Chapter 19 Journeys and Fathers
“Is it possible for home to be a person and not a place?”
― Stephanie Perkins, Anna and the French Kiss
In a small clearing outside of Hanging Rock, seven sharptooth were sleeping peacefully. Well... Most of them were anyway. A small brown fastbiter with vibrant red feathers was tossing and turning in his uneasy slumber. What could this small sharptooth be dreaming about?
If an observer was watching the scene in front of him, he would be unable to see much of anything on account of the pervasive darkness. Almost no light permeated into the thick swamp on this night. Not even the light of the moon was on display. However, the steady splashing of advancing feet would indicate a presence in this foreboding environment. These footsteps belonged to one of nature's most feared predators. The predator made no overt sounds, but his mind was working furiously.
Hmm... The scent is getting stronger this way... We should advance carefully.
Littlefoot was slowly advancing through the swampy marsh that he suddenly found himself in. He was quite hungry as he hadn't eaten in days. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time that he had eaten. It was like there was a fog in his mind that wouldn't let him explore those memories too deeply. It was no matter, however, as the only thing that mattered was the resolution of his current hunger. This was not the time for introspection; it was time for action.
He looked to his side and noted his companion. She had been following him since... Well, he couldn't remember. In fact, he couldn't even remember her name. Her only distinguishing characteristic was that she had a distinct yellow hide, with orange feathers on her head and limbs. She had a self-assured and almost arrogant manner about her. She seemed to be following Littlefoot's lead for the time being, but he was unsure if she would continue to do so if he proved to be a lackluster hunter. He needed to show his competence in this hunt. A bit of caution before the chase could ensure victory. What this meant at the moment was that he needed to get as much information as possible. He decided that his sense of smell would be the best source of information, on account of the darkness.
He stopped for a moment in order to consult his sniffer. Slowly raising his snout, he took a deep breath.
He smelled a multitude of scents with the intake of his breath. He could smell the excitement and desperation in his own body's scent. He could smell the combined scent of gradual decay and moisture which permeated through the swamp. He could even smell the retreating smell of a belly dragger that must have been in the area several hours ago. However, that was not the smell that caught his attention.
There, within an indeterminately short distance from him, was the tell-tale scent of a longneck and a threehorn. Both of them were quite young if his sniffer were to be believed. They would be most suitable prey. Too small to effectively fight back, but also large enough to make a satisfying meal.
Yes... They are close... Very close.
He took another tentative breath in order to confirm his findings. Yes, he was correct. There were two juveniles very close to himself and his companion. They had to approach cautiously now, lest they give away their location to the food.
Littlefoot turned to his companion and gave a stern nod. They were close, the gestured said, follow my lead.
The two then began to walk ever so slowly through the underbrush until they approached a dry patch of land. With uncertain paws, Littlefoot took his clawed forelimbs and gently brushed away the reeds that blocked his view. What he then found surprised him.
Why... There they are!
A green longneck shifted uncertainly as he looked in the opposite direction of Littlefoot, whereas a small pink threehorn sat mumbling to herself beside her protector. It was a juvenile longneck and an infant threehorn. What a combination! The small threehorn wouldn't make for much of a meal, but perhaps they could use her to lure the tasty longneck into the open. The green longneck was obviously trying to protect the other dinosaur, His posture gave him away. The classic strategy of finding your opponent's weakness and then exploiting it would work well here. Now he simply had to communicate this to his companion without ruining the element of surprise.
Looking back towards his companion, Littlefoot noted that she had an impatient expression on her face. Her most annoying weakness, he thought to himself. Hopefully she could contain her emotions until the hunt was finished. Littlefoot gestured with two claws, indicating two dinosaurs were detected. She nodded with a grin, her impatience being forgotten in the identification of suitable prey. Returning her grin, he placed two claws on his face in an outward direction, indicating a threehorn. As she nodded, he used his forelimbs to indicate a small size. She huffed. Obviously she was not interested in a small appetizer. This made his grin grow wider. This one was so predictable. He then stretched his forelimbs from his face in order to indicate a longneck. With a gestured towards himself, he indicated a significant size for the second dinosaur. She smiled. It looked like they would eat well tonight.
With a final gesture, he noted that she should attack the threehorn from the opposite direction. There were two possibilities with this strategy: either the longneck would help the infant in which case he could charge him from behind; or he would abandon her and run in the opposite direction, in which case he would catch him head-on. Either way, the two dinosaurs were as good as dead. All that was left was the hunt itself. The strategy, which was always the most important part, had already been attended to.
As she began to slowly walk around the reeds in order to attack the threehorn from the other direction, he was left with his uncertain thoughts. He was forgetting something, some part of his mind seemed to tell him. He knew his name, but he didn't remember how he had gotten into this situation, nor did he recall who his companion was. Oh well, he thought, it probably wasn't important anyway. He could dedicate more time to that conundrum when his hunger was addressed. It was the only thing that mattered right now.
A sudden squeal emanated from the clearing and instantly Littlefoot knew that the hunt was on.
He emerged into the clearing and immediately saw that the small threehorn was being charged at by his yellow fastbiter companion. She was rapidly gaining ground on the pink threehorn and he knew that she wouldn't stand a chance.
Taking a look at the other prey, he noted that the green longneck was trying to distract the yellow fastbiter and was running parallel with the threehorn. It was a noble, yet foolish, effort. He wasn't even paying attention to the scene in front of him where Littlefoot was now charging at him full speed.
The green longneck muttered something that was incomprehensible. If he were a more naive sharptooth then Littlefoot would almost say that it sounded like that the longneck was trying to say something. But that was foolish, sentimental thinking. Everyone knew that flat teeth couldn't speak. They were far too stupid for that.
His yellow fastbiter companion then caught up to the hapless threehorn and bit down upon her neck. They was a sickening glugging sound as the small infant began to aspirate upon her own blood. She never even got the chance to emit one final scream. One dinosaur was down, there was just one more to go.
Ignoring the green longneck's scream, Littlefoot leapt at his throat. With a sickening thud he landed heavily upon his back. Placing all of his weight upon his hind claws, he raked downward and slice through the pitiful longneck's abdomen. With a sickening gasp, the longneck collapsed upon the ground. He had dealt a mortal wound, now all that was left was the finishing strike.
He advanced slowly towards the collapsed longneck and walked around him until he could see the longneck's face. He had a look of absolute terror and despair. A combination that could only be born from knowing what was going to come, but raging against the inevitable all the same. It was kind of an amusing sight, some part of Littlefoot's instincts noted.
As he slowly advanced towards the longneck, he looked up to gaze into the eyes of his executioner. The green longneck gasped at what he saw and cried out one final statement.
"Wha...? Littlefoot? Why?"
With a merciless demeanor, Littlefoot slashed out with his forelimbs and slit his brother's throat.
Littlefoot awoke with a panicked gasp.
What in the hell was that?! The panicked fastbiter thought to himself. He had just had one of the most horrific dreams that he could ever remember. He had dreams before where he had been killed or eaten, as this was a common fear amongst herbivores. However, this was the first dream where he had actually killed a loved one. What did it all mean? Why was he having these bad sleep stories now? The only thing that the brown fastbiter was sure about was that it was time to collect his thoughts.
Trying unsuccessfully to calm his nerves by bringing his breathing under control, Littlefoot decided to walk to the river. He could use a drink of water to moisten his dry and spasming throat. Likewise, he could use the calming sound of gently flowing water as well. Right now he was in the midst of a full-blown panic.
With unsteady feet, and an even more unsteady mind, he quickly sprinted to the clear water of the river. He did not notice the groan that emanated from Ruby, nor did he see her concerned expression at his sudden retreat.
Several moments later, Littlefoot was staring at his own reflection in the clear depths of the small river. Its gentle flow and crystal-clear image was in stark contrast to the turbulent thoughts and chaotic emotions that were running through Littlefoot's head at the moment. It seemed that the events of the previous week had finally taken their toll on him.
"Why Shorty? Or Tricia? I would never do that!" He almost yelled at his own reflection. "...Would I?" He was reminded of how he had killed Rhett during the hunger madness, despite the fact that he was a friend and the closest friend of Ali. If he could do that, then what was stopping him from killing his own brother? His own actions seemed to be condemning him within his own self-imposed trial of his motives. All this seemed to make one thought stand out in his mind.
"Are we the bad guys now?"
It was a thought that had occurred in all of their minds at one time or another. In fact, it had been uttered more than once. However, Littlefoot's vivid dream brought the full context of their situation into clear focus. He didn't want to hurt any of his friends, but if he stuck around then he would be a threat. He didn't want to endanger anyone and that left only one option.
"We can never go back."
It was something that they had agreed to earlier, much earlier, back when they first left the valley. However, this was the first time that the true emotional cost of that decision entered into his mind. He could never see his family again.
"No. No we can't."
Littlefoot suddenly turned at the statement that was made behind him. He was surprised to see a familiar rose-colored fastbiter stare back at him. Her head was tilted in a contemplative expression, with more than a little touch of sadness. He immediately wondered how much of his break down she had witnessed. However, he found that he couldn't speak in his current emotional state.
She walked slowly and deliberately towards the river, taking a small drink when she reached its shore. She looked off into the distance, without looking back at Littlefoot, before again speaking towards him.
"So... You had a bad sleep story? She asked.
He simply nodded. He had no desire to go into the details. He was still ashamed of his actions during the sleep story. Not because he would never act that way in real life, but rather because he knew that he could snap and act that way if he got hungry enough. His nightmare had, in a way, been his own indictment and conviction. He had convicted himself of crimes that he knew he was capable of. The only question now was what punishment he deserved.
"Was it something that happened to you, or something that you make happen to others?" At his sudden look of guilt, Ruby knew that she had his answer. She simply walked up to him and gave him a slight nuzzle.
"We are what we are, Littlefoot. If we weren't what we were, then we wouldn't be what we are. We would be something else." She muttered in her usual sing-song fashion. "But we decide what that means."
Littlefoot shuddered for a moment, as he suppressed a sob. He would not show weakness here, he resolved. Even though his weakness was on full display for anyone to observe. After a few moments, he felt strong enough to speak.
"I killed... Shorty in my sleep story." He admitted glumly. "What does that say about me?"
Ruby pondered for a moment. "That says that you love him very much. If you didn't love him very much, then would you cry like you are?" At Ruby's statement, Littlefoot noticed that he was crying. Quickly feeling embarrassed, he tried to dry himself and looked away from the well-meaning fastbiter.
Ruby smiled a sad smile. Littlefoot was trying to be the strong leader, despite the fact that he was enduring enormous emotional turmoil. He had to let it all out, lest he begin to lash out at others. He didn't have to act strong to show that he was strong, the former fast runner mused, he simply had to be himself. She decided to resume her speech.
"Sometimes, sleep stories show us what we fear, Littlefoot, not just what we want." Littlefoot paused at this. Her speech sounded a lot like what his grandparents had told him just over a week ago. "The question is: are you going to answer your fear? Or are you going to let your fear answer for you?"
Littlefoot paused for a moment. Ruby had again showed her superior wisdom. It was true that he carried unbridled enthusiasm and curiosity about the world around him, but Ruby, on the other hand, actually had knowledge about the world around her. How could she not have such knowledge? She had been a fast runner living in the Mysterious Beyond. If she lacked wisdom and a well-honed sense of intuition, then she would not have survived for very long. They had often taken her experience for granted in the Great Valley but, Littlefoot now realized, they could not afford to do so in their current predicament. He decided to ask his next question with that lesson firmly in mind.
"What if I don't know if my fear is answering for me or not?" He asked morosely. "I just don't want to hurt anyone I love."
Ruby nearly broke down at his admission. "None of us do, Littlefoot, none of us do." She then embraced him. "We need to gain more control over ourselves. If we have more control, then maybe we won't lose control." She then looked him directly in the eyes. "Maybe my mommy and daddy can help us! We are almost there."
Littlefoot sighed. "Yeah..." He looked away for a moment. "Thanks Ruby, I guess that I just needed to talk to someone." He paused briefly. "I'm kind of scared of myself... You know?"
Ruby gave him a knowing smile. "I know, Littlefoot. I know."
The two simply rested for several moments as the bright circle continued its rise from the horizon. Finally, after several moments, the two heard footsteps from behind them.
"There you two are!" It was Spike. "We were trying to track you down!"
Littlefoot smirked. "You would have done it faster if I was there to help you sniff." He retorted smugly. Ruby simply chuckled to herself at Littlefoot's playful teasing.
Spike looked indignant for a moment, before a smug grin appeared on his face as well. "Well I thought I smelt something pleasing this way, so I figured it couldn't be you!" Ruby broke out into uncontrolled laughter at this point, as Littlefoot could hear several of the others join in as well. "I didn't know that Ruby was with you." Spike added to finish the teasing insult.
Littlefoot turned around with genuine mirth in his demeanor. He decided that he should end this exchange of insults before it got carried away.
"Alright! Alright! So you found me!" He yelled, but it was not an angry yell. It was obvious that he had enjoyed the teasing exchange as much as the others. "We need to get going. We are almost there!"
The others nodded at this as they were more than ready to arrive at Hanging Rock.
Littlefoot turned to Ruby. "Ruby? Would you do the honors?"
Ruby smiled. "The honor would be all mine." She then paused. "Alright, everyone! Let's get this journey finished!"
At the enthusiastic yells of the others, the pack continued their journey to Hanging Rock. But what would they find when they finally arrived at their destination?
"So... This is it, is it?" The threehorn was somewhat in disbelief at the actions of the longneck. He was going into the Mysterious Beyond? And for what? Just to confirm what the others had already told him, that his beloved son was long-since dead? It was truly a sad sight to see a great dinosaur to be reduced to this. However, taking in mind his feeling on the loss of his daughter, he could relate to his dilemma. Nonetheless, he had to broach the question.
Bron sighed. "Yes... Yes it is." Even after his emotions had settled after a night's sleep, he remained steadfast in his decision to seek out his son. He had abandoned him before when he thought that he was lost when his mate had died and he would not abandon him now. He would get to the bottom of this story, never mind how it might turn out. He owed it to his son and to his long-lost mate. He would either find his son alive, or he would find out his final fate. Either way, he would seek justice for him.
The threehorn sighed. Topps was too exhausted to try to talk the longneck out of his quest. Even if he wasn't so exhausted, he wouldn't try to dissuade him from a mission that he could very well see himself in if the situations were reversed. He was a father who wanted answers. That was a quandary that he could relate to. That didn't change the folly of it, however.
"Good luck, longneck." Topps said stoically. "I hope that you find the answers that you are looking for."
Bron nodded. "So do I, Topps, so do I."
As Bron slowly walked out of the valley, four onlookers looked upon the scene with deeply concerned expressions.
Grandma and Grandpa Longneck watched their son-in-law leave the valley with profound distress. They had already lost their daughter and their grandson, would they now lose their son-in law as well? Then there was Shorty, Littlefoot's adopted brother. If Bron met his doom in his lonely journey outside of the valley, could they raise in the young longneck? He was headstrong and tough, that was true, but he was also a young kid. They were unsure if they could raise another child. This was especially true as they doubted that they could ever look at Shorty without seeing a bit of Littlefoot in his eyes. It was as if they were continuously haunted by the small longneck's ghost. They hoped that he was at peace wherever he may be, as they most certainly were not.
Shorty, however, looked upon the scene with a more childish, but no less poignant, perspective. The longneck that was slowly receding into the distance was his father figure. In fact, as his father had died before his first recallable memories, Bron was the closest thing to a father that he had ever had. If Bron met his doom in the Mysterious Beyond, then he had no idea what he would do with himself. He had already lost his adopted brother, whether due to sharpteeth or to another adventure outside of the valley, he could not afford to lose Bron as well. Despite his well-learned tough exterior, he began to cry as one of the last loved ones that he had in this world walked away. He couldn't help but to wonder if he would ever see him again.
Stomp was taken aback by recent events. First, he was informed that Bron's son had been presumed killed in a sharptooth attack. Then, he had been informed that his leader would go forth and try to find his son, whether he was found alive or otherwise. Stomp could not relate to the pain Bron was feeling, as he had never found a mate or had children of his own, but he could deduce that it would be a soul-crushing event. As such, he didn't try to talk sense into Bron. He knew full well that Bron would try to find the answers no matter the personal cost to himself. Bron had placed the full command of the herd onto his unsure shoulders, with further orders that he was to lead the herd away from the valley if Bron was not back within a week. He knew that he was ready to lead the herd if it came to that, but he sincerely hoped that Bron would be back. Not only had he thought of the elder longneck as a great teacher, but he greatly respected his leadership and wisdom. He would hate to see Bron be brought down by a tragedy such as this, but he knew that he had little power over such an eventuality. Just like the others, he had little choice but to watch and wait.
Seeing the weeping youngling, Grandma Longneck decided to intervene. She knew that it would be foolish to ask how the longneck was doing, as he was obviously doing no better than they were, but she did know how to get his mind off of his despair.
Shorty took a moment to catch his breath. "What?" He asked mournfully.
"Bron talked to you for a while before he..." She then looked at the retreating form of the longneck. "...went on his way." She finished her thought. "What did he tell you?"
Shorty took in a shuddering breath before answering. "He... He told me to stay strong." He paused for a moment. "But I don't know if I can!"
Grandma Longneck looked upon the youngling with a sad expression. "Strong does not mean unafraid, Shorty." Shorty looked a bit apprehensive at her statement. "I don't know what the future holds, but I do know that we will be here for you. If you let us."
Shorty sighed before nuzzling Grandma Longneck's bowed neck. The three longnecks then departed the entrance as Bron began his uncertain journey to the Mysterious Beyond.
"Well, here we are!" Ruby exclaimed excitedly.
Against all odds and despite all of the hardships that were working against them, they had finally arrived to the residence of Ruby's family. Somewhere in this rocky outcropping they knew that they could find the fast runners. The only question was where?
"Yes, but where are they?" Chomper asked uncertainly. He had been here before when his parents had placed him under Ruby's care and tutorage. However, back then Ruby's parents were ready to greet him and very welcoming, whereas he currently could see no sign of them. What had changed?
As if to answer his question, Cera made a sarcastic remark that nonetheless answered the small sharptooth's question.
"Gee... I wonder..." Cera remarked sardonically. "Because I know if a bunch of sharptooth showed up at my home, I would be welcoming them with open arms!"
Despite the sarcastic and somewhat mean tone of Cera's retort, Chomper couldn't help but snort. Yes, it was that simple wasn't it. Chomper thought to himself. They probably think that sharpteeth have invaded their home. How do we let them know that we mean no harm?
Ruby pondered for a moment, as her sharptooth namesake would indicate. How can I let my mommy and daddy know that it is me? I am not a mean sharptooth! But why would they believe me?
"Perhaps we can simply talk to him!" Littlefoot called out suddenly. "Your dad speaks sharptooth, right?"
Ruby nodded, but still had an unsure expression on her face. "Yes, but why would he believe me, Littlefoot? Who has ever heard of leaf-eaters suddenly turning into sharpteeth?" She paused for a moment to chew on her lip nervously. "He would just as likely believe that I am a crazy sharptooth! Because if I was a crazy sharptooth then I would believe such things!" She added morosely.
Ducky sat down beside Ruby for a moment. She could relate to her despair, but she didn't want her to give up hope.
"Don't give up, Ruby. Oh, no, no, no! We don't know if it will work until we have tried it!" The former swimmer added in a hopeful manner.
At this point Spike walked up to reinforce his sister's point. "Ducky is right and besides... If anyone is going to believe our story it would be your father." He paused for a moment to think about his next words. "He knows both languages, right?" At her confirming nod, he continued. "Well then, all of us can attempt to convince him."
Ruby sighed. "I guess you are right... But I am still worried." The fastbiter admitted. "I worry that my daddy will look at me like an enemy. And an enemy is not the way I want my daddy to look at me!" She was pained by the memories of how the parents of her friends had chased them out of the valley. She feared that she would break down if her father looked upon her with such hatred. She had never seen that look upon his face, and she never wanted to see it.
Littlefoot walked up to Ruby and laid his forelimb on her shoulder. "Come on, Ruby." He called reassuringly. "We won't know until we try. Let's see if we can track your family down."
With a few reassuring nods between the dinosaurs, they began their search. Surely Ruby's family was here somewhere. The only question was where?
Meanwhile, in the rocky bluffs to the west of Hanging Rock, a lone fast runner kept vigil. His eyes were wary and conveyed the caution that comes with great wisdom and age. He was obviously troubled by these new entrants into his home.
"What is Chomper doing here?" Detras, Ruby's father, asked himself with great suspicion. "And who are these fastbiters?"
It had been just over six seasons since he had allowed Ruby to leave with Chomper for the Great Valley. At the request of Terri and Dein, Chomper's parents, he and his mate had agreed on their proposal. Both Chomper and Ruby would be safer in the valley, as Red Claw appeared to have a vendetta against Chomper and was a general threat against everyone else. Furthermore, Detras argued, that perhaps an exchange between the Mysterious Beyond and the Great Valley could lay the framework for an alliance. It was only through joint effort that they would be able to end the tyranny of Red Claw and his allies. Such an effort could not be maintained while the Great Valley remained isolationist and satisfied with their solitary haven.
But all of that had happened six seasons ago and in that time Ruby and Chomper had only visited them once. Now, Chomper appeared to have traveled to their home all alone, with no Ruby to be seen. What had happened? The possibilities ran wild within the elder fast runner's mind.
Perhaps Chomper had decided to become the sharptooth that he always knew that he had to become one day. But if that was the case, then why was he here with a pack of sharpteeth? His parents had left strict instructions on how he was to be reunited with them in the event that the realities of his kind caught up to him earlier than they had expected. Those instructions did not include leaving by himself. Furthermore, who were these six fastbiters? Surely Chomper would not have been permitted to make friends with other carnivores while he was in the valley? Finally, and what worried him the most, was the absence of Ruby. Ruby was an incredibly responsible fast runner who had a sense of right and wrong that in some ways even exceeded his own, due to his need to be more pragmatic in the Mysterious Beyond. He knew that she would never betray her responsibility to Chomper. This left two possibilities: either Chomper had left without her permission or else she was...
He didn't even want to confront that possibility. He and his mate, Pearl, had always known that Ruby could very well meet her doom during her mission to the valley. She could fall prey to Red Claw and his minions. Her omnivorous nature could lead to a misunderstanding and one of the valley residents could kill her in a panic. She could fall victim to the common sicknesses that rarely afflicted fast runners of her age. Or there was Chomper...
One of his greatest fears, and one that he never shared with his mate directly, was that the hunger madness could take hold of Chomper's reason and that he would kill Ruby in the process. Chomper had a good thing going on in the valley. He was with the only friends that he had ever really known. This would make it very hard for him to accept the inevitable and leave when he began to have difficulty finding food. If he waited too long and lost control of himself then Ruby, as his caregiver, would be the most likely victim.
He took on a dark expression as his brow held the weight of a multitude of troubles. Either Chomper was here without Ruby's permission or she had met her end. Either way, he couldn't have a pack of sharpteeth take up residence by Hanging Rock and threaten his family. He had to lead this sharpteeth away from Hanging Rock, even if it ended up being the last thing that he ever did.
He took one final look towards the bluffs downwind, where he had led his mate and children to safety. She had agreed to watch the children, while he took on reconnaissance duty. She most likely would stop him if she knew what he was about to do, but he knew it was for the best. Nonetheless, he couldn't help but wonder if he would ever see his family again.
With a heavy heart, he began his descent down the bluff.