The Seven Hunters

Chapter 66 Introspection

“Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle.”

― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

"Red Claw is coming this Cold Time!"

"But we are in the Cold Time!"

Shorty frowned as the inevitable reactions came from his small cadre of swimmers. Ever since he and Bron had returned to the valley after their search for the 'killers' of Littlefoot, he had settled in and begun to make new friends. Several of Ducky's siblings had taken to engage the longneck in snow fight battles when it was plentiful, likewise he had built up a rapport with Guido who seemed to be starved for companionship as well. They had often talked about Petrie and the other members of the gang.

Even though the gang were no longer believed to be dead, their change in form had still required their absence from the valley. Shorty was not normally inclined for long conversation, but as both he and Guido shared in the loss of their friends it seemed that it came naturally to them. They would often talk about the misadventures that the gang would land themselves in and how they got out of trouble each time. In fact, Shorty had used these conversations to take inspiration for a misadventure of his own with some of Ducky's siblings a few days prior; a fact which neither Bron or Ura appreciated. His conversation with Bron had ended as one might expect:

"What have I told you about leaving the valley? Whatever gave you the idea to explore the Hidden Canyon, anyway?" Bron asked sternly to the juvenile longneck.

Shorty shifted uncomfortably. "Well I was talking to Guido about some of Littlefoot's adventures..."

"Sigh..." Bron closed his eyes is exasperation. "Shorty, I thought that you were ready for responsibility after the battle. Why would you risk others like that?"

Shorty looked down in shame. "I didn't mean to... I told them not to eat the stinky fruit that the sharpteeth don't like. I didn't realize that it would be that dangerous!"

Bron nodded. "Yeah, Littlefoot's grandparents told me about how he and his friends ate most of the stinking fruit and sharpteeth began to enter the valley from that entrance... But he did not encounter the dangers that you did. I guess the fruit distracted him from venturing further in there." He softened his look at his adopted son. "But you did do the right thing afterwards, Shorty. You risked yourself to grab the swimmer before she got swept away by the stream. That was something that Littlefoot did not have to contend with. All of the freezing water suddenly unfreezing."

Shorty looked up with an apologetic look. "I'm sorry. I guess that I am grounded, huh?"

Bron looked at him with an odd look. "Do you want to be grounded to the nest?"

"Um... Not really. But don't I have to be punished... I mean..." Shorty paused. "If I... If I would have failed then my friend would have been no more and it would have been all my fault!" He spoke with unexpected emotion as the full repercussions of his carelessness came to him. He would have never have forgiven himself if that had happened.

Bron nodded. "The fact that you know what you did wrong shows that you don't need to be punished..." He then looked at Shorty sternly. "Would you like to turn your mistake into something that will help the valley?"

Shorty looked up uncertainly and silently nodded. Yes, he most certainly would want to get the best out of this terrible situation.

Bron gave him a slight smile. "Good... You see, Shorty, the stinking fruits are gone but the stinking sap from those trees still smell bad to sharpteeth. We didn't realize this until we saw and smelled that log which you broke while trying to get to the swimmer..."

"The sap could be used to trick sharpteeth?" Shorty questioned.

Bron smiled. "Exactly. We might be able to salvage something good from this mistake. You can join me, the grandparents, and the swimmers as we gather some of the broken branches in the Hidden Canyon."

Shorty swallowed. "Won't the swimmers be scared? I mean... after all that has happened..." He then looked up at Bron with a concerned expression. "...and I don't think that Mama Swimmer will be happy to see me."

Bron nodded with a sympathetic expression. "The swimmers have to face their fears, Shorty, otherwise their fears will control them. As for Mama Swimmer... this will be the perfect time for you to apologize."

Despite the awkwardness of the situation, he had managed to apologize to the irate swimmer and gather several branches oozing with stinking sap. This would work well as a deterrent to sharpteeth attack from the Hidden Canyon. It would be a nice supplement to the flyers who constantly watched over all of the entrances from the air. It wasn't until a bit later that Shorty realized that Bron had done all of this to teach the longneck another lesson: always try to make the best out of a bad situation.

Despite the turmoil that the aftermath of their last conversation had caused, he had been searching for the teal flyer on this afternoon in order to again speak with his friend. That was when the commotion had begun.

Guido had brought something rather surprising to the valley on this day. Petrie had arrived a full season ahead of schedule and the entire valley had mobilized to hear the flyer's words. It seemed that everyone knew that Petrie's early arrival did not bode well for the valley. When the flyers began bellowing out their warning calls on their arrival this only confirmed their suspicions. Though most of the young children were escorted away to be watched by Tria, Shorty had been allowed to attend when Petrie spoke to the valley.

The meeting had gone about as well as could be expected.

......

Several moments ago:

"The valley welcomes Petrie back into its protective walls."

Stomping and cheers emanated from the crowd as Petrie shifted uncomfortably in front of the impromptu assembly. His mother and Guido stood behind him in a show of support. Shorty could also notice that the remainder of Petrie's family, his siblings, were situated towards the front of the assembled crowd. The flyers were showing their support for one of their own. However, as Shorty quickly noticed, they all seemed to have concerned looks on their faces. That did not bode well. What news did Petrie have for all of them. Despite it going against protocol, Shorty ran up to the front of the assembled crowd and greeted Petrie.

"Hey, Petrie!" Shorty ignored the annoyed look of Whitehorn as he continued. "How is the rest of the gang?"

As Bron used his neck to lightly nudge Shorty back into the crowd, Petrie smiled briefly and addressed his question.

"Hi, Shorty! Pack been well, but a lot happen! Me tell valley about it now!"

Satisfied with Petrie's response, Shorty allowed himself to be nudged to just behind the front of the crowed where the longnecks were situated. That was when Whitehorn's patience finally ran out.

"Very well. Many of us have had our days interrupted from the alert calls. So perhaps you could tell us all what is going on." His voice was level but the command to 'get on with it' was clearly there. Petrie gladly obliged.

"First thing is that me make new ally. Hidden runners on our side now."

There was some nervous chattering in the crowd as this announcement was made. Petrie obviously knew the misgivings that many residents would have and quickly addressed that.

"Me know they steal eggs, but we need all help we get. It also Cold Time so you have no egg for them to eat."

Topps interrupted at this point. "Yeah, but we still have children they might decide to snack on!"

Several residents expressed agreement with the threehorn's objection. Even Bron was nodding at Topps's words. Hidden runners did not exactly have the best of reputations.

"Well you have point there..." Petrie agreed. "But me think Red Claw bigger threat and you need help... Plus me know that hidden runners not betray you for Red Claw."

One of the swimmers responded to that suggestion. "Just how do you know that?"

Petrie answered right away. "Because hidden runners hate Red Claw...' Petrie frowned. Much as he hated to use manipulative words to convince the valley, he knew that it would come in handy here. He would tell the valley of Red Claw's crimes in intricate detail to silence opposition. "Red Claw attack hidden runner pack. He kill mommies... he kill daddies... he kill hatchlings..."

Several of the new parents in the crowd shivered in anger and distress. They could imagine their own children being killed in that way and it horrified them. Their concerns about the hidden runners were soon forgotten. But Petrie was not done.

"He even do something so cruel it make Chomper's parents angry." Petrie's eyes filled with a far away stare. "His fastbiters torture hidden runners. They rip them open while alive. They force brothers to eat own siblings..." Gaps emanated from the crowd now as the fear of Red Claw was quickly renewed. The obvious question was not spoken. If he could do this to a pack that he doesn't know then what would he do to the valley he absolutely hated?

Petrie then finished. "Hidden runners so mad that they attack and kill some fastbiters. Me hear about that and convince them to help valley."

Whitehorn looked at the other adults. There was much chattering amongst the herd leaders of which Shorty could only hear bits and pieces, but eventually Whitehorn said the consensus of the group.

"Well... I guess that we can let them in provisionally..."

Petrie nodded. "That good because me already send them. They be here any day."

Topps interrupted with surprise. "You ordered this without our consent?!" Even though his words were exclaimed there wasn't really any anger there. It was just that this audacity from the flyer that used to be easily frightened was quite unexpected.

Petrie nodded again, seemingly unfazed by the threehorn's words. Because he already knew that when they heard the full story that they would understand his reasoning.

"Yes, me do that because me have no choice. You see... We underestimate Red Claw."

Whitehorn stepped forward in concern. "What do you mean?"

Petrie sighed. "We get new packmates. Deserters from Red Claw's pack. Who not want to be there but forced to be there. One of them die before he escape."

Volant looked down at this. It was obvious that she still found it hard to imagine the world that Petrie now inhabited where death was a constant companion and everyone personally knew loss.

Petrie continued. "They tell us something horrible! Red Claw not plan attack in spring. He attack this Cold Time!"

The crowd now erupted into fearful chattering and screams as Whitehorn called for order. Shorty, for his part, had to scamper away from some of the adults as he feared being crushed by their feet. Somehow he ended up into the front of the meeting area where the flyers were situated. He suddenly felt something on his back as Guido landed at the base of his neck. The two of them exchange concerned looks as the crowd slowly settled. That was when Petrie broke the final part of his news.

"Pack on way now, but me don't know if we in time! Valley need to prepare!"

......

Back to the present:

Shorty shook his head to remove the recent memory from his mind. There was far too much going on in such a short span of time. In the hours that had intervened he and the swimmers had been put to work on the caves. They had to prepare their hiding place in the event that sharpteeth entered the valley. They had nearly met their end during the first battle and would have if it wasn't for the heroism of Littlefoot's pack and the mysterious sky rock that blocked the path to where the children were hiding. In order to protect themselves from the large sharpteeth they would have to go to areas that were too small for them to enter. As for the defenses once they were there, that was up to them.

"What are we going to do?"

"I wish mama was here!"

Shorty looked at the swimmers. Ever since the gang had become sharpteeth there weren't many older children left in the valley. Many, like Tricia, were too young to take part in preparing defenses, whereas others were old enough to join in the defense of the valley with their elders. Likewise, the flyers wouldn't shelter on the ground, they would simply fly away if the valley was lost... Shorty shivered at that thought. As a consequence, it was pretty much left up to him and the swimmers to prepare shelter.

"Hey, guys!"

Shorty noted that the swimmers were now staring at him with traumatized eyes. The swimmers of the valley had not known much in the way of turmoil or distress since they entered the valley. As a consequence their response to the crisis was to react with fear. He supposed that his annoyed response was not helping things, but they needed to put their fears aside for a moment so that they could do the work assigned to them. He softened his tone when he next addressed them.

"I know that all of you are afraid right now. But we have to get to work." He gave them all a light smile. "It will help your mother and the other adults keep us all safe."

One of the swimmer's responded with surprise.

"Aren't you afraid, Shorty?"

Shorty frowned. Back in his less mature days he would have answered in the negative. However, he had seen enough to realize that courage was not a matter of not being afraid, but rather was how you responded to fear. Littlefoot had taught him that. If Littlefoot could adapt to the horrors that he had been put through then Shorty could rise to the occasion as well. He had done so in the first battle and he would do so again. With resolve, he answered his friend.

"Of course I am scared and your parents are too, but they are still doing what they need to do to keep us safe." He then gave the swimmer a kind smile. "I won't lie to you, Slider, this might go badly, but panicking isn't going to help us any. Let's just try to do the best that we can. At least we are all together."

At these words the swimmer combined into a group embrace, around which Shorty was the epicenter. For his part, he joined in my nuzzling two of the swimmers which were closest to him. After several moments the sobbing and fearful banter had died down and it seemed like the group was ready to work again. Knowing he shouldn't squander the opportunity, he looked at their handiwork thus far and tried to get them back on track.

"Alright! Let's add some more of the stinky sap to the path to the cave. The fastbiters won't be able to find us if we hide our smells..."

The preparations continued around the valley for days on end as the grave threat of Red Claw hung over the valley like an ominous cloud. Meanwhile, the journey of the valley's allies continued unabated through the wilds of the Mysterious Beyond.

......

Three days later, the Lowlands:

"I had forgotten how long this journey was..."

"Well complaining about it isn't going to make it go any faster!" Cera retorted. She was upset about their current situation and had been ready to erupt at the slightest provocation. Spike's complaint just happened to be the catalyst.

Littlefoot frowned at the antics of his two packmates. "Hey, knock it off you two! We are all hungry and tired, but we have to keep going. We have to get there before Red Claw does."

Cera growled but refrained from saying anything more. Her clear agitation did make the two packmates closest to her move aside slightly, however. Neither Ducky nor Breeze wanted to be right next to her if something else set her off. Taunt took this opportunity to move closer however.

He never learns! Cera raged internally. I am sure that he just wants to taunt me again... She gritted her teeth together and prepared to snap at Taunt, but his next actions surprised her.

"It is amazing that all of you made this journey in the warm season."

Cera looked at Taunt with a perplexed expression. A compliment from Taunt? What was this world coming to? Her agitation being assuaged slightly, she decided to respond.

"It was hot and dry. The dust was very thick in the barren lands."

As she thought about the situation she concluded that they were better off than they were back then. They now had five more fastbiters in their ranks, plus the two massive sharpteeth who were following close behind. Additionally, they were now about to enter a valley that not only knew their identities, but was also willing to ally itself with their former residents. Yes, the situation was a bit better, but it still sucked! A sudden rumble of her belly demonstrated the hunger that was currently agitating her. They hadn't eaten in over a day and it was really beginning to grate on her.

"My second journey to the Land of Shallow Waters was a very long one. The river took me and Breeze quite far."

Cera reflected on Taunt's words for a moment. It was true that he and Breeze had a much harder time than the pack did in their journey to the Land of Shallow Waters. When Skytail, Scarflank, and Vigilant died Cera lost close friends. But to Taunt and Breeze they had lost friends that were like brothers and sisters to them. It was true that Littlefoot was nearly killed by his father and they even considered killing him for the protection of pack, but overall they had the better time of it. Taunt and Breeze had lost much more.

Cera sighed. "I guess those days were harder..." She admitted. "...but that doesn't mean that I have to like this."

She was surprised when Breeze then spoke. "Don't worry, Stern Claw. I don't like this either."

"Perhaps we could hunt before too long..." Thud offered while looking in Littlefoot's direction. In response, Littlefoot looked at the members of his pack and then rolled his eyes. He obviously knew what was going on.

"I take it that is a hint that everyone can't wait any longer before hunting?" Despite the sarcasm with which the question was asked his face only betrayed amusement.

As the pack members nodded and grunted their affirmation at Littlefoot's suggestion, another voice called from behind.

"Yes. A hunt sounds good about now." Dein affirmed with his booming voice. "We are quite hungry."

......

Littlefoot did not need any elaboration on what the 'we' in Dein's comment signified. It was never a good idea to have two full-gown, hungry two-footers nearby. Especially if they were your protectors and benefactors. They had planned on only having one hunt during their journey and roughing it during the intervening period of time. They would then have a quick hunt when they were within sight of the valley itself. However, it now seemed that they had overestimated their willpower in that regard. Besides, it would probably be a good idea to be well-fed prior to ever getting near the valley. If everyone was hungry and a valley resident happened to be outside the valley for some reason...

"Alright." Littlefoot agreed. "We will have to track and kill quickly if we are going to enter the valley by tomorrow. We will probably have to travel through the night to make up time..."

A series of groan emanated from the assorted fastbiters as Thud laughed. Thud was a bit more resilient about losing sleep after his time with Red Claw. In fact, the first meaningful sleep that he had in several years was after he escaped with his brother from the psychopath's territory. He was about to encourage the group when Littlefoot spoke first.

"Well it is either that or we get to the valley late. Who knows how much time the valley has before Red Claw attacks?" He then turned towards Thud and gestured towards his packmates. Seeing that Littlefoot was asking for permission to address them, he quickly nodded. Seeing this invitation, Littlefoot continued. "Swift and Leap?" They both looked up at the call of their names. "Do you think Red Claw will move up his schedule now that you have deserted?"

Swift thought about this for a few moments. "It sounds like a possibility. I think that he was distracted while he was chasing us." Her voice betrayed a lot of pain. The 'chase' had lasted days and had led to the death of her beloved brother. The pain remained and probably always would. "But as soon as he gets some new recruits, I think that he will attack."

Littlefoot took on a calculating stare. "With the storm, he may have gotten quite a few hungry mouths into his ranks..."

Leap and Swift both nodded at this as Littlefoot pondered for several moments. They had caught no trace of Red Claw's scent during their journey. In fact, they hadn't gotten many scents at all. Very few herds or packs of any description. The storm had apparently driven off most life from this area. Only the scent of a few hadrosaurs could be detected, which undoubtedly would form their dinner on this evening. A hunt seemed reasonable despite the delay that it would cause.

Littlefoot gestured for Thud to approach him and likewise gestured to Chomper's parents as well. As the massive sharpteeth lowered their heads towards Littlefoot and Thud approached, he quickly ran his proposal by them. Technically he was simply the leader of one of the three 'packs' on this journey. He would need to obtain the consent of Thud and Chomper's parents before ordering anything of substance. Well... mainly the consent of Chomper's parents considering that they were big enough to eat them all.

"What do you think of the idea?" Littlefoot whispered respectfully.

Thud smiled. "Sounds good to me. Leap looks like he could drop unless he gets some food pretty soon."

Littlefoot then looked towards Dein, whose large eyes seem to stare in Littlefoot's direction as if he were a ground fuzzy. Now I know what the food feels like! Littlefoot thought sardonically. Terri then answered for her mate.

"That sounds good. We will still be in good shape when we reach the valley."

Dein looked at his mate. "Yeah... There will be plenty of food then!"

Terri gave her mate a playful nudge as Littlefoot looked a bit uncomfortable. Dein was obviously joking, but even a joke from a full-grown two-footer could be intimidating. Nonetheless, Littlefoot now had the consent from the other leaders that he would need to announce a decision to his pack. That was when he was preempted by Terri.

"Alright! We track down the swimmer and eat. Then we travel through the night!"

Littlefoot looked up with bemusement at the towering form of Chomper's mother. Well... It looks like she has decided to be the leader for the rest of the trek! That was when Dein gave a sarcastic response of his own.

"Now you know what I have to put up with!"

That was when Terri playfully snapped at Dein for the remark. Littlefoot took this opportunity to take his leave and return where his pack was assembled. That was when the innocent voice of Chomper greeted him.

"Looks like my mommy is in charge now!" He stated with enthusiasm. "I wonder how long it will take for me to take charge..."

He said that last comment with a playful smile. In response, Cera and Taunt both laughed at the idea of Chomper taking over from Littlefoot, while the others simply rolled their eyes. Luckily, however, Ruby came to her friend's aid... or so he thought.

"You're still too small to take over, Path! Too small to take over you are!" She replied with a wagging finger even though she spoke playfully. "Besides, everyone knows that the leader should be the best hunter! And the best hunter is me!" At that playful dig at his leadership Littlefoot did something that was quite out of character for him.

Nip!

"Ow! That was my tail!"

Littlefoot smiled at Ruby who was now starring at him menacingly. In response, Littlefoot simply put on a playful smile which was more reminiscent of Taunt than anyone else. His next words ensured his fate.

"Best hunter, huh? Well I just caught you; can you catch me, mighty hunter?"

......

As Dein and Terri watched the two fastbiters chase one another across the lowlands, they gave one another a knowing look. Unless they pulled rank here then the antics of the fastbiters could continue for quite some time. As if to confirm their suspicions, the other members of the packs began to cheer on the two chasers. The romantic overtones between the two chasers were obvious to the two sharpteeth even though a large barrier existed between fastbiters and two-footers. It was amusing how quickly their thoughts about food had dissipated, which made something arise in Terri's mind.

They are so afraid for their friends and families that they welcome any escape. Even if it is momentary. Those poor things...

The more Terri thought about the situation the more she realized that they didn't really need the help of the fastbiters to catch the day's hunt. Perhaps they could simply let them get on with their fun and then let them know when the prey was killed. That way they could have their respite and resume their journey with renewed vigor.

She turned towards her mate and nudged him away from the pack and hissed a soft order to remain silent. He looked somewhat confused, having not reached the same conclusions that she had, but nonetheless he obeyed. With that the two sharpteeth walked off into the distance in order to hunt.

......

When the fastbiters realized that they had been left behind by the two-footers they panicked and ran off to where their scent took them. They were driven with equal parts shame and fear. They were ashamed of not joining the two sharpteeth in their hunt and they were fearful that they would be denied food as they had not joined in the hunt.

However when they finally tracked down the two sharpteeth they were surprised to see two slain swimmers, one of which had not been eaten to any degree.

"We're so sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Sharptooth!" Littlefoot began. "We shouldn't have been distracted..."

Dein gave a wave of his stubby hand. "It is not important."

Thud looked surprised at this. "What?" His response was echoed by many of the other members of both packs.

Terri then responded. "It is not important. You all needed some time to get your mind off of things." She gave a sympathetic nod towards Littlefoot and Ruby. "We will eat and then we will have to run."

Littlefoot blinked. "You're... not angry with us?"

Terri smiled. "No. In fact, your antics reminded us of a certain pair two-footers that we used to know..." As Dein lovingly nuzzled Terri, both Ruby and Littlefoot looked at one another with embarrassed expressions. It wasn't every day that a two-footer accused you of being madly in love. Even though deep down neither of them would deny those words, they still were not comfortable with being so open about it. They were still several years before the Time of Great Growing and thus they were still self-conscious about such things. Though the signs of what were to come were obviously present.

With little ceremony, the thirteen dinosaurs ate their dinner in contemplative silence. Each realized that depending on how close Red Claw was to the valley, that this could very well be their final meal before the inevitable battle. Regardless of what followed in the following days, however, each knew that they were on the right side of the coming conflict. They could not foresee if their future would hold victory or defeat.

But they all knew that they would face it together.

......

Outskirts of the lowlands:

Calin looked upon the desolate ravine with disdain.

He was never a sentimental dinosaur, seeing aesthetic fixations on beauty as signs of weakness in those who were too foolish to focus on what really mattered: the accumulation of power and the protection of your place in life. However, in his current mood the dreary scene complemented his thoughts perfectly. The barren lands were utterly devoid of life.

Much like myself in a cycle of the Night Circle. Calin lamented. I know what is coming.

He only stayed alive as long as Red Claw remained alive. This much Calin knew. However, this still left one question: what purpose would Calin have after Red Claw finally destroyed the valley? The short answer was: nothing. Calin was a source of fear for the entire pack and a potential threat to Red Claw if he were given enough time to make alliances. Red Claw's assumption about him allying himself with the hidden runners was a wrong one, but his thoughts were in the right direction. Calin always did try to secure his position from opposition. The only thing that he valued more than accumulating power was securing it from opposition.

Now however he was faced with a situation where he had little opportunity to secure his precarious situation. If he tried to make new alliances within the pack then they would count for naught, as no one in the pack trusted him. The fact that the packmates would be entirely justified in not trusting him did not change the fact that this was not an option for him. Likewise, if he tried to make alliances outside of the pack then word would obviously get around to Red Claw... that would quickly lead to a grisly end.

The final option, escaping from the pack, would also entail an immediate end. He knew full well that Red Claw would stop at nothing to track him and down and would watch with glee as his former packmates ripped him apart.

Calin shivered at this possibility. He knew full well what atrocities he had committed against his own packmates and other packs. He felt no guilt or remorse over these actions, in fact he enjoyed committing them, but he realized that his old actions would be used against him once his grant of protection from Red Claw finally ended. He had certainly given them some ideas on how he could be dealt with when the time came. He was now left with no possibility of escape or sanctuary. He was as good as dead. It was simply a matter of when Red Claw finally decided to get rid of his minion. Then Calin's fate would be sealed.

Having no respite from his hopeless situation he had begun to take out his anger on his packmates. That is until Red Claw put an end to the killings of 'collaborators' of the deserters. Now the only outlet he would have for his anger would be when they finally arrived at the valley. Which was undoubtedly what Red Claw wanted.

Calin growled in agitation. He had prided himself on manipulating others for his own benefit and now he was being played in the exact same way. If only he hadn't shown weakness in front of Red Claw... if only Zarc was still here to help hide his injury... if only he hadn't been poisoned in the first place... but what was done was done. Now it seemed that the long-dead Skytail would have his revenge after all. That small swipe at Calin's tail had led to all of his difficulties. Now it seemed that there was no escape.

But then something suddenly grabbed his attention. A scent that he had not smelled in some time. Not since the battle in Brekan's Gulch...

Calin sprinted forward causing many of his packmates to scatter from the feared predator. Both Red Claw and one of the new two-footers looked over at the tan fastbiter with surprise. The expression on Red Claw's face soon turned into a satisfied smirk, however, as he called to the fastbiter.

"I see that you caught their scent as well..."

Calin looked over with a crazed look. "Their scent has faded! They must be..." He trailed off for a moment as he sniffed for more information. "Two... three days ahead of us! How did they know our plans!" Calin was enraged. It was obvious that someone had leaked information either that or...

The deserters! The realization came to Calin. Those bastards!

"It seems like Seeker and the deserters have decided to join the battle on the other side. Their loss." Red Claw intoned as Calin continued to quake in anger. "I suppose we will have that to look forward to when we arrive..."

"I will kill them all!" Calin raged. "They will not be allowed to escape again!"

Red Claw took on a small smile as he saw Calin quivering in anger. All of Calin's thoughts about his unenviable situation now seemed overturned in favor of raging at his enemies. Perhaps he would yet prove to be useful in the battle ahead. That would be the last battle he would engage in before the dangerous fiend was disposed of. Red Claw would see to that personally.

Calin, meanwhile, was unaware of Red Claw's ponderings as he raged at his hated nemesis.

I may not survive for long, but I will outlive you Seeker! The last thing that you and your friends will smell is my stinking breath!

......

The Great Valley:

"Are those Ruby's parents?"

"Why are we letting egg-stealers in the valley!"

"Remember that the valley agreed on it, dear?"

"...Are those hidden runners?"

Grandma Longneck looked towards the valley entrance with wary eyes. True to Petrie's word Ruby's parents were entering the valley with nearly a dozen hidden runners following close behind. The threehorn guards had simply stepped aside and allowed them to enter without a word, as the valley had agreed to let them enter during the meeting. However, neither of the guards spoke a word as the omnivores entered the valley with obvious trepidation. Two young fast runners clung tightly to Ruby's parents in fear. These were undoubtedly Ruby's siblings. It must be terrible to be sent to such an unknown place and to have the residents treat you to silence and suspicious looks. No wonder they were scared.

The elder longneck frowned and gave her mate a knowing expression. This would not do. They would take the initiative and greet the newcomers. If they were willing to defend the valley then they would welcome them openly.

......

Orchid clung to his mother in profound fear. He had told himself that he would be brave when they finally came to the valley but when he had finally seen the massive threehorns standing watch he quaked in fear and clung to the first thing he could grab. Looking at his father, he could see that Arial was clinging to him with a similar expression of fear. What had they gotten themselves into?

Thump! Thump!

Orchid looked towards the thundering sound and went wide-eyed at the sight in front of him.

Thump! Thump!

He had never seen anything like it. It was as if two massive boulders... no... two mountains... had come alive and began moving with their massive legs. Attached to the bodies of the walking mountains rose a massive pillar which had a smaller boulder as a head. The eyes seemed to stare straight at them. Which was exactly where the mountains were walking...

Thump! Thump!

Orchid couldn't take it anymore. Grabbing his sister's arms with his hands, he sprinted away from his parents and towards the large rock wall that they had just passed. He had to do as his parent's had always told him: a fast runner who cannot runs, hides. With that in mind he would run to the rock wall and look for any crevice. The walking mountains couldn't get him there! But what about his parents?

Reaching the rock wall, both siblings turned to look at where their parents had been standing... Only to see that they were still there!

"Momma!"

"Daddy!"

But the shouts of the siblings seemed to have no effect as the two fast runners stared at the coming mountains with attentive stares. With each footstep the mountains came closer and closer... Both siblings hugged one another tight as it seemed that their parents were about to be crushed underfoot. How could it end like this? But then the oddest thing happened.

The mountains stopped.

"Hello, fast runners! Welcome to our valley!"

Orchid looked up at the unimaginable scene. The mountains can talk too? He was utterly confused.

The mountain then looked up at the hidden runners. "And welcome to all of you as well! Petrie told us about all of you."

Both siblings were transfixed by the scene. The mountains were talking to their parents and their new friends! As Detras stepped forward, Orchid realized that his father was about to reply.

"Thank you for the welcome, Mr. Longneck! Please forgive my children for running off..." Detras looked in their direction as the siblings shifted uncomfortably at his gently chiding. "...they have never seen an adult longneck before."

Nodding, Grandma Longneck looked at the children with sympathetic eyes. "It's okay children. We mean you no harm."

Grandpa Longneck smiled as he continued her thought. "Indeed. The valley welcomes all children. In fact, my son-in-law's son should be around here somewhere..."

However their calming words only partially came through their fear-addled minds as Orchid responded to the words of Grandpa Longneck. "Mountains have children?!"

Grandpa Longneck stared at the child for a moment before suddenly erupting in uncontrolled laughter. His mate joined in the display as well. Even the fast runners and hidden runners began to chuckle with great mirth. The innocent words of Orchid undoubtedly matched his perception of the longnecks. To him they were mountains. With that in mind, another voice echoed from nearby.

"Ha! Mr. and Mrs. Mountain, I like that." Topps chuckled to himself. "But he is correct. We mean you no harm. Come on out of there, children, and come meet us! There are plenty of children who would love to see a new face."

With some trepidation the children slowly extricated themselves from the wall and rejoined their parents. Then, hand-in-hand with their parents, the children followed the adults deeper into the valley.

......

The swimmer looked at the newcomer with a welcoming and curious expression. "Why are you called a fast runner?"

Orchid blinked. "Well... I am fast when I run."

Another swimmer asked a question to his sister. "Is it true that you eat meat?"

Arial shifted uncomfortably. "Well, we eat fish and snapping shells..."

The response was immediate, but not really condemning.

"Yuck!"

"Eww..."

But soon the swimmers calmed down and another swimmer stared at Orchid with a perplexed expression. He noticed that she was staring at one of his arm feathers.

"What is this?"

Yank!

"Ow! That is my feather! It is part of me!" Orchid protested.

The swimmer looked apologetic. "Sorry..." But then she stared at the feather in her hand. "But it isn't part of you now..."

Orchid frowned at the swimmer with an unamused expression. "I noticed."

However the removal of Orchid's feather seemed to open up even more questions from the swimmers. None of them were disgusted with them anymore about their meat eating. They were curious again.

"What do feathers do?"

"Why do you have them?"

The fast runner children were now being asked questions from all sides by Ducky's siblings who were extremely curious about the small newcomers. The two fast runners were still somewhat afraid of this strange valley, but they were quickly adapting to their new environment just as Pearl had predicted days ago. The swimmer children were rapidly accepting them as friends and the fast runners were willing to reciprocate. Provided that they didn't pluck out any more of their feathers...

From a distance Topps looked away the touching scene and instead looked upon the hidden runners who were resting beside one of the valley's small streams. Though the response from the adults were now quite accepting with regards to Ruby's family, there still existed some distance between them and the hidden runners. They were still an unknown variable. The fact that Littlefoot's pack trusted them counted for a lot, but it could not erase all suspicion. It was enough to make Topps ponder the situation.

"Hmmm..."

Topps turned towards the nearby voice and stared into the face of his leader, Whitehorn. It seemed that he was examining the scene as well. When he finally spoke Topps realized that he shared his concerns as well.

"The children are so accepting... now let's see how the adults fare..."

......

Harthron's territory:

"You wanted us all here, sir?"

The deputy stared at the great leader's back. He had given a stern order during the morning meeting with his deputies to gather all of the able-bodied pack members who were not heavy with egg or caring for young. No further explanation was given. The deputies had rushed to do their task in a state of great agitation. This uneasiness was echoed by the other members of the pack who had gathered outside of the cave, who were chattering with anxious voices. It was not a common occurrence for the great leader to convene a general meeting and that in itself indicated the significance of the summons. Considering the events of recent days it did not take a lot of imagination to deduce what the meeting was going to be about. Furthermore, considering that he had already made his decision on the matter there would be no need to address it in a meeting unless he had changed his mind. Never before had a great leader's words been so important yet also of no consequence. The entire pack would act as soon as the leader gave his word, but he would still have to formally give that word.

"Sir?" The deputy pressed the matter. Normally this would be considered improper, but since everyone was waiting outside it demanded the leader's attention. Upon his second question he had Harthron's attention.

"You think that I am making a mistake." It was a statement, not a question.

The deputy quivered slightly. It was only proper to disagree with a great leader unless he requested an opinion or the perpetrator was willing to challenge him for leadership. He did not wish to have the leadership as he saw what kind of gilded prison that position was, but he certainly disagreed with his leader's probable decision. Now he had an excuse to make it known.

"Yes, sir." The deputy stated plainly. "Yes, I think that this is a mistake."

Harthron turned around with a look on his face that communicated interest. "You think that I should keep and honor my previous decision? That we should stay in our territory?"

The deputy took this opportunity to step forward and encourage the great leader. "Yes, sir!"

"You still support my old decision?" The leader asked.

"Yes, sir! I think that you should stand firm." The deputy took on a confident expression at his leader's expression. He is willing to be swayed! This disastrous decision can be stopped!

The leader stopped for a moment and then looked down. "Well..." He then looked up at the deputy with a firm expression. "I have already made my decision."

As the great leader walked passed him, the deputy's demeanor fell. So the leader was going to do it. The pack was going to join in the fight with Red Claw and his hordes. Even if they were victorious due to the combined forces of the valley and its allies, it was obvious that many of the sons and daughters of the pack would never come home again. This was war, total and merciless.

"Ardul?"

Deputy Ardul looked at his leader again. Once more, only his back was visible.

"Yes, sir?" The grief was obvious in his voice.

"You shall lead the pack in my absence. If we do not return in a cycle of the moon then evacuate to the mountains. That will mean that we will have been lost."

Ardul broke down at that affirmation. "I do not desire the leadership, sir..." He choked back a sob. "I just want the pack to be safe."

He was surprised to feel the leader's hand on his shoulder. "I know that you don't want to claim the leadership. That is why I am giving it to you. If I don't make it back then I know that you will ensure a proper exchange of power. You are an honorable hidden runner, Ardul."

Ardul began to sob more heavily at the leader's kind words. A great leader would never show such affection to anyone but direct family. To do this was against tradition. Furthermore, it confirmed in Ardul's mind that Harthron did not expect to come back. This was probably the last time that he would talk to the great hidden runner. The sense of loss was overwhelming.

"As for the pack... that is exactly why I am doing this. My daughter was wrong about one thing: I do care about the wellbeing of the pack more than my own leadership." He sighed softly. "It took her condemnation of me to see that I made the wrong decision for the right reasons. I thought that the danger could stay away from us if we refused to get involved, but Red Claw has already made us involved. I am simply righting a mistake on my part..."

As the hand left his shoulder, Ardul could hear the footsteps retreat out of the cave. Before Harthron finally left, however, he spoke one last time to his leader.

"Goodbye, sir! I won't let you down!"

Harthron turned at that point. He was at the threshold of the cave's chamber. "I know that you won't, Ardul. Farewell and good luck."

Then, just like that, he was gone. From the depths of the cave he could hear the chattering from outside stop and the deputies calling for order. Then, without further ceremony or preamble, the expected announcement was made.

"My people, it is with a heavy heart that I have made a decision for the benefit of the packs..."


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