The Seven Hunters

By Rhombus

Adventure / Horror

Chapter 60 Rumors and blood

“Rumors spread faster than news and news spreads faster than the happenings”

― Amit Abraham

"My leg!!!"

The fastbiters all scattered as they saw their comrade crumple to the ground in pain. His ankle was bent at an abnormal angle as a result of his traumatic injury. He obviously was not going anywhere for quite some time.

Calin rushed to the front of the onlookers and then cautiously moved forward. He had no need to ask the others what had happened for this was the second time today that a similar thing had occurred. It seemed that the deserters had struck again.

With careful steps, he slowly put weight on each leg in order to avoid injuring himself if his leg fell through another trap. To have a leg fall through a covered hole would simply be an unpleasant surprise. To have a leg fall through a hole at a brisk sprint on the other hand... that could be a very serious injury. He did not want to be the next victim of the three deserters. After a few moments of careful walking he finally reached the injured fastbiter.

"Let me take a look at your leg."

The other fastbiter stopped clutching his ankle and allowed Calin to inspect the damage. He was still spasming in pain at the crippling injury, but he didn't dare contradict Calin. After a cursory inspection, Calin gave his verdict.

"It's broken."

The injured fastbiter began to quickly crawl away from Calin at this pronouncement. He knew what was next. The pack could not afford to have any stragglers slow them down, nor could it have the possibility of former members who knew of the pack's methods and secrets. Calin's statement was a death sentence and everyone knew it.

Ignoring the other fastbiter for now, Calin stared at the hole that the hapless fool had gotten his foot stuck in. It had very clear claw marks and a broken mesh of small sticks, which had obviously supported the leaves which covered the chasm. The hole was about as deep as a fastbiter's leg. More than deep enough to allow for a serious injury if the predator was going at a full run.

"No! Please! No!"

Calin ignored the screams of the fastbiter as the other packmates were obviously making quick work of him. His meat would feed the pack for the journey ahead, which would now progress much quicker as they could avoid a mid-morning hunt. Instead, his focus was on the confusing jumble of scents that were emanating from the hole. There was blood and bone marrow from the fastbiter's open break, obviously, but there was something else also. Something familiar yet alien.

"Ahhhh!!!"

It seemed that a rival of the fallen fastbiter was having a bit of fun at his expense, but Calin could not be concerned with that at the moment as the smell still confused him. It smelled kind of like a predator's, but it also smelled of herbivore. An odd combination.

"Whimper..."

The tell-tale smell of fastbiter blood which was now gushing from the nearby fastbiter did not distract him from the smell that he had focused on. If anything it made it all the more prominent. All of the fastbiter smells could now be pushed aside in his mind as a distinct category; leaving only the odd smell that still eluded his interpretation. But that was when it came to him. A sudden chill ran down his back and his still ailing tail as he had a realization of who had attacked them.

Hidden runners!

With a jolt, he looked up and stared at the rest of the pack.

They were now eating the other fastbiter who was finally going through the throes of death. They had started eating him before he had even lost consciousness. He was now pleased that they were all distracted with the unexpected feast as his findings were most unexpected and concerning. If he reported to the pack that hidden runners were the culprits for their recent misfortune, then they would become difficult to control even with Red Claw's blessing. They all would want to chase the new targets despite Red Claw's clear objectives. However, if he continued to lie to them then he would have hell to pay if Red Claw found out and Calin did not tell him. It would cast his competence as a leader into question.

"Not so big now! Are you? You bastard!"

As Calin watched the rival of the fallen fastbiter begin to eat his face in a perverse act of postmortem domination, he realized that he had his answer. He would tell Red Claw everything so that he would not doubt his chosen adjunct, but he would convince Red Claw to let him lie to the rest of the pack. To have the pack hate the deserters would keep them focused on their immediate mission and it would compel them to quickly run out of this place. The faster that they could get away from the hidden runners and get into the bluffs, the better off they would be. Then they could prepare for the coming winter and their final drive to find hungry recruits.

Calin frowned with determination. This situation was horrible, but he could still turn it into his favor.

"Come here, flyer!"

The pink flyer who had been circling around the carcass slowly began to descend towards the fastbiter. He was well acquainted with this arrangement. Calin or Red Claw would give messages to the flyers and they would relay it to the other. This kept the flyers appraised of the situation so they could know what to look for when they did aerial surveillance. It also allowed the two predators to communicate in such a way that the rest of the pack was not involved. It was hard to have a 'secret' conversation with a massive behemoth. Finally, Rinkus landed with a thud.

"Flyer, tell Red Claw exactly what I am about to tell you." At the flyer's nod, he continued. "The traps have been set by hidden runners, not the deserters. However, here is my plan to deal with the situation..."

......

"Alright, I think that it is time for us to head back. We have done our duty."

Cheers erupted from the other hidden runners as Viscond gave those words. They had been traveling and harassing the fastbiter pack for several days straight and they were all hungry and tired. However, they had done their duty and no one had died or even had to directly engage the enemy. They had weakened the pack through their acts of nocturnal trickery and they had reduced the enemy's morale. Or so they hoped.

With a final look at the retreating fastbiters in the distance, Viscond sighed deeply. Though he had done his part to avenge his family and deter a potential threat, he still felt the loss of his brother and uncle as deeply as when he had first learned of their fates. He only hoped that they were pleased with what he had accomplished and that they were in a better place.

The journey to meet his pack in Harthron's land was still to come. An uncertain fate awaited his initiatives there as Harthron's commitment to the protection of the packs was only matched by his extreme cautiousness. He only hoped that the decisions of the leader would keep his people safe from the danger that Red Claw represented.

The future of the hidden runners depended on it.

......

Elsewhere in the Mysterious Beyond:

Pterano watched as the three fastbiters sprinted away from Red Claw's massive pack. Were the rumors true?

"I heard from some of the carrion eaters that many fastbiters have been found dead. Most of them were not from disputes in the pack."

Pterano considered Nunti's words. Nunti had become a trusted companion of his as he began to take it upon himself to gather information on behalf of the pack.

When Pterano had heard of the Battle of Haven Valley from others, he felt downcast that Petrie and the others had risked themselves without even asking for his assistance. His own nephew shouldn't have been asked to do such a thing. It filled him with shame that while they were risking their lives he served the remainder of his sentence being of absolutely no use to anyone else. So from that day on, he made a resolution to himself.

I can't fight for them and I can't speak for them. The valley obviously won't listen to me. But I can spy for them!

And spy Pterano did. Without even telling the pack what he had planned, he took it upon himself to gather as much information as he could possibly receive from his fellow flyers. With his charisma and talkative manner, he could easily convince others to share their gossip with him. Most of what he heard was, as he expected, of no consequence to his mission. Who was mating with who... who had claimed or lost territory... where the best food was in the area... none of these things concerned him.

Not anymore.

Now all that mattered was giving Petrie and his friends the best information that he could get. Information on Red Claw and developments in the Mysterious Beyond. And he had heard quite a lot of information in the last few days that concerned him.

The valley residents had returned to the Great Valley and were preparing defenses.

Red Claw had launched an incursion of some kind north of here... many hidden runners were found dead there...

Hidden runners had since moved from their normal territories...

Hidden runners were seen digging holes and doing other weird things ahead of Red Claw's pack...

And now what Red Claw's pack was chasing came into focus... three deserters...

Pterano hummed to himself. If the pack could enlist the help of the hidden runners then they would make very good allies for the protection of the valley. Likewise, if the deserters lived, then they might be good allies as well. At the very least they could have valuable information for the pack. But only if they weren't killed by the pack first... He knew that they would be seen as enemies by the pack until proven otherwise.

"Nunti, I think that it is time that we had a talk with my nephew."

Nunti nodded. "He is the one that you said changed, right? What exactly did you mean by that?"

Pterano gave a slight smile. "Well, that would be easier to show you than to tell... It is a long story and you would consider me quite insane."

Nunti gave a small smirk. "But most people already consider you insane."

Pterano did not miss a beat. "All too true. Hence, why I need you to believe otherwise." He gave a slight chuckle. "Come, we have much to tell Petrie and his friends."

The two flyers took off with fluttering wing beats into the azure blue sky. Whether the pack knew it or not, they were about to get information that would change everything.

......

The Land of Shallow Waters:

"Hey! Watch where you are putting those vines!"

Cera smiled at Taunt's concerned yell. They were finally testing out her idea for using the tough vines as a kind of body armor for all of them. This would greatly decrease their risk of serious injury in battle if they used them to protect their sensitive areas. However, it was because of one of those 'sensitive areas' that Taunt was now concerned. Cera responded in jest.

"Oh dear! Did I put the vine on too tight?" She said this as she roped the vine around the intersection of his hip and hind leg, where the femoral artery would be. "Let's see if this helps." With a smirk she then pulled the vine tight.

"Yelp!" Taunt cried at Cera's little stunt. Luckily for him, she immediately loosened the vine and wrapped it around itself, holding the vine in place. His thighs were now protected by Cera's invention. Taunt did not exactly feel grateful at the moment, however.

"Was that really necessary?!" He protested in a noticeably higher pitch.

Cera walked away with a prideful strut. "No, but it was funny!"

Taunt began to rear back as he prepared to chase his friend and tormenter. However, Ruby intervened before he could engage in the usual frivolities between the two.

"Come on, Taunt! You are supposed to attack me. Me you are supposed to attack."

Taunt stared at the pink fastbiter. It seemed that Littlefoot had placed the vines on her in a similar pattern to the protection that now surrounded him. Thick vines were wrapped around her hips and thighs, which went down and also surrounded the backside of her leg and calf. Additional vines covered her ankles, neck, shoulders, and elbows. The prime areas that would be prone to injury in any battle. Finally, the chest was covered by one of Ruby's own ideas. Leaves were stuffed inside of a loose mesh of vines which covered her entire front in a shield of green. It was hoped that would protect her chest from any clawed strikes. The vines would prevent a connecting blow from slashing through too far before being stopped and the leaves would blunt any blow. Taunt realized that he probably now looked just like Ruby did. If so, then he must look very alien indeed.

"As you wish!" Taunt gave a small bow as he dipped his torso in a manner indicating play. Even when the context was understood, it was still proper to very clearly indicate when a fight was a play fight and not the real thing. Any miscommunication there could prove to be fatal.

Ruby returned the gesture, as she looked momentarily at Littlefoot. Seeing this, Taunt did the same. They both knew that Littlefoot was concerned about any injuries during this test, so they wanted to give him one last inspection. With a grim expression, he asked one final question.

"Have you two put on the mud?" They had agreed to blunt their claws by caking on thick mud from the mud pool. This would further dull any blows. As the both nodded and showed their claws, Littlefoot reluctantly nodded. "Okay, you two. Be very careful! Let's see how well this works!" He then stared at them with an intense expression.

"Begin!"

......

The Mysterious Beyond:

Rinkus flew with some trepidation to Sierra's last known whereabouts. It had been up to Rinkus to deliver the news to Red Claw as it had been his turn to watch over the pack. The meeting had gone about as well as expected. Red Claw loudly interjected that Calin should have been able to tell from the beginning that this was the work of hidden runners and not the deserters. Despite his harsh words, however, Red Claw had agreed with Calin's idea.

"You inform Calin that despite his incompetence, he is correct about the pack. They should be told that the deserters have done this and not the hidden runners. The hidden runners can wait, but our current mission cannot. We have to prepare for the battle ahead and the deserters must be made examples of!"

Upon his return to the pack, he had whispered Red Claw's reply to the fastbiter, but he received no reply besides a simply nod. However, his angry interjections with other packmates over the next few hours clearly indicated his agitation with Red Claw's words. It seemed as if Calin was not feeling too confident about his position. It was quite sad actually. Calin, for being as manipulative as he was, could not seem to realize that he was being manipulated as well. In either case, it was not Rinkus's problem. Never mind the rise and fall of the ground-dwellers, he knew that as long as he accomplished his assigned tasks then he would be rewarded.

It was odd though, Rinkus had to admit upon reflection. Calin was still steadfast in insisting that he had never had an alliance with the hidden runners. He was still furious that Sandstorm had brought up the possibility, which he called a filthy lie. He even still claimed to have never seen or talked to a flyer named Sandstorm. Why would Calin continue to lie about something that Red Claw had already dealt with? Calin no longer had any need to hide his brutality or underhandedness, so why the insistence about the hidden runners? Had Red Claw simply misconstrued Sandstorm's claims? Had Rinkus and Sierra been incorrect in their retelling of his claims? Had Sandstorm given the flyers a different alias than the one that he used for Calin? It was an odd enigma that still deeply troubled his mind.

Now, however, it was time for him to leave the pack and find Sierra again. He would no doubt be looking for fish at the lake they had found the previous day. However, Rinkus could never tell just how his old acquaintance would react from day to day. The burns and injuries he obtained from the Stone of Cold Fire incident had caused something to snap in the already unstable flyer. The loss of Sandstorm had made the situation all the more worse. Despite his friend's seeming lack of empathy, he did seem to like the flyer who reminded him of himself. Sandstorm's death in the valley had made Sierra a difficult flyer to be around.

The pink flyer sighed as he carefully rode the warm thermal updrafts in the Mysterious Beyond. Things were so much simpler when he and Sierra were partners in crime. But Pterano had ruined everything. After Sierra's injuries, he had to band with whoever had the power in order to survive in the cutthroat world that was the Mysterious Beyond. This had eventually led to them being forcefully incorporated into Red Claw's pack of flyers. The recruitment of fastbiters had then followed. He now knew that his life was intertwined with that of the pack. Despite his lack of concern with his fellow henchmen, it was either this or death. He simply had no choice in the matter anymore.

Rinkus shook his head. The past could not be changed, only the future could be planned for. With that in mind he focused on what was ahead of him. A deep ravine which would eventually lead him to the lake teaming with fish. Deep green forests which surrounded the ravine. An azure blue sky. And a small brown flyer...

Wait! Who is that?

Rinkus followed the flyer with his eyes for several moments. It was heading away from him in the direction of the lowlands and Hanging Rock. The flyer seemed utterly unaware of Rinkus's presence, as he was flying at a lower altitude, and with much greater speed, than the other flyer. With the superior eyesight of a flyer he examined the smaller flyer in detail and gawked at what he saw.

Sandstorm?!

The flyer continued his journey to destinations unknown, but Rinkus was too stunned to shift his position. It was as if he had seen a ghost. Had he seen a ghost? It took him several moments to regain his wits.

If Sandstorm is alive then that means that he didn't die in the valley. If he didn't die then that meant that he...

Rinkus's eyes went wide. Red Claw had always suspected that the valley had inside knowledge of the attack on the valley. The defensive arrangements were too well made. It was as if they knew where they were going to attack before they ever struck... but they had always suspected that Seeker's pack had exchanged that information somehow. But how could sharpteeth exchange information to leaf-eaters? A fastbiter couldn't do it, but Chomper could...

And so could Sandstorm.

It was well-known that most sharpteeth flyers would know both languages for convenience and would use them to gather information about food and shelter. If Sandstorm had played dead and had informed the leaf-eaters about them... But then who could have warned the leaf-eaters not to attack Seeker's pack...

Oh... Oh that bastard!

Rage. Hot and uncontrollable filled Rinkus's vision. Suddenly the pieces fit together. Sandstorm had played dead; that was obvious enough. But he also must have been the go-between that had alerted Seeker's pack and the valley about the upcoming attack. He must have been the flyer ally of Seeker's pack that Calin had heard about but never actually seen. Which meant that Sandstorm's claim about Calin plotting with other sharpteeth...

Meant to sow discontent within our ranks... Imply that Calin had an ulterior motive...

The rage was now replaced with a stunned resignation. He had been played. They had all been played. It was doubtful that he could catch Sandstorm now due to the distance that he had already covered during Rinkus's stunned reaction. Even if Rinkus could somehow cover the gap it was entirely possible that Sandstorm might have backup of some kind. A flyer allied to Seeker's pack was probably just as cunning as they were, which would make him a formidable foe. Sandstorm had confirmed that with his masterful manipulation of the flyers and pathological lack of fear. No, a direct attack would not work here.

Likewise, he could not simply go back and report his findings to Red Claw or Calin. If he were to find out that the entire hidden runner fiasco was because of Red Claw's misinterpretation of a bold-faced lie. Rinkus shivered. No, that would mean death for him and Sierra as they were the ones who reported the lie to Red Claw in the first place. If they wanted revenge for the bastard's betrayal then they would have to seek it out for themselves.

With grim determination, Rinkus flew off towards the lake. He had to tell Sierra about this turn of events. They had to plan their next move. Where would Sandstorm go next and how could they stop him?

......

The Land of Shallow Waters:

Ruby landed with a resounding thud.

That was close!

She had barely dodged Taunt's swift combination of attacks. He had led off with a furious leaping kick at her chest which she had dodged by shifting to her left. However, she took a few glancing blows to her chest covering with the follow-up strikes with his forelimbs. It was obvious that Taunt was a fighter who favored aggressive tactics. This was confounding Ruby somewhat.

"Try not to ponder so much, Ponder!"

Ruby seethed at Taunt's obvious attempt to upset her. Taunt's name was most fitting under these circumstances. However, she had to admit that his strategy was sound. First, distract your opponent with taunts and feigned attacks. Then attack with a merciless assault without giving you opponent a chance to respond. Ruby, for her part, was trying to challenge his strategy by defending and using the entire area at her disposal.

Taunt is too focused on me to focus on anything else!

She sprinted to her left, which caused Taunt to follow like a predator chasing his prey. Taunt obviously expected to overtake his opponent and strike her from behind. However, Ruby had focused on the terrain around her while Taunt had simply focused single-mindedly on his opponent. She knew how to take advantage of the inherent myopia of his strategy.

Seeing that she was now two fastbiter lengths ahead of Taunt, she suddenly shifted to her right. This caused her to loop around a large tree. Taunt struggled to turn around the tree in pursuit of his target. However his own momentum worked against him and he fell into the trap that Ruby was looking forward to.

Crash!

Tripping over the massive roots that emanated on the far side of the tree, Taunt toppled end over end. He seemed to roll uncontrollably for several moments as he rolled into the muddy banks of the stream. Finally, however, he came to rest with his head in the mud.

With a grunt and noticeable slowness, he rose from his prone position. However, that was more than enough time for Ruby to turn around and make her planned assault.

Thud!

Taunt was thrown into the mud as Ruby's leaping kick hit him squarely in the chest. Both of her large talons struck him, but thankfully the packed mud on her feet and his makeshift armor of leaves and vines prevented serious damage. Nonetheless, the attack was savage in its effectiveness. Taunt had been utterly incapacitated.

But Ruby was not done.

Slash! Slash!

Blinded in the heat of the moment, Ruby struck out at Taunt with both of her forelimbs. Mud-matted claws struck at his neck covering, while the other limb missed the target. The sudden screams from her packmates fell on deaf ears as she continued her assault. She was nearly completely lost in her actions as she prepared to strike at the prone fastbiter with her hind feet once again.

Splash!

Ruby's taloned foot struck right next to Taunt's head as mud covered both of the fastbiters. Taunt, for his part, struggled to pick himself up from the muddy pit he now found himself in. His collision with the ground and Ruby's kick had created quite a mess in the immediate area. With both clawed arms, he somewhat pathetically attempted to protect his face from attack. But her next move surprised him.

She grasped his arm.

"I'm terribly sorry, Taunt! Taunt, I'm sorry!" Ruby exclaimed. "I got a little carried away!"

Taunt struggled to catch his breath as Ruby's words finally registered. "A little?!" He could hear the running feet of the other packmates as they began to advance on their location. It seems that their little battle had concerned the others as well. He could tell by the rhythm of one of the runners, that Cera was on her way. He decided to spare Ruby from a potential angry interaction with Cera and waved as an indication that he was okay.

"Thank goodness you're alright!" Cera exclaimed in a rather out of character way. However, she immediately amended her statement to protect her reputation and sharptooth name. "If Ponder had beat you up too much then I wouldn't be able to fight you next!" Despite her callous words, her facial expression gave away her true feelings of relief.

For his part, Taunt rolled his eyes. "Your concern in overwhelming, Stern Claw."

Littlefoot quickly rushed over and inspected the two fighters. His eyes looked up at Ruby and gave a brief look of disbelief to which she gave an apologetic expression. To this, he grasped her shoulder and gave an accepting nod. The message was clear. He was not pleased about what she had done, but he was not angry with her. That nonverbal conversation out of the way, he then walked over to Taunt and inspected his body.

Taunt steeled himself as Littlefoot carefully looked at his neck and chest.

"Your neck vines are still intact, Taunt. How does your neck feel?"

Taunt frowned. He understood what Littlefoot was doing, but he still found this line of questioning to be annoying. In order to be helpful and acerbic at the same time, he gave a sarcastic answer.

"Intact."

Despite Littlefoot's obvious attempt to be serious and clinical, he heard Littlefoot chuckle at that. As Littlefoot began to touch and inspect his chest armor, Littlefoot responded.

"That is good, Taunt. I was actually quite concerned that Ruby had lost control there."

Taunt shook his head. "She did lose control."

Littlefoot nodded, but did not speak for a few moments. After a few more moments of probing at his arm and leg coverings, however, Littlefoot addressed him a more direct way as he placed both of his clawed hands on Taunt's shoulders. It was at that moment that Taunt realized that Littlefoot had become impersonal because he had been focused on his health and the task at hand.

"Well, Taunt... Both of you lost control during that fight..." Littlefoot seemed to concentrate for a moment. "Stern Claw considered stopping you after your last attack on Ponder. Even with the coverings, your attacks could have caused some damage."

Taunt thought about Littlefoot's words for a moment. Yes, even if a kick did not draw blood it could still leave a large bruise and significant pain. Even if that pain was hidden in the adrenaline-fueled heat of battle, it would eventually become known in the aftermath. He had found that out after being rescued by his father after the first battle with Calin's pack. Despite his ability to fight and run during that battle, he was nearly completely incapacitated for days afterwards.

Littlefoot continued as he broke away and looked at the pack as a whole. "I guess we will have to watch out for that if we spar anymore. I don't want any of us seriously hurting one another!"

Taunt looked over at Ruby who was now bowing her head in shame. For his part, Taunt gave her a small smile and spoke.

"Hey, Ponder."

Ruby looked up at her former sparring partner. She was obviously blaming herself for her actions. Taunt decided that now was not the time for his usual jokes and taunts. He had to be honest here.

"I kind of lost control too. Don't feel too bad."

Ruby shook her head. "But I could have hurt you!"

Taunt nodded. "Yes, and Stern Claw would probably thank you for that!" Ruby gave him a dour look at his joke. But he soon continued. "But I'm alright! Don't beat yourself up over this!" He added after a pause. "That is what I'm for!"

For her part Ruby nodded and gave a slight laugh. Taunt's words seemed to have helped, but she still seemed contemplative over her actions. He supposed that this would simply have to work itself out.

With sudden awareness, he noticed that Cera and Chomper were both inspecting his vines, while Spike and Ducky were examining Ruby's coverings. After a few moments, Cera made an exclamation.

"Taunt, your chest covering is only a little slashed! That is amazing!"

Taunt gave a wry smile. "And fortunate!"

Cera seemed to not be paying attention to him. "Huh? Oh yeah, that too." She did not seem to see him stick his tongue out at her at that little snub. She soon continued. "I guess this plan might work after all, huh?"

Littlefoot answered from near Ruby. It seemed that he was inspecting her coverings now. "Yeah. I think that these will work quite well. But..."

Breeze suddenly came onto the scene. "But?"

Littlefoot smiled. "But... I think that we need to rethink our training strategy. We need to consult a fastbiter who knows how to fight well and who has survived many battles. Better yet... We need someone who knows Red Claw's traits better than we do..."

Taunt paled. "No... Seeker... You have no idea what it's like training under him..."

Littlefoot turned with a soft smile. Taunt knew that smile. Every time his leader had the smile it meant that he had already made up his mind and would not be dissuaded from his course of action.

Crap.

Taunt knew what was going to happen next. That was when Littlefoot spoke.

"Taunt, would you mind getting your father? I think he would be great at teaching us what we need to know. We trained with Path's folks but they are two-footers and are different at fighting than we are. But Thud... Thud is a source of knowledge that we cannot ignore."

Taunt spoke in a monotone. "Can't we try to ignore him?"

Littlefoot chuckled. "What are you afraid of, Taunt? From what you told us your childhood was nice... before.. before all of that happened..." Littlefoot tactfully avoided mentioning the time when Thud joined with Red Claw after Taunt had reached the age of independence. "So what is the problem?"

Taunt took a deep breath. "Seeker... I've never really told all of you this... in fact, I have only told Stern Claw and Breeze this..." He paused for a moment as if this admission would cause him physical pain. "I was a weak child."

Everyone seemed to stop at Taunt's words. His voice carried pain and shame; two things that were virtually unknown coming from Taunt. Their looks suddenly took on a more sympathetic expression. He continued on.

"My parents had no other survivors from the nest so... so they helped me hatch... I was too weak to even break my shell..."

Cera took a few steps forward as she spoke. "Taunt... you don't have to tell this story if you don't want..."

Taunt nodded, but he would not be stopped. He had started this and he would finish it.

"It took me so long to get where I needed to be... I even told my own parents to leave me once when food was scarce... I heard them arguing about food and how they were starving and I did not want them dying on my behalf..."

Chomper and Spike both had their mouths agape at these admissions. How could someone born into such pain and weakness become the cocky, confident fastbiter that they now had? Was Taunt's humor how he coped with his condition?

"But eventually, through tough training and effort... I was strong enough to do what I needed to do. I could hunt on my own and as part of a team. I owe all of that to my mother and father..." He then looked up at Littlefoot. "...but I had to suffer for that. I had many happy memories from my childhood, but my training was not among them. Are you sure that you are ready to have my father train all of you?"

Littlefoot walked up to Taunt and gave him a comforting nuzzle. The other members of the pack soon joined him and patting their fellow packmate on the back. It was a touching show of support. Finally, Littlefoot spoke.

"Thank you for sharing that with us, Taunt... I actually had heard the tale once before... From Skytail." Taunt seemed surprised at that admission. "It was his way of explaining your behavior, from one leader to another. I think that he wanted to make sure that I didn't misunderstand you, Taunt. He wanted me to understand that you laugh at the cruelty of the world instead of crying at it."

Taunt responded partially in jest. "He also probably wanted to make sure that you didn't slap me around..."

Littlefoot spoke with a soft laugh. "Thankfully we have Stern Claw for that!" The others laughed at this as well. Taunt and Stern Claw's antics were well known. They were always at one another's throats. It seemed that tormenting one another was one of their favorite pastimes. Though both of them simply did it as their way of showing affection.

Littlefoot continued after everyone settled down. "But yes, Taunt... I want to see if your father will help us train. We don't need a whole training regime." He gave a little chuckle at the memory of his time training under Chomper's parent. "I mean... Path's folks were tough enough! We all know how to hunt and defend ourselves quite well. We just need some pointers on fastbiter fighting for when we face Calin again..." Looking straight into Taunt's eyes, he asked a fateful question. "How hard can one day of training with your father be?"

Taunt sighed and gave Littlefoot an apologetic smile.

"Well... that you will just have to see for yourself."

......

The Mysterious Beyond:

"Okay, I think that we can stop here for the night."

Verok inspected the scene around him while his brother and sister collapsed to the ground. It had been an exhausting journey thus far. They had not slept for two days and had been moving for much of that time. Even with their continuous movement, however, the pack had seemed to be gaining on them until something appeared to distract them for a time. Despite the need to get some more distance on their pursuers, he knew that they could not run forever. They needed to catch some sleep and perhaps find food in the morning. Only when those necessities were attended to could they continue their long trek to freedom.

"Brother?"

Verok slowly turned to look at the source of that voice. It was his brother, Leap. He had already been lean and rather weak prior to the beginning of their journey, but now he looked absolutely miserable. The impressions of his ribs were visible under his flesh and he had a haggard look in his eyes. If they didn't escape from the pack soon then he didn't know how he would survive. With a slight nod, he beckoned for his brother to continue.

"Do you think that we have a chance?"

That was the question, wasn't it? Back in Calin's pack there would be no possibility of asking honest questions like that. No one could afford to show weakness or fragility. Likewise, compassion and kindness were seen as invitations to ridicule. Only strength and domination were respected. But now they were by themselves and they could be what they actually were. Their insecurities were legion at this moment as each feared for the future. Verok had to admit that he felt the same way. With a calm and gravelly voice, he answered his brother.

"I think that we do, Leap. But it is a small one and we will have to work for it."

Verok smiled as his sister, Swift, walked in-between the two fastbiters and nuzzled them both. Her voice was reassuring.

"We will get through this! We have done well so far, haven't we?"

Leap nodded. "Yeah... But we need to hope that luck stays on our side... we will need it."

Verok could only agree with that logic. "Very true, brother. Very true."

A few minutes later, both of his siblings were asleep. Their exhaustion had caught up with them and they had entered into the world of dreams. Verok could feel himself also being pulled into unconsciousness as the sound of the gentle breeze reached his ears. It was a peaceful night after a very eventful too days. Finally, Verok closed his eyes and entered into the realm of sleep stories. For a few hours at least they would be at peace and be free from the burdens that now faced them. In the morrow, the three would venture forth again and try to gain some distance from their relentless pursuers.

But only two of them would make it through the day alive.

......

Hanging Rock:

“That’s good, Arial! You see? Fishing isn’t that hard.”

Detras was giving his younger daughter encouragement after catching her first fish on her own. He had to imagine that one fish was small pickings compared to what his older daughter was now capable of killing. But unlike Ruby, Arial was still an omnivore and one fish was good enough for a young fast runner.

“Thanks, daddy!” The small pink fast runner exclaimed. She was quite pleased with herself.

Detras had to smile as Arial showed off her fish to her brother. He had finally succeeded catching fish the previous week. Now it seemed like the two would soon be capable of supporting themselves in terms of food. They were still many years away from being where Ruby was in terms of maturity when she finally transformed, but it still amazed him how fast they were growing. The words of his mate perfectly matched his feelings at that moment.

“They grow up so fast…”

Detras looked over for a moment and nodded at his mate. “Indeed they do…”

Each of the fast runners took in the scene for a moment as the two youths began to hastily consume their meals. In their haste, they quickly made quite a mess as fish entrails went everywhere. It was dinnertime etiquette that would make an adult fast runner cringe. This was enough to make Detras and Pearl both laugh at their antics. Their children were growing up all right, but they still had quite a bit of growing to do.

"Oh! Arial can fish now?"

Both fast runners quickly turned at the unexpected exclamation. Their first notice that Petrie had arrived was his sudden exclamation.

"Petrie!" Detras greeted warmly. "We had no idea you were coming. We already ate."

Detras noted that the flyer seem unconcerned by their inability to offer him a meal. "It okay. Petrie already hunt today."

Pearl smiled. "Well, that is good. But maybe next time you stop by, Arial can help prepare for the family meal."

Arial jumped up in excitement. "I sure can, mommy! Maybe I could catch a snapping shell too!"

Detras laughed at his daughter. "That is true, dear. But I don't think that Petrie's beak can eat through its shell."

Arial shrugged. "Well then it would be more for us!"

Detras gave Arial a stern look that melted under his daughter's innocent gaze. Meanwhile, Petrie was now laughing heartily at the small fast runner's banter. Thinking with her stomach. I guess that is something that fast runners and fastbiters have in common!

Pearl looked back at the flyer and took notice of the new scar that he had on his right wing. A lasting reminder of his hard landing after faking his death at the claws of his mother. Instantly her happy expression disappeared and she considered Petrie with a concerned look.

"Petrie, is everything alright?"

Petrie sighed inwardly. He had not really had a chance to talk to them since their intervention in the valley. Besides the possibility of their participation in the future defense of the valley, they had much to discuss.

"Yes. Well... now it is..." Petrie gestured to the ground. "Me have lot to discuss..."

......

As the water splashed over his face, Detras tried to refocus his mind.

My daughter has been in battle? The valley residents have been attacked? What hasn't happened since the last time we talked to Petrie?

The events that he had been informed of reverberated in his mind as a confusing jumble. He was deeply relieved that his daughter was safe, but the fact that she could have been seriously injured or worse filled him with dread. She had gotten lucky this time but there was no guarantee that would remain the case. As for everything else that Petrie had mentioned...

"Ruby really is her own dinosaur now, isn't she?" Pearl's voice echoed.

Detras turned to look at his mate as she continued.

"I guess she really has united the valley and the Mysterious Beyond."

Detras closed his eyes as he sucked in a deep breath. Indeed Ruby had united the valley and the outside against Red claw, but this was not what he had in mind. Not at all. In his response the voice that emanated from him was tinged with emotional pain.

"But at what cost?" He looked at his mate mournfully. He was the one that trained her for the journey to the valley back when she was a fast runner. He was also the one who sent her on the journey. But yet, now that the possible cost of that mission came into focus, he was left with regret. "Ruby got lucky in the battle. She may not be so lucky again."

Pearl responded by wrapping her mate in a comforting hug. She was grateful that Petrie was entertaining the kids at the moment. He seemed to understand that they needed some time to discuss recent events before even considering the pack's offer. It was a lot to take in at once. Had she heard of these events several months ago then she would have expected her to be the one to break down, while her mate would be the beacon of strength. However, it seemed that the absence of word from Ruby over the last few months had caused Detras to dwell on her siblings. In the process he had obviously started to focus on his memories of Ruby from when she was their age, as opposed to the competent sharptooth that she now was. It was amazing how a simple shift in perspective could change things.

"It is her choice, dear." Pearl said through tearful eyes. "She is doing what she set out to do. What we encouraged her to do."

Detras looked down. "What I encouraged her to do."

Pearl gave him a sad smile. "It was my idea too, dear. I may not have said it openly, but I did not discourage." She shifted her gaze to his hands. "The question is: are we going to join in her battle?"

Detras nodded. "If it were just me... I would say yes." His mouth shifted in agitation. "But what about Arial and Orchid? If we go to the valley we will be risking them. Even if they escape, they would be left without their parents." He sighed deeply. "They deserve to have a chance..."

Pearl nodded. "But if we don't help and the valley falls then who will stop Red Claw? Would they have a chance then?" She sighed and shook her head. "Either way they are being risked. The question is: will the family be together or apart?"

Detras closed his eyes. "I know what Ruby would choose." He gave a soft laugh as he shook his head. "And I guess I know what we will choose... but it is so damn hard!"

The two sat in silence for several moments as they considered the decision that they were about to announce. However, Detras broke the silence to address another matter.

"Littlefoot's idea is sound. We can help the children and..." His voice nearly broke. "...if the battle goes badly, we can lead them out of the valley... we could evacuate them." He sighed. "I just wonder how the kids will react with the other children. They have only really been with their own kind. Will they get along okay with threehorns, longnecks, and who knows what else?"

As he finished his question the playful banter of his children reached his ears. They were splashing in the stream along with Petrie who was apparently playing a game of 'catch the fish' with the kids. If they were open enough to play with a sharptooth flyer, then what trouble would leaf-eater kids be? Seeing this scene, Pearl answered with a smile.

"I think that they will be just fine." She then looked at her mate and grasped his hand. "Are we ready?"

With a firm nod and a deep breath Detras and Pearl walked back to the stream outside of Hanging Rock. The magnitude of their decision was as large as their uncertainties. Nonetheless, each knew that it is was the right choice.

On that night the fast runners joined the growing alliance.


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