The moon shone clearly overhead. Soft beams glistened on the river’s surface while a gentle breeze hummed past the three Axies. Poysenberry shivered as the winds grew chilly and the moonlight began to dull. He spied at the glowing orb, seeing a thin grey mist slowly drawing over its face. Then he heard a swooping sound in the air. Poysenberry wanted to stop and check out the noise, but thought it was best to keep walking until they decided to take their next water break.
As he glanced back up at the moon he saw a black speck crossing its path. The object was moving too quickly for him to make out what it was. Yet the sight of it made him cold inside nonetheless. Poysenberry sped up his pace and walked alongside Woodman. He had heard awful stories in the past of Axies that had tried to escape from their farms — how their owners had hung them up by their legs in the back sheds or put sweet honey on their skin and roped them down next to an ant hill for the evening. His body shivered once more when he heard a familiar whistling sound in the winds.
Woodman grunted with every fifth or sixth step he made. The grunts distracted Poysenberry, taking his mind from his own personal dread for a moment.
Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to leave the farm. If they were to go back, perhaps the owner would think they were merely running away from the attacking Toadies? Maybe their punishment would be light. A couple of slams here and there. Just the old trusty leather strap he kept for wayward chops out on the farm.
Poysenberry grimaced as he felt an old residual pain writhe across his shoulder. He could remember one time he got his back leg stuck in a bone trap on the farm. It snagged him real good to the point he struggled and thrashed throughout the night trying to free his leg, only to have the owner find him exhausted and laying on the ground long after everyone had gone to bed. The owner shone his light on Poysenberry then pulled out his strap and whipped it hard across his back. He tried not think about it anymore. In fact, it was a memory he often tried to suppress. But from time to time, it would sneak to the surface, reminding him of the pain and anguish he felt.
Another whistling sound zipped above him. He looked up but saw nothing but grey clouds drifting over the moon. Woodman jutted out his chin at a patch of cactuses. ‘We should head there,’ he said. ‘We’ll need as much cover as we can.’ Then he led them to the cluster near the river’s edge.
As they entered the patch, they stood staring out at the three separate pathways between the cactuses.
‘Let’s split up,’ said Woodman. ‘Poy, you take the left, Nightshade the middle, and I’ll go down the right.’
They nodded in agreement.
At that point, the three of them started to diverge away from one another, going via different channels in the maze. Poysenberry paused before entering his path to glance at the other two options, thinking that he got the best choice. It had more space at its entrance than Woodman’s and from the looks of it, he believed it to be a straight shot to the other end.
He pushed inward, walking carefully to avoid the prickly thorns reaching for his face. As he weaved through the maze, he started to notice the cactuses getting closer and closer. He ignored the narrowed path, brushing it off as a trick by his own mind. But that didn’t space them out further or allow him to speed up his pace.
Thorns raked across his backside. Poysenberry hissed at the scratch, then eyed the blood trickling down his side. He swallowed as he paused to look through the maze, growing more disoriented the longer he stared down the narrowing path.
‘Woodman?’ he called. ‘Nightshade?’
Neither of them responded. There was only cold silence and a whistling breeze slipping between the cactuses.
Poysenberry shuffled backwards and spied over his shoulder at the path behind him. It looked jumbled, without a clear exit in sight. It was as if the cactuses had moved while he had his back to them — growing closer to each other, or swapping places just to confuse him.
Beams of moonlight broke through the clouds above. He could see his path more clearly ahead thanks to the blue radiance, but knew in an instant it would be impossible to traverse the distance.
The path had become too constricted, too confined for him to proceed. So he turned himself fully around, scraping his other side on a low cactus branch.
A hoot echoed in the night.
Poysenberry stilled himself to listen, to keep his ears piqued for more. But nothing came.
‘Damn it,’ he said. ‘Where are you two?’
He saw an opening among the cactuses where a soft beam of moonlight had shone through. Poysenberry chewed his lip as he decided to take the new route. As he squeezed himself through, he saw a dark figure perched on a cactus’s arm. He bit down harder onto his lip while his legs quivered beneath him.
‘No luck in that route,’ said the familiar voice. ‘You’re walking yourself into a dead end.’
Poysenberry reversed himself out from the opening, scraping blood from his sides and pricking tiny pins into his cheeks. When he reached the other end, he saw a bird Axie waiting for him on the lower arm of another cactus.
‘Tsk, tsk, tsk.’
‘What do you want?’ he said.
She hopped down into a ray of moonlight.
‘Miss Puffy?’ he said.
‘The one and only,’ she replied, taking a stalk of wheat grass from her beak and tossing it to the ground. ‘What have we here? A lost Plant? Stuck in the cactus patch?’
Poysenberry propped himself up taller as she spoke.
‘You happen to know anything about that Plant farm a couple of miles back, near the river?’
‘Hmm, that’s weird,’ she said. ‘Because they have lots of chops out there. Good for harvesting some SLP. But not much else.’
Miss Puffy started to walk closer to him. A smirk appeared on her face at the sight of him caught between two tight cactuses. She pinched his cheek with her paw.
‘Thought you might find that place interesting though,’ she said. ‘Seems the farm was attacked tonight by a Little Rock and some exploding Toadies. A bunch of Axies got hurt. And a couple escaped from what I heard. . .’
Poysenberry dragged himself out from the cactuses and started to backtrack in his path. He moved along until he found a wide enough channel that he raced down in hopes of catching up with his companions.
Miss Puffy landed in front his path. ‘Where do you think you’re going?’
He moved away and raced in another direction, through the cactuses, running for his life to escape the bird.
She landed again squarely in front of him. ‘You think you can outrun me? I see everything up above, little land crawler!’ Miss Puffy started to chuckle.
Without thinking, Poysenberry unleashed the gas from his yam. However, before the gas got to her, Miss Puffy flew upward from the patch and away.
Poysenberry took his chance and ran for what looked like the exit. As he neared it, he started to call out for Woodman but found his way thwarted again by Miss Puffy standing outside, waiting for him.
He was running too fast to stop at once and ended up tripping over himself and tumbling half-way outside the patch. Miss Puffy avoided his crash by flying into the air, and she landed back down with a foot upon his head.
‘You’re too slow little Plant,’ she said. ‘Now, I was promised a good deal of SLP for every single Plant I could locate and bring back to the farm.’
Poysenberry growled at her.
‘Shh, shh, shh, now,’ she said. ‘I’m not the bad guy. If anyone is, why, I’d say it’s you. For deserting your home. Abandoning your owner. And leaving your fellow plants to die back there. That sounds like a bad egg to me.’
Poysenberry tried to stand but she pushed his face further into the ground.
‘But if you were able to pay me, say ten thousand SLP,’ she said, ‘Maaaaaaybe I’d forget I ever saw you. I’d tell the other scouting birds to look in another direction. That the Axies they are searching for never came this way.’
‘I don’t have that amount of SLP on me.’
‘Not now,’ she said. ‘But you could earn that in time.’
‘He’ll do no such thing,’ said Woodman. ‘And if you don’t want your tail feather plucked tonight, I’d suggest you get your foot off his face, and beat it!’
Miss Puffy moved herself off Poysenberry, slowly hovering backwards. She smirked at Woodman, then at Nightshade who was coming along behind him.
‘We’re free Axies,’ said Woodman. ‘And I’ll be damned if I let some bird scam us right back into our chains.’
‘I’ll be damned if I let some, blah, blah, blah,’ she mocked. ‘Get a grip pops. This is how the world works. Nobody gets a free ride. We all have to pay the piper at some point.’
Woodman snarled at her.
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘You don’t want my help.’
He watched her, flying a little higher off the ground.
‘Then maybe I’ll go send a message to the other Birds out scouting for three lost Plants,’ she said, moving higher. ‘Or maybe I’ll go directly to the source and tell that old cranky farmer exactly where I saw you three.’
‘Well be gone by that time.’
‘Ha,’ she said. ‘Is that a test?’
Woodman continued to scowl at her.
With a quick swoop, she flipped upside down and zipped by his face and onward into the desert, gaining height until she became nothing more than a black speck in the sky. Woodman swallowed hard and slammed his fist into the ground.
‘Damn,’ he said. ‘Damn.’
‘She won’t really rat us out will she?’
‘If it comes down to SLP,’ Woodman said, ‘then we’d better consider ourselves already ratted out.’
To be continued…