This story was supposed to be an entry for the May - June Gang of Five Prompt, "Hunting can be a reassuring experience; a reaffirmation that you are on top of the food chain. But, rarely, you can be reminded of your own mortality. For sometimes the hunter can become the hunted." I think it best qualifies there, but I'm a little late. If there's no grace period (perhaps July was the grace period), thank God it also qualifies under the June - July prompt, Write a story where the gang has an atypical guest along on one of their adventures. It could be one of their siblings or it could be a stranger. But, as always, the adventure will lead to the unexpected..."

Either way, here it is! This story takes place after 'Surviving a Sharpneck', which follows 'Because You're a Sharpneck'. It all happens during 'Mentors of Yesteryears', which is serves as a bridge between The Land Before Time series and my War Before Time series.

By the way, Dagara the 'sharpneck' is an amargasaurus - a species of longneck with more than a few quirks in my canon.

Thanks for stopping by. Enjoy!


Circle of Death


"I feel so happy, I want everyone to see!" Littlefoot sang. "It's like The Bright Circle, it's shining inside me!"

"I feel so happy, I want everyone to see!" the others joined. "It's like The Bright Circle, it's shining inside of me!"

Dagara's eye twitched as her spikes developed a slight itch.

Littlefoot and the gang had been making those weird noises for several minutes. Every time she thought they'd stop, they launched into another phase of ... of ... whatever it was they were doing. They were happy. She got the picture. Why'd they have to repeat it over and over and overandoverandOVER?! Annoying as it was, she had to hand it to them: they were always in perfect sync.

Finally, the song died down.

The sharpneck exhaled. Sweet silence.

Littlefoot: "We're going to go adventuring, adventuring, adventuring!"

Others: "We're going to go adventuring!"

~SOMEONE MAKE IT STOP!~ Dagara screamed, then winced. ~Did I say that aloud?~

"Did you hear something?" asked Ducky, looking around.

Dagara sighed. ~Phew! It was all in my head ... well, mostly. A little bit squeezed through my teeth in a muffled shriek.~

"Where we were, again?" asked Petrie.

Cera shrugged. "Who cares? Let's take it from the top!"

~Please, NO!~

"We're going to go adventuring!"

This had to stop.

"Um, guys? Hello? Guys!" Dagara cut in with thinly veiled exasperation. "You do realise we're in sharptooth territory, right? We shouldn't draw attention to ourselves. Why are you talking like that, anyway?"

The others looked confused.

"We not talking. We singing," Petrie clarified.

Dagara stared blankly.

"You don't know what singing is?" asked an incredulous Cera.

The sharpneck blinked.

Littlefoot searched for the words. "Singing, um, is a way to express how you feel."

"... Like yelling?" asked Dagara.

"Yeah, except it's fun."

"Who says yelling's not fun?" argued Cera.

Littlefoot rolled his eyes. "It's also nicer to listen to."

"Oh!" Dagara replied. "I think I understand: like waterfalls, wind in the leaves, burning bushes, fire mountains, landslides, snapping trunks, horns scraping rock, squealing tickly fuzzies - basically, satisfying to the ear."

With sidelong glances, the others came to the nonverbal agreement that Dagara had a disturbing definition of 'satisfying'.

She deflated. Another reminder of how her differences struck a chord of weirdness. The unsettling kind of weirdness. Of course, they were all different, but Littlefoot and the gang had something special. It was painfully obvious to the point where they could coordinate their 'singing' on a whim. She hadn't known them as long as they'd known each other, but given time, maybe she'd share that synergy. Regardless, nagging doubt told her that they may always be 'The Gang of Seven ... and Dagara'.

"Maybe it's just not a sharpneck thing," Littlefoot reasoned.

Dagara looked around, probing her uncanny, danger-attuned senses for threats. Nothing. If Littlefoot and his friends sang out here all the time, she could risk making a little noise, right?

"Perhaps I can at least give it a try," Dagara insisted.

She opened her mouth.

Seconds later ...

The mind was a funny thing, Mr. Thicknose had said. Sometimes, it blocked out terrible experiences so that victims wouldn't have to suffer the memory.

Littlefoot wasn't really sure what happened in the last few seconds. His ears were numb, but his mind had completely removed the recollection. Some deep, gut feeling told him that was a good thing - necessary, even. The others weren't so lucky.

"My EARS! My EARS!" Cera bawled.

Petrie stood atop his branch perch with a catatonic stare. Ducky rocked back and forth in fetal position. Spike was completely absent from the scene, while Chomper emitted an abject whine no one had ever heard him make before.

Dagara surveyed the damage with sheepish horror. "Too loud?"

Littlefoot didn't know what to say, and 'bad enough to cause memory loss' wasn't an option.

"Um ... maybe you need a little practice," Littlefoot offered.

She nodded quickly. "Yeah. Guess I'll try again some other-"

Cera promptly pounced and pinned Dagara.

"Don't you EVER do that again when I'm in earshot! Do you understand?" the threehorn demanded.

Dagara stared up at her with a mix of surprise and annoyance. Pouncing a sharpneck like this? Not a smart move. She honestly thought Cera would know that after 'The Yeet Incident'.

"Okay, I won't do it when you're around until I'm sure I've got it figured out," Dagara declared, forcing calm civility.

"PROMISE!" Cera demanded.

"You have my word. Now please get off."

Cera shook her. "That doesn't sound PROMISEY enough!"

The sharpneck's glare dialed to doom. "Get. Off. Me. Or. Die."

Memory of The Incident flashed through Cera's eyes before the threehorn zipped behind Littlefoot.

Dagara got up, shook off the dust and looked away in shame. "... Sorry, Cera. That was unacceptable ..."

Littlefoot tilted his head at her. It was hard to judge his expression. Scrutiny? Concern? Intrigue? Empathy? Admiration? That couldn't be right. Chastisement. It had to be chastisement.

She squeezed her eyes shut. ~I'm so stupid.~

His eyes softened as he stepped forward. "I'm not upset. I mean, it's not like what you said was a good thing, but you've told us you're part sharptooth, and your anger works differently. Since then, I've been trying to get in your head. You could have lashed out at Cera the moment she jumped you. You could have hurt her instead of talking, but you didn't. I could see you holding back the whole time. I don't think we have any idea how much you fight yourself every day, and you never stop trying to be better. Even knowing half the story ... it's pretty inspiring."

Dagara blinked at the pressure of tears trying to escape her eyes. As far as it was possible, Littlefoot understood. Maybe it wasn't 'The Gang and Dagara'. For a moment, it felt like just her and Littlefoot. She sent him a soul-warming smile of thanks as her ordinarily burnt sienna scales pulsed peach and pink.

Littlefoot's jaw went slack. He knew her colour-changing skin was linked to state of mind. He also knew that this particular change was special, and mesmerising. She usually hated it, like wearing her heart outside her body, but in this case? Littlefoot was worth it.

While he and Dagara were in their own little world, Cera was lost in her thoughts.

"Then where does that leave me?" the threehorn wondered aloud.

Littlefoot blinked out of the warm, fuzzy moment. "'Leave you'? What do you mean?"

Cera gave him an uncomfortable look. He wasn't supposed to hear that in his little daze. She sighed. Oh well. If she really was as tough as she claimed to be, opening up a little shouldn't be that hard, right? Even if it felt like getting a horn removed.

"Threehorns can be crabby," Cera began. "Sharpnecks can be ten times crabbier, yet Dagara somehow manages to be friendlier than me most of the time. What does that make her? Ultra-friendly? At least, by the standards of her kind?"

Dagara squinted at the notion. "I never thought about it like that. To be fair, I've never met another sharpneck, so I don't know much about our standards. I know most of us were heroic, so maybe we tried super hard and managed to be friendly ... Either that, or we were mostly jerks with hearts of gold." She winced. "I seriously hope it's the first one."

Cera shook her head. "Either way, I used to be 'The Tough One'. Then I realised I take things a bit too far, so I try to ease off a bit these days when I can help it. Then Dagara comes along. You're not just tougher, but nicer too."

~She actually thinks I'm nice?~ Dagara thought before shrugging. ~Well, the grass is always greener on the other side.~

"If I'm not the resident hothead, then who am I?"

Cera was surprised to feel Dagara drape a foreleg over her shoulder in a reassuring hug. That sharpneck could be shockingly stealthy without even trying. Cera almost wiggled away, stopping herself for two reasons:

1. Dagara was her friend, and her hugs were surprisingly cozy.

2. Dagara was scary. Offending her was to be avoided when possible.

"Heh, I guess there's room for two hotheads in the gang," Cera conceded.

Dagara smirked. "You never were a hothead, you know."

Cera convulsed out of the hug. "WHAT!?"

"More like an 'uncomfortably-warm-head'," Dagara clarified.

"You mean I've been yelling and stomping around for NOTHING?!"

"It is kinda amusing sometimes."

Cera flew at the sharpneck. When Dagara deadpanned her a warning glare, she stopped cold. Deprived of her outlet to vent, Cera charged and smashed a rock. Behind it, Spike pulled his buried head from the soil and scampered out of her anger radius. So that's where he'd been hiding.

Dagara laughed heartily. "I'm sorry! I shouldn't be laughing at your expense! Tell you what: I'll let you headbutt me so we're even, just this onc- Ow!"

Quick to exact her retribution, Cera sighed happily. "We're cool. I feel much better now. C'mon, guys. You've recovered well enough from Dagara's ... *ahem* ... 'singing'. We should get moving if we're gonna find Ruby."

Petrie fidgeted before taking to the air. "You sure it necessary?"

Everyone stared at him.

"None of us ever die out here," he went on. "We really good at surviving for some reason. Ruby no different."

Ducky thought it over. "You do have a point, but she was supposed to visit her parents for two days. It has been three since we last saw her, it has, it has!"

Petrie shrugged. "Maybe she miss them enough to stay longer."

"Maybe," Littlefoot agreed. "We should still check up on her, though. Remember when she hurt her leg on the way to Hanging Rock? If we weren't there, Red Claw, Screech and Thud woulda gotten her."

The flyer shuddered. "What if something really happen to her?"

"Remember when my dad was trapped at Fire Mountain?" Littlefoot argued. "We came out here and managed to save him just fine. It's like you said: we're good at surviving ... and saving others. We don't fail."

Dagara glanced at Littlefoot. 'We don't fail' ... that sounded oddly personal. She quickly figured out why: Littlefoot did not accept loss of friends and family. Even the grownups fell short of the extraordinary measures he took to prevent it. Perhaps, after losing his mother, anyone else was unacceptable.

The sharpneck nudged him with her shoulder.

He was pleasantly startled. "What was that for?"

"Just letting you know I've got your back," Dagara smiled. "Don't care how dangerous it is. If you need a not-failing buddy, I'm there. Besides, I kinda like it out here."

Peril aside, The Mysterious Beyond was strangely refreshing. It was a break from the almost conspicuously pedicured garden that was The Great Valley. There was an unpredictable feral freedom to The Mysterious Beyond, from the untamed lay of the land to heart-pumping sense of danger around every corner. It made no sense to enjoy this, but sharpnecks thrived on chaos. They were chaos incarnate: apex predators forged in the heart of a land far more hazardous than this. Maybe, in some deep, ancestrally instinctive way, The Mysterious Beyond reminded her of home.

It was no wonder the sharpteeth wanted them all dead.

Nose glued to the ground as he led the group, Chomper sneezed. One too many sniffs of dirt he supposed.

"Hey, you want me to take over?" asked Dagara. "My nose is just as strong as yours. I can track Ruby no problem."

Chomper smiled. "Thanks!"

Dagara gestured her back. "Hop on. Give those legs a little break."

"You're spoiling him," Cera commented.

"Yeah, but it's the least I can do for the ... uh ... performance earlier,"

The young sharptooth's gaze grew distant before he shook away the memory and climbed onto the kneeling sharpneck's back. She stood, careful to keep her spikes a safe distance from him. He quickly noticed Dagara's unusual temperature.

"Are you feeling okay?" he asked. "You're warm, like you've got a fever or something."

She smiled back. "That's normal. You guys feel a bit too cool from my perspective. You should see me when I'm really angry. I get so hot that steam comes out of my mouth ... On second thought, maybe you shouldn't see me. Things get a bit too intense when I'm that angry."

"Whoa ..." Chomper commented.

There was a certain intrigue to Dagara. Like Ruby, she was both sharptooth and leafeater. Unlike Ruby, the sharptooth side of her was even stronger than it was in him. She was like an alien, though simultaneously more relatable than the rest of the gang. There was so much she'd be able to teach him, like how to keep his sharptooth side in check, or a couple years' extra experience of hunting tips. Having two awesome big sister figures was a pretty sweet deal.

Nose to the ground, she savoured a breath of the wonderful wilderness, laced with earthy flavour, a trace of Ruby's trail, lush greenery, small prey, sweet bubbles, a nearby sharptooth.

Her eyes widened, mind alight with lightning-fast thoughts: ~Locate threat; wind direction noted; bushes nearby noted; threat located; motion detected; attack imminent; FIGHT! MAIM!~

An agile form exploded from the bushes, claws poised for the sharpneck. Faster than thought, instinct propelled her into a side roll that cleared the claws by a small leaf's length.

Screech landed in a blast of dust, scattering the younguns as he skidded into a turn. For the moment, his only focus was the sharpneck. Red Claw would be pleased! He'd heard stories about these beasts, sharptooth kind's most hated enemies aside from the False Guardians. He knew what sharpnecks were capable of, but this one was a baby in his eyes. Too bad. A little challenge always spiced up a hun-

( ( SSKRRRRAAAEEEEEEEE! ) )

An icy chill sliced through the fast biter's heart. That roar: piercing, palpable, almost painful, like talons to the ear. That little sharpneck couldn't have made the sound. That blur blazing towards towards him couldn't be her ... and yet it was. She was roaring. She was charging, an inferno of red and yellow pigments dancing across her scales: the infamous 'battle blush'.

He was scared.

Screech unleashed his jaws. It was a sloppy effort, addled by fear. She easily ducked the bite and swung her neck spikes up into his throat with all her might.

The fast biter squealed and fell back into a tangle of bramble.

Dagara stood stock-still, muscles vibrating as instinct fought reason. She wanted to finish him while he was down. Common sense told her that might not be possible. He was bigger than she was. The tables could turn too easily, but what was to stop him from following them? Somehow, she had to finish this now.

Chomper's anguished cry snapped her out of the attack frenzy. She looked to see him sprawled on the ground, nursing his leg. He was ... injured? Perhaps caught by a spike when she rolled away from Screech? She had injured him? Okay. Decision made.

Dagara reached Chomper with surprising speed, her gentle jaws lifting him into the nook between Cera's frill and her back. The threehorn gave her a confused look before realising that holding Chomper in place was a simple matter of pressing her crest back a little. In Ruby's absence, she was by far the most capable of carrying him on the fly.

"Everyone! In here!" Littlefoot commanded.

The kids took off through a small gap between two massive boulders just as Screech's jaws snapped after them. The fast biter's cries sounded after them. What he didn't know was that she knew his language, thanks to Chomper. He was notifying two other sharpteeth: a fast biter and a big alpha, from the sound of it. He told them to be ready for an ambush. A sharpneck was coming. The alpha's position was a mystery, but the other fast biter? Screech had pretty much handed her his location. The white-hot hatred in his voice was evident as he identified the youngsters by brief description, but her? They didn't know her. They had no history of hatred with the sharpneck. But they did hate her, in their own, cold, nigh professional way. The sharpneck was not to escape, under any circumstances. Did they know where her friends lived? Would they raid the valley to catch her? One way or another, she couldn't let that happen.

"That way!" Littlefoot commanded.

She followed his gaze - it was the only path out of this bushy, boulder-infested place, just as Screech described the ambush spot.

Dagara surged ahead of the others.

Thud emerged. He pounced. The kids slid to a stop, save Dagara. Her brain seemed to slow the flow of time as it calculated the perfect angle. Thud balked at her boldness. His attack fell apart mid-air. She raised her spikes, striking the underbelly as he landed on top of her. Sharptooth and sharpneck tumbled with the momentum. Screech kept going, right past the kids. Dagara stopped after just a few rolls, climbing to her feet before stumbling. That collision had nearly broken her neck.

Littlefoot stepped forward. "Dagara, are you-?"

"Keep going!" she barked.

Spurred by her voice, the others dashed on as the sharpneck shook off the blow. She had it easy. Thud had lived up to his name, hitting a rock head-first and winding up half-conscious.

A horrid roar tore across the landscape, echoing off cliffs as though everywhere, and nowhere. Red Claw had declared his intentions for all to hear. This was the final hunt, the last leg of their ongoing rivalry.

They would not escape.

Moments earlier ...

Ruby journeyed to the valley with a wonderful warmth that could only be evoked by her family. She hoped that her friends wouldn't be too concerned over her extended stay.

Then the roar reached her. A sinking sensation quenched her mirth. Red Claw's roars haunted The Mysterious Beyond with every hunt, but her gut insisted this was different.

She broke into a sprint towards the sound.

...

Onwards the kids ran, losing track of time in the heat of adrenaline.

"Dagara ... wait up!" Littlefoot panted after her.

She seemed to ignore him before skidding to a stop and looking down. The abruptness of her action urged the others to follow suit ... finding themselves staring out at a sweeping world of wilderness below.

Littlefoot tilted his head. ~I'm not close enough to see it, but the way she's hesitated ... the cliff's too steep. If there were a way down, she would have taken it. Instead, she's paused. She's thinking fast, like sky fire. Most folks freeze under pressure. Dagara's different. She won't stop until she's figured out how to win. Then she'll win. Whatever it takes.~

He felt the ground quake to the pounding rhythm of Red Claw's approaching footsteps. The tyrant was close. Too close.

~Cliff - best way to defeat Red Claw.~ The sharpneck glanced about in a quick, all-encompassing sweep. ~Escape routes? None. Advantages?~ She ran up to a rock and kicked it. ~It's firm. Sturdy. Tapers to the ground like a tooth. Must be part of big boulder mostly underground. Too small to hide behind for all but Ducky. May trip or obstruct sharpteeth. Mildly useful. Hiding places?~ She spotted a meagre collection of bushes. ~Might work for Chomper. Useless for anyone bigger or incapable of camouflage. Battle unavoidable. Chances of success?~ A pained look crossed Dagara's face as she examined her exhausted friends. ~... We don't fail ... we never fail ... Injured Chomper will hold us back. Think of a plan while hiding him for the time being.~

"Any ideas?" Littlefoot asked her.

Dagara paid him no mind, snatching Chomper from Cera's back and hurrying him to the gaunt bushes. Instinct told her not to waste time answering questions. There was no time. There was no plan. One thing was certain: They always survived. They did not fail. With every split-second, her frenzied thoughts fought to fulfil that rule. Talking wasted time, and time was life.

Littlefoot quickly realised she wasn't going to answer. Sky fire thinking didn't necessarily translate to good leadership. That onus was on him, as usual.

"Guys, our only chance is to make Red Claw fall off the edge," Littlefoot stated, forcing hope. "We could use the buried boulder to trip him, somehow."

That was all that could be said. The earth quavered. Rocks fell. Dagara's camouflaging scales melded with the bushes as she shielded Chomper from sight. The tyrant and his fast biters thundered right past her. Screech rapidly rounded up the young'uns. Thud plucked Petrie from the air and tossed him in with the others.

They were trapped, but this was nothing new. Cornered adventure after adventure, they always pulled a win out of nowhere. Red Claw was well aware of their propensity for victory. This time, he took no chances. No more chases. No hesitation. This was the final moment of the last hunt. His jaws lunged forward to assert that sentiment.

A quick succession of sickening snaps and it was over.

Tears burst from Dagara's eyes as she felt her world crashing down.

Red Claw unleashed a triumphant roar.

...

Ruby collapsed to her knees. She'd heard that roar many times, concluding a successful hunt. She'd learnt to cope with it, but this time? She felt sick to the stomach.

Somehow ... she knew.

...

As Red Claw's roar receded, he realised someone was shrieking. No. It was more than that. She was screeching. There were no words to adequately describe that screech. It was beyond anguish, beyond anger, sharp enough to pierce his heart with needle-like thorns of fear. He began to turn.

Then he felt the teeth.

An unbecoming squeal poured from Red Claws mouth. The years rolled back and he was reduced to a hatchling, panicking at the pain of an unknown latched to his tail. The hatchling knew it couldn't be more than a stinging crawler, perhaps a tickly fuzzy. It was small, but it hurt. It knew exactly how to bite him, how to breach the scales he'd strategically hardened against stone for over half a lifetime.

Screech and Thud backed off at the sight of their alpha flailing in circles, with the puny pest clinging on with jaws unrelenting. Finally, he whacked her against the stony wall. She didn't let go. She'd never do that without reason, but she had slipped free by sheer force and slumped to the ground.

At the back of her mind, Dagara noted that her neck hurt. It would have been unbearable if she weren't in berserker mode. Nonetheless, her background thoughts insisted that it was strange: nothing else hurt. Just her neck. She commanded her legs to stand. They didn't respond. Everything below the neck seemed dead, as though it wasn't even there. She had no concept of the extent of her injury, but sharpnecks could heal from almost anything. Of course, she didn't have time to heal. Red Claw was there, looming over her, and he was in desperate need of some spikes to the face.

Red Claw's glare seared hate into the sharpneck. She shamed him, made him forget his place in the food chain. One did not humiliate a tyrant king and survive. She must have known this, but she wasn't trying to escape. She was attempting to lunge at him, completely ignoring the fact that she couldn't walk. How tempting it was to leave her there to starve, to return every now and then to taunt her with food ... but that wouldn't work. Now, he understood what a sharpneck was, how they'd earned their nearly mythical reputations. He'd never admit it aloud, but sharpteeth were cowards. They picked the battles they were most likely to win and avoided others. It was how they lived, how they ate. Even he, dauntless as he could be, was terrified the moment her unexpected jaws found his tail. But sharpnecks? They ate meat as well, but they weren't mere sharpteeth. They were ... something else. Something that didn't fit into The Circle of Life. This was why all sharpnecks needed to die. They toppled titans from the top of the food chain and tore The Circle of Life asunder. Somehow, some way, one day this sharpneck would return, and she would end him. It wasn't even an 'if'. It was a 'when'.

Well, not anymore.

He twisted a grin dripping with malice. She wanted his tail so badly? She could have it.

Red Claw pounded her into the stone wall with his tail. It crumbled and collapsed under the force of his blow.


[Dream Sim: Suspended]


[Val 12 - 315,302 - Stegosaurus, 'Spike' - Terminated]

[Val 12 - 315,303 - Saurolophus, 'Ducky' - Terminated]

[Val 12 - 315,304 - Pteranodon, 'Petrie' - Terminated]

[Val 12 - 315,305 - Triceratops, 'Cera' - Terminated]

[Val 12 - 315,306 - Apatosaurus, 'Littlefoot' - Terminated]

[Val 62 - 1,420,097 - Amargasaurus, 'Dagara' - Terminated]

A sleeping Dagara quavered spastic breaths, snarls fading to fitful mewls as the loss of her best friends hit hard. Ordinarily, she would have awoken in panic.

However, this was no mere nightmare.

The male rainbow face placed a paw on her shoulder, calming her nerves with an invisible force. He wouldn't put it past her to bite him in her sleep under any other circumstances. This time, she couldn't. He'd made certain of that, just as he'd made certain the rest of the herd wouldn't wake that night - less distractions that way. Even if they did, good luck spotting the rainbow face. He was no hidden runner, but he had his ways of disappearing.

"Another compatibility sim, Apogee?" asked a female who stepped up beside him. "I thought we'd agreed that Subject Val 62 - 1,420,097 is better off remaining in Hidden Valley. Yes, she clicks with Littlefoot's social circle, but they could never replace the handful of good relationships she has here."

He smirked at her. She seemed to like sneaking up on him. It appeared she'd learnt the thrill of stealth after studying the predators up close and personal. At least she'd come in her herbivore form this time.

Apogee chuckled humourlessly. "'Handful'? Zenith, that's almost putting it kindly. I have a handful of notably healthy relationships. I can count hers on a paw."

Zenith raised an eyebrow. "You have only three digits in this form."

"Yes, and one of those digits barely spends time with Dagara. All other 2,370,191 'digits' in the valley treat her with indifference or outright hostility. Most of the 'hostiles' are right here." He gestured the herd. "They hate her: unequivocally hate her."

"Because she's a sharpneck," Zenith preempted.

"Her time with the Great Valley gang is a good form of therapy," he went on, "even if limited to dream sims. One day, they may make a great team if I have anything to say about it."

"Does almost killing Val 12 - 315,305 in an early sim count towards compatibility?"

Apogee sighed. "Alright, I'll give you that, but that could have happened anywhere. Like I said, I instigated that situation, but this isn't a compatibility test for transfer. It's not even primarily 'therapy'. This is training."

Zenith bobbed her head for him to elaborate.

"The Great Valley juveniles have encountered a plethora of predators, including theropods," continued Apogee. "Dagara's experience is limited to dromaeosaurs, and she has never been hunted. Unlike most species, the sharpneck-"

"Amargasaurus," Zenith interrupted.

"Right, the Amargasaurus brain enters a state of hyper cognition and advanced instinct under pressure, while other Saurians tend to default to simple impulses, id est running and screaming. This dream sim will teach her how such predators move, how quickly they react, and how to deal with them in the fastest, most efficient manner. Should war break out, her threehorn herd won't have her back. She may have to fend for herself, and this particular simulation will bolster her experience in facing overwhelming odds. After all, theropods are the tip of the iceberg. The war would present opponents far beyond what this world has to offer."

Zenith smirked. "So you're teaching her to speedrun the scenario?"

He nodded enthusiastically. "Yes! ... and no. Here's the catch: the challenge won't remain invariable. Red Claw, Screech and Thud will also learn from previous instances, albeit not at the rate of an Amargasaurus."

She raised an eyebrow. "So those aren't just artificial figments? You put actual predators in the sim?"

"I wanted it to be as authentic as possible," he stated proudly. "They won't remember anything directly. No one will. This dream sim will fade from their minds shortly after they awaken. However, they will learn subconsciously."

"What about the rogue Tyrannosaurus Rex and his Utahraptors?" asked Zenith. "Will he learn how to hunt the Great Valley subjects more efficiently?"

Apogee narrowed his eyes. "No. I'll make sure of that, even if I have to tear the memories from their brains."

She huffed a chuckle at his seriousness. "And you're certain that won't alert the so-called 'Great Guardians' of our preparations for their invasion?"

"There's next to no chance of that. They'll suffer a migraine, if anything. Even if they notice, they will likely think we're training the kids to survive predators, which we are. They can't really discern that it applies to them."

Zenith folded her forelimbs. "Very well. On another note, didn't the Amargasaurus break your physics engine in the last sim? She started doing the impossible, like knocking down trees. What if she does it again?"

"I've patched the physics engine," Apogee explained. "Amusing as it would be to watch her yeeting fast biters, I want to see how they'll succeed in realistic life or death situation with no plot armour ... or assistance."

Zenith stared at him. "What do you mean, 'assistance'?"

Apogee fidgeted.

"Have you been helping them on ALL their adventures?"

"No! Of course not! Just ... sometimes ..."

"You're unbelievable!"

"They're quite resourceful! I don't always have to help them! Besides, we need them for the war! They're part of our secret weapon!"

"We don't even know if we'll need them! If it's up to us we'll be the only ones fighting the war! Involving the Saurians is like bringing a stick to a plasma fight!"

"It's their world! They'd at least want a say in defending it!" he snapped. "Of course, we'd have to augment them ..."

"If the first sixteen times I opined about that weren't enough, I'll say it again: THAT'S INSANE! Even so, since you've been helping them all this time, how are we supposed to know how resourceful they really are? You're tampering with intel!"

Apogee paused with a glint of challenge in his eye. "Alright then. Let's put them to the test. If they don't have that special spark, I predict their performance average will grow poorer with every simulation. If it improves dramatically, and consistently, we'll know otherwise. Chanced victories don't qualify. Deal?"

"Deal!"


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 2]


Chomper flinched behind the camouflaging sharpneck as Red Claw, Screech and Thud stormed into view.

She glared at them. This would be the end. She could practically see it: The fast biters would corral her friends, and Red Claw would finish them, quickly, unceremoniously, inevitably.

No. Not on her watch.

Screech and Thud shot by, cackling in excitement. Amid the thrill of the hunt, they failed to notice the creature tearing after them. The fast biters slowed upon nearing their prey, giving her the chance to close the distance.

She struck without warning.

Thud's wail drew all eyes to his plight. Screech was startled. Red Claw growled. This was an important moment, and Thud was ruining it! Couldn't the fast biter scream more quietly? What was the cause of this ruckus, anyway? Red Claw turned to find out. He tilted his head.

Oh.

All Thud knew was that something had his ankle. Some kind of sharptooth. The penetrating pain proclaimed predatory jaws. He fell, thrashing furiously until the attacker was flung from his foot.

She tumbled right back to her feet and charged.

Thud stood, teeth bared. The sharpneck! Oh, how his instincts demanded instant, savage retribution! But no ... Sometimes revenge was more delicious when served with wiles over might. All he had to do was stand there and hold her attention for the time being. She had yet to learn the cunning of the fast biters.

"BEHIND YOU!" Littlefoot called.

Quick, quiet footfalls heralded an attacker just shy of her blindside. The sharpneck jerked to a sudden stop. Too late. Screech's talon-tipped foot came at an angle, fast and hard. It would connect. That didn't mean it had to go as he'd planned. She whirled and spikes met talons.

It was Screech's turn to exemplify his name when the collision left him crashing to the ground. His foot! That accursed creature's spikes had ruined his foot!

Dagara felt a trace of satisfaction, even as the impact sent her skidding across the ground. Thanks to her spikes, his talons hadn't reached her, but she had felt the kick. It was hard to disregard a hit from a creature times her size.

Littlefoot and Cera rushed to her aid.

Red Claw took notice, and he would have none of it. With a mighty sweep of the tail, he sent the youngsters hurtling off the edge of the cliff.

"NOOO!" Dagara screamed.

An airborne Petrie watched the horror unfold, echoing the plight of his uncle years before. This couldn't be happening! He couldn't save them all, but maybe, just maybe, he could save Ducky.

The flyer dove down the cliff.

A tearful Dagara struggled to her feet. Thud was faster, jaws latching on and ending it all in a quick twist.

Indeed, revenge was delicious.

Now for the young sharptooth she'd attempted to hide in the bushes.

...

Ruby felt her soul break as the triumphant roar racked her ears. If only she'd been faster. If only she'd known the quickest route, but this was unfamiliar territory.

If only she'd had another chance.


[Dream Sim: Suspended]


[Val 12 - 315,302 - Stegosaurus, 'Spike' - Terminated]

[Val 12 - 315,305 - Triceratops, 'Cera' - Terminated]

[Val 12 - 315,306 - Apatosaurus, 'Littlefoot' - Terminated]

[Val 12 - 315,571 - Tyranosaurus Rex, 'Chomper' Terminated]

[Val 62 - 1,420,097 - Amargasaurus, 'Dagara' - Terminated]


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 3]


Red Claw charged by, followed by Screech and Thud.

Even as Dagara ran after them, she was thinking. Screech and Thud were times bigger than she was. She could hurt them, but they could end her much more easily. All it took was one critical hit. However, they weren't invincible. Everything had weak spots ... like the eyes. She had to act fast. The risk of death hung on every moment.

Thud was closer. As he slowed, Dagara ran up on his blindside, hissing a sharptooth 'look at me' call Chomper had taught her.

Thud glanced back at the alien, predatory voice.

Dagara raced past him, bucking her spikes into his face with brutal precision and a crack of spikes hitting bone.

Screech reeled back. The uppity snack had tried to blind him!

Dagara spun to face her victim. She'd missed. No, not missed. He had evaded her with the split-second speed intrinsic to his kind so that that she struck skull and jaw instead of eye. That wouldn't daunt her. Already, the sharpneck was charging for a second attack.

Screech darted backwards, easily evading a swing of the spikes. She gave chase. He kept his distance with speedy, retreating steps. Hold on ... if Screech was keeping her busy, where was Thud?

Dagara whipped around in time to ward him off with her spikes. He jumped out of the way. She hit air. They were fast, faster than she could ever hope to be, and they were adapting. She had to make them come closer.

Red Claw watched with a half-interested throb. From the looks on their faces, it seemed his subordinates hated the sharpneck almost as much as he despised Littlefoot, but she was tricky prey. This could be entertaining. He let them have their fun.

Upon spotting Littlefoot and the others inching from him, he pinned them with his tail, ignoring the puny flyer and swimmer who slipped away. They weren't even snacks, but he was sure they wouldn't wander far from their friends. They were loyal, in their own inane way.

Sure enough, the swimmer was attempting to pull the spiketail free while the flyer had other ideas.

"Let me friends GO!" Petrie protested, flying at Red Claw's face.

The alpha sharptooth did a double take. They were food, and yet the least of them was challenging him? It was bemusing ... and almost amazing. Sharpteeth could learn from their example. He mentally bit himself for thinking that. No. They weren't brave. They were stupid. Why else would the flyer call attention to himself before attacking? That was one of many reasons why they would perish that day.

Red Claw silenced the flyer with a snap of his jaws.

Ducky gasped, aghast.

The sharp sound was not lost on Dagara. She glanced at her friends with a quick head count. Where was Petrie? She snarled, demanding to know what he did to Petrie in the sharptooth tongue.

Red Claw merely grinned.

Her battle blush flared like a forest fire. Tears evaporated from her eyes as her metabolism surged into death mode. He. Would. Pay. For. This.

Sharpneck psychology was uniquely dangerous. Rage didn't cloud their minds. It set them ablaze, sharpening every thought and casting aside all else so that there was nothing left but pure, lethal intelligence and instinct.

Screech darted at her. She faced him with her spikes. He stopped just out of reach, hissing. Meanwhile, Thud came from behind. It was a classic trick that stood the test of time. Prey couldn't guard from both directions at once.

Well, in theory.

Spikes lowered, a glance back between her legs revealed Thud pouncing. He came down hard, claws slicing air. Where'd she go? A speedy roll had saved her. Expecting to hit flesh instead of soil, he'd misjudged the landing, tripping and nearly smashing into his hunting partner.

The sharpneck gave no time for recovery. Thud reflexively recoiled before her spikes nicked his chin, aimed at the throat. He turned as though to run, only to smack her aside with his tail. Dagara was hurrying to her feet when Screech knocked the air from her lungs with a kick. She rolled, sucked a desperate breath and was whacked away again midway into a stand.

They battered her between each other, chittering like hatchlings enjoying some sick game of catch. Red Claw rumbled in amusement.

Littlefoot fought to stand. He couldn't watch this! He had to help!

Red Claw pressed him into the ground, snarling sternly. They would watch. Then they would join her.

The sharpneck's world seemed to spin they whacked her to and fro, but her mind still blazed, learning how they moved, how they struck, what they would do, what they wouldn't do. Each observation seared and sealed into her brain like fragments of a whole. Red Claw's laughter only fueled her fury.

What fun, thought Thud! What would they call this game? 'Pass the Prey'? They had to do this again sometime!

He eagerly got into position as Screech sent her tumbling his way. Her muscles came to life with purpose. He swung his tail to bat her. She sprang off the ground, over the tail, landing on semi-wobbly legs and surging back into the air with a twist, spikes striking his face.

The game ended in shock.

Screech stood stunned.

Red Claw grunted. Such a letdown. Why did his fast biters always disappoint him?

A retreating Thud whined. Why had the world gone dark on his right? Had she ... half blinded him?

Screech unleashed a furious roar. This was no game! The sharpneck needed to perish immediately!

He raged towards Dagara in a nigh unpredictable zigzag, flooring her with a ferocious whack of the tail. He lunged, heedless of the consequences, and there were consequences. At first, her spikes kept getting in the way. He powered through, unleashing the worst of his fury. This plucky piece of meat thought she could make a fool of them, disable his hunting partner and live?! No more! No more!

A wrenching bite ended the matter.

Cera gaped. Ducky cried through eyes dazed and distant. Spike covered his face, quavering quiet sobs, and Littlefoot? All energy seemed to drain from his muscles as he lay on the dirt, expression unreadable. Something within him nearly died the moment Petrie's fate was sealed. Dagara's end had killed it. All that was left was for his body to follow suit.

Red Claw throbbed with approval. The poor performance of his fast biters aside, the day had turned out wonderfully. He looked into the youngsters' hopeless faces. Ahh, how satisfying.

Screech stepped away from his handiwork, shaking in wrath. He felt the stinging reminders of her existence on his forelimbs and chest. The fast biter looked down at himself, realising just how much damage the sharpneck had caused.

The alpha scoffed: Come now, this was no time for self-pity! This was a fine day, and the hunt was a marvelous success!

Screech glanced at the semi-blind Thud. Red Claw had a weird idea of 'marvelous'. Sometimes, the callousness of sharptooth culture grated on him. As a proud sharptooth, he'd never confess it, of course.

Deducing his thoughts, Red Claw assured that he knew of sharpteeth who got by well enough with one eye. If not? ... They could address that another time. Anyway, he was in a kind mood. Screech and Thud could take their pick of the spoils, but the longneck was his alone.

Littlefoot slowly blinked. A venomous growl rose from his chest. 'Kind', he asked in a hiss? What did RED CLAW know about 'KIND'?!

That gave the tyrant pause. The longneck could speak their language? This had to be the work of the tiny sharptooth weeping in the bushes. They would take care of him shortly.

Littlefoot continued: Every time they ventured into The Mysterious Beyond, Red Claw went out of his way to hunt them! And for WHAT STUPID REASON!? They were too small for a meal, too tricky and too lucky to catch until that day! WHAT was WRONG with Red Claw? Was he SICK IN THE HEAD? Was he too WEAK or to COWARDLY to go after larger prey? Did wasting time hunting LITTLE KIDS make him feel good about his BIG, STUPID SELF? This was a 'MARVELOUS' hunt? What IDIOT TOOK PRIDE IN CATCHING-?

ENOUGH, thundered Red Claw! He had his reasons, GOOD reasons, but he would tell them NOTHING! At the end of the day, they were DEAD!

*( ( THOOM! ) )*

A titanic pound of the tail accentuated Red Claw's point while silencing all opposition ... permanently.

This time, the victory roar felt stale in his mouth.

...

Racing across the grass, Ruby heard the roar.

She clapped her paw against her mouth. "No, my friends ... my friends, nooo!"

The fast runner had cut across a pasture in hopes of saving time. She got closer this time, but not close enough to change fate. Again, her friends met their end.

Wait ... 'again'?


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 4]


Thud didn't know what hit him, but it hit hard. Screech looked just in time to see the spikes. A pained yelp leapt from his throat.

The fast biters jumped back. Oh, the sharpneck was fighting back? Good. They'd been itching for revenge.

Screech and Thud converged on her. No games, no hesitation. It would be over quickly. They just had to knock her down, then finish the job. Easier said than done. She was smart, slippery, unpredictable. Nothing seemed to bring her down, until it did.

She lasted about eight seconds.

...

Ruby heard the roar. Her heart fell ... but not as far as it should have. She blinked. This ... wasn't right. Looking around at the unfamiliar plain, the plain somehow didn't seem as unfamiliar as it looked. Had she been here before? Or was 'before' somewhere she had been?

There was something about a fast runner's mind: They talked in circles because they thought in circles, processed the world in an exhaustive, cyclic fashion. Some species found it slightly redundant, if not annoying, but it served them well. Their non-linear thinking solved problems no one realised existed. They knew a circle when they saw it, and this?

This was a circle.

...

Apogee grinned. "She figured it out."

"Don't look so smug," Zenith discouraged. "If she goes lucid, the simulation will crash and burn."

"She knows it's a circle. She doesn't know it's a dream. So long as she thinks it's real, we have nothing to fear."


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 5]


Dagara held out for thirteen seconds.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 6]


She reached the twenty second mark.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 7]


A combination of luck and uncanny tactical brilliance left Screech incapacitated. Thud finished the job. Barely.

Twenty three seconds.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 8]


Four seconds.

The fast biters took no chances. They knew what she could do. They also knew how to take her down.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 9]


One step forward, two steps back.

Ruby panted as the roar reached her ears. She was starting to understand the lay of the land, trying different routes, some better than others. She was close, yet so far. Whatever it was, 'The Circle' had given her several chances thus far. She wasn't counting precisely. It saved her friends. Maybe it would always save them until they changed fate ... or maybe not. The Circle was not normal, and 'not normal' things were rare as a rule. There was no telling how long it would last. Who could tell if this wasn't the last of it?

She glared at her sore legs. Speed was her heritage, and she'd run as fast as she could ... but was 'as fast as she could' really what she believed it to be? Her legs were sore, but they could be more sore. They could be broken. They were not, which meant this wasn't her best effort.

Ruby crouched on all fours. At first glance, it appeared she was catching her breath. Upon close examination, one would notice the muscles tensed at ready, a predatory focus in her eyes seldom seen in her species. Physically, it made no difference what she did at present. Her stamina and stance would be restored by the next Circle, but this was more than a physical act. Physical actions affected the mind, just as the mind affected the body - another circle. She was psyching herself for the race of her life.

Ready ... set ...


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 10]


GO!

...

Ruby tripped on a small sinkhole in the grass, crashing down - her fourth fall. She was picking herself back up when the roar reached her. Not as close as last time, but at least she was running faster. She'd do better in the next circle ... if there was a next Circle for her to do better.

She crouched at ready.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 11]


There was the roar. More distance covered. One fall, one crash into a wall. Not good enough. Every step had to be perfect. Each turn, flawless.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 12]


Ruby cried out as her foot snagged a root, twisting as she fell. She hissed upon trying to move it. Broken. Definitely broken.

"Please be a next Circle! Next Circle, please be there!" she begged.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 13]


Nothing went wrong. Nothing went right either. No victory. Too little, too late.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 14]


Again, the roar. Again, she'd failed. Last time, she got farther. Something was diminishing her performance ... but what?


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 15]


When the roar reached, Ruby collapsed with a frustrated shout. Never had her feet hurt this much. Never had she moved this fast. Her steps were like sky fire: frantic, explosive, enough to leave muscle and bone burning as though struck by lighting itself. Was this her best effort? No! She couldn't think like that! She had to try harder!

...

... Not harder. Better.

Ruby thought back to Doc and her parents' self defense lessons. There was fighting, and then there was fighting. It didn't matter how hard you tried. Without the right techniques, you were just a brute throwing their strength around. However, there were ways to inflict maximum damage with minimum effort. Ways to blitz through sharptooth after sharptooth, emerge victorious every time, just as Doc had. It was more than trying hard. It was finesse, strategy, cleverness. It was flowing with the action, not struggling with it. Not like sky fire. More like wind. If it hurt too much, maybe she was doing it wrong. Her parents taught her advanced combat. Doc taught her 'Advanced Imagination'. What if there was such a thing as 'Advanced Speed'?

She would have to reinvent the concept of running.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 16]


Red Claw frowned.

He didn't understand what he was seeing, or rather he didn't accept it. Didn't like it. The Circle of Life was survival of the fittest, the biggest, the strongest. That was why he had to win. Even his pathetic fast biters were stronger than the kids combined. So then, what was he witnessing?

This was wrong on every level!

Dagara fought like a firestorm, a frenetic, furious blur of blazing scales. Years of hunting experience failed as Screech and Thud battled chaos itself, but it was more than that. As the battle wore one, Red Claw reached a point of revelation. When she fell, the momentum always propelled her back to her feet without missing a beat. When she attacked, she always exploited weak spots and oversights to injure in the most meaningful ways. Over and over, she dodged death by a scale, untouchable, intangible as flame with all its searing bite. She fought as though she knew his fast biters, their thoughts and intentions laid bare before her feral mind. This was no mere chaos.

It was organised chaos.

A smile dawned on Littlefoot's face. For the first time, he saw hope on the horizon.

Littlefoot called Red Claw's attention with a sharptooth yelp.

Red Claw narrowed his eyes at the longneck pinned under his tail. Someone had taught the creature his language? Likely the young sharptooth watching from the bushes. That simply wouldn't do, not that he was planning on letting Chomper live anyway.

In a series of growls and throbs, Littlefoot stated that his friend was about to beat the fast biters.

Red Claw huffed. Of course not. She was just delaying the inevitable. Such a small creature couldn't defeat his underlings.

Littlefoot grinned. Red Claw was taking the bait. Okay, he continued, if Red Claw really thought that, how 'bout a deal? If the sharpneck won, he'd let them go.

The apex predator rumbled: he did not make deals with prey.

Littlefoot attempted a shrug in his position. Okie dokie, he agreed. Then he would die knowing Red Claw was afraid to be proven wrong by a puny sharpneck.

Red Claw whirled to snarl at him. An anguished cry interrupted the tyrant.

Longneck and sharptooth looked to see Screech and Thud twitching on the ground. They wouldn't be getting up any time soon in their condition.

For the first time, shock slackened Red Claw's jaw.

Littlefoot almost laughed.

The tyrant shot him a glare, effervescing fury. His snarl was final: He. Did not. Make deals. With prey.

With a quick flick of the tail, Red Claw sent Littlefoot, Cera, Spike and Ducky flying off the cliff before swatting Petrie after them. Now for the sharpneck. She was charging with that roar of hers that he hated to think sent chills down his spine. Not for long, he assured himself. She leapt his overkill tail strike. Managed to reach his ankles and bite the most sensitive spot she could find.

Then a stomp stopped her for good.

He roared his hollow victory: Injured minions, injured pride, even in death, these kids managed to spite him!


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 17]


Screech and Thud lay in a heap of hurt.

Red Claw half-snarled, half-yelped. HOW!? No matter. He would end this himself!

Dagara withstood his fury for four seconds.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 18]


Nine seconds.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 19]


Twelve.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 20]


Thirteen.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 21]


Ten.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 22]


Sixteen.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 23]


Ruby jumped a ditch with inches to spare, slid beneath a massive root, kicked off a trunk to quickly change direction, nimbly shot up a small slope of stone and rounded a corner in a feat of fluid finesse.

She'd learnt more about running in The Circle than she had in a lifetime. The wind whipped across her eyes and scales as she pushed her newfound speed to the Nth degree. Maybe this was it! The final run! She could make it!

The landscape took a turn for the unfortunate.

Racing through the canyon, she could hear the battle. It was just on the other side of those cliffs! ... Those towering, unclimbable cliffs. She was losing time. The path was taking her farther away from the action.

Then came the roar.

Ruby skidded to a stop and stomped, furious, ignoring the shockwaves of pain her sore paws suffered from the outburst. Her incensed eyes scanned the cliffs. Definitely no way up, but she could see signs of long-forgotten collections of water in the dry, sandy soil. Once upon a time, this was wet place, the kind fast runners like her would hang around for aquatic snacks. Water carved caves, but only under the right conditions. That was vital knowledge for a fast runner looking for a home. Were these the right conditions? ... Maybe ... not quite. She'd seen caves in her hurry, but not deep ones. Deep caves required a fair amount of water. Had she passed anything to suggest that? Yes! The ditch! The one she'd leapt a little while back! It looked like it had been a waterway!


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 24]


Having followed the ditch, Ruby quickly discovered a sizeable cave. She almost squealed at the glimmer of hope, but even such little distractions could slow her down.

Every second mattered.

...

Within the cave, a young fast biter named for the crimson streaks running down his flanks stirred in his nest. The commotion of a nearby Red Claw, Screech and Thud echoed through the tunnels. Nothing uncommon in The Mysterious Beyond. They weren't a threat. The trio generally ignored sharpteeth like him once they behaved and stayed out of the way ... unless they had a reason to do otherwise, such as said sharpteeth associating with leafeaters (Chomper, that infamous little traitor). After a long night's mostly unsuccessful hunt, he was content to sleep in.

He heard footsteps.

Crimson raised his head to see Ruby racing up to him. He squinted. Was this a dream? Was she running from something? Did she not see him? Oh, she saw him alright, and spared little more than a glance. There was no fear in her eyes. Just single-minded focus. Now, that was just insulting! Sure, he was barely bigger than her, but he was a sharptooth, wasn't he?

Ruby blurred by. Wow ... she was fast, but this was his territory, a maze of passages only he knew like the back of his paw. Fast runners were an elusive delicacy, or so he heard. With any luck, she'd run herself into a corner. He sure hoped she lived up to the hype.

The fast runner reached a fork in the tunnel. Which way? Hard to tell with all the echoes. She picked randomly, scarcely pausing, only to find herself at a dead end. Ruby was releasing an exasperated groan when she spotted Crimson emerging from the shadows. He cocked his head, waiting. Ruby raised an eyebrow. Oh, it was her cue to scream? Maybe some other day. Right then, she was doing everything in her power to reach the biggest, meanest sharptooth in the known Mysterious Beyond. There was also the possibility that she couldn't die within The Circle. After all, it saved her friends. In any event, the fast biter meant little in the grand scheme of things.

She folded her arms. "If you're expecting me to scream, feel free to stop expecting."

Crimson drew back. He may not have understood her language, but he knew a cavalier comment when he heard it. Still no fear? How demeaning!


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 25]


Okay, new plan:

Step 1, clobber the meddlesome fast biter before he could meddle some.

Step 2, save her friends.

...

The patter of rapid footsteps met Crimson's ears. He lifted his head in time to see Ruby's flying kick.

Then stars.

...

Ruby took the second tunnel and emerged at the edge of a cliff. She heard the roar, no friends or Red Claw in sight. She heard the roar and curled into a fetal ball of frustration.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 26]


Crimson jerked awake. He had the strangest dream he'd been beaten senseless by some kind of ... Pink Food, of all things! The fast biter cackled to himself. Yeah, like that would ever happen!

Footsteps. Crimson turned. A flash of pink.

Stars.

...

This had to be the right tunnel, Ruby thought. The sounds of conflict were growing louder. Then the passage split into three. She picked a path. Hit a dead end. Her livid scream echoed through the caves.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 27]


Crimson awoke with a start. What a weird dream. Some random fast runner he mentally dubbed Pink Food had run right up to him and knocked him unconscious ... in that very spot ... only for him to wake up and get clobbered again ... right where he sat. A dream within a dream, and it all happened at his nesting place.

Was this a dream?

...

[WARNING! Lucid Dreamer Detected!]

[Sim Collapse Imminent!]

...

Footsteps heralded Pink Food's arrival.

Sharpteeth were a cowardly and superstitious lot. Crimson had no trouble admitting that. Cowardice had saved his life on many occasions. As for superstition? Well, what if his dreams were a sign? A sign that foretold this moment, when a crazy fast runner KOed him for no apparent reason!

...

[False Alarm: Collapse averted]

...

Crimson snarled for her to halt! Otherwise, she'd face the full fury of a sharptoo-!

Ruby shoved him against a wall, hissing her demands: QUIET! She needed his help, and her patience was thinner than it had ever been at its thinnest! This cave was his home, right? He was to tell her the quickest way to reach Red Claw, in the quickest way he could tell her! NOW!

Crimson's wide eyes stared at her blankly. She could talk? Between the shock of prey speaking his language, the pain she inflicted and the slightly confusing way she seemed to talk in circles, he hadn't really processed what she said. Her delectable scent was more than a little distracting too.

He smacked his lips.

She smacked him across the face.

Being slapped by Pink Food was a good learning experience. He learnt that it was to be avoided at all costs. Who would have thought those paws could sting this much with blunt claws?

Okay, okay, he submitted! What exactly did Pink Foo- um, Pink Runner want, he asked?

The victory roar echoed through the cave.

Ruby threw him aside, stomped, shrieked and kicked the wall, sending stalactites falling from the ceiling. Not her usual behaviour, but the situation had a way of frustrating her like never before.

Crimson inched away from her.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 28]


The young fast biter's eyes shot open. He touched his cheek. It still stung. Dread spiked through his heart at the sound of footsteps. He looked.

Pink Nightmare was upon him!

Ruby was pleasantly surprised. She didn't even have to clobber him this time. He just took off at top speed. With any luck, he'd lead her straight to the exit she needed.

The fast runner tore after him, snapping split-second turns through the maze of tunnels. He wasn't running fast enough, but at least he knew where he was going. Fast biter and fast runner dashed into the daylight through a tunnel just big enough to fit them. Crimson fled his separate way. This was it! She could hear it! Just one more turn and ...

... There it was.

Red Claw was berserk, stomping, snapping, unleashing his terrible might in an effort to end the sharpneck. Dagara darted, rolled, ducked, dodging everything he threw at her with preternatural perfection. Screech and Thud had already been laid low.

For the first time in several Circles, Ruby paused, a paw to her muzzle. Dagara had reinvented the concept of combat ... just as she reinvented speed. Whether by will or by coincidence, The Circle was shaping them into their most indomitable selves.

They could do this!

Ruby rushed in just as Red Claw's tail smashed the sharpneck into the ground and whacked Littlefoot and company off the cliff.

The fast runner drew a distressed breath. It was one thing to hear the roar. Seeing this happen was a whole different story. She pulled herself together. The Circle would save them. Now that Crimson showed her the way, she didn't need to waste time on the fast biter.


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 29]

[Mild anomaly detected]


Dagara gasped as though waking from a bad dream. She could practically feel Red Claw's tail on her back, crushing the life out of her. It took a moment to convince herself that she was still alive, but where did that thought come from? It didn't matter. Red Claw, Screech and Thud were racing by the bush where she hid. No one had died yet. No one ever died on one of Littlefoot's adventures. She had to keep it that way. Now to come up with a plan.

Her brain chocked.

The echoes of over a dozen deaths haunted her mind. She could feel them all, like a cascade of phantom pains. It had to be her over-taxed mind considering possibilities, she told herself. After all, that was the purpose of Doc's Advanced Imagination training, but ... of all the possibilities, there wasn't a single one in which she won.

"Dagara? Wh-wh what's wrong? You're shaking," noted Chomper.

The sharpneck gulped. Her kind was known for their fearlessness. Sure, she'd felt fear, but rarely, almost never to any significant degree, but in that moment? She wasn't just afraid.

She was terrified.

Screech and Thud pinned the youngsters on command. Red Claw grinned. He was winning. Why did victory feel so frustrating? He could end it all in one stroke, but where was the satisfaction in that?

The tyrant glanced a massive rock perched on a nearby cliff. Ahh, poetic justice! That's what he needed!

He ordered his fast biters to injure the young ones' legs and wings before piling them under the rock. Without warning, he unceremoniously used his jaws to toss Screech and Thud onto the ledge where the rock sat, telling them to push it down on the crippled hatchlings on his signal.

Littlefoot's frantic eyes glanced about for some form of salvation before flitting between Red Claw and the rock. This was ... familiar. Too familiar.

Red Claw barked impatiently: Were they daft? He knew the longneck and his friends were at least smart enough to lure the invincible 'Sharptooth' into a trap! Did he have to spell it out for them? This was same way they ended his father!

Littlefoot gasped. Sharptooth, THE Sharptooth ... was Red Claw's dad?

Red Claw's face alit with glee. Yes. Now they understood why he always chased them!

A stammering Littlefoot apologised profusely. He knew what it was like to lose a parent. Maybe they weren't so different after all. Maybe they could-

Red Claw lifted Littlefoot's head with his tail, leaning down so that they were eye to eye. He asked the longneck to listen to him, very closely: Never. He would never forgive them. This was the end. No luck. No tricks.

The tyrant removed his tail and commanded Screech and Thud to push the rock.

Dagara had seen enough. She couldn't save them, not even her precious Littlefoot, but she could save Chomper.

The young sharptooth squirmed as she picked him up by the scruff, fleeing the scene.

"NO! You gotta help them!" He yelled. "You gotta-!"

*( ( THWOOOM! ) )*

He glimpsed the boulder make impact just as they rounded a corner.

Dagara quickly found a cave entrance too small for the sharpteeth and darted into it. Judging from the wind flow, there was an exit somewhere. They wouldn't be trapped. She set Chomper down as Red Claw's satisfied roar boomed after them. The sharpneck rubbed her eyes with the back of a paw. She couldn't let Chomper see her cry. She had to stay strong, but it seemed Chomper was broken as it was.

He lay on his side, staring at nothing in particular as a steady stream of tears wet the limestone beneath him. A life of warm, wonderful memories passed before his eyes. They saved him ... They hatched him ... They were his friends ... his family ... gone ...

Dagara tensed her spikes as something darted from deep within the cave. She relaxed upon recognising Ruby.

"What happened?" panted the fast runner.

Dagara's eyes fluttered, her voice cracked: "I- I couldn't- I mean, there was nothing I could do. I just ... nothing ... I'm so sorry ..."

Ruby stared at a loss.

Chomper blinked slowly. He didn't blame Dagara. Well, not exactly, but every day, every hour, maybe every minute for the rest of his life, he was certain he'd remember this moment.

Dagara stared at the ground. If only ... if only she had another chance. Just one more.


[Dream Sim: Suspended]


"That's enough," Zenith asserted. "You've made your point. Dagara and Ruby performed well beyond expectations. They have the 'spark' you described. The others couldn't do much under the circumstances, but I don't doubt their resourcefulness. Let's just ... leave things as they are. Trauma can carry over from dream sims, you know."

Apogee solemnly nodded. "Yes ... you're right."

Zenith patted him on the back before walking away.

Apogee stared out to the horizon. A touch of blue tinted the dark. Dawn was coming. The dream sim had to end around then anyway.

He almost idly replayed the last few seconds of the sim, scanning psychological readings in more detail.

[Dagara stared at the ground. If only ... if only she had another chance. Just one more.]

His eyes lit up. "Zenith, look at this."

The female sighed before returning to view his finding. "Yes. I was there. I saw her think that too. There's a contrast between wishing things were different and being able to make the change, you know."

He pointed at the psychoanalytical details.

Zenith examined them. Just before the iteration ended, there was a flux. A surge of will and determination. Dagara wasn't broken. Not yet. She truly, desperately, wanted to try again, and her mind state was showing something new. Something promising. He accessed the others' readings. Ruby was exasperated, but not broken. She too desperately wanted to try again. Littlefoot, Cera, Petrie, Ducky and Spike weren't quite so blatant ... but there was something there. They were reaching a threshold, whatever that threshold may be. It didn't look like trauma. Even Chomper was showing signs of critical mass.

"We can't leave it here," Apogee declared.

Zenith sighed at the brightening sky. They could only keep the herd unconscious for so long before their minds rebelled, or the rest of the valley realised something was up.

She nodded. "Okay. One more sim."


[Rebooting Sim: Iteration 30]


Red Claw, Screech and Thud ran by. Residual memories of virtual deaths plagued Dagara's mind. It was hard to think, to come up with a plan. It didn't matter, she would not give up! Her muscles tensed for action.

"This happened before," Chomper stated.

Dagara's gazed shifted to him. "What?"

Chomper looked confused. "I ... I don't know, but this happened before. I remember."

She watched as Screech and Thud pinned her friends.

Red Claw sank into thought. Now, how to end them? It had to be satisfying. Ah, a boulder! Just as they did to his father! He was about to tell Screech and Thud to cripple them when déjà vu struck like lightning ... something was missing, an annoying little detail who should be biting at his ankles at that moment. Where was she?

The alpha turned, scrutinising the area. There were no hiding places, save a sparse collection of bushes. He squinted at the shrubs, never taking his eyes off them.

Dagara's breath caught in her throat. If he'd seen them, he would have done something more, but she was camouflaging. He couldn't see her or Chomper, yet he knew they were there. How?

"What do you see?" whispered Chomper.

"Red Claw's staring at us," she whispered back.

"I think he knows this happened before," Chomper guessed cryptically.

Dagara slowly nodded. Red Claw knew, and so did she. The mangled tangle of deaths buzzing through her head ... they weren't her imagination, were they? This was was some kind of circle, a Circle of Death. Was she dead? Was this what happened when dinosaurs died? Were they trapped in loop of possibilities that always ended the same way? Or was this a second chance?

The sharpneck steadied her breathing: inhaled, exhaled.

Time to break The Circle.

She decloaked, stepping out of the bush as her scales flickered to a slow burn battle blush. Her legs shook. She was scared, but maybe that was okay. Courage wasn't fearlessness. It was the ability to defeat fear. Perhaps this was her first, true act of courage. She vaguely remembered something about saving a threehorn from a giant bug. That was scary, but it couldn't have happened. It had to be a dream. Dreams didn't count.

Dagara found her voice and challenged Red Claw with a roar: If she won, they would all go free! Deal?

Red Claw raised an eyebrow. Quite a roar for one so small. He didn't make deals with prey, but at the back of his mind, he didn't consider her 'prey'. Besides Littlefoot and his friends, she was by far the bravest, most noble, worthy creature he had ever faced. He mentally admitted that sharpteeth seldom showed bravery, or nobility. Sometimes, anger spurred them to attack tricky prey, but that wasn't courage. Fear kept them alive by compelling them to hunt weaker prey. Leafeaters ... were braver. More déjà vu. He'd thought this before, hadn't he? He absolutely abhorred that notion, but she wasn't a leafeater. She was no mere sharptooth either. She was both, and neither. A being of organised chaos. An anomaly. Ending her wasn't enough. He had to prove to himself that he was her better.

He had to break her.

The ground shook as Red Claw roared back: CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!

Dagara charged.

Red Claw thundered forth.

Spikes or not, the apex predator lunged his jaws at her. A little chewing was sure to force this freak of nature into submission!

At the last moment, Dagara whirled out of the way, into the air, spinning her spikes into his face in one smooth move.

Red Claw howled, crashed to the ground and rolled. She'd been aiming for his eyes, and that fall had broken his arm! No matter. His tiny arm was practically useless in a fight, even if it hurt like mad.

He surged to his feet and looked around. Where was she?

Red Claw felt tiny paws push off his knee before unparalleled pain racked his one good arm. She knew exactly where to bite, where to inflict the most agony! Had she done this before? Irrelevant! There was only one way this would end!

The tyrant threw himself to the ground in another roll. Dagara released just before he squished her. She hit the ground hard in a stumbling run, pursued the rolling sharptooth through clouds of dust while his head was in reach. With a jerk of the skull, he sent her flying back mid-roll. She tumbled to her feet and ducked his behemoth of a tail. The sheer wind generated by his attack sent her toppling into the piece of boulder jutting from the ground. Dagara kicked off of it just as he brought his foot down. The boulder broke. So did bone. His eyes watered as an awkward shriek leapt from his lungs.

Good. Keep him off-balanced, she thought.

The sharpneck darted in, bit his toe and scarcely avoided the stomp that followed. Blinded by rage, Red Claw ignored the broken foot as he stormed after her, right towards the cliff's edge. She veered to safety at the last second. Mammoth clouds of dust erupted into the air as Red Claw skidded to a stop a mere step from falling. Cracks spread through the ground under his weight. He scrambled from the edge.

The charging sharpneck gave no relief. He preempted her with another tail strike, faster, harder. She sprang and spiraled through the air, avoiding it by a hair. Sneering, he launched another, snappy tail blow. She jumped, not high enough. The blow did little more than glance her, but it was enough to send the sharpneck hurtling into the hillside.

Something broke. Several 'somethings'.

She flopped to the ground with a wheezing breath.

Red Claw's nostrils flared. Finally.

Dagara barely clambered to her feet before his tail came down on her. For a juvenile sharptooth a few times her size, this would have qualified as moderate punishment. For her, it was overkill.

He watched the sharpneck. Surely she'd give up, just lay down and let him finish her. Of course not. She was fighting to her feet.

Another pound returned her to the ground.

She felt to cough. Couldn't. He'd knocked the air clear out of her lungs. Still, she struggled to a half-stand.

He pounded again, this time with more force.

Something burst inside of her. Finally, she coughed, horrified to find that air wasn't the only thing coming out.

Red Claw stooped to glare at the sharpneck. Ready to give up? Ready to die? His face contorted. She was ... still trying to get up! Trying, and failing! Why? WHY?! She'd fought hard! She'd fought well, but he was better! He won! He always won! Why couldn't she accept that with dignity!? Just roll over and let the light fade from her eyes!

He roared into her face.

She drew a raspy breath and roared right back.

Screech and Thud stared incredulously. They'd never seen anything like this.

Littlefoot looked on, his heart churning with a fusion of pity and pride. The sight stirred something in him, an indomitable hope he didn't know existed.

If she could face the impossible, so would he.

Screech's grip on him had loosened, thanks to the distraction. He glanced at his friends. One look told him they were thinking the same thing.

What happened next? Screech and Thud didn't entirely understand. The pinned kids screamed a united battle cry as they wrenched free with more strength than the fast biters could possibly expect.

Then they attacked.

...

Zenith's face scrunched. "Did they ... just break your physics engine again?"

Apogee checked the readings. "N-no! I believe we are witnessing 'hysterical strength', a rare phenomenon! Even so, Screech and Thud were applying less force in their occupation with the battle: it was their minimum vs the youngsters' maximum!"

She grunted with a small smile. So, they did have the spark.

...

Cera hammered Thud's muzzle with her horn. He stumbled back, clutching his nose.

Littlefoot bit Screech's forelimb and twisted it with all his might. The fast biter was about to retaliate when Spike slammed into his legs, knocking him off his feet. Then, of all the leafeaters, who was coming to hit him while he was down?

The swimmer.

Her tiny paw balled to a fist, Ducky was swinging for his eye.

No. Thank. You.

He rolled just shy of her, hurrying to his feet.

Screech snarled.

"RRRAAARR!" Ducky retorted at the top of her lungs without a hint of fear.

He drew back, eyes wide. Ooookaaayy.

She ran under his legs. He stumbled in surprise. What was she up to? The answer came when little jaws pinched his tail tip.

Thud flinched as Screech ran by shrieking with the swimmer attached to his tail and the flyer pecking at the fast biter's face. His worldview began to collapse. If the smallest prey could give them this much trouble, what were these things? They weren't prey anymore. They had become something else.

Littlefoot and Spike sealed the point by knocking him down with a charge to the legs.

Red Claw shook his head at the scene. This couldn't be happening.

Dagara chuckled weakly.

The tyrant rumbled: Enough of this nonsense! She was still going to submit! Then die!

Little did he notice a pink blur rounding the corner as he lowered his head to gnaw the sharpneck into surrender. That blur blazed up to him with enough speed to be the envy of most predators.

Young Crimson emerged behind her. Pink Nightmare hadn't clobbered him this time. Perhaps that was a sign that she'd be his Pink Food after all!

Then she launched into the air with a ferocious shriek and fired a flying kick into Red Claw's eye. The half-blinded titan reeled.

Crimson cowered. What kind of PSYCHO-MANIAC attacked RED CLAW!? And what would she do when she got ahold of HIM?!

He ran for the hills and never looked back.

...

Screech managed to flail Ducky from his tail just before Littlefoot swept a cloud of dust into his eyes. The fast biter freaked out at the loss of vision, running in random circles until he self-concussed against the stony wall.

Meanwhile, an airborne Ducky braced herself for an unpleasant landing. She closed her eyes. Gentle claws wrapped around her shoulders, slowing her fall until they set her down harmlessly.

Ducky gave an elated gasp and turned to give Petrie one of her bone-crushing hugs.

"Thank you, thank you, thank yoouuuu!" she squealed.

Petrie would have said 'you welcome'. Unfortunately, his collapsing lungs weren't up to the task.

Realising that he was, well dying, Ducky bashfully released him. "I am sorry ..."

"Me ... me fine ..." he panted.

Ducky pushed him out of the way with a dive as Red Claw's foot came crashing in their place. The tyrant wasn't aiming for them. In fact, he seemed completely preoccupied with his profusely watering eye. I.e., going bonkers over it.

"Yeah, that was me, yeah," Ruby explained almost proudly.

Petrie grinned. "Me have idea."

He took to the skies, leaving Ruby and Ducky exchanging glances.

Red Claw staggered into the cliffside, sending down a minor rockslide. He tried to get ahold of himself. He didn't need that eye! He could finish them with one! Never did the titan notice a diminutive form diving from The Bright Circle's direction like a falling star. It was too small, the glare too strong. That is, until it was too late.

Petrie was counting on that.

Red Claw caught a flash of a flyer's silhouette coming beak first before it all went black. They had ... they had completely blinded him! He couldn't face defeat like this! He would take them all with him!

The tyrant thrashed wildly, biting, stomping hitting nothing but air. Everyone dashed clear as he lurched towards the cliff's edge. The last step found no ground. By then, he knew it was too late.

With an ear-racking wail, Red Claw plunged over the edge of the cliff. Moments later, he was silenced with a mighty thud.

Littlefoot winced. After learning sharptooth, his view towards their kind began to shift. Aside from Chomper, he was starting to see the people behind the teeth and claws ... but Red Claw was a monster. The worst of monsters. This was a long time coming.

The seven friends turned their attention to Thud. He met their gaze with popping eyes, then made a mad dash for somewhere, anywhere but there.

Looking at one and other, the kids took a moment to process the outcome. They won? They won! Cheerful whoops abounded.

"Red Claw's gone! He's actually gone!" Littlefoot cheered.

"My family is safe from him! Safe from him they are!" added Ruby.

"Imagine what we'll be able to do when we're grown up!" Cera went on. "We could save the entire Mysterious Beyond! No more sharpteeth!"

Chomper cleared his throat.

"Oh ... right ..." Cera amended.

There was an awkward pause. The sharptooth and threehorn burst into laughter. They were pretty sure nothing could ruin their mood!

Dagara laughed along with them. Bad idea. Her laughter quickly turned to wet coughs. Maybe she should keep quiet and hope no one noticed her.

Chomper fell silent. He mustered the courage to give a tiny sniff, hoping against hope that his nose deceived him. It didn't. The scent of death was on the air.

"C'mon, let's go home," Littlefoot beckoned.

They began to walk. Dagara forced herself up, held her chin high. One foot in front of the other. Smile. Act normal. She could do this. She had to.

Ruby moved to scoop up the injured Chomper, only to notice his petrified face. She followed his gaze to the sharpneck. The shock on her expression mirrored his own. Dagara practically felt their stares. She ignored them. Just walk it off, she told herself. Don't let reality set in.

"I'm gonna tell everyone about this until they're sick of it!" Cera declared.

Petrie shook his head. "You no tell us. We there, remember?"

Cera shook back. "Nuh uh. You didn't see things from my perspective. Besides, we'll all be talking about this, like, forever, right?"

Littlefoot smiled with a shake of the head. "Okay, yeah, we probably will. Dagara, that was awesome! You were-!"

Her cough interrupted him, taking a chunk of what energy she had left. The sharpneck knelt against her will, noticed the mess on the ground. More stuff that wasn't supposed to come out of her mouth. She tried to to cover it with her forepaws, hoping no one saw.

No one didn't see.

Alright. Just focus on breathing. In. Out. In. Out. Catch her breath, then keep walking. It was taking longer than expected. There wasn't much room for air in her lungs anymore.

A deathly silence fell over Littlefoot. He walked up to her and knelt, trying to look her in the eye. Dagara kept her head down so he didn't have to see her mouth. She pushed out a light-hearted chuckle - not too hard, she didn't want to cough. He shouldn't have to see this.

"Quite an adventure, huh?" she asked. "You guys g-go ahead. I'll catch up."

She sounded ... gurgly ... not like herself at all.

Littlefoot stared at her long and hard. "Is that true?"

She winked and looked away. "Sh'rpnecks ... can bounce back from almost anything ... J-just go, already!"

"We'll carry you back," he suggested shakily.

Who was she kidding? He wouldn't budge and she couldn't keep this up. Dagara wiped her mouth in the soil. The effort was grueling, and the sharpneck was starting to shake.

She smiled up at him. "Cera's right ... you'll be talking about this f'rever. You'll always carry the memory, a memory I'm a part of. That way ... you'll carry me too. I'll be there ... even if you can't see me."

Littlefoot's face distorted. No ... not her too. She didn't deserve this. She'd fought so hard.

Her head began to droop. A trembling Littlefoot caught her in a tender hug between his neck and forelimb. Her sharpneck warmth was cooling fast. Her burnt sienna scales, dulling.

The others scarcely dared to breathe, their victory completely forgotten.

Ruby looked about as though expecting something to happen.

"The next Circle should have started by now. By now, it should have started," she muttered.

"S'mday ..." Dagara gurgled, "someday, you'll grow up and find s'meone ... someone who's nicer than me ... not to ment'on less bitey, heh."

He shook his head, eyes leaking liquid heartbreak. "I ... don't want that. I want to grow up with you. You're plenty nice."

Dagara leaned on him. "Ohh ... pl'se ... please don't be sad ... I did wh't a sharpneck d's best ... I fought good ... f'r good ... I'm h-happy ... please be h'ppy f'r me ... I lov' you ... all of you ..."

She smiled at the blurry colours who must have been her friends. "Com- C'mon, guys! Gr'p hug! I won't bite ... this time."

The colours moved closer. The world grew darker, chillier. She felt herself fading. Falling into black.

By the time they hugged her, she was almost cold. Gone.


[Dream Sim: Complete]


Zenith and Apogee stood in silence. Seconds turned to moments. Apogee sniffed. Zenith wiped her eyes. They almost uncomfortably looked at each other before staring at the dark blue firmament. Zenith turned to leave, watching the glow cresting Hidden Valley's cliffs as Apogee began the procedure of releasing the herd from unconsciousness. Once finished, he joined her. A shaft of light descended from the heavens.

Then they were gone.

Almost all at once, the herd began to stir. Some threehorns yawned as they looked about with a vague sense that something unusual had taken place. Oh well. Nothing bad, clearly. That was one of the best, deepest sleeps they ever had.

Alpha Wartar stretched as he roused. What a strange, dreamless night. Not that he was complaining.

His adoptive daughter, Dagara, awoke with a deep gasp. Too deep. If he didn't know any better, he'd say she almost drowned and someone revived her in the nick of time.

She gave an experimental cough. No taste of iron. No pain. No cold. She was alive? After a few seconds of disbelief, Dagara found herself laughing. She couldn't help it. The sound just bubbled out of her.

Wartar smiled. "Funny dream?"

"Not funny. Awesome!" she exclaimed. "I was with this longneck and his friends. We were all friends, and there was this giant sharptooth ... 'Red Fang'? What's-his-face? I took him on one on one, and lost like, twenty eight times! Then we all rose up and beat him and his fast biters! It was sooo awesome!"

She continued to laugh.

Wartar hummed approvingly. Good to know she'd been escaping the harsh reality of Hidden Valley in her dreams. Besides, this was better than threatening the neighbors in her sleep ... which happened fairly often.

Her laughter faded as one, grim memory asserted itself. "... Everyone lived, except me ... the injuries were too much ... I left them ... they were my friends ..."

Yikes. So much for escapism.

He cleared his throat and attempted to distract her from the 'friends' she could never have.

"Did it hurt?" he asked.

She exhaled. "Sort of ... it was cold ... I was shaking and coughing out ... stuff I shouldn't have been coughing. Everything got fuzzy. It was like slipping out reality."

He raised an eyebrow. That was startlingly authentic. He'd witnessed it many times back in The Great Sharpneck War. How could she dream of such a realistic death if she had no idea what it was like? She certainly hadn't seen such examples.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Wartar condoled.

A smile slowly lit her face as she shook her head. "Don't be. I died for them. I think, that's the most awesome part."

Wartar blinked. His daughter, a sharpneck of all creatures, thought dying for the good of others was awesome. Tears welled in his eyes as he pulled her close in a hug. He couldn't have have asked for a better child.

Dagara stared at him. Okay. This was happening. He wasn't usually a touchy feely dinosaur, and she? She could hug, but being taken off guard didn't bode well with her defensive instincts. However, this felt right. Comfortable, even. She snuggled into him.

The Bright Circle reached the top of the cliffs, emanating luminous joy directly into her heard. Great as it was to die for her friends, she sure was happy to be alive. Something clicked. Suddenly, those 'weird noises' didn't sound so weird in her head. She understood them. She wanted to make them.

"I feel so happy, I want everyone to see! It's like The Bright Circle, it's shining inside me!"

Wartar knitted his brow. "Dagara, did you just sing?"

She smirked at him. "What? Sharpnecks can't sing?"

"I honestly didn't think so."

Suddenly, her life flashed before her eyes, all those times when others broke into 'weird noises' and she just politely tried to ignore them. It hit like a landslide.

"Wait, wait, wait ... You mean my whole life, folks were singing around me, and I just stood there like a clueless oaf?"

He laughed.


That was exhausting, but exhilarating. Sometimes I laughed aloud at the wacky ideas popping into my head (Ruby and Crimson were fun). A tad bittersweet too, of course. What do you think?

In real life, predators often judge prey by boldness and aggression, not just their size. You may recall the video where a single mongoose fended off four lions, or that video where a rat attacked four cats and actually scared them off. Such unusual behaviour seems to cause predatory instincts to short-circuit. I thought it would be fun to portray that in a story. Yes, Red Claw, Screech and Thud began to push past the shock, but it would have hampered their reaction time. Aside from that, sharpnecks are ... 'built different'. As we've seen, under pressure, their instincts and thought processes go into hyperdrive, making them horrifically cunning. A non-fatal dream sim was the perfect way to push Dagara's sharpneck gifts to their extreme. On a semi-related note, you may spot a Batman reference in there.

This is Dagara's second dream sim, after 'Surviving a Sharpneck' (that was crazy). Dream Sims are almost like an alternate universe, where she is able to interact with Littlefoot and friends in the 'Mentors of Yesteryears' context. She will ultimately meet them in the real world, but her life in Hidden Valley is its own wild ride. Check it out at 'Because You're a Sharpneck' to find out how.