The trio gathered in a defensive stance. Nightshade moved to the front while Woodman and Poysenberry gathered at each of her side.
The blue Aqua was screaming its head off, rushing right at them, its eyes wide and its fishhook showing in its mouth. The blue Aqua was mere meters away from them when another Axie from behind the group let out a scream. A black Aqua appeared at their side — it had a star on its head and goldfish sail on its back, and looked almost exactly like the yelling blue Aqua.
The group stood motionless as both Aquas charged at one another, completely oblivious to the Plants standing between them. They let out their war cries they raced across the lands and met in the middle, then the blue Aqua flipped its entire body round and slapped the black Aqua with its nimo tail.
The black Aqua grimaced, seeming to tolerate the pain, then jumped into the air and letting out a shout as it flipped its body and slapped the blue Aqua with its nimo tail.
With the same grimace on its face, the blue Aqua grunted and seemed to absorb the pain like a seasoned warrior. Then it jumped in the air, shouting as it flipped around and slapped the black Aqua with its nimo tail once more.
This battle went on for several minutes, with neither inflicting much damage on the other. But that didn’t stop them from letting out their passionate cries as they smacked one another or took blows from the other’s floppy nimo tails.
Caught in a trance of both confusion and guilty interest, the group stood watching as these two Aquas took turns hitting each other’s faces. After some time, Woodman cleared his throat, causing the Aquas to stop their battle and look at him with widened eyes, as if they had not slept in days.
‘Who are you?’ the blue Aqua shouted.
‘Yeah who are you?’ the black Aqua repeated.
Woodman cleared his throat again.
‘Be ye fighters!’ said the black one.
‘Yeah, be ye fighters?’
‘No,’ said Woodman. ‘We’re a couple of Axies trying to find our way in this world.’
The blue and black Aquas checked in with each other, both nodding at the same time. Then they turned their gazes back at the group.
‘Not fighters, eh?’
‘Yeah, not fighters, eh?’
Woodman squinted at them. ‘No. . .’
‘A’ight,’ said the black one. ‘Not gonna fight, huh?’
‘No we’re not going to fight,’ said Woodman.
‘Then what do you want?’ said the blue one.
‘We’re merely passing through on our way to Sand City.’
Both Aquas closed their mouths and became quiet. Their wide, unblinking eyes remained fixed on the three travellers. A contest seemed to be forming. Woodman glared back at them. They glared back at him. Then both Aquas charged at the same time. Woodman bared his teeth and readied his timber pile for impact. But the two Aquas stopped mere inches away from him. Woodman glanced at both of them, feeling uncertain of what was happening. Poysenberry and Nightshade were undecided as well.
‘You know, if you’re looking for a place to stay, you can come join us at our Fish farm?’
‘Yeah, you can come join us!’
Everyone in the group squinted at the Aquas.
‘Huh?’ said Poysenberry.
‘That’s right,’ said the blue one. ‘We have a farm right up the stream here. You can come stay with us!’
‘Sure, come stay with us!’
Woodman moved aside and angled himself toward his companions to chat with them without the Aquas hearing. They understood his gesture and gathered around him.
‘These fish are crazy,’ he said. ‘We need to get around them though, without offending either one. Understand?’
The group then turned back toward the Aquas with fake smiles on their faces.
‘So you’ll stay with us?’
‘Yeah, you’ll come stay with us?’
Nightshade whispered to the group from the side of her mouth. ‘Let me handle this.’ Then she took a step forward. ‘Thanks for such a kind offer, but we’re actually leaving a farm.’
The two Aquas stared at them blankly.
‘As in, we were once on a farm and now we are on our own.’
The Aquas blinked but gave no reaction.
‘We don’t want to be imprisoned on another farm. Yeah?’
At this, they perked up.
‘Why didn’t you say so?’
‘Yeah, why didn’t you say so?’
Nightshade rolled her eyes as she drew in a deep breath.
‘Axies on our farm are free to come and go!’ said the blue one.
‘Free to come and go!’ echoed the black one.
‘No one has to stay,’ said the blue one. ‘Look at us! We’re not in there. But we can go back and get our food and see our friends later in the evening.’
Woodman scowled at them both. ‘What kind of scam are you two trying to pull? No farm exists where Axies can come and go.’
‘Sure there is.’
‘It’s our farm.’
‘We can come and go.’
‘As long as we collect enough SLP for the day.’
‘We can do whatever we want!’
Woodman rolled his eyes. ‘We don’t have any SLP fellas,’ he said. ‘Nor are we in the mood to collect any. So if you don’t mind, we’ll carry on our way?’
‘Why, we could share our SLP with you?’ said the black one.
‘Sure, we’ll share!’
‘Then you all can come and get a good meal and meet the rest of our gang.’
Woodman snorted as he turned up his face. Poysenberry’s stomach started gurgling, drawing everyone’s attention on him. He tried to laugh it off by giving a nervous grin.
‘Oh nice teeth,’ said the blue one.
‘I know, nice teeth.’
Nightshade cut in once more. ‘Would you two excuse us for a second?’ she said, dragging the Plants aside.
When she was out of earshot of the Aquas, she let out a sigh. ‘How are we going to get past these two?’ she said. ‘They aren’t budging.’
‘What if they’re telling the truth?’ said Poysenberry. ‘I mean, how else are we gonna find breakfast – ‘
Woodman swatted him on the head. ‘Are you crazy?’ he said. ‘We can’t trust those fish brains.’
‘I don’t want to get stuck on another farm too,’ said Poysenberry. ‘But what if they’re serious?’
‘He has a point,’ Nightshade said. ‘Even if we don’t follow them to their farm, perhaps they can at least guide us toward Sand City or, better yet, some food sources.’
Woodman harrumphed as he pivoted away from her. He shook his head and mumbled to himself. For some time, he stared at a pile of logs with three arrows stuck in them. Poysenberry’s stomach gurgled louder. The two Aquas continued looking at them, blank faced.
‘They seem harmless,’ whispered Poysenberry. ‘And to be frank, we do have a full day of walking ahead of us. It’s not bad idea to fill up on breakfast.’
With a swift smack, Woodman hit Posyenberry across the head again. ‘Would you stop thinking with your tummy for a second?’
The group took a quick glance at the Aquas, who were still smiling at them, then returned to their secret huddle.
‘Let’s be smart about this,’ said Nightshade. ‘I’ve heard one too many horror stories about Axies getting lost in the desert.’
Woodman snorted. ‘Lost?’ he said. ‘Stick by the river and you’ll be fine. It always leads to civilisation.’ He then put his nose in the air.
‘Yes, there’s some truth to that, I’ll admit,’ she said. ‘But we’re not doing ourselves any favours by clinging so close to the river.’
‘Like you’d know?’
‘I would,’ she said. ‘Where do you think a Bird will search first for missing Axies? In the middle of the desert?’
Woodman glanced over his shoulder. There were more black specks in the sky, each circling round and round in the air. It was a typical search pattern that was getting ever closer to themselves.
‘We’re easy targets out here,’ said Nightshade. ‘And I don’t see any civilisation on the horizon.’
Grunting again, Woodman shook his head and started walking away from them. Everyone watched him go. Poysenberry almost stepped up to say something when he saw the old Plant pause halfway then turn back.
‘Fine,’ he muttered. ‘One meal and we’re back on the road.’
‘You think it’s safe then?’ said Poysenberry.
‘No, I don’t. I’m saying we can try to scrounge a meal from them, or have them point us in the right direction, but there is no way in hell we’re stepping foot on any old farm.’
Both Aquas had snuck up behind the group without them knowing. They had big smiles plastered on their faces.
‘So you’ll join us?’ said the blue one.
‘Yeah, you’ll join us?’
The group slowly glanced at the eavesdropping Aquas.
‘Maybe you can get us some food?’ said Nightshade. ‘But I don’t know if we have time to visit your farm.’
‘That sounds great!’
‘We can easily do that.’
Nightshade laughed nervously. It sounded so fake. But her fake laugh escaped the Aquas as they flanked the group and pointed to a small plot of land across the river.
‘You all are going to love it!’
‘Absolutely love it!’
The group consulted each other, casting suspicious looks between themselves. Without missing a beat, the Aquas quickly nudged them along.
‘You all are gonna love it there.’
Woodman’s face went flat as the two Aquas put their arms around him.