The Seven Hunters

By Rhombus

Adventure / Horror

Chapter 29 Conversations

You can throw a novel into focus with one overheard line.

― Joan Didion

"Is everyone alright?!" The Old One asked after the fastbiters fled from the herd. It seemed that their tried and tested defensive strategy had worked once again. Keep the herd in a group and keep the children protected by a circle of adults. At least from her vantage point, she couldn't see any injuries. Although, a few members of the herd seemed to be missing...

Ali, meanwhile, remained cowering behind her mother's protective bulk. She was not with the other children when the fastbiter's attacked as she was sleeping beside her mother at the time. Usually all of the children congregated in one group in order to make them easier to protect, but the Old One had granted Ali a special exception on account of her situation. She had experienced having a friend be slaughtered right in front of her, so it made sense that she would seek out the security of her only remaining family. Ironically, it seemed that this exception allowed her to be spared another frightening attack. Nonetheless, the traumatized screams of the other children and the fearful yells of the adults made unpleasant memories return to the young longneck.

"Left flank is fine!" One deputy called out upon seeing that his section of the herd was safe.

Ali shuddered as the memories returned to her. The screams of the children and the adults, it reminded her of when she came back to the herd... alone...

"Right flank is clear!" Another deputy affirmed.

Her mother was ecstatic to see her daughter safe and sound, but immediately grew concerned when she saw the look of fear on her face. "They got Rhett! They got Rhett!" She had shouted as she collapsed against her mother's leg. As her mother tried to console the distraught longneck, Ali could hear the anguished wail of Rhett's mother. The last of her progeny had died. She was now left with nothing.

"We are missing some of the front group. Brako went after them."

The Old One grew concerned by this. "Some of the herd left?" This was not the plan. They were supposed to stay together and protect the children.

"I think they wanted to check on their eggs..." He muttered in an unsure fashion.

It had been a hard month since then for the young longneck. She was repeatedly haunted by horrible sleep stories of that horrible night. Sometimes she would be the one dying in her nocturnal visions, but in others Rhett met his fate as he did in reality. The worst ones were where she and Rhett both survived. Eventually she would have to wake up and realize, with crushing despair, that her friend was still gone. The true nightmare was her reality. She had talked to her mother about what happened and she, to her credit, had done her best to comfort her daughter, but she could only do so much. It didn't help that the other children were reluctant to play with her. The other parents were worried that she would lead them off on another adventure and that their children might meet the same fate as Rhett.

The Old One cursed herself. The eggs! They had left them unprotected in their zeal to protect the children and the rest of the herd.

Without meaningful companionship, Ali spent most of her time with her mother and the other adults. Her life had reverted to how it was before she had met Rhett and Littlefoot. Littlefoot... She was curious what he was up to. No doubt he was on one of his adventures with his friends...

......

"I think that you have been far too bossy!" Cera accused. The brown fastbiter looked at his counterpart with surprise, while the others did not look shocked at all. The complaints about Littlefoot decisions as of late were about to come into the open.

"Bossy?" Littlefoot inquired.

"Yes!" Cera affirmed. "Did you even stop to think about us in your decision?"

"Of course!" Littlefoot confirmed in an annoyed tone. He began to pace in order to calm his raging nerves. Why am I so agitated? He asked himself. I wasn't like this before. Even he noticed his change of demeanor since his transformation. "That is why I left alone. I didn't want to risk any of you!"

Cera huffed. "How is that your choice, Littlefoot? We are a pack, remember? We do things together!"

At this point Ruby stepped up as well. "We can't be together unless we stick together!"

Ducky rose as well. "I do not want you to risk-ed yourself again. Oh no, no, no!"

Littlefoot then sat down and collected his thoughts for a moment. "Then what would all of you have done in my place? Risk the entire pack for two egg-stealers?"

Spike then spoke. "Oh to the dung pit with the egg-stealers!" He said this as waving at the still-incapacitated duo with a dismissive gesture. "Why did you have to rescue them anyway?"

Chomper nodded. "Yes, Littlefoot. Why?"

"They made a deal with us!" Littlefoot answered in a surprised yelp. Why couldn't his friends understand their responsibilities? The egg-stealers had helped them, so they had to help them back. "I had to help them!"

"Me no see why." Petrie answered. "They get eggs. They hide eggs. Why we need them when we have eggs?"

Littlefoot stopped for a moment to look in disbelief at his companions. Perhaps it was the frustration and anger in the cave, but they seemed to be acting unlike their old selves. They were acting very much like their sharptooth forms would seem to imply. Very little of the innocence remained. He had tried to fight that side of him for so long. For the sake of his friends and for the sake of himself. Had he angered them so much that their own control was beginning to fray?

"Guys... Listen to yourselves!" He began. "If we go around breaking promises than what will that make us?"

"We?" Cera accused. "You were the one who made that agreement, Littlefoot. Only you." She said this while pointing an accusatory finger at his chest. "We followed along, but I am getting tired of following."

The threat was not lost on Littlefoot, but for now he focused on the subject at hand. "I have done what I felt was best for the pack!" He caught his breath for a moment. "Do you think that you could do better?"

Cera took a few steps forward. "With the way you are acting right now? Yes."

Littlefoot took the bait. "The way that I am acting right now?!"

"Yes!" Cera affirmed. "You may be doing what you think is right, but are you even listening to us? No." She then began to pace herself. "You made an alliance with that other pack and two egg-stealers without even asking us!"

Littlefoot sputtered. "I had to make a decision, Cera! I couldn't tell them to hang on a moment that we had to vote on the matter!"

"No, you couldn't." She agreed in a flat tone. "But you could have run the idea by us before the ritual!"

The two stared down for a few moments, before Littlefoot looked back at the rest of the pack with a somewhat resigned expression.

"Do... All of you agree with Cera?" Littlefoot asked suddenly.

Four nods and one affirmative grunt greeted Littlefoot. It seemed that Cera had correctly read the sentiments of the pack. Have I really been that overbearing? Littlefoot questioned himself. I was only doing what I thought was right... He then began to realize that the other six were not the only ones who were beginning to lose themselves to their new instincts.

Littlefoot looked away and pondered his situation for a few moments. Some instinctual part of his mind told him that this was a sign of weakness, but he didn't care. He needed to do the right thing here, but that wasn't quite clear to him. He supposed that he would let the pack decide. That is what I should've done from the beginning. He acknowledged.

"I'm sorry."

The rest of the pack was in total silence. Cera has a somewhat mollified expression, while most of the others had expressions of concern or sadness. None of them enjoyed calling out their leader like this, but they had enough of the unilateral decisions.

Littlefoot then looked at the egg-stealers. Both of them had looks of profound fright on their faces. They were trapped in a cave with seven sharpteeth who were all speaking their unintelligible language. Littlefoot figured that the same thoughts were probably moving through their minds right now. Are they going to eat us? Why did we ever make an agreement with sharpteeth anyway? Littlefoot knew that his strategy was correct and that his intentions were good, but it seemed that was not enough sometimes. In listening to his instinctual drives he had lost the conciliatory aspect of his leadership style. That part of him that listened to everyone before making a decision. With some regret, he realized that he needed to start again here.

"I made a promise to them... and so did you, Chomper." Chomper blinked, but then nodded affirmatively at Littlefoot's words. "Even if you don't want me to be leader anymore... I ask that you let them go." Littlefoot hung his head, still not looking back at the group.

Cera's mouth went agape as the others also took on various expressions of shock. Ruby covered her mouth with her paws, while Spike made a surprised gulp. Chomper, meanwhile, had a very concerned expression on his face. He knew that whatever happened next would be up to Cera...

"Littlefoot..." Cera began. "We don't want you to quit! We just want you to listen!" As much as the egotistical part of her wanted the leadership, she knew after knowing them all for years that Littlefoot was far better suited to the role. Besides, she couldn't bear to see him like this. Not that she would admit any of that openly...

"I agree! Oh, yes, yes, yes!" Ducky affirmed, quickly followed by the others.

Chomper then slowly walked up to where Littlefoot was situated. Chomper was pleased to observe that Littlefoot was not crying, but rather simply looked despondent. He supposed that Littlefoot was probably more confused than anything else. He had experienced the conflicting drives between dominance and friendship. Now he simply had to try to reconcile the two. The fact that he had admitted that he had made a mistake was a good start.

Littlefoot noticed that Chomper was beside him and asked the little biter a question. "I guess that I am still learning, huh?" He asked with equal parts melancholy and sadness.

Chomper simply nodded in response.

Littlefoot continued. "I am surprised that you don't want to take over, Chomper." At his look of surprise, Littlefoot continued. "I mean... You did great during our first hunt and you are better at all of this sharptooth stuff..." He shook his head. "Ever since we became sharpteeth because of the Stone of Cold Fire, we seem to be losing ourselves."

Chomper shook his head. "But you're better with others, Littlefoot. And you are still you..." He said that while pointing at Littlefoot. He then took on a more humorous expression and tried to loosen up the mood. "Besides, I will be the leader one day anyway!"

Cera took the bait. "What is that supposed to mean?"

Chomper smiled. "Your kind gets kind of big, but not as big as mine! Eventually you will all be my helpers!"

"Oh great!" Cera snorted. "A giant purple Red Claw. That is all that we need!"

"I would never be like Red Claw!" Chomper protested. But it was obvious that Cera meant her taunt in jest.

Littlefoot laughed at the hijinks of his companions. He really needed some relief after his breakdown earlier and now he had it. He was now ready to refocus and get the pack back on track.

"Alright, gang!" He began. "Where do we want to go from here?"

The others paused for a few moments as they considered the question. Spike's growling stomach interrupted the silence, however, and that decided the next item on the agenda.

Littlefoot laughed. "Alright, let's grab those stashed eggs first!" He then looked back at the egg-stealers, who were still petrified in fear as they couldn't understand what had been said previously. He then looked inquisitively at Cera and the others. At the affirmative nod of Chomper and the reluctant affirmative grunt of Cera, Littlefoot finally spoke in leaf-eater.

"Come along Ozzy and Strut! You were the ones that got the eggs, after all."

The two egg-stealers nearly fainted at suddenly being talked to by the frightening sharpteeth. The pack laughed at their response, as they began to leave the cave.

They didn't know that their conversation had been listened to by others...

......

Taunt and Skytail looked at one another with stunned expressions. Had they actually heard what they heard?

They had decided to enter their ally's territory in order to confirm that they were alright after the egg-stealing attempt. This was obviously not a mission that required the entire pack, so Skytail only had Taunt follow him into the land of their allies. Besides, to enter with an entire pack might be considered a threat...

When they had arrived at the outskirts of the cave, they heard Littlefoot's voice and they were immediately relieved. He had survived the assault of the longneck herd. But when they heard what sounded like the beginnings of a leadership battle, they both had hid behind some tall grass and listened intently. Allies or not, a shake-up in the leadership would need to be noted by the allies. If a leader was deposed unwillingly, then the alliance would be forfeit. If the leader resigned willingly, on the other hand... They needed to find out what the outcome was. And if that meant they had to do some incidental spying, well...

"I am surprised that you don't want to take over, Chomper."

This surprised the duo. Chomper seemed to be competent enough for a youngling, but he was still a child. In fact, he seemed to be too young to actually be apart from his parents... What was going on here?

"I mean... You did great during our first hunt and you are better at all of this sharptooth stuff..."

Sharptooth stuff? Skytail thought to himself. What other kind of stuff is there? He had absolutely no idea what Littlefoot was getting at. The expression on Taunt's face showed that he was just as confused as his leader.

"Ever since we became sharpteeth because of the Stone of Cold Fire, we seem to be losing ourselves."

Alarm bells went off in Skytail's mind. The Stone of Cold Fire? He remembered that there was a massive impact by the Forbidden Valley about a cycle of the moon ago. The entire pack was concerned because of the azure color of the stone. Could it have been the stone of legend? Were their allies simply insane or did they speak the truth?

Skytail whispered to Taunt, who seemed to be staring off into space. "We need to tell the others..."

Taunt did not respond. He was still processing what they had just heard.

"Taunt!" Skytail hissed.

"Huh?" Taunt responded. "Uh... right." He finally seemed to catch his bearings.

The duo then stealthily snuck off towards their own territory.

......

The pack speedily exited the cave, with the egg-stealers in tow. The egg-stealers were noticeably uncomfortable with being surrounded by the pack of juvenile sharpteeth, but they had little choice in the matter. At least they're allowing us to eat some of what we caught! Ozzy mused. Unless they are bringing us as the appetizer!

Ignoring the egg-stealers obvious discomfort, the pack continued on their journey to the site where the eggs were hidden. A conversation was already in progress between the sharpteeth.

"Skytail's pack helped us out back there." Littlefoot mentioned. "Perhaps we should give them part of our catch?"

Cera snorted. "That depends on how big the catch is!"

Littlefoot shrugged, but decided that Cera probably had a point. Looking back towards the two egg-stealers, he called out in leaf-eater again.

"How many eggs did you gather?"

Both jerked at being called by the brown sharptooth, but each settled down when they realized what was being asked of them. Strut was the one to anser.

"Uh... Fourteen I think."

"Fourteen!" Littlefoot yelled in surprise.

Both egg-stealers stopped and began to shake. Had that not been enough? Were the sharpteeth angry? They had no idea if Littlefoot was happy or disappointed with their efforts.

"That's more than enough to feed both packs!" Littlefoot exclaimed with joy. The other sharpteeth began muttering in sharptooth as well, although the egg-stealers couldn't understand their commentary. Nonetheless, based upon their leader's comments, it seemed that they had caught enough eggs to satisfy their employer. Both egg-stealers sighed in relief.

"So we invite the other pack to eat with us? Ruby inquired.

Littlefoot nodded. "Unless there are any objections..." He was being cautious after being called out by the pack on his imperious attitude just moments before. He wanted to make sure that he was acting like his old conciliatory self. "I mean... They have helped us out..."

Spike nodded. "Seems fair to me..."

"It would be a nice gesture. It would. It would." Ducky affirmed.

Cera huffed, but there was no real venom in her response. "Fine. I guess we can share."

The pack continued their walk towards the site of the egg stash. Littlefoot and Chomper took the lead, with Cera, Spike, and Ducky following close behind the egg-stealers. Ruby walked a bit to the side of the egg-stealers, she appeared to be focusing on something by Strut's leg.

"Oh! That is a nasty gash!" She exclaimed. "Does it still hurt when you move it?" She inquired.

Strut gave her a blank stare. Ruby could've smacked herself. Silly Ruby. She thought. Just because I speak sharptooth doesn't mean that they can speak sharptooth. If they could speak sharptooth then we would be speaking right now! She tried again in the leaf-eater language. A language she had only recently relearned with the assistance of Chomper.

"That injury looks bad. Does it still hurt when you move it?"

Strut nodded. "It... doesn't hurt as bad as it used to... I can still run on it."

Ruby nodded, before looking pointedly at the two dinosaurs leading the group. They were the ones who chased them and led to Strut's injury. But then her expression softened. How can I judge? We are the killers, aren't we? She supposed that she felt some affinity for the egg-stealers, as they did on a regular basis what she had only had to do once during her time as a fast runner - steal eggs. Her kind... Her old kind were egg-stealers as well, or at least they could be. Now she and the rest of the group were using the egg-stealers as free labor. Could she justify this? How would she have felt if she were commanded by Chomper's parents to steal eggs upon pain of death? Perhaps it would be more kind to simply kill instead of using fear to compel others?

She shook her head. So that's what Littlefoot was talking about earlier back when he was talking. We had gotten on to him about being a tyrant, but we are being tyrants to the egg-stealers. It seemed that all of the pack had changed significantly. Now Ruby was beginning to ponder what it meant to be a just sharptooth. In her ponderous state, Ruby lost track of the conversations going on in the pack.

"Hey Ruby!" Chomper called.

The rose-colored fast runner paused. "Huh?"

"We're here!" He affirmed.

Spike and Littlefoot had already begun to peer into the small crevice where the eggs were stashed.

"They weren't exaggerating!" Spike exclaimed. "There are a lot here!"

Ruby smiled at the two egg-stealers, which was a rather unnerving sight from the vantage point of the omnivorous duo. She then slowly removed two eggs from the hiding place and gave one to each of them. She then looked towards Littlefoot. "We can let them go now, right? They seem ready to be let go."

Littlefoot nodded and then addressed the two directly. "You did a good job here. You may take your two eggs and go."

The two egg-stealers were in no mood to delay their departure, so they began moving in haste. However, before they left Strut said one last thing to Littlefoot.

"You saved me back there but I never said... uh... Thanks."

Littlefoot smiled. "You're welcome. We may call upon your help again someday..."

Ozzy groaned at that response, but Strut was less reproachful and instead gave an appreciative nod. After a few moments the two egg-stealers speedily sprinted away, leaving the pack alone with the remaining twelve eggs. The pack was ready to dive into the bountiful meal, when Littlefoot remembered the help that the other pack provided.

"Well then let's go get our allies!" Littlefoot affirmed. "They should get part of the meal."

Petrie called from his perch on Spike's shoulder. "Me get them!"

However, the pack could hear the sound of rustling grass from nearby and they immediately got into a defensive posture. Perhaps they were too loud in their exclamations? Had they been discovered? Were the egg-stealers coming back for some reason? In either case, they all prepared to either fight or run at the unknown intruders.

"No need. We are already here." The familiar voice of Skytail called from the grass.

"Skytail!" Littlefoot greeted heartedly. "We were just about to invite you! You saved us back there!"

Skytail suddenly appeared from the grass and shrugged. "We just did what we are supposed to do. Besides, I think the only ones that I saved were those two egg-stealers of yours... You could have run away."

Littlefoot paused for a moment, but then nodded. "Yeah... I guess." He seemed to think about something for a moment. "But I am glad that you helped! I would have hated to go back on my word to them."

The rest of Skytail's pack appeared from the grass as well. They all seemed to have preoccupied and wary expressions on their faces. If Littlefoot was not so involved in his conversation with his counterpart, he would have noticed the odd demeanor of the allied pack. As it was, however, the rest of Littlefoot's pack was beginning to notice. Spike and Ruby exchanged concerned glances, before moving beside Littlefoot in a protective stance.

"Your word means a lot to you, doesn't it?" Skytail asked rhetorically.

Littlefoot simply nodded.

"It means a lot to me too." Skytail continued. "I guess that is why I always liked you. Even when we were marking your den..."

Spike repressed a growl. He still was angry at the insult from over a week ago.

Skytail's monologue continued. "... I thought that an intelligent leader resided here. You made your den in a good location. Your pack members all seemed loyal. And now I realize that you keep your word, an admirable trait in the cutthroat land that is the Mysterious Beyond."

Littlefoot didn't say anything. He was flattered by the praise, but he was unsure where his counterpart was going with this conversation. Spike and Ruby had similar expressions of uncertainty, while the rest of the pack was now fixated on the conversation as well.

"There is one thing that I didn't understand, however." Skytail paused. "How could a group of sharpteeth be so intelligent, so loyal, and so sure of themselves... and yet be so inexperienced at life."

Littlefoot took on a more grim expression. He was not sure where this was going, but he was quite certain that he was not going to like it.

"You improvised when you responded to our challenge... You improvised when you made the blood vow..." Skytail then moved closer to Littlefoot and whispered. "The proper ending is 'give blood to blood' and not 'until death'".

Littlefoot paled at this, but then Skytail continued. "I will honor it anyway. The intent was there even if the words were not."

Littlefoot nodded at this, but had to interrupt. "I am glad to hear that Skytail, but what are you getting at..."

Skytail continued unabated. "We didn't mean to eavesdrop; we simply wanted to make sure that you were all okay after the longnecks chased you... And we overheard your discussion."

Littlefoot paled. How much had he heard?

Skytail smiled. "I was hoping that you would tell us a bit more about yourself, Littlefoot."

His name... His actual leaf-eater name... He had heard the entire conversation... Silence permeated the scene as each member of Littlefoot's pack took on a surprised expression. The silence was broken after a few moments by a familiar voice from above. It was Petrie's and his sentiments were shared by the others.

"Well... crap."

......

"...and that's when we went for the lowlands."

Littlefoot had finally finished telling his tale to the assembled pack. This was a conversation that he would have expected to give to his grandparents assuming they ever returned to the Great Valley, or to Chomper's parents, but not to another pack. A pack that had so recently been rivals... He had no idea how they would take this information.

"You're insane."

More than likely. Littlefoot thought with dark humor. Who would be sane after what we have been through? The accusation against Littlefoot's sanity had been made by Scarflank, the most silent member of the other pack.

"You're all insane." Scarflank looked at them with uncomprehending eyes. "How can you believe this stuff? Leaf-eaters do not turn into sharpteeth! Food stays food! No stone can change that!"

Cera, who had been silent through all of this, replied to her counterpart from the other pack. "Why would we make something like this up?"

Breeze then spoke for the first time, having been stunned into silence during the entire story. "The stone... Did you ask it to change you back?"

Scarflank looked back at Breeze with a disapproving expression. "Don't tell me that you believe this nonsense!"

Breeze shrugged. "A blue sky rock crashed in the direction where they said that they lived. And a blue sky rock is just how the legends described it..."

As Scarflank groaned, Ruby answered. "We tried to wish our wish away, but our wish wasn't granted. The stone was black."

"So you're all stuck then..." Taunt spoke up. He was utterly amazed by their story, but he had always been told of the Stone of Cold Fire during the stories his father would tell him. Even if the story wasn't true, he could smell no deceit on any of the pack. They believed their story. Even if it wasn't correct, it was true to them and his pack would have to try to understand their story in order to understand them.

"Yep, yep, yep." Ducky answered morosely.

Vigilant then spoke up. "I smell no lies in them." She answered flatly, confirming Taunt's unstated findings.

"I know." Skytail answered. "That is why I am inclined to believe them."

"You can't be serious!" Scarflank exclaimed.

"I am." Skytail responded forcefully. "They aren't lying otherwise their scent would give them away. Their story explains their great intelligence but lack of experience. It also explains something else as well..." Skytail stepped closer to Littlefoot. Spike and Chomper began to intercede, but Littlefoot waived him off. Littlefoot would not show fear in front of the other leader. Skytail then touched one of Littlefoot's arm feathers in an inquisitive fashion.

"You are of our kind. You have the scent..." Skytail then paused. "But you have these..." He pointed at the feather he just touched a moment before. "None of our kind has these. None that I have met, anyway..." He seemed to ponder this for a moment, before reciting something from memory. "You will not understand the work of the stone..."

"...But you will know when you see one of its works." Taunt finished.

Skytail looked back in surprise at the orange, striped fastbiter. "So you have heard the stories as well?"

Taunt shrugged. "Who hasn't?"

Littlefoot cleared his throat for a moment, not wanting to interrupt the other pack's discourse on the situation, but wanting to make sure that everything was okay nonetheless.

"Are we good?" Littlefoot asked. The question had nothing to do with morality and everything to do with the alliance. Were the packs still on good terms or not?

Skytail nodded. "Of course." He then looked at Scarflank with a pointed expression. "Aren't we Scarflank?"

Scarflank sighed, his blue form rising and falling with his deep exhale. "Yeah... You all might be insane, but at least you are trustworthy..."

Cera snorted at this and even Littlefoot had to crack a slight smile.

Breeze then spoke again. "But what are you going to do now?"

Littlefoot blinked. "Well, that is the question, isn't it?" He then paused for a moment. "We can't exactly see our parents while we are like this... They would try to trample us... And would they even believe us even if they listened?" Skytail nodded in understanding as these words left Littlefoot's mouth. "We should go find Chomper's parents when food gets too scarce here..."

Skytail pondered this for a moment. "What are their names?"

"Huh?" Littlefoot was not sure what Skytail meant with that line of questioning.

"...Of his parents." Skytail clarified. Dinosaurs of Chomper's kind generally amassed large territories if they survived long enough to become adults. As a consequence, the smaller sharpteeth would quickly learn of these territories, usually by having the sharpteeth in question threaten their lives. The smaller sharpteeth would try to be mindful of the temperaments of the 'large ones' who resided within each of these territories and be particularly careful while traveling in them. If Chomper's parents were in the area then they would be quite well known.

Chomper answered. "Dein and Terri. That's my mommy and daddy!"

Taunt gasped in surprise at the mention of those two names. This reaction was not lost on the other dinosaurs.

"You've heard of them?!" Chomper asked excitedly.

"Yeah." Taunt said flatly. "They tried to eat me!"

Chomper wasn't really listening to Taunt's story. He simply heard the affirmation and knew that his parents were found.

"That's great!" Chomper responded.

Taunt had a contemptuous expression on his face, as Cera began to laugh hysterically at Chomper's response. He may not have intended it to sound like that he wanted Taunt dead, but Cera appreciated the sentiment anyway. As Taunt turned his glare towards Cera, he could hear Breeze begin to chuckle as well.

"Oh don't you start!" He responded, as Breeze gave him a reprise of his usual obscene gesture and proceeded to laugh hysterically as well. Skytail could only shake his head at the antics of his fellow pack members.

"Um..." Chomper now realized that his statement could be taken the wrong way. "I mean... It's great that you've heard of them! Not that they tried to eat you... Where were they?"

Taunt sighed, but then answered after a few moments. "I was in a place called the Land of the Shallow Waters. Have you heard of it?"

Littlefoot and Chomper both shook their heads as they listened to Taunt's recollections of the place. It seemed that when the food finally began to run out that they now knew where to go next...

......

"My babies! They are all gone!"

Ali lay prone on her mother's back trying to drown out the mournful cries of the expecting mothers who would now never see their children. While the herd was chasing off the sharpteeth, egg-stealers had ransacked some of the nests. Now only a few eggs remained of the original clutches. The herd's hopes for the coming year were dashed. There would be few, if any, new herd members.

As she thought back to the last time she had heard such a mournful sound, she was again inundated with the memories of Rhett's final moments and her terrifying escape. The memories of guilt and despair returned. She only had one friend left in this world. And she had no idea when she would see him again...

I hope you are alright, Littlefoot...

Ali, like many of the mothers in the herd, cried herself to sleep. After the remaining eggs hatched in a few days, the herd would travel on from this place of grief. But for now, they had no choice but to remain where so many others had met their end.

The mournful cries, however, were heard by others outside of the lowlands...

......

"What was that?" Chronos muttered to his resting companion. They had been on this journey for quite some time and had found no trace of the children. Based upon that fact that the adults had chased away fastbiters, which had mysteriously appeared on the day that the children 'died', they had some idea what they were trying to find, but that was easier said than done. Generally fastbiters didn't stop to hang out and chat...

Logos responded after a moment's pause. "Sounds like someone is wailing..." She had a sad, yet steely expression on her face. An expression which communicated deeply constrained emotion. She was absentmindedly cleaning two smooth black rocks that appeared to gleam in the starlight. Those two 'rocks' were the only technology that they were permitted to take with them when they journeyed to this planet. Suitably disguised technology that would leave little trace of their tampering with this world. Now that they finally had reason to reclaim them where they had stashed them so long ago, she seemed oddly protective of them. Of course, one of them was their only way to communicate off-world and the other was their only actual weapon...

Chronos then responded to her deduction. "Oh..." He had noticed her change in demeanor over the past week, but had not yet decided to call her out on it. She has been on edge ever since we reported our findings back to the high command via the talking rock... Urgh! It disturbed Chronos that even his thoughts were being inundated by the 'leaf-eater' talk. Via the communicator... I wonder what has her so upset? Probably out beloved commissar... His thoughts quickly turned malicious when he thought about their commanding officer. He was the one who had turned this mission of theirs into an excuse to maroon them, so that their influence on the consortium would be weakened. Chronos thought with some trepidation about what the isolationists would do if they assumed complete dominance on the council... Logos, meanwhile, remained lost in her own little world, ignoring the grimace on her companion's face.

The sounds continued then for some time. It was clear that many voices were in the mournful ensemble. Something terrible must have happened. This made Chronos have a passing thought on their current preoccupation. He was still hesitant, however, to interrupt the dour mood that she appeared to be in.

"Do you think... That could have been them?" He asked timidly.

Logos looked at Chronos as if he had grown a second head. "I highly doubt that sharptooth children could make an entire herd mourn, Chronos..." She shook her head in a dismissive gesture. "Assuming that the children are even still alive..."

Chronos looked down with a morose expression. He didn't want to even consider that possibility. He couldn't imagine the horror of suddenly becoming something that you feared, and then being chased by your own parents, and then meeting your end out there... alone. No one deserved that.

Logos saw Chronos change in demeanor and felt guilty about her bluntness. I shouldn't take out my frustrations on him... She quickly spoke again. "We will keep searching. If they... adapted... well then they probably would have gone towards the swamp. What did the residents call it?"

Chronos brightened. "The Land of Shallow Waters!"

Logos rolled her eyes. She still was not used to how simplistic the leaf-eater names were. "Well then, after we finish up here then that is where we should go next..." Logos pondered the predicament of the children. She hoped that if they had met their end that it was as quick as possible. And if they were still alive, that they were close by.

Logos was the commander of this mission. At least, officially. As a commander she knew about the secret orders that were in place with the artifacts from the ancients. Orders that were specifically reiterated to her during their last communication with home. The artifact was a potentially destabilizing force that could cause changes that may be threatening to the consortium. After that first incident so long ago... it was decided that the artifacts, and anything that they contaminated, must be quarantined and possibly destroyed. She didn't have the heart to tell her colleague about their final sad duty on this mission. It would break his heart in the same way that it was already breaking hers. But she knew that she would either have to tell him eventually or carry them out herself...

She steeled herself. Lamenting her orders would not change them. She would soon have to perform one of the most difficult actions of her life or betray her oath to the consortium. Their drive to look for the Stone on this planet had already vindicated their original mission. A fact that no doubt was causing headaches with the isolationists in the consortium. Their findings were a victory for the supports of intervening in outside affairs. If she would complete her mission and 'neutralize' the 'contaminated' specimens then they would undoubtedly be hailed as heroes and their adversaries would be further discredited.

If, however, she violated this final order then it would be a sign of insubordination. A sign that the native culture of this planet had contaminated the researchers and a confirmation of the isolationists claim that outside influences could be dangerous. That would doom the cause of the interventionists for years to come. All that they would have worked for would be lost. It would all be in vain, as well. If the 'contamination' remained then the consortium would probably opt for the only option that would ensure the complete elimination of the Stone's influence. An option that had not been used since The War, over a hundred years ago...

The extermination of all life on the planet.

She sighed. They really had little choice now... If they were to finish this mission then they needed to find the children. The only question was, when they found them, would she have the heart to do what was now required?


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