The Seven Hunters

By Rhombus

Adventure / Horror

Chapter 63 A sudden freeze

In winter, I plot and plan. In spring, I move.

― Henry Rollins

Ignis stared out at that desolate scene with vigilant eyes. She and Viscond were on watch from the high cliffs surrounding the territory of the allied packs, but there hadn't been much to 'watch' for nearly a day.

And even if there were any intruders would be easy to see.

The Sheer Cliff Bluffs were monumental in both size and scope. They rose from the relatively flat plain where the hidden runners resided to stand nearly three thousand feet above the surrounding lands. The cliffs, which were the remnants of a mountain which had been carved away by glacial activity many millennia ago, extended from across the flat expanse for nearly thirty miles. Their attempt to climb the treacherous bluffs in two days was truly a herculean task by everyone involved, but they had managed. The bluffs were much more gradual in their assent on the non-cliff side and this allowed them to make the journey with relative safety. This was the only place where they could see for such a great distance. With the horizon being over fifty miles away at this height they would have several days' notice of any significant movements in the Mysterious Beyond.

Not that anyone would be traveling on a day such as this.

A massive storm had enveloped the surrounding landscape in a covering of thick snow. The storm had long since passed, being as quick as it was brutal, but its legacy remained. For miles around an endless sea of white covered the landscape. Only the occasional rock face jutted out of the pale expanse to give the scene any sense of scale. The Mysterious Beyond was asleep in the icy clutches of an early winter. The massive rock face and the prevailing wind patterns had saved the hidden runner territories from anything other than a slight chill, but much of the Mysterious Beyond was not so lucky. Any dinosaur left out there would surely not survive.

"Are you alright? If you're cold then I can take over for a while and you can go huddle with the others. I have thicker feathers than you."

Ignis turned her head towards Viscond at his interjection. Although going down below with the others would block the wind which was blowing towards the cliff, she was not inclined to do so just yet. She still had a lot on her mind and the desolate view all around helped her to collect her thoughts. No... she would remain for a while longer. She quickly gave her response.

"I can handle the cold, Viscond. Don't worry about me. I can take care of myself."

Viscond frowned at her response, but said nothing. For several minutes the two of them continued to look out at the vacant expanse in silence. But Viscond could not hold his tongue for long.

"I remember when I left my parents..."

Ignis sighed inwardly. The last thing that I need is this conversation...

Unaware of her annoyance, Viscond continued. "When I left I thought that I had all of the answers and that they were holding me back with their old-fashioned ideas..."

Ignis decided to hold him off at the pass. "...but then you realized that they were right all along and that you were simply hotheaded, right?" Sarcasm dripped from her words.

Viscond smiled. Her sarcastic response did not faze him. It was simply nice to see her show any real emotion at all. "Well... I was hotheaded and found that I was proven wrong about many things... but I wasn't wrong about everything. I was certainly glad that I struck off on my own."

As Ignis looked at him with surprise, obviously wondering as to the point of his ramblings, he placed a hand on her shoulder and spoke to her face-to-face.

"But... one thing that I regretted was not talking to them until much later. I let my bitterness and anger get the better of me and as a result I almost missed by chance to reconcile with them..." He gave her a sad smile. "It wasn't until my father was in his final year that I got the chance to speak to him again. If I would have missed that chance then I would have never forgiven myself."

Ignis remained silent. When they had given their goodbyes to the pack she had made no effort to see her father. For his part, he had remained out of view. It seemed to her that their feelings on one another were mutual.

Viscond sighed at her lack of response. The pride of youth! He lamented. "Well... You should consider talking to him again sometime. You have made your choice in life, but that doesn't mean that you have to kick him out of your life."

Ignis glared. "He might disagree."

Viscond shrugged. "He might... I must admit that I don't know your father that well... but at least you would know that you did your best. Even if he gives you the cold shoulder that won't change the fact that you have a place with us."

Ignis looked away in shame at taking her frustration out on Viscond. He obviously was just trying to look out for her best interests. Her tone was noticeably apologetic. "Thanks, sir..."

Viscond shook his head. "Viscond, please!" He gave a little laugh. "I am not a dictator regardless of what some of my packmates may think. You don't have to call me sir all of the time."

Ignis smiled. "Viscond then. I am sorry for my tone. I just..."

Viscond nodded. "Have a lot on your mind?"

Ignis nodded. "Yeah..."

The two sat in content silence for several more minutes. Viscond realized that young ones often did not liked to be lectured, but he did not want her to make the same mistakes that he did in his youth. Even if her attempt to talk to her father ended in failure she would have the knowledge that she had at least tried. Her chance of rejoining the elect were slim to none, but it would be nice for father and daughter to come to terms with one another before death separated them.

Viscond thought to himself for several moments. Death is often as unexpected as a sharptooth flyer in the night and... Wait! Something suddenly caught his attention. What is that!

In the azure sky the form of three flyers could suddenly be seen as small brown specks in the massive expanse. Small pterosaurs such as these would be the only things that they would probably miss in their observations. Their appearance led to many questions, however. Had they flown through the storm? If so, then how were they still alive? More importantly, where would they be going if...

Of course! Viscond noted to himself. They would go to the nearest perch! They will go here!

Viscond looked at Ignis with a curious expression as she too began to notice the approaching flyers. "Well, Ignis... Perhaps we could ask the flyers about what is going on in the Mysterious Beyond."

Ignis stared at him with a sardonic expression. Intentionally making themselves visible to others was a most perverse suggestion for a species that prided itself on stealth and isolationism. "Well that doesn't seem like how a proper hidden runner behaves, now does it?"

Viscond smiled. "Thankfully, it doesn't seem like any of us are proper!" She shared a soft laugh with him at that exclamation. "Now let's go get the others and have them spread out on this side of the bluff. Let's see if these flyers have anything interesting to say."

......

The Barren Lands outside the Land of Shallow Waters:

So cold... so cold...

The two fastbiters had missed out on the snow as they were close enough to the Land of Shallow Waters for their share of the precipitation to be rain, but that did not spare them from misery. The rain had fallen in torrents for the better part of a day; drenching their feathers and skin in cold moisture. The lack of sun and the abundance of wind made their journey all the more miserable. But without shelter in the barren lands, Leap and Swift had no choice but to carry on until they reached their destination. With each passing hour, however, they became colder and weaker. It was inevitable that something would give.

And eventually it did.

So cold... so cold... Leap fell to the ground in exhaustion as he could no longer carry on as he had been. His muscles refused to move at his command and he could no longer feel his extremities. Only the sensation of numbness interspersed with diffuse pain and tingling greeted his perceptions. The cold had finally put an end to his ability to move. His distress was heard by Swift immediately.

"Brother?" She asked with some concern as she turned back. Her own condition wasn't great, but she was confident that she could reach her destination before her body finally gave out. However upon taking a look at her brother she could see that she had overestimated his condition. He was shaking in exaggerated convulsions as his body attempted to raise his core body temperature. The rain, the cold, and the exhausting journey had taken a lot out of both of them, but now she could see that Leap had the worst of it. She wasted no time in rushing to his side.

"Brother? Leap? Speak to me!"

No answer came from Leap as he shivered where he fell. Only the upturning of his head towards his sister and the focusing of his eyes upon hers alerted her to the fact that he was still aware of his surroundings. He couldn't even find the strength to speak at that moment. His thoughts were exclusively on the cold and his body's actions were entirely focused on his survival. Little else penetrated through the haze that was rapidly enveloping his mind. He could now see, however, that Swift was forcing his head in her direction so he attempted to focus on her. What does she want... It is so cold...

Swift did not bother to attempt to get a response out of her brother as she knew full well what was going on here. Leap's body was shutting down under the demands of the extreme cold. He did not need food, water, or medicine at this point; what he needed above all else was warmth. With that in mind she sprung into action.

"Come on, Leap! We have to get you warmed up!" Despite being bitterly cold herself, she began to rub against his side in a rhythmic fashion in order to provide some warmth to his rain-soaked body. Only a sporadic shiver greeted her actions as she continued on the other side of his body. Trying desperately to dry some of the residual moisture from his feathers and to allow him to feel his extremities again. He had to resume moving. That was the only way for his body to produce enough warmth to keep him alive. Staying put in this inhospitable environment would doom him to death by hypothermia.

However, regardless of what she tried, Leap still remained nearly motionless as he continued to shiver on the ground. Grief-stricken and unwilling to lose another brother, she sat down with him and continued to attempt to provide him with warmth.

"I won't leave you, brother. Try to wake up..."

......

The Land of Shallow Waters:

Thud stood on top of the bluff with a deeply concerned expression. He could not make out much from this distance, but he could see that two dinosaurs of some kind had stopped their approach towards the pack's home. Based upon what Pterano had told everyone, however, it did not take much imagination to figure out who these newcomers might be.

Why did they stop? Thud pondered to himself.

He looked up at the distant form of a carrion flyer along the horizon. Pterano and Nunti had departed from the territory when Petrie agreed to seek out the hidden runners. They had considered keeping one of the flyers as a lookout for the deserters while the others waited for Petrie's return, but they eventually decided that would be pointless. Thud barely knew any of the leaf-eater language besides the words that Taunt had taught him from time to time, which made talking to Pterano or Nunti an impossibility. However, now it appeared like a carrion flyer was arriving on the scene. Perhaps he would have some aerial surveillance after all?

Hmmm... You can tell a lot from how a carrion flyer behaves... I wonder...

Almost as soon as he thought those words, The flyer descended into a vertical dive before rising back to his original height. This was immediately followed by another dive. It seemed that the carrion flyer was being fought off by one of the dinosaurs.

But why are they just standing there...

That was when the flyer did something that caught Thud by surprise. He acted like something had struck him and he descended into a seemingly uncontrolled spiraling dive. Thud was left wondering if something terrible had happened to the flyer. Had he been injured somehow? Was it a health problem? But then he suddenly rose again as if nothing had happened. Then, as suddenly as he had recovered, he repeated the gesture.

Distress! Thud finally put the gesture together in his mind. The newcomers are under distress! The carrion flyer is trying to call for backup! If a carrion flyer was calling for backup then that meant that the dinosaurs were deemed weak enough to finish off. Thud now knew that these dinosaurs needed immediate assistance if they were to survive.

With no hesitation, Thud emitted a series of four bellowing calls. This was the call for distress that wasn't an attack warning. A rare sound for most packs, but it fit the situation here. Thud knew that Littlefoot and the others would immediately understand what that message would mean in the context of recent events.

The deserters are here and you must come now!

Not wasting any time, Thud proceeded to descend down the bluff. He would sprint ahead and see what the situation was with the deserters. He hoped that they could survive whatever had befallen them until helped arrived.

......

The Great Valley:

"Ha! Ha! You can't get me!" Shorty mocked as he hid behind one of the massive legs of Grandma Longneck. However, his shelter did not protect him from behind...

Plop!

"Hey!"

Shorty hurriedly shook the snow off of his head as a swimmer laughed hysterically at her target's plight. However, this levity opened herself up to attack as well...

Plop! Plop! Plop!

The poor swimmer was now nearly hidden in snow as her siblings attacked her with snow balls in rapid-fire order. No sooner as they had done this, however, each of them realized that they were now open to attack as well and each began to quickly prepare new snow balls. Within moments the entire area underneath the grandparents feet erupted in a chaotic blitz of snowballs. Shortly thereafter not only the swimmers, but Shorty and the other younglings were soon playing as well. The scene was precious enough to make Grandma Longneck chuckle softly.

"Well, dear. This certainly brings back memories."

Grandpa Longneck could only agree. "Yes, it sure does. During the last Cold Time Littlefoot and his friends were playing this game..." He suddenly took on a wistful expression. "I miss him so much."

Grandma Longneck nuzzled her mate. "I do too, dear. At least we know that he and his friends are doing well. I wonder if they still play games like this out there in the Mysterious Beyond?"

Grandpa nodded. "I am sure that they do. They are still kids at heart."

The two of them stood there for quite some time as they watched Ducky's various siblings use their legs as makeshift defenses. They had fought in many battles but it wasn't everyday that they were part of the terrain that the battle occurred around! It wasn't too long before Ducky's mother, Ura, came to their rescue.

"Come on, children! I am sure that the longnecks don't appreciate being part of your game."

Grandpa Longneck laughed. "It's not a problem, Ura! The children just needed a rock wall and apparently out legs did the trick!"

Ura was about to answer, but then she was hit by an errant snowball as the children began throwing snowballs on either side of her body. It seemed that they had replaced one 'wall' with another. Shorty and Tricia joined in the attack as well, as each of them began to throw snow with their tails at the erratic swimmers. It seemed that Ura had quite a bit of trouble around her now.

Ura sighed. "Alright, children..." As another snowball missed her and hit the hulking form of Topps in the background, she had to suppress a laugh. "Alright! Let's go near the watering hole! You all can play over there!"

The children began to follow the newly designated barrier, Ura, but Shorty held back for a moment and looked at the grandparents with a look that requested permission. Littlefoot would have simply asked back in his longneck days, but Shorty was a bit too prideful for that. An inquiring look was all they were going to get.

Grandma Longneck looked at her mate and shared a laugh at Shorty's innocence. "Alright, Shorty! I am sure that Bron won't mind you playing by the watering hole. Just make sure that you kids use him as your rock wall later on!"

Shorty looked surprised for a moment, before taking on a mischievous grin and nodding his acceptance of her terms. Soon the children disappeared towards the watering hole.

Grandpa Longneck looked at his mate with a playful smile. "Still trying to cause trouble for our son-in-law?"

Grandma Longneck gave a shrug-like motion with her neck. "You know that our daughter would have found it amusing."

Both of them laughed at their antics. Littlefoot's mother had a playful streak to her especially when it came to her mate. Yes, she most certainly would find their antics, and Bron's eventual reaction to them, to be amusing.

Suddenly, however, the sound of another dinosaur clearing his throat caused both of them to turn their attention towards the choice of the noise. It was Topps.

"It seems that Whitehorn wants to get us all together for a discussion on the valley's defenses."

Grandpa looked at his mate for a moment before again putting his attention on the threehorn. "Surely we have already discussed the plans enough already? The threehorns are to guard the entrances with the flyers acting as lookouts until an attack happens..."

Topps responded with a deadpan voice. "Longneck, are you accusing the esteemed leader of the threehorns of being paranoid?"

Grandpa answered with equal neutrality. "Are you saying that he isn't?"

The staring match lasted for a few moments before Grandma Longneck broke the silence by laughing at the antics of the two males; within moments both Topps and Grandpa began to chuckle as well. Whitehorn was well-liked and had effectively taken charge over the valley's defenses, but he was building a reputation of being a bit of a worrier. Though Topps would never admit it, he saw a little bit of himself in the brown threehorn. Finally though Grandma Longneck broke the silence.

"Well I guess that we shouldn't keep him waiting. If nothing else this will prevent us from being used as the children's 'walls' again."

Grandpa nodded. "If the meeting goes too long we could always take inspiration from the kids..." He said this with a smile.

Topps snorted. "You can be my guest, Longneck, but I would advise having a more expendable member of the herd throw the first snow. I fear that Whitehorn is not as forgiving as I am."

Grandpa couldn't resist that opening. "That bad, huh?"

Topps gave him a dour expression as both longnecks proceeded to laugh at his expense. "Longnecks!" His gruffly voice exclaimed in annoyance. Nonetheless, the three adults proceeded to walk to the meeting area to see what Whitehorn had planned now.

......

Back in the Land of Shallow Waters:

Voices, indistinct and fleeting, were the first thing that penetrated through Leap's hazy mind. The last thing that he had remembered was the bitter cold and his growing weakness. He seemed to recall his sister talking to him, but that recollection was uncertain and extremely hazy. Now, however, things felt quite different.

He was warm.

It was an odd sensation. It was as if something massive was pushing against him on all sides. Constantly pulsating... constantly vibrating... It was an odd yet pleasant sensation. He hadn't felt anything like this since he was back in that hated pack... Calin's pack... but yet the sensation was welcoming this time. He decided to simply keep his eyes closed and enjoy the feeling as his extremities slowly began to regain their feeling. As he waited and the tingling of returning sensation greeted his mind, his ears began to pick up bits of conversation. But it still seemed far away... unimportant... as if it were happening from miles away...

What are your intentions? We don't take intruders very kindly...

The voice, a male one he thought, then faded out for a few moments. When his consciousness returned he heard a new voice. One that was feminine and spoke with an odd cadence.

Our spies have already told us about you. Already told us about you they have! Tell us the entire truth if you want to live.

Then her voice was heard. The voice that made him feel at home. The lovely voice of his sister.

I will tell you anything that you want. My brothers and I defected despite knowing the risks... we couldn't stay there any longer. Calin is a monster!

A rougher female voice then called out.

Brothers? Where is the other one?

His sister then imparted the sad news.

He... He died... He died in the escape...

Very slowly the voices became easier to follow as his mind began to operate normally. While keeping his eyes closed and his breathing steady, he focused on the voices. Right now they must have assumed that he was still unconscious so he needed to use that to is advantage in the event that these dinosaurs... whoever they were... were hostile.

......

Littlefoot paced around the fastbiter who called herself Swift. He did not enjoy being so hostile in this initial meeting, but he had to be an interrogator here. Only when their loyalty and good natures were confirmed would he drop his guard. The other members of the pack either stood aside saying nothing or directly participated in the interrogation. They had all discussed this prior to the deserters arrival and all had agreed to its necessity. They could show them their good side afterwards, but not right now. Now was the time to be hard and cold. Littlefoot noted with some amusement that Taunt and Breeze took to the mindset immediately, whereas many of the others had to put up a front of harshness. Wasting no time, Littlefoot spoke again.

"Alright. So all of you escaped from Calin, but your brother died in the process. Did you not know about Cain's brutality before? Why did you join in the first place?"

Littlefoot stared at Swift's face for any sign of subterfuge as she spoke.

"We knew about Calin's methods quite well... that is why we felt we had no choice but to join... We knew that he was coming and we knew that once he found the three of us he would have us fight to the death to see who was the strongest."

Littlefoot nodded. "Yes. Those are his methods. Continue."

Swift gulped. "Well, Leap actually had a good idea. He advised that we split up. Calin did not kill lone fastbiters who were willing to join. That way we would eventually be together and alive."

Cera nodded at this. "That is a good strategy."

Swift nodded. "Yeah... It kept us alive."

Littlefoot proceeded with his questions. "What made you leave?"

Swift's eyes took on a far-away look. "The things that we had to do in that pack were monstrous, Seeker. Every day we participated in the killings and maiming we felt as if we were slowly dying inside. It was horrible." She stopped for a moment to compose herself as Littlefoot allowed her that luxury. Shortly thereafter she spoke again. "Then came the hidden runners..."

Here is an interesting connection. Littlefoot noted. He then urged her to continue. "What about the hidden runners?"

Swift looked down in shame. "Red Claw was convinced that Calin had conspirators in the hidden runners so he ordered Calin to kill some in order to prove his loyalty." She took a deep breath. "Our target was a large pack by the Sheer Cliff Bluffs." She hesitated as if she were horrified by the words she was about to say. "We killed them all. adults... younglings... we dashed eggs against the ground... we slashed and crushed... but that wasn't enough for Calin..."

She shook her head as she began to cry. Littlefoot and the others knew that a reaction like this could not be faked.

"He... wanted us to torture some of the survivors. I... I have no idea why... Red Claw did not order it, but I knew that if we did not participate then we could be killed so I... I... went along..." A sob left her mouth. "We made younglings eat their own siblings..." The members of the pack visibly recoiled at that. "We made females watch as we dashed their eggs and killed their mates in front of them. It... It was horrible beyond words..."

Chomper stomped the ground in rage at her admission as he slashed at a nearby bush in frustration. Chomper was ever a friendly sharptooth and he hated to kill without cause. To hear about such butchery being conducted only for the sake of Calin's amusement... It made something snap in the sharptooth. Littlefoot was sympathetic to his feelings.

With a swift expression, Littlefoot looked at Swift who was crying while laying prone on the ground. She obviously was carrying a lot of guilt. A dinosaur who could bear this much and still empathize with her victims was a formidable fastbiter indeed. Now it was time to offer her some relief. Littlefoot turned his head towards Ducky and gave a nod. Without further prompting, Ducky and Spike rushed to Swift's side and provided her with warmth. There was no need for her to feel more discomfort for the sake of the interrogation. Thud's recommended methods had done their job. They now knew that they could trust these deserters. The only question now was: what other secrets might they know? With that in mind, he called to them both.

"Alright. Let's get you warmed up and then we can finish this conversation and Leap..."

Swift interjected in confusion. "But Leap is still asleep... Come on, brother, wake up!" She urged.

Littlefoot smiled. "I think that you will find that Leap has been pretending to be asleep for a while now." He then approached the prone fastbiter with a smile. "I am not going to harm you or your sister, Leap. You can stop the act now."

Leap rose slowly and looked into the brown fastbiter's eyes. Swift, for her part, immediately ran to his side and embraced him, whereas Taunt and Breeze quickly moved aside from the small fastbiter. Leap obviously needed no further warming from their bodies. Leap seemed to stare at Littlefoot for ages, as if he were sizing up the dinosaur.

"So you are Seeker... We are in your debt."

Littlefoot smiled. "You can pay that debt when we fight Calin and Red Claw."

Leap nodded. "That is a price I will pay gladly... but Seeker?"

Littlefoot blinked. "Yes?"

"How did you know I was not asleep?" Leap asked inquisitively.

Littlefoot smiled. "That would be telling, wouldn't it?" Leap looked somewhat perplexed by that answer as Littlefoot continued. "Alright, now that you two are awake we will head into our territory. We will finish our conversation there. Let's see if Path's parents are as forgiving as we are."

Swift asked the obvious question. "Path's parents?"

Littlefoot smiled. "You see the two-footer over there..."

The others began to stifle their amusement as the deserters stared at the purple sharptooth and then realized that they were soon going to be greeted by some of the most massive sharpteeth on Earth. They had escaped from Red Claw only to come across two others of his kind. The other members of the pack could only imagine what was going through the deserters' minds at that moment. Littlefoot decided to end their suffering at that point.

"Alright Path! Tell your parents we are coming. We have a meeting to start."

......

The Sheer Cliff Bluffs:

"Brr.... Well we make it, uncle!"

Petrie shivered uncontrollably as the storm had chilled him to his bones. They had flown hard and fast in order to miss the brunt of the storm and their intense physical exertion had kept them warm despite the unforgiving chill that had now descended upon the land. However, now that they had finally settled down upon the bluffs in exhaustion, the bitter cold was becoming more apparent to them.

"Yes... nephew..." Pterano affirmed through his violent shivers. "For now..."

Nunti did not speak as he was simply focused on trying to keep warm. In silence the three flyers huddled together to conserve their limited body heat. They would need to rest for as long as possible and then continue flying to where the hidden runners were believed to be. They would have to rely on their own exertions to provide them with heat until sufficient shelter could be found.

And there was no shelter on the rocky bluff.

Petrie looked upon the desolate scene with an odd mix of awe and contempt. He was contemptuous of its exposed surface allowing for the chill to touch everything on the bluff, but at the same time the sheer massiveness of the cliffs and bluffs amazed him. Petrie had never before been to this area of the world and his first visit amazed him. How many more wonders did this world hold that he, as a flyer, could visit freely? This was a wondrous gift that flight provided him and in his short life he had not really taken advantage of it to its fullest extent. Perhaps when Red Claw dead Petrie can explore more? Petrie thought to himself. Me have duty to pack, but pack be fine after Red Claw dead. Assuming he don't make us dead first!

"Wait! Look there!"

Petrie turned his head towards where Nunti was looking. A short distance away there could be seen a very narrow crevice in the rocky bluff. It was only about the width of a small flyer and as long as a full-grown fastbiter. However, assuming it was deep enough, it would serve to protect them from the blustery winds.

Without any words being exchanged the flyers descended into the crevice.

......

A bit later:

For lack of a better activity to do while they waited for their bodies to be rested, he examined the crevice that they were resting in the bluff. It was open on one side but it blocked the heavy winds which were not bombarding the bluffs. It provided modest shelter from the elements, but it also limited their mobility. The only entrances were from a narrow crevice from above which could be blocked and from an opening to the side which likewise could be easily blocked. It filled him with a sense of unease.

You acting scared, Petrie! No one attack us here. Because no one here to attack us. Petrie consoled himself. His deeply ingrained sharptooth instincts were cautioning him of danger and risk even when the risks were minimized. It was a useful ability, but it was also overwhelming at times. Even when he was at rest he often found himself calculating... thinking... gone were the carefree days when he was a leaf-eater. But in a way, Petrie noted to himself, he was pleased with how his life was turning out. Yes he was a killer, but he still had his friends and his family had since reconciled. The change brought both advantages and disadvantages to the flyer and, if he were honest with himself, he would admit that he wouldn't go back even if the chance was offered to him. He had simply changed too much to rejoin leaf-eater society. He was who he was now and nothing could change that.

Thud

Petrie's head jerked as a small rock fell from the crevice above. His instincts were on overdrive as the other two flyers began to look around as well. That was when another sound greeted their ears.

Footsteps.

Petrie was the first to attempt to take flight as he flew straight at the crevice above. In a panic Pterano and Nunti attempted to do the same. They had been too complacent and now they were under threat. They speeded towards the narrow crevice above.

Only to see something with green feathers cover the crevice with its body. Their escape route had been blocked.

Petrie gave a squawk of rage as he flapped his wings twice and dived between his two flyer companions. There was only one chance now, the narrow crevice to the side of their shelter. They had to escape before whoever was out there had them trapped on all sides. It was their only hope. With his wings burning with exertion and his breaths coming through in rushed gasps, Petrie flew on towards the narrow entrance. The blue of the azure sky greeted him through its narrow opening. Just a few more seconds and he would be free from this trap. Just a few more seconds of physical exertion and then they could continue on their way.

But it was not to be.

The figure of a green feathered dinosaur emerged from the azure opening and covered their only remaining path to freedom. With his wings opened at full spread Petrie slowed himself from a full-speed flight to a sudden stop. Nunti and Pterano careened into him at his sudden halt and all three flyers tumbled to the ground in front of their unknown adversary. As they all came to a stop in a pile at the dinosaur's feet, he did something that struck them with surprise.

He spoke.

"Hello, flyers. You are now guests of the hidden runners. We have a few questions for you."

At that moment Petrie could only think one thing. Well we find hidden runners, but me not sure that good thing anymore!

......

"So tell us, flyers. How have things been in the Mysterious Beyond?"

Petrie had to admit that this was one of the strangest experiences in his life. Well, apart from the whole 'you are now a sharptooth who eats people' thing. They had just flown threw the Mysterious Beyond and around a raging storm just to find the hidden runners, who supposedly were the most secretive and isolationist of the dinosaurs in this area. Lo and behold, what do they find when they finally seek shelter? An entire group of hidden runners who were ready to enter the open and take them as 'guests' in order to ask them questions. As if that were not weird enough, the leader's first questions was something akin to asking a friend what was happening. Petrie's answer to the hidden runner was blunt nearly to point of mockery.

"Well... It be cold."

The hidden runner looked at the flyer with an unimpressed expression. He clearly did not appreciate the sardonic wit of the sharptooth flyer. Petrie gave another response before the hidden runner could answer.

"You could just ask us questions. No reason to take us hostage."

The hidden runner looked a bit more thoughtful at this. "You flyers are a most finicky lot. No sooner had we asked you a question then you might have fled. We have questions that need to be answered." He then looked at Petrie closely. "You speak leaf-eater? Now that is an odd skill for a sharptooth flyer."

Petrie stared at the hidden runner in return. "Me could speak in sharptooth if you prefer. But uncle would not be able to understand."

The hidden runner asked the obvious question in sharptooth. "Your uncle?"

Petrie nodded and pointed with his wing at his uncle. Pterano, for his part, had no idea what was going on and looked around in agitation at the unintelligible conversation his nephew and the hidden runner were having. Petrie then spoke again in leaf-eater so that Nunti and Pterano could hear.

"It is long story. Let my uncle and his friend go, then I will speak to you."

The hidden runner narrowed his eyes. "How do I know that you will speak?"

Petrie smiled. "Well, if me don't speak then you could kill me. Or at least try..."

The hidden runner glared at the flyer for several moments before gesturing at the hidden runner in the crevice above. Nunti and Pterano both paused as Petrie stayed put in the shelter.

"Petrie?" Pterano offered.

Petrie looked at his uncle and smiled back. "Me know what me do, uncle. Go above me join you soon."

Reluctantly, his uncle and Nunti ascended into the skies above the crevice. Now it was just Petrie and the hidden runners.

......

As soon as the others left, Petrie addressed his captor. "You hidden runners really not know how to greet people, do you?"

The hidden runner did not move but rather spoke in a monotone voice that gave nothing away. "We do not have much experience with others, no."

Petrie nodded. "Me only see one of you before."

The hidden runner looked surprised at this, but did not say anything. Petrie then continued.

"We hear stories about him and he scare us! But when we find him in Great Valley, but he more scared of us then we scared of him."

The hidden runner then fixed Petrie with a curious expression. "You were allowed into the Great Valley? And how is that leaf-eater flyer your uncle?!"

Petrie smiled. "That would be long story."

Another voice then called out from behind the hidden runner. "Well, you are a rather cryptic fellow aren't you?"

Petrie looked at the newcomer with an inquisitive expression. This one had spoken to him with a far more laid back demeanor and had interrupted the other hidden runner. This obviously meant that this one was the actual leader of the group. With that in mind, Petrie spoke a bit more respectfully, but yet did not hide his annoyance.

"Only when people be rude! You take Spotter captive! You ask Spotter questions! But you tell Spotter nothing!"

The newcomer walked beside of the original hidden runner and gave him a slight nod. This caused him to step aside, but only after sending a scathing glare Petrie's way. Shortly thereafter, the leader spoke to the flyer again.

"Forgive the brashness of my followers. We has been through a lot lately." He then looked at Petrie. "My name is Viscond. What is yours?"

Petrie answered a bit more freely now that the Viscond had introduced himself in a kindly manner. "My name Petrie. But sharpteeth call me Spotter."

Viscond nodded. "Well, Spotter. As you are a sharptooth flyer I hope that you don't mind me calling you Spotter." He said this with some mirth, which caused Petrie to answer with equal humor.

"Yeah, that fine." He chuckled a bit. "As long as you don't call me Sandstorm."

Petrie shuddered at the memory of his time with Sierra and Rinkus. He hoped that this situation did not turn out like that. A tangled web of lies that had to be maintained in order to avoid disaster. Part of the reason that he was being so evasive here was to ensure that he did not give away too much to these potential allies. He had no idea what their agenda was, nor did he have a clue as to their methods. However, Petrie had unwittingly exposed himself with that one small admission. He had no idea that Westron and the other hidden runners had already been informed of Sandstorm's existence by Rinkus himself. He was about to have a rude awakening.

"What!" The hidden runner who had just been relieved by Viscond was suddenly back in force. "What did you say!"

Viscond steeped in between his follower and Petrie. "Back! Banton! Back!"

Banton protested at this. "He is the one who that damn flyer claimed led Red Claw over here! With the way that he is asking I wouldn't doubt that Rinkus was telling the truth!" He then glared at the flyer. "Did that bastard, Seeker, put you up to this?! Do you want to toy with us before Red Claw finished the job?!"

Petrie recoiled at this. Rinkus had talked to the hidden runners? What exactly had he told them? He had simply misled the flyers when he posed as Sandstorm and he provided assistance to the valley residents. He had no idea what the hidden runners could have been told to cause such a violent reaction. However, he did know that he would have to act quickly here as pretending like he didn't know about Rinkus and Sierra would brand him as a liar to the hidden runners at this point.

"Petrie!" Seeing and hearing the commotion through the narrow crevice, Pterano began to shout out of concern for Petrie's safety. For his part, Petrie gave a slight wave of his wing to tell Pterano to stay put. With hidden runners above the crevice and all around them he could not help him at the moment. It was all up to Petrie to talk his way out of his predicament. He decided to do so with a frank repudiation of Rinkus's character.

"Rinkus never tell the truth! Me have to lie to him in order to protect pack!"

However, Petrie words seemed to have the opposite effect as Banton screamed in rage and broke through Viscond in order to come at the flyer. Before Petrie or Viscond knew what was going on Banton had a death grip on Petrie's throat.

Petrie fought against the hidden runner as he desperately struggled for breath. With his vision becoming hazy and his struggles become more and more futile he feared that he may have met his end. However, that was when help came from an unexpected source.

A flash of green went across his vision as the weight on his throat suddenly slackened. Petrie gasped for air as the threat had been eliminated somehow. After several moments Petrie's vision began to return and he looked up from his prone position.

Only to see another hidden runner looking at him with Pterano and Nunti close behind with agitated looks.

Petrie choked out a breath. "Uncle?"

Pterano immediately came to Petrie's side. "Are you alright?"

Petrie smiled a cheeky smile despite his poor condition. "Not really."

Petrie's attempt at humor fell flat, however, as Pterano immediately turned his attention to the hidden runners. and unleashed his rage.

"I have no idea what you fiends want but we came here to seek out your help! Is this how you repay those who seek out your aid?!"

Viscond looked ashamed at the actions of one of his fellow packmate and said nothing. However, the female hidden runner who had rushed in to help Petrie then spoke.

"Forgive us. But Red Claw has taken much from us."

Pterano raged. "And what does that have to do with us!"

Another hidden runner stepped in and signaled to the female with a gesture. In mere moments, she took over watching over the fallen hidden runner as he stepped in beside Viscond. For a few tense moments the two hidden runners spoke in hushed tones. Finally however, Viscond nodded to the other hidden runner as he sat on his haunches in an unintimidating gesture. It was only then that he answered Pterano's question.

"It has nothing to do with you, flyer. But it has everything to do with Sandstorm here."

Petrie sighed. "Then explain it to Spotter."

Westron bowed his head and placed a clawed hand to his face in exasperation. "Red Claw has slaughtered one of our packs." He looked up at Viscond with a sad expression. "The pack of my leader's brother. Everyone was killed except for a small child who told us what happened. No one else was spared."

Petrie nodded in sympathy. "That sound like Red Claw."

Westron nodded. "Many of us have last friends and family." Looking at Banton's unconscious form he spoke a bit more softly. "The hidden runner there who attacked you is named Banton. He lost his mother and father in the attack. His brothers and sisters..." Westron stopped speaking for a moment. "At least his mother and father were given the benefit of a quick death." He then looked back towards Petrie. "You can imagine how he felt when he heard that a flyer named Sandstorm and a fastbiter named Seeker helped to cause all of this."

Petrie paled. "What?"

Westron stared deep into the flyer's eyes, looking for any hint of subterfuge. "Tell me, Spotter. What exactly did you tell Sierra and Rinkus when you were with them?"

Petrie remained silent for a short moment as he pretended to try to catch his breath. They obviously had been told some details of his time with Red Claw's pack so it would be useless to deny that. However, it was also possible that Rinkus had manipulated some part of his story in order to make Petrie look like a hostile character. But for the life of him, Petrie could not recall anything that could be twisted in that way. With that in mind, he answered the hidden runner carefully.

"Me go and pretend to join Red Claw's pack to help valley. Me act like me attack others but me tell others Red Claw's plans. But me had to be careful." Westron and Viscond both nodded at that as Petrie continued. "Me play dead and act like flyer kill me. Then me rejoin my pack."

Westron stared at the flyer with a curious expression. "They did not tell us that... They said that you conspired with Seeker to have Red Claw attack us. That way we would eventually ally with you."

Petrie's mouth was agape at that news. "What... That make no sense! What did Rinkus tell you?"

Westron nodded slightly as if something had been confirmed in his mind. He next words were less calculating and more cordial. "We were told that Sandstorm told Red Claw that we were going to help Calin... who I suppose is one of the fastbiters in that despicable pack... so Red Claw told Calin to kill some of us so that the alliance would be destroyed."

Petrie did not allow his expression to change as he contemplated this. Me tell flyers about fastbiters allied with Calin... Could that have been... Oh no....

Westron continued. "The flyers assumed that you did this to trick Red Claw as you knew how he would react."

Petrie was crying inside but he dared not show any emotion on his face. He now knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was the one that got the hidden runners killed. His lie must have been twisted by the flyers or by Red Claw's own mind. In a very real sense he had the blood of dozens on his wings. He knew that he could not admit this to the hidden runner as this would mean his probably evisceration. Even if it were an unfortunate consequence, his participation in it would spell his doom. Likewise, he couldn't completely lie either. That may cause his scent to change in subtle ways that may make the hidden runners know that he was lying. No the only option now was to tell the truth in such a way that did not expose himself to blame. He began in earnest.

"That is a lie." Which was technically true. He had not known that Red Claw would react that way. "Me lie to the flyers in order to help my pack and the valley." Also true, but not actually addressing the point that his lie directly led to the deaths of the hidden runners. "Me not even mention hidden runners in my lies." Even though he had mentioned fastbiters in such a way that left himself open to interpretation. He looked at Westron straight in the face. "Me serve Seeker and he is a good sharptooth. Would a bad sharptooth save valley full of leaf-eaters?"

Viscond stared from behind Westron. "That was your pack?" He was utterly stunned by this revelation, but there was no trace of deceit in the flyer's scent. He was telling the truth. He had heard rumors in the Mysterious Beyond about the mysterious pack who challenged Red Claw and he had also heard of the struggles of the legendary valley of leaf-eaters, but he had not realized that the two had fought together against the same foe. "Why... why would you all do that?"

Petrie tried to suppress a smile. It was now time to make the sales pitch. The fact that he had nearly been choked out by one of the hidden runners did not matter. What mattered now was his mission. Both the pack and the valley depended on it. "We remember what Red Claw do to all of us. We not want him to do that anymore. Not even to food. A good sharptooth take what he need, but Red Claw not good sharptooth."

Viscond looked down at Petrie's affirmation. "I am sorry, Spotter... To think that you are a messenger meaning to bring us aid and we have treated you like this..." He then glared at Banton. "I hope that you do not judge us based upon Banton's actions. When a person is in great pain they often do things that they regret."

Petrie nodded. He knew that important fact all too well. From Bron's initial angry reaction to learning Littlefoot's fate, to the fact that they had to tell the rest of their parents about their secret in a gradual, piecemeal fashion, it was obvious that those with high emotion can react in irrational ways. That being said, however, not everyone was as forgiving of Banton's infraction. Petrie found this out when Nunti angrily interjected.

"You can't seriously leave it at this, Petrie! He tried to kill you!"

Pterano nodded. "I agree. I say we get out of here and..."

"No."

Petrie's voice silenced both of them as each looked at him in shock. Petrie then continued.

"No. We come here to ask for alliance. Me not disobey pack!"

Pterano protested this despite the fact that the hidden runners were seeing and hearing everything.

"Are you sure, Petrie? How can we trust dinosaurs who don't trust us?"

Petrie looked straight at Pterano. "Trust is earned. They not kill us now... that seem trusting to me."

Now realizing that the hidden runners could indeed attack them all en masse in this relatively small crevice if they were so inclined, Pterano again went silent. Petrie did have a point there.

Petrie then turned his attention to the hidden runner leader. "Seeker heard that some hidden runners fought Red Claw... He want to ally with them so we fight Red Claw together. Do you know where they are?"

Viscond and Westron both smiled at that. "Well, Spotter. It seems that you have come to the right place."

Several hours of discussion later an exhausted, but satisfied, trio of flyers emerged from the bluffs. Due to what had been planned during their somewhat contentious meeting, they would first have to make an unexpected stop by Hanging Rock but that was of no real consequence in the grand scheme of things.

Because Viscond's band of hidden runners had joined the alliance.

......

Meanwhile, in the Land of Shallow Waters:

"Red Claw is what?!"

Littlefoot was frozen in place at Swift's words as the rest of the pack erupted into panicked whispers. This simply could not be. If what Swift said was true then the repercussions would be catastrophic.

Swift answered hesitantly. She was surprised at their panicked response. "He was planning on attacking this Cold Time. He assumed that the valley would not expect that."

Littlefoot looked down in exasperation. He had told the residents of the valley that the most likely time of an attack would be in the summer or spring. He had affirmed to them that he and his pack would be there to help them in the spring. Their parents... their siblings... their friends... They were all at risk now. Their time had run out.

Littlefoot slowly turned towards the others. Their looks of horror and fear matched his own. Even Chomper's parents shared a concerned look before nuzzling their son. They knew full well what this meant for everyone. They had to act now. It was the valley's only chance. Even if that meant risking everything.

Without looking back at the two newcomers, Littlefoot said the order that needed to be made.

"Then that settles it then. As soon as Spotter returns we head towards the valley. We have no choice now."

......

The Mysterious Beyond:

"Another two-footer... what should we do, sir?"

Red Claw grinned. Normally he would order the offending adolescent be killed on the spot. However, he had need for new pawns in the upcoming assault. They didn't have to be competent or even especially loyal. They simply had to be useful in the coming fight. He could always dispose of them later. With that in mind, he roared.

"You may join with the pack, young one, and partake of our food. But if you ever betray us then you will regret it! If you declare loyalty to me then it is for life!" At his words the fastbiters gathered around the young Tyrannosaurus, obviously waiting just in case he made the wrong move. "What do you choose?"

The Tyrannosaurus spoke weakly. "I will do whatever you say. Just please give me food."

Red Claw gave an affirmative grunt as the newest member of the pack was taken to the recently discovered carrion that the pack trackers had found. They now had two young adult two-footers, five new sharptooth flyers, and an assortment of new fastbiters in addition to their already massive army of fastbiters. The sudden chill of winter had increased their ranks significantly. The desperate had come from the shadows in order to join his ranks. Once again, Red Claw's strategy had proven to be correct.

Red Claw smiled inwardly. Soon the thaw would arrive and then they would strike! Red Claw reflected on this thought happily.

Enjoy the coming days, valley... for they shall be your last!


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