Poysenberry had never seen so many Aquas in his entire life. And all gathered in one place too. There were Aquas swimming in the stream cutting through the centre of the farm going from one end to the other, and also Aquas on the land slapping each other with their tails or throwing star-shaped beams from their heads at one another.
The background noise was so loud that Poysenberry had to cover his ears. Some Aquas were screaming and shouting war cries, some were shouting to one another on the opposite side of the stream, and others were shouting as they jumped from the roof into the water.
An Aqua with a sponge on his back made a huge splash as he plunged into the stream beside Poysenberry. The wave crashed over Poysenberry’s head and he accidentally swallowed a mouthful of water.
Gill and Hook were talking to them and pointing in different directions but none of the group could hear what they were saying. The Plants shrugged as they glanced at each other, then followed their new friends through the madness.
As Poysenberry started swimming again, his shell bumped into another Axie’s hermit shell and made a clacking sound. The Aqua turned around at the same time he did, and they made eye contact. The female Aqua had thick pouty lips and tiny ears at the sides of her head. She measured Poysenberry for a second and her gaze lingered on his shell. A smile crept over her face. Poysenberry felt hot and bothered even though he was inside a cool stream of water. She then blew him a kiss then jumped into the air and dove into the river, swimming downstream.
His eyes followed her as he slowly drifted down the stream toward her. Nightshade whacked him on the nose with her Biden flower and he brought his focus back to the group. She squinted at him and pointed her nose at Gill and Hook. He nodded to her and bashfully started swimming behind them. The two Aquas led them to the shore and shook their bodies free from water as they emerged.
‘Right over here,’ said Gill.
‘He said right over here!’ shouted Hook.
Woodman nodded, looking irritable. The siblings led the group to a tiny shell-shaped hut that was drooping partially into the water and opened the curtain door for them to enter.
Woodman paused before going inside. He turned to glance over his shoulder and had a look of terror on his face. Poysenberry and Nightshade whipped around to see Miss Puffy and her gang landing on the opposite shore inside the Fish Farm. Quickly, the three Axies rushed into the shell hut and hid in the back behind a few dusty cots.
The world outside suddenly became quiet. They could hear chattering coming from afar. They heard a door open in the distance and a loud military whistle rang over the farm.
‘Maybe we can fight them,’ whispered Poysenberry.
‘Shhh,’ said Woodman.
They heard several feet running towards their shell hut. Woodman readied his stance for a battle. Three Axies entered the hut, closing the cloth door behind them. The frontmost Axie was an Aqua who had a clam on his forehead, Gero eyes, piranha mouth and a jagged ridge along his back. The mere sight of this Aqua made Poysenberry nervous. But his nerves would have been even worse if he had not seen Gill and Hook at either side of him.
‘Are these them?’ said the Aqua in a gruff voice.
‘Yes sir,’ they said in unison.
He scrutinised them for what seemed like a long time, keeping firm and still. Then he pivoted towards Woodman.
‘You’re their leader?’ he said.
Woodman nodded slightly. ‘That’s right.’ He maintained direct eye contact with the other Axie.
When the Aqua turned, Poysenberry caught a glimpse of his tail. It had red scales along it and a white base underneath them. He knew it was a special feature for an Axie but did not know the specific part.
‘You a fighter?’
‘No,’ said Woodman. ‘We’re travellers.’
The Aqua snorted. ‘I don’t buy that.’ He started walking closer to Woodman. ‘You look like a veg that’s seen some action. Maybe even played a tourney or two?’
‘That was long ago.’
The Aqua then moved to check out Nightshade and Poysenberry around Woodman’s side. ‘So you’re the piranha they were telling me about,’ he said. ‘And flower girl?’
A smirk came over his face. ‘Yeah, what of it?’ said Poysenberry.
‘Watch your mouth boy,’ said the Aqua. ‘Show some respect.’
Poysenberry felt too flustered and nervous to speak up for himself again. The words were in his heart but his trembling mouth would not produce them.
The Aqua moved to peer casually outside the curtain door.
‘We’re not here to fight any of you,’ said Woodman. ‘We were told by Gill and Hook that we could lay low for a while?’
The Aqua kept his gaze outside, more interested in what was going on there. Poysenberry caught a glimpse of the farm owner — he was wearing thick, black galoshes and a rubber fisherman’s jacket with a giant meat hook dangling at his waist.
Slowly, the Aqua let the curtain drop, concealing them fully. He still refused to look at the group.
‘If you don’t want us here, at least help us escape if you’ve got a back exit.’
‘This is my farm,’ said the Aqua. ‘No matter what human may be in charge.’
Silence held between his words.
Poysenberry could hear his own heart ticking loudly in his ears.
The Aqua turned to face them. ‘Everyone calls me Smalls,’ he said. ‘I’m the runner of this operation and have been for over ten years now.’ His eyes worked over them.
Woodman remained stiff as a board as he maintained his defensive stance.
‘I’ve helped Axies in the past,’ he said. ‘Most move on within a day or two. Which is the way we intend to keep it. Right?’
‘Sure,’ said Woodman.
‘And the rent here isn’t free either,’ said Smalls. ‘We have dues just like anywhere else.’
‘Seems you three are pretty hot at the moment,’ said Smalls. ‘Might that have anything to do with the Plant farm that got hit by a Little Rock last night?’
A bead of sweat rolled down Poysenberry’s face.
‘What Plant farm?’ said Woodman. ‘Never heard of any in this area.’
Smalls chuckled as he examined Woodman further. Then he cocked his head at them, cueing both Gill and Hook to rush towards them. Instead of attacking, however, the two Aquas laid some SLP in front of the three Plants, then swiftly returned to Small’s side.
‘That’ll be all for now,’ Smalls said. ‘Why don’t you two go out and look busy for a while?’
At that suggestion, Gill and Hook went straight out the door and busied themselves near the hut.
Smalls kept his eyes on the group the whole time, without ever flinching or blinking. Then they heard the land owner moving closer to the hut. As well as the voices of two unfamiliar birds and one that Poysenberry had already met twice.
Without any warning, the land owner opened the cloth door, his body covering the entire opening due to his massive size. He peered inside as he licked a golden tooth in his upper jaw.
He held up a note in his hands, pretending to read it as he grinned. ‘Got a note about some missing Axies,’ he said. ‘From the Plant farm down the way.’ Then he lowered the note. It was obviously delivered by pigeon post from the appearance of the scroll.
Before the land owner could say anything more, Smalls moved himself away from the trio, showing the owner the vials of SLP resting at their paws.
His eyes changed when he gazed at the love potions and his grin slowly faded. Smalls gathered the piles of SLP and pushed them along in the dirt towards the owner. He stepped back and waited beside the three plants.
Taking his time, the land owner mentally counted the vials. He pulled himself out from the doorframe, went outside, and shut the curtain back.
‘Nope, not a Plant in sight,’ he said. ‘I hate to let you birdies down but we ain’t got no escapees on this farm.’
The birds chirped and hooted among themselves.
‘I’ll send out my fastest Aqua if we catch sight of anything though.’
Poysenberry heard the other two birds reprimanding Miss Puffy, saying she had lied to them. But she simply told them there were a few more places to check. And with a whoosh, the door curtain flapped in a gust, while the birds soared upwards and away to carry on their search for the three missing Axies.