The Seven Hunters

Chapter 39 A pearl in the rough

The trust of the innocent is the liar's most useful tool.

― Stephen King

"The name's Calin."

The newcomer's statement hung in the air for several moments as Ruby stared him down. He seemed to be a young adult, probably a few years older than her, and his larger size attested to that fact. He had a pale tan coloration to his skin and he lacked feathers, being of the same subspecies as Skytail and the others. He seemed quite alert and healthy, with his defensive posture matching her own. The only noticeable deficit in his overall demeanor was that his tail slumped behind him. She was unsure, however, if that was indicative or injury or something else. The possible injury and the stranger's smug demeanor put Ruby on edge, something about it all simply made her feel uncomfortable. An instinct deep inside of her seemed to be screaming that he was untrustworthy. In any case, it would be something that Littlefoot and the others would have to decide. Since Skytail's pack was introduced, they had never had to deal with intruders into their territory.

Suddenly she could hear the crashing of feet upon grass some distance behind her and she knew that the rest of the pack would soon be backing her up. With that knowledge in her mind, she pressed the matter.

"Why are you here?!"

The newcomer seemed to be considering his options at this point, as his ears twitched at the sound of approaching fastbiters, but he held his ground. He was apparently wise enough to know that a retreat would leave his flank vulnerable to attack. Instead, he took a few tentative steps backwards and placed his claws in a placative posture.

"I was passing through..." The newcomer, Calin, replied. "I was following the herds that were heading this direction."

Ruby was about to respond when the others arrived en masse. A torrent of growls left the assembled pack, as Littlefoot charged forward and bared his teeth. Ruby had given the signal to indicate an intruder and based upon her body language he suspected the worst.

He whispered in leaf-eater quietly. "Are you alright, Ruby? Who is this?"

Ruby whispered back in a low voice. "I am fine. He calls himself Calin. He says that he was following the herds." Her tone of voice indicated something else as well, something unsaid. Suspicion. She did not trust this character. Littlefoot gave a curt nod as he considered all of this.

"So the name is Calin, is it?"

The newcomer seemed surprised to be addressed by the leader by his name. Does this mean that he has heard of me? He thought with some concern. The two fastbiters had exchanged some whispered gibberish between them that made no sense to him; was that some kind of coded language? If so then that did not bode well for him, he deduced. A pack suspicious enough to have made its own language would be a paranoid pack indeed. Maybe I should take my leave and report back... He didn't get a chance to finish that thought, however, as Littlefoot continued.

"This territory is taken. We are the sworn allies of Dein and Terri, the dreaded two footers. All who oppose us shall be dealt with harshly." Littlefoot had used the style of voice and address that Dein had recommended for such an occasion. In many cases a boastful threat could stave off even the most dreaded challengers. You may be bluffing, but your adversary had no way of knowing that. Not to mention, with Dein and Terri on their side, Littlefoot knew that they had the upper hand if any challenger decided to press his luck. Not even Red Claw himself would attempt an attack here with two healthy two-footers and a pack of fastbiters on his side. The benefits simply did not outweigh the risks.

Littlefoot's statement, however, made something click in Calin's mind. Terri and Dein? He thought to himself with some amazement. Those are the two that Red Claw despised... That must mean... He looked over at the assembled pack, which was still fixing him with deadly glares. They all appeared to be fastbiters with two exceptions. There was a flyer, of all things. Why is the name of sanity is a flyer with the pack? Did they hatch it out as an egg? Is this a humorous case of imprinting gone horribly wrong? Normally, Calin's irreverent frame of mind would allow him to imagine that image, of a hatched sharptooth flyer calling the brown fastbiter "momma!", however he currently had seven carnivores looking at him with deadly intent, so his mind didn't linger on the thought. The other thing that caught his attention was the purple two-footer. That must be the one that Red Claw hates! Calin thought with some amazement. Red Claw never forgives being disrespected! Maybe if I... Calin suppressed a smile as a thought came to his mind. He would have to spend more time in the pack's territory in order to put his plan into action, but the rewards would be worth it. His mind made up, Calin knew what he had to do.

"I wish to join your pack." Calin exclaimed.

Littlefoot tilted his head at this. Well this is an unexpected development.

......

"Show us an offering, Calin, and maybe we will let you have a chance. No one enters a pack without passing a challenge."

Littlefoot's affirmation of the fastbiter tradition still echoed in the minds of those present. Calin had been charged with finding them a suitable offering of food and then the pack would present him with a challenge. If he could pass their unique test of wits then he would enter the pack as one of their own, otherwise he would be forced to depart. Such was the way of things. However, this unexpected situation left the pack with much to discuss.

The pack had assembled in their usual sleeping area in order to discuss the situation. It was high noon, but they needed to meet and discuss the issue of Calin nonetheless, and their sleeping area seemed to be the wisest meeting place. It was deep in Dein's and Terri's territory, which overlapped the fastbiter pack's, and therefore was safe from prying eyes and inquisitive ears. This was well and good, as one of the participants was not quiet about her grievances.

"I don't know if we need another member. Maybe we should set an unreasonable challenge for him to pass?" Littlefoot opened. "We are all friends and... I know that we would do anything for each other. But we know nothing about Calin." Littlefoot briefly reflected on the trials and tribulations that the pack had persevered through since their transformation. Even the challenges they faced from before their change was more than enough to make them fire-forged friends, but recent events simply amplified that point. Would they really be willing to allow another into their inner circle? It was a great risk.

"I do not know. I do not." Ducky admitted.

Spike gave a nod at his sister's uncertainty, before offering his own thoughts on the matter. "Was it just me or did Calin seem... a bit off?" Spike had to rely upon his powers of observation in order to read people back when he was a spiketail, due to his lack of speech and somewhat limited understanding of the intricacies of language. As a result, he was able to have a very good read on the mannerisms of others. This was a skill that he retained as a sharptooth and it was telling him that Calin was hiding something.

Cera pondered Spike's observations and Ducky's hesitation for a few moments. She normally would have voiced her dissent on the newcomer immediately, but the words of caution from among the two most accepting of the pack members gave her pause. We definitely need to be cautious here. She thought to herself. She was about to say something when she was suddenly interrupted by an angry outburst.

"We should have chased him away from us! Nothing good will come from him!"

Littlefoot and the others turned towards the source of the outburst. Littlefoot tried to remain composed but could not suppress a look of surprise. Cera and Ducky both stopped their conversation on the matter and slowly turned to confirm that the dinosaur speaking those words was who they thought it was. Chomper, meanwhile, stared at his former caregiver with amazement, mouth agape. He would have expected this lack of trust from Cera, but not from her.

Ruby was in the center of the circle with her claws clinched at her sides in agitation. The others had been engaged in a somewhat orderly discussion on the newcomer, but Ruby's outburst quickly silenced everyone. It was very uncharacteristic for Ruby and that filled the rest of the pack with some concern. What did she see that the others did not?

Cera spoke after a brief period of silence. "Um... Not that I disagree, Ponder... but what makes you think that?" This was unexplored territory for Cera as she was usually the outspoken one in questioning new situations, whereas Ruby was usually a voice of calm acceptance. Cera suspected that she was missing something important.

Littlefoot had to nod at this. "Yes, Ponder. Why do you not trust him?" He had to admit that he had his misgivings as well, as he had mentioned them to the pack already, but Ruby had apparently already made up her mind on the newcomer.

Ruby sighed deeply and looked downward for a few moments, as if she were collecting her thoughts. "He just doesn't seem true. He almost acts like a fake-face..." At the look of confusion from the others, she continued. "A fake-face... a dinosaur that doesn't feel, but pretends like he does..."

The others still seemed confused, but Cera offered a tentative question. "Like Pterano?"

Petrie immediately grew angry at Cera's accusation. "Hey! He not fake-face! He..."

Ruby interjected suddenly. "No!"

Everyone grew suddenly silent. That was the second time that Ruby had reacted harshly to something that was said in the pack discussion. It was now obvious to everyone assembled that something about the situation had Ruby spooked.

Ruby noted the stunned reactions of the others and quickly spoke more softly. "No. Pterano is not a fake-face. He cares about Petrie and he helped us. He wouldn't help us and care about Petrie if he were a fake-face." She sighed for a moment. "My... daddy had an encounter with a fake-face when he was younger... and he nearly died."

The others barely suppressed gasps at Ruby's admission. No wonder why she was acting so agitated. Her family must have had a history with these mysterious fake-faces.

Littlefoot moved closer to Ruby and asked his next question softly. "What makes you think that Calin is a fake-face, Ruby?"

Ruby shook her head. "The smile seemed forced... His request to join us seemed to be an afterthought..." Both Cera and Littlefoot nodded at this. That was part of the reason they were acting so suspicious at Calin's overtures. But Ruby was not done. "...And he waved at me after I raised my claws! After I raised my claws, he waved at me! It... It was like he didn't get the difference between greeting someone and preparing to kill them." She shook her head again. "Fake-faces are dangerous..."

Chomper joined Littlefoot in approaching Ruby and looked at the rose-colored fastbiter with inquisitive eyes. "Maybe you could tell us your story, Ruby? Then we could know more about these fake-faces."

Ruby paused for a moment before finally nodding. "Alright... Well I only remember what my father told me... This happened long before I was even an egg..."

"My daddy was an adult and had been away from his parent's nest for six cycles of the night circle. They had not taught him much in the way of survival. Not much in the way of survival had they taught him. His life was hard and a shortage of vegetation and fish were about to make his life much harder...

......

"Damn this blasted wind!" Detras muttered to himself. "I asked the night circle to protect me from starvation. Perhaps this is its answer?" He gestured with both arms out in a show of mock piety. "I can't starve to death if I have already frozen to death! Ha!"

Detras struggled on in the barren wasteland as the winds assaulted his purple body. He had kept his wits about him by relying upon his unique blend of dark humor, but the humor was fast being overtaken by the darkness in his one-sided banter with himself. He had not eaten for several days and there was no sign that the situation was soon going to improve. If only there were some fish or eggs around!

He was left alone with his downtrodden thoughts when suddenly he heard a welcoming voice on the wind.

"Greetings stranger! It seems like you are having a hard time!"

Detras looked towards the mysterious figure. It was a purple fast runner, probably not much younger than himself. He had a rather stocky build for a fast runner, but nothing out of the ordinary for another of his kind. His mouth was forming a curt smile and his open clawed gesture indicated potential hospitality. Detras smiled and decided to answer the strange fast runner.

"I am!" He affirmed. "Food is scarce!"

The mysterious stranger laughed a bit at that. A fake-sounding laugh to those familiar with socialization, but one that was still welcomed by Detras. He had not seen another fast runner since he left the nest of his parent's and he was starved for any socialization or kindness. The stranger then began to respond to Detras's affirmation.

"Indeed it is! Come along!" The stranger then motioned with his arm for Detras to follow him. "I know where there is a stream teaming with fish! It will be quicker if there are two of us to do the catching!"

Detras followed in the other fastbiter's steps immediately. The promise of fish and companionship being too much for him to simply pass up in his condition. Perhaps if he were wiser to the dangers of the world then he would have noticed the predatory glint in the stranger's eyes...

......

"My daddy followed the stranger into a dried out stream bed for a rather long time until they finally came across the river that the stranger was talking about. That was when he saw something that caught his attention..."

......

Detras was about to ask the stranger where this supposed river actually was when suddenly he could smell the tell-tale scent of moisture in the air. There it is! Detras thought to himself. He could not see the water of the river, but the sound of flowing waves and the smell of moisture indicated its location nonetheless. It seemed that the stranger wasn’t lying about the possibility of fish. Detras began to salivate at the possibility of food after so many days of starvation. His mind would focus on little else.

As he began to step over the hill, however, he could finally see the river before him. It was not as impressive as his nose had originally indicated, only being about half the size of the empty stream bed that they had walked through. This did not make the possibly of catching fish impossible, but it greatly dampened the fast runner’s spirits. Detras couldn’t help but think that if this river was ‘teaming’ with fish then it had room for little else. The river itself did not look promising at all.

Detras was about to say something to his otherwise silent companion, when he heard the other fast runner give a sigh of annoyance at something.

Detras turned his head in the direction that the other fast runner was looking and noticed a female fast runner coming from the other side of the hill. She seemed quite thin, as if she hadn’t eaten in quite a while as well. She had an angry glare fixed on the other fast runner and seemed to ignore Detras completely. When she was within a few feet of the duo, she finally spoke.

“Varen! Just what it the name of sanity are you doing now! We have little food as it is...”

Detras took careful notice of her words. They have little food? But what about the fish? As he was considering the female’s words in his mind, the male fast runner spoke.

“Come on now, sister... Things aren’t that bad. Are they?” Varen took a very brief glance in the direction of Detras and then stared back at his sister. It appeared that a nonverbal conversation was being conducted before Detras’s eyes. He was quickly growing suspicious of Varen... The ‘river’ was more of a stream than anything else and his sister appeared to be far too thin for this river to be teaming with fish. Perhaps Varen was prone to telling tall tales. In any case, he decided to see how this situation played out. He had traveled too far to simply leave now empty-handed.

Varen’s sister gave an exasperated grunt. Finally after fixing her brother with a deadly glare, she decided to speak. “I don’t know what you are planning, Varen, but knowing you it isn’t anything good...” She then began to storm off in the direction of the river. Undoubtedly in an attempt to secure some food for herself.

Detras had heard enough in order to determine that something fishy was going on. The signs all pointed in that direction and even his companion seemed to have an unguarded look on his face, just like a hatchling you got caught doing something bad. Detras decided that now was the time to make his concerns known.

“Look, Varen...” He turned the name over in his mind. It was odd that the other fast runner had spent the entire trip telling him stories about his adventures in the Mysterious Beyond, but did not even bother to mention his name or his sister. “You promised a river teaming with fish, but your sister is quite thin...” He let the question drop. It was obvious what he was accusing Varen of doing.

Varen looked at his with an uncertain expression, before it quickly changed into an apologetic one. “I’m sorry Detras... I suppose that I often tell things a bit more impressively than they actually are...” Varen seemed to be searching for the right words. “But there are some fish in that river... and when I saw you shivering in the cold, I figured that I could help you. I didn’t mean to mislead...” He fixed Detras a sad expression to indicate his apology, but Detras couldn’t help but notice a certain fakeness to it all. However, Detras had come too far in order to just leave, so he decided to see this river for himself.

“I suppose that is forgivable, Varen. Let’s just try to catch some fish.”

......

“Daddy waded into the river with Varen in order to begin searching for fish. Varen had the idea that Detras could swim for the fish and drive them towards Varen so that he could catch them. They began to have a conversation as they prepared.”

......

"So... You live here with your sister?"

Detras was trying to make Varen open up a little. He had seemed quite open and accessible prior to when they arrived at the river, but when confronted by the reality of the situation he had close off. It was almost as if he were trying to avoid finding himself caught in another lie. Detras did not say this, of course, but his doubts about his companion were growing by the minute.

"Yeah..." Varen offered. "We have been in this area since our parents were lost in a sharptooth attack." He then sighed, but it came across as a sigh of annoyance as opposed to an expression of grief. "My sister was always the excitable one. Don't pay too much attention on her comments about the fish. The situation isn't that grim." Varen then offered a slight smile.

Detras offered his condolences. "I am sorry about your parents." However, his heart wasn't really into his statement. Varen had just swerved from discussing the deaths of his parents, what would normally be a devastating loss to most dinosaurs, to suddenly trying to make his case about the fish again. Worse yet, he could tell from Varen's demeanor that he didn't actually care about the loss of his parents at all. It seemed to just be an inconvenience to him based upon his facial expressions.

The entire situation was beginning to feel Detras with unease. An older Detras would have listened to his instincts and departed from the mysterious fast runner, but Detras was not as skilled in listening to his inner voice as a juvenile. As a result, he stayed with Varen and prepared to fish.

Varen simply nodded at Detras's show of concern. "Thanks, but it happened a while ago." He then seemed to look at Detras for a long moment as if considering something, before suddenly looking away again. "Alright, I guess that we are ready to begin fishing."

Detras placed his hand into the water and seemed to look at how it splashed when he moved his hand around. The water was quite turbid, a sign of algae growth. Some part of him doubted that Varen would even be able to see the fish when Detras flushed them out from his position. Nonetheless, he decided to proceed.

"Good luck, Varen." Detras offered.

Varen smiled an odd sort of smile as Detras began to sink into the water. "No, Detras. Good luck to you..."

Detras didn't think anything of Varen's odd parting, but instead decided to focus on the task at hand. He took a deep breath and dived into the murky water.

The water was only about as deep as he was tall, Detras deduced, now that he was completely submerged. He could only see about a foot in any direction due to the algal bloom and the mud that he had drudged up when he walked into the river. These conditions were not good for fishing he could see almost immediately. He suspected that he was wasting his time in this enterprise. Nonetheless, he surfaced briefly and took in another deep breath before diving again. He would give this effort his best shot.

He quickly began to swim in the murky depths and soon passed the area where he had disturbed all of the mud. He was relieved to find that the water was much clearer in this area and he could see for quite some distance.

No fish. He observed as he proceeded on his swim. There were no signs of movement or even fish corpses in the water. The water seemed quite still and dead. He was about to surface and suggest to Varen that they seek out a new area, when something caught his attention some distance away. It was a large lump on the bottom of the water that seemed to have a rock atop it. Thinking this to be curious, he surfaced one more time and then quickly resumed his swim. He needed to find out what that was.

He did not notice that Varen was keeping pace with Detras by walking behind the fast runner...

As he approached the large lump on the bottom, he noticed that it was covered not only by a boulder, but also by dust as well. He couldn't quite make of what he was looking at. Taking some time, he slowly began to wipe away some of the accumulated dirt and took a closer look. It was quite slow going and he was about to surface again in order to have a fresh breath while he worked, but then suddenly a large clump of dirt fell from the object in order to reveal its idenity.

It was a skull. A fast runner skull. This was the body of a fast runner.

Detras nearly screamed when he saw the empty eye sockets of the skeleton in front of him. What was a fast runner doing down here and why was it weighed down by a rock? The placing of a rock like that required time and intent. His mind racing in a near panic, Detras began to swim upwards in order to surface. He was nearly out of air and he was scared out of his mind. Who could have done such a thing? He thought to himself.

Suddenly, as he was nearing the surface, he could see a purple face staring at him from the surface of the water. It was the face of Varen.

Oh no! Detras thought as his mind finally put the pieces of the puzzle together. He now realized that the murderer was right in front of him.

As he felt Varen's large body crash into his, Detras noted with horror that he had the air knocked out of him. Now it would only be a matter of moments before he drowned. How could he meet his end like this?

In the moments that followed, Detras was only aware of flashes of light and bursts of sound. He could hear the suppressed growls of his opponent when he apparently succeeded in gouging his eyes, he could hear the dampened sloshing of their struggles in the water, and he could see flashes of light as he turned head over heels in his attempt to right himself and find the surface. Finally, however, he began to become less aware of his surroundings as he became oxygen starved. It was almost over.

As his vision and hearing began to fade, he almost thought that he heard a massive 'thunk' as if something had hit the water. Then he could feel himself begin to rise. Was this what happened when dinosaurs died? Did their essences rise into the stars as the stories told? He didn't have much time to ponder his predicament as his consciousness began to leave him. The final thing that he saw before blacking out was the concerned face of a female fast runner.

......

Detras came to very slowly. One of the first things that he noted was that he felt horrible. His head felt as if it had been bashed by a rock and his legs felt heavier than the heaviest rocks. However, there was air. Glorious air! He could breathe again... but how? He was certain that he was a goner once Varen had him in his grasp. What had saved him?

Gradually, as his wits returned to him, he could hear a soft sound in the distance. It was softer than the crashing waves of the river, but far more mournful. Someone was crying. Detras, despite his weakness and misgivings, slowly rose to his feet and half walked, half crawled in order to see who was crying.

It was Varen's sister. She was sitting beside some object in the distance and was crying into her hands. He could tell by her shuddering and sobs that she was utterly unaware of Detras's recovery. For a moment he was unsure of what to do. Should he interrupt her private moment and inquire as to what happened? Or should he quietly depart the area before Varen returned. After a few moments of hearing the female's grief, he clinched his hands into fists. He knew what he had to do. With slow, unsteady steps, he decided to approach the female.

As he approached the female, he could see that she was in front of some purple and red object. It seemed familiar in some way, but he didn't have much time to consider that thought. He suddenly felt very dizzy and barely caught himself before he crashed headfirst into the ground below. Before he could continue his journey to the female, he heard her speak.

"I didn't mean to kill him, mother! But I had no choice... He... He..."

The voice was interrupted by sobs once again as the female fast runner again descended into her grief. Detras, meanwhile, slowly righted himself again and walked slowly towards the female. He stopped when he realized what the object in front of the female was.

It was Varen.

His body lay prone on the ground, with obvious track marks from where she had apparently dragged him out of the water. Now cognizant of his surroundings, Detras could also see where he was dragged out of the water. Had she saved him? He then took another look at her fallen brother. His eyes were wide with what seemed like a permanent look of surprise, which was probably the final emotion he felt. His head had a large gash right above the left eye where the head seemed to have obvious signs of deformation from blunt trauma. He had met a quick end.

Detras decided to break the silence.

"Did you... save me?" His voice sounded very weak. Perhaps the struggle had taken more out of him than he anticipated.

The stranger turned around and looked at Detras with a mixture of surprise and grief. "I... Yes." She continued to shed tears as she continued speaking. "Do you feel alright... my brother was... my brother..." She trailed off.

Detras wanted to embrace the female, but was uncertain if that would help her in this situation. She had apparently saved him at the cost of killing her own flesh and blood. He had no idea how to respond.

"I... am alive. Thanks to you." He finally offered. He was grateful, but uncertain how to approach the situation. If he mentioned what she did to her own brother then that would probably make her feel even worse. "Why did he do it?" He finally inquired. Murder was not unheard of with omnivores, but usually there was a good reason. Whether that be to stop a threat, get food, or win a mate, but Varen's actions seemed arbitrary. Why did Varen want him killed?

The female was silent for a few moments before responding. "My father gave me the duty of watching Varen when he died... He is my youngest brother." She stopped for a moment in order to collect herself. For his part, Detras did not rush her. "My other brother, Trafir, disappeared some time ago and I didn't know why..."

Detras deduced where this story was going. "Was he... the fast runner that I found in the water?"

The female nodded sadly. "I think so... I knew that Varen was cold, but how could he do that? To kill his own..." She took in a shuddering breathe in order to compose herself. That was when Detras had a disturbing thought. She was very thin, but Varen looked stock and well fed. What if... No...

The female then completed his thought with her own deduction. "...To result to cannibalism..."

Detras was stunned. The fiend had killed his own brother to use as an alternate food source and obviously left his own sister out of the secret. Doing nothing while she began to starve in this inhospitable land. Then he had lured Detras himself here in order to have him meet the same fate. What kind of monster does that to their own kin?

"Was I going to be next?" The female asked softly. "Was he simply keeping me around so that one day I could..." She shook her head. "I cared for Varen! I CARED for him!" She raged. "And this... this is what he actually was... He didn't care about any of us at all."

Detras swallowed and embraced the female. To his surprise, she did not break the embrace but rather continued to sob into Detras's arms. They were now the only ones left in the land by the river.

After a few moments, almost as an afterthought, Detras asked an awkward question. "I... I haven't been introduced to you properly, have I? Uh... I am Detras." He offered.

The female blinked away a few tears and look at the male before her. She offered a slight smile. She was still distraught over her killing of her own brother, but she knew that it was the right course of action. She couldn't let him kill an innocent in cold blood. With a slight pause, she answered. "My name is Pearl."

......

"That was how my mommy and daddy met. They had a hard few days after... what my mommy had done, but daddy helped her to accept the situation. They became mates later that year."

Ruby then looked at the stunned listeners around her. "My daddy never forgot the lesson that he learned that day and he never wanted me to forget either. Some dinosaurs may pretend to feel, but they don't feel. If they could feel then they wouldn't need to pretend. We have to be careful in avoiding those dinosaurs. Fake-faces are dangerous."

There was silence for many moments as the pack absorbed Ruby's story. None of them could have guessed that their parents had a life story that was steeped in so much death and betrayal. The guilt over killing your own brother, even if he deserved it, was more than many of them could comprehend. However, her lesson about fake-faces was noted by all who were present. They needed to be careful with the Calin situation.

"That... was a sad story, Ponder. It was, it was." Ducky offered.

Ruby nodded. "I cried when I first heard it... I knew that I never knew my uncles, but my daddy's story made me know why."

Chomper had a dour expression on his face. "We sharpteeth can... result to cannibalism if we are starving." As the heads of the others turned to him, he quickly added. "But usually only to those already dead. The dead don't need their meat, after all."

The others would have looked horrified at Chomper's tale, but they had now been sharpteeth for many months. The realities of survival no longer horrified them as they once did. They were much changed from the seven young biters that had originally fled from the valley.

Littlefoot then finally spoke, as he had had time to consider Ruby's story. "Thanks, Ponder. I am sure that story was not easy to tell." At her confirming shake of the head, he continued. "I agree with all of you about not trust Calin too easily. He is a stranger. But we shouldn't be too quick to make an enemy either..." He seemed to ponder the situation for a few moments. "Maybe we can offer a long challenge to Calin?"

Cera stared at Littlefoot for a moment. She was unsure what the leader was getting at. "What do you mean, Seeker?"

Littlefoot continued, as he realized that he had been thinking aloud. "Maybe we could make a long challenge like... I don't know... He has to help us in all of our hunts for one moon cycle." The others seemed to ponder that idea as he continued. "That way we could see if he continued to act... odd."

Spike nodded at this. "That seems like a good idea. It would give us more time to watch him."

Ducky and several of the others also voiced their agreement. Littlefoot noted that it seemed that a cautious attitude prevailed in the meeting. They would need to collect more information before reaching a conclusion. Speaking of more information...

"Spotter?"

Petrie flew down from his perch and landed beside Littlefoot. "Yes, Seeker?"

"I have an idea..." Littlefoot began. "Maybe our allies have heard about Calin? If so, then we could learn more about his reputation in the community. Also... we haven't had a chance to talk with them in a while. It would be nice to check in with our allies."

Petrie nodded. "Sounds good, Seeker. Me already eat this morning. Me can fly soon."

Littlefoot nodded in approval at the flyer. "That would be great."

At the other end of the meeting place, Cera looked deep in thought. Taunt... I haven't seen him in a while. I wonder what he has been up to?

......

Several weeks ago:

"Dad?"

Taunt's voice was tired and disbelieving in its tone. He was now face to face with a dinosaur that he never thought that he would actually be able to see again. There was so much pain and hurt in his history with his father, but yet something about having him here made him feel more secure. It was an odd conflict of emotions. Comforting memories from his childhood were clashing with the memories of hurt and betrayal from his independent years. Right now, however, the grief from losing his beloved comrades was still the prevailing emotion on his mind.

Thud looked upon his son with an apologetic expression. After his experiences, Thud felt as broken as his son currently looked. He had betrayed his son when Red Claw demanded that he and Screech chase away his son's pack. He had little choice as failure to comply would have certainly meant death, but he knew that his betrayal still placed a chasm between himself and his son. His son had struggled and apparently succeeded in making a name for himself in a pack of his own, while Thud had served as the lackey of the most hated sharptooth in the Mysterious Beyond. Thud's attempt to become strong enough to face any threat had instead made him a reviled figure. He had ended up becoming what he had originally taught his son to avoid. He knew that his son was more of a fastbiter than he was and that made witnessing Taunt's heartbreak all the more tragic.

Thud took a deep breath. "Yes, son." He had no idea how to respond to his son. What exactly could he say? Sorry for betraying you? Sorry for allying with the enemy? Sorry for not being there when you actually needed me? He knew that he was undeserving of such forgiveness, so he wouldn't even bother asking for what his son obviously would not give. "You need... you need to rest. I was worried that you may never wake up..."

Taunt seemed to fix his father with a surprised and sad expression. "Why... why do you even care? You tried to kill us."

His son's words made something in Thud break and he lost his composure. He sat down and looked down, blinking away the moisture in his eyes. His son simply knew him as the dinosaur who tried to kill his friends. Thud could fight against bloodthirsty packs, rage-filled longnecks, and other dangers of the wild, but he was helpless to his son's blunt assessment of him. He figured that he would simply tell his son the truth.

"I remember your last conversation with me, son. You were right then and I was so wrong."

"What in the name of sanity are you doing, dad? This won't bring mom back!"

Thud raged at his son's insolence. "I was too weak to save her and I will never let myself fail the ones that I love again! Red Claw is the strongest of us..."

"He doesn't care about you or anyone else! If you fail to perform..."

Thud grew tired of this debate. "You are too young to understand, son. The only thing that matters in the Mysterious Beyond is strength. I plan to ally with the strongest."

Taunt looked at his father with moist eyes. "This doesn't sound like the raptor that I used to know..."

Thud looked away from his son. "That raptor died when your mother died. I was a fool back then."

Taunt looked heartbroken at his father's statement, but decided to make his case. "I cannot support your decision father. I have found a pack of my own. An honorable pack. If push comes to shove then I will support them over you."

Thud began to shake as both grief and distress overtook him. He was unable to process the confusion torrent of emotions, so he simply reacted in the one way that he knew how. He had to push away the source of his torment. The only remaining thing that reminded him of what he had lost - his son.

"Then leave!" Thud raged. He then began to charge at his son, which caused him to flee from the area. "Keep yourself and your fellow runts out of my territory!"

As his son left without another word, Thud finally had time to calm down and reflect upon what he had said. He had turned away his son due to his rage and grief. He had also just referred to him as a runt - a grave insult to his son who had persevered despite being hatched weak and sickly. He had gone way too far. He had to make amends.

"Son?"

Thud called out to the empty field, but no answer came. He was now truly alone.

Thud continued. "After I said those things... I was ashamed."

Taunt retorted his father's apology. "That didn't stop you from still joining Red Claw, now did it?"

Thud looked away and shook his head. "No." He then paused for several moments as his son was shaking due to both being grief-stricken and cold. Thud reflected that he probably was not helping matters at all. "I still joined. I let my pride and ego get in the way of doing what was right. I was a fool."

Thud then took a shuddering breathe. He noticed that his son was now looking his direction again. At least he was listening, that was a good sign. With some hesitation, Thud continued.

"Your uncle and I allied ourselves with Red Claw and we had some successes. We captured the Lowlands for an entire wet season and expanded our reach into the nearby lands. We were unstoppable. And then Red Claw gave us those terrible orders..."

Thud was chasing away the offending fastbiters with great speed. He had to make an example for Red Claw so that any other upstarts would think twice about staying in the area. This was their land now and everyone needed to fear their wrath.

He was slowly advancing on the juvenile fastbiter and preparing to strike at its back when something grabbed ahold of his leg and knocked him down.

"Ah!" He screamed as he tumbled. Looking to his rear, he could see the culprit.

"Taunt!" He screamed in a mix of surprise and fear. Surely his son realized what he would have to do now? Red Claw was watching. Any insubordination on his part would lead to his death and that of his brother, Screech, as well.

He heard a roar from behind him. Red Claw was approaching. He would have to chase his son and make it believable. It was the only way to ensure that no other members of his family would die.

"I pretended not to notice when you and the rest of the pack hid in the cave."

Taunt looked at his father in surprise. "You knew that we were there? I was certain that..." A sob escaped him. "...that..."

Thud looked horrified at his son's unspoken accusation. "You thought that I was still trying to kill you?!" He couldn't believe that he had left that impression. Surely his son would realize that he would never do that to his son.

Taunt simply nodded his head and began to sob.

Night Circle! He thought that I actually wanted him dead! Not just that I was obeying orders... He actually thought... Taunt... Thud shook his head in disbelief. He didn't realize that his son thought that he hated him that much. Thud didn't hate his son at all, not even when Thud was a loyal minion of Red Claw. He may have had to make the chase believable, but he only pursued Taunt due to the consequences if he failed. Not only him but Screech would have been killed. But my son thought...

"Son... Son..." Thud consoled, as he approached his son slowly. Taunt did not move away as he was still overwhelmed by the revelations of the day. "I chased after your packmates and that is unforgiveable, but I would never kill you. Even if I would have caught you... I would have let you go... I would never..." He embraced his son as he too began to sob. Taunt did not repel his father's embrace as the two both shared a tender family moment for the first time in years.

When Breeze finally woke up several hours later, she was surprised to see Thud curled up with his father by the river bank, both of them being in a restful slumber. Still in shock from the loss of her packmates and her unexpected rescue, she likewise lay beside Taunt's warm body and returned to sleep.

Another long day would be in store for them tomorrow.


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