The Seven Hunters

Chapter 23 Life of the Pack

“Rather than turning the page, it's much easier to just throw the book away.”

― Anthony Liccione

One month after the events of chapter 22:

As the small mammal peaked out of its burrow it cautiously sniffed the air.

Danger no smell! Safe to leave?

The rapid thought process of the small creature was in overdrive. He had just survived a horrifying encounter with the predators outside. It had started with the sound of scraping. Then, in a terrifying blinding sight, the ground above him was ripped away and the rays of the bright circle permeated through the tunnels. He had escaped the grasping claws the feathered beast through sheer luck alone, but the rest of his family had not been so lucky. He had heard the death squeal of his mother and the painful gasps of one of his brothers who had been impaled by the predator's claws, but it was mainly the sounds of panicked footsteps that greeted his ears. After a few moments, however, even those sounds became sparser, being interspersed with the sounds of sudden death.

And then silence. The terrible silence. He was all alone. Everyone else had been devoured.

Now perhaps it was safe to leave. He had to run off and find a new place that would be defendable. As it was, his old home had been ripped apart, just like his family. With a cautious step forward, he prepared to dart off into the unknown.

It was the last thing that he ever did.

Squeak! Schluk!

Well that was a successful hunt. Littlefoot thought to himself. To think that I used to have difficulty hunting these things!

The pack had separated in order to hunt at the stream's edge. It was a source of plentiful prey, as the ground fuzzies often built their burrows in the soft ground here. It was close to the water, which meant that the ground fuzzies didn't have to go far from safety in order to quench their thirst, but that didn't protect them from Littlefoot's pack. They had become quite proficient at hunting these vermin in the last month.

It is a shame there are less of them now.

It had not escaped the notice of the pack that they would soon have to look at other food sources. During the beginning of the wet season there had been more than enough ground fuzzies to feed everyone, but they had dwindled quickly. Between their daily hunts and the sudden flood a few weeks ago, the mammal population had been hit hard. Now even the idea of hunting dinosaurs had been floated during the pack's conversations. It was a step that no one wanted to take again, but it seemed that fate would soon leave them with no choice in the matter.

With these heavy thoughts going through his head, Littlefoot thought back to the morning they had left Hanging Rock. He remembered that he had awakened earlier than most of the others. But not everyone...

......

One month ago in Hanging Rock:

Littlefoot had awakened after the nicest sleep that he could remember in quite some time. For once he had not been plagued with bad sleep stories or mental anguish. Whether or not that was due to his full belly or the fact they were now in a safe place, he did not know. But he was grateful nonetheless.

After blinking his eyes for several moments, he noticed that it was still early morning. The bright circle had just begun to peak over the horizon and it would probably be a while before the others would awake. Perhaps he should take the opportunity to get some more sleep while he still could?

He looked at his sleeping companions for a good place to curl up and resume his slumber. Chomper and Ducky appeared to be in a light sleep, so any movement on his part might wake them.

Best to look towards someone else. He concluded.

Petrie was perched up in the bluffs, so obviously Littlefoot would not join him. Not that a small flyer would provide much heat in the cool morning air anyway. Spike and Cera seemed to be sleeping deeply, however, so perhaps he could sneak in there. As he was preparing to do this, however, a sudden thought occurred to him.

Where is Ruby?

The rose-colored fastbiter was nowhere to be seen. He suddenly arose, somewhat concerned at this development. He had become quite protective of his pack after the change. Even if she was simply out exploring or taking a morning drink, he felt that he had to ensure her wellbeing. There were many new instincts of his that he had questioned or attempted to fight, but this was not one of them.

He quickly arose and looked towards Hanging Rock. There was no sign of her there. Where could she have gone?

As he began to walk towards the stream, he suddenly heard a voice.

"Don't worry, little one. She is having a conversation with her dad."

Littlefoot turned around. It was Pearl, Ruby's mother. She had a friendly smile on her face, as she was munching on some snapping shells that she must have recently acquired. It seemed that Ruby was not the only early riser.

"I'm not little." Littlefoot had not meant to sound so petty, but it seemed that his ego now couldn't handle being put down by a fast runner. After all, they are food! Some distant part of his mind noted. However, his facial expression gave Littlefoot away. As soon as he had made his protest, an almost apologetic expression fell upon his face.

Pearl noted this and chuckled softly. "You may have teeth and claws, young one, but you are still little at the moment." She then looked at Littlefoot for a moment as she considered her next words. "Would you like a snapping shell?"

Littlefoot blinked. He had never tried one before. In fact, he had never even tried fish before their meal the previous evening. Just a mere week ago, such a invitation to breakfast would have seemed impossible. But now here he was.

"Uh... Sure." He accepted gratefully. "I have never had one before." He admitted.

Pearl nodded. "I guess that is not unexpected. You were a leaf-eater before, I would hardly think you would consider eating a snapping shell back then." She stated the obvious. "You... were a longneck, right?" Littlefoot nodded. "Yes... Ruby told me what all of you used to be." Littlefoot cringed at her use of "used" as if putting it in verbal form confirmed a horrible reality. "But it is hard for me to remember. You all kind of look alike now."

Littlefoot said nothing further as he sat beside Pearl and she presented him with a snapping shell. He looked at it for a few moments, before looking up at Pearl in confusion.

She laughed at his perplexed expression. "I was wondering when you would finally admit that you were confused." She took a moment to let her laughter die down. "We fast runners can eat these because of this." She then pointed at her beak. "We can break through its tough shell and eat it whole, but for other dinosaurs it is trickier."

She then took the snapping shell and pointed at its front. "Here is where the shell opens, you do not want to do anything here." She then flipped it so that the top of the shell was facing Littlefoot. "And of course you can't do anything with the tough shell." Finally she flipped it again and showed him where the large muscles were at the sides of the bivalve. "You can't see them, but the meat here allows it to close its shell. Slice the meat and you open the shell."

She then handed him the snapping shell. "Try it." She insisted.

With a curious expression on his face, Littlefoot tried to do what Pearl had insisted. He took his large sickle claw from his foot and pried the shell open ever so slightly. Then with a pronounced shluck, he sliced the muscles at each side of the snapping shell's opening. With a sickening gurgling sound the shell opened, exposing the meat inside. He dug in immediately.

Pearl laughed again. "Enjoy!"

After a few moments of slurping out the meaty contents of the snapping shell, Littlefoot turned back towards the fast runner. "How did you learn how to do that? Because you have a beak and all..."

Pearl smiled. "Well, you pick up things here and there. You have to if you are going to survive in this world." She answered softly. "To answer your question, though, I learned that little trick from watching how fastbiter's ate snapping shells."

Littlefoot's mouth went agape. "You hung out with fastbiters! Why?"

Pearl laughed again. "No, I didn't hang out with them! But when you are at the watering hole, you see what the other dinosaurs do."

Littlefoot looked unbelieving at this answer. "Leaf-eaters and sharpteeth at the same watering hole..."

Pearl sighed. She had forgotten that Littlefoot had been a longneck and they typically kept to themselves. Thus, he would have no idea what kind of "truces" developed when resources were scarce, such as watering holes.

"Yeah, it is kind of an unspoken rule. A sharptooth could drink without risk of being trampled, provided that the leaf-eaters got the same protection." She spoke matter-of-factly. "But such an arrangement isn't perfect... and they are broken from time to time. My parents would have given me a stern talking to if they knew that I had gotten as close as I did." She smiled at that distant memory.

"Sounds like another fast runner that I know." Littlefoot observed, thinking of Ruby before the change.

Pearl snorted. "I know." Apparently Ruby's curiosity and adventurism were already well known to her parents. No wonder why she had fit into the gang so nicely. Littlefoot and Pearl both shared a chuckle at the former fast runner that they both knew.

After a few moments, and a few more snapping shells, Pearl decided to speak again.

"How are you holding up, dear?"

Littlefoot was confused for a moment, before the implications of the question became apparent to him. She was asking how he was adapting to becoming a sharptooth. Well, how well could one adapt? He didn't really know how to answer the question.

"As... As good as could be expected, I guess." He said without enthusiasm.

Pearl frowned. "So not good at all then..." At this, Littlefoot shook his head sadly.

Pearl thought for a moment. "You know, Littlefoot, there are stories about you in the Mysterious Beyond."

This shook Littlefoot out of his melancholy for a moment. "There are?"

She nodded her head. "Yes, there are stories about the fearsome five. The five leaf-eater children who killed the great sharptooth and humbled many others. You all have built up quite a formidable reputation."

Littlefoot swallowed as he processed this news. He and his friends had not set out to be sharptooth killers. They simply had gotten themselves into unfortunate situations and had to get out of them. The residents of the Mysterious Beyond must have thought that they were abominations! Well, Littlefoot had to admit, they were abominations now... What else could you call a leaf-eater that turned into a sharptooth?

Pearl, meanwhile, continued her monologue. "I never believed those stories. I figured that they must have been exaggerated until they lost all sense of reality to them, but now I see that there was a lot of truth there." She then directly looked at Littlefoot. "You are a good leader, Littlefoot, whether you believe that or not." Littlefoot looked unsure at her sudden affirmation. Undaunted, she continued. "I don't know how much of the stories that I have heard were true, but I know that if you have survived through all that Ruby has described during your journey, then she is in good paws."

Littlefoot looked down as he could hear the unspoken command. Keep my daughter safe. She had always been a leader of sorts to the gang, and his instincts now bristled at any challenge to his position, but he was still daunted by the responsibility that it entailed. He hoped that he could live up to her expectations.

She placed her paw on Littlefoot's shoulder. "I don't know why fate has changed you, Littlefoot. Maybe he who slays a hundred sharpteeth becomes one himself?" Littlefoot looked down as he digested the implications of that. "Perhaps fate made a mistake and put the heart of a sharptooth into a leaf-eater's body? Perhaps it was correcting a mistake." Littlefoot was on the verge of tears now. Why was she bringing him more pain and guilt? Hadn't he suffered enough? "But one thing that I am sure of is that you were changed for a reason. I hope that you, Ruby, and the others can find out what that reason is. You have done great things, Littlefoot. I trust that isn't about to change yet."

Littlefoot nodded as he tried to comprehend all that had been said. "But will those great things be good things... We are sharpteeth now."

Pearl sighed. She kept on forgetting her audience. Fast runners had to accept the allure of both leaf and meat. Leaf-eaters, on the other hand, often only saw things from one extreme. "Leaf-eaters may hate sharpteeth, Littlefoot, but sharpteeth are not bad. They simply do what they must in order to survive. Now you must as well." Littlefoot seemed to think about that for a moment. She then continued. "Do what you must fastbiter, but don't forget where you came from. If you do that then I am sure that you will do good things."

Littlefoot nodded. She spoke the truth. "Thanks... I am still trying to get used to things."

Pearl nearly snorted at the understatement. "Aren't we all? I am still getting used to the idea of being the mother of a sharptooth."

Littlefoot looked at her with an unreadable expression. "You seem to be handling it well."

Pearl smiled. "I know that Ruby is still Ruby. As long as that is true, I can handle anything. When you realize that you are still you inside, Littlefoot, then you will handle it as well."

Littlefoot smiled an unsure smile. "That is easier said than done."

Pearl nodded. "I am sure that you will manage."

Silence permeated the scene for a several moments. Littlefoot had just talked to Pearl for the first time today, but it had felt like that he had been talking to her for ages. She seemed to have that effect on people. Feeling secure with this dinosaur, he decided to bring up what was on his mind.

"So... The lowlands that Detras told us about... Is it really full of food?"

Pearl smiled. It seemed that the 'leader' was now turning his thoughts to the journey ahead and the prospects of his companions. For being an uncertain leader, he certainly showed promising leadership characteristics.

"During this time of year, yes. There will be plenty of eggs and fish. She confirmed. "You may even be able to avoid hunting dinosaurs for a while." She knew that she had hit upon a concern of his when he gave a relieved expression. It seemed that he still had reservations about the act of killing. She continued. "But it is less plentiful during the dry season. You will need to move on to more promising hunting grounds when those times arrive."

Littlefoot nodded. "Well, thanks for the help. Maybe that will give us enough time to... learn what we need to learn."

She smiled. "I am sure that you will be fine. Just remember: when the food gets scarce, then it will be time to leave. You don't want to get... in the state you were before." She then looked at him with a sad expression. "That must have been so terrible..." She lamented as she considered what Ruby must have gone through. "Promise me that you won't wait until it is too late. You will leave when the food does."

Littlefoot nodded solemnly at the fast runner. "I promise."

......

Back to the present:

While Littlefoot was thinking back to the events of last month, Petrie was scouting high above the outskirts of the lowlands.

It look beautiful! Petrie thought to himself. In fact, if he was honest with himself, then he would have to admit that the sight that greeted him was second only to the valley in sheer majesty.

The lowlands were, as their name indicated, a series of areas where the rising waters from the wet season congregated in large pools and streams. These large pools slowly drained into two large rivers that left the area to the north and east. The result was miles and miles of tall grasses and reeds, interspersed with large water-tolerant trees. Ever since the pack had arrived, the area had teemed with life. Herds of swimmers, domeheads, and even threehorns had congregated at this great confluence of large rivers. However, the pack had not had to resort to attacking dinosaurs since their migration, as there were also plentiful populations of ground fuzzies and ground sliders by the numerous streams. This was a great relief as the pack was in no hurry to kill a dinosaur for a second time. Even if they were not adverse to the act of killing, any hunt on a dinosaur in a herd would incur serious risk. Ground fuzzies were a far safer option.

Petrie had taken to regularly going on scouting runs after his meals. It was always useful for the pack to know when new herds entered into the area. A new herd indicated both new threats and new opportunities. The recent entry of the threehorns, for example, necessitated that the pack move their normal sleeping area. The pack had decided, quite wisely, that resting right next to a threehorn herd would probably not be good for their survival. Petrie's early alert to that herd had given them enough time to make an orderly evacuation and find a more suitable site.

What that?

Petrie looked towards the horizon and noticed what appeared to be leafless trees rising in the distance. After a few moments of looking at the sight in confusion, he noticed that the tress seemed to be curving.

That not tree! That neck!

A longneck herd! It seemed that the pack would soon have a new set of neighbors in the near future. This wouldn't resolve the recent decline in ground fuzzies, but perhaps they could leverage this development to their own advantage? He would have to tell the others.

Petrie turned sharply in the air as he redirected himself back towards the lowlands. It was time for him to give his report to Littlefoot.

......

Thud!

Darn! Missed again!

Ruby was not having much luck in today's hunt. She had ripped through seven burrows, but had only had success twice. Three times before, she found the burrows to be empty and during the two other attempts she had missed the target. As she was lamenting her failure in the latest hunt, she heard a loud yell from a familiar source.

"Damn it!"

Ruby smiled a bit to herself. It seemed that Cera was not having much success either. Ruby reflected that it was somewhat petty to feel better about one's own failure through the prism of another's lack of success. However, it was nice to see Cera be brought down to size for once. She was always bragging that she was the best hunter and it got grating after awhile. Nonetheless, she decided to give her some words of encouragement.

"Don't worry, Cera. If you keep on hunting then I am sure you will catch something. So if you keep hunting then you shouldn't worry."

Cera groaned at the fastbiter's words. "We all are doing horribly today! We will go hungry at this rate!"

Ruby and Cera both turned as they heard another dinosaur's footsteps emerge from the top of a nearby hill. It was Littlefoot. Much to Cera's displeasure he seemed to have a smug smile on his face.

"Are the fuzzies too fast today?" He asked mockingly. "I thought that our best hunters were on the task?"

Cera seethed at his teasing tone. Undoubtedly that was the reaction that he wanted, but she couldn't help himself. "Don't get cocky just because you got lucky! Perhaps you could provide some of the meat we have been lacking!" At this she gave a mock swipe at her leader.

Littlefoot dodged the mock attack with ease. He gave Cera a small smile. "Now you know how it felt to be us the last couple of days." He said this in reference to her insufferable bragging over the last week.

Cera sighed. She was loath to admit being wrong, but she knew that was beat in this case. "Fine! I guess that I overdid it over the last few days." She admitted. "But we do have a real problem here, Littlefoot."

Ruby nodded at this. "We couldn't catch many ground fuzzies. We will go hungry if no ground fuzzies can be caught!"

Littlefoot paled at Ruby's comment. It was true, as he had noticed earlier, that the number of ground fuzzies was quickly declining and the specter of hunger was again appearing on the horizon. They would soon have to find a new food source or leave if they were to avoid the hunger madness. They still had several more bad days to go before things got that bad, but he had to plan for the worst all the same.

Littlefoot sighed. "I guess that we need to find new food. The ground fuzzies won't last us much longer."

Cera grunted in the affirmative. "Yeah, it's not lasting some of us right now!"

Ruby frowned. Her daddy had warned her about the possibility of hunger during their visit to Hanging Rock. What would her father have done in this situation? She began to ponder that question as she remembered that conversation from a month ago.

......

One month ago in Hanging Rock:

Ruby had awakened early, as she often did, and decided to take a drink of water from the stream. She was surprised mid-drink to feel the tap of her father's paw on her back.

"Ah!" She yelped in surprise.

Detras smiled a teasing smile. "You seem to be out of practice, Ruby. Just because you're a sharptooth now doesn't mean that you can let your guard down."

Ruby gave a small chuckle once she realized who had scared her. "I didn't expect you, daddy! If I had expected you then I wouldn't have been surprised."

Detras snorted. It was so nice to hear Ruby's voice again after such a long absence. Even if she was irrevocably changed now...

"Well, that was the point wasn't it?" He smiled at Ruby playfully. "It is fun and games now, but it won't be out there." He said this as he gestured towards the land beyond the stream. "Of course, you understand that now. Don't you?"

Ruby frowned at being reminded of the dark days from her recent past. "Yes, daddy." She affirmed. "It has been a very scary time."

Detras embraced his daughter. "I know, dear. I know. I just want to make sure that you don't let your guard down out there." He paused for a moment, as if he were considering some gave matter. "Would you care to follow me to the 'seeing rock'?" He asked slowly. "There is something that I would like to show you."

Ruby paused in surprise for a moment. The seeing rock had always been off-limits to her as a child due to the difficult and dangerous journey up to the summit where it resided. When she was much younger, she had injured her arm falling off of one of the bluffs on the path to the formidable rock. Why did her daddy want her to go there now?

"Uh... Sure daddy. But isn't it very dangerous?" Ruby asked uncertainly.

Detras smiled a disconcerting smile. "That's the point."

Ruby looked on in confusion as Detras began running towards their destination. He wasn't giving her any time to ask further questions.

"Wait for me, daddy!"

The two dinosaurs soon disappeared amongst the distant bluffs.

......

"Whoa!"

Ruby nearly slipped off of the bluff she was attempting to transverse, but hastily grabbed its edge. She could clearly see the drop off below her. The sheer face of the rock wall was all that could be seen for nearly an entire longneck-length down. If she fell here the best she could hope for would be a severe injury, and at worst...

As she attempted in vain to grasp ahold of the rock, she felt a pressure upon her forelimbs. It was her father!

He hastily pulled her back onto the rock.

"That was a close call, Ruby!" He spoke in a gasp. "I thought that I had lost you!"

Ruby struggled to catch her own breath. "Thanks, daddy!" She gulped for air for a few moments. "I thought that I lost me, too!"

Both father and daughter sat on the bluff for several moments as they regained their composure. Finally, after a few moments, Ruby took the chance to ask the question that was on her mind.

"Why are we going up here? It is very dangerous!"

Detras nodded. "Indeed it is, Ruby. That is the point of the test."

Ruby blinked. "A test?" She was totally confused. "But I already passed the great test of speed... What is this test testing for?"

Detras smiled. "You will just have to see, Ruby." At her dower expression, he added some explanation. "This isn't a fast runner test, Ruby. This is something far different... Something... I picked up in the Mysterious Beyond long ago."

Ruby opened her mouth as if to speak, but Detras cut her off with a wave of the paw.

"Are you ready to continue?"

Ruby gulped, remembering her close call just moments before. However, with a resolve that seemed to come from someplace deep inside of her, she nodded.

"Yes, daddy."

......

"We are almost there, Ruby! Detras called out to his daughter. "You might just pass this test yet!"

Ruby struggled up the rocks. How could her father be such a fast climber at his advanced age? She was having quite a bit of difficulty climbing these sheer cliffs. Hopefully, the journey became easier before she made a critical error.

After a few moments of climbing up the latest rock face, she was surprised to see that she and her father were both in a large crevice of some kind. It appeared to be about two fast runners in height and about a fast runner in width. Within the rocky crevice, four opens could be seen. Are these caves or something else? Ruby thought to herself. Do we get to the seeing rock from those? If not, then where do we go? It was up to her father now.

Detras looked at Ruby with an odd expression. He seemed almost apologetic, as if he were apologizing for some great crime. What is daddy up to? She asked herself. She had never seen that particular look on either of her parents' faces.

He immediately suppressed his feelings and put on a forced expression of uncertainty. "Oh let's see here... I think it is the first cave that leads to the rock..." Ruby followed him from some distance behind as he went into the dark cave.

"Daddy?" She asked.

Detras didn't seem to hear her. "Yes, yes. I think that it is this wa.... Ahhh!!!"

Ruby rushed to where her father was in a panic. What had happened?

She ran into the cave entrance, before stopping herself with her powerful forelimbs.

"Whoa!" She cried.

She had nearly fallen through a large hole in the cave floor. The crevice that it led to was just large enough for a full-sized fast runner to fit through and it seemed to lead down into dark, uncertain depths. The floor of the crevice was smooth and seemed to provide no foothold as it led downward at a steep angle. How could anyone escape from this once they fell through?

"Ruby!"

She looked around frantically before finding the source of the scream. It was her daddy! He was struggling at the edge of the crevice in an apparent attempt to resist sliding down into its dark depths. She hadn't seen him initially on account of the poor light in the bleak cave.

"Daddy!"

With a sudden surge of energy, she grasped his right forelimb right before he lost his grip on the edge. She could see rocks tumble from his previous hold and they seemed to fall into a deep, unknowable oblivion. She couldn't allow her father to fall! She just couldn't! She had to find some way to get him out of here.

"Ruby..." Detras spoke softly.

"Daddy, I will get you out of here!" She struggled to speak as she was putting all of her energy in holding her father, who was an adult fast runner. Even a full grown fastbiter would have found the task challenging, but for a young fastbiter...

"Ruby..." Detras started again. "You can't hold me for long dear... and you might fall too..." As he said this another rock fell from the perch where Ruby lay, but she did not budge. "Just let me go... I want you to be safe."

Ruby took on an expression of rage. "Never! If you fall then I fall! I will never leave you behind!"

Detras looked at Ruby then with an unreadable expression. "But, I am not of your pack, Ruby."

In Ruby's current state, the weirdness of Detras's statement did not register. She simply answered out of instinct. "Yes, you are! And I won't leave you!"

As Ruby continued to struggle, she closed her eyes to ignore the pain that her arms were feeling. She was quickly losing her grip on her father. What could she do?

"Look at me, Ruby."

I have to find some way to rescue daddy! I just have to! The poor little fastbiter thought to herself as she struggled to support his weight. She was going to lose her grip soon and it would all be her fault. Tears began to pool in her eyes.

"Ruby, look at me."

She finally opened her eyes. "I'm so sorry, daddy. I'm losing it..."

Detras smiled, which confused his poor daughter. "Then let go, dear. I am in no danger. There is a way back up from down there."

In her confusion, Detras took the opportunity to free himself from her grip and he speedily slid down the crevice. Ruby was stunned in place. What had just happened?

After a few moments, footsteps could be heard outside of the cave. They stopped right outside of the entrance.

"I'm sorry, Ruby. I am so sorry. I promise to tell you what happened. But you have to promise me to let me finish." He stopped for a moment, as if to wait for an answer that never came. "Alright, dear?"

Ruby didn't know what to think at this point. Her father was never in danger. Then why did he scare her like that? Was that part of the test? If so, then what sort of sick test was that?! She felt seething rage at what had just happened, but she also felt betrayal. She decided to give him a chance to explain himself, but she could promise no more than that.

"Very well." Was all she gave in response.

Detras gulped. Well here goes nothing...

......

"What you have just taken in the sharptooth test of fidelity. It is a test to make sure that a sharptooth can be relied upon to place the pack's wellbeing above his or her own." Detras attempted to explain.

Ruby was seething at this point. She was sick to death of tests and challenges. Hadn't she been through enough as it was? However, as she promised, she kept her mouth shut. Only an irritated growl escaped her mouth.

"Personally, I think the test is rather cruel..." Detras admitted. "But the vow I made to Chomper's parents doesn't exactly leave me much choice in the matter."

Ruby looked up in confusion at her father. Chomper's parents? What did they have to do with this?

Detras anticipated her unspoken question and continued. "You see, Ruby... When a sharptooth of Chomper's kind reaches the age of independence they are put through the test." He licked his lips in nervousness. "Each test is slightly different depending on the temperament of the dinosaur, but in one aspect they are all the same." He took a deep breath as he knew she would not take the next statement well. "The sharptooth must face death in some way, either of themselves or of their loved ones, and they must be faced with a choice. Either they allow themselves to escape or they risk themselves for the pack." He then looked directly at Ruby. "Only when they pass the test are they deemed ready to lead a pack."

Ruby blinked a few times before her anger got the better of her. "Lead a pack!" She was beside herself with rage. "Lead a pack!" She repeated in thoughtless anger. Detras took a slight step back at his daughter's reaction. "My pack already has a good leader and he isn't me! Why do I need to pass a stupid leadership test?!"

She stopped herself before she could lash out, much to Detras's relief, but he decided to quickly explain himself before her anger rose again. "The test isn't really for you, Ruby. Although I am glad that you passed. I never doubted you for a moment." Ruby was even more confused now. "The test is for Chomper, but it can only be given by a dinosaur that has passed the test themselves."

Ruby's mouth opened slightly, before she promptly closed it. Now it was beginning to make sense. But there were still unanswered questions.

"But why can't his parents give the test? Isn't the test something that parents would give?" She asked.

Detras sighed. "Assuming they are still alive, yes." Ruby paled at this admission from her father. Were Chomper's parents truly in that much danger? If so, why weren't Chomper and she told?

"Daddy?" She asked in confusion.

Detras sighed. "Chomper was sent to the valley for his own protection, Ruby." Upon seeing her nod, he continued. "You already know this, of course. But his parents were in danger as well. Red Claw always settles a grudge." He shook his head at the thought. "They wanted to make sure that Chomper was protected in the event that they... didn't make it."

Ruby covered her mouth with her forelimbs. This revelation explained so much. She had never truly understood why sharptooth parents would abandon their child to relatively unknown caregivers. Surely, they would just watch the child more closely if it came to that. However, now it all made sense.

Detras continued. "They wanted to make sure, if they didn't make it, that Chomper received all of the training that he could. That includes the test that you have just taken, the most important of sharptooth tests." He looked down as if he were thinking of something. "It is not something that your kind..." He suddenly realized the implication there. "That your current kind, fastbiters..." He quickly amended. "...would usually take. But it is extremely important for Chomper's kind. If one day Chomper's parents are gone and I am gone..."

"Daddy..." Ruby interrupted.

Detras continued undaunted. "If that time comes... then you will need to give Chomper the test. Promise me that you will not fail, Ruby."

After a moment's pause, Ruby nodded solemnly. "I promise."

Detras sighed in relief. "Good." He responded, as the two embraced again.

He paused for several moments as Ruby process what had happened in the last several moments. He had obviously given her much to contemplate. After a few moments, however, he began again.

"I didn't like tricking you back there, you know. You have every right to be angry with me."

Ruby paused for a moment before responding. "That is good, daddy, because I am still angry at you." Detras looked down in shame at this admission. "But you had a good reason to trick me. So even though I am angry with you, I won't stay angry."

Detras simply nodded. What more was there to say?

Ruby still had a question though. "So I can give that test now?" Detras simply nodded. "Well... What am I supposed to learn from it that I didn't already know? If I already know the lesson then why take the test?" She asked inquisitively.

Detras nodded. He was pleased with his daughter's question. Her line of thinking was right where it needed to be.

"It is one thing to know something, Ruby." He said this while pointing at his head. "It is quite another to know something. In your heart." Ruby nodded, somewhat unsurely. Detras decided to continue. "In a pack, you may have to make hard choices. Sometimes even preemptive ones... in order to prevent tragedy. The test that you have taken is meant to ensure that you will do whatever it takes to protect your pack from any danger." With that explanation, he continued with a question. "What is the greatest danger that your pack has faced thus far, Ruby?"

Ruby spoke without hesitation. "Ourselves. Hunger made us dangerous."

Detras nodded. "Then that is the threat that you must always guard against. You may not be the leader, Ruby, but you can help the leader make the right decision." He then smiled at his daughter. "I am sure that you can give Littlefoot a helpful nudge every now and then."

Ruby nodded. "Yes and Cera likes giving nudges too!"

Detras snorted at this. That sounds like what I would expect from a threehorn. Former or not...

"That poor kid..." He replied in a sardonic tone.

Both father and daughter laughed at Littlefoot's misfortune as they began their descent down the hill, the diversion of the 'seeing rock' having been removed from their itinerary. Soon the daughter would leave the nest and help her pack find a new home. But for now, for that very moment, she was still his little daughter as far as he was concerned. He knew that with her wisdom and the bravery of the others that they would succeed in the harsh life ahead of them. Of that he had no doubts.

......

Back to the present:

As the memory faded away, Ruby knew what she had to do.

She looked at Littlefoot who seemed to be thinking deeply about the situation. "We need to find other food, Littlefoot." She affirmed. "If we can't find ground fuzzies, then may be need to... you know..."

Both Cera and Littlefoot looked somewhat disturbed by that possibility, even though it wasn't something that they hadn't done before. They simply hadn't done it since the first time... The memories of their hunt of Rhett still haunted them in the deep recesses of their minds. It was not a wound that they wanted to reopen anytime soon. However, it seemed that fate had other ideas.

"Yeah..." Littlefoot eventually responded. "I guess that you are right. We either have to find other food or find a new home."

Cera nodded. "Yeah. But good luck convincing Ducky of that." She reflected on the former swimmer's reluctance to hunt. "She still hasn't forgiven herself over Rhett, you know?"

Littlefoot pondered that for a moment. "Have any of us?"

There was silence for a while as each participant in the conversation knew the answer to that question. Whether they felt guilty about their actions or not, they still had to hunt. That was simply a reality of their new lives. These three had adapted to that reality better than some of the others. It would be up to them to convince Ducky.

Ruby finally broke the silence after some time. "Well, Ducky isn't going to convince herself. So let's get going so that we can do some convincing."

With that the trio walked to where the others were hunting. They would soon break the news that a second hunt was at hand. The only question was: who would be on the menu this time?

......

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Mysterious Beyond:

I have to run faster!

Thud cursed himself as he ran through the underbrush. He ignored the painful, stinging sensation as the thorns and bristles dug into his hide. He had to get away from his pursuer before he got him.

I'm so sorry brother... I couldn't save you...

He stopped abruptly as he found that his path had run out. In front of him was a shear bluff that seemed to fall into a deep ravine full of raging waters. It seemed that his luck had run out.

"Well... Well... It looks like the great Thud will soon meet his brother after all!" A malicious voice called out from behind him. "When you finally meet him wherever cowards go when they die, would you care to give him a message?"

Thud turned towards the evil brute that stood before him. A red fastbiter with a deep scar above his left eye was what greeted his eyes. This massive fastbiter was the one who had pursued him for the better part of an hour now. This dinosaur was the one who had murdered his brother in his sleep. Would he now be the end of Thud as well?

Bleeding, fatigued, and enraged, Thud used up the remainder of his energy to put on a brave face during what may be his final moments. He stood his full height and gave a defiant roar.

"Perhaps I should ask what your message will be, Long Jaw? You were the one who killed a sleeping dinosaur! I am sure that you will be quite alone when you go to the afterlife of cowards!"

Long Jaw grimaced and let out a merciless roar. "I suppose that I will have to silence you forever!"

As the fastbiter ran full speed at the injured Thud, he knew that he had little chance for survival. Red Claw always made sure that his enemies were dealt with. And he had no greater enemy than an underling who had outlived his usefulness. He supposed that Long Jaw was the underling of the hour, to be used and then discarded at a later time. He figured that he had finally gained enlightenment a bit too late. Now Thud was going to pay for his shortsightedness.

Stomp! Stomp!

Or will I? He thought to himself.

Looking down towards the raging water, he noted that he might have a chance. If only...

Stomp! Stomp!

Looking back towards the massive fast runner, he noted that he was charging at full speed. If he could only time his move just right.

Stomp! Stomp!

Now!

With a sudden flurry of movement, Thud let go of his foothold on the edge of the ledge and bit into the right leg of the charging dinosaur, allowing the momentum of the charge push them all into the abyss below. The roar of rage from the other dinosaur nearly deafened Thud as he saw the hapless fool careening head-first towards the watery depths. Thud was careful to maintain his hold, as he wanted to make sure that his companion hit the water first. Thud knew that unless he got incredibly lucky, that this would be his final act. Right before he hit the raging water below, he had one final coherent thought.

This is for you brother.

And then the waves consumed them both.


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