The Seven Hunters

By Rhombus

Adventure / Horror

Chapter 61 Recruitment

“There is no greater success as when you turn your enemy into your ally.”

― Jeffrey Fry

"Urgh..."

With pained grunts Littlefoot slowly rose from his slumber. Every part of his body ached. He was even feeling pain from muscles that he had previously not known had existed. It was as if he had been brutally pummeled for the better part of a day.

Oh yeah... Littlefoot recollected. That's because that I was.

The day prior he and the others had begun a training regime with Thud. Part of Littlefoot was concerned that the older fastbiter would be a bit irritated at having his son make this request and interrupting Thud's day. However, when Taunt returned, Littlefoot noticed that Thud was close behind and he did not look displeased.

In fact, he looked outright giddy. The first words out of Thud's mouth clearly indicated the hardship ahead.

So you all want some training, huh? Well don't worry, I will get you all into shape in no time!

Now here they were several hours after the endless drills and sparring. The others still slept emitting pained groans as they tossed and turned on their tender areas. Thus far only Littlefoot was awake as the mid-morning sun emanated the entire scene in vibrant hues.

Well... that wasn't quite true.

"Ah, you're awake! I wondered how long all of you would sleep in! I got breakfast!"

Littlefoot turned, still groggy from his all too brief slumber and stared at the fastbiter. Thud wore a friendly smile as he seemed to size up the leader of the pack for a moment. Littlefoot momentarily observed that seeing such a relaxed, happy expression on Thud would have seemed incongruent in Littlefoot's leaf-eater days. From his old perspective Thud was a blood-thirsty enemy, but now he was a welcome guest and teacher. It was amazing how times had changed.

What next took the brown fastbiter's notice, however, was the rather large juvenile longneck that Thud had dragged all of the way over to the pack at significant effort at his part. It was more than enough to feed Thud and the pack! Littlefoot took a moment in order to find his voice again.

"Goodness, Thud! You didn't have to do all of this for us!"

Thud nodded and smiled. "Now come on, Seeker... I can't have all of you waste energy on hunting when you all have another day of practice to do!" Thud now gave Littlefoot a toothy smile as Littlefoot suppressed a groan. "All of you are nearly where you need to be. But a few of you need to work on your technique more. I think you will probably have that down by the end of the day."

Littlefoot's expression noticeably perked up a bit. He was always eager to succeed at a new task. Now, as the leader of the pack, this included seeing the success of his packmates. Littlefoot had to admit, that Ducky and Spike both needed a bit more practice. The others, especially the other females of the pack, showed frightening skill at striking and enormous ferocity. Some of Cera's strikes at Taunt's coverings even made Littlefoot cringe in sympathy. However, Ducky's inner nature seemed to make her less willing to give in to that ferocious side. Her skills were competent and her reasoning was sound, but she needed a bit more aggression. Spike was in the same situation.

As Littlefoot was considering the strengths and weaknesses of his pack, Thud gave a knowing smile. That kid sure is calculating... No wonder why my brother and I had so much difficulty catching him and his friends... However, Thud did not want Littlefoot to worry about all of that right now. He wanted him to eat and rest up. Thud would put them through one more day of intensive training and then let their usual sparring sessions do the rest. The discovery of the vines made such activities far more safe. This meant that what before could only come from years of restricted training or many actual battles could now come from a few full-forced spars.

This pack could become something truly horrifying. Thud thought with a mixture of pride and horror at his son's friends. Calin's pack has been forged in battle, but so have my son and his friends. But now they can have all of the battle that they want with little risk of serious injury... His thoughts turned dark for a moment. I am helping to create monsters... but I suppose that it will take monsters to defeat monsters... Those vines change everything. Speaking of which...

"You know... you will have to show me how to put those vines on."

Littlefoot stared at Thud for a moment. "You're not going to fight any of us, are you?!"

Thud had to laugh at the mix of confusion and panic in Littlefoot's voice. "No, Seeker. Though if you want to have fun at my son's expense then you can tell him that he is my first opponent today." Littlefoot chuckled at this and Thud continued. "No... I just need to learn how this is done." He then stared at Littlefoot for several moments. "Seeker... fastbiters have been around since the times of legend. There are many kinds of us... some remain and some have been lost... but in all of that time no one has thought to use vines in the way your pack has come up with..." Thud smiled. "I think that the 'Stone of Cold Fire', as you call it, may have changed a bit more than your diet." Littlefoot seemed to ponder this for a moment, as Thud finished. "I have taught you what I have learned from my battles. But all of this is physical skill... Maybe you all can teach me some of your knowledge... then we could be even."

Littlefoot could only smile at the green fastbiter. "Of course, Thud. I would consider it an honor. Just don't let Stern Claw put on your vines, you can ask Taunt about that..."

It was at that exact moment that Stern Claw's voice could be heard.

"Thud isn't an ass, like Taunt here..." A less than gentle kick caused Taunt to jump awake. "So Thud should have nothing to worry about!"

"You infernal..." Taunt muttered to himself as he tried to curl up again. But another kick, this time from Breeze, caused him to stay awake. Poor Taunt... it seemed that with two females on his case that his old antics would no longer work.

As the banter and conversation continued amongst the pack, they proceeded to eat the day's breakfast.

......

Pterano nearly retched at the sight in front of him.

What had apparently once been the body of a small longneck now lay in pieces on the ground below. The vertebrae of its once mighty neck lay strewn about in the vicinity of the rest of the body, whereas its skull had been crushed and its brain partially consumed. The rest of the body was mutilated beyond all recognition with the entire area covered in blood and gore. The smell of blood and exposed flesh was unmistakable and overpowering even to the reduced sense of smell in the flyer. Pterano had to use all of his will to avoid vomiting at the scene.

Nunti lacked such control, however, as he began to vomit uncontrollably.

Seeing his friend's distress, Pterano flew over to his perch and laid a comforting wing over his shoulder. The vomiting soon abated but not the disgust as Nunti asked several questions in a hurried frenzy.

"Is Petrie here? You said that this..." He gestured at the mutilated longneck. "...meant that he was here? What do you mean?"

Pterano raised a wing in order to silence the excited flyer. Nunti was understandably horrified at the scene and was probably wondering why Pterano had been momentarily glad to see the corpse below them. How was he going to explain that a dead body meant that Petrie and his friends were eating well? For that matter, how could he fully explain Petrie's change from one kind to another? He had only told Nunti that Petrie had made some alliances with sharpteeth, but not much else. So Nunti probably figured that Petrie was up to no good... but he couldn't really explain the full context of Petrie's situation until the others arrived.

"Pterano! Wow, it has been a while, hasn't it?"

Pterano turned his head and noticed, of all things, a head emerge from within the dead longneck's torso. The bloody red fastbiter had dropped the heart of the longneck to the ground. He had obviously removed the organ as some flyers would go fishing, dive headfirst and see what you can find. Both flyers stood with open mouths at the fastbiter's presence. That was when another voice emerged from the gory mass.

"So that's how you passed Skytail's challenge!" As the fastbiter emerged his voice became more noticeable and less muffled from the standpoint of the horrified flyers. However, the sharptooth language was unknown to them so all they heard were roars and grunts. "No wonder why Skytail let you into the pack after that... that is amazing, son! By the way, who were you talking to..." At that point Thud looked up at the two flyers that Taunt had already greeted. "Who are they? Some stragglers looking for an easy meal?"

Taunt shook his head at his father. They looked quite alike now that they were both bright red with blood. "No, dad. That is one of our allies... He is Spotter's uncle." With a sudden realization, Taunt understood that these scene must have been causing the two flyers quite a lot of fright, so he decided to talk to them once more in a language that they could understand.

"Uh... Sorry for the mess... I was talking to my dad while the others rested for a while..." It wasn't until he actually began talking again that he realized that he didn't know what to say. Cera had begun to teach him the basics of the leaf-eater language, but he was still a novice. With some irritation, he realized that Cera would probably find his sudden awkwardness to be hilarious. He decided to bring his speech to a close by directly addressing the new flyer that stood beside Pterano. His blood-covered appearance in the midmorning sun made him look as if he were a mass of blood that had suddenly became sapient and alive of its own volition. A sight that was far too much for the young flyer.

"...So uh... how are things?"

It was at that exact moment that Nunti fainted.

......

"Are you all right, Nunti?"

The smaller flyer shivered in a mixture of fear and confusion. What he had just been told... and experienced... made absolutely no sense. He would have accused Pterano of going mad, but Nunti now suspected that his own sanity was going. Ground-walking sharpteeth that could speak leaf-eater? Leaf-eaters who turned into sharpteeth? Pterano's own nephew being a sharptooth? It was all too much to take in at once. He answered in a weak voice.

"I... I'm not sure..." Nunti looked up at the assorted sharpteeth that were in front of him. A small purple two-footer stared at him with an almost kindly expression, which was unnerving. Meanwhile, the assorted fastbiters all looked at him with a mix of expressions. The brown fastbiter at the front of the group seemed quite concerned, whereas an orange fastbiter towards the back looked upon him with a less than welcoming gaze. It wasn't that the fastbiter looked angry at him; it was that he looked a bit too happy to see a grounded flyer in front of him. Nunti soon pieced together that this was the fastbiter that had emerged from the slaughtered longneck prior to Nunti's fainting spell. It seemed that he was not disagreeable to having another meal today...

With a few quick flaps of his wings Nunti took off and once again returned to his perch. Well out of the range of the predators.

"Well at least you are well enough to fly." The brown fastbiter responded in a surprisingly soft voice. "I take it that you have many more questions..."

Nunti shook his head. "I need more time... I need to think..."

Pterano gave a sympathetic nod to the stricken flyer. "That is understandable, Nunti. Take your time."

......

As Nunti laid down on his perch, Pterano turned his attention to the assembled pack. Nunti's sudden reawakening had distracted them from their conversation. Now it was time for the pack to once again discuss the momentous events that Pterano had observed.

"So... Calin has unleashed a buzzer's nest, huh?" Cera spoke coldly, which made a chill go up Pterano's spine. "We will take whatever help we can get."

Breeze nodded at this. "The hidden runners are the stuff of legends. I have smelled their scent before, but I have never seen one... But could they really help all that much? I mean... they are just half-teeth..." Breeze's leaf-eater was a bit more fluid and precise than Taunt's, but she was still learning. At this point, Spike decided to help out his friend.

"She means that they eat both tree star and meat... Uh... Leaf-eater doesn't have a good word for that..." He explained. "But that is true, they have small claws and tiny teeth... How useful could they actually be?"

Taunt interrupted at this point. "Wait... You've actually seen one?" Thud nodded at his son's question. He was many years older than anyone else here, apart from Pterano, and he had never seen the mysterious hidden runners.

Ducky finally answered that question. "Oh yes, yes, yes! Mr. Thicknose told us about them after Ponder told us a scary story about the hidden runners that gave us all bad sleep stories!" A slight chuckle could be heard emanating from Taunt as he was undoubtedly thinking about Cera actually being frightened about something. A swift jab at his side by Stern Claw put an immediate end to his laughter, however. Ducky then continued. "We finally found him. We did, we did! He was just a small fast runner but his feathers hid him. They did, they did."

Littlefoot added to Ducky's tale. "That was how they blended into their surroundings... They wouldn't be much in an actual battle though... not unless..." Something twinkled in Littlefoot's eyes. "Hmm... I wonder how they would do with pointed sticks and some vines..."

Pterano looked at Littlefoot with an uncertain expression. "How they would do with what?"

Littlefoot smiled. "We can show you in a few moments... The rainbowfaces showed Spotter uh..." Littlefoot realized that Pterano still used Petrie's original name. "...Petrie... as for the vines, Stern Claw... uh, Cera, discovered that..." Cera's prideful smile could be seen even from Pterano's vantage point. The change had most certainly not changed her ego, that was for sure. Littlefoot then finished. "But I think that you should finish first, Pterano. You said earlier that there was a second thing that you wanted to tell us?"

Pterano nodded and took on a more contemplative expression. "Um... Yes... How would you all like to have some new fastbiter recruits?"

The pack stared at Pterano with expressions of shock and skepticism. He had their undivided attention.

"It seems that Calin and the others are chasing three deserters from the pack. They seem to be heading your direction."

As Pterano watched, he noticed something begin to change in the expressions of the pack. Littlefoot and Ruby both has contemplative expressions, whereas some of the others were not so calm. Ducky's face took on a look of melancholy as if she had just been informed that a family member had died, whereas Taunt and Breeze...

"If they want to come here to die then I will be happy to oblige them!" Breeze raged. This caused Pterano and Nunti to both move back instinctually on their respective perches. "They killed my friend! My brother..." She trailed off as she began to pace in an agitated fashion. Meanwhile, Taunt's expression harbored a similar degree of malice, which was soon matched in his words.

"Thank you for telling us, flyer. Now we know they are coming... We will deal with them."

Ducky interjected at this point with a tone of voice that surprised everyone. "Do all of you remember the mud pools? What the fastbiter's cried as they drowned... They are just as much victims as we are."


In stunned silence the pack watched as Breeze paced up to Ducky and growled at her with thinly-veiled venom.

"How dare you..." She hissed in sharptooth as her voice was not raised, but rather remained a foreboding monotone. "They are vermin. Every single last one of them and I will not rest until they die by our claws. I will not be talked down to by some fool."

Ducky did not yield at Breeze's insult. "You were not there, Breeze. Nor was Taunt. You don't know what we saw and heard." Her face then took on a more foreboding expression. This caused both Littlefoot and Spike to get into motion. This was not right. This was not right at all. Ducky's next words caused everything to stop. "As for being a fool, Breeze... I am not the one threatening a fellow pack member."

Both Littlefoot and Spike stopped beside the two fastbiters, each being on the other side. It was unlike Breeze to threaten harm to anyone in the pack and it was uncharacteristic in the extreme for Ducky to hold her ground like this. The entire situation was getting dangerous. Seconds went by as the two stared with unblinking expressions. Spike decided to speak.

"Breeze, I will not permit you to harm my sister."

Breeze scowled. "I see where your loyalties lie." Her eyes did not shift from their focus on the green fastbiter.

Spike shook his head. "My loyalties lie where they always have been. You are being unreasonable."

Taunt angrily interjected at this point. From his perspective, Breeze's reaction was overdone, but understandable. Why would anyone feel pity towards their enemy? If anything Ducky was the unreasonable one here.

"Unreasonable?! Did you hear what Haven said about our enemies? You need to bring her under control."

Cera react angrily to this as she got into Taunt's face, earning a stunned reaction from him. "Shut up, Taunt! You have no idea what you are talking about!"

Now it appeared that two separate disagreements were about to take place in the pack as Cera and Taunt squared off exchanging colorful dialogue with one another. The two new pack members felt betrayed that one of the original pack members would even suggest feeling pity for the deserters, while the original members were angry at their treatment of Ducky. Littlefoot knew that he had to intervene here even if that put him into the line of fire.

Roar!

No one moved as the staring matches continued. Littlefoot tried again as he jumped in-between the two principal belligerents, Ducky and Breeze.

Roar!

It was only now that they separated. Breeze looked utterly angry as she paced away, whereas Ducky simply looked sad and dejected. It seemed that maintaining her strong front had taken a lot out of the small fastbiter. She looked sadly at Spike who also looked dejected himself. It seemed that this episode had opened up rifts between himself and Breeze. To say nothing of between Cera and Taunt... With a sigh, Littlefoot spoke in sharptooth to the pack.

"We all need to talk. Everyone cool your emotions for a moment and we will discuss this together." His voice was imperious and brokered no disagreement. He was done with half measures. He was not going to let Calin's legacy tear them apart because of disagreements on how to view their enemies. The pack would make a joint decision and it would be obeyed. He would see to that.

Littlefoot took a tentative look at the two flyers. Both had looks of utter horror at the scene below. Very little of the dialogue was spoken in leaf-eater so all they had seen and heard was a series of threatening growls and roars. It was obvious that they had no idea what was going on. With a deep breath, he addressed them both.

"My apologies... The pack has much to discuss..." Littlefoot then looked at his fellow packmates with a stern look. "We will speak to you again when this matter has been resolved."

The flyers could only watch as the pack shuffled off to the north. They had no idea that momentous decision were about to be made that would affect the entire Mysterious Beyond.

......

The Mysterious Beyond:

"Run, Leap! They have our scent!"

The three fastbiters sprinted across the field with as much speed as they could muster. They had struggled to avoid Calin's pack for so long on their singular quest to reach their potential saviors, but in the end a scouting party had came across their scent. Despite the fact that Leap and Verok had not been seen visually yet, Verok had seen the scouting party stop and turn towards their location from his vantage point on the bluffs. Hiding was obviously not an option now.

They had to run for their lives.

His younger brother struggled to catch up despite his now feeble condition. Days of little food, poor sleep, and constant stress was taking their toll on all of them. Verok knew that even he was not at his prime condition but it would have to do. His survival and the survival of the rest of his kin depended on it.

Both brothers ran straight through bushes and saplings in their headlong sprint. The abrasions and cuts could be ignored for a time and their haphazard escape was of no consequence. Their scent would be tracked in any case so speed was their only option. Finally, as they approached a small tree in the distance, the slumbering form of Swift could be seen. Leap had come to replace Verok on watch when he had made the horrifying discovery. Now they had another sibling to warn.

"Swift! They found us! Run!"

With no time to wake up, Swift bolted upright and began to run in the direction of her two brothers. The smell of fear greeted her nose and the darkness of the overcast sky greeted her eyes. It was as if she had awakened from one nightmare only to enter into another. Had their luck finally ran out?

The fastbiter continued to weave a path across the open fields. They appeared to be a pale brown due to the lack of light in the depressing sky. For minute after minute it seemed that the same bushes and saplings were being crushed under their feet. Mile after monotonous mile passed underfoot as they tried desperately to find any stream or river that they could use to mask their scent. It was obvious that the scouting party would more than likely already be following their haphazard trail at this point. They had mere moments to find some way to hide their scent otherwise they would tire and be overtaken by their enemies. Things were looking grim on this most foreboding of days. But that was when Verok saw it.

"A stream! Run towards the stream!"

Verok smiled at the sight. Out of the most depressing terrain suddenly appeared a small little trail of the clearest blue. That meant water. That meant hope. Now we can hide our scent in the stream and take another path! Fate is on our side again! Verok knew that it was his duty to protect his kin and he silently thanked his ancestors for giving them this second chance. Now they would have the opportunity to seek out new allies and to defeat the fiend that was Calin... Unfortunately, in that moment Verok could not see the full terrain in front of him. The tall grass obstructed any view of the ground below.

That proved to seal his fate.

"Ahhh!!!!"

Verok could feel his feet collide with the rock before he could mount any kind of corrective action. Due to his headlong sprint, his momentum carried him into a head over heels collision into the ground.

And the other rocks.

Crack!

Pain. Pain raw and unforgiving descended over the poor fastbiter's senses. He had never known what it was like to be paralyzed with suffering in his life, but now he knew. A scream emanated from his mouth, but he was only aware of it from a distance. As if he were not the one making it. The scream was halfway between a squeal and a shriek. Due to his temporary disassociation, it was only a few moments later that he finally became aware of his two siblings again.

"Brother! You have to get up!"

"They're coming!"

"Please..."

Verok doubled over in pain as his mind again became aware of his environment. He did not need to look at the injury to know its severity. His leg was ruined. A broken bone meant that his life was over. It would only be a few minutes now before the enemy would be here. To finish him off and to do who knows what to his beloved siblings... He could not allow that to happen. With an almost herculean effort, he looked up at his two siblings and whispered a pained order.

"Run..."

Swift and Leap both protested.

"No, brother!"

"You have to get up, Verok!"

"If you don't get up then you will be dead!"

Verok put up a clawed hand as Leap grasped it with shaking claws. He then directed his siblings to look at his injury that had been covered by his hands until that time. Both of them recoiled in horror. Now they knew. He was not going anywhere. They had a chance of escape, but he did not. His song was ending. He then spoke to his weeping siblings.

"I love you both... and I will watch you from above... But please.... please remember my song..."

Swift tried to speak, but Verok demanded an answer.

"Remember..."

......

With trembling claws Leap answered him. "We... we will, brother... your song will be sung for ages to come!" Tears were now pouring from the distraught fastbiter's face. His older brother. His protector. His friend. How could he say goodbye? Even if they had all of the time in the world he would be unable to express himself fully. Now he had only a few moments before fate forced the matter. Leap buried his head in his brother's chest as Verok asked one thing of him.

"Finish me, brother..."

Leap looked at his brother with a confused expression. "Wha..."

Verok asked again. "Please finish me off, brother. Calin will torture me otherwise... At least give me a quick death... Please..."

Swift looked upon the scene with horror. "No, it can't end this way! It just can't!"

At that moment something gave way in Leap. His trepidation and despair was replaced with a numbness. An all-encompassing numbness. It was a horrifying feeling, but it was instinct's way of allowing him to do what he needed to do. He may have been relatively weak for his kind but he still had the mental toughness of his bloodline. The toughness to do what was necessary. He had to ensure that his brother's legacy did not end here. He had to ensure that he and Swift survived. Regardless of his personal fragility, he owed his brother that. He then spoke with an imperious tone.

"Run to the stream, Swift. I will be there in a moment."

Swift protested in an outpouring of grief. "No! There has to be some other way!"

Finally, Verok whispered once more despite his pain. "You don't need to see this Swift, you would regret it for the rest of your life... now please run... if you want to honor me then you can keep on living... please..."

Swift stared wide eyed at her fallen brother as her mouth hung agape. Finally, after a momentary pause, she lightly nuzzled his pain-stricken face and sprinted off in the distance, crying all of the way. Now it was just Verok and Leap.

Leap looked off in the distance as he seemed to speak from far away. "Brother, do you remember that time..."

Verok tried to stop Leap from dragging this out, as time was fast running out for them. "Brother..."

But Leap continued to speak. He wanted Verok to part from this world with a happier memory in his mind as opposed to a grim reality. "That time when we were younger... and me and you tried to play that game with a flyer? We didn't even know that he was a leaf-eater flyer... We all wondered why he ran away from us..."

Verok laughed slightly despite the pain. "Yeah.. we were kind of thick back then, weren't we?"

Leap nodded. "Yeah... and then there was that time when we ate that entire spiketail and left nothing for dad..."

Verok closed his eyes recalling that memory as another light chuckle emanated from his mouth...

Schluk!

With trembling claws, Leap held his brother's slashed throat open to allow the end to be as quick as possible. The smell of his brother's sweet blood filled his nostrils as torrents of crimson fell upon his body. With a trembling voice, Leap spoke to his rapidly fading brother.

"Shhh... It's alright brother... It's okay..." Leap was now inconsolable. "...just go to sleep... mom and dad will be there... The pain will be over soon..." He cried in aguish at the pain his brother must be going through. This killing may have been a mercy, but it was still a kill and the pains of death were still present. His brother's futile thrashes were a testament to that.

Within a few seconds, however, the torrents began to slow and the thrashing of his brother's body ceased. With a sickening feeling in his stomach, Leap now realized that he was alone. His brother was no more. He had gone to wherever the parted went. With a light nuzzle to his brother's lifeless chest, he spoke to his brother one last time.

"Say hello to our parents, Verok... Tell them that I'm sorry..."

However, the cold reality of their situation would not allow him to mourn over his brother's corpse. He and Swift were all that remained now. It was up to them to carry on the legacy of Verok and their fallen parents. They had to flee before the scouting party found them. So, with a heavy heart, Leap turned away from his brother's broken body.

And sprinted towards the stream.

......

Ha! The scent is getting stronger!

Kerwat sprinted towards the scent of the three fastbiters. Ever since he was slashed by Calin for panicking, he had struggled to regain his standing in the pack. Being reprimanded in such a way by the leader was not only painful, but socially disastrous. Such a punishment indicated that he no longer had the support of the leader which meant that his position as a tracker was under threat. Any upstart could challenge him to battle and take his place. He needed a success here in order to discourage such an outcome.

He sprinted across the assorted bushes and grasses in his headlong sprint. He had far outran his counterparts in the scouting party as he wanted this victory for himself. If he were the one to put their multi-day expedition to a close then Calin would surely praise him. That would be enough to improve his position. However, as he rounded a bend in their path, he came across a scene that made him stop in his tracks.

Blood.

One of the fastbiters was already dead.

Crap!

The profuse amount of blood that covered the scene made any sort of tracking nearly impossible. How could he expect to track the finer scents of his quarry when the overpowering smell of blood pervaded everything? Worse yet, the blood now covered his hind feet as he had wandered onto the death scene...

Oh crap! I need to wash off in the stream! If the others saw him with blood on his claws then they would suspect that he had killed the deserter and Calin had clearly indicated that he wanted him alive if possible. Calin was convinced that the deserters must have had help in the pack and he wanted to interrogate them in order to find the whereabouts of the other traitors. He refused to believe that three members could simply leave without anyone noticing until the next morning. If the others found Kerwat with the blood of the fallen fastbiter on his claws, then they would suspect that he killed him in order to prevent the deserter from being interrogated. I am so doomed... Kerwat would need to wash quickly and hope that he was quicker than the others...

"What do we have here?"

Kerwat cringed. That voice. The terrible voice. Why did he have to be so fast? Why could it have not been someone else. Anyone else. Instead, the voice of Calin reached his ears with the question that was also a condemnation. Kerwat knew that he had no hope now. But he had to try. He had to try to convince the paranoid fastbiter that he did not kill the deserter and that he was not trying to cover up anything. With a fearful stammer, he began.

"I found him like this, sir. I seem to have wandered into..."

Calin's face did not change. "You seem to have wandered into his blood, Kerwat? Now that is a likely story..."

As the other members of the scouting party began to surround the poor fastbiter, he knew that his fate was sealed. If Calin couldn't make an example out of the deserters then he would make an example out of him. It did not matter that he were innocent. It did not matter that he would have no information to give under torture. All that mattered is that the cycle of fear would be maintained. Now he only had one more choice left. Should he give in or should he die on his own terms?

I will not die a victim!

With unstoppable rage, he sprinted at the tan fastbiter who had fixed him with a look of surprise. If he were going to die today then he was at least going to share his pain with the one who condemned him. With legs burning with exertion and eyes wide with determination he approached the despicable fastbiter with teeth bared. In only a few more seconds he could leap at the source of his misery. In only a few more seconds he could tear into the villain's face.

But the moment never came.

Suddenly searing pain and massive weight began to bear down on his back. The other fastbiters from his scouting party, obviously fearing reprisals if their former chief tracker was allowed to harm Calin, had tackled Kerwat and were now holding him down with their claws and teeth. There was no escape now. There was no hope.

When Calin next spoke, Kerwat knew what was next.

"I think that you know the drill... Tell me who else helped the deserters."

Kerwat remained silent. As far as he knew no one had helped the deserters, including himself. He had no answer to give. Calin's next words were the last thing that Kerwat heard before the screaming began.

"Very well. Let's start with your left eye..."

......

It was about an hour later when Red Claw finally finished hunting and arrived at the scene. And what a scene it was.

What appeared to be a massive pile of fastbiters were obviously holding something down that was making pathetic attempts at trying to get away. The sound of whimpers and cries could be heard from underneath the pile. Seeing the dead deserter in the distance, Red Claw could easily deduce what had happened. Either one of the other deserters had been captured and Calin was having a bit of fun or Calin was torturing a potential conspirator.

The fool sees enemies everywhere. Red Claw mused to himself. A useful flaw, but I see that I will have to restrain him. This kind of purge of invisible enemies could lead to the loss of much of Red Claw's forces and he would not tolerate that. A sufficient level of fear had been maintained and order was restored. Even if some of the deserters remained at large, they knew the full fury of the pack now and word of that would be spread to the world outside. None of the remaining members of the pack would dare leave now. They could see the consequences of disloyalty quite well.

As Calin and the others parted from the poor wreck. Red Claw could see what remained of their victim. Large gashes existed around his eyes where they had been ripped out and presumably eaten. Now only empty, bloody sockets stared at the world around him, but even without eyes the sockets still communicated their owner's fear and despair. Elsewhere, the fastbiter had large gashes where pieces of flesh had been ripped out of his back, chest, and sides. Blood, both fresh and dried, crusted his body. They had begun to eat him alive. This was brutal even by the pack's own standards.

Undoubtedly the fact that Kerwat was still alive was Calin's handiwork. Calin quite enjoyed seeing others suffer. Especially if they had crossed him in some way. The exposed entrails, cut tendons, and seeping blood from the enumerable slashes completed the gory picture. With his tendons cut, the fastbiter could not move to any significant degree. Likewise, the fastbiter could no longer seem to articulate sharptooth words, which indicated that his jaw must have been injured as well. The result was simply a symphony of pathetic whimpers. The victim was simply waiting for death now. That was all that he could do.

"We will stop the search now, Calin. We have made our point." Red Claw's order was greeted with a deep bow. "Did the conspirator have any accomplices?" He would go ahead and play into Calin's paranoia. Never let a good flaw in your underlings go to waste.

Calin shook his head as a deep gurgling noise and a choked whimper emanated from the victim. "He has refused to speak. Even when we began to disembowel him, he refused to divulge his allies."

Red Claw gave a slight grunt at that. That should be your first clue, Calin. If someone refuses to talk even when you eat their eyes and entrails then they probably have nothing useful to say! But Red Claw refused to say anything more. He would let Calin keep his paranoia and aggression. It was useful in keeping him under control and it would come in handy in the battle to come.

With little fanfare, Red Claw grabbed the still whimpering fastbiter and quickly crushed him in his jaws. In the matter of a few seconds, he was swallowed by Red Claw. It was just another meal as far as he was concerned. Red Claw finally spoke again.

"Let's return to our territory, Calin. We need to wait and prepare. In the Cold Time we will strike!"

As the fastbiters turned towards the west, the two deserters continued to sprint towards lands unknown. They did not realize at the time that they had escaped from their most formidable foe. However, their greatest challenge was yet to come.

......

The Land of Shallow Waters:

"I don't give a damn if they were sad or in pain! They were part of Calin's pack! Good riddance!"

Breeze paced in agitation. What in the hell is wrong with them! She couldn't understand where her packmates were coming from with their willingness to accept possible deserters. The deserters had joined with the enemy; to her, that made them enemies for life.

"We can't trust them, guys!" Taunt added. "If they were willing to join Calin then what else might they be willing to do?"

Cera covered her head in her forelimbs and shook her head. She was noticeably tiring of this discussion. Nonetheless, she offered her own perspective.

"Who is to say that they had a choice?"

That made everyone stop for a moment. Taunt paused and took on a contemplative expression, whereas Ducky nodded at Cera's question. She took the chance to add her own words.

"When the fastbiters were drowning in the mud..." She shook her head and looked at Breeze. "I know that you did not arrive until after... Seeker..." She closed her eyes at that unpleasant memory. The few moments that had elapsed where they all thought that Littlefoot had died were the darkest in her memory. "But before that we tricked some of the fastbiters into chasing after us. We did. We did."

Ducky paused for a moment and Spike decided to elaborate while she collected her thoughts. As a rift now existed between himself and Breeze, he wanted to explain his position as well. With a soft voice, Spike spoke.

"They were crying, Breeze." Breeze noticeably look surprised at this as Spike continued. "They were crying for their mothers... their brothers... the dinosaurs that they were forced to kill." He sighed deeply. "I guess that Calin gave them the same sadistic choice that we had: to kill or to be killed. They chose the other option."

Breeze's response was not as agitated as her previous statements, but she was still noticeably agitated. "Then that is their choice. They reaped what they sowed."

"That may be. But these deserters are making another choice. Should we turn away those who leave Calin? If we don't offer them a place to go from our enemies then others may go to our enemies." Ruby offered.

Littlefoot agreed. "I am not saying that we trust them completely... but it would not be wise to turn them away. Your own father turned away from Red Claw, Taunt." Taunt's eyes when wide with a somewhat angry tint as Littlefoot had brought his own father into the mix. "But yet he has proved himself to be trusted ally."

"They..." Taunt tried desperately to control his voice, but the anger was still there. "Are not my father."

"No. They are not."

All of the eyes of the pack turned and stared at the dinosaur who had just spoken those words. Thud had remained silent and abstained from the meeting until now. Technically he had no standing to even be there at the meeting as he was not a member of the pack. However, no one challenged his right to speak. He quickly amended his statement.

"But they are not Calin either... They are whatever they are. You should probably take them as they are."

Taunt stared at his father for several moments. He had a look of uncertainty on his face. It was as if he were of two minds on this matter. He had no idea what to say.

Breeze was at no loss of words, however.

"What? Are you going to take them in?" Her words were full of sarcasm, which earned her a stern look from both Littlefoot and Ruby. Their patience was wearing thin. However, Thud's words surprised them all.

"If Path's parents are willing, yes."

Littlefoot turned to stare at Thud, which was a look that was repeated by Taunt. What was his father thinking?

"Screech and I ran away from Red Claw to save our own skin, Breeze." Thud shook his head. "Red Claw is insane. He only thinks about getting revenge on the valley. He doesn't care about his allies or his methods. We had to run in order to save ourselves... I was the only one who remained. My brother paid the price with his life..."

Taunt looked downcast as his father again shared this story. He had remembered a few good memories of his uncle Screech from when he was very young. Then Screech had became the enemy along with his father. But now Screech was dead. It was both senseless and tragic.

"I... remember what that pain was like, Breeze." Thud now had Breeze's undivided attention. "I remember the guilt of thinking about what I did under Red Claw's orders. I remember the screams of my victims. I remember the mournful cries. It wasn't until I had a mournful cry of my own that I finally snapped back into the dinosaur that I once was... before I betrayed my only son... before I joined with the depraved psychopath..." He then looked at her with determined eyes. "I would never turn a deserter from Red Claw away. I would never turn away from friendship when others with even more reason to hate me... welcomed me with open arms."

The entire pack was speechless at Thud's impassioned speech. Anyone who was an enemy of Red Claw and who was willing to accept the consequences of their actions was an ally in his mind. He would not deny a second chance when his own position was due to others granting him a second chance. After a few moments, however, Littlefoot decided to test the waters.

"Taunt?"

Taunt looked up and sighed. "I will not go against my father, Seeker. It is just so damn hard to overlook what Calin and his pack has done. I will give any deserters a chance... but I will be watching them closely."

Littlefoot nodded. "I would expect no less." He then looked at the other possible dissenter. "Breeze?"

Her answer was mournful. "Skytail's family took me in when I had no one else to turn to. How could I forget that?"

Ducky gave her a sad smile. "Calin has taken a lot from you. You had every right to be angry. You do. You do."

"But I had no right to take it out on you." Breeze countered. "I should have kept my anger focused on the bastard that deserves it."

Cera nodded. "It's alright, Breeze. We all get angry sometimes. The important thing is to move on and focus that anger on those who deserve it."

Ruby smiled at the very threehorn-like answer that the yellow fastbiter had just uttered. "Trust me, Cera. I am sure that he makes all of us angry."

Chomper smiled at the scene. It seemed that the pack had finally come to terms with Pterano's revelations. He would have to mention this to his parents of course. If the pack suddenly started bringing in strange sharpteeth then they might get a bit concerned. However, it was nice to see them begin to act like a pack again. A lot of hurtful things had been said and an unfortunate rift had opened up between two of the pack's couples. Now that the grievances had been aired and emotions been shared it seemed that all had been forgiven. He then decided to speak to the pack as well.

"So are we ready to decide yet?"

Littlefoot looked around at the pack and, seeing everyone nod in turn, vocalized the pack consensus. "Alright. We will allow the deserters, if they are indeed coming here, to join with Thud. Who knows... they might have information on Calin's pack that might help us in the future." He then looked at the others with a more inquisitive expression. They had focused so much on the deserter issue that they had not mentioned the other matter. "Uh... I guess we should have someone talk to the hidden runners, huh?"

Everyone nodded at this recommendation, except for Cera and Breeze who shrugged. It was obvious that they were mentally spent after the main discussion and were simply ready to call it a meeting. Littlefoot had to suppress a laugh at this. Their view of the situation closely matched his own, despite the fact that he would not share it so openly. He quickly gave one final order.

"Alright then. We will have Petrie greet the hidden runners and see if they are willing to join us against our common enemy..." He then looked back at the two visibly confused flyers in the far distance. Right... We probably need to convince them that we aren't completely violent savages... Nunti has not exactly seen our best side today... "We should probably talk to Pterano now and let him know what we have decided."

The sound of flapping wings interrupted his words, however, as Petrie descended from the sky.

"Sorry me late! It took me a while to convince Ponder's mommy and daddy. But they agree with plan." He nodded with some satisfaction at his job well done. He was totally unaware of the amazing revelations from Pterano, the massive disagreement that the pack had endured, or for that matter the fact that Pterano was even back in the Land of Shallow Waters. This made Petrie's next question all the more humorous.

"So... what did me miss?"

Petrie was quite confused when the rest of the pack started laughing.

......

Outside of Harthron's territory:

"Begone, you fiend!"

Sierra had to laugh at the antics of the hidden runner. There was no doubt that he hated Calin and his pack for destroying their nests, but it was obvious that Sierra's words had shaken the poor soul. Sandstorm thinks that he can trick us into a war with the Hidden Runners? Ha! Let's see how he likes it when we ruin his plans! Sierra had respect the small, ruthless fiend, but now he realized that Sandstorm had been playing them all back in the valley. He had used the exact same strategy of wait and manipulate that he and Rinkus had used on Pterano many years ago. The fact that they had fallen for the same stunt annoyed him to no end. I will see to it that you pay, Sandstorm! Your next 'death' will not be fake!

"We have heard enough of your lies!"

Rinkus and Sierra both rolled their eyes. It seemed that it was time to wrap this up. With that in mind, Rinkus spoke next.

"They are not lies, but believe what you wish." His beak turned into a sneer. "But if you think Seeker's pack is going to help you then you need to think again. They serve themselves, just like us." Sierra's expression now turned dark. "We only attacked you because Sandstorm implied that you were allies of Seeker. If you yield now then we will stop, but if you continue..." He let the implied threat hang in the air.

Westron expression did not waver. "We will not yield. Even if we have to fight both you and Seeker, we will fight to the last."

Rinkus smiled. "Hmmmm... I wonder if your comrades share your opinion..." He could see that several of the hidden runners were now looking at one another with uncertain looks. His little speech had worked wonders on the parents in the pack. Those who were fearful were always the easiest to sway. "In any case I suppose that we will go... I would hate to leave Red Claw waiting..."

As the two flyers took flight towards the setting sun, Westron spat in their direction. Regardless of the political intrigues involved, he would never yield to those who had destroyed their friends and allies. He had been against Viscond's mission before, but now he realized its true importance. These flyers and the pack that they represented were pure evil. He would see to it that they never again would be permitted to threaten hidden runner lives. Unfortunately, he knew that their speech may have sown the seeds of doubt into the minds of some of his packmates. The drive to isolationism was strong in hidden runners and it took the slightest provocation for that instinctual drive to rise to the surface. Nonetheless, he would do all in his power to ensure that they would finish the job that Viscond had given them. To seek Harthron's assistance against Calin and Red Claw's horde of evil.

The only question now was: would the rest of the pack be on his side?


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