Hours had passed since Nightshade and Woodman returned to the Fish Farm. They waited in a sheltered hut, keeping an eye out for Poysenberry. But their friend and his new group never entered through the gates.
‘This is ridiculous,’ said Woodman. ‘He should be back by now.’
Nightshade remained quiet as she kept her eye outside the hut. Her mind revolved around the last conversation they had by the river. She wanted to kick herself for not finishing her thoughts at that time. But then again, she was sure Poysenberry was fine and that Woodman was panicking over nothing.
‘Something fishy is going on,’ Woodman said.
Another thought cropped up in Nightshade’s mind: What if he were going to spend the night in another ruin with his new group?
‘I don’t like it,’ he said.
Nightshade picked up her satchel from the ground and slung it over herself.
‘Split up to cover more ground, my ass,’ he continued.
Nightshade was about to interrupt him when they both heard gasps and shouts at the edge of the fence. Several Aquas stopped what they were doing and gathered around the area.
‘What are they doing now?’ said Woodman. ‘Probably some stupid fish ceremony.’
Nightshade couldn’t take her eyes away from the spot however. She sensed something was off about the chatter. She walked out from the hut and down the slope. Woodman went with her, complaining along the way.
The crowd parted as they reached the perimeter and two large Aquas appeared, dragging a bruised and cut-up Shelly. They walked straight past Woodman and Nightshade and headed straight for Small’s hut up on the hill.
‘They came out of nowhere,’ mumbled Shelly. ‘Giant Chimeras, like I’ve never seen before.’
Nightshade put her hand over her mouth as she glanced at Woodman. The old Plant still had a skeptical expression on his face. He walked behind the two beefy Aquas, trying to catch what Shelly was spouting off about. The two Aquas reached Smalls’s hut and pounded their fists on its wooden door.
‘They took him,’ said Shelly. ‘Grabbed him and took him away.’
The door slid back to reveal Smalls standing tall and strong in the frame. He glared at them for a moment, showing his jagged piranha teeth as he assessed the situation.
‘The hell happened?’
‘She was attacked by Chimera,’ said the dark blue Aqua, holding Shelly upright. ‘Big ones apparently.’
Squinting one eye, Smalls measured her over as if he wasn’t buying their story.
‘They took him,’ said Shelly. ‘They took Poysenberry.’
Nightshade pushed one of the Aquas out of the way and grabbed hold of Shelly. ‘What do you mean they took him?’ she said. ‘Who took him?’ She started to shake Shelly for answers.
The two large Aquas quickly pulled Nightshade aside and held her tight.
‘Why don’t you just slap the poor girl?’ said Smalls. ‘As if she hasn’t been hurt enough already?’ He stuck his nose up and scoffed at Nightshade as he walked past her. ‘I need more details Shelly. What Chimera attacked you three, and where is Finn?’
Fear flashed within her eyes. Her mouth parted but she couldn’t speak the words.
Smalls bowed his head and sighed. ‘Finn didn’t make it then?’ He pounded his fist into the ground.
‘Poysenberry tried to save me,’ she said. ‘But they grabbed him and threw him into Dead Man’s Gulch.’
‘All right, now we’re getting somewhere,’ said Smalls. ‘Did these Chimera have him when you fled?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Then there’s a chance we can reach him first,’ said Smalls. ‘Before they get into the gulch.’
Sobbing, Shelly dropped onto her knees then buried her face in the sands. With a sharp whistle, Smalls made the Aquas on the farm go still for a moment. Every single one of them paused, and the place went eerily quiet. He then shouted three nonsensical words in a row. Immediately, several Aquas left what they were doing and formed a perfect line before him.
Smalls turned to Nightshade and Woodman. ‘This is your friend,’ he said. ‘Not a member of my farm. You follow me?’
‘I follow,’ said Woodman. ‘You can just point us in the right direction then.’
Smalls snorted. ‘You’d be dead before midnight without our help. We’ll take you there. But it’ll cost you.’
‘How much?’ said Nightshade.
‘Depends on how much damage we sustain.’
Woodman lowered his head.
‘But if he’s not worth it to you. . . ‘
Woodman sighed in defeat, nodding his head. Nightshade shot him a nasty sneer. If the two Aquas weren’t holding her, she would’ve smacked him across the face for his reluctance.
‘Of course he’s worth it,’ she said. ‘We’ll do what we have to to save him.’
Woodman sighed even louder.
‘Very well,’ said Smalls. ‘My family will escort you.’
The two Aquas released Nightshade, allowing her to confront Woodman. She walked straight to him and bumped her shoulder into his side.
‘You sicken me,’ she said.
‘I’m sure I do right now.’
At the same time, Smalls addressed his soldiers.
‘Listen here, we’ve got a Plant that needs us at Dead Man’s Gulch,’ he said. ‘We probably have several Chimeras blocking our way. I don’t expect any of you to return alive.’
The Aquas remained in their formation.
‘Any one of you that wants to back out, do so now.’ Smalls watched the group but not a single Axie broke rank. ‘Very well. Let’s march.’
With his head hanging low, Woodman walked behind them, dragging his feet. Nightshade shoved herself past him, making sure to hit him along the way. She glared at him while moving faster ahead to assemble with the rest.
A bright glowing light enveloped him. He was light and free now, able to dance from here to there but for some reason he felt drawn to a dark black hole in the distance, that was growing in shape and size. He drifted himself to the blackness, knowing it would teach him the lessons he needed. With a buzz of energy he floated toward it, allowing it to absorb him and bring him to another side, where he saw his mother moving the winds around him and making his tiny body to come to life.
Poysenberry awoke with a sharp pain in his chest. For a moment, he felt disoriented at the base of the canyon. He started to breathe heavily then gasped, feeling the pain even sharper now in his side. With all the strength he could gather, he activated his rosebud and dulled the ache, but he did not have enough power to get to his feet.
What had happened? He couldn’t piece it together all at once. But he remembered crossing the bridge and Shelly telling him to be careful.
Poysenberry rolled around and stared upward at the bridge above. Where had she gone? And how was he going to get out from the canyon on his own?
A light drizzle fell upon the Axies as they marched toward Dead Man’s Gulch. The band moved forward despite the weather. The skies became darker overhead and the ground a little less sandy. Woodman kept quiet the entire time, lingering at the back beside two large Aquas. Nightshade stayed at the front the whole time, ignoring the rain that was growing stronger overhead.
Thunder clapped, outlining Smalls standing on a tiny hill. Everyone halted before him.
‘Brothers and sisters,’ he said. ‘Our time has come.’
The rain pelted at the Axies standing in formation. Their weight made them sink lower into the gritty soils while their leader gave his speech.
‘Just beyond this hill here will lead us to Dead Man’s Gulch,’ he said. ‘I need every single one of you to keep a sharp eye out for Chimera. If anything looks suspicious, don’t hesitate to alert the rest. Furthermore, we need to be prudent and work together quickly to help this fallen Axie out from the canyon.’
‘Yes, sir,’ shouted all the Aquas at once.
Smalls went down the other side of the hill, followed by the rest. Nightshade pushed herself up and over the small mound, blinking away the heavy rain from her eyes. As the terrain levelled, she saw another flash of lighting through a large cluster of trees. This made her pause for only a second before an Aqua shoved past her. She thought of Poysenberry and carried on, regaining her position at the front of the group once more. The skies became so dark that she couldn’t see a few steps ahead of herself.
‘We’re nearly there!’ shouted Smalls.
His voiced guided her along. She stepped into the wooded area and then knocked into an Aqua standing before her. Nightshade shook away the pain from her face, then peered through the woods, seeing absolute darkness.
A flash of lightening struck above the trees, illuminating the outline of three shadowy Axies standing inside the forest.
Before Nightshade could say anything or turn away, several lanterns lit up, blinding her temporarily. She squinted her eyes back open to see Smalls at the side holding a bright lantern in his paw, and another Axie sitting on top of a cage with wheels on its side. Her fur stood on end when she saw who the three birds standing before the cage were: Arrowhead, Blackie, and Miss Puffy. Each of them with smug grins on their faces.
Nightshade turned around and saw Woodman with his head down and the band of Aquas now formed in a circle around them.
‘No,’ she said. ‘This can’t be it. They can’t do this to us.’
An Aqua behind Woodman was holding a lantern high over his head while sniggering.
With a sigh, Woodman closed his eyes and shook his head.
‘We can’t let these Birds take us,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you use that Leek of yours to stop them!’
‘It’s too late,’ said Woodman. ‘They’ve already won this round.’
With horror, Nightshade put her paw over her mouth and fell to her knees.
‘Don’t you worry Dusky,’ said Miss Puffy. ‘We won’t be taking you back to the farm. No, instead, we’ve found a better place for you two. With a higher paying customer.’
Tears raced down her face. She turned and pointed at Smalls. ‘You sold us out!’ she said. ‘You dirty scum!’ Then she stood up and ran toward him.
‘Nightshade! Don’t!’ shouted Woodman.
But it was too late, Smalls whipped himself around and smacked her twice with his tail, then bit her with his piranha teeth. Nightshade fell to the ground, bleeding from the bite, while the Aqua clan laughed at her feeble attempt.
‘You’re useless,’ he said. ‘Don’t you get it? What are you or that old veg good for anymore? The world has changed. Either eat or get eaten.’
With a snap of his paw, several Aquas picked up Nightshade and put her into the cage, while another two escorted Woodman. Miss Puffy winked at them as she clicked the lock shut on the door, then turned back and passed some Moonshards to Smalls.
‘Pleasure doing business with you,’ she said. ‘If you have second thoughts about the other Plant, do contact me.’
‘I will,’ he said.
Thunder clapped through the trees. It was only at that moment, while in the cage, that Nightshade realized something: they were no longer in the Savannah but at the edge of the Forest lands.