After a long, uncomfortable pause, Smalls turned to Woodman and sneered at him. He moved closer to Woodman and lifted his head up to look down on them.
‘You all have three days to pay me back,’ he said. ‘Either 450 SLP or two Axie Shards each. Is that clear?’
‘How much did you fork out for us in the first place?’ said Woodman. ‘Two Axie Shards? How do you expect us to find that here?’
‘I’ll accept a Frozen Pufferfish or Tulip as well, if you can find them.’
‘That’s a bit much,’ said Nightshade. ‘For what you’ve lent us?’
‘Let’s put it this way… How much is your freedom worth?’ said Smalls, moving closer to Woodman. ‘Least you can do is pay back your savior with interest.’
‘Are there even any Frozen Pufferfish around here?’ Nightshade said.
Rolling his eyes, Smalls moved aside toward the door. ‘That’s up to you to find out.’ He left without saying another word. The cloth door flapped a little while they stood in place.
‘We can do that though,’ said Poysenberry. ‘Right?’
Both kept quiet while looking at the door. Woodman was chewing on his upper lip while Nightshade had her eyes shut tight. Poysenberry moved in front of them and raised an eyebrow.
‘On good days, I used to get at least 100 SLP back on the farm. How much harder would it be to get an extra fifty each? And like he said, we would only need six of those Axie Shards total. That sounds reasonable to me.’
Woodman kicked a rock near his foot into a wall, and caused one of the mouldy boards to splinter. Then with a grunt, he marched outside.
‘I don’t get it?’
With deep sigh, Nightshade shook her head, then opened her eyes.
‘We can do this right?’ said Poysenberry.
‘You’re not putting the whole picture together, are you?’ Nightshade said. ‘How many plants did we have grinding in the back lot on our old farm? Can you recall?’
Poysenberry scrunched up his face as he tried to think.
‘Take a look outside at how many Aquas are on this farm,’ she said. ‘That’s our competition for the day. How far can we really travel to harvest without any of them in our spaces?’
His face slowly dropped as his skin rippled in goose-pimples. The Fish Farm was overcrowded if anything. How in the hell was he, a plant, going to compete with them for SLP? Or find the elusive Axie Shards? His face must have turned as blue as Nightshade’s as he stood in the dumpy hut, listening to all the loud Aquas outside.
The curtains flung open and Woodman stood in the doorframe with Gill at his side. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘We don’t have time to waste. And our new friend here is willing to show us some good spots to harvest.’ Gill smiled at them.
‘Now! Let’s get a move on things!’ said Woodman.
Poysenberry hurried out the door and saluted Woodman, Gill, and Hook. Nightshade made her exit, looking less attentive and less amused than Poysenberry.
‘So where is this spot you and your friends go to collect for the day?’ said Woodman.
‘We’ll show you,’ said Gill. ‘But it’s about an hour away.’
‘That’s fine. We can manage the journey.’
Poysenberry faked a laugh while his legs ached beneath his weight.
It was a long and harsh trek through the desert. The sun took no pity on them as its heat bore down onto the wandering Axies. Several times along the way, Woodman would pause to check the skies, keeping a look out for the Birds that are in pursuit of them, but never once did he catch any glimpse of them.
The siblings led the group into the Red Canyon Ridge, guiding them through a tricky maze that opened into a secluded oasis full of palm trees and a crystal clear pond in its centre.
‘This is it,’ said Hook.
‘This is the place,’ said Gill.
Poysenberry looked past the two Aquas at the waterfall draining into the pond. Then he spotted other Axies inside, already busy at work. Before he could make another step inside, Gill grabbed him by his rosebud.
‘Not yet,’ he said. ‘Wait until the opportunity arises.’
‘Hook and I will take you in first,’ he said. ‘Then we’ll do a rotation for the others.’
‘What are you saying?’
Hook pointed her paw toward the oasis where three Aquas were clustered together. Poysenberry spied through the tall palm trees, squinting until he could see them clearly. The three Aquas were in battle with a group of Toadies, taking turns to attack and defend. He noticed one of the Aqua’s tails glowing with energy.
‘There we are,’ said Gill. ‘You ready?’
‘For what?’ said Poysenberry.
‘That.’ Hook pointed at a strange creature moving past a tall palm tree near them. ‘Red Jam at five o’clock.’
‘Keep it down,’ whispered Hook. ‘It might hear us.’
Gill and Hook lowered their bodies to the ground and crawled through the sand dunes towards the creature. Poysenberry tagged along, studying the creature along the way.
It was a slimy being trapped in a cracked jar with a single eye swirling round in its head as red jam dripped from its top. Poysenberry had no clue what they were planning but needed to earn his keep anyhow, and he knew this wasn’t the time to be asking a bunch of questions.
They stopped a few yards away from the creature who was preoccupied with something behind the palm tree. Gill tugged at Poysenberry to crawl up closer to them.
‘You go first,’ said Hook. ‘We’ll be right behind you.’
‘You mean attack that thing?’
They both nodded at the same time.
As Poysenberry contemplated what they were telling him to do, thinking it was crazy, the Red Jam turned its eye and locked it onto Poysenberry. Without any warning, it lowered its head and shot a round yellow ball at him. Reflexively, Poysenberry hardened his hermit shell and curled himself onto the ground. The ball dinged on his back while a second one nicked him.
When the Red Jam stopped firing, Hook jumped over Poysenberry and slammed his back into the creature. The Red Jam flinched while Hook flopped around and slapped the creature twice with her Nino tail.
A golden light began to shine from her tail.
The Red Jam shook its body with fury and lowered to fire another round when two golden orbs drifted out from Hook’s tail — one crashed into Poysenberry and the other into Gill.
All at once, Poysenberry felt alive with energy with the same wild power he had felt when they were escaping the farm. Poysenberry grimaced, feeling the jagged teeth in his mouth ready to tear into this creature.
Gill lunged at the Red Jam and bit into him with his hooked mouth, then jumped upside down and landed his goldfish sail on the creature’s body. After making their attacks, the siblings moved at lighting speed into the same formation behind Poysenberry.
‘Take him out!’
The words sank into Poysenberry’s mind, faster than he could comprehend what they actually meant, and before he knew it, he was running straight at the Red Jam with his mouth wide open.
The creature’s lone eye swirled in its body, making eye contact with Poysenberry moments before Poysenberry sank his teeth into the jar, causing the clay figure to burst and the slimy contents within dissolved into the ground.
Poysenberry felt all shook up as he watched the Red Jam disappear from sight. Gill and Hook raced to the spot and took out small vials from their sides. Quickly, they began collecting the pink steam rising up from the ground. They filled more vials than Poysenberry could count, but the two of them were swift and completed the task in mere seconds.
‘Fifteen!’ They both shouted with glee.
Poysenberry remained in a funk.
‘That’s five each,’ said Hook. ‘Good thinking Poy, that shell of yours really gave us the edge this time round!’
‘Nice job for a Plant!’ said Gill, nudging him. ‘You’ve got some mouth on you.’
Poysenberry nodded, still feeling dazed as they passed 5 SLP to him. They went back to look for Woodman and Nightshade, but Poysenberry stood in place for a little while longer, feeling a rush of energy bubbling in his head.
When he finally decided to move along, he saw another group not too far from himself with the same Aqua he had bumped into earlier in the river. She gave him a thumbs up and a smile.
This made his head spin even faster, and even made him forget about any fatigue he might’ve had moments ago. She moved on quickly with her group, going deeper into the oasis. He took one last glance at the hermit shell on her back, then decided to return to his own group.
To be continued…