The Seven Hunters

Chapter 58 Discussions and plots

“Schemes are like fruit, they require a certain ripening.”

― George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

"Did you invite your father?"

Taunt looked up at the brown fastbiter for a moment. The question was not made in an accusatory manner, but rather an inquisitive one. Littlefoot's eyes looked up from their recent kill and focused on him in a conversational manner.

Taunt sighed inwardly. The relationship between himself and his father was a complex one, even if it was effectively healed. He had spent so much time as part of a pack that to see his father on a regular basis would be an odd feeling. He was used to 'Thud the father' as a child and to 'Thud the enemy' as an adult. It was kind of quaint to think of him as 'Thud the regular sharptooth' at this point. However, if the other packmates could accept a former enemy as a welcomed guest then so could he. He spoke after a pause.

"I did. I think that he is reporting the security situation to Chomper's folks."

Littlefoot nodded as he considered this. But then he suddenly spoke.

"I guess that we should give our security report to your parent's as well, Path." As Chomper sighed and proceeded to get ready to journey to his parent's nest, Littlefoot smirked and finished the joke. "We can report that the dangerous spiketail youngling has been dealt with."

Taunt rolled his eyes at Littlefoot's joke. It was a bad one, but he couldn't fault him for that considering some of the stinkers that he had told during his time in the pack. The response from the rest of the pack was somewhat varied, with Ruby and Ducky snorting in amusement while most of the others simply shook their heads while chuckling in response. Taking on a smile, Taunt decided that he needed to show his leader how these things were done.

"But we couldn't have done it without brave Stern Claw. Without her face planting after missing the spiketail, the entire hunt might have proved to be a bore."

With some amusement, Taunt noticed that Littlefoot and Ruby both had to suppress laughter after his 'epic' retelling of Cera's exploits during the morning's hunt. Chomper and the others, however, were not being so modest and were laughing hysterically at Taunt's mention of Cera's misadventure. As for Cera, however...

"Trust me, Taunt. When I pounce after you I won't miss."

Taunt smiled. Now this is more like it!

Cera sized up Taunt and began to rear back in preparation for a strike on the orange fastbiter. In response, Taunt prepared to launch himself out of the way as soon as she pounced. This was a reaction that he had done several times before and it had become a sort of game for the two sharpteeth. However, he did not plan on a sudden complication.

"Oh this should be rich!" Came his father's voice from behind him.

Taunt looked back in surprise. "Huh?" He did not notice his father sneak up on him. Unfortunately for him, however, Cera was not so easily distracted.

"Gotcha!"

Taunt tried to escape from Cera's grasp as she latched herself against his back. He finally got his wish to be free, but not after Cera got her revenge with a slight nip at his backside.

"Ow! My ass!" Taunt cried.

Cera strutted away in triumph. "That was for being an ass! Hmph!" Though she walked away in fake agitation, Taunt could tell that she was pleased with herself. He was about to attempt to charge at her and attempt to repay the favor when another bite caught his attention.

"Ow! What the hell!" Taunt reared back as he looked up at who had bitten his rump a second time. It was his father.

Thud smiled at his son. "Why, son... I was just defending that lady's honor." He answered in a mocking tone.

Taunt scoffed. "Honor?! Lady?! I think that you overestimate..."

A sudden cough from Cera caused Taunt to look up and observe her glare. Taunt was about to go into dangerous territory here. With a sigh, he decided to let her have the last word in this time. Noting that he had now stepped back from his comments, Cera gave him a toothy smile. She was simultaneously being pleased with herself and urging Taunt on. Taunt was about to continue their verbal sparring when Littlefoot interrupted them.

"Thud! It is great for you to join us." He then gestured at the spiketail corpse in front of him. "You brought us food last night so we are returning the favor. Ruby caught this one, so you can have the second bite as our guest."

Thud bowed. "I am honored."

As the rest of the pack gathered around the spiketail in preparation for dinner, Taunt gestured at his rear and gave a biting gesture into the air, clearly indicating to her that he would avenge her besting of him. For her part, Cera simply stuck out her tongue. There was no doubt that their little vendetta was nowhere near done for the day.

......

"So the Great Valley agreed to let me join in its defense?"

Littlefoot quickly chewed on his piece of the spiketail as he processed Thud's question. He had to admit that the idea of Thud joining in the defense of a valley populated by leaf-eaters sounded utterly mad. But yet, the trust of the valley won out over their concerns on that day. The pack's good intentions had been proven by the great risks that they took on the valley's behalf. The difference between how they were treated in their initial meeting and the final meeting were like night and day.

"Yeah... Though it took a while to get them to agree."

"Don't get me wrong, Littlefoot. But are you sure that Thud can be trusted?"

Littlefoot nodded at Grandpa Longneck's question. "He saved Taunt and Breeze and he is helping to defend our territory in our absence. So yes, he is worthy of our trust."

"Says the sharpteeth!"

Littlefoot looked up at the threehorn who had spoken. It was a brown threehorn who he didn't recognize. However, the sneer on his face was impossible to miss. A sudden glare from Whitehorn, however, caused the threehorn to back away.

"Says the sharpteeth who risked their lives to defend this place." Littlefoot answered plainly. "We can't change what we are now, but we can help those whom we love."

There was much chattering as the adults seemed to absorb this information. Thud as a potential defender? Adult fast runners to help evacuate the kids if necessary? What sounded ludicrous just a few days ago was now being debated amongst them all. They knew that whatever choices they made would have a great impact on them all.

"A threehorn defended my honor?" Thud asked in a deadpan manner as his son erupted into laughter.

Littlefoot placed his hands up in a placative gesture. "I didn't say that. But Whitehorn did cause most of the opposition to shut up."

Seeing that his son was still laughing at his expense, Thud made a move to nip him in the rear again, but Taunt quickly sprinted away much to the amusement of Cera. It seemed that they both were willing to have a bit of fun at the orange fastbiter's expense.

Deciding to speak before the story could get interrupted again, Littlefoot continued his story..

"So it is agreed then. The sharpteeth will return in the spring. Then we will prepare the defense of the valley."

Whitehorn's pronouncement effectively concluded that part of the discussion. All of the major herds had decided to return to the valley and that only left the matter of defense. Now everyone was agreed that the help of the sharpteeth and, if willing, Ruby's family would be used. It seemed that the dream of Ruby's father to unite the Mysterious Beyond and the Great Valley against Red Claw had finally been obtained. Now it was up to them to see to it that they were successful.

At that moment Littlefoot looked at Ruby who seemed to be deep in thought.

"Ponder? Are you alright?"

Ruby looked up at Littlefoot's question. "My daddy wanted to stop Red Claw, but I don't know if he wanted Red Claw to be stopped in this way." A sad look appeared on her face. "I don't want to risk my family, Seeker."

Littlefoot closed his eyes and sighed. "We already are, Ponder. Every day that Red Claw is allowed to run free is a day that his pack is allowed to grow stronger. If the valley falls then no one will be able to stop him." He then stared deeply into her eyes. "We can either risk your family through action or through inaction. Which would your dad choose?"

Ruby nodded. There was no doubt in her mind about the answer to that question.

"We haven't sent Spotter out to relay that news to Ponder's family yet." Littlefoot stated somewhat hesitantly. "There has been so much going on."

Thud nodded at this. The story had taken both his and his son's mind off of their playful little game. They were now focused on other things. Thud was the first to speak.

"I obviously will join in the defense of the valley." Taunt looked at him with surprise, but Thud simply responded with a smile before speaking again. "You don't think that I would let my son fight alone, would you?" Taunt looked touched by this as Thud continued. "I will fight with my son's friends, even if I prefer to remain in a pack of my own. A pack of one."

Littlefoot nodded respectfully. "Thank you for your support, Thud. It is greatly appreciated."

The others nodded in appreciation as well, to which Thud nodded in turn. However, a conspiratorial look suddenly came across his face as he seemed to consider something deeply for a few moments.

"What are you thinking about, Thud?" Chomper asked curiously.

Thud was silent for a moment. "Your parents."

Chomper was taken aback by this as were the other members of the pack. "My parents?" He asked in turn.

Thud nodded. "Yes, your parents." He paused for a moment before finally addressing the sharptooth's confused look. "I think that we will stand more of a chance if we had the support of your parents. Don't you, Path?"

An uneasy silence descended over the pack as they considered that possibility. Would Chomper's parents be willing to join in the defense of the valley? Moreover, would the valley even welcome their support?

......

Outside of Hidden Runner territory:

"Very good, Calin. It seems that your former allies have been dealt with."

Calin bristled at Red Claws condescension. I have no idea what spiketail dung Sandstorm was feeding you, but I had no allies! He obviously did not say his thoughts, however.

"Now we can move on with my plans."

Yes, finally. Calin noted with some sarcasm. In a way he had all that he could want at this point. He had power in that none of the other fastbiters would dare challenge him due to Red Claw's threat. He also effectively had a free hand to be as brutal and ruthless as he saw fit now that he no longer had to operate under the pretense of being charitable with his 'allies' in the pack. Red Claw had in effect made him a de facto deputy dictator and he was impatient to get started. Now that he finally had a taste of unbridled power he wanted to use it to the fullest possible extent. He would not be denied.

"We will go after the valley in the winter. The leaf-eaters won’t expect an attack so soon.”

An attack in the cold? Calin thought to himself. What sense does that make? However, Red Claw was about to answer his unspoken question.

“The Cold Time will bring starvation as it always does and the stragglers will want to join up with the strongest." Red Claw then looked at him with a fierce expression. "You will determine who is worthy of us."

Calin nodded. Red Claw didn't say what to do with those who were found to be unworthy. There was no need to state the obvious.

Red Claw continued. “The lack of food will make us stronger at the same time it makes the valley weaker!” He gave a triumphant roar. “They won’t see us coming! He who insists on fighting fair, fights to die.”

Calin was cautious not to interrupt Red Claw in the middle of one of his monologues, but the pack still needed some direction in the meantime. With that in mind, he asked a question as soon as he could get a word in edgewise.

"What are we to do in the meantime, sir?" Calin offered.

Red Claw pondered this for a moment. "We will do as we have been doing. We will terrorize the herds and kill the weaker packs. If we show that we are the strongest then they will join with us when the Cold Time comes." He then worked himself up into a frenzy. "Now is the time to act like proper sharpteeth. Consuming flesh... Tasting blood... Kill all who stand in our way. Only then will we be strong enough to do what must be done!"

As Calin gave a yelp of affirmation at his leader's call to violence, neither of them noticed the three fastbiters watching them intently with a look of disdain from the assembled pack.

Nor did they notice the hidden runner watching them all from the bluffs...

......

Hidden Runner territory:

"The scout reports that they are now outside of the bluffs. They are moving out of our territory."

Viscond did not react at all at his deputy's message. Instead he continued to stare intently at the sky, as if no one has spoken to him at all. This quite worried his deputy, Westron, who quickly gestured for the others to leave. He would speak to his friend alone.

Seeing that they were now alone, he sat beside his old friend and looked at his haggard face. Frowning, he finally broke the silence.

"What are you thinking, my friend?"

Viscond sighed at his friend's question. He could lie convincingly to the others and could act brave even when he was as fearful as a lost youngling, but he couldn't lie to him. He could not hide the fact that he was deeply troubled.

"I'm thinking that we have to strike back."

Westron considered this for a moment and shook his head. To attack Red Claw and his ilk would be suicide. There was no way that they could successfully take them all on at once. Nor could they afford to risk the pack's children during such a dangerous enterprise. It was a risky gamble.

"Sir, we can't risk the children! We can risk our hatchlings!"

Viscond react angrily to his deputy's response. "Can't risk them! What do you call this?!" He gestured wildly at the land around them. "Red Claw is attacking our people and we do nothing! What is more risky than that!?"

Westron looked at his friend with grave concern. "But we can hide ourselves. We can stay out of his way..." He never got a chance to finish.

"Look what good that did to my kin!" Viscond nearly roared. "My brother is dead. His mate slaughtered in front of her children and my nephew..." His voice cracked with raw emotion. "My nephew was forced to eat his own newly hatched brother before he died."

Westron's mouth hung agape. No one had told him what his friend had seen in his brother's nest. But this was too much. This was an atrocity beyond comprehension. Only the sickest mind would think of doing such a thing. His friend's reaction made a lot more sense now.

"We can't do nothing here, Westron. We just can't." He shook his head with resignation. "We can't leave our children and we can't abandon the pack's mothers. But... But I know that we have some fighters in the pack. They will be willing to take the fight to our enemies."

Westron looked at his friend with sadness. "And you are to be the one to lead them?" He didn't really have to ask that question. They both knew the answer.

"Yes." Viscond answered firmly. "And you will watch the pack in my absence."

Westron paled. His friend was going to go on a suicide mission and he simply expected him to stand back and care for the pack? That was unacceptable to him. "Viscond..."

"Westron, don't." Westron nearly broke down in tears at his friend's words. "I have to do this. If Red Claw is distracted by me then it will buy our pack some time. Enough time to flee this place before he strikes again.”

Viscond has no idea that Red Claw’s attack had been a standalone battle. A test of Calin’s loyalty. For all that he knew this was just the beginning of further massacres. He wasn’t going to let that happen without a fight.

Viscond then smiled at his friend. “I know that you are the best that the pack has. You will lead them well in my absence." He took on a grim expression. "Even if that absence turns permanent."

Westron was in tears now. It felt like his heart was being ripped out of his chest. If his friend went on with this idea of his then he doubted that he would ever see him again. With great difficulty, he spoke.

"What should I tell the mothers of the packmates who are going to fight? How should I tell them that their sons and daughters are about to die?"

Viscond closed his eyes. "We won't fight them head-on. We will use hit and run tactics at night. We will use trickery and deceit. We will use our minds since we can't face them claw to claw." He then opened his eyes. “We will do what we hidden runners are known for. It should give the rest of you enough time.”

Westron screamed. "You will all still be in danger!"

Viscond went silent for a moment as his dear friend wept. With a heavy sigh, he placed a comforting hand on Westron's shoulder and spoke into his ear.

"Life is about danger, my friend. We are hatched, we live for awhile, and then we die." He gave a sad smile. "I never mated. The responsibilities of being a pack leader prevented it. I always looked to my brother to carry on the family line. Now it seems that I am the last. It is up to me to defend what both of us hold dear." He closed his eyes and he laid his head against his friend's. "I will do what I can to delay this threat, Westron. But Red Claw threatens us all. Hiding from him will not change that. We thought we could hide when we saw his savagery in the lowlands, but the threat has come to find us anyway. The rest of the hidden runner packs will be threatened soon enough."

Westron nodded at this, but he was still too upset to speak. Meanwhile, Viscond continued.

"I will do what I can in the field, but I need you to rally support with the other packs. I think that it is time that this pack pay a visit to Harthron."

Westron looked at his friend with great intensity. "Do you think that he will join the fight?"

Viscond shook his head. "I don't know. But he is the highest ranked of us all, Westron. All of the other hidden runner packs in the region yield to his dictates. We have to try to make him see reason." He then looked down at his friend. "My friend, will you do this for me? Will you protect the pack and try to convince the greatest of us of what needs to be done?"

With a grim expression and tears still fresh in his eyes, Westron nodded.

"Yes, my friend. I will not fail you."

Viscond nodded and patted his friend on the shoulder, before walking back towards the pack’s nests. Westron watched him with a downcast expression as he feared that he would never see his friend again. However that was when a thought suddenly came to him.

“What about that sharptooth pack that we have heard about? The one that bested Calin in the gulch?”

Viscond stopped his forward progress for a moment, but then he answered with a sardonic tone.

“My friend, do you honestly think I am crazy enough to ally with the biters of the night?”

Westron gave a wry smile despite his dejected emotions. “My friend, I know you are crazy enough to do that.”

Viscond’s laugh echoed across the field as he acknowledged the truthfulness of his friend’s words. Finally though, he responded with a nod.

“After I take the fight to Red Claw, I will not hesitate to take any allies I can get.” He looked directly at his friend. “We will deal with that when I return to the pack.”

Westron protested. “If you return...”

Viscond shrugged. “Fate will be whatever it may. I can only do my part.” With a heavy sigh, he looked down at his claws. I suppose my fate is in my claws now. He thought to himself. And the fate of my pack is in Westron’s. Knowing that the conversation had run its course, Viscond decided to finally part. If fate was merciful then he would return from his mission to meet the pack in Harthron’s land. The combined hidden runner packs could then face their enemy together.

“May the shadows hide you, Westron.”

With a deep bow, Westron’s words were less formal but no less from the heart.

“Bloody some snouts, Viscond! We will be meet again after you return!”

......

Back to the Land of Shallow Waters:

"Wake up, you lazy behemoth!"

Terri not so gently nudged her mate with her foot as he awoke with a start.

"Oh, you horrid female! Can't you let me sleep?" He complained through his grogginess.

Terri laughed at her mate's antics. They were both endearing and annoying in equal measure, but she had gotten used to them over the seasons. "I have let you sleep, dear. The bright circle is at the top of the sky already."

With a groan Dein slowly rose from the ground. His stubby forelimbs helping him to orient himself so his hind limbs could bring him upright. Finally, with a yawn, he was back at his full height.

"Let me guess..." He spoke coyly. "You want to hunt now, right?"

Terri gave him a toothy smile. "You know me well, dear." She then nuzzled him. "Otherwise I would have let you sleep, so I wouldn't have to listen to your complaining..."

Dein grunted. "Oh, please! I do not complain that much!"

Terri shook her head. "See you're complaining right now!"

Dein protested. "I am not complaining, I am simply correcting..."

Terri smiled as she made a waving gesture with her stubby arms, the sharptooth two-footer equivalent of going 'blah, blah, blah'.

Dein stared at her for a moment with a disgruntled expression before he smiled ever so slightly through his eyes. "You're just trying to get a rise out of me, aren't you?"

Terri beamed. "Now would I do that?"

Dein snorted. "Yes."

The shared a brief fit of laughter at their respective antics. They had grown used to their excesses and annoyances over the years. At this point in their relationship the annoyances were almost as welcome and sought after as the more romantic moments. They each had grown to love one another, faults and all. Her recent near-death experience from the season before only strengthened their already-strong bond. They had even considered trying for an egg again now that Chomper was out of the nest. Though they would not attempt such a thing with the Cold Time approaching. That would have to wait until the spring.

Roar!

Both of them turned as the form of Chomper and his pack appeared across the horizon. Being guests in their territory, Terri could see that they had brought some kind of corpse with them. Though this would not assuage either of their hunger, it was still nice to see that they were keeping with the traditions of the sharpteeth. Guests bring peace offerings. Smiling slightly, she proceeded to give a low roar back to indicate their welcome into their presence.

Roar!

It was only now that the pack proceeded towards them. She wondered what they needed to discuss today.

......

The bright circle had long since fallen behind the horizon, but yet Dein and Terri both continued to stare reflectively at the stream in front of their nest. After the discussions that they had on this day, neither of them really knew what to say to the other. Much had been debated, but not much had been settled.

"Son, I can't order you not to do this. It isn't my place. Not anymore." Dein stared at his son with a solemn expression. "But I must ask you and your pack to reconsider defending the valley in the spring. They have already been warned of the danger and you already risked everything to help them during Red Claw's surprise attack. You owe them nothing."

Silence fell upon the pack as they digested Dein's words. He not only had his mate to think about, but also the possibility of children yet to come. If they left to defend the valley then they would be risking everything. Their territory... Themselves... Their chances of future children... And of course, Chomper. But Chomper made it clear that he was going to be risked anyway. Part of him longed to help his son and his friends, but it would be unwise for a sharptooth to risk himself over leaf-eaters. In either case, Chomper's defense of the valley even after his rough treatment by the herd members fulfilled Dein and Terri's obligations to the valley for allowing his son to stay as a guest for a year and a half.

"I understand, sir. And you must do what you think is best for your family." Littlefoot said this with near-subservience, as was proper for a pack leader who was serving under another leader. Littlefoot's use of the word 'family' was not lost on either Dein or Terri. Their son, despite always being family, was no longer under their responsibility. Under sharptooth tradition, he was an adult now and had to fend for himself. Littlefoot was simply acknowledging that reality. As Littlefoot paused, Chomper began again.

"I understand, daddy. I have to fight my own battles. I have fought them in the past." Dein noticed that Terri noticeably tensed up at Chomper's mention of that. Their near-loss of their son during his numerous run-ins with Calin and his pack of fastbiters chilled them to the bone. "I just hope that you will consider the offer."

Dein nodded at this. Indeed he was considering the offer, but although his heart was telling him to fight alongside his son and his friends, his brain was telling him something else. He had his and Terri's entire family lines to consider and if they were all wiped out in a battle then his ancestors would weep as their descendents were no more. He owed it to them and to Chomper as well to ensure that the family line would continue. For two-footers the persistence of the family was the paramount duty and all other things had to yield to that obligation. Chomper knew this even if the pack did not.

Terri then spoke. "I won't lie to you, son. Our answer will probably be 'no'. The family line must carry on even when I, your father, or you pass into the world of the parted." Chomper bowed his head in a show of respect, not disappointment. From the look on his face, Chomper had expected this reaction even if the other packmates looked surprised. Fastbiter standards were a bit different in that the 'pack' was the highest obligation over even one's biological family.

"But perhaps you can still find some help." Dein offered immediately, which caught the pack's attention. "There are allies that you may call upon, thought I don't know how helpful they will be."

Chomper blinked before asking the obvious question. "Who are they?"

Dein smiled. "Son, do you remember the carrion flyers?"

The rest of the pack looked at one another with confused expressions, but Chomper's was anything but unsure. With a slight smile, he slowly turned towards his friends.

"Petrie? I think that we may have some allies for you to track down."

Dein frowned slightly at that memory. The carrion flyers were sharptooth flyers that would often feed upon the sharptooth family's kills when they resided in the lowlands several years prior. They had formed an almost symbiotic relationship with the sharpteeth and would even make a call and fly in a wide circle around promising targets. Due to their harmless nature and the fact that they helped lead the sharpteeth to food, they had tolerated them eating the leftovers. It was an alliance of convenience, but an alliance nonetheless. If they could convince their old allies that there would be food after the battle then they would have a few eyes in the sky at their disposal. It was a long shot perhaps, as they had no idea where those sharptooth flyers were now, but it would still increase their son's chances.

"Do you think that we made the right choice?"

Dein sighed at Terri's question. "I have no idea. I... am conflicted." That was about as much uncertainty or weakness that Dein would allow himself to show. The admission was not lost on Terri.

"So am I. I know that it is his life now, but... It is hard to let go."

Dein nodded. Even when it was time for a child to strike off on their own and face their own challenges, it was not easy to stand back and watch them suffer through the inequities of life. A parent's role is to protect and nurture, but to protect beyond a point was to actually harm the child more. Chomper had decided his path in life. Now he had to live with his choice.

Roar!

The sounds of the fastbiter pack roaring at the night circle could be heard from several miles away. It seemed that the pack had gone through their songs on this night and were again performing the 'Night Circle Thanking' ritual as Chomper had described it. Dein had dismissed it as another stupid fastbiter superstition, but it was still comforting to hear his son participate in the sacred rites of sharptooth kind. He had once feared that his son would always be soft at heart due to imprinting on Littlefoot after Chomper had hatched, but his son had since grown up into a formidable preadolescent sharptooth. Dein had no regrets that Chomper's adopted father of sorts, Littlefoot, and adopted mother of sorts, Ruby, were still watching over him in the pack. Despite Chomper's odd upbringing he had turned out alright.

Glad we didn't mess that one up. Dein admitted to himself upon thinking back to his son's upbringing.

Roar!

The ritual was in full swing now as the roars of Taunt, Ruby, and even Chomper could be heard in the crescendo of vocalizations. It was at that moment that Dein remembered something else that Chomper said about the ritual. It was a way for enemy packs to show strength and hurl insults at one another, but it was also a way for allied packs to show solidarity and to also hurl insults at one another.

Dein laughed for a moment. It seemed that the principal of having vitriolic friends was not unique to two-footers after all. But there was nothing to say that non-fastbiters couldn't participate in the ritual as well.

"Roar!"

"Two-footers are slow!"

"Roar!"

Ah, it seems that Taunt has decided to begin the insult phase of the ritual. Dein smirked as he thought to himself. I suppose that it is time to return the favor to the intolerable bastard. His earlier comments about the ritual being stupid and superstitious were now forgotten as he felt a sense of play that he hadn't felt since he played with other sharpteeth on a few rare occasions when he was much younger. At least his son had been spared a lonely childhood. Now Dein was prepared to join in with the ritual. He was about to express the inner child that he hadn't allowed to play in many ages.

"Dear, shall we show the fastbiters how this is really done?"

Terri was taken aback slightly by Dein's offer, but then quickly put a smirk on her face. She didn't dare ruin the moment by telling Dein how hypocritical or unlike himself he was being by engaging in a ‘lowly’ fastbiter ritual. Instead, she simply gave him a firm nod. It was time to compete with their 'guests' on their lands.

"Roar!"

"Fastbiters are fools!"

The pack went silent for a moment in apparent surprise at having Chomper's folks actually participate in the ritual. However, after a few moments the ritual resumed with a frenzy.

"Roar!"

"Roar!"

"Fastbiters know how to make bridges!"

"Roar!"

Terri erupted into laughter as one of the pack members, obviously Chomper, retold an aspect of the story about how Dein and Terri met. She had been smart enough to make a bridge out of fallen trees to pursue the prey, while he had not. As a result, he had gotten stuck in the mud pit. I know that I shouldn't have told him that story. Now I will be known as Dein the Clueless if the fastbiters decide to make a song about that!

He then turned his attention to his mate. "Some help here, dear? You're supposed to help me defend our honor against our fiend of a son and his band of disrespectful asses, not agree with them!"

Her laughter slowly died down. "Whatever you say, dear." She was still amused by Chomper's excellent insult, but was also glad for Dein's sudden move to accept Chomper's new cultural heritage. She would not stand in the way of her mate's embrace of this moment.

The roars echoed across the night as the sharpteeth and the pack exchanged roars and insults under the brilliant stars. Despite the fact that Chomper had never met his grandparents, both sharpteeth were convinced that they would have been amused by this humorous, yet touching display.

It wasn't until the ritual was finally over and he was heading to sleep, that Dein allowed himself to look at the stars in silent contemplation. He was never a superstitious dinosaur, but he did allow himself to speak to the ancestors who were watching him from the canopy of stars.

I don't know what is coming, ancestors. But please watch over Chomper. He needs all of the help that he can get.

......

Back to Calin's pack:

Verok opened his eyes.

Waiting for his vision to adjust, he listened to the steady breathing of the adjacent fastbiters. Slow and steady. It seemed that he had waited long enough to put his plan into motion. The rest of the pack was asleep and the flyers would be unable to see well in the pitch black night. If they were going to make their escape then this would have to be it.

With very careful movement, Verok slowly rose from his prone position. He froze when the fastbiter that he had been leaning on snorted and shifted in his sleep. But he visibly relaxed when he shifted and curled up next to another fastbiter.

That was too close.

Shifting to his side, he could see that his brother and sister were beginning to rise from their respective resting places as well. Each was looking at him and waiting for the signal to get started. It was now or never,

Rising to his feet, he turned and faced the other members of the pack. They were sleeping soundly, with the occasional violent snort coming from Red Claw in the distance. In the back of the pack he could also see the form of Calin kicking in his sleep. It seemed that even during his rest he was still attacking. Part of Verok wanted to slay that monster while he couldn't defend himself, but that would spell doom for himself and his siblings. No, he would have to do the best that he could to escape from these fiends. Then he and his siblings could look for the mysterious pack. The only ones who had ever beaten Calin and lived to tell the tale.

Seeker's pack.

With a shuddering breath, he slowly walked between the sleeping sharpteeth and approached his two siblings. He took the moment to look at them.

His sister, Swift, was a long slender fastbiter that still shined blue in the light of the night circle. Her features appeared kindly and gentle, but they now also had a haunted look to them. She had seen too much and, in order to survive, done too much to come out of the experience unscathed. He knew that she would regret her actions for the rest of her life.

Turning his head, he could see his brother, Leap. He still bore the scars that he obtained during one of the numerous dominance fights in the pack. He had gotten roughed up several times at Calin's prompting in order to test his worthiness to be in the pack. He had survived the ordeal, but his eyes still glared with a deep-seated hate. It was unclear whether he hated himself or his tormentors more. In either case, Verok knew that he had to get his brother out of here. His gentle brother would not live long in this environment of domination and cruelty.

Taking a quick look at each of them, he placed his clawed hands into each of theirs. The message was clear. This was it. There would be no going back from this. With a deep breath and a heavy sigh, he gave them a curt nod.

The three fastbiters sprinted into the night.


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