The Seven Hunters

Chapter 51 Journey to the valley

“You can't go home again”

― Thomas Wolfe

Dein was not an introspective sharptooth by nature, but as he chewed on the recently killed swimmer, he had time to think about their current situation. His son and his friends had just departed for the Haven Valley, or so the leaf-eaters had named it. As with so many other things in sharptooth society, the sharptooth name of the place referred to a story of a sharptooth who had lived there once. It was called Brekan's Gulch, so named after the legendary sharptooth who had fought his first battle there. With the news about Red Claw planning something, Dein had been hesitant to let Chomper go. The meeting was quite contentious.

"But I have to go with my friends! They need me!"

Terri roared in disagreement. "We have nearly lost you too many times! I will not allow you to go into a death trap!"

Chomper shook his head. "It is not a death trap! My friends will be there and the longnecks..."

"...who tried to kill you?" Dein interrupted.

Chomper protested this. "But that was before they knew that I didn't kill my friends! They are helping us now!"

Terri took a deep breath and answered sternly. "No. I will not permit it."

Dein sighed at the memory. He had never seen his son argue about something so passionately in his life. Chomper desperately wanted to be there for his friends and to confront those who had tried to kill him months before. It was clear that this was a matter of honor to Chomper. This was simply something that he had to resolve.

"I am a member of a pack! I go where the pack goes!" Chomper roared. It was unlike Chomper to openly contradict his parents besides an occasional whine when he was younger. Now, however, he was engaging in open defiance. Such actions, if taken by an adult sharptooth, would lead to the dinosaur in question being chased from the larger sharptooth's territory. ...if not worse. This change in tone was not lost on his parents.

"Watch yourself, Path." Dein spoke in a cold monotone.

Chomper seethed. "They all have fought with me and Seeker nearly died... What kind of coward would I be if I didn't face this danger with them?! Would I even be worthy of a pack name?" The insinuation was obvious; he was accusing his parents of forcing him to betray his vow of packhood. He was also accusing them of forcing him to be a coward. There was no shame in running away from a fight where you would surely lose, but there was shame in not standing with your allies in their time of need. With that in mind, he continued.

"You can't ask that of me. You don't have the right."

Silence prevailed for the next few moments, as neither Dein nor Terri could believe Chomper's challenge. They were his parents. They could demand anything they wanted of their own flesh and blood. However, Chomper's claim of right was not entirely unjustified. Chomper was effectively being forced to serve two masters in their current arrangement: his parents and the pack. Up until now there had been little disagreement between the two, and even when there was the pack would acquiesce to their two benefactors. Now, however, Chomper had clearly indicated which of the two sides he would favor. He was choosing the pack over his parents. He was choosing emancipation over security. Technically they could make a further demand of him. They could force him on threat of death or dismemberment to stay in the Land of Shallow Waters. But each of the sharpteeth present knew that would not happen. Chomper had chosen his path and now each would have to learn to accept the consequences.

"You do realize what you are getting yourself into?" Terri asked softly. Her agitation had now turned to sadness. Each two-footer sharptooth eventually grew tired of living under their parent's rule and would strike off on their own, but not while they were as young as Chomper. But he was already a member of a pack at this point, so that changed things.

Chomper nodded. "I do."

Dein stood expressionless. His mouth twitched for a few fleeting moments as if he were about to snap or break down. But nothing came. With a deep shuddering breath, he gave a simple response.

"Then depart from the nest, Path. Go to your pack."

It was only when Chomper had departed from their sight that Dein allowed himself to cry.

Dein shook his head at the memory. He was glad that he had swallowed enough of his pride to wish his son well prior to the pack's journey. Chomper may no longer be welcome at the nest, but he was still his son. Even if he had to be considered a 'guest' along with the other members of the pack. His demand of having the pack perform run-down duty for a month was also a kind of reconciliation in disguise. To allow another sharptooth to stay in your territory without asking for anything in return either indicated that you did not feel that they were a threat or it was an act of mercy on a weaker rival. Neither situation often applied, which is why that arrangement was seldom used. However, to allow a rival to stay while demanding tribute in return was a sign of respect. It showed that the stronger sharptooth acknowledged the usefulness of the other party. It was a show of respect. The former leaf-eaters may not have understood the full significance of the gesture, but he knew that Chomper, Taunt, and Breeze did.

Dein's thoughts were interrupted by heavy breathing to his right. Glancing back at his mate, he could see that she was still troubled by the events of the day. Not only had her son left the nest, but he was now on a journey which could be treacherous despite the number of his packmates and the size of their allies. Like any mother, she was worried for his wellbeing.

"We should have gone with him." Terri chastised herself. "He shouldn't have to go alone."

Dein sighed. "He isn't alone. He is with the best and only friends that he has known. He couldn't have better allies." He then looked at her with a bemused eye. "Plus you know that we cannot leave the territory. It is far harder to reclaim lost territory than it is to keep what you have. Not to mention, I don't think the residents of the valley would like us to pay a visit." He then added under his breath. "And unless they are offering a free meal, I am not inclined to visit them either."

Terri snorted in exasperation at her mate. "Oh, you are horrible!"

Dein gave a toothy smile. He was pleased that his usual snarkiness had helped bring her out of her funk. "Hey, you knew what you were getting into when you decided to become my mate."

With a sigh, she nodded and the two nuzzled for a moment. Each stood silently watching the bright circle descend where the pack had departed. It was a beautiful sight, but it seemed somewhat lacking without a youngling in the nest. After a few moments, however, Dein thought about the practicalities of their situation and gave a suggestion.

"I guess that we should check up on Thud." He snorted. It was hard to believe that Red Claw's former ally was now serving their will, but he was not displeased with this arrangement. After all, Thud had shown his good intentions by saving the pack's allies. "Let's make sure Calin hasn't decided to show up again."

Little did he know that Calin was far, far away.

......

The Mysterious Beyond:

"And only two came back..."

Red Claw's cold roar could be heard across the bluffs. The fastbiters had returned, but Goron was noticeably absent. In fact, several were missing now that Red claw took a rough head count. There also were no new faces to be seen. Thus, even before Calin spoke, Red Claw could tell that their mission had not gone well.

"Yes, sir." Zarc answered with obvious trepidation.

Red Claw blinked. Why was Calin's underling answering him?

Zarc continued his response. "The mission did not go well."

"Is Calin not capable of speaking for himself, biter?" Came Red Claw's reply. Normally such a break in decorum would result in the upstart being struck down, but Red Claw suspected something else was at work here so he resisted his impulse. Besides, the fact that Calin was not subduing Zarc for answering in his place meant something as well.

"I have replaced him as leader." Zarc answered him plainly. To say that this caught Red Claw by surprise would be an understatement. After all, Calin was still standing. Why would Zarc leave a potential rival in a position to challenge him again? It made no sense. With that in mind, Red Claw ignored his displeasure about the mission going badly for a moment and briefly addressed the matter of leadership of the fastbiters.

"You have taken leadership without killing Calin? This is most irregular."

Zarc swallowed and decided to follow the alibi that the two had come up with. "I bested him in fair combat, but he is too useful to simply kill. I spared him on the condition that he swore fidelity to me."

For his part, Calin was situated at Zarc's side, but a full step behind where the new leader was situated. It was a show of subservience, but also support. It indicated to the other fastbiter's that Calin was under Zarc's protection. Obviously this was the only thing keeping the tan fastbiter alive at this point. None of the pack members were stupid enough to attack the pack leader's second-in-command. An attack on him would be the same as an attack on the leader himself.

Red Claw gave a toothy grin. "And to me of course."

Zarc nodded. "Of course."

Red Claw pondered this for a moment. If what Rinkus had told him was true, Calin was planning on some kind of usurpation, either against Red Claw or Calin's rivals in the pack. He could have Calin killed right now for such plotting, but this event seemed to confirm something in Red Claw's mind. Calin was simply thinking about his position in the pack and trying to ensure his survival. No fastbiter can take me down. Red Claw affirmed in his mind. This is an internal fastbiter matter. As long as they fight amongst themselves, they will not dare go after me. With that, he decided to keep this new development under wraps for the time being. Zarc had replaced Calin and soon Calin would replace Zarc. Either way, the infighting between the fastbiters would keep them his pawns until his mission was over. That was all that mattered.

Zarc then turned back to the matter of the mission, which interrupted Red Claw's thoughts.

"I apologize for the failure, sir. It was Goron's fault, but I am leader now and I must take responsibility."

Red Claw snorted. "Then you are ready to die?"

"Uh... No." Zarc paled at Red Claw's sudden turn to savagery.

Red Claw laughed at this. Zarc has more honor than brains... He will not last long.

Zarc had been one of the few members recruited into the pack that didn't have to kill a loved one. He simply killed two of Calin's packmates who had attacked him and he was promptly allowed to 'join' the pack. As a result, he had not had the soul-crushing weight of familicide break his sense of honor and duty. This made him quite different than the other members of the pack. Less manipulable. Less corruptible. That being said, Red Claw knew that he could count on Zarc's obedience as any disloyalty on his part would lead to someone else taking his place. With that firmly in mind, Red Claw resumed speaking.

"There has been a change in plans. The residents of the valley have moved to Brekan's Gulch. This is fortunate for us and most unfortunate for them." He gave a toothy grin. "We are not strong enough to kill them all and to make our presence known to the herds, but we can weaken them for the final assault. Tonight we begin our journey!"

Red Claw pretended to ignore the muffled moans of the fastbiter's who had just gone done with a grueling journey of their own and instead focused on the task at hand. His fastbiter minions were not large in number, but they were brutal in their methods. However, he knew that he had exhausted the potential of using fear and force alone. He knew that he would not be able to annihilate the residents of the valley with his current forces, but he could still arrange a significant raid. If he can show the nearby packs the rewards of following him in the fading autumn, then they will surely follow him in the coming spring with even greater treasure being promised! One way or another he would have his revenge! On this night, just as on any other night, one thought sustained him.

The valley will fall.

......

Elsewhere in the Mysterious Beyond:

As the bright circle departed behind the distant horizon, a single longneck watched the light fade from the desolate expanse that he found himself in. The Mysterious Beyond, as barren and depressing as it always was, seemed to match his gloomy mood. There was nothing certain, nothing tangible here. Only darkness, shadows, and the unknown awaited them. But despite how foreboding the land seemed, nothing was as desolate as his current mental state. He didn't know what to think anymore. He had been the most accepting of his brother's change into a carnivore, but seeing him eat another dinosaur made something snap in his mind. Gone was the view of gently Littlefoot being trapped in the body of a sharptooth. Now only the image of Littlefoot the sharptooth remained. A killer. A threat. A danger. It was something that his mind simply couldn't reconcile with the adopted brother that he used to know.

"Shorty? May I talk to you for a moment?"

Shorty shuddered at the sudden intrusion by Littlefoot's voice. He had assumed that he was alone out here. He had made sure to leave his adopted father, Doc, and the pack behind. However, it seemed that Littlefoot had easily tracked him by scent. Danger! Some instinctual part of his mind yelled. Run away! Came another primal voice.

However, despite ever fiber of Shorty's being calling for him to flee, he did not. He stayed put in absolute silence. No indication was apparent that he had heard Littlefoot at all.

The silence dragged on for several moments and Shorty thought that Littlefoot may have moved on. However, the sound of clicking claws and the sudden appearance of a brown mass in the periphery of his vision soon indicated that he was mistaken. Littlefoot had decided to sit beside his brother. Shorty cringed at the conversation that he imagined was about to come.

But the silence dragged on. Neither of them said anything, but instead continued to watch the falling of the bright circle. After several moments its light had finally departed and the Mysterious Beyond descended into profound darkness. Shorty could hardly see anything, not even the figure of Littlefoot that he knew was only a few feet away. He was effectively blind and helpless to whatever predators may come.

"It isn't wise to walk off in the Mysterious Beyond like that." Littlefoot noted, ignoring the silence that had been maintained between them until now. "I can see well in the dark, but you cannot."

Shorty snapped. "That's because I don't eat people for a living! You do!"

Shorty couldn't see Littlefoot's face, but he could hear the nod in his voice. "Yes I do. That is all that I can eat now."

Shorty took a deep breath and stared disbelieving at the space where he believed Littlefoot was still sitting. "How can you accept it so easy? It's disgusting... It's horrible... It's... It's..."

Littlefoot answered from the other side of Shorty, startling him. "...frightening. I know. I know." It was now Littlefoot's turn to explain himself. "I was scared, upset, and disgusted when I started, Shorty. We all were... Even Cera cried when she had to do what she had to do. It was like a little death for all of us." Shorty could then hear a sigh emanate from the unseen fastbiter. "You heard our story, Shorty. I mentioned how horrible it was. But when you saw me... do what I had to do... it reminded you of something didn't it?"

Shorty couldn't stand it anymore and simply broke down. Was he that transparent? It was something that he had kept hidden from everyone including Bron. It was the secret about how he became an orphan. Between his tears, he spoke five simple words.

"Your kind killed my mom."

Besides a hard swallow from Littlefoot and the continued sobbing, silence descended upon the scene. What could anyone say to mitigate that? What explanations could possibly be given? Even if the reality could be acknowledged by reason, the raw emotions could not simply be washed away. Some memories were simply too dark to overcome.

"My mother was killed by one of Chomper's kind." Littlefoot offered. This revelation stunned the green longneck. "We and the others... we fought so hard to stay one step ahead of the sharptooth... But we eventually had to take matters into our own hands... I came up with a plan and we used Ducky as bait. Then we dropped a boulder on his head. He drowned in a water hole, but Petrie nearly died in the process." There was a pause for a moment. "But now when I reflect back on my actions I have to wonder: was the sharptooth all bad? He was just trying to keep himself fed. He was just trying to survive. In the end, we all have to do what we must in order to make it in this world."

A deep shuddering breath interrupted the fastbiter, the first indication that he was finding this conversation to be difficult. "That is why I cannot stay around the valley, Shorty. None of us can. I am a sharptooth now and I must kill in order to live. I don't want to be faced with the choice of either watching my friends starve to death or killing family, because I know what choice I would make." Littlefoot's voice took on a cold monotone. "I also know that if you were faced with saving your friends or killing me that you would choose to strike me down."

That acknowledgement made Shorty shiver, but he did not disagree with the brown fastbiter's words. "We are brothers but we are now worlds apart. We will have to... be separate... for the good of us all. But can we not simply be friends while we have the chance?" That was the question wasn't it? "I knew back when I was a longneck that I knew that Chomper would eventually have to leave and be what he had to be, but I still remained his friend. We can't abandon people just because we fear leaving them. If we did that then we would have no one at all."

It was now, after Littlefoot had poured out his feelings to Shorty, that the green longneck finally spoke. "I can try..." He offered in a tired voice. "I still think of..." No that wasn't right. "...you still are my brother. But I can't help but think of you as a threat now. That won't change." Shorty stated honestly.

Shorty could then feel Littlefoot place a hand on his shoulder, but Shorty did not recoil despite his lack of vision in the darkness. "That might be for the best, Shorty. I am a threat so you should think of me that way. But for the time being we are together... and we will always be brothers."

The two then sat in silence for several more moments. They were both grateful for getting this difficult matter behind them. Both of them couldn't help their own feelings, but each could try to understand the other. But in the end, can any of us do anything more than that? The beautiful moment was interrupted by the sound of a belly growling.

"Oh, that's reassuring!" Shorty snapped. "I am not an appetizer thank you very much!"

Littlefoot laughed. "Don't worry, Shorty! You are not in danger." There was a momentary pause. "Well... From me anyway. Can you see anything?"

Shorty simply gave a shake of the head. He couldn't see anything, but apparently his brother could.

"Alright. Then let's head back towards the others. We need to get you back to safety before something eats you."

With the emotional matters now behind him, Shorty's pride took control over his words. A trait that he shared with a certain yellow fastbiter. "I can defend myself!"

Littlefoot snorted and then grinned playfully. "Oh yeah! Then try to get me with your tail!"

Shorty took on a determined grin, faced where Littlefoot's voice had come from and struck with his tail at full force.

"Ow!" Shorty cried out in pain. "What the..."

"You just hit a prickly plant, Shorty!" Littlefoot chided with some humor. "You really need to work on your aim." He teased.

......

After sleeping for an indeterminate period of time, Bron could hear a commotion from nearby. Squinting his eyes, he could barely see that Shorty and Littlefoot seemed to be in the middle of a play fight of some kind. Or rather, Shorty was trying to play fight and Littlefoot was playing keep away in the nearly complete darkness. Shorty was missing horribly and Littlefoot was playfully mocking his longneck brother. Normally, he would interrupt such behavior before it woke anyone else up, but in that moment he decided to let the two brothers simply be. It seemed that whatever needed to be said between them had been said. The family may not be able to stay together forever, but on this night the two dinosaurs could simply be brothers. A small glimmer of happiness and joy in a world that was often full of despair. Despite the great uncertainty that the other parents entailed, Bron allowed himself to think that perhaps this journey would have a good conclusion after all.

When he finally lost consciousness a few moments later, Bron went back to sleep with a smile on his face.

......

The next day:

"Don't look, Shorty!" Bron quickly cautioned as he could see what lay ahead.

The large bloated corpse of an adult longneck lay on the barren ground. He had obviously died a few days prior, as the decomposition had only started to set in. It would have been faster, but the dry conditions of the area they now found themselves decreased the rate at which insects could find and feast upon the corpse. The resulting stench was nearly overpowering to the four longnecks, but to the fastbiters it elicited a different response.

"Awesome! The longneck was courteous enough to die before we got here." That comment came from Taunt, of course. "Should we invite your folks over for dinner, Seeker?" Taunt ended his comment with a taunt at his new leader.

Seeker simply gave Taunt an unimpressed look a responded in an equally snarky tone. "Did your father ever tell you that you were an ass, Taunt?"

Taunt shrugged in a flamboyant manner. "Why no... But Stern Claw has on a couple of occasions."

Seeker snorted as Chomper chuckled a little behind him. "Well for once, Stern Claw is right about something..." Seeker muttered under his breath.

Stern Claw responded before she could fully analyze his words. "Why thank you..." Then she finally got the full context. "Hey!"

As the sharpteeth chuckled at Stern Claw's antics, it filled the longnecks with a sense of dread. Another creature had died and yet they were laughing as if nothing had happened. As if being surrounded by death was a regular occurrence for them. It was another reminder of the chasm that now existed between the longnecks and the sharpteeth that followed them.

Sensing his father's discomfort, Littlefoot gave an exaggerated cough at the others indicating that they needed to cut it out. They were disturbing those who were gracious enough to help them when they needed it the most. His father and brother did not need to see this side of him. As it was, Shorty had already seen enough of Littlefoot's callousness. Sensing that they should use their talents to fetch some information, Littlefoot rushed to the body and gestured for his two best sniffers, Spike and Ducky, to join him.

"Dad?" Littlefoot began, alerting his father to his plans. "We should take a look at the longneck. We need to make sure whatever killed him is not a threat to us."

Bron seemed to consider this for a moment, before nodding at his son. He couldn't argue with his logic. If there was a hungry sharptooth in the area then they needed to be aware of it. Likewise, if the longneck were sick with a longneck illness then it would be best for the fastbiters to inspect it. There was no reason to risk sickening himself or his adopted son when the species barrier could serve as an effective guard against many diseases.

Upon seeing his father's approval, Littlefoot climbed on top of the longneck's prone neck and began to sniff furiously. Male longneck smell. Rotting smell. Blood smell. Nothing interesting here. He then proceeded to inspect the neck visually trying to see if he could spot the cause of death. There was no sign of an obvious injury, like a bite wound or claw marks. So this effectively ruled out a sharptooth from being the culprit. Likewise, there was no sign of illness or smell of disease. In fact, the only odd smell was a strange fragrant scent... It seemed familiar for some reason....

"He was killed by another longneck. He was! He was!" Ducky affirmed. "Look! His back is broken!"

Littlefoot and Spike both rushed to what Ducky was looking at and gawked at what they discovered. There was a small wound indicating where a whip-like tail had collided with the sauropod's upper back. Some dried blood caked the small wound and the smell of bone marrow, a very distinct scent, could be smelled. This longneck had been murdered by another of his own kind. The only question was why?

Littlefoot quickly relayed the information to his father, who looked at his son's surprised reaction with some bemusement, before finally nodding his head. It seemed that his father was not particularly confused by this finding. For his part, Littlefoot demanded an explanation.

"It was probably a courtship fight, Littlefoot. It happens with some longneck kinds." Upon Littlefoot's disgusted expression, Bron continued. "Son... You weren't old enough for me or your grandparents to give you 'the talk' but..."

Littlefoot snorted. "I know enough about that, dad. We don't need to have that conversation here!" Littlefoot groaned as he could hear Cera gleefully translating this awkward conversation to Taunt and Breeze. The laugher from the remainder of his pack soon followed.

Bron nodded. "I know your grandparents told you the basics, but they didn't tell you about courtship displays." At Littlefoot's confused expression, Bron sighed and continued. "In our kind, Littlefoot..." He then quickly corrected himself in light of Littlefoot's change. "In my kind... the female usually pairs off with the male of her choice and that is that. But sometimes multiple males may want the same female and then the males fight over her."

Shorty paled. "You mean that I will have to fight or die! We are no better than sharpteeth then!"

Bron shook his head. "It usually doesn't go this far, Shorty. The female chooses who she favors after the display and the matter is settled, but if the male tries to force himself..."

At Bron's cautionary tale, Littlefoot carefully sniffed the corpse again. There was a slight smell of female longneck as well. Taking a look at where the smell originated, he could see slight wounds to the inner part of the male's legs. These would be the exact same injuries that he would expect if the male were on the female and trying to...

Suddenly Littlefoot felt no sympathy whatsoever to the fallen male. He had gotten what was coming to him. With a grim expression, Littlefoot turned to his father and gave a knowing nod, a gesture which Bron reciprocated. They both knew what had happened here and why another longneck had defended the female. It was a reminder that evil existed in leaf-eaters and sharpteeth alike and that sometimes death was the logical outcome of evil decisions. Nature often killed indiscriminately, but sometimes it did seem to render justice onto those fighting against the natural order. This was one of those times.

Littlefoot also noticed that the pack was no longer laughing. Turning their direction, he could see that they were all equally stern-faced and disgusted. Fastbiters of their kind were pair bonders, who often retained the protection of a pack even when pairing off with their desired mates. To them the act of betrayal implied with taking another by force was abhorrent to their most basic instincts. For some other species this would not be the case, but for them it was an unquestioning fact. It was at this time that Littlefoot broke the silence.

"How about you four..." He was addressing the longnecks. "...go ahead for a little bit and see if you can find some food for yourselves. We will take care of things over here."

Bron stared at his son for a moment, before finally nodding. There was no doubt what his son meant by 'take care of things' but obviously he had to eat as well. Even though he was repulsed by the thought of even considering eating a partially rotting corpse, he knew that it was simply part of his son and his friend's lives now. He didn't need to think about or try to understand it, but he could simply accept it and move on. And that was the decision that he made.

"Come along, Shorty. Let's get some food. We can meet back up with your brother later..."

......

The Haven Valley:

The female longneck was deeply annoyed with how insular the valley residents behaved. Ever since she had arrived at the Haven Valley with her daughter, it was as if everyone kept her at a distance. She understood that the betrayal of Chomper and the death of the children made them paranoid about outsiders and cautious about information, but it still enraged her. Was she not related to the two elder longnecks? Did they not know her from several visits before? Was Littlefoot not one of her daughter's friends? How could they treat them like this? They may not have been doing it intentionally, but it was still infuriating.

She and her daughter had struggled enough after leaving to Old One's herd. The Old One had not been in the best of health in recent years and she finally passed on during one particularly hard journey across the barren lands. In the vacancy left by her death, many of the stronger longnecks fought for dominance over the herd. As a result many of the more ambitious males and females fought for rank and even some of the deputies fell in these battles. It was horrific and greatly destabilizing for the herd, especially after the loss of the eggs. It was as if the social fabric of the herd was coming apart at the seams. They put up with the intolerable situation until one day...

During one of the battles, she had seen two males fight one another not only for rank, but also for a female. Normally in such battles, the losing male would depart with only the loss of the female, provided that she wanted to court the male. However, in this case the losing male made a fake retreat and attacked the 'winner' of the battle, nearly crippling him. As he attempted to mount the female as his prize, Ali's mother took matter into her own hands...

"Thank you! Oh thank you!" The female cried between sobs. "I didn't want him to be my... I didn't..."

Utu shushed the poor female. "It's okay... He's gone and he can't try to hurt you anymore."

The other nearby females then congregated around the stricken female in a show of solidarity. The injured male, who was of the lower caste in the herd, also edged closer to the female he fancied. It seemed that he had won the battle by default, now the only question was would she accept? In either case, the male seemed wise enough not to immediately press the issue. After several minutes of rage and terror the scene took on a surreal mixture of tranquility and foreboding.

It was at that very moment that one of the deputies came on the scene.

"What is going on?!"

Utu answered plainly. "He tried to force himself onto Claney. Now he is dead."

The deputy looked sternly at her. "Females are not supposed to interfere with courtship fights! You know the tradition!"

She seethed. "To the dung heap with your tradition!"

Utu was furious and had more than enough of the herds rules and traditions. The deputies were arrogant and jockeying for leadership at the expense of the wellbeing of the herd. Worse yet, she had already had a taste of the lack of compassion that the herd could bestow upon outsiders. After Rhett’s death her daughter, Ali, was made an outcast by the other parents who deemed her a bad influence on their children. To an extent, she was given similar treatment. This final act of brutality was the final straw. She would not step aside and let her daughter see a male be destroyed and a female be violated just because they were of a lower caste. The madness had to stop.

The other longnecks, who had just now gathered to the scene of the killing, backed away from the deputy and the agitated female. For her part, Claney retreated with the others. Several of the females helped support her as she made a speedy retreat.

"What did you say?!" The deputy roared.

"You heard me." She answered plainly. "He tried to force himself on her. That is also not permitted by tradition. What would you have me do, complain about it afterwards?! After she has been forced to carry that bastard's eggs?!" She raged in a righteous fury.

The male deputy responded in anger. "That bastard was a deputy, you obstinate wench! I trained him!"

"Then you obviously didn't train him well!" She deadpanned.

The male longneck seethed. He obviously did not care about her reasons, the lower-ranked male longneck who was nearly crippled, or the wellbeing of the female who was nearly violated. His only concern was of his rank and others of his privileged group. "It is not your place to impose punishment! Only deputies have that right!"

She was more than tired of this sad excuse of a longneck. Without thinking, she responded entirely on instinct.

And spit in his face.

At that moment time seemed to stop. He looked at the female in surprise, while the other longnecks recoiled in horror. Somewhere in the distance, she thought that she could hear Ali screaming her name in terror, but none of that mattered now. She had a battle of her own to fight.

Crash!

Neck collided against neck as she struggled against the stronger male.

Crash!

She could feel her neck muscles burn as they were abused again and again by his violent strikes.

Crash!

She didn't know how long she could keep this up. In that moment her mind began to wander. Who would take care of Ali in her absence? Would she be left with these same idiots who valued tradition more than reason? The competence of the Old One had blinded her to the faults in the herd, but now they were on full display. It seemed that this epiphany came too late for her, however. She was going to die here and there was nothing she...

Crack!

She stared as the male suddenly fell to his knees. In an act of utter desperation, she had struck out with her tail at his front legs. Now he lay prone on the ground, with his right from leg bending at an impossible angle. She had broken his leg. In the Mysterious Beyond that was a death sentence. The howls of anger and pain emanated from the male as he shouted threats.

"The other deputies will slay you! You will pay for this! You will..."

She ignored him. Taking notice of the rest of the herd, she could see that the other deputies were approaching from the south, but they were still a few minutes away. Undoubtedly, they had cut their scouting mission short when they heard the panicked screams and painful yells come from the bulk of the herd. Also beyond doubt was the fact that they would kill her to make sure that the herd knew that the killing of deputies was unacceptable. The deputy she had just crippled, and doomed to die, may have overreacted to her act of defending another female, but the other deputies could not let her actions go unpunished. If they did so then the entire leadership of the herd would be under threat from insurrection. The maintenance of power meant more than justice. She had only one hope now.

She had to run.

In a daze, she picked up Ali with her teeth and placed the small sauropod on her back. Ali looked more traumatized than she could remember, but that really didn't register at that point. Her mind was fixated on survival. Wasting no time, she then ran as fast as her massive legs could carry her.

She never looked back.

"What is going on?!"

At her yell, Mr. Thicknose turned around and stared at her with a distracted expression. It was as if his mind was miles away. However, after a few moments he answered the confused female.

"You weren't at the meeting, Utu?"

The longneck snorted. "If I did would I be asking you what happened? Everyone is acting crazy!"

Mr. Thicknose blinked twice and then nodded cautiously. The female longneck had entered the Haven Valley nearly a week prior, but was tightlipped on why she left her herd. The other residents demanded answers, but the elder longnecks insisted that she should not be forced to explain herself. They simply gave the warning that it was a ‘personal matter’ and that she obviously was not a threat to the valley. This had satisfied the others, but he still suspected that there was something more to the story. There was the hint of betrayal and anger in her eyes, which he had only seen in some of the parents after Chomper ‘betrayed’ them. He knew better than to force an answer from the female, however. Whatever it was would remain a matter for her and the other longnecks to resolve.

After looking down for a few moments, he was finally ready to answer. But that was when an unexpected intruder came to the scene.

"Mommy... what's going on?"

Mr. Thicknose paled at the sight of the youngling. She was one of Littlefoot's best friends and she had no idea what had just transpired in the meeting place. It had broken his heart to see her excitedly ask about Littlefoot and the others and to hear about their ‘deaths’ at the claws of Chomper. He and some of the other adults had actually taken to watching her just to make sure that she didn’t do anything foolish. She had lost all of her friends to death. It was logical that the adults were afraid that she might want to try and rejoin her friends...

"I don't know, Ali. That is what I am trying to figure out."

At that moment, Mr. Thicknose knew that there was nothing he could say that would lessen the shock of the revelation. Littlefoot and the others were alive, but they had apparently changed... somehow... He had no idea if Topps's idea about them turning into the fastbiters that they chased away was true or not, but it would explain so much. The stone turning black... The sharpteeth suddenly appearing... Chomper's sudden 'betrayal'... The children not returning...

But he had no way of confirming any of this until the children came back. For the part of the other parents, most of them doubted the story and simply figured that their children were changed by their journey. A mental change and not a physical one... They were hesitant to think of themselves as nearly killing their children and driving them from the valley. There are levels of guilt that even the sturdiest dinosaur could not bear. In any case, he had to tell the two longnecks something, lest they hear one of the more fantastic rumors that were floating around the valley. Deciding to simply tell them that the children were still alive, he began his speech.

"Well... what I am about to tell you is a little hard to believe..."

......

The Mysterious Beyond:

"Another longneck! Wow, we should keep your dad around, Seeker. He is apparently good luck!"

"Taunt?"

"Yeah?"

"Shut up."

Littlefoot stared at the corpse in front of him. The longneck had the distinct smell of infection about him. This, coupled with the obviously broken leg, clearly indicated what had happened to him. His leg had been shattered in a fight and he stumbled as far as he could go, but he eventually could go no farther. After that, starvation set in and the longneck died slowly and painfully from a lingering infection. The smell of excrement completed the disgusting picture. In the end, the longneck couldn't even move away from his position to relieve himself. Were he not in a hot and dry environment, he would have long since decomposed. Compared to how this dinosaur had met his end, being slain by a sharptooth would have been an infinitely more humane death.

"Well, dad... I hope that this isn't an omen. Whatever herd these longnecks came from obviously had problems."

Bron nodded. "I agree, son. This is very irregular."

"This is horrible!" Shorty protested.

"Death always is." Doc affirmed. "In the end it humbles us all."

The pack was already full from eating the longneck from earlier, so they had no need to feast upon the latest finding. However, it could provide a useful meal for the next day. With that in mind, Littlefoot asked a question of Petrie. He made a point to ask him in leaf-eater, so the longnecks could understand.

"How much longer do we have to go, Spotter?"

Petrie shrugged with one wing. "Not long if me fly, but longer for you. Me think we get there tomorrow night."

Littlefoot then looked at the rest of the pack. Ruby and Cera both gave him a slight nod. This would obviously be a good place to stop for the night. After a rather nice breakfast of longneck, they could move on the next day. Seeker then voiced his decision.

"It's agreed then. We wait here tonight. Then tomorrow..." At his gesture in the direction of the valley, Bron finished.

"Tomorrow we go home."


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