he knew that his legs would follow.  Then he would be making his journey into the Great Beyond.

"Every longneck now alive knows about your father and his friends, little one."  He tried to keep his voice calm despite his concern for his grandson and the coming of death.  He knew that he couldn't risk having the youngling kill his hostage, "You are the cursed ones.  The ones that were cursed in order to help the many.  The merciful sharpteeth."  He then took a shuddering breath as he tried to make his case, "I am old and feeble, which is why I am here.  Spare my grandson.  Surely I am enough of a meal for all of you."

The young fastbiter seemed to consider this as he held on to Armo's neck.  The gaze of the brown fastbiter was planted firmly on the prone form of his mother.  It was obvious that he would not budge until she was safe from potential harm.

It was then that he had an idea.  I can't be much of a threat if I am dying.  This place is as good as any other.  Exaggerating the loss of sensation from his blood loss, he willed his hind legs to shake and fell onto his side.  Despite doing this of his own free will, he knew that he lacked the strength to get up again,  He would not be moving from that spot.  He had come to the place of his death.

"You're dying," the fastbiter's voice softly spoke as the rest of the fastbiters surrounded their fallen comrade and slowly roused her.  There was an odd sense of pathos in the words, as if the sharptooth was unused to seeing death directly.  Meanwhile, the mournful sobs on his grandson could be heard from under the fastbiter's clutches.  This seemed to make something change in the fastbiter's demeanor.

Almost imperceptibly Biter looked over at his sister and gave a slight nod.  She looked taken aback for a moment, which was an odd sight for the elder longneck to see.  But, with cautious slowness, she detached herself from the youngling's flank and nodded back.  His grandson was now free.

"Run back to the herd, Armo," the elder longneck demanded with a profound sense of relief.  His gambit had worked, "I will be reunited with Grandma soon, and I don't want to explain to Grandma why I let you die."

Armo continued to sob as he looked back towards his fallen grandfather, "I can't, Grandpa!  I can't let them do this to you!"

The elder longneck smiled softly in response, "Oh, Armo, you are so like your father.  So hopeful.  But all things come to an end, and here is mine."  He watched as Armo bowed his head as a final show of respect, "Just promise me one thing, young one."

Armo looked up with determination despite his despair, "Anything, Grandpa."

The elder smiled, "Live a good life.  See to it when you are in my position that you have no regrets."

The young longneck closed his eyes and gritted his teeth in his anguish, "I promise, Grandpa!"  He then began to shake as the sobs threatened to overtake him.  It was in that moment that Biter nudged him in the leg and Armo took flight.  His cries of mourning echoing across the barren landscape.

Take care, Armo.

It was only then that the longneck noticed a larger brown fastbiter standing in front of his face.  With his body now prone and fast losing its vitality, he was completely defenseless to the pack that lay before him.  Even the fallen pink fastbiter had again rose to her feet as her children gathered around and embraced her.  It seemed that his time had come.  He would be the only one dying today.

"Do you have any regrets?"  Littlefoot echoed the elder's previous statement.

The longneck took a shallow breath as his vision began to dim slightly, "Not anymore."

The fastbiter seemed pleased with this answer as he gathered his two children in front of him and growled something unintelligible at them.  This caused the two younglings to look at the elder's neck with an odd expression.  He now knew what was coming as he closed his eyes.

Make it quick, children...

-----

Biter looked at his handiwork in muted shock.  Where sun-baked ground was below his feet previous, now a sea of crimson stood in its place.  He did not have to look at his reflection in the lifeblood of the longneck to know that he was covered.  Where a pink and a brown youngling stood before, now only two crimson younglings stood in their place.

Which, in a way, was a perfect allegory for how they felt.

"Very good, children.  He did not need to suffer any more than he already suffered."

Biter could hear the words from his mother echo in his head, but he did not immediately process them.  Instead his focus had shifted to the longneck's eyes.  Where before life and vitality emanated from those half-blinded orbs, now only stillness remained.  A lifetime of knowledge and memories had been destroyed in a few minutes.

"It is quite different killing other dinosaurs, isn't it?"

His father's words finally snapped Biter out of his inner thoughts as he looked over at Littlefoot.  His eyes were kindly and compassionate even as his expression was stern and confident.  It was then that Biter realized that his father knew exactly what he was going through.

"This... was going to happen anyway.  If not us then someone else."

His sister's words were undoubtedly true, but Biter still felt unease at his actions, "Is it always like this?"

Littlefoot smiled slightly as he put a comforting hand on each of his children's shoulders, "It gets easier, Biter.  It gets easier.  Remember how I said I was after my first kill?"  Biter nodded in confirmation, "When you know that you have to do it then it gets a lot easier, but you should never lose that respect for life that I see in your eyes.  When you start to see them only as only food... that is when monstrous things can happen."

Biter blinked, "Like Calin and Redclaw?"

Littlefoot nodded, "Like Calin and Redclaw."

Silence descended upon the family for several moments as the siblings processed what they had just done and what it meant for the future.  Some part of their previous naivetÈ had died that day, but something else now stood in its place.  A respect for life that came from knowing the price of survival.  A lesson that could only be learned from killers or their victims.  A lesson that was told in blood.

"You let your target go, children, but that was the right thing to do.  The pack already had its meal, and your quick thinking saved your mother."  Upon Littlefoot's proud words, Ruby nuzzled her children.  More than a few relived tears were falling down the faces of the blood-soaked fastbiters, "Part of being a hunter is knowing when to let the prey go and to choose another battle.  You did that today."

The other packmates gave the family room as the children relished in the warmth of their parents.  Between nearly seeing their beloved mother crushed, and being forced to kill, their emotions were as chaotic as crashing waves upon a shore.  They needed time to understand the magnitude of what had transpired.

After several moments however, Biter finally broke the silence.

"What do we do now, Dad?"

Biter's innocent question broke the stillness.  It had been Littefoot's idea to have the children strike the killing blow against the large longneck even though their original quarry was allowed to get away.  They had already learned their lesson, so he had no reason not to let them have a 'kill' even if it was already a foregone conclusion.  However, with some amusement, he realized that they had not be trained in what came after a hunt.  Before he could answer however a familiar voice answered in his place.

"We eat him, silly!  It isn't like he is going to run away now, is it?"

Littlefoot rolled his eyes at Taunt's exclamation as the others laughed softly.  Even the shell-shocked children chuckled a bit at the fastbiter's joke.  Their grim determination to face what they had to do had turned into a growing acceptance.  Seeing this, Littlefoot gestured towards the slashed neck of the sauropod and spoke gently to the children.

"The killer of the prey gets the first bite, children.  Then the rest of us will eat and get the others."  Then as an afterthought he lifted one of his daughter's feathers, "Though before your leaf-eater friends get here you might want to take a bath."

Biter looked more than a little self-conscious, "We won't... we won't have to sing about this to them, will we?"

It was at this point that Ruby gave her son a light nuzzle, "I think that song could be told in sharptooth only, don't you agree, dear?"

Littlefoot nodded, "Absolutely, but you will be singing tonight, you two."

"But, dad..."

"But, I can't carry a tune!  Pouncer's siblings will laugh at me!"

Laughter now echoed from the hunters at the discomfort of the children.  Singing was part of the tradition, and an important part of how knowledge was passed on from generation to generation.  This was simply an embarrassment that the children would have to struggle through.

"We can help you plan the song, children, so don't be worried about that!"  Littlefoot affirmed through his laughter, "Besides it isn't like your song can't be any ornerier than some of Taunt's..."

"I resent that!"  Taunt playfully replied with no actual offense in his voice.

Caw!

The levity was suddenly interrupted by the distant call of Petrie.  The children had no idea what that signified until Littlefoot softly explained.

"Spotter was to help lead the child away from danger.  That means that he is on his way to safety," Littlefoot looked more than a bit contemplative, "I imagine his story will not be as happy as ours."

The laughter that had seconds before erupted from the victorious fastbiters now seemed like a distant memory as the children were again reminded of ramifications of their actions.  Yes, they had simply done what their place in nature demanded, but a child would be forever traumatized because of what happened here today.  It was with that in mind that Biter approached his fallen prey.

"Thank you for this gift."

As the small fastbiter took a bite from the longneck's flesh, his sister joined him at his side and took her first bite as well.  It was only then that the rest of the hunting party began to feast upon their favorite parts.  

Biter and Swipe had just taken their first tentative steps towards adulthood.

-----

"I wonder if we made the right choice."

Arial could only look towards the Night Circle with uncertain eyes at her brother's statement.  She doubted that any of them knew what was the right choice anymore.  But since her mother and father were getting slower in their old age, they all knew that it would be up to one of the children to take the risk.

"Keeping Hanging Rock is our best chance to keep the family safe," she replied guardedly, "If we leave then Dein and Terri might decide to keep it for themselves."

Orchid snorted bitterly, "Who is to say that they won't do that already?"  Upon seeing his sister's glare he continued, "I know that I agreed to it, but that doesn't mean that I have to like it!  I would rather be dead than be Dein's servant, but that doesn't mean that I particularly look forward to either possibility!"

The male fastrunner threw a stone into the shallow stream, which caused it to skip all the way over to the other side.  He could only hope that his journey would be as successful.

"Take care, brother."

Orchid turned to his sister with a soft smile, but quickly amended this with his classic smirk, "Don't worry, sis!  I will be back in no time!  You just keep the beasts happy until I get back."

Arial snorted at this, "You had better not tell Chomper that you called his parents that!"

Orchid shrugged, "I guess that I will have to remember to use more appropriate words when I talk to Chomper about his parents, like 'meat for brains' or 'carrion suckers'."

Arial shook her head, "You are so going to get yourself eaten!"

Without replying verbally, Orchid quietly gave his sister a brief embrace.  She returned the gesture where usually she would have knocked such a response away.

"I will be back soon!  Just you watch!  I will be back before you even know it!"

As the two siblings prepared to return to their parent's shelter one last time, each could only wonder if they would meet again.  One would have to continue serving the sharpteeth with her parents, whereas the other would be embarking on a messenger mission unlike any he had ever undertaken before.  

His fate and possibly that of his family hung in the balance.



Go ahead and check out my fanfictions, The Seven Hunters, Songs of the Hunters, and Menders Tale.


rhombus

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Fanfiction link: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10967589/18/So...-of-the-Hunters

Chapter 17: Love is in the air

"Wow, Swipe!  How did you and Biter take this one down?!"

Swipe suppressed a sigh at Sprint's question.  He was as ornery and playful as the rest of Cera and Taunt's children, but was noticeably lacking in seeing what was in front of his own snout, as Taunt would say.  Thankfully, Pouncer saved her from explaining the situation in more detail.

"They finished off what our mommies and daddies did, Sprint.  Do you honestly think that they nibbled this thing to death?"

Swipe let out a slight chuckle at Pouncer's comment as Sprint retreated a bit in embarrassment.  The image of two little younglings taking down a full-grown longneck was too humorous to ignore.  However, she did have the wits about her to thank her companions for their compliments.

"Thanks, guys!  Yeah, my momma hurt it badly, but then it tried to hurt momma!"

Biter took that moment to join in.  His feathers still glistened with a crimson hue from their bloody work.

"We decided to threaten the young longneck until the big one got away from momma!  Then we went over and finished him off..."

Pouncer and Sprint listened in fascination as the two siblings retold their story about the hunt.  That was until a certain adult came on the scene.

"Part of the tradition is to sing the story... not to tell it."

Biter and Swipe both turned towards the form of their mother.  Her hands were firmly planted on her hips in a stern gesture, but her tone of voice and eyes gave away her lack of actual anger.

"But Mom..."  The siblings replied in unison.  

"No buts about it, you two!  As soon as your friends are finished with dinner then you can sing for the pack."

Pouncer chuckled, "I wonder if you can even carry a tune, Biter."

Unfortunately for Pouncer if there was one thing that troubled Biter more than his fear of singing, it was his desire to always win their little contests... and Pouncer had just given him quite the opening.

"I bet you that I can!"

Pouncer looked at his friend coyly, which caused his brother to nudge him.

"What do you bet?"  Sprint inquired.

Swipe rolled her eyes as she walked closer to her mother.  I don't want to be any part of this...

"I bet that me and my sister can sing better than you guys!"

Swipe turned around as if she was struck.  She ignored the laughter coming from her mother and father at the growing dispute.  "Biter... what are you..."

"You're on!"  Ambush's voice echoed from across the fallen longneck's tail.  It seemed that her interest in the meal had been overtaken by her familiar pride, "The losers get to give the winners ground fuzzies for an entire day!"

Swipe was not having any of this.  "Guys..."

"Deal!"

Swipe bowed her head at her brother's arrogant agreement.  What had he gotten her in to?

"Well... that is an interesting bet, children," Cera's voice could be heard as she walked up to Ruby.  The mothers of both families were smiling widely at this little display, "But I think that you forgot something.  You and Swipe can sing about the hunt, but what are my boys and girls going to sing about?  Being bored and waiting for the hunt to finish?"

Now that she had put it that way, Swipe began to think about the possibility of her and Biter winning.  This noticeably changed her tune on the entire endeavor.

"Then it was silly for them to agree on the bet, wasn't it?"  Swipe nudged her brother in annoyance despite her change in opinion on the bet.  She wanted him to be well aware that she was not happy to be 'volunteered' in that way.

Upon seeing the suddenly less than enthusiastic expressions on the faces of Cera's children, Ruby decided to show some mercy, "You never agreed on a time so perhaps we should wait until they get to hunt before you all have your challenge?  That was your challenge would actually be challenging?"

"Mom..."  Both children whined as they could feel victory slip from their grasps.

Littlefoot and Taunt, who had been silent until then, decided to speak up.

"I agree, dear."  Littlefoot's expression was full of amusement.

"As do I," Taunt's expression was firmly directed at his children, "But maybe you three have learned a lesson about being too hasty to make bets?  It nearly cost you this time."

"And it still will!"  Biter affirmed boastfully.

"Will not!"  Pouncer retorted, as the two friends began to circle one another with mock aggression.  Despite being many miles away from their territory their antics made the inhospitable gorge feel like home.  Nonetheless Littlefoot knew that they had to hurry up and finish what they had started.

"Go ahead and eat up, children.  We need to fill our bellies here and you two," he stared at his children, "need to quit wasting time and sing your song... then we can get your other friends.  Somehow I don't think that Sauria, Charger, or Datum want to see a dead longneck after what they have been through."

Biter looked at his father with an understanding expression, Yeah... I don't think they would want to hear my song either.  Except for Datum.  I am sure he is worried about me.

Ruby, misinterpreting Biter's sudden look of contemplation, added softly, "Yep.  And after you two sing your song I bet that all of you children wouldn't mind hearing the next song about how all of you came along."

Swipe's face perked up at that.  "What happens in that song, momma?"

Ruby laughed.  "You will just have to wait and see, Swipe.  You will just have to wait and see..."

-----

"Crap, crap, crap, this is too close!"

Orchid hissed to himself as he watched a small brown fastbiter youngling disappear behind the corpse of the fallen longneck.  From this distance the fastrunner could not deduce what was being said, but he could see one important fact.  This was obviously some other pack than his elder sister's.  He would do no good if he got eaten here.  

Orchid took a deep breath as he hid behind the small stone which served as his shelter.   The fastbiter is behind the longneck now, which means that his parents must be there as well.  Maybe if they are already full then they won't want to chase me?

Thoughts of Calin then sprung into his mind.  The evil fastbiter had nearly killed his father and his sister back in the Battle for the Valley.  Despite being very young during that time, he remembered that detail as if it had happened yesterday.  That pretty much made up his mind for him.

I can't take the chance!  I will have to make a run for it!

He raised his head above the stone once more and stared at the fallen longneck's back.  There was still no one present.  If he ran now then he might have a chance of continuing onto his destination without being seen.

Now!

He did not dare look back as he pumped his legs with as much speed as he could muster.  He had long lamented his father's insistence on having him and his sister run races until they were exhausted, but now he realized the necessity of those sprints.  

He now realized the necessity all too well.

In what could have been minutes or hours as far as the fastrunner could tell, his legs began to feel like burning sand and his lungs ached from his non-stop exertion.  It was only then that he allowed himself to collapse to the ground, and to rest.  If something was chasing him then they could have their meal as far as he was concerned.  His legs refused to go any further.

Over many moments of lying in the now cool sand of the barrens, he could slowly feel his leg muscles begin to obey his commands again.  It took longer for his breaths to form something other than desperate gasps, but eventually those too returned to normal.  It was only then that he allowed himself to look up at the new surroundings that he found himself.

Nothing but barren sand.  He was now in the barrens just outside of where Petrie had once said that the pack's territory now resided.

I... I ran that far?

A slight chuckle then left the mouth of the fastrunner, which was soon followed by another.  Then, like the small rock which starts the landslide, he began to erupt in raucous laughter.  He was alive!  And now he could finally get help from his sister's pack.

Meanwhile, in the pack that he had just escaped, a song was about to begin.  A song that was going to be sung by a fastbiter that he didn't see prior to his desperate flight.  A fastbiter that he hadn't seen in several years.

His own sister.

-----

...but first there was another song to attend to.

Biter and Swipe shifted uncomfortably as the members of the pack stared at them.  They had succeeded in the hunt and had won the praises of the adults, but the act of singing in front of the assembled dinosaurs caused them immense fear.  Even Datum seemed to take on a predatory gaze in the minds of the two siblings.  They knew that their scent of nervousness was probably apparent to everyone now.

"You can do it, children!  Just pretend like we are not here."

Biter gulped despite the encouraging words of his mother.  They may have left their killed prey behind for the sake of the leaf-eater's, but he could still taste his flesh in his mouth.  He had taken life from another living being, and now he had the obligation to sing in thanks of his sacrifice.  In fact, they both did.

Biter looked at his sister one last time before she gave a slight nod of the head.  They had worked on the words after the feast, and now it was simply up to them to do them justice.  With a thundering heart and shaking limbs they began their chorus.

♪♪  We two had never hunted, but hunger came for the pack
It was food that we wanted, and so a longneck we had to track  ♪♪

♪♪  We were scared of what we had to do, we had never done it before
But mommy and daddy said it was our time, that we could not ignore ♪♪

♪♪  The longneck was big and stocky, but old and weak and blind
He went out from his herd, but he did not leave everyone behind ♪♪

♪♪  We saw a little one following, when daddy then explained with trust
That our parents would hunt the big one, but that this hunt was for us ♪♪


A chorus of howls then broke out between the two children as they were caught in the chorus of their hunt song.  The part that conveyed emotions that words simply couldn't capture.  The part that was unknowable to non-sharpteeth.  

Had Biter been fully aware of the situation around him then he would have been relieved that only Datum understood the sharptooth language amongst the three leaf-eaters, as the remainder of the song was quite brutal.  However, in that moment he was simply lost in the song.  He was not aware of the adults looking at them approvingly as they swayed their tails in unison with the song's cadence.

Soon however their song resumed.

♪♪  The little one ran as we gave chase--
His scent became so heavy that we could taste--  
The fear and terror of our approach--
We were about to take what he valued most ♪♪

♪♪  But then the grandfather came charging in--
Our parents had not brought him down--  
It looked like the end--
But then momma attacked without making a sound ♪♪

♪♪  Momma had made a killing blow--
But from the ground she could not go--  
The grandfather wanted to stomp--
But that we had to stop ♪♪


Datum noticeably tensed up upon hearing these words.  He had barely had time to speak to Biter since he had returned to the pack's location.  The rather odd path that they had been lead pretty much confirmed to him that the pack didn't want them to see the aftermath of the hunt, which was wise on their part, but Biter's words were nonetheless placing the young rainbowface into that hunt.  He could almost feel Biter's fear... his desperation.  He clinched his beak in anticipation of what happened next.

♪♪  The little one weak and small,
was grabbed by our maws,
He screamed and the grandfather froze,
which bought time until mom rose  ♪♪


Datum's mouth was agape at this news.  He had no doubt that Biter and his sister would do what was necessary to help their family, but to be forced to threaten a youngling in front of an elder was too horrible for him to contemplate.  He couldn't imagine what Sauria would have thought had she been able to understand this song.

♪♪  The elder agreed to lay and fall,
so that his grandson could escape after all,
The little one still questioned,
but then his grandfather gave his final lesson  ♪♪

♪♪  The Bright Circle rises,
The Night Circle falls,
A hatching climbs out of an egg,
Only to grow old and eventually fall  ♪♪

♪♪  We all have a place, whether sharptooth or flat,
One of the hardest lessons is to understand that,
Now is my time to go but you can still live on,
Tell my story to your father, my son  ♪♪

♪♪  The elder then died by our own claws,
We can still taste his blood on our feathers, our maws,
Know that he gave life up so that we might live on,
Thus ends the story of the longneck and his grandson ♪♪


As the two small fastbiters ended their song silence descended upon the assembled sharpteeth.  Sauria and Charger looked creeped out by the eerie song that they couldn't understand, whereas Datum looked horrified for quite a different reason.  Littlefoot and Ruby however fixed their children with approving looks, which was matched by the expression of the other adults as well.  This was the only sign of any reaction until Pouncer broke the silence.

"That was awesome, guys!"

This break in tradition was followed by further outbursts from the children.

"Wow, you saved your own momma!"

"I bet that longneck was scary!"

"That was a good song!"

Within an instant the other children were around the two stunned siblings.  The gathering that had started when Biter and Swipe originally tried to tell their story had again formed around the two new storytellers.  Only this time they were joined by the adults who were also wishing them well.  Only Littlefoot and Ruby stayed behind for a moment.

"The rhymes were a bit rough in places, but that is a fine start," Littlefoot affirmed to his mate.

Ruby simply nodded as she nuzzled her mate.  The terror of nearly being killed by the prey was still fresh in both of their minds.  For that reason they did not notice a small rainbowface approach.

"Um... Seeker and Ponder?"

Both of them looked down in surprise at the small leaf-eater.  His eyes shone with an odd mixture of innocence and understanding.  It was then that Littlefoot remembered an important detail.

"You understand our language... I nearly had forgotten..."  He paused for a moment as the implications of that dawned on his mate.  He quickly tried to offer an apology, "I am sorry, Datum, you shouldn't have had..."

Datum shook his head as he interrupted the fastbiter, "No, I am glad that I heard it...  I... I actually talked to Biter about what he had to do before the hunt."

Ruby gasped, "He told you about that?"

Datum smiled slightly, "I actually kind of invited myself into a conversation he was having... I wanted to know what was upsetting him, and that's when I heard about the hunt,"  his eyes darkened for a moment as he continued, "This is why he and I have to be apart, right?  He would never eat me, but..."

Littlefoot looked at his mate as they shared a knowing smile.  Within moments Littlefoot was patting the rainbowface on the shoulder, "You are wiser than I was at your age.  It wasn't until the night before I changed that I finally accepted that Path would have to leave the valley one day..." the brown fastbiter smiled, "...but that doesn't mean that your friendship has to end."

Datum stammered, "Really?"

Ruby chuckled at his response as she nuzzled Littlefoot and whispered something in his ear that Datum could not discern.  As soon as Littlefoot nodded in return, she spoke, "Well Pterano doesn't get much news from us lately, so perhaps he could carry some other news to the valley and back..."

Littlefoot chuckled, "I am sure that Mr. Threehorn will love to hear Pterano bickering about being reduced to passing news to kids."

Datum likewise chuckled at the idea of Mr. Threehorn actually smiling about something as he considered the possibility of him and Biter conversing through flyers with excitement.  It was hard for him to believe that he had not known Biter a mere few weeks before, but now he considered him a trusted friend.  It reminded him of a certain longneck and a purple sharptooth in a story...

He was soon interrupted in his thoughts by a smiling rose-colored raptor.

"I don't know about you, Datum, but I think that your friends will want to know that you are not crazy..."  She gestured towards the distant forms of Sauria and Charger who were looking at Datum as if he had grown a second tail.  "And we will need to rescue our son and daughter from the crowd..."

Datum looked over in the direction of Biter and Swipe but found that he could not see them over the horde of small children who were roaring excitingly in conversation, and gesturing wildly about the story that the siblings had told.  It was then that he realized that the scene would appear horrifying and confusing to someone who didn't know the language.

My friends probably think I am crazy, the rainbowface noted before quickly adding, Well, crazier than they thought that I was already.

Unaware of the rainbowfaces thoughts, Littlefoot looked over at his mate with a jocular expression, "I don't know about you, dear, but I think that I know what would distract the children for a while..."

Ruby smiled at the unstated suggestion.  She agreed entirely.

"Children, you will need to settle down and gather around if you want to hear the next song!"

She didn't have to yell twice.

-----

Several years ago:

The sharptooth flyer flew in front of him as if to mock his abilities.  She swayed to and fro before finally performing a spin in the air and descending into a steep dive.

"Oh no, you don't!"

With a resounding screech Petrie twisted himself into a vertical dive and edged closer to the mysterious flyer.  He did not dare allow her to make any move that he did not repeat the next instant.  A spin was followed by a spin... a dive was followed by a dive... within moments a clear pattern was established, and Petrie's reactions became more rapid.  

Until finally Petrie was not repeating the others actions, but rather was flying in formation.  It was as if they were one mind... one body...

Without warning the other flyer grabbed Petrie's talons with her own.  Then, with a slight bob of the head, she sent both of them tumbling into a head-first dive.  But yet Petrie didn't feel any fear.  This all felt right somehow.


Petrie awoke with a start.

"What the..."  The flyer struggled to return to equilibrium after the oddly intense sleep story, but within a few moments he realized what had happened, "It that same sleep story again!  Why won't sleep story let Petrie sleep?!"

He didn’t dwell on the thought that part of him wanted the sleep story to play out to its conclusion.  Or, for that matter, that the Bright Circle was already high in the sky.  

Despite the dream lacking anything truly horrifying in it, he had never failed to wake up from the recurring dream with a racing heart and frayed nerves.  It was as if his body was compelling him to not ignore what it was telling him.  For several days the flyer had been at an utter loss as to why he would be chasing another sharptooth flyer in a sleep story. But then had come the departure of Thud and Swift.  Their words had opened his eyes to a possibility that he had never considered...

-----

Earlier that week:

“Leaving?  Why?”

Thud examined his son with a mixture of pride and amusement.  Taunt had grown into a very loyal and strong fastbiter despite his own failings as a father, and a sickly youth.  However, the fact that his son would sometimes not see what was right in front of his snout was a recurring trait that the years could not take away.

“Son... it will soon be the warm season, and this is your sixteenth year.”

Cera looked at the elder fastbiter with a look of incredulity, “I know that he is a bit of an ankle-biter, but I think that he is smart enough not to melt in the Warm Time!”

Thud watched as the other members of the pack laughed at her jocular words.  Taunt rolled his eyes and lightly nuzzled Cera in an obvious show of affection, while the other pairs were also subconsciously indicating their feelings.  Littlefoot and Ruby were both tilting their heads in a show of mutual confusion at his and Swift’s decision, an expression that Littlefoot seldom had employed until he picked up on it from his companion.  Spike and Breeze meanwhile were both laughing at Cera’s little joke, and were not aware that their tails were touching in a show of mutual possessiveness.  Only Leap and Ducky seemed to take notice of what Thud was getting at when their amused expressions suddenly turned into serious ones as they shared a knowing look with one another.

Leap saved Thud the trouble of explaining the situation.

“You and Swift are the only unbonded ones here.”

Those words caused the laughter to cease immediately.  In an instant the assorted pairs began looking at one another in contemplation, in a scene that would have been amusing in any other circumstance.  Now, however, it only confirmed Thud’s suspicions.

“Yes,” Thud replied, “You are all already bonded, but I am not.  I am sure that I don’t have to tell you how mating pairs can be when a ëthreat’ is nearby.”

Taunt sputtered at this, “You are not a threat, Dad!  I think that we all know that!”

Littlefoot nodded, “And besides... what makes you think that this is the season that um...  that stuff happens.”

Petrie settled onto his perch with rapt attention as the fastbiters explained their confusion at Taunt’s actions.  He had told no one about his strange dream or the odd feelings that he had been having.  The desire to travel to cliffs...  to seek out others of his kind... he wanted to hear more from the only father in the group.

“Yes, Thud.  How you know this?”

Thud looked up at the flyer.  He did not know anything about the situation with flyers, but he was well aware of the facts of life as far as fastbiters were concerned.

“Well...”  The elder fastbiter gestured at Littlefoot, “You for one have begun to act like your mate,” He didn’t even bother to use the term companion, “How long have you been tilting your head like that?”

Littlefoot, obviously dumbstruck by Thud’s accusation, tilted his head in confusion as to its implications.  Upon realizing what he was doing he quickly shrunk back in embarrassment.  Ruby put a hand to her mouth in surprise.  They were now aware of something that had been obvious to the others for quite some time.

“And you, my son, when you aren’t trying to bite your friend then you are trying to nuzzle her.  And... in case you haven’t noticed... she hasn’t been pushing you away much lately, now has she?”

Taunt and Cera both looked at one another with somewhat contemplative expressions as the elder fastbiter walked towards the next couple in the way, Spike and Breeze.

“You two are still touching tails.  That is a way of marking each other as being taken.”

He didn’t even look to see their reaction to that revelation as he looked towards Ducky and Leap.  They, however, did not appear as confused by these developments as the others.  For that reason Ducky spoke next.

“My momma always told me that when it was time then you would know... she always used to fix up the nest real nice when it was time for more brothers and sisters.”

Thud did not speak for a moment as Ruby had an epiphany.

“I... just cleaned the sleeping area last night.  Is that way I cleaned the sleeping area?”

Ducky nodded slowly.  She did not feel the need to mention that her and Leap had been doing the same to their sleeping area the night before.  It was beginning to look a lot more like a nest that it was previously.

The other pairings began to shift uncomfortably as well in the realization of what was going on.  Their instincts had been guiding them towards an obvious destination, but none of them had seen the signs.  Or rather, they had failed to heed what they had seen.  Now, however, the journey that they were on was too obvious to ignore.

Thud nodded, “Now do you understand why I must go?  Even packs must split for a time during the Time of Hatchings, so what luck would I have during that time?”

Taunt took a deep breath as his father’s voice echoed in his mind, “Dad...”

Thud shook his head, “Don’t worry, son, I have seen fiercer battles that merely caring for myself.  I will be fine.  It is all of you that I am concerned about... the pack will need to disband for a time.”

Silence descended upon the pack as each considered the elder’s ominous words.  It was Littlefoot who finally had the courage to ask him to elaborate.

“Why would the pack need to split?  We have been through hard times before.”

A heavy sigh behind Littlefoot finally alerted him to the presence of the purple sharptooth.  Chomper had begun to grow larger chest muscles in a sign of the Time of Great Growing that was soon approaching.  He was now about as old as Littlefoot was when he entered the valley, which only confirmed the passage of years to the brown fastbiter.

“Seeker, remember when my mommy and daddy were having my brothers or sisters...”

Littlefoot did not say anything, but instead bowed his head.  The implications of Chomper’s words was obvious to everyone.  No one would be safe when the parental instincts began to manifest themselves.  The desire to kill any threat... or any competition... no matter how small or young... would be overwhelming.  It was a reality that none of them wanted to face.

“We wouldn’t get that bad, would we?”  Cera asked helplessly.

Thud simply remained silent for several moments as he rubbed his head, “Well I am leaving my son behind because of what is about to come.  What does that tell you, Stern Claw?”

“But we’re good people!”  Ducky protested, “My momma didn’t hurt other people when she was heavy with eggs.”

“Your momma wasn’t a sharptooth, Haven,” Chomper replied sadly.

“No,” Thud agreed, “And sometimes even good people do bad things for good reasons.  When you were hatched, Taunt, I have no doubt that I would have ripped out my own father’s throat if he had come into my territory.  The instincts are that strong.  Do not doubt that for a moment.”

The pack fell silent as Thud’s words echoed in their minds.  The wind continued to howl in the clearing and the Bright Circle continued to shine, but it felt like something fundamental had shifted in the great order of things.  The idea of the pack disbanding and every family fending for themselves was too horrifying to contemplate.  Even if it was only for a relatively short time.

Even a short time was an eternity when one had to fend for oneself in the Mysterious Beyond.

It was then that Leap’s sister, Swift, finally walked towards the elder fastbiter and bowed her head slightly.  Being unbonded, and not desiring to challenge any of the other females for their mates, she knew what she had to do.

“I guess that I should leave too,” Upon seeing Leap frown at the prospect of seeing his sister leave, she put on a kind smile and replied jocularly,  “Don’t worry, Leap, I think that I can resist Thud’s advances.”

No one laughed at her little joke, but no one resisted her suggestion of leaving either.  Instead Littlefoot reluctantly gave the gesture for the pack to congregate at the usual meeting spot.  It was now time for a discussion on the pack’s future, and to wish two of its allies a temporary farewell.  No one knew what the coming weeks would bring, but they did know one thing for certain:

The pack was now on notice for what was to come.

-----

Petrie bowed his head at the memory of that day.  The pack had decided to tough out whatever hardships may come, but they agreed on Thud's insistence that they would split if the tensions became too much.  However, Petrie could see the fastbiter's true thoughts in his eyes.  Thud knew that the pack would eventually have to disband for a time.

It was just a matter of time.

"Come back here, you little pest!"

Petrie's dark thoughts were interrupted by a sudden shout down below.  A certain pink fastbiter was chasing after the leader of the pack... who was curiously holding a piece of bark in his mouth.  As Petrie contemplated the significance of this Ruby chomped down on his tail and the piece of bark came flying out.

"Ha!  You win this time!  You got one of them, but can you save them all?"

At Littlefoot's words Ruby let out a deep growl of frustration.  The oddity of the situation made Petrie do a double-take as Ruby's response was nearly identical to what he would expect from Cera during one of Taunt's pranks.  However that was not as surprising as what happened next.

Littlefoot bit down on Ruby's tail.

"Ow!"

Ruby lunged for a retaliatory swipe, but Littlefoot dodged masterfully.  With a chuckle that bordered on maniacal, he sprinted headlong into the bushes in the general direction of their sleeping area.  No doubt another piece of Ruby's handiwork would soon be grabbed by the playful fastbiter.

"Damn it, Seeker!  If you take another stick then I swear I will do worse than bite your tail!"

Petrie watched in fascination as Ruby also disappeared into the bushes.  Her angry snarls following Littlefoot's playful laughs.  This was an unexpected sight, but that was not what worried Petrie.

It was uncharacteristic for both of them.

Seeker and Ponder acting like Stern Claw and Taunt!  What got into them?

He didn't dare answer his own rhetorical question for he already knew the answer.  Everyone was making additions to their sleeping areas... everyone was acting more agitated and playful... everyone was getting more physical...

"When one paired female enters her time, then the others will enter their time.  The males then follow.  This is why I must leave, Taunt, I don't want to get like that.  I am an unbonded male... your mother has long since entered the Great Beyond.  If I were to enter my time... then I would be a danger to all of you."

Thud's words echoed in the flyer's mind.  The entire pack apart from him and Chomper were entering the Time of Mating.  That much was obvious.  What was not obvious to him was what to do about it.

"I guess Thud was right."

Petrie looked down at the purple sharptooth that had settled underneath his perch.  Chomper was no longer the small youngling that he once was, but yet he was not the terrifying harbinger of death that he would soon become.  What remained was a dinosaur who was in transition.  A youthful body being tempered with mature eyes.

"Me think so too," Petrie agreed.  

Petrie could not read his friend's expression at that moment, and he lacked the acute sense of smell that the rest of the pack was graced with.  This left him wondering what the sharptooth thought about their predicament.  Petrie didn't really know what he thought for that matter.  All that he knew was that they were entering a time of great uncertainty.

"You're feeling odd too, aren't you?"

Petrie looked down again only to see the sharptooth fix the flyer with calculating eyes.  Chomper's mouth was closed firmly and his breathing came in controlled bursts.  Petrie couldn't help but feel like a prey animal who was being studied by a predator.  He could feel his breathing speed up as his heart raced.

"How you know?"  Petrie replied helplessly.

He didn't have to wait long for a response.  Chomper merely snorted in amusement and averted his eyes in a gesture that made Petrie calm down immediately.

"Well... for one thing the Spotter that I know would not be afraid of anything that can't fly up and catch him.  And in case you haven't noticed this little things..."  Chomper waved his small arms, "...aren't going to get me into the air any time soon."

Petrie allowed himself to chuckle at the sharptooth's words.  It had only been a few years since Chomper had been quite self-conscious about his small arms.  The battle and its aftermath had made Chomper far more comfortable with what he had to be.

"Also, the Spotter that I know wouldn't let me see his fear even if he was scared..."  Chomper stared Petrie down once more as if he were reaching a conclusion.  Within moments Chomper seemed to make up his mind, "Spotter, are you entering your Time of Mating?"

Petrie froze as Chomper uttered those words.  He could not deny what his friend was saying.  He had been getting overly emotional and expressive of his emotions.  He had been overreacting too things just like he had done back in his leaf-eater days.  And there were those dreams of a certain flyer.  A flyer who was just like him, but without a crest...  because female flyers lacked those.

Petrie gulped.  He knew that he might as well admit to Chomper what he had been refusing to admit to himself.

"Yes, Path.  Me think me am."

Chomper stared at the flyer for a few moments before nodding twice.  His eyes became less calculating and his expression became far less predatory.  It was an odd change that confused Petrie until Chomper finally spoke.

"At least you admit it.  The others don't seem to get what is coming..."

Petrie looked down at Chomper's dour expression.  The sharptooth's tone radiated with compassion tinged with frustration.  He seemed like a sharptooth that wanted to help, but who had no idea how.

"Me... me not admit it to myself until now,"  Petrie admitted as the eyes of Chomper's fell upon him again, "Me... me scared of what comes next."

Chomper tilted his head inquisitively.  In response Petrie decided to answer his unspoken question.

"Me think me know what sleep stories tell me to do, but lot me no understand... Me only know that me on my own."

Chomper nodded, "I know that feeling."

Both of them fell silent for a moment.  Petrie was feeling the welcome inner peace that came with finally accepting a truth, whereas Chomper was still grappling with what to do next.  However, over the next several moments, Chomper too took on a calmer expression as if he had finally made up his mind.  It was in that moment that their eyes locked once more.

"When are you leaving?"

Petrie was taken aback by his friend's question, but quickly decided that Chomper had reached the same conclusions that he had.

"Today, me think..."

Chomper nodded as he looked in the direction that Littlefoot and Ruby had gone moments before.  The sounds of angry growls interspersed with laughter could be heard from some distance away.  A low growl clearly indicated what Chomper thought about the sudden change in his friends.  He stared at the grass with such intensity that Petrie mused that the grass would wither out of fright.  It was then that Chomper spoke with an odd sense of formality.

"They will realize that they are wrong eventually.  They will need to decide whose territory is whose before they get too far gone."

Petrie nodded, "We don't want them fighting each other for their territory..."

Chomper gritted his teeth, "Exactly."

Petrie looked over at the sleeping areas in the distance.  The folly of building what were quickly looking like nests so close together was now obvious to the flyer, as there was no way that predators would tolerate other predators being within visual range of their own nest.  They were working for nothing.  The pack would need to split up their territory so that the coming crisis would not turn into a tragedy.  That was when Petrie had an idea.

"Which part of territory you want?"

Chomper looked at Petrie in confusion, "What?"

Petrie shrugged with his wings, "Like me said, which part of territory you want?  If you demand a part then the others have to take notice."

Chomper stared at the flyer for a moment before a grin appeared on his face, "What exactly do you have in mind, Spotter?"

Petrie leaned down at the sharptooth.  He supposed that it wouldn't hurt to help the pack get their affairs in order before he flew off on his own adventure.

"We only need to get them to make plan.  They follow plan later when they realize Thud right."  Chomper nodded as the logic of Petrie's words sunk in.  However, Petrie knew that in order for the pack to take it seriously then there would have to be a sudden shock.  He knew just the thing...

"Path, how about you demand stream as your territory?  That get their attention!"

Chomper smiled for he knew that they might have just found a way to save the pack from itself.

-----

The present, the Mysterious Beyond:

"I told you that this was a stupid idea!"

"Shush, Flip!  It might still be around!"

Tricia tried to calm her racing heart as she and her friends hid in the small cave.  This had all been her idea, though admittedly the rest of her friends had not exactly disagreed.  This wasn't the first time that they had left the valley despite the warnings of their parents.

"We shouldn't have snuck after our parents..."

Tricia frowned at Malka's statement.  The swimmer usually had a firm grasp of the mood of the group, and the nod from Flip confirmed that she was not alone in her sentiments.  

We could have just waited for our parents to get back with our friends... but that wouldn't let me see my sister!  It isn't like the valley is going to invite them over for dinner!

"You're thinking about her, aren't you?"

Tricia looked over at the rainbowface.  Axiom had the same inquisitive nature as her brother, but often her questions were directed at people rather than things.  It was this quality that often made the threehorn push her away, but her deduction held true on this night.

"Yeah... This is the only way I will get to see her, you know?"  Tricia allowed herself sit down, though she held back on expressing the true extent of her emotions.   Threehorns don't cry!

Axiom looked over at Malka, who opened her mouth but then shut it upon thinking better of it.  Within moments, however, Malka threw up her hands and shrugged.

"Well, I guess this is where we will have to stay for the night.  I don't know what that thing was, but I don't care to meet it again!"

Flip shuddered, "Are you sure that it is gone?"

Axiom shrugged, "If it was a sharptooth then it would eat us if it found us.  The fact that we aren't dinner shows that it either wasn't a sharptooth or it hasn't found us yet... so look on the bright side, Flip, we probably won't be eaten by whatever it was."

Tricia rolled her eyes, "Gee, Axiom, that is so reassuring!"

Axiom merely stuck out her tongue, "Well worrying about it isn't going to help us, now is it?  Does anyone have a better idea of a sleeping spot for the night?"

The others remained silent.  They obviously did not.

Axiom said nothing as she laid down in preparation for sleep, which was an act that the others repeated in the dark cave.  Undoubtedly the valley would soon be aware of their absence, and their punishment would be quite severe, but each of the children had a reason for their disobedience.  Cera wanted to speak to her sister for the first time in many years... Malka wanted to see the mysterious sharpteeth that she had only heard about in tales...  Flip was here for the sake of his friends... and Axiom...

"He doesn't blame you, you know?"

Axiom curled herself into a ball and ignored the threehorn's words.  Her friend had mentioned that many times before, and her sentiments had been echoed by her parents, but she still couldn't shake the guilt of having ran while her own brother and friends were under threat.  She ignored the wetness on her face as she willed herself to sleep.

Tricia stared at her friend for several moments as Axiom tried to hide her tears.  Had Malka seen this she would have intervened, and Flip would have also asked her what was wrong, but Tricia had a far different perspective.  A perspective that had been drilled into her due to the rigors of being in threehorn society.  She would not defile her friend's privacy or demand answers that she was unwilling to give.  She would just let her know that she was there.

"I'm always here when you want to talk."

She got no response, but she did not expect one.  Sighing in fatigue and frustration she settled upon the hard rock, and tried to pretend that it was soft moss.  Soon the snores of her friends could be heard around her, and she could feel her own eyelids begin to get heavy.

See you tomorrow, Cera...

-----

Arial sighed as she heard the snoring echoing from the cave.  She had not heard much of the conversation, but she had heard enough to know that there were four children in the cave.  Four children just like her.

Four potential meals for the sharpteeth who were currently asleep.

Please get here soon, Ruby!  I don't want to do this again!

The pink dinosaur sniffed the ground once more in order to commit the leaf-eaters' scents into her memory.  Despite her reluctance she knew that she would do whatever was required to protect her family... even if that meant having more blood on her hands.

She bowed her head and walked away.  Even though it would mean more hardship for her family, part of her hoped that these children returned from wherever they came from before the Bright Circle rose the next morning.

Another hunt was fast approaching.




Go ahead and check out my fanfictions, The Seven Hunters, Songs of the Hunters, and Menders Tale.


rhombus

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Fanfiction link: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10967589/19/So...-of-the-Hunters

Chapter 18: The flyers and the buzzers

♪♪  Path took the flyer's words by heart--
And roared a meeting to order--  
But as the pack assembled to start--
There were already signs of disorder ♪♪


Biter listened as Petrie and Soar took over from his mother and began to sign an eerie chorus.  The sudden jarring shift in the narrative and the tone of the song caught him by surprise.

Why are Spotter and Soar singing the song now?

He didn't have to wait long to have his unspoken question answered.

-----

Several years ago:

"You demand what?"

Littlefoot could only stare at the purple sharptooth in amazement.  Had Chomper made such a demand a mere year earlier then his response would have been one of laughter at the supposed joke, but with his Time of Great Growing having turned the sharptooth into a rather fearsome adolescent that Littlefoot knew that he shouldn't underestimate.  Although he trusted his friend he still didn't think the idea of having an irate Tyrannosaurus on his hands was a very good one.

"Like I said, I claim everything from the stream to the prickly bushes.  I will allow the rest of you to drink from the stream, but the prey will be mine."

Littlefoot averted his eyes slightly from Chomper's unreadable expression.  He could feel the apprehension from the rest of the pack as Ruby shifted uncomfortably beside him.  He knew that this was a bit of a power play from the sharptooth.  Though he had expected this sooner or later it was difficult not to take it a bit personally.

It is the way of things, Seeker... the strong command the weaker... the larger command the smaller...

Despite his reassuring thoughts to the contrary, his mind was not entirely at peace with the idea.  He knew full well that what he was seeing was the beginning of his demotion from 'leader of the pack' to 'leader of Chomper's food chasers'.

He sighed. I need to put the well-being of the pack ahead of my pride...

"I see...  I take it that Spotter convinced you of this?"

Chomper tilted his head slightly which made Littlefoot crack the slightest of smiles.  His suspicions were confirmed.

"Spotter shares my thoughts on the matter," Chomper stated plainly, "We think that the pack should split until the younglings are passed the Age of Safety."

Taunt finally had enough of the battle of egos and attempted to lighten the mood, "Ha!  Count on Path to count our eggs before they are even laid!"

Chomper turned his head towards the orange fastbiter and took a deep breath.  This resulted in the assembled fastbiters looking at Chomper oddly to which the purple sharptooth merely rolled his eyes.

"You do realize, Taunt, that my sense of smell is much better than that of ankle-biters?" It was now the turn of the fastbiters to roll their eyes at Chomper's little insult.  Littlefoot, on the other hand, rubbed his head with his hands as he knew where this conversation was going, "Based upon what my sniffer says that you and Stern Claw have been doing for the last few days... I would say that eggs are in your future."

This acknowledgement of her private activities earned an irate growl from Cera while Taunt simply looked at her apologetically.  Though it was no secret what mates would be doing during this time, each packmate tried to hide the signs of such affections as to not distract the others.  It was then, however, that Littlefoot suddenly realized another aspect to their secretive behavior.

"It's the smell that makes fastbiters act weird during the Time of Mating... so surely we can use the stream to prevent the smells from making us act crazy?"

Chomper looked at Littlefoot with a sad smile.  He gave a small shake of the head before he delivered the bad news.

"Water may trick your sniffer, Seeker, but it won't trick your second sniffer..." he gestured into his mouth as he did this, "You may not be aware of what your second sniffer tells you, but your body is.  Remember what happened with my mommy and daddy?"

"But we aren't two-footers..."  Ruby protested weakly.

Chomper shrugged, "Perhaps not... but your kind can get dangerous around the Time of Mating.  Thud said so himself."

Littlefoot subconsciously edge closer to Ruby in a protective gesture.  He could feel the slightest bit of anger rise from somewhere deep inside him, but he was unsure of the cause.  All that he knew was that Chomper had crossed some line with his latest statement.  He was about to tell Chomper to back off when he realized what was going on.

Am I really that angry at Chomper for contradicting Ponder?

A chill went up the fastbiter's spine as the horrifying realization came to him.  Just like what had happened after they had changed, he was beginning to lose control over his reactions.  Though it was not hunger this time... it was something else.

Littlefoot knew what he had to do.

"I suppose that it wouldn't hurt to agree on our territories... if it comes to that..."

Though he did not smile, Chomper exhale of breath was enough to communicate his relief.  Even though his friend was only considering making preparations, Chomper knew that this would forestall a potential catastrophe when his packmates' instincts finally reared their ugly head.  

This was a good idea, Spotter...  I hope that your journey is going well...

-----

Me forget how crowded Red Coasts was.

The cliffs in front of the brown flyer were absolutely covered in flyers.  Flyers of all species were congregated here.  Flat-teeth flyers... sharpteeth flyers... even some that he couldn't identify.  All were engaged in the unique mating displays of their respective kinds.  It made for a chaotic deluge of color and noise that would have driven a land-dweller insane.

But not so for a flyer.  Within mere moments his eyes had fixed themselves to a group of brown flyers  on a high cliff.  Their coloration matched his own, and their less-than-modest crests made his heart beat a bit faster out of annoyance and anticipation.  These were the males of his kind... his competition... but where were the females?

"Finally decided that it was your time, huh?"

"Ahhh!!!"  Petrie took to the air at the sudden intrusion.  However, within moments, the source of the voice registered in his mind, and he settled down to land.

"Uncle?!"

Pterano laughed, "Indeed, my boy.  I haven't seen you in nearly a Night Circle cycle, how have you been?"

Petrie shifted uneasily, "Well... obviously me know it be my time."  It was then that the flyer came to a realization, "Wait, Uncle!  Are you trying to court female?"

This caused the elder flyer to laugh and shake his head,  "No, Petrie, there will be none of that in my future.  I just figured that your mother needed an escort.  The flight can be a dangerous one for a flyer."

Petrie sputtered at the overload of information, "Momma want more babies?  Me thought me and siblings already drive her crazy.  Why she want more?"

Pterano smiled at his flustered nephew, "Obviously you all have driven her crazy... otherwise she would not want more of them."  This earned him an annoyed glare from Petrie, which only made Pterano smile wider.  He quickly addressed his nephew's question, "Actually she is here to accompany her sister, and I am here for extra protection for the journey.  I don't think that your mother will be ready for these 'festivities' until next year.  I was just pulling your wing, nephew."

Petrie took a deep breath at that clarification.  "Even though me know it time for that... but it odd to think of Momma making more brothers and sisters..." he paused as if he were thinking about something deeply, "...me wonder if she have weird sleep stories like me."

Pterano was silent at that acknowledgement from his nephew.  His eyes communicated understanding, but he made no move to speak.

"...do you have those sleep-stories, uncle?"

It was only then that Pterano nodded slightly, "All flyers do, Petrie.  They show us what to do and tell us when to do it."

Petrie nodded, "That was what me thought.  The pack would be better off if they had sleep-stories to talk to them.  They not listen to Thud or me, but maybe they listen to Path..." he looked up at his uncle with a slight smile, "If you want to torment Topsy then tell him Stern Claw be mating soon."

Now it was Pterano's turn to be surprised, "It is the Time of Mating for fastbiters?"

Petrie chuckled, "If their behavior any sign, then yes."  It was then that his eyes caught something in the distance.  Something that made his heart beat faster... but not out of frustration.

"Do you see something, Petrie?"

Petrie did not turn back towards his uncle, but instead kept his head turned towards the distant scene, "Me sorry, uncle, but me got to go.  We talk next time you come to territory."

Pterano nodded, "Alright, Petrie, just remember that..."

A fluttering of wings interrupted his words.  Within moments his nephew was flying full speed towards something in the distance.  Though Pterano could not see what had gotten Petrie's attention, he could certainly guess.

Hmmm... I suppose a female would be better company than me at this time...  Good luck, nephew.

-----

The present:

"This must be when daddy met mommy!"

Dive covered his beak as soon as he realized that he had spoken out loud during the song.  The glares of his two sisters bored into him like falling boulders, but his mother's laughter quickly diffused the situation.

"Indeed it was, son, but we were not mates just yet."

"Not that you made that easy..."  Petrie muttered with some amusement.

Soar smiled at him coyly, "Well, I had to make sure that you were the right one, dear..."

The antics of her parents caught Valaria's attention, "What do you mean, Daddy?"

Their daughter's question made Petrie and Soar look at one another knowingly.  That part of the story was soon approaching.

Petrie finally spoke after a pause, "Let's just say that me had some competition."

-----

Several years ago:

Soar sighed deeply.  The scratches on her wings would heal in time but they were proving to be painful reminders of what it took for her to claim her perch.

The best cliffs attract the best males... but only for the best females.

She shuddered upon remembering her mother's words from many years ago.  She had departed her children long ago in order to raise another nest, but not before she passed on her wisdom to her sons and daughters.  That had been one of her harshest lessons.

"What do you mean by best, Momma?"

Soar stared at her mother with inquisitive eyes.  She was the smallest of the litter that yet remained, but she was far healthier than the brother and sister who had met their end.  Nass and Perdo had met their end during the harsh winter, when food was scarce and warmth was even scarcer.  The memories of them slowly fading away, and of mother tearfully ripping them apart in order to feed her remaining children would forever be imprinted on her mind.  The small flyer still had scars from fighting her brothers and sisters for the meager food that was found that terrible season.

She had resolved to never be the runt, neither in body or in demeanor.

"I mean what you think it means, Soar," her mother smiled slightly, "When it is your time you will have to be strong and fight for the best place.  The weaker females will simply have to hope that there are plenty of males around."

"What about us boys?"  Her brother, Grath, asked.

Her mother chuckled, "The story is much the same, son.  You will either need to strong to fight off your competition, swift to dodge the other males, or smart in order to fight off a stronger opponent.  Mating is not a privilege of the weak or feebleminded."


Her mother's brash words continued to echo in her mind.  She was not a brutish flyer, but she had been fierce enough to prepare her children for the harshness of the world.

Soar glared at some of the encroaching females as she again sounded off a warning call at her competitors.

"Come here and I will thrash you again!"

Two females who had moved in-between Soar's and another female's courting spot quickly dispersed to more promising areas.  They knew that a fight with Soar would not end well for them.

Hmmm... At least they aren't stupid.  They might live to find themselves a male after all.

Soar sucked in deep breaths in a bid to calm down.  She had struggled to gain a spot on the cliff for the better part of the day as the other females had expected Soar to be an easy battle due to her size. With her reputation on the cliff now established, however, she knew that her position would be much more secure.

Now it is time for the males to fight over me.

Squawk!

She fixed her attention on the sudden commotion in front of her.  Unlike the alert calls that she had been hearing for much of the day, this was one that she actually welcomed.

Finally a contender appears...

The brown flyer appeared to be roughly her size, which put him at the smaller end for her species.  Despite this, or perhaps because of his small size, he appeared to be covered in scars.  This immediately made her feel some affection for this male.

A small one like me... who had to fight to survive...

Squawk!

The calls of the other males was deafening as they finally noticed the upstart getting close to the females.  It seemed that he was trying to seek an advantage by starting the courting early.  This reminded her once more of the words of her mother.

You will either need to strong to fight off your competition, swift to dodge the other males, or smart in order to fight off a stronger opponent.  Mating is not a privilege of the weak or feebleminded.

She fixed her eyes on the upstart male. Let's see if he is up to the challenge...

-----

She seem interested!

Petrie could feel his heart swell at the female's obvious interest.  Even from this great distance he could see the multitude of females position themselves to stare at him.  However his eyes were firmly fixed on one female in particular.  She seemed so much like the flyer in his dreams...

Squawk!

Petrie froze at the sound of the approaching males.  From the cliff face the assembled males had taken flight with almost fanatical speed.  It seemed that Petrie had broken an unwritten rule of his species.

Damn it!  No one tell me these things!

He grimaced as he began to circle in the air.  Bits of battles were in his odd sleep stories, but he had not made the connection that they would be part of the courting process.  Nonetheless he knew that it was too late to change his course now.  He would either have to flee or to fight off his attackers.

How can me take them?  Me only one flyer!

He circled higher and higher into the sky as he built up momentum from the thermals of the cliffs.  As the other males got closer and closer he knew that he would soon have to use his speed in one way or another.

Squawk!  Ack!

Suddenly one of the flyers was slashed by several of the others, sending him careening headfirst into the cliff.  The sound of cracking bones and angry screeches nearly made Petrie take flight, but that was when a thought suddenly came to him.

They after me so why they attack him?

Being careful to maintain his speed, Petrie observed the rapidly advancing group of flyers.  More skirmishes were breaking out on the side of the flock facing the cliff face... on the side facing the females.

Petrie smiled, Me have idea!

-----

What is he doing?

Soar stared at the strange male with a mixture of fascination and confusion.  By instinct and tradition she was expected to favor the winner of the competition, as were the other females, but she had to admit that the brave flyer had caught her interest.

Though her interest would do him little good if he didn't survive.

As she watched in transfixed silence she could see his chest expand with each breath, his wings strain with each beat, and his body adapt effortlessly in the air.  In a situation where most flyers would have fled he continued to fly as if nothing was wrong.  It was a display that was both amazing and disconcerting.  She found herself wondering if this flyer could even feel fear.

Then he dove towards the cliffs...

-----

Petrie appeared to hug the face of the cliff as he followed its rocky contours.  Rocks passed him in all directions as he spun and maneuvered around the assembled females.  It was an impressive display that, although other males could certainly perform the feat, none would attempt it during a courtship display.

After all, it left the performer open to attack...

Squawk!  

Petrie deftly shifted to his right as the other male misjudged his descent and landed hard against the cliff.  He began to make an attempt to again take to the sky, but was swiftly attacked by another male.

"Away!  Away!"

Petrie did not dare to look back at the fight that was happening behind him, but instead maintained his course.  He knew that he had a head start on the other flyers, so he simply had to not slow down.

Slam!

Petrie dodged again as the dazed body of another flyer fell from somewhere above him.  Then, in a scene that made a chill go up his spine, he saw the swarm seem to collide with the cliff in a torrent of violence and confusion.

Squawk!   Squawk!  

"They are mine!"

"No they are mine, weakling!"

"Ahhh!!!"

In an instant male flyers entered into the protected territory of females and were attacked by competing males and females alike.  The mass of flyers began to rive like maggots feasting on a bloated corpse.  In the confusing torrent of mayhem that followed flyers could be seen falling from the rock wall, whereas other fled for their lives.  Petrie had just evened the odds by baiting the most aggressive males to attack themselves.  

However, before Petrie could gloat over his success, fate intervened.

"You!!!"

Petrie barely had time to raise his talons in a protective gesture before the larger male collided with him in midair.  Within an instant the two flyers were careening through the air with the rapidly approaching terrain circling underneath them.

Petrie gritted his beak together.

"She mine!!!"

Locking his talons securely into his opponent's, Petrie turned his head towards the face of the cliff.

And he dove...

-----

Soar clung to the edge of her perch.  The sound of battle raged all around her as females drove males away from their territory, and males fought with other males, but all of her attention was on one battle in particular.

I hope that you know what you are doing...

Her mind was like a confusing waterfall of emotions, with many rushing forth with great intensity but with little control.  In that moment she didn't stop to think about why she wanted 'her' male to win...  She didn't think about why one male was fixated on her to begin with as opposed to wanting to woo an entire group of females...  She didn't even consider why a smaller male would risk everything for her... In that moment all that mattered was the feeling in her heart.

She had fought for her perch with the dedication of a warrior.  She had received more injuries than she could count so that she could have the honor of mating with the strongest instead of being relegated to one of the lesser males.  But it was in that moment that she decided that was not what she cared about right then.  She knew what she had to do.

She dove...

-----

With a thunderous crash Petrie and the other flyer landed hard on the water below.  Petrie turned head over tail as his body slid on the soft mud that he had carefully aimed for.  However, as Petrie had intended, the other flyer impacted the sharp rocks closer to the cliff.  Despite Petrie's discomfort, he allowed himself a forced smile as he heard the sound of ripping flesh.  He knew in that moment that his plan had worked.

"You ruined my chance!  You will pay for this!"

Petrie groggily shook his head as the blurry form of the other flyer came into focus.  He seemed to be just as beat up as Petrie, with numerous lacerations covering his body, but yet he seemed ready to continue the struggle that he had started.

"Ha!  You not get female down here!"  Petrie taunted as he struggled to regain his footing.  The possibility of taking flight was one that he quickly discarded.  The other flyer would be upon him before he could get airborne.  "Why you not fight for other female?  Leave mine alone!"

The other flyer spat at Petrie, "You insufferable bastard!  The females were mine to have.  You hear me?  Mine!  All mine!"  It was only now that the flyer rose to his full height and Petrie could see that his boast was not founded in fantasy.  He could have easily secured numerous females through intimidation alone.  However, his lacerated wings would prevent any displays for females on this day.  Petrie's little stunt had brought his Time of Mating to a sudden end. "Now look at my wings, runt!  I will see to it that this is your last journey to the Red Coasts!"

Petrie stepped back as he shifted his weight to the back of his talons.  He knew that although flight was out of the question the possibility of his opponent leaping using his powerful leg muscles was quite high.  He would have to tread carefully if he were to have a chance.

He didn't have to wait long for the attack to come.

Splash!

Petrie quickly leapt to his right as the massive flyer landed where his body was previously.  A massive wave of water erupted from the other flyer as he impacted the shallow water.  Unfortunately this was enough of a distraction for the flyer's next move to catch Petrie by surprise.

"Ahhh!!"

Petrie dodged just in time as the flyer landed again.  In his haste to escape, however, Petrie had landed on his back in the shallow water.  His opponent now had the flyer exactly where he wanted him.

Splash!

Using the only option that he had at his disposal, Petrie slapped water into the flyer's face with his wings and regained his footing against the walls of the cliff.  He now could no longer move forward as the other flyer had him cornered.  He could only move in for an attack against a stronger enemy, or parry to either side, leaving him open for attack.  Either way he knew that his opponent had gained the upper hand.

Petrie grimaced at the cocky smile on the other flyer's face as he place his talons against the wall behind him.  He knew that his next move could very well be his last.  He resolved to ensure that it would rip that look off of his enemy's face.

However, he never got the chance.

Crack!

Petrie let himself fall against the hard cliff face behind him.  The massive flyer which had been towering over him now lay in the water as the it quickly turned a shade of crimson.  It was with a dawning sense of horror that Petrie slowly looked up from his enemy's shattered neck to see what new fiend had replaced his foe.

"You?"

In that instant the female flyer looked to Petrie as if the sky itself had taken corporal form.  Her eyes radiated kindness, as her talons were bathed in the fallen flyer's blood.  Her hide was imbued in the most beautiful shade of brown that Petrie had ever seen, but covered in scars that only harsh experience could give.  Her previous position was lofty, but now she was sitting on the ground.  She was a confusing series of contradictions that he could not begin to understand in that moment.  In that moment he could only offer his wing to the female as a show of submission.  This was a gesture that she repeated as Petrie mutely rose back to his feet.

She smiled at Petrie's obvious shyness.  The quickening of his heartbeat when her wing touched his only made her smile grow wider.

"Yes, I think that you are the one..."  Petrie held his breath at her words, "...after all, you only had eyes for me, didn't you?"

Petrie could only nod at her statement.  He wanted to say so much, but his body would not comply.  He was both fascinated and transfixed by this female who seemed to look through him.

She moved a bit closer at his affirmative nod.  Now only a flyer's length separated them.

"You know, flyer, males are supposed to get as many females as possible...  Why did you want to settle for one?"

Petrie swallowed, "The same reason you settled on Spotter... you leave your spot for me..." The significance of her gesture was not fully understood by Petrie, but he did realize that it was a sacrifice of some kind.  However her next words stunned him.

"I gave up on mating with best in order to be with you..."  Petrie was agape at those words as she tilted her head at him, "...because I think you are the best."

Petrie froze, "Me not strongest..."

She smiled, "Nor are you the best talker, but you do have two things going for you, Spotter." she leaned in to his ear as she looked up at the continuing battle above them.  Undoubtedly some of the battle now involved a scramble for her old perch, "You stick to whatever you put your mind to..."

Petrie breathed, "And... the other thing?"

She looked into his eyes, "You chose me, which means that you are smarter than any of the numbskulls above us!"

Petrie didn't know how to act at first, but within moments both of the flyers were snickering at one another.  The snickering soon turned into chuckling, which then descended into raucous laughter.  The terror, confusion, and determination of the previous few moments had been replaced with relief.  Now they were together.

It took several moments, but finally their laughter subsided.  A friendly silence replaced their previous commotion, but Petrie found that he was uncertain about how to proceed.  The sleep stories had showed him how to make the flight with his love, but not when was the appropriate time to begin.  So, as he had grown accustomed to during his time as a sharptooth flyer, he carefully observed his companion.  Trusting that she would indicate how to proceed.

He didn't have to wait long.

She quickly noticed this change in her chosen male and edged away from the cliff face.  Tilting her head towards the sky she looked at Petrie coyly.

"I am in the mood for a flight... care to join me?"

She didn't have to ask twice.

-----

The present, the pack's territory:

My sister has to be around here somewhere.

Orchid looked around frantically for any sign of Ruby or her pack.  He knew from the old directions that Petrie had given them over a year ago the general location of the pack's lands, but not specifically where the pack would be.  After all, sharpteeth would move to follow the herds.

At least the fish and plants stay put for the most part, he thought sardonically.

The pack's territory did not make his task any easier.  All that he had seen since he arrived was a sprawling forest, which was punctuated by a major stream and many smaller tributaries.  This made the act of even finding out when he was going in circles a difficult one.  It was enough to make Orchid wish that he had his sister's observation skills.

However the fastrunner did not know that he was being observed himself.

"It has certainly been a long time, Orchid."

The fastrunner cowered at the sudden roar, which seemed to come from the very ground itself.  Its low tones seemed to echo in his skull in a frightful way that was both alien and familiar all at the same time.  The massive voice was soon replaced with a growing rumbling in the distance.  It only took a few moments for the nearby trees to part and a massive purple sharptooth to appear.

"Ch..Chomper?"

The large dinosaur laughed with a roar that made the ground shake, "I never forget a scent.  You were a lot smaller the last time that I saw you, but you are certainly Ponder's brother."

"So... so were you."  Orchid admitted as the fastrunner slowly got up from his prone position.  The sharptooth was nearly as large as a full-grown tyrannosaurus now, and his purple hue only made him stand out even more conspicuously against the night sky.  The reflective radiance of the Night Circle gave him almost an ethereal glow as he stood over the small omnivore like a towering colossus.  Despite the fastrunner's misgivings about Chomper's parents, he knew that he had no choice but to enlist his help and that of the pack.

"Forgive me for asking this, but why are you here, half-tooth?"  Orchid was frozen by Chomper's question despite its reasonableness, "Are Seeker and the others alright?"

Orchid tilted his head, "I was about to ask the same thing.  My sister and her friends are still here, aren't they?"  He was suddenly struck with the thought that perhaps Chomper and the rest of the pack may have gone their own ways.  Path does look to be of mating age...  "I need to talk with them."

Chomper relaxed slightly, but remained guarded, "Oh, so you haven't met them?  They were heading towards your home."

"They what?!"  Orchid asked in shock.  Had the pack already heard of his family's misfortune through other means?

Chomper did not appear to catch the fastrunner's shock, "It is a long story, but the pack found some younglings that would be too much trouble to eat, so they are returning them to the valley.  The leaf-eaters and them decided to meet up at Hanging Rock."

Orchid froze as his expression turned grim.  Gone was his hope of enlisting the help of his sister in convincing the sharpteeth to leave his territory.  In its place was a new fear.  The fear of what would happen when the pack's obligations collided with the needs of Chomper's parents.  He had no doubt that Ruby and the others would keep their word to the leaf-eaters, and would defend the dignity of Ruby's family, but what would Chomper's parents do?  An odd screeching noise began to rise from the fastrunner's beak as he grinded his teeth together.  It was only now that Chomper saw the full extent of the dinosaur's agitation.

"Orchid, what's wrong?" Chomper asked with sudden concern.

"Chomper... We have a serious problem."








Go ahead and check out my fanfictions, The Seven Hunters, Songs of the Hunters, and Menders Tale.


rhombus

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Fanfiction link: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10967589/20/So...-of-the-Hunters

Chapter 19: Growing apart

Biter tilted his head as the Petrie echoed his final verse.

♪♪  As me and she fly away,
we took no head of the fading day,
But as twilight turned to night,
The pack's problems began to take flight  ♪♪


He is talking about our mommies and daddies! Biter deduced, as the pack was finally referenced after a long fixation on the two flyers.  He had been interested in Petrie's and Soar's story, but for obvious reasons the tale of his parents interested him more.  What happened to all of them?

He spared a glance at his father as he thought his curious thoughts.  Littlefoot was looking at Ruby knowingly as they seemed to carry on a conversation with their eyes.  The slight tinge of embarrassment on Littlefoot's face, and the supportive look of Ruby made a chill go up the youngling's spine.  He remembered the adults singing about the possibility of the pack splitting up, but the significance of his father's response was uncertain to him.  Was he the one that caused the splitting of the ways?  Part of him wanted to ask his parents what happened, but a slight pinch caught his attention before he could say anything.

Swipe's face greeted his, but there was none of the usual playfulness in her expression.  Instead she simply gave a friendly shake of the head which communicated her message clearly.

Let mommy and daddy tell us in the song.

Biter paused and briefly considered responding in kind to his sister, but he soon thought better of it.  She was right, of course.  The rest of the song would soon be sung, and their questions would undoubtedly be answered.

"Alright, children, I think that we might want to leave it there for tonight."

Before he realized what he was doing, Biter could feel the whine escape his throat at his father's announcement.  His whine was barely heard, however, over the combined protests of the rest of the assembled children.  Even Sauria's loud 'boo' could be heard in the cascade of dissents.  It was enough to make Ducky laugh openly.

"Don't worry, children!  We will finish tomorrow, yep, yep, yep!  But all of you will need to get some sleep before then."

Spike nodded, "We will have another long day of travel.  You might even be too tired to stay up to hear the rest of the songs..."

A chorus of protests arose from the children as Spike smiled widely in Taunt's direction.  Spike knew how to get the children into a frenzy, and Taunt nodded at his handiwork.  This then caused all of the adults to stare in Littlefoot's direction as he feigned annoyance, but he eyes gave away his insincerity.  

After all, the best way to get the children to agree to something is to make them think that they have won...

"All right, we can do one more song tonight, but then it will be time for sleep.  No exceptions!"

The children cheered in agreement as Littlefoot looked over at the other parents with amusement and a wink.  Their little conspiracy had worked.  Then, after a long stretch for his legs, he positioned himself in the center of the circle.

"Alright, Taunt, I think it is time for us to tell our tale.  Tonight, children, you will hear how the pack parted ways."

Biter watched in transfixed silence as Taunt joined his father in the circle, and gave a quick bow that was quickly reciprocated.  It was one of the most important gestures that a sharptooth knew by instinct.  The gesture that let everyone know that what followed was an act, or play.  The sort of gesture that one would only do prior to sparring or demonstrating a dangerous attack.  Its offering by both adults before the song indicated the severity of what was about to not only be sung, but also acted out, in front of the children.  It was enough to seriously worry both Biter and several of Taunt's children.

"Dad?"  Biter asked in confusion.

"Daddy?"  Pouncer offered with great concern.

Littlefoot turned towards the children and gave them a calming smile.  Taunt, for his part, addressed their concerns.

"Many things were done in those days that none of us are proud of.  Friends attacked friends," gasps erupted from several of the children, "and a darkness descended over us that we had not seen except in hunger madness."

Littlefoot nodded, "We have long since made peace with what happened, and asked for forgiveness from those we have hurt, but the emotions are still raw, children." his face took on a stern expression, "So I ask all of you to promise us that you will not be angry at your friends' parents, or taunt your friends about what happened back then... it is all in the past."

The children mutely nodded, Littlefoot and Taunt's explanation having scared them more than it reassured them.  Now they truly had an indication of what happened during those dark times.  And it wasn't good.

Littlefoot took a deep breath upon seeing the stunned agreement of the children, "We will now sing to you the Song of the Parting of Ways."

-----

Several years ago:

"I could have taken the swimmer!"

"And leave the pack's flank exposed?"

"You don't need to make all of the kills, Seeker.  The rest of us are quite capable..."


Littlefoot shivered at the memory of the day's hunt.  They had managed to bring down the swimmer, but Taunt had taken it as a personal affront that Littlefoot had called him off and made the kill.  Deep inside Littlefoot wanted to diffuse the situation.  He knew that in his desire to protect the rest of the pack he was being a bit too zealous in his efforts.  However, in that moment, his instincts got the best of him.

"Says the sharptooth who left his packmates exposed..."

Taunt froze as those words left his leader's mouth.  Everyone else stopped as well at Littlefoot's utterance.  It was nearly unheard of for him to openly insult another packmate in a non-jocular way.  In the seconds that passed Cera carefully positioned herself beside her mate in a show of support, while Ruby did the same behind Littlefoot.  The others stayed where they were, as if they had no idea where to go.

"What did you say to me?"

Taunt raised his head defiantly at Littlefoot's insult, not moving from his position.  It was a challenge.

Littlefoot hesitated at Taunt's open defiance.  He had spoken without thinking, and his instinct-crazed mind had made the situation infinitely worse.  However in that instant he didn't dare consider the possibility of apologizing or backing down.  He was the leader, and Taunt was showing him up in front of his mate!  He would not yield here.

"You heard what I said."

The words were cold and emotionless.  The utter lack of affect even surprised Ruby who let out a small squeak behind her mate.  Meanwhile, Cera was uncharacteristically standing behind her mate and said nothing.  Had any of them been thinking rationally then they would have tried to stop the situation or talked sense into the participants, but everyone remained silent.

Only the two fastbiters growling broke the silence.

Without considering what his actions meant, Littlefoot clinched his claws and placed his full weight on his back legs.  He would not permit a challenger to stand unopposed!  He was the leader!  His challenger would either yield or fall.

"Hey, guys, what is going on?"

Littlefoot jerked at the sudden bellow across the territory.  A small part of his mind told him that the voice belonged to Chomper but in that moment it screamed 'bigger sharptooth!'.  He knew that this challenge would have to wait for another day.

"Guys!"

The purple sharptooth could be heard running as the ground shook with the reverberations of his footsteps.  This was what finally motivated Taunt to speak.

"We will settle this tomorrow."

Littlefoot glared at Taunt, "I will meet you tooth and claw any day."

Both fastbiters turned around without a sound as their mates followed them wordlessly.  In their wake the rest of the pack could only watch as their packmates went to their respective sleeping areas.  It was in this state that Chomper found the dead swimmer and the rest of the pack.

"What in the name of sanity is going on?!"


"Dear?"

Littlefoot jerked violently as his mate called for him.  This caused her to shrink back into their sleeping area, which was now more of a nest than anything else.  The submissiveness of her actions were completely unlike her some part of his mind confided in him, but a deeper part told him that this was the way of things when eggs were coming.

I am expendable; she is not.  I must protect our position.

"Yes, dear?" he attempted to put on his bravest face as he faced her, but his eyes could not hide his agitation.  Nor, for that matter, could his trembling claws.

Ruby paused for a moment before she took a few steps out of the nest.  Her demeanor changed in those few moments, his mind noted, as something seemed to harden in her demeanor even as her eyes remained as sympathetic as ever.

"How are you holding up, dear?"

Littlefoot clinched his clawed hand, "As well as can be expected.  I never expected to be challenged... especially not by one of my friends."

Ruby nodded as she nuzzled his side, "Surely there is some way out of this?"

The brown fastbiter shook his head as he looked at the vines that he had prepared earlier.  They were laid out with great precision.  A reminder of what he would face the next day.  Only now they would not be protecting him from the enemy, but from a threat much closer to home.

"I... don't think so, Ponder.  Not unless Taunt sees reason and backs down."

He fell silent after those words and looked at the vines once more.  These were nearly a month old now, and were ready to be replaced with a newer batch.  He could see the signs of wear and tear on their surface... the ripping at the edges from constant use... and even a familiar set of claw marks on the vines for his neck.

Taunt's claw marks.

He remembered that day like it was yesterday.  He had been sparring with several of the other members of the pack, a regular occurrence for all of them.  Ever since the Battle for the Valley they resolved to always remain in top physical form, and with robust vines covering their bodies the risk of injury was greatly reduced.  It was this security, however, that allowed Littlefoot to get too cocky.  It was then that he learned another lesson in humility.

"Come on, Taunt!  I know spiketails that are faster than you!"

Littlefoot smiled as his little insult had the desired effect.  Taunt lunged forward and attempted to slash at Littlefoot's neck, but he easily dodged to the right and retaliated with a slash to Taunt's retreating arms.  He was able to make a glancing blow against the vines on Taunt's arm.

"Arm strike!  Keep fighting!"

Littlefoot grimaced at the announcement from Petrie.  In order to prevent injuries the pack had decided to only fight until a 'lethal' blow was delivered.  After all, that was what it would take to win a battle.

The two fastbiters began to circle one another as each looked for an opening.  The distant forms of their friends were ignored as each predator only focused on their counterpart.

"Come on, dung-for-brains!  Are you going to chase your tail all day?!"

Littlefoot glared at Taunt.  Even though this was only practice, the petty insults each threw at one another were quite effective at eliciting rage.  Here in the meeting circle they agreed that there would be no limits to the vitriol in their threats and insults, as in a battle they would have to remain calm no matter the instigation.

However it seemed that no one was better at finding the right words than Taunt.

"Are you this slow when you are with your mate at night?"

Boiling hot rage descended upon Littlefoot at Taunt's accusation.  For reasons that would remain a mystery to him for quite some time, Taunt's words against his prowess as a male fastbiter made something snap inside of him.  The result was instantaneous.

Roar!

With a massive burst of energy from his legs, Littlefoot propelled himself forward and slashed blindly at Taunt's head.  In the resulting blur, Littlefoot could not see how the other fastbiter had evaded him, but he could see that he now had his back turned and was preparing to flee.  The predatory part of his mind knew that this was the right time to strike.  Without thinking of anything else Littlefoot leapt into the air, his aim squarely at Taunt's back.

Slash!

"Stop fighting!"

"Oh no!  Seeker are you alright?!"

It took several moments for Littlefoot to realize what happened.  He had been in mid-leap for Taunt's vine-covered back when the sudden appearance of an orange tail and a flash of claws entered his vision.  Then there was only the brown hues of dirt.  

His thoughts were confused, 'Taunt tricked me?'

"Hey, Seeker, are you alright?"

Littlefoot looked up as Taunt looked down upon him with concern.  His face was joined by Ruby's and Ducky's as Cera carefully examined his neck.

"That was too close, dear!" Cera reprimanded her mate, "You nearly cut the vines all of the way through!"

"I didn't exactly give him much of a chance, Stern Claw..." Cera shifted her gaze to Littlefoot as he began speaking, "...not unless he wanted a chunk out of his back..."

Relieved to see that her mate was relatively uninjured, Ruby pushed through the others and gave Litlefoot a light nuzzle.  Her offer of a helping hand was readily accepted as Littlefoot rose to his feet once more.  Now he could see the rest of the pack and their relieved expressions.  However, it was the look of one fastbiter in particular that surprised him.

Taunt's eyes were wide with worry, as his head was downcast with a look of shame.  His tail drooped and his scent radiated misgivings for his actions.  It was only then that Littlefoot realized how much his actions had affected the fastbiter.  Taunt had no choice but to defend himself or risk injury, but yet he still regretted striking his friend.

Taunt jerked as Littlefoot patted him on the shoulder.

"I think that you won that round, Taunt."

Taunt hesitated, "Seeker... I'm..."

Littlefoot waved him off, "No one can fault you for defending yourself," then seeing that he still looked penitent he continued, "I'm just glad that you are on my side!"

It was only then that Taunt laughed with his characteristic humor.  Regardless of their respective flaws, Taunt and Littlefoot were good friends and packmates.  Nothing would ever change that.


Littlefoot gulped as the intruding memory faded from his consciousness.  He had no idea that his overreaction to Taunt's insult was the beginning of something more serious, nor did any of them see the signs of heightened emotion.  The change in his perspective and behavior was now too much for Littlefoot to ignore as Thud's cautionary words echoed in his head.  Worse yet, his most recent words to Taunt only confirmed how far he had come from the friendly, forgiving leader that he was a mere month ago.

"I will meet you tooth and claw any day."

Littlefoot shuddered at the memory of his words.  It was exactly the sort of threat that Calin would have made to his underlings.  What was he becoming?

"What have I done?"

He closed his eyes as the slow breathing of his mate beside him made his body shudder.  Ruby's loyalty during this time was the only thing that prevented him from breaking down completely.  It was an almost unthinking loyalty, some part of his mind cautioned.  The kind of loyalty that only existed between mates and the closest of friends.

Like the one that he just challenged.

"If you hadn't held your ground, then he might have taken yours.  If he had taken yours then you wouldn't be leader anymore."

Littlefoot sighed at Ruby's words, "But at what cost, Ponder?  Taunt is my friend!"

Ruby broke away from him and looked him up and down with a fatigued expression, "He is my friend too, but I am more concerned about you, dear.  You were right not to back down, but you need to stop this before it goes too far."

Littlefoot nodded, "Taunt might get hurt."

Ruby glared at him, "You might get hurt.  That is what I am concerned about!"

Littlefoot smiled at her with confidence that did not reach his eyes.

"I will be alright, dear.  I have thought of a way to get out of this honorably... I just hope that that smug bastard is smart enough to understand what I am doing."

Ruby didn't bother to confirm the identity of whom Littlefoot was speaking, "...and if he isn't?"

Littlefoot frowned as his eyes turned cold, "If he wants to learn his lesson the hard way then so be it."

Ruby closed her eyes and shook her head sadly as her mate embraced her once more.  She could only hope that the coming night would not be the last time that she felt that embrace.  

-----

"Just who does he think he is?!"

Taunt slashed the tree with unrestrained fury as splinters of bark flew from its surface like flyers from a cliff.  He had struggled for many moments to control his rage, but nothing seemed to work.  He had been talked down to by his own leader, and the loss of face infuriated him on an almost primal level.  The reason for his extreme reaction, or the retort from Littlefoot did not matter to him in this moment of passion.  All that mattered was the restoration of his position.

My children will not have a coward for a father!

Behind him Cera's concerned form watched his battle with the tree in silent contemplation.  She knew that it would be useless to try to talk him down in his current state, nor to convince him that his anger was misplaced.  She too had felt the burning anger at having her mate so easily dismissed, but unlike Taunt she had noticed the hesitation.  Littlefoot knew he had gone too far, but could not bring himself to retract his words.  Not in the face of outright opposition to his authority.

She sighed as the sounds of slashing ended and her mate's heavy breathing took its place.  She could see that though his energy had been dissipated, his anger had not.  The fury in his eyes still radiated out into the fading sunlight.

"He hesitated, you know."

Taunt turned from his position in front of the tree at his mate's sudden statement.  Confusion clouded his eyes for a moment, which gave him an almost crazed look, before they were again overtaken by his anger.

"That won't serve him well when he faces me then.  A slow fastbiter is a dead fastbiter."

Cera frowned.  She scraped her hind leg on the ground as if she were making a scrape to rest in, but then promptly sat down in front of where she had been standing.  She knew her mate well enough to understand when he was speaking reasonably or not.  

"Do you plan on making him a dead fastbiter?"

The momentary look of shock on Taunt's face was enough confirmation for her that some part of him realized how insane this situation was.  For that reason she ignored his next statement.

"He said that he would meet me tooth and claw any day!  If he dies then he will have no one to blame but himself!"

He promptly faced the tree again and took on a fighting stance as if he were going to slash some more bark off of its face.  However, he did not move in on his fictional opponent, but merely glared at it as if it were the most obscene thing in the world.  Some part of Cera mused that this was the perfect analogy for their current situation.  Waiting for a stupid battle that was started for stupid reasons by two males who could act very stupid when it suited them.

When she clasped her hand on his shoulder he nearly yelped in surprise.

"You didn't say 'yes' to my question."

Taunt frowned and groaned in annoyance, "I didn't say 'no' either."

Cera nodded as Taunt finally faced her again, "No, but I know you, dear.  You want to knock some sense into him... heck, I want to do that too... but you don't want to murder your friend," she frowned at him, "You are not that kind of fastbiter."

Taunt held his gaze for only a few seconds before looking away and giving a heavy sigh.

"No... No I am not, but I might have to be after tomorrow.  I can't just back down, Stern Claw!  I just can't!  You deserve better than that and so do our children!"

Cera fell silent upon that outburst.  She knew quite well that was the crux of the problem, but she had to force Taunt to admit it.

"Damn it, Dad, why did you have to be right about the Time of Mating?"

Cera sighed as she sat beside her mate and joined him in watching the falling of the Bright Circle.  The sounds of distant flyers and the bellows of unseen leaf-eaters gave the fading day a sense of normalcy that was terribly out of place on this day of uncontrolled passions.  Cera could only muse on its meaning.  Was it the calm before the storm, or a sign of calmer days ahead?

"If you want to back down, dear, I won't think any less of you."

Taunt turned towards his mate with an almost insulted expression, before calming slightly when he saw her concerned face.

"I will not back down, Stern Claw.  This must be."

Cera sighed as she watched the pink hues of the setting Bright Circle fill the cloudless sky.  She was not always the most introspective dinosaur, but she knew her mate well.  What he needed was a change of perspective.  Her perspective, to be more precise.

"I used to be a threehorn, Taunt.  I was taught by my father to never back down from a fight, and to fight until you couldn't carry on anymore.  I was taught to never show weakness, because it was only by acting strong that the herd was motivated to stay strong.  And I followed those words without question until I was five Cold Times old, and do you know who taught me to back down every once in a while?"

Taunt remained silent, but reluctantly nodded for her to continue.

"Seeker was even more annoying as a longneck, if you can believe it.  He kept on insisting that he knew the right way to the valley because his mother told him before she died.  Well finally after being chased by sharpteeth, having no food or water, and dealing with his smug face the whole damn trip I finally snapped."

Taunt blinked, his anger having been pushed aside by his curiosity.  He had not heard this part of the story before, "What happened?"

"I insulted his dead mother."  Taunt stared wide-eyed at her, "He demanded an apology.  From me.  A threehorn.  It was that fight that led the gang to split up."

Taunt licked his teeth nervously before he spoke with a disbelieving voice, "You guys split up?"

Cera nodded.  "Yep, it seemed like a good idea at the time.  The others decided on following my lead, whereas Seeker went on his own.  Thank goodness he came back for us after he found the valley otherwise we all would have been dead," she looked at him with an almost sheepish expression, "There is a reason that I let him be the leader in our little adventures."

Taunt looked down for several moments as he drooped his shoulders in a look of defeat.

"If you think it is best for the pack that I back down, Stern Claw..." he clinched his claws tightly as he grinded his teeth, "Then I will back down.  I will do it for you..."

Cera interrupted, "Taunt..."

"But don't think that I will forget his insult.  If I back down then I will never be able to look at the others again."

Cera growled, "I am not asking you to back down!"  Taunt tilted his head in confusion at that clarification, which made Cera sigh, "I am asking you to give him a chance to make amends.  Just like I did after we got to the valley.  If a young arrogant threehorn could admit to a longneck that she was wrong, then I know that Seeker can do the same.  You just have to give him a chance.  He is our friend, Taunt.  Even if he may not seem like it right now."

Taunt was silent for several moments as he processed his mate's words.  The anger was still there.  The idea that another male would try to insult him in front of his mate was outrageous to the extreme in his eyes.  But I did force the matter with my challenge.  A leader can't stand down from that and still be leader...

"I really screwed things up, didn't I?"

Cera nuzzled Taunt's neck as she growled softly, "Yes, you did.  But not as much as Seeker.  Just promise me one thing, dear."

Taunt nodded his head, "Anything, you name it."

Cera closed her eyes, "Just promise me that you will get back to me in one piece."

Taunt didn't blink, "I promise."

The two fastbiters then embraced as the Night Circle took watch over the skies.  Its pale light illuminating the pack's entire territory as day became but a distant memory.  Neither of the two would-be combatants knew of the meeting that had just ended by the stream.

Its consequences would be felt for seasons to come.

-----

The next day:

Ruby was awakened by a sudden touch on her shoulder.

"It's time, dear."

The rose-colored fastbiter's eyes opened with glassy incomprehension before finally settling in grim realization.  The Bright Circle was high in the sky and the sound of singing flyers could be heard.  Above her, her mate wore an oddly emotionless expression as vines covered his arms and chest.  Protection from what was about to come.

"Seeker..."

She did not push back when Littlefoot suddenly embraced her.  It took everything that she could muster to avoid shaking with fear in anticipation of what awaited him.  But she knew that he needed her to be strong at that moment.  He would have enough doubts without her adding to his inner struggles.  It was only when he broke away that he finally spoke again.

"I hope... that he realizes what I am doing."

Ruby tried to put on a brave face, but her eyes betrayed her uncertainty, "I'm sure that he will, dear.  Just... be prepared in the event that he does not."

The brown fastbiter nodded grimly, "If it comes to that then I will be ready."

Roar!

Littlefoot closed his eyes as the echo of the roar seemed to vibrate through his bones.  That was the alert call, and he knew what was coming next.

Roar!

"Well, I suppose that I shouldn't keep him waiting," he gave Ruby a sad smile, "It is time to end this."

With a sad sigh Ruby nodded at her mate's words.  Littlefoot and Taunt had placed themselves in an impossible situation where neither could back down and still save face.  Now it had come to this.  Thud's words had never seemed more prophetic.

If we had just split up like he recommended then we wouldn't be in this place... Her mind reluctantly acknowledged the truth, He didn't want to appear weak in front of me, and Taunt did not want to appear weak in front of Stern Claw... We really messed up!

With solemn silence the two fastbiters walked the short distance between their sleeping area, and the pack's usual meeting area.  It did not take long for the distinct forms of the other packmates to appear in the distance, while Chomper was nowhere to be seen.  The fact that Cera and Taunt were positioned side-by-side only heightened the tension in the waiting group.  Each of the others stood by their mates, neither looking directly at the two competitors.  Only Taunt's yellow eyes greeted his with their cold, unreadable gaze.

Littlefoot willed his body into remaining calm as he approached the meeting circle with his head held high.  He slowly looked at the other packmates in order to assess the situation.  The obvious glare from Taunt and Cera standing by his side was not unexpected, but the apathetic expression of the others surprised him.  It was as if they had already made up their minds about something.

Littlefoot frowned.  He... or Taunt... would have to deal with that later.  Now he had a challenge to attend to.

Littlefoot shifted his gaze once more at Taunt's blazing yellow eyes.  They were as unreadable as ever, though Taunt's scent communicated nervousness.  Welcome to the club, Taunt.

"You are here to challenge me then?"

Littlefoot was careful to keep his voice neutral despite his instincts telling him to rip Taunt limb by limb.  He now fully realized what was going on, and what he needed to keep under control.

"I am... unless you admit your fault."

Littlefoot blinked at this.  This was not the same obstinence that he had experienced the day before.  They were ready to go to blows before Chomper had intervened.  He resisted the urge to visibly relax at this fortuitous change, but his hopes were raised nonetheless.

"To admit fault during a challenge is to admit defeat," Littlefoot intoned cautiously, "Are you demanding that I step down?"

Taunt's tail twitched several times as Cera visibly tensed.  However, Taunt's words were controlled even though they were a bit terse.

"I am demanding an apology.  That is what I demand."

Littlefoot could see the other packmates shift uncomfortably in the background as mutterings could begin to be heard.  Some part of his mind noted that it was an odd reaction, but he forced his attention squarely on the subject at hand.  Taunt had given him an opening, so it was only right for him to do the same.  He tried to hide his nervousness as his tail gave a slight tremor.  If Taunt failed to take what he was about to propose then he had little hope of resolving the issue peacefully.

 "If you step away from your challenge then I will step away from my words."

There it was.  The only peace offering that Littlefoot could make without stepping aside as a matter of tradition.  An offer to return back to the status quo, and a way to apologize for his mistakes.  He knew that to offer an apology even after a challenge was withdrawn would be seen as weakness in many packs.  A possible grounds for further challengers.  However, he knew his packmates.  If this unfortunate matter was put aside then they would welcome it with open arms.

The mutterings among his packmates stopped as the reverberations of Chomper's footsteps could be heard in the background.  The others seemed to hold their breath waiting for Taunt's response.  Would he accept this offer or would he force Littlefoot's hand?

-----

Taunt resisted the urge to shift uneasily as Littlefoot's stern form stared at him with an unblinking expression.  He met his counterpart's expression with a stoic glare of his own.  The words from his pack leader still echoing in his mind.

"If you step away from your challenge then I will step away from my words."

He took a shaky breath as he considered what Littlefoot was offering him.  He would not allow Taunt to best him in the challenge, but he would renounce his hurtful words from the day before.  Part of him demanded that he fight this to its conclusion.  That he not give Littlefoot any way to save face.  That he show his dominance here and now.

No... That is instinct talking... I have to be strong here.  He is my friend!

He took another breath as he stepped forward towards Littlefoot's position.  He could see his friend tense up as he prepared for any eventuality, but Littlefoot refused to leave his place.  The pack leader refused to resort to violence, but yet he refused to show any weakness either.

Neither will I.

"Very well, Seeker."

The sound of exhaling could be heard from the assembled fastbiters as the realization of what happened registered in their minds.  Littlefoot relaxed slightly as well as his tail sagged in a mixture of fatigue and relief.  It was only when Taunt saw this that he averted his eyes and calmed his racing heart.  It was over.

Roar!

Taunt froze at the sudden deafening percussion.  Littlefoot also froze in confusion as he spared Taunt a surprised look.  It was an expression that Taunt returned before he turned towards the source of the sudden roar.

Chomper.

"I am pleased that you two have made up, but this cannot continue."

Taunt tilted his head at Chomper's imperious tone.  It was not a statement of opinion that Chomper was offering, but rather a direct order.  It was only then that he noticed the positions of the others.

They were standing in front of Chomper.  A show of solidarity.  Taunt's mind couldn't wrap itself around the meaning of this, but Littlefoot knew right away.

"You're challenging me, Path?"

Taunt looked at his friend, which had mere moments before been his adversary.  The sound of betrayal in his voice made something rise in Taunt's throat.  The loyalty that he had nearly betrayed the previous day had now returned in full force.  He did not consider the meaning of this sudden change in feeling, but Chomper was all too aware of its meaning.

"Even now Taunt stands beside you protectively, Seeker.  He was ready to attack you yesterday.  What does that tell you?"

Taunt stepped back as if he had been struck.  Littlefoot's response was immediate and harsh.

"I will ask again: are you challenging me?"

Now Taunt could see what Chomper was getting at.  Littlefoot had just made a magnanimous offering of peace to Taunt moments before, but now he was as obstinate as Taunt was the previous day.  His concern began to change to horror.

Chomper snorted, "Listen to yourself, Seeker!  You sound just like you did yesterday.  At this rate how many of your friends you will attack before Ponder lays her eggs?"

"This has to stop!  I don't want to see anyone hurt.  No, no, no!"

It was only now that Littlefoot looked at the assembled pack in front of Chomper and considered its significance.  Ducky was the first fastbiter to say anything beside Littlefoot and Taunt.  But she was not the last.

"I can feel anger when I am by Finder, even though he is my friend and Haven's brother.  What could happen if one of us goes to blows?"  Leap offered, "How would I explain myself to my mate?"

"And it's getting worse!" Spike exclaimed uncharacteristically, "How bad is it going to get?"

Littlefoot was seething, "Have all of you turned against me?"

Taunt looked helplessly at Chomper.  He could not imagine what the situation seemed like from Littlefoot's perspective.  For Taunt this was merely the confirmation of what needed to be done, but for Littlefoot it was nothing less than a coup.

"Littlefoot..."

Littlefoot merely glared at Taunt's use of his leaf-eater name as the brown fastbiter advanced towards Chomper.  It was only now that Cera dared move into the meeting circle and whisper in her mate's ear.

"We need to stop this!"

Taunt sighed and whispered back, "What can we do?  Path is right you know."

Littlefoot did not hear the hushed conversation behind him as his attention was directed firmly on the purple sharptooth that lay before him.  Eventually he stopped and addressed him directly.

"How can you do this, Path?!  And all of you!  Haven...  Leap...  Finder..."  He was nearly hysterical, "Have I not been a good leader?"

Ruby advanced to his side, "Dear..."

Littlefoot looked down as the reality of the situation became apparent to him.

"Dear... it's over."

Taunt sucked in a breath at the events playing out in front of him.  It seemed that the rest of the pack wanted to avoid a bloodbath, and they had called upon the only dinosaur that they knew who could bring the fastbiters under control.

"I am now the pack leader!"  Chomper exclaimed loudly.  The resulting silence made a shiver go up Taunt's spine.  Not a single sign of protest emanated from the pack.  "And I will be until all of you are fit to be a pack again!"

Taunt closed his eyes.  He knew what was coming.

"You are my friend, Seeker, even if you don't think so right now.  It is time to do what is best for the pack, and deep down you know what that means right now."  Littlefoot did not stir as he continued to look down at the ground below him.  Chomper merely shook his head and continued,  "Go to your territories, lay your eggs, and care for your children.  The Bright Circle will rise over the pack again one day, but it will not for some time."

Silence fell upon the pack as they awaited the inevitable order.

"The pack is disbanded.  Disperse!"

The time of parting, that had for so long been delayed, had finally come.  In that terrible moment no one could foresee what awaited them in the days to come.  The only thing that they knew for sure was that for the first time in years they would be forced to face it alone.

-----

The present:

The children were silent as Littlefoot and Taunt finished their duet.  Swipe and several children were visibly teary-eyed, whereas Biter and Pouncer both looked shell-shocked upon hearing how their fathers nearly fought to the death.  It was so absurd and terrible as to defy belief, but the emotions in their parent's words destroyed all doubts.

"That... that's terrible!"

Littlefoot nodded sadly at his daughter's words, "Yes it was, Swipe.  Yes it was.  It was one of the most terrible days that the pack had ever had."

Taunt nodded, "Your father didn't realize it at the time, but Path did us all a favor by taking command at that time.  He was the only one who could give that order... otherwise Seeker would have fought the challenge."

Biter spoke softly, "Would you have fought anyone else, Dad?"

Littlefoot merely gave his son a sad look.  That was answer enough.

"We all were not ourselves back then," Leap affirmed, "If the pack had not been split up by Path's order then it would have split up violently.  We did what had to be done."

Breeze nodded, "It was not an easy decision, but Path was resolute that it was necessary.  So... we allowed him to make that challenge and we made sure that Seeker knew that we were on Path's side.  It was one of the hardest things that I have done."

Cera frowned at those memories, "The song leaves out how angry I was... it was probably a good thing that the pack was apart for awhile."

Ponder nuzzled her children as she motioned them towards the makeshift sleeping area, "I was upset as well, but I soon realized why the rest of the pack had done what they had done.  Your father realized it too."

"Though no one had better get any ideas!" Littlefoot yelled in a jocular fashion, "If one of you challenge me then I might just let you have the pack... then you can have all of the fun of trying to keep all of these ankle-biters in order..."

Taunt took a little bow, "I dodged quite a burden back then, didn't I!"

The pack laughed as Taunt dodged a playful swipe from Littlefoot.  It was heartening to see that the friendship that had been threatened during those dark days was still intact.  However the question of what happened afterwards still troubled the assembled children.  The answer to that question would have to wait until the next night.

Little did they know that their stories of the troubles of the past would soon be overtaken by the troubles of the present.



Go ahead and check out my fanfictions, The Seven Hunters, Songs of the Hunters, and Menders Tale.


rhombus

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Fanfiction link: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10967589/21/So...-of-the-Hunters

NIGHT 6: STRUGGLES AND SACRIFICES

  Chapter 20: Difficult days

"Malka!  Where can she be?"

Ali awoke with a start at the sudden exclamation.  The bellowing wail from the distant swimmer sent shockwaves of terror to rampage through the longneck's body.  Operating out of pure instinct she quickly turned towards her eggs.

All of them are here... they're safe, she registered immediately, then that must mean...

"Sauria?!  Sauria, where are you?!"

Ali closed her eyes upon hearing her mother ask the question she had heard many times before.  She did not need to wait for confirmation.  She already had a good idea where Sauria could be.

"Mom, I think we all know where she is."

She looked over at her mother with a compassionate expression as Sauria's brothers and sisters muttered amongst themselves around their sleeping area.  They had been through the aftermath of their sister's adventures more than once before.  Thankfully for Bron and Utu the other children were far more cautious than their adventurous sister.  It seemed that only Sauria had been born with the wanderlust that ran in Bron's lineage.

"Momma, are we going to get Sauria back?"

It was the innocent question of one of Sauria's brothers that finally broke Utu out of her fear-induced trance.  With a stern resolve she shook her head.

"Our best and strongest are already out the valley, children..." her mouth trembled as she contemplated her own words, "We can have some of the flyers tell your father and the others... but Sauria will have to get through this on her own."

Ali sighed as she observed her mother's drooping neck.  With more than a little effort she rose from her position and nuzzled the elder longneck.

"I'm sure that Sauria will be alright, Mom.  She and her friends have gotten out of worse."

Utu did not meet her eyes as she looked towards the rising Bright Circle, "I hope you're right, Ali... I hope that you're right..."

-----

"There she is... Hanging Rock."

Bron resisted the urge to tease Servine for referring to the inanimate rock as a female.  It was one of the threehorn's quirks, but he knew that now would not be the right time.  After all, Servine had already a female of his own...

But not his son.

The longneck admired the distant rock for a moment as it jutted into the air like a finger thrust into the unknown.  It was both inviting and foreboding.  Welcoming but never welcome.  Much like the omnivorous fast runners that called the rock home.

"Good!  The sooner we get to it then the sooner we can get our children and leave!"

Bron cracked a smile at the Topps's gruff response.

"In case you don't remember, we do have to wait on our children to get to Hanging Rock first," Bron noted with some amusement as he mentioned their carnivorous offspring, "We may have to wait a while..."

Topps took the bait just like the longneck had anticipated, "Well our children will have no excuse to be beaten by us.  They are fastbiters, after all!"

Bron was about to continue the banter when the sound of fluttering wings interrupted his thoughts.  

"Well, if you two want to argue all day then I am quite sure that our children will beat us!"

Bron crossed his eyes in order to focus on the flyer that hovered in front of his face.  The comedic expression caused Topps to burst into light laughter, and odd sound coming from the usually stern threehorn.  Despite his slight irritation at being the loser in this battle of wits, Bron found himself laughing as well.

"Speaking of children, shouldn't Petrie be giving us an update soon?"

Volant allowed herself to land on the back of Ali's mate as she considered her response.  Somni, for his part, did not seem to mind.  He seemed fixated on something in the distance.

"That is what I will be doing today.  I think that is time that I pay my son a visit for a change."

Bron tilted his head, "Will your children be alright?"

Volant smiled, "They should be fine.  Besides caring for their younger brothers and sisters will be good practice for my older children." she allowed herself a bittersweet smile at that thought.  Two of them had departed the valley in order to seek out mates of their own, but several still remained.  She knew that sooner or later they would have to depart as well.  "Several of the other flyers should be here soon to help you all keep watch."

Servine deadpanned, "Watch what?  I don't think the big rock is going to be going anywhere."

Volant snorted, "Perhaps not... but it never hurts to have a head start on any threats..." she quickly turned towards Bron before the threehorns could make a boast about their fighting prowess, "I take it that you all will be alright?"

Bron smiled, "We will be fine, Volant.  Tell our children that we will be waiting for them."

The assembled dinosaurs watched the flyer head off in the distance for several moments before Topps finally got restless.  He prepared to give the order to head out and resume their journey for the day when he noticed Somni's distracted expression.

"What is it that you see, Somni?"  Upon looking out into the distance he could clearly see the fluttering figure of a distant flyer, "Oh!  It looks like Volant wasn't joking about other flyers coming shortly."

Bron's face darkened immediately, "They are going awfully fast..."

Caw!

Topps closed his eyes upon hearing the alert call.  Of course there just had to be trouble!  

As the assembled dinosaurs waited for the report from the flyers, they had no idea that the danger was not focused on them, but rather their own mischievous children.

And the danger was a lot closer to their children then they could possibly imagine.

-----

Outside Hanging Rock:

"I thought that you said that you knew the way!"

The pink threehorn's frustration finally erupted into the open as they once more came across the same piece of rocky terrain.  They had been going in circles for the better part of the morning

"I do!"  The flyer protested.  He also was frustrated by his inability to see a way up despite, or perhaps because, of his aerial vantage point.  It was hard to see anything in the confusing jumble of boulders and bushes.  "The way up is around here... somewhere..."

Malka merely walked behind them in a mixture of frustration and exhaustion.  If this continued any longer then she was tempted to tell Flip to fly back to the valley and get help.  However, much like her threehorn friend, pride was stopping her from taking that step.  They had resolved to see the reunion with their own eyes, and nothing was going to hold them back.

She just hoped that Axiom was somewhere safe.  Because she certainly wasn't anywhere in this gorge.

Far above them, hidden by an outcropping of rock, the trio was being watched by three pairs of eyes.  The slightest hint of pink and purple from their beaks were the only possible sign of their presence.  After nearly half a day of journeying they had finally found their targets.

"They certainly seem lost, don't they?"

Arial nodded at her father's words.  It was obvious that the two dinosaurs and one flyer were not accustomed to wandering in the Mysterious Beyond.  They were like swimmers out of water.

"I would help them... if that wouldn't hurt us."

She knew that her affirmation was not news to her parents, but she felt compelled to protest their predicament.  Even though no one could blame the sharpteeth for taking advantage of the available food, and no one could blame her family for doing what was necessary to keep them safe, there was something that felt utterly wrong about this.  She was an omnivore, and as such she usually had a choice... she could spare eggs and younglings unless she was starving.

But that was not a choice now.

"As would we, Arial," Arial felt her mother's hand on her shoulder, "...but until your brother comes back with help we need to do what we must.  This territory is too safe... too plentiful for us..."

"To throw it all away.  I know."  Arial spoke with more bitterness than she intended.  She still focused on the younglings below instead of looking at her parents.  She did not want her parents to see her weakness.

Pearl reached for her daughter's arm again, only to earn a slight shake of the head from Detras.  He realized what she was trying to do and did not want to provoke her emotions when she had a job to do.  The tears and regrets could come later.  Right now it was time for necessity.

"Are you ready, daughter?"  He asked with all of the assertiveness of a pack leader.  It was an appeal to her sense of duty and pride.

It was successful.

"As ready as I can be, father.  You will gather our 'guests'?"

Detras nodded at the bitter tone of the word guests.  He had to admit that Dein and Terri's welcome was running out in his mind as well.  "They will be gathered."  It was only know that he placed a hand on his daughter's shoulder, a gesture which her mother repeated.

"Good luck, Arial!  Remember why you are doing this.  Remember what is at stake."

Without further word Arial heard the quick footsteps of her parents darting away from her crevice.  She was now alone.  Alone with the reminder of her duty echoing in her ears.  She was doing this for her territory, and for her family's future.  She could not show mercy here.  She could not go back on what she had decided.  Her family had decided to keep their territory until it became dangerous for them to stay.  She had placed her hand in the pile along with everyone else.  Her brother had agreed to risk his life in getting help, while she had agreed to risk her innocence by doing the unthinkable.  Now it was time to pay the price.

Her mind perfectly summed up what she had agreed to.  Time to be the villain.

She did not hesitate to make noise as she climbed down the crevice.  She knew that what was being conspicuous to her would still seem like stealth to the younglings down below.  They were valley residents and would not know the ways of the Mysterious Beyond.  She could use its secrets to her advantage.  

"Hey, guys!  Did you hear something?"

It was odd, she noted, how familiar some of them seemed.  The pink threehorn that just spoke almost looked like an older version of Tricia.  She quickly shook her head at that thought.  It was just her nerves getting the better of her.  She had a mission to accomplish.

She smiled as the trio looked over at her advancing pink form.  She answered their surprised expressions with a kind wave.

"It looks like all of you are lost.  Need some help finding your way up?"

She forced cheerfulness into her face and voice, despite the knowledge that she was leading them to their doom.

"Oh, thank you!"  Malka spoke before the others had a chance to respond, "Flip here has no idea where we are!  And we can't find our friend!"

Flip bristled at her insinuation, "That's not true... It just be a long time since Mama show us this place."  He relented after a pause though, "But I'm worried about Axiom.  She fell but wasn't where we thought she would be... so we went down here to look for her."

Aria kept held back the bile in her throat at the mention of his mother.  She would not just be leading them to their death, she would also be taking a child away from its mother.

"Is your mama nearby?" she inquired cautiously.

Flip looked embarrassed at that question as the others likewise averted their eyes, "Um... we actually kind of ran away."

"We wanted to see our brothers and sisters when they get back, but our mommies and daddies told us to stay home..."

Arial waved them off out of fear that any further mention of their families would make her lose her nerve, "Well, once you get back up out of this gorge then you all can work it out... but you all need to stay close to me... it is dangerous in the Mysterious Beyond.  Once we are out of here... then we can look for your friend."

The danger is in front of you.

Malka was unreserved in stating her opinion, "Thank you very much!  We could certainly use your help."

Tricia eyed Arial cautiously for a moment, as if she were sizing her up.  As if there was something about the fast runner that caught her eye.  But then she relented, "Thank you very much for helping us... do you by any chance know the fastrunners who live by Hanging Rock?  They are friends of the valley."

Arial ignored the pounding in her chest and the chill that ran up her spine.  She now knew that these were children from the valley.  The same valley that had protected her and her family.  The same valley that they owed a great obligation towards.  This greatly complicated things in ways that she could only begin to think about while responding quickly enough to maintain her cover.  

"I'm sorry, I don't know any of them.  I try to avoid the territory of other families." she lied quickly, "But it is not a problem at all to help all of you... please follow me."

She knew that there was the possibility that the children could escape from any hunt, and if that happened she wanted to make damn sure that the valley did not know of her families' unwilling partnership.  For that reason she knew that she had to avoid being asked any more questions.

"By the way, what is..." Flip asked before he realized that the fastrunner was already several lengths ahead of them.

"Hurry, everyone!  We need to get out of this gorge before a sharptooth finds us!  We can talk later; now we run!"

She didn't wait for any of them to agree as she broke into a steady jog.  She could hear the sound of sprinting feet shortly thereafter as she led them speedily through the gorge.  She would not give them a chance to ask any more questions.  She would not give them a chance to make her second guess what she had to do.

As her head ached and her chest burned, she tried to force her misgivings to the back of her mind.  The suspicious familiarity of the dinosaurs... the fact that they were from the valley... the fact that by leading them to their doom that their friend would be lost somewhere out there... it was all too much for her to even begin to contemplate.  She had to choke back the idea that these dinosaurs could have been her friends under different circumstances.

I hope they make it quick for all of you.

She continued to run in silence as her footsteps echoed across the walls of the gorge like the thunderclaps of a distant storm.  

-----

Damn it!  Count on me to fall down slick rocks!

Axiom resisted the urge to call for help as she knew that might attract predators.  It reminded her of something that her mother used to say.

When the fastbiter hears the youngling yell, he comes running... but not to help.

The young rainbowface sighed.  She would have given anything in that moment to have her parents beside her.  They always seemed to know what to do even when things seemed hopeless.  Though they had told her many of the tricks they had learned, she lacked their years of accumulated experience.  The most that she could do right now was analyze the situation.  Just like her parents had taught her.

Okay... mommy and daddy always said the first step was to observe your surroundings...

She quickly looked around herself.  Some distance above her was another gorge.  She only knew this because she had slid across that gorge and then went through a crevice before she had finally landed in this one.  She could not see any hint of how to access the slick rocks above her, however.  So going back out the way she came was not an option.

The next thing that she noticed was the sharp rock that she had kept attached to her arm with a vine.  This was something that her parents always kept with them in order to break open hard-shell sweet bubbles, to cut vines, or to make marks for their silent language that only the rainbowface family knew.  Knowing that she needed to keep the invaluable tool she quickly grabbed the sharp rock and retied it to her arm.  Then she resumed her observations.

In front of her seemed like the only possible path, and it offered little in the way of detail.  Only many boulders and a lot of suspicious caves and crevices greeted her vision.  If she had to use trial and error to find her way out then she would be here all day.

This is hopeless!  How am I supposed to find my way out of here?  There is nothing to see... nothing to hear..."

"So... led... down... here..."

Axiom froze before instinctually throwing herself behind a boulder.  The disjointed echoed words from the gorge wall were in leaf-eater, but their pronounced in an odd way.  She recognized those voices from somewhere... but where?

"I know, dear... but can sharpteeth kill... children might flee..."

Axiom's eyes went wide.  She knew who those voices belonged to.  See had not heard them since the days of her childhood after she was first hatched, but there was no doubt in her mind.  It was Detras and Pearl.  She rose from her position in order to yell in their direction when she heard words that made her hesitate.

"I know you aren't happy with this, dear.  Neither am I.  But if we are going to hang on to this territory then we need to keep our guests happy until help arrives or they decided to leave.  It isn't like we haven't done this before."

What are they talking about?

"But only when we were starving before the kids were hatched!  We are talking about helping Dein and Terri kill kids, Detras!"

Axiom's mind went blank.  She simply couldn't process this new piece of information.  She found herself beginning to shake out of fear and confusion.

"You know that we have to do this, dear.  That is why you didn't try to talk Arial out of it.  It is better them than it is to risk all four of us."

"We might still lose Orchid."

"All the more reason to do this, dear.  We can't let his mission be in vain.  We have to hang on to what we have while he gets help.  We all agreed, remember?"

"I know but it is so hard... the children don't deserve this."

"None of us do."

As the footsteps trailed off slowly, Axiom finally allowed herself to breathe again.  The fastrunner family was in league with sharpteeth?  They were leading younglings like her to their doom?  That was when a realization hit her.

They're probably talking about my friends.

The rainbowface's body shook with a ferocity that she had never before experienced.  It was more than mere fear.  It was an anger that could only come from the heat of betrayal.  She did not care about the fastrunner's predicament in that moment.  She did not care about their sacrifices.  She only cared about keeping her friends safe.

Before she realized what she was doing she had grasped the sharp rock in her hand.

And ran in the direction of the voices.

-----

Many miles away from Hanging Rock:

"There it is, children!  Can you see it?"

Littlefoot suppressed a chuckle as his children climbed up his back in order to get a better view.  The other children were doing the same to their parents as they squinted their eyes towards the horizon.  Finally the excited form of Swipe confirmed what he suspected.

"I can see it!  It looks like the rock is just hanging there!"

Littlefoot could feel the sensation of Biter nodding on his back, "Well duh, sis, that is why it is called Hanging Rock."

Littlefoot rolled his eyes and Ruby chuckled at her children's antics.  With Swipe's playful attack in Biter's direction, her brother quickly hopped off of his perch on his father's back.  Littlefoot did not need to look behind him to know that Swipe was strutting in order to provoke her brother.

"Alright, Swipe, down you go!" Littlefoot lightly bucked her off of his back in order to let the children get their play fight out of the way, "But yes, that is indeed Hanging Rock.  We should be there by the end of the day!"

Cheers erupted from sharptooth and leaf-eater alike at Littlefoot's pronouncement in the leaf-eater language.  It seemed that their long journey was finally coming to an end.

"We can finally see our mommies and daddies!"  Sauria exclaimed happily.

"My sister..." Datum added, "...and our friends.  I wonder how Tricia and Flip are holding up."

"Probably wondering what is taking us so long.  This journey never ends."

Littlefoot suppressed a chuckle at the grumpy response of the little threehorn.  It seems that the cheerful demeanor of threehorns starts early!  He noted to himself, Stern Claw still hasn't grown out of hers.

"I am ready to be done with this journey as well.  It is hard to run fast when you have three stragglers." Cera added sardonically at her less-than-swift leaf-eater counterparts.

"Are you calling us slow?" Charger asked arrogantly, momentarily forgetting that he was addressing a full-grown Utahraptor.

Cera puffed out her chest as if she had been mocked by Taunt himself, "Well, you all certainly aren't fastbiters!"

Charger retorted under his breath, "Thank the Bright Circle for that..."

As was the case on most days, Taunt decided to use the most awkward time to ruin Cera's moment.

"Ah, so that is where you get it from, dear.  Did the little threehorn show you up?"

Littlefoot rolled his eyes as Cera turned towards her mate with an expression that Littlefoot could not see.  He knew that it was time to wrap this up before Taunt or Stern Claw made further fools of themselves.

"Alright, everyone, I have an idea... how about we sing the rest of the song as we travel?  That way our leaf-eater friends here will not miss out on the song."

Silence fell over the adults as they considered this, whereas the children were more enthusiastic.

"That's a great idea!" Pouncer exclaimed.

"We can finally hear how we came along!" Came agreement from Petrie's son Dive.

"And how our mommies and daddies survived being alone."  Swipe added more somberly.  It was that reminder of the darkness of the song that made the children quiet down.

They are getting the seriousness of the message... that is good.  Littlefoot affirmed to himself.  He was about to begin the refrain of the next verse when Petrie interrupted.

"Um... Seeker?  Maybe me should go to Hanging Rock?  To let fastrunners know."

Littlefoot considered this for a moment, before Ruby answered for him.

"The adults should be there by now, Spotter, and I am sure that the flyers in the valley already told them.  With an entire herd with them what could possibly make them late?  What could make them late if they have an entire herd?"

Petrie nodded after a pause, "You have point there, Ponder.  Me sure they be fine."

Littlefoot smiled, "Alright then.  Let's get a move on, everyone, and we will start up the song.  Finder, I think it is your turn again."

Spike nodded his agreement, "Indeed it is... It all began with a misunderstanding."

♪♪  In my territory cold and bare,
we tried to protect our food and lair,
But as the day turned into night,
others would often try to chance a bite  ♪♪


-----

Several years ago:

Spike watched with concern as Breeze's chest rose and fell with each breath.  Below her were the now covered eggs.  Six fragile shells which contained their hopes for the future.  Six new lives.

Assuming they were given a chance to hatch.

Spike sighed.  Breeze had laid her eggs several days before, but yet she still insisted on performing the daily hunts.  He had tried to protest, only to nearly be rendered unconscious by the irate female.  From her perspective it was the male's job to watch the nest and the mother's job to hunt while the eggs had still not hatched, then it was the opposite after the children had hatched.  This was yet one more little cultural difference that had surprised Spike.  He was expecting the leaf-eater way of handling the situation.

It is a father's duty to provide.

However, now that Breeze had returned once more without anything to show except a few ground fuzzies, Spike had finally gotten her to agree to let him do the hunting.  She had to sleep, after all, there was no reason for him to sit idle.

Perhaps it was her fatigue, or her own doubts about her solo hunt that day, but an exhausted Breeze had finally agreed.  He would try to do what Breeze had been unable on this long day.  He would try to provide some badly needed food.

"Then go!  Just make sure that you are here when I wake up... we have to protect the children!"

Being careful not to wake his snoring mate, he quietly exited the sleeping area and emerged into the fading light of the clearing that made up much of his territory.  The shadows from the trees seemed to mock him as his eyes darted back and forth for any sign of movement.  Any sign of the absent meal that his family badly needed.

Hmmm... I see and smell nothing... except for those swimmers in the forest.  His thoughts took on a dejected tone, not that I can go there without a fight...

The forest to the right of his clearing was mainly the territory of Seeker and Ponder.  The only exception was a small portion up to the sweet bubble bushes which was in his territory, and the area by the stream which was claimed by Chomper.  The large sharptooth would allow them to scavenge from his left-overs, not that he left much, and would allow them to drink from the stream.  But in all other contexts it was a forbidden zone for the fastbiters.  Chomper had decided to keep the water source open to all in the only way that he knew how.

Through fear and intimidation.  It was enough to strike some sense into his and his packmate's instinct-addled minds.

She can get water when she needs it, but we can't count on Path to have enough left-overs for us... but what if I got some food while getting some water... Path said it was open to all...

Spike took on a slight smile as the thought came to his mind.  Yes, he could hunt fish under the guise of drinking from the stream.  If anyone asked then he could just claim that he was bathing.

Well... if Path asks... the others won't get close to me if they know what is good for them!

As had been commonplace in the days since the pack split, his thoughts of the others had split into an odd dichotomy.  He viewed them as his closest friends at the same time that he also viewed them as his adversaries.  Every part of his instincts told him to protect his territory until the children were hatched, and to support his mate.  The worst part was that he was having trouble even telling the two opposing drives apart in his mind.  He could only hope that clarity would come once his children were out of their eggs.

Shaking his head, Spike tried to force the errant thoughts from his mind.  Regardless of when his senses returned to him he had to provide for his mate now.  All other considerations were irrelevant by comparison.  With his mind made up on catching some fish, he proceeded to take the path which would lead him to Chomper's territory.  That was when he heard it.

Footsteps.

He froze as he lay on the ground like a snake.  His ears strained for every little reverberation that echoed in the distance.  Within moments his mind confirmed what he had suspected.  There were footsteps in his territory.

Someone has made a mistake that they will regret.

He clinched the spear at his side as he proceeded to sniff the air.  That was when he came to a realization.

They were downwind.  That meant that they could smell him, but he could not smell them.  They had a tactical advantage.

He seethed.  He would make whoever it was pay.

No one invades my lands!  No one!

Seeing a flash of green behind some distant bushes, he quickly reared back and proceeded to aim his spear at the unknown threat.  He had four more spears beside him if the need arose, but he was going to make sure that whoever it was knew that they were not welcome.  He did not hesitate as the spear left his hand.

Thud!

The spear landed just in front of the bush as the sounds of footsteps stopped.  Spike cursed himself under his breath as he grabbed another spear and began to aim once more.  That was when the sound of something whistling in the air caught his attention.

Thud!

A spear impaled itself on the ground mere feet away from the fastbiter's pile of spears.  The intruder had the nerve to attack him on his own territory.

"Die, you worthless pile of spiketail dung!"

Now in an unthinking frenzy due to his rage, Spike clawed at his vine armor as if to confirm its presence on his chest, and sprinted away from the bushes he had hid behind.  In the torrent of exploding leaves and dirt, it almost looked like Spike had arisen from the ground itself.  He knew that his opponent was expecting another spear and was zeroing in on his location, so he would instead take the fight to the enemy.  His strategy worked better than he could have hoped.

In a flurry of movement, his body crashed into the body of his unseen opponent.  Instantly, vine collided with vine, and flesh collided with flesh as a torrent of feathers erupted from the melee.  It was only when the scent of his adversary reached his snout that he broke off his attack in surprise.

"Haven?"

The other fastbiter stared at him with equal surprise, as her vines covered her ruffled feathers.  Only a small amount of blood dripped from her back, a product of her brother's unexpected assault.  The only hint of her reason for entering his territory lay some distance behind her.

The dead body of a longneck.  She had been searching for food as well, and unlike him and his mate, she had found it.

Ducky noticed the shift in his gaze and bowed her head in anguish.  With an anguished cry she proceeded to retreat back into her territory, conceding her prey to the victor.

"Haven, stop!"

Ducky reluctantly froze at the sound of her brother's voice.  She did not turn her head, but he could see its slight tilt.  She was awaiting his response.

Spike closed his eyes.  Damn it, Haven!  You nearly made a murderer out of me!

"You made the kill, Haven.  I was going to get fish, so I wouldn't have seen it anyway..." he gritted his teeth as he fought against his instincts, which were telling him to take his prize and to mock the loser of this battle of wills.  But there was enough food here for both families.  This gave his reason the strength to overpower his chaotic emotions. "Take the legs and head for you and your mate... leave me the rest."

Only now did Ducky turn with deliberate slowness.  Her eyes had a softness to them, despite the glare on her face.

"We are even then?  No reprisals?"

Spike held his breath.  This was exactly why Chomper had split up the pairs, to avoid these petty territorial disputes from turning into full-blown vendettas.  Knowing that his instincts were pushing him in a direction that only lead to tragedy and death, he nodded and responded in kind.

"No reprisals.  But mind my territory from now on!"

-----

Chomper watched the small green fastbiter take her share of the prey with some difficulty under the supervision of a watchful Spike and an exhausted, but somewhat better spirited, Breeze.  He had only arrived after Ducky had made her anguished cry.  The slight bleeding on her back and the embedded spears in the ground were the only signs of what had come before.

I was nearly too late.

He was pleasantly surprised by this turn of events, however.  The act of mercy by Spike was a sign that the drive for separate territories was finally coming to an end, to be replaced by the time of hatchings.

The mothers and fathers protect their lands and nest, but after hatching only the babies test.

The pack might be able to do joint hunts after the children hatched, but there would be uneasiness as far as the children were concerned.  The ancient instinct would be operating in the background, poisoning everything when the children were present.  The children of another male could be subject to violence if emotions ran too high.  Until the children reached the Age of Safety, only those families that shared relations could meet together.  Otherwise the risk was too great.

Better to avoid a problem then to face it head on.  If any of them hurt the other's children then they would never forgive themselves... and I wouldn't forgive myself for allowing it.

With a final glance at the retreating fastbiters in the distance, Chomper returned to his sleeping area that he had prepared.  He would see to it that the pack did not join back together fully until the children were at the Age of Safety.  In the meantime he had seen the first act of mercy and friendliness towards others that he had seen since the eggs had been laid.  This made an emotion appear that he had not felt for quite some time.

Hope.

-----

"Hey, little ones.  Don't worry your mother will be back soon."

Littlefoot shifted uneasily as he repositioned himself over the four eggs.  It was an odd experience trying to keep the eggs warm, but yet it also seemed right in some odd way.  Everything from his feathered arms to his warm body seemed adapted for just this very purpose.  He could feel the heat radiating off of his body to the smooth shells on the nest below.  It was something that he would have never experienced as his old kind, even if he had been female.

A longneck can't exactly lay on the eggs...  I hope that I am doing this right.

Despite the inherent 'rightness' of the sensation, he still worried about his mate.  She was out in the territory hunting, which seemed to him to be a job that he should be doing, but Ruby had insisted.  From Littlefoot's perspective it seemed that she had a hard enough job of making and laying the eggs, but yet she was out there insisting on doing even more.

He looked over at the fish bones at the other side of the nest.  The only remaining signs of the most recent hunt, which he had performed while she slept.  The ability to hunt large prey was no longer available to them with the lack of available help.  The risk was simply too great to hunt such beasts alone.  One wrong move would leave his unhatched children as orphans.

But not as risky as having us all together, Littlefoot noted dejectedly, I really messed things up.

In the intervening days since the packmates had split their own ways, Littlefoot had had a chance to contemplate his choices in those final days.  The irrationality of it all horrified him, but not as much as what that implied.

I am not angry anymore, but what will happen when the pack comes back together?  Will my children be safe from... well from what my kind can do...  He growled in annoyance, Why would they even want to do that to my kids?!  Why would I do it to theirs?!

He wanted to protest the claims that Thud had made over a month ago.  He wanted to tell himself that he wouldn't dare hurt a child just because it wasn't of his line.  But recent events confirmed to him that he could not afford to overestimate his willpower.  If recent events had taught him anything it was that if something could go wrong then it would go wrong.

Littlefoot closed his eyes for a moment and let his mind wander from such unhappy thoughts to the pleasant sensation of roosting on the nest.  He was not aware of how much time had passed until he heard a familiar voice.

"Sorry, dear, I could only find a longneck leg."

Littlefoot jerked his eyes open.  He hadn't realized that he had dozed off.

"That's... alright, dear, perhaps I should hunt now?"

Ruby merely gave him a glare, "Eat first.  You are not going to go hungry like you did last night."

Littlefoot raised his arms in a placative gesture, "I know... I know... you told me last time.  But you still need the food more than me..."

Ruby merely resumed her glare which brokered no disagreement.  In response Littlefoot rose without any further protest and sheepishly walked up to the dismembered leg.  That was when he caught the scent of the catch.

"Haven's scent... where did you get this?"

Ruby shrugged as she took a bite from the foot.  In between chews she answered her mate's question, "Where Haven left it.  It isn't my fault that she and Leap do a poor job of guarding their kills."

Littlefoot closed his eyes in exasperation, "Dear..."

"I know... I know... but we need to get food.  Food we need to get."

Both fastbiters stared at one another as the reality of what had happened registered in their minds.  Ruby's expression showed no hint of regret, whereas Littlefoot's only communicated concern.

"This opens us up to reprisals."

Ruby nodded sadly, "I know."

Their conversation entered another pause as Littlefoot considered their situation.  They had food for the day, but they had opened themselves up to further problems in the future.  Could they really attack Leap or Ducky if they tried to steal Littlefoot and Ruby's food?  Would they even realize that it was Ruby who stole the longneck leg?  Would they react with anger?  There were far too many questions and not enough answers.  Worse yet, he had not interacted with any of the others since the pack had split.  He had absolutely no idea how they would react.

"I will need to make amends."

Ruby looked at Littlefoot with utter horror, "No, you do not!  They may not even know that we took the leg!"

Littlefoot looked into her eyes, "Maybe not, but if they find out..."

"...then we will deal with it." Ruby finished for him, "Don't do something stupid like you did with Taunt."

The look of horror appeared on Ruby's face as she realized exactly what she had said.  This look was joined by a look of shock from Littlefoot which promptly turned into one of regret.  The criticism from his own mate seemed to make something break in the brown fastbiter.  It was confirmation of his own dark thoughts from earlier.

"Dear... I didn't mean..."

Littlefoot shook his head, "You're right.  You're totally right.  That was all my fault."

"Dear..."

"And you paid for my mistake... just like how I am going to pay for yours."

Ruby blinked, "What?"

Littlefoot frowned, "I gave into my instincts back then, and you gave in to them today.  You went into our friends' territory and stole their own prey.  This will keep us fed tonight, but what about in the nights to come?  They will find your scent in their territory, and when that happens they will put the facts together," he took a deep breath, "When that happens I want to limit the damage.  Our kids deserve to be safe."

Ruby bowed her head sadly, "I never intended..."

Littlefoot nodded as he gave his mate a slight nuzzle, "Neither did I, but we have to live with our choices.  I think the safe way to do this would be to give the proper call by the stream."

Ruby looked up, "In Path's territory."

Littlefoot nodded, "I will meet them on neutral ground and we will decide on how to resolve this."

Ruby paused as she considered her mate's words, but then she opened her mouth to speak.  Littlefoot knew this was coming and preempted her offer.

"I will go.  Not you," Littlefoot asserted in a tone that forbid any disagreement, "They have not smelled my scent in their territory, so they will be less inclined to be unfriendly with me."

Ruby looked down as she leaned into her mate's embrace.  She could not argue with his reasoning, but yet she trembled with the knowledge of what would soon come.

"I will keep the children safe while you are gone."  Ruby affirmed.

Littlefoot nodded, "Of that I don't doubt, Ponder." seeing that she had a noticeably frightened expression he continued, "Now don't you worry, I will get back to the nest safely."

Ruby sighed as she closed her eyes, "You'd better, Seeker.  You'd better."

The two fastbiters embraced for several moments as the reflected brilliance of the Night Circle illuminated the mysterious forest around them.  Much like the shadows in the forest's depths, neither of them could know what would lurk in the shadows of the future.  All that they could do is silently question what the consequences of their actions would be.

The morrow would bring them the answer.

-----

The present, just outside of Hanging Rock

"How dare you hurt my friends?!"

Pearl covered her bleeding shoulder as she looked at the rainbowface in shock.  Detras had taken position in front of her in order to defend his mate, but even he seemed transfixed by the enraged youngling.  That was when Pearl finally put the pieces together.  A female rainbowface youngling using a weapon confirmed who her attacker was.

"Ax... Axiom?"  She inquired.

Detras stepped back from his aggressive posture as he looked at the rainbowface with shock.  He had not put the pieces together until his mate vocalized the truth.

"How dare you!?  We all trusted you!"

The rainbowface advanced again and tried to slash at the now distracted male.  However he quickly regained his wits and deflected the rock with a firm swipe of his tail.  Both rainbowface and fastrunner stared as the rock crashed to the floor.  The rainbowface struggled to dive at the rock only to see the foot of the fastrunner cover her only weapon.  She was now disarmed and at his mercy.

"Don't hurt her, Detras!"  Pearl exclaimed as she saw him lean towards the upset rainbowface.  This cause him to growl in frustration.

"She hurt you!"

"And we betrayed her friends!"  Pearl retorted.  She glared at her mate as he wore an expression of utter rage on his face, "Do you know what that means?  Remember when we were in the valley after the battle... remember who Tricia played with after they hatched."

Detras's anger suddenly evaporated as his expression paled.  "The rainbowface children... then that must mean that the pink threehorn..."

Both fastrunners stared at the now crying rainbowface.  She shook with fear and rage, as anguished growls left her mouth.  It was as if she were waiting to die.

Pearl took a deep breath, "I have done many terrible things for the good of the family, dear, but I will not betray the children of our friends.  I will not betray those who risked all for us.  If that means that we have to leave this place then so be it.  These rocks are not worth the blood of our allies."

Detras closed his eyes as he heard his mate's nearly flawless sharptooth.  He merely nodded before responding, "We don't have much time if we are going to save the kids, dear.  We already gave the alert to Dein and Terri.  Arial will be leading them to the pass any time now."

Pearl's eyes turned cold, "Then we will have to hurry, won't we?"

The rainbowface grew silent as the fastrunners spoke in sharptooth.  Her response in flawless sharptooth made both of the fastrunners freeze in surprise.

"What if my friends were not from the valley?  Are the lives of leaf-eaters worth so little for you?"

Pearl swallowed.  She had not realized that the rainbowface had been taught the sharptooth language. "We did what we had to do for our family..."

The rainbowface glared at the fastrunner with an unblinking stare.  Rage practically radiating off of her.  Her voice answered the fastrunner's explanation in a cold monotone that seemed out of place coming from a child's body.

"And I will do what is necessary to protect mine.  My friends are part of my family.  Don't ever forget that, fastrunner."

Silence reigned as both fastrunners shared a helpless glance.  Both knew that the breakdown of trust could probably never be repaired between themselves and the child they knew from so long ago.  It was one thing to understand that one had to kill, it was quite another to be on the receiving end of such violence.  For the first time in her life Axiom had a taste of the harsh realities of life.  It would be a lesson she would never forget.

"Come, child, let's fix our mistake before it's too late.  Your friends don't have much time."

With a swift burst of speed both fastrunners sprinted back into the gorge and proceeded to hurl themselves over the boulders.  Despite her rage and uncertainty, Axiom did not dare hesitate.  Reattaching her sharpened rock to her vines, she reared back on her hind legs and took a deep breath.

Before following the fastrunners into the unknown.



Go ahead and check out my fanfictions, The Seven Hunters, Songs of the Hunters, and Menders Tale.


rhombus

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Fanfiction link: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10967589/22/So...-of-the-Hunters

Chapter 21: A Flyer's interlude

The present, just outside of Hanging Rock

Arial tried to ignore the exhausted panting of the leaf-eaters behind her.  She would have closed her eyes and fixated upon the burning in her legs or the sensation of wind in her face if that were possible without running into the walls of the gorge.  Anything to ignore the reality of what was about to befall her hapless acquaintances.  

"Gasp... can we slow down?"

Arial reluctantly slowed as she turned back towards the sound of the voice.  The sight of Malka leaning against the rock wall greeted her eyes, while her desperate gasping was nearly all that she could hear.  She had failed to consider that the swimmer would have a more difficult time keeping up with her smaller stature.

"We can't wait here for long!  There is no way to hide in the gorge!"  Arial cautioned.

"Well, we have been around this gorge four times and we haven't been eaten yet!"

Arial turned towards the booming voice of the pink threehorn as Tricia tried to catch her breathe.  The expression on her face communicated annoyance more than exhaustion.

"I don't see anything coming from up here."

The fastrunner looked up at the distant form of the flyer.  He had an easier time than the others in following her in her headlong dash, but he had also done something that she had not anticipated.

Of course he would know if a threat is coming or not! Arial scowled at the realization.  This could throw their plans into chaos... and then an even worse outcome could await her family. Come on Dein and Terri, be slow for once!

"You almost seem disappointed."

Arial looked at the threehorn with surprise.  For her part Tricia stared down the fastrunner as a fastbiter would size up its prey.  Her eyes grew cold and her expression was as unreadable as the summer winds.  Arial felt a chill go up her spine as the situation has seemingly turned on its head.  Now she was on the defensive.

"Tricia?"  Malka questioned, before a shake of the head caused her to grow silent.  She knew not to interrupt when Tricia got into one of these moods.  It only happened when someone had gone against her family honor... or there was danger.

Arial's eyes locked with the threehorn's as she tried to open her mouth to explain herself.  She could feel the words on the tip of her tongue.  The assurance that she was just concerned about them stopping... the insinuation that the flyer might give away their location to any threats that may be hiding... the repeated warning that they needed to flee now...

But nothing came out.  It was as if something clicked when she looked into the threehorn's eyes.  A flicker of recognition from many seasons ago.  It was then that the name that Malka had called the threehorn finally registered in her mind.  Now she knew the identity of those she was about to betray.  Now she understood the true magnitude of her family's mistake.

"You're Tricia?!"

The threehorn's face did not soften, but rather took on an even colder glare.  She had reached a conclusion of her own.

"That is my name, fastrunner.  Now who are you?"

Arial took a step back at Tricia's question.  She had already told the gang that she did not know the family that lived in Hanging Rock.  So how could she come clean now?

"Who are you?" Tricia stepped forward with her eyes communicating murderous intent.  For their parts, Malka and Flip had moved to the side and were watching the exchange in silence.  Their eyes now communicated just as much suspicion as the threehorn's.  It was then that the fastrunner realized that the charade was over.

Arial bowed her head.  She knew what she had to do.

"I... you see..."

The sudden thump of a falling rock stopped her statement in its tracks, as a shower of dust and stones erupted from the rocks above.  The tense situation momentarily suspended, both she and Tricia dashed towards the other side of the rock wall where Malka and Flip were situated.  That was when a familiar purple fastrunner landed in front of them.

"Dad!?"

"...Detras?"

The exclamation of Arial was quickly followed by the stunned realization of Tricia.  She may not have recognized the older Arial, but Detras still had the same appearance as years ago.  There was no doubt of his identity.  Before either of them could react further, however, two new intruders arrived on the scene.

"There you guys are!  We have to get out of here now!"

Arial stared in shock as a small rainbowface suddenly slid down the rock face and promptly began gesturing with wild tones at her friends.  She was in a frenzy.  But that was not what caught her attention, however.

"Mom, you're hurt!"

Pearl looked briefly at the small cut that had caught her daughter's attention.  It was a shallow but wide gash, which still bleed lightly as if it were fresh.  The reproachful glance of Detras in Axiom's direction, and the sharp rock attached to her arm, began to make connections in Arial's mind.

"Don't worry about it, dear, I will be fine.  But we need to get out of here!"

Detras nodded, "That's right!  The sharpteeth will be here any moment!

The leaf-eaters responded in unison, "The sharpteeth!?"

Arial shared a look with her parents as the news echoed in the minds of the leaf-eaters.  Her father had an expression that she had not seen since she was a small youngling.  A look of desperation, mixed with anger.  She had only seen that look when he had evacuated the family to the Great Valley before the great battle.  It was the look of defeat.  Her mother, on the other hand, had the same look that she had given her children when she thought that Detras had died in the aftermath of the battle.  It was the brave face that one showed when bravery was the only thing one had left.  It was then that Arial knew what they had already decided.

"We can explain on the way..."  Arial spoke as if in a trance, "But we have to get out of here now... we all do.  Hanging Rock won't be safe for any of us."

The leaf-eaters seemed to process that information in silence.  All except for one angry rainbowface.

"Oh yeah?  Then what about our parents?  Do you expect us to leave them for your sharptooth friends?"

Arial jerked back in shock at the enraged words of the rainbowface.

"Your parents?  Your parents are going to Hanging Rock?"

All three fastrunners took on concerned expressions as Malka nodded, "Yes, they are here to get our friends back.  The Seven will be here as well."

Detras's mouth hang agape as the full implications of this came crashing down upon him.  It seemed that his sought after help was arriving after all, but what kind of nightmare had they created for them?

-----

"Where is Soar?"

Thud looked at the massive sharptooth with concern.  It was not every day that Chomper could be seen running in a dead sprint, nor with the smell of fear radiating off of him.

"She is helping the rest of the pack with the hunt.  I imagine they should be back by daybreak."

"You are hunting at night?"  Chomper scowled, before quickly shaking his head.  Obviously with a small group a night hunt would be more fruitful than one in the daytime.  It would be easier to catch the prey while they slept. "Never mind, you need to tell her to fly to Hanging Rock as soon as she gets back."

Thud was deeply concerned now, "Path, what's wrong?"

Chomper shook his head, "Very little time to explain.  My parents are staying at Hanging Rock until they have enough food in their bellies for a long journey."

Thud's expression fell, "But... the pack... the valley residents..."

Chomper nodded, "Exactly.  I have to leave tonight!"

Thud held up his hands, "Wait, Path!  We can gather the pack and go with you..."

"No time!"  Chomper roared, "No time at all!  I have to go now.  You know that I am the only one who can stop my parents without resorting to sticks and Orange Death.  I cannot wait!"

Thud bowed his head, "Do you think it will come to that?"

Chomper looked at the fastbiter sadly, "What would you do for the sake of your children, Thud?"

Thud did not look up as he answered, "Anything."

Chomper frowned with his eyes, "My parents will do no less for my sister.  Of that I have no doubt.  My pack needs me and I will not let them down."

Thud looked up at the sharptooth as Chomper began to walk away in the direction of the bright Night Circle.  There was no doubt from his words as to which pack Chomper would serve.  If it came between his pack and his family, he would choose his pack.  This made something lurch in Thud's stomach.  This was a choice that no child should have to make.

"Good hunting, Path, may your foes fall underfoot."

Thud bowed his head as the words left his mouth.  He had said such a parting to Redclaw back in his days of toil under his rule, but now he was saying those words to a sharptooth he felt was actually deserving of such wishes.  The response came shortly thereafter.

"My foes will fall, but my friends will stand."

Thud rose to his full height as the sharptooth sprinted away as quickly as his bulky form would allow.  It was only then that he noticed the fastrunner running slightly ahead of him.  A silent indication of how Chomper received his news.  Within moments the fastbiter was left alone with his sleeping younglings.  He would have the duty of giving word to Soar when she returned.  Then the tense wait for news would begin.

However, as Thud slowly returned to the makeshift sleeping area for his children, he couldn't help but focus on one thought that echoed in his mind.  A realization that both impressed and horrified him.

He sounded so much like Redclaw.


"We're making good progress!  I am sure we will be there by the time the Bright circle sets!"

Chomper would have glared at the fastrunner had he had the strength to do so.  Not to mention that it was hard to glare at something that was balanced on your back.

"Whoa!"  Orchid cried as Chomper felt the fastrunner try to regain his foothold.  Eventually, however, he head the fastrunner land on the ground.  He was now forced to jog just as Chomper was.

"If I'm going to be exhausted making this journey, then so are you!" Chomper mocked as he continued his monotonous journey, "No free rides!"

Orchid rolled his eyes, "Whatever you say, Big Guy!  We just need to hurry!"

Chomper growled as he took a mock bite in Orchid's direction, "Don't you think that I know that!"

Not being used to Chomper's antics, Orchid jumped and then advanced forward quite a distance.  He was not going to take any chances on the purple sharptooth.  He knew that he was the 'friendly sharptooth' back in his childhood, but that had been years ago.  Perhaps he had changed in that time?

Like his parents.

"I was just playing."

Orchid looked back at the sharptooth as the two continued their forward advance.  There was a hint of hurt in the voice, which could not be obscured even with the intricacies of the sharptooth language.  This struck Orchid as very telling.  As rumors of Chomper's exploits had confirmed, he did not mind having a fearsome reputation.  

But to be seen as unfair still caused him distress.

"I guess you are still the friendly sharptooth to your friends then."

Orchid covered his mouth once he realized what he had just said aloud.  His sister had always told him that he had a big mouth, and now he had actually spoken his mind to a two-footer.  His belly twisted with concern as he awaited the angry or defensive response.

But none came.  The only thing that could be heard was the steady footsteps from the two dinosaurs.  When Chomper finally did respond it was in a soft tone that Orchid would have never expected.

"I just hope that my friends are okay."

The fastrunner wore a sad smile as he looked back towards the massive sharptooth.

"You and me both, Path.  You and me both."

-----

The Barrens, several miles from Hanging Rock:

Littlefoot had no sooner concluded his verse when he felt an unexpected weight on his back.

"So what happened next, Daddy?"

The laughter of the adults rose over the echoing footsteps as Littlefoot rolled his eyes at his son's antics.  He quickly turned towards the young fastbiter only to see a trio of fastbiters hanging onto his back.  Biter, Swipe, and...

"Pouncer?  Have you forgotten who your parents are?"

The small fastbiter appeared to shrink as he recoiled in embarrassment.  It was only know that Biter and Swipe took notice of their friend's impulsive action.  Pouncer quickly jumped off as the other two took this as an opportunity to playfully chase his retreating form.  It appeared that they had already forgotten what had brought them onto Littlefoot's back in the first place.

"Our children certainly seem to have a lot of energy.  Perhaps they wouldn't mind if we picked up the pace then?" Taunt teased.

A smile quickly appeared on Taunt's face as his tease had the desired effect.  Within moments the impromptu chase of his son had ended to be replaced with the protests of the children.  His smile turned into an outright laugh when he heard Sauria and Charger's disgruntled muttering from behind him.

"I would ram the jerk but I don't think it would be worth it..."

"Well you would certainly get some more running in once he began to chase you."

"You are certainly grumpy when you are tired!"

"Oh, that is rich coming from a threehorn!"

Littlefoot shook his head in amusement at the antics playing out before him.  Both his own children and the leaf-eaters reminded him so much of his own youth.  The innocence that came with inexperience in life coupled with the friendly snarkiness that came with overcoming hardship with the help of others.  He quickly realized that he would have to bring the amusing scene to an end, however, if they were ever going to finish the song before they arrived at Hanging Rock.  With that in mind he gestured towards Petrie to resume the song.  As the flyer began his first verse everyone instantly went silent.

♪♪  Soar and me spent nights in nest,
happy as a couple could be,
But one night me find her not,
Me wonder where she could flee  ♪♪

♪♪  But while me quest to find mate,
through endless sky and rain,
Seeker was on quest of his own,
To where Path held reign  ♪♪


-----

Several years ago:

Seeker took a deep breath.

Before him stood the sweet bubbles vines, which only now were blooming with their brilliant white flowers.  A hint of the fruit that would soon thrive in their place.  Ahead of these conspicuous plants was the green expanse that led to the gently flowing stream.  This was the land of the purple sharptooth.  The territory of his packmate.

My leader now. Littlefoot thought with conflicting emotions.  He still thought of all of his friends as his packmates, even though the pack had been dissolved.  However, the role of Chomper was a hard one for his mind to comprehend.  He always knew that he would have to concede to him one day.  His fellow fastbiters would have to be the chasers, and Chomper the killer.  However he never thought that the day would come so soon.  He most certainly didn't see it happening the way that it did.

Littlefoot shook his head.  Such matters could wait for the hatching of the eggs and the settling of the instincts.  Whether he was leader in the future, or Chomper, or someone else, didn't really matter in the long run.

As long as our children are safe.

He advanced through the bushes with some speed and resisted the urge to mark them with his own scent.  He knew that Chomper wouldn't appreciate that gesture, but old habits were hard to kill.  As he advanced forward into the tall grass he could feel and smell the humidity gently increase.  It was like stepping into the fog on a warm morning.  Though now the lack of visibility carried a more sinister connotation.  He no longer had the rest of the pack to count on.

Growl...  Growl...  Yelp!

Littlefoot was careful to make the tone of his voice clear.  There was no room for error here.  He had to ensure that Chomper knew that he entered his territory not for water, or to invade, but under truce.  He did not have to wait long for a response.

Roar!  Growl...

Littlefoot rolled his eyes at Chomper's lazy response.  To any other sharptooth the response would have indicated a very assured dinosaur who did not especially care about having the others in his territory.  A kind of threat veiled in the lack of response.  But in Chomper's case his location gave him away.  His roar had come from his sleeping area, and even now the sound of a sharptooth rising could not be heard.  Chomper was just being lazy.

"It seems that being in charge didn't make Path a morning person!"  Littlefoot mused silently to himself.

"Well with a face like that he certainly needs his beauty sleep!"

Littlefoot jumped into the air as he turned towards the sudden voice.  However nothing was there to be seen.  Only the hazy fog greeted his panicked eyes as his feet crashed into the muddy soil.

"Hey!  No need to splash me with mud!"

Littlefoot closed his eyes in exasperation.  He knew who that voice belonged to.

"Taunt, what are you doing here?"

"What?  I needed to be invited in order to steal Path's fish?" Taunt ignored Littlefoot's audible groan, "Besides it seems that you just offered a truce.  For what reason I don't know."

Littlefoot squinted through the fog and could just begin to see Taunt's figure appear in silhouette.  The scent was still being blown away from him towards the stream, but he could deduce that he would have smelt bemusement.

"There was a misunderstanding between Haven and us.  Ponder decided to take some food..."

"...that belonged to me.  I noticed, I did, I did!"

Now it was the turn of both males to jump as Ducky's voice echoed in their ears.  She was still somewhat distant, but approaching quickly.

"That is why I am here.  I had to steal from Path because you stole from me."

Littlefoot allowed himself to relax slightly at Ducky's tone, but still was concerned at the nature of what had happened.  He knew that this opened himself up for reprisals.

"I am sorry about that, and I want to make sure that there are no misunderstandings.  I am prepared to make amends." he offered carefully, "Ponder was hungry and... was not as careful as she should have been."

Laughter greeted Littlefoot's ears which caused him some bemusement.  That was when Breeze's voice could be heard in the distance.

"Don't worry, Seeker, I don't think that you have much to worry about.  At least you didn't nearly kill Haven like her brother did."

This caused Taunt and Littlefoot to both gasp in unison, "What?!"

Ducky finally appeared in a clearing in the fog as she gestured with a shrug, "A misunderstanding.  I was hunting in Finder's territory and we kind of... um... used our spears."

Silence descended on the two males as they struggled to comprehend what had just been said.  Their instinctual response had nearly led to murder.  It was a testament to just how correct Chomper had been when he split up the pack.

Breeze walked into the clearing as well with several fish impaled on her spear, "That is why our two families have been hunting together since yesterday.  We don't want a repeat of that!"

Littlefoot placed his hands on his snout as he tried to grapple with that revelation, "So let me get this straight... you nearly killed Finder... he nearly killed you... so now you and your mates are hunting together with spears?!"

Taunt's mouth hung agape but he nodded in Littlefoot's direction anyway.  He shared Littlefoot's confusion.

Ducky took the opportunity to answer, "You and Taunt were so angry that you challenged one another, so why are you so calm right now?"  She tilted her head inquisitively, "Is this not the same fastbiter that you said you would go tooth and claw any day?"

Littlefoot blinked at Ducky's question.  I said that about Taunt... but we made up... I think...

Taunt hesitated as he looked awkwardly at Littlefoot, "I... um... don't feel the same way now... is that because um..."

Breeze snorted, "Because your mate is done laying eggs so that you can be sure that they are all yours?"

Both Littlefoot and Taunt jerked back as the females laughed.  The realization that their responses had been due to making sure that their females were not courted by another male caused odors of embarrassment to wash from them.  Neither of them had the thought of courting the other's mate which made the situation all the more absurd.  

That was when Littlefoot had a realization.

"But... you and Finder still attacked one another... what was that about?"

Ducky smiled as she tilted her head at Littlefoot, "We found out that it was just the nests that made us like that.  We have to protect our eggs, you know?  Away from the nests we could get along just fine... just stay away from the babies."

Breeze nodded, "Exactly.  The first joint hunt went well.  We haven't eaten better since before the pack split."

Littlefoot gave Taunt an inquisitive stare as he contemplated what the others had just said.  If only the nests caused that kind of reaction then perhaps there was hope yet.  Perhaps the pack could get back together, if only during hunts.

Littlefoot tilted his head at Taunt, "I will have to talk to my mate but are you thinking what I'm thinking, Taunt?"

"That I won't have to take your ground fuzzies anymore?"

Littlefoot jerked back, "That was you!  Why you..."

"Focus, boys!" Breeze's laughter echoed in the marsh, "I think that you were talking about a four-way hunt."

Littlefoot glared at Taunt as the other gave him a teasing look, nonetheless only playful scents radiated off of them.  A testament to how much of their strife was due to their instincts to protect the nest.

"I'm in," Littlefoot affirmed, still looking in Taunt's direction.

Taunt nodded, "Provided Stern Claw doesn't gut me for the idea... I'm in too."

Ducky snorted, "If Stern Claw has not gutted you yet, Taunt, then she is not going to.  Nope, nope, nope!"

-----

Chomper's carefully listened to the distant conversation as he lay in his sleeping area.  His slightly opened eyes were the only sign of consciousness until the end of the conversation reached his ears.

As laughter echoed through the fog a distant sharptooth smiled at the scene. It looks like Seeker and Taunt have agreed to the arrangement... now maybe they can stop stealing my fish!


Rolling his eyes in amusement more than annoyance Chomper finally rose to his feet in order to greet the new morning.  The pack was back together... in a manner of speaking.  Littlefoot could lead the joint hunts as he had done in the past, and each hunter could bring the spoils to their nests.  

Chomper sighed deeply.  Now there was only one packmate left to account for.

I wonder how Spotter is holding up.

-----

A few weeks prior,  in the Mysterious Beyond:

Where is she?  It be five days!

The brown flyer stared at the cliffs before him with careful eyes.  It had been five long days since he had awakened to find his sleeping spot surprisingly cool.  There was an absence in their makeshift nest.  An absence that made him squawk with indignation.

His mate was gone.

He had had five long days to search the available nesting sites for his beloved flyer, and five long nights to contemplate their last words to one another.  Those words that nearly seemed prophetic on a dark moonless night.

"You are certainly an odd one, you know that?"

"That why you like Spotter.  Me screwed up as you!"

An exchange of laughter and playful lunges erupted from the two flyers as they settled down for a night's rest.  However the conversation that had led to the exchange was one that Petrie was quite serious about.  It involved something that he had on his mind for quite some time.

Soar ruffled her wings as she prepared to settle into her sleeping area.  Her sudden quietness was a noticeable counterpoint to her previous boisterousness.

"You were serious about your question, weren't you?"

Petrie blinked at Soar's tone, but quickly nodded despite his growing concern, "Yes, me was serious."

The eyes of the two flyers locked for a moment as each sized up the other.  Petrie's eyes communicated concern with more than a little confusion, whereas Soar's expression displayed something akin to pity.  She finally bowed her head as she considered how to answer the question.

"Had any other flyer told me the story that you told then I wouldn't believe them... but you are undoubtedly you.  The scars match the rumors of the trickster Sandstorm... your words match the stories of Spotter... and well... you know things only a leaf-eater would know and don't know things that any sharptooth flyer would now." she smiled sadly, "so... your mother never told you about what came after?"

Petrie shifted uneasily, "Well me know what me and you did and me know that eggs come next, but..."

Soar chuckled, "Yes, dear, at least I didn't have to give you instructions on that!"

Despite his concern he found himself chuckling as well.  Soar always seemed to have that effect on him, "She never tell me about raising babies.  Me only know that she only did that.  Me never know father."

Soar nodded, "Few flyers do.  Your friends may have had fathers, Spotter, but flyers only are cared for by mothers.  Eventually I will need to go."

Petrie looked down which caused Soar to look guilty at her words.  "But me love you..."

"I love you too, dear.  But there is more to raising younglings than love.  For the good of the children I will need to raise them alone."

"But with a daddy there could be two providing for them!" Petrie protested.

Soar shook her head, "...and a male who could hurt them."

"I would never do that!"

Silence fell over them for several moments as Soar looked into the now agitated male's eyes.  Her look of pity now turned into one of sadness. She had no idea that it would be this difficult.

"You told me about your friends, Spotter.  About what Thud said about their instincts.  We are not immune from that.  If you care about the children then you will stay away until they are at the age of safety." she gently nuzzled his neck, "You have fought with tyrants and fiends, but in a battle with instincts, the instincts will always win."

Petrie closed his eyes, "Me not fly away from battles."

He could hear Soar's sad sigh, "Maybe in this case you should."

Petrie shuddered at the memory, which caused him to shift awkwardly in the air.  She had left some time during that night without any warning or preamble.  But considering the subject of their last conversation Petrie could understand why.

She want to leave when she can.  Me should have known.

Her last words before he went to sleep haunted him.

"You know, dear, I think that we can forego the competition during the next Time of Mating."

"That good, me not enjoy almost dying."

Soar's laughter echoed in his ears, "I think that I would just seek you out again and be done with it.  I think we have already made our choices." she then yawned deeply as he nuzzled her, "What was that name of your sister again?  The one that died during the battle?"

Petrie groggily replied, "Valaria.  Some part of me die when she die."

"Valaria.  That would be a good name for a daughter."


The two had fallen asleep together, but then he woke up alone.  He knew from the beginning what that had meant, and the magnitude of their final words together.  She had wanted his input on one of the children's names.

The last input that he would receive as the father.

But Petrie's words were more correct that Soar could have known.  Petrie was not one to simply abandon a battle unless there was no hope of victor, and the battle for love was no exception.  She only realized this when a familiar brown flyer came flying into her visual range.

"Good nest place!  It took me a long time to find it!  How are the eggs?"

-----

Soar froze at the sudden appearance of the male.  The lovable charm of Petrie was still there, as was his empathy and perseverance.  However there was now one thing present that wasn't a mere day before.

The eggs.

Her eggs.

She didn't even have time to process what had happened before she sprang into action.  Wing collided with wing and beak collided with flesh as she charged at the unsuspecting male.  He took off in a mad flight as she continued to squawk and bite at his wings.  She was beyond thought now.  She was beyond control.  All that roared in her mind was the ultimate obligation of a mother.  

Chase the intruder!  Protect the children!

It was only when she saw his form slowly and on the opposing cliff face that marked the end of her territory that she realized what she had done.  The form of Petrie stood before her with more than a few new scrapes on his brown exterior.  His eyes communicated horror for a moment, but then quickly reasserted a determined appearance.  It was something that her instinct-addled mind couldn't determine how to respond to.

"My territory!  Stay out!"

Petrie continued to stare at her as she puffed out her chest in an aggressive gesture.  He stood at the cliff face and said nothing.  This was a side to him that she had only seen during his mating display.  It caused a confusing torrent of emotions to erupt within her.

"So this cliff not in your territory then?"

Soar merely glared at the male as she remained on her cliff.  Her failure to continue the attack confirmed that he was correct.

"Good.  Then me claim this cliff for Spotter.  Me live here now."

It was only now that Soar brought herself to speak again.  "Did you not listen to me, flyer?!  I will do anything to protect our children, even if that means hurting the father.  Don't do anything stupid or I will make sure that it is the last thing that you do."

She quickly turned back towards her nest and retreated at full speed.  Now the emotions were returning to her.  Her love for Spotter... his odd sense of humor... his almost naive view of right and wrong... she could not let these interfere with what her instincts were shouting at her to do.

Damn it, Spotter!  Why do you have to make this any harder than it already is?!

As she flew back to her nest she swore that she could hear Spotter's voice in the distance.

"Me may not see babies, but me make sure you safe."

And Petrie was true to his word.

-----

A few weeks later:

Squawk!

Soar only leveled off the assault once she saw that the male was again on his side of the gorge.  It didn't matter that he had dropped a fish in her territory.  It didn't matter that her kids were hungry.  All that matter is that the kids were safe from him.

That was when she heard the hungry cries of her children.

"Coming, darlings!"

She quickly used the thermals in the gorge to carry her back to the nest, but not before she heard a quip from the outsider's territory.

"You welcome!"

-----

Two days later:

Splat!

Soar opened her eyes and emitted an audible groan.  It seemed that she had only now gone to sleep when he had begun his usual tricks.

He is only trying to help... and he is helping... some part of her mind noted, but I can't let him feel welcome.  It would be too dangerous for the kids.  

For that reason she carefully rose from the nest in order not to wake the infants, and took to the air.  This was when she saw an unexpected sight.

The fish were only on the threshold of her territory.  It was as if Petrie had merely tossed them from his cliff to her side.

"Me not want to wake you or the babies.  Sorry."

Soar took a deep breath, "You're not giving up on this are you?"

Petrie did not attempt to say another word to his mate as he had long since experienced the futility of that.  His response was merely to calmly toss another fish onto her side of the territory.  The dry humor of his actions were not lost on Soar.

"Fine, have it your way, Spotter.  But fish or no fish don't think that I will not let my guard down!"  Then, as promptly as she had arrived, she picked up one of the fish in her beak and flew in the direction of her nest.  The agitated reply and lack of gratitude would have dissuaded most flyers, but not Petrie.  For Soar's own words had betrayed her on this day.

Petrie smiled to himself.  She finally call me by name again!

-----

The next day:

Squawk!  Squawk!  Squawk!

Soar stared at her six children as the instinctual call for food emanated from them.  Had she been a leaf-eater then their fuzz-less forms, huge eyes, and gaping beaks would have made them look like abominations.  The screeching calls of flyer young were known to scare leaf-eater younglings at night as their horrific calls echoed into the dark.  However, unlike leaf-eaters, Soar’s maternal instincts told her exactly what to do in this situation.  Carefully tilting her head back she felt the fish rise from her gizzard, and within moments she was regurgitating the morning’s catch into the hungry mouths of her children.

Squawk!  Squawk!

Soar sighed.  That had been the third fish of the day, and yet her children were still hungry.

Mamma wasn’t lying when she said that this was hard! she noted to herself.  It brought to mind an old saying that her mother used to say to her when she had to do something difficult, Crying never solved any problems; fly on!

“I will be back, children!  Stay silent for momma, okay?”  She then began to purr a soft growling noise, which was the cue for the children to grow silent.  Within moments their instincts overpowered their hunger and they were as silent as a pack of predators stalking prey. This was not something that she was ever taught, it just seemed to come naturally to her.  An instinct to help keep potential predators away.  Like other flyers... like that damn male...

With grim determination she flew into the sky once more.  There were two streams in the area with plentiful supplies of fish.  One was in the middle of several flyer territories, and thus was always under conflict.  Under normal circumstances she would have avoided entering there.  However the other stream was securely in the territory of a flyer that she wanted to avoid.

Spotter will insist on giving me the fish… I can hunt on my own!

She gritted her beak at the thought of the male.  She appreciated his help, but his constant insistence on helping made something scream at her from her subconscious.  Perhaps it was his desire to be near the children despite the instinct that made males dangerous around hatchlings… maybe it was the fact that he arrogantly claimed the good stream… maybe it was her embarrassment of having attacked him during their first meeting...

Or maybe it is my own pride, an unwanted voice noted in her head, if my mother could do this alone then so can I!

-----

“Caw!”

Petrie awoke suddenly at the pained exclamation.  It only took him a moment to determine whose voice that was.

“Soar!”

He pumped his wings without hesitation as he promptly rose into the air.  All thoughts about respecting his mate’s territory evaporated as soon as he heard her give the alert call.  He could be attacked later for all that he cared.

It only took him a moment to witness the situation that had befallen his mate.  She was attempting to guard her children with her wings as a larger female attacked her with her beak.  The intruder was using Soar’s own protectiveness against her.  This was enough to make Petrie see red.

You disgusting blood-sucker...

Petrie picked up his pace as much as he could.  He knew that screeching would only alert the female to his presence so he instead tried for the silent route and used the thermals to gain altitude.  From there a sudden dive would be silent and indefensible.  With his body finally soaring into the clouds he decided that it was time to strike.  He curled his wings underneath him and pointed his eyes on his target.  That was when he saw something that made his blood run cold.

A small object in the attacker’s mouth.

That was when Petrie snapped.

-----

Soar choked back her anguish as she heard the sickening crunch of her child’s head in the intruder’s beak.  She had failed Volorn, but she still had his five brothers and sisters to protect.  The harsh instincts of her kind drove her on to protect what remained of her family.  Mourning could come later.

The flyer shifted to the right as the beak came her way once more.  Soar countered this by striking at the attacker’s neck.  She only got a glazing blow on the fiend, but her scream confirmed that Soar had inflicted pain on the female.  Perhaps enough to make her cease the attack.  Perhaps enough to save her family.

The intruder jerked back and spat blood onto Soar’s face.  Her son’s own blood.  It was enough to make Soar fight back a sob in her throat.  However the intruder did not press her attack.  She merely gave Soar a cold glare.  Though no words were exchanged its meaning was obvious.

If you enter my territory again then I will kill you.

Soar held her gaze with the female.  Despite her loss now was not the time to seek vengeance or to show pride.  She had to think about the wellbeing of her remaining children, which would be doomed were she to fall.  For that reason she merely tilted her beak downward which was enough for the large female.

The intruder snorted arrogantly at Soar’s display of submission as she stepped back to the ledge of the nest.  She hesitated one last time as she placed weight on her wings to take off.  Just one moment to savor her victory.

That was her final mistake.

A sickening crash made Soar look in terror at where the intruder had been moments before.  Where a flyer had been previously there was now what appeared to be a confusing torrent of beaks and feathers.  From the chaotic maelstrom of violence came spatterings of blood and shrieks of pain.  Soar froze in place as her children continued to shriek under her massive wings.  Within moments those wings were covered in blood just like the walls of the crevice they called home.  That was when she realized something.

The cries of pain were only coming from one of the flyers.  A flyer that she knew quite well.

“She's dead, Spotter.  You can stop now.”

Soar was almost horrified by the monotone coldness in her voice as Petrie suddenly stopped his assault on the other flyer’s corpse.  What was left to fall on the ground was something that was barely identifiable as a flyer.  Now she was merely another victim to fall under Petrie’s talons.

That was when the site of her son’s crushed body again came into view.

Both flyers stopped for a moment as their eyes locked on the horrific sight.  The loss of children to predation or reprisals was rather common for sharptooth flyers, but that did not make the emotions any less raw.  Vorlorn would never have the chance to grow, to speak, or to become a flyer of his own.  Instead he had become a victim of another flyer’s vengeance... and Soar’s own arrogance.

“This is all my fault,” Soar sobbed silently, “I am sorry, son.”

Petrie quaked with rage, “Don’t... say... that,” he hissed between agitated breaths, “How this you fault!  She the killer!”

Soar noted Petrie’s anger and carefully placed herself between him and the still crying children, “I decided to use her stream instead of yours.  I...” she fell silent again and she looked down in shame, “My pride got our son killed.”

Petrie sucked in a deep breath as he saw the children peaking from behind their mother’s wings, “Pride?  Like my pride that make Spotter take stream in first place?  Pride that ignore what you say?” he shook his head sadly as he looked at his son, “Me sorry, son.  Me fail you as much as momma.  Me not fail your brothers or sisters... not anymore.”

Soar hesitated as she watched Petrie moved back towards the entrance to the crevice.

“What are you going to do?” she asked cautiously.

Petrie shrugged, “That up to you.  Me should have listened before.  This dangerous place, but with me here it more dangerous.  Me already kill other flyer’s babies, how can me not be sure me not kill yours?”

Soar raided her voice in a mixture of exasperation and rage, “What are you talking about!?  You haven’t killed anyone’s babies!”

Petrie shook his head, still not facing his mate.  “Me kill this momma...” he gestured towards the shredded corpse, “Which mean that me kill her babies.  Babies not live on own.  Either hunger get them... or predator get them... or me get them.” he then turned towards his mate with an ashen expression, “Which be better?  Because me not know.  Me not know anymore.”

Soar sighed deeply as the full extent of Petrie’s actions became apparent to her.  He had indeed condemned an entire family to death through his actions.  Now with the full magnitude of what he was capable of staring him in the face, Petrie was not so confident about being part of his children’s lives.  The justifications for his actions were irrelevant as the highlighted an underlying truth.  Until their children were at the age of safety they would not be safe around their father.

“Her nest was well hidden... I saw it by the stream which was why she...” she shook her head, “...predators probably won’t find it in time... it might be best for you to... take care of it.”

Better to die quickly than to die of starvation. Soar’s own thoughts horrified her.

“And what best for our children?”  Petrie choked back a sob, “For the ones that are left?”

Soar stared at the flyer with an unreadable expression, “It is best that they have a father... but not yet.” she carefully began to lick the blood off of her children, “I didn’t believe that at first... but now I am certain.”

It was only now that Petrie dared look her in the face.  His eyes communicated fear as his body and gaze was clearly shifted away from the direction of his own children.  Most notably away from the curious stares of their young children,  A clear indication of what he was fighting.

“You’re feeling the instinct now, aren’t you?”  Soar asked carefully.

He looked down, ashamed and confused.  No additional words needed to be spoken on that.

Now you know, dear... at least you can fight it... Soar frowned.  It seemed that they both had their own share of revelations on this horrible day.  Though they were too late to save their poor son.

“Then... go now," Soar choked out, "Use that instinct where it would actually do some mercy.  The children and I will see you in the Dry Times.”

Petrie hesitated one last time as he looked out on the gorge that lay before him.  His voice was more helpless than she had ever heard from him, “Will you and babies be alright until then?”

Soar smiled sadly, “Now that you have killed the biggest competition we should be fine..." her callousness even made Petrie shiver, but she could not be bothered to have any concern for the murderer of her child, "Have trust in me, dear, just like how I have trust in you.  I will return to you when the times are safer... and you don't have to fear yourself.”

Petrie gave her a slight nod as he took a deep breath.  He seemed to size up the sky that lay before him as the wind shifted his wings like a breeze rattles leaves.  It was only then that he spoke in a faraway voice, “Until Dry Times then.  Farewell, Soar.  Farewell, children.  Father wait for you all.”

Then, without waiting for a reply, he took off into the blue sky.  Like a summer storm, he was gone just as soon as he had appeared.  Afraid of what chaos he could cause if he challenged his instincts too much.  It was enough to make Soar hug her remaining children close.

Farewell, Spotter.  We will meet again.

-----

As Petrie ended his tale, only the sounds of silence greeted his ears.  His children rested on the backs of the leaf-eaters with agape beaks at the tale they had just heard.  They had known that they lost a brother back before they even had memories, but they had never heard the full tale.  Their mother was not willing to relive that particular memory.

"So you would have..."  Dive began as he gestured helplessly with his wings, "But we know you, Daddy!  You not do anything like that!"

"Why do you males even have that instinct?" Sauria demanded, "Mama always told me that instincts help us to survive when thoughts take too long.  How could killing babies help you?"

"They eat other things for food, does it really surprise you that they would eat their own babies?" Charger muttered with little tact.  It was enough to earn an angry glare from Petrie.

"Me not know, but me know that mama who lose eggs wants to make eggs after.  So maybe that why it exist?  Me not know, but you be idiot to think that Spotter enjoy this.  Me glad the instinct be gone!" he looked away from the threehorn and muttered to himself in sharptooth, "Threehorns not gentle giants either. How many sharptooth eggs they kill?"

No answer reached his ears, as Datum did not translate those words.  He merely gave a helpless look to Biter who shared his worried look.  They had known that hardships occurred before their hatching, but they had no idea about the magnitude.  Flyers hatched much faster than land-dwellers, which meant that even more could go wrong before the fastbiters' day of hatching arrived.  It was this thought that finally provoked Swipe to ask the fateful question.

"Daddy, you said in the last song... before Spotter's... that you had four eggs and that Finder had six... did we lose any brothers and sisters?"

Littlefoot stopped in his tracks for several moments, as the rest of the pack stopped as well.  The brown fastbiter struggled for the words, when Ruby finally spoke for him.

"Opal and Topaz were going to be their names... but they never got the chance."

This caused an audible gasp to erupt from the children, but the adults were not done.

Spike swallowed hard, "We were going to wait until we saw them to give them names... but we never got the chance.  They took them from us.  Only you two remain." he gently nuzzled his two sons who looked upon him with sad eyes.  They had never known their brothers or sisters who were never born, but they could tell that it obviously caused their parents sadness.

Ducky looked down, "We got lucky, but it nearly wasn't so."

Sauria spoke softly, "What happened?"

Littlefoot took a shuddering breath, "Children... it may be hard to understand, but sometimes happiness is born from the nest of sadness.  It was the loss of so much that finally allowed us to bring the pack together... and to make sure that all of you hatched safely into the pack that you know.  But the price that we had to pay was high.  Far too high," he gritted his teeth as he recollected his thoughts, "To answer your question... it was the egg-stealers that happened."

The children began muttering amongst themselves.  Their parents had told them about egg-stealers.  Even sharptooth feared their single-minded focus on the most precious of things.  Now it seemed that they knew why their parents always seemed to have a special hatred for them.  That was when Cera finally spoke.

"Children, we will now sing to you about the time of loss."

-----

The present, Hanging Rock:

"We can't find any sign of them.  Maybe they moved elsewhere?"

Topps gritted his teeth at the report from the flyer.  First they hear that their kids had disobeyed them in order to make the journey, and now this.  

"And nothing of the children?"  

"No sign.  We will keep looking."

Topps sighed inwardly at Bron's panicked tone.  He had embarked on this journey to see his child returned to him only now to see that other children were in harm's way.  They had been through this before many times.  Topps had been through Cera's little adventures, and now he was experiencing one of Tricia's.  He only hoped that this was not her last.

It won't be as long as I have breath in my body!

"We will find them!  Fastrunners or no fastrunners!"  Topps's expression turned into a cold glare as he went into an assertive mood that brokered no disagreement.  Not that any of the assembled adults were inclined to disagree.

"If they are following us then maybe we should continue on our way?  That is where the kids would be going right?  To Hanging Rock?"

Topps grew silent as he considered Savine's suggestion in his mind.  As much as the idea of not actively searching for the kids went against his instincts, it did make a lot of sense in this case.  If they couldn't come to their kids then they could have their kids come to them.

"That's a good idea," Topps quickly affirmed as Bron opened his mouth to speak, "What good would we be if they search for us at Hanging Rock and we aren't there?"

"And the flyers could search around wherever we aren't."  Somni finished the threehorn's thoughts.  Despite the longneck's reputation for having his heads in the clouds, it seemed that his perspective was well-suited for times like this.  It was almost enough to make Topps consider the longneck's detachment useful.

Almost.

"Well... if the flyers can keep watch then perhaps we can go to Hanging Rock...  but I think that someone should stay behind..."

Topps suppressed a groan, "And split up the herd?  Destroy our only advantage?  What if sharpteeth attack?"

"What advantage do the children have!?" Bron nearly roared, his uncertainty gone.  There was no doubt in the threehorn's mind that the longneck had already made up his mind.

"Everyone... I think..."  Somni tried to speak up.

"Our children are strong, and we need to be strong for them!"  Topps growled in response, "In case you don't remember it is my child who is out there alone... your child is safe with..."

"With your other daughter and his son?  The sharpteeth?" Savine asked bitterly as he looked towards the other threehorn and the longneck.

Now it was Topps turn to go on the defensive, "Now Savine, they saved the valley countless times!  You can't simply..."

"Guys..."  Somni tried once more.

Bron stepped in front of Somni as he addressed Savine directly, still angry over the entire situation, "In case you have forgotten, threehorn, if it wasn't for our children then your child wouldn't even have a chance..."

Savine gritted his teeth as he cocked his head aggressively, "You try my patience, longneck..."

"Everyone be silent!"

Stunned silence fell upon the assembled dinosaurs as three angry pairs of eyes fell upon Somni's form.  They were joined by the others that had joined them.  A collection of the valley's strongest dinosaurs.  Chief among them was Topps who looked upon his counterpart as if he had grown a second head.  That was when he noticed that Somni wasn't looking at any of them.

"What is that?"

It was then that Topps spared a glance in the direction that the longneck was staring.  He was staring at the not-so-distant form of Hanging Rock.  That was when Topps noticed what had caught Somni's attention.

Sharpteeth.  They were obviously too far away to be much of a threat so the flyers had held off on the alert call.  But based upon the way they were moving they were obviously looking for something.  But what?

That was when he looked up to the rock face above the towering beasts.  On the barren walls could be seen a few vague figures slowly transversing its length with great slowness, but it was one in particular that caught his attention.

A pink figure.  Far too small to be an adult fastrunner, and far too wide to be a young fastrunner.  With dawning realization he felt his blood run cold.  This was a threat that his daughter would not face alone.

"They're after our kids!  Come on, let's show these child-killers how the valley deals with sharpteeth!"

He didn't have to ask twice.








Go ahead and check out my fanfictions, The Seven Hunters, Songs of the Hunters, and Menders Tale.


Ducky123

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Review of Chapter 9:

It's been so long since I've read a new chapter of this great story... I've started reading from the start because it's been so long...

This chapter was really exciting! First of all we have Biter in the extremely unpleasant situation of training his tracking abilities on Datum with the possible outcome of their deaths (which would absolutely destroy any trust the Great Valley has im them if they somehow found out). Ruby proves her skill in observation by... discovering Biter's secret.
That little argument between the little biters was also quite amusing as always :smile

The other fastbiters are preparing and carrying out a hunt... with a twist... :idea
First it seemed like the intruder's intentions were hostile but then it turned out to be Thud's pack! I thought they were still around and visited regularly but it seems like the last time they've met was quite a long time ago...

Now the question remains... what is going to happen to Datum, Charger and Sauria? The next chapter will tell for sure which I will read asap :DD

-------------------------------------

Review of Chapter 10:

Ali's mate seems like a cool guy to have around. I'm amazed you didn't do the obvious by shipping her with Shorty :p
It's a really nice gesture that Somni (who lives up to his name :lol) wants to name their first son Rhett. I still remember the tragic story :(
A question like the one Ali asked can only come from someone who has seen too many loved ones go to react   like Ali... If only they knew Sauria was alright... yet :p

Taunt is tortured by his siblings, hehe :smile And there seems to be another episode of songs coming soon... :)

Poor Chronos and Logos (and Axiom) :( They have to cope with the void every loss causes in our hearts but they are wise enough not to despair but to look forward and move on, knowing that not all is lost afterall :yes

Ah, now Thud requests to settle down and hold a territory next to Seeker's pack's territory. That indeed means that any intruders will meet the combined force of two packs.

Poor children... they think their friends are dead while they are not.

Not yet... It must be awfully terrifying for a leafeater kid to be amongst a group of sharpteeth who may or may not want to eat you. If it wasn't for Biter, Ruby would have hunted them down.
Speaking of Biter, I wonder if he's still in trouble for befrieding leafeaters after Seeker's pack realises that those children are actually allies from the Great Valley and, in case of Seeker, even relatives! Sauria is no less than his half-sister (I think)!
What an interesting development :yes

-------------------------------------

Review of chapter 11:

Oh, not only the gang in the valley but also Seeker mourns for somebody who is still among the living. The Sharpteeth's willingness to help the kids is not something to be taken granted. They could just tell the children the way back to the valley but it sounds like they're going to accompany them.
I think their main motivation is learning about a possible threat and (just a thought) meeting some dinosaurs they haven't seen in ages. Also, it might actually be their duty as allies to do so or it's just their conscience, knowing that they might encouter sharpteeth on their way and die.
The possibility of other sharpteeth possibly challenging their territory keeps the plot exciting.
Moreover, I wonder if the whole pack will go or if some stay behind to protect the territory... and the children are another problem...

Well, there we go. Seeker begins to realise his mourning might not have been necessary after all. We know Bron is fine, he doesn't but now it's dawning on him ;)

Nice chapter again :) I'm also hoping these leafeater kids are going to be important in the story for much longer :yes

-------------------------------------

Review of Chapter 12:

What do you know? Why didn't I suspect this sooner?! So Dein and Terri are the cause for all the trouble! :p
I wonder if they'll encounter Seeker's pack at some point and how that will go...

Nice to see Petrie meet residents of the valley and, particularly, his family again. They will be surprised when Petrie breaks the news :smile

That talk between Seeker and Path was also nice. They're still brothers :yes

I wouldn't know what else to say besides: This is good stuff again!

More reviews incoming soon...
Inactive, probably forever.


rhombus

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Thank you very much for the review!  :)  I am glad that you enjoyed the mid-story developments. My review of your latest chapter will be coming very shortly.  :yes


Go ahead and check out my fanfictions, The Seven Hunters, Songs of the Hunters, and Menders Tale.


rhombus

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Fanfiction link: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10967589/23/So...-of-the-Hunters

Chapter 22: Beginnings and Endings

Cera took a deep breath as she prepared to sing the introduction to the saddest of the pack's songs.  It had been one that they seldom sang except in hushed whispers to the night sky.  Only the desire to sing for their children who would never be hatched motivated them to sing it at all.

"Perhaps a break would be good?"

Cera looked over at Littlefoot with a momentarily befuddled expression, "No... no I can do this.  If I don't do it now then I won't have the nerve to do it at all."

The children shifted uncomfortably as Cera made that pronouncement.  The thought was unspoken but present in all of their minds.  It takes a lot to make Stern Claw lose her nerve...

"Wait!  Who that!"

The assembled dinosaurs turned without hesitation at Petrie's alert.  Within moments claws were in striking position as the adults took positions in front of their children.  Biter, Swipe, and Pouncer, for their part, took protective stances around the leaf-eaters.  Their protective stances did not last for long however as the strange shadow spoke in an apologetic tone.

"I'm sorry!  I didn't mean to disturb all of you.  I didn't think you wanted me to interrupt your song."

The fastbiters' defensive stances eased immediately as the flyer children erupted from the ground like a smoking mountain.

"Grandma Flyer!"

Within an instant the elder flyer was nearly tackled by the five children as they swarmed around her like buzzers would surround their queen.  This caused some curious looks from the fastbiter adults, but that was nothing compared to the reaction of the fastbiter children.

"Who is this!?"

"Is that Spotter's mom?"

"Took her long enough..."

Volant gracefully moved her head around that of Petrie's younglings and looked towards the dinosaur that had spoken the last few words in leaf-eater.  Instead of being upset at the tone, however, she wore a look of immense relief.

"It is a great relief to see you, children.  We have been so worried!" she then pauses as she stared at the threehorn, "Charger, can you see me alright?"

Charger noticeably jerked at Volant's tone.  He despised being pitied by anyone, and he knew the nature of her question.  A threehorn without sight was useless to the herd.  A mouth to feed which could not contribute to the good of his peers.  A dinosaur who would be expected to do the right thing and take one final walk... the prospects for a threehorn with one eye were better, but would deny the dinosaur a place with the defenders.  Until Datum had suggested that Charger become a healer, he had nearly fallen into despair.

"I still have one good eye, Mama Flyer," Charger spoke politely, but curtly, "That is enough for a healer."

Volant looked surprised by his answer, but nonetheless looked relieved.  She knew full well what stigma blinded threehorns often had in the herd.

"Are our parents nearby?"

Volant turned towards the small form of Sauria as she walked in front of Biter's brown form.  She had a few new scars that could be seen, but they were far less numerous than what was present on Charger.  The nearly unscathed form of Datum then walked beside his longneck friend, which provided final confirmation for the flyer.  All of the children were safe and accounted for.

"They are, children!" she replied happily, "They were approaching Hanging Rock when I left to check on all of you."

This had the expected reaction as both the sharptooth children and the three leaf-eaters cheered.  In fact only Taunt had a somewhat negative reaction to the news.

"Oh no!  The sap-suckers might beat us!"

Smack!

Volant couldn't help but laugh at Taunt's words, and the numerous instances of ëOh, Daddy!’ emanating from what she assumed to be his and Cera’s children.  He certainly had not changed since he appeared in the valley for the first and only time.  But now she was armed with knowledge that she had not had then.

"Indeed, the sap-suckers have beaten you," Volant suppressed a laugh at the confused stares from the fastbiters as she spoke in their own language, "Of course you can be forgiven for that considering what you are bringing with you."

"Wait... you know sharptooth now?" Cera asked with incredulity.

"Uh... me sorry for forgetting to mention that," Petrie stammered out as he realized his oversight, "Me busy with other things."

"Oh good, she is speaking in sharptooth now.  As if the flyers were not weird enough."  Charger muttered to no one in particular.

Datum smirked at Charger's response, "I speak sharptooth too, you know.  Does that make me weird?"

"Yes!"  Sauria and Charger both answered in unison as Datum rolled his eyes.  Some things never changed.

It was at this point of levity that Biter and Pouncer did something unexpected.

They approached the flyer with uncertain expressions, but then promptly bowed their heads respectively and spoke in formal sharptooth, "Welcome to our territory, Grandma Flyer.  You have our protection in this place."

This stopped all conversation, as Littlefoot, Ruby, Taunt, and Cera watched the children with pride.  Sauria and Charger could not understand the words, but they understood that it had to be something important.

Volant nodded back, "Thank you for the hospitality.  I only regret that I have no offering to give," she then looked at Biter with a curious expression, "That is the proper response, isn't it?"

Biter looked helpless, "I don't know.  Mommy and daddy only taught us this a few days ago."

Pouncer rolled his eyes, "All due respect, we probably wouldn't be able to eat your offering anyway.  We aren't leaf-eaters."

Littlefoot laughed at the exchange as he stomped a foot rhythmically in a show of approval, "Close enough, children.  With that ritual it is the intention that counts, not the ceremony." It was only then that he and Ruby approached the perch that the flyer had landed on.  A small tree that seemed to rise from the barren lands like a lonely pillar.  "How long have you been here, Volant? We didn't see you until Spotter spotted you."

Volant smiled at Ruby’s usual sing-song manner of speaking, "I saw you all a while ago, but heard that a song was being sung, so I stayed back by the cliff face.  I only approached when I heard the song end."

Petrie shifted uncomfortably, "Uhh... how much you hear, momma?"

Volant smiled back, "Enough to know how these wonderful grandchildren came about!" she hugged them tightly as Petrie looked embarrassed at that revelation.  Volant then looked towards the fastbiter children contemplatively, "Though I did not hear how all of you came along."

Littlefoot's smile turned into a slight frown, "Yes... that was the song we were about to sing.  Perhaps you would like to hear the rest of the tale as we proceed to the herd?"

Volant smiled as her grandchildren urged her on, "Oh... alright." she pretended to be hesitant, "But after that I will need to report back to the herd.  They wanted me to make sure that you were on the way.  Your parents are eager to see you all again."

Littlefoot smiled softly, "Bron is there?"

Cera spoke up as well, "And Dad?"

The flyer chuckled, "Yep!  Bron, Topps, and Ura are all there.  You don't think that they would miss the chance to talk to their wayward children, now do you?  Or to see their grandchildren?"

"Now you will finally see my mother, Leap!" Ducky exclaimed, "And all of you children will get to see your grandmother."  

A nearly inaudible grunt and encouraging nudge was all that Spike offered to Breeze and his children, but it communicating the same idea.

Littlefoot beamed at that response.  Despite his strong suspicions that he would see his father and Topps there, as their children were missing, he had not expected Ura to be present.  It seemed that even Ducky and Spike's mother found a way to make it work.  However, he knew that they would get nowhere if this was allowed to carry on much longer.  With that in mind he whispered in Cera's direction.

"Ready?"

Cera locked eyes with Littlefoot for a moment before nodding.  Being reminded of the happiness of the present had given her the strength to begin the saddest of their songs.  A reminder of all that they had to be thankful for.

"Alright, everyone, as we head towards the valley's herd I think that we have time for one last song.  Is everyone ready for one more?"

The chorus of affirmative responses was now joined with a nod from Petrie's mother.  It was now time.

♪♪  As pack joined to hunt away,
it was agreed that the nests stay,
protected by one parent in the nest,
while the other could provide and rest  ♪♪

♪♪  However as Petrie arrived again,
none of us could begin to defend,
against a threat that none of us could apprise,
until a reluctant ally opened our eyes  ♪♪


-----

Several years ago:

"There should be plenty for all of us if this goes well.  Ha... even Strut might be able to get an egg!"

Ozzy glared at the leader with the makeshift 'herd' with unrestrained contempt.  He had risen in the hierarchy of the group, such that it was, but he was not foolish enough to challenge the leader.  Though the leader was also not foolish enough to challenge him.  The result was an overt stalemate of sorts between the two that had lasted months.  The fact that there were only seven Struthiomimus in the herd only made it that more awkward.

"Just who do you propose we still eggs from, Ayers?  You mentioned a herd, but there are few herds with eggs around here.  The Warm Season is approaching."  Ozzy did not hide his doubt in his voice, "There is plenty of fish in the stream... and plenty of damn plants if it comes to that."

Ozzy gave a sideways look at his brother while not taking his eyes off of Ayers.  His mention of plants earned him a slight smile from Strut, though it was greatly muted from the boisterous response he would have given a year prior.  However, his time in this group had forced them both to change.  They were surrounded by members of two families, each with their own motivations and alliances.  In such an environment, Ozzy had to play off both groups in order to defend his position and be seen as a potentially useful tool of the others, whereas Strut, not being astute in herd politics at all, merely settled for being at the bottom of the hierarchy.  It burned Ozzy up inside, but part of him envied Strut in a way.

He doesn't have to hide who he is.  I have to fake it every day.

"Well, my friend..." Ayers mockingly addressed Ozzy, "Nanine and I were actually looking at the fastbiters in the forest... there are plenty of eggs for the taking there."

The reaction from the two brothers was immediate.

"We can't do that!"

"Do you want to get us all killed?!"

Ozzy's response quickly turned attention away from Strut's words, saving him from a potential loss of face.  Ozzy knew the identity of the 'fastbiters of the wood' as the other egg-stealers had called them, but he never dared to mention his dealings with them in the past.  It would only give Ayers cause to force Ozzy from the herd, whereas right now Ozzy was protected by those who considered him useful, and Strut was protected by being seen as compliant.  It may have been a herd of treachery, but there was more food to be had in a herd than in foraging alone.

Ozzy and Strut had more than enough experience with that.

Ayers looked at Ozzy with a malicious glint, "There will be no harm to us if we follow my instructions.  Fastbiters are fast, but they are also stupid.  I have a plan to trick them."

Nanine glared at Ozzy, "Do you doubt my brother, Ozzy?  If memory serves he was the one who spared you when the lean times came."

Ozzy forced himself to be expressionless.  He and his brother had been spared when the group was starving during the last Cold Time, but another member had not been so lucky.  It had been a subject that none of them had breached until now.  Not even Ayers would relish the memory of eating one of their own kind.

"What is your plan, Ayers?" Another egg-stealer finally asked.

Ayers smiled, "Well... the fastbiters seem to be forming hunting groups, which is odd for when they are nesting... I was thinking that we could use this to their advantage..."

As the other egg-stealers listened to the leader's words they paid little attention to Strut walking away from the group.  Only Ozzy noticed his absence and suspected its significance.

For once brother, you might have the right idea...

-----

“Alright, Spotter, we are counting on you.  With the each girl watching a nest, and the males hunting... it will be hard to keep the eggs protected.  Can you keep watch over the territory?”

Petrie gave a respectful nod to Path.  Perhaps other flyers would have felt used by being asked to do work immediately after returning from a long journey, but Petrie was not any other flyer.

He was back where he belonged.  

“You can count on me, Path!  Now um... who exactly leader now?”


Petrie suppressed a chuckle at that memory.  It seemed that his question actually broached a subject that had not been overtly worked out between the dinosaurs.

The purple sharptooth shifted uncomfortably as the fastbiters maintained a respectful silence.  Littlefoot’s reaction was quite telling as he looked up towards his friend and former follower.  Now his position was uncertain.

“Seeker leads the fastbiters.”

Petrie held his breath as he processed Chomper’s words.  The fact that he did not say “Seeker is our leader” but rather went out of his way to indicate that Littlefoot led the fastbiters was very telling.

“Alright, fastbiters...”  Littlefoot began awkwardly, as if he had not given an order in quite some time, “We will wait until Spotter finds suitable prey... and then we will investigate.”

Path nodded at Littlefoot’s words respectfully, but not give an affirmative grunt as the others had, “That sounds like a good idea.  Tell me when you have a plan of attack... then you can chase it to me.”

Petrie blinked.  His suspicions were confirmed.

“Understood, Path,” Littlefoot looked up at Petrie, “Any questions, Spotter?  We can hold the territory until you come back.”

The flyer shook his head to clear his thoughts.  No matter how the position of Chomper had changed in the hierarchy, Petrie was still one of Littlefoot’s followers.  Petrie wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“No questions, Seeker.  Me go now.”

As the familiar sensation of wind in his wings registered in his brain, Petrie had time to reflect on what had just transpired.  It was only then that he smiled.

Pack back together... that all that matter.


Petrie smiled as the memory faded from his consciousness.  That had been a week ago and several more hunts had transpired since.  They all followed the same winning pattern.  Petrie would find a target and alert the fastbiters on the hunt, either the males or the females.  Then they would chase it into a trap where Chomper could finish the job.  It was as methodical and ruthless as it was effective.  It was like something that Redclaw would have done.

Petrie shuddered at that thought. “We only take what we need.  Hurt who need to be hurt.  We not like Redclaw!”  Though the similarities were still too close for his comfort.

Petrie took a deep breath as he soared over the nesting sites.  From his altitude he could see the distinct forms of the males incubating their eggs.  Littlefoot clutching a spear as he shifted himself over his clutch, while a great distance away Taunt could be seen delicately cleaning the eggs of his unborn children.

Petrie snickered, Taunt does have soft side!  Though he would allow the fastbiter to keep his secret.  His mother had always told him that discretion came with being a flyer.  From those who see much, much is expected.

Petrie sucked in a breath.  Now it was time.

Caw!  Caw!  Caw!

He watched as the males looked up from their vantage points at his soaring form.  None gave an obvious response except for Taunt quickly sitting on his eggs as if nothing had happened.  However their reactions confirmed that his message had been received.

The girls are on the hunt.  Be vigilant while I am gone.

Not wasting any time, Petrie arched his wings towards the Bright Circle and allowed the thermal updrafts carry him higher and higher.  If he were going to find suitable prey then he would need the broadest field of view possible.  Within several moments he was alone in the clouds, with only the sound of the roaring wind reaching his ears.

It was in times like this that he could think.  Ruby had her thinking place, but to him the sky was his thinking place.

So pack back together... but what they do when eggs hatch?  Thud say that fastbiter daddies danger to other babies when they young... so does pack stay apart until babies older?

He adjusted his wings slightly to slow his speed.  He did not want to overshoot the hunters in his search for prey nearby.

What if kids play together?  Who take them home?  Would mommies be safer at doing that?  Or would they make that job for Spotter?

He grimaced as a cloud moved into his field of vision.  Without wasting any time he began to lower his altitude by lowering his wings towards the ground.  Within moments he was through the cloud and the resulting terrain was back in focus again.  Now all he had to do was wait for his eyes to see movement from a suitably large target.  He allowed himself to do this function as his mind continued to wander.

But... would they trust Spotter... my kind eat younglings too.  Petrie frowned at that thought.  He had to leave his mate and children in order to keep them safe, but would he have to separate himself as well in order to keep his friends from being concerned?  It bad enough that we have to look out for egg-stealers on daily basis!

Just then his eyes focused on a suitable specimen.

Ah... adult longneck... not look sick...  He moved in a bit closer, knowing that a longneck would not be concerned about a flyer.  Older... scar on leg... slow walker...  Petrie smiled, Me find prey.  Pack do rest.

Flapping his wings furiously, Petrie prepared to take himself into the sky once more.  It would only be a short journey to the hunters, and then they and Path would do the rest.  It would be up to Petrie to watch over the nests to give the males advanced warning over any threats.

Like the egg-stealer that Petrie just noticed below him.

Hmmm...  Spotter still have Orange Death on claw... his eyes sparkled with malicious intent, If me kill one far away then that one we don’t have to kill close to eggs.

Petrie dove.

-----

Ozzy seethed with anger as he walked through the clearing.  Though, in his conflicted state, he could not determine who he was angrier towards at that moment.  His brother for walking off and giving Ayers an excuse to send Ozzy away to search for his brother,  or himself for getting them into this situation in the first place.

Ayers knows that he can get credit for the eggs now and take me down a notch.  That bastard...  If he thinks that I will settle for being at the bottom then he has another thing coming!  I’m far better than him!  

Ozzy’s rage did not allow him to consider his own failings in the past, including the abysmal episode in the Great Valley.  All that mattered in that moment was that his plans were being squandered.  This would mean less food for himself and his brother, which was the entire point of joining this herd in the first place.

“I don’t know about this, Ozzy.  They don’t seem too nice.”

Ozzy resisted the urge to slap his brother as he gestured wildly, “That’s not the point, you idiot!  Remember how many eggs we had when we helped those fastbiters?  We stand to get more eggs in a group than alone!”

Strut hesitated for a moment before giving a deadpan response, “I don’t know, Ozzy...  I think I trusted the fastbiters more.”

Ozzy groaned, “You imbecile!  Just trust me on this!  I hardly think our own kind would be any worse allies than the sharptooth and his fastbiter friends.  Offering your services... what were you thinking?!”


Ozzy frowned at that memory.  His brother’s concerns had been far more prophetic than he could have realized.  The herd had been nothing but schemes against schemes since the first day.  From egg-napping attempts being foiled suspiciously as if to ensure certain members lost face at the right moment... to the killing of one of their own under suspicious circumstances to provide a convenient meal during the Cold Time... to his own plots to promote himself amongst the two families... he could hardly think that even a sharptooth pack would have such treachery within its ranks.

And then there was his brother...

His brother had never fit into the herd, and had taken on an oddly detached coping style.  Gone was the annoying yet happy demeanor, and in its place was an odd silence.  It was not lost on Ozzy that it may had been Strut's silence and supposed compliance that had saved him when Flawn had mysteriously met his end.  Given the choice between the incompetent yet compliant Strut and the modestly capable yet disagreeable Flawn... Ayers had made his choice.

Not that Ozzy could prove the herd leader was the killer by any means, but he was not blind enough to not see the signs.  Though his brother appeared to have seen them before the fact.

Ozzy frowned at that realization.  It was an odd thing for him to consider.  His brother actually being observant and seeing what he did not...  It was almost as if he had previous experience dealing with difficult companions.

"Sigh... I am such an ass." he allowed himself to mutter in confidence that no one could hear him, "How are we supposed to get dinner now... it isn't like Ayers will let us have a share of their catch."

He growled in frustration.  Regardless of who was to blame for this mess he was going to throttle someone.

But someone beat him to that.

"Ozzy, look out!"

Ozzy barely had time to look in the direction of the voice when Strut's body appeared seemingly out of nowhere.  In a flurry of moment that was something between a jump and a tackle the two egg-stealers collided sending both of them hurdling into the bushes nearby.  For several moments only the sound of cracking branches and the sensation of prickly sticks reached their consciousness.  

Then the shadow came.

Caw!

Acting on pure instinct Ozzy rose from his prone position.  Pain clouded sensation from his legs, as burning scratches made their presence known on his back and side.  Despite this, however, his eyes could see quite well the monstrosity that lay before him.

An enraged brown flyer... and in front of him lay the person who had saved him.

"Strut!"

A muffled groan arose from the brown egg-stealer, but his movements were slow and awkward.  Too slow.

Ozzy's legs tensed up.  His instincts were telling him to flee while he still had a chance, whereas the site of his brother at this flyer's mercy made him pause.  Strut being the only dinosaur who would earn that response from Ozzy.

"You two?  Why you here?!"

Ozzy froze at those words.  He remembered that voice.  That voice from many years ago.  It was a voice that was both welcome and intimidating.  Not again...

"Uh..." Strut muttered semi-consciously, "We owed you... so we're here to help."

Ozzy suppressed a groan at Strut's tone.  It was so obviously a lie created in the heat of the moment that no fool would believe him.

"You horrible liar," Petrie's angry tone lost some of its edge as he looked the egg-stealer up and down, "And me can kill you with Orange Death at any time... so tell Spotter the truth."

"The rest of the herd is going after eggs... but Strut didn't want to..." Ozzy choked out.  He didn't know how to feel about blowing the cover on his 'allies',  There would be no profit in being killed, but there would be none in losing their little group either.  Terrible as they were, they did bring home food. "I was after him..."

Petrie stared into Ozzy's eyes for several moments as Strut carefully lay on his side.  It was as if the flyer were determining something in his mind.

"Pack near here... so no hunt here... or we hunt you."

Ozzy swallowed at Petrie's tone.  He knew very well that Petrie meant every word.

"You're going to let us live?"

Ozzy closed his eyes in frustration and terror.  Don't encourage the damn flyer, Strut!  You damn idiot!

"Seeker keep you alive years ago... me not kill you now."  Ozzy allowed himself to breathe again as Petrie stared directly at him,  "Though Spotter want to."

It was then that a sudden thought appeared to reach Petrie's mind.  In that instant the brown flyer rose his wings to their full extent, showing off his drenched talons, with a distinctly orange substance.  A substance that even the egg-stealers had heard hushed rumors about.  A nonverbal threat.

But this time Petrie had a new target.

"Ack.."  Ozzy collided with the tree behind him as Petrie slammed the pads of his feet into the egg-stealer's chest.  Now only inches stood between Ozzy and imminent death from the poison that lay on those talons.

"Ozzy!"

Petrie looked at Ozzy with an odd expression that unnerved him even further.  It was as if he were not even there... as if Petrie were looking through him.  At plans that only he could see.

"If you move then me kill him."

Strut sputtered as Ozzy shivered under the flyer's murderous gaze, "But you said you wouldn't kill us!"

Petrie tilted his head, "Yes... but Spotter think that this one not tell me everything..."  he leaned in closer as he whispered at his prey, "...and me know Ozzy care about Ozzy most..."

Ozzy held his breath.  The flyer had seen through him.  Worse yet he had correctly deduced the weaknesses of himself and his brother.  Ozzy had risked his life for his brother once, but there was one person who Ozzy would risk all for no matter the circumstances.

Himself.

"I didn't want to do it, but Ayers thought it was a good idea!"

Petrie pushed harder though his talons still had not punctured the skin, "Whose Ayers?  What idea?!  You tell Spotter now!"

Ozzy could not think about his herd members, nor the risk that he would be putting them under.  All that mattered right now was saving his own skin.  He soon told Petrie all that he needed to know.

"Ayers is the leader of the herd!  He wants to take the eggs!  All of them!  The bastard knows that no one will challenge him if he succeeds at getting the eggs from the fastbiters!"

Petrie jumped off of Ozzy in a flurry of wing beats.  With his beak agape, Petrie spoke in a cold monotone,

"What you say?"

Ozzy shook as the fear of the flyer and the relief of being let go finally overtook him, "They're after your eggs.... they were going for them when I left..."

Ozzy barely got the words out when a sudden gust of air and dust blew into his face.  In an instant the flyer was nowhere to be seen as the shadow ascended into the sky as fast as he had appeared.  Now all that remained were the two brothers and the memories of what had just transpired.

"They'll kill them, Ozzy..."  Strut noted as he slow rose from his position.  It was only in a dazed state that Ozzy realized that he was being helped to his feet.  Gone were the thoughts of anger in Ozzy's mind.  Now only a cold darkness remained.  A realization that he and his brother had been played once more by the former residents of the valley.

"And we are responsible..."  Ozzy muttered as he watched the flyer disappear into the sky.

Silence reigned for several moments as Ozzy briefly considered warning the others about what had transpired before the reality of what that entailed entered into his mind.  They were already halfway to the pack's nests and they would have no way of catching them in time.  Useful or not his herd allies could not be salvaged.

"We're leaving them, aren't we, Ozzy?"

Ozzy looked at his brother with a surprised expression.

"I think Ayers wanted me out of the herd..."  Strut's tone was uncertain, as if he were waiting to be smacked by his enraged brother, "he gave me the same look that he made before he killed Flawn."

Ozzy sputtered, "Why... why didn't you tell me, you imbecile!  I could've protected you!"

Strut looked down, "You were happy here... so I was going to leave..."

Ozzy rubbed his beak in frustration, "I was not happy, you idiot!  The others treat me as a thing to be used, and they treat you as useless!"

Strut shrugged, "But I thought you said I was..."

"You're not as useless as them, and you know it!  They would kill us at a moment's notice if it suited them!"  Ozzy fumed at no one in particular, "Eggs aren't worth this!"

They both grew silent after Ozzy's outburst.  Strut in silent contemplation and Ozzy in surprise at his own words.  But it only took a few moments for him to realize their truthfulness.

Eggs aren't worth this!

"Let's go, Strut," Ozzy spoke in an exhausted voice, "Let's get out of here."

Strut did not protest as he followed his brother's side.  Ozzy could not suppress the feeling of nostalgia, as if something were back in place.  They were alone... there would be little food... they would be wandering around aimlessly... yet he and his brother were alive.

"Where to now, Ozzy?"

Strut gave the slightest of smiles.

"Wherever we decide to go, Strut...  Wherever we decide to go."

They never looked back.

-----

"Where is that damn flyer?!  We don't have all day!"

Ruby suppressed a chuckle as Cera's commentary reached her ears.  She was beginning to get annoyed with the delay as well, but she could sympathize with his predicament.  Larger food was usually further south this time of year... but it was hard to move when you already had nests prepared...

"I am sure Spotter is doing the best that he can.  He does a lot for us, he does, he does."

Ruby carefully examined her spear as the conversation continued around her.  It had only been during the previous day that the pack had a chance to repair their spears and vine armor as a group, which made it a far easier task.  It was one of the minor benefits of pack life that they had taken for granted until their split had occurred.  The ability to work together as a team.

"Well, I don't think we should move around, because if we move around then Spotter will have to look around to find us," Ruby finally offered, "The boys are watching the eggs, Stern Claw, so don't be worried."  Though, being a concerned mother, she had lingering doubts herself.

Cera frowned slightly, "It isn't the eggs I am worried about, it's the fact that we are waiting here doing nothing!"

"I guess we are doing exactly what our males are doing right now," Breeze muttered absentmindedly.  As the other female spoke, Ruby noticed that Breeze was tugging at the vines on her chest.  We should probably get those loosened...  She promptly began walking to Breeze's location and gestured towards the vines.  An affirmative nod was her sign that her help was welcome.

As Ruby loosened Breeze's vines she could hear Cera's sarcastic reply, "We are sitting on our tails, which is exactly what Taunt does all day, so he should be good at it!"

"Well if he is sitting on his tail, then he is not pulling someone else's tail," Ducky deadpanned.

Ruby smiled as she tied the vines in place, "Well, Stern Claw didn't say that was the only thing he is good at.  Who knows?  Maybe he is telling the eggs about all of his pranks?  He has many pranks to tell the eggs about!"

Cera merely groaned at that thought, "Urgh... my children are going to be a handful, aren't they?"

The girls shared a laugh at the situation that they found themselves in.  It was almost like old times.  Almost.

"It will be nice when we all can be together at the same time," Breeze noted, "Two seasons and a Night Circle... it will be a while until the age of safety."

This silenced the remaining laughter as the females took on more contemplative expressions.  It was finally Cera who spoke next.

"We have been through worse and gotten through okay, and we will get through this... Provided I don't strangle Taunt before the time of safety arrives then we should all make it through okay."

Ruby smirked, "Tired of being the sole victim of his pranks?"

Cera scowled, "Yesterday he tied my legs together while I was napping.  Then, when I fell over, the ass called me a 'push over' and pushed me over again!"

The resulting laughter made Cera roll her eyes, "Fine... fine... laugh all you want... but when Taunt is finally able to get near your nests again who knows what kind of pranks he has in store for all of you... At least he has to sleep with me... that keeps him in line for the most part."

"As in line as Taunt can be in," Ducky amended.

Cera nodded before joining in the laughter, "That is true."

The girls chatted for a few moments as they stretched in preparation for the run which undoubtedly awaited them.  Not another word was spoke about Petrie's tardiness until Ducky finally saw a flyer appear in the distance.

"I think that Spotter is here!" She replied happily, "It is about time.  Yep, yep, yep."

Cera grunted, "You can say that again... at least he seems to be in a hurry."

Ruby watched the flyer for several moments as he appeared to be in a full rush towards their clearing.  He usually glides in the warm air... or so he says... why is he flapping hard then?  Ruby pondered for a moment.  That was when she saw him make a maneuver that made her blood run cold.  A maneuver that she had not seen in a long time.

Petrie rolled twice, before descending and rising once more.  It was only when he did it a second time that anyone spoke.

"What the..." Cera interjected.

"It's the silent alert!"  Ruby rose to her feet and picked up her spear.  Seeing that Cera and Breeze still had an uncertain look on their faces, she clarified, "Remember?  It's the call that Petrie said he would make if we were too far away to hear him!"

Instantly Cera rose from her position and picked up her spear as Ruby had.  They had no idea what any of this meant, but they knew that this couldn't be any good.

"But what is the alert about?  He can't tell us from out there..." Breeze started.

"We can raise our sticks to let Spotter know that we understand!" Ducky proposed, "If we tell him that we understand then he might be able to show us more!"

Ruby nodded at Ducky's proposal.  It was the best option that they had at this point.

"Alright, everyone!" Cera ordered gruffly, "Sticks over your heads!"

In unison the four females took their spears in both hands and raised them over their heads.  This was followed by head bobs from Cera and Ruby, and a repeat of the raising gesture from Ducky and Breeze.  It did not take long for Petrie's movements to change.

He flew down towards the ground and made a hard turn.  It was as if he were circling a very small point and creating a circle in the air with his trajectory.  

"Something round and on the ground..."

Ruby turned towards Cera as the implications of what that indicated came to them.  A look of absolute horror greeted them both.

"The eggs!"

-----

"Don't you guys worry, daddy is here."

Littlefoot cooed as he shook his feathered arms over his precious clutch.  Despite the knowledge that his children probably couldn't hear him, and most certainly could not understand him, he felt compelled to speak to his future hatchlings.  Despite his trepidation about being a parent, he felt the need to be there for his children.  Even if technically his children were not here yet.

"Mommy is out finding some food right now.  She seems to think that nest watching is a male's job."

I am sure that Topps would have a lot of fun mocking us about that. It was certainly the other way for leaf-eaters.  Littlefoot mused to himself.  It seemed natural by now, but some of the residual weirdness remained.  The females had taken to being the sole hunters again since the pack came together, which means the males were stuck watching the nest.

"You know, kids, I wonder if my friends are talking to their eggs right now," he smiled down at the white orbs, "You will meet all of them when you hatch... well... a little after you hatch, actually... but after that I am sure that you will like them.  Finder does the silent treatment but he is kind... Leap is a bit jumpy but is loyal to a fault...  Spotter is one of my best friends... though I hope you don't learn to speak from him..."

Littlefoot laughed to himself as he tried to explain his friends to his unborn children.  He was finding surprisingly difficult to put his feelings into words.  I suppose that is why my kind uses songs.  Songs capture what the growl cannot find. He smiled at that saying of Dein.  I wonder where Path's parents are now...

"Then there is Taunt... let's just say children that he will be the one to teach you what a prank is..."  he chuckled in a mixture of amusement and exasperation, "Assuming Stern Claw doesn't kill him in the meantime for his..."

Suddenly Littlefoot's red crested head rose and scanned the scenery around him.  He could have sworn that he had heard something rustling in the bushes.

Thump... Thump...

Littlefoot suppressed a chuckle as the thunderous footsteps of Chomper echoed in the distance.  Oh, it was just Path...

"Then there is Path, children.  He is a two-footer, but he actually is quite nice.  Though I don't really know what to call him now... is he the leader of the lands?  The leader of the pack?  I'm not really sure..." he wrinkled his snout in contemplation, "I lead my friends, but Path is in an odd spot... he has taken his own path, if you will."

Littlefoot snorted, "Oh, dear... If I start talking like your mother then all of your speech will be screwed up!  I will have to guard against that." he laughed softly, "...but don't tell your mother about that.  She is very self-conscious about how she talks, but I quite like it."

This time Littlefoot did not hear the rustling of the bushes because of his one-way conversation.

"Her dad told me that she always had that way of talking but it got worse when she helped Path learn to speak leaf-eater.  She would always repeat things to help him along," Littlefoot smiled at the memory, "I will have to teach all of you that language too.  It will be hard to hear what the prey are saying... but knowing that language can be very important.  It might save your lives one day... and Ponder and I only want the best for you."

He sighed deeply as he repositioned himself over the precious orbs.  It is hard to believe that my children are in there waiting for the proper time to get out...  It seems like only yesterday I was...

That was when he heard it.  A rustling in the grass.

Littlefoot frowned at the sudden noise and tightened his grip on the spear.  He knew that it could have been a false alarm like all of the other times, but he couldn't take any risks.  With a steady hand and a pounding heart he walked towards the commotion.

Only to see the grass rustle again.

He sucked in a breath and used his spear to push the grass aside, being careful to stay near his clutch.  That was when he saw something that surprised him.

Several small stones.

How could these have gotten here? He could feel his mind quickly process the situation as he prepared to turn back to his nest, There obviously isn't anyone here because this is upwind and I would have smelled them...

Littlefoot's heart skipped a beat at that realization.  If the stones hadn't been dropped then they must have been thrown from somewhere where he couldn't smell an intruder... Before he could put his horrified thoughts into words he turned back towards his nest.

This time his eggs were not alone.

-----

Shit!

Ayers froze as the fastbiter stared at him with murderous intent.  His companion had succeeded in getting his attention by throwing the stones, but now it seemed that he had underestimated the time he had available.  In that instant he did the only thing that he could do.

He ran.

-----

Time seemed to stand still as Littlefoot stared at the brown egg-stealer.  The egg of his unborn child rested in his clutches as he stood over the clutch like a predator over its prey.  Within mere seconds the egg-stealer's eyes locked onto his.  Yellow orb stared into yellow orb as the wind blew across the silent expanse between them.  As the egg-stealer turned to run, Littlefoot sprung into an immediate charge.  However he didn't even have time to let out an enraged roar when a distinct whistling reached his ears.

Shluck!

The egg-stealer seemed to freeze in place for an instant.  One of his legs hung over the nest in mid-step while he held the egg to his chest as if it were his dearest possession.  The only thing that changed was the expression of his eyes.  They were now glassy with the expression of one who no longer saw the world.  Of one who had left the land of the living.  Ruby's spear, which was now embedded in his chest, had seen to that.

Crash!

-----

Ruby ran as fast as her aching legs would carry her.  She had seen the egg-stealer go down, but now it was time to check on her mate and her precious children.  She would not rest until she was sure that they were alright.  

What greeted her eyes when she reached the clearing stopped her in her tracks.

The egg-stealer lay dead in front of the nest, mere Meters away from where her spear had struck his chest.  His glazed eyes no longer seeing anymore.  However, this was not what caught her attention.  Beside the egg-stealer there was another hue beside the all too familiar crimson.  Yellow.  The yellow interior of an egg.  The cracked shell underneath the egg-stealer's bulk confirmed what had happened.

Ruby fell to her forelimbs as she stared at the face of her beloved mate.  He now carefully kept vigil over the two remaining eggs as he shook with unspeakable emotion.  

"He fell... he fell on our babies..."

Ruby reluctantly stepped forward to the impaled corpse of the egg-stealer.  With tears pouring from her eyes she gave the spear a shove and finally saw what was underneath.

Her two children.  Featherless... breathless... and never to enter the world of the living.

Roar!

Ruby seethed with anger as her bloody spear shook in her hands.  Not only were two of her children dead, but Cera's roar now confirmed that egg-stealers were attacking her friends as well.  An attempted attack while they were at their least protected.  A desperate assault against desperate parents.

I'm so sorry Topaz... Opal...  Mommy couldn't protect you... but I will protect your siblings.

"I will kill them all!"

Littlefoot rose from the remaining eggs but then pauses as if her were confused about what to do.  His words only came through as a half-sob, "Dear..."

Ruby's eyes shined with fury as she spoke in a cold monotone, "Watch our children..."

She had already sprinted towards Cera's nest before Littlefoot could respond.

-----

Chomper stared at the sight in a mixture of surprise and horror.  Try as he might, his mind simply couldn't process what he was seeing.

Bodies.  Bodies lay strewn everywhere.

The disemboweled remnants of a female egg-stealer seemed to stare at him with her lifeless eyes.  Her legs continued to twitch as if some element of life remained.  A reminder of what she had been doing when his packmates had caught up to her.

A longneck-length ahead of her lay another egg-stealer.  Thanks to a spear that impaled him to the ground, he seemed to be perpetually leaning forward as if to reclaim something that he had lost.  The yellow yolk from a large egg lay several yards ahead of him hinted at what he had lost.  It was a fastbiter egg.

One of his friends' eggs.

Chomper walked in shocked silence at the macabre spectacle.  He had ran towards the sounds of the screams, but now he could only shuffle along in mute sadness.  Tragedy had visited his friends again.

It didn't take him long to finally find out where his missing friends were.  Beside an egg stood Ruby with a blood-drenched spear pointing at the surrounding land, as if she were waiting for another fiend to slaughter.  Taunt stood close by, as if he were being careful not to get too close to the egg in question.  The usually jocular fastbiter now wore a remorseful frown.  Meanwhile Ducky and Spike huddled close to a bush as Ducky viscously brought down her spear.

The tell-tale shaking of a leg and tail confirmed what it was that Ducky had targeted.  Another egg-stealer had met its end at the pack's vengeful claws.  It was only now that the two siblings broke down in tears.

Chomper struggled to say anything.  To do anything.  However in his friends' moment of need he could not think of any words that would help.  No wisdom that would heal.  All that he could see was pain and the legacy of children who would never be born.

A mournful roar erupted from the Tyrannosaurus.  A lament for those who had been lost.

"The others watch nests," Petrie reported sadly as he landed nearby, "Seeker lose two.  Cera lose one.  We not know how many Haven and Breeze lose."

Path turned towards the flyer reluctantly as he turned away from his mournful friends, "How can they not be sure how many they have lost?"

"Because we don't know whose egg this is..." Ruby answered sadly as she began to break down, "Except that it is not mine.  Mine it is not."

Taunt carefully approached her as Ruby dropped her spear, "Ponder, it is not your fault..."

"I am their mother!  They depended on me!"  She roared back.  He took this opportunity to carefully retreat as she finally broke down into tears beside the unclaimed egg.  A reminder of what she had lost.

"Let me handle this, Taunt," Ducky finally spoke to the tearful fastbiter, "You go back to your mate."

Taunt closed his eyes in shame, "I failed to protect my children.  How can I show my face to her again?"

Ducky looked up at him with a stern expression, but sympathetic eyes, "If you were not there then you would have lost all of them, Taunt.  Stern Claw needs you now... go to her."

Taunt slowly walked back towards his nest as Ducky leaned in towards her friend.  Ruby said nothing but merely broke down into Ducky's embrace.  There were some feelings that no words could describe.  Loss was not something to be heard, it was something that one had to feel.

Chomper closed his eyes and turned away from the scene.  Despite the fact that he could not have outran the egg-stealers he still felt some guilt for his friends' loss.  Now his only thoughts were on protecting what remained.

"This isn't working... there has to be a better way."

He could feel the flyer land on his back as Petrie's tell-tale voice spoke over the lamentations.

"Me may have idea... but it be up to females to do it."

-----

The present:

With a single mournful howl Cera brought her portion of the song to an end.  In the resulting silence the reactions of the entire pack could be heard.  The adults breathed slowly as they embraced their children, many of which were emitting soft howls of mourning for the brothers and sisters that they would never know.  Even the leaf-eaters could not spare a dry eye between them.  They had been acquainted enough with loss to realize the pain that their fastbiter rescuers must have experienced.

Their realization paled in comparison to the experience that one of the onlookers had however.

Volant bowed her head at the sad tale that had played out before her.  It had pained her to hear about Petrie's lost child in the previous song, but to hear of the cataclysm that faced the pack was to add another blow to what should have been a happy tale.  It was enough to remind her of what happened to her first clutch.  The one that she almost never spoke of.  The lost children.

"There are many risks in this world, and few of us even get to lay eyes upon it.  Be grateful, children, for all of the days that you have.  For you have more than many ever know."

Everyone turned towards the elder flyer as she spoke these words.  Her tone conveyed the years of painful experience, and her expression conveyed her hard-won knowledge.  Petrie's children nodded mutely out of respect, while the fastbiter children considered her words with silent contemplation.  Finally, however, Petrie took his cue and flew down to the center of the pack.  The final song of the saga was one that he would be responsible for starting.

Caw!!

Petrie nearly collided into the ground as the panicked alarm call of his mate seemed to come from nowhere.  Within mere moments he found himself face to face with someone who should have been miles away.

"Soar?!"  Seeker and Cera exclaimed simultaneously.

"Dear?!"  Petrie squawked, "What going on?!"

Soar sucked in deep breaths as her exhausted body lay on the parched ground.  Her eyes focused directly on her mate.

"Path and Orchid are coming I saw them a while ago..."

Ruby froze.  My... brother... my brother is with Path?!

Taunt sputtered in surprise, "Path is coming here, but Seeker said..."

"Path's parents are in Hanging Rock and they are hungry!" Soar finally finished.  It was only then that she allowed herself to collapse on the ground as Petrie embraced her.

"Oh no!  The others!  Most of the herd is going there!"

Littlefoot looked at the others as the magnitude of the problem became apparent to him.  Old friends were about to collide and it seemed that they would soon be in the crossfire.  But there was another complication.

"Not my mommy and daddy!"

"Why can't they leave us alone?!"

Littlefoot stared at his packmates with a sad smile.  He knew the answer before the question ever reached his mouth, but it had to be said.

"This might get messy... is everyone up for this?"

Cera smiled with bravado that Littlefoot suspect she didn't actually feel, "I'm always ready!"

"I'm ready, sir." Leap stated plainly.

"We're with you," Spike answered for himself and his mate.

"We can't let them down, oh no, no, no!"

"Me ready!" Petrie shouted as he continued to check on his mate.

"Let's do this, Seeker!" Taunt answered enthusiastically.

Littlefoot gave a grim, determined smile to the assembled children, "Children, follow Haven's lead, the rest of us are going to be in a dangerous situation.  It will be even more dangerous if we don't know that you are all safe.  Understand?"

A chorus of affirmative responses greeted his ears, some reluctant and some assured.  It was a question from his own son that stopped him in his tracks, however.

"Daddy, what if Path's parents won't listen?"

Littlefoot turned towards the looming figure of Hanging Rock in the distance.  What used to be a vista of promise now appeared to be a harbinger of the unknown.

"Then we will fight them until we can't... "



Go ahead and check out my fanfictions, The Seven Hunters, Songs of the Hunters, and Menders Tale.


Ducky123

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Here are some more reviews :p


Review of Chapter 14:

Oh, the story now is getting a completely new touch... though this chapter was mostly humourous instead of romantic but you, the most evil geometric shape, of course saved that for the next chapter and sent those poor children to their nests :p
Taunt's prank is good but Spotter's is glorious :DD And to make things even better, Ducky plays along :lol
Can't wait to see how that unfolds in the next chapter, yep, yep, yep!

It's a shame Dein and Terri use Orchid and Arial as their slaves. I wonder what the family will decide...

Again, it was an enjoyable read :)

Review of Chapter 15:

So that is how Leap and Ducky became mates. First they hated each other and then it turned into love :)
That was a cool song for sure, yep, yep, yep!

Also, I wonder how Biter's first hunt will go :smile

Review of Chapter 16:

Wow, that sure was a very intense and emotional chapter!
The conversation Biter, Swipe and Datum have been having was done excellently. It really helped the two young hunters in their first hunt :yes Speaking of which, I really liked that you are not afraid of hurting the good characters yet concluding the story with a happy end ;)

Review of Chapter 17:

Ah, the little sharpteeth are to be told that story which nearly drove them apart and explains how these little pests came along :p
Instincts are a bitch in Sharptooth society because they are impossible to ignore. Ironically, only the non-fastbiters seem to catch the words of Thud...
It's also nice to actually hear a full song for once ;) the kids did a fair job there.
And the new Gang is up to no good again, why did I not see this coming? :smile

I'm reallly excited what happens next :) Good chapter again!

Review of Chapter 18:

Oh, now this was quite epic! Petrie certainly isn't the strongest Flyer but he is damn clever! He outsmarted his competition and earned the heart of his love! ;)

The conversation among the pack was also interesting in more than just one way ;)

I do see some tension at Hanging Rock soon... and I'm looking forward to reading about the result :lol
Inactive, probably forever.


rhombus

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Thank you for the feedback, David!   :) I hope that you enjoy the subsequent chapters.

Fanfiction link: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10967589/24/So...-of-the-Hunters


Chapter 23: Reunions

Whoa!

Tricia quickly leaned forward as she felt Pearl give her a helpful push towards the rock wall.  That had been too close.

Damn cliffs!  I will be happy if I never see another one of these again!

The five dinosaurs conspicuously stood out against the cliff face's brown hues.  Tricia's pink coloration was matched in intensity by Aria's brilliant pink feathers.  The leaf-eaters of them were being careful to lean against the rock face, lest they fall down the unstable rock formation that they currently found themselves on.  Only Flip was spared these dangerous complications due to his gift of flight.  Meanwhile, the fastrunners seemed to maintain their footing with relative ease.  This journey was proving to be a struggle for their new companions, but taking an easier route was no longer an option.

"Dear, do you smell anything?"

Tricia closed her eyes and tried to hide her fear as one of the two sharpteeth roared something below her.  Thoughts that the massive beast looked somewhat familiar were buried under her instinctual fear of carnivores.  Besides, all sharpteeth looked the same, didn't they?

"I thought that I smelled a spiketail's backside, but it was only you."

Tricia felt a sudden tap on her backside as Pearl gave her an assertive gesture forward.  Her mind was conflicted with memories of their alliance from so long ago, and the more recent attempted betrayal.  However even she understood that now was the time to be difficult.  She had to get out of this alive.  Tricia glared at the elder fastrunner but reluctantly did as she indicated.  

"Ha!  Shame that your hunting skills are just as poor as your wit!"

Tricia picked up her pace.  Unstable or not, she was not going to stay on this rock face any longer than necessary.  The winds could shift at any time... then they could find us!

"How is the hunting, mommy and daddy?"

The two sharpteeth looked at one another with a knowing expression before they looked down at the small green sharptooth.  Apart from the color she looked so much like Chomper at that age.  And the similarities did not end there.  With a roll of her eyes Terri addressed her disobedient child.

"Verda, what did we tell you about hunts?"

The little sharptooth's expression took on a sudden cascade of emotions, from shock, to realization, to finally embarrassment.  "Uh... that I was supposed to hide while you and Daddy got food..."

"That's right, little one," Dein's booming voice echoed across the ravine, "So why did you stop hiding?"

The little sharptooth placed one of her stub-like arms to her chin as she thought for a moment, "Uh... I got tired of looking at rocks?"

Terri rolled her eyes.  She is so much like Chomper at that age... she couldn't bring herself to berate her daughter when she gave her such an innocent look, "Well, you are here now... so stay close to the walls and don't stray.  Hunts can be dangerous."

Verda's eyes brightened at the idea of being near her parents while they hunted, "What are you chasing?"

Dein snorted, "A few younglings.  Though they don't seem to be where the fastrunners said."

Verda tilted her head with some bemusement.  As she gazed upwards towards her parents' massive forms she could clearly see the confusion in her parent's faces.  She had not been permitted to see the fastrunners except from a distance due to her parents' insistence on 'respecting their territory'.  However even she could clearly see the bright colors moving on the rocks well above her parent's heads.

"Uh..." Verda muttered tentatively, "Did the leaf-eaters include a horn-face?"

Terri snorted as she sniffed the air, "Threehorn, dear.  They are called threehorns.  And, yes, supposedly there is a threehorn among them."

Verda jumped up and down excitedly, "They're over your head, daddy!"

Dein groaned, "Darn it, dear... I have to hear insults from your mother, I don't need to hear it from you too..."

"No, Daddy!  It's over your head!  Look!"

Dein looked confused for a moment before replicating his daughter's gesture and staring towards the top of the cliff face.  It was then that he came to face to face with a dinosaur he hadn't seen in years.

-----

Tricia froze as the sharptooth locked eyes with her.  There was no roar.  No growl.  Not even a movement.  Only the piercing stare of the massive predator.  She could not see the others quickly scampering across the cliff face.  In that moment it was as if she were alone with the predator.

"Tricia, hurry!"

The words of Malka seemed to echo from somewhere far away as the crimson eyes of the predator stared at her.  It was as if some measure of recognition was there.

"That... is that Stern Claw's sister?"

Tricia froze as the massive sharptooth growled something into the air.  It only took an instant for a flurry of small falling rocks to roll in front of her as Detra's purple body appeared in front of her field of vision.

"It is.  Would you have us betray those who risked so much for us?"

Everything seemed to go silent after the fastrunner finished his odd roar.  Tricia could not make any sense of the proceedings.  All that she knew was that she was now at the mercy of the massive predator.  Should she make a run for it, or would that subject her to further risk?  Was the fastrunner trying to talk down the sharptooth, or was he merely trying to distract him?  In that moment she had no answers so she stayed put.

"You risk a lot, Detras," Terri spoke in a low growl as she stepped beside her mate, "My family is my only consideration.  If you think I will turn my back on them for your alliances then you are mistaken."

Arial could hold her tongue no longer, "Are they not your allies as well?"

Only a slight twitch from Detras communicated his displeasure with Arial's interruption.  Dein responded immediately.

"Would you have us ally ourselves with our food?  Would you have us starve for honor?  Would you have us turn our back on our daughter for such nonsense?" the irritation was evident in his voice, though it did not increase in volume.  This was even more unnerving to the young fastrunner than an angry roar would have been, "We will do what we must."

"A threehorn youngling isn't even a meal for you!" Axiom shouted in anger as she too moved towards her cornered friend.

Terri stared at the rainbowface youngling for a moment as she moved towards her friend and with a protective pose held her sharpened rock at her side.  This caused the female sharptooth to do something that none of the dinosaurs present expected.

She laughed.

Axiom stood dumbfounded as Tricia took the sudden raucous laughter as her cue to bolt.  Through some mixture of luck and instinct the threehorn managed to avoid falling from the steep rock face, but the ill-prepared rainbowface was not so lucky.  Before Pearl or the other fastrunners could react Axiom lost her tenuous hold on the cliff.

-----

"Daddy!  You caught one!"

Dein tried to ignore his daughter's exuberance at catching the small youngling on his snout.  In that instant memories of his first entrance into the Great Valley came to mind.  Though back then it was a certain swimmer that had landed on his snout.

It seems that the rainbowfaces' daughter is braver than her parents... and a bit more foolish.

"Axiom!"

"Oh no!"

"I can't watch!"

Dein eyed the other younglings which resided above the recovering rainbowface in his vision.  The concern for their friend reminded him of a certain other gang so long ago.  A pack which had not yet achieved packhood.  

"Wha..."

Dein spared his mate a glance as the rainbowface began to regain her wits from the collision.  He was not surprised to see her expression match his own.  Bemusement and confusion.  Despite his angry response he could not really blame the fastrunners for their change in loyalties.  Because their loyalties had not really changed at all.

They risked their lives for the valley once... and they have now risked their home for the children of the valley...  he grimaced as the rainbowface finally registered the situation and began to hastily rise to her feet, These children will not keep us fed... but perhaps the fastrunners can find something later on that can...

"Daddy?"

Dein resisted the urge to speak as his daughter expressed her confusion.  She was so much like Chomper at her age... What would he want us to do?

He closed his eyes.  He knew the exact answer to that question.

-----

Shorty trotted behind the rampaging threehorns as the sharpteeth began to appear clearly in their sights.  They could not see the full picture like he and the other longnecks could, and at that particular moment he wished that he couldn't see the full picture either.

"Oh no!  They've got Axiom!" Bron called out as his labored breathing became louder behind the larger sauropod.  It did not take long for the two rainbowfaces on Shorty's back to react to the news.

"Axiom, no!"

"Not our daughter!"

Shorty held back the taste of bile that sudden rose in his throat.  Sharpteeth had already taken a mother and injured a son of the valley, and he would not tolerate any further tragedy.  Keeping in mind the lessons that his adopted father had taught him long ago, he pushed the rage to the back of his mind and allowed the cold numbness to wash over him.  There would be time to mourn the fallen rainbowface later; now was the time for action.

He didn't bother to look at the slaughter he was certain was playing out above.  He focused his gaze entirely on the two sharpteeth in the distance.

You will regret the day you attacked our children...

-----

Malka did not hesitate to grab her friend as the sharptooth's snout edged towards the rock wall.  She knew full well that if the sharptooth had wanted them dead then it could have eaten them all while they cried out for Axiom.  Within an instant the rainbowface was safely against the cliff face as the massive form of Dein stood before them.

"Th... thank you..."

Malka could not understand what the rainbowface was saying, but she could guess.  It wasn't everyday that your life was saved by a sharptooth.  It only took a few moments for the other sharptooth to growl something unintelligible to the assembled group.  Afterwards the tell-tale sigh of Pearl finally addressed the confusion of Malka and her friends.

"Terri says that a leaf-eater child who is willing to risk all to help her friends deserves a second chance."

Malka's eyes went wide. Did she just say...

"Terri?  As in Chomper's momma?"  Tricia's eyes were almost crazed as she inspected their carnivorous faces, "It... It is them..."

Malka blinked as Flip landed to her side.  She had never seen the sharpteeth face-to-face as she had been with the evacuated children when the battle for the valley had occurred.  So these are his parents...

Dein seemed to snort as he stepped back from the rock face and growled something at the smaller sharptooth down below.  A sharptooth that Malka could only assume were Dein and Terri's child.  The swimmer didn't have much time to consider the situation, however, before Arial gave her a nudge.

"They're offering to help all of you down."

This suggestion finally made Flip break out of his silence, "For what? So they can eat us easier?"

Malka resisted the urge to slap her companion, "If they wanted to eat us then they could have done it earlier, Flip!  I would rather take my chances with them than my chances with this darn cliff!"

"Tell me about it..." Axiom muttered as she continued to clutch her head, "I would rather go down slowly than quickly..."

Tricia sighed.  Despite her misgivings with trusting the sharpteeth who they recently were trying to hide from, she couldn't deny that they had proven their good intentions. Or at least their lack of interesting in eating us... they seem to be looking for something bigger.

Flip shivered as he had the same thought, "Okay, just get it done quickly.  I don't want to hang out with hungry sharpteeth!"

The pink threehorn snorted as she helped Axiom back to her feet, "Alright, let's get this over with.  Axiom can you..."

Tricia never got the chance to finish her statement as an all too familiar roar echoed across the ravine.  

"Daddy?"

-----

Littlefoot's legs burned with exertion as the pack sprinted headlong towards the massive forms in the distance.  From his vantage point only the green forms of Dein and Terri could be seen against the brown face of the ravine, and even that was obstructed by the angle of rock wall.

It looks like they are looking for something on the rock wall... what are they up to?

In that moment he considered giving out an alert call to let the massive sharpteeth know about the presence of his pack, but he quickly thought better of it.  What if the herd had not yet been alerted to the presence of the sharpteeth?  If so then he could instigate a needless battle.  Worse yet, what if the herd had already been informed about Chomper's parents in the most extreme way?  

A kill for survival is a just kill... but what if it was someone that I know?

Littlefoot felt something sink in his stomach at that thought.  This was the exact reason why the pack had to leave in the first place.  Not only did they have to kill, but they would see their loved ones under threat of being killed.  For all that he knew some of their allies could have very well killed valley residents.  It was easier for everyone to keep their distance and to live as they had to live.  But now it seemed that fate had forced them together once more.

"Axiom!"

The entire pack froze in a moment of horror as Datum had seen what they initially could not.  The small rainbowface was perched on Dein's massive snout.

Littlefoot clinched his claws at the sight.  He knew that he had no right to intervene here as Datum's sister was not part of his pact to bring the children back, but yet could he watch as the father of one of his packmates consumed the sister of one of his son's best friends?  Thankfully, however, what happened next spared him that question.

"His putting her back!" Taunt exclaimed excitedly.

A choked sigh could be heard from the rainbowface, as Littlefoot gestured towards the others.

"Alright, everyone, listen up!  We need to take care of Path's folks before they complicate things." he then gestured at the leaf-eaters, "Leaf-eaters, stay here with our children.  Beside two sharpteeth is nowhere for a leaf-eater to be!"

Datum nodded mutely, while Sauria and Charger seemed to be staring in horror at the two sharpteeth in the distance.  No one else spoke a word or questioned the surprising reaction.

"Alright, children, I need you to..." Littlefoot began to give orders for his children, but he never got a chance to finish.  As had been common during his time in the valley, Topps had finally decided to get a word in as his roar echoed across the ravine.

Oh crap.

-----

"Shorty, join me behind the ridge!  The threehorns will need support!"

Bron arched his head downward as he struggled to maintain his current speed.  A full run for an adult longneck was little more than a fast trot, and his aging body was beginning to air its grievances.  

Shorty slowed ever so slightly as he ran beside his adopted father, "Flanking?" he yelled questioningly.

Bron could only make a slight nod as he forced himself to continue, "Yes!"

The last thing that we need is for the sharpteeth to try to escape through the threehorns! he remembered full well what happened during the Battle for the Valley all those years ago, Then the rest of the herd would be in danger!

"Swimmers, defensive line!"

Bron spared Shorty a brief glance as the green longneck shouted at the rest of the pack authoritatively.  It reminded him so much of himself when he was in charge of his herd.  Showing determination and confidence despite unspoken misgivings.  Being the strong rock when others were shifting like loose sand.  This was to have been his dream for Littlefoot when he was a longneck.  Bron had had no doubt that Littlefoot would have been a leader of the valley or of his own herd one day.  But an entirely different kind of leadership had awaited his son.

Bron glared at the sharpteeth ahead.  There was something oddly familiar about them, though he could not quite place where that feeling was coming from.  As a leaf-eater he was not adapted to identifying sharpteeth by smell or sight.  As it was the only reason Redclaw had been so well known was due to his cut eye.  Unless the sharpteeth had an identifying mark or an odd quirk most leaf-eaters would merely know them as a sharptooth.  No additional identity had to be given to the choosers of the dead.

"Bron!  Look!"

For a moment Bron was taken aback by Shorty's demand, but he quickly saw what his adopted son was looking at.  One of the sharpteeth had a rather distinct series of scars.  Three scars to be exact.

No...

In the instant everything seemed to freeze in the elder longneck's mind.  Much to his shame he had not had a chance to look closely at the attackers of Savine's mate, as he had lead the remaining children and the rainbowfaces to safety.  They had demanded to hold the line, and she had paid the price.  However, the recent scaring only confirmed who this sharptooth was.  It was in this shocking moment that his mind made another connection.  One of the sharpteeth was an olive green, whereas the other was much darker.  Much like a certain couple that he had seen so long ago.

No, it can't be...

-----

Chomper's parents?!

It took everything in Topps's constitution to avoid freezing in that instant.  But there was no escaping from the shocking reality that had just been revealed to him.  Here were the valley's old allies... and they had taken the life of one of the valley's own.  Savine's murderous glare and the clear scars on Dein's back were clear enough evidence of that.  He had always known that once the sharpteeth left the valley that leaf-eater and sharptooth alike would have to live as nature intended, but he had hoped and expected not to meet the duo again.

Life it seemed had decided to play yet another cruel trick on the valley.

"Careful!  They know our tactics!"  Topps yelled without further introspection.

This caused one of his deputies to look his direction, "What do you mean, sir?"

Topps glared straight ahead, "Do you not recognize Dein and Terri?"

He could not see the reaction of his deputy or of the rest of the threehorn line.  All that he was aware of were the thunderous footsteps of his fellow threehorns, and the not-so-distant roar of Dein as he prepared for the imminent assault.  However, but a few moments later, his deputy's response was made known to all, as he decided how to implement the herd leader's directive.

"Flankers!"

In an instant two of his fastest threehorn's advanced a few body-lengths ahead of the rest of the line, almost forming a V formation.

Topps frowned grimly.  There would be no escape for the valley's former allies.

-----

"Daddy, no!"

Tricia yelled at the advancing threehorns with all of her might, but from her position it was no use.  Even if the herd were focused on her they would be unable to hear her words over the roars and the thunderous trampling of feet.  With a sinking feeling in her stomach she realized that there would be no way to prevent the bloodbath that was about to begin.  A bloodbath that would not have happened had they not ventured from the valley.

This is all our fault.

She could fell the slight push of Malka and Axiom against her body as they all pressed against the surface of the rock face.  The pink and violet forms of the fastrunners were in front of her, but their sagging shoulders all but confirmed that they were thinking the same thoughts that she was at that moment: how did it all come to this?

"I wanted them off the land... not dead..." Arial muttered silently.

"Death finds us all eventually," Detras spoke with a stoicism that would have put a threehorn to shame.  However even Tricia could hear the regret in his voice, "We need to get you children off of this rock before you join them."

Malka was confused, "What about all of you?"

Pearl sighed, "We got you into this mess, and we will make sure that you get out of this in one piece..." she then frowned as she noticed the gap from where Axiom had fallen earlier.  There would be no escape from that direction, "...somehow."

This finally snapped Tricia out of her melancholy.  Her father's words echoed in her mind as she felt the warmth of her friends beside her.  A threehorn never gives up... a threehorn never abandons the herd.

"Flip, go and look at the rock paths!"

Her flyer friend was confused by the sudden order, "Huh?"

Tricia nearly stomped her feet, but had enough sense not to do it on the shaky rock wall, "Try to find other paths off of this thing!  We don't want to be on here when they start fighting!"

She barely had time to finish her thought, however, when Malka began shaking behind her.

"I think that we are too late..."

Tricia looked down below to where the battle was beginning.  Dein and Terri had joined in a back-to-back formation as the threehorns swarmed around them in an unusual formation.  It was more akin to what a pack of fastbiters would use compared to the tactics of a prey species.  That was when the realization entered into Tricia's mind.

Savine's about to charge...

Sure enough, within a split second the scarred threehorn let out an almost feral roar and broke from the makeshift circle of horns and stomping feet.  The immediate loud calls from Topps and his deputies did nothing to dissuade the threehorn from striking his desired target.  With the focus on a hunter zeroing in on his prey his footsteps grew with intensity as he increased speed once more towards Dein's massive form.  Within mere moments he was barreling towards the predator with the intensity of a roaring avalanche.  He was mere seconds from impact.

"Everyone, brace now!" Detras screamed.

Tricia did as she was instructed, or at least as well as she could manage with barely any room to maintain a foothold.  It was in this crouched position that she watched the end of his charge with growing horror.  Savine, being blinded by his rage and desire for vengeance, was not watching his surroundings.

The result was inevitable.

With a swiftness that seemed impossible for a sharptooth, Dein shifted his massive tail to his left and allowed his mate's body to shift against him, propelling him away from the charging threehorn's path without a second to spare.  With no time to realize that his charge had been foiled, Savine's momentum propelled him towards the rock wall.  With a resounding crash that threatened to deafen everyone present, the threehorn slammed into the rock at full speed.

Then there was silence.

Tricia froze in terror at the sudden quiet that enveloped the ravine like a cloud.  For several moments there was no hint at the terrifying charge that had just taken place.  However, ever so minutely, the silence was broken by a very odd sound.  A sound that was barely perceptible to the threehorn's senses.  A sound that was reminiscent of the minute actions of the Smoking Mountain.  A sound that was almost always a harbinger of bad things to come.

The sound of cracking rock.

-----

Cera gritted her teeth in frustration as the pack continued their sprint into the ravine.  How can they be so damn stupid!  Can't they see that Tricia is up there?!

She had watched as the threehorns had created a circle around the sharpteeth.  A small part of her mind actually praised them for the effective envelopment tactic, as the pack had used similar methods in times past.  However it had been the actions of one threehorn that had made her feelings change into those of anger and frustration.

Why did they attack them head-first?  The entire purpose of the circling technique is to attack at once...

"Dad!"

Cera's blood ran cold at the words from the distant threehorn.  It was obvious that Charger was referring to the now prone body of the incapacitated threehorn.  The threehorn that had charged the sharptooth.  Now all of the facts began circulating in her head... Savine's rage... him acting while the other threehorns did not... the ignoring of the other childrenn...  It did not take her long to determine why Savine reacted that way that he did.

Dein and Terri... they must have been the ones who killed Charger's mother.

"We have to get them to realize that the kids are the priority!"

Littlefoot turned towards his yellow-fathered friend, "Stern Claw, that might be easier said than done!"

Cera shook her head, "I don't think so..." she sucked in another breath as her head-long sprint began to take its toll on her, "Charger's daddy did not act according to plan."

This caused both Littlefoot and Ruby to look at her oddly.  They both knew that Cera was the pack's best authority on threehorn tactics.  Cera quickly responded to their unspoken question.

"The threehorn's would have charged as a line if they had intended to do that... but Charger's dad acted first," she sucked down another breath as the threehorns became progressively larger as the pack's distance closed, "I think that the fastrunner situation is the least of our worries with Dein and Terri.  Charger's dad was out for blood."

Neither fastbiter said a word as Cera finished her statement.  There were certain unspoken rules that were always followed when a pack was in danger.  One was to not waste a breath when the pack was potential facing a life-or-death situation, which explained her friends' silence.  Another was to report to the pack leader and then to obey.  There was no time for debate or deliberation during a battle, there was only time for action.

And it did not take long for Littlefoot to make his actions known.

"Wide spread!  Show strength!"

Cera frowned at Littlefoot's orders but obeyed without question.  She quickly shifted her center of gravity to the left as she spread out to the left of Ruby's rose-colored form.  Taunt and Spike followed her to the left, as Ducky and the others went to the right.  This was to be a show of force, something that threehorns understood all too well.  Though Cera was not sure of its effectiveness.  That was until Littlefoot hissed one final order in Cera's direction.

"You will speak, Cera!  Your dad might listen to you!"

Cera frowned with determination.  He had better damn well listen to me!

-----

"Dad!"

Ambush looked at the screaming threehorn with more than a little compassion.  She couldn't imagine what it would be like to lose her mother and then to have her father fall as well.  To her Taunt and Cera were like giants, both physically and in terms of respect.  She wanted nothing less than to be like them when she was an adult.

But now Charger had the unenviable prospect of not following in his father's footsteps, but to be his replacement.  A specter of what once was.  Strong though he may be, Ambush could smell the desperation radiating from him.  She knew that any more loss would risk breaking the poor threehorn.

"I don't think that we can do anything for him."

Ambush shifted slightly as her younger brother, Sprint, stepped beside her.  She did not doubt his statement, but that did not mean that she had to like its implications.

"We can't just sit here and watch our parents rip one another apart!"

Both siblings turned as Datum appeared to shout towards the distant forms of the fastbiters.  Their orders were clear, but no one seemed pleased with them.

"That's right!" Biter agreed with his friend, "There has to be some way that we can help!"

This caused mutterings amongst the fastbiter and flyer children.  They had disobeyed their parents before, but not when it came to anything this dangerous.  However they had found the prospect of what awaited their friends to be as unpalatable as they did.  The unspoken question seemed to radiate out amongst them: what could they do to help?

"We can't let our friends stay trapped on that cliff!" Sauria affirmed loudly as her sauropod body went rigid with anger, "They can't be safe up there!"

Datum nodded his agreement, "We have to be able to help them down somehow!"

It was then squawking could be heard in the distance.  It appeared that Petrie and Volant were attempting to communicate with the approaching herd.  However, the threehorns remained in their positions around the two sharpteeth.  And the fastbiters continued to approach into the unknown...

Biter frowned as his sister, Swipe, began to look at him with a knowing expression.  With a swift nod of understanding she finally addressed the assembled children.

"Guys, I think that I may have a plan..."

-----

Petrie grunted with relief as the line of swimmers  and spiketails finally stopped their charge towards the sharpteeth.  The same blind herd mentality that caused mass panics could also lead to mass violence, and Petrie knew that better than most.  He had used the infliction of panic more than once in order to help his pack gain an easy meal.

"Daddy, stop!"

Petrie quickly shifted his gaze to the pack as they stopped in a line formation two longneck-lengths from the threehorns.  Just enough distance to be threatening, but not enough to make escape difficult.  It was a clear sign of the pack's uncertainty about the entire situation.

Topps shifted his position away from watching the two sharpteeth and barked a roar that echoed across the ravine.  In an instant one of his deputies took his place in the circle, as another followed him in looking towards the line of fastbiters.  Even from this distance the look of surprise on his face was striking.

"Cera?" his gravelly voice croaked with restrained emotion, "You're not with them, are you?"

Some part of Petrie's stomach felt like it had entered his chest as soon as he heard those words.  The unspoken questions were unmistakable.  You're not allied with Chomper's parents, are you?  Please tell me that we aren't going to have to kill you too.

Cera glanced over at Dein and Terri as they too seemed surprised by this sudden turn in the situation.

"No, we are not with them.  We have brought the children as promised."

Petrie could hear his mother land beside him as a snort emanated from Dein.  It communicated 'thanks for nothing' better than any words could have conveyed that message.  However Petrie was left with a bad taste in his mouth.  Were they simply supposed to leave Chomper's parents to their fate?

Topps bowed his head slightly in relief.  His face conveyed little emotion, but the tremor in his leg indicated the impact that Cera's assurance had on the elder.

"Good... then tell your friends to stand aside," he spoke softly, as if begging her to obey him one last time, "This does not concern them."

Petrie watched the two sharpteeth as silence permeated the conversation.  Dein was eyeing the prone form of Savine with murderous intent, as he maintained his posture next to his mate.  Meanwhile the threehorns appeared to be moving closer on Dein's side, leaving a growing gap on Terri's side.  The circle was now more of an egg shape.  A weakness in discipline that would not have occurred had Topps been focused on Dein and Terri.

"Terri's side is weak, Seeker!"

Volant glared at Petrie immediately, which made Petrie squirm, "Me tell pack in case things change, Momma.  You never know with threehorns."

The elder flyer sighed as she waved off the other leaf-eater flyers that had been alerted by Petrie's call, "You also never know with fastbiters, son." her glare only abated when she noticed the fastbiters shift their line in accordance with Petrie's alert.  It seemed that he was being truthful with his intentions.

Petrie suppressed a sigh as he saw the green tyrannosaurus youngling clutch at her father's feet.  Come on, Dein and Terri.  Use your damn brains!"

-----

Dein groaned at the flyer's alert call.

Damned flyer!  Some help for us would be nice!

He considered the threehorn line with great uneasiness.  He and his mate had recovered from herd attacks before, but not with such a determined enemy as this.  He knew full well that a headlong assault would allow a breakthrough for one of them... but the other probably would not live to tell the tale.  Likewise fighting them off one-by-one would not be an option.  As soon as one was blocked, then another could strike.  They were in an unwinnable situation.

Terri's side is weak, Seeker!  What a fucking insult!  My mate is strong you ignorant beak-face...

That was when the thought hit him.  What if the flyer's words meant something else entirely?  

He shifted slightly to his left, which caused his mate to shift to her right.  They both knew that the back to back formation had to be maintained or else they would be open for attack.  Within moments, however, he could see what Petrie was referring to.  On what had been the side of the line facing Terri there was now a large bulge outwards, away from the sharpteeth.  It was a promising line of attack.

Distraction... and then a charge... but at what cost?

Dein looked down at the small form of his daughter.  She was clutching at his massive foot in fear.  He knew that if he and his mate escaped from this hell then her life would certainly be forfeit.  He had to find a way to send her to safety.

Closing his eyes for a brief moment, he lowered his snout to the ground.  Without any words being exchanged, she knew to climb onto his snout.  As he did this, the threehorns on his side began to advance, but he had enough time to rise to his full height before they even got another longneck length towards his position.  With a quick brush of his snout onto the rock wall, he deposited his precious child next to Detras.

"You will stay with the fastrunners, Verda."

Dein turned before he could look at his daughter's face again.  He didn't need to be talked out of his necessary action.

"Daddy?"

He breathed heavily, as the threehorns stopped again.  There was now only a longneck-length between the threehorns on either side of them, "We will meet you when the battle is over, dear, but you have to go with them now, okay?  Mother and I will see you again, I promise."

There was a sad affirmative grunt as the little biter complied.  That was when Detras's sad voice reached his ears.

"Dein?"

Dein took in a deep breath.  He knew very well what the next few moments could mean for him and his mate, even as he gave a comforting lie to his daughter.  He would not lie to his ally.

"I ask only one final thing from you, Detras.  See to it that she finds a safe home once this is done."

This caused his daughter to panic, "Daddy?"

The sound of a few falling rocks could be heard as Pearl pushed the little biter back onto the safe area of the rock wall.  Detras answered Dein's call with stoic acquiescence.

"Your child will be as safe as one of my own, Dein and Terri.  This I promise."

Dein stepped forward towards the threehorns as he nudged his mate to follow his lead.  Before he made his charge, however, he resolved to do one thing that he should have done long ago.

"I free you, my loyal servant, of your obligations to me.  We who might die thank you."

"Goodbye, my dear Verda,"  Terri choked out, "Stay safe."

Verda cried as both adult fastrunners held her in place, "Mommy!  Daddy!"

As Terri shifted around to where Dein was facing both sharpteeth could hear the other threehorns give the order to advance.  It was now or never.

Dein gave his mate a smile with his eyes, "Charge!"

-----

Cera hesitated as her father's words continued to echo in her mind.  

Good... then tell your friends to stand aside.  This does not concern them.

She gave a slight glance to Tricia on the rock wall above.  How would she and her friends hold up if the battle commenced again?  She knew full well that the rock wall may not have been as stable as it looked.

"My sister concerns me," Cera spoke plainly, "Why risk them?"

Topps gritted his teeth at his daughter's words.  She could almost see the wheels turn in his mind as he contemplated what to say.  In this situation he was not just her father, but the herd leader as well.  He could not afford to lose face or, for that matter, confirm that one of his own herd members had violated his orders.

"If the sharpteeth will permit them time to get off the damn cliff, then that would be much appreciated," Topps finally offered, "If they will even listen to you."

Cera resisted the urge to roll her eyes as she noticed the others shifting their positions according to Petrie's alert earlier.  Her father was wasting valuable time.

"Will you offer them safe passage out of this ambush in exchange for the kids having safe passage?  I might be wrong, dad, but I don't think they will comply with an offer that still involves them being trampled to death." Cera immediately cringed at her tone.  Me and my big mouth...

Topps's expression darkened, "They should have considered that before they killed one of the valley's own."

Littlefoot now spoke up in a rage, "You can have your revenge later, damn it!  There are children up there!  Do you think Sauria, Charger, and Datum will accept that you let their friends die for your damned vendetta?!"

His roar caused the threehorn to grow silent.  Cera could see the processes going through her father's mind in a way that only a family member could.  She could see his anger at being called out rapidly turn into guilt for neglecting his duties.  Or at least that is how she interpreted his demeanor, as she was not aware that Savine's actions were not ordered by him.  

"You're right, of course," he grunted as he looked over at the children, "Though he will never forgive us for letting them go... what is that?!"

Cera turned her head in confusion as she turned her head to where her father was looking.  The rock wall of the ravine had numerous crevices and crannies which rose from the ground to the pinnacle of the cliff at irregular intervals.  It was in one of these crannies that she could clearly see several fuzzballs of various colors, a small longneck, a certain one-eyed threehorn, and a swarm of small flyers.

"Ambush, Pouncer, and Sprint!  What in the name of sanity do you think that you are doing?!"  Cera roared with frustration.  The shouts of the other parents soon followed.

"Biter, get down from there!"

"Swipe, you are supposed to be back there!  Back there you are supposed to be!"

"Kids, come back!"

Cera shook her head.  It seemed that their children were not content for sitting back and watching the chaos play out in front of them.  It was a mindset that she could relate to.

"Are those... my grandchildren?"  Topps asked softly, having picked up on the responses of the pack despite not understanding their words.

Cera nodded and gave an exasperated sigh, "Aye, three of them are.  And they seem to have grown tired of waiting on us..."

Despite the shear insanity of the situation, or perhaps because of it, Topps began to chuckle slightly at the proceedings.  The next logical course of action was obvious to everyone.

"Alright, threehorns, we need to make sure the children are safe..." he began as he turned back towards the deputy he had made in charge of detaining the sharpteeth, "Right flank, advance towards Savine, and left flank..."

He never got the chance to finish his orders as Dein and Terri began their headlong charge towards the left-most threehorn in what was now the oblong circle around them.  The high price for the threehorn's failure to resolve the matter promptly had finally made itself known.  The battle which had nearly been averted had now erupted in full force.

-----

Crash!

The surprised threehorn barely had any time to react when Dein and Terri charged at him at the same time.  As he presented his horns to dissuade Dein, Terri had just the opportunity that she needed.  Within an instant he was propelled into the rock wall.  Now the path of the two sharpteeth was free.

Or, rather, it would have been had it not been for the severity of the impact into the rock wall.

Crack...

"Oh no!  Children, quickly over here!" Pearl screamed as she struggled to push the children away from the splintering rock.  Within mere moments, however, her attempts proved to be for naught as the tenuous foothold of the dinosaurs began to give way from the falling rocks.  

"Ahhh!!!"

In a sudden lurch the shelf of rock began to give way from Tricia, Malka, and Orchid.  All that Detras and Pearl could do from their position was to look in terror as the end looked inevitable for their daughter and the two leaf-eaters.  That was until a flurry of feathers suddenly appeared around their limbs.

"Gotcha!"

Malka's small form was promptly pulled up to a higher ledge by a gray fastbiter child, while Orchid and Tricia were held against the rock wall only through the collective struggle of an entire pack of fastbiter children and a trio of conspicuous leaf-eaters.  Each of the endangered dinosaurs had hands clutching each of their limbs, with Sauria and Charger holding fast to the tails of Biter and Swipe in order to prevent the entire pile of fastbiters from falling off the cliff along with their dear friends.  

Detras held his breath.  It was a tenuous reprieve at best, but it prevented what would have been certain death for his dear daughter and the leaf-eaters.

"Hang on, children!" he screamed, "We will help you back up!"

He struggled to look for anything that might allow him to make his promise a reality, but his mind was drawing a blank in the hopeless situation.  The threehorn and Orchid were simply too heavy to push up to the higher ledge, and the chasm between himself and the stricken dinosaurs was simply too great to transverse even with the greatest of leaps.  If there was to be any salvation for them then it would not come from his ledge.

"Hurry, daddy..."

Pearl screamed, "Hold on, dear!  We will get you out of there!"

Detras shook with agitation.  What could he possibly do to save what he valued the most in life?  That was when a booming voice suddenly echoed from nearby.

"Need a lift?"

-----

Topps looked at the crushed body of the threehorn with burning rage.  

Castor.  The nephew that he had treated like the son that he had never had.  The threehorn who had comforted Topps after the death of Whitehorn.  The dinosaur who he had been rearing to become the next deputy of the herd.  Now he was just another victim of Dein and Terri's violence.  Before there had been the possibility of putting the battle aside, but now his decision was set.  He could not let such an outrage go unpunished, nor could he let such a threat remain unresolved.

They will die...

With a bellowing roar, he ran headlong towards the two massive sharpteeth.

He didn't notice that Castor was still breathing.

-----

"What do we do now?"

Littlefoot stared at the ensuing chaos with a dumbstruck expression.  He was torn between his concern for his children and the continuing tragedy that was playing out between the enraged threehorns and the retreating sharpteeth.  He had been accustomed to always having a plan in place.  But for once in his life he was left completely uncertain.

"Seeker?"

Littlefoot finally looked towards Ruby's questioning face.  She looked just as shattered as he was.

"I... we can't help them." he frowned sadly, "Let's go get our children."

One by one the members of the pack turned back towards where their children had been seen climbing up the rock wall moments before.  That was when a familiar sound changed everything.

Roar!

Littlefoot froze.  He knew full well whose voice that belonged to.

Chomper...


Go ahead and check out my fanfictions, The Seven Hunters, Songs of the Hunters, and Menders Tale.


Ducky123

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Review of Chapter 19:

Wow... this was intense.
As much as I would've loved to see the fight, I know it was probably for the best that Path took over and the pack parted ways.
I must say I really like Cera's reference to her younger self there :)

So that was about past troubles... now to the troubles of the present I guess :p
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Ducky123

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Review of Chapter 20:

Well, now this is truly sad... Dein and Terri force Pearl and Detras to lead children from the valley to their doom. That's quite a dark part of this story, I hope the situation doesn't get worse and the death of these kids (I knew they'd get themselves into trouble!) can be prevented somehow...

Oh, from one dark story to another... The situation the Seven Hunters are in must feel very alien to everybody... Friends turned into intruders, Spike almost injures Ducky and Littlefoot might be up to facing a similar situation. They'd better not produce even more offspring and go through this again... :p
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rhombus

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Thank you for the reviews, Ducky!  :)

Yeah, in chapter 19 things finally come to a head, and Chomper has to take action for the best interests of the pack.  This is something that is simply made absolutely necessary by the overpowering instincts that they are feeling (the ever annoying 'must keep all competing males away from my female' instinct) and the complexities of maintaining the pack.  This is something that will be elaborated on in the next chapter...

And yep, despite the (temporary) breaking up of the pack into separate territories, things nearly turn deadly between Ducky and Spike.  It is important to note, however, that although the "must protect my family's nesting area" instinct is still in effect, the "must protect my mate from competing males" instinct is now waning.  After all, the eggs have already been produced so the girls are no longer in breeding condition.  This may play a role in how things develop in the future.

But yeah, after the hassle that the pack has had with their first batch of children, they may want to plan things out better next time.  Or talk to the rainbowfaces about birth control.  :p

Thanks again for the reviews.  :) I hope that you enjoy the remaining chapters.


Go ahead and check out my fanfictions, The Seven Hunters, Songs of the Hunters, and Menders Tale.


Ducky123

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Review of Chapter 21:

Oh dear, there will have to be some explanation from the fastrunners soon... :p Moreover, they have to deal with the dangerous meet-up at Hanging Rock...

Oh? The Seven Hunters seem to get along again :)

The story about Petrie and Soar was really exciting and packed with emotions. Damn instincts, huh? ;)

Eggstealers... uh oh... I sense emotional stuff coming :p

The grown-ups... they haven't changed a single bit :smile Though now we have a problem...

Interesting set-up for the next chapter. I'll try to get around to reading it soon :yes
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rhombus

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Oh dear, there will have to be some explanation from the fastrunners soon... dino_tongue.gif Moreover, they have to deal with the dangerous meet-up at Hanging Rock...

Yep, the fastrunners certainly have a lot on their plate at this point. And a clash of multiple players is about to occur right on top of them...

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Oh? The Seven Hunters seem to get along again smile.gif

At least when they are away from the nests (and the eggs).  So the normal hunts can resume, with one parent at each nest, but it will take some time for them to avoid the "person is near my nest = murder them!" instinct to dissipate.  And this is before the children even hatch...

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Eggstealers... uh oh... I sense emotional stuff coming dino_tongue.gif

Yep.  I am indeed even a jerk to the unborn children in this story.  :p

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Interesting set-up for the next chapter. I'll try to get around to reading it soon in-yes.gif

Take your time.  As I am in the middle of finals week I can totally relate to having a lack of time to get everything done.  I just hope that you enjoy the next few installments.

Thanks for the review!  :) I look forward to your opinions on the next few chapters.


Go ahead and check out my fanfictions, The Seven Hunters, Songs of the Hunters, and Menders Tale.