SHWONK! GWAANK! The two calls repeat themselves like a skipping record, piercing through even the fiercest gusts of wind that swirl and churn the snow into miniature tornadoes. In the dense fog, a herd of trumpet-crests is on the move. Puffs of steam erupt from their nostrils, and drift into the frigid air when the hold their mouths agape. Their forepaws, devoid of fur or feathers, leave indentations in the snow that are quickly swallowed again by the choking snow. Dazzling ruby red throat pouches expand like a balloon as they call to one another as a tactic to locate each other; they are afraid of losing the herd as the snow whips into a curtain that hangs over the landscape. One trumpet crest is the runt of the herd, a "meager" 33ft in length. Her throat pouch enlarges as she stumbles slightly behind the herd and blasts out a weak, mellow call. She is suffering from septic arthritis that has weakened her greatly, and it is doubtful she'll survive this horrible whiteout. The flock has no time to waste making sure that she is well-kept and in good health, for they must keep moving to slake off the freezing storm.
The dreaded wind increases in strength, bowling over the saplings that took root in spring. Deep below the ground, an armored one slumbers, sheltering out the storm. He began his "hibernation" days before the storm came. His old demeanor is deceiving; he is wise and he saw the storm coming. Scraping through the rough dirt with his long, webbed claws, he constructed a foxhole nearly two and a half meters deep near the now-frozen lake he used to swim in every day. Other armored reptiles soon took suit and now most are dozing below the earth. He grunts in his sleep and barely winces as a small pebble ricochets off his tough black shell.
Eight feet above, the flock continues their eternal march, eyeing the frozen lake. There is no sustenance here; all tender saplings and ferns have withered to dust, overwhelmed by the storm and buried under the snow, no stone to mark their grave. Every drop of water in the lake is now glazed by a two-foot thick sheet of ice. Any unfortunate soul in the lake; fish, crocodile, armored reptiles alike are now trapped, their homes turned prison on them. The herd marches on, oblivious to the dying reptiles under the ice. It is now survival of the fittest.
Four more miserable hours pass by without the storm letting up, relentlessly pummeling the trumpet-crests with fresh snow. A juvenile, weakened by the cold and disease, lets out a bleat of distress, and topples into the snow, the white powder exploding around his rigid form. He is stone cold, dead, in seconds. Maternal instincts override the mother's brain and she gallops over to her young's side, honking in anguish over the sight of her dead calf. But the rest of the herd cannot afford to linger while the aroma of death clouds through the foggy air. They are on the move again, our female limping near the back of the flock. Soon the herd is not even a smudge in the distance. As the mother stands by her calf, pounding it with her forepaws and nudging it with her beak, three forms begin to shape in the cloak of white. Their fluid movements become more rigid as they approach closer. The mother cow stands over the lifeless calf, bellowing at the wraiths in a desperate attempt to protect herself. Just above the howling winds, the arthritic female hears a trio of guttural roars and one weak honk shortly after. She trudges through the snow, head down. Her sister is dead.
It is now the third day of the storm and only the strongest of the juveniles born this year are able to plod through the four-foot snow. Many of the calves birthed this year are buried under layers of snow, slowly suffocated to death as it blankets the landscape. The rickety old joints of our female ache more than ever, but the will to survive is stronger than her jolts of pain. With a deep grunt, she stretches; her knees give a satisfactory and audible POP! Shaking her head, she marches on, ignoring the throbbing and soreness inside her.
An hour later, the herd reaches a river, coated with ice and snow. Tentatively, the herd begins their march across the frozen body of water, taking tender baby steps, barely putting all their weight into one stride. The arthritic female safely makes it across, albeit slower than most of the flock. One female behind her is having trouble on the slippery ice; a childhood injury to her foreleg has weakened her and so she is not as skilled as navigating on ice as the others. Suddenly, a perceptible crackling sound fills the air as the ice begins to give way, spiderweb patterns spindling through the frigid river; every step the herd took weakened the "shield". The injured cow bellows and begins to barrel towards the other side of the river, going into full panic mode. Just thirty feet from the edge, she stumbles, crashing into the frosty water below her. Panicking even more, she screams in desperation, trying to reach the opposite side of the river. Greedily, the herd stampedes towards her, but they will not help her. For days they have eaten mainly snow, and while it provides temporary blockage from dehydration, it does not sustain as much as unfrozen water. The arthritic cow reaches the bank behind the others, sloppily gulping down her share. The frigid water tickles her throat and sends prickles of coolness down her spine. Satisfied with their rushed drink at the water's edge, they turn their backs to the struggling injured cow, marching into the dead forest. Dark shapes jet forward towards the cow under the ice, each one nearly twenty feet long. Normally dwellers of the sea, the monstrous lizards begin to feast on the cow, ripping chunks out of her feet and flanks. She will not have to worry of dying of hypothermia; the monsters will eat her alive. The arthritic female gazes back, and then trudges through the snow with the rest of the herd. The injured cow loses all of her back legs and a large section of her tail, before a daring monster hurdles from the water and seizes her windpipe with its ragged teeth, finned tail rapidly flapping to keep it afloat, ending her life.
Kreeeeekkk… KRAK! FWOOSH! A tree branch, beaten by the blizzard, collapses forty feet down to the forest floor, landing in a cushion of powdery white snow. Sunlight glistens on the icicles hanging from the sturdiest boughs. A drop of crystalline water runs to the sharpened point of one icicle, and plummets down…down…down… onto the cow with the aching joints. The small splash of cold water on her nasal pouch awakens her. The scene before her is one of beauty; the sun caresses over the pure white hills, basking the frosted trees in its yellowish light. Countless icicles adorn the branches like Christmas ornaments. As she stirs, the rest of the herd awakens from their hollows of snow. Too tired to go on anymore in the relentless storm, they huddled together in large beds they dug into the snow on the fourth day, and waited out the blizzard for two days. Now on the seventh day, the storm has finally blown over. A herd of hatchet-crests joins them in this winter wonderland. Soon both species are scraping bark from the trees with their paws and beaks, trying to absorb as much nutrients as possible. The arthritic female finds a particularly rich chunk of dead bark, infested with grubs and maggots. With food in their stomachs and the storm behind them, all seems perfect. But looks can be deceiving.
Four hundred yards away, a pack of wraiths mingles in the forest, stalking the herds. There's five of them; a comparatively large group for their kind. They're taking advantage of the warming weather; they're more active and they're starving. Nearly forty feet long and five tons, once could overpower an adult trumpet-crest. Their long deep skulls are a vibrant orangish-red in colour, blackish feathers and "whiskers" line their snouts, eye ridges, and necks. Two of the wraiths even have "beards" and manes of blackish feathers; plumage of grown males. And while they're certainly the most regal and striking in appearance, they thrive under the rule of a gargantuan female. Forty-five feet long and six tons in weight, she's like an Amazon of the wraiths, a behemoth. Her scaly, wrinkled face is pockmarked with scars and wounds from parasites long gone. One of her arms is missing, as is the tip of her tail. She's a brawler, a wrestler; and she's not afraid of anything. Her breath reeks of decay and bacteria built up over years of hunting; tidbits of rotten meat remain wedged between her teeth. The behemoth wraith is a fierce monarch and an efficient hunter as well. Three out of five attacks from her mob end in a successful kill. Her enormous size is what makes her so proficient, easily taking down prey with her brutal assaults. A low, gurgling growl emerges from her throat. The hunt is underway.
Without a single utterance or noise, the pack charges, elegantly weaving through the trees. The snow cushions the impact of their feet, reducing their attack to little but a whisper, shshshshsh. The pack is only a hundred yards away by the time the female with the old joints notices them and bellows in alarm. Heads shoot out from within their meal to observe the danger. Hatchet and trumpet-crests alike flee into the woods, propelling to speeds of 15mph. But the Amazon is already on their heels, barely exhausted at all. Within seconds she catches sight of the arthritic female, jogging on the edge of the herd, slower than the rest. Her golden eyes focus on the cow; she rushes towards her, growling. But the fight to the death instinct is back! The Amazon soon finds herself being jostled by two cows, both sisters of the arthritis victim. One particularly strong shove nearly trips the behemoth up, but she instantly regains her footing and roars at the sisters. She targets them, jaws agape. A bull trumpet-crest intercepts the furious flight towards the sisters, rearing on his hind legs and slamming his forepaws into the giant's ribs. The rest of the pack halts the attack, watching as their leader tries to handle herself in a fight with three angry trumpet-crests. The herd takes advantage of this moment of pause, changing direction and charging at them. One of the male wraiths is tramped under the feet of thirty furious hatchet-crests, while the others take off to their lair. GROAW! The bull bellows as the Amazon lands a bite on his tail. The two cows rush her and with one big shove, knock the Amazon to the ground. She roars in desperation; the tables have never turned on her like this. She is cracking under the pressure. The herd charges…
Krek. Krek. Krek. A small bird-like creature descends down the tree like a squirrel. Small, hooked teeth line its pinkish-red gums, and a fine pelage of brown-striped feathers coats its body down to its toes. Its long striped tail wavers in the air, standing straight. The small climber observes the mass that rocked its tree like an earthquake. The Amazon's dead body towers over him, the smell of retched saliva and rotten meat still lingers in the air around her gaping mouth. Hopping from her bottom jaw to the top of her bony snout, he spots the damage inflicted on her body. Various dents, bruises, and slashes defect her once sleek frame. Her feathers are ruffled and imperfect from the battle. The cruel Amazon is no more. The climber takes a delicate, tentative bite from the base of her head. She will be nothing but a withered carcass in a few days. Her pack observes from a distance, and then moves on…
A few days later, two more feet of snow have already melted as the temperatures spike to sixty degrees. The yellow sun is never blocked by the few puffs of fluffy white cumulus clouds that dot the sky. Water drips methodically from the conifer trees, free from bearing the load of heavy snow that had already seized many weak branches. The arthritic female is enjoying the weather, aside from the occasional sight of a corpse freed from its frozen tomb. Her herd noisily wallows around a muddy pond, where horsetails have already sprung up yet again. The black-shelled armored reptile slips into the water, lackadaisically watching as the small crocodiles and fish swim above his head. Slowly raising herself, the arthritic female rears up to her full 17ft height on her hind legs, and leans up against a conifer trunk, meticulously cropping the deep green needles from the ebony branches. It seems to be the perfect day, with the Amazon vanquished and not a blizzard in sight. She quietly chews her cud and nuzzles her head against the flanks of her approaching sister, the last one alive. Mutual bonds are hard to break for trumpet-crests. Their throats gurgle in delight. An intense light livens up the sky, dwarfing the sun in brightness, to the southwest. The arthritic female stumbles and faints, crashing into the snow. Everything goes black.
She doesn't know how long she's been out. All she remembers is the blinding light. Shaking her head in a dazed, blurry confusion, she slowly and painfully rises from the ground, standing on all four legs. The landscape around her has been utterly transformed. Only small fragments and patches of snow remain, while ash and dust carpet most of the surface. The lush conifer forest she once knew stands barren and dark, with barely a needle in sight. It looms over the open plain before her like the ominous gate to Hell. The expansive pond is little but a puddle, the black armored reptile scuttling around its perimeter. And right in front of her is a withered corpse, mangled, gnarly, and scalded. She recognizes the glazed over auburn eyes staring into her brown eyes. It's the dead body of her last sister. A gurgling sound emanates from her throat, and she howls in pain and turmoil. She paws the corpse, but there is no sign of movement, save for a small mammal leaping from the ribcage. The old female has no idea what happened. She quietly tiptoes around the corpse, into the forest where the Amazon fell. The only sign of the great beast is a skull, with small strips of skin, still attached, blowing in the warm breeze. As she trudges through the ash, the climber watches from his perch above. A goose lizard's dry corpse lays slumped against a tree. A living tank lies on its bank, belly hollowed out by scores of scavenger, but it's armored back intact. More trumpet-crest corpses decorate the forest all around her, their bones scattered about. The baking heat doesn't bother her, but the sight of her own kind vanquished immeasurably destroys her. Desperate, she gives a saddened distress call. Seconds later, another returns to her ears, miles away. She has no idea if it is her echo or another of her kind. She trudges towards it, head down…
Key List: Trumpet-crest: Charonosaurus Armored one/reptile: Turtle Wraith: Tyrannosaurine tyrannosaurid, similar to Tarbosaurus Monstrous lizard/monster: Speculative mosasaur Hatchet-crest: Olorotitan Bird-like creature/climber: Speculative coelurosaur Goose lizard: Ornithomimosaur Living tank: Nodosaur