Chapter 62 Hidden
Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.
Two days later - Harthron's territory:
Scent markings... We are about to enter his lands...
Westron gestured for the remainder of the pack to stay behind for a moment as he sniffed the offending bushes. The smell was not fresh, but yet was not old either. The tell-tale smell of hidden runner urine indicated the means by which the borders of Harthron's territory was marked. Westron could instantly interpret the data as it came in.
Male... Older male... Higher rank...
This was not an uncommon finding when approaching another hidden runner's territory. The markings would usually be done by older males and females who had a higher social rank. Higher rank meant more authority and less subservience by the marker. This led to changes that could be detected in the subject's scent. This also had a greater impact on any intruders. The smell of higher ranked individuals would indicate just how powerful the pack was. If a pack had many higher ranked members then that indicated how many lower ranked members there had to be. Harthron certainly had his fair share. Westron quickly sniffed another bush.
Female... Younger female... Higher rank...
Odd. Westron thought to himself. A younger member generally wouldn't be... But then he smelled something else in the scent. Something that answered his inner questions.
Pregnant. Ah, that explains it.
Now he knew that this must have been one of the leader's mates. Carrying the leader's eggs would automatically grant a female a higher status in the more traditional packs. The lesser packs, of which Westron was a part, generally had one male per female as their standard, but the great leader of the packs traditionally had more than one mate. More mates meant more offspring. More offspring meant more allies. And more allies meant that challenging the great leader was a less promising venture. Likewise, the prohibition of taking more than one mate in the lesser packs ensured that no other pack leader would have as many allies as Harthron did; giving him a great advantage in terms of alliances. The only threats then would come from outsiders or a coordinated coup from his own children. Considering Harthron's cautious rule, he had little to worry about in that regard.
Suddenly Westron felt a chill go up his back. The urine from the younger female was fresh. This meant that she was here rather recently. Furthermore, he had a feeling that he was being watched. Deciding that it would be best to declare his intentions before entering the leader's domain, he gave a traditional incantation just in case anyone was listening.
"I, Westron, enter this territory without contempt or threat. I humbly request an audience with the great leader on behalf of my leader."
As he said this with head bowed and eyes closed, nothing seemed to happen. Thinking that he might have been overcautious, he slowly raised his head and opened his eyes.
Only to see eight pairs of hidden runner eyes stare back at him.
"You come on behalf of Viscond the Younger?"
Westron tried to hide the fact that the sudden appearance of the other hidden runners did not surprise him, but he failed miserably. In the end, he decided to simply confirm their query.
"Yes. I come on behalf of my leader."
The female who seemed to be the leader of the scouting party then looked upon him with suspicion. "Why does Viscond not come here himself?"
Westron avoided cringing at her scrutiny. It was a fair question. If a leader sent his second-in-command in his place, then he had better have a good reason for doing so. Either sickness or battle. Any other reason would show great disrespect to the great leader of the packs. The great leader had to also be mindful of deputies trying to go around the rule of their leaders. Harthron would obviously want to avoid being party to any insubordinate action by lower ranking members against their leaders.
With a firm voice Westron spoke. "My leader is in battle. He left the pack in my charge."
The female paled at this statement as the other seven hidden runners began to quietly whisper amongst themselves. As a deputy, she would obviously be expected to give as much information to Harthron as possible before an audience was granted. With that in mind, she spoke.
"Who does he battle? Has he made new enemies for us?"
This was a valid question. If a leader were to make a new enemy then the allied packs would also have a new threat to deal with. If, however, the battle was part of a personal vendetta, then the risk to the allied packs were minimal. A vendetta was a personal matter but a pack battle was something else entirely. If Viscond had made a new enemy without good reason then Harthron would certainly show him his wrath. Westron's answer came promptly.
"He battles Red Claw and his fastbiters."
The scouting party went dead silent in shock.
"They have killed his brother. Our ally."
Two of the hidden runners in the scouting party gasped in shock. They obviously knew the highly esteemed hidden runner and were shaken at his loss. Their shock was magnified a hundredfold, however, when he spoke his next words.
"The entire pack was destroyed. Only one child remained." Weeping was now coming from several in the scouting party as they obviously had family in that pack. "Many of them showed signs of torture."
Westron looked ahead with as an impassive face as he could muster under the circumstances. As he watched the leader of the scouting party he noticed a significant change in her demeanor. She went from shock, to dawning realization, and then to complete and utter dread. With a cracking voice, she finally responded.
"Follow us into our territory. I will address your concerns to the leader."
With a deep bow, Westron saluted the scouting party. As he rose, however, the female whispered one thing under her breath that he could hear quite well.
"And if my father has any sense then he will listen..."
Elsewhere in the Mysterious Beyond:
"The... There is no scent from them... I think they have quit following us."
Leap uttered his words in a weak stammer. As they took a break from their monotonous journey, he had taken it upon himself to sniff around their makeshift shelter. There had been no sign of Calin's pack for two days now. Ever since the loss of their beloved brother... Ever since Leap had been forced to put him out of his misery.
Leap sat down but did not bother to look at his sister. Instead he fixed his eyes on the ground in silence. He and his sister had barely exchanged any words in the last two days. They had cried together after finally losing their pursuers, but no words were exchanged then. The emotions were too raw. In the day that followed Swift seem to take on a cold exterior as she focused on what had to be done in order to ensure their survival. They had fished in silence. They had journeyed along the river in silence. Then they had prepared for sleep in silence. Leap knew that his sister was doing this in order to keep her emotions at bay, but she was also alienating her brother in the process and not making her situation any better. This was most certainly not the time for such disconnection. With a deep sigh Leap decided to speak again.
"What do you think that he would want us to do?"
Swift looked at him with an annoyed expression that quickly turned into one of surprise. It seemed that she did not want to think about their predicament any more than she had to, but his words shattered her emotional shields. With a trembling voice she spoke.
"I... I can only guess, brother." Her voice quaked as she continued. "He would want us to carry on. He would want us to find Seeker and to do the best that we could for him and his allies." She looked upon Leap with an expression of sadness. "But I don't know if I am strong enough to do what he wanted."
Leap gave her a sad smile. "He trusted you, sister. He would not have done that if he didn't think you strong enough for the job."
"I wasn't strong enough when he needed me the most!" She yelled in an anguished screech. "I wasn't strong enough to be there when he died! I wasn't..."
Leap bowed his head in sympathy as his sister broke down into tears. Leap had been asked by name to kill his own brother, whereas Swift was asked to go to the stream. Despite the fact that Swift didn't want to be there and witness that... She still felt guilt at not being strong enough for the task that Leap had been given. For not being there when her eldest brother needed her the most. As her sobs reached his ears, however, Leap realized that she had been keeping all of this inside her for his benefit.
Leap had always been the weaker brother in many ways. He lacked the physical strength or stamina of his siblings. However, as Verok has noticed in him, Leap did have mental toughness. He could allow himself to make the hard choices. He could commit a harder right over an easier wrong. He would hate himself afterwards, but he would do what was necessary. Verok was observant enough to see the cold predator underneath Leap's unintimidating exterior, but Swift could only see her sweet little brother. Her compassion clouded her judgment of him, which explained her attempt at holding everything in. It also explained why Verok had demanded that she leave while Leap finished him off. He had known full well that Swift would never forgive herself if she had done the deed. She was stronger than Leap in many ways, but in others she was fragile.
He swallowed hard. He would have to set the record straight here. For him and her both.
"You are strong, Swift. You are one of the strongest dinosaurs that I know." Swift showed no signs of change as she continued to sob. "But you... you are hard on yourself and he knew that... so he had me..." He then began to cry as well. "So he had me take care of it... he didn't want you to... blame yourself." He sucked down a deep breath. "He didn't want you to see his final moments... those are memories that I wish that I didn't have..."
Finally his emotional shields collapsed as well as he began to look away in silence. He stared at the sky without actually focusing on anything. His mind was quite far away. The haunting memories of his brother bleeding out filled his mind. They formed a horrific counterpoint to memories of happier times. The same brother that he had played with since they were children... the same brother who had given him encouragement when he had difficulties... the same brother who had risked retaliation by coming to his aid when the other members of Calin's pack harassed him... was killed by his own claws. Despite the necessity of his actions it still left crippling guilt in his mind. He supposed that would always remain.
He tried not to flinch when Swift suddenly embraced him from behind. It was odd to finally feel her nuzzle him again after two days of emotional distance. It reminded him of old times in a way. That was when she spoke.
"Forgive me, brother. I was selfish." A sob emanated from her throat. "I was so upset that I wasn't there to be with him... that I didn't even think about what that was like for you... I'm so sorry."
Leap returned the nuzzling as he composed himself slowly. After a moment he spoke.
"You were not selfish, Swift. You just take things personally, which is why he wanted me to do it." He gave her a sad smile. "He knew that I would do it even though it would destroy me, but he knew that you would help me get up again."
Swift gave a soft sigh. "He knew us very well, didn't he?"
Leap could only nod. "He did. He most certainly did."
No words were exchanged for several moments as each fastbiter came to terms with their predicament in their own way. Leap and Swift were opposites in many ways. One was emotionally vulnerable yet physically strong, whereas the other was physically weak yet emotionally guarded. However, deep down, they both had the same driving force within them. They would fight to their last breath in order to do right for their late brother. Their commitment to carry on the legacy of their ancestors had survived the death of their parents and it would survive the death of Verok.
When the two fastbiters began walking again a few moments later, the silence had departed. In its place, a song bellowed from the two fastbiters. The song of their late brother. Whether they lived for only a few more days or for many years, they would ensure that his song never died. They would sing this song to any strangers that they encountered. They would intone the verses to Seeker and his pack. They would bellow his story as a beginning as opposed to an ending.
And, fate willing, they would one day croon this song over Calin's rotting corpse.
"Please, sir! We need your leadership! Otherwise... we will continue to be left at the mercy of Red Claw."
The elder hidden runner reflected for some time on the smaller hidden runner's plea. The story that Westron had relayed to him was horrific beyond measure. Mothers and fathers being ripped to shreds... children being forced to consume their own siblings... eggs being dashed against the ground... It was the stuff of nightmares. It made his blood boil.
However, he was the great leader. Ever since he had been selected from his father's enumerable progeny to assume command... and disposed of the few of his siblings who wished to challenge him... he had protected his people and himself by being cautious. Some might say extremely cautious. He had carefully cultivated friendships with lower ranked families. He had taken lower-ranked females as his consorts, which established ties of blood between himself and the masses that he ruled. He had even taken steps to appoint members of lower-ranked families as trackers in order to promote a sense of fairness in his domain. This had made him a rather popular leader with many allies.
And popular leaders were generally safe ones.
However, the situation that had just been brought to his attention did not lend itself to easy solutions. If he failed to act then it was possible that Red Claw and his minions might continue to strike at the lesser packs. But it was also possible, some part of his mind cautioned, that Red Claw might have decided to move on to other pursuits as well. If he were to take any action against him then that might invite further attacks from the massive fiend. Furthermore, what could even an entire pack of hidden runners actually do compared to the countless hordes that Red claw now commanded? By deciding to act he might be forcing his entire alliance of packs to their doom or dissolution. He doubted that the alliance would withstand many more losses like the one that they had suffered. They would eventually break away and flee into the Mysterious Beyond. Even good hunting grounds meant nothing if they were made dangerous by competitors. His emotions told him to take a team of hidden runners and harass the monsters that had done this, but his mind told him something else. In the end his mind held out.
"I cannot commit my forces to this."
There it was. The order that brokered no disagreement. He would not commit the adult population of the allied packs for an assault on Red Claw. Viscond had, through his actions, committed his own pack to this threat. They would have to deal with this on their own. The allied packs would do as they have always done. Hide in the shadows and avoid direct conflict.
Westron bowed his head deeply. But this was not done in respect, Harthron noted, it was done in shame. Despite acting like he was above it all, he did feel great sympathy for this fastbiter. Viscond had left him all alone to lead his pack to the great leader's territory. Furthermore, he had charged Westron with personally seeing the great leader and requesting his aid. The fact that he had failed in that mission was no doubt causing him great distress. Seeing what his actions had wrought, and realizing that he had probably doomed their entire pack to either seeking exile in order to avoid Red Claw's wrath or else a grisly end, he decided to do something that he almost never did.
He would compromise.
"You may, however, take any volunteers who wish to join your mission. If you wish those of your pack who do not wish to join in this mission may stay here until it is over."
Westron rose from his position. His eyes were weary and tired. It looked as if he had aged several years in the span of a few moments. With a raspy voice, he asked the leader a question.
"May I speak freely, sir?"
Harthron frowned. "Very well."
Westron paused for a moment as if he were about to say something, but then immediately thought better of it. His response, when he made it, was short and to the point.
"Your decision means that my pack is doomed, sir. Red Claw undoubtedly has our scent now. Running away will not be an answer for us." He stared into the leader's eyes. There was a fire within their depths that caused something to break in the great leader's heart. In those eyes dwelled a passion that Harthron had suppressed in himself so long ago when he rose to the leadership. Now he was condemning this hidden runner to his doom. The final words from Westron broke his heart.
"Take good care of those I leave behind, Harthron. They are all that will remain of us."
As the hidden runner departed from the great leader's cave, Harthron felt a chill go up his spine. Leadership was often a lonely business where allies both had to be kept at arm's length. However, this decision was different. He had condemned one of his allied packs to destruction. Worse yet, Westron had an appearance and temperament that reminded him of himself. As the footsteps of the departing hidden runner faded into the night, silence consumed the scene.
Never before in his life had Harthron felt so alone.
Several hours later:
"What have you done, father?"
Ignis glared at the form of her father in the cave. His back was turned towards her, but she could see by his change in posture that her voice had caught his attention. Anyone else talking to him like this would result in severe consequences. Her status as his daughter and a higher-ranked tracker would grant her some allowance here, but not much. Her father would be forced to take severe action if his followers saw her acting insubordinate towards him. As he obviously wanted to avoid that outcome, he spoke firmly to the other hidden runners who were present.
"Leave us. I have a family matter to attend to."
She stood impassive while the other hidden runners paraded out of the entrance to the cave. Several of the females who were present, deputies all, stared at Ignis as they began to whisper amongst themselves. She would undoubtedly be involved in some of the upcoming rumors in the pack. Ignis couldn't care less. Finally, after a few moments, the deputies and sycophants had departed from the cave. Ignis did not waste any time launching into her tirade.
"Just what in the hell do you think that you are doing?!"
Harthron now turned towards her with a noticeably displeased expression. Knowing his daughter's tendencies he obviously was not surprised that she would be the first to criticize him, but that did not mean that he was happy with the development. The next words out of his mouth were spoken firmly.
"I am doing what is necessary."
Her answer came immediately. "Spiketail dung! This isn't necessary and you know it!"
Harthron sighed at his daughter's reaction. "One day, daughter, you and your siblings will be on the chooser's council and will have to choose my replacement. When that day comes I hope that you understand that leadership sometimes requires hard choices."
Her words were less belligerent now, but no more kind. "I know that hard choices have to be made, father, but this is not one of those. If we don't strike at Red Claw now then he will go after us later when he is even stronger. The choice is simple: fight or die."
Harthron stared at his daughter for a moment with a slight smile. It was the look that a parent gives a child who has simultaneously frustrated them but also amused them. He gave that look to her quite often. She had her father's old willpower, but she had not yet developed his sense of responsibility. Nonetheless, she was now addressing him like an adult would, so he returned the favor.
"There is another possibility, dear." He placed a hand on her shoulder as he gestured towards the cave entrance. "Red Claw could stay away. He was only in our territory for a brief time and this was the only time that he has been here for many years. If that is the case, then it would be unwise for us to provoke him into further attacks. It would be best to hide and wait, as our kind does."
"Our kind does it far too much." Ignis protested.
Harthron bowed his head slightly in acknowledgement of her comment. "That is your opinion."
She looked at him sternly. "And the opinion of many others! Father, we cannot simply wait for him to attack again. We have all heard the whispers around the Mysterious Beyond. The attacks that he has led. At the very least we need to find allies in case the worst happens."
"Ally with outsiders? Other kinds?" Harthron shook his head in a disbelieving way. "My dear, that will only entail risk! We are the hiders of the night. We abandon that at our peril."
Ignis shook her head firmly. "We do nothing at our peril." Her glare was now restored to its original fury. "You may have sent the poor young male out to die, but I will not permit him to die alone."
Harthron's face grew concerned. "What do you mean?"
Ignis stared at him with a resolute expression. "I have volunteered for Westron's mission. As soon as Viscond comes back, I will resign my position and serve under him."
Harthron went into a rage. "My dear, you can't be serious!" He gestured with wide hand motions. "You are one of the elect! You are one of my own daughters. Even if you aren't appointed leader one day, you have a bright future ahead of you! You are one of our best trackers... don't throw all of that away!"
Ignis stared at her father with a grim expression. "I will not stand by while we do nothing! Power without action is impotent. At least the people will realize that I am not a coward."
Harthron ignored the jab at his bravery or lack thereof and simply stated what really mattered to him. "I can't have you throw your life away! What would your mother have thought?"
Ignis looked down for a moment. "I guess that I will ask her after I fall in battle. Because that is the fate that you are dooming us to."
Harthron paled. His daughter was serious about this. "Daughter!"
Ignis persisted. "You cannot stop me. If I renounce my position then I can choose the pack that I have allegiance to. The worst you can do to me is to tell your guards to put me to death... I guess that you would be saving Red Claw the time..."
"Daughter..." Harthron protested. "I am doing what I think is the best for the packs! I can't show favoritism or let my emotions get in the way of my judgment. Please understand!"
Ignis looked at him with pity. "I try father. But your decision here is wrong! Westron's pack won't have a chance! Red Claw more than likely has their scent... and he will track them down... do their lives mean nothing to you?"
Despite his attempt to keep his cool, Ignis's words enraged him. He had often been accused of being extremely cautious and cool, even to the point of coldness. But such was the price of leadership in a pack such as his. But, despite his pretensions to the contrary, he cared very deeply about all of his subjects and he felt grief whenever they were harmed. To have his own daughter make such an accusation to his face made something primal snap within him. Without even thinking about what he was doing, he struck out with his hand and slapped her across the face.
Both hidden runners looked at one another in shock. Ignis was amazed that her own father would strike her, whereas Harthron was stunned by his own actions. He had not lost control of his emotions in many years, but now he had done so with his own beloved daughter. The sole offspring from his second and most favored mate. He was left looking at her in horror. What have I done?
As he watched in horror, his daughter's face went from a look of shock to a look of grim acceptance. He recognized that look. It was a look that he had given on a number of occasions. It was the look that one gave when what was once a hard decision was suddenly rendered moot by the situation itself. With her words spoken in a nearly emotionless tone, his daughter addressed him.
"You are far too willing to abandon others for your own benefit." Her words cut through him like sharp claws. He was left crushed by her condemnation. "Maybe when I am gone then you will realize just how much pain and suffering your inaction will have caused everyone else." Her beak trembled as she spoke one last time to the great leader.
As his daughter silently sprinted out of the cave, he was left staring at the ground that she had previously been standing on. His actions on this day had not only condemned one of his allied packs to its doom, but also doomed his beloved daughter as well. Her final words to him were both a goodbye and a condemnation. A condemnation that stung him more deeply than his slap must have stung her. He had tried to do what was in the best interests of the packs. However, the price of his actions on this day were far too much for him to take. A daughter's love had been replaced with a daughter's rebuke. Now, with her going off on her hopeless quest, there could be no reconciliation until he too joined her in the land of the parted. His loss was total and complete.
For the next few hours only the sound of weeping could be heard in the cave.
The Land of Shallow Waters:
Ducky sprinted through the bushes with tremendous speed. Her sudden emergence caused nearby tinysauruses to flee in terror, but they were not her target. No... On this day she was the target.
I have to hurry! I do, I do! He is about to catch me!
She didn't spare a moment to look up in order to see her aerial adversary. She knew that she didn't have that kind of time. He had gotten all of the others and now she was the final one of the pack left standing. She had to find the shelter before her luck finally ran out.
She gripped the pinecone in her hands with ferocious force. She couldn't fail now. She owed it to the others to complete their mission. It was all up to her.
Hearing wing flaps, she darted to her left and barely missed the talons of the persistent flyer.
Oh no, no, no! I have to find another way!
She stared for a split second at the scenery around her. The designated shelter was an abandoned hadrosaur nest on the other side of a shallow stream. She had attempted to follow the stream in order to eventually reach her destination, but now that was not a viable option. He would catch her in very short order unless she attempted something radical. With no time to think, she quickly decided on her course of action.
And she ran into the stream.
The flyer stared at the green fastbiter with impassive eyes. The others had fallen quickly under his claws, but this insufferable specimen remained. The remaining member of the once numerous pack. Her recent dodge of his latest attack had disrupted his plans and he had to again hurl himself into the air. Now that he had again rose into a thermal current, he could gaze at the lay of the land and ascertain the current situation. What he saw disturbed him greatly.
The flyer was making a quick swim across the stream. At her current rate she would soon exit the stream and have an open path to the shelter. No... This would not do... It was now a simple matter of speed now. The green fastbiter's trickery and fast thinking had delayed his victory until now. He would not allow her to have the last laugh.
With pure determination he ignored the burning sensation in his wing muscles and flapped them with tremendous force. He could not rely on the thermal currents now. That would take far too long. No... now he had to use his own power in order to catch up with the resilient predator. It was the only way that he could complete his sacred mission. With the fastbiter obviously attempting a headlong sprint at the nest it was obvious the route that he had to take. It was just a matter of getting there in time.
With a sudden lurch he fell out of the thermal and went into a precipitous dive. It was simply a matter of guiding himself to his destination now. He would use his flaps in order to steer his fall. Gravity would do the rest...
The fastbiter had emerged from the water and began sprinting as fast as her waterlogged body could manage. Now his original angle of descent would no longer reach her and a path adjustment was necessary. He would need to adjust to a 45 degree angle and hope that he arrived in time. It was a close thing at this point.
The predator was now sprinting full speed at the nest and was a few seconds away from its sanctuary. With his superior eyesight he could see every detail on the fastbiter's body. The small bristles on her feathers... the small particles of dust rising in the air... the fatigued look on her face... When he could see her hurl herself into the air, he knew that it was his time to strike. With a flourish he struck out his talons at the vine tied on her back.
Ducky laid on the ground for a few moments as she struggled to catch her breath. She had not had such a good workout since the last time that Thud had trained them. It was simultaneously a tiring and physically rewarding experience. As the flyer walked over to her field of vision, she cracked a smile.
"Good job, Spotter! You won!"
Petrie smiles and gave a little bow. "You do well at game though! You nearly beat Spotter."
Ducky laughed. "I guess that I will need to work on my swimming. I will, I will!"
Petrie joined in the laughter. "Don't work on it too much! Spotter nearly lose already!"
The two shared a friendly laugh as both of them relaxed after their physically taxing activity. Tagger and Catcher was a new game that was actually devised by Ducky. Petrie could participate in few of the games that the other members of the pack played due to the fact that he was small and flighted, whereas the others were large, powerful ground dwellers. He could not really participate in a group hunt except as a spotter, nor could he join in a pack fight. Likewise, if he played tag with his friends then his sharp talons could cause serious injury. In many ways a great chasm existed between him and his friends on account of their differences.
But the discovery of the vines changed all of that.
Petrie turned his head in surprise at Ducky. Why had she used his old leaf-eater name?
Ducky laughed. "We have not talked in a while. We have not. Not since you used to have that name."
Petrie sighed in recognition at that truth. He had not been able to play a proper game with the others in quite some time. He responded after collecting his thoughts for a moment.
"Me and you change since then. Me and you no longer same size."
Ducky nodded. They were quite close back in their leaf-eater days, being similar in size and complimentary in temperament, but the physical transformation had changed their relationship quite a lot. They were still close friends and they still talked, but the simple change in size and diet had caused a distance to form between Petrie and the others. It was something that no one wanted to happen, but it had occurred nonetheless. Ducky was well aware of this change and came up with this new game as a way to rectify it. With that in mind, she again spoke.
"Yes. But we are still us. Yep, yep, yep!" She looked into his skeptical eyes. "You are still playful. We just had to make a game that you could play. Stern Claw's vines made that possible."
Petrie nodded. "Yeah. Me will have to thank her..." He then looked at Ducky again. "...and thank you, Ducky." His use of her name did not go unnoticed by Ducky. "Me feel like member of pack again."
Petrie was well aware that it was not just the size difference that changed things. He was now much more of a loner than he had been in his leaf-eater days. He supposed that was part of his new instincts. That did not mean that he did not seek the companionship of friends, but rather that he was well adapted to being alone for days at a time. A useful attribute for when one ran errands for the pack. He was shaken from his thoughts by Ducky's response.
Ducky smiled. "You were always a member of the pack, silly!" The good natured tone of her voice made something warm in Petrie's chest. "You are our spotter, Spotter." She then realized the redundancy of the statement and laughed. "We would not catch much of our prey if it wasn't for you. Also you are the way we can talk to our loved ones." She then aimed a single claw at his chest. "You keep us in touch with our families and it is about time that we kept in touch with you."
Petrie was speechless at her statement and overwhelmed by emotion. He had not realized how much he missed these little talks and games until he again had a chance to play. Before he knew what he was doing, he nuzzled Ducky's chest.
Ignoring the massive difference in size, Ducky immediately shared in the gesture. She teared up at the knowledge that they had begun to grow apart because of their circumstances. With firm determination, she made a resolution.
Never again! We will not neglect our friends. Nope, nope, nope!
As the two embraced, they did not notice Pterano arrive on the scene. It was almost time for Petrie and his uncle to begin their flight into hidden runner territory. However, upon seeing the scene in front of him, Pterano couldn't help but smile. He decided that the start of their journey could wait a little bit longer.
Without a word, Pterano took off into the sky and returned to where the rest of the pack was waiting for the duo. In a few hours their mission would begin and then they would find out if they had further allies for the struggle ahead of them. But regardless of how that turned out he knew that the valley's current allies, the pack, was in good shape. Old friendships were being reaffirmed and new friendships were being sought out. If the pack could triumph over such unimaginable adversity then the valley had hope yet.
The valley would need it.
Harthron's Territory, the next day:
With utmost caution Viscond approached the threshold of Harthron's territory. He and the others had tracked the scent of their packmates to the outskirts of the great leader's territory. It seemed that Westron had wasted no time in carrying out Viscond's order and trying to rally the support of the leader of the packs.
Viscond smiled. He never doubted Westron for a moment.
Smelling the outskirts, however, proved to provide much interesting information. There was the usual smell messages. Though they could not exactly be translated directly from the language of smell to the spoken word, a rough translation was possible.
Female. In heat. Interested in potential suitor.
Viscond noted with some amusement that two of the males in his ragtag group were taking interest in that particular scent marking. The two females on the other hand were simply rolling their eyes at their antics. Viscond could only imagine that their thoughts were currently mocking the immaturity of males. Not wishing to be interrupted from his task, Viscond smelled some of the other scents on the pack's bulletin board of scents.
Male. Older male. Higher rank. Willing to mate.
Male. Young adult. Lower rank. Willing to mate.
Male. Older male. New member. Willing to mate.
Male. Younger male. Complete outsider. Willing to mate.
Viscond discretely moved away from that particular bush as it was obvious what that 'conversation' in scents was all about. Such scent discussions of that nature would usually end in a marking made by the eventual couple or, if the female hidden runner was still in her parent's charge, a scent marking from a rather irate parent communicating that any potential 'suitor' would be in for a very rude awakening. He didn't care to smell how that particular incident resolved itself.
As he was about to sniff the next bush a voice interrupted his thoughts.
"In case you are wondering, Keelarp already paired off with the outsider and ran off. Her mother is pissed."
Viscond looked up. "Westron!" Without wasting anytime he embraced the other hidden runner who had a smile on his face. It was obvious that he was pleased to see that his best friend and the leader of his pack had survived the ordeal. After a momentary embrace, Viscond pulled away and gestured towards the other four hidden runners. "We have all made it! Not a single loss!"
Westron beamed. "That is amazing, my friend! Did you avenge our fallen?"
"We have." Viscond acknowledged. "But much more needs to be done... Red Claw has exited our lands, but I am sure that he will be back. He knows where we are... He knows our scent..." He then looked up at his friend with expectant eyes. "How did Harthron react?"
Viscond and Westron both turned at the female voice that had sudden called out from the bushes. It was none other than Ignis and several other hidden runners. Viscond hurriedly gave a respectful bow and looked up with surprise at Westron who was not giving the standard greeting for one of the great one's daughters. Her own voice answered his unspoken question, however.
"You can raise your head, Viscond. I am not one of the elect anymore."
Viscond looked up with surprise as his four companions all began to mutter in hushed tones. His spoken question matched their own unspoken ponderings. "What happened?"
Ignis smiled a joyless smile. "Your friend convinced me and several of us younger ones, but my father's caution is favored by the elders." She bowed slightly. "I am afraid that this band is all that we can offer you, Viscond."
Viscond was speechless. He had known that it would be a hard sale to the cautious hidden runners, but he did not expect such a poor showing of volunteers. Would this be all that would act in defense of the hidden runners? Would the others put their faith in their ability to hide and evade? It was a depressing scene.
Suddenly, however, Ignis bowed to one knee. The others in her charge also joined in this gesture. Viscond couldn't believe what he was seeing. Was Ignis truly willing to swear fidelity to him and his pack? It was almost unimaginable that one of the elect would willingly lower themselves to a mere pack member of a lesser pack. But yet here she was. Her willingness to place her view on what was best for the pack over her own self-interest spoke volumes about her character. From that moment on Viscond resolved to train her in the ways of leadership as she truly had the judgment for it. Her next words only sealed his opinion of her.
"What shall we do now, sir?"
Viscond smiled a grim smile. "We will keep watch over the periphery of hidden runner territory for now. Just in case Red Claw returns. I take it that my followers are safe?"
Ignis nodded. "Yes, my... father... agreed to care for them until this matter was resolved."
Viscond noted how she had paused and flushed with anger upon saying the word father. It seemed that their rift was a deeply personal one. Another family had been ripped apart by Red Claw. But this time out of disagreement and not murder.
"Well that is generous of him." Viscond offered carefully. "I take it that he would not want to hear my report?"
Westron noticeably flinched as Ignis remained silent. Westron finally answered, however. "I don't think that would be a good idea, sir. The great leader seems to be a bit... preoccupied."
Viscond noted that Ignis looked away at Westron's statement. It was obvious what had preoccupied the great leader. It wasn't every day that a potential heir threw away her privileges for the ramblings of a virtual outsider. Likewise, it probably wouldn't be a good idea for that same outsider to simply waltz on in and strike up a chat. That probably wouldn't end well. Sighing deeply, Viscond addressed his deputy.
"Westron? Do you wish to watch over the pack or do you wish to join with me?"
At this, Westron walked over to the other four members of Viscond's band and looked at Viscond with a snarky expression. "Why do you ask such silly questions, sir?"
Viscond snorted. "Regardless, I should address my pack. They need to know what I have planned and why I think that it is necessary."
Ignis bowed her head slightly. "I... uh... don't know how many takers you will get, sir. Your pack wasn't exactly... I mean..."
"They were scared and wanted to stay with the great leader's pack?" Viscond finished.
Ignis nodded quickly. "Yes, sir."
Viscond gave a sad smile and looked at Westron. "I am sure that you and Westron did the best that you two could." Westron looked noticeably ashamed of his performance. The fact that the pack did not side with him obviously shook him to his core. "But I have to give it one more shot before we leave. And... As this might be the last time that we talk to them... I think that all of you should have some time with your families." The other members of Viscond's band looked downcast at that admission. Their families would be glad to see them, but they would be aware that it may be for the very last time.
Silence descended upon the band of ten hidden runners as none of them seemed to know what to say. However, one of the lower-ranked males finally decided to speak up after a few moments.
"And when we do leave, where are we going, sir?"
Viscond smiled at the assembled hidden runners. "We will go to the Sheer Cliff Bluffs. That should give us a good view of the land around us."
And... He added under his breath. Quite possibly a look at our enemies.
Elsewhere in the Mysterious Beyond:
"So... what were you and Ducky discussing..."
Petrie looked at his uncle with a startled expression which made Pterano laugh.
"I kind of flew by and saw you two talking... I was just kind of curious."
Petrie swallowed slightly as he maintained his level flight towards where the hidden runners were claimed to be residing. This was not a conversation that he expected to have with his uncle. Nonetheless, he gave Pterano a form of the conversation that he thought that he could understand.
"Well... me much smaller than my friends. But Ducky and me were the same size before... so me and friends not able to play together much anymore." Pterano looked upon his nephew with sympathy as he continued. "Me help them hunt and he help them track... but sometimes me fell like... like..." Petrie was having trouble think of the words. Pterano was there to help, however.
"...Like part of the scenery?"
Petrie nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah... Like that." He soon completed his thought, however. "Friends could not help it, but it still happen. But Ducky help stop that." A smile again reached his face. This was not lost on Pterano.
"It is good to have true friends, Petrie. I haven't had any of those in a long time." He then looked ahead as the small form of Nunti again came into view. "Well... until recently."
There was something wrong with Nunti's expression, however. He had a noticeably agitated look. What had him so spooked?
"Storm!" Nunti screamed. "Big storm!"
Pterano looked at Petrie with a concerned expression before yelling the obvious question. "What storm?!"
Nunti joined in formation by going in between the two flyers. He looked at Pterano with a panicked expression.
"Go above the cliff face and look at the horizon! This is bad, Pterano! I have never seen anything like this!"
Without any further words being exchanged, all three flyers flapped their wings and let the thermals carry them above the height of the nearby cliffs. It did not take long for them to see what Nunti had seen while scouting ahead.
"That..." Pterano shouted with some degree of fear. "...is what they call the orphan maker!"
Petrie did not like the sound of that. "Why they call it that?!"
Pterano paused in fear before he answered. "It is a Cold Time storm, Petrie. A really bad one. I have not seen one since I was a very young flyer... Me and my brother's survived that storm but some of the others..." Pterano shook his head as he recollected himself and started again. "The valley should be safe from its winds with its great walls... and your friends in the warmer lands should be okay but..."
Nunti interrupted at this point. "What about us?!"
Pterano seemed to consider that for a moment before answering. His answer did not make either of his companions feel any better.
"Well... that depends on us... how fast can all of you fly?"
Petrie's words summed up the situation quite well.