The Seven Hunters

By Rhombus

Adventure / Horror

Chapter 36 An education in death

“I am indebted to my father for living, but to my teacher for living well." ― Alexander the Great

Chomper awoke seeing red.

After opening his eyes and rising, he could see that the bright circle had begun its journey across the horizon. Its refracted light gave the entire sky an eerie, crimson glow. It was the very beginning of morning. Despite staying up most of the night talking to his father and then watching him try to feed the healing plants to his mother, he had awakened early. It seemed that his preoccupation with his mother's condition had kept him from getting a restful sleep.

Mother...

Chomper turned towards his stricken parent. She still looked very weak and emaciated. The outline of her ribs was visible under her skin and her breathing still had a distressed quality about it. As if all of her efforts were being spent trying to take the next breath. It sounded exhausting and frightening. It almost sounded like any breath could be her last.

"Son?"

Chomper jumped at his father's sudden query. He had been so transfixed by his mother's form that he had neglected to check his surroundings. That was a lesson that his parents had always cautioned him about and, were he in different circumstances, he had no doubt that his father would lecture him on the issue. But now there were more pressing matters. Without saying a word, Chomper turned and gave an affirmative grunt to his father.

Dein considered his son for a moment. He had a somewhat disheveled appearance for a sharptooth, with dry eyes and an expression that conveyed a lack of energy. Chomper was obviously taking his mother's condition hard. He couldn't blame his son for his melancholy, as Dein had several months to come to terms with his mate's condition. Poor Chomper, on the other hand, was only informed of the dire news the previous evening. He knew that he needed to broach the subject again now that Chomper had had time to consider the implications.

"You seem to be deep in thought, son. May I ask what is on your mind?"

Chomper seemed to consider his father's words for a moment. Dein knew that in the little sharptooth's mind he was probably trying to determine whether to be truthful or to put on a brave face and pretend that he was alright. Dein was always of the kind to pretend that everything was alright and to never project weakness, but his son was obviously on a different path. He hoped for his son's sake that he would be honest here, so that the two could directly address the issue that each knew was plaguing the other.

"Mother..." Chomper paused for a moment to think of how to word the next sentence. He knew what he was going to say, but he was almost afraid to say it, lest the words become reality. "What if mother..."

Dein didn't want to force Chomper to say the words, so he interrupted his child. "What if she goes to the Land of the Parted?" He asked gently.

Chomper took on a grim expression and gave a simple nod.

"Son, my own father told me something right before he died..." Chomper was now transfixed by his father's words. He had never heard anything about his grandparents before. "He was much more of a talker than I was... but I understood the wisdom in his words... Well most of the time..." Dein paused. "He told me that it is only through first understanding what we have lost that we can begin to understand what we have not."

Chomper seemed to know where this conversation was going. "But I have lost too much... I can't lose her too!" Chomper shook his head. "She doesn't deserve this!"

Dein gave a weak nod. "Indeed, Chomper. She does not deserve this, but sometimes life is unfair. We all must go in the end, but our memories, stories, and lessons carry on after we are gone. If... the worst happens... your mother will still be with you as long as you remember her."

Chomper nodded sadly. "But I don't want her to be just a memory."

Dein nuzzled his son. "I know, son. We will just have to wait and see if your friends' treatment works."

......

Several days later:

"An interesting strategy." Chronos muttered.

Now that the children had apparently found their goal, the rainbowfaces were curious about how they were holding up. It had been nearly a week since they had been abruptly awakened by the pack in order to help search for the night flowers. It seemed that although Chomper had found his long lost parents, his mother was in a dire situation. In order to help Chomper's father get enough food to feed both himself and his mate, the pack had begun to assist him during his hunts.

Logos nodded. "Yes... I wonder what they are planning."

As the rainbowfaces looked upon the scene from behind the trees they were sheltering behind, they could see the pack begin to put their strategy in motion. A large herd of hadrosaurs were eating from the lush vegetation near the small stream. The land here was moist, but sturdy, and there was a distinct lack of trees except for the area closest to the stream itself. The vegetation closer to the main river was more prominent, but the river was also full of belly draggers. Hence, many of the swimmers had decided to take their chances further away from the larger body of water. This reduced their chances of being threatened by water-dwelling sharpteeth, but it also made them vulnerable to land-walkers.

Ruby and Cera appeared about eight longneck lengths in front of the herd. They seemed to be sizing them up. The eyes of the two fastbiters were fixed on various members of the herd as the two predators slowly began to pace around the mass of dinosaurs. The concentration of the two rainbowfaces, however, was interrupted by the flapping of wings behind them.

"What are they doing?" Came a confused and somewhat horrified voice.

Chronos looked behind him. Ah... Pterano. They had known of his exploits during their first visit to the Great Valley several years ago, but this was only the second time that he had addressed them. Despite risking detection by the other members of his herd of flyers, he had ventured out at Petrie's urging and assisted them all in finding the night flowers. Neither the rainbowfaces, nor the rest of the pack, seemed to trust the elder flyer. However, Chronos had to admit, he had done his job admirably even though he risked social ostracization by his own herd if he was found missing and suspected of wrongdoing. Now, however, it seemed that Petrie's uncle wanted to know what his nephew and his friends were doing.

Chronos smiled. He supposed that he could be direct and to the point.

"Well, I'm only guessing at this point. But I suspect that they are trying to spot the herd's weak points."

Pterano tilted his head in confusion, his mind not wanting to make the obvious connection. "Why would they do that?"

Logos shrugged. "Probably because slower food is easier to catch than faster food."

Pterano looked back at the female rainbowface and then made a horrified expression when the implications of what the children were doing came to him. It was obvious what was going on, but he was slow to grasp the truth. Despite what he had heard, he simply didn't think of Petrie in the others that way... as predators... as killers. It was one thing to hear the truth, but it was quite another to see it in action. With a somewhat sickened expression, he flew off without another word.

Chronos tilted his head at Logos. "What was that all about?"

Logos shrugged. "Who knows?" She then pointed back in the direction of the two fastbiters. "Look! It is beginning!"

Chronos looked back in order to see what was transpiring in the adjacent field. Ruby and Cera both sprinted full speed at a juvenile swimmer. Five longneck lengths... four longneck lengths... three longneck lengths... Surely they weren't going for an outright attack on an adult?

Suddenly Ruby and Cera both turned in opposite directions, with Cera going left and Ruby going right. Their timing was impeccable, as several swimmers left the main body of the herd at that same moment and attempted to give chase to the fastbiters. The speed and agility of the two fastbiters, however, was more than enough to safely escape from the two bold swimmers. After a few seconds of running, the fastbiters were again where they had begun their sprint, but the swimmers were more scattered.

Chronos placed his hand on his chin. "I wonder..."

Without warning, two additional fastbiters came out of the vegetation. It was Ducky and Spike! They too began to sprint at the swimmers, but this time they were running at the herd from parallel to the stream. Again, the swimmers scattered somewhat and the two predators turned back before any dinosaur could mount a defense against them.

"Scattering the forces." Logos noted, thinking back to her classes at the academy. "Not good if you are trying to eliminate an entire fleet... but effective if you are attempting to take out a single vessel."

Chronos nodded. "And now that they know which of them are the slowest and the weakest..."

Littlefoot then appeared with Chomper at the other side of the swimmer herd. The swimmers were now surrounded on each of the three sides, which only left the small stream as a possible avenue of escape. It was unlikely that any of the pack could take down one of the adults even if they ganged up on one specimen. There were simply too many to potential come to the aid of the others. This made the tactics of the children rather confusing for the rainbowfaces. What was the end game?

"I wonder..." Logos began, but she was suddenly went silent when she saw that the three groups were in motion.

Ruby and Cera again sprinted into the herd, but this time they actually began to circle one of the herd members in a large arc, snarling and roaring at the hapless victim. This caused some of the nearby members to begin to flee, whereas others began to run towards the swimmer in her defense. A similar scene played out with the other two groups. Each was antagonizing a particular herd member causing disruption in the herd's ranks.

That was when everyone heard the mighty roar.

The roar appeared to come from behind the stream, which was obstructed by foliage and trees. This development seemed to not only confuse the swimmers, but the predators as well. The bulk of the swimmers began to back away from the stream and towards the center of the field, while the fastbiters began to head towards Littlefoot in an apparent attempt to regroup. Something had not gone according to plan. When the swimmers were scattered almost evenly in the field, with some bolting, that was when another sound echoed through the area.

Roar!

Dein rushed into the field through a nearby forest, knocking down two small trees in his wake. He began to charge into the maelstrom of panicking swimmers. In the resulting confusion, his job was simple. A male swimmer, having been panicked by both the first sharptooth's roar and now the second from Dein, had gotten a poor start to his retreat and began to run towards the center of the open field. He was gaining distance on the sharptooth when he suddenly saw the six fastbiters in front of him. They were running to the other side of the field in order to regroup. The poor swimmer, misjudging the fastbiters actions as an attempt at encirclement, tried to shift to his left in order to escape the perceived threat.

That proved to be a fatal mistake.

As the swimmer continued his headlong flight, he suddenly felt a searing pain in his left flank. Dein had bitten down upon the hapless swimmer and dealt a crippling blow. With a final bite to the herbivore's neck, it knew no more.

The rainbowfaces looked at one another with knowing expressions. No words were exchanged, but each knew the meaning from the other. The children were obviously doing alright in their new lives and neither of the rainbowfaces really wanted to see the aftermath of their hunt. They were not herbivores in their previous forms, but even so, the rainbowfaces were in no hurry to dwell upon what the children's lives now mandated. In silence they walked back towards their home.

......

"Good work, dad!"

Chomper and the rest of the pack ran up to the elder sharptooth as he proceeded to take the first bite out of his freshly killed meal. He had done his part in bringing down the hadrosaur, and the pack had done their assigned task in spooking and breaking up the herd. For the swimmers, on the other hand, recent events meant something else. Upon realizing that one of their own was killed, the remainder of the swimmers resumed eating, knowing that the sharpteeth would not perform any further hunts today. They had already obtained what they desired. It was one of those contradictions that came with living in the Mysterious Beyond that the killing of a herd member could actually bring about a truce of sorts. But that was simply how it was. Now that the swimmers knew that they were off the menu for a few hours, and the sharpteeth knew that the hadrosaurs would avoid them, each could resume their activities in relative peace. Only the distressed cries of the fallen swimmer's family broke the resulting silence from the herd.

Dein looked over at his son. "You as well, son!" He roared in a friendly fashion. "You and your friends led the swimmers right into my grasp... Your mother will appreciate this."

Chomper nodded and forced himself from shedding any tears. With the help of the pack, Chomper's father had been able to catch prey in each of the last several days. This meant that Terri could finally get a regular supply of food and as a result, each of his parents was beginning to look a little better. Despite the progress, Chomper was still preoccupied about the terrible possibilities of what could soon transpire. His mother was still ill with the breathing sickness and he was not certain that the night flowers they gathered from day to day were having the desired effect. She was not appearing to become any sicker, but they had not seen much improvement in her breathing. Something would have to give soon.

Littlefoot approached with the rest of the pack. He noticed the awkwardness between father and son and decided to interject. "We helped... but it seems that someone else helped too..." At Dein's confused expression, Littlefoot continued. "There was a roar from behind the stream... we thought it was you at first, until you roared."

Dein's expression turned from confusion to horror. "Another sharptooth?! But Terri's out there!" He began to move in a headlong sprint towards the stream. If there was another sharptooth in the area then Terri was in danger. She was in no condition to defend herself if that was required. The pack then began to sprint behind the massive sharptooth as the realization began to dawn on them as well. Panic permeated throughout the hunters as the hadrosaurs began to scatter at their approach. They would need to cross the stream in order to reach where Terri was resting. Dein hoped that they would not be too late.

That was when they heard an unexpected sound.

"I didn't spook you that bad, did I?"

Dein and the pack turned around at the sudden question and gawked at what they saw. Slowly appearing through the trees was the figure of a female Tyrannosaurus. It was Terri! Dein paused for a moment before he could find the right words.

"Terri! You're up!" He nearly sputtered at the sight of her. She was in no condition to be walking around, she needed to rest and regain her strength. "You need to rest... you're still sick." He finished meekly.

Terri laughed. "If I can roar loud enough to scare a herd of swimmers then I am strong enough to walk around again." She could see the stunned expressions on her mate and her son's friends. She smiled at their reaction. "It seems that your plants are beginning to work, little ones."

Dein stood with his mouth agape at his wife's exclamation, whereas Chomper immediately began to run towards his mother while emitting happy grunts. A sense of relief had descended upon the assorted dinosaurs. If she was now recovering from her sickness, then perhaps the worst of the ordeal had passed her by.

Chomper finally reached his mother and hugged her foot, which earned him a nuzzle. Dein approached as well and nuzzled his recovering mate. The rest of the pack was unsure what to do during this touching family moment. After a few moments, however, Littlefoot gave the signal to depart for the time being in order to give Chomper's family some privacy. That was when they heard Terri's voice boom in their direction.

"Just where do you think that all of you are going?"

The pack stopped their departure and looked at one another for a moment. Then, beginning with Ruby and Ducky, each of them slowly turned back to face the female sharptooth in the distance. After a pause, Littlefoot decided to answer.

"Uh... We figured that we would give you all some family time..." He answered meekly.

Terri snorted. "You have helped Dein hunt for me for the last week, asking for nothing in return." She shook her head. "You went on a journey in an attempt to save my life and you protected my son through all of the trials you have been through." She stopped herself for a moment, as she was getting too emotional. Finally, she spoke again with a solemn voice. "There is a saying: a family hunts together." She then looked at Dein with a pleading expression. Dein seemed to look confused for a moment before suddenly taking on a far more serious expression. After a moment he gave a curt nod at his mate. Meanwhile, Chomper observed his parents in confusion from his position at his mother's feet. The rest of the pack looked on in uncertainty and anticipation as well. Finally, after the nonverbal conversation between the two adult sharpteeth had concluded, Dein spoke to the pack.

"A family hunts together, Seeker." Dein was addressing the leader of the pack by his sharptooth name. As Littlefoot had told him of his herbivore name during a previous hunt, the use of his formal name was quite consequential. He and the rest of the pack listened attentively. "You are all family now. Come to dinner."

As Chomper cheered on happily, the pack slowly began to walk towards the towering sharpteeth. It was one thing to be accepted by Chomper's family, but it was quite another to be effectively adopted into the clan. With happiness in their hearts and surprise showing in their faces, the pack of seven began to consume their hard-caught meal with the massive Tyrannosauruses. For the first time in many months they finally had parents to watch over them.

Now their training could truly begin.

......

A week later, outside of Hanging Rock:

"Do you think something happened to them?!" Pearl was beginning to panic. She had not heard from the brown flyer in nearly a month and he was due for one of his regular visits. It was their only way to communicate with their daughter and the delay was almost too much for her to take.

Detras sighed. "I sure that he will be here soon, dear." He placed his arm around her in a soothing gesture, which was a gesture that she reciprocated. "The evening is early and he probably got delayed."

The fast runners had to carry the same burden that Ruby had to endure. By the nature of her dietary needs, Ruby had to be apart from her family physically. By their good fortune, however, there was a flyer in her pack that could allow them to talk to Ruby in a way and to relay their wisdom and well wishes. They were together in spirit, but physically apart. Such was the consequences of Ruby's role in life.

Caw!

The two fast runners jumped up and faced the direction of the sudden call. They could just barely see a figure appearing at the distant horizon. It was Petrie. Pearl sighed in relief and Detras smiled. "See, I knew the flyer would be here on time. Now let's go see what our daughter had been doing."

Both of the fast runners then began to climb down from their perch on the high rocks and went in the direction of their cave. This would provide them greater privacy and protection for the inevitable conversation. In the half hour that it took them to climb down and reach their home, Petrie was able to meet them at their destination.

"Mr. and Mrs. Fast Runner! Ruby sends greetings!"

Pearl smiled, whereas Detras had to give a good natured chuckle. At first he had found Petrie's odd speech pattern to be weird and hard to follow, but now it was a welcome trait. The flyer was placing himself under some risk and using a lot of energy in order to do his periodic messenger flights. Both of them were deeply appreciative of his efforts.

"Tell her that we send her greetings as well." Pearl began, while Detras presented a fish to Petrie. "We have already eaten, little one, so go ahead and eat... You must be hungry."

Petrie gave a nod of thanks as he hurriedly swallowed the fish in a few bites. As he was finishing his last bite, Detras asked the most pressing question that was on his mind.

"How is our daughter?"

Petrie stretched his wings for a moment. In his multi-hour flight he had barely had any time to stop and take a break. Therefore, he took advantage of the rest period that he had at his destination. "She well." He answered simply. "We find Chomper's mommy and daddy!"

Detras's smile widened at that news. "How did that go?" He was hopeful that things had gone well, but there was always the possibility that Chomper's parents did not believe the story. Thus, his hope was tempered until confirmation arrived.

Petrie answered after a pause. "It long story but... Daddy believe us but mommy was sick..." Petrie then began to elaborate upon the events that led up to Chomper's mom recovering and the formal adoption of the pack into Chomper's family. It took nearly half an hour before he was finished, but the parents were full of questions afterwards.

"Well... That is good! They can give you the training you need now that you're... what you are." Pearl began. She had to acknowledge the irony that Chomper was entrusted to Ruby's care and now Ruby was entrusted to the care of Chomper's parents. It seemed that there was now symmetry in the order of things. But now that brought up the issue of training. The main reason the pack was heading towards Chomper's parents was to get trained in how to do what they had to do during the next Cold Time. Each of them would undoubtedly have to hunt larger prey. With that in mind, she asked a question. "But what about that training? Is it going well?"

Petrie seemed to hesitate for a moment. "Uh... yes... kind of..."

Detras tilted his head at Petrie's statement. "Kind of?"

Petrie nodded. "We try hard and Chomper's parents good teachers... But training very hard... Me have to train again in morning."

Pearl's eyes when wide. "You're not even going to get a break?!"

Petrie nodded. "Me training is to fly faster and longer. Me fly to you and back tonight, then fly to you and back again tomorrow." He then yawned. "Petrie going to be tired."

Detras looked at Pearl with a concerned expression. "Surely that isn't necessary..."

Petrie shook his head. "Me no argue with Dein. Dein big. Me must fly faster and stronger. Me the scout." Petrie paused for a moment. "He tell us that a pack only strong as weakest member. All of us too weak! All of us must get stronger!"

Pearl and Detras looked at one another again. Finally Pearl spoke. "Well... I am sure that he has your best interests at heart." She then thought for a moment, with her hand at her chin. "We could gather some food for you again tomorrow, Petrie. Since you will be seeing us again."

Petrie smiled a bit at the offer. "Thanks Mr. and Mrs. Fast Runner. Anything you want me to tell Ruby?"

Pearl smiled and seemed to look at something far away. "Yes, now that you mention it there is." Her voice was distant, as if she was considering something deeply. "...but it will have to wait until you get here tomorrow."

......

Littlefoot was utterly exhausted. After being told that the pack would have to get their morning meal prior to the rise of the bright circle, each member had hurriedly tried to catch some fish before the fall of the bright circle the previous night. Although each was successful, by the time that they had caught their food for next day the bright circle had long since fallen below the horizon. As a result, each was severely sleep deprived by the time the bright circle finally rose. That was when they all heard the sound that they were dreading.

Roar!

"Urgh!" Littlefoot groaned at the interruption of his dreamless sleep. The roar of Dein meant that another day of training was about to commence. Another day of having their flaws pointed out and corrected. Another day of running drills. Another day of seemingly pointless activity.

Another day of misery.

The others began to arise as well, none of them looking forward to the day that lay ahead of them. Cera let out a rage-filled growl, but continued to rise anyway, whereas Ducky had to physically shake Spike despite the loud roar that had succeeded in awakening everyone else. Ruby and Chomper both sighed as the wakeup call was given.

"Time to rise and shine, slow biters!" Dein called in a teasing manner.

Chomper cringed at his father's rude manner. He would have questioned the harshness, but he remembered his father's lesson from when the training regime began.

"I must warn you that this will not be pleasant for any of you. The Time of Training is meant to be hard and cruel."

"Why is that Mr. Sharptooth?"

"The Time of Training is when a sharptooth of my kind sheds his childhood weaknesses. It is the time when a sharptooth must push himself harder and faster than he has ever gone before. A juvenile two-footer will eventually need to join a pack, just like your kind does, Seeker."

"Really? I though your kind was..."

"A bunch of loners?"

"Well, yeah..."

"We may become that way as adults, little one, but as young ones we have to improvise. We have to learn to put up with one another without killing each other. That is why the Time of Training is meant to be harsh, both physically and mentally."

"Daddy? What do you mean?"

"It means that I will treat you all like dirt. It means that you will have to find your food outside of training. It means that you will have to rely upon one another for support, because you will obtain none from me."

"What if we can't find enough food?!"

"Then you will go hungry, Stern Claw."

"Dad... Do you have to?"

"Yes, son. If you want your friends to be trained then this is the way in which our kind goes about it. You are overdue for this yourself, Path. You have been a child too long."

"But I thought that you said I had already past being a child when I killed for the first time..."

"Ha! I said you were no longer a hatchling. There is much more that has to be done before you are an adult, Path. But... If you want to remain a child then...

"No! I will pass this test!"

"Good, that's the spirit! Now as for the others, if you don't want..."

"No, Mr. Sharptooth! We will pass your test! Show us how to take down large prey!"

"That's the spirit! Now let's see if you still as enthusiastic when you are actually in the training..."

Chomper shook his head. He almost wished that he had cowered out of the training despite the stigma that would have followed him, but he knew that this was for his own good. Even if he already had experience in interacting and working with others that did not mean that he had the other skills that the Time of Training demanded. He was far more sociable than other sharpteeth of his kind, but his speed, dexterity, and strength was stunted by his time in the Great Valley. Skills that should have been well honed were instead atrophied from disuse. He had to get better.

"Little ones..."

Chomper turned and saw that his mother was speaking. She had recently begun to feel well enough to participate in regular hunts again. As a result her figure, which had been emaciated to the point of almost being skeletal, had now began to regain its plumpness and tone. Her strength and feistiness had returned. He was heartened to see that his beloved mother was now back into the shape that he remembered. However, that also meant that her firmness had returned as well. Terri resumed addressed the children.

"I wouldn't keep Dein waiting. Remember what happened the last time that you slept in..."

Ruby shook her head at that memory. "I don't want to be forced to run like that again!"

Ducky shared her sentiments and called out at nearly the same time. "That was terrible! It was! It was!" Spike, meanwhile, groaned in agreement, before forcing himself off of the ground.

Terri smiled. "Then up you go, kids! Good luck out there!"

......

"How is everyone feeling?" Dein called out loudly.

"Urgh..." Came the response from Cera or Stern Claw as she was named in sharptooth. They had been made to run all morning and she was driven to the point of exhaustion. She literally couldn't go any further. It was a situation shared by the others.

"Can't... catch... breath..." Chomper gasped out. He couldn't run as fast as his companions, but he had insisted on running the same distance. He had only finished moments before, whereas the others had finished several moments prior. Therefore, his shortness of breath was more pronounced than the others.

Ducky and Spike both didn't say anything, but lay prone on the ground in a struggle to regain normal breathing.

Ruby and Littlefoot were in slightly better shape, but only slightly. Each knew that they couldn't take much more of this abuse. They had been pushed to far beyond what they are capable of achieving. Finally, Littlefoot spoke.

"I don't think we are doing well, sir." He answered truthfully. He then looked back at the pack and noted the condition of their feet and lower extremities. Spike and Cera both had signs of swelling from various incidental injuries that they had obtained and re-irritated during the several days of training. He knew that any further training like this would cause more permanent injury. With that in mind he continued. "I think that some of us might get hurt if we go on, sir." Something galled the brown fastbiter about addressing anyone as 'sir', but he knew it was part of the training. "Please let them rest."

"You would fail the training if we did that, Littlefoot." Dein called Littlefoot by his herbivore name, a not so subtle reference to him being as weak as a youngling longneck as opposed to a fastbiter. For reasons unknown to Littlefoot, this angered him. "Are you willing to do that just because some of your pack is too weak to go on..."

Littlefoot growled in annoyance and answered vehemently. "YES!" He began to pace as he took on a wild and crazed look. "They are my friends and they are my responsibility and I will not let anyone harm them!" His teeth were bared and drool was emanating from his mouth uncontrollably. He was so livid that the foolishness of his actions didn't register in his mind.

The other members of the pack got up slowly and looked upon the scene in horror. Was Littlefoot actually trying to challenge Chomper's father? Chomper struggled to get up and tried to reason with Littlefoot. "Littlefoot..."

Littlefoot looked back at the sharptooth with eyes that brokered no disagreement. Chomper cowered back in an apologetic gesture and awaited his father's response, as did everyone else. They did not know what to expect. Anger? Further punishment? The retraction of their adoption by the sharpteeth? However when they finally did her Dein's response it was not what they expected. It was...

Laughter.

Uncontrollable laughter.

Littlefoot was livid and seemed to go in front of his pack in an almost protective, if futile, gesture. The others went behind Littlefoot while thinking that both their leader and Dein had probably gone insane. What was going on?

"Finally!" Dein exclaimed while still chuckling. "You all finally passed the first test."

Littlefoot blinked in a stupefied fashion. "What?"

Dein smiled an approving smile. "The pack to be or, in your case, the pack is to be worked until they are at the point of injury..." He began to explain. "The test is over when either the leader demands a stop to the training or a member suffers an injury..."

Littlefoot shook his head in a dumbfounded way. "Why?"

The sharptooth smiled and continued explaining. "If the leader cares about his pack, then he will see to their wellbeing. If, however, the leader does not then he shouldn't be the leader. Had you not stepped in to save your packmates then I would have named the first one to suffer an injury as leader..."

Ruby stepped up at this point to interject. "Why would you do that? Why would that be done?"

Dein nodded at the rose-colored fastbiter's question. "Because a leader will be willing to risk injury or worse in order to help his pack..." Dein then turned towards Chomper. "Remember that Path..." Ruby had to smile at Dein's lesson, knowing that the sharptooth test of fidelity would one day force Chomper to make the same sacrifice that she had made in her test in order to prove his worth as a leader. Chomper's father was seeing to it that Chomper got the lesson even if he didn't give away the test itself. Dein, however, had again turned his attention to Littlefoot. "By risking my anger, you have shown yourself to be a decent leader, Seeker, and your followers have shown themselves to be loyal packmates. You are all ready to move on to the second stage of training."

"The second stage?" Cera asked inquisitively.

"Yes." Dein affirmed. "Now it is time to see your tracking skills."

......

Meanwhile in the lowlands:

"You bastards!" Skytail raged. "How can you work for that fiend!?"

A tan colored Utahraptor walked out from amongst the pack of fastbiters. The pack seemed to include a wide variety of kinds from the small Velociraptor to the large Utahraptor. It seemed that this tan-colored character was the ringleader.

"Fiend? Friend? What is the difference?" The fastbiter asked nonchalantly. "He is the bigger sharptooth so it seems like a good idea to listen when he makes an offer..."

Skytail growled at the insufferable upstart. "A good idea until he betrays you!"

The tan colored Utahraptor shrugged and looked at his minions to make sure that all of them were still in place. A few had bailed from the makeshift pack earlier, so he had offered positions of authority to those who killed the deserters. It seemed that his actions worked, as there was now no faltering in the ranks. Fear and rewards. The only way to ensure power... The fastbiter absentmindedly thought to himself.

"Red Claw won't betray those who are useful to him and I plan to remain useful. Unlike... What is your name again?" The tan-colored fastbiter asked mockingly.

"I am Skytail you toothless fiend!"

"Ah, Skytail!" The fastbiter exclaimed in mock remembrance. "I knew it was an uninspired name of some kind..." He smiled as he could see Skytail and his pack begin to growl at his minions. Time to have a proper introduction. He thought to himself. "Well, my name is Calin. Hello!" He said in an almost cordial voice. "I will be taking this area now and if you and your bunch of fools wish to challenge us then you will be annihilated like the rest... Red Claw has no need for competitors..."

Skytail spat. "Only slaves!"

"Slaves? Ha!" Calin mocked. "Red Claw has a grand vision that you are obviously too stupid to see. For too long the strongest of us sharpteeth have been hindered by the weak... Taking food that could benefit the strongest... And worse yet the Valley of Herbivores that mocks the natural order from their impenetrable rock walls!" Calin was now worked into a frenzy as if he were possessed. "All of the weaklings must be purged to restore the natural order... and all who oppose must be destroyed." Calin then began to walk towards Skytail's pack, which caused them to snarl at him. He stopped with a shrug and spoke in a conversational way, which was disturbing in the context of their situation. "You don't have to die right here." He then looked towards all of them as if he were making his case before a judge. "You could join with those supporting the natural order. All you have to do is prove your strength... We have all joined by being the strongest converts in each of our packs..."

Skytail yelled in rage. "After you all killed the rest, you honorless fiend!"

Calin shrugged. "Such is the way of things... The strong live and the weak die. Honor is simply a lie meant to protect those who are afraid of the strong. I was proven to be the strongest in my pack when Red Claw and the others came for us and I was the only one who lived to be taken!" He seemed to be looking up in the sky with a prideful smile at the memory, before looking back towards Skytail's pack. "Are any of you strong enough to prove your worth?"

"Die in a dung heap, you monster!" Taunt proclaimed loudly. Skytail looked back at his fellow packmate. "We are with you, sir! Don't worry!" All of the other members of the pack nodded at Taunt's affirmation of loyalty.

Skytail could only smile at the loyalty of his friends in this hopeless situation. "I never doubted it for a moment." He then turned towards Calin one more time. "None of us are joining you monsters!"

Calin smiled a lazy smile. "Call us what you will, but let's see if you can outrun my band of 'monsters'... We are rather hungry and we haven't had a meal in days..." He then simply pointed at Skytail's pack and gave a yelp. His band of assorted sharpteeth then advanced en masse like an unstoppable force of nature.

Knowing that the pack had no chance against the massive assemblage of sharpteeth, Skytail and the others ran as fast as they could from the advancing horde. Their very lives hung in the balance.

......

Back in the Land of Shallow Waters:

Ruby looked at the shiny rock in her hand that Petrie had given her that evening. It seemed to shine like blood in the moonlight. It was a blood stone.

The words that Petrie had relayed to her from her parents still echoed in her mind. She found herself overwhelmed by the revelations that they contained. Her distant mindset and fixation on the stone did not go by unnoticed.

"What is that, Ruby?" Littlefoot asked suddenly. The pack was getting ready for sleep as their tracking test had been completed hours before. However, for the first time in several days, the pack actually had a few moments to socialize with one another. The time of endless running, personal insults, and little food was ending and now the last day of the Time of Training was approaching. None of the pack knew what that entailed, but each felt that it would more than likely be something unpleasant. As a result, each relished this short amount of time before the final day of training.

Ruby looked at Littlefoot, before again looking at the jewel in her hand. "My parents gave this to me." She answered simply. "They gave it to Petrie and he gave it to me. Petrie gave it to me after they gave it to Petrie." She then looked deeply into it as if she were trying to find something hidden within its crimson depths. "This is the rock they named me after."

Littlefoot stared at the stone for a few moments. It was most certainly a unique stone from Littlefoot's perspective, as he had never seen one before in his life. "So... it's called a Ruby?" He deduced based upon Ruby's words.

Ruby nodded. "Yeah... The sharpteeth call it a blood stone." She seemed to go deep into thought. "My mommy named me after this stone because she found it when looking for nest building materials before my egg was laid... She took it as an omen." She sighed. "My daddy said that he didn't believe in such things, although my mommy always did..."

Littlefoot was curious now. "An omen of what?"

Ruby smiled and looked directly at Littlefoot. "The sharpteeth called it a blood stone for a reason. If they didn't have a reason then they wouldn't call it a blood stone." She continued after her momentary lapse into repetition. "It is an omen of bloodshed."

Littlefoot frowned. "That doesn't sound like a good omen! How did your mother feel?"

Ruby shrugged. "She said that she was fearful of my future. But after I found and taught Chomper the leaf-eater language, she suspected that the omen had something to do with sharpteeth... Perhaps it was a sign that Chomper and I were connected..."

Chomper had been listening to the conversation from some distance away. Hearing Ruby's words, he finally decided to get involved. "Is that why they sent you to the valley?

Ruby smiled. "I think so, Chomper. Since me and you were connected, they thought that it was fate for us to go into the valley when your parents requested my help." She sighed. "I guess the stone was correct about us being connected... but not in the way that my mommy had in mind..."

Littlefoot took on a sympathetic look. "It doesn't matter, Ruby. We are here for you. Even though we are what we are now." He then hugged the rose-colored fastbiter, a gesture that was replicated by Chomper.

Without breaking the hug, Ruby spoke. "Thanks, guys. But that was why my mommy and daddy gave me the stone."

Chomper and Littlefoot both broke away from the hug and looked at the fastbiter with confused expressions.

Ruby smiled. "They wanted me to know that it was my fate to be what I am and that I shouldn't be ashamed. I guess when they heard that we were training that they knew that I needed a reminder that I wasn't alone."

Suddenly a voice called out from across the sleeping area.

"None of us are as long as we are together."

The others looked over to see Cera, who was getting lying down but watching the conversation. Ducky, Spike, and Petrie were nearby listening attentively, having apparently heard the entire conversation as well. Each then nuzzled the other in solidarity before huddling together in preparation for sleep. Each knew that they had a big day tomorrow, so each wanted as much sleep as possible.

Before finally lying down to sleep, Ruby took one final look at her crimson stone. It was as red as the richest blood, but it also had a distinct sparkle to it in the bright moonlight. A symbol of doom, with hints of life from within its dark depths. A perfect symbol of what they now were. They may have to stalk, chase, and slay, but they still had that which gave life its meaning: love and companionship. As long as they retained that, they were not lost.

Feeling a bit better after learning the lesson that her parents had undoubtedly wanted to teach them through the stone, the rose colored fastbiter fell into the most restful sleep she had in many days.


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