The Seven Hunters

By Rhombus

Adventure / Horror

Chapter 69 Skirmishes

“If your enemy offers you two targets, strike at a third.”

― Robert Jordan, Crossroads of Twilight

Two fastbiters... Wait! I recognize those two!

In the ravine below stood two juvenile fastbiters. The two fastbiters appeared to be lost as they darted their heads from side to side in a desperate attempt to find their way. The male appeared to be smaller and had a nervous look upon his face, whereas the female's larger build seemed to exude fury at some unknown entity. It was a curious combination that the flyer couldn't immediately decipher.

Wait... didn't these deserters meet up with Seeker's pack? Then why are they out... That was when the flyer put the pieces all together. Oh! Oh... Calin is going to enjoy this.

As Rinkus shifted his wings against the wind, he began to soar in the direction of the advancing pack. He had quite the interesting report to deliver to his benefactors...

......

In a ravine outside of the valley:

"I think the flyer bought it!"

Swift allowed herself to look in the direction where her brother was gazing. Sure enough the pink flyer was soaring and moving away from them at a rapid rate of speed. Heading back towards his master. She mused. So far, so good. She allowed herself a deep breath before turning and questioning her brother.

"Do you think that they will act like Seeker anticipated?"

Leap sighed as he began to kick at the dusty ground. That is the big question, isn't it? He mused darkly. He paused as he considered the possibilities and tried to keep his fear at bay.

"I hope so... The entire plan depends on it, doesn't it?" He looked back towards his sister with an unsure expression.

Swift shifted uncomfortably as she sniffed the air. The wind was blowing in their direction which would provide them with some advance notice of any approaching dinosaurs. Such an advantage would be quite important in the narrow ravine. With that in mind she again spoke.

"We know Calin... that sadistic bastard! The only ones he wants to kill more than us is Seeker... If he gets an opportunity to go after us then I know that he will take the chance."

Leap too sniffed the air as he began to resume his charade of acting lost. They had to make it look like that they had been kicked out of Seeker's pack and not simply trying to misdirect their nemesis. Just because there were no flyers visible did not mean that they were not being observed at that very moment. As he began to follow swift away from the valley, feigning uncertainty, he asked his sister a question that troubled him greatly.

"But what if Calin is instructed to ignore us? Calin may be too deluded to see through our charade, but Red Claw may not."

Swift smiled. Leap had come to the same conclusion that she had reached a few moments prior. However, she had considered that possibility and decided that was probably what Seeker had been banking on this entire time. With the underlying strategies and counter-strategies playing in her mind, she decided to fill Leap in on what she had determined.

"Well, brother, we know how Calin behaves don't we? How he initiates an attack?" At Leap's nod, she continued. "The first step was to inspect, which the flyer has already done. The next step is to assemble the pack, which he is more than likely doing. Which inevitably leads to..."

......

Some distance away:

"We are ready to attack, sir!"

Red Claw smiled with anticipation. The final conflict was finally here. The forces were assembled. Flyers were prepared to take the battle to the valley's skies. Fastbiters were prepared to invade the valley's interior and distract its defenses. Finally, he and his two new two-footer recruits were ready to assault the defensive lines themselves. A blitzkrieg against the valley looked ever so appealing, but Red Claw knew the first rule of battle.

Know your enemy.

He had fought with the valley's residents and those pesky children enough to know that the valley was well defended against outright attack. If he simply launched a full-frontal assault against the valley on all sides then they could possibly withstand the onslaught despite massive casualties. When dinosaurs were in the thick of battle they would entrench and fight. No... He cautioned himself. The second rule of battle will be very useful here.

A single act of misdirection is worth a thousand blows.

The valley was no doubt expecting a full-fledged attack. They would have placed their best fighters at the entrances in the hopes that their nerves would hold up during a single, brutal attack. However, if he were to attack them at multiple times to varying degrees, then that would sow confusion amongst their ranks. He could have the fastbiters probe for any weaknesses, while the flyers decimated their surveillance from the air. Then, when they were devoid of their aerial scouts and responding to enumerable attacks from periphery, the lines would begin to falter. Perhaps they would even reorganize themselves to react to a feigned attack of his own creation. In either case that would be his cue. He would attack in force and enter the valley. Once the defensive lines were breached the fate of the valley would be sealed.

But before the initial probing attacks could begin, he had to deal with a diversionary tactic that was currently being used against his own forces.

"Calin, you are to chase the deserters, but only to where the ravine forks."

Calin growled in frustration, but did not interrupt. Red Claw smiled at this. His minion was in just the mood that he wanted him.

"They are trying to lead you away from one of the entrances, but you are to defy their expectations. Harass the other entrance, whichever one that may be. That will confuse their forces and force them to show us their plans." He grunted in concentration as he considered the options. "After you do this we two-footers will secure the fork in the ravine and the flyers will attack. Our second attack will be from a position of strength."

Calin bowed low as he hissed a question. "But if we do catch them before the fork in the ravine, can we kill them?"

Red Claw grinned. "I suppose you may kill one of them, but we need to see where the other is going so that you can go in the opposite direction." As Calin began to turn away, Red Claw growled once more. "...and Calin?"

The fastbiter stopped and slowly turned towards his benefactor. "Yes, sir?" The contempt was clear in his voice.

Red Claw gave him a malicious grin as he made sure there was no misunderstanding his explicit orders. "Do complete the mission I have assigned for you... it would be a shame to lose you at such an early juncture."

......

High above the Great Valley:

The two fastbiters continued to sniff the air from time to time as they meandered from rock wall to rock wall in faux confusion. The periodic glares in the direction of the advancing horde was the only hint that the duo had an ulterior motive and that particular signal would have been lost on anyone who wasn't doing a thorough watch over them.

"The waiting game continues."

Volant nodded at her daughter's whispered words. From their hidden vantage point they had seen the sharptooth flyer spot the duo and then take off in the direction of his leader. Despite the apparent discovery of Leap and Swift, however, the attack had not come. Volant hesitated to think about what that could indicate. Was Red Claw not planning on taking the bait? Was he planning on a long siege and waiting for the valley to become complacent?

No... She shook her head. He can't wait that long. He will need to feed his followers and that means either leaving this place for more fruitful hunting grounds or... She didn't finish the thought. It was obvious that he did have one particular hunting ground in mind and she had no interest in letting Red Claw roam freely in the valley. Everything depended on preventing that.

"Yes, Valaria. We must wait until we see something." Volant then turned towards her daughter. "Do you all remember your mission?"

A chorus of "Yes, mommy!" followed from the hidden flyers as they each began to repeat the tasks that had been assigned to them.

"I will go warn Littlefoot if they attack the Hidden Canyon."

Another feminine voice spoke next.

"If they go to the main entrance then I will go warn Whitehorn."

Volant nodded with pride at her dutiful children. The crevice that they were hiding in was too small for but one adult flyer and a few children to fit into. Otherwise, she would not have risked her children in this endeavor. However, she was quite prideful in their sense of responsibility. Every child volunteered for this spy mission, but she could only pick two. As a result, she selected Valaria and Flap, the two swiftest flyers in her family. Their speed would give them the best chance of a clean getaway.

And I will give the alert call if the sharptooth flyers attack... Volant thought to herself. But first we have to... wait...

Suddenly the situation changed in the ravine. Both of the fastbiters rose to a standing position as they placed all of their weight on the back of their hind feet. Their eyes were focused intently on the narrow ravine in the distance and the supposed horde just a few miles away. They stared for several moments at nothing in particular, but that is when they all saw it.

Fastbiters. Dozens upon dozens of fastbiters.

Volant stared agape at the sight. The number of predators in this group alone must have dwarfed Littlefoot's allies by at least four times. The fastbiters were mainly juveniles, but several young adults also were apparent in their ranks.

Her heart sank. This was far worse than they had feared.

The two fastbiters seemed to stare at the approaching horde for several moments in shock as the combined footsteps on the sprinting horde sounding like a stampede of spiketails. After a few moments, however, they seemed to regain their wits and did the only intelligent thing that they could do in that situation.

They bolted.

......

"I'm scared, mommy!"

Pearl looked down at her daughter with sympathetic eyes. She was most certainly not the only scared dinosaur on this day. Ever since the alert call had came from the flyers it was a mad rush to send the children to the assigned place. Now she and the children were in a cave that was just as dark and foreboding as their feelings at this moment. Their shelter felt just like a tomb though she would do everything in her power to prevent it from becoming one.

"I know, honey." Pearl softly spoke to her pink daughter. "So are your friends..." Pearl looked over at the swimmers and Tricia who were shivering in agitation. "...so is your brother..." She smiled slightly as Orchid tried to puff out his chest and act brave. She could see right through his act. "...and even me. Everyone is sacred, dear. But do you remember what your daddy and I taught you about fear?"

Despite her fearful shakes Arial nodded. "It... It's okay to be afraid as... as long as you don't let it control you." She recited from memory.

Pearl smiled. "Very good, dear." Looking over at the others, she realized that they needed her reassurance as much as her daughter did. "It isn't cowardly to be afraid, children. We just need to be sure to do our part."

One of the swimmers called out. "...and what is that?"

Pearl smiled. "Staying safe in the caverns until your parents have saved the valley. We have to take care of ourselves right now so that they can take care of the valley. Then you can see them again."

Another scared voice called out. It was choked with unshed tears. "But what if we don't see our mommies or daddies again?"

Several of the swimmers began to cry openly at that affirmation. This caused poor Tricia to begin to cry as well. She was only barely aware of what was going on. All that she knew was that everyone else was scared and upset. Now she was as well.

Pearl reached out to the swimmer and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. "We have to trust in them, child. Has your mommy or daddy ever let you down?" With reluctance he shook his head no. "Well then... we need to trust them here. They will do everything that they can to see you again. But in order to do that we have to be strong."

Pearl was surprised to hear the voice of her son from behind her. "Yeah. We need to be like Ruby. She has been through a lot and is still going strong!"

Pearl had to smile at Orchid's affirmation. Even after his sister had grown sharp teeth and feathers he still looked up to her. She did not expect the cascade of responses, however.

"Yeah! Or like my sister!" One of Ducky's brothers called out. "She hasn't let us down yet!" Affirmative nods and calls came from the numerous other swimmer children as well. They too had found support in the example that their sister had established.

"Or wike Cerwa!" Tricia affirmed, quickly forgetting her fear.

Pearl smiled. She was about to agree with the sentiments of the children when another voice called from behind her.

"Or like Littlefoot. I trust him with my life."

Pearl turned. Shorty had appeared at the threshold of the cavern that they were in. Beside him was the violet form of Pearl's mate who was carrying a bundle of sticks of some kind. She immediately recognized it as branches from the trees which produced stinky fruit. It seemed that the two had been busy while she was keeping the children calm.

Pearl smiled. She knew just what would help the children take their mind off of the dangers outside. "Okay, children. Do you want to help our families defend the valley?"

She was greeted by a chorus of affirmations. The children were ready to do anything that would help.

"Good!" Detras's voice echoed from the other side of the chamber. "Everyone grab one of these and put it by one of the entrances to this chamber. It will trick the bad sharpteeth from getting in here."

In mere moments the multitude of swimmers, Tricia, and the fast runner's own children were gathering sticks and placing them around the chamber in a scene that looked like ordered chaos. In this brief moment of respite Pearl took the opportunity to nuzzle her mate. For all that she knew it could be one of the last times she would have the opportunity to do so.

"This is a good idea to keep the kids occupied."

Pearl looked up from her embrace to see Shorty looking ponderously at the entrance nearest to him. He was not falling for the rouse that had been set up. In fact... She thought to herself. He must have helped plan this! The realization struck her as soon as she pieced together that Shorty had helped bring the sticks inside the chamber. This child was a bit more knowledgeable than the others.

"I used to do similar things when I was caring for the little longnecks who followed me." Shorty continued as if he were speaking to someone in front of him. "I would watch while they played... they got to be carefree while I got all of the fear..." He looked down as he continued. "I began to hate them for that... even after Bron found me I began to bully some of them... I just couldn't stand it."

Pearl frowned as she approached the green longneck. "Littlefoot told me a bit about you. He said that it took you a while to trust other people." She then placed a hand on his back in a sympathetic gesture. "It can be hard to trust when you have no one to trust. It can be hard to relate to children when you never had a chance to be a child."

Shorty nodded sadly at this as Detras approached and began to speak.

"Littlefoot said that you changed since he first knew you. You began to let your guard down, but then when he found you after his change that you were not quite the same."

Shorty sighed before speaking hesitantly. "I thought my brother was dead. That the only one who I trusted, except for Bron, had be taken from me... I had to be an adult again."

Detras shook his head in sympathy. "It is easier losing your childhood when you never had one to begin with."

Shorty simply nodded. Pearl looked over at the children to make sure that they were all where she could see them. Seeing that they were not placing themselves in harm's way, she took this as an opportunity to address the longneck.

"Is that what you want? Because if it is then all you..."

Shorty shook his head and looked towards the other children. She took this as her cue to stop.

"I... I see them being happy and that makes me happy. I don't need to be a child as long as they can be."

Pearl laughed, which earned a confused glance from the longneck. She quickly clarified.

"Well, Shorty. At least in that regard you are a fast learner."

Shorty looked at her with a confused head tilt. The term fast runner and his name were almost never used in the same sentence. She quickly filled in the gaps for him.

"Many adults never learn that lesson." She sighed. "Now the details... the details are where it gets tricky."

The two fast runners and the juvenile longneck watched the children mark the chamber with their sticks for several more moments. It was a welcome respite from the terror of the unknown that awaited them all. For while they waited in their cave, the initial skirmishes of the battle were underway.

......

"Keep pace, Leap!"

Swift shouted at her brother as she struggled to keep ahead of the rampaging onslaught. She had expected a significant attacking force, but nothing like this. A pack of this size only existed in the legends of old. Such a thing could only be maintained through hunger, desperation, and fear. Only a personality like Red Claw or Brekan the Cruel could lead such a force.

"I'm trying..." Leap huffed through gasped breaths. "Which way are we going?"

Swift tried to think about her brother's question as they neared where the ravine forked towards the two entrances. The first one hidden within the Hidden Canyon and the other a bit more conspicuous. They had been given clear instructions by Littlefoot on how to proceed.

"If they attack with a lot of fastbiters then go towards the Hidden Canyon so that we can weaken them... but if they attack with a few then go to the main entrance."

"But..." Leap had asked in confusion. "If they attack with only a few then that means they must be holding back for a larger strike. Why would we lead them to the main entrance then so that a bigger force can attack us at our weakest point?"

Littlefoot smiled at Leap's question. "Good question, Leap. Let's just say that we have some plans for them if they should attack the Hidden Canyon."

Swift nodded as both she and her brother were quite aware of the hidden runners' preparations. "But where will the pack be, Seeker?"

Littlefoot shrugged. "Wherever the bigger force is. We need to help keep the fastbiters out of the valley so that the adults can deal with the big guys. The rainbowfaces will need to know where the main attack is coming as well."

Leap looked confused. "What good could two rainbowfaces could do?"

Littlefoot looked away. "I don't know about doing much good for the fighters... but they may be able to help the survivors..."

Both siblings stared at one another. They had no idea what Littlefoot was muttering about but that didn't sound good.

Swift shook her head. This situation was far different than what they were preparing for, however. This was a massive force, but the two-footers were nowhere to be seen. This meant that not only was this a sizeable force, but more was on the way. They couldn't simply rely upon Littlefoot's orders here, they would have to take initiative.

"Leap, you go left and I will go right!"

Leap paled. "What?!"

Swift breathed deeply. "You heard me! This is different than what we expected. We need to divide and conquer." She looked in his direction one last time as the forking of the paths came upon them. "Good luck, brother... I will see you in the valley."

......

Volant was agape when the two fastbiters broke into different directions, with Leap heading towards the Hidden Canyon and Swift heading towards the main entrance.

"What are they doing? This is not what was planned!"

That was when the enemy pack's actions showed the intelligence of Swift's decision.

......

The stampede of raging fastbiters neared the fork in the ravine with tremendous speed. There was no way for the various sharpteeth to hear one another over the clamor of stomping feet. Nor was there much room to maneuver around your counterparts to the front and sides. The masses of predators were forced to follow whichever path their packmates at the front chose to pursue. The results were inevitable.

"To the main entrance, you fools! To the main... Damnit!"

Calin roared in rage as he directed what remained of his forces to follow him towards the main entrance. Nearly half of the fastbiters at the front had simply followed Leap and the followers behind them had dutifully followed. Now the entire attempt of a diversionary attack was in disarray. With equal attacks on both entrances, neither defensive line would be compelled move to the other side in order to give Red Claw an opening.

Calin grunted in annoyance and exhaustion as he regained his position at the front of his force. He had to have something to show for his efforts or else he knew that he would be doomed.

He would attempt a breakthrough at the main entrance even if it was the last thing that he did.

......

"Children, it is time to..."

Volant stopped as she looked to her sides and noticed that her children had already departed. Their fluttering forms could be seen departing in their respective directions. Each entrance would know that a battle awaited them.

We don't have an idea of where Red Claw's main force will strike now though... I wonder if... That was when she saw something that made her blood grow cold.

The sharptooth flyers were appearing across the horizon. Ten large forms were clearly visible, including two that she remembered all too well.

"Sierra and Rinkus..."

But as the flying horde continued its journey towards the valley, and not realizing that Red Claw's original strategy had already been sidetracked, Volant suddenly came up with her own idea of what Red Claw's strategy was at that moment.

Attack us on all fronts so that we have no idea where the main attack is coming... She took on a grim expression. Well... two can play at that game!

Wasting no time, she gave the alert call for her fellow flyers who were hidden on top of the rock walls. The enemy could not preempt what it couldn't see.

Caw!

......

Entrance to the Hidden Canyon:

"They're doing what!?"

Littlefoot couldn't believe his ears. Under normal circumstances, having the attacking pack split up would be a good outcome, but this was not a normal time. Swift and Leap had violated his very explicit orders of leading them to one entrance or the other. Having seen Red Claw in action before, he knew that a diversionary attack would more than likely be followed by an actual attack at another location. Now they had no idea where the inevitable strike would come. The entire purpose of their diversion had been ruined.

That was when Flap changed Littlefoot's view of the situation.

"There were many of them! About four times as many as all of you!"

Thud's mouth went agape at the flyer's announcement as he let out a surprised yelp. Littlefoot's expression was equally shocked at this news. So that is why they went in both directions! Calin probably didn't plan on doing that from the beginning and our friends tricked his forces. Littlefoot knew what that meant. This gave them a chance at averting disaster, whereas a full-fledge attack on one entrance would have doomed them. Swift and Leap, you are brilliant! We have to weaken their forces through all means necessary and leading them towards both entrances certainly does that.

Caw!

Littlefoot turned his head towards the rock wall with a concerned expression. Now came the aerial battle... They would lose their eyes in the sky for the foreseeable future as the flyers tried to defend the skies over the valley. If the aerial battle was lost then the consequences would be too terrible to contemplate. Without any secrecy to their defensive arrangements, Red Claw could react appropriately and easily overwhelm the valley with his superior forces. Neither the battle for the skies or the ground could be lost, lest the valley itself would fall.

"Oh no! Mommy!"

Littlefoot looked up at the distraught flyer. Flap, he could have sworn her name was... one of Petrie's enumerable siblings. Though acting as a messenger in the battle, she was little more than a child. A child who was now being forced into the horrors that lay ahead.

"Do not worry, Flap. Oh, no, no, no!"

Littlefoot smiled as the ever-caring green fastbiter again addressed the distressed flyer.

"The best way you can help your mommy is by helping the valley."

Littlefoot nodded. That was his cue to give the flyer her orders. With that in mind, he addressed her with a question.

"Which group was larger?"

Flap seemed frozen for a moment, but then she regained her composure and spoke.

"The one heading for the main entrance..."

Littlefoot nodded in the direction of his packmates, who immediately sprung into action without a word being exchanged. His order to Thud was a bit more overt, however.

"Thud? Help out your packmate when he arrives! We will be heading to the top of the rock wall!"

Thud nodded but nonetheless asked a question as Littlefoot joined the rest of his pack in sprinting back into the valley.

"What good will you do up there?!"

Littlefoot continued to run with his pack as he yelled out his answer.

"A lot! Calin will soon learn that the flyers aren't the only ones who can attack from the air!"

......

"We lost Calin!"

"Have we gone the wrong way?!"

Kader frowned in annoyance. Yes, they had lost track of Calin. How could they not when it was all anyone could do to just avoid being trampled by the packmates behind them? Now that the advance had slowed and everyone could hear the ruminations of their comrades, it was obvious what had happened. Calin had ordered them to go in the opposite direction of the two deserters, which gave them two possibilities when the duo had split up. Now they found themselves alone in the narrow ravine, the smaller of what was now two groups.

He looked around at the fastbiters around him. Artac, Biter, Sickle Fang, Orange Tail, Razor Bite, the two new fastbiters that I couldn't be bothered to remember... None of those who remained were of his rank. Without a leader they had slowed and were moving uncertainly through the barren path that lay before them. He knew that if the group did not have any success here then he would be held personally responsible as the highest-ranked member. It would be up to him to take control. Or else.

"Listen up, everyone!" Silence reigned as Kader spoke with a booming voice. "I am taking control here! Red Claw gave us orders to attack the entrances and that is what we are going to do! Follow!"

Kader sprinted ahead as he could hear the others follow and eventually match his pace. Wonderful... now if we can live through breaking into the valley... They had not done very extensive scouting of the valley's defenses as their flyers would have to destroy the valley's aerial defenses for that. Once the leaf-eater flyers were dealt with then a more planned-out assault could be conducted. However, that did not resolve the issue that now faced him. Somehow he had to lead his meager force of one dozen sharpteeth into the unknown canyon that lay beyond. A mysterious land of trees and streams that seemed to disappear into the distant rock walls. According to Red Claw the valley had a secret entrance that he entered through once that was somewhere in those walls.

However, finding that entrance would only be half of the battle.

As he and the others passed the green of innumerable cold-tolerant trees, he could feel a chill go up his spine. The valley would certainly have defenses of some kind even if they managed to find the entrance. He would have to lead an all-or-nothing sprint through the defenders in order to enter the valley's interior. Only then could they cause the desired disruption to the valley's defenses by attacking them from within their own walls.

"Oh! What is that stench?!"

The fastbiter turned in annoyance as he saw two of his packmates stop and cover their nostrils with an overwhelmed expression.

"Come on, you two! We are made of sterner stuff than..."

That was when it hit him. A stench unlike any that he had encountered before. It was rancid in a way that made even decomposing meat smell appetizing by comparison. It was a unique mixture of fruitiness, rot, and smokiness that caused the senses to revolt. His eyes watered as he fell to one knee in confusion. Where is that stench coming from?!

Kader sucked in a breath but immediately regretted it as the stench now assaulted him full force. It was the Cold Time and according to Red Claw this meant that they should be safe from the foul-smelling fruits of the canyon. But there were no fruits to be seen. If the smell wasn't coming from the non-existent fruits then where.

Thud!

The fastbiters jumped in surprise as a sharpened stick landed behind them, impaling itself into the hardened soil. In addition to the rising fear of the unexpected attack, their nostrils were assaulted with an even stronger scent of the foul-smelling trees. The sudden realization that the smell was in the wood did not calm his nerves. They had a very real threat now. An attacker had tried to use a sharpened stick against them and only one pack of dinosaurs had been known to do that.

Seeker's pack.

Shifting to his right and assuming a stalking pose, he carefully examined the area around them. The monumental trees stood impassive under his examination as silence reigned amongst the petrified sharpteeth. There were no signs of life in those trees. No signs of malice. There was only green. Undoubtedly one of the green fastbiters had attacked them, he deduced. In any case they had little time to deal with Seeker, they had to get moving and find the entrance.

"Okay, everyone..."

Whoosh!

He turned to stare at where the sound had originated only to see a swaying branch. It was obvious that someone had moved across that way but a mere second prior, but now no sign remained.

Whoosh!

The entire group turned at the new sound which came in the opposite direction from where they had been looking. If he were a paranoid dinosaur then he would think that they were trying to surround...

Whoosh!

A flash of green appeared and then disappeared between two of the massive trees. It had only been there a moment, but in that split second he saw something that made his blood freeze.

Feathers.

Green feathers.

Kader knew exactly who these mysterious dinosaurs were.

"Everyone, follow me! It's the..."

Schluck!

"Ahhh!!!!"

Pain. Terrible pain permeated his hip as he collapsed to the ground in agony. His ears were awash in the sound of his own heart beat as throbbing jolts of agony pulsated through his entire body. For several moments he simply lay there as the sounds of bone-chilling screams hurt his sensitive ears. In his confused state he could not recognize the confusing jumble of sensations that his mind was registering. His eyes could only see green, while every breath seemed to convey agony to every part of his body. Finally, there was an odd scream echoing in his ears. It almost sounded like the screeches of a dying flyer. Starting off low pitched and then progressively rising and becoming more hoarse as they went on. It was only after several moments that his pain-addled mind finally realized what was happening.

He had been grievously injured. He was the one who was screaming.

With a pained groan that caused convulsions of pain to flow through his body, he rolled onto his uninjured side. Shuddering with pain, his vision slowly began to clear as he again became aware of the sounds around him. However, recovering his wits only made him aware of the living hell that was occurring all around him.

"Please.... somebody help me..."

An orange female whom he initially couldn't identify moaned for help only a few feet away from him. Two large sticks were embedded in her abdomen as she appeared to be pinned to the ground. It was obvious that her wounds were mortal from the stench alone. The smells of excrement and partially digested meat were interspersed with the stench of blood. Such a disembowelment was not survivable. Steeling himself and ignoring the rising panic, he turned his gaze to the fighting in the distance.

Growl...

Crack!

Before Kader's eyes could focus on what he was looking towards, his ears could pick up the sounds of screaming and the cracking of bones. It was a symphony of rage and agony, and he was simply an unwilling audience member in this theatre of despair. Finally, however, he could see the sight that lay before him.

A massive green fastbiter stood between six hidden runners. Biter... He recognized her immediately. She was probably the strongest of what made up his group and by far the bravest. The fact that she was still standing and fighting was a testament to that.

The fearsome predator held the limp body of a hidden runner in her jaws. Blood oozed from the broken body as the other hidden runners hesitated before the one who had killed their comrade. Two sticks stuck out of Biter's back, but yet she still stood firm. Even though others were retreating all around her, she was not going without a fight.

"Everyone, gather around me! We all need to defend one another's flanks!"

Those were the last words that she spoke. Suddenly, one of the hidden runners advanced and as she tried to slap the stick out of his hand, another embedded a spear into the side of her throat. In a sickening instant her voice went from a low commanding tone to a high pitched squeal until it finally went silent as her vocal organs were ripped away by the intruding weapon. Her final moments were spent clawing at enemies in front of her that she could no longer reach. The successful hidden runner held the spear firmly and as she simply flailed in place in a pitiful display of futility. After a few horrifying moments her thrashing finally ended and her glazed eyes focused on nothing in particular.

Biter was dead and so was any hope of the fastbiters regaining the initiative.

Kader struggled to get up as the sounds of screams, cries, and running feet began to die down around him. However as he tried to rise from the ground, his feet suddenly slipped on the blood-soaked ground and landed upon the spear-pierced side.

As he again convulsed with pain, he could smell his own blood ooze from the reinjured wound. Furthermore, he could no longer feel his left leg. It was at that instant that he realized that his injury was not just a severe one, it was mortal. Knowing that his end was near he closed his eyes and awaited the end.

"Are they all gone?"

"All but one!"

Kader didn't open his eyes as he could hear the hidden runners converge around him. This was it. His misery was finally going to reach its conclusion. That was when he heard something that made him open his eyes.

"We didn't have time to use the Orange Death here... Perhaps this one would make for a good test?"

Kader had no idea what the hidden runner was going on about, but it didn't sound good. That was when another hidden runner walked by with a commanding presence. His mannerisms and expression communicated power and authority, which even the fastbiter could recognize. This was their leader. The same hidden runner who had killed Biter.

Harthron looked at the fastbiter with an unimpressed expression. "Yes, I suppose we need to make sure that we have a good batch."

At this he grabbed an orange bulb from one of his hidden runners and smashed it upon the tip of his already bloodied spear. Seeing that it now was a mixture of orange and red, he nodded in approval before handing it to a hidden runner to his right.

"Well Banton, you lost family in Red Claw's attack, didn't you? Perhaps you should do the honors?"

The last thing that Kader saw before his world exploded into unimaginable agony was the hidden runner smile with a sickening expression that was reminiscent of Calin. Then, without warning, the spear was thrust straight into his back.

It wasn't until several minutes later that the Orange Death finally killed the broken fastbiter. It was only then that his screams ceased to echo across the canyon and silence again descended upon the land. Then just as suddenly as the hidden runners had appeared and destroyed the hapless predators...

They disappeared back into the forest.

......

Just outside of the valley:

Breath in... breath out...

The flyer's breath came out in short gasps as she waited until the right moment.

Breath in... breath out...

Volant's call meant that it was time to carry out what they had all been preparing for days. Ever since Valaria came up with the idea of using sticks covered with small rocks to hide flyers on the rock walls, Volant had realize the defensive applications of that trick. Flyers were not known for being stealthy when they flew in the sky so a surprise attack by many flyers coming out of nowhere would be devastating on any invading force. They would be looking ahead and expecting attacks from the front or from above, but an assault from the rear... an attack from an area they will have already passed over... that they would not expect.

From her vantage point she could see the flyers begin to fly over head. She couldn't see much under her covering, of course, but their shadows were clear enough. They were flying slowly as they approached the valley, obviously using the thermals in order to carry them aloft. They expected to have plenty of time to reorient themselves against any threat. They thought that their ability to fly would grant them the initiative.

They thought wrong.

The flyer began to panic. What if I don't get the order? What if the order has already been given? I don't want to fail here! Her pulse began to race as this possibility raised its ugly head. The order to rise from their hiding spots would be non-verbal as to avoid detection by their enemies. No... They would watch the small puddle in the center of their bluff. Once their group leader threw a small rock into the puddle that would be their signal to begin to flap as silently as possible. Then would come the attack.

Come on, it should be any time now! Has she already given the order? Did I miss it? Did I...

Splash!

There it was. That was the signal.

With as much speed as she could muster, she emerged from her personal lean-to. As she escaped from her claustrophobic shelter, she could now very clearly see her comrades. They looked just as scared as she was. But there was no time to reflect upon that. Their mission started now.

Her gaze shifted towards the clear blue sky. The silhouette of ten flyers were clearly visible. One sharptooth flyer for each valley flyer on the rock wall. One for each adult flyer. If they failed to take out their enemies then the remaining flyers would not stand a chance. Children would not stand a chance against these fiends. Her fear was soon replaced with rage as she flapped her wings and silently took to the air.

Flap! Flap!

The take off was always the most taxing part of any flight. It took massive amounts of energy to propel oneself off into the air. Far more than soaring flight. In these moments of exertion it was hard to think of anything else.

Flap! Flap!

Had she been looking below her, she had no doubt that she would see the rock wall begin to shrink in the distance. The wind whipping against her crest and the feeling of acceleration clearly indicated that her speed was approaching that of the enemy flyers, but that would not be enough. No... To catch them she would have to go much faster.

Flap! Flap!

She could feel the shockwaves of the others flying on either side of her, but she dared not look. Her target could not be ignored even for a moment.

Flap! Flap!

Then without warning all of the flyers stopped flapping and let the thermals carry them upwards. They were now several hundred feet above the enemy, but were still some distance behind. But that would not matter. From this point on they would let gravity do the hard work. When they struck the enemy would have no warning and no hope.

She allowed herself to look in Volant's direction as she went to the front of the aerial line. They were now in a V formation with every flyer having their wings locked in place for soaring flight. Though she was a caring mother, Volant looked utterly horrifying in her current role. She was like a Valkyrie ready to choose the dead. Much like how death would strike many without warning, she brought her wings to her chest and began to descend with great speed. That was their cue. This was it.

The sharptooth flyers didn't stand a chance.

......

A massacre of unimaginable proportions occurred before the flyer's eyes. In a split instant, flyers emerged from the clouds and collided into the heads and necks of the unprepared attacking force. Eight of the attackers fell helplessly from the sky without ever knowing what had hit them. Much like the ground fuzzies that sharptooth flyers would often eat, they had met their end from an unseen killer. From his vantage point he couldn't hear his comrades hit the rocks below with a sickening thud, but he didn't really need to. The consequences of falling unconscious from that height carried only one outcome and it was an irreversible one. With a sigh, he turned his head and looked at what remained in the skies above the valley. With ten defenders now facing off against two surrounded and panicked attackers, the result was inevitable. The battle was over in less than 30 seconds.

As the last of the sharptooth flyers lifelessly crumpled to the ground, Rinkus spoke nonchalantly to his friend.

"Just like I thought, they had a little surprise for us."

Sierra looked at Rinkus with a befuddled expression. His response was irreverent as ever.

"A little surprise! The sapsuckers just wiped out our first wave!"

Rinkus smiled as his voice turned cold. "Just like I planned."

Sierra looked at him with a disbelieving expression, which Rinkus reveled in for a moment before addressing his obvious question. It was quite a new experience seeing Sierra observe him with apprehension.

"Those ten were our most worthless comrades... and most importantly the ones least loyal to us... keeping them was no benefit and losing them was no loss." Rinkus noted humorously that Sierra looked approvingly at his brutality, but it was obvious that his erratic friend still did not understand his grand scheme. "I did this in order to find out what their surprise was and to find the defenders of the valley. Now they have used their one advantage on the most expendable of us..." Rinkus smiled as he looked into Sierra's eyes. "Now it is time for us to finish the job and to reap the rewards!"

Sierra grinned maliciously. "Time to get the others?"

Rinkus nodded. The others were indeed dim-witted, but that would also make them easy to manipulate and use. With twenty flyers against the valley's ten, the valley would not stand a chance. Now it was time to call up the reserves.

"Get the rest of the flyers! We have some work to do!"

......

The Mysterious Beyond:

"There is the valley! Keep on course and we will be there in no time!"

As Nunti finished reassuring the impatient group, Pterano looked pleased at the tell-tale sight of the Mountains that Burn. They were so close. So very close. It felt like that it had taken ages for them to reach this place, but in reality it had only taken the better part of two days. However, Pterano was as aware of anyone else that two days were a lifetime when sharpteeth were involved. He could only hope that he wasn't too late.

That was when he saw something that made his blood run cold.

"Red Claw!"

Nunti turned his head upon Pterano's exclamation and immediately moved closer to his mentor. If Red Claw was outside of the valley then that meant that it had not yet fallen, but that also meant something else. Something quite sinister.

It meant that his sharpteeth flyers were here as well. They had no time to spare.

Pterano frowned as he tried to increase his velocity despite the uncooperative wind. As images of those whom he failed began to flash in his mind, he could taste the adrenaline in his throat. The precursors to the waking dreams that often haunted him. But then he did something that he had never done before. He fought back against the inner darkness.

As suddenly as they had appeared, the mental images stopped. A disturbing sort of clarity reigned in his mind as his flight continued. No one who was near to him could have seen the inner struggle that had just been waged, but in a way Pterano had fought his first battle of the fight ahead. His battle against himself.

Hang on, nephew. I will not fail you. I will not fail again!


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