The Seven Hunters

Chapter 17 The Seven Hunters

“His old life lay behind in the mists, dark adventure lay in front.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

After their excitement from earlier in the day, the remainder of the pack's journey to the river was rather uneventful. After running towards and eventually finding the river, they had continued their journey until nightfall. Taking great care to use the water in the river in order to hide their scent trail, they then took refuge in some shallow depressions in the floodplain. For the first time in many days, each member of the gang had a peaceful and restful sleep.

The next morning the pack awoke to a bright new day. However, a familiar problem soon presented itself once more.

Growl...

"My belly is talking! It is, it is!" Ducky affirmed.

Littlefoot sighed at this. He was beginning to feel the effects of hunger as well, although they were nearly not as pronounced as they were during the hunger madness.

"I guess that that means that we need to hunt again." He affirmed in a stoic manner. He did not like the possibility any more than the others, but they had to do whatever it took to prevent their hunger from turning critical.

Cera sighed as well at Littlefoot's affirmation. "Yeah..." She reluctantly agreed with the budding consensus in the group.

Ducky looked morose at this news. She was still feeling guilt-ridden over their hunt two days ago. In fact, they all were in their own way. Would she now have to kill yet again? Was there no end to the cycle of killing?

Spike picked up on her disquiet and decided to speak. "Are there even any dinosaurs around here? I mean, we haven't seen or smelled anyone else since when encountered Screech and Thud."

Chomper nodded. "That is true. We haven't seen anybody!"

Ruby decided to interject into the conversation. "Perhaps we don't have to hunt anyone today? Maybe we can hunt something else?"

Littlefoot looked perplexed at the other fastbiter's suggestion. "What do you mean, Ruby?"

Ruby then gestured with her forelimbs. "Look around us, guys!" She then spun in a circle for effect. "There is grass everywhere! Everywhere there is grass! Where there is grass there is food for ground fuzzies, and where there are ground fuzzies..."

"There is food!" Littlefoot finished for her. Yes, that would be a fine idea. They could hunt for ground fuzzies in the grassy river basin that they now found themselves. They might even be able to find enough to hold off their hunger until after they found Ruby's parents. It was certainly their best option at this point.

"Alright, guys! Let's go find some ground fuzzies!" Littlefoot affirmed to the others.

Their second hunt for ground fuzzies had begun.

......

"Alright guys, remember how we did this last time?"

After finding a suitable patch of ground, Littlefoot decided to make sure that the pack was ready for the upcoming hunt. They had only hunted ground fuzzies once before, and even then with only limited success. He had to make sure that everyone knew their role.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let's get this started already!" Cera called out in her impatience. She was more than ready to get this hunt started. The appeal of getting meat without all of the guilt that came with hunting another dinosaur appealed to her greatly. It also helped that she now had a taste for meat... She intentionally decided not to focus on that fact, however.

"Me ready!" Petrie called. Although me not sure what good I do! Petrie thought to himself. His wings were ineffective at catching ground fuzzies as far as he could tell. If a ground fuzzy ran out of a hole that he was guarding then he would have to catch it in his sharp beak. He was not skilled in catching things with his beak, which obviously wasn't a skill that he would have learned as a leaf-eater, so he hoped that the others had great success. If it was up to him then he believed that they would surely starve.

"I am ready! Yep, yep, yep!" Ducky called from some distance away. She still found what they were doing to be distasteful, but not as distasteful as actually killing another dinosaur. Her days as a sharptooth had taught her to be selective in her battles and there was no use in fighting her hunger. It would be futile for her to fight a battle that she couldn't win.

Spike grunted his readiness. He was glad to see that Ducky was accepting the necessity of hunting, even if it was only for small prey. He realized that they all would probably have to adapt to hunting other dinosaurs on a regular basis if they couldn't find a way to change back, but he hoped that Ducky would have enough time for her to adapt to this reality. She had already been pushed to her breaking point by this cruel change of fate and he didn't want to see her pushed beyond that.

"Okay, good!" Littlefoot affirmed. "Let's find some ground fuzzy holes!"

The pack then scattered in order to find the burrows of the illusive small mammals. In cases where resources were scarce, such as their first hunt, they would form large warrens of interconnected burrows which would open into a few entrances. This allowed many relatives in order to share limited resources and limit their competition to other populations. However, the ground fuzzies were rather versatile creatures and could adapt to changing conditions, and this general pattern did not hold up in more promising environments such as this one.

"Here is one!" Littlefoot heard Ruby yell from quite some distance away.

Littlefoot wasn't having much luck in finding burrows in his current locations. Perhaps I should move over to where Ruby is? There is nothing over here. The brown fastbiter thought to himself.

"Got one!" Spike yelled from well over in the other direction.

Littlefoot turned his head. Spike was nearly two full-grown longneck lengths away from Littlefoot. There is no way that is from the same group of ground fuzzies! He deduced.

"Here!"

Littlefoot turned his head again to see that Ducky was nearly equidistant from the other two burrows. What was going on here?

"I think that I know what is going on." Chomper exclaimed suddenly.

Well thank goodness! I sure don't! Littlefoot thought to himself.

"What is that, Chomper?" He inquired.

"The ground fuzzies are in different holes!" Chomper began.

"Yeah, tell us something that we don't know." Cera spoke sarcastically.

Chomper gave her a pointed look, but continued. "Sometimes they live like that. It means that there will only be one hole per ground fuzzy." He shrugged for a moment. "I guess that we need to split up."

Littlefoot considered this for a moment. Chomper did have a point, but could they hunt effectively alone? In their previous two hunts, they had hunted as a group. This was not a viable option now, as they would never catch enough food if all seven of them hunted one ground fuzzy at a time. Yes, separate hunts was the best option available right now.

Littlefoot nodded. "You're right, Chomper." He then turned towards the others who had gathered around Littlefoot during this discussion. "We need to split up. Two per group, I guess." He thought for a moment, before continuing. "Yes. Two per group. One to dig and one to catch."

Everyone seemed to agree to this, but suddenly Ruby had an observation.

"But there are seven of us!" It was not just an observation; it was also an implied question. How do you split up seven dinosaurs into groups of two?

Everyone seemed to think for a moment. Oddly, Petrie seemed to have the most contemplative expression of them all.

"Well I guess that we can have one group of three. Unless someone wants to hunt alone?" Littlefoot offered.

"Me will hunt alone."

Everyone turned to the little flyer. No one would have expected Petrie to volunteer to hunt alone. Perhaps Chomper or Ruby, as they had some experience, but not Petrie. Petrie seemed to recognize the incredulity on their faces and explained himself.

"Me want to try something. If it doesn't work, then me go in group."

Littlefoot considered this for a moment, before sighing.

"Um... Alright. Has everyone else picked their groups?"

Nods and affirmative grunts were uttered as Cera and Chomper gathered in one area, with Ducky and Spike in another. Not surprising. Littlefoot concluded. Cera wants to catch the most and she has the best chance if she partners with Chomper. He suppressed the urge to make a sardonic smile at her antics. In some ways her pride from her threehorn days hadn't lessened at all. It had just changed as she had changed. He halfway expected her to go on a rant about how fastbiters are the best and brightest of the dinosaurs. He turned his focus on Ducky and Spike. Not a surprise there. That just left Ruby.

"All ready, Ruby?" He asked the fastbiter.

"I am ready." She affirmed with a smile.

"All right! Good luck everyone!" Littlefoot remarked at the group. It was up to each group now.

As Petrie flew off and the three groups scattered to various sides of the river bed each was left with an unanswered question.

Can we make this work?

......

Scrape... Scrape...

I have found you! Ruby thought to herself. It had taken them nearly half an hour to find a ground fuzzy burrow and it took her nearly as long to track down the ground fuzzy itself. Now it was time to get to work.

Ruby rose slowly, being careful not to make a sound as she turned to look in Littlefoot's direction. With a slight grin on her muzzle she raised her clawed forelimb and raised one claw. The meaning was clear to Littlefoot. There was one ground fuzzy and he should get ready. Littlefoot nodded his understanding.

Seeing that her friend had got the message, Ruby went to work. She tore into the ground with terrible ferocity. Even if she failed to catch the fuzzball herself, she could scare it in Littlefoot's direction. It shouldn't take long now. She deduced. The ground is quite soft here.

Almost as soon as she had that thought, the ground gave way under her claws.

Squeal! Crack!

The ground fuzzy was silenced by Ruby's powerful jaws almost as soon as it gave the alarm call. It had waited far too long to attempt an escape and now it was food for the meat eaters. The glorious taste of flesh and blood greeted her mouth after the killing strike, but she was able to retain control. Being careful not to eat more than her fair share, she only consumed the upper half of the small mammal and left the remainder. Even though he did not have to work for this hunt, Littlefoot deserved his share. After all, she might not get so lucky in her next attempt.

With a flourish, she waved at Littlefoot. As he rose and began to jog to her location, she thought about their current situation. The hunt had gone well, but had taken far too long. The pack would still be quite hungry if the only caught ground fuzzies as their current rate. She hoped that the others were having better luck...

......

"Get over here you fuzzball!"

The hunt had started out well enough. Chomper had found the first burrow and Cera did the digging. The first attempt ended in success as Cera caught a ground fuzzy in the act of trying to escape from her digging claws and Chomper caught a ground fuzzy when it attempted to rush out of the burrow. They had their first meal after less than ten minutes of work.

The second attempt was far more problematic, however.

They had decided to switch roles. Cera would take over at watching the burrow entrance for fleeing ground fuzzies, whereas Chomper would do the digging. But before they could even begin the hunt, they had to find a new burrow. After wandering for well over an hour they found a burrow and thought that the second round of dinner would soon start. However, after quite some time they realized that the burrow was long abandoned. Once Chomper figured this out and told Cera she was thrown into a violent rage for several moments. Chomper then began to feel sorry for whatever ground fuzzy they caught next. It was obvious that Cera would not show it any mercy.

Not that we would show them mercy anyway. He admitted to himself.

This finally brought them to the third, and current, hunt. After quite some time they finally found another burrow that had fresh seeds and droppings by its entrance. Chomper noted that this was a clear sign of recent habitation. Urged on by this finding, the two hunters then set about pursuing their prey. Shortly thereafter Chomper heard the tell-tale sounds of scraping claws. He had found the ground fuzzies! As the ground broke under his claws, he noticed the sounds of the ground fuzzies trail off towards Cera. It was all up to her now.

"Go get them, Cera!" He enthusiastically yelled.

Cera got into a pouncing position and readied to make the kill

Squeal! Swipe! Thud!

Cera had skewered the ground fuzzy on her claws and then slammed the mammal on the ground with tremendous force. The ground fuzzy was dead. Another success!

Taking a moment to admire her victory, she barely noticed when another ground fuzzy peak its head out of the burrow and sprint into the open. Oh no you don't! She thought to herself.

This is what brought us to our current scene.

Cera was madly chasing the ground fuzzy that had escaped her grasp. Even though the hunt was already partially acceptable, she wouldn't let her own actions prevent the pack from having complete victory. Neither her old threehorn mentality, nor her new fastbiter instincts, would permit her to fail.

Chomper looked at the scene before him with some amusement. He had seen Cera kill one ground fuzzy and then proceed to chase the other one madly. I would have simply let it go. He admitted to himself. Once they are in the open they are too fast to catch. It is like trying to catch a fast runner. He immediately felt a bit guilty after thinking that last thought, considering that they were seeking out Ruby's parents at this point. Nonetheless, his point was quite correct. The time to catch a fast mammal was when it was trapped in a tunnel of its own creation, not when it had a full range of motion.

Cera was not aware of this fault in her strategy and continued to chase the mammal through the hip-high grass. If she wasn't within a muzzle-length of the prey she surely would have lost its trail, but she was dedicated to her task and did not let up. She was slowly, but surely, catching up to the small rodent. She only needed a bit more time...

The small mammal knew that its time was up as it began to tire. As it felt the air of the predator's breath collide with its back, it panic became too great to suppress. Now blinded by fear and not even having the miniscule intellect of its species to call upon, the rodent's actions were entirely overridden by its instincts. Accordingly, it gave the instinctual call to warn others of its kind of imminent danger.

Squeal!

Hearing the death scream of the small rodent made something within Cera feel triumphant. Now I've got you! She told herself as she prepared to bite down on her prey. Unfortunately for her, she did not realize that sometimes prey could do amazing things when they had nothing left to lose.

Crack!

"Ahhh!" Cera screamed. She had been successful in her drive to kill the small mammal as her bite had snapped its small neck. However, the small mammal had struck out at the last moment and bit down upon the lower lip of Cera's muzzle. As a result, she was left with a bleeding wound on her mouth to go along with her dead quarry. The ground fuzzy had gotten posthumous revenge.

"That damn fuzzball!" Cera raged as she stomped upon the dead mammal. Her anger boiled over as the small rodent had prevented her from obtaining a clean victory. Why couldn't the damn fuzzy die like good food should? She thought to herself. In her anger she was not aware of the hypocrisy of her thoughts. Would she have simply stopped running and die back when she was a leaf-eater? No. Her experience as a sharptooth had begun to change her perspective from that of her leaf-eater days. In her current state it was almost as if she had never been a leaf-eater to begin with.

"What's wrong, Cera? ...Oh!" Chomper interjected as he discovered her injury. It seemed that the small rodent had exacted painful revenge upon its killer.

"The damn thing bit me!" She yelled in her anger.

Chomper remained calm as he had suffered such an injury before. Obviously the prey doesn't always go calmly into the realm of death. He had been bitten a by ground slider (lizard) before and the injury had hurt greatly. He had learned first-hand from his mother how to react to such an injury and he now realized, with some regret, that he would have to impart that knowledge to Cera. The injury was not the main problem, but infection was.

"You need to get to the water, Cera!" Chomper replied.

"I am fine! I will get over it." Cera retorted as she tried to put on a strong front despite her injury. The injury hurt, but the damage to her pride was much greater. If you had told her several days ago that she would measure her self-worth on the basis of her skills as a hunter she would have looked upon you with either horror or confusion. Now however, it meant as much to her fastbiter self as ramming skills mattered to her when she was a threehorn. The injury was a great embarrassment to her.

"Cera, you need to clean the bite." As Cera glared at Chomper, he held his ground. "Otherwise you could get sick! Their teeth carry sickness!"

Cera continued to glare for a few moments, but then relented. She was acting petulant and she knew it. If she were to get an infection then it would benefit no one. She needed to clean the injury as Chomper requested. Perhaps she could regain her composure afterwards.

"Alright. I will be back!" She then began to rush towards the river.

Chomper was relieved that she was accepting the reality of the situation without much fuss. She was nowhere near as cantankerous as she was during the hunger madness. He decided that he should give her an excuse to take her time.

"I can hunt a few on my own. Take your time!" Chomper replied.

Cera gave a weak hmph, but her heart wasn't into it. With an injured mouth, and an even more injured ego, the young fastbiter walked back to the river.

Neither of them saw the pair of eyes that was watching them from a nearby hill...

......

"Oh! What was me thinking!"

Petrie was beginning to question his decision to hunt alone. The decision had come suddenly to him and he had spoken without giving it much thought. This was a curious change from how his instincts normally channeled his thoughts in a logical fashion. What had changed? Both his sudden decision and his current predicament filled the young flyer with confusion.

"Me will go hungry!"

Petrie had been having dreams for the previous two nights, ever since their first true hunt. In those dreams he had been soaring fearlessly far up in the sky. Not even the sky puffies caused his any distress. He was the master of the skies. The sudden bringer of death. The dream always ended the same way. He would see very slight movement in the ground below and he would suddenly fold up his wings and go into a high-speed dive, with his claws extended. He would get closer and closer to the hapless prey until finally...

He would wake up.

Petrie was confused by these dreams. If he attempted such a hunt, would he catch his prey or would he miss and crash into the ground, surely killing him? The type of hunting that seemed to be recommended to him by his dreams filled him with dread. He had no experience with flying in such a manner and any miscalculation on his part would mean certain death. If he found a ground fuzzy should he even take the chance? Furthermore, if he did take such a chance, should he rely on instinct or his thoughts? He certainly wouldn't have enough time or practice to reconcile the two before any hunt. He had to learn this alone.

Putting aside his thoughts for a moment, the flyer took stock of his surroundings.

He was high above the floodplain where the pack was hunting their early afternoon meals. His majestic perspective of the area extended for miles in each direction. The transformation had taken his leaf-eater diet, but it had not taken the glorious gift of flight from the flyer. From his vantage point, he could clearly see Littlefoot and Ruby preparing for another hunt. The brown fastbiter was searching the ground with his ears towards the surface. Trying to find ground fuzzies. Petrie deduced. Ruby on the other hand was watching Littlefoot closely with her claws held firmly on the ground. And Ruby find hole. They doing well. Petrie concluded.

Looking some distance away, he could see Ducky and Spike each trying to search for ground fuzzy burrows. The ground fuzzies were not quite as common as the pack had originally hoped. Or maybe they too spread out. Petrie deduced. Either way, the pack would still be hungry at their current rate of success. Petrie did not like the probable consequences of that. Petrie highly suspected that Ruby's parents would not approve of hungry fastbiters suddenly stopping by uninvited.

Finally he took a look at the river itself and saw that Cera was cleaning her muzzle. This perplexed Petrie. Is Cera already full? Taking a look over, he could see that Chomper was hunting alone. No, she not full, otherwise Chomper would also be full. Cera was bigger than Chomper and thus if the hunt was successful enough to satisfy her, then it would also be enough to satisfy Chomper. He decided to put that situation out of his mind. He figured if it was something important then he would hear about it eventually.

Putting the rest of the pack out of his attention for a moment, he decided to examine the area in more detail. Grass extended for around a mile from the river, which had apparently overflowed recently. That would explain the lack of ground fuzzies, they had just recently relocated after the flood waters had receded. This was an unfortunate stroke of misfortune for the pack. Looking around further, he could see several hills some distance away to the south of the river. Unfortunately, the tall grass prevented him from getting a good look at any ground fuzzies that were in that area. It be good place to stage ambush. Some part of Petrie's mind deduced. But no dinosaurs here to kill. He thought morosely.

Suddenly his glum thoughts were interrupted by sudden movement in the grass below.

Is that ground fuzzy?

Several hundred feet below him, the grass began to shift in the opposite direction of the wind. Any other creature would have missed the miniscule sign, even a fastbiter who was very close at hand, but not a sharptooth flyer like Petrie. He lacked the superior smell of his friends, but he did have an excellent sense of visions and right now that was showing him one thing.

Me find dinner!

Hovering briefly in the sky, he considered his options. He could try to guide his flight and catch the small ground fuzzy as had been implied in his dream, or else he could attempt to let his instincts take control. Thinking hard, he decided finally to let both play their role. Just because one had good instincts, that didn't mean that they would work on their own. He always had the instinct to fly, for example, but look how long it took him to actually get around to doing it. Yes. He resolved. Me fly down and listen to instincts along the way!

With grim resolve, Petrie folded his wings to his body and aimed at the ground with his head. He had to be aerodynamic and build up as much speed as possible. He couldn't let the food get away! The only warning it should have is the burning pain of his claws impaling its back. As he did this maneuver, he began to fall like a boulder. The grass and his friends seemed to get much larger very quickly as he built up speed. Steady... Steady... He encouraged himself as he was filled with an odd mixture of fear and excited anticipation. He had to make this count! He couldn't back out now.

He now couldn't hear anything over the roar of the air against his body. It sounded like the roar of an earthshake or a rock fall, but this was all of his doing. He was almost there. He could now see the whites of the small mammal's eyes even though Petrie was still over a hundred feet in the air. The prey was unaware of its coming demise. Get claws ready! Petrie obeyed the instinctual drive without question. It just felt right. It was time to prepare for the kill.

At about two seconds from impact, Petrie could see the small mammal look up at its killer. It had seen him, but it was far too late. His reflexes as a flyer were far superior to anything mammalian evolution had provided. He would strike the vermin dead before he had time to react. Finally, knowing that this was the time, Petrie felt an undeniable urge to extend his wings and strike out. He obeyed without question.

Shluk!

The ground fuzzy didn't even have a chance to cry out as Petrie impaled it upon his mighty talons. With a flurry of movement, Petrie barely averted the ground and took off slowly with his dead cargo in tow. He had done it! He had successfully hunted alone. Noting the size of his catch in comparison to himself, Petrie concluded he could easily feed himself in this terrain without the need to eat dinosaurs. He could still help his land-bound friends, but he was no longer entirely dependent upon them. Felling exuberant in his success, he gave a triumphant call.

Caw!

......

Cera heard the loud call as Petrie slowly rose into the air. For reasons she could not quite determine, she knew it was a victory call.

"Gee, good for you." She muttered to herself. Although she had cleaned her wound and the bleeding had long since stopped, she was still embarrassed over her own mishap and didn't want to hear anyone else revel in their glory. It was in this depressed state that she was interrupted by an unwelcome guest.

"Hmm... Seems like someone is having a bad day."

Cera turned at the sudden exclamation and was surprised by what she saw.

In front of her was an orange fastbiter with black stripes. His crest and limbs all lacked feathers, as that was a trait of his particular subspecies. One of Screech's and Thud's kind. Some part of Cera's mind deduced. He appeared to be about her age, probably a bit older, and he had a noticeable scar on his leg from a previous injury. His demeanor gave no hint of hostility or malice, but nonetheless Cera was very cautious. This was a real born and raised fastbiter that had tracked her down. What were his intentions? Did he simply want to drink from the river, or did he want to start trouble? She did not know the finer points of fastbiter etiquette so she had to be careful here.

"What if I am?" She spoke defiantly. To put it mildly, Cera was not the best diplomat.

The male fastbiter laughed heartedly at Cera's brashness. She obviously was not one for pointless pleasantries. He actually found that trait somewhat endearing.

"Oh... Nothing!" He smirked as he answered in a nonchalant fashion. "It was just kind of obvious, you know. It is never good luck to be bitten by prey like that, especially something as small as a ground fuzzy."

"Why, you!" Cera sputtered. Was this fastbiter trying to start a fight? She had half a mind to alert her pack to the fact that they had company, but that would show weakness. For reasons unknown to Cera, she knew that she had to hold her own in this conversation.

"If you think you can do any better than show me!"

The fastbiter's grin grew even larger. This one certainly is full of himself, isn't he? Cera thought, not aware of the irony of her making that observation.

"Well, I could... but as you see there aren't many ground fuzzies over here." He shrugged in fake disinterest. "As you saw, for every bite of them you took, they took a bite out of you."

Cera was livid. "Why you!"

"Now... Now..." He began, being careful not to push the cantankerous fastbiter too much. "Is that any way to behave to someone who is trying to help you?"

"Help me!" Cera responded angrily. "All you have done is insult me since we began talking! Now go away." She then turned her back to the annoying fastbiter. Apparently fastbiter society was devoid of manners, she thought to herself. Imagine that! Dinosaurs who kill for a living aren't particularly nice. Who knew? She thought sarcastically.

"Go away?" He then turned away in faux defeat. "Very well. I guess I will have to keep all of the food to myself."

Cera turned around again. She had taken the bait. "Food?"

The fastbiter turned with the grin still firmly planted on his face. "Oh! Are you interested?"

Cera glared at the fastbiter. She resolved to play along and follow this insufferable sharptooth to whatever food he had found and then alert the pack. They needed the food. If he was not as benevolent as he looked, Cera believed that she could take him on. "Just take me to the food will ya? I am not talking to you for the company!"

The fastbiter laughed at that. A genuine laugh of amusement.

"I was trying to get a rise out of ya, you know? Most sharpteeth would have charged at me before now." He admitted. "You must have amazing patience."

Cera stared at the fastbiter as he uttered those words. No one had ever complimented her on her patience before, as it wasn't exactly a threehorn virtue. Perhaps she was expected to be more forceful and quick to violence in sharptooth society? Much as she hated to admit it, she was not prone to actually lashing out violently. The last time she had done that before the ground fuzzy was back when she was firmly in the hunger madness. She apparently had much to learn.

"The name is Taunt. What is yours?" He asked courteously. It was the first non-teasing remark he had made to the former threehorn.

"Cera." She answered concisely. "Now about that food..."

......

"Hey, guys! Has anyone seen Cera?"

The purple little biter was quite worried. He had offered her some time to wash her injury while he hunted, but after he didn't see her for quite some time he decided to investigate. There was no sign of her! Her smell led to the river, but there it was joined by another fastbiter's scent that he couldn't recognize. He couldn't tell if the other fastbiter had been their recently or earlier that day as a symphony of smells greeted him at the river's edge. Nonetheless, he was concerned.

"No, Chomper. I haven't seen her. Nope nope, nope!" Ducky affirmed. "Have you, Spike?"

A grunt in the negative greeted Chomper's ears. They hadn't seen her either! He had to go get the others. They had to make sure that Cera was alright.

......

"Where are we going exactly?" Cera asked her new acquaintance. "And what food did you actually find?"

He paused for a moment. "We are going a ways up the river. You will see the food after we reach the crest of the hill."

Cera began to rush up the hill. "Then what are we waiting for? My friends and I are quite hungry."

A smile returned to his muzzle once more. "Oh, so those other ankle biters are part of your pack, eh?" He asked in a teasing voice.

Cera took on a teasing look of her own. "Well, they are certainly better company than you!"

For the second time that day, Taunt laughed in genuine amusement at this fastbiter. She certainly has some bravado. He thought to himself. "Alright! Let's go."

The two fastbiters ran up the hill as fast as their mighty legs would carry them. Cera took an early lead only to be surprised when the male ran in front of her without apparently even trying. I will not permit him to show me up! She resolved. She picked up her pace and ran beside him. He looked at her with a boastful smile.

"Oh! I was wondering where you were. I thought that you said we were running up the hill."

Cera growled and put all of her strength into charging up the hill at full speed. The two fastbiters were side by side when Cera caught site of what was over the crest of the hill.

"Whoa!"

The bloated corpse of a threehorn was clearly in view. It had obviously been dead for quite some time as nearly half of the body had been picked clean, leaving only those portions that were difficult to reach. The reminder of the flesh had begun the slow process of decomposition as the flesh had been exposed to the elements for days. The stench was almost overwhelming, but for some reason that did not deter Cera's appetite. She was a sharptooth now, after all, and carrion was a mainstay of the diet.

"Yeah... My pack took this down the other day." Taunt remarked as if it wasn't an accomplishment worth mentioning.

Cera looked at him for a moment. His pack must be very strong to take down a full-grown threehorn. She thought to herself. Why did I follow him like I did? If his pack wants to get rid of me they certainly can now... and no one would know. Her expression actually took on a slight overtone of fear. The change was almost imperceptible, but the change in her scent was detected by Taunt immediately.

Good, she's afraid. He thought to himself. We need to get these ankle biters out of our territory. As Taunt's leader had known for quite some time, a show of strength was sometimes as effective as a feigned or actual attack. The victory without a battle was better than the battle without a victory. He would show this pack a small kindness by giving them food and hope that they took the hint and departed right after. That was the plan anyway.

"That is impressive..." She remarked, still stunned by the sight. "Do you... get ones this big often?"

Taunt nodded. "Yeah, there are always large leaf-eaters going through our territory." He added the emphasis as discretely as possible, but it was still there for all to hear.

Cera swallowed. "Ah, that's nice." She paused for a moment, wanting to choose her next words carefully. "My pack was on its way to Hanging Rock."

Taunt took on a noticeably relieved expression. He actually rather liked this girl's spirited attitude and he would have hated to engage her pack in a battle for territory. Luckily, it seemed that force would not be necessary.

"Cera! Where are you?" Littlefoot's voice echoed through the floodplain.

Taunt turned in his tracks. Damn! The rest of her pack is coming! What if they are not as reasonable? He knew full well that a pack leader would not look kindly on another pack member being intimidated like this. If he was outnumbered then they could overwhelm him and use him as a bargaining tool with his pack. That was something he wanted to avoid at all costs. With Cera distracted, he took his chance and ran away.

"Over here!" Cera called. "I am with another..." She stopped as she saw that the other fastbiter had departed. She could see his retreating form fleeing down the hill below. I guess he wasn't as fearless as he acted. She noted.

"Cera? What are you doing?" Chomper began as he walked up the crest of the hill. We were worried... Wow!" He had seen the sight that had stopped Cera in her tracks mere moments before.

Cera smiled. If that insufferable male wasn't going to stick around then why should she let him share in the credit? "Looks like I found dinner!"

The gang reunited joyfully with Cera as they began to partake of a surprise respite to their hunger.

......

Meanwhile, nearly a mile away from the pack, Taunt was addressing his leader. The pack leader was not much older than Taunt, his entire pack being made up of other juveniles. His greenish-blue coloration set him apart from his orange subordinate.

"...and then I told her that we killed the threehorn." Taunt had just finished his report.

The leader smiled. "Ah, nice. They will think of us being mightier than we actually are." The threehorn had actually died of sickness several days before, but the rival pack didn't need to be told that. He nodded in appreciation of Taunt's resourceful thinking. "I take it that dissuaded them from staying?"

"Yeah, she insists that they are simply walking through. Their destination is Hanging Rock, apparently."

The leader laughed. "Hanging Rock? Well, I guess it is a good thing we gave them some food then!" He continued to chuckle as Taunt joined in the merriment. "I hope they don't expect to find any peace there, with Red Claw and all."

Taunt stopped laughing as his cheerfulness was ended in an instant. Red Claw and his henchmen was a sore subject for the orange fastbiter. He then spoke "Or my father."

The leader paused at his subordinate's statement. "You have to let it go, Taunt. You can't blame yourself for Thud's mistakes. You are not your father."

Taunt didn't reply.

The leader sighed. "We should head back to the rest of the pack. They will be relieved that the invaders are not staying." He then looked back in the direction where Littlefoot's pack resided. "We could have evicted them easy enough, but it is always nice to avoid such pleasantries."

Their mission completed, the two fastbiters went off to be with the remainder of their pack.

......

"So... His name was Taunt?"

After a large meal of carrion, the pack had rested for a bit before trekking off towards Hanging Rock. Cera decided that she had better tell the others about her situation. One could never know when a rival pack could become a threat. Littlefoot was asking Cera a lot of questions about their new adversaries. He hoped that the information could come in handy later.

"Yeah. He was a jerk!" Cera replied.

Everyone laughed at that. Cera's remarks on Taunt were extremely negative, but yet she kept on bringing every question back to him. It was obvious that he had struck a nerve in the yellow fastbiter.

Littlefoot smirked but couldn't restrain himself from making one snarky comment.

"Why Cera, I think that he's made quite an impression on you!"

Cera stood wide mouthed at Littlefoot's comment at her expense. The others descended in boisterous laughter.

"Don't you start, Littlefoot!" Cera retorted. "...Or I will make an impression on you!" She said that as she stomped an impression of her foot on the ground. The words themselves were a threat, but their delivery clearly indicated that they were not to be taken that way. The yellow fastbiter had provided the pack with food and redeemed herself, in her mind, from her embarrassment earlier in the day. In her happier mood, her comments had little sting to them.

The joking and laughter continued for several moments until everyone settled down. They then left the territory of the rival pack and continued towards their destination.

......

Several hours later, as the bright circle began to set behind the horizon, the pack went over another hill that seemed to rise out of the expansive grassland like a whale surfacing in the ocean. That was when they saw it.

"Hanging Rock!" Ruby exclaimed. "We are almost there!"

Looking in the direction of their destination, they were surprised to see that it was now clearly visible. Hanging Rock jutted out of the rockface in the distance. They were still a day away from reaching their goal, but it was finally in sight. In their harsh journey of death and despair they had survived against all of the odds. They had no doubts that they would finally be successful.

As the pack embraced one another in joy. Each took stock of the situation in their own way.

For Littlefoot this was a vindication of sorts. Despite his flaws as a leader, and he now recognized that he had several, he had successfully led them this far. He knew that with further support from his friends that he could get them through whatever hardships lay ahead. He didn't know what his mother would have thought about this situation, but he hoped that she would have been proud.

For Cera this was a moment to reflect. She had changed so much during their week-long journey that she could barely recognize herself. She realized that the only thing that held her together was the support and, at times, forceful prodding of her friends. Regardless of what she was now, she resolved to stand with them until the end. They were together as leaf-eaters, they would remain together as sharpteeth.

For Spike this was a moment to acknowledge what he had lost, while also rejoicing in what he had retained. He had lost his appreciation of green food, he had lost his easy-going nature, and he had lost his privilege of being a kind soul. Now he was a killer who had to eat meat in order to survive. But at least he still had Ducky and his friends. He figured that as long as he had them, he wouldn't sink into despair.

For Ruby this was a moment of truth. In a mere day, she would face her parents as a changed dinosaur. As a dinosaur who had lost the luxury of being able to eat both plant and meat. Now she only hungered for flesh... She had no idea how her parents would react, or her siblings for that matter. Even if they reacted positively, they probably wouldn't be able to offer much help.

She took a look at her friends. Even if they were beyond help now, at least they still had one another. They had survived being chased by the Great Valley's adults in their catastrophic escape from the valley. They had survived being chased by the most terrible predators in the Mysterious Beyond. They had survived hunger and the horror of killing a leaf-eater in the hunt. They had survived much and Ruby knew that they could survive much more as long as they stuck together. Never mind how broken they were individually, she knew that if they stayed together they would never fall apart.

They have no idea what the next day may bring, but they knew that they would face it together. They were one gang... One pack. And nothing would ever separate them.

End of Act 1


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