As Sierra came to, two things were immediately obvious to him: the throbbing soreness in his left wing, and the blinding light of the bright circle shining right in his face. He tried to roll over to escape the brightness—and that was when he leaned too far on his wing, causing a jab of searing pain all the way up his arm.
"AARGH!" he shouted, crumpling back to the ground as his vision blurred from the pain.
What had happened? For a split second, he was unsure, but then the previous night began flooding back into his memory.
After the whole fiasco with the stone of cold fire, which of course had been just some lousy old rock all along—curse that Pterano!—he and Rinkus had been blasted off Threehorn Peak by the exploding stone. Rinkus's tail was injured, so he got all bent out of shape, saying banging on the stone was Sierra's stupid idea, so the explosion was his fault, blah blah blah.
Whatever. Now that they weren't tagging along with Pterano anymore, Sierra figured he had no more reason to deal with Rinkus restraining him. After being sure to tell the pink doofus exactly what he thought of him, he took off into the Mysterious Beyond.
He was on his own once again, just as he'd been before Pterano's delusions of grandeur had persuaded him to follow the lunatic. It seemed so stupid now, so foolish, that Pterano had been able to draw him in at all. It was those promises of power, control—the things that Sierra had spent his formative years hungering for—waiting to be claimed in a magical stone from the sky, that had captured the flyer's attention. Nothing but empty promises from a fool's mouth. Sierra should have known. He'd learned long ago that he couldn't rely on anyone else. He swore to himself that now that he'd been through that lesson twice, he definitely wasn't going to forget it, never again.
Then the skywater began. The flyer should have gone looking for shelter when the drizzle started, but he was too angry to care about a little skywater. Soon, the gentle shower gave way to shrieking winds and vicious downpours. By the time Sierra had spotted a decent place to land, the skyfire had begun to crackle through the air, dangerously close. Before the flyer could make it to the ground, his wing was struck by a jolt of white-hot pain. That was the last thing he remembered.
As he lay motionless, he could hear two young voices nearby. Children's voices.
"Hey, there's eggs left in that nest."
"Is the mom okay? Do you think she's dead?"
"I dunno. Oh—look at the eggs, they're hatching!"
"No, they just broke when the tree fell."
"But that one moved, I really saw it!"
Ugh. If there was one thing Sierra downright hated, it was kids. Growling under his breath, he began to sit up, making sure not to touch anything with his injured wing.
"Look, the mom's moving!"
Sierra opened his eyes and realized he was sitting next to a large nest of twigs with several cracked eggs inside. Not far away was an uprooted tree, while more debris from the storm was strewn around the sparsely vegetated area. In the middle of this scene, standing in front of Sierra, were two wide-eyed hollowhorn children. Pests.
"Mrs. Flyer, your egg is hatching!" one of the kids piped up.
Sierra narrowed his eyes in a deadly glare at the child. "I ain't no mother!" he growled. "Get lost!"
Frightened, the kids ran off, and Sierra turned his focus to his injury. It was obvious now what was so sensitive—his left wing bore a hole the size of a tree star, its border charred and black. Great, just great. He wasn't going to be flying any time soon. Now what was he supposed to do? Crud, there was nothing worse than being grounded.
Then he heard the little squeak behind him. "Da-da!"
Sierra whipped around and saw a baby flyer sitting in the nest, eggshells still stuck to its smooth little head. Tiny peeping noises came from its blunt, rounded beak as it beamed up at him, wagging its delicate, thin tail.
Blech. It was so cute Sierra just wanted to barf.
"Only one thing's worse than stinkin' kids," he muttered under his breath. "Stinkin' babies…" Rolling his eyes in disgust, he began to trudge away from the nest on foot.
The next thing he knew, there was something small, fuzzy, and warm up against his back.
"Gaah!" he shouted, turning his head and finding himself nose-to-nose with the baby flyer. "Get outta here! SCRAM!"
"Da," the baby cooed. Unfazed by Sierra's anger, he lovingly licked the bigger flyer's shoulder.
"Yuck—GET OFF!" Sierra spat in disgust, shaking the hatchling off his back. "I mean it! Go away, you brat!" he grumbled, forcefully pointing at the little nuisance.
"Yoo brat!" the thing babbled, pointing back at him.
"You don't call me names! You're the brat!" Sierra screeched. "AAUGH!" Now he was arguing with a hatchling. This was ridiculous! He gnashed his teeth in front of its face. "If you know what's good for you, you'll beat it!" he threatened, stomping away.
After he'd gone a ways, Sierra wondered if the coast was clear. Was the little beast gone? He looked over his shoulder.
The smiling hatchling was crawling along behind him. Following him.
"GO AWAY!" Sierra screamed. "Can't you take a hint?! GO!"
The hatchling remained there. It didn't even flinch.
"GO!" howled Sierra in furious exasperation.
He spent several minutes just screaming at the hatchling, calling it names, threatening it, gnashing his teeth, throwing dirt at it.
The hatchling didn't go away. "Da-da," it reiterated.
"You blasted little numbskull!—I AIN'T YOUR DAD!" burst Sierra, glowering down at the little creature with pure loathing.
That did nothing to stop the hatchling from scrambling up to perch on top of Sierra's head before the furious flyer could even react. It nuzzled against Sierra, wrapping its small wings across his face.
"Get off—NOW!" Sierra roared, desperately trying to pry the baby away, which only resulted in it settling into a new position on him each time. "AAARRGH!" he cried, dancing around like a fool in an effort to get the hatchling off. "Geroff—stupid—you little—"
After managing to wrench the hatchling's wings from his eyes, Sierra saw a domehead had begun gathering twigs at the other end of the fallen tree.
Perfect! This was his chance to pass off the little pest!
Clumsy as a three-legged bellydragger, Sierra stumbled towards the domehead as quickly as he could, which was not particularly easy with a sensitive wing and a hatchling on his head. "Hey, you!" he shouted.
The domehead turned towards him with a questioning expression. "What?" she inquired.
"Take this thing!" Sierra growled, prying the hatchling off his head and holding it out at arm's length while it flapped its wings energetically. When the domehead only stared at him in disbelief, he shoved the hatchling towards her face. "Here! TAKE IT!"
The domehead coolly took a few steps back. "I have my own mouths to feed. I'm not taking your baby!" She broke a piece off one of the tree's roots and gently bent it to test for durability.
"What the—it's NOT my baby!" Sierra screeched. "Look, lady, you're a mother, and I'm not! Just take it already!" He tried to force the baby towards her again.
The domehead thwacked him on the beak with one of her twigs. "Get ahold of yourself, for goodness sakes! You're a grown flyer, and it's only one hatchling! I have three and one more on the way!"
Sierra's hands began shaking, balled into fists. "Then give the brat to his real family! The ones who built that nest!" He thrust his claw towards the nest. "You live here, you must know 'em!"
"I don't live here. We're only passing through," said the domehead. "The storm has been over for a while now. If those parents haven't returned to the nest yet…" Sadness flickered across the domehead's face. "This egg was very lucky to survive." She paused for a moment. "I would take him in, but I just couldn't support another child."
Sierra grumbled. "Look here…" he said in a low voice, "I don't know the first thing about dealing with hatchlings, and I ain't about to start learning. Come on…" he growled, "just take it!"
"I don't think that hatchling would let me take him if I could," the domehead replied.
Exasperatingly content, the hatchling was nuzzling against Sierra's leg now.
"Stop it!" Sierra snapped. "I am not your dad!"
"Da-da," the hatchling insisted, pointing up at Sierra. Then it pointed at itself. "Brat!"
Goodie, it actually thought its name was Brat.
The domehead gave Sierra a stern but kindly look. "Caring for a youngster is intimidating. But it can also be the most rewarding thing. Sometimes life takes you in a direction you didn't choose, but you just have to buck up and make something out of it." She turned away and began to leave. "Good luck now, I've got my nest to repair."
As the hatchling affectionately drooled on Sierra's right wing, there was only one thing the flyer could say:
After a temper tantrum, Sierra finally managed to calm down. Well, relatively speaking. "Calm" was not a word anyone would ever have used to describe him, after all.
He decided he'd just keep walking as far as he could. Eventually, the hatchling would get tired and have to stop. Or he'd encounter a sharptooth. Either way, things would work themselves out.
Starting his trek across the barren Mysterious Beyond in the morning sunlight, Sierra grumbled, "Darn it, I barely got myself rid of that last whiny hatchling…"
He thought of the insufferable bigmouth who had dared to bite him. She'd been a real squealer, too. Nothing but a bunch of yep, yep, nope nonsense.
"Well…only good thing to say for this one is at least it can't hardly talk!"
The brat had finally decided to let go of Sierra, though just hearing it rustling through the grass behind him as he walked made his blood pressure rise. He kept up a pretty good clip that he was sure would leave the creature in the dust. As he went, he cursed his injured wing—if not for that, he could have ditched that brat in seconds.
As the bright circle rose further into the sky, the flyer crossed the plain and ended up walking along a rocky canyon in the midst of a harsh desert landscape. The dry breeze blew red dust into the air past jagged outcrops of rock, and the heat of the bright circle, which was almost directly overhead, made sweat bead up on Sierra's neck.
That hatchling had to be gone now. No kid could walk so far in this heat. Sierra had been making a point not to look back, not only because it would probably encourage the dumb creature but also because he didn't want the pest in his sight. Now, he turned back for the first time in hours.
The brat was still there.
Granted, there was plenty more space between him and that thing than when he'd set out, but other than that, Sierra had come all this way for nothing. His feet were sore, dust was blowing into his eyes, and his stomach had begun to rumble like a ravenous animal.
This was the pits! He wouldn't give up! He wasn't going to let some baby get the best of him! He found himself wishing the hatchling would catch up a little faster so he could just let the wretched little beast have it, but as it approached at a leisurely pace, Sierra didn't have the energy left to do anything but slump across the hard ground.
Food—he needed food. He hadn't anticipated how traveling on foot would drain him of his energy, especially in the middle of the afternoon. Fending for himself in the Mysterious Beyond was just a typical day in Sierra's life, but he'd been able to count on flying up until this point.
He felt as if the bright circle above was taunting him as it beat down on him, and that filled him with anger. Anger that made him want to take action. It was gonna take more than some sunshine to beat this flyer! He forced himself to stand back up.
That was when he saw it—a single gnarled old tree sticking out over the edge of the canyon. Its fruit looked scrawny and tough, but who cared about that? Sierra was tougher than some dumb fruit, and it was going to sustain him whether it liked it or not.
Much as Sierra hated to acknowledge it, however, there was one problem. The fruit was on a branch that extended at least ten feet over the gap above the canyon…and with no way to fly, the flyer had to risk climbing out to the food.
Whatever. It was just a tree, and he didn't even have to climb that far. That was what the stubborn flyer told himself as he stepped towards the sorry vegetation.
Never mind that, like any other decent flyer, he'd abandoned the use of climbing soon after he'd hatched. What'd it matter that the canyon was so deep the bottom seemed to disappear out of view below him? Who cared that the tree already looked ancient, brittle, and about to bite the dust at any moment?
Just the sight of food was tempting Sierra so much that it was even enough to make him forget about that darn nuisance coming up behind him! He was hungry!
Sierra narrowed his eyes at his goal, fixed upon it like a sharptooth staring down a leaf-eater. Smacking his lips, the flyer threw himself at the tree trunk and, ravenous with hunger, began clawing his way up the tree. He brushed it off when more than one piece of stiff bark broke off the trunk, even as it threatened to make him lose his grip. One pathetic climb was all that stood between him and a meal!
But he soon heard the faint creaking sound, and the next thing Sierra knew, his support was giving way before he even had time to react. Though, out of his stupid stubbornness, he wouldn't have reacted, anyway—even as the tree trunk began to split down the middle with a deadly crack, he was still scrambling to reach that food, because this was a challenge now. Needless to say, this struggle was in vain, and Sierra paid for it when a stray twig poked right at the hole in his wing.
"OW!" With a shout of pain, he lost his grip on the tree, and for a moment he could only flail around as he fell, while the tree above him lost one whole side of its trunk, revealing its splintered, brittle insides in a mangled cross-section.
The fruit was still safe on the other side of the tree, though. Just to tease Sierra, as if it mattered that the food remained now that the flyer was falling to his doom.
But Sierra's frantic clawing made contact with an outcrop jutting out of the cliff, and he dug his grip into it, clinging to it and his life. It was amazing what adrenaline could do. Moments ago, he had been ready to collapse from hunger, and now he was summoning the strength to heave himself onto this ledge, heart pounding like an earthshake. With an exhale of relief, he threw himself onto the firm surface.
Above him, there was a thick root from the ancient tree wedged deep into the rocks. He gripped it with both hands, breathing heavily as he pulled himself back up to where he had started. His head came over the top of the rocky cliff.
And that was where he saw a flyer hatchling—that hatchling!—sitting in front of him, playing with a dried-up vine that had fallen from the same tree which had nearly been Sierra's death. And when the little brat saw Sierra, it smiled.
"That's IT!" Sierra roared, while the hatchling cooed nonchalantly. Sierra was satisfied that the thing seemed to take note, though, when he snatched the vine from its hands and flung it out towards the canyon. "I've had it with this wing—that tree—but especially with you! I'm not puttin' up with this! You get just one more chance to scram, ya hear? If you don't, I'm fixin' to send ya out there after your silly shriveled vine!" Eyes blazing, Sierra forcefully gestured towards the canyon, where the vine he'd thrown fluttered from that cursed branch of fruit in the dusty breeze.
What he sure didn't expect was for the hatchling to scurry over to the edge of the cliff and dive off.
Hmm. Good riddance. Maybe it had decided to have mercy on him after all.
But seconds later, its head appeared over the edge again, and when it rose further upward, Sierra saw that—it was flying!
No wonder the thing had been able to keep up with him! Drat the way some species started flying so quickly! This wasn't fair!
His insides boiled as he watched the brat flap over, all happy, to fetch its vine. It perched on the tree with no problem, naturally. Sierra shouted rude things at it, but his fit was in vain, as the hatchling paid no attention whatsoever while it tried to tug the vine from its place. The plaything had gotten tangled around the stem of one of those fruits, and the hatchling was struggling to get it off. It was no use, though, Sierra realized with a smirk. Thank goodness he didn't have to be the only one who wasn't going to get what he wanted.
Then the baby opened his beak and snapped the whole fruit right off the tree by its stem, grabbing it with the oversized feet he had yet to grow into and flying back towards the cliff with his prize.
Sierra gaped. He could feel his mouth starting to water with the promise of food.
The baby landed on the ground with the hard, round fruit, and Sierra swiped it faster than a bolt of skyfire, with the hatchling none the wiser that it had just delivered him a precious commodity as it went back to playing with the vine. Smacking the fruit against the ground to break it open, Sierra discovered a sweet-smelling pulp on the inside. The flyer wasted no time diving into it, and he felt reenergized again, which couldn't have been more of a relief. He was no longer weak, no longer vulnerable.
The hatchling looked up from its vine to blink at Sierra, smacking its lips as it watched him eat. It didn't know how food had suddenly appeared, but it realized it wanted it.
As Sierra lowered the fruit from his face, he made the mistake of looking towards the baby. It peeped in askance, then opened its mouth wide, waiting for its turn.
Licking juice off his lips, Sierra rolled his eyes. He could have starved the thing just for spite, but as much as he hated to think it, he had no idea when the next time he'd need it to get a meal for him was. Blasted thing.
He scooped a handful of pulp out of the fruit and tossed it towards the hatchling's gaping face. A bit of the food landed on its beak, but it didn't care, babbling gleefully as it chewed with its mouth full. It seemed awfully happy to show off all the messy, mushy chunks of spit-covered fruit in its beak.
Why'd these little brats have to be so gross?
After their meal was finished, the two flyers set off across the barren landscape again. Their shadows grew long in front of them as the bright circle began to set.
The hatchling was captivated by its own shadow, giggling as it danced back and forth in the air to watch the shadow return the same movements. On the ground, it appeared as a large, dark, monstrous shape, whooshing back and forth around Sierra's shadow like an attacking fast biter. Sierra could have sworn its laughter was malicious.
The shadow was practically the little fiend's true form, thought the flyer. Annoying, inescapable, and threatening to overwhelm him. He couldn't believe he was depending on this thing now. Sheesh, what if his wing never healed? Would this be what he had to look forward to for the rest of his life?
That was when, frowning at the horizon, he spotted a color it seemed like he hadn't glimpsed in forever: green. The edge of a valley.
Now Sierra was getting somewhere! With that much green visible even from a distance, there had to be food and water to spare. He could spend as much time there as he needed to while his wing hopefully healed—and maybe he could even lose the brat while he was at it.
Normally, Sierra would have despised the thought of going someplace filled with other creatures, which he was sure such a green valley had to be. But now he actually found himself welcoming the thought. With so many dinosaurs running around there, at least one had to be willing to take that pest off his hands!
By the time he had reached the valley, he felt a weight was about to be lifted from his chest. Peering down into the area, he could see rivers, forests, and plenty of dinosaurs—dinosaurs roaming all over the place.
Even as the hatchling clung to his foot, Sierra smirked in triumph. He was going to win now! Nothing could ruin his luck in that moment.
"Whoa!" The loud greeting came from behind Sierra and just about startled him into falling down the ridge. "What's the big idea?" he grunted as he regained his footing, turning around with hands on his hips to see who had made the big mistake of sneaking up on him.
The answer nearly hit him in the nose as a big yellow beak grinned right into his face.
Ugh, great. Just when Sierra thought he'd already met the most irritating creature on the planet, he was about to be proven wrong.
"Welcome to Berry Valley!" the thing squawked before bursting into hysterical laughter.
While the hatchling merely stared, Sierra was forced backwards against the ground in his effort to get some space without falling off the ledge. He grumbled, ticked off, and his first thought was to give this nauseatingly smiley animal a piece of his mind. But no sooner had he gotten back onto his feet than he saw something move in the corner of his eye, and he realized there was another one of these things coming on his right, its chubby yellow belly bouncing as it walked. Argh! The flyer tried to go the other way, but he ran into another of the creatures on his left.
Where were these things coming from? If any more of the bulging beasts showed up, he was sure the ridge he was standing on would break under his feet. Just the size of those bellies alone was practically crowding the flyer off the edge!
"Hey, you don't really look like one of us!" observed a pink one of the creatures, the one who had shouted in Sierra's face.
"No kiddin', thank goodness!" growled Sierra.
"Hey, you've got a hatchling!" said the blue creature to his right. He picked up the hatchling, who still looked puzzled, and held it up in front of him, making goofy faces that failed to get anything but blank stares from the baby.
"Aww, what's his name?" gasped the pink one.
"Brat…" the hatchling babbled, chewing on its own tail.
Why was it that watching these things handle the brat made Sierra tense up? Maybe it was that being present while creatures so stupid got in anybody's face was second in annoyance only to them getting in Sierra's own face. Or maybe it was because Sierra suddenly felt possessive of the hatchling. As long as he still needed a gofer while he healed, getting in that thing's face was his job.
He snatched the brat from the blue creature's hands. "Gimme him—he ain't my hatchling!" he contradicted himself with a stammer.
"Okay!" replied the pink one in a bubbly tone.
Sierra was bothered by the way that she was so unfazed by him. A dumb hatchling was one thing, but this was a grown dinosaur. What were she and her friends hiding that made them so confident? He didn't trust them.
"What're you guys doing in Berry Valley?" asked the blue creature.
"What'd anybody be doing in a valley?" Sierra grumbled. "Lookin' for food. A safe place to stay!"
"Oh my gosh, you're going to stay here?" exclaimed the pink one. "This is gonna be FUN!" She grinned like she was about to lose her mind.
Was this whole thing some hallucination? Now Sierra had to wonder if he'd been walking out in the heat too long. These yellow-bellied things were more than irritating. They were downright weird, kinda creepy. For cryin' out loud, nobody could really be this happy for no good reason. What were they trying to pull on him? The green one on the flyer's left smiled as he licked something red and sticky from his lips. Probably just fruit juice. Right?
As these weirdos stared towards Sierra, waiting for an answer, the flyer blurted, "NO! Ain't no way I'm stayin' here!"
He'd starve before he started hanging around with some scarily smiley bunch of doofuses! With that, he shoved through the green and the blue ones to get back to the area he'd come in from, and the hatchling scampered after him.
"Well, he didn't stay very long!" the pink creature exclaimed.
"Goodbye!" the blue one called cheerfully. He waved enthusiastically as Sierra left, and the pink and the green creatures followed suit.
Continuing to follow Sierra, the hatchling returned the waving motion. "Byee!"
Twilight was beginning to fall now, and Sierra cursed that valley for wasting his time. What he'd thought was the answer to his problems had turned out to get him nowhere. He hadn't even nabbed any food from those clowns before their weird personalities drove him away.
Rats—the only thing he was taking away from that stop was the haunting feeling that there actually were more irritating things out there than a tenacious hatchling. Too bad those dumb things had taught his pest a new word, one which he'd be stuck listening to for a long time: "Byee. Byee! Byee…"
The flyers eventually came to a cave, where they settled down for the night. Sierra was so exhausted, he was snoring almost as soon as he lay down on the floor.
He didn't know how long it was before he was awakened by a small beak poking his side, but it sure hadn't been long enough.
Sierra glared at the hatchling. "I'm sleepin', can't ya see that?!" he grumbled.
The hatchling was going nuts, squeaking in a panic as it flapped left and right. Then the ferocious growl echoed through the cavern, distant but coming closer.
Of course. This crummy point in his life just wouldn't have been complete without running into some sharptooth!
Sierra didn't waste any time taking off running through the cave, cutting his way past stalagmites and boulders. He didn't look back, but he was sure that hatchling must've been keeping up just fine. Nothing could make that cursed thing get away from him!
Louder roars were shattering the air now, followed by deafening echoes that shook the cave and made rocks fall from the ceiling. But there was light coming from the other end of the cavern, and Sierra knew he'd almost made it out. A little falling debris wasn't gonna scare him now!
From behind him, a whimper suddenly rang out. Looking back—why'd he even look back?—he saw that, several feet behind him, a slab of rock had fallen in the hatchling brat's way, and it was having a hard time getting through what had been an already-narrow opening.
The cave shook as thunderous footsteps could be heard nearing the two flyers.
Dumb hatchling. It wasn't even stuck, really! It could easily have gotten through that opening if it had been smart enough to just move over towards the larger end. But no, it kept whining and squirming instead. Sierra should have just left it…but he had no choice. He still needed it. Argh!
As another roar cut through the air, Sierra, grumbling and madder than a hornet, stormed back towards the hatchling. "Move it!" he yelled, reaching through the wide end of the opening and pulling the pest through.
He rushed through the cave with the hatchling under his arm (ugh). The place was shaking so much now, they'd be lucky if it didn't collapse on them before they got out. But after narrowly avoiding a large falling boulder, they made it.
The first thing that happened when they got outside was that Sierra tripped over a rock and fell face-first into a deep puddle of mud. There was no time to care about that, though, as the monstrous sharptooth thundered past, ugly and massive, so close Sierra could smell its putrid breath. The mud that was covering the flyer—covering his scent—was probably the only thing that had saved him from being the monster's new toothpick.
Sierra waited a moment after the sharptooth had passed, then pulled himself out of the mud puddle with a grumble. The hatchling cooed happily as he dropped it onto the ground. While the thing wrapped itself around his leg and smiled up at him, Sierra rolled his eyes.
"Quit savin' my life so I can get rid of ya!" he griped.
They began to wander again. Before long, they were entering marshland, where Sierra stopped for a moment to examine his wing.
Was the hole starting to heal yet? It didn't seem as sensitive as it had been before. Or maybe that was just him getting used to it. It seemed like it had been there so much longer than just a day, this was such a drag.
The air was hot and muggy, draped with lianas and moss hanging from the trees above, which the hatchling flyer playfully batted at.
"I'd better not see any bellydragger in here…" Sierra muttered under his breath. One sharptooth per morning was plenty!
The flyer's stomach growled, and he realized it was time to find some breakfast. He scanned the area and saw plenty of scraggly ferns on the ground around him, but the good stuff, tree stars, was all—surprise—in the trees. He'd thought it before, but he'd think it again: not being able to fly stank!
"Alright," he grunted towards the hatchling, "get over here." The thing stared towards him, and he sighed, "Go on, go find somethin' I can eat!" He pointed up into the trees, while the hatchling returned to playing with a piece of dangling moss, to his irritation. "C'mon already!"
To grab the hatchling's two-second attention span, Sierra had to resort to ripping down a low-hanging chunk of moss and waving it in the thing's face before tossing it into the trees. When the hatchling eagerly flew off to retrieve the moss, its movements through the treetops caused a shower of tree stars to flutter to the ground. Sierra gathered all the fallen greens, then lounged back against a log to enjoy his breakfast. The brat soon landed beside him to cut in, of course. How'd this puny thing have to eat so much?
After the food was gone, Sierra walked a bit further, hoping to find a watering hole to quench his thirst. That was when he suddenly realized that nuisance had disappeared. Great! Even though Sierra wanted nothing more than to let the beast go, he still needed it to be his wings, so he began backtracking his way through the forest in search of it, fuming the whole way.
"Come back here, you little brat!" he shouted, shoving vines out of his path as he kept moving. "Hey! Brat!"
"Da!" came the squeaky reply from not too far away.
Turning towards the sound, Sierra saw the baby perched in a fruit tree at the top of a slope. It kept grabbing fruit and tossing it over the other side of the hill, then breaking into a fit of giggling. Kids and their dumb giggling…Sierra was sure everything hadn't been this funny when he was younger. He stormed up the hill towards the brat.
"Nothing's a laughin' matter right now, understand?" Sierra grumbled. "Come on!" He motioned for the hatchling to follow him, but it kept up its routine of toss, giggle, repeat, toss, giggle, repeat.
Sierra growled and stomped to the top of the hill. "What in the world's so—"
Then, looking down the hill, he saw exactly what was so funny.
The hatchling had been flinging fruit at a watering hole that was on the other side of the hill, and it all was landing right on an unsuspecting creature who looked quite dismayed about how his simple stop to get a drink was going. No doubt about it, even though the creature was covered in a fruity mess now, Sierra would recognize him anywhere, though he was glad that his own vantage point from behind tree trunks prevented him from being seen in return.
It was Pterano.
Sierra tried to stifle a chuckle, but it was no use—it broke through anyway. As fruit kept flying and landing on Pterano, who proudly kept up the drink he was in the midst of nevertheless, Sierra began to flat-out howl with laughter, collapsing onto the ground and pounding his fist against the grass in hysterics. The hatchling laughed even more, looking very happy with himself for managing to reduce the flyer to this.
Together, the two creatures remained at the top of the hill guffawing at Pterano until the fruit-covered flyer left. Once Pterano was out of sight, Sierra and his brat raced down to the water to get a drink, still grinning over the prank.
This brat could have a good sense of humor, at least.
Some trees rustled nearby, and Sierra instinctively cut his laugh short. In an instant, he felt like a fool. If anybody saw him laughing himself silly with some hatchling—especially if it was Pterano coming back…
But it wasn't Pterano, it was some hollowhorn coming through the brush. He was holding his own hatchling while an older child walking beside him. The father and child chatted about something as the father rocked the baby to sleep in his arms. Yuck—how mushy. Nobody was ever going to see Sierra lowering himself to that level.
"Hello," the hollowhorn greeted Sierra as he went past.
Sierra only folded his arms and grunted. The little pest, however, waved happily at the strangers.
"Aww, what's your baby's name?" exclaimed the child, waving back.
"Brat!" exclaimed the hatchling.
"Can I hold him?"
"No!" Sierra shouted, shoving the hatchling away from the strangers. "And he ain't mine."
"Come on, dear," the father nervously interrupted, "let's keep going." He grabbed his kid's hand to pull her away.
Sierra spent the rest of the day in the swampy forest, as he welcomed the break from the burning desert sun he'd been through not long ago.
When sunset began fading to dusk, the woods became quite different. Sounds of nighttime creatures echoed through the swamp, and trees and vines created strange shapes in the dark.
None of this was even notable to Sierra, who was able to sleep soundly practically anywhere, but the hatchling wouldn't stop fussing. The thing whimpered and whined over every little chirping cricket and croaking frog, afraid of everything in the darkness around it. As if that wasn't annoying enough, it kept trying to scamper up on top of Sierra in its fright.
Sierra had no idea if the brat had been this clingy during their night in the cave, since he'd been too exhausted to notice then, but it was driving him crazy now. He was trying to get his own rest, and he didn't have time for making some scaredy-egg baby feel better.
"Get off!" the flyer grumbled. "Move over…" He kept shoving the nuisance away, and when he'd done it one too many times, the thing screwed up its face and began crying.
Oh, how Sierra despised that sound. It reminded him of when his own younger brother had been born, and the blasted baby had cried himself to sleep every night. He hadn't been able to give his brother a piece of his mind without getting punished back then, but he was sure tempted to do that to this hatchling now.
But he couldn't—not as long as his wing was still injured, because he needed the brat. AARGH!
He had to resort to handling things the way he'd handled his baby brother. Growling, he dragged himself into a big clump of those scraggly ferns, where the sound was at least muffled. In fact, Sierra was even able to tune out the crying after a while, and he fell asleep…
"Your father left! He's done with us—he's not going to come back!"
The young Sierra watched as his mother struggled to hold back sobs, while his younger brother glared at him.
"It's your fault," his mother accused, anger rising in her voice as she thrust a pointing claw towards Sierra. "He said you fought him last night, and he had it. This is your fault!"
"So what if it's my fault?" Sierra shot back, stomping his foot. "We're better off without him here! What—every time he got in a mood and wanted to rough me up, I shoulda just let him?"
"You don't understand!" his mother shouted. "He was all that was protecting us from sharpteeth! He gathered food for us so we didn't have to leave the safety of the nest!" Tears of fury streamed down her cheeks. "Now we're on our own."
Although Sierra's frown didn't completely fade, it faltered somewhat. He began to step towards his family.
"Get out of our nest!" his mother shouted.
Sierra froze in shock.
"Don't you dare come near us. Don't, you brat! Go—just go!" his mother repeated in a tone full of anger.
Wetness threatened to overtake Sierra's eyes, but he blinked to force it back. "You want me to go? That's fine—I'm goin'!" He turned away, storming towards the edge of the cliff as he began seeing red. "Actually, thanks for lettin' me go!" He couldn't stop tears from welling up as he unfolded his wings, so he made sure not to look back. No one needed to see that. "I—I hate ya! I never asked to be stuck with you jerks!" he shouted right before he swooped off the cliff. "I want to be on my own!"
Breathing heavily, Sierra shot bolt upright.
He saw the barren grassland in front of him, silver under the night circle and the faraway glint of the stars above. Aside from the cool breeze whistling past, the world was silent, still as a shadow. No one was yelling at him. He was alone.
Sierra hated that dream. That memory.
Giving up on sleep, he stood up and trudged away, too plagued by his thoughts to glance at the hatchling, which had finally gone to sleep nearby.
Stopping on the edge of the watering hole, Sierra sat down and frowned at the water. His reflection soon came into focus. A solitary flyer, eyes narrowed. He spent a while just glowering at it.
I want to be on my own!
Sierra scratched a pebble out of the earth and hurled it into the watering hole with as much force as he could. There was a satisfying smack when it made contact with the water, causing a ring of ripples to spread outward.
A smaller plink followed, and another series of ripples echoed out across the water. Sierra turned and saw the hatchling standing several feet to his right. It stared at him with large eyes, as if waiting for an affirmation.
Sierra stared back for a moment before turning away. "Not bad," he grunted towards the ground, all but inaudible.
He felt stupid after he said it. What an idiot, talking to some dumb hatchling. It didn't know what he was saying.
He could hear the grass rustling gently, baby footsteps coming closer until something warm nestled onto his lap. He made sure not to look down at it. Maybe not acknowledging it would make it disappear.
But when Sierra's gaze fell onto the water, he saw a changed reflection. A sleeping face against his chest, peaceful and content. Above it, his own face.
He wasn't sure what the look on his own face even was. Not quite a frown, but it sure wasn't a smile, either. A face that was almost blank, yet it held a hint of some emotion he couldn't put a finger on. Something bittersweet. Unsure. Vulnerable…
Ugh, vulnerable. He downright despised that word.
He was sure the hatchling couldn't swim. He could toss it into the watering hole and walk away.
Yet instead, Sierra spent the rest of the night looking out over the water with the brat in his lap. If nothing else, it numbed his mind for a while, somehow.
Sheesh, he couldn't recall when he'd last had a moment of peace like this. If he'd ever had one.
A number of days passed as Sierra kept wandering through the Mysterious Beyond while he waited for his wing to heal. Maybe it would've made more sense to stay put since the swamp at least had a decent food supply, but sharpteeth'd get you if you lingered anywhere in the Mysterious Beyond for too long.
Truth be told, the days the flyer spent healing seemed to go by faster all the time.
When he ventured into the desert again, he stumbled upon an oasis and dipped his feet in to stay cool.
He tossed rocks into the water to see how big of a smack he could make on the surface, which that brat also enjoyed.
He played "fetch" with the brat not just to get food but also when he started getting bored.
He watched the brat chasing lizards across a grassland, snapping its little teeth like the vicious thing it wasn't.
He avoided a few sharpteeth by getting low to the ground and hiding in the reeds with the brat close by.
He saw one sharptooth was smaller than the others, and her ferocious-looking parents were bathing her with gentle licks.
When a violent downpour of skywater came, he found shelter under an overhanging cliff.
He pointed out to the frightened hatchling how every flash of lightning made a big, cool shadow against the rock.
He found a large, low tree hole that made a great place to sleep, even though a handful of bugs were also using it.
He squished a large beetle after it tried to pinch the hatchling.
He kept up his trek across the Mysterious Beyond with the brat in tow, keeping a close eye on his wing to see when he'd be able to return back to the sky.
Finally, one day, it happened. Sierra woke up, though the brat was still asleep beside him, and he saw that the hole in his wing was gone.
A thrill surged through him to think he might not be anchored to the ground any longer. The new flesh over it looked raw and red, as if it hadn't yet fully healed over, but maybe it'd still be good enough.
For the first time in ages, Sierra poised himself for takeoff, flapping a few times before launching himself into the air. Excitement surged through him as he soared into the blue, circling around once before coming back to the ground again, smirking in triumph at his regained ability.
This was it. He didn't have to be grounded any longer. He didn't have to depend on some little brat for survival…
Sierra turned back to look at it and saw its little chest rising in and out as it slept. It looked so peaceful.
Then the flyer became conscious of himself again, and he jerked his gaze away from the hatchling. What was he waiting for? He had wings now! The sky was calling him, and this sorry hatchling was nothing to him. It had never been. It wasn't his responsibility in the first place!
Sierra forced his attention towards the sky again and took flight. This time, he didn't come back down: he let the ground sweep away from him as he thrust his body higher and higher, farther and faster, driving himself to a powerful speed. The wind rushed past him as he shot through the sky, brushing sky puffies aside as he gained altitude. Anyone watching him from below would have thought he could reach out and touch the bright circle. If he had looked back, the brat curled up on the ground would've been a speck of dust to him, if even visible at all.
This was freedom. This was power.
Sierra didn't need anyone else anymore. He was alone.
Back on the ground, the hatchling began to stir. For a moment, he tiredly blinked before softly lifting his head.
That was when he realized something was missing.
"Da?" he peeped, turning his head left and right in a search that was in vain. "Da-da?" He got on his feet and began toddling around in circles, hoping Sierra would appear somehow.
There was no response but the empty whistling of the wind, and the hatchling sniffled, heartbroken.
There was no one else around. He was alone.
Quite a ways off now, Sierra frowned at the earth he flew over with a stern eye, everything on it below him now. As a rumbling sound began, he watched the land he was detached from begin shaking, all its fury unable to touch him now.
Meanwhile, the earthshake knocked the hatchling off his feet. Unaware of what was happening, the baby wailed, but his cries were lost in the chaos.
No one was coming to save him.
He tried to fly away, but falling trees, along with enormous boulders rolling across the land, threatened his ability to reach a safe height, and he plummeted back to the ground when a falling branch swatted him.
There was nothing the hatchling could do but clutch the ground in terror, eyes wide with terror as he shook like a leaf. The world was falling apart around him, a deadly crack breaking through the ground and snaking its way closer, about to wipe the baby off the face of the earth. In overwhelmed helplessness, the hatchling raised his small head and shouted one last time:
No response came but the roar of the earth, as if to laugh at the deserted young one. The incoming crack was only feet away—
With a sudden whoosh, the hatchling was carried into the air, snatched out of peril by an unseen force. Then, looking upward, it was overjoyed to see a familiar face. Long beak. Orange eyes. Firm frown.
"Da-da!" the hatchling cried, beaming up at Sierra in delight.
Sierra looked down at it, just staring at its glee for a moment.
Then—barely, as if he wasn't ready to let himself go too much—the corners of the flyer's mouth turned up. His eyebrows became a little less heavy.
So this was what the beginning of a smile felt like.
Once the threat of the earthshake had passed, Sierra set the hatchling down at the top of a tall tree and perched beside him.
"Look," Sierra groaned. "Let's get this said up front—I stink as a dad. You're about the dumbest thing for picking me to care for ya!" He shook his head as he thought back to his own father and was struck by an awful similarity. "I took off and left ya!"
He looked over at his brat, who had pulled a thorny vine from the tree trunk and was about to put it in his mouth. Quickly grabbing the plant away, Sierra tossed it towards the ground.
"Ugh," he sighed. "I mean, I never had no dad I could look up to. Sheesh—I never had nobody to look up to at all."
Lifting the end of Sierra's wing to its mouth, the hatchling began to drool on it, cooing happily. Sierra let him.
"I guess I'm thinkin'—maybe I can try this anyway, though," Sierra muttered. He made a face. "Argh, that's all I'm sayin'—this all's gettin' too mushy."
The hatchling hopped into his lap. "Brat," he babbled, pointing to himself, then pointing at Sierra. "Da!"
With somewhat of a smile, Sierra shook his head. "Brat…that's not a real name. Guess you're gonna need a name, aren't ya, you little pest?"
The hatchling squeaked enthusiastically.
Sierra stared at him and mulled it over for a moment. "Wings," he finally said.
With a contented coo, Wings leaned back against Sierra's chest and began sucking his thumb.
Sierra absentmindedly stared off towards the horizon as he brought his arms around Wings and, perhaps not even consciously, rocked him a little.
Something new was starting for the flyer. Something better.