The Seven Hunters

By Rhombus

Adventure / Horror

Chapter 56 Play fights and murder

“A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.”

― Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

The Land of Shallow Waters, three weeks after the battle of Haven Valley:

“Sometimes I don’t understand him, you know?”

Ruby nodded at the other fastbiter’s comment. It was understandable that Breeze would have some difficulty in understanding Spike as he, like the rest of the original seven, used to be leaf-eaters. Despite their adaptation to a new way of life, there was still a history there that Breeze and Taunt would never truly understand.

“I mean... He listens to me and understands me, but when I try to understand him... it's like there's a wall there, you know?”

Ruby paused for a moment from her stroll with Breeze, which caused the other to stop as well. With a ponderous expression that suited her sharptooth name, Ruby asked the obvious question.

“Have you tried talking to him about it. Maybe if you talk to him about it then he will talk about it to you?”

Breeze sighed. “Yeah... I’ve asked him what it was like in the valley back when he was a spiketail, but he doesn’t tell me much. Just that he used to play games with Haven and would hang out with you guys.” She paused for a moment. “Well, that and he liked food.”

Ruby nodded. “The change did not change everything.” Spike was still quite the eater.

Breeze continued. “But... He hasn’t told me anything of substance. What did he fear? What did he aspire to? I know who he is now, but I am curious who he was before...” She paused again. “I mean... I told him about my past and he was there to comfort me... I want to be there to help him. It must be hard to change from the food to the hunter.”

Ruby closed her eyes for a moment and placed her clawed hand to her head. Odd. In trying to understand Spike she confuses herself more. Opening her eyes again she looked at the other fastbiter and tried to explain the situation.

“Breeze... Growing up as a leaf-eater is different from how you or me grew up...”

Breeze looked at Ruby curiously. “But you were also a leaf-eater, weren't you?”

Ruby shook her head. “I was a fast runner. I could eat both meat and leaf. A life where you have to take life is different... very different from what my friends went through.” She then looked intently at the other fastbiter’s eyes. “Being hunted is very different from being the hunter. As a fast runner I experienced both and it was easier for me... but they only had one side of the story.” With that part of her past contrasted from that of her friends, she posed a question to her counterpart.

“Finder, or Spike as he was called then, was named by his sister. Did you know that?”

Breeze shook her head and Ruby continued.

Ruby smiled. “Yeah... Seeker told me that Finder hatched out in an abandoned nest when the others found him. They were half-starved and scared, but they took him in when Haven insisted. He is about five winters younger than the rest of them.”

Breeze looked perplexed. “But he looks the same age! I mean...” Even though their relationship was entirely unconsummated at this point, they were too young for it to be otherwise, she was still creeped out about being in a relationship with a male who was that much younger than her. She was a young adolescent, but he was still a child!

“I think that the stone changed that.” Ruby affirmed. “Not only did it make him older, but it allowed him to talk.”

Breeze considered this overload of information for a few moments. For her part, Ruby allowed her time to think. What she had said must have been quite the revelation for the other fastbiter. Finally, however, Breeze spoke again.

“So he... So he never had a family besides Haven’s?” Ruby nodded as Breeze continued. “He never spoke to anyone... and he had no one his age to talk to anyway?”

Ruby nodded. “From what my friends told me, that is what they told me about Spike.”

Breeze looked away for a moment. “He is very lucky to have you all as friends! I lost my family, but at least I knew them. I can’t imagine being lost in your own world like that...” She looked in the distance for a moment. “Is that why... you and him were the most at ease when I first met you? The others seemed tense and unsure, like they were new at life, but you two seemed...”

Ruby gave a soft smile. “..accepting?”

Breeze nodded. “Yeah.”

Ruby continued. “Finder lived a happy life in the valley, but also a lonely one I think...” Ruby offered. “He could understand us and Ducky could understand him, but he couldn’t express himself like us. He kept to himself a lot. Even though he had to kill, I think that he felt...” Ruby nearly hesitated at the word. “free... after he changed.” It was at that moment that she had a sudden realization. “Maybe that is why he doesn’t want to talk about it? Maybe he feels guilty for feeling that way?”

Breeze blinked once before responding. “I will need to talk to him... There is no shame in enjoying being a sharptooth. In any case, he has no choice now.”

Ruby sighed. “I wish that he would have talked to us about that...”

Breeze smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m sure that he is still not used to talking much...” She chuckled a little. “He can be snarky with me, but when the conversation gets serious he tends to listen... I guess that is what he is used to.” She then gave a resolute nod. “I will need to teach him to open up a little.”

Ruby could only smile at Breeze’s resolution. Spike and her were lucky to have one another as close friends. Their personalities seemed to complement one another quite well. It was after that realization that Breeze spoke again.

“Oh? Sorry, Ponder. We got talking about Spike and I nearly forgot... What did you want to talk to me about?”

Ruby smiled. “Well... It’s going to be Path’s star day in a few days and I wanted to give him a gift, but no gift I can find!” She placed her clawed hand to her chin in a ponderous gesture. “He has food. He has a good sleeping spot. What else can a sharptooth need?”

Breeze paused for a moment. “Hmmm... Let’s think about this for a moment.”

......

Elsewhere in the Land of Shallow Waters:

"So let me get this straight... you want to give Path a gift of some kind just because a star is at the right part of the sky?"

Littlefoot sighed. He figured that Taunt was probably intentionally being obtuse, but he figured that he had better explain himself just in case Taunt was really confused and not just being an ass.

"Taunt..." Littlefoot's use of his name clearly indicate his annoyance. "It's how we celebrate his hatching. He hatched several winters ago on this day." Littlefoot had to restrain himself from rolling his eyes. Surely even Taunt could understand this explanation.

Taunt chuckled. "I understand what a star day is, Littlefoot." The use of Littlefoot's leaf-eater name was intentional as Taunt still found it to be amusing. He was being led by a leader who had the sort of name no self-respecting sharptooth parent would give their children. Despite that he still respected the former longneck's leadership. In some ways he reminded him of Skytail... "But why would you want to celebrate his star day?"

Littlefoot seemed utterly confused by this question. "Huh?"

Taunt stared at Littlefoot for a moment and sighed. Now it seemed that they had a breakdown in understanding. Perhaps star days were important to leaf-eaters for some reason. "I mean... Chomper's parents mated, his mother laid an egg, Chomper came out of it, and now Chomper is here. Do we really need to acknowledge the obvious." Littlefoot stared at Taunt with a slightly open mouth as if Taunt's words stunned him. Undaunted, Taunt decided to speak again. "I mean... If he had magically came out of a threehorns behind one day then that might be an event worth commemorating, but Chomper hatched out just like anyone else."

Littlefoot closed his eyes for a moment as if he were trying to get the image of Chomper emerging into the world from a threehorn's fortuitous bowel movement out of his mind. He sighed in exasperation as he answered the orange fastbiter.

"We don't celebrate the fact that he came out of an egg. It's a way for us to acknowledge how much we appreciate him."

Taunt seemed to ponder this for a moment as he looked slightly passed Littlefoot. "Oh. Well that makes sense I guess..." He went silent again as he resumed a ponderous expression, which looked rather odd on Taunt's face. "But why on a star day?"

Littlefoot shrugged. "I don't really know, Taunt. That is how leaf-eaters do it."

Taunt nodded at this. "I know the back when... back when Skytail was my leader..." Littlefoot immediately picked up on Taunt's nostalgic tone. "We would sing songs to show our appreciation."

Littlefoot perked up with interest at this. "Songs? You mean like what Chomper's dad sings?"

Taunt laughed. "By the stars, no! Fastbiters are capable of better songs than that!" He then smiled at Littlefoot. "I mean we did teach you some of our songs back when you were with us in the Lowlands."

Littlefoot nodded. "Yeah... But weren't those children's songs? We have sung them a few times over here."

Taunt nodded. "For younglings, yeah. But you are used to being sharpteeth now and you have known battle, Seeker. I think that you are ready for actual songs. The kind that packs sing." He looked at Littlefoot with a sincere expression. "It is the leader who starts such things and it is improper for the other pack members to begin a pack song." He lowered his head a bit. "I guess that I am being a bit improper right now."

The brown fastbiter had to suppress the urge to say: when are you not improper, Taunt? However, he knew that Taunt was truly concerned about etiquette here, so he decided to let him off the hook.

"You're fine, Taunt. It's just we don't know any good sharptooth songs..."

Taunt smiled and nodded at his leader. "Songs are made by a pack for the pack. As packs grow and their children leave, the songs follow them. It is how we fastbiters keep our heritage and remember our past." He paused for a moment as the importance of the pack songs began to resonate with Littlefoot. "All that would be needed for us to start is for you to give the word."

Littlefoot looked perplexed. "Like during one of our meetings?"

Taunt laughed again. "No, at night! We sing when the night circle lights up the night and the stars shine bright. That way we can sing to our ancestors who are in the sky watching us." His smile took on a sadder tone. "I... think that my pack mates would like that. I haven't sung with Skytail, Scarflank, or Vigilant in a long time and... although I will be the only one singing down here... at least they could hear me... you know?"

Littlefoot quickly put a comforting claw on Taunt's shoulder. "Easy there, Taunt. I had no idea that it meant that much to you. We will sing tonight then."

Taunt's expression turned much more joyous. "Thanks, Seeker! You're a good friend." He paused momentarily as if he were thinking of something. "It is customary for the pack leader to select the singer for the night. You could invite Path to sing first."

Littlefoot blinked, not getting the importance of this. "Uh... I guess that I could."

Taunt nodded enthusiastically. "Fastbiter's show appreciation by letting one of their own tell their story and having the pack share in the song. Tonight we can give Path the recognition he deserves, then tomorrow I can train you all in proper singing!" Taunt was beaming at the idea. "That's is, of course..."

Littlefoot interrupted with a good-natured chuckle. "I will give the order tonight, Taunt. Don't worry." He was about to speak further when a rather irritated voice arose from behind them.

"There are you two! Have you forgotten about the game?"

Both of them turned towards Cera. Taunt was the first to speak. "Oh... uh... I kind of forgot to tell Seeker that was what you had planned... we started talking, you see..." Littlefoot would have laughed at Taunt's sudden apologetic tone, but Cera's expression did not bode well for the orange fastbiter and Littlefoot decided not to make it worse for him.

"Urgh!" Cera grunted. "Spotter has gotten everything ready for Capture The Head. It is Path's favorite game, remember?"

Littlefoot smiled. It seems that everyone in the pack was trying to honor Path's special day in their own way. "Alright, let's not keep Path waiting!" He then smirked at Cera. "The ladies are going down this time!"

For her part, Cera stuck out her tongue at the leader. "The boys lost last time and they will lose again today! Girls rule!"

With that the three fastbiters descended down the hill to where the game was being held. If the last time they played this game was any indication, then there would be more than a few bruised egos by the time the day was through.

......

Chomper bristled with anticipation. The game was about to begin.

Ever since they had turned into sharpteeth, it seemed that they had fundamentally changed. Yes this still played games as they had done in the valley, but the games had taken on a far more aggressive and purposeful angle. Swimmer and Splasher had been replaced with Hunter and Prey. The Pinecone Game had been replaced with Hider and Tracker. This combined with the obvious necessity of hunting for prey or carrion each morning had fundamentally changed how he and the others worked and played. They were sharpteeth now and every aspect of their life confirmed this.

However, this game was an excellent reminder of his time in the valley, but still in keeping with their new reality. They had gotten the idea when Taunt decided to play one of his tricks on Cera.

“Alright, you made the kill so I guess you get the first bite. But I get the second!”

Taunt smiled at Cera’s impatience. Ducky had just beaten her headlong rush at the spiketail and managed to make the killing blow. Now, as they say, Ducky was enjoying the spoils of success. Cera, being her prideful self, was not pleased with being shown up by the green fastbiter. Unfortunately for Taunt, Cera noticed his smirk.

“You think this is funny? Perhaps I will leave you the spiketail’s ass. You are what you eat!”

Taunt suppressed a chuckle at his companion’s snarky comment. “Oh, Stern Claw, you slay me!”

Cera grunted and spoke under her breath. “I wish...”

The two of them waited for Ducky to finish her portion of the meal. She always favored the neck and chest of the spiketails, which meant that Cera’s favorite portion, the head, would be removed soon enough for her enjoyment. Finally after a few moments, Ducky’s blood drenched head emerged from the spiketail’s neck and the spiketail’s head began to roll towards Cera. Ducky spoke in her usual cheerful way.

“I got the head off for you, Stern Claw. That way you don’t have to wait for me to finish. Oh, no, no, no!”

Cera gave her friend a slight nod. “Thanks, Haven! Heads are my favorite. Now come here my delicious...”

Chomp!

Cera stared in stunned silence as Taunt grabbed the spiketail head in his mouth and turned his back towards Cera. In a swift moment, he waved his tail at her and sprinted off towards the swamp. It was an obvious attempt to anger Cera.

And it worked perfectly.

The others watched in amusement some time later, when Taunt returned with Cera well behind and gave the head to an unsuspecting Path. As Cera ran full force at him, Path handed the head to Seeker who continued the journey around the marshes. The game of Capture The Head had been created.

Taunt eventually returned the head to an incredibly irate Cera, but she couldn’t stay angry at him for long.

She got even.

“You insolent sap-sucker! That is mine! Mine!”

Ruby watched as Cera ran off with the tail of a juvenile longneck, with Taunt in close pursuit. If he would steal Cera’s favorite food, then she would return the favor. Ruby had to smile at the scene. Those two seemed made for each other, for better or worse.

Littlefoot watched the scene play out as well. He didn’t even try to suppress his laughter when Cera passed the tail to Spike who then became Taunt’s target. Breeze quickly moved to the nearby trees, obviously hoping to join in the fun when Spike decided to pass the tail to her. It was at that time that he decided to speak.

“Well, this looks incredibly stupid.” He paused for a beat. “Shall we join in the fun?”

With a smirk, Ruby nodded and the two ran into the fray. This game was fun.

Shortly thereafter, Taunt finally got his longneck tail and the rest of the pack emerged with only light scrapes from the experience. From that point on, Capture The Head became one of their most common games, although they began to modify it into something resembling an orderly game. As Spotter couldn’t directly participate and since he enjoyed watching the antics of the rest of the pack more than anything, it was decided that he would be the goal setter. He would give each team a head of a recent kill for them to put at their designated spot. It would be the objective of the other team to grab their opponents head and to put it in their spot. Whoever managed to grab their opponents head while keeping or recapturing their own would be the winner.

Had Path been thinking about it deeply, he might have realized that even in play they were working on their strategies. Even in play they were practicing to become better and more fearsome killers. However, right now he had more pressing matters on his mind.

Alright... I need to find the enemy’s spot. Then I can take the goal.

The rules were that no more than one person could guard the spot at one time and that if someone was bitten they had to play dead until the count of 30. Actual injuries were to be avoided if at all possible. This was a game of speed and strategy, not bloodshed.

Creeping carefully through the grass, the sharptooth gently peeked through an opening in the vegetation.

An old, half rotten tree stood as a testament to futility. It had grown too fast in the soft soil and had long since fallen over and died. Now only the smell of rotten wood greeted his nostrils. There was nothing of any interest here.

Or is there?

Chomper decided to sneak around the opening in the grass, but to remain under the cover of the vegetation. It could be possible for someone to use the pungent smell of rotting wood in order to hide their own scent. It was the sort of thing that they had done in the past and would most likely do again. Chomper was nearly ready to move onto more promising sites when he saw it.

A flash of pink in a small hole in the tree.

Gotcha Ponder!

......

Ruby peeked out of her hiding place in the tree. Her and Breeze had come up with the idea of using the rotting tree to hide their hiding spot. If they could secure their head long enough then they would surely have enough time to secure the other team’s head and claim victory. As both Cera and Breeze seemed hell-bent on play fighting with their companions, Ruby agreed to stay behind. She was still hesitant to play fight with Littlefoot after his injury at the claws of Calin many months ago. The memories of those unhappy days still haunted her and even the thought of striking her friend in jest made her cringe. No, she would stay here and watch her team’s head.

I am sure that we will get the boys’ head and then we will win! Ruby thought to herself. I am surprised I haven’t seen anyone by now. Usually by now I have seen someone.

Chomp!

“Eep!” Ruby squealed as Chomper lightly bit down on her tail. She knew that she was forbidden from screaming to alert the others, so she simply laid down and gave a slightly annoyed smirk at Chomper.

You have won this round, Chomper. But you will not win!

For his part Chomper grabbed the head in his mouth and gave a mocking wave at Ruby. Then, as swiftly as he had snuck into the tree, he sprinted out of it.

......

Nip!

“Damn it!” Taunt hissed.

Cera could only smile as Taunt began to play dead for the obligatory 30 seconds. However, being who she was, she couldn’t resist one final taunt at her companion.

“I can’t help it if your orange ass stands out in the open! I hope that you enjoy losing!”

At that moment the bushes beside Cera began to rustle and she promptly bolted. No sooner had she done so, Spike emerged from the foliage sprinting straight at Cera. He had a determined scowl on his face. It was obvious that he was not intent on losing to the girls again.

The chase was on.

......

Damn it! I wish that I was as fast as the others!

Despite his best efforts Ducky had found Chomper and given pursuit. Even though he was still about ten body-lengths ahead of the fastbiter, he knew that she was gaining fast. He only had a few moments in order to reach the goal; otherwise the girls will have regained their head. Then the boys would have to reclaim it as well.

“You can only run so fast, Path! Yep, yep, yep!”

The cheerfulness of Ducky filled him with anything but joy at that moment. There was something distinctly creepy about Ducky’s usual enthusiasm and cheerfulness during a hunt. Especially when you were on the ‘hunted’ side of the equation. The predator who had once broken down after killing the mama flyer in her first kill had now grown to enjoy the act. She still regretted that she had to chase down and kill others, but she still enjoyed the hunt nonetheless.

And she seemed to be enjoying this chase in particular...

Looking back for a moment, Chomper could see that Ducky had advanced to a mere five body-lengths behind him. She was rapidly gaining and there was nothing that he could do.

That was when he saw him.

A blur of brown was rapidly advancing on him. With a sudden realization, he deduced that Littlefoot must be coming to his aid! With as much speed as he could muster he redoubled his efforts and hurled himself towards his backup. Then, as soon as Littlefoot was within a few body-lengths of him, he threw himself to the ground.

“Ahhh!”

“Grrr...”

A momentary scuffle ensued as both nipped at one another.

“Ouch!”

Looking back, Chomper could see that both of the fastbiters were down. They had both nipped one another, so now they had to wait the obligatory 30 seconds. Considering that they both were right next to one another, Chomper assumed that they would begin nipping again as soon as that time elapsed. Suddenly, Littlefoot spoke to his friend.

“You see, Haven. Even though you got our head, we also got yours. You’re not going to win this time.”

Ducky smirked back. “We will see. Yep, yep, yep!”

Chomper knew that he had no time to waste. Resuming his quick pace, he sprinted towards his team’s designated spot. He would guard the spot and its new acquisition until he was relieved. It was up to the others now to recapture their own head. The girls couldn’t win this time!

......

Oh crap!

Spike was rapidly gaining on her as she struggled to keep her footing in the wet vegetation. She had opted to take a shortcut back to the girls’ spot, but this was proving to be a big mistake.

“Looks like I’ve got you now!” Came Spike’s triumphant taunt.

Cera cringed. Up ahead was a long row of thick vines hanging from the trees above. She would have to go through the impenetrable wall of green if she were going to swim the small stream and make it to the spot in the time. Her only other option at this point would be to drop the head and try to nip Spike before he could nip her. And considering how experienced that Spike was at eating... No, getting into a biting contest with Spike was out of the question. She would have to break through here.

Cera’s face took on a determined frown as she ran full speed at the vines. She knew that she would have to cut through the vines with one swift and powerful attack and then immediately go into a brief swim. With that in mind, she shifted her body to a forward position and placed all of her weight upon her hind limbs.

Then she pounced.

Thud!

In a confused daze, Cera realized that she was not in the water, but was on the ground. Huh? Her confused mind questioned. That was when she noticed them.

The vines! I didn’t break through the vines!

Still groggy from her tumble, she looked out of the corner of her eye as Spike took the head into his mouth and, with a wink, sprinted off in the direction of the boys’ spot. She had lost the head. If her team still retained theirs then they still had hope to regroup and try again, but if Ruby had lost it... She sat there in silent contemplation as the seconds counted down for her. 12, 11, 10... In some ways this was the most annoying part of the game for her. 9, 8, 7... The idea that you had to wait once you were bitten. 6, 5, 4... When in reality the better fighter would win even if they were nipped... 3, 2, 1...

All right, everyone! Cera’s back in the game now! I am not going to be bested by vines this time!

That was when a sudden boisterous cheer arose from the direction of the boys’ spot. The distinct sounds of Chomper’s victorious roar and Taunt’s laugh filled her ears. The girls could not manage back-to-back wins. They had lost and deep inside Cera blamed herself. But more than that, she blamed something else. Something that shouldn’t have stopped her from success.

Cera was overtaken by her annoyance at the vines. I am a fastbiter! Vines should be no match for me!

She slowly approached one of the closer vines as the celebration began to die down from behind her. Let’s see how you like this! With a sudden burst of fury she struck out at the vine.

Thud!

The vine showed little sign of damage despite her attack with her sickle claws.

Thud!

Only a small sliver of the vine was removed from her monstrous strike. Undaunted, she reared back and charged at the vine with all of her speed and strength.

Thud!

Finally the vine was showing some signs of major wear and tear. With a smirk she reared back and charged one more time.

Snap!

The vine fell from the tree with a slight rustling. Despite the anticlimactic ending, she felt considerably better. She had never liked losing games when she was a threehorn and she supposed that dislike followed her into being a fastbiter. However, just like how ramming things would make her feel better back in her leaf-eater days, slicing at prey or carrion would make her feel better in her predatory present. She always would retreat during her times of anger in order to work it out on inanimate objects or very animate prey in order to avoid the risk of her blowing up at her friends. For the most part, they seemed to know and recognize this part of her personality and would leave her be during these times of weakness.

“Are you alright, Stern Claw? You seem pretty mad. You do, you do!”

Despite herself, Cera had to smile a bit at Ducky’s cautious intrusion. She noted that Ducky was staying a very safe distance behind her. Perhaps it would be best for her to put Ducky’s concerns at ease.

“I am alright now, Haven. I just wanted to attack something...”

After that admission, she could hear three pairs of feet entering the area. As she turned to face the trio of Breeze, Ducky, and Ruby, she could see that Ruby was about to speak.

“We tried to win, but we didn’t win. Chomper stole my head.”

Cera snorted. “Well, the star day boy won the game for his teammates, so I suppose that is nice.” She paused for a brief moment. “But the boys won’t be so lucky next time, will they?!”

A chorus of enthusiastic cheers emanated from the assembled females. Their hopes for back-to-back victories may have been dashed, but they would certainly prevent the boys from winning for a second time.

Absentmindedly, Cera picked up the vine that she had to sliced down from earlier. As she rolled the relatively rough surface in her hands, she noted how sturdy and robust the vine seemed. It would take a lot of force to cut through them in one blow. This thing could even withstand outright attacks!

She barely noticed that the others had arrived and begun to gather around her until Petrie spoke up.

“Me not meaning to interrupt. But what so interesting about vine? It not meat.”

Before she had time to respond, Taunt spoke.

“Are you planning on strangling one of us with that?” He asked in his usual joking manner.

Cera smirked as she turned around. “Only you, dear!”

She had to suppress a chuckle as Taunt carefully stepped back. It was then that she approached Littlefoot with the vine. He spoke as she came within a body-length of him.

“I was okay with the idea of strangling Taunt, but if you strangle me then I might have to object!”

Taunt made an obscene gesture with his hind claw at Littlefoot’s joke. In response, Littlefoot simply stuck out his tongue at the orange fastbiter.

Cera decided to intervene before the pattern of joke and counter-joke could continue. “I am not going to strangle you, Seeker, but I do need to see your throat.” She paused for a moment. “That is, if I have your consent.”

......

Littlefoot stared at her for a moment as if he were trying to deduce what she had planned. Eventually, however, he acquiesced to her request. To bare one’s throat to another predator could either be a show of supreme submission or complete trust. Cera’s asking for consent first made this a trust issue only and he trusted her completely. With a firm nod, he confirmed his consent.

He was somewhat disturbed by the sensation of the vine going around his neck from his chin to the top of his chest. The vines were not itchy, as his feathers prevented direct contact between his skin and the rough vines. However, they did place an almost uncomfortable amount of pressure on his neck when Cera wrapped the ends of the vine underneath the wrap that she had made.

He gave Cera a curious look, as the others examined the vines on his neck with perplexed expressions. Deciding to see what he looked like for himself, he walked over to the water’s edge and examined his reflection. A brown fastbiter’s face... his face... greeted him as he stared down at the reflection. The only thing that seemed out of place was a distinct ring of green covering his entire neck. It made him look odd, to put it mildly. He looked like a fastbiter who had tried to camouflage himself but decided to give up the effort as soon as he started on his neck. What exactly was Cera planning?

“That is brilliant, Stern Claw!”

Littlefoot turned at the sudden exclamation from Ruby. As he had not yet deduced the purpose of his neck wrapping, he made an inquisitive expression at his yellow-feathered friend.

“Don’t you see?” Cera began. “It took me many slashes with my claws to break through this vine. Can you imagine how many strikes that could protect us from in a battle?!”

Littlefoot stared in shock at Cera as the other members of the pack digested this information. If they had these vines wrapped around their most vital regions, then they would be nearly unstoppable in battle with other fastbiters of their size. Neither neck strikes, groan slashes, or ankle bites would deter them. They would have an unimaginable advantage.

With a stunned expression, he turned his head to Ruby. He had felt first-hand what a near-mortal wound could do to a dinosaur and Ruby had dealt with the aftermath. Her eyes stared back at him with a mixture of happiness and determination. Both of them knew exactly what this meant for the future.

This changed everything.

......

Hidden runner territory:

“Mother!! No!!!”

Calin winced at the scream of the youngling as he ripped out his mother’s throat. Hidden Runners were easy to kill when they were no longer camouflaged and he was quickly tiring of this boring operation. Where was the challenge in killing younglings and mothers? It was all too easy.

With an unflinching expression he turned his attention to the youngling that had cried out. Hmmm... Maybe I can make this a bit more fun?

He slowly walked closer to the youngling as the sounds of blood-curdling screams and anguished cries erupted from around him. The rest of his pack was making quick work of this pack’s communal nests. However, Calin was simply focused on the task in front of him. A single youngling was attempting to defend his hatchling brothers and sisters. How pathetic! Calin thought to himself. I think that I will give the little one a lesson before I leave!

Calin approached with slow deliberate steps as the youngling hunkered down and placed his claws in a defensive position. This proved to be an impotent gesture to Calin, as hidden runners had small claws. They were specialized for eating small mammals and some plants, not for taking down larger prey. To have a youngling fast runner act defensive was like having a small longneck try to defend himself against a sharptooth. Too easy.

Shluck!

“Ahhh!!!”

The youngling cried out in pain as Calin slashed his abdomen open in one swift motion of his sickle claw. The youngling collapsed to the ground as his intestines splashed onto the damp ground like a freshly caught fish. His breathing took on a frantic pace as his body went into shock at the catastrophic wound. This was already enough to ensure a painful death, but Calin wasn’t done.

Shluck!

The screams of the youngling now took on a higher-pitch as Calin ripped into the small hidden runner’s back. With a swift motion, he threw the youngling away from the nest and proceeded to the hatchlings who were still screaming for the mother who was no more.

“Shall I teach you a lesson, youngling? It seems the least that I can do considering that I have killed you.” Calin asked the fallen youngling with mock compassion. The fearful expression of the dying youngling’s eyes told Calin that he was still aware of him, so he continued with his perverse monologue. “The world is quite easy to understand. In this world there are givers and there are takers.” As he said this Calin bit into one of the screaming hatchlings, drenching the nest and the other hatchlings in blood. He then swallowed the hatchling whole. “It is always better to be a taker.” He then smirked as he noticed tears falling from the fallen hidden runner’s eyes. This is quite fun! Perhaps I should do it this way for some of the other nests! “The givers are only there to serve as food for the takers.” He then ripped the arms off of two of the hatchlings and threw the severed arms at the now mournful youngling. As the hatchlings convulsed upon the blood-soaked floor of the nest, he broke the neck of the last hatchling and placed in front of the youngling’s face.

“You see? You were born a giver... you were born to die.”

With a final exaggerated gesture, he forced the hidden runner’s mouth open with his claws and shoved his now dead hatchling brother inside. He held the hidden runners mouth closed as he convulsed and kicked to no avail.

“I am being generous, you see? I will let you feel what it is like to be a taker before you die. Aren’t I generous?”

He watched as the little hidden runner tried to cry out despite the body in his mouth. The little one’s suffering and torment must have been enormous at this moment, Calin deduced. He found this curious as he did not experience emotions in that way. For him the youngling was just an object to be used for his own amusement. His emotions simply being weaknesses for Calin to exploit as he saw fit. Despite the fun he was having, Calin realized that if he were going to try this with some of the other hidden runner nests then he needed to find another nest soon. Based upon the screams around him, his pack was making quick work of this hidden runner pack.

Time to finish up here. He affirmed.

With a final sadistic smile, he slashed open the youngling’s throat. The final spasms of the dying youngling seemed rather unsatisfying after the fun he had just had with the youngling. It had all gone too quickly. Oh well, there are other nests to destroy. I have to convince Red Claw of my good intentions. I see no reason why I shouldn’t have some fun in the process.

As the blood-soaked predator left the nest, he did not see a pair of eyes staring at the scene from the bushes. Tears clouded their vision and silent sobs were stuck in their owner’s throat. The little hidden runner had seen everything.

And she would make sure that the other hidden runners knew of this atrocity.


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