The Seven Hunters

Chapter 20 Reunion of the Fastrunners

“He promised us that everything would be okay. I was a child, but I knew that everything would not be okay. That did not make my father a liar. It made him my father.”

― Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

How can I stay here? Bron is out there alone, while I am here sitting and worrying!

Shorty was castigating himself as he stared intensely at his own reflection. Bron, his adopted father, had just struck off into the Mysterious Beyond in the slim hope of finding Littlefoot alive again. Although Shorty couldn't deny Bron's logic in having him stay in the valley, it still didn't sit well with the green longneck. Littlefoot was his brother! He should be there as well.

His troubled mind thought back to the conversation the two had prior to Bron's departure.

......

"Do you think that he is still alive?"

The elder longneck and his adopted son were sitting on a ridge overlooking the Mysterious Beyond. Some 300 feet down was the deep gorge that formed one of the entrances into the valley. From this vantage point each could see for miles around. Miles of desolate, barren land greeted their eyes. The Great Valley formed an oasis of life in this landscape of death. In much the same way, Bron's optimism on Littlefoot's survival formed a small ray of hope in a world of darkness. He would not part with it until he was convinced otherwise.

Bron looked down at the small longneck and sighed. Much as he hated to admit it, he knew that his hope was a long shot at best. It was true that Littlefoot had escaped from impossible situations before. Likewise, based upon the tales that others in the valley had told, Littlefoot and his friends had disappeared many times before only to show up many days later. Because of that, he could not discount the possibility that Littlefoot and his friends had gone willingly with Chomper and his fastbiter companions. That was the only possibility that truly gave him hope.

"I... Hope so, Shorty." Bron said softly. "He has gotten through tough spots before."

Shorty nodded slowly and took a deep breath, which he slowly exhaled. He was trying to calm himself from the emotional breakdown he had when he woke up that morning. He was greeted by a few brief seconds where he did not remember that Littlefoot was missing, before the reality of the situation again entered his mind. He was no longer concerned about putting on the "tough guy" act, he was now simply interested in getting his brother back.

"Yeah..." Shorty muttered. "But this is different."

Bron couldn't fault Shorty's logic. "Yes. Yes it is." He affirmed.

Each sat in silence for a few moments, trying to gain comfort from the other's company. The bright circle has rose nearly an hour before and soon it would be time for Bron to make his lonely journey into the unknown. Although members of his herd had volunteered to help him, Bron had refused all aid. He would not endanger another dinosaur for his personal mission. It was a long shot anyway, but it was one that he had to try.

Bron's thoughts were interrupted, however, by a question from Shorty.

"Why can't I go with you? He is my brother!"

Bron sighed at Shorty's recurring question. He understood the youngling's sentiments, but he could not agree with letting Shorty endanger himself by going with him.

"It is too dangerous, Shorty." Bron stated sternly. As he saw Shorty begin to take on a pleading expression, his tone became softer. "Shorty, you are my son." He began. "Not a son by hatching, but I still consider you my son." He then looked the small longneck in the eyes. "I can't lose both of you. Littlefoot wouldn't forgive me if I risked your life. You may not always get along with him, Shorty, but Littlefoot loves you as much as you love him." He saw that Shorty was crying now, even as he listened intently. "Promise me that you will stay here with Grandma and Grandpa Longneck."

Shorty looked at his adopted father with pleading eyes, but saw that Bron's expression brokered no disagreement. With a heavy heart, Shorty gave his answer.

"I promise."

......

Shorty sighed as the memories from that morning faded from his mind. He had given Bron his promise that he would not seek him out, but rather stay put in the valley. He was unhappy when he made his promise and he was unhappy now. How could he stay put while his father went off, potentially to his doom?

"Are you alright, Shorty?" The booming voice of Grandpa Longneck called out.

Shorty turned his neck and answered sadly. "I... Guess. I miss him already."

Shorty heard the stomping of large feet and knew that the elder longneck was approaching him.

Shorty felt the longneck nuzzle him.

"I miss him too, Shorty." The elder paused for a moment and realized that Shorty was probably not just talking about Littlefoot, but was thinking about Bron as well. "I am sure that Bron will be back soon. He just has to... make sure." He couldn't speak more of it, the emotions still cut too deeply.

The elder again raised his neck and spoke to the youngling. "It is time to eat, Shorty."

Shorty was not hungry, but he knew that no wasn't an acceptable answer.

"I will be there in a moment. I just... need some time." He answered sadly.

The elder longneck noted the longneck's dejected tone, but decided that nothing could be done about it. "Very well. We will be in the clearing when you're ready."

As Grandpa Longneck walked off, Shorty's thoughts again fixated upon Bron's journey. He knew that he couldn't just let Bron leave on his own. He had promised, that was true, but Littlefoot was his brother. He owed it to him to find answers. He had very quickly made up his mind on what he had to do.

Taking a glance at the two elder longnecks, he noted that they were facing away from him and were some distance away.

I can make my escape now. He realized. They had been watching him continuously since Bron left, as they were concerned for the green longneck, but now they had turned away in order to eat their meal. He knew he may not get a chance like this again. Please don't worry too much! I have to do this!

The green longneck then quietly snuck into the underbrush. He resolved that he would retrace Bron's steps and find his brother, even if it ended up being the last thing that he ever did.

......

Detras held his forelimb out and noted the wind speed and direction as it blew against his feathers.

A steady breeze to the west. He thought for a moment. The sharpteeth are to the east. I should be safe for the time being.

He couldn't rely upon sharp teeth or pointy claws like the sharpteeth, nor long tails or powerful horns like the leaf-eaters. Rather, all that he had as a fast runner were his wits and intelligence. Those were the only attributes that made the difference between survival and a premature end.

He looked at the scene before him. The fastbiters had spread out along the bluffs around Hanging Rock. They were looking around with darting eyes and were taking numerous sniffs as they were obviously searching for something. They smell my family. He deduced. But I won't let these killers ever find them! He resolved. Detras noted that the presence of Chomper may indicate that this was an innocent meeting and not an attempt at hunting. However, he couldn't take that risk. If Chomper and his new friends were truly here with peaceful intentions then that would become apparent soon enough.

He took a closer look at Chomper for a moment. Detras couldn't see much detail from his vantage point as he was still a longneck length higher in altitude compared to the dinosaur, but he could observe his expression and actions. Chomper had a grim look on his face, he noted, as he was listening to something that the brown fastbiter was telling him. Detras couldn't see any malice in the sharptooth's face. Actually, he noted, the sharptooth appeared to be kind of... sad. Detras then looked at some of the other fastbiters. A dark green fastbiter and a lighter green counterpart were on the rocky outcropping that gave Hanging Rock its name, carefully inspecting its crevices for something. Meanwhile, a yellow fastbiter was saying something to a rose-colored fastbiter. The rose-colored fastbiter had a slumped posture and seemed to be muttering something to her yellow counterpart. After a few moments, the brown fastbiter walked towards the two fastbiters and placed his forelimb upon the rose-colored fastbiter's shoulders. What was going on here? These were not the actions of ruthless killers. Perhaps they were searching for something other than food?

As he was having these uncertain thoughts, he noticed a small brown sharptooth flyer approach from the south. Detras had an interest in flyer behavior ever since he was a youngling. In fact, he had learned from his mother that flyers could be useful in finding potential prey. A sharptooth flyer would often circle around sickened or injured prey for quite some time in order to be ready to feast upon it when it finally dropped. He had since learned that the presence of such flyers could also indicate the presence of an egg-filled nest or a lake teaming with fish, which was a particularly useful piece of information for a fast runner. He had used the behavior of sharptooth flyers several times in his life in order to get a quick meal. Keeping in mind that information could be gleamed from the actions of sharptooth flyers; he decided to take a closer look at this particular specimen.

It seemed to be in the middle of soaring flight, where a flyer would rely upon warm air rising from the rocks in order to gain lift as opposed to the flapping of wings. Detras had learned that flyers would go into this mode of flight whenever they were scouting for something. He figured that it probably saved energy and allowed the flyer to focus all of its attention upon the ground. Was this flyer part of Chomper's group as well? If so, then he knew that he would have to be careful. Hiding from sharpteeth above was an even harder undertaking than hiding from sharpteeth on the ground.

With that in mind, he began to creep underneath the bluffs, so that their rocky outcroppings hid him from the air. This would make his journey slower, but he couldn't take the risk of premature discovery. He had to get closer to the newcomers and try to figure out their intentions.

......

"Where are they? I smell them so they should be here, but they aren't here so how can I smell them!" Ruby asked in sadness and confusion. They had journeyed for a week in the most tragic and demoralizing undertaking the gang had ever made. Her family had to be here. Otherwise, their journey would have been all for naught.

Chomper tried to comfort his caregiver. "Maybe they left to get food? I am sure that they will be back. We can still smell them, right?"

Ruby simply nodded. Even before she had transformed into a sharptooth, she had become quite homesick. She had gone from being with her family every day of her life to effectively raising a sharptooth in a mysterious land. True, the Great Valley was a wondrous and safe place, and her friends kept her company, but they weren't her parents. She missed them dearly. She especially needed their comfort and counsel now as she had become one of her worst fears.

Littlefoot sighed. He had to admit that he too had placed much hope on them reaching Ruby's parents and seeking their advice. The thought that they might not be here, or that they might flee from them, had barely crossed his mind. As it was, he had to admit, even if they found her parents they may not be able to help them. Who had ever heard of leaf-eaters turning into sharpteeth? It was an absurdity, but here they were.

Cera decided to interject. "They might be hiding from us." At Ruby's confused expression, she sighed and continued her thought. "Well, we are sharpteeth now, right? If I were a fast runner and I saw a bunch of sharpteeth coming my way I wouldn't exactly invite them over to dinner!" Cera's tone was more sarcastic than what was helpful, but she did have a point. Even if they tracked down her family, they would have to immediately prove their benevolent intentions.

Ruby nodded. "You're right. You're all right. It is just so frustrating!" She got up and began to pace. "If I were my daddy where would I go? Maybe if I went there then I would find my daddy?"

Chomper nodded excitedly. "That's an idea, Ruby! Where would your family hide when you were in danger?"

Ruby placed her clawed forelimb to her chin and pondered, much in line with her sharptooth name. Where would they hide? She then looked up to the bluffs to the west. Yes, we would hide downwind so that the sharpteeth couldn't smell us! My mommy and daddy would go that way!

With a grin on her face, she waved at the others with her forelimb. "Come on, everyone! I think that we can find them over here!"

With that, the pack began to head towards the western bluffs of Hanging Rock.

......

Damn! Detras lamented to himself. They are heading straight for them!

He had hoped that perhaps the sharpteeth would lose interest and head away from Hanging Rock, but now he could see that was not going to happen. His course of action was now clear. He would try to engage Chomper in conversation to assess his intentions and, if that failed, he would lead the pack on a chase away from his family. He had raised three wonderful children, including Ruby, and loved the most amazing mate that he could have hoped for. If this was how it finally ended, then he was at peace with himself. At least they would carry on.

Creeping closer to the trail that the pack was following, he hid himself behind a large boulder. He was still downwind, so he would have the element of surprise until they finally were right beside him. Then he would carry out his plans.

Keeping in mind his knowledge of the sharptooth language, he decided to listen in. Perhaps he could gleam some information about their intentions from their discussions?

"Ponder, which direction is the pack to follow?"

Detras always had difficulty with the sharptooth language. Oh, he could speak it well enough, but he only had competency in it as a second language. As such, everything uttered in that tongue seemed to have an odd pattern to it. He realized that what would sound weird and overly-formal was often meant to be taken as informal in that language. This was because the sharptooth language was very precise in how intentions and personal names were communicated. This is what one would expect as any miscommunication between sharpteeth could lead to battles and death. Nonetheless, he was quite convinced that he wasn't translating their conversation completely accurately.

"Seeker, the family of mine should reside in the yonder bluffs. In the yonder bluffs should they reside."

He had to stifle a chuckle, it was nice to see that even some sharpteeth had Ruby's sing-song manner of speaking. They had tried to correct Ruby's speech when she was a small youngling, but they only had minor success. They had simply learned to accept it as one of the unique things that made Ruby, well... Ruby. It was odd though... He had never heard any other dinosaur speak in such a way.

"I hope that we find them soon. Yes, yes, yes!"

Detras had a sense of déjà vu. Hadn't one of Ruby's friends from the valley spoken like that? What was her name...? He pondered to himself. Oh yes, Ducky! The swimmer.

"Talking about finding them is not going to speed up our search, Ducky."

Detras was deeply confused by this sudden turn of events. What?

"I was under the impression that we were using our pack names, Stern Claw." The brown fastbiter had uttered her name with a teasing inflection. The limited knowledge of the language that Detras held, however, did not allow him to discern whether it was a playful tone or insulting tone that was used. There was much detail in sharptooth that was lost to him.

"I will use the pack names with other sharpteeth, Littlefoot, but not amongst my friends. I may no longer be a leaf-eater, but I would prefer to remember..." The yellow fastbiter trailed off. He had never heard a sharptooth express melancholy before. More interesting, however, was the content of her words.

I may no longer be a leaf-eater, but I would prefer to remember... Detras repeated to himself in his head. What in the hell was going on here?

He now noticed that the pack was nearly at his location. Deciding to continue his surveillance on their conversation for a bit longer, he decided to begin darting from rock to rock, and follow them from behind.

"It's okay, Stern... Cera." Chomper corrected himself as he noted her upset expression. He would go ahead and use their original names in this conversation. "I am sure that we will find Ruby's parents soon. Maybe they will know what to do next?"

So, this is a peaceful encounter. Detras noted from behind the rock he found himself. I guess I should have never doubted Chomper, but... If this is a friendly encounter then where is Ruby? Why didn't Chomper bring her?

"I know that my father will be able to give us assistance!" The rose colored fastbiter exclaimed. "He is the wisest fast runner that I know."

No, this cannot be... Detras's mind raced.

"I am sure that he will, Ruby." Littlefoot affirmed.

Detras had more than enough of this. He was going to get to the bottom of the situation.

Detras stepped out from behind the rock and cleared his throat. The pack turned at this sudden intrusion and Detras was greeted with exclamations of both surprise and elation.

"Father, there you are!" The rose colored fastbiter exclaimed.

"I am no fastbiter's father. Now who are you and what do all of you want?!"

......

Ruby was taken aback by her father's tone. It seemed that her worst nightmare was coming true, her father was looking at her with the same anger that the parents of her friends had shown. Would her own father reject them? She couldn't bear the possibility.

"But daddy, it is me!" Ruby affirmed. "The stone of cold fire changed us."

"The stone of cold fire is a youngling's tale and fast runners don't turn into sharpteeth." He affirmed bluntly. He noted the sad expression of the fastbiter's face and softened his expression a bit. "I am sorry, whoever you are, but I am not your father and you were never a fast runner."

Chomper stepped up then. "Mr. Fast Runner, you have got to believe us! The stone fell in the valley and it did this to us!"

Littlefoot then piped in as well. "Surely you saw it!"

Detras held his forelimbs at his sides in a show of indignation. "I saw a flying rock several days ago. That is nothing out of the ordinary."

"Not out of the ordinary!" Cera exclaimed.

"Fine, it was an amazing rock. You are not going to convince me that was the legendary stone of cold fire and that you..." He pointed at Ruby. "Are my daughter." He then looked sternly at Chomper. "Now, WHERE IS RUBY?!"

Chomper was taken aback by this. He must think that I betrayed her, just like all of the other parents. He bowed his head in sadness. Why does everyone think that I am a monster?

Ruby was getting quite angry at her father. Daddy or not, no one talks to Chomper like that!

"I am Ruby and I can prove it! Prove it I can!"

Detras did not change his expression. "Then prove it!"

She decided to try to recount a story that only she and her father would know. "Do you remember the time of the great dryness when no sky water fell for a long time?" At his nod, she continued. "When we got too hungry I went ahead and stole a threehorn egg and barely got away. That is how you got that scar." She then pointed at her father's barely noticeable scar.

He paused for a moment. Only... Only Ruby would know that... But it is impossible.

"You heard that from Chomper. Ruby must have told him and he told you." It was obvious by the tone of his voice that he was unsure of himself.

"Daddy, you've got to believe me! Please!" She was practically begging him. Something fell within his stomach and he was conflicted about what to do. All of his knowledge and expertise was telling him that her story was false. Leaf-eaters simply didn't turn into sharpteeth. However, what motive could they possibly have to lie to him? If they wanted to eat him and his family then they surely could do so without much hassle. After all, Chomper knew the general layout of Hanging Rock. He needed more information.

"Tell me the whole story."

Ruby took on a hopeful expression. She swallowed in an attempt to calm her nerves before she began her story.

"We were in the Great Valley when the stone of cold fire fell from the sky..." As she recounted the events immediately after that impact, the emotions of panic and confusion again washed over her and her companions. They hadn't really had time to simply sit and think about what they had gone through in the previous week. It was almost unbelievable. Within such a short span of time, everything that they knew and loved had been turned upside down.

"The parents argued and argued. They didn't know what to do with the stone. That was why they were arguing." She paused for a moment. "We decided to make a wish, in case the parents destroyed the stone." She lamented their rash decision. They could still be in the valley, safe and at peace, if they hadn't touched that cursed stone. Now they were killers. Their sense of innocence and naivety about the world had been crushed. She knew that regardless of what happened, she would never get that back.

"We all had a weird sleep story that night and then we found out that we had all changed..." She shook her head at the memory. "The adults thought we were enemies and chased us out..." She then elaborated on how they had to take the long path to Hanging Rock, but she left out the more gruesome details of their journey.

"And now here we are." She was nearly in tears at this point. Her retelling of the story had unleashed powerful memories that still haunted her. "We need your help, daddy. We have no idea what to do."

Detras paused as he processed everything that she had said. There was no deceit in her voice, as she obviously believed every word of it. He noticed that she seemed to hesitate over something when she elaborated on the journey to Hanging Rock, but that was not what concerned him. He decided to address his concerns.

"What about the sleep story?" He asked.

"Sleep story?" Ruby was taken aback by his sudden request.

"The weird sleep story before all of you turned... What was it like?" He asked softly. He was almost convinced, as her story had been so truthful in its presentation and emotion, but he had to make sure.

"Well um... A fastbiter was chasing me..." She then elaborated upon the fearful chase and her narrow escape. "After I escaped I was in a narrow cave, so I decided to go forward, as forward was the only way to go..." She then mentioned the six pathways, and the fact that five of them were blocked by boulders. She did not notice that Detras had taken on a sad, yet contemplative, expression at this point. His eyes were closed as tears began to fall like raindrops from his face. "But then Chomper, four fastbiters, and a sharptooth flyer... um... all of them..." She pointed at the rest of the pack. "Chased me and I ran... I eventually came across a dead fast runner and a pool of water where..."

"You saw your reflection as a sharptooth." Detras finished for her.

Ruby simply nodded. "Daddy?" How does he know how my sleep story ended?

He answered her unspoken question. "I had the same sleep story on the night after the stone fell." He slowly opened his eyes for the first time since Ruby began recounting her dream. He then walked slowly towards Ruby with an unreadable expression on his face. Tears continued to fall down his cheeks.

"Ruby... It's really you, isn't it?" He asked in a mixture of awe and sadness.

"Yes, daddy." She answered softly.

Father and daughter embraced, as each began to weep with unrestrained emotion. He didn't know how it happened or why it happened, but he would help his daughter and her friends find their place in this hostile world. That he vowed.


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