The Seven Hunters

Chapter 64 Thaw

"What has been hidden by snow is revealed by a thaw."

― Swedish proverb

The desolate expanse of the Mysterious Beyond surrounded the flyers in all directions as they finally resumed their journey back to the pack. The snow was beginning to melt with increasing speed as the land recovered from the sudden chill of the storm. The warming conditions did not match the mood of a certain flyer, however. Despite the pleasant company of Detras and Pearl and their ready acceptance to assist the hidden runners into the valley, Petrie still felt a lingering darkness in the recesses of his mind.

Me... Me... was responsible for all that. Those poor, poor hidden runners...

He had lied all those months ago in order to confuse the sharptooth flyers and to cause their nemesis Calin some trouble. He had no idea that his words could have possibly lead to the bloody reality that now faced him. An entire pack of hidden runners were dead... Many of them tortured in the most obscene ways... And now many hidden runners had broken away from their packs in order to provide a defense against Red Claw. The existence of new allies boded well for the valley and his pack, but it had come at a most terrible price. Petrie couldn't shake the thought that he now had the blood of dozens of innocents on his wings.

"Petrie?"

The brown flyer turned his gaze to his uncle who was flying a few wing-lengths away in formation with Petrie. The elder's expression conveyed a mix of concern and confusion. No sooner than Petrie had turned his way Pterano began to speak.

"What's wrong? Is it about the hidden runners?"

Petrie nodded. He figured there was no reason to lie to his uncle. He was cordial enough when talking to Ruby's folks but a growing sense of melancholy had begun to fill him. He supposed that he could not hide that from those around him. Nunti interrupted as soon as Petrie had confirmed Pterano's suspicions.

"Don't worry about that, Petrie... they... they just panicked... It seems like that other flyer spooked them good. They thought you were someone you weren't."

Pterano nodded at this. "Indeed, nephew! When people lose those close to them sometimes they want to look for someone to blame..." He trailed off at these words, it was obvious that he was referring to his own past misdeeds. "At least you are not deserving of that blame..."

Petrie stared at his uncle for a long moment. If only Pterano knew that his nephew had something very in common with his disgraced uncle.

Petrie turned his head to again look in front of him. The black pillar was in the distance which meant that only a few more hours remained in their journey. Petrie could very well let this drop and keep his knowledge of his own misdeeds to himself. No one else needed to know. After all the hidden runners had no reason to believe Sierra or Rinkus now. Petrie had done a good enough job at convincing the others...

Petrie shook his head. No, he would not lie to his family and friends. He may have used subterfuge to save himself and his mission, but he would not lie to those who had scarified their safety for his own. He would be truthful here no matter how much pain or sorrow it caused. Pterano had a right to know.

"Me not so different from you, uncle."

Pterano again turned towards his nephew, but Petrie looked straight ahead. For his part, Nunti also looked at the sharptooth flyer with an uncomprehending expression. What exactly did Petrie mean?

"You lied and dinosaurs died." Pterano took on a sad expression at those words. Yes, he was still atoning for those misdeeds of the past. The nightmares did not cause him the same distress as they had done prior to finding the children, but he still knew that there was a debt that he would never be able to repay. A debt in blood. Pterano's expression turned to shock, however, at Petrie's next words.

"Me lied back there."

Pterano looked at Petrie with an uncertain expression. "You lied about what, Petrie?"

Petrie looked straight ahead with a stern expression. "Me did tell bad flyers that fastbiters help Calin. But me imply me not telling whole truth." Nunti looked at the flyer with shock, which was matched by Pterano's expression. "Me wanted to cause confusion and to hurt Calin. Me accomplish first part."

Nunti sputtered. "So... So you were responsible!?" His expression was one of shock and fear. "You lied and now many hidden runners are dead..."

Pterano cautioned his young protégée. "Now, Nunti..."

But Nunti would have none of it. "He could have gotten all of us killed back there, Pterano! Those hidden runners want Red Claw's blood and if Petrie wouldn't have lied then they would have gotten his!"

Pterano protested this. "Now that is unfair, Nunti! He couldn't have known that Red Claw..."

Nunti interrupted that. "Tell that to those who died!"

Pterano's face seemed to take on a possessed expression as his eyes focused far away. "I have struggled for years to come to terms with what I did all of those years ago... At first I tried to deny my responsibility, but then I realized the depth of my actions..." He shook his head. "I lied to those who trusted me in order to get them to follow me. I put my own ego over their safety. You can't compare what Petrie did to my crimes..."

Nunti looked away. "But they are still dead..."

It was at this point that Petrie spoke again. "Me did what me had to do in order to get away from bad flyers. Me not know how Red Claw would act... but me act anyway."

Nunti looked at Petrie with weary eyes. The immediate anger and condemnation was gone now that Pterano had reminded Nunti of the elder flyer's own checkered past. Now only the burden of this terrible knowledge remained. Nunti spoke with an exhausted and uncertain voice.

"Pterano? If you could take back what you did so many years ago, would you?"

Pterano nodded as he adjusted his wings to take advantage of the thermal updraft. "Yes, of course."

Nunti then looked at Petrie. "Petrie? Would you?"

Petrie considered this for a moment. His actions were responsible for the terrible deaths of untold dozens of hidden runners. However, his lies had been responsible for allowing him to get away from the bad flyers, for using them to send inside information to the valley residents, and it had now allowed them to get more allies. Was all of this butchery due to his actions worth the extra help that his pack and the valley would receive? Despite the callousness of the thought, Petrie realized his answer to Nunti's question immediately. It was the final confirmation to himself that he was truly a different flyer than what he once was.

"No. Me not change a thing."

Nunti looked upon him with terror as Pterano looked at him with a disbelieving expression. Petrie decided to explain himself.

"If me not act the way me act then bad flyers get me and force me to join Red Claw. If that happen then me not be able to help valley and adults not get to friends in time to save them." He looked at Nunti with a cold expression. "If me have to kill a few to help many than me do it." Despite the fact that every word out of his mouth was the truth, the content of the truth surprised some inner part of Petrie. For nearly the better part of a year he had been a chooser of the dead and now he was beginning to act like it.

Nunti noticeably shook in the air as he flew. "That... That is so cold... That..."

"Me chooser of the dead now." Petrie answered. "Me do what necessary."

Silence reigned for several moments as the flyer continued to fly in formation. Nunti was still in a mixture of shock and fear at the smaller flyer. Petrie had proven himself to be a helpful and selfless ally, but this cold side horrified something primal in the young adult flyer. Pterano, meanwhile looked at Petrie with a contemplative expression. His eyes showed no condemnation; only sadness.

Pterano finally spoke to his nephew with a soft voice.

"Neither I, nor Nunti, can live your life, Petrie. A leaf-eater who chooses who lives and who dies is considered a monster, but can any of us judge you?" He sighed. "Who can judge the rising waters when it drowns a youngling? Who can judge the lightning when it fells a longneck? Who can judge the earthshake when it swallows up a family? Who can judge a sharptooth for choosing the dead from the living?" Pterano shook his head. "You are in a place that I cannot go, Petrie. You are in a place that no leaf-eater dare tread. None of us are fit to be your judge, so you will have to judge yourself."

Pterano then took on a sympathetic expression. "I have lived with crippling guilt for much of my life and I am still paying the sentence for my crime. The guilt is my punishment more so than the five Cold Times of exile. Some crimes have their own punishments. So I guess the question is: can you live with what you have done, Petrie? If not then I will gladly be your confessor, as I know all too well how helpful it can be to talk about regrets..." Both Nunti and Petrie had helped him deal with his past crimes. In a very well sense they had helped to keep him sane. "But if you can live with it then we need not speak of it again."

Silence fell upon the trio again. Petrie took on a contemplative expression as the black pillar began to edge closer to their flight path and the thermals began to carry them higher into the sky. Finally, he answered his uncle.

"Me can live with it. Me have too." He paused for a moment. "Me not feel good about what me have to do, but me know that me have to do it."

For the remainder of their journey no further words were exchanged between the flyers. Each spent the time lost in their own thoughts. Petrie's revelation hung in the rushing air like a thundercloud. For better or worse it now seemed that Petrie's actions had sent events into motion that no one could foresee the consequences of. Much as a thunderstorm would destroy with remorse or pity, it now seemed that Petrie's lie had snowballed into something that no one could control. Only one thing was certain:

Before it was over the fallen hidden runners would not be the only casualties of Petrie's actions.

......

Hanging Rock:

We get new allies! Hidden runners! They need you to lead them to valley?

Um... Why is that?

Because valley trusts you. You can tell them that Petrie sent them.

Detras stared at the frozen stream with an anxious expression. The return of Petrie had meant the end of the fast runners' peaceful time at Hanging Rock. Now it was time for them to finally do the task which they had agreed to. The task of helping defend the Great Valley which had so graciously accepted their daughter so long ago. His daughter's goal of uniting the Mysterious Beyond and the Great Valley against Red Claw now seemed to be a reality if Seeker was somehow able to convince the secretive hidden runners to join in the fray, but that opened up a horrifying question as well.

What did Red Claw do to get the hidden runners united against him?

Petrie had been short on details on that point, but Detras had decided to not press the issue. In any event it was irreverent. The important thing was that they now had Thud, Seeker's pack, hidden runners, and the valley to fight off Red Claw's aggression. He simply hoped that would prove to be enough.

"You appear deep in thought."

Detras turned. His mate, Pearl, looked upon him with a slight smile. He had been so lost in his thoughts that he did not even notice her approach. He mentally kicked himself for his lapse of observation. It would do them no good to have him be eaten by some sharptooth before they even set off for the valley. He had to remain vigilant! That was what he always told Ruby.

He spoke softly to his mate. "I am. It seems that our time here is coming to an end."

Pearl looked at him with concern. "You almost sound like that you don't expect to survive this."

Detras looked down. "There... always is the possibility that we may not. According to Petrie, our main job is to help evacuate the children in the event that things go bad..." He swallowed. "Just as long as Arial and Orchid are okay... that is the important thing..."

Pearl embraced him in a hug. "I am sure that they will be fine, dear. We have to keep a positive attitude if nothing else then for their sake! They will be going to a strange land with strange dinosaurs. We have to be there for them."

Detras sighed. "I know, dear. I am just so worried. We have lived here ever since the spring after your brother..." He trailed off knowing that was not the most pleasant of memories. The current winter conditions made the current scene eerily reminiscent of those cold nights in the aftermath of their first meeting. Those days immediately after Pearl's own brother had already killed his younger brother and had tried to kill Detras. His mind quickly turned to the years after that unhappy time. "We raised Ruby here and now we have another beautiful daughter and a son being raised in these protective bluffs. I know that if everything goes well then this will simply be a temporary departure, but it seems like..."

Pearl interrupted. "Like a goodbye?"

Detras nodded. "Yeah..."

The two sat by the stream for several moments as each sought solace in the company of the other. Their mutual warmth was a pleasant respite from the slowly warming chill. The kids were asleep in their secret hiding spot by the bluff and thus could be unsupervised for a moment. However, after a few moments Pearl had a thought.

"How are we going to explain the hidden runners to the kids? It was hard enough telling them that we would have to leave Hanging Rock one day."

Detras nodded. "Well, Arial seemed to take it well..."

Pearl gave him a playful shove. "That is just because you told her that there was a lot of fish in the valley, silly! You know full well that she will be shy when she has to meet newcomers. Remember what happened when your cousin visited us?"

Detras laughed. During that stay Arial had not been paying close attention while playing with her brother and simply climbed up his cousin's back during their game of tag, mistaking him for her dad. When his cousin laughed and told her 'hello' she ran into her hiding place and hid for much of the night. It was one of those things that were a lot funnier in retrospect than it was at the time.

"Well, dear, I don't think that Arial will mistake the hidden runners for me." He teased.

Pearl rolled her eyes. "Yes, dear. I suppose not." She then sighed. "But I guess that we need to prepare them for when they arrive. The flyers said that they talked to them during the previous day... so they may be here tomorrow."

Detras nodded. "Yeah..." He then smiled and gave his mate another quick embrace. "Well then... let's tell the children and get them ready for the big day."

......

The Land of Shallow Waters:

After a few hours of silence the overflowing rivers and vegetation of the Land of Shallow Waters became visible to the trip of exhausted flyers. Even in the grips of the early winter, the swampland remained temperature and wet. It was a welcome sight from the barren, cold lands that they had recently departed.

Petrie turned slightly into the wind in order build altitude and decrease his speed. There was no telling where the pack may be if they were currently in a hunt so he would have to track them down. With his superior eyesight that would be an easy task even from a great distance. He did not have to wait long to catch sight of his targets.

"There they are!"

The large forms of Terri and Dein could be seen in the distance. The massive forms of Chomper's parents dwarfed the size of the fastbiters that congregated with them to form a circle. The tell-tale brown form of Littlefoot could be seen gesturing in the center of the circle, obviously talking to the rest of the group. Several others could be seen gesturing to one another as well. Cera... Ruby... Ducky... Taunt...

"Wait! Who is that?!"

It was then that Petrie noticed the two new fastbiters who were situated near Thud. Both of them were about the same size as the rest of the gang and they each had a vibrant blue coloration. Could that be...

"Ah, good I see that they have made it... Well... two them at least..."

Petrie turned towards his uncle. He had not noticed that Nunti and Pterano had again joined in formation with him.

"I guess that the other one wasn't so lucky." Nunti lamented.

Pterano agreed. "No, I suppose not."

Petrie digested this information. The deserters had arrived at the pack's location and they were not dead or in the process of being interrogated. He supposed that meant that they had been welcomed. At least tentatively. He didn't have much more time to consider his observation, however, before Littlefoot looked into the sky and noticed him. No sooner had he done this then the other dinosaurs also turned to look at the approaching flyers.

Petrie smirked a bit and then shifted his wings for a gradual descent. It was time to see what the pack was up to.

As he descended though he began to notice new details that he had missed in his original observations. Littlefoot was noticeably agitated and was pacing back and forth as he waited for Petrie to arrive. This was most unlike the calm leader that had developed over the previous year. Likewise, all of the original seven were visibly restless, with Cera and Ducky having an animated discussion of some kind. Ruby, meanwhile, had a thoughtful look on her face. She seemed to be lost in her own little world.

What go on here? Everyone look panicked!

Petrie sighed as he briefly checked his sides to make sure that Nunti and Pterano were not in his way. Seeing that both of them were a respectful distance behind him, he raised his wings in a deacceleratory maneuver. Within a few moments he was on the ground in front of the group. He had no time to react before he was thrust into their discussion.

"Thank goodness you are all here!" Ducky was the first to greet him. "This is not good. Oh, no, no, no!"

Pterano barely had time to speak. "What happened?!"

Littlefoot spoke with grave resolve. "The deserters happened." He then gestured towards the two newcomers with a respectful nod. "This is Leap and this is Swift... They are loyal." None of the flyers challenged that logic. If the fastbiters had somehow convinced Littlefoot and the others of their good intentions after the heated argument the pack had about them then they surely were to be trusted without a doubt. "They told us some really bad news about Red Claw."

Petrie gulped. "What now?"

Littlefoot looked at him gravely. "Spotter, Red Claw intends to attack in the Cold Time. Which is now!"

All three flyers paled at this news. Everything that they had planned depended upon them being ready to defend the valley by the late spring. They had only begun to assemble their allies in the last several days... If Red Claw attacked now...

Littlefoot finished. "We have to prepare to leave now. The pack has talked about what to do all of yesterday and we have discussed it today... There was no time to wait for you; I'm sorry."

Petrie cut him off. "Don't worry about that, Seeker. My feelings not as important as valley! What do you plan?"

Ruby stepped forward at those words and looked at him with a thoughtful expression. "First tell us what happened with the hidden runners. If we know what happened with the hidden runners then we can know what to do next."

Pterano answered at this. "Some of the hidden runners are with us. We sent them towards your parents, Ruby."

Ruby nodded with a noticeably concerned expression. "To Hanging Rock?"

Petrie now nodded. "Yeah... We tell them to lead hidden runners to valley. They all be in valley in few days."

Noticing Ruby's fear over her family joining in the valley's upcoming battle, Littlefoot embraced her tightly. This was a gesture that she did not resist. With soft words he tried to comfort his dear friend.

"It will be okay, Ponder... It will be okay..."

As the two fastbiters comforted one another, Petrie shifted uncomfortably. He was deeply concerned about the valley as well, but at least his family could take flight and flee the valley if things got too bad. The other residents did not have that option. If they were overrun then that would been certain death for those trapped in the valley. He was left feeling a deep chill go down his spine. The inevitable battle would soon be upon them. Would they rise to the challenge or would the world be left with no memory of their existence? Everything now hung in the balance. With extreme willpower, Petrie tried to gauge what the pack had done in his absence.

"What happen here? What everyone have planned?

Cera now stepped forward and gave Littlefoot a slight tap on the shoulder to let him know that she would take care of this. She then looked at the three flyers and said her peace.

"We have gathered a lot of vines and sharp sticks. We had no idea how many allies we would have so we got as many as we could..." She then looked at the deserters thoughtfully. "Thud has been training them a little..." The haggard, tired look of the two deserters spoke volumes. They had escaped from terrible tragedy and certain death only to be thrown into a sudden training regime and straight into a war with their former boss. That was enough to make anyone fatigued beyond their years.

As Ruby nodded that she was alright to Littlefoot, he then resumed the briefing from where Cera left off.

"So we will have about a dozen hidden runners, eleven fastbiters, a few fast runners, Path, and the valley on our side." He sighed in relief. "Well at least we have some assistance... But we need to get started soon. We can't wait any longer."

Petrie looked up at Littlefoot. "What do me need to do?"

Littlefoot smiled an apologetic smile. "We won't leave until tomorrow, Spotter. Thud's new packmates will need time to recover and we all need to get some good sleep before we set off on our way... but then we will need to leave."

Petrie couldn't help but notice Chomper nuzzle his mother's foot as Littlefoot said this. He was as aware as anyone else that this might be the final time they saw The Land of Shallow Waters. Even if they were successful in defeating Red Claw, it was entirely possible that many of their friends would be killed in the process. They had lost so many loved ones since they became sharpteeth... From Tippy, to Rhett, to Skytail... And each knew that death could come to them at any moment like an egg-stealer in the night. As sharpteeth they were more aware of that any leaf-eater. Littlefoot continued as Petrie considered his thoughts.

"Someone will need to tell the valley that we are coming and that Red Claw is preparing a massive attack."

Petrie responded immediately. "Me do it."

Littlefoot nodded with a smile. "You are a good friend Spotter. If the valley is having some trouble with the idea of hidden runners and fast runners in the valley then I am sure that you can confirm that we support them."

Petrie nodded. His mission was set.

Littlefoot then frowned. "However, I think that you will need to do this alone, Spotter. Because if Pterano is willing then there is something else that I need him to do."

Pterano spoke firmly. "I will do anything to help the valley! What do you need?"

Littlefoot sighed. "We never acted upon it at the time because we didn't really know where they were... But when a carrion flyer was circling Leap and Swift over there..." Both of the fastbiters flinched at that memory, as Leap was quite close to freezing to death at the time. "...we took the time to talk to him... and he told us where they were."

Pterano stared at Littlefoot with a confused expression. "Where who was?"

Littlefoot looked at Petrie with a thoughtful expression, which caught Pterano off-guard. "Spotter? Do you remember the story that Path's folks told us about the carrion flyers?" At Petrie's nod, Littlefoot continued. "Where it turns out that they have congregated by the remnants of a dead longneck herd in the Shadow Bluffs."

Pterano now understood what Littlefoot was getting at. They had reinforcements on the ground, but if they could get more help from the air...

Littlefoot then turned towards Pterano again. The flyer knew what Littlefoot was going to ask before he even said it.

"Pterano? We need you to convince the carrion flyers to join with us. It is time for you to use your sharp tongue in order to help save the valley... Are you up to it?"

Pterano frowned and closed his eyes in mental anguish. Ever since the catastrophic incident with the fake 'Stone of Cold Fire' two years ago he had resolved to not use his persuasive talents to deceive anymore. But now he was being asked to do just that in order to convince a few more to join in with the cause. Every fiber of his being was telling him not to debase himself and lie in order to recruit more flyers to a situation where they might be killed, but a small voice called in his mind. An echo of Petrie's words from earlier.

"Me chooser of the dead now."

"Me do what necessary."

"Me can live with it. Me have too."

"Me not feel good about what me have to do, but me know that me have to do it."

Pterano opened his eyes. It would torture him to see others die due to his embellished words and promises. It would cause him untold nightmares to again have the blood of others on his conscience. However, he knew that protecting the valley was a far greater good then worrying about the lives of a few opportunistic carrion flyers. It had taken the words of a sharptooth flyer, his nephew, to show him the truth, but he now knew that he would pay the necessary price for the sake of the valley. Once more Pterano would take flight and lead others under his wing. Once more there would be blood, death, and despair. But this time there would be victory. Pterano would see to that even if it cost him his life. With that in mind, Pterano spoke.

"I am. This time I will not fail."

......

Hanging Rock:

"What is wrong, daddy?"

Arial was rather alarmed to see her father when she awoke. He had a deeply concerned look on his face as he looked at something in the distance. He normally did not linger by the sleeping area when the children were asleep during their mid-afternoon nap until it was time for them to wake up, but it wasn't evening yet. All of this struck Arial as being most irregular and being the curious child that she was she wanted some answers.

Her question caused her father to look her direction. As soon as he registered that she was awake he quickly put on a happier expression and opened his arms to embrace his daughter. She gratefully accepted this gesture even though it confirmed her suspicions in her mind. Daddy is being super nice. That means that he is going to tell us something that we won't like!

She had seen this before and he wasn't going to fool her. Back when she was afraid to leave the vicinity of Hanging Rock her father had been very nice to her and let here eat her favorite meal, a snapping shell. Then she was slowly coaxed away from Hanging Rock despite pouting on her part. His coaxing worked and she was no longer afraid to explore, but the memory of how he behaved still remained with her. She knew that she probably wouldn't like whatever her father was about to say.

Detras smiled. "Nothing is wrong, dear..." The momentary pause was not lost on the small fast runner's ears. "It's just that I wanted to talk to you and your brother about something."

"Is it about the valley?" Her brother's groggy voice emerged from behind her. Though he refused to admit it, he was as apprehensive as her about going to a strange place. Neither of them had really associated with other kinds before, except for Ruby's friends. None of them really knew what to expect.

Detras smiled sheepishly. "Yeah... It is about the valley. You see, children... We will need to head over there sooner than we originally thought."

Arial crossed her arms in a pouting expression. "I knew it!" She was simultaneously pleased with herself for figuring her father out and unhappy about having her suspicions confirmed. She did not want to leave.

Detras put a calming hand on his daughter's head. "Now, now, Arial... You know that we had to make this trip for Ruby. Why the unhappiness?"

Arial sighed. As much as she didn't want to admit it, he was right about that angle. She did want to help Ruby after hearing about all that she had gone through. But it was so horrifying! What about all of the strange dinosaurs? Would they be kind to them? Would there be a lot of fish in the valley like her daddy said? Her mind was full of questions. In her agitation, she didn't realize that she had just said most of those questions aloud, which made her father laugh.

"It will be okay, Arial! Yes, there will be food in the valley... You don't think that Ruby lived off of tree stars did you?" Arial contemplated this for a moment. She kind of did, but obviously Ruby had to have eaten other things otherwise she wouldn't have stayed healthy. Plants and meats make a fast runner complete. Or so her mother always said when she refused to eat her greens. As she contemplated this, her father turned to her brother and continued his conversation.

"And there will be friends for you in the valley. The valley welcomed Ruby so surely they will welcome all of you." He then paused for a moment. "Just... um... remember what I said about not getting too close to their eggs..."

Both siblings placed their arms against their hips and called out simultaneously. "We know, dad! Don't eat eggs in the valley!"

Detras smiled at their cute display. "Good... good... that is the one thing that could cause us problems."

After a brief lull in the conversation, Orchid asked a question that had been on his mind for a while.

"When are we leaving, daddy. I will miss home."

As Pearl entered the sleeping area from behind and joined her mate, Detras smiled at his son. "I know, son. But we will be back one day... As for when we are leaving... well... that depends on when our guests arrive."

Both siblings looked up at their parents and spoke in unison. "Guests?"

Both Pearl and Detras shared a laugh. Fast runner children were so adorable at that age. Finally, Pear decided to explain the hidden runner situation.

"Well... Some more of Ruby's friends are coming by and they need us to lead them into the valley."

Orchid and Arial each tried to hide behind the other in a cute display of agitation. "Are they some of her sharptooth friends?" Arial finally asked.

Pearl chuckled. "No, dear. They are like us. They are half-teeth."

Orchid was intrigued by this. "So they are fast runners?"

Detras smiled. "No... But they are kind of like us... no... these are hidden runners..." he then looked at Arial with a teasing expression "So I don't think that you will mistake them for me, dear."

Arial huffed in embarrassment. "Oh, daddy!"

Both Pearl and Detras shared a laugh which was joined by Orchid, though Orchid quickly settled down when his sister gave him a scathing glare. At least it seemed the children were no longer agitated on the task at hand. Sometimes humor and honesty was the best way forward. After a few moments, however, Arial lost her agitated expression and asked her parents another question.

"When do you think they will be here?"

At that question, Detras turned and looked out of the cave entrance into the Mysterious Beyond. That was a good question, but one for which he was pretty sure that he knew the answer.

"Soon. They will be here soon."

......

The Land of Shallow Waters:

The Night Circle shines for us tonight.

Thud stared at the bright orb of the evening. It was often claimed by the more superstitious sharpteeth that a bright moon prior to a battle was a good omen, but of course this overlooked a key matter:

A good omen for whom?

Thud had to admit that their forces were formidable. Seeker's pack had been tested in battle and they had proved their cunning time and again by fighting against superior forces with their superior strategy. Thud himself now had a duo of adolescents who hated Calin and Red Claw as much as he did. The valley had numerous leaf-eater species who had fought against invaders time and time again. Then there was the hidden runners and the possibility of carrion flyers joining the fray... In any other circumstance this would be considering overwhelming force. In fact, the Mysterious Beyond had never seen anything like it.

However, the forces against them was also something without precedent. The forces that Red Claw had amassed rivaled even the exaggerated stories of Brekan's exploits. Sharptooth flyers... fastbiters... other two-footers... It was something that boggled the mind and in any other time or place such an alliance would not be possible. He knew that he would get more help in the winter when sharpteeth were hungry... Thud thought to himself. Such a strategy would be unwise for a permanent alliance, but it would make sense for a dinosaur fixated on a single victory. Red Claw obviously only had his eyes on the valley. He would stop at nothing until his pathological desire for revenge was sated.

"Um... sir?"

Thud turned towards the feminine voice behind him. Swift still used the honorific sir to refer to her new pack leader. This was a carry-over from her days under Calin's leadership, where disrespect could lead to maiming or death. He simply stepped forward nodded for her to continue.

"Uh... we are all going to the valley tomorrow and the Night Circle shines so I was wondering if we could sing our brother's song?"

Thud blinked at this. They had lost their brother in the most horrible of ways only a few days ago. Obviously the trauma was still fresh in their minds and they wanted to carry out the fastbiter tradition to honor the dead. Sing the song of the fallen members and remember those who came before. He would not deny them this. With that in mind, he spoke.

"Red Claw took away someone from me as well."

Leap now stepped forward. He was still wary of his new leader. "Who was that, sir?"

Thud looked at him kindly. "My brother. He was killed right in front of my eyes."

Both of the young fastbiters looked down at this news. Between their interrogation by the pack, Thud's rigorous training, and the lack of time to get acclimated to their new surroundings, there seemed to be a distance between the siblings and Thud. However, his affirmation that he too had lost a brother to the evil Red Claw confirmed something in their minds. He had suffered the same loss that they had faced. He had deserted from the same evil that they had served. And he had earned the respect of the very same pack that was now accepting them. All of this despite the fact that they were formerly the enemy.

They were not so different after all.

Thud gave them all a sad smile. "Some of us may die in the days ahead. In fact, I would be surprised if some of us did not." Those words fell on the duo like a pile of boulders. "But as long as our cause lives on and are songs continue to be sung then we will not fade away from this world." Leap looked up at Thud with contemplative eyes as Thud finished his thought. "I agree that we should sing your brother's song tonight. I just ask two things."

Leap tilted his head. "What is that, sir?"

Thud smiled. "We sing it with Seeker's pack so that we can all hear our songs. I am sure that he won't mind a distraction from what is coming."

Swift nodded. She could use a distraction as well. For all that she knew this could be the last chance she had to sing any song. "What is the other thing, sir?"

Thud looked away and stared at the Night Circle. "We sing the song of my brother as well."

Both dinosaurs remained silent for a moment as they noted the elder fastbiter's melancholic mood. Finally however, Leap decided to break the silence.

"We will go get the other pack, sir..."

Thud absent-mindedly nodded as he heard the two youths scampered off in the direction of Seeker's pack. He realized that his standoffishness might have been a bit alienating, but he could not help it considering the mood that he was in. There was so many emotions running through his mind at that moment. Pride in his son and his pack... fear of the immediate future... concern for his new packmates... sadness for his fallen brother... It was overwhelming for him.

However, at the same time the torrent of emotions did clarify one thing. They resolved what he was willing to do in the days ahead. Knowing that he had a few moments to speak to his ancestors in the sky without prying ears, he spoke into the night.

"Our foes are very strong and cruel. I don't know if I will live through this, brother."

His brother did not answer, but then Thud did not expect one. He knew that the ancestors watched in silence from the stars and that the living had to simply rely on their memories until they too passed on. Such was the burden of the living. Thud closed his eyes as he took in a deep breath.

"But I promise that Red Claw will not."


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