At one point in the night, Woodman stopped walking and refused to move. He turned back and faced the direction they had come from, as if he was staring back at the farm.
‘The sun will be rising soon,’ said Nightshade. ‘We should try to find some shelter at least?’
Woodman gave no response. Then after some time, he drew a long line in the sand and stood to one side, still facing the unseen farm. Poysenberry walked up closer to him and saw the Plant’s gaze fixed firmly ahead.
‘Nightshade is right,’ he whispered. ‘We should find a place to hide.’
Woodman would not respond. Poysenberry felt concerned and made an attempt to reach out to touch his friend, but in the end he felt too shy to follow through. He let his paw drop to the ground.
‘Nightshade thinks there might be a traveler’s lodge nearby if we keep moving,’ he said.
The old Plant kept his sights fixed at the faraway spot while his eyes began to water.
Poysenberry wanted to pat him on the shoulder even more when he saw this. He was having trouble understanding what was going on with Woodman. Why he was so determined to leave up until they hit this invisible wall.
‘I did it,’ whispered Woodman. ‘It’s me they want.’
Poysenberry inched closer. ‘Did what?’
‘I lead those creatures to the farm,’ he said. ‘I’m the reason they attacked.’
‘What? Why would you do that?’
‘Because I’m tired,’ said Woodman. ‘I’m sick and tired of being treated like a second-class citizen when I made that man who he is today.’
From the corner of his eye, Poysenberry noticed that Nightshade had moved closer to them.
‘He was a child when I met him,’ said Woodman. ‘A stupid kid with a dumb license to train Axies. The little punk.’
Owl hoots sounded in the plains. They were growing louder. Getting more chatty as the group stood out in the open desert.
‘Humans talk about training Axies, bragging that they raise us,’ said Woodman. ‘But that’s a load of rubbish. If anything, we are the ones who raise them. We earn them SLP, harvest resources for them, and even bring back a couple of Axie Shards if we can. And then they think just because they get us to battle against each other they’re the ones calling the shots.’
The hoots were getting louder and nearer.
‘Let him send some Birds after me,’ he said. ‘Let them drag me back to the farm. I don’t give a damn anymore. Make me into dinner for all I care. He’s already taken everything from me. Why not finish up the rest?’
Poysenberry lowered his head out of respect for Woodman.
‘People have endless wants,’ he said. ‘But at the end of the day, they don’t truly know what they need. Oh, if we win this tournament then we’ll be able to buy a plot of land and retire from all our training. If only we get a few Axies to breed then we’ll be sitting easy.’
The river gurgled in the silence. Its steady movement filled in the empty spaces between his words.
‘And when you love someone enough, you want to give them whatever they want,’ said Woodman. ‘You want them to be happy. To smile and bring joy to others. To treat you with respect. But in the end all you raise is an entitled brat with endless wants that can never be fulfilled.’
‘Not all trainers are that way,’ said Nightshade. ‘Many are dedicated to their Axies.’
‘You’re probably right,’ said Woodman. ‘And that’s where I failed. Instead of raising a kind-hearted man, I created a monster. A monster who only values Axies by the amount of SLP they can earn.’
Poysenberry looked at the line in the sand, tilting his head, wondering why it was drawn.
‘I want you two to go on without me,’ he said. ‘If those Birds want me, then let them have me. I’ve nowhere else to run.’
Poysenberry stepped up closer beside him.
‘You’re just like your mother,’ said Woodman, turning to look at him. ‘She was a fighter. Braver than myself. I wish I would’ve listened to her earlier. Before she was taken away.’
A sudden knot formed in Poysenberry’s gut when he heard this.
‘Maybe I’m not the complete failure I make myself out to be,’ said Woodman. ‘Even if I failed to help her escape, I did keep my word before she was taken away.’
For the first time in his entire life, he saw Woodman clearly — as a broken-hearted Axie who still has a tender heart. And at that moment, Woodman looked at Poysenberry without any guardedness or scowl on his face.
‘Do you know what that promise was?’ he said. ‘I promised to watch out for her little sprout. To make sure he was well protected on the farm. That he always had enough SLP to make the cut. And most importantly, that he grows into a fine young plant.’
Tears raced down Poysenberry’s cheeks without any warning. His mind jumped to an old memory when he was much younger and had not earned enough SLP for the day. Woodman had laughed at him and made a big deal about how little Poysenberry had collected. Then as if to insult him more, Woodman started to count them one by one. Poysenberry remembered how embarrassed and scared he felt, and how he covered his eyes while the old Plant tallied up his earnings.
However, as if by magic, Woodman counted out the exact amount that he needed to meet the day’s quota. Then the old Plant walked away with a harrumph and joined the line behind the other grinders.
Poysenberry wanted to bury his face again. It was all too much and all too sudden. This entire time, the link to his mother had been working right beside him. Never saying anything or giving him any hints.
Before he could hide himself though, a loud and powerful rumble caused the ground to tremble and each of them to turn their heads. A large rolling house was slowly moving across the earth, heading straight for them.
Nightshade backed up, bumping into Poysenberry who put his paws around her. She looked up at him while he held onto her, then laughed at herself. He wanted to keep her in his arms but there were more pressing matters at hand.
They all started to move backwards until the moving house stopped a few meters in front of them. Poysenberry peeked one eye open, watching as a side door opened, spilling a dim yellow light across the land. A shadowy figure stood in the doorframe.
The creature leapt down onto the ground, came round to the front and stood before the group. It was a small silver Axie with Bird-like features, yet lacking in the typical Bird appearance. It had pink dots on its cheeks, a cracked egg-shell on its forehead, a white fan for its tail, Cupid wings on its back, and a large beak sticking out its face.
The little Axie looked at them one at a time. From left to right, then right to left, then left to right again. Then it scurried to the front of its house, pulling on a red rope dangling at the side of the house. Two bamboo curtains opened up from the A-shape building.
Lights flooded outside, temporarily blinding the group. When their eyes acclimated, they saw that the house was actually a midnight diner with a red lantern hanging at the front and bar seats outside and within. The small Axie then went into the diner, rummaged about and causing a lot of noise. It then returned with a cloth signboard that read HOT MEALS in Lunacian.
Woodman, Nightshade, and Poysenberry slowly glanced at each other then back at the sign. The little Axie stood proudly beside her sign as she looked at her potential customers.
‘What the heck is this?’ said Poysenberry from the side of his mouth.
‘That’s impolite,’ said Nightshade. ‘She’s a Dawn.’
‘No, I mean this contraption.’
‘Isn’t it obvious,’ said Woodman. ‘It’s a mobile restaurant.’
‘What do we do?’
Woodman licked his lips as he took a step forward. He turned over his shoulder for a second to gaze up into the sky, then looked back at the Dawn.
‘You have any rooms for the night?’
The Dawn nodded her head, then flipped the signboard around to show the words ROOM VACANCY written on the back of the cloth.
Woodman shot a glance at Nightshade and Poysenberry.
‘I don’t have any SLP,’ said Poysenberry. ‘And what about Miss Puffy?’
Woodman jutted his chin at Nightshade, as if to ask for her opinion.
‘She won’t be back tonight,’ she said. ‘No matter how fast and big mouthed she may be, the Bird still needs her rest.’
‘Good point,’ said Woodman. ‘And we’re better off inside a shelter for the night rather than laying out in the open.’
Poysenberry’s stomach gurgled loudly. Everyone stared at him. He flashed an embarrassed grin then shrugged.
‘Do you have any strong drinks?’ said Nightshade.
The Dawn nodded quickly then opened her paw toward the restaurant, welcoming them to go inside.
To be continued…