The Seven Hunters

Chapter 35 A parent's love

"Health is not valued till sickness comes." ― Thomas Fuller

"Mommy!! Daddy!!"

Upon seeing the hulking forms of his parents, Chomper sprinted towards them with unrestrained emotion. It had been well over six seasons since he had last seen his parents and he didn't realize the full emotional impact of their absence until he finally saw them again. The rest of the pack stayed behind, walking slowly towards the family.

For their part, Dein and Terri immediately noticed the form of their son advancing rapidly from the pack. They gave roars of welcome as they prepared to meet their son. The rest of the pack stopped and simply looked on as they witnessed the three sharpteeth tearfully meeting for the first time in many seasons. They realized that this was a special time for the family. They could wait to explain themselves until after the sharptooth family was finished.

Finally catching up with his father, Chomper allowed himself to be lovingly nuzzled. It had been so long since he had felt his parents' touch. After a few moments, Chomper's mother then gave him the same gesture. In his happiness and exuberance, Chomper did not notice his mother's terribly emaciated state.

Chomper's father then rose back to his full height and stared at his son with a curious expression. "It is nice to have you back, Path. But why are you here? We told you to stay in the valley where it was safe." Chomper's mother then rose as well, much more slowly than her mate had done, and awaited the answer from her only child.

Chomper paused for a moment, still a bit overwhelmed by the homecoming that was so long in the making. He knew that his parents would have a difficult time understanding, or for that matter believing, the events that had taken place over the last few months. However, he knew that even the most amazing story began with a humble beginning. For that reason, he addressed the easiest to understand problem first.

He answered his father in childlike grunts. "There was a misunderstanding and the adults chased me out." That was technically the truth. But sometimes the truth without context was as bad as a lie. Knowing this, Chomper continued. "I didn't do anything, but... I understand why the adults didn't believe me..."

Chomper's father growled in anger, not at his son, but at the leaf-eaters. "We entrusted you with Ruby. She wasn't able to persuade them?" It was a question, not a statement.

Chomper sighed. "No... They suspected her too..."

Chomper's mother then looked around at the pack that had stopped some distance away from the family. It was, with the exception of a sharptooth flyer, made up entirely of fastbiters. That opened up a disturbing possibility. "Son? Where is Ruby?"

Chomper gulped. He wasn't quite ready to go into explaining the transformation just yet. His hesitation was noted by his parents.

"Son? What happened to Ruby?" The question was from Chomper's father. He and Ruby's father had an agreement that Ruby would look over his son. If Ruby had died in the attempt, then Dein would be honor-bound to give him the sad news. That was not a possibility that he relished. "Did the adults get her?"

"No!" Came Chomper's panicked reply. But they nearly got me! He thought to himself. He then looked back towards his friends who were waiting somewhat nervously some distance away from his family. Perhaps it was time for the pack to relay their unbelievable story one more time. He gave them a wave, a gesture telling them to join him beside his parents.

"My friends..." Chomper began and then paused. He was still unsure how to relay this information to his parents. "My friends were with me when all of this happened. Let us tell you the story..."

......

"I smell no deceit in them, Dein." Terri affirmed. "They believe their story."

Chomper, with the help of Littlefoot and Ruby, had finished telling his parents the story of how they had gotten to where they were today. It was an unbelievable story to be sure, but the pack had one thing on their side.

A sharptooth's sense of smell.

In much the same way that the fastbiters of Skytail's pack had come to accept their story of events, Chomper's parents were also aware of the lack of dishonesty in the pack. Their sense of smell was even more refined and powerful than that of fastbiters, having an entire nasal apparatus dedicated to the detection and interpretation of smell. On a day with strong winds they could detect the smell of carrion from miles around. In the case of the pack, one strong sniff of the dinosaurs told them all that they needed to know. They were covered with the tell-tale scent of apprehension and fear, a logical emotional state considering their proximity to far larger sharpteeth. However, all of the other signs pointed away from any sort of dishonesty. Regardless of whether their story was true or not, each dinosaur now before them believed it with all of their being.

"But how can that be!?" Dein roared in confusion. This caused the pack to retreat somewhat. The scent of fear increased greatly in the vicinity of the sharpteeth. "I have never heard of such a thing!"

Chomper interjected at this point. "I hadn't either, dad, until I saw it!" Chomper looked down for a moment before pointing at the rose colored fastbiter, who he had identified earlier as Ruby to his parents. "I nearly killed her when I thought that she was a pink fastbiter who had killed Ruby." Chomper's voice cracked at the unpleasant memory.

Chomper's mom lowered her head again to nuzzle her son. "I'm sorry, son. That must be horrible... But you have to understand that this is hard to accept..." Her speech was interrupted by a violent coughing fit, which caused her to back away from her son.

"Mom?!" Chomper yelled in confusion. The small sharptooth was deeply concerned about seeing his mom in severe distress.

The coughing fit continued, as Dein tried to use his body in order to stabilize his faltering mate. His actions were wise, as she nearly immediately fell against his body with a thud and collapsed to the ground. Only then did her coughing stop and gasping breaths begin to take their place.

Chomper was horrified by this turn of events. However, while Dein was busy trying to tend to his mate, Chomper took a closer look at his two parents. Dein had an emaciated look to him, with a very noticeable decline in his muscle tone. Previously, his father looked nearly as menacing and strong as Red Claw, but now he looked like a much reduced figure. With an expression of horror at that realization, Chomper then turned his gaze back towards his mother. The details that he saw there made him even more concerned than before. His mother looked deathly ill. There was little plumpness to her figure and her ribs could be clearly seen under her skin. Her eyes also had a haunting look to them, as if the sparkle of life was about to leave them. Some part of his mind cried out what the signs all indicated.

Death.

"Daddy... What is going on?" Chomper was now on the verge of tears, as his voice carried extreme sadness and fear. He looked at his mother with pleading eyes, to which his mother shared in his gaze for a moment. However, after a few moments, she turned again to her mate and gave a slow nod. Dein closed his eyes and gave an affirmative grunt. It was time to tell Chomper a difficult truth.

"Son... Your mother is very, very sick." Dein looked at the small sharptooth with the kindest expression that his form could muster. He did not relish this conversation at all. In fact, it was one of the most difficult conversations that he could recall in his life. He was now going to tell his son a truth that even Dein was hesitant to speak about openly. Some part of his mind feared that if he said these things in the open then they would become reality. "She hasn't been able to hunt for the last several days..."

Chomper gasped at this. The ability of a sharptooth to hunt was the most basic of tasks for any sharptooth. If she was unable to hunt then that did not bode well for the future. That explains why daddy is so thin. Chomper deduced. He has been trying to hunt for both him and mommy...

Dein saw the change in Chomper's eyes when he heard these words. Chomper's eyes went from tearful pleading to recognition then, finally, to profound sadness. His son obviously had gotten the implications of his words. "She has a breathing sickness and we..." He was hesitant to speak the next words, but he forced himself to do so. "Son, we don't know how much longer she has."

"No!" Chomper protested. He knew what he had heard and what his instincts were now telling him, but he refused to accept this horrible reality. His mother couldn't be dying! It was too horrible to contemplate.

"Son..." Came a soft voice. It was from Terri, his mother. This surprised the now distraught sharptooth and he ran to nuzzle the massive bulk of his mother's snout. "I am glad to see you again..."

"But mommy, you can't go!" Chomper pleaded pitifully. "It isn't your time!"

Terri laughed softly, a sound that was sadder than the most distraught sob. "I'm afraid that my body may have other ideas..." Upon hearing Chomper's cries, however, she added in a weak voice. "But I will try..."

Meanwhile, the rest of the pack was looking upon the scene with distraught expressions. Ducky cried at seeing the tearful scene, as did Spike upon hearing Chomper's pleas. Both of them had 'lost' their parents when they were chased from the valley and now it seemed that Chomper was going to experience a far more permanent loss. Petrie watched the scene unfold while resting upon Ruby's back. Both of them had grim expression on their faces. For Ruby it was an especially hard scene to witness, as she had cared for Chomper for over a year in the Great Valley. To see him be put through such a terrible ordeal was unbearable to her.

For Cera and Littlefoot, however, the scene was reminiscent of something else. Something much more direct and personal. Cera had lost her mother during the great journey to the Great Valley. She had only learned about the fate of her siblings and her mother after she rejoined her father in the valley. It made the homecoming bittersweet for both threehorns. For Littlefoot, of course, it brought back horrific memories from his past. He was actually there when his mother was attacked by the great sharptooth and he witnessed her final moments in the land of the living. Seeing this scene, with Terri saying heartfelt words to her only son, spoke to something deep inside the former longneck. He had lost a mother and now Chomper was about to lose his. In the list of similarities between the two dinosaurs, it seemed that one final black entry was about to be made. Despite the control that he usually had over his expressions, Littlefoot began to cry as well. He grieved for the small sharptooth that he considered a brother.

Terri slowly rose from her prone position. Her breathing was still fast and shallow, but it was enough to sustain her. She could see that Chomper's expression turned slightly more hopeful at her change in posture. It broke her heart to know that there was nothing more that she could do for her son except to try to survive the unknown malady that was affecting her. She knew that it was an unwinnable task, but she hoped that she could prepare her son before the inevitable happened. Death was a fact of life that he would have to accept sooner or later.

She slowly looked back towards the fastbiters. These were supposedly the same dinosaurs that had helped her son back when they were on the island, several years prior. She remembered their individual likenesses: the brown longneck, the yellow threehorn, the green stegosaurus, the swimmer, and the brown flyer. They were again here, but they were not the same. Regardless, they had helped her son on their undoubtedly difficult journey through the unforgiving Mysterious Beyond. She owed them a grant of gratitude.

"You are all Chomper's friends..." She began. The six other dinosaurs all seemed to focus their attention upon her when she started to speak. "I can't thank you enough..." A cough emanated from her mouth but, to the relief of all present, she was limited to only a brief moment of respiratory distress. She then looked upon them again when she recovered enough to speak. "Please continue to watch over my son. If he remains with you, then I know that he is in good claws."

Littlefoot gulped at the direct address. She was putting a lot of responsibility into his hands, albeit a responsibility that he had shouldered for several months now. He nodded with determination.

"We will, Mrs. Sharptooth." Littlefoot addressed her with as much respect that he could bestow. "Please don't worry about us... Just try to get better."

As the sharptooth family continued to talk and comfort one another, Littlefoot gestured for the rest of the pack to let the family have its privacy. He considered the pack to be family, but there were certain matters that Chomper and his folks simply needed to discuss amongst themselves. In the meantime the rest of the pack now had an important matter to discuss.

......

"I can't believe this! We get all of the way out here, just to find more death!" Cera was livid. Not at any particular dinosaur, but rather at their situation. Their journey had been beset by one tragedy after another and she was getting quite sick of it. "Chomper doesn't need to be put through this!" She had experienced the loss of a mother and she didn't wish that experience on anyone. She knew that Littlefoot was of like mind on that issue.

"I know, Cera. I know. We all feel the same way." Littlefoot was also distraught by recent events. It seemed that fate was unwilling to let them have a moment of happiness. Even Chomper's much delayed reunion with his parents had to be marred by the impending death of one of them. It was extremely cruel.

"But surely there is something we can do!" Ducky protested. She was ever the optimist and this often shown through even when the reality of the situation showed otherwise.

"I don't know what we could do, Ducky. If I did know then I would suggest that we do it." Ruby interjected.

Spike considered the situation for a moment. If there was anything that he had learned since the group had transformed into the pack that they were today, it was that they had to consider all of their options carefully before deciding on a course of action. This was a throwback to his more deliberate and slow thinking style that he had as a leaf-eater, except that it was specialized for quick action after a decision had been reached. Usually, however, Littlefoot was the one who kept everyone on task. He was far more extroverted and outgoing, making him more able and well-suited to the role of leader. However, it now seemed that the possibility of Chomper losing his mother had made the brown fastbiter freeze up and become indecisive. He remembers his mother. Spike thought to himself. He had not been with him when that particular tragedy had occurred, as Spike hadn't even been hatched yet. However, he had remembered very well the times that Littlefoot had mentioned her passing. It wasn't something that Littlefoot brought up often, but Spike knew that it still resonated with him deeply. Perhaps it is time for me to help Littlefoot out. With that in mind, he decided to try to get everyone on track.

"Well..." Spike began. He still was not accustomed to long monologues, even though the transformation had given him the gift of speech. However, he knew that he would have to break out of his habit of silence here. "I don't know if we could do anything to help... but we could think about it..." He noticed that Littlefoot had turned his glance towards him, whereas before he was looking towards the ground with a downcast expression. "We need to think about if we have anything that can help."

Cera grunted at this. "Have what that can help? If we had something that could cure her sickness then we would have given it to her, you know?" Cera did not raise her voice while raising this objection, as she didn't disagree with Spike's line of reasoning. She simply had no idea how it could lead to anything productive.

"Well we have allies..." Spike began. "Skytail's pack, Pterano..." Cera huffed at the mention of Pterano's name, but Spike continued. "...and the rainbowfaces."

"The rainbowfaces!" Littlefoot exclaimed for a moment. "They know a lot of stuff! Maybe they could help?"

Ruby pondered that for a moment. "Maybe... But they told us that they came down here with a 'pain rock' and a 'talk rock'... I don't know if either of those would help us..."

Petrie sighed at this affirmation. He had been silent during the entire conversation, but he had been listening intently all the same. "Me no know if it help, but me could get them."

Littlefoot nodded. "Thanks, Petrie. But let's think about this a little more..." Littlefoot's mind was now looking at possibilities again, instead of lumbering in a state of despair. Spike's interjection had helped steer the group in the right direction.

Cera was also carefully pondering the possibilities. She had always been the practical one of the group. She could even be considered cynical or pessimistic at times, but her heart was always in the right place. Misguided hope could often lead to even greater disaster and she had grown quite adept in her leaf-eater days in steering Littlefoot back to reason when his plans became too idealistic. The interchange between the longneck and the threehorn had become a kind of self-regulating system. Their friendship was often beset by angry disagreements and tensions, but each played a critical role in counteracting the excesses of the other. Even though they were both fastbiters now, she still fulfilled this role to the pack's leader. The second-in-command often needed to correct the leader when he made an error and without knowing it, she had settled into this role by instinct. Of course, second-in-commands would usually air their grievances in private in order to not discredit the leader, and Cera was anything but discrete. But like the rest of them, she was adapting into her new role in her own way. Well... If our allies are no help then what else do we have? The yellow fastbiter thought to herself. We haven't exactly had this problem before... Or have we?

Cera jumped up. She knew what they had to find. She looked right into Littlefoot's face and exclaimed loudly.

"The night flower!"

Littlefoot blinked twice before the implication of what Cera just said dawned on him. Of course, the night flower! It helped my grandfather when he was ill, maybe it can help Chomper's mom! Smiling for the first time in a long while, he grasped Cera's shoulders and exclaimed. "That's brilliant, Cera! That is exactly what we need to do!"

Without stopping to see Cera's slight smile at being praised, Littlefoot looked directly at Petrie. He was firmly back into his role as leader. They may not be able to save Chomper's mother, but they were sure going to try as hard as they could.

"Petrie, go get Pterano if he is available..."

Petrie shook his head. "Pterano with his herd... If they see Petrie..."

Littlefoot shook his head. "Okay, never mind that... Go find the rainbowfaces and ask them if they have seen the night flower. They know a lot so they may know where it is found around here..." Littlefoot remembered that they had found the night flower in another swamp, The Land of Mists, back when they were trying to save his grandfather. It was a reasonable deduction that the curative plant would also be found in a swamp such as this one. "If not, then you can help us search from the air."

Ducky interjected at this point. "It will be night soon. It will. It will. Should we wait until morning?"

Littlefoot shook his head. "No, we only found the night flower the first time because they opened at night, remember?" At Ducky's affirmative nod, he continued. "We need to look tonight if we are going to find them... Also if we wait then Chomper's mother..."

The others looked down as Littlefoot reminded them of the stakes that were involved here. They needed to act quickly if they were going to succeed in their mission of healing. If they had to forego sleep on this night then so be it.

"We should go get Chomper. He will want to help..." Spike wasn't able to finish his thought.

"No, Spike." Littlefoot simply said, before sighing. "He is spending some time with her and we shouldn't take that away from him." He remembered how very precious his final moments with his mother were to him and he would not deprive Chomper of that. "We also might not be able to find the night flower and... I don't want to get his hopes up if that happens...."

Spike nodded at Littlefoot's words. He couldn't fault his reasoning.

"Petrie, tell Chomper that we will be nearby if he needs us." Littlefoot ordered his flyer friend. "Then return for the rainbowfaces. We need to get started."

......

Chomper nodded mutely, as Petrie softly told the sharptooth that the pack was there for him if he needed them. The flyer looked back at that small sharptooth for a moment, with a sad expression on his face, before flying off.

"Son..." Dein called down to his son. "Son, are you alright?"

Chomper looked up at his father before shaking his head. No, he most certainly was not alright. His mother was now asleep, with short shaky breaths emanating from her body. However, for how long could that body last? For all Chomper knew, this could be his mother's last night on Earth. The sharptooth was distraught beyond all reason.

Dein sighed. "I know that this is a hard lesson, son... but what the night circle gives it will eventually take away." He looked at his sleeping mate with sad eyes. "We sharpteeth must take from the living in order to survive, but eventually the day comes when it is our turn to die... then we become food for the grass and the leaf-eaters in turn eat us..." Dein was not an especially articulate sharptooth, but even he knew the basic lessons of life and death. These were lessons that Chomper was sheltered from in the valley, but it seemed that his time of innocence was about to end. "It is a cycle we must all complete one day."

Chomper sobbed softly at his father's words. He didn't protest them because he knew them to be true, never mind how unpleasant they may be. However, the suddenness of his mother's illness was jarring to him. Just under two years ago when he had last saw her, she had looked vibrant and energetic as ever. What had happened to cause this change?

"Why is mommy so sick?" The question was innocent enough. However, Chomper did not know that by asking it he was inviting a story which would only hurt him further. In most cases sickness simply came like a thief in the night and took the life of a dinosaur, with the elderly and the weak being more likely to suffer that fate. But in Terri's case there was a distinct cause of her troubles...

Dein cleared his throat. He needed to tell his son the full truth, but he did not relish the fact that this would be difficult on both of them. It would undoubtedly make Chomper even more upset and it would make those feelings of rage again rise within Dein's chest. He motioned for Chomper to follow him away from Terri, so that their conversation would not disturb her sleep. Finally, as they moved some distance away, Dein began his story.

"It began just like any other day..."

Terri gestured at Dein with two clinches of her forelimb and a downward tilt of her head. This meant that there were two dinosaurs in view and one of them was noticeably ill. A suitable victim.

Dein nodded at Terri's findings, as he prepared to make the initial charge. He then gestured at her to take her position. They would attempt to kill their prey in a pincer movement.

"But then something went horribly wrong..."

Dein began his charge. His legs burned with energy as he could see the sickly looking threehorn falter in front of him. It was moving so slowly that Dein felt that he might be able to catch up to it all by himself. However, his assault was cut short by a pained scream from some distance in front of the threehorn.

It was Terri!

Dein ignored the threehorn and advanced towards his mate with all of the speed that he could muster in his hulking form. He was horrified to find that his made was on the ground, clutching her side. There was significant blood loss. What could have caused this?

That was when he heard the roar.

It was Red Claw!

"The damn bastard ran off! He wouldn't stand and fight. He probably saw his chance to hurt one of us and simply decided to take the chance." Dein took a few deep breaths, as Chomper looked at him in horror. Retelling this story made it feel as if Dein were reliving those horrible days. He continued after a few moments. "We... had to leave the island. I could protect myself from Red Claw, but if he were to find your mother in an unprotected moment..." He paused for a moment. "Your mother seemed alright at first, except for a sore side. But... her wounds caused more problems than we originally thought..."

Terri coughed violently as she struggled to catch her breath.

"Dear!"

Terri recovered for a few moments. Finally she spoke. "This is the breathing sickness..." Her voice cracked with the horrific memories that those words brought back. "I remember this... this is what killed my father after he got hurt."

Dein was distraught. He could protect her from violent threats and he could provide for her in the event that she couldn't hunt for a few days, but he couldn't slay the enemy from within. Sickness was the great equalizer and it seemed that it was ready to humble the poor sharptooth.

"She got better, eventually. Then we finally arrived here about a year ago... But she kept on getting the same sickness." He then looked into his son's eyes. "She keeps on getting worse every time... and son... I think this might be the last time."

Chomper screamed in rage. "I will kill him!" He began to claw and stomp at the ground in a fury. Red Claw had attempted to kill him on numerous occasions. At first it was simply because of Red Claw's feud with his family, but it then became due to his association with the residents of the valley. But to finally hear that his mother might die because of Red Claw's actions was simply too much for the little sharptooth. He was blinded by unspeakable rage.

Dein knew not to interfere with such a reaction, as it was simply something that had to run its course. That was part of the reason why he gestured for Chomper to go some distance away from his mother.

Finally, however, Chomper exhausted himself with his rage-filled tantrum and simply broke down into tears. Dein was there to nuzzle the distraught sharptooth. It was about the only comfort that he could offer his son from the cruel hand of fate.

......

Chronos was intrigued by Littlefoot's words.

"A flower that shines, but it only opens at night? Fascinating..."

The pack was informing the rainbowfaces of their plan. The two dinosaurs were not too pleased with being awakened in the middle of the night, nor were they impressed that the pack bypassed their palisade wall that they had spent all day building by simply lifting the pikes out of the ground, but they were always interested in a new discovery.

And this discovery was proving to be quite fascinating indeed.

Littlefoot continued. "Yeah... And this flower helped save my grandfather when he was sick."

Chronos pondered for a moment. "It almost sounds like an antibiotic...

Logos cut him off before he said much more. "Curing plant." She then looked sternly at Chronos, who gave a weak smile. "It sounds like a curing plant. A plant that helps cure sickness."

Cera decided to interject at this point. "Yeah... if a curing plant is what you call plants that heal people then this flower is definitely one of them. But we need to find it first!"

Littlefoot nodded. "Yeah! We know that it grows in moist fields. That is where we found it the first time back in the Land of Mists... But we don't know where those fields might be around here... We were wondering if you knew of any."

Chronos and Logos looked at one another for a moment while whispering at one another. It seemed that they were having an argument of their own. Finally, after a few moments, it seemed that the duo had reached a consensus. Logos spoke for them both.

"I don't know if it has the flowers you need, children, but I think that we know of a field nearby that matches your description..."

Littlefoot smiled. "Great! Show us the way!"

......

It had been several hours since Dein had told his son about how Terri had been injured by Red Claw. He had finally settled into a shallow sleep when he heard some commotion near him. Waking from his fitful sleep, he could see that Chomper had apparently woken up. He was sitting down with his small forelimbs crossed. A morose expression was upon his face.

Dein looked beside him to see that Terri was still sleeping peacefully. Her breathing was ragged and shallow, as it had been for many days, but she was still alive. She is a fighter. He affirmed mentally. In some ways she is stronger than me. He always figured that if he had become sick like that he might have simply wandered off like many sharpteeth do in their final days, in order to meet his end on their own terms. However, Terri had decided to fight her sickness until the end. There would be no willing starvation or self-induced mortal wound. There was no shame in sharptooth society for choosing either option, but Dein always assumed that she had chosen to continue fighting for his benefit. They loved each other very much and neither would depart from one another until fate gave them no choice in the matter.

Dein then turned his attention to his son again. "Did you have a bad sleep story, son?"

Chomper turned slowly to meet his father's gaze. "Yeah..."

Dein smiled sadly. "Was it about your mother?"

Chomper slowly nodded his head before looking down in sadness. His worries about his mother's health had followed him into his sleep stories. Not even there could he find any comfort.

Dein thought for a moment. If his son was being haunted by memories of the present, then perhaps memories of a happier past could bring his mind some relief. But which memory should he call upon?

After a few moments, he had an idea.

"Son, have I ever told you how I met your mother?"

Chomper shook his head slowly. He had never heard of that particular story. He could only deduce portions of his parents' history from their playful banter and periodic bickering. Both of which his greatly missed now. His father's offering of that story interested the little sharptooth deeply.

Dein smiled. "Well then... I think that it is time that you heard the tale. It all began when I was hunting a longneck one day..."

......

Many years ago:

Dein looked upon the scene with a predator's attention to detail. He was approaching the deepest reaches of the Great Swamp as the sharpteeth called it. Here there was lush vegetation and large pools of sticky mud. Both of these greatly reduced the mobility of both prey and predator, but the pools were the biggest threat. If a dinosaur was not careful and waded into them then he could sink into the muddy depths. He had to be careful here.

He could see several longnecks congregating around the scattered trees. Many of the females were eating hungrily from the treetops, while their mates helped them protect their younglings. However, many of the adolescent males were in the process of fighting for dominance. This was a frenzied activity as the number of unpaired females was much smaller than the number of males. Dein could clearly see this and decided to use this knowledge to his advantage.

There!

In the distance he could see two male longnecks approach one another with lowered necks. This was a sign of aggression as Dein had learned from years of watching prey in action. He knew that the two males would soon slap their necks together until one of them either collapsed or backed off. Stupid leaf-eaters! Dein thought to himself. But this will be useful...

As the two males began to square up their bodies to one another, Dein sprinted at an oblique angle from the combatants in order to have a clear shot of the action. He would wait until they were both engaged in battle before commencing his attack. Then, while both of the foolish longnecks were otherwise occupied, he would make his move. He licked his lips in anticipation.

He didn't have to wait long.

Smack!

The two longnecks began their assault, brutally attacking each other with their powerful, muscular necks.

Smack!

Dein decided to keep waiting to see which one would tire or become injured first. That would be the most promising target.

Smack!

One of the longnecks faltered, but then quickly righted himself and resumed his attack. But Dein could see that the other longneck's posture was now all wrong. He was leaning towards his left. Possible neck damage... Perfect! Deciding that now was the proper time to strike; he decided to make his move.

He sprinted as hard as his two massive legs would carry him. He could feel his heartbeat thump in his chest as he exerted himself to the limit. He could feel the burning in his legs as they were being called upon to work more strenuously than they had been in quite some time. He could feel the tension in his lungs as they struggled to supply him with enough oxygen. However, none of that mattered because he knew that his prey didn't stand a chance. His plan was flawless.

The other longnecks, upon seeing the massive behemoth approach, cowered into their respective family units. Those were not his concern, however. The two longnecks were still engaged in their battle for dominance and mates. As a consequence, their minds could focus on little else. They both knew that only one of them would have the honor of mating this year. They did not know, however, that Dein would be the one who determined the winner.

And more directly, the loser...

Crash!

With little warning, Dein sunk his teeth into the right hind limb of his desired target, shattering bone and rendering the entire limb useless. The longneck was now doomed to death, even if its mind didn't register that fact yet. The blood which entered Dein's mouth only made him hunger for more. The predator was now completely in his element.

The longneck screamed in agony as he abruptly gave up on the dominance battle. His counterpart immediately broke away and sprinted towards the remainder of the herd. It appeared he would win by default. The injured longneck, however, would meet a far different fate.

Dein was somewhat amazed to see the injured longneck run unsteadily away from the sharptooth. However, he knew that the panicked flight of his wounded prey would not save him. Dein simply went back into a stalking stance and resumed his chase of the longneck at a leisurely pace. There was no way his prey could escape.

The longneck seemed to have no idea where to go. He couldn't return to the herd because the sharptooth would catch up to him first and he couldn't leave the area, because the sharptooth was right behind him. As a result he simply continued to run in the direction that he found himself traveling. He didn't even slow down as he ran straight into the mud pool.

Splash!

Dein was not happy with this development. The longneck had managed to run nearly two longneck lengths into the mud before he finally became stuck. This left Dein with two rather unpalatable options: he could write off the prey as lost, in which case his entire hunt would have been pointless; or he could wade in after the prey in order to dispatch it and drag it back to land. The elder Dein that had a son and a mate would have chosen the safer option of leaving the prey to its fate.

However, Dein was significantly more courageous in his younger days. Or stupider, depending on your viewpoint. As a result, he began to wade into the mud pool.

......

"Son?"

"Yes, dad?"

"Never. Ever. Wade into a mud pool.

......

Dein had made it and with a swift bite to the longneck's neck, the beast was dispatched. He was quite pleased with himself. He had secured enough meat for several days after only a few hours of effort. His previous misgivings about wading into the mud seemed to have been premature on his part. Now all he had to do was go back...

That was when he discovered that his feet were stuck.

"Crap."

......

"Finally, however, an even more stubborn sharptooth discovered my plight."

"Was that mommy?"

"Yes. Why yes it was."

"Did she help you escape?"

"Well... Not exactly..."

......

"Help me, female! I will offer you part of my catch if you do."

Dein was not going to admit that he was out of his league. He was a sharptooth and he wasn't about to admit that he needed a female's help in order for him to survive. After all, this was just a temporary setback... He would get out of this unfortunate situation. Right?

Dein was anticipating the female's acceptance of his offer when he heard something that he neither expected nor wanted.

Laughter.

The female was laughing at him!

"How dare you!" He raged. His attempts to walk out of the mud, however, only caused his feet to become more entangled in the stick mixture. "I am not so lowly to be mocked by the lacks of you!"

The female's laughter actually grew louder as she knocked down a tree, which fell into the mud. Then she felled another. And another. Dein was perplexed by her actions. What was the female trying to accomplish?

......

"You didn't know how to make a bridge, daddy?"

"A bridge?"

"The path that mommy was making in the mud. Littlefoot always called those things bridges. They're easy to make..."

"Oh, don't start, son. Your mother spent the next hour mocking me on that very subject..."

......

"You know youngling..." Terri mocked.

"I am no youngling!" Dein raged.

"Well, you must be... Even a youngling would know not to walk into a mud pit..." Terri chided in a jocular tone. "But if you're a big boy then I suppose that you don't need any help..."

Dein raged. "That's right!" He was still sinking in the mud, and he could barely even move his legs anymore, but he was damned if he was going to allow a female to talk down to him like this. "Hey! What are you doing?!"

Terri stopped eating for a moment to look at the hapless sharptooth. "Who me? I am just enjoying some of your catch." She then smiled mockingly. "But then again, if you are a big boy then I suppose that you can protect your own food..."

Dein raged, which caused him to become even more lodged into the mud. With every turn and flex of the leg the mud became more impenetrable. Meanwhile Terri continued to eat her fill of Dein's catch. Dein continued to yell insults and demands at the female as she greedily ate to her stomach's content.

Finally, after several hours, Terri was finally full. She took a final look at the rude male and began to travel back to dry land using the trees that she had felled as a kind of makeshift bridge. It didn't keep her clean, nor did it prevent her from sinking in the mud, but it gave her something to use as leverage in order to avoid sinking as Dein had. Dein was humbled by this experience and he didn't want to meet his end out here. For that reason, he finally swallowed his pride.

"Please help me."

Terri looked back at the male with a curious expression. "Why should I help you?"

Dein swallowed. Why was she making this so difficult? "Because I am asking it. I am a fellow sharptooth in distress."

Terri looked unimpressed. "Well another sharptooth is simply more competition for me. Wouldn't it be better to simply let you die out here?" Dein looked at the female with a horrified expression. "I could always eat you later. You would be far less annoying as an appetizer."

Dein struggled more furiously in the mud, but he continued to sink. The mud was now to his hips and he knew that if he sunk any further then he would never be able to escape again.

"What do you want from me? An apology? You can have it. I'm sorry." Dein asked in desperation.

Terri smiled. "An apology?" She mockingly seemed to consider that for a moment. "I don't know, that offer seems a little light to me."

Dein was at wits end at this point. "I, Dein, will give you food. I will help you defend territory. I will do whatever you want, woman, just get me the hell out of here!" His roar echoed throughout the swamp.

Terri smiled. "That sounds nice, Dein." She put emphasis on his name in a mockingly sweet way, as one would do to a pet. "But the apology was enough."

Dein gritted his teeth. Damnit woman! You just had to bring me low, didn't you?

Terri pondered for a moment. "Just place your forelimbs on the tree limb next to you." Dein slowly reoriented himself and placed his forelimbs on one of the trees that Terri had knocked into the mud. "Put all of your weight on that and then push your legs up..."

Dein tried to do as the female said. Nothing happened at first as a distinct slurping noise could be heard from his legs. Then...

Plop!

His legs were finally out of their muddy prison! He was free! He looked back in the direction where the female was previously, but found no sign of her. He was curious why part of him actually found this development to be sad. She had insulted him and forced him to offer up everything before she would let him escape. Why then did he care? That was when he heard the roar.

"I am Terri, ruler of Great Swamp!"

Dein was amazed by this. What in the hell is she doing? There are three other sharpteeth here! If she wants the territory then they will come to her and she will have to fight them. She looks strong, but not that strong...

"I challenge all challengers! I will show mercy to none!"

Dein blinked. That woman is insane!

"And my consort will fight with me!"

Dein then recalled his final offer to the female: "I, Dein, will give you food. I will help you defend territory. I will do whatever you want, woman, just get me the hell out of here!" As he recalled those words, he realized what was coming next.

"Either best Terri and Dein, or flee for your lives!"

Dein cringed at those final words. Oh crap. What have I gotten myself into?

......

"I can't believe mommy did that!" Chomper exclaimed. "She is so nice."

Dein laughed. "She may seem nice, Path, but your mother is a master tactician." Dein shook his head. "She knew that with two sharpteeth we could take control over the Great Swamp and then I would be honor-bound to leave whenever she demanded it. She was under no obligation to keep me as a mate." Dein closed his eyes. "She knew that I was prideful and that I would defend my promise to her until my final breath. She had played me magnificently." He sighed. "Finally, after all of the challengers had fled or been otherwise dealt with, only the two of us remained..."

......

"So..." Dein began. His body was covered with the scars of battle. Two of the other challengers had left without a fight. The might of a coupled pair being too much of a threat to justify the risk. The other sharptooth had been less tactical, however, and the two had been forced to kill him. The gutted body of the defeated sharptooth lay prone before them. The fact that he was a sharptooth of their kind did not dissuade the two in the slightest. Each had partaken of a hard-earned meal.

"So?" Terri mirrored.

"So..." Dein began again. "I guess that you have had your use of me... I will depart."

Terri looked at him with sympathetic eyes. "You are correct that I do not want you as a mate." Dein did not change his expression as his suspicions had been confirmed. "But you may stay..." She then sighed. "You have earned this territory as much as I."

Dein looked at her oddly. "Two sharptooth claiming the same territory without being mated?" He asked with incredulity. "How would we settle disputes?"

Terri smiled. It was the same smile that she had given him earlier. It was a smile that said that she had him right where she wanted him. "Well, I would win the disputes, of course..." Dein groaned. "Just stay out of the way when I am hunting. And stay out of the mud pools..."

......

"This continued for several seasons. Food was plentiful in the Great Swamp and the arrangement worked out well for both of us. But I was curious why Terri never sought after a mate. She was obviously of age, intelligent, and devious. A perfect catch for any male. So why did she live an unmated life?" Dein paused for a moment. "That was a question that lingered in my head for quite a while, but I never asked her. It was obvious that she had no interest in me. That was until one day..."

......

Dein had not seen Terri for several days. This was an odd occurrence, as the two usually would at least see one another during their attempts at scouting or hunting. Initially, he tried to convince himself that he thought little of the development. After all, he hated the woman's arrogance, didn't he?

But he had to admit to himself that that was a lie. He had grown to accept this female as an essential, if eccentric, part of his life and he respected her as both a confidant and a friend. They had indeed helped one another in discouraging challengers from encroaching on their territory and they had participated in a few joint hunts when it proved to be convenient. However, not even Dein could convince himself that she shared the same sentiments as him. He may have viewed her as a friend, but it was obvious that she wanted nothing to do with him as a potential mate. Perhaps I am not good enough for her. Dein morosely thought to himself.

However, by the third day without seeing Terri, he decided to seek her out. He carefully walked throughout the swamp and sniffed the air at every step. Finally, he caught the slightest whiff of her scent and he began to track her with as much precision as he could muster.

......

"I eventually found Terri behind a nearby mud pool, but I was surprised to find her crying."

......

"Terri, what's wrong?"

Terri was startled by the sudden presence and retreated back towards the trees behind her. She did not want to be found in this condition. She reacted angrily.

"Nothing is wrong!" She roared.

Dein stopped and hesitated for a brief moment. Her face was covered in moisture from her tears and her figure showed signs of emaciation. She must not have eaten since the last time he had seen her, during the hunt three days ago. He answered sternly. "Something is wrong. I know that you don't like me in that way, but... but I am rather fond of you."

Terri paused at this admission. Something that looked like guilt appeared in her eyes. Something that Dein couldn't quite piece together. Undaunted, Dein tried again.

"Please tell me what is going on."

Terri looked down. This was a secret that she had held from him for the last several seasons, she supposed that it was time for him to know the full truth.

"Dein... I feel the same way." She laughed for a moment, a sad laugh. "You maybe an arrogant braggart, but I consider you 'my' arrogant braggart." She then looked away. "But it will never work..."

Dein was confused by this entire conversation. "Huh?"

Terri sighed. "I guess you can't tell, but it is my time." Upon seeing Dein's confused expression, she continued. "My time... I am fertile... or at least I would be..."

Dein now comprehended what she was talking about. She was now in a condition to lay eggs if a suitable male could be found. No wonder she was staying away from him. She must really find him to be unsuitable as a mate. With his tail dragging behind him, he began to walk away slowly. "I... am sure you will find someone one day..." He muttered as he retreated slowly.

Terri saw his reaction and protested. "No! You don't understand!" Dein turned around in confusion at her affirmation. "I would be with you, Dein. I would like that very much... But even though I am in the fertile time, I will never lay eggs... Because I'm..." She paused as she prepared to tell the shameful truth. "I'm barren."

Dein blinked for a few moments. He realized that being incapable of laying eggs was seen as a shameful trait in some sharptooth families, but he didn't see the reason for that. Even if a dinosaur could not have children, that did not detract from their value as friends or family. Perhaps it was that same dullness that didn't allow Dein to see how to escape from the mud pool, but he simply didn't see the problem.

"That's nothing to be ashamed of, Terri." He soothed. "You don't have to hide away."

Terri looked at him in disbelief. "How can you say that?"

Dein shrugged. "Because it is the truth."

"My..." Terri began as her tears continued to flow. "My previous mate left me when I couldn't bear him children... That is why I went here..." She paused for a moment. "The reason why I hid away is because I didn't want to hurt you anymore."

Dein looked at Terri in confusion. "Hurt me?"

Terri nodded. "It is obvious by the way that you look at me, that you desire me for a mate."

Dein blinked at this, was he that transparent?

Terri continued. "I have been pushing you away ever since you helped me fight off the challengers... I didn't want to have to push you away during my fertile time." She choked up at this admission. "We would end up mating and then I would betray you the same way I betrayed my first love..."

Dein stomped the ground in frustration. "Quit saying that! You betrayed no one!"

Terri looked at Dein in confusion, but then Dein continued.

"Your mate was an idiot for leaving you! Eggs or no eggs, you're a female worth dying over."

Terri couldn't believe her ears; surely Dein would not be foolish enough to waste his time on a barren female like herself. He was a vibrant male; he could find good companionship elsewhere.

"I want you to be my mate."

Terri sat in shocked silence at Dein's offer. My making his offer at the expense of his possibility of children, he had proven himself to be an excellent would-be mate. However, she could not force that upon him. "You should not sacrifice your happiness on account of me." She answered tearfully.

Dein persisted. "If being with you is what you call unhappiness, then I would rather be unhappy with you than happy somewhere else."

Terri did not reject his offer a second time.

......

"We never thought that a child was possible, until you finally came along two years later." Dein smiled at his son. "I have been mated to your mother ever since, and I never regretted that decision."

"Wow." Chomper was amazed by the story of his parents. They were truly extraordinary sharpteeth who had been united together against all odds. "I never knew..."

Dein smiled. "Well now you do. You can ask your mother about it tomorrow." Both sharpteeth then looked at the female sharptooth with somewhat subdued expressions. "We both need to get some sleep, Path. If you are well-rested then you could help me find some food tomorrow. Your mother needs all of the help that we can get."

Chomper yawned. The story had finally done the trick; his mind was now prepared to enter the world of dreams. "Sure thing, daddy. I will help..." Chomper blinked. "What are my friends doing?"

Dein was confused by the sudden question and looked in the direction where Chomper was looking. A curious sight greeted him. Several sharpteeth appeared to be approaching with daylight coming from their backs. Squinting his eyes, Dein could see that these glowing things were plants of some kind. What was going on?

Suddenly a flyer landed near Chomper's head. Chomper greeted him groggily. "Petrie?"

Petrie answered apologetically. "Sorry, but we find healing plants for your momma. Me no know if they help, but they worth try."

Both Chomper and his father looked at one another with surprised expressions. Neither of them knew if the plants would help or not, but they were willing to try anything to help the sharptooth that they both loved. Each of them began to rise in order to wake Terri and allow her to take the strange plants. Now only time would tell if their efforts would be successful or if the night circle would finally claim the dinosaur after a year of sickness.


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