All from scratch - Darkspirit (2024)

Chapter 1: Where to start now?

Chapter Text

“I-I’m sorry for… everything…”

“MARCY!!!”

The sole image of Marcy Wu, the lovable, nerdy, and cheerful young girl, Creatures & Caverns-lover, and local genius falling to her death after a devastating and cowardly attack from the person she trusted the most wasn’t something Anne or Sasha imagined to happen, nor a scenery they wanted to conjure or store in their minds for the rest of their lives.

Sure, Marcy had lied to them. She had found out about what the music box could do and decided to try it to escape reality and dragged them down with her. She betrayed them and while Anne was speechless and heartbroken and Sasha was filled with rage and disgust, none of that mattered anymore in comparison to the real monster. The once bubbly and playful king who fooled them all and then had the audacity to stab a child in the back both figuratively and literally.

Sasha could’ve stated that was karma for bringing them to a dangerous world against their will. Amphibia, despite its splendors, was inhabited by ferocious fauna and deadly flora, any slip-up could be the last for any of the girls, the wrath was understandable. But to the window flew those dark feelings as the blonde observed in horror her best friend’s murder.

A blinding light covered the whole throne room and the people in it the moment Marcy touched the ground. Sasha for one second believed that was the end of the road for everyone, even when she tried to keep Andrias away from her friends, whatever was going on would kill them all and this outcome was in part her fault for being so dependent on controlling her friendships.

Then, it was over. No more light and—

“No! It can’t be!!” Andrias was still alive. The Slavic girl rubbed her eyes to adjust her vision. In front of her and Grime were just Andrias and Marcy’s corpse. Anne and her frog family were gone, perhaps on Earth or a safer dimension, who knew.

“Goddamn it, the box!!” What?

Sasha’s eyes landed on Marcy, holding back the stinging urge to cry and scream. The noirette was lying on the ground but Andrias couldn’t care less for the object that gave power to his castle was nowhere to be seen. The teenager shook her head and checked her surroundings but any traces of the music box were gone or transported with the item to God-knows-where.

“Lieutenant. Sasha, are you alright?” Grime’s voice brought her back to the real world, the real reason for a wave of murderous anger. The old toad captain couldn’t see her face that well but he was perceptive enough to guess Sasha’s next move. That didn’t mean he wasn’t late to stop her from fighting Goliath’s newtsona.

His screams got Andrias’ attention but were ignored by the blonde as she decapitated and cut in half some frobots sent her way.

“Fire!” More laser beams were evaded with scary precision. The human lieutenant’s thirst for revenge exacerbated the soreness of her muscles and bruises but kept her numb as she reached her goal: the king’s head.

A pink, heron-styled sword and a fire-powered one clashed mercilessly. Sasha’s battered face could be reflected in the hollow orbs of the giant newt; a sinister part of her craved for him to feel overwhelmed by her hatred, for his hard expression to crumble in fear and see that using her own eyes like mirrors.

Suddenly, a robot crashed into the left side of his face, distracting him for a while. A long, buff tongue wrapped itself around Sasha’s waist and flung her to the closest window.

“OH CRUD!!!!”

Grime jumped right after her, just a bit before a few frobots tried to pulverize him with laser beams.

Andrias growled. His day couldn’t get worse, could it?

Then, his ears captured the sound of his once-loyal advisor and the arrogant, young general’s steps, both were getting closer to the deceased girl for…whatever reasons.

“And what are you two doing?” Olivia and Yunan shared a nervous glance, thinking desperately of a believable excuse.

“Nevermind,” Andrias said, rubbing his temples. “Grab the girl and put her in the rejuvenation tank, immediately. She’s fading pretty fast. Unless you want to prove me right that I can’t trust neither of you now, don’t you?” He loomed over them, piercing the female newts with a glare cold as ice.

“Nope, we work for you.”; “Yeah, definitely with you.” Olivia and Yunan saluted him in what they hoped was a gesture of undying loyalty.

“Good. Get back to work then.” The newts did as he told, carrying Marcy’s body to the secret chamber.

Andrias posed his vision on the window the toad rebellion leaders had used to escape. He pondered his options: he could forget about those two and focus on giving his master the host it deserved, besides, it’s not that the holder of Strength had the resources to defeat him. The toad army had been put in its place, Marcy had been incapacitated, Anne was gone with those pesky frogs, no weapons or plans, only a disgraced captain and her sword. Also, she had no powers.

‘Unlike Boonchuy’. What a problem she turned out to be, and without the box to send some cloak bots to kill her, who knew what surprises the brat would be able to bring in the future. Well, if the box has landed with her, of course.

However, even without the powers of the Strength gem, the girl Sasha was able to overthrow him. Such manipulative moves, the power-hungriness in her eyes, the fearlessness, her ferocity. If she had landed in Newtopia from the start instead of Marcy, he would’ve progressed quicker in having the box charged to conquer Earth. Anyway, musing all night was a waste of time with how things turned out, his best move was to eliminate her before she went from a thorn on his side to a threat to his plans. After all, Andrias had already enough with one star activating her powers, he didn’t want another one.

“Your majesty, here is your crown.” A frobot extended him the item and he snatched it from its metallic hand.

“Follow those two.” It flew out of the window instantly. Then, much to the giant newt’s dread, an orange eye appeared on the crown.

***********************

A few minutes ago…

If Sasha were asked what activity had become her least favorite in her 13-year-old life she would say falling from high places.

It had to be done in Toad Tower as much as she hated to remember that moment and Anne’s devastated face at the prospect of the blonde letting go of her hand to say hi to her demise but what Grime had done was another level and against her will to make it worse!

“GRIME, WHAT THE f*ck?! I never asked you to throw me out of a window!”

“Well, I never approved of you throwing your life away in a suicidal fight with Andrias!!” the old toad argued.

“At least in the castle we had solid ground to stand on, here we are just plummeting to our deaths!”

Suddenly, the cry of a bird was heard some kilometers from them and both collided with the seats put on Joe Sparrow. Toad and human checked over themselves and the giant animal who miraculously appeared and saved them.

“Haha! Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about! Well done, George Sparrow!” The bird looked at him with a deadpan expression, unhappy to have his name misspelled.

Sasha’s mental gears started working fastly with a new plan, a very crazy one now that they had Joe Sparrow on their side. It wouldn’t take too much time and she would recover Marcy’s body and make Andrias pay. Her hands grabbed the leashes used to steer the flying mount and directed the bird towards the castle.

“Sasha, what the hell are you doing?” Grime’s clawed hand failed to get a grab on the leash. He got more insistent to the point that the Slavic girl elbowed him harshly much to his surprise and ushered Joe to fly faster.

“Lieutenant, I order you to stop this madness right now! Do you have any idea what this will accomplish?!”

“Of course, I know!” Sasha answered with a wavering voice and at the edge of tears. She cursed mentally for those signs of weakness but kept on going. “One of my best friends is still there! And the motherf*cker who murdered her!!”

“Sasha, she’s--!

“I know, ok?!” Some tears were carried away by the wind. “I know it’s too late to protect her but I don’t care! I will get her back and give her a proper good-goodbye! And then I’ll have Andrias stupid, big head on a silver platter!”

Grime didn’t know what to say. Correction, he had good points to rub on Sasha’s face to prevent her from dying for nothing but seeing the broken, distraught expression of his most trusted ally and friend made him realize something he had forgotten months ago: his typically ruthless lieutenant was a child. A child that had lost absolutely everything.

Was he going to be that callous to number to her the many reasons this risky mission of hers was a terrible idea?

He sighed. “Alright, Sasha. We’ll retrieve your friend’s body.” Surprise was an understatement when Sasha’s eyes widened. “BUT,” the ex-captain continued “it will be just that. No revenge on Andrias, ambushes, or blowing up the castle. We recover the body and get out. Understood?”

Grime was ready to fight any arguments Sasha might have due to her plans being cut short but instead, and to his immense relief, she nodded stiffly.

“Good, now we need to fly to a place free of security where Joe Sparrow can pick us up once we have the body.”

“There. One of those windows.” The ex-captain approved it with a hum, but then Sasha caught one of Andrias’ frobots following them. Bad news.

“Just what we needed. Alright, step one. Get rid of that pesky robot.”

“Grime, wait! What do you think you’re doing?” He didn’t answer for his jump did the job for him. It was high a strong enough to reach the robot and destroy it with a clank of the Warhammer before it could warn the king about them.

Sasha steered Joe Sparrow and caught the toad on time for her to wank him on the back of the head. “Rule number 1, captain: don’t do that before telling me! Or better yet, NEVER do it again!”

“Who’s overprotective now?” He joked; the girl simply rolled her eyes before ordering the bird to fly to the window they had spotted.

Once Joe Sparrow approached that point of the castle, both jumped and entered quickly, being careful not to make any sound. Second step of the plan: remember where the throne room was and retrieve Marcy’s body.

“Is your memory sharp to know where we should be going?”

“Beats me, lieutenant. We owned this place for a very short time. Our best course of action is to advance as subtly as we can and avoid the enemy.”

His last words came to bite him in the butt when they heard steps, big ones, and metallic ones.

With no time to explain, Grime handed Sasha the Warhammer, carried her like a sack of potatoes over his shoulder, and jumped to the ceiling using his other hand to grab onto a part of it. Both held their breaths as the imposing figure of Andrias and a few robots walked through the hallway.

“Checked all the areas you can. Who knows what Waybright and Grime might be doing right now, they have caused too much trouble already. And keep an eye on Olivia and Yunan, if they dare to sabotage the rejuvenation tank right when Marcy’s healing is complete, shoot them.”

The blonde almost gasped at the mention of Marcy and the bit of info Andrias had let out. She wanted to weep, dance, and weep again because her friend was alive or was being revived. Anyway, there was still a chance to save her!

They waited for a while until the steps couldn’t be heard anymore. Nonetheless, Sasha refused to jump from a flying castle not because of a sudden terror of heights but because of her urge to rescue Marcy. Grime placed a hand on her shoulder right when she had made the first step to look for her friend.

“Sasha, we can’t.” He whispered. “Not right now.”

“But… Marcy… We don’t know what Andrias meant with the rejuvenation tank or if he was telling the truth. I don’t want to believe him but I don’t want to let go of this hope, Grime.”

“And you won’t, but whatever he’s doing we can’t defeat him like this. We have no army, no allies, or resources. Not even a plan. We MUST gather all of that if we want to have a chance.”

Sasha was at the edge of crying again but she held herself back. Tears and breakdowns weren’t going to lead her anywhere and Marcy didn’t need that from her right now.

Reluctantly, the Slavic girl got in position to jump and made the leap, Grime following her quickly, and like before, Joe Sparrow caught them in time.

“Ok, Captain,” Sasha said, trying to control the wavers in her voice. “Where should we go?”

After a few minutes of deliberation, an idea crossed his mind. “Wartwood. It’s too insignificant for Andrias to guess we are going there.” The teenager nodded and steered the bird to the frog town. Unbeknownst to them, a pair of red, unfeeling eyes had been sent to track them.

++++++++++++++++++++++++

The sound of metal scratching the ground only meant one thing for Andrias: trouble, loooots of trouble.

Every step made by the monstrosity in front of him prompted the king to sweat more, to kneel deeper and deeper before the eldritch metallic beast, orbs the color of fire and hell pinned him to the floor as if the weight of the whole world had been dropped on his shoulders.

“Vlr afpxmmlfkq jb, Xkaofxp.”

“I apologize profusely, my lord.” The claws scratched incessantly the ground, the screech was earsplitting and uncomfortable but the newt suck it up. Showing weakness was a death sentence in front of his master.

“Lc xii qeb axvp vlro mboclojxkzb exa ql yb xqolzflrp, fq exa ql yb qeb jlpq fjmloqxkq lkb!! Grpq ifhb zbkqrofbp xdl!! Vlr afak'q jxhb prob xii qeb pqxop tbob ibcq mltboibpp, yrq vlr xipl zlria klq hfii qeb lkb tel bkaba rm tfqe qexq mltbo. Qeb lqebo pqxo fp pqfii xifsb xka ql qlm fq xii lcc qeb ylu fp dlkb!!”

“M-My lord, I understand your worries about the sudden predicaments of our plans,” Andrias argued as submissively as he could. “But let’s look at the positives. The holder of Strength has no powers. Her only ally is a filthy toad. And about Anne Boonchuy, she won’t be a problem either because even if she has a fraction of the Heart gem’s energy, she doesn’t know how to control it. And she doesn’t have any portals to come back.”

“Kbfqebo rp, vlr clli!! Xp cxo xp tb xob zlkzbokba, vlro fkzljmbqbkzb exp qoxmmba rp ebob xka orfkba bsbovqefkd!!!”

Andrias grimaced at the last part and swallowed, waiting for his punishment. Minutes passed but he didn’t feel any pain though that didn’t quell the fear in his heart knowing how much he had screwed up and what he must endure to make it up to his master.

“F ilxqeb ql xajfq fq,--" The giant newt’s confusion and curiosity got the best of him and he shot a short glance at the eldritch being who froze him with a glare. He waited for his leader to continue, praying to not be executed. Not yet. It couldn’t be over for him yet. He could still be useful and redeem himself and his family’s name. “yrq mboexmp vlr exsbk'q cxfiba zljmibqbiv. Ybclob vlr mixzb vlro elmbp lk x mbabpqxi, Xkaofxp, vlr pelria yb xtxob -xka F Hklt vlr xob- qexq tb xob fk qefp mlpfqflk arb ql vlro pqrmfafqv. Eltbsbo, pljb zxizrixqflkp lc vlrop tbob nrfqb xzzroxqb. Jxvyb yv bumilfqfkd qebj, vlr zxk cfu qefp eloobkalrp jbpp.”

“My calculations?” The king dared to ask.

“Qeb dbkboxqlo.”

His eyes bulged in shock. He recalled that a few centuries ago, after ruminating over his bitter past and the paranoia of losing the box again once it came back as it’d been prophesized, he’d spent 5 years designing and building a new invention able to store the energy of the music box in case the item was stolen like that frog-forsaken day. The generator would be connected to the pedestal where the box was placed and absorb enormous amounts of power for the castle laser beams and propulsors, the frobot factories, and other weaponry.

And much to his surprise that afternoon when he fought the girls and their comrades, it worked. Even when the annoying tadpole had taken the box out of the pedestal, the propulsors’ fire didn’t diminish. And the castle was still flying as of now.

“What do you suggest, my lord?” There must be a reason to remind him about his invention.

“Yrfia x mloqxi. Buqoxzq xp jxkv obplrozbp xp vlr zxk colj qefp rpbibpp mixkbq xka yrfia fq. Qebk rpb qeb objxfkfkd bkbodv pqloba fk qeb dbkboxqlo ql lmbk fq xka illh clo qeb ylu. Vlr'a ybqqbo elmb fq expk'q ixkaba fk qeb pxjb tloia qeb eliabo lc Ebxoq txp wxmmba fk lo bipb tb'ii exsb ql abxi tfqe xklqebo fkzlksbkfbkzb. Lkzb qeb ylu fp obzlsboba, vlr tfii pbka vlro ybpq hfiibo ylqp ql dbq ofa lc qexq yoxq xka zlknrbo Bxoqe. F prmmlpb vlro mrkv yoxfk zxk xppfjfixqb xii lc qefp, zxk'q fq?”

“As you wish, my lord. It won’t take long before all these nuisances are out of our way. You have my word of it.”

“Vlr'a ybqqbo klq cxfi qefp qfjb, Xkaofxp. Lro mxqfbkzb fpk'q ifjfqibpp.”

The newt king bowed, even when he was kneeling. He had another chance after such a terrible screw-up. It would be over for more mistakes or enemies to destroy what he had worked so hard for. He would NOT fail.

++++++++++++++++++++

Wartwood’s entrance could be seen from many meters in the air. Sasha stretched in the limited space her seat had, bags has been painted over her eyes due to her stubbornness in not sleeping but thinking about what to say to the town.

“See? I told you that resting was better than spending all night ruminating on this.” Grime scolded her, and she huffed.

“Sure, sleep. And next, you will expect me to let you lie to all of them?”

“Why so hesitant about that?” The old toad looked at Sasha as if she had grown another head. “I thought that was one of your best skills. You know, lies, manipulation, backstabbing. We overthrew the king momentarily by using that.”

“And then when we found out he was the evil guy, Anne didn’t believe me and gave the box to him which allowed him to have a huge advantage over all of us. Even if the box is gone, Andrias still has his army to eliminate whoever gets in his way.” The Slavic girl massaged her temples and yawned. Since when seats on giant birds were so uncomfortable?

“Look, we have no choice. We have to tell them the truth.”

“Let’s suppose we do it and they believe us, then what? Will they help us defeat that maniac and save your friend? They will throw us out! Besides, those bumpkins are all farmers, they don’t know a single thing about war, strategy, and weapons.”

“I didn’t know a sh*t about that stuff and here I am, your first human lieutenant.”

“Because you have what it takes to be a soldier. You’re ruthless, sly, strong-willed, and fierce.”

“Well, look where that got me!!” She snapped. Inhaling and exhaling deeply to not have an outburst at the worst moment, the teenager calmed down before continuing. “Grime, I know what will happen but I can’t simply go on like this. Being a controlling, horrible bitch, pushing away the few people who care about me or whoever might be an ally, and putting all my attention on a distraction just to start all over again with my sh*tty attitude. The intelligent thing to do is to be honest with them.”

“They won’t be happy. It’ll make this situation harder for us.”

“Duh, obviously but if they refuse to help, the least we can do is warn them about Andrias. They must be wondering why the castle is in the air or why robots are flying from everywhere.”

Grime wanted to keep arguing about Sasha’s strategy but the mood between them was tense, his lieutenant’s posture imitated the one from a statue, so he didn’t reply.

Joe Sparrow finally landed in the center of the town and like flies seduced by honey, the villagers surrounded the toad and the human. Their faces were a mix of apprehension, fear, and distrust; Sasha was starting to regret her decision of being honest but bit her tongue hard enough to not falter, not right now.

“What the heck is going on there?” asked Stumpy.

“Is it me or the castle is flying?” Loogle queried.

“Where are the Plantars? Where is Anne?” Followed Felicia with her daughter asking for Sprig, glaring at the blonde suspiciously.

“What happened to Marcy? She was with all of you.” Maddie’s question shook her determination much more which prompted her to bite her tongue harder, the metallic taste of blood almost made her choke, and, much to her bad luck, Grime took that chance to speak.

“People of Wartwood, we have terrible news! King Andrias has revealed himself as a bloodthirsty tyrant of unspeakable power!!”

Everyone gasped, except Croaker. “Well, I never voted for him.”

“Anne and the Plantars are now on a crucial mission but they have sent us to protect you all.”

“But what about Marcy? Isn’t she with them?” This time Sasha could speak but decided to hide the most macabre details for the young frog witch’s sake, and all for hers.

“She was taken prisoner after fighting Andrias.” Maddie paled, imagining what he could be doing to her right now. It wasn’t the best reaction but at least it was better than breaking her heart.

The rest of the villagers murmured among them, shooting cold glances at the duo, debating if the news were true or a scam. Just days ago, this town was applauding her and her friends after they played Anne’s song in the battle of the bands, heck, Toadie helped her with her song before she joined Anne and Marcy and had fun with their concert. It was a day-and-night situation, so surreal that it overwhelmed her.

“Anyway,” she interrupted their murmur fest and hide her discomfort at all the eyes being posed on her. “If it isn’t a bother for any of you, can you please tell us where the Plantar’s house is? Grime and I need to rest.”

The silence got heavier as if she had pushed the wrong button. Before she could fix whatever mess made by her words, Toadstool approached her cautiously.

“Alright, not sure if this is a good idea but if you two are here to help, then maybe we can give you some accommodations. Can’t we, everyone?” The mayor sounded pretty affable, though inside squirmed with nervousness for he didn’t want to let them in, but knowing the king could attack the town at any moment, more hands to protect it would come in handy. What he needed at the moment was some votes, whether in favor or against to not come as too impulsive about Sasha and Grime’s fate.

Croaker sighed. “Fine, they can stay. I vote they stay.” The duo glanced at each other, hopeful. “Nonetheless, we all will keep an eye on them.”

“Good idea, who knows what they might do.” Opined Maddie’s father.

“And if one or both try something, we’ll kick them out!!” Exclaimed Wally. The rest of the village agreed with him.

“Ok, ok. Toadie, please give our…guests, the directions to the Plantar’s house, would ya?”

“On it, sir.” Toadie signaled to follow him, or he was ok with this outcome or he was masking his true emotions really well. Whatever, Sasha, Grime, and Joe Sparrow walked among the multitude; she could perceive the hostility her person was regarded with and the same would be for her captain, though he didn’t care that much.

******************

After being told where the house was, Joe landed right in front of it and the duo jumped from the seats. It was as Sasha remembered after being invited that night to eat with Anne and her frog family: quaint and rustic.

Grime stretched for a while before walking to the door, ready to open it just to be smacked in the back of the head with the handle of Sasha’s sword.

“What was that for?!”

“What do you think?” She leveled him with a glare. “My plan was to tell them the truth about us, the toad rebellion, Andrias, and my friends, but nooooo, you had to open your big mouth and put us in more trouble than ever.”

“Should I remind you that by doing that you were risking being expulsed from the town? Besides, you were taking too long. And it’s not that we’re going to stay here forever.” At Sasha’s raised eyebrow, he explained. “We’re going to rest and plan our next move until I receive a letter from my sister, then we’ll leave this crummy town.”

“Wait, Beatrix is still alive?” What a surprise after the shock of watching one of the toad towers being blown up by the castle laser beam.

“She might have been in the North Toad Tower with the other toad lords but that was because of my proposition to rebel against the king. Matters of this magnitude require the input of all the leaders. After we retrieved the hammer, she went back to her own tower.”

“Ok, but how can she know where are we?”

“The last letter I sent her was a bit before we met your friends in that volcano. I told her we would use them to enter Newtopia and dethrone the king. She might not know what happened that day but she hasn’t forgotten that I used to work in the South Toad Tower that protects the Valley.”

“And what if that letter never comes?”

“I doubt that happens but if that possibility becomes true, we’ll have to leave too. I don’t want to tempt luck and let Andrias outsmart us by sending those robots or firing that accursed laser beam before we can act.”

“Wait, but what about the town? You barely told them anything.”

“Sasha, we can’t focus on every village that maniac may find us in. It’s harsh but this is the reality of war, not everyone can be saved. Now, let’s enter and recharge our energies. These will be pretty long days.”

The Slavic girl let out a defeated sigh. Her hand balled into fists too many times to count, trying in vain to alleviate the tension both physical and emotional in her body. Observing the humble interior of the Plantar’s house prompted her stomach to squirm, uncomfortable with the idea of sleeping on the property of the frog family who took Anne in.

Before she wouldn’t have cared a tiny bit, wow, how things had changed uh? One of her best friends called out for being horrible and disowned her, the other was murdered by a tyrant and the same tyrant was doing God-knows-what to her, and now she was inside the house of the people she tried to kill time ago.

At this point, Sasha was beginning to miss the smelly cell of Toad Tower.

Suddenly, she heard a crash and her legs led her to Hop Pop’s bedroom where an embarrassed Grime was seated on a destroyed bed.

“Not my fault! This bed is too weak!” the toad defended himself. The blonde merely blinked and walked away. Perhaps she was getting too numb which was understandable after all the crap she went through.

Then, as if her mind and body conspired against her, she ended up in the basem*nt, Anne’s room.

All her stuff was there, discarded in every corner of her bed, the floor, her clothes had gotten dirty, and some wrappers were under the sheets. Yep, some things never changed.

Her foot stepped on a flat object, her eyes checked and she was aghast at finding her ex-best friend’s journal. ‘For real? Who forgets a personal item like this one in another dimension?’

Yeeesh, talking about being careless. A daring idea crossed her head: what Anne might have written about her time here in this town, with those slimy frogs, or about her and Marcy? But, was she going to read her former friend’s journal despite what that meant?

Too late to back down as her hands picked up the notebook. However, she halted when she was this close to sitting in Annes’s bed. Even when she wasn’t here anymore, getting comfy in her former room felt wrong, intrusive. But where else could she read and rest? Images of the frog family’s barn appeared and once again her legs moved on their own though she didn’t mind it, she was too exhausted to care anyway.

The second she opened the doors of the barn; she was greeted by an adorable pair of eyes.

“Aaaah! Oh, a little snail.” Micro Angelo greeted with a high-pitched meep, he didn’t look scared or fazed at Sasha’s inexplicable visit. “Aand a bigger snail.” She said as she took count of Bessie’s presence who meeped at her too very casually. “Well, don’t mind me, I’ll only be here for a while.”

She plopped in a huge pile of hay and observed the cover of Anne’s journal for a long time debating if reading her personal thoughts was a good idea. Not that reading it would change the events in the castle or give her the power to travel to the past to prevent the tragedy but doing the opposite wouldn’t do anything either. Besides, what else could she lose? Anne hated her, she was finally on Earth if that became true and maybe she had reunited with her parents already. Marcy still needed to be saved and Sasha wasn’t sure about her friendship with the noirette anymore.

“Let’s get this over with.” She opened the notebook on a random page.

Dear Diary,

I stopped counting the days since I landed in Amphibia and even after getting used to living with the Plantars. It was getting on my nerves, to be honest. I can’t stop wondering if Sasha and Marcy are doing the same or looking for a way to find me and each other.

Hope they’re ok. Yeeeesh, this is like the nth time I write this phrase but if I told someone what is going on with me and my friends, they wouldn’t get it. I still don’t know if they’re alright or hurt or anything at all.

And this place, Wartwood, is not the most pleasant to be in. People either call me a monster or avoid me. Last time I got some respect and ovation from them was when I used my pimples as a beauty standard.

“Wow, really, girl?” Sasha mumbled, amused.

The special treatment, my VIP room, the autographs, and applause. I loved it!! Who knew being a star would be so exciting? Except when my pimples vanished the next day, and not even rubbing a bar of butter in my face could bring them back. How I was supposed to get the people to admire me without them?!

Sasha grimaced. A bar of butter on her face, like a bar of soap? Ew, but on the other hand, she couldn’t relate more to Anne’s experience with popularity. As the former queen of middle school, the Slavic girl had to maintain a reputation by any means necessary, not only to revel in the control but also to keep an eye on whoever dared to bully her friends.

Anyway, in the end, my reign as a pimple star was over. But at least I had the Plantars. Man, I was such a jerk to them while I was a celebrity, I wouldn’t blame them for holding that against me which they didn’t. They were at my side despite how much of a stuck-up I was, it melted my heart.

The blonde’s lips curled into a tiny smile. As much as she disliked those frogs, she was relieved that they have helped Anne when things went south. It brought her to that time when a classmate started rumors against her to destroy her reputation but Anne and Marcy never took them seriously and the three found a way to unravel the truth and punish the liar with the best prank of all, such good moments.

Sasha played with the pages of the journal, flipping them from right to left and vice versa before landing in another random memory.

Dear Diary,

I had so much fun today helping Stumpy with his restaurant. Gosh, if my parents had seen how it looked like before I gave him a transformation, Dad would have fainted and Mom would’ve insulted in Thai until getting blue.

It was a yikes in capital letters. Dirty, smelly, the menu so dull, a lot had to change.

Of course, he couldn’t care less until I challenged Albus Duckweed, the town critic, and he threatened to put an end to Stumpy’s restaurant if he wasn’t impressed the next time he came to eat. Thaaaat wasn’t one of my best moments.

“Oh, you think, girl? Seriously, you need to be better at picking your fights.” Though, it was rich coming from the blonde girl because of her hotheadedness and willingness to fight even the craziest of battles. Heck, she even risked her life and her team to retrieve a legendary war hammer.

Yeah… Not her brightest or fondest moment.

Luckily, we worked together, defeat an ingredient who tried to eat us, the Plantars, and Albus (who the heck thought hunting a Kraken for lunch was a good idea?) and the restaurant got an A of approval. Stumpy couldn’t be happier with how things turned out!

I wished my parents were there to see me turn that sad place into a 5-star restaurant, though. Stumpy told me they would’ve been proud of me. I bet the three would have celebrated!

She had to admit that was pretty impressive. Anne’s parents always took family and their restaurant seriously and respectfully. A part of her from a long time ago used to hope her own parents did the same just to be disappointed with the outcome after the bitter divorce.

Never mind that, next page.

Dear Diary,

Today I’m proud and ashamed of myself.

Alright, that sounds worrying.

Sorry, sorry. I take it back. Today was a difficult day that ended ok. I went from town monster to town protector but man! It began as a mess!

Hop Pop told me everyone on Wartwood would take some time to get used to me and like me but I hated it when they mocked me at Grub N' Go after I slipped on the wet floor. Like, for real?! Didn’t they have anything better to do than being jerks?

Sasha frowned while reading those sentences. If that was how Anne was treated then why she wanted to protect them that much that day at toad tower? She wouldn’t let them get away with this. The blonde started regretting her decision of telling everyone the truth or even worrying about them; she kept reading.

I got my chance at being respected when I met Bog, Fens, and Mire, the toads who collect taxes. They were strong, wielded weapons, and fear no one; reminded me of Sasha in some ways. I joined them to be as cool as them but the more I was part of this tax collecting stuff, the more I feel something was off. They stole, intimidated, and yelled at the villagers, and even when I didn’t like how they treated me, I couldn’t stop feeling guilty because I was participating in this by doing nothing and following Bog and his group everywhere. That is until they went to the Plantars’ house to do the same to Hop Pop.

That was the last straw. Hop Pop had paid his taxes, heck he even showed me how to do it. (I still shiver whenever I remember that time) Bog didn’t stop, though, he told his friends to take Bessie and when they were this close, I got in their way. I wasn’t going to let them terrorize this town or my frog family.

We fought, and one of them broke my arm.

‘WHAT?!!’

But the Plantars and the rest of the town helped me to defeat them, and then Sprig revealed to everyone that Mayor Toadstool had stolen all the money from the taxes, hid it in his ugly statue, and lied to the toads that the people hadn’t paid. What a jerk, am I right?

Anyway, even when my arm got broken, everyone congratulated me and thanked me for defending them. I was their hero. Honestly, I was ashamed that my resentment due to their jerkiness led me to join those toad bullies. Yeah, the town wasn’t so warm with me at the beginning, but that didn’t mean I had to be worse just to make them pay. I’m glad I could fix my mistake and gain their respect, though. In the end, they weren’t so bad.

Alright, that was an…. insightful entry. Sasha was deeply conflicted about this. On one hand, she got worried about Anne’s injury even when that event happened months ago if she was right and she was also furious at how the town treated her ex-best friend; on the other hand, Anne had joined a band of thugs and after seeing how horrible they were, she became the hero of the story with a happy ending. Ok, that was relatively ok. Her former regrets about being honest with the villagers didn’t dissipate totally but her determination got stronger.

So, Anne protected the town from a bunch of bullies, it felt nostalgic in a weird way. When she met Anne and Marcy, she had defended them from two older girls who had bullied them at the playground. They outnumbered her and were stronger than her, and, Sasha hated to admit it, but she made a kind of a fool of herself that day. In the end, those two girls left the park and she made two friends. Two great, best friends.

All because she did the right thing instead of ignoring what was going on.

Sasha wondered if Anne remembered that day while fighting those toads. Still, she was proud of her friend.

She went for another entry and the beginning took her by surprise, not a good one sadly.

Dear Diary,

Sasha almost died tonight.

No, I’m not joking, she almost did. Seriously, what the f*ck was wrong with her?! Letting go of my hand when I was trying so hard to save her and telling me I’d be better off without her? Yeah, right. Such a self-righteous, proud jerk.

Like, yeah, I get it, she betrayed me, helped the toads kidnap the whole town, tried to kill Hop Pop, manipulated me so I went along with her crazy plan, then tried to murder Sprig when he defended me from her, whoever was in my place would be happy to get rid of her but with me it’s different. She’s my best friend for frog’s sake!!

Or that’s how I want it to be in the future because right now, I’m not sure anymore. I mean, she’s still my friend, I still love her and care about her but all my life she has been pushy, controlling, and manipulative, like did she ever notice how that hurt me?! Well, it wasn’t like that from the start, but with the years the Sasha I met in the playground started fading until she was no more.

And I know what she might be going through in her home is hard but she never opened up and I was too scared to make her mad by asking questions even if I wanted to help her. Heck, there were times when she acted so cold and distant with us.

What do I do now? Next time we meet, it won’t be the same. Nothing will be the same between us after the Toad Tower incident. And it’s not that I wasn’t aware of how she treated me before we landed on Amphibia but that doesn’t mean that I wanted her dead that night or out of my life, I just wanted her to see her behavior was hurting me and it was wrong!!

Was that so hard to do?! Was I asking for too much?!

Should I just cut her out of my life? My Dad told me some times that she wasn’t a good influence and it hurts to admit that he was right all along. Should I hate her? Should I not forgive her?

I mean, if someone else was living my life, they would say yes to those questions but I still want her in my life, you know? But not like before. I want the Sasha who despite being impulsive sometimes, was also caring and passionate, but she has changed so much and not for the better that it seems like she had been replaced by an evil clone.

Doesn’t matter, I can’t let my guard down if she ever tries something again. But still, I miss her, I miss her a lot.

God, I… I could’ve lost her.

There were some stains on the page, which Sasha guessed were the remnants of Anne’s tears.

I’m still mad at you, Sasha. I don’t know how I will face you if we meet again but…

Please be ok.

The page was dampened by new tears as Sasha cried silently, hugging the book close to her chest with all her strength.

“I’m such an idiot.” She lamented. All this time she had been stuck in the assumption that Anne had gotten over their battle on Toad Tower, that she had reveled in her victory over the blonde, rubbing in her face the fact that she had chosen some filthy frogs over her and got the best of that bargain. It was her motor for revenge, to take control of their friendship and be the leader like always it had been until now. Until she found out that no, Anne wasn’t ok with that victory because it didn’t feel like one at all.

Her best friend manipulated and betrayed her that night, then she almost died by trying to save Anne, something the Thai girl didn’t want, and despite her anger, hurt and reasons to hate Sasha, in the end, Anne kept loving her and was worried about her. She hoped that Sasha was ok wherever she was.

And how the blonde retributed those concerns and care? With more lies and betrayal.

Some friend she turned out to be. While Anne grew up and earned the respect of a backwater town with hard work, while she became a hero, someone to look up to, Sasha just got worse and worse for her obsession with control and power-hungriness.

She threw away her second chance with Anne for the toad rebellion and even when she felt guilty, she kept going on with that terrible choice. She mistreated Marcy and couldn’t protect her from Andrias. All her strength and fierceness, but she accomplished nothing except hurting her friends.

“Oh Anne, I’m so so sorry. I shouldn’t have tried so hard to be in control again. In the end, where did it get me? And Marcy… God, Marcy… I coul-couldn’t protect her.”

At hearing her cries, Bessie and Micro Angelo approached the distraught teenager and hugged her in their snail way much to her surprise.

“I don’t—I don’t need your pity!!” She exclaimed angrily. She still had her pride; however, the creatures kept comforting her, purring to calm her down.

Here she was a horrible friend and person being consoled by two snails that she supposed were also Anne’s friends. Sasha wondered how they would react if they found out she had hurt the Thai teenager multiple times. She wanted to laugh at the idea of taking a pair of snails’ opinions into account even if they were animals; however, at that thought, her mind directed its attention at the villagers of the town.

Weren’t they animals too? In some way, yes. They were all amphibians, even if they walked, acted, and dressed like humans, they were still amphibians, therefore they should be treated as… as… Should she say as lesser than her just because she was human? Besides, some of those frogs, the Plantars, had stolen her friend from her but at the end that was an assumption born from jealousy; they took Anne in.

She imagined Anne shivering from cold, hungry, injured, or sick, hiding in a cave or the hole of a tree, wondering where she or Marcy were. If she had stayed like this, she wouldn’t have survived. The Plantars changed that; for f*ck’s sake, they saved her. They did what Sasha failed to do.

And despite Anne’s initial resentment towards the town, her jerkiness to her frog family, and her initial distaste of frogs in general, she considered them important people in her life, not some walking, talking animals from a fairytale. People.

Sasha was such a hypocrite. Grime imprisoned her, they went from jailer and prisoner to captain and lieutenant and then close friends. She befriended Percy and Braddock, sure at first to gain something in the end but she was sad that they left after retrieving the Warhammer. Wasn’t all of that changing her mind towards talking toads, to see them more than otherworldly creatures?

Sure, she could’ve abandoned Grime and let Yunan kill him, but she stayed at his side. Was it because she couldn’t survive without his help in the wilderness or because she had started to care about him as more than a grumpy captain? Her answer was immediate. Grime, despite his flaws and sometimes bad temper, was her friend. And she wasn’t going to leave him behind.

Was this how Anne felt when Sasha tried to kill her frog family? When she helped Stumpy with her restaurant? When she defended the town from those toads and next from the blonde? When Andrias threw Sprig out of the window while smiling twistedly?

‘Look, there’s another reason why I’ve been training so hard. To protect the one person, I know I can count on right now. You. You’re right, I’ve already lost one friend, I’m not about to lose another.’

‘Ok? We almost died back there!’

‘We trusted you and you didn’t care what happened to us as long as you got what you wanted!’

‘Those are just slimy frogs, Anne! They don’t matter!’

‘They are my friends!!’

They were her friends. Those frogs Sasha deemed insignificant were precious to Anne not only because they formed bonds with her but also because she understood they were also people like her no matter if they were from another world.

She appreciated them for who they were regardless of their appearance, just like Sasha did with Grime, Percy, and Braddock until she failed the last two.

Why she wanted to tell all of Wartwood the truth again? Why was she worried about them?

Because it was the right thing to do? Because she could gain some allies in her revenge against Andrias? Because they were Anne’s people?

It was like an epiphany. She was being selfish again. She wanted allies, she wanted vengeance, she wanted Anne back but did she stop to consider how those people were feeling after watching the castle flying? They knew nothing about what Anne was put through.

They deserved to know.

Micro Angelo and Bessie regarded Sasha with curiosity, she paid them no mind and rubbed at her eyes. Just when she was getting up, Grime opened the doors of the barn startling her.

“Sasha, there you are!”

“Grime, what’s going on?” His face was sweating a bit which could’ve been caused by running from the house to the barn or nervousness.

“It’s the town.” Yep, nervousness.

She got out of the building and what her eyes met put her on high alert. Everyone was surrounding the barn, armed with pitchforks and torches, and—wait, was that a kitchen ax?!

“Grime, what did you do?”

“Don’t look at me. I was in the house all day.”

“Oh, you did do something! Both of you!!” Screamed Felicia and the villagers yelled ‘Yeah!’ to back her up.

“Alright, can someone tell me what the heck is happening?”

“You know what’s happening, you mongrel!” Albus raised his voice this time.

“You’re hiding something from us. We know it!!” Mr. Flour exclaimed, incensed.

“I heard you!!” Ivy exclaimed, pointing her finger accusingly at the Slavic teenager. “You and Grime were talking about toad rebellion, laser beams, and that what he’d told us wasn’t the truth. Admit it!!”

The universe must suck a lot at helping her embrace honesty or it loves to mess with her by letting the yellow frog girl eavesdrop on them and warn the whole town.

“Everyone, please calm down,” Grime said, raising his hands in a friendly manner. “There is a good explanation for this.”

Sasha placed a hand in front of him, her eyes firmly communicating to the toad captain that she was done with the pretensions and the schemes. It was time for her to face the music.

Gathering all her courage and preparing herself for any punishment they might deem fit for her, the Slavic girl spoke:

“What you said is right.” She told Ivy, not evading the outrage of those young orbs. “What you’re suspicious of is totally right. Grime and I were hiding something from you. First of all, Grime didn’t lie about king Andrias. He IS a tyrant. He tried to kill us all when we didn’t want to be part of his plans. However, the rest was a lie.”

“Then what on frog’s name was the whole truth?!!” Roared Wally.

“Yeah! Spit it out already!” Demanded Croaker.

“I lied and betrayed Anne, again.” Everyone gasped. She soldiered on and kept going. “I betrayed Anne and Marcy. Grime and I used them to enter Newtopia and when we were inside the castle, we overthrew the king and sent Anne, the Plantars, and Marcy to the dungeons.” The silence was getting suffocating with every word that came out of her mouth but she balled her fists to destroy her urge to run away. “Then when we found out Andrias was evil, I tried to warn Anne but she didn’t believe me and I don’t blame her. Andrias took advantage of that and reveal himself as a despot, we tried to stop him, and during the fight… During the fight, Marcy helped Anne and the Plantars to escape by zapping them to another world, the one where the three come from.” ‘Hopefully’. “And then…” ‘Come on, Waybright. Say it, do it. Do it for Marcy!’ “Andrias killed Marcy.”

Maddie’s eyes were submerged in tears as she covered her mouth with both hands.

“Anne and the Plantars are safe on Earth thanks to Marcy but they aren’t on a mission. And I doubt they have the means to come back. Marcy is gone, I couldn’t protect her. And Grime and I weren’t sent here to protect the town. I’m no guardian, I’m a fraud.”

“You certainly are!” Loogle roared and threw a vegetable at her face.

Grime snarled at the woodcarver and was ready to flatten him like a tortilla with the Warhammer until Sasha placed a hand on his shoulder and ordered him to stay quiet much to his surprise. ‘I deserved this’ her eyes told him.

“How could you do such a cruel thing to Anne? Don’t you have consciousness?!” Quentin was the next in throwing a vegetable at her and she took it all in stride.

“You’re not her friend, you’re a betrayer!”

“Cowardly beast!!”

“You couldn’t even save your other friend!”

“Scumbag!!”

“Welp, here is the new verdict, guys. KICK THEM OUT!!!” Ordered Toadstool, the enraged mob closed in on the duo until the earth took them by surprise with a violent shake.

“What the--?”

“MONSTER!!!” A peasant yelled, pointing at a giant that was just meters away from the town. Sasha and Grime shared a worried glance that said ‘sh*t, it’s Andrias!’.

The blond didn’t lose time, though. She ignored Grime’s attempts to stop her and ran to the entrance of the town.

“Deploy back-up” the giant robot kneeled and from its body, little frog-like minions got out and invade the village, looking for the girl and the toad.

Sasha spot one entering a house. She kicked the door open, and the minion at seeing her jumped, ready to capture her with its elastic arms just to be stabbed and thrown out of the building.

Other two robots tried to ambush her from the ceiling of a house nearby but Sasha cut them in half. A trio used his elastic arms to stop her and she resorted to her strength and send them flying like javelins, expulsing them from the town.

The Surinam robot deployed more minions, and each one was either cut in two, decapitated, or stabbed. All except one that wrapped its arms around her, making her trip and drop her sword.

The giant metallic beast divided its head in two and from the interior a canon appeared and fired a tadpole-like missile.

“Oh no.” So, this is how she was going to die. What a great start to her heroic deed.

Suddenly, Grime got in between and swung the Warhammer, sending the missile somewhere else.

“Grime, you’re back!”

“Of course, I’m back, you seriously think I’m going to let you have all the fun? Besides,” he smashed the minion’s head. “Someone has to make sure you don’t get yourself killed by playing hero.”

“Dude, this isn’t playing hero.” An army of frog-like little robots was expulsed from the back of the Surinam of war and ran towards the duo.

“Oh, really?” Grime swung the Warhammer against five of them. “Then what was all of that you did in front of the villagers? Or this battle here?”

“Doing the right thing, duh.” She answered while decapitating another four.

“More like playing hero.”

“No,” she argued. “Playing hero is to show off, to gain popularity, it’s just a child game. Telling the truth to the town, protecting them even if they hate me, is the right thing.”

“Why are you doing this anyway? Anne isn’t even here.”

“I’m not doing this just for Anne,” Sasha explained while kicking a robot right in the crotch. “I want to change everything!” she launched toward two minions and cut them in half.

“Care to elaborate?” Grime enveloped two robots with his tongue and crushed them.

“Every time I want to hold on control or control someone, things go wrong. I hurt Anne, almost killed her frog family, pushed her away, and almost died in Toad Tower. Then Percy and Braddock left because I pushed them too far and put them in danger. Then I betrayed my friends, Anne doesn’t want anything to do with me anymore and Marcy perished. That’s why!” She decapitated a robot and but all the limbs of another one. “I’m done, Grime. I’m done with this cycle. Lying, being controlling, manipulating people, it got me nowhere.”

More robots were deployed, and the girl ran towards them, evading their arms, dismembering them, beheading, stabbing.

“Look, I know you plan to leave whether Beatrix’s letter comes or not, but I won’t. Even if these people throw garbage at me, spit at my face, or treat me as a pariah, I will protect them. I won’t force you to agree or stay, but I hope you understand why I’m doing this.”

Sasha was so immersed in her speech that she didn’t notice one of the minions jumping at her to trap her until Grime’s tongue smash its body.

“I don’t understand it,” he replied. “This town is filled with weaklings and simple-minded bumpkins who will slow you down and won’t change their minds about you. And there is a high possibility they never will. Meanwhile, we have Beatrix’s forces and weapons, they’re better allies than these peasants, that is if they want to be your allies which I doubt. You’re wasting your time and you might die here. This is by far the craziest idea you have and it might amount to nothing.”

Sasha listened attentively to his words while destroying as many robots as she could though, for 2 or 3 that fell, 4 or 6 were deployed. It was getting exhausting. That and what Grime said just hurt, a lot. Sure, she implicitly asked for an honest answer but that didn’t mean she would like it. She knew Grime looked down on the frogs what she didn’t expect was for him to be so unsupportive just because she wanted to protect the town as her first step to change for the better.

Maybe that was it for them, they would have to separate and follow different paths in the upcoming war. He didn’t want to stay and disliked the frogs too much even to the point of not joining Sasha, and she was through with forcing and manipulating others to do what she wanted so the girl wasn’t going to resort to that with him. It wouldn’t work anyway. Despite that his response was realistic, she had a slim hope that Grime could understand and at least wish her luck if he decided to leave, but not this.

“HA!!” The toad captain laughed and right now Sasha felt she wanted to punch him right in the face because if his words hurt, mockery was just outright cruel. “That’s exactly what many people said to Barrel the Brave but it’s not that it stopped him.”

Wait, what?

“Uh?”

“What, lieutenant? You think the great Barrel was adored by everyone or people agree with him because he did the right thing. HAHA! You wished. Sure, he was known for his bravery, for his Warhammer, for defeating monsters and saving people, but that’s the surface. It was heard that he came from Newtopia, so many villages thought he was a stuck-up toad playing hero and being condescending to people to be this shiny legend. Judging a book by its cover, am I right?”

“Ok, I’m lost.”

“My point is, that even before the legend Barrel was, there were still issues between the species but not as bad as today. Anyway, not many towns were happy because hey, since when someone from Newtopia, the oh-so-perfect city, and capital of Amphibia cared about the common folks? They thought he was just flamboyantly saving them so they felt in debt with Barrel, but did that stop him? NOPE. He kept fighting for the little guys, working harder and harder even if the work was dangerous, even if sometimes there was no appreciation or a little thanks.”

“You seem to know a lot about him.”

“He’s determined, strong, ruthless to his enemies, and loyal to a fault. Just like you.”

“Come on,” Sasha rolled her eyes, a bit uncomfortable with the compliment. “I mean, loyal to a fault? I betrayed Anne two times, I betrayed and failed Marcy. I’m not like Barrel.”

“Who says you can’t start over and be like him or change for the better?” He swung the Warhammer, sending a robot flying towards two who were approaching them. “You tried to warn Anne about Andrias’ intentions despite her loss of trust in you. You risked your life to buy your friends time when that maniac wanted to kill them. You went back for Marcy to give her a proper burial and then were going to rescue her the moment you found out she was still alive. If that isn’t reviving your old loyalty for them despite your mistakes, I don’t know what it is.”

“Grime…” Sasha hated that her eyes were stinging with tears.

“Look, I dislike those frogs or any other one and I think leaving this place and meeting Beatrix is a better idea. However, we’ve been through a lot together even if sometimes we disagree. You could’ve abandoned me to Yunan but you refused, you have helped me open up as weird as that sounds. Maybe I can learn one or two things from you, Sasha. As you can do the same with me. And this time it will be the real way.”

She couldn’t stand it anymore. “You big softie!” She hugged him tightly, the old toad complained and told her to stop but a tiny smile could be noticed on his face.

The touching moment, nonetheless, was ruined when 3 pairs of elastic arms captured the girl. Grime tried to stop them just to be surrounded by ten other minions.

“Hiyayayayayay!” an elderly female voice yelled. Mrs. Croaker jumped and crushed the head of one of the robots that had trapped Sasha. “Die robot scum!!” Archie, her spider pet, spat acid on the other two, freeing the girl.

One by one, the villagers fought the metallic invaders with such brutality that even a warrior like Grime couldn’t believe it. Loogle ripped out the eye of a minion, Wally whipped many robots with his accordion, the Sundews kicked the butts of ten in a matter of minutes, Toadstool sent one flying with a punch and flattened another one with just a slap, Soggy Joe and Stumpy stabbed and sliced 5 each one using his knives and axes.

“For Barrel’s wart, these bumpkins are more merciless than any soldier I’ve ever seen.”

“He… Well, it seems they’re not the weaklings you think they were, doesn’t it?” Sasha teased him despite being as shocked as him.

The Surinam giant suddenly got up prompting everyone to be on their guards. It raised both arms and from them, two big canons were deployed and fired tadpole-like missiles.

“Let’s go, Grime!”

“On it!”

The missiles followed their movements instantly. That single clue was enough for them to find out they were the real targets.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” asked the toad captain.

“Obvi. Back to it!”

They accelerated, jumped over rocks and obstacles, and climbed the back of the robot just in time to get off of it before the missiles collided with the killing machine. The townsfolk backed down from the huge explosion and the fall of the robotic weapon; Sasha and Grime appeared a bit later from the dense smoke of the implosion.

It was over. For now.

“Sasha Waybright!” Croaker called the human teenager and she straightened her back, again ready for any backlash or punishment, this time Andrias’ forces wouldn’t stop Wartwood from seeking justice from her. However, what gave her some relief was knowing Grime was at her side as he placed a hand on her shoulder and smiled at her.

The farmers and peasants surrounded the due once again, the environment radiated fury and apprehension. Croaker spoke.

“That thing was following both of you?”

“One of Andrias’ robots tried to follow a day ago but Grime destroyed it. Of course, that bastard sent us a surprise as you see, so yes.”

“And both got rid of it.”

“Yeah.”

“If we told you to leave right now, would you do it?”

That was a heavy question. If she said yes, she at least would show them that she respected their feelings toward her and their decision of not wanting anything to do with the girl who terrorized and kidnapped them. But it wasn’t as simple as that for if her suspicions were right, not only she and Grime had the king as a threat but everyone else too. He murdered Marcy for f*ck’s sake! He threw a frog kid out of a window of his flying castle just to torture Anne. It didn’t matter if Wartwood or other villages wanted to be left alone, the despot would consume them all with his conquests and wars.

“Yes, I’d do it. But that solution will be short-term. As I told them moments ago, he tried to kill us when we refused to let him fulfill his plans. He murdered Marcy, was going to do the same with Anne, he even threw Sprig out of his flying castle in spite.” The peasants gasped, especially Ivy. “I’ll leave if you want, and I can see now how strong you are but Andrias’ army is more advanced, more numerous, they will overwhelm you in time. Whether you stay aside, fight back or refuse with words to be part of his madness, it won’t matter. He will drag everyone down.”

“And if that’s true, what can you offer to help?”

“Wow, wow, help?” Toadstool interrupted. “Do you have any idea what you’re asking, Croaker?”

“Silence, Toadstool! Let me speak.” The mayor backed off clearly intimidated by the elderly woman’s sharp tone and glare.

“Sasha, as I said, what can you offer to help?”

“I can train you; I can make you stronger, faster, better prepared for war. I have experience in battle strategy, I’ve been working for Grime after all. With those skills, Wartwood might have a chance to survive and that can be shared with other towns that will need it. As long as you want to, of course.” She added the last part quickly to not come up as pushy or manipulative.

“And after the war is over?”

“I’ll leave. You won’t have to deal with me any longer.”

“And if we told you to leave, would you give up your idea of helping us?”

“No. I will still help you, just from afar if that makes you happy.”

Croaker checked her up and down. “Wait here, both of you.” She turned away, reuniting with the townsfolk. The multitude entered the town, they were far enough to not be heard but not that much for Sasha to jump to the conclusion that the female frog’s order was a way to tell her to never return.

The duo observed their reactions and expressions for a long time. It felt like that for Sasha as she wondered what would be their verdict with her and her toad friend.

Finally, after half an hour of debate and discussion, the whole village returned to deliver their choice.

“Sasha Waybright, captain Grime,” started Toadstool. “We have decided that you two will stay in Wartwood.” Both couldn’t believe it; their eyes met the other’s as they processed those words. “You both committed crimes against the town, so, the best course of action is community service, and your aid in this war and stopping the king will be your way to make amends to all of us. However, you two will be highly supervised in case you pull another stunt. Last but not least, you will do extra chores if anyone asks you for a hand with their work and you will say yes, no buts or protests. Understood?”

Sasha bowed in front of them. The gesture alone shocked the folks and Grime much more because of the humility. A millisecond later, the girl placed her hand on the toad’s back and push him to bow too.

The villagers soon overcame the commotion and returned to their homes slowly while glaring at their unsavory new protectors.

“Welp, I think this is it. We have a new army now, a pretty unwilling one.”

“We can’t blame them, though. What matters is that the more we work to compensate them for the damage we’ve done, the faster they’ll grow to trust us and it will be a step ahead to defeat Andrias and save Marcy and everyone else.”

“I have to admit, Sasha, you acted way more mature than the old times after… you know, Toad Tower. It won’t be difficult for them to like you with that attitude.”

“Not liking me. I’m here to make things right.”

“Determined and strong as always. Hehe, count me in, lieutenant.” He patted her back amicably.

“Thanks, Grime.” Her friend smiled before entering the town. Just as she followed him, the blonde stopped right under the entrance, watching the horizon.

‘Anne, I know it’s over between us, but if there is a chance for you to come back in the future, I will show you I’m not that horrible person anymore. I will be someone better, someone that deserves you. Marcy, despite what you’ve done, I’ll get you out of that castle. Just hold on. I’ll make Andrias pay for what he did to you.’

+++++++++++++++++++

Meanwhile on Earth…

4 nights. It has been 4 nights since her disastrous return to Earth, to her parents and old life and the nightmares hadn’t stopped messing up with her.

The sweet memories of her reunion with Mom and Dad and Domino were nothing in comparison to the devastating grief, resentment, and anger, the leftovers caused by her best friends’ betrayals.

She wanted to laugh at those two words. Best friends. Sasha and Marcy weren’t her best friends!

No, they were!

NO, THEY WEREN’T!!

“Ugh!! f*ck!!” She screamed, covering her mouth at the swear and watching her room door quickly. Much to her relief, her sudden use of vulgar language didn’t wake up her parents, heck not even the Plantars as Hop Pop and Polly were sleeping soundly with Domino while Sprig was on Anne’s bed, hugging a stuffed rabbit the Thai girl used to play with when she was 3.

Anne smiled at his frog friend/adoptive little brother and ruffled his hair.

‘He’s my best friend. In this world or any other.’

The teenager sighed melancholically. These conflictive feelings were going to be the death of her, she knew it. And to make it worse, how the hell was she going to come back to Amphibia to bring the Plantars back home and save her best(?) friends who might be dead already?

She shook her head at the images of Marcy’s chest being stabbed by a flaming sword, or Sasha fighting a tyrant 20 times bigger and stronger than her.

This would be another long, exhausting night.

Chapter 2: Unwanted results

Summary:

The Anne-gst fest has begun.

Chapter Text

3.

3 is such a curious number.

It is the number of the primary colors: red, yellow, and blue.

It is the number of the elements: air, earth, and water. That is if you have never watched Avatar: The Last Airbender in your life.

3 is the number for triangles. 3 vertices, sides, and angles that sum up 180 degrees.

3 is the number of the celestial bodies everyone is familiar with. The sun, moon, and stars.

3 is the number people use to start a competition: ‘At the count of 3’; ‘3, 2, 1, GO!’

It is a number that unites body, soul, and mind. The number for religious groups like the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

So yeah, 3 is such a curious number.

For 13-year-old Anne Boonchuy, though, it had become an accursed one.

3 girls had disappeared all because of actions they never had to resort to one another. 2 were stuck on Amphibia and maybe were dead. Meanwhile, she was still here, alive and safe.

A part of her should feel grateful the Plantars didn’t stay behind despite belonging in Amphibia. After the nightmare that was Andrias throwing Sprig out of the window, she’d rather have her frog family with her on Earth forever where no one can stab them or crush them.

Sure, keeping a low profile was important because frog people on Earth meant problems. Call her paranoid but those sci-fi movies with the government chasing aliens or locking them up to have taught her that anything weird could fall into the hands of crazy scientists or cold-hearted agents which was a scenario she would prevent no matter what.

However, right now there was another thing she wanted to prevent.

“Anne, can you lend me a hand with the table, please? It’s time for dinner.” Her mother called.

“On it, mom.” She responded, mentally wincing at how dull she sounded. Anne hoped Mom didn’t suspect, or any of the Plantars. Answering questions about her mental condition wasn’t something she liked to see on her to-do list, thank you very much.

She caressed the letters carved on a part of her bedside. SW and MW had been carved crudely; it was a surprise for Anne in those old, simpler times. When heartbreak and betrayal didn’t loom on 3 kids.

She got up and went to the dining room before being called again.

*******************

Human food never felt so nostalgic as Anne took bite after bite of her Guay Teow. Not that she hated Hop Pop’s cooking or Amphibia cuisine, but her parents’ dishes always brought a smile to her face because it was a piece of home no one could replicate.

“Mmmmmm~! This is delicious, Mrs. Boonchuy!” Sprig praised with his mouth half full.

“Manners, boy. And don’t swallow too much or you’ll choke. But yeah, this dish is incredible.”

“It’s much better than the noodles we ate in the supermarket. Remember, Anne?” Polly pointed her tiny hand at her.

“Well, duh. My parents know about good cuisine. Thai Go is not popular for nothing.”

“Oh shush, thanks.” Said Mr. Boonchuy, flattered.

“But what about you, guys? Are there in your world good restaurants?

“Oh! OHOH!” Sprig raised his hand as if he were in a classroom, ready to give the right answer. “Anne helped Stumpy’s restaurant and gave it a huge transformation!”

“Wait, really?” Oum and Bee glanced at her daughter who blushed in embarrassment.

“Haha, yeah…” She scratched the back of her head before telling the story. “You should’ve seen the place, like, no offense to Stumpy, but the place was a mess. Pretty depressing if you ask me. But after some hard work, everyone ended up loving it. I even added some Thai cuisine to the menu.”

“That’s wonderful, hon!” Mom replied proudly.

“First you became responsible and now you save a ruined business. You’ve really grown.” Anne chuckled at her father’s compliments.

“So, talking about food, what other dishes are?” Hop Pop asked.

“Oh! Well, there is Pad Thai that is fried noodles Thai-style; Yam Talay -spicy seafood salad, --"

“Do humans hunt Krakens or giant crabs for that?” Interrupted Polly.

“Krakens?”; “Giant crabs?” Anne’s parents’ questions were filled with worry.

“Yeah, Amphibia fauna and flora are way bigger than you think. Fishes, insects, plants, birds.”

“Herons will always hunt me for the rest of my life.” Hop Pop mumbled, his face pale.

“Anyway, going back to the topic, there is also Laab -spicy salad-, Pad See Eiw -thick noddle dish-, orange chicken. Man, Sasha was in love with that dish.”

Seconds after those words, Anne covered her mouth as if she had committed blasphemy of the worst kind. Everyone shared concerned looks at her reaction which wasn’t helping matters so what better way to end this little scene than a white lie.

“Hey, did you hear that? I think the bathroom is calling me.”

“But bathrooms don’t even—”

Polly’s sentence never ended as Anne ran straight to the door of the restroom.

++++++++++++++++++++

Stupid, stupid, stupid, super mega stupid. Why of all times did she have to mention Sasha? She didn’t have anything to do with her dinner with her two families for sh*t’s sake!

To make it worse, Mom or Dad might be waiting for her for an explanation or walking to the bathroom to ask her to let them in so the three could talk.

“Anne. Anne, are you ok? Do you want some company?” Sprig’s voice caught her by surprise. Maybe he acted quicker than anyone else to reach out to her.

“I’m here. But, are Mom and Dad with you?”

“No, just me. They wanted to go but I asked them to trust me and check over you.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Wait, you don’t think they trust me?”

“No no. I asked because they’re my parents, obviously, they would try to see if I’m alright.” Anne then remembered that neither Sprig nor Polly could understand that on the same level as her because their parents were gone, even if they still had Hop Pop. She grimaced at a supposed slip-up. “Sorry, I didn’t want it to sound as if you couldn’t get the experience because, well, your parents…”

“Anne, it’s ok. Don’t worry. Do you want to be left alone or do you want to let me in?”

The frog kid interpreted his best friend’s silence as a request for space so he left. Nonetheless, as he got farther away from the bathroom, he heard the door being opened, and the Thai girl signaled him to enter.

After closing it again, the two kids sat on the tiled floor, at each other’s side processing the little incident of the dinner and the emotions behind the event.

Sprig didn’t utter a single word, his best movement was waiting, giving silent support to the teenager and listening to whatever she had to say.

“I can’t believe I said her name,” Anne murmured.

“What?”

“Sasha! I can’t believe I said her name during dinner! And now I said her name once again. Gosh, what’s wrong with me?”

“There’s nothing wrong with you, Anne. Do you think there is?”

“Yes! I mean, no? Yes? Ugh!! I don’t know anymore!”

“You don’t have to think about Sasha if you don’t want to.” Sprig advised kindly.

“That’s the thing. The more I distract myself or force myself to not think about her or Marcy, the more my mind is filled with the things we used to do, the good times, heck even my home is a trunk full of reminders of them.”

“Wait, there are?”

“We used to have sleepovers in my room. Too few on theirs for reasons.” Anne started numbering. “Marcy loved mint chocolate-chip ice cream; I have a whole container in the freezer. Sasha was a fan of my mom’s cooking; the orange chicken was her favorite. The initials of their names are carved on my bedside. Not my idea, by the way. It was all Sasha’s”

“Typical.” Sprig rolled his eyes.

“Yeah. My mom and she used to bond over exercise and routines. Dad and Marcy usually played video games. She was the one who introduced him to Vagabondia Chronicles, and he gave her many of his gardening tips. My pink tennis racket was a gift on my 10th birthday from Sasha. And Marcy sometimes mentored me whenever I had trouble with schoolwork which happened almost all the time.”

Anne didn’t notice or care to but her eyes were having a hard time seeing things as the tears gathered, threatening to fall. “Th-There is also our school. Sasha was super p-popular there, you know? Marcy had a-all the teachers eating from the palm of her hand; I can’t remember a single time they didn’t praise her for being smart that she would attend Harvard, Stanford, or another fancy college. And-And our playground… We used to play there all the time! That place was where I opened the box and they were at my side…”

“Anne…”

“God, my face is a mess.” She sniffed loudly and grabbed a piece of toilet paper to get rid of the mucus dripping from her nose. Sprig hugged slowly, not wanting to overwhelm her but still demonstrating he was there for her.

“I’m sorry all of this happened to you, Anne. I wished I could get it.”

“I wouldn’t wish you something like that. I mean, I know you and Ivy like each other, more than friends of course, and yeah, you and Maddie aren’t that close but get along with one another so if they had done what Sasha and Marcy had put me through… It’s so hard.”

“It is. Not that I can understand because even when I got along with Marcy, I was shocked when Andrias said that she… You know… But she saved my life. I wouldn’t be here with you if it weren’t for her. My opinion of Sasha is still the same despite her attempts at stopping Andrias but I can see it. It hurts when you can’t recognize the people you love.”

“And to make it worse, I can’t forget them!! I wish I could. I wished I could hate them and let them deal with all this mess but doing that would mean not helping you go back home and saving them. You don’t deserve that.”

“There is no rush, Anne. I mean, yeah, Andrias hasn’t been defeated yet, the box is still in Amphibia but I don’t want you to put so much pressure on yourself, even if it’s for the right reasons.”

“Would you believe me if I told you that I’m scared of what we could find on the other side? That is if we can build a portal.”

“Are you talking about Amphibia in general? Wartwood? Or Sasha and Marcy?”

“The three. Especially them. Marcy… She was…” New tears fell from her eyes. “And Sasha is still in that goddamn castle. She might be bleeding or dead already! Maybe I finally lose it. I can’t decide between hatred and love anymore, and I’m so terrified that when we come back, what I’ll find will be their corpses and that’ll be all. No closure for any of us.”

The frog kid tightened his huge, listening intently to every word. If he had powers, he could vanish all of Anne’s fears and pain forever. His comfort and love were the only nets to keep her from falling.

+++++++++++++++++++

Half an hour went by in the bathroom with a more comfortable silence and the hugs shared between them; meanwhile, Oum and Bee never stopped glancing in the direction where the bathroom was, waiting as patiently as they could for their daughter to come back.

“She will tell you in time.” Hop Pop’s words turned their gazes toward him, he grinned sympathetically at them. “I know you have a lot of questions and trust me; she will tell you what happened. It’s just… too much to unpack.”

The agreement still stood. Anne asked for some time to readjust to her old life on Earth and process whatever she had been gone through and her parents nodded respectfully. The millionaire question was when she would be ready?

Bottling up so many hardships, pain, and tumultuous emotions wasn’t healthy but at least the little frog kid was a trustworthy friend if he was determined to take care of the teenager. It was so endearing, and heartbreaking too due to the heavy lifting that kids should never do.

Steps from the restroom approached the three adults and tadpole as Anne and Sprig entered the kitchen again.

“Uh… Hey, Mom, Dad…” Their little girl’s eyes were puffy and red like her nose. Oum held back her urges to run and hug her daughter knowing how delicate her emotional condition was; she opened her arms with a hug as an invitation to open up or just reveled in the affection and forget her concerns for now.

Anne ran and embraced her mother. Bee hugged both of them, and then the Plantars joined the hug.

“I’m sorry, guys.”

“Honey, don’t apologize. You have done nothing wrong.” Oum replied.

“Your mom is right, Anne. We’re not mad about how the dinner ended; we’re just worried about you.” Bee said.

“However, just so you know, we’ll still give you time. Don’t forget though that we’re here to listen and help, ok, sweetie?” Anne smiled wobbly as her mother caressed her curly hair.

“S-Sure…”

“We’re also here for you, Anne!” Polly cheered.

“Plantar today, Plantar forever.” Hop Pop patted her arm kindly.

Plantars. Boonchuys. Anne felt a bit more invigorated knowing she had not one but two families ready to carry the daunting burden whenever her legs fell apart.

++++++++++++++++++++

Watching the ceiling, sooooooo boring.

The Thai girl begged for sleep, for Morpheus to take her to the land of dreams where no-licorice flavored ice creams and K-Pop music reigned as the supreme rulers; nonetheless, exhaustion seemed to elude her as if she had become immune to it. Before she would’ve been happy with that but now, she preferred fatigue to put her in a deep slumber.

Not that she dreaded a new nightmare from the horrors she lived in Amphibia; there was a nagging feeling running wild on her whole body that couldn’t let her sleep. Was it a sign of an upcoming illness? A secondary effect from her blue powers? Maybe when she was zapped to Earth, the power of the box messed up with her head.

She wished she knew.

She remembered Marcy once told her and Sasha that people used to forget unresolved issues and that’s why they felt as if something was missing.

Oh, wonderful. Thinking about them once again. At this rate, Anne was going to be crazy.

She needed to decide how to feel about them. Postponing that topic forever wouldn’t help her during her mission of finding a way back to Amphibia for the Plantar’s sake and to save her once-best friends. Like, what the heck would she tell them if the three met again? ‘Hey, girls! Here I am to save you even when you two lied to me, betrayed me, endangered my frog family, etc, etc, etc. Anyway, wanna catch up?’

Gosh, that sounded soooooooo awkward it made her cringe! Besides, only a miracle could save them if they were still in Andrias’ castle so no matter if Anne was able to return, she would only find two bodies to bury!!

‘Come on, Boonchuy! Stop thinking like that!’

What was she going to do with all of these thoughts?

‘However, just so you know, we’ll still give you time. Don’t forget though that we’re here to listen and help, ok, sweetie?’

‘Spranne against the world!’

‘Plantar today, Plantar forever.’

‘We’re also here for you, Anne!’

She knew what she had to do, even if it was hard.

+++++++++++++++++

“Alright, guys, I have come to an important decision.” The Thai teenager sat on the floor of her room, in front of her was her frog family, super attentive to her next move. “I want to tell my parents everything. About my disappearance, what Sasha and Marcy did, the music box and the temples, even the day at the castle and Andrias’ plans.”

“As relieved as we are that you want to share this instead of keeping it to yourself, are you sure the last part is necessary, Anne?” Hop Pop commented. “It was a lot to take when 3 people in total betrayed us, especially to you.”

“I get it, HP, but I’m tired of not sleeping well and having all these feelings not making any sense. Besides, it won’t be all in one day. I will only tell them about how the three went missing.”

“That sounds reasonable.” The elderly frog fidgeted with his fingers, then rubbed at his arm. Whatever was bothering him, the matter was delicate and he found it hard to communicate it. “I don’t want to add more drama to this situation but… Anne, are you going to tell your parents about me hiding the box?”

The question froze the three children who glanced at one another and then at the old farmer as if he had grown another head.

“Should I?” Anne winced mentally. Stupid question, of course, she should. Right? It was her parents after all. They thought she ran away, was kidnapped, or vanished out of thin air on the same day of her birthday, and then she came back after months of no clues of where she might be or if she was even alive.

On the other hand, Hop Pop and she had made up time ago. There were no ill feelings between them anymore, and it’s not like she feared Mom and Dad’s reactions but what if they freaked the hell out and kicked Hop Pop out of the house? Or the whole Plantar family? Sure, they would be mad at knowing the elder frog lied to Anne about her only ticket home but he wasn’t malicious, just worried about his family’s wellbeing.

Mom and Dad wouldn’t act so brashly, would they?

“Do we really have to go back to that time now?” Polly intervened; a bit annoyed. “We have a lunatic tyrant with a magic music box that tried to kill us and plans to conquer Earth. And this mess between you two has been sorted out already.”

“Her parents deserve to know, Polly. You see how much they cried when they saw her again.”

“But if Hop Pop is banished from Anne’s home, then what?” Anne couldn’t agree more with that issue.

“HP, why you want me to tell them? Or do you want to be the one to do it? I mean, they won’t take it well and my parents are the loveliest people I know.”

“Anne, you might’ve been gone for several months and then come back, but for them, it was as if they had lost you forever. I know how that feels. However, it’s not an obligation. You’ve forgiven me and we have moved past this, so, if you want your parents to know this, just say so. And if you feel more comfortable with me telling them, I’ll be glad to help.”

Fair enough. Nonetheless,…

“What if we vote? Whoever is in favor of this idea, give me a thumb up. Whoever disagrees, show me their thumb down.”

“Count me out, girl. I think the priority is what we are dealing with right now.” Polly raised and lowered her little arm.

“I don’t want to see Hop Pop being kicked out, but I know that once we tell them that things have been solved in Amphibia, they will be happy to still trust him as they do us. So, I’m in!” Sprig gave a thumb up.

“Whatever you decide, Anne, it’ll be ok for me. And I want to be honest with them whether they forgive me or not.” Another thumb up came.

The teenager was still a bit nervous about this new challenge. After the violent separation she suffered between her and her friends, watching her two families go against each other on her behalf would amount to more stress and be as painful as their arrival at Newtopia. Although, if she wanted to, she could say no and bury that event in the darkest corner of her mind.

She hated that option. A sudden split between her frog and human family would hurt like hell, but Mom and Dad had seen how responsible she was. Maybe if she told them that she had forgiven HP and still trusted him, no more conflicts would arise.

“Ok, I’m in too. Let’s tell them.” She high-fived the Plantars to spark more enthusiasm and then took some cardboard, colors, and markers to prepare the exposition.

++++++++++++++++++++

After a long day of work, what Oum and Bee expected was a well-deserved rest, not a presentation made by their daughter with the Plantars’ help, not that they weren’t willing to listen but it took them by surprise. They had a feeling Anne was ready to explain what happened during her birthday which was true as the letters on a piece of cardboard at the girl’s side said: EVENTS DURING AND AFTER MY BIRTHDAY.

“Ok, Mom, Dad, what I’m going to tell you will leave you jaw-slacked for a lack of a better term, but it’s the whole truth. Also, I’ll only talk about my disappearance, the rest can be for later because it’s too much, alright?”

“Take all the time you need, kiddo,” replied Bee.

“Yeah, whatever other surprise there is, we’ll take it as best as we can.” Oum smiled sweetly at her little-not-so-little girl, encouraging her to let it all out.

“Good,” Anne inhaled and exhaled deeply before starting. “Let’s start with this.” Anne removed the first cardboard, presenting another one with the drawing of the music box. “This is the Music Box, well a drawing of it. It is a magical item that sent me, Sasha, and Marcy to Amphibia, the Plantars’ home dimension. On the day of my birthday, Sasha and I skipped school.” Bee mumbled ‘Typical, it’s always Sasha’ and his wife elbowed him to not let his distaste for the blonde distract him. “We met with Marcy later, and Marcy wanted me to have the music box as a gift. She had found it in a thrift shop and…” The long pause was a bad signal for her parents but she pushed on. “And Sasha forced me to steal it.” Mom and Dad gasped and the second one exploded.

“She what?!” Bee exclaimed, filled with outrage. “Oh, that self-entitled brat!”

“Honey, I know how you feel but you can complain all you want later. We have to keep listening.”

“You’re right, you’re right. Sorry. Continue, Anne.”

“So, after I stole the music box, the three went to the playground, and I opened it. That’s how we landed in Amphibia, but we didn’t together. I landed near Wartwood, that’s the town where the Plantars live in. Sasha landed where the toads work or used to work. And Marcy landed on Newtopia.”

“Newtopia?” Oum asked.

“The capital of Amphibia, and the city of the newts. Or it used to be, I bet it was destroyed after Andrias made his whole castle fly.” Sprig elaborated.

“Destroyed?”; “Flying castle?” the parents asked at the same time, alarmed.

“Sorry, sorry,” Polly tried to alleviate the tension. “Those details are SPOILERS” She growled the last word as she glared at her brother.

Anne faked a cough before continuing. “So, you might be wondering what would be my plan to come back home, right? Well, at first I planned to find Sasha and Marcy which I did even when things got a biiiiiiit messy. However, our ticket home was the music box. It luckily landed with me because I’d opened it. Problem was that the box had 3 gems full of magic.” The Thai girl pointed to her drawing of each of the gemstones. “They work as batteries and after being transported to Amphibia, the gems lost all their magic. The solution: recharge them. There are 3 temples that me, Marcy, and Sasha had to travel to, lots of traps and challenges to pass, and in the end, if you’re successful, you could recharge a gem.” Anne removed the cardboard with the music box drawing and showed another one with different images that represented her and her friends and the traits of each temple. “The first Temple was for Marcy because it was full of puzzles, it tested her intelligence but also if she could be humble. The second Temple tested me for empathy and responsibility. The last one tested Sasha for strength and resilience. Once we had the gemstones recharged, our next destination was Newtopia to give the box to King Andrias who said he would help us return home.”

“And here you are.” Added her mother.

“The question is, what happened with Sasha and Marcy? Did something happen with your plan?” Queried her father.

“That’s… That can be for later. Seriously, it’s a lot to take on.” Oum and Bee nodded but their worry increased because if the start of the story was chaotic, how could be the end?

“Anne,” Hop Pop gave the teenager a significant look which she translated to ‘It’s time to tell them’ to which her eyes responded with approval. Sprig and Polly hold each other’s hand, praying this part didn’t end in catastrophe.

“Mr. and Mrs. Boonchuy, now that Anne has told you how she landed in Amphibia, I have another serious event to talk about.” The married couple shared a glance before leaning to give all their attention.

“Anne might have told you that the music box was her only way to come back and that’s true; regardless, I… I knew more. You see, someone in the Plantar family had written a book and it talked about the music box but they called it the Calamity Box. They said it brought disaster and death. When Anne showed me the object, I knew I had to do something to protect Sprig and Polly, so I-I lied to Anne about giving the box to some contacts of mine and buried it under a tree in front of my house.” They gasped horrified, though Hop Pop didn’t give them time to say anything. “Anne was furious with me and it took me a lot of time to gain her trust back and reconcile with her. Now, I don’t know what you might be thinking, but I indeed wanted to keep my grandchildren safe. I’d never forgive myself if what happened years ago repeated to them. I was traveling for a while, but when I returned to Wartwood, the whole town, and my house were in flames. All because of two giant herons, they’d been terrorizing us for years. I may have arrived in time to fight back, but Sprig and Polly’s parents couldn’t be saved. I’ll understand if both hate me, what I did was wrong, I was so desperate to protect my family that I made Anne feel like she wasn’t part of ours and almost left her without a way to see you again just because I was scared, and for that, I’m truly sorry.”

Anne surveyed her parents’ expressions. Dad seemed pensive and concerned while Mom wasn’t sure about what to feel even when sometimes her eyes landed on Sprig and Polly and she closed them to not let the tears fall. The minutes in silence became an eternity for the girl and her frog family as they waited for the verdict on HP.

“This is a huge blow.” Bee finally spoke. “Not that we’re happy with what you’ve done but if you’ve made up to her and Anne still trusts you then we’ll have to move on. I mean, she cares a lot about you and your grandchildren, and that sentiment is mutual.”

“We’re also so sorry about what you three have been through.” Oum controlled the wavers in her voice as the tragedy sunk in. “It will take us some time to process all of this, even your part, Hopediah, but thank you for being honest with us and for working hard to fix your mistakes with our daughter.”

“Yes, our biggest condolences to their parents. We appreciate your sincerity. As a warning, though, things might be tense until we come to terms with this bit of information, but you and your grandchildren took Anne in when she needed the most, feed her, and helped her to come back home selflessly. She’s grown so much, I bet it was also thanks to you. This shock might get a little while to lessen but still, I’m grateful you’ve kept Anne safe all this time. Thank you.”

“Thank you.” Oum smiled.

Hop Pop sniffed and rubbed at his eyes, though, the tears kept running through his cheeks. “Thank you two, for your-your comprehension. I swear to Frog, if you don’t feel comfortable with my presence, I’ll give you as much space as I can until the tension is over.”

“The consideration is nice of you but there is no need to go anywhere else. For now, we’ll process and analyze what we’ve heard.”

“Mom, Dad, thank you so much, really,” Anne commented, teary-eyed, relieved. “For one moment I feared you were going to kick him out.”

“His mistake was big, not gonna lie, but he redeemed himself and brought you back to us. Now, Sasha, she has an earful waiting for her.” Grumbled Bee as his mood soured remembering that his little girl’s bad influence forced her to commit a crime.

“Oh, trust me, you’ll want to throttle her when you hear the rest of the story.”

“Sprig, SPOILERS!!” Polly yelled.

++++++++++++++++++++++++

Cold, ice, water. Anne had no idea why she felt those things, was she dying or transported to another dimension?

The darkness around her suffocated her. Did she go blind? What about the Plantars or her parents? Who the heck wetted her whole bed? Was it Sprig?

She willed her eyes to open and what she found took her breath away.

Gone were the Plantars, Domino, and her whole room, all replaced by a liquid-like mirror that reflected an eternal starry night so perfectly, so beautifully that the horizon was no more. She remembered that Marcy talked about a natural phenomenon like that, it was called the Uyuni Salt Flat of Bolivia. During rainy days, an enormous water-based mirror was formed and reflected the sky in such a way that earth and sky seemed to fuse.

Unconsciously, she smiled. After so many nights ruined by nightmares, a break with some magic beauty was what she needed. Perhaps, telling her parents the truth about her disappearance lifted the weight that was hurting her. Whatever the reasons, it paid off and she couldn’t be more grateful to revel in this dream, the peace it emanated from watching the stars, the fluffy clouds, and the little waves her steps created in the water-covered ground.

Her hands touched the water curiously. It was icy cold but it didn’t disturb her; it wasn’t pleasant either.

The sound of a bird caught her attention. She visualized, kilometers away from her, a heron. A pink one. The animal seemed to be searching for something, maybe food or the way home. Anne’s legs moved on their own toward it.

The heron’s eyes suddenly pointed at the girl as it had heard her steps much to her fear, but fear of what she couldn’t know. This was a dream after all. Or maybe a red flag that insanity was knocking on her door. Yeah, that sounded depressing. Anyway, the animal didn’t back away or got defensive the closer Anne got to it. Was it waiting for her for some reason?

“Ah, hi,” ‘I’m talking to a pink bird created by my dreams. Weird.’ “Are you hungry or lost?” The heron stared at her for a few minutes, tilting its head. Anne, meanwhile, checked on the heron’s appearance. It wasn’t entirely pink but a mix of different shades. The long legs were a bubblegum pink color; the feathers from head to tail, jellyfish; the beak, peony pink; and some feathers of its wings had the azalea pink shade.

A sigh escaped Anne’s lips. She was getting bored of this dream. It was relaxing yeah, but there was nothing else to do except watch a strange heron made by her mind looking for whatever her dream had stored.

“Don’t you feel lonely here?” She suddenly asked. “Like, yeah, you’re not real but shouldn’t my mind give you a birdy friend?” The heron simply looked at her, impassive. “I know you can’t understand me. Maybe I’m just talking to myself, now what part of myself, that is a good question. Wanna know a secret?” The oviparous creature remained still, not bothered by her interruption at its mysterious search, waiting for her answer. “I wish Marcy and Sasha were here as crazy as it sounds. Marcy would love this place and ramble for hours about the meaning of this dream and any nerdy facts about the mind, and Sasha would throw a party because there are no adults here so why not? They hurt me, a lot… but as much as I want to hate them or pretend they never existed, I still love them. They’re not bad people, well Sasha was pretty horrible but deep down she cared about me… I guess I thought or I hoped they had grown, and learned from their flaws but not everyone is capable of that. I don’t know anymore. I wonder if I see them again, will they be different? Or just a much worse version of themselves? Not like I’m not aware of what happened to Marcy or that Sasha is still in danger but… God, this is hard.”

The heron hadn’t moved from its position during the entire speech a gesture Anne appreciated even if this was just a product of her imagination she engaged in a chit-chat. However, in a matter of seconds, its demeanor changed as if it was called by an invisible being. Its eyes searched again, on high alert, whatever it had heard suddenly got it restless. Anne’s curiosity and worry turned into confusion once the creature froze. Its head pointed at the magnificent sky.

Above them, a splendid star shined green, like an emerald glued to the space to join the millions of stars decorating the sky. Anne felt hypnotized by its beauty and didn’t hear the hurry in the run made by the heron as it prepared to fly.

“Wha-? Wait! Where are you going?” Anne chased the bird but the more effort she put in, the faster the heron got. It extended its wings and with a jump, it flew away, right at the star.

The Thai girl imagined herself flying like superman and kept on with the chase though the result was the same, the heron was still a lot of steps ahead of her.

‘Anne…’

Was the heron calling her or the star?

‘Anne, wake up!’

No.

‘Come on, girl! Wake up!’

Not right now. She had to reach the heron.

‘Anne, please. This is important’

This was more important!

‘Anne!!’

Stop it!

Then, her dreamworld violently shook halting her flying. She tried to resume it but another tremor neutralized her and started dragging her down. Her body felt constricted by invisible, heavy-as-hell chains that pulled her to the ground as the teenager watched helplessly how the heron got farther and farther away from her, and no matter how much she tried, she couldn’t escape.

Just when she was this close to colliding with the ground, her dreamworld shook once again, shattering completely and engulfing her in a blinding light.

“AAAAAHHHHHH!!!!” She screamed, the Plantars backed off a bit to give her space.

“UGH! Finally!!” Polly complained while crossing her arms.

Anne moved her head from one side to another several times as she regained consciousness. Her eyes took on the scenery in front of her; she was in the wakey-wakey world, Sprig and Hop Pop never looked so concerned as if a loved one had suffered an accident and Polly glared at her in utter annoyance and impatience.

“Why do I feel like my cheeks are burning?”

“Polly slapped you.” Sprig elaborated.

“Wha-?!”

“You were taking too long! Anyway, your mom is waiting for you, it’s important.”

“What is it? Dad had an accident? Was there a problem in the restaurant?”

“Don’t freak out, Anne. It’s not too bad… Actually, it’s concerning but at least no one got hurt.”

“Now I’m more worried than ever, Hop Pop.”

“You will know when your mother and we explain it, let’s go.”

The 3 frogs and the girl met Mrs. Boonchuy in the kitchen. Oum paced back and forth while talking to the phone with her husband but in such a low voice that Anne couldn’t decipher what was all the ruckus about.

“Oh honey, there you are!” The woman hugged her daughter quickly before going back to the cellphone. “Bee, Anne is already awake. I’ll give you the details later. Take care. And please, if someone asks, just act as if you didn’t know anything. Love ya.”

“Mom, what happened? Is everything ok?”

“Let’s sit and we’ll tell you.” Everyone chose their seats at the table, Sprig right at Anne’s side, Polly and Hop Pop on the other while Mrs. Boonchuy sat in front of the teenager. “Ok, Anne, your father and I didn’t ask you this so I need to know when you returned where did you exactly land with the Plantars?”

“Oh, well it was on the freeway, but don’t worry, we weren’t run by a car as you see.”

“Ok, but how exactly? You told us the box transported you, did it send you to the freeway or did it choose that place randomly?”

“Randomly.” The speed at which she answered the question had the woman uneasy but she let it go. Later, it had to be later. “Alright, Anne, the Plantars discovered something while you were sleeping that might be a bit shocking so, remain calm, ok?”

“Wait, has Andrias already started to invade Earth?!”

“Invade?”

“Anne, SPOILERS!!” Polly was getting tired of reminding everyone that.

“Never mind, what you guys found out that has you all restless?”

“You were sleeping,” Sprig began, nervous. “Polly and I played some games on your phone, then a weird message appeared on the screen. It said something about TikTok. Polly clicked it and then… You’d better give it a look.” The frog kid pressed Anne’s phone screen a few times and passed her the item.

Her jaw almost fell to the floor at the surprise. Her brain couldn’t or refused to compute the information before her: someone had taken a photo of her and her frog family the same moment they had ended up on the freeway, over one of the many cars that were transiting it. To make it worse, the video said GIRL APPEARING OUT OF NOWHERE WITH 3 WALKING FROGS: IS THE POLTERGEIST APOCALYPSE STARTING?

“WHAT THE f*ck?!!!!!!!!”

“Young lady, lower your voice right now.”

“Mom, don’t you see what I’m seeing? This video is ruining everything! Me and the Plantars are supposed to have a low profile. Low. Profile!! How are we going to do that if we are now a trend on social media?! I mean look, the video has more than 13.6K views and hundreds of comments!”

“Anne, it’s not that I don’t get it. Why do you think I told your father to play the fool if someone asks questions? When Sprig, Polly, and Hopediah showed me this I couldn’t believe it either, but losing our marbles won’t solve anything. We need to remain calm.”

“Calm?” Anne looked at her mother as if she had spoken in a foreign language. “Mom, I am a goddarn trending on social media. Going out now will be impossible. If someone recognizes me, they will bombard me with questions, or worse, they will send the authorities to me and the Plantars will be taken away to be tortured or experimented on!”

“Experimented on?” Sprig paled as if being thrown out of a window of a flying castle wasn’t bad enough.

“Anne, we’re between a rock and a hard place and yes, it’s terrifying, but your mother is right.” Hop Pop placed a hand on her arm comfortingly. “We must maintain our heads cold instead of panicking. Besides, it’s not that the whole world knows where you live.”

“But my classmates know where I live.” The Thai girl argued. “The rest of the family who doesn’t live here knows where I live. And the people from the Thai community, and the workers from the restaurant. Heck, Sasha and Marcy’s parents DO know where I live! Oh, crud, what if they are sending the police or the government right now to interrogate me because I’m the only one who came back after disappearing with my friends for months?!”

“Girl, we’ve been zapped to your home planet a week ago. Or was it almost a week ago?” Polly questioned her brother and grandfather.

“It’s been almost a week,” HP answered.

“Yep, almost a week and nothing bad has happened since then. No scandal, no people chasing us, the only incident was the one on the mall but that was it. We found out about the video in the morning. Listen, if whoever made us a ‘trend’ is as coo-coo-bananas as Wally, then no one will take them seriously.”

“Dude, haven’t you heard what I said about the views and the comments? 13.6k is not a little number, is a huge one!”

“I know, but that’s popularity for you. We just have to remain here and let this drama get cold until people don’t care about it anymore.”

“But wait, if we always stay in the house, how are we going to find a way to go back to Amphibia?” Sprig froze. He cursed mentally as he looked at Mrs. Boonchuy’s shocked face.

“Go back?”

“SPRIG!!!!”

“Don’t blame me, Polly! I’m scared!”

“Anne, what is he talking about?”

The teenager massaged her temples. A wave of overwhelming energy coursed through her veins but she held it back.

“Mom, look, that is something I will talk about with you and Dad much later, ok? Right now, my mind is on 404 ERROR and there is also the danger the Plantars are in, and I have no idea how I will protect them if the paparazzi, the police, or even the whole army of the USA knock on our door.”

“I… I’m going to prepare some tea. Wait here, ok?” Oum kissed her daughter’s forehead before filling the kettle.

Anne grabbed her hair, pulling and making a mess of her curls. Magnificent, splendid even, her nightmares about her friends are a blessing compared to this avalanche of problems. She and the Plantars are a trend, a f*cking trend on social media. Stupid, goddamn TikTok, and the fool who took a picture of them!! This would hinder her progress in getting the Plantars back home, saving her friends, and defeating Andrias. And her parents aren’t even at the worst part of the story yet!!

“What I’m going to do? What I’m going to do?” A few tears fell from her eyes dampening the table. “I sh-should’ve known that appearing in a place full of people was a bad idea. I should’ve been more careful! I should’ve--.

“Sweetie, none of this is your fault.” Her mother took her hands, caressing the knuckles to calm her nerves. “Life is like that, messy. We can only move forward to make the best of every situation in front of us.”

“Your mom is right, Anne. And you’re not alone, we all are here to help you and protect each other.” The tan-skinned girl looked at her best friend who smiled at her encouragingly. In his eyes shined their beloved motto ‘Spranne against the world’. Polly and Hop Pop placed their hands on her shoulder to show her their support.

“…I don’t know, guys. What if things get out of control? What if I fail at protecting you? I lost Marcy and Sasha; I don’t know what I will do if the same happens to all of you.”

“One step at a time, hon. We can’t plan something if we let our fears get the better of us. We’ll figure this out together but for now, we have to stay calm and process this slowly.”

“Do we even have time?” ‘Do my friends have it? Does Amphibia have it?’

“Of course, we do. And as long as we manage it right, things we’ll be ok.”

I hope so, Anne wanted to say but her mind and heart were so drained that she just absorbed her loved ones’ affection to try to forget for a little while that her list of problems has gotten way bigger. All because of a single picture.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++

“Another day, another uneventful blur to the next one.” A male voice said to a short-haired, blonde woman who was typing something on multiple computers. How could she do that inside a vehicle whose only illumination was the screens was a mystery.

“I swear at this point my job will consist of warming this seat or I will be demoted. Though, honestly, that is much better than doing nothing. I’d rather be given a minor mission than being paid this way, it’s insulting to the passion of my career, you know?”

The woman kept typing but her male companion didn’t mind her silence.

That is until she gasped and cleaned her glasses to check if what she was seeing wasn’t a scam.

“What’s wrong?”

His assistant gave him space to see read the message on one of the computers.

GIRL AND FROG PEOPLE APPEARING ON THE FREEWAY

SOURCE: TIKTOK

AUTHOR OF THE VIDEO: POLTERTHEORY

The woman didn’t waste time and clicked on the link beneath the message. Both she and her partner were left speechless at the video with the picture of a tan-skinned middle school student accompanied by three frogs.

“Poltergeist apocalypse? Now that is new!”

Another link was clicked and the man grinned as if he had won the lottery the more he read the contents.

“Well, well, well, Jenners dear, it seems that excitement is paying us a visit once again.”

The vehicle they were in was turned on immediately, its childish exterior blending in with the other cars as an ice cream song echoed in the streets.

Chapter 3: Getting to know you

Summary:

Opening up is hard but the reward is knowing you're not alone anymore.

Trigger Warnings: domestic violence, child abuse, child abandonment

Chapter Text

If you had told Sasha that one day she would be doing community service in a world populated by talking, walking amphibians after having subjugated them, she would have laughed at you or deemed you a crazy person.

However, beneath a callous sun and hearing the not-so-kind mumbles behind her back, she didn't consider it such madness of a future for her anymore.

"Waybright, hurry up, would ya?! There is a tower of dishes that needs washing!" Stumpy warned.

"On it!" Thank goodness she wasn't rusty with the exercise because if not, carrying the giant bags of trash Stumpy had shown her would be impossible.

And let's not talk about the monster shaped as a dumpster. The first time she fought that thing, Stumpy scolded the girl harshly because if she killed it, how was he going to get rid of the garbage? Then Sasha, with a sarcastic edge so typical of her, suggested digging a hole as big as the town for a new garbage can or recycling even when Amphibia was still centuries behind about taking care of the environment. Heck, she estimated everyone lived in the same year Robin Hood was born!

Of course, her recommendation was taken as a way of her to be offensive and she was scolded once again and warned of more manual labor if she didn't show respect. The Slavic girl had to bite her tongue to not lash out at the frog.

Anyway, the trash was finally on the dumpster-shaped creature. Now to the dishes.

"Quick, you brat. Sheesh, at this rate, I'll lose more customers than dishes you could break."

"Then why don't you do this yourself, buttface?" She murmured low enough to let off some steam. Unfortunately, Stumpy seemed to hear part of it.

"What did ya say?"

"Nothing, nothing. The dishes will be spot clean in minutes." The cook glared at her back before going back to the kitchen. Sasha sighed.

Yep, she agreed to be watched over because no one trusted her. Yet.

Yep, she agreed to make amends with the Wartwoodians even if they insulted her, believing she wasn't hearing, or sometimes threw rotten vegetables or fruits at her.

And yep, she agreed to help in any task they asked her to do but, oh Lord, was it hard to reign in her anger. No wonder Anne made friends with Bog and his gang so quickly, Wartwood could drive anyone crazy with how slow it took them to warm up to strangers. And with her track record, the difficulty reached a new level of patience she doubted she had.

Still, this treatment was her punishment, and working hard to earn their trust and save the town plus Amphibia was her way to start over with the same people Anne protected from her, the same people she saw as less than her.

"Hey, hey, quit it you snake-like version of Squirtle!!" She yelled at the eel used to wash the dishes as she struggled with it. Thankfully, its water gun was redirected to the wall instead of the pile of plates which would have ended in disaster.

An almost imperceptible sound halted her progress; she ignored it. The lieutenant was aware of the little pair of eyes watching her like a hawk.

"Your mother knows where you are or that you're here?" Sasha asked. Anyone who had entered the lavatory of the restaurant would have thought she was talking to thin air, but looking closely, some stuff in the kitchen couldn't hide that well the orange hair and the yellow tips of small fingers.

"Don't you dare break something, Sasha. You break it, you pay it. I see you." Ivy warned.

Sasha kept ignoring her which for the little frog girl spoke of offense. The human soldier should be grateful for not having been beaten to a pulp the day she confessed her crimes. If that giant robot hadn't attacked the town, another battle would have started. Though, who would have won still puzzled Ivy.

Sasha Waybright showed her power and how menacing she was in Toad Tower, and she had Grime at her side. They were pretty strong and experienced on the battlefield so a bunch of peasants against them didn't sound like a good strategy. What if Sasha hadn't held back and severely hurt someone or heck killed them?!

Though, a tiny part inside of the little girl imagined all the adventures the human as a lieutenant had the chance to live. Becoming the right hand of a toad lord was no easy goal. It took years of toughening up during training and missions, being sly and decisive, showing no mercy, characteristics Sasha had and she got the role despite belonging to another world.

And her weapons were pretty cool too.

Wait, did she call the criminal's weapons cool? What on Frog's name?! She almost cut Sprig in half with that sword! And don't forget when she and Anne had--

"Ivy, what are you doing here?" Her head hit one of the boxes she used as a hideout. Stumpy tapped his foot, waiting for an answer.

"Oh, you know, watching over Sasha?"

"If I remember well, it's Quentin's turn today, and children should stay out of it."

"Weeeeell..."

"You bribed him to have his turn, didn't ya?"

"Fine, yeah! But can you blame me? I need to--!"

"Ejem."

Stumpy glanced at Sasha annoyed at her interruption. "What, Waybright?"

"All the dishes are clean."

The cook frog checked over every dish while Sasha stretched her muscles.

"Good. Ok, I think you're done here. Now get out, I don't want the customers running away."

The blonde nodded and exited the building through the back door, Ivy followed her in an instant.

Quick steps went from one bush to another, stopping behind a tree and then a jump to a branch.

Sasha should feel irritated for being surveyed by a kid younger than her but actually, she couldn't care less. Her only option was to ignore her and with the routine she had engraved in her mind, it would be super easy.

"Don't you have anything better to do?"

"If that's your way to manipulate me to lower my guard, forget it. I'm not that naive." The Slavic teenager felt the glare boring holes in the back of her head but she kept walking.

++++++++++++

Bessie and Microangelo munched at their food as they watched curiously at the yellow, orange-haired frog whose eyes hadn't left Sasha for hours.

There was a part of the barn that served to hang the lantern and Sasha being creative in her own ways, decided to use it as a bar to hang on with her foot and do abdominals.

"78, 79, 80..."

Did she really have 100 as a goal? That could fatigue anyone, even the best of veterans, not that Ivy cared.

"88, 89, 90..."

Suddenly, she got an idea.

"99,--"

Sasha's eyes widened as a stone flew right at her face; however, her hands saved her from the upcoming pain by stopping the stone, and she ended her 100-count while Ivy groaned.

"If you want to surprise me with peebles," the child soldier spoke, bored. "First, you should take note of the enemy's weaknesses, and second, wait for the right time to exploit them, not attack without a plan."

"Is that a reminder of why you threw a party when you met Anne again? Or when you planned to take over all Amphibia?"

Sasha stayed silent at those questions. For the split of a second, Ivy could see a spark of vulnerability, a tender spot that for someone like Sasha was non-existent due to her reputation as a ruthless warrior.

"Ivy Sundew, what do you think you're doing?!" Then the moment vanished as Felicia's voice took them by surprise.

Sasha fell from the wood bar of the barn but rolled on the ground to prevent bigger damage; her eyes analyzed all the area for possible intruders but met a weird bee that worked as a megaphone, the same one Ivy argued with.

"But mom! Sasha is dangerous, I can't let her without supervision!"

"Today was Quentin's turn, young lady, not yours! Besides, I have sent someone else to watch over Sasha and Grime already. Now, come back quickly or you'll be grounded for a week."

"A week?! Mom, that's unfair!"

"You used part of our savings to bribe Quentin so you could keep an eye on Sasha, I think a week is good enough. Now, come. Back!"

"Ugh!!" Ivy groaned. A snort made her turn around at the blonde.

"Mothers, am I right?"

"Tch, what do YOU know?!" She screamed and stormed off.

"What was all that ruckus about?" Grime asked as he approached Sasha. There were some stains on his armor; she guessed one or more villagers made him a target for rotten food.

"Eh, just dealing with the tantrums of a kid. What about you, Grimesy? Hard day?"

"I'm starting to wonder why people like spider pets so much." He grumbled. His lieutenant noticed some pointy black hairs stuck on his head and remembered the old lady frog, Croaker.

"Heh, I'll take that as a yes."

+++++++++++++

The relaxing, calm sound of snails purring could never stop amazing Sasha as she let Microangelo and Bessie lull her to sleep. Grime had insisted she take the coach or Anne's room but there was no way in hell the blonde would accept the second option. The memories of their petty arguments before the battle of bands and everything else Anne might have written in her journal still hurt Sasha to the point that putting a foot in her former friend's room made her feel like an intruder, though sleeping in the barn and taking care of the town that loved the Thai girl so much were also sore reminders of Sasha's huge mistakes.

The least she could do was leave the room in the basem*nt as Anne had left it before going back to Newtopia. Apart from that, the snails' attitude toward her was pretty amicable and an excellent source of comfort she never imagined leaning onto. It outweighed the cons of using the pile of hen for a bed and having Bessie mistake her hair for food.

"Aaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!!!!" Alright, dream time is over.

Like a flash, Sasha grabbed her two swords, opened the door of the barn, ran to the Plantars' house, and kicked the door open. Her senses sparkled with life, acting as a danger radar until her legs led her to the bathroom where she heard some struggles.

"Grime, are you ok? What--?" The scenery before her stole her capacity to talk.

Her captain was wet from head to toe, his body half down was wrapped by a towel barely big enough for him and the grumpy toad was glaring at a frog who, unbeknownst to both of them, had entered the house while they were busy.

"Ah, ok, what's going on?"

"What do you think, lieutenant?!" Grime snapped, his eyes trying to melt the invader into a puddle. "This bumpkin here had the galls to disturb my shower time!"

"I grow tulips," Chuck said, frowning and crossing his arms.

"What does that have to do with this?!"

Sasha sheathed her swords. False alarm. Now, to take care of the issue before Grime committed murder.

"Grimesy, remember the deal with the town. If we won't let them supervise us, they will never grow to trust us, and helping them save Wartwood and Amphibia will be impossible."

"When I agreed to do this, I never put my privacy in the terms!"

"I grow--"

"You said that stupid phrase one more time and I'll make you choke in your--"

"Break. Time for a break." Sasha made the toad let go of Chuck and pushed the frog out of the house

"My tulips smell much better than him." He said before finding another place to watch over the duo.

"Please remind me, why are we doing this?"

"Because it's the right thing to do and we can't defeat a maniac and rescue Marcy if we don't have enough allies."

"We could've had enough with Beatrix and her army."

"And let these people and other villages die at the hands of a lunatic with a thirst for power? Come on, Grime. I thought you were on my side."

"Just because I'm on your side, it doesn't mean that I'll be patient if any of those peasants tried to spy on me again. And when I'm having a me-time!"

"You'll have to get used to this. They're mad because we kidnapped them, betrayed Anne, and hid this mess from them. Try to understand."

"And since when you're Mrs. Feelings? I thought you didn't care about little, slimy frogs."

"I can't keep going on that path and expect a different result. Anyway, if you have another villager to help, I suggest you get ready. I'll start my workout."

Once out of the house, Sasha walked to her improvised gym, a little terrain behind the Plantars' home where she had crafted and stored her many dummies to hone her swordsmanship skills.

She began with push-ups. 50 with one hand and 50 with another. Then used an old tree nearby for kicks, 50 for one leg and 50 for the other one.

Weight lifting, lying on the grass, using a heavy rock she'd found. 30 times.

And repeat. 4 series, little breaks.

Sasha was halfway in her 3rd series of exercises when a tongue hit her right side the moment she lifted her leg for another kick.

"What the--?" A ball of mud was fired from a bush which she barely evaded, and after that came another one, and another one, and another one. Each evaded or squashed by the blonde's hands. However, the next ball hit her war boots, and even when it didn't hurt, it messed with her balance as she slipped due to the now slippery ground.

A young scream of war emerged from the bushes the moment Ivy jumped, there was a long stick in her hands like a sword. The little frog girl pointed her weapon right at Sasha's stomach with a ferocity uncommon for a child; for a few seconds, the Slavic teenager imagined that was Anne, at the gates of Newtopia, seizing the moment to kill her.

Her senses came back to her instantly, though, and she grabbed the stick just when it was going to crash with her armor.

"Oh-oh," Ivy mumbled, Sasha smirked a bit before throwing the girl back, taking her stick away from her. She broke it easily with a movement of her knee.

Watching the fiery eyes of the little girl, the lieutenant decided to rub in her face some of her experience in battle just to spite her for interrupting her routine. "Mistake number one, twerp, you took too long for the final attack. Mistake number two, you didn't let go of your stick the moment I had my hands on it. I could've used it against you. Mistake number three, there was no backup plan or extra resources to knock me out. Though, I have to give you some credit for this new ambush. You took my advice seriously."

"I don't need your flattery, Sasha. I won't fall for it."

"Whatever, twerp. What are you doing here?"

"First, my name is Ivy, not twerp. And second, none of your business."

"Let me guess, you escaped from home for a while to keep an eye on me, didn't you?"

"What?! How'd you--? No no, I'm not going to fall for this either. Your mind games won't work on me."

Sasha only shrugged and approached a dummy to put it in front of her and practice her swordsmanship movements. Ivy glared at her for a few minutes though it didn't affect the other girl in the slightest. Realizing she had nothing else to combat Sasha with, the frog kid walked away and returned home.

Finally, peace and quiet. The teenager swung her sword diagonally at the dummy, stabbed, swung from up to down, and attacked horizontally.

Strangely, this routine with dummies didn't remind her so much of her second duel with Anne unlike her first fight with Ivy moments ago which she considered a bit worrying. She had been keeping those memories at bay due to the unnecessary stress they caused; there was enough to be concerned or nervous about: Andrias and his plans to conquer Earth, Marcy's condition and whatever he was putting her through, the fate of Amphibia, protecting a town that hated her, so reliving the second-biggest fight with Anne that could've ended with her being murdered by her former best friend was out of the question.

Her mind questioned if Anne might be recalling that battle. Maybe yes or maybe not.

But it's not that mattered because--

"Yyyyyyaaaaaaahhhhhh!!!!!!" Ivy's voice surprised her though it was nothing compared to the silver, heron-styled sword she had on her little hands.

Sasha placed her other sword horizontally and blocked the swing, pushing forward. Ivy almost slipped but kept on with the attacks even when her movements were clumsy due to the weight of the sword.

The other girl, meanwhile, couldn't believe what was happening. Since when Ivy had grabbed her silver sword? She thought she had returned home after her failed attempt at defeating Sasha but here she was, ready for a rematch.

Note to yourself, Waybright: never leave your weapons in an open space, especially if brats have an urge to use them against you.

Ivy ran toward her, raising the sharp weapon but it was so heavy that her steps were unstable and she backed down to regain balance. Sasha took advantage of that as she grabbed the sword like she were squashing a sandwich and then swung it to the sky, throwing Ivy a few meters away from her.

"And I won. Again." She nailed her silver sword to the ground and shook her hands. "Now, can you explain to me what the f*ck was that?! Did you want to get cut or something?! Besides, killing me wasn't part of the agreement. Wait for the war to be over and then I won't be pestered by you anymore."

"Killing you? I wouldn't step that low. I just needed a single hit or a cut just to show you what happens when you try to hurt my friends!"

"You know that sword was a real one, right? A simple "cut" could've meant my death or being stuck in bed for weeks if not months."

"Pfffft, of course, I know. I saw you blanding that pink one against Anne and Sprig!"

"Well, sorry for trying to kill your squeaky toy of a boyfriend!"

Ivy's whole face reddened. Sasha grinned teasingly much to her chagrin.

"He's not my boyfriend! He's my--!"

"Ivy Sundew, what on frog's name I've told you about doing your chores half-heartedly?!"

Again the bee megaphone. The frog girl growled into her hands.

"Mom, come on! This is more important!"

"Bupbupbup! Customers are coming and the tea house is a mess. Come back right now or I'll add another week to your grounding time, is that clear?"

"But mom!"

"Do you want a third week grounded?"

Ivy groaned and stomped her way back into the tea house. Sasha chuckled and turned to her exercise routine just to be startled by the bee megaphone.

"And you, Sasha Waybright--!"

"Why do I have to do with this? I didn't do anything this time!"

"Control that tone with me, young lady. Today is my turn to ask you for some help, so I want you presentable and punctual, understood?"

"Yes, Ms. Sundew, I'll be sooooooo happy to help!" Sasha pierced the frog girl with a glare for the poor imitation she did of her voice.

"Ivy, don't add more weeks to your grounding time. I was asking Sasha, not you. And Sasha, you'd better not bring swords or anything sharp to the tea house. I don't want my customers to be uncomfortable."

"What?! But what if I need them?"

"Bupbupbup, I've been clear with you. No. Swords. Or anything sharp. Those are my requirements. Now hurry up you two, we have a lot to do today!"

The bee megaphone flew back to Ivy's house while the two girls watched it in sour moods.

"Is your mom always like that?"

"Get used to it."

++++++++++++++++

Despite the clashes between her point of view and her mom's, Ivy concluded these circ*mstances weren't that bad. After all, she had a lot of experience in keeping the family business running smoothly thanks to her mother's rules; Sasha, on the other hand, well, that was the fun part .

Oh, this revenge would be sweet as honey!

"Alright, young ladies, we'll start with our first task. Preparing the tea party. Remember..."

"Details, small or big, are important."

"Well said, Ivy. Now, Sa--" at seeing her daughter raising her hand to speak again Felicia gave her permission.

"Mom, I know you know all the rules but wouldn't be better if I teach Sasha how things work in the tea house? I mean, you taught me all your tricks. You could have it easier."

Sasha didn't like where this was going but she had no time to protest as Felicia smiled and accepted that idea.

"Ok, but if any of you break something of if I hear some squabble between you two, then I will take charge. Am I clear, Ivy?"

"Yes, mom." Now the twerp was using the puppy eyes, marvelous.

Once Felicia left them alone, Ivy's posture changed to one more commanding, using the back of a chair to be at the same eye level with the blonde, a gesture the other had seen coming. Being manipulative had its peaks and reading people was one of them.

"Ok, Waybright, I'll be clear with you--"

"I get the memo, twerp."

"It's Ivy."

"Ivy, twerp, whatever. Look, you don't like me, well I don't like you. But if you think sabotaging my work here is going to help--"

"Not that I want to get in trouble. If I'm not as easy to be bought with your mind tricks, then my mom is harder and she also knows how to deal with people like you."

"Fine then, what do you want? Boss me around? Make me look bad in front of her to rub it in my face?"

"Details, details," Ivy said nonchalantly. She hated to admit it but Sasha was pretty good at guessing what she wanted to do. Not that she was going to let her get away with that. "Just follow my lead. And no peep from you or you'll do the chores from the start, got it?"

"Pfffft, fine. As long as we can get over this."

Let the hard work begin.

Task #1: Placing the table cloths.

So, on one hand, Ivy would never share her mother's martial movements with the enemy even if Sasha was on their side. On the other hand, it's not that the human lieutenant could figure out one day that those were martial movements disguised as weird ways to work quickly.

Anyway, "Look and watch," Ivy grabbed a part of the table cloth, twirled a few times, and placed it gracefully.

'So unnecessary', Sasha thought about the twirl so she shook the table cloth a few times to get rid of any dust and then put it on the table, ridding of the wrinkles. "There, done."

"No no, do it again."

"Come on, twe--, I mean, Ivy, the twirls aren't needed. This is easier."

"You agreed to do it the same way. Where is your honesty about that?"

"And where is the practicality? It just--"

"Bupbupbup, details, Waybright. Details."

"Ugh, fine." Sasha took off the table cloth, twirled a few times, and placed it with as much grace as she could fake.

"Meh, average." The blonde rolled her eyes.

Task #2: Every dish and cup at their place with exactitude.

Ivy finished with her table. It looked adorable and fancy. She inflated with pride and signaled for Sasha to start. After a few minutes, her work was done.

The frog girl examined minutely the teenager's efforts and shook her head disappointedly.

"What now?"

"The chairs. They are disorganized!"

"The chairs are-- Is that it?! I mean, they're not even broken or scattered on the floor! I thought we were focusing on the dishes and cups and more colorful table cloth, not chairs!"

"The chairs are also part of the set. Look at mine, for example," Ivy extended her arms at her work. "They are in front of each dish and cup. Not too close to the table and not too far away either. Now, fix that so we can go to the next task."

Sasha groaned and dragged one of the chairs a bit away from the table, then moved the other two to make her set equal to Ivy's. "Tada. Happy now?"

"Average still." The Slavic teenager felt her left eye twitch but held back her opinions. The faster they ended this job, the better for her.

Task #3: Folding the napkins.

"So, origami."

"Ori... what?"

"You know, origami. It is a form of art in which you turn pieces of paper in any kind of shape you want. Look," Sasha folded her own napkin into a flower trying to remember the steps of the video Marcy showed her a time ago. It was pretty simple but the example surprised Ivy.

"Uh... My mom always folded them in the shape of a swan."

"And... how does she do it?" Not that Sasha has never seen a how-to video of origami swans in her life. Sometimes she competed with Marcy who did the best swan or animal but that became part of the past. And now she was faced with the fact that Amphibia also knew that kind of activity; it piqued her interest.

"Oh," Ivy couldn't compute that Sasha was intrigued about napkin folding of all things.

Perhaps it was a trick to gain her trust and crush it later but a quick shot at her face demonstrated otherwise. Sasha genuinely wanted to know.

"Ok, so, you do it like this." A flurry of movements later, the napkin became a swan.

"Uh... Whaaa?"

"For real?" Ivy rolled her eyes this time, her tone going from annoyed to suddenly teasing. "Mrs. Tough Lieutenant can't do something that simple?"

Sasha's forehead creased with a frown. Challenge accepted.

"Don't get too co*cky with me, twerp." The blonde picked each extreme of the napkin and moved her arms and hands to transform it into a swan. However, her elbow accidentally knocked the teapot lid of her own table making it fly into the air until Ivy saved it from breaking by trapping it with her tongue.

"What the heck, Sasha?! Be careful!"

"Calm down, twerp. It's just a lid. Besides, it was an accident."

"You know, a sorry can at least show you're trying to be decent but noooo! You can't even accept that you did something wrong unless you're forced to!"

"What's that supposed to mean?!" Sasha sneered.

"Don't play dumb with me. The "I've kidnapped you" party, using Anne and the Plantars to steal the throne, every time you speak or do something you keep other stuff to yourself so you can trick others to get what you want! Maybe you're even pretending to be more tamed before pulling the rug under us when we're distracted. You always do that!"

"You. Do not. Know me, twerp."

"It's Ivy, you dingus."

"Who cares?! I don't care about your opinion of me, and it's not that you're a saint either! You interrupted my routine of exercises, you took one of my swords without my permission and fought me with it even when you could have severely hurt yourself and me during your stupid excuse of a rematch, you annoyed me with your useless tea house rules, and to top it all, you're bringing things from the past to rub in my face a mistake I did minutes ago! You say I'm pretending, well, why don't you look yourself in a mirror for once in your life! I bet you're waiting for a chance to get me in trouble just because I tried to skewer your squeaky toy of a boyfriend!!"

"Sprig. Is not. My boyfriend!!" Ivy screamed at the top of her lungs. Blinded by her anger, she unconsciously threw the teapot off Sasha's table. It flew and twirled until it crashed on the little plate a cup with the words #1 Mom was on, the cup then flew, and right when Felicia returned very pissed off.

"Girls, what did I tell you about--?" She gasped at seeing her favorite cup close to becoming a pile of pieces. Fortunately, Sasha saved it from that fate by throwing a hidden dagger into the center of the handle pinning the weapon to the ceiling with the cup hanging from the handle.

"Phew... That was close."

"What the heck?!" Felicia shrieked and leveled the girls with a motherly glare.

Oh boy.

+++++++++++++++

10 minutes. She had given them 10 minutes to have everything prepared for upcoming customers, and what did her daughter and the Waybright girl do? Fighting and making a mess during her absence, that's what!

Olms have mercy, those two would be the death of her, and Ivy's rebellious, impatient moments were enough to handle, surveying another kid -one with a track record filled with crimes- was asking her for too much.

"Explain, right now. What on Frog's name happened?" Sasha and Ivy looked away, crossing their arms at their chest. One or two times they shot dirty looks at one another before glancing at a corner or their feet.

"This is my last warning, Ivy, Sasha, what. Happened?"

Sasha sighed long and fatigued before speaking. "I'm... S-Sorry."

Ivy met her eyes with a face that screamed 'Are you crazy?!'. Sasha still kept going on.

"It was my fault. I made a little mistake while trying to fold a napkin into a swan like the tw-, as Ivy did. She had shown me so I tried it but I almost broke something. Ivy got mad at me, understandable. But then I dismissed the whole thing because it was an accident, no big deal, instead of apologizing for not being careful enough. We fought, a teapot was thrown, and then you saw the rest."

"Ok, what is your side of the story, Ivy?"

Now, Ivy could lie to her mother and throw Sasha off the bus, after all, she didn't owe her anything and with the horrible things she had done, this was the least of the punishments to endure.

Apart from that, no one trusted the human and she doubted things would change after a few weeks or months. The only reason they let her stay was due to her usefulness, and she was determined to make amends. If Ivy's skepticism were a person, they would laugh at the prospect of Sasha redeeming herself and doing the right thing. Like, the blonde girl who subjugated them and almost killed Sprig having a change of heart? The joke of the century! So yeah, just a lie to her mom, and Sasha would taste a bit of her own medicine.

Her mother didn't even like or trust the blonde teenager anyway, so there would be no damage, right?

But where would that leave her? Sure, Sasha wasn't going to go back on her word if Ivy lied but after bringing up the fact that the human was dishonest, disloyal, and self-serving doing this to spite her would show that Ivy was following on her steps for the sake of revenge despite watching Sasha suffering the consequences of her actions.

Frog, how annoying. Why did no one tell her that being an adult was so hard?

"Mom, it's...true," she replied after a long pause. "What Sasha said, I mean. And before you asked, no, she didn't threaten me to lie to you, and no, there was no bribery or trickery, this is the whole truth. She made a mistake, I scolded her, she acted like it was nothing, I got angry, we fought and yelled at each other, and you know what happened next."

Felicia observed their faces to make sure nothing was left unsaid. Realizing their sincerity, she sighed. "Alright then, thank you for telling me. Now, what do you have to say?"

"I'm sorry, mom. I'll try to be better with my temper."

"Very good, and you, Sasha?"

Gosh, saying sorry to the authorities or adults a second time? This was worse than ripping her own nails with blazing tweezers.

"I'm sorry...Mrs. Sundew. I'll be more careful and take your business more seriously."

"Good. I appreciate your apology. Now, let's pick up this mess, shall we? And this time, no fights or broken stuff, did you hear?"

"Yes, mom."

"Yes, Mrs. Sundew."

+++++++++++++++

The afternoon was getting closer to its end and with that, Sasha's routine of exercises. Her eyes traveled to the path that led people to Ivy's house.

Working at the Sundew's tea house proved to be exhausting. Too many rules and too many details. No one was this strict with a tea business but it's not that she was different. The girl used to take some stuff with a seriousness that worried others like with the Warhammer despite the cons of losing Percy and Braddock at the end.

Also, how the f*ck did Felicia fold the napkins with such fast movements to give them the shape of a swan? It might sound ridiculous because there were more important things to focus on but she couldn't get it. She had tried dozens of times and each one was worse than the last one.

'Sorry, Sasha, but those are family secrets.' Felicia told her when she asked to know how she was able to perform such a magic trick. Of course, the Sundews wouldn't explain to her how to, and she should let it go. They were dumb napkins anyway. Nonetheless, the way Felicia instructed Ivy with the tea preparation while the frog girl listened to her mother with admiration and fondness, and the rules of the tea house reminded Sasha of Mrs. Boonchuy.

Anne used to complain about how strict her mom was, that sometimes she felt her freedom slipping away. Still, both loved each other too much.

'I wonder if my mom is missing me,' Sasha's eyes widened at that thought. Honestly, she hadn't given herself time to ponder over the consequences of her disappearance. What would her mom be doing right now?

Mourning her even after months of being gone? Moving on by forming a new family or doing whatever she wanted? Would she have talked with Anne and Marcy's parents about where the three might be? And what about her dad? Would they have met to look for her?

She snorted bitterly. As if, she bet they only reunited to blame each other and waste their time with petty arguments, throwing insults like knives.

"Typical." She growled. "Not even if I vanish from the face of Earth, those two will stop fighting. It's the only thing that matters to them. That and the f*cking divorce!" She spat the last word as if it were burning poison. Maybe this was her earthly punishment for wanting to stay on Amphibia and become queen instead of going back, though the timing missed for a few months.

Whatever.

Don't think about her, Sash.

Don't think about your mom, who lost herself after the uncountable fights, the heartbreak, and the papers of custody. Who became a lioness out of control whenever was a disagreement or the ice queen to pester your father with the silent treatment. Who distanced herself and became a stranger to her own daughter.

Don't think about your dad, who roared the worst comebacks and offenses, who broke plates to make a point, or stayed in hotels for a while after a huge fight, who wanted to show you he was the good guy but then he got a girlfriend, and his attention focused solely on her and left you with just envelopes with money to take care of you as if that could replace parental love.

Don't think about them because then you would wonder uselessly why they couldn't have ended like Anne's parents that were so loving with one another, that never let disagreements tear them apart, that treated each other and Anne so kindly. Don't think about the jealousy for not having that anymore. Because even when they started ok and things were fine, their relationship became a sand castle and everything fell apart while she was in the middle of the crossfire.

"And don't," she slashed the arm of the dummy, "think about," then the other arm, "the goddamn stupid," then she stabbed the chest, "divorce!!" And with a swing, the dummy's head fell to the ground.

Her breathing rhythm was erratic, the emotions tugging and poking sore spots of her mind and heart. Not even dismembering the poor dummy could rid of the miasma her home situation had created.

"What's a divorce?" She gasped, not believing her ears after recognizing that voice.

Ivy Sundew was a bit far away from her, watching her with a mix of distrust and curiosity. There was no weapon in her hands, she didn't even try to use her other sword like the last time which she was grateful for.

What infuriated her though was that her private moment had been eavesdropped on by the brat like nothing. Grime was right, what the heck happened with privacy?!

"Seriously, dude, what's wrong with you?!"

"Uh?"

"Don't "uh?" me! You know what I'm talking about! I get it that you can't trust me but this was a me-time, for ME to mope around, train, and ruminate on personal sh*t and here you are invading that moment as if you have been given a special invitation! Don't you know anything about privacy?!"

"Ok, number one, no I wasn't eavesdropping on you. Number two, I wasn't following you behind the shadows. Number three, I came at the same time you mentioned something about divorce. That's all! Besides, I think Toadie or Toadstool are keeping an eye on you but they're so scared that they prefer to do it at a reasonable distance. That means a very long one."

"You're not lying, are you?"

"Why should I lie?"

"And why should you be here?" Sasha answered with another question.

"Look, I don't like you, you know that but the reason why I'm here is not to annoy you or rub in your face something you did. I... I am curious."

"Curious? Come on, Anne lived here for months, you know how humans, human children that is, look like. Unless you want to know something else."

"You're half-right. I want to know something."

"What is it?" Sasha asked moodily.

"Sheesh, what a mood. Anyway, uh, why did you... Why didn't you lie?" Sasha raised her eyebrow. "The incident at the tea house, Sasha! You could've lied as that is your talent, manipulated your way out of that mess, anything. Sure, my mom is no fool, and me neither but it's not that that has stopped before, right? So why did you tell her the truth? Why did you apologize? Is it to gain something in the end?"

'Of course, because that's all that my apologies and honesty are worth for', Sasha mused, and she hated the fact that Ivy's skepticism was valid. She barely started her path of integrity and kindness. The other one had led her to nothing but failure and trouble.

"Ok, twerp, do you want the short answer or the long one?"

"None of those are some mind game of yours, aren't they?"

"No."

Ivy squinted at her, still not buying it but rolled her eyes and moved her hand as if saying "Go on".

"I told Grime today that I can't keep going on the same path and expect a different result."

"Same path?"

"Yeah, the one where I just hurt and pushed away the people I love, like Anne and Marcy. The one where I put my goals above others' safety and comfort. The one where I thought control and power could fix all my problems. And as you see, it was my biggest mistake. That's why I told your mom the truth." She paused, pondering if saying what was next would be a good idea. It felt too much like opening up, something she hated. "There is...another thing."

"Yeah, what?"

Sasha scratched the back of her head, rubbed the palm of her hand on her face, and watched the sky for a few seconds before answering.

"I'm stubborn as a mule."

"What's a mule?"

Figures Ivy wouldn't know what a mule was.

"Never mind that part. What I meant is that I'm too stubborn to admit I made a mistake, that I was wrong and I should fix what I've ruined. You were kind of right about that too. I had to be confronted with my worst actions by people I was supposed to protect and care about... Not that I don't care about them but I made them believe otherwise."

"Wow..." Ivy processed Sasha's words, her butt unconsciously fell to the grass.

"So, happy with my answer or do you want an elaboration of my cliche backstory?"

Ivy didn't respond and Sasha left it like that, content with the silence. That is until the frog girl spoke again.

"What's divorce?" The pieces of the dummy Sasha had been picking up fell from her hands at that question.

The divorce. Why of all things the twerp had to be curious about that stuff? Maybe it was better to tell her to go home after giving her the first answer.

The silence kept going on. Ivy wasn't being insistent which Sasha counted as a good sign, except the kid's forehead creased in a way that showed concern. Concern for what? Who knew. But it couldn't be toward Sasha, they weren't even friends for that to happen.

Then, a pretty twisted idea crossed her mind. Her parents weren't here, they would never know what she spat about them. And she had been keeping it inside for so long.

"Where is your father?" She asked as she sat down.

"What?"

"Your father. Where is he?" Sasha's question threw Ivy off guard that she even thought it was some kind of manipulation. Dealing with the blonde felt like charting unknown territory, you never know what will surprise you.

"Why do you want to know about him?" She asked cautiously.

"To show you how the divorce stuff works."

Ah.

"Don't know. Never met him anyway."

"You never met your dad?" Sasha's voice couldn't hide the shock.

"Nope," Ivy responded nonchalantly. "My mom and my grandma were the only ones who raised me."

"Did he...?" Sasha wasn't sure how to phrase the d-word to a kid younger than her and she wasn't the best at feelings among Anne and Marcy. Her only gesture to continue the question was drawing an imaginary horizontal line on her neck.

Ivy got the meaning instantly and just chuckled. "No no, he's alive. Maybe. He left before I was even an egg."

Abandoned. That was the word her lips murmured while taking in Ivy's family situation.

"Sorry." It came out of nowhere.

"Uh?"

"Sorry, that's what I said."

"For...what?"

"Ugh, are you dense or what? Your dad left you and that was... That was horrible ok?! And I get it and that's why I said sorry!"

Ivy had finally concluded something about Sasha Waybright: she was an enigma. Like, she couldn't read her at all. Was she relating genuinely to her experience? Or was this a well-disguised trick of hers?

Only one way to find out.

"Why saying sorry, though? I mean, I'm not affected, well, not anymore."

Sasha gave her a "you've got to be kidding me" look.

"What? It's true."

"You told me your dad left, you weren't even born, and you're acting as if it's nothing to be sad or angry about! I mean, if I were you I would be incensed!"

"And as I said, I'm not affected by that anymore."

"Why not?!" Sasha yelled, for some dumb reason, the laid-back attitude of the frog girl got on her nerves.

"Because I have my mom, my grandma, and Sprig. Sure, they can't replace my dad, but they showed me that my real family is the one that is there for me, that has my back whether we have the same blood or not."

"Tch, sappy bullsh*t." Sasha spat.

"Hey!"

"It's true. You can't be that happy-go-lucky after... After that." Sasha cursed mentally for her voice was wavering and in front of the twerp. Talking about being strong, uh?

Ivy played with the grass for a while, her mind investigating why the blonde wanted to know about her family. There was no future gain for her but just for the frog kid as she would have her answers about divorce.

"So... Did your dad leave you?"

Sasha's hand balled into fists and she inhaled and exhaled deeply to not explode. "Sometimes I wish he had."

"Why?"

"Because that means not dealing with his crap anymore. Your dad left you but at least you didn't have to witness endless fights between him and your mom, the screaming, the insults, the objects being thrown against the wall. They got along so well at first but it was a f*cking lie at the end."

"Is that what divorce is?"

"Just the prelude. Mom and dad don't like each other anymore, there is no love between them like in the old times. They fight too much, sometimes it turns violent and overwhelming. Sometimes, when there is no place to hide, you get hurt. You hear the yells, the horrible things they say to each other. You see what they do to hurt the other because they're angry and...and resentful. It's scary. And when-And when you ask them to stop or they scream at you to not interfere or they grab you by the neck of your t-shirt and throw you to the ground while ordering you to get out. And then one of them apologizes to you and promises to not do it again just to repeat those mistakes and hurt you worse whether they mean to or not. There is a-a breaking point, then they sign some papers and you have to live with mom or dad because one of them will take care of you now, while the other will live somewhere else. And you have to go from one place to another to visit your other parent. And to make it worse, you live with someone who becomes a stranger to you and is so wrapped up in her own head that she doesn't notice you anymore, and-and your dad just stops paying attention to you because he has found a girlfriend that can please him, and the only things he leaves for you are some envelopes with money to keep you satisfied even when that's not the same as being a loving parent!!"

So much to spat venom against them while they're absent. But she wasn't surprised, her plans never come to fruition, and if they did it was with a price.

She sniffed, not wanting the mucus to dirty her face. The tears stubbornly kept gathering at the corner of her eyes; it was a pushback game between them and Sasha: trying to get out while you're trying to hold them back.

Suddenly, a swan napkin appeared in front of the teenager. She glanced at Livy who was giving her the folded napkin with the same creased frown that confused her.

"W-What are you doing?"

"Uh, comforting you? Isn't that obvious?"

"Why?"

"Because that's the right thing to do?" Ivy wondered if Sasha had the littlest idea of what decency was or if she was messing with her.

"I don't need your pity."

"It's not pity, dummy. It's called being nice."

Sasha glared at the swan napkin for a few seconds, seconds Ivy felt eternal as she waited for a reaction, one that might be the blonde destroying the napkin. Finally, the girl took the folded item with unexpected delicacy, watching its details.

"Th-Thanks... I guess."

Sasha thanked her. This day couldn't be crazier even if it tried. Ivy and she watched their surroundings in a lighter mood. The little frog girl shot a glance at the blonde; she was still fighting to contain her tears and caressing the napkin. That image and the one from the past with the ruthless human lieutenant trapping the town, manipulating Anne, raising her sword against Sprig, and many other terrible things couldn't reconcile with each other and Ivy wondered for a second if they would or if that was ok. Because this Sasha at her side looked so vulnerable, lost, and small, a lonely child trying to survive, and maybe that was it, she was just a child and she was working to make amends and had a lot of stuff bottled up.

Wow, talking about new perspectives, uh?

"You know..." Ivy paused for a while. Was this clever? What if Sasha twisted what she was going to say for her own gain? She still didn't trust her but her resolution to be better felt sincere. Alright, here we go. "I used to be jealous that other kids could talk and hang out with their dads." Sasha stared at her, blinking a few times. "Yep, I mean, Maddie has her dad. Sprig and Polly, well they don't but they have their grandpa, Mr. Plantar. I wanted that experience for once but... My dad never came back for me. Mom just said he chickened out and never saw him again."

"Such a deadbeat guy."

"Yeah. Wanna guess what he taught me, though?"

"And what could he have taught you?"

"To let go," the surprise put Sasha's mind blank. "It took me some time but I came to terms with him and what he did. No use in chasing fantasies forever, you know?"

To let go... So easy, and yet so hard.

"I was the total opposite. I wanted to hold onto something familiar, stable. I hated how things changed and that's why... That's why I controlled Anne and Marcy so much. They gave me some stability. That and Anne had what I lost. Her parents are so loving, and nice and so...perfect. I resented her for that a bit, it wasn't fair. I didn't notice or I refused to acknowledge that my jealousy and craving control made me push her away until she said enough."

"What about now, though? Like, are you still holding onto them? Your parents getting along? Or Anne and Marcy being with you?"

Sasha opened her mouth and found herself with no precise answer. She couldn't know anymore. She was trapped in Amphibia and planning to save this world and Earth from Andrias, Anne cut her from her life, Marcy was still alive and she hadn't planned how to rescue her yet, and no matter how much she hoped, she would never see her own parents ever again. She had nothing left or what little she had could crumble due to her tragic bad luck, karma being a petty bitch, or any mistake she might make.

What else was there for her to fight for?

Marcy, Grime, and Wartwood. Though, the villagers hated her, well not everyone she guessed because Ivy was being nice to her. Things between her and Marcy were shrouded in uncertainty, that is if she could save her. With Grime was easier because, despite his dislike toward the frogs, he stayed at her side.

"Honestly, I don't know anymore. I've been clinging to control so hard, trying to stop Anne and Marcy to get far away from me, I've been fighting against change so much that now doing the right thing feels like holding onto something new just to be crushed again. It's exhausting."

"What about fighting with change at your side instead of bickering with it? Aren't you doing that by making amends with us?"

That sounded quite mature for a kid Ivy's age. Besides, it's not that she was going to give up after being faced with so many odds. She finally got herself on the right path after her horrible actions led her nowhere, throwing the towel would be giving the blue bastard the last word. And she was Sasha Waybright, since when giving up became part of her to-do list? Since when her promise of betterment to her two best friends was this fragile? It was too soon to back down.

"You've got some big brain, kid."

Ivy blushed, taken aback by the unexpected compliment.

"Just so you know, I still don't like you." She replied while crossing her arms and looking away.

"Alright, sure," Sasha chuckled, feeling a bit lighter, more hopeful. "Twerp." She pushed Ivy slightly.

"Jerk," Ivy punched her arm and laughed too.

********************

Newtopia's castle, 00:24 am.

The night never felt so heavy for Andrias Leviathan, Peacemaker of 1000 years as his eyes fought exhaustion.

Breaks had been self-forbidden. Every time his stomach growled or his muscles' soreness intensified, he ignored the signs with a will of steel. His health wasn't important right now compared to what was before him.

A huge map of Amphibia decorated with little tokens shaped like robots was splayed on the table the same way some blueprints were, with many sentences written in an ancient language.

If building an army strong and big enough to take over a new planet was expensive, getting the needed materials for a special portal would leave him on source bankrupt.

His robots might be weaponized with the best technology but the metals used to produce them lacked resilience. Anne's pesky frog pets could defeat them, the same was for that one-eyed toad, and the 3 stars.

Quality. His factories must be quick, efficient. But above all, the materials and resources must put his army at the top in both defensive and offensive. And they also must give him a portal that stayed in one piece when the time to use it came.

A king with a cheap, badly-built, fragile portal to conquer worlds was embarrassment incarnated, it would make him the multiverse laughing stock. After his biggest screw-up centuries ago, that was the last thing he wanted.

No more laughing stocks, no more vulnerabilities, no more openings to be humiliated. From now on, as he had said to himself after that day, just move forward and show endurance.

His hands moved swiftly, rewriting some equations for the portal, grabbing more paper for more designs, and moving tokens from one position on the map to another.

Perfect. This must be nothing but perfect.

"Just a little more and they'll see who laughs at the end."

And when the 3 stars were in the palm of his hand again, he undoubtedly would.

Chapter 4: Old =\= breakable

Summary:

Since when are grandmas this badass?!

Chapter Text

Soggy Joe had always been a deep sleeper, no one could deny that, not after trying to wake him up during an earthquake when the camping season started. When was that again? A few years ago? A decade maybe?

Meh, never mind, thing was that his slumber would put the heaviest rocks green of envy because of being immovable. However, his sleep was also famous for the loud, unbearable snores capable of scaring red giant mantises. People had to cover their ears for hours during the worst episode of the century. It even broke some windows!

And right now, as the dawn presented itself and the sun came back to illuminate the Valley and Wartwood, Sasha couldn't do anything more than wish for the onslaught to finish, or else she would be deaf forever or forced to kick Joe out of the branch he was using as a bed. Grabbing a twig nearby, she poked his stomach just for the snores to reach a new level of ugliness. Delightful.

"Joe, wake up." She shook him carefully and his hand tried to hit hers as if she were a fly. She repeated the action with no change until an idea crossed her mind. "Sorry, but this will hurt, a lot." She broke the twig in two and pricked his butt with the sharp point. Then the frog survivalist jumped so high he seemed to imitate a rocket.

Let's say his scream surpassed any snore he would've emitted if Sasha had left him rest.

"Ooommmmffff!!" he crashed face down on the same branch. Any remnant of tiredness was gone, replaced by anger at the girl. "What the heck was that?! Were you trying to kill me?!"

"More like trying to get you up. Remember the watchman duty I asked your help for? 5 hours passed and you fell asleep! I had to do this by myself!"

"The only reason I joined you in checking the landscape was that according to the schedule it was my turn to keep an eye on you while Stumpy took care of Grime."

"And not even at that, you're good at," Sasha replied.

"Excuse me?" Joe crossed his arms over his chest, offended. "I had to set multiple traps around this part of the forest, especially this tree we had climbed in case you tried something. So of course, I know what I'm doing."

True, the Slavic girl was indeed impressed at his knowledge of the fauna and flora and his survival training, his traps could be pretty useful if Andrias' robots tried to invade the town during the absence of guardians on the frontiers between Wartwood and the rest of the Valley. Now how to communicate it despite her pride and still lingering dislike of these frogs was another story.

Yeeesh, humility and her don't combine well.

Inhaling and exhaling deeply, she prepared her apology, "Listen, Soggy Joe, I..."

"Yeah? I'm listening." He leveled her with disapproval and still bitter for the branch pinching his butt.

"IIII... I'm sorry! I'll try to be gentler waking you up next time, as long as you are ok with this, of course."

"Next time, whistle. Acute sounds are better than a hole on my rear."

Point taken.

"Sasha. Sasha, are you there? Are you awake?" Grime's voice came from her left side, the megaphone bee she had borrowed from the Sundews. "Here I am, Grime. Over. What's going on? Have you or Gunther seen anything weird? Over."

"Nothing new, Miss Waybright," Gunther answered first.

"Yes, as he said, nothing new. What about you and Soggy Joe?"

"Zero. No robots or suspicious stuff. Over." Then she shot a glance at the horizon. It looked so calm, so peaceful as if this part of Amphibia was immune to the atrocities Andrias might be putting the rest of the country through. "Grime, you and Gunther go to the center of the town and gather everyone. We need to talk."

"On my way." He hung up.

"What's the next plan now?" Joe asked.

"There is some stuff to address with the rest of the town. The faster we do it, the better. Let's go."

++++++++++++

Wartwood was pretty familiar with restlessness much to its chagrin. Being a town that lacked defenses and was part of a world where monsters inhabited, everyone had to be on their high guard. This year especially had showered them with surprises of any kind, both good and bad.

The fear of a gangly creature that turned out to be their future protector and member, Anne Boonchuy, was one of them. Then, facing the toads who collected the taxes through violence and the greedy major whose actions put the village in danger. Next, Sasha kidnapping the town and almost killing two beloved citizens. And don't make me start with Andrias' army looming over all Amphibia and having two former criminals as their new guardians.

Thrill and excitement might be perfect for an adventurer but this dose of adrenaline was too much for the likes of Wartwood. To rub salt on the wound, their dread increased when Sasha and Grime called everyone for a meeting at the center of the town.

"What happened? Are we in danger?"

"Should we pack our things?"

"What about our children?"

"Is Andrias sending more of those metal beasts?"

Sasha whistled, gaining their whole attention.

"Alright, everyone, listen up. Number 1, we aren't in danger yet. Number 2, there is no need to pack your stuff yet. Number 3, your children are ok, for now. And number 4, Andrias hasn't sent more of his robots. Yet."

"Well, too many “yet” and “for now” aren't helpful in keeping us calmed!" Exclaimed Mr. Flour, raising his arms. Some villagers agreed.

"I get it. It has been a week since the attack of that metallic Surinam but we can't let out guard down. Andrias and his flying castle might be far away from Frog Valley but if he could fool me, Anne and...and Marcy, that meant he can do that same to the whole Amphibia. What we need is to be sharper, more attentive to detail, and more resilient than him. That's why keeping watch for suspicious activities outside the town is crucial."

"But after that what else should we do?" Chuck asked. Wait, the guy could say more than “I grow tulips?”. What a surprise. Anyway, back to the point.

"Let's extend our vigilance not only for the sake of the town but also to gain more allies. Wartwood isn't the only town in the Valley so, do any of you have a map of it?"

Pairs of eyes surrounded Toadstool who sighed resignedly.

"Fine, fine. Sheeesh. Toadie."

"On it, sir." The tiny assistant picked a map from his pockets and displayed it for everyone to see.

Sasha recognized the drawings; she had a similar one in her room when she used to work on Toad Tower.

Her eyes scanned the names of each town: Lily Paddington, Swamp Shiro, Bog Bottom. The closest location from Wartwood was the second one. The pictures looked more like the classical levels from Super Mario World Marcy loved to play.

"Alright, thanks, Toddie."

"It's Toadie."

"Toadie, ok. Pay attention, guys, we have now two missions: mission number 1, constant vigilance plus defensive mechanisms. Soggy Joe," The mentioned frog straightened. "You and Toadstool will set as many traps as you both can around the town."

"Wait, wait, camp work? For real?"

"Don't complain, buddy. Besides, as the major, you must look out for them."

"Tch, tell the obvious to someone else. Of course, I can do that."

"Good, because Grime and I will be absent for a while."

The sentence didn't sit nicely with the villagers as they started to jump to conclusions due to the apprehensive expressions on their faces.

"What Sasha was going to say is that this second mission is to analyze our situation beyond Wartwood's territory." Grime explained.

"Exactly. Mission number 2, Grime, someone else, and I will travel to the nearest town to gather information about Andrias' forces. Sighting of robots, people going missing, attacks on old villages beyond the Valley or travelers, that stuff. Does someone here know how much it takes to travel to Swamp Shiro?"

"4 weeks." Responded Albus Duckweed. "If the weather is nice and your steed is fast and has good stamina, maybe half the time."

"Perfect, then let's do this, we need two people to join us to Swamp Shiro to gather intel while Toadstool and Soggy Joe set the traps around the town. Who wants to volunteer?"

Silence covered the environment as no one was willing to go on a possibly dangerous trip with the warriors, well except for a female voice.

"I'll go with you." Sadie Croaker walked toward the duo much to the audience's shock.

"Wait, you?" Perhaps the blonde heard wrong, though the determination on the lady frog's eyes said otherwise.

"Alright, is there someone who isn't close to kicking the bucket yet that can take her place?" Grime's blunt petition was received with multiple gasps of disdain and astonishment for his disrespectfulness.

"Dude, tone it down, would ya? I thought you were surprised that they could fight."

"We need warriors who are in prime conditions, Sasha. Not with a foot inside the tomb."

"Ejem." Croaker glanced at them waiting for the pair to stop talking about her as if she wasn't present.

"Look, this will be an intense and dangerous mission. Besides, have you ever gone to other places outside Wartwood?"

"Why, of course. I have a knack for traveling, it hasn't gone away despite the years."

"Except for the durability," Grime murmured and Sasha elbowed him.

"Again, this will be--"

"Risky, crucial, yada yada yada. I fought some robots days ago, I'm no fool. Now, Duckweed, who is next on the schedule to keep Grime in check? I'll keep an eye on Sasha."

"Let's see it's--" he paused; his mouth twisted in horror.

"It's you, aren’t it? Welp, don't stand there, we'll leave in 15." Croaker dismissed herself from the meeting, leaving everyone flabbergasted.

"Frogdammit, stupid schedule, why couldn't I be the last one?" Duckweed hissed, groaning and cursing as he got farther from the multitude.

"Ok... So, I think that's it. Soggy Joe, Toadstool, prepare a few teams for the traps and the vigilance. Make sure to take turns and note anything that happens while we are gone. The meeting's over."

Everyone went back to their normal routine except for a few people that Joe and Toadstool called for the tasks.

Grime tapped Sasha's shoulder to whisper something to her. "About having the old frog in the team..."

"At least she accepts to help, unlike the others. It's still too soon to expect them to be comfortable with us. Apart from that, we've seen her fight. She's strong."

"She's also in the age of suffering from back pains, dislocated joints, or even a heart attack, and if that happens in the middle of this mission we'll get in huge trouble because we're not doctors and we're supposed to protect these people and help them prepare themselves for an upcoming war, so a casualty caused by old age will make us look like incompetent. If I were you, I'd tell her to stay here and help with the security around the town."

"Don't be so dramatic, Grimesy. Trust me, keeping an eye on old people and leading this mission will be easy peasy."

"At least she's easier to get along with, the whiny newt on the other hand..."

"Just be patient until we have made a plan to beat Andrias' butt, then you can unleash all your anger instead of using Duck-whatever-his-last-name-was as a punching bag. Come on, captain. There is a town to visit."

With a palm to his back, Sasha ended the conversation and ran to the Plantars' house, Grime catching up with her.

++++++++++++++

As the quartet packed the last stuff, Sasha approached the Sundews to leave them some stuff to do.

"So, I know this is quite a lot but the Plantars' house needs protection, and seeing that Grime and I won't be here--"

"Yeah, yeah, we know, Sasha. To be honest, it surprises me that the house, the crops, and the barn are in good condition. For once, I feared you two had turned it into a fortress toad-style."

"You're underestimating me, twerp. I care about this house."

"Isn't it because Anne lived here and you want to impress her if she comes back~?" Ivy's teasing tone and the smug smile on her face had never been so punchable as right now. But punches weren't only her specialty when she felt vindictive.

"Oh but don't forget, sweetie~. This is the house of your boyfriend~." Suddenly, the roles reversed and Ivy's cherry-like face showed her teeth in a huge snarl.

"I told you! He's not my--!"

"Ahem, girls, we may not be on the Tea Shop but do you remember what we talked about unnecessary teasing and fighting?" Felicia mentioned with a severe tone that put them in their place.

"Sorry, mom."

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Sundew."

"That's much better. Now, Sasha, you don't have to worry about the Plantar's property, we'll take care of it. And also of this little guy," and then she picked Microangelo in her arms. "Whose a little cutie~? But, before you go, you haven't stolen any money stored inside, have you? I know this travel will require more resources that you'll have to buy, but that money doesn't belong to you."

"Don't worry, I didn't."

Felicia squinted her eyes for long, long seconds and Sasha groaned, giving in and dropping all her hidden daggers to prove she only carried that stuff.

"How on Frog's name can you walk with all those knives?! You might get hurt!"

"That's the same I asked her a time ago." Grime got into their conversation, having finished packing his stuff as the sides of Bessie's saddle and waiting for Duckweed to end his preparations.

"Can someone please tell me why we need to cover ourselves and the steeds with these bushes we have cut?" Albus asked, struggling to carry all of them.

"For camouflage," this time, Croaker spoke, approaching the others in her ladybug. "The less noticeable we become, the better."

'Clever', Sasha thought and that move was supposed to come from a militaristic mind like hers, not an old lady but at least it would be a task less to take care of. However, one look at the steed revealed a new problem.

"Wow, wow, wow, why is the spider dog on the backseat?"

"Archie loves the backseat."

"It's not about that. This is a mission not a walk to the park, and what if something distracts it and prompts it to bark. It will attract the enemy."

"Chill, Sasha. Archie is well trained. You even saw him fight those robots that day."

The second point was true, the first one, though, the blonde didn't know how to take that. On one hand, there would be no gain in lying to her because the lie would have huge consequences during the mission. On the other hand, she didn't suspect Croaker was being dishonest but the old frog was attached to her pet like any person is to their animals, and if something happened to it, Croaker would be distracted and get herself killed. Of course, Sasha would protect her and the other members of the group even if Grime was capable to handle heavy battles, but another individual who might not be as integral in the mission will slow them down. Though, discussing this with her might not be a good idea. The frog lady gave her the same aura Mr. Boonchuy emanated whenever she and Anne were caught in mischief and schemes whether in or out of school.

"Fine, it can stay. But it will be your and only your responsibility."

"Talking about responsibility, why don't we use the huge bird you and Grime brought with you when you returned to the town? We could arrive in a matter of days if not hours if the weather keeps looking this nice."

"Joe Sparrow might've been given to Marcy by that huge, blue bastard." She answered Duckweed; Felicia gasped at the vulgarity and covered her daughter's ears. "If a single robot recognizes him from air or earth, it will warn Andrias and he will know that we are on the Valley, and send all his forces. For now, Joe Sparrow will be hidden and collaborate when necessary. Mrs. Sundew, do you know any cave near the town that may be big enough for him?"

"I'll have to ask Soggy Joe if he knows one but rest assured, he will be well hidden and safe."

"Good... Thanks. Ok, everyone, let's go."

"Can I at least go with Croaker? Going with Grime makes me uneasy."

"It's not that hearing your incessant whining delights me, Buttweed."

"It's Duckweed!!"

Oh boy, this would be a recurrent thing, wouldn't it?

+++++++++++++

A week, that was Sasha's estimation, a week of traveling to arrive at Swamp Shiro. Now the millionaire question was how the town was fairing after Andrias' army was summoned. Wartwood hadn't been attacked yet like the first day of coming back there but that giant dictator was sly as a snake.

Sasha cared very little about politics and if her assumptions were right then that murderer would use any kind of lie to establish alliances with other towns, making hollow promises of abundance and peace, and convincing them to work for him, fight for him, heck, die for him.

Just like he did Marcy.

"Goddamn coward."

Anyway, information. She needed information about their destination if this mission was going to be successful.

"So, you were there right?" She started asking Croaker. "Swamp Shiro."

"Quiet quaint, at least their cuisine was better than Bog Bottom's. I swear all their menus are the embodiment of dullness. That, and the insufferable Guild couldn't find me there."

"Guild?" Marcy had mentioned that after a history class about the medieval period. Wasn't it an organization of workers of something?

"The answer is classified." She swore this woman was making things up or exaggerating some parts.

"Grime, see something suspicious?"

"Everything is quiet on air, or maybe those things of metal are hiding behind the clouds."

"Keep an eye on the path. Duckweed, you'll warn us if you notice a robot on air."

"I'd have an easier job if I had a telescope."

"I don't think they can fly that high. But at whatever sign of danger, warn us."

"By yelling?"

"Clap all the times you consider necessary. No screams, cries, or howls. If we accidentally attract a predator, we might also do the same with the robots."

Awkwardness followed right after her instructions.

No one knew what to talk about and much less her. She didn't know any of these frogs except that they liked Anne, they hated her for her crimes and she was trying to gain their trust for real this time to help them win the war.

Of all of them, Ivy had a background, a family history but it was pure luck being told about this because she wanted to know about divorce, and then both human and frog girl shared personal stuff.

Nonetheless, the frogs were also talented in fighting. Their bravado and other skills to keep the town safe were useful assets to defeat the King and ensure everyone's survival.

What else? What else?

Croaker lady liked spider dogs? And she was badass?

Jesus Christ, knowing someone deeply never seemed so hard for her before.

Or maybe she just got to know her classmates for gossip material and to be a stronger queen bee. But caring, truly caring, and listening proved to be taxing because what if she came out as manipulative or insincere? How did Anne do it?

'Maybe I should've brought her journal.'

Or maybe not, it would've been interpreted as theft and violation of privacy and she had a lot against her with Wartwood to add those two things on the black list.

Asking questions. She could ask questions but wouldn't that mean interrogating or being intrusive? Or using the same tricks that got her the respect of the toads months ago, but these people weren't like them.

What about inquiring about Anne? Would that help? She had to try, this silence was driving her crazy!

"How much popular was Anne here?"

"What?" Croaker looked at her, not heaving heard well.

"Anne. I was asking how popular she is on Wartwood."

"Oh, more than popular, people love her. She has done a lot of good things for us."

The journal mentioned that but a bit of elaboration would be wonderful.

"What kind of things?"

"Why do you wanna know?"

Curiosity, and her hate of boredom. And come to think of it, she had never asked Anne what happened during those first months they were separated. Living with the Plantars, being on Wartwood, she guessed that when she found her in that town, and when Anne introduced her to her frog family. However, the blonde worked for the toads and had the mission to eliminate that wrinkly frog, Hopediah, for causing rebellions, and then Anne and her would go home after finding Marcy. The townsfolk or the Plantars weren't important to her like they were Anne.

That was her first mistake in Amphibia. She overlooked how much Anne had been influenced by these people, how much she'd changed until she tried to manipulate her again and her former friend said no. Sasha didn't even tell her what she's been through in Toad Tower before becoming Grime's right hand.

"We never caught up," Sasha answered. "I wished I could've asked her about her adventures here but I never gave that a chance. Maybe you can tell me? If you want to." She added the last part quickly to not arise suspicion.

"We all thought she was a monster roaming closely around the town. Then the Plantars took her in. We dislike outsiders so she had a hard time being accepted by us. But after defending us from the toads, we saw her as more than just the Plantar's guest, she became part of our community."

"She always had that spark. She could befriend strangers in a matter of seconds. There was this old couple who needed help with their groceries and she lent them a hand. Anyone who didn't know them could say that those geezers were her grandparents because they were very affectionate to her, and she was delighted to talk with them about anything."

"Such a people-person."

"Yeah, she was... Compared to me and...and Marcy, Anne could connect with others easily. Marcy always had trouble talking to people, mainly kids her age, that's why we were her only friends. Besides, she hated confrontation so whenever she was bullied or a jerk tried to force her to do their homework, I stepped in and scared them away. Me... I was the queen bee of the school."

"Queen bee?"

"The most popular. No one dared to mess with me unless they were prepared to face the consequences."

"I think you brought that part into this world with how you treated others."

Her eyes moved to a corner of the landscape, her hand scratching her right elbow.

"Not my best moment. I just saw relationships as assets while Anne considered them precious."

"If it makes you feel better, she wasn't the best either."

"No way, it's Anne we're talking about! How could she--?" A few strong claps interrupted and her eyes darted through the air until they landed on two flying points. Jet black, and if her imagination wasn't playing games, those mobile points has red spots on them.

"Camouflage! Time to camouflage!" She ordered. Her right index finger pointed at a tree a few meters away from them. Bessie and Croaker's ladybug sprinted there and remained quiet as the others placed the bushes to make them look like plants. Bessie hid inside her shell, and the ladybug sat on the grass and closed its eyes, letting her owner put more bushes on its head.

The wait for the robots to go away lasted minutes that went too slow for their tastes. Where were they going? Sasha couldn't know, though she prayed they weren't thinking of taking a tour on Wartwood. It had been just a day and a half of travel and a sudden invasion could ruin her plans.

Happily, the frobots flew northeast, to one of the other 3 towns of Frog Valley whichever it was. The village was safe, for now.

"Shouldn't we go back now? Because I'd not mind that."

"We haven't arrived at Swamp Shiro yet," Grime whispered harshly at Albus. "It's imperative to find out if more robots are spreading throughout the Valley."

"Grime's right. As long as we are stealthy, we won't be attacked. And the mission won't take that long. We'll ask questions to the villagers, investigate the area, and gather clues."

"Oh, sure~. And what if someone is hiding something for whatever reason? Are you going toscare them to death until they give in?"

She snarled at his accusation of her past behavior but her objections stayed in her mind as Croaker pressed her hand on her shoulder to stop her from fighting the town critic.

"I say we continue." The woman intervened. "Unless this mission surpasses our abilities or the skills of one member of the group, we'll keep going. Wartwood shouldn't be the only one aware of Andrias' threats."

"Well said. Only if the mission proves to be too much for one or all, we'll retreat, but for now, let's go." The quartet packed the bushes again and rode on the steeds, more alert.

+++++++++++++++

Hot. So hot. Scalding even. Why Amphibia couldn't stay fresh or a bit cold for 5 minutes? At this rate, her sleep time would be ruined and it's not that she is determined to have a healthy schedule with all the tasks on her list.

Her ears heard heavy steps surrounding their camp but her mind never turned on the alarms. Despite the slumber, her memory was sharp enough to recognize the walking as Grime's. After 2 hours, it would be her turn as the watchman, then Duckweed, and last, Croaker and her spider dog if he was experienced enough to track any possible invaders.

The former captain sat in the middle of the camp, stretching and yawning. He picked a handkerchief and began cleaning the Warhammer, humming softly a song from his childhood.

A turquoise fog crept to the tents, so thin and turtle-paced that the toad didn't pay attention to it, thinking it was Amphibia's weather with its usual weirdness. The more it covered the camp, the dizzier Grime felt. His eyelids fought to remain open and his mind pulled away from the unexpected exhaustion getting heavier as result. It wasn't even 3 am but all his muscles relaxed, his yawn grew longer until his back collided with the grass and a tremendous series of snores began.

Giggling entered the group's zone as steps both light and deep resonated. A shadow surveyed the area and its hands signaled to the tents and the Warhammer to other 4 shadows of different sizes.

A grunt startled the leader as one of their henchmaniacs was trying to lift Grime's weapon despite the laughable complexion of their arms.

"Shhhhhh!" the big shadow scolded before helping their comrade to steal the Warhammer until a shrill shriek froze everyone's blood.

"What the heck?!" Sasha screamed, having unsheathed her swords, scaring the intruders of her tent away.

"Archie! Where is Archie?!" Croaker suddenly found her pet biting the tail of a young newt, while from Duckweed's tent, two frogs were getting into a heated fight with the critic that led the three to exit and chase each other like in a classic episode of Scooby-Doo.

"Knock them out!" ordered the leader. Their comrade, whom they were helping to lift the hammer, picked a spiked wooden club and launched himself against the two females.

"Aaaahhhh!!" Croaker yelled as Sasha carried her in one arm, still holding her two swords. "Sasha, what on Frog's name--?!"

"I'm protecting you!" The blonde parried flawlessly against the club-wielding frog, but then two thick tongues robbed air from her lungs as they suffocated.

Sadie inflated her throat and got herself free, then she threw her cane as if it was a boomerang hitting the amphibians behind Sasha and the one in front of them.

Breathing again, Sasha gave the next orders as she ran to defeat the thieves' leader. "Duckweed, wake Grime up! Slap him if you have to!"

"Yesss!!" the critic beamed and he puppeteered the herculean arms of the former captain to hit him with them. After a few slaps, Grime strangled the newt, enraged.

"You piece of--!" The pandemonium cut his sentence short and got the critic off of him. The other delinquents surrounded both toad and newt, even the young thief who was still struggling to get rid of Archie. Yeah, good luck with that.

"Game's over!" Sasha roared. Under her right foot was the leader, the Warhammer a few meters away from them, and the pink heron sword pointing at their neck. "Surrender right now, drop anything you have stolen, and I'll let you all live."

Terrified at the sudden defeat and the painful consequences, the thieves kneeled in submission.

Minutes later, the intruders were gathered at the center of the camp, immobilized by ropes.

Sasha analyzed the numbers: the moment she and the others had woken up, she spotted two people in her and Croaker's tent that were teenager frogs, or maybe a teenager and a young adult frog, she wasn't very sure.

Moving on, that made it 2. Now, one of the thieves, a young adult newt, had been attacked by Archie who for some reason wasn't sleeping with Croaker which she considered a lucky blow because he alerted them from the delinquents. That increases the number to 3. Other 2 young frogs had entered Duckweed's tent, and another one was helping the leader to take the Warhammer. That made it 6 people. Then there is the leader.

7 people in total.

Alright, time to interrogate.

"Who are you and what do you want?" Sasha sneered at the leader. He was a young toad, maybe 16 or 17 years old. Copper-colored skin with brown specks on arms and head, and amber eyes. He huffed and paid more attention to the grass. "You!" She directed her furious gaze on the newt Archie had bitten. "Where do you come from and what do you want?!"

The newt grimaced, the rest of their comrades shook their heads as if pleading with them to remain silent, even the leader was doing that.

"Who's there?!" Grime's question made everyone turn around and face another toad, a female one.

"No way... Braddock?"

"What? No." Answered the old woman. By feeling the fire of her lantern, she showed herself. She had the same skin color as the toad, two fangs of mismatched sizes like one of them looked a bit broken or in half, her hair was silver and long which explained why her bun was so big and a few strands fell from it. She also wore an emerald dress. "I'm Amanda."

"O-Oh..." Sasha swallowed the disappointment before her group, especially Grime saw her face. "Back to the point, ma'am, what are you doing here? Do you know these guys?"

The leader thief tried to force her into silence with a severe expression but Amanda crossed her arms and responded with the most monotonous and unimpressed voice ever.

"He's my grandson."

"Grandma!!"

"Oh, don't 'grandma' me, young man! First, you disappeared from the camp with your friends, asked the herbalist for his sleeping incense recipe behind my back, and now this?! What if one of you kids had gotten hurt? What if YOU had gotten hurt? Olms have mercy, what if you had killed someone?!"

"We were going to leave them unconscious, that's all!"

"Unconscious and without weapons!" Grime argued.

"And now you steal weapons! For frog's sake, Jeremiah! Can't you see how dangerous this is?!"

"At least it's better than doing nothing while the royal-butt-licking major sells the whole town and their people for some weird project those metal things are talking about!"

"Wait, hold on. Metal things? Are those metal things bipedal, with the head of a frog, color black, and red eyes?"

"And why should I tell you?" Jeremiah glared, distrustful at Sasha.

"Jeremiah," his grandmother got closer to the group, her eyes sending strict mother vibes that were breaking his resolve. "I get it that you want to help and bring our family back, just like your friends do, but rushing in will give the major more reasons to resort to force. Besides, maybe we can ask these people for help."

"Mrs. Bronze, they're outsiders." One of the thieves, a young female frog with curly brown long hair counter-argued. "What could they know about this?"

"More than you think, young lady." Croaker responded.

"Ok, what about this? We can share information, as long as there is no more robbery. I'll let you go and you'll behave, or else."

"You'd better listen to her, Jeremiah. I see they have more knowledge and we can benefit from it."

"Grandma, this thing is not even an amphibian! How can you know it's trustworthy?!"

"I don't know and I don't trust her or her comrades, but maybe they can prove themselves to us, and if the chance comes that they aren't who they say they are, well, I may be old, but I still know how to crack a bone or two." Amanda cracked her knuckles menacingly as a warning to Sasha and the group. They nodded in agreement.

The blonde freed Jeremiah and his friends who directed their eyes in different directions, still scared of their supposedly harmless victims.

++++++++++++++++

In a matter of minutes, both teams were surrounding a fire big enough to keep the camp well illuminated. Sasha waited for anyone to start but the outcome was an unbearable wave of awkwardness and hard feelings as many of the thieves or Jeremiah looked at her like a dangerous monster or a freak.

"Ugh! Stupid spider! Do you think it will leave a mark?" Complained the newt bitten by Archie who growled at the teenager while getting comfortable in Croaker's arms.

"So..." Albus took the risk to begin the questioning. "Which town do you come from?"

"Swamp Shiro," Jeremiah answered moodily.

'Bingo' Sasha smiled mentally. Finally, some intel and they didn't have to arrive.

"Why did you say that the major had sold the whole town to the robots?" Sasha asked next.

"What's a robot?" Asked another female frog, this one with wavy coffee-colored hair, lemon skin, a light blue short dress, and maroon shoes.

"A machine, either weaponized or a tool. The ones we know are weaponized." Grime elaborated.

"Back to the question, what got into the major's head to do that?"

"His only reason is that he's a royal-butt-licking fool!"

"Jeremiah, language!!" Scolded his grandmother.

"Come on, grandma, you know that's true. Heck, you even agree. He and his family have been supporting the royal family of Amphibia since-- well I don't know exactly but for a long time ago."

Not that Sasha cared about Andrias' lineage, but apart from him, she didn't know anyone else related biologically to the newt and with the power to rule like parents, grandparents, or ancestors. A very morbid part of her mind theorized -as she remembered him mentioning his family as conquerors- that all of them might have killed each other because they wanted the power of the box for themselves only and Andrias, in the end, was the victor.

"And how does that connect with the robots?" Inquired Croaker.

"One of the robots said the king had in mind a great project for all the country that could benefit us all but it didn't explain more, said it was a surprise. Bunch of crap." Insulted Jeremiah.

"The major was ecstatic at the news." Amanda continued the story. "Some of the richest townies shared the sentiment and other humbler folks too, but it sounded too vague for the rest of us. Then, the robot sent young people to work in a secret place for said project, it stated only the strongest and most durable should collaborate because this needed to be done quickly. Many youngsters were curious and became workers, others were forced even if their families demanded to see where they would go."

"Then the major commanded the police to stop anyone who dared to delay or ruin King Andrias' so-brilliant vision of the future. We were forbidden to visit our family or friends because those pesky scraps stated the project could only be revealed once it was done. They never specified when though! Days, weeks, years, nothing!"

"Is someone in your family working there?" Sasha was surprised at the softness of her voice but maybe that was due to relating to his pain, that the king was separating people with his schemes and hiding behind his bubbly persona.

"My younger cousin, his best friend, and my girlfriend. I could've been chosen too but back then I had a serious case of swamp flu that put me in bed. Lucky me."

"But wait, you mentioned a camp," Grime said, pointing at Amanda. "Were you banished?"

"Unfortunately, yes. The feelings toward the secret project of the king were mixed, ranging from excitement to suspicion, but it's not that the major was willing to listen."

"Pffft, he only listens when his pockets or his reputation are involved," Jeremiah growled.

"At first, we talked with him and expressed our concerns because a change of this magnitude seemed so out of place. And not everyone was happy with those machines as watchmen. However, the more opinions he heard, the more extreme he got. The authorities acted much more aggressively, putting innocents in jail just because they were impatient to see their loved ones."

"Amanda, excuse my interruption, but was it allowed to send letters to the workers to stay in contact?"

"A waste of time," Amanda explained to Croaker. "The major only approved of that to shut us up, but I bet those robots kept the letters away from the youngsters or burnt them behind our backs. The last straw was when a few families found a way to trespass the place and find out what's going on. The guardians caught them and the major was notified of what happened. I was in the group of trespassers because I wanted to help an old friend of mine to look for their niece. But not everyone was banished though. The major only expelled the ones he thought were too weak or cowardly to do something."

"Ha! Old, brainless major! We have enough energy and muscle to break in again and save the others, right guys?"

Instead of receiving a chorus of "Yeah!" or "Count on us!" from his friends, Jeremiah met the uncomfortable silence and apprehension of each of them. Some were rubbing the back of their heads, their arms, or paying attention to the landscape.

"I...don't think we can do this anymore, Jer." mumbled the young newt while wrapping his tail due to Archie's bites. "We aren't cut out for this."

"What?! Mike, are you serious?!"

"Yeah, I'm serious!" Mike stood up, his hands shaking. "We were 7 against 4 and still we got beaten up by a grandma and this gangly thing!"

"Young man, show more respect!"; "This gangly thing has a name. It's Sasha." The two females talked at the same time.

"My point is," Mike kept going as if they hadn't spoken. "That we're going all blind, with no plans or weapons except the few stuffs we packed from home. We aren't soldiers, Jer. We may be young and strong but that's not enough. We'll die for nothing at this rate."

"So what? Are you going to give up? What about your triplets? Morgan and Max didn't even want to go there and they were forced!"

"Maybe it's time to ask for help then." Opined the frog with the wooden club. "I mean, these 4 might know one thing or two about how to fight or prepare rescue missions."

"About that. Sasha and Grime discovered something about the king days ago that has to with this robot issue and the manual labor." Duckweed signaled at the human and the toad with his tail much to the second one's chagrin. Grime stood up and surveyed the young Amphibians and Amanda with hardened eyes before explaining.

"I'll be short because there are some details too trivial to address." That was a lie but better not to freak the audience out with a toad rebellion. They had no time for that. "Sasha and I, alongside a little group that used to work for the king, were inside the castle when we found a mural. It portrayed Andrias as a bloodthirsty dictator using an artifact of terrible power to subjugate and destroy anything in his path. When Andrias revealed his true intentions and saw we were ready to fight back, he summoned those robots by using that item. He plans to control Amphibia with an iron hand and many others."

"That's why we were traveling to Swamp Shiro." Sasha took the word this time. "We need to gather enough intel about his movements and spread awareness of what's he's doing. Wartwood has been warned already, now it's your home. I mean, Amphibia might not be in flames and ruins right now, but it's a matter of time for that to happen. Just because it's slow doesn't mean Andrias is scratching his butt. He's biding his time and showing you what he's good at, manipulating people. He did it with one of my friends and it cost her life. As you have recounted, he is hiding stuff from you and forcing you to do what he wants."

"Sure, and do you have some evidence? Like, the mural. Do you have a picture of it?" Sasha thought Wartwood was closed-off but this guy who didn't know z about her was worse.

"No." Suddenly, she remembered the photos she took with her cellphone of the Surinam robot and its minions to create strategies for every kind of killing machine Andrias might send to annihilate them. "I have something better. Here." She picked up her phone and showed them the images.

"Is that another robot?" inquired one of Jeremiah's friends.

"Yep. This one had minions inside its body. It was going to overwhelm Wartwood with them until Grime, the townsfolk and I got rid of it. We can help you destroy the robots in your town, save the workers, show this evidence to the major, and maybe keep in contact in case more trouble comes. It would be 2 towns out of 4 of Frog Valley. It's not much but it'll be a start to save the country from the king."

"Jer, I think this may work." Commented one of the female frogs in his group. "If we work with them, the town will be safe for now from those things."

"I second Lily's idea." The other female frog raised her hand. "We all can make a better plan. These guys know what they're doing after all, and they have better weapons than us."

"Ok, let's suppose we do that, then what? It's not that the major will let the proof get in his way. He's too boneheaded."

"We can deal with him and his crap later. The priority now is to save those people. So, what do you think? Rescue team?" Sasha put on her best charming, saleswoman grin and extended her hand to inspire him some confidence and trust in her. Amanda patted her grandson's back, reminding him that she would deal with the blonde's team if she pulled a stunt.

"Alright then, rescue team." He shook her hand firmly. "But this better work."

Phase 1 of the mission, gathering intel, has been completed.

Phase 2: arriving at the town with a plan to save the workers.

"Well, with what done, we'd better begin our travel to the other camp. You lead the way, ma'am." The blonde bobbed her head to Amanda. "We'll take short breaks to arrive as soon as possible. Everyone, clear?"

Both teams murmured their agreements. Good.

++++++++++++

Caves had become Sasha's least favorite places because of her first experiences in Amphibia. They were obscure, desolated, filthy.

She felt like that as a prisoner, counting the hours and days while being fed disgusting green soup in Toad Tower. This time it was different as toads, frogs, and some newts were walking as a single unit to the camp of the banished people of Swamp Shiro.

Amanda, Jeremiah, Grime, Sasha, and Croaker were in the front line sharing Bessie and Croaker's ladybug with the others intermittently to save as much energy as possible.

Sasha watched from behind her both grandmother and grandson sleeping soundly in the ladybug's backseat mount, then at her other side at Grime who was walking with Bessie while Duckweed and one of the frogs sat on her mount.

Again she was faced with the dilemma that she didn't know what to talk about with the old woman. She could, of course, ask more stuff about Anne or where she learned to fight.

"You said Anne wasn't the best."

"Mmmm?" Croaker directed her attention to the girl.

"Anne. You said she wasn't that great, but why?"

"Frog of the Year party. She was put in charge of everything and things got out of control. Almost burnt the town."

"Really? All the town?" Sasha chuckled amidst her surprise.

"Yep, had to ask Toadstool for help. Oh, but she wasn't the only one who caused a ruckus on Wartwood."

"Are you referring to the Plantars?"

"No, no. There were one or two mishaps they had caused with Anne, but I was talking about her other human friend, Marcy. Black hair, talked too much, asked too many questions."

"Typical Marcy." The Slavic teenager's lips curled upwards with sad fondness.

"She had improved Wartwood in a matter of days. Then worked with Toadstool to remodel the whole town. It looked pretty fancy."

"Actually, that sounds neat."

"The town sank into the water because it was too heavy."

"What?!" Sasha flinched the moment she exclaimed. Fortunately, neither Jeremiah nor his grandmother awoke. "I mean, this is Marcy. She's the smartest person I know."

"She didn't have a lucky day back then."

"First, Anne burnt the town. Then Marcy sank it. I'm starting to believe you're messing with me."

"Kiddo, you can put someone on a pedestal all the time you want but it won't stop them from making mistakes. And it's bizarre because compared to them, you at least didn't cause an earthquake or brought with you a swarm of hyebeenas."

Sasha grinned sheepishly. Whether it was a fake cheer-up moment or sarcastic flattery, she felt relieved that she hadn't ruined things that much, though if she compared Wartwood's situation with the day Percy and Braddock left her, then the blonde needed to step up her game instead of putting her own goals above others' needs.

"Sasha," Grime pointed his finger at the end of the long cave.

"Right. Thanks, Grimesy." The Slavic teenager woke up Jeremiah and his grandson and told them the end of the cave was close.

"Oh, thank goodness! We're almost there, and it just took us a few days."

"And the camp is just a few kilometers, well-hidden from the town, right?" Sasha asked to be sure the data was correct.

"Yep! I hope no one has done something too drastic though, we'll need everyone's help if we want to get rid of the robots."

The exit of the cave introduced them to the first rays of the sun and the far-away image of tents, people waking up and fires that had been put out during the late hours of the morning.

"Hey, look, it's them! Mrs. Bronze and the kids are back!"

The citizens surrounded their comrades but some kept distance from Sasha and her team, afraid to be on the wrong side of a warrior toad like Grime or put out by the Slavic girl's appearance. Even some murmured she was an exotic pet much to her annoyance.

Mrs. Bronze extended her arms to her neighbors and narrated what happened. Her motherly, amicable voice helped ease tensions between the banished people and the newcomers.

"Sasha and Grime here are the ones who found out King Andrias is a menace. They and their friends have a plan and as long as we all work together, our loved ones will have a chance to be saved." Amanda gestured to both of them to present themselves to the audience. Sasha was positioned on the woman's right side and Grime was on the girl's left side.

"Listen, everyone, I know we don't belong here, especially me but my captain and I have seen and suffered what Andrias is truly capable of. You're victims of his treachery too. But we can change that. My plan is pretty simple: we'll divide into 3 groups. 2 of them will distract the major and the town police, and the robots. Meanwhile, the third one will rescue the workers."

"Sasha, Croaker, and I will be part of teams 3 and 2 respectively. Duckweed will take care of group number 1." Grime took the word. "To go to the source of the problem we'll need a guide too. Anyone who has fought the robots or the authorities and is still in conditions to fight raise your hands."

50 people did.

"Wow, huge number. How many are here?"

"70. The ones who weren't banished summed up 90." Said a woman frog.

"Then this is how we'll do. Of these 50, 16 will join Duckweed; 16, with Grime; and 18 will join me and Croaker. Understood?"

"If we're gonna destroy those machines, we'll need weapons." Argued a farmer.

"Exactly, our stuff consists of kitchen and horticulture tools made of wood and metal."

"Then let's use that. Anything can be a weapon with some creativity. Pots, pans, kitchen knives, chopping axes, shovels, spoons, and even tablecloths. Also, now that I think about it, Amanda, who's the herbalist that made that sleeping incense?"

"Over here." An old frog with a beard and mustache in the Confucius style, light brown pants, sandals, and a blue sweater slowly neared them. "I can teach you how to make the incense in no time."

"What about sleeping bombs? Like, putting the incense in little sacks that explode once you throw them at something."

"That can work too but it will take a bit more time as we have to pulverize the mix for every bomb."

"Is 1 hour enough to make as many bombs for 50 people?"

"The more hands the faster the work, and bigger the number."

"Good. Ok, guys, 1 hour to be ready. Let's prepare our weapons, backup plans, medicine, anything useful. No time to lose, go!"

"And who's going to take care of Bessie and Tyranda?" Sasha almost suffered a heart attack at the sudden appearance of Croaker. How did she arrive at her side without being noticed?

"God, don't do that! Wait, Tyranda?"

"My ladybug. Someone will have to keep an eye on our steeds. Not sure if the robots can recognize the animals and pinpoint we're here, but I won't take any chances."

"Good idea. Jeremiah"

"Mmmm?" the young toad shot her a glance.

"Do you know someone that can take care of the snail and the ladybug while we're absent?"

"Mr. Moonshine, the cow-worm milker, loves steeds. They'll be safe with him."

"Alright, let's meet him and help with the sleeping bombs." Croaker and Sasha joined the lad toward the tent of said man while guiding Bessie and Tyranda.

+++++++++++++++

Duckweed marched confidently, admiring the entrance of Swamp Shiro that got more visible with each step.

The arc was made of rocks of different shades of purple and red, exquisitely carved into frogs and mushrooms of a huge variety of sizes. The letter with the words 'WELCOME TO SWAMP SHIRO' was made of mahogany wood in an elegant font.

The critic whistled, impressed at the art. His eyes then absorbed in concern two guards of black and gold uniforms.

"Remember, follow the script." Duckweed whispered to his team, they hummed affirmatively.

His throat rasped before a snobbish smile painted his face.

"Who are you? State your purpose!" One of the guards commanded as he clapped his wooden club as a warning.

"Greetings, gentlemen. Would you be so kind to show me where the major is? I have great news for him."

"Said the guy whose company are the traitors behind him." Retorted the other guard. One of the villagers whispered 'Hypocrite' bitterly and received an elbow on the stomach.

"Don't worry about them. These fine people have finally come to their senses and want to aid the major in the project King Andrias has let you all in. So, what do you say? Could you give us a chance?"

"You don't even live here."

"And haven't even responded to my question: what's your purpose?"

"I'm Albus Duckweed, Wartwood's most popular critic and now messenger from major Froadrick Toadstool. He is pretty busy so he sent me in his place to talk with the major of Swamp Shiro."

The two guards still regarded the newcomers skeptically. Sweat was gathering at the center of Duckweed's forehead, his grin breaking at the corners.

Another lie, he must spit another lie!

"Oh my~! I forgot! Wartwood has been also involved in one of the king's groundbreaking projects. Of course, major Toadstool stubbornly remained on the sidelines while the others complied happily, that's why he wants another point of view to understand what's going on. Maybe the major of Swamp Shiro can open his eyes and a perfect deal can be made between us to benefit from these projects? What do you say?"

A few minutes passed, the tension skyrocketing until the guards changed from offensive to defensive. "We'll keep an eye on you. Follow us."

They bought it!

Step 1, complete. Step 2, secret communication.

The newt critic held back the awe at the gigantic mushrooms that served as houses and other kinds of buildings like shops, blacksmiths, bakeries, a humble hospital, a school, etc. Some stood erect, others leaned over or back to the point that you could think they were going to fall with the residents inside but the roots that could be spotted proved otherwise.

The foliage of the trees, twice or thrice bigger and yep with house mushrooms in them, let a few rays of the sun bathe the area. Many rivers divided the town into different sectors and were connected by bridges of stone and wood.

Finally, they arrived at the town hall: a delicately ornated mushroom the size of a mansion. A silver statue of a horned toad with a braided long beard, formal clothes, and a monocle spoke volumes of the ego of the major, much more than Toadstool.

The guard with the club knocked a few times on the door and stepped back as a rough voice said it was coming.

Duckweed straightened his back, replacing his charismatic grin with a stoic, business-like front. Major Funguren's shock went from 1 to 10 when his vision took on his former citizens behind the outsider. "Someone care to tell me, what's the meaning of this? I made pretty clear no traitors of the king were welcome."

"Allow me to introduce myself, sir. I'm Albus Duckweed, Wartwood's critic and now messenger from a fellow major, Froadrick Toadstool."

"Toadstool?" Funguren scratched his chin pensively until an imaginary bulb turned on. "Oho! The elections! I remember now. Dear Axolotl, when I heard the news that a frog, a farmer to top it all, was competing for the place as a major I couldn't believe it. A frog dealing with politics is a recipe for disaster, let me tell you. Anyway, why is a Wartwoodian accompanied by traitors? Not the best first impression if you ask me."

"Rest assured, Mr. Funguren, they have told me about their reckless opposition to the king's vision of the future and your aid to the project, and want to redeem themselves by putting aside their narrowed opinions and work for you and the king as they always should."

"Really?" 'Oh brilliant, more skepticism.' No right now, Duckweed, keep going.

"Absolutely. And before you ask about the reason for my visit, it's because Toadstool needs another perspective on the king's plans. Wartwood has become another chosen place for an innovative project but he isn't pretty sure. That's why this talk between majors is crucial. Sadly, his schedule is full, so I'm here on his behalf for a productive meeting."

"Productive eh? Hehe, well, look at that, another town and another major with the same prejudices as my people. Thankfully I'm here to help. Come in, come in."

"Oh, before that. What about the townsfolk? Would you give them a second chance?"

"Just because you trust them, it doesn't mean I have to or want to."

Yikes! Think of something! Quickly, quickly!

"Would you prefer to put them on house arrest until you have an idea of what to do with them? If you ask me, that's a good course of action. I can help so the process goes without a hitch."

Funguren scrunched his nose, still unhappy with the idea of accepting back the 'treacherous scum' but huffed at the end. "If one of them tries something, you'll also pay the consequences, meeting or not."

Risky, but his team could deal with that.

++++++++++++

The voice of a certain whiny newt surprised Grime, Croaker, and Sasha as the third one picked up one of the bee megaphones the villagers had lent to them.

"Here Duckweed. Here Duckweed, someone can hear me?"

"We hear you. What's going on? Have you entered the town already?"

"Positive. I'm inside the office of Major Funguren. Well, inside his bathroom. He has bought my lies but my team has been dispersed. I had to let him do that because he doesn't trust them."

"What do you mean dispersing them?" Croaker queried.

"House arrest. It was my only excuse to stop him from kicking them out again. Luckily, none of the guards checked over them so they still have the sleeping bombs."

"That's a point in our favor, I guess." Grime opined.

"What about you? And do it quickly, before Funguren suspects."

"One of the villagers showed us a shortcut to the workplace. We're halfway but I bet in 10 minutes we'll have arrived. Just keep distracting the major. And if thins gets messy, put him to sleep."

"Extreme but reasonable. Ok, report done. Over." He hung up.

The other two teams accelerated the pace to make it into 5 minutes. Their steps grew in rhythm as sounds of machinery and whips hitting the ground could be perceived.

"There it is!" Jeremiah's clawed finger shot at the sci-fi-like refinery at the center of an immense subterranean lake. Lights, both artificial and natural and of different colors made the place surreal, but the cherry on the cake was the people working incessantly and with bloody lacerations on their backs and arms.

One of them dropped their mining pick and coughed loudly as their hand hit on their lungs to have more air just for a whip to scare them.

"Do not rest! Keep working!" Yelled a frobot, one of its arms deployed a metallic, flexible lash that sparked electricity and hit the worker on the chest. Other two workers halted their job and aided their friend.

"That was Roy." Murmured a female frog, her eyes teared and she covered her mouth in horror.

Sasha took a few photos of the place and stored her cellphone inside her armor. She counted every robot in the vicinity. More than 20 protecting the refinery. Was it just a refinery or was it also a factory or connected to one?

Questions for later. Her eyes keep counting, more than 15 amphibians mining the place and putting the minerals inside containers, double the number of robots with laser beams and electric whips threatening or abusing the workers.

"Ok, this is the plan." Sasha gathered both teams and with her index finger, she drew a crude representation of the refinery and the places of everyone there. "Grime's team will lead the robot guards very far away from here. Our team will climb the walls of the cave and enter from above ambushing the enemies and throwing them into the lake. Evade water and electric whips, that combination is mortal. Also, if the refinery starts expulsing toxic waste, stay away from it. I'll take care of that. Understood?"

A resounding, determined "Mfm!" was enough.

Grime began the attack, gathering mud and dirt, making it into a ball, and throwing it into the eyes of one of the robots.

The other members did the same and hell broke loose. They jumped high while kept launching stones and mudballs to destroy the perception of the robots.

Sasha, Croaker, and their team climbed like frenzy monkeys the walls, observing the battle against the guards in case something went awry. Once they had reached high enough, everyone lunged at the robots in a collective jump, looking like angry predators pouncing on their prey.

Each one landed on the robots or in the lake if the jump wasn't well calculated, having to swim far away from the laser beams or to the surface to not be electrocuted 100 times.

Sasha kicked hard the head of an electrical-whip frobot and halted for a few seconds at the utterly confused slaves who were wondering if they were dreaming. She took off her left boot, dropping her large number of hidden daggers. "Grab one! Defend each other and get out of here! NOW!!"

She put the boot back on and decapitated two robots at the same time. The screams of some slaves alarmed the cruel machines as they finally had some resources to enact their revenge on their oppressors.

Archie ran rampant, his small frame and levity gave him the advantage to pounce from head to head of the robots, covering their eyes with spiderwebs. "Croaker!" Sasha's yell prompted the pet to turn around and watch his master struggling in a who-can-pull-harder game with an electrical-whip robot.

The blonde and Archie ran to help her but it wasn't needed as the old woman let the enemy pull her to it receiving a double kick on the head in the end.

"Archie, help those two!" Ordered the lady, pointing to two members who were surrounded by 5 robots. The little spider sprinted and spat acid into the arms of the attackers.

Sasha broke from her awestruck trance at Croaker's movements and stabbed some more robots. She didn't know how many had fallen and if the teams had suffered casualties or if anyone had been seriously hurt but her chances to find out died when the refinery's doors opened and a swarm of robots, all of them with electric whips, exited the building.

Oh boy.

++++++++++++++

The metallic pests were numerous, one of the most typical disadvantages during a war, but this twist was an annoying pebble on her boots she couldn't get rid of. How many robots they had to take down now? 30? 50? 80?

And with electric weapons too! And some stuff the frogs were using to fight were made of metal which added on the danger aside from the goddamn lake they couldn't swim to because water and electricity were only good if you had a death wish.

Croaker kicked one making it crash with other two and then stabbed them in the eyes with her faithful cane.

Jeremiah and his grandmother had freed their loved ones already and were helping other workers to escape, evading as they could the furious whips.

Her sword cut, sliced, decapitated, and torn apart as many robots as she could, also, was it she or these were a bit more resilient and faster?

"Sasha!!" Grime knocked down the barriers of the place with the Warhammer, and that's when things got a lot weirder than she expected, and twice as harder too.

The ground started shaking. An earthquake? Right now?!

Nope. Just new additions, metallic spheres buried beneath where Grime and his team were. The spheres then took the form of a mix of armadillos and beetles, tackling the intruders instantly.

For real?! Bug-shaped robots?! Wasn't it enough for that blue bastard to make frog-based ones?!

"This couldn't get worse." Bad choice of words.

Her heart raced the moment she saw something hauntingly familiar. One of the frobots was behind Croaker in a position that spoke 'stabbing' in capital letters.

Instinctually, she got in between the attacker and her comrade receiving a brutal hit despite that Croaker had listened to the robot land behind her back.

"Sasha!" The old woman defended the injured lieutenant deflecting the lashes with her cane and blinding the robots with dirt at a fast pace.

The Slavic human got up, ignoring with sheer will the agony on her left shoulder. Man, that gash would surely leave a mark.

Three whips filled with electricity tried to kill the lady frog only for Sasha to carry the woman over her intact shoulder to keep her away from danger.

"Sasha! What the hell?! At least warn me before doing that!!" She tried to go back to battle but the girl hold her tightly over her shoulder, her eyes moving wildly like the ones from a chameleon.

Protect Croaker, make sure Grime's team is doing ok, defend herself, try to stop more robots from hurting teams 1 and 2, and the workers. Her sweat made her vision go blurry for a while and she swore she could smell something metallic that wasn't the robots. God, she really hoped it wasn't the gash bleeding due to the relentless movements.

"Sasha, put me down! You can't deal with those things on your own!"

"Just stay put! You may get hurt!"

"You also may get hurt!" Which became true because the sharp point of a whip pierced through her armor and skin. It felt like a spear bathed in flames or made of magma had been shot at her back. Her scream echoed the whole place and she fell to her knees.

Croaker whistled and her loyal spider dog spat a ball of acid at the robot and a few more to others surrounding them. The old woman checked over Sasha's injury, hissing sympathetically.

Taking the lead, the lady fired her tongue at the eyes of 4 robots. Blinded, they whipped one another until ending up in pieces.

The sound of a splash prompted Sasha and Croaker to turn around. A group of workers was swimming in the lake much to the two's horror and confusion.

A squadron of whip robots started following them, diving into the lake which didn't make sense! They had electrical weapons for f*ck's sake! Unless...

"They can do both! Goddammit!!" Sasha accelerated somewhat clumsily due to her back injury and despite Croaker's protests.

Without more choices in her hand, the old woman and her trusty pet followed Sasha who had grabbed the foot of a robot that dove at high speed. Fortunately for her, the old lady could do the same by wrapping her tongue around the foot of another persecutor while hugging Archie for dear life.

+++++++++++++

When Duckweed had to resign to keeping an eye on Grime and be on a mission with Croaker and the two ex-criminals, this wasn't what he expected in the end.

The major and almost all the town police were tied with ropes after a shower of sleeping bombs, courtesy of the enraged townsfolk who had set them a trap. Who said house arrest could help for an ambush, am I right?

And it happened so suddenly, like just 20 minutes during Duckweed and Funguren's meeting. His little excuse to keep the banished citizens inside the town had helped spread the authorities' strength thin. Just 3 or 4 patrolling the houses, then someone had an accident cooking as Duckweed was told that attracted the police attention which ended up being a huge mistake because then the citizens kicked open the doors or jumped out of the windows and the sleeping bombs did the rest.

"Ok, we have the major and the authorities under control. Now what?" Duckweed tried to think of something else. Informing the others about the situation in the town was essential, he hoped they hadn't been captured, or else he would be next.

"Grime, Sasha, Croaker, is any of you there? Respond." Silence, another attempt. "Guys, this is an important report. We had to put to sleep the major and the police. Someone on my team told me a trap was set and then everyone threw sleeping bombs, and I had to do the same because the major figured out I wasn't on his side." Silence again.

"Guys, this isn't funny. Answer already!"

What was the reason for their delay? Did the plan on their part fail? Were the two teams disorganized? Were they overwhelmed? They found hostages?!

Suddenly, a dark scenario crossed his mind. 2 members of the group were ex-criminals that had kidnapped the town, betrayed Anne many times, and usurped the throne. Just because they had a 'change of heart' didn't establish unbreakable trust between Wartwood and them. If that was the case, they wouldn't need to keep an eye on Sasha and Grime constantly.

Oh, sweet olms! Maybe that was the issue! They had been betrayed! AGAIN!! Maybe this mission outside Wartwood was a way for Sasha and Grime to take over. However, something didn't fit with his theory. Why outside the town? Did they conclude that the village wasn't useful because of the constant vigilance? Did they want to manipulate another place that might be stronger and richer than Wartwood?

sh*t! What was he gonna do? He couldn't simply run away and warn the town. By doing that, Swamp Shiro would suspect and find out that he and Croaker hid from them Sasha and Grime's criminal history and a serious conflict would arise!

"Dude, you're getting too pale. Is something going on?" Asked a member of his team. He swallowed and maintain his composure. There were no clues about how Grime, Sasha, and Croaker were doing and if a betrayal had been made. For now, they must wait until everyone came back, that is if they could.

"Buddy, you look like you're going to throw up."

"I'm under too much stress, ok?!"

+++++++++++++++

Evade the whips. A hit to the arm, a hit to the leg, cut a metal head. Protect. Repeat

Evade the whips. Her back is sore as hell, the gash on her shoulder is killing her. Stab that robot. Protect Croaker and the workers. Repeat.

Evade the whips. They're too many. They're quicker, more clever. Stupid newt with his stupid ideas to make better robots, it was getting on her nerves!

Her blades clash with the whips, these were tense and now served as spears. Another upgrade to the robots that was pestering Sasha.

Surveying the area in an instant, she saw Croaker's cane being taken away by the hit of a whip and two workers hiding behind some rocks. The number of enemies surpassed them from 5 to 1 and not many had fallen.

Her legs led her to the old lady frog again, and her arm ended up trapped in the ruthless hold of a whip.

"Sasha!!" Croaker jumped and crashed the head of the robot with both hands. She whistled and Archie spat acid at the whip, freeing the girl.

"Seriously, like how many times are you going to do this? You're not unbeatable."

"What do you mean?" After the question, Sasha tackled a robot and cut his arm-whip the exact moment Croaker retrieved her cane with her tongue and destroyed the enemy's head with it.

"You know what I mean! Being a living, walking shield, getting hurt when not necessary. At this rate, your time as a leader will end sooner than later." Croaker visualized the workers still being behind the rocks and hopped from one enemy to another, each time crashing the heads until she cleared the path for the people to escape.

Sasha caught up to her, making sure the electric whips didn't touch her comrade and cutting as many as she could.

"That is called protecting my team! It's obvious as saying the sky is blue!"

"You haven't even seen deeper than that! Sometimes your team will need help, other times they can deal with the problem."

"Those things are more dangerous than the giant robot Grime and I had destroyed."

"He doesn't need 24/7 protection but I do?"

"It's because you're--"

"Old, delicate, and wrinkly?" Croaker's sarcasm and her glare weren't making this easier for Sasha. What was she doing wrong? Was she acting manipulative again? Some suspicion from the old woman that the blonde could potentially betray her? Did she believe this was a huge scam?

"Listen, who's the leader here? Me. Who can protect the others? Me. And who must deal with the heavy stuff? Also, me. No buts or ifs, that's how it works. End of discussion."

As she said that, 15 more robots turned their whips into long, deadly spears. A glance behind her showed a somber scenario: Croaker, with a few scratches and bruises, and all the workers gathered in one place and terrified. The enemies ran with their weapons ready and Sasha charged, swords and spears clashing, sparks between metals falling to the ground, and electricity crackling at the tips to kill.

When the number of robots had fallen from 15 to 12, one of them fired a lightning bolt. The explosion caused Sasha to drop her silver sword, her right hand was consumed by numbness and excruciating pain, or perhaps it was numb due to the pain of the burns.

Croaker didn't lose time, darting to the scared workers who were falling into a hole of hopelessness. "Alright all of you, I may be hard to crack but I know my limits. We can still make it through this if we work together. Do you want to get out of here and kick these invaders from your lives or let them walk over you until there is nothing left to exploit?"

"But they have powers!"

"Those things are just fancy metal controlled by a cowardly tyrant who wants to see you quiver while he takes what he wants from you. But they can be destroyed just like the tyrant! So, who's with me?!"

"I-I'll try! I want to get out of here!"

"Me too, I want to see my parents again!"

"I'm done with this sorry excuse of the project! To hell with the king!"

"Yeah, let's kick them all out!"

"Then follow my lead!" Croaker and her allies charge as one unit, ignoring Sasha's frenetic 'No, escape!' and 'What are you doing?!'.

The workers lunged at the robots, two at each head. The other machines tried to attack them just to destroy their peers accidentally. Lunge, get their attention, get out of the way, repeat.

Croaker aided Sasha while giving orders much to the girl's astonishment. One of the robots used its propulsors, advancing with its electric spear to kill them just to impale thin air the moment the old woman hopped backward, Sasha on her back.

"Archie! Spiderweb!" Her pat blinded the enemy in a matter of seconds.

"Wanna share the honors?" Asked the lady.

"With pleasure." In a single movement, Sasha amputated the legs of the robot and Croaker flattened the head with a double punch.

Cheers and hugs began right after all the enemies had been destroyed. Sasha sat on the ground, exhausted. She wondered how Grime and his team were doing and if Duckweed was having it easy distracting the major and the authorities.

"Well, at least these people are safe for now."

"Yeah, thankfully. Also, what the hell was that?!"

"What?"

"You know, the orders, the cool movements, the leadership skills. It's like you've become a commander or you were hiding it."

"Hahahahahaha! Oh kiddo, there is a lot you don't know about me. I've fought worse enemies much before you were born." Croaker then changed to a more serious topic. "Listen, Sasha, there is one reason why you protecting me so zealously was giving me a lot of trouble."

"Let me guess because you don't trust me yet and I may take advantage of you."

"The trust part is reasonable; it's still too soon to consider you reliable; however, that wasn't the reason. Look, a leader cannot be in different places at the same time to make sure their followers are doing ok, sometimes you have to rely on them. Have faith in them. If you don't come back from a mission then what do you expect us to do?"

"Pfffft, come on. I'm not that easy to kill."

"Still, no one knows what will happen in the future. Now answer."

"I'd have to trust Grime will keep you safe and train you."

"And the town?"

"The same thing. Trust your judgment and skills to survive and even win the war. Guess that's another thing I have to work on. Sharing control. Be aware that others can fight their own battles too."

"Mhm."

"When you..." Sasha trailed off, calculating her words because the next thing to talk about was a sore spot. "When one of the robots was behind you, it reminded me of her... Marcy. I was too late to protect her. Also Anne, I mean, she could beat the hell up of Andrias but it took a toll on her. He was still standing and was going to... If it weren't for Marcy, she would be dead. I was useless against Andrias...and honestly, I've been protecting them since I met that it's the only way I can stay at their side before I f*cked up things of course. The first time I saw Anne and Marcy, two bullies had made them cry and I protected them. What else can I do if not protecting them?"

"Welp, let me ask you this, do you like your friends because they can give you something in return or because you enjoy their company?"

"I like their company. Though, I'm closer to Anne than to Marcy."

"And you think they enjoy being with you just because you're their guardian?"

Sasha opened her mouth though not a single word was uttered which surprised her. Did their friends like her for her? Yes. Yes as in the past because 1) Anne disowned her as a friend, and 2) Marcy wasn't being rescued yet. Another point was...

"I wanted them to need me." Sasha's mind conjured images of the many times she got in the way of the bullies of her school, like Maggie, and then when she met Anne and Marcy again on Amphibia. "It felt great to be needed. Because I was their hero, but then... Then Anne met the Plantars and she didn't need protection anymore. She stood up to me two times. And Marcy... I don't know, but maybe she also got stronger. And if they got stronger, if they started figuring out what to do, then I would have no purpose. I always thought that friendship should be that way: one leads and protects and the others listen. If I'm not the leader or the protector who am I in the group?"

"Just their friend. Because friends protect and help each other not for a purpose but because they love and care for one another. And just because there is no enemy to defeat together or bully to put in their place, it doesn't mean the bond will vanish. Besides, you won't always be there for them. There will be challenges they'll have to face on their own, and so will you. The least you can do is trust them, have hope and confidence in their growth."

Sasha exhaled tiredly taking in the words of the senile frog. Who knew, if Marcy and she saw each other again, once she was saved, maybe the blonde could see how much the noirette had grown. She wouldn't fail the same way she did Anne.

"I'm...sorry... I got a bit overprotective and got in the way. Also, thanks, for saving me."

"You're welcome. And I appreciate the apology, just remember that protectiveness is ok as long as you're aware of the right moment to be. And to trust your comrade's strengths."

"Got that."

Suddenly, Archie’s restless barking caught their attention. The spider dog was glaring anxiously at the other lake she, Croaker, the workers, and the robots had come out of when they had dove into the first one. Ripples and bubbles disturbed the once calm water prompting the others to stay on high guard; however, it wasn't needed because no enemy resurfaced but Grime.

"Grime?!"

"Sasha! Thank Frog you're ok!" Not caring about the people's reaction, he hugged his human friend tightly and checked her from head to toe. No mortal wounds. Good.

"Wow, Grimesy, getting soft already?" She teased while grinning.

"Don't Grimesy me! Have you lost your mind?! Diving into the lake even with dozens of robots breathing on your neck?!"

"They were going to kill the workers. Besides, Croaker and I handled it."

Grime sighed, still rattled about the what-ifs after Sasha rushed into danger without a plan.

"At least you are in one piece. But don't scare me like that!" He lent his hand to the human who got up with his help. "Ok captain, report. What happened to the refinery or factory, or a mix of both? Anyway, you destroyed it, right? Did you get rid of those bug robots too?"

"Bug robots?"

"Yeah, the ones who were underground."

"Those weren't robots surprisingly. They were armabeetles in hibernation. The whole ruckus awoke them and pissed them off. And about the refinery, it's over. There is nothing left of it."

"Perfect. Mission accomplished."

"Not exactly. See, Duckweed called and he was totally hysterical. He reported that his team set a trap for the authorities and used the sleeping bombs on them, and he was forced to put the major to sleep when he found out what was going on. We must return with the evidence and the workers to prove to the rest of the town that Andrias must be stopped."

"What are we...waiting for then? Let's go." Her legs almost buckle due to the sheer tiredness after so much fight. Yeeesh, she was getting rusty.

"I think you need Grime to carry you. The battle was pretty intense." Croaker suggested. Much to Sasha's shock, the grumpy toad accepted the idea and carried the girl over his back. She could protest about the embarrassment to a warrior like her by being in this position but let it pass.

+++++++++++++

"Do you have any idea how worried I was?! For a moment I thought you two had betrayed us!!" Grime gritted his teeth as Duckweed, or Mr. Whiny as he decided to call him, ranted about his concerns over the group's situation, why they took so long, the possibilities of Sasha and the toad planning treachery or both teams ending up as prisoners, and so on and on.

His urges to shut up the newt via suffocation were kept at bay when a human hand was placed on his shoulders and Sasha faked a cough.

"If you're done already, can we please exit the town hall and talk with the villagers? I can hear from here the murmurs and the volume is increasing, especially because the police and the major are outside, tied and gagged."

Albus groaned exasperatedly but relented. The quartet met the eyes of the whole town.

Suspicions, fury, outrage, hatred, and disgust burnt with a terrible passion. The banished citizens were the only barrier between Sasha's comrades and the rest of Swamp Shiro who couldn't wait to tear them apart.

The teenager cleared her throat before speaking.

"People of Swamp Shiro, I know you might think we are here to destroy your way of life and murder your major but the real reason is that Funguren has betrayed you all." They gasped at her audacity of calling him a traitor; she continued. "It's true. The project of the king is nothing but a lie. Andrias never explained why it was about and in what way it could benefit you. He only planned to gain your unconditional trust and support to abuse it, and the major, despite being as ignorant as you of his true intentions, dismissed your worries, pushed away your opinions, resorted to police brutality to shut you up, and kicked out your neighbors and friends just because they disagreed with him. He and Andrias are the reason many have suffered today."

"That's true." Mumbled a frog. Roy ambled clumsily to the public; his chest wrapped by bandages. "I was treated as a slave by the same machines that talked about the groundbreaking project. One of them almost killed me with a whip of metal! There was nothing but endless manual labor, violence, and misery in that place!"

"The robots never stopped chasing us, they were determined to assassinate us if that means the truth stayed hidden!" Another worker, a female toad that was holding Jeremiah's hand screamed in anger.

"We were banished because we cared to know what was going on! Because our families were in danger!!"

Skepticism and doubt sparkled in the expressions of the other townsfolk. Time for the photos to be revealed.

"If what the victims said hasn't convinced you. This will." She grabbed her cellphone and found the pictures. Nonetheless, the inconvenience was that the image was too small for a huge multitude to see.

"Does anyone here have a giant magnifying glass big enough to amplify the images or a piece of a window that can do the same?"

At the refusal of help, Jeremiah placed himself in front of the audience, looking at everyone sternly. "Really? These people have risked their lives to help us and open our eyes, and you won't give them a chance? They don't belong here, yeah, but I trust them. My family and friends too. Now it's up to you if you want to be in blissful ignorance or if you want answers to not be controlled anymore!"

There was still reluctance from most of the town until someone made a path within the audience. "I can create the magnifying glass. As long as you are willing to wait because it will take a bit."

Sasha and her team nodded, pleased.

+++++++++++

Nothing could describe the horror that consumed the villagers' faces as they absorbed the pictures on Sasha's cellphone. Their minds were at war with loyalty and trust over their major, the same major who let this happen and convinced them to do the same.

Watching the injuries of the former workers both in the pictures and in their fellow frogs tasted bitter, like vomit.

"Now you believe us?" Sasha asked after tense minutes of silence.

"Don't listen to them!" Ordered Funguren after having shaken the gag off of his mouth. "These are outsiders, traitors! What do they know aboutKing Andrias' way to rule? He has been kinging for millennia."

"Your oh-so-precious king is nothing but a manipulator and a liar. A child murderer." Sasha sneered at Funguren.

"Smear campaign!!"

"What if we use democracy then, buddy? Everyone, it's time to vote! Who are you going to listen: the fanatical blabbering of this fool or the people who survived the king's cruelty?"

Another few heavy minutes passed and a young frog approached the quartet. Their eyes communicated support to a new cause, the real cause.

Encouraged a bit, other citizens did the same until almost all of the town was on Sasha's team side except a few who were still processing the events.

"This is your conclusion, Funguren. It's over." Sasha's smug smile boiled his blood. The blonde directed her eyes at the police. "Grime, take off their gags."

"You sure?"

She bobbed her head in affirmation. The authorities glanced in different directions or tried to melt her whole with their eyes.

"You have a chance to redeem yourselves. You have seen already the evidence and what the victims have gone through. Are you really going to waste your time siding with this idiot, or do you want to make things right?"

"You don't decide for us, outsider!"

"Fine, then. The town will take care of you." Some prison time may knock sense into them.

"What are we going to do now?" A villager inquired, concerned. "Without a major, how will we move forward?"

"Together," Amanda replied. "We may not be politicians but we can protect our home together."

"She's right, and come to think about it, the former workers and the rescue teams know where the refinery is. It was protected by many robots, all of them weaponized. You can use the remnants to defend yourselves."

"There must be enough for both Swamp Shiro and Wartwood to protect them for now. Clever." Croaker slightly smiled at Sasha at which the girl blushed, flattered.

"One last thing. Communication. If we keep in contact and reach the other two towns of Frog Valley, the fewer chances Andrias will have to manipulate and use the people."

"Count on us, then. Swamp Shiro won't be that monster's doormat. None of us." Amanda extended her hand to the teenager who took and shook it firmly establishing their alliance.

The once somber aura surrounding the townsfolk lifted, and although this little change is tiny compared to the long journey for peace, for an Amphibia without Andrias, it was a solid step. A success.

This was just the start.

Chapter 5: Missing you, hating you, loving you, neglecting you

Summary:

How can you start to understand someone who has sent you to another dimension? That’s the dilemma.

Trigger warning for the start: blood and gore (it's not that much but you've been warned)

Chapter Text

‘Me and Grime will hold him! JUST GO!!’

Anne nodded determinedly and walked toward the bright portal with the help of the Plantars. Andrias charged enraged, desperate, his sword clashed with the Warhammer and Sasha’s blades.

The rest everyone knows already. The giant newt defeats both toad and human and stabbed Marcy while she was busy with the music box. Then Anne and her frog family disappeared in a flash of light just like the magic artifact.

‘Me and Grime will hold him! JUST GO!!’ This time would be different.

Andrias raised his flame sword to cut the rebels in two but a dagger flew to his right eye. He roared in pain, hateful intentions sparked on his remaining eye and both massive hands crashed to the ground creating a huge crater that separated Grime from Sasha.

The blonde rubbed the bleeding bruises on her head and when she opened her eyes, Marcy fell to the floor, a scorching hole on her chest.

‘Me and Grime will hold him! JUST GO!!’ Third time is the charm. She wouldn’t fail!

Her captain launched her using his strong arms. Her hands grabbed fits of white hair ferociously while Andrias tried to get her off of him.

A little more. Distracting him a little more so her friends could—

Her lungs were squashed violently, saliva and blood being spat after Andrias collided his head against a pillar. Sasha fell like a fly, and as her eyes became glassy, the last images recorded in her mind were Marcy being stabbed in front of Anne.

‘Me and Grime will hold him! JUST GO!!’ She couldn’t fail. Failure was not an option. Marcy wouldn’t die this day!!

She evaded the giant, fire blade, the tail whiplash, and stabbed the legs, cutting with as much force as she could. Grime crashed the Warhammer on Andrias’ right foot, he cried and swatted the toad like an insect, knocking him unconscious.

Sasha climbed his tail, his back, now she had his head right where she wanted it. A movement of her swords and it would be over.

‘Fire!’ he yelled and a laser beam turned her left side in a mess of flesh and guts and bones, blood cascading from the crater in her abdomen. Anne and Marcy screamed her name, tears in their eyes as the teenager exhaled for the last time.

‘Me and Grime will hold him! JUST GO!!’ No more screwing up. Andrias’ would fall no matter what!

He swung and swung like a madman; each attack avoided agilely. She picked up a dagger and threw it at his eye, another dagger in her grasp went flying to his other eye. The dictator was blind, the moment of truth awaited. Nonetheless, his rage consumed him much more after having his vision taken away by her.

Not caring if he destroyed his robots or the throne room, Andrias’ berserk mode left a path of destruction, getting closer and closer to her friends.

‘NO!!’

Suddenly, her chest burn. She couldn’t breathe nor move, not even Marcy who was behind her and had her life also stolen by that accursed energy-based sword. Anne shrieked, devastated, trying to reach them.

‘GUYS!!’

‘Me and Grime will hold him! JUST GO!!’ The universe must be messing with her to send her on a loop just for Sasha to fail in the worst ways imaginable.

Why couldn’t she save Marcy? Protect Anne? Do the right thing for once in her life?

Her desperation was palpable as she let Grime deal with Andrias and ran toward her friends. Anne and the Plantars were halfway inside the portal, Marcy was tinkering with the music box despite the danger around her.

‘Marcy, quick! Enter the portal!’

Her blood froze as she heard Grime’s pained screams; she turned around, terror and grief striking her hard for Andrias had impaled her dear friend and kicked his body away like a piece of garbage. Her resolve wavered but she kept going.

Grabbing Marcy’s shoulders, she pushed her to the portal despite her protests. Abruptly, her legs stopped working. She glanced beneath her, discovering her waist and lower limbs had been separated from her upper body. Marcy panicked and got out of the portal to aid her just to meet the heartless glare of the king.

‘Just look what you made me do’ The blue bastard swung diagonally and a crimson shower painted the floor.

++++++++++++++++++++

A deafening scream reverberated in the barn, awakening the snails. Sasha clutched at her chest; its rhythm couldn’t be more erratic as if she was going to suffer a heart attack. Her clothes were bathed in sweat and everything around her felt so overwhelming she might vomit at any time.

“Sasha, are you ok?!” Grime had opened the doors of the place, looking for the supposed menace and finding a mentally scarred girl. “Sasha…” the toad, not being an expert on feelings, scooted a bit while pondering how to comfort her. He opened his mouth, closed it, then raised his hand to pat her back just for it to be swatted.

“Don’t touch me!!”

“Sasha, it’s me. There is no danger here. You’re ok.”

“Ok my butt, dude.” She spat. “You didn’t see what I saw! You couldn’t—”

A snore got their alarms blaring but then it occurred to them that was Stumpy who had been tasked to keep an eye on them since yesterday.

Sasha covered her face with both hands, holding back sobs. Grime sat in front of her, tempted to resort to a hug, a pat on the shoulder, or a nice nudge to prompt the girl to open up. Yeah, no way that would end up greatly.

Again, not an expert on emotional maturity but if he didn’t think of something quick, his lieutenant could shut him off and bottle up her feelings which can take you so far until you crumble from within.

“Did you dream about your friend? Marcy?” His guess, although it was left in open air for a few minutes, was answered with a solemn nod. Ok, she was being sincere, good. Next question.

“Are you still worried that Andrias’ blabbering about a rejuvenation tank and a healing process isn’t true?”

“S not about that.”

“Oh… Then, don’t you…have some ideas for a rescue plan?”

“S not about that.” The same response meant a deeper problem.

“What is it then?”

Sasha massaged her temples. “You told me time ago that the moment Anne stood up to me, I lost her. That things between us would never be the same again.”

Grime hummed affirmatively, then it hit him. His words once again were being applied between the Slavic kid and one of her best friends. “You’re worried about your friendship with Marcy.”

“I’m terrified!” Sasha screamed, her tears bursting from the corners. “I mean, even if I save her and help her to recover, do you think we have a chance to still be friends after everything we have done to each other?! I betrayed her for power, she sent me to Amphibia and kept important information about our disappearance a secret. It was hard enough to have Anne telling me she was done with me, what if the same happens with Marcy?”

“I’m not sure, from what I can gather, she wanted to fix things while Anne refused and called you horrible.”

“That was before Andrias’ reveal as the big bad guy, the battle at the castle, and the stab. And to make it worse…” Her eyes shut tightly. “I couldn’t protect her… Anne and I usually stopped her from getting hurt because she is so clumsy, she’s an accident magnet. But when she needed me most, I was too slow and too weak…”

“You two still have a chance to start over, Lieutenant. I know the situation is grim right now, but little by little the town will be at your side, we’ll have more allies and resources, and then we’ll take down Andrias, save your friend, and save Amphibia. For now, don’t burden yourself with what-ifs, you’ll face the future when the moment comes. Focus on the present only.”

Sasha exhaled, she sounded like a wounded animal trying to make it through a mortal injury and the agony coursing through its body. She got up and walked towards the door, MicroAngelo behind her.

“Don’t you want me to stop it?” Grime asked, pointing at the little snail.

“Nah… I’m gonna take some fresh air, If Stumpy wakes up—”

“I’ll tell him you wanted some time alone, nothing suspicious.” She smiled gratefully and exited the barn with MicroAngelo trying to catch up with her.

Once out, she sat at the side of the crops. The cutie-eyed snail nuzzled to her waist compassionately and also wanting a bit of attention. The human girl groaned, though she didn’t push the animal away, and carried him in her arms. MicroAngelo purred, the sound grounding his night companion who hugged him. Even though she wasn’t a fan of snails, this little one was pretty good at comforting her.

“What do you think I should do?” She mumbled to the snail; it tilted his head at her. Yep, counseling with an animal as a therapist wasn’t the best idea.

“I wish there were people here who could tell me how they feel about her, you know? Croaker told me Marcy had improved the town so much even if it didn’t pay off in the end. But is that all? From Anne, I can get so much. Wartwood became her home, the Plantars, her new family. All these frogs are her people. I used to have Grime, Percy, and Braddock until the other two left. I’m lucky Grime is supporting me despite not getting along with some frogs… There is nothing here that tells me anything about Marcy though. Maybe it was all in Newtopia, but it ended up horribly. A lie Andrias created.”

“Meerp, meerp”

“I don’t talk snail.” Sasha’s sarcasm didn’t bother MicroAngelo as he purred much more.

“Don’t tell this to anyone, not that you can’t talk but…well, I’m confused. What I’m supposed to do once Marcy is safe? How are we going to talk with each other? I haven’t even told Grime how we were before Amphibia. Honestly, I’ve never given Marcy much of my time, my eyes were only on Anne. She reached out to me to play at the playground, we became pretty close until I ruined it all. She changed but I hated that because it meant I couldn’t control her anymore. I wonder if Marcy would have been the same. She was always the most agreeable with my schemes. Maybe that’s why I never focused that much on her because I knew she wouldn’t get in my way. sh*t, that sounds so messed up.”

“Meerp?”

“I guess both have tons of issues to work on. Problem is, I know next to nothing about the Marcy of Amphibia. What I know of her before that perhaps was a huge mask, because if she could hide from me the powers of the music box or why we landed on this world, then the list of secrets might be larger than I can imagine.” She blew a bitter raspberry. “What an irony. I used to be the manipulator of the group and a seemingly-harmless nerd outsmarted me.”

“Meerp, meerp.” MicroAngelo’s curious eyes stared at her for a long time, as if they were conveying an important message through telepathy.

“What?” the snail kept staring at her, it didn’t feel creepy but a bit annoying. “You want me to look for clues about her life here by asking the villagers? Because you think it might bring me some closure or fortitude before facing Marcy? Pffft, that’s stupid.”

The snail couldn’t understand her but her attitude upset him.

“Don’t get whiny with me. You know it’s true.”

MicroAngelo growled, still displeased. What’s with snails in this world? Were they this emotionally perceptive or did they dislike heavy conversation topics?

Sasha exhaled a tired ‘UGH!!’ and threw her head backward, ending her vent.

+++++++++++++++++

The next day began drowsily, dragged down by yawns and long stretches to rid of the exhaustion. Today her to-do list consisted of keeping an eye for robot attacks, checking over the traps with Soggy Joe, and asking Toadstool about the letters sent to Swamp Shiro a few days ago after the mission there concerning other Andrias’ movements to enslave the Valley. But first, she had to leave all the shelves, and the floor of Grub N’ Go shining while Quentin made sure she didn’t steal anything.

Easier said than done. She might have stopped ranting at MicroAngelo the other night but didn’t get any sleep whatsoever.

“Don’t fall on the floor, I don’t want any customers thinking you’re dead,” Quentin warned. Sasha waved him off dismissively and kept cleaning the shelves, she had lost the count on how many were left before brooming the entrance of the establishment but kept that question for later. She stretched for the nth time, her back cracking, and moved her arms in circles. What she would give for some fresh water to splash on her face.

The bell of Grub N’ Go rang signifying a new customer. For the sound of the steps joined by the tack, tack, tack of the cane, Sasha guessed it was Toadstool. She smiled inwardly, her practice was paying off; the more she memorized the villagers not only from their appearance but also by the sound they made by walking, the easier she could recognize when someone was missing to try to keep them all gathered and safe.

“Waybright, the major wants to talk to you.” Ferraiolo, the frog owner and chef of his Italian-like restaurant and the one in charge to supervise Sasha, backed away so the toad and the human girl could have their conversation.

“Is it about the letters?”

“Yeah, I received one from the council Mrs. Bronze and some of the oldest people on Swamp Shiro created after imprisoning Funguren. Here,” She opened the envelope and read the contents.

Dear Sasha,

If you’re reading this, then part of our mission has been fulfilled. The situation here is still a bit tense. There is still division because many of us have trusted the major and having our perception of him shattered and trying to move on is such an abrupt change.

Thankfully, no civil wars have started. The last thing on our list is dealing with inner conflicts. Coming to terms with the actions of Funguren will take some time for everyone but we are making progress.

Now, about the whole mission. Lily Paddington has been notified of Andrias’ intentions, and Bog Bottom will follow it after we receive an answer. If their majors are on the king’s side will have to gather support from anyone who disagrees with them. We’ll notify you as soon as we can of any important updates.

Another thing, some travelers have told us that the Southern Toad Tower is completely empty. I don’t know if this is one of Andrias’ schemes or if the toad army has run away from the robots or been summoned by the king, but it wouldn’t hurt to be attentive if the soldiers appear at your doorstep.

We’ll be waiting for news on Wartwood’s side.

Sincerely,

Amanda Bronze from Swamp Shiro Council

Toad Tower was empty? Pretty obvious after her disastrous match against Anne. And with Grime out of commission, the rest of the army quitted except her, Percy, and Braddock but that was due to their loyalty until the Warhammer mission. But if the destruction of the tower and Grime not working there anymore meant no authority around, why weren’t the other towns notified?

Maybe the toads didn’t care anymore about showing off the strength of the army after they lost their jobs, or they were too proud to admit a frog town could cause such a ruckus on their headquarters. Whatever happened with the place, if Andrias has found a way to gain more soldiers and squash any rebels, that would add to the list of enemies to keep an eye on. As if the robots weren’t enough strife.

She’d better talk with Grime and warn the townsfolk.

“Quentin, give me 5 for a break. There is a matter I must take care of.”

“Come on, really?” the youngster frog groaned. “You have only cleaned half of the store!”

“Just 5, please.” She hated the inflection of her voice but if she didn’t beg how was he going to be convinced. Seeing that he preferred her to finish the tasks she offered, “I’ll clean everything in less than half an hour if you let me get out to look for Grime. No breaks or snack time, I’ll do it in an instant.”

Quentin mused for a few minutes that felt eternal until he conceded. “Don’t take long though.”

Sasha nodded before sprinting to the exit.

Thankfully, Grime wasn’t so far away from Grub N’ Go as he had been tasked to polish the founder’s statue while Toadie, of all people, made sure he didn’t pull a stunt.

“Sasha, finishing your job there so soon?”

“Not exactly. Swamp Shiro has some news.” She handed him the letter. When he read the part related to his former workplace, a deep frown formed on his face.

“Lieutenant, remember Bog and his team?”

She did, if vaguely. The best she could recall were basic descriptions from Percy and Braddock when they sometimes talked about how life was on the tower to entertain her during her prisoner time, and all of the imageries placed him and his goons in a negative light.

“You think they might be a trouble someday on their own or under Andrias’ orders?”

“Bah! That newt has his robot army, more like Bog would try to manipulate the villagers of the Valley to make him their leader. You know, protection in exchange for unlimited power. That or he, Mires, and Feng have become anarchists which is worse if you ask me.”

“Then after our jobs, we’ll warn the town. Besides they have some experience in dealing with thugs, Bog won’t be a problem.”

“Sasha! Your break is almost over, come back here!”

“I’m on my way!” Sasha responded and her short glance at Grime was signal enough to seal the future meeting in the center of the town. She had advanced a few steps and then halted to the desperate screams of Mr. Flour.

“Help! Someone, please, help me!”

Human, toad, and almost everyone surrounded the baker who struggled to keep it together in the vicinity of a panic attack. The villagers mumbled worriedly about robots, danger, and even the end of the world as we speak. Sasha ignored them to focus on what was going which made her wonder if perhaps receiving that letter that briefly mentioned Toad Tower had been a signal.

“What happened? Is your family ok?”

“They… They’re gone!!” Wailed Mr. Flour.

“Gone who? Are they like…dead? Kidnapped? Missing?”

“My triplets. Rosemary, Ginger, and Lavender. I thought they were playing on their room while Maddie and I were baking the orders of today but when I checked, there was no one inside!”

“How long did you leave them unattended?”

“A few hours because the list was a long one.”

“What about the room? Any signs of a fight? Maybe a broken window, stuff discarded here and there or—”

“Nothing! It’s like they poofed!”

Or they escaped and were pretty good at it.

“Everyone, listen. We have three frogs—”

“Tadpoles.” He corrected.

“Tadpoles. We have three missing tadpoles. If any of you know their appearances then gather with other two or three people and checked the perimeter. If you cross paths with a robot, destroy it. If it is a giant bug, evade it and keep looking. I’ll go with Mr. Flour and Maddie and one half of the town. Grime, lead the other one.” He bobbed his head affirmatively.

First weird news about Toad Tower and now 3 children escaped from home with no explanation. Crazy start of the day, uh?

++++++++++++++++++

“We’re lost.”

“No, we aren’t.”

“Yes, we are.”

“No, we’re not.”

“Yes, we ARE.”

“No, we’re NOT.”

“No, we’re NOT.”

“Yes, we ARE!! Wait.”

“Haha! You fell!”

“Agh! Not fair, Rose! You always do that!”

“Guys, can you stop? I’m trying to find those weird seeds on Maddie’s magic book.”

“And who made you the leader, Ginger?”

“I had the idea to surprise Maddie with more ingredients for her magic stuff, Vendy.”

“And still nothing.” Complained Rosemary. “Dad will ground us forever if he finds out we’re gone.”

“He and Maddie are too busy to notice us.” Opined Lavender.

“And you’re too bad at reading maps! Maybe we are kilometers away from the town.”

“How was I supposed to know reading maps would be so difficult?” she argued. “Besides, all you have done today is playing with a stupid stick!”

“It’s not a stupid stick, it’s a weapon to poke on bad bugs!”

“No, it’s not.”

“Yes, it is.”

“No, it’s NOT!”

“Yes, it IS!!”

Ginger rubbed her face in exasperation. “Guys! Could you at least--?” Her sentence was cut short at the sound of heavy steps and a high-pitched growl. A few kilometers away, a menacing red giant mantis was fighting something or killing its food which meant bad news for the tadpoles as they had to hide or find another path to collect more ingredients.

“Maybe we should retreat,” Lavender suggested, but Ginger shook her head and signaled them to follow her very far away from danger.

Their steps were clumsy though due to putting all their strength in their almost spherical bodies to hop. What they would give to have legs.

“Ouch! Rose, be careful!” Ginger glared at her while rubbing the sore spot on her tail.

“You’re too slow. And your hops are too short.” She protested.

“Shhh, not so loud, ok? That bug can hear us” Whispered Lavender, glancing behind her. She shivered at the images of the violent fight between the mantis and whatever crossed paths with the beast.

Of course, when they thought the inconveniences were over, an object shocked them to the core by falling from the sky right in front of them. And then the giant red mantis.

“WGHEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSHHHHHH!!!!!”

“AAAAAAAAHHHHHHH” The triplets separated. Lavender hid in the hole of a tree; Ginger, under some bushes, and Rosemary threw her stick at the creature which didn’t scratch it but infuriated it more.

The animal was going to slice her in two with their sharp claws when the object, which turned out to be a robot, got up and its laser fired, blowing up one of the arms of the mantis. It shrieked in agony; the intensity so unbearable that the tadpoles covered their ears.

The vicious beast backed away getting closer to Rosemary until the kid found herself under the belly of the insect that despite its mortal injury, didn’t run away but roared at the attacker. Its deadly jaws penetrate the metal of the shoulder, tearing a big chunk apart but when it was going for the head, 3 people got them by surprise.

Sasha beheaded the mantis swiftly at the same time Maddie and her father tackled the robot. The young frog witch threw a curse poach to the ground close to the enemy and thick roots wrapped around the killing machine, destroying it with a crushing squeeze.

“Maddie!”; “Daddy!” screamed Lavender, Ginger, and Rosemary respectively as their family opened their arms for a loving hug.

“Oh, my babies, thank Frog you’re alright!!”

“Don’t do that again!” Maddie scolded them while tightening the hug.

“We’re sorry.”

“Let’s go back home, kiddos. Then you can tell us what happened.”

As the Flour family walked hand in hand to the bakery, Sasha picked the bee megaphone. “Grime, halt the mission. We’ve found the triplets. They’re alright. Also, bring some people here. I’ll need a few hands with this robot.”

++++++++++++++++++++

The triplets fidgeted with their little hands as their father and older sister glared motherly at them.

“You three escaped from home instead of staying in your room, ventured beyond the borders of Wartwood, and got into serious trouble and danger. You could’ve died! It was by pure luck we found you!”

“Sorry, dad.” Ginger sniffed.

“Apart from that, you also took my spell book without permission. There were no silly drawings or anything inside so I want to know why? Have you forgotten the last time you experimented with magic? Marcy and I had to save you from exploding!”

“That’s the thing,” Rosemary intervened. “You love magic but since that gangly blonde came here, you barely touch your book.”

“Gangly blonde?” Mr. Flour scratched his head in confusion.

“She means Sasha. But what does she have to do with this?”

“She made you sad!” Lavender raised her arms angrily. “When she said Marcy was dead, you got all sad and stopped making spells and magic stuff you like to do. Now you only work with dad or stay in your room.”

“That’s why we thought that If we surprised you with some ingredients from the book, you’d be happy again and practice magic.”

Maddie grinned with a mix of fondness, gratitude, and grief after overcoming the shock, and enveloped her little sisters in her arms.

“You guys. Thank you. You’re still grounded though and what you did was extremely reckless but I appreciate it. I should’ve told you that I just needed time.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m trying to move on. Marcy was the first friend who liked the same stuff as me and we connected, losing her was painful but it didn’t destroy my love of magic. I secluded myself in my room to have space to mourn her and figure out what to do next. And working in the bakery helped me take my mind off of that memory for a while.”

“So, are you still sad?”

“Yeah, I am. Losing someone you love takes a lot of time to recover from but it doesn’t sting that much, not when I know I have you and dad with me.”

“What about magic though? You don’t look like you want more of it.”

“I still love magic, Lavender, but for now, I’ll put it aside to recover. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what you were trying to do for me. Thanks.”

Their father joined the hug eliciting some chuckles from his children. Unbeknownst to them, their chat hadn’t been as private as they thought.

++++++++++++++++++

Spying and eavesdropping might mean different things, what they had in common is that the receptor of the attention didn’t know anything about the person who was extracting information from them. Not that Sasha planned to do it, anyway, and if questions or suspicions aroused, she would only respond that it was accidental.

Obviously, people wouldn’t believe her but caring about their opinions wasn’t part of the to-do list for today. She had another task after taking care of the robot problem, and cleaning all Grub N’ Go, the client: Mr. Flour. Coincidence? Perhaps, or the universe wanted to have some fun with her due to boredom. Either way, here she was a few meters away from the bakery and the conversation inside turned out to be pretty clear to her ears much to her surprise.

Again, pure accident. That and it wasn’t her fault her sense of hearing had been so sharpened; it was mandatory to ensure her and the town’s survival.

Whatever, there was certain frog she needed to talk to.

**************

Maddie hummed an old lullaby while looking for blue-spike roses for a potion. Dad had been super kind in giving her the day off and asking her sisters to help him with the rest of the orders as a way to show them how to manage the business. Though, he also mentioned in displeased grumbles that the gangly blonde would be at any time at their home to assist them which soured the triplets’ mood.

Honestly, her opinion of Sasha was an in-between of precaution due to her past crimes and ‘meh’. Her battle experience and leadership were necessary to survive the war, she even had enough courage to tell them the truth about the coup at the castle and what happened to Marcy, beyond that, her relationship with the girl was or nonexistent or completely professional if it ever came the occasion to work together.

If that possibility came true, maybe—

“MMMHGGHMGMH!” Two muscular arms muffled her screams and dragged her to a corner of the forest. Her gaze hardened when she met the stoic eyes of one Sasha Waybright. “For real?! Have you forgotten that kidnapping won’t add points at your favor?”

“This is not kidnapping; it’s an emergency meeting.”

“By ambushing and dragging me somewhere else where no one can find us. Clever.” Sasha brushed off Maddie’s sarcasm rolling her eyes. Her mind played many options in which the next topic would be received and none of them encouraged her enough to do this but if the band-aid wasn’t ripped out immediately, it would get worse in the long run.

“Remember when I told everyone what Andrias had done? Like with Marcy?” That got the frog’s attention.

“It’s true that he killed her… But there is much more.”

“More?”

“Yes. Marcy is still alive.”

Maddie stiffened by the shock of that revelation. Ok, the band-aid had been torn apart, time for elaboration.

“Before returning to Wartwood, Grime and I went back to the castle. I planned to retrieve her body and bury her… But then, we heard Andrias talk about rejuvenation tank, recovery, and healing, and he even ordered one of his robots to prevent any interference to have her completely healed.”

“You said the king had deceived you, Anne, Marcy, and the Plantars.” Maddie counterargued, her expression warning Sasha of raising her hopes with any lie.

“I know and he’s a liar and a manipulator, but he sounded so serious back then. Whatever plans he has, Marcy is crucial for them.”

“That’s nonsensical. If she is important for his schemes, then why killing her?!”

“Marcy got her hands on a device of his, he got desperate and attacked out of pure cowardice. Anyway, the point is he wants her alive and he has the means to revive her.”

“Are you aware that this might be--?”

“A ruse to lure me in and eliminate me?” Sasha interrupted. “Yeah. I’m torn about this, honestly. That monster might be using her death to set a trap, or he might be sincere about resuscitating Marcy for his plans. Both options are pretty horrible though.”

“Because the first one can destroy your hopes, and the second one can prove your hopes right but it comes with a high cost.”

“Exactly.”

Maddie touched her chin; her left foot tapped the ground in an erratic rhythm.

“What else do you know about this?”

“Two newts who worked for him, Olivia and Yunan, aren’t of his liking, that’s why he ordered his robot to protect the rejuvenation tank. That must be a machine to revive and heal Marcy.”

“…”

Seeing that the frog girl had remained quiet and would be for a longer time than before, Sasha took a bigger risk by asking the next question.

“We don’t know each other, obvi, but do you believe me? Or do you want more proofs?”

“I believe you.”

Sasha’s face imitated the one from a fish recently taken out from the water.

“Really? Like, no suspicions, no more questions? It hasn’t been a long since I decided to make amends with the town, you know that right?”

“Just because I believe you it doesn’t mean I trust you, Sasha. There is still a lot you must do if you want me to give you a bit of my trust. But I can see your honesty, so you’re taking good baby steps, I guess. Now, about Marcy’s fate, did you plan to tell me this privately to help you in a rescue mission?”

“I haven’t made one yet. And it’s not that I don’t want to rescue her but it’d be reckless if I do it right now when she is 100% healed. You didn’t see it. Andrias stabbed not with a normal sword. His weapon was huge and made of fire or energy, and it got right through the chest!”

The witch apprentice grimaced at the image.

“A wound like that can take a lot of time to heal.”

“Yeah… The true reason I told you this, though, it’s because you’re her friend. You’re mourning her and deserve to know this.”

“Wait, were you eavesdropping us?!” Maddie groaned and raised her arms. “First kidnapping and now violation of privacy, what else? Stealing national treasures?!”

“It was utterly accidental, ok? Back to the point, it’s still too soon for a rescue. I need more allies and I haven’t gained your total trust yet. Besides… Now that I think about it, if the rejuvenation tank doesn’t work, isn’t there another way to bring her back?” The blonde balled her fists, embarrassed. The way she asked the question was the same one a kid would ask their parents for validation that Santa Claus exists after being mocked on school.

“There is a spell on my book about reviving creatures but Marcy is a human, it might mess her up if we try or not work at all.” Maddie rubbed at her arm, her hopes of getting her friend back draining slowly.

“We must still try though.” Sasha cheered her up, though that sentence was also to help her maintain her composure.

“Yeah... Yes! We must, she needs a friend more than ever!” Much better.

“Alright then, this is the plan: in case the rejuvenation tank is unable to revive her, we’ll have to try with your spell. But first, practice, a lot of practice. Also, more resources for the rescue mission. Once Marcy’s rescued, Andrias will throw anything at us to have her back. Robots, supporters, even that goddamn laser cannon.”

“A hidden place is essential for that part, but for now practicing the spell is the priority.”

“There you are!!” Their conversation was cut short by an angry male voice. Mr. Flour approached the two girls, fuming. “What the hell, Waybright?! It’s been almost half an hour and not a peep of you has been heard! Don’t you know what punctuality means?!”

“Maddie, are you ok?” One of the triplets, Rosemary, hugged her older sister’s legs while trying to melt Sasha with her eyes. “Was she mean to you again?”

“Nah, it’s fine, Rosy. Besides, I can simply send her to a cave kilometers away from here with a curse.” Sasha rolled her eyes.

++++++++++++++++++

It should be pretty obvious as it stands right now that Sasha was the exception of the rule about befriending frogs. Anne had the Plantars, especially Squeaky Toy AKA Sprig, and Marcy had Maddie, the oldest Flour child and a young witch apprentice as she called herself.

Sure, her relationship with Ivy was less tense, but beyond teasing each other or bursts of competitiveness, there was nothing else to talk about or to have in common. Not that she ever wondered if Anne had something in common with Sprig, both were so different that it still puzzled Sasha why and how they became so close, or perhaps that was her bias against frogs acting up again. After all, she, Anne, and Marcy were too different and still were best friends. Well, more like she and Marcy had more differences to count in their relationship.

Concerning Marcy, Sasha’s mind is brought to the night she and MicroAngelo were outside looking at the stars. And then the snail “gave” her the idea of asking questions about her other best friend to other people, making Maddie an excellent opportunity.

“I still don’t know why we have to try with something as dangerous as this.” Maddie complained while dragging the decapitated head of the red mantis to the site for the revival ritual.

“Yeah, that bug sucks!” Agreed Lavender, her triplets behind her.

“And I still don’t know why you let these three following us. They’re going to mess something up.” She said as her glare competed against the combination of the three tadpoles.

“Guys, I know you dislike Sasha, but I trust you to not interfere. The success of this task is essential.”

“Why?” asked Ginger.

Maddie looked away wondering how to explain the situation without stirring negative emotions.

“It’s…about Marcy… You see—”

“She’s hurting you with that again?!” Rosemary grabbed a fistful of dirt and mud, forming it into a ball. Watching that, brought Sasha to the humiliating time when Squeaky Toy threw a mudball to her face at the top of Toad Tower.

“You do that and I’ll turn you into a serpent’s snack!”

“Rosemary, I asked you like I did with Ginger and Lavender to not cause trouble. Besides, Sasha is here to help and I can defend myself.”

“But she’s upsetting you!”

“She’s not, Rosy. And even if she tries, I’ll know how to deal with her, ok? Trust me.”

“Fine. But just in case, this will stay with me.” Rosemary patted the mudball and gestured to Sasha like saying ‘You’ve been warned’. The blonde girl scoffed.

After a few more minutes of walking, they’d finally arrived. Maddie placed the mantis head a bit closer to what looked to be a magic circular diagram. Sasha gently placed the rest of the body connecting the neck and the head.

Phase 1: stitch the head to the body.

“Are you sure needle and thread can fix a decapitation?”

“Normal ones cannot, that’s why I crafted a special variety to pierce the hard skin of the mantis, and knowing your strength it’ll make the work easier. Now, you put the needly and I pull the string.”

In the beginning, it was a bit exasperating trying to penetrate the skin without damaging it more than it was but Sasha figured it out. She and Maddie worked in synchrony, rolling the corpse carefully to keep stitching. Thankfully, the triplets hadn’t said anything sarcastic, threatening, or insulting to the Slavic teenager, their entire focus on the kind of morbid job of the older girls.

“Is this one of the things Marcy had done with her?”

“What?”

Sasha paled. f*ck, her thoughts talked out loud!

“I-I mean, Marcy, did she do this with you?”

“Why do you want to know?”

This felt like Deja Vu.

“I don’t know many things about her… You know the Marcy from Amphibia…” Why the hell did she sound so insecure? It was just a damn question! “Croaker only told me that she accidentally sunk the town after making it fancy.”

“Oh yeah, I remember that. There was also the founder’s statue, she accidentally broke it but then fixed it in a matter of seconds.” Sasha snorted. Classic Marce.

“And what about the stuff she did with you?”

“She helped me prepare a potion, a resurrection potion which is ironic because we are going to make some improvements with that. She liked that I was into spells, the dark arts, and curses. We had a lot of fun.”

“She was also a weirdo.” Ginger said.

“Hey, who asked you?!” Sasha spat, thinking the tadpole was insulting the noirette.

“It’s true! She talked about stuff we didn’t get like arkitecture story or something.”

“That doesn’t make her a weirdo. You’re just too dumb to get her.”

“You’re dumb!!” Intervened Lavender.

“Guys, maintain the peace, please,” Maddie asked. She inspected Sasha’s stitching. They were half-done with the job and despite how crude it looked, the head and the corpse were well-connected. “As I was saying, we had fun.”

“And what happened next?”

“We almost exploded!!” Rosemary exclaimed. Sasha crossed her arms, thinking this was a bad-taste prank. However, a look at Maddie nodding told her otherwise.

“Do I want to know?”

“If you aren’t disturbed by messy stories, perhaps. And you? Like, didn’t you have a single idea about how Marcy was doing on Amphibia?”

Sasha was going to say that she, Anne, and Marcy had been separated after Anne opened the music box. Regardless, those weren’t the memories that crossed her mind but the ones from that accursed day at the castle. The ones where everything she thought she knew about Marcy shattered completely.

‘Enough with the lies, MarMar. If you don’t tell them the truth, I will.’

‘Haven’t you thought about it, Anne, Sasha? That someone knew more than they were letting on. That someone stranded you on Amphibia on purpose.’

‘You’ve gotta be kidding me.’

‘I did it…for us. On the day we left, your birthday, they told me my dad got a new job out of state! They’re making me move away! They were going to tear up apart! I-I found the box and I didn’t think it would actually work, but it did! And it sent us to a place where we never have to grow apart, where the three of us could be friends together forever!’

Sasha couldn’t see it but Maddie and her little sisters looked at her worriedly and a bit afraid as her hands balled into fists. Her knuckles went white and her nails pressed on the palms so hard that it even drew a bit of blood.

“Maddie…” Ginger pleaded, uncomfortable with the blonde’s stony, ruthlessly resentful expression.

The frog girl whistled and the Slavic teenager jumped a bit due to the little scare. She flinched at the sudden pain in her hands and rubbed the blood on her war skirt though that didn’t stop the little injuries from bleeding.

“Should I ask what sent you into a spiral of anger or should we take a break?”

“No. Just let’s get this over with” Sasha grabbed the needle and kept stitching.

**************

The corpse of the test subject was ready. Maddie, fortunately, had stored a bit of the resurrecting potion she had prepared with Marcy for the spider pet, and even if the amount was according to the size of the creature, the first goal of the experiment was to prove if the decapitated mantis would come back to life.

The tadpoles were hidden on a bush big enough for them and behind Maddie while Sasha stood at her side, glowering.

The insufferable events of the past, Marcy’s mistakes, lies, and what she had planned to do with the box hadn’t left her mind despite distracting herself with the experiment. However, she pushed them as best as she could. Venting about one of her best friends would be for later.

“Wanna do the honors or do I have to risk my life?” The blonde asked moodily.

“Better me. My mind is pretty clear.” Sasha utterly hated what Maddie was implying but said nothing. The frog witch walked to the corpse and poured the potion over the head of the mantis, running back to the group and grabbing her pouches of curses in case things went south.

Nothing happened.

“Guess the potion can’t revive beheaded creatures.”

The moment Maddie said that the dead insect’s jaws began twitching, spitting blood and saliva. Then the remaining claw moved slowly up and down. It was as if the beast was convulsing.

The legs lifted the giant mantis prompting Sasha to unsheathe her swords. The animal’s eyes rolled from one side to the other and back as if they were imitating the gaze of a chameleon. Once they landed on the two girls, a regurgitating growl escaped the jaws of the insect. It raised its deadly claw and swung, clashing with Sasha’s blades. Maddie threw two pouches, summoning big roots that trapped the animal.

“Welp, it worked. Though creating zombies wasn’t exactly the goal.” The Slavic girl rubbed her chin pondering if using this with the robots they had destroyed would create a dent in Andrias’ army. Nah, robots aren’t in the alive category to start.

“What’s a zombie?” Asked one of the triplets.

Sasha smiled deviously at the tadpoles. “Oh, it’s a horror from my home. Dead corpses brought to life but with no mind, soul, or restraint that love to eat brats’ brains!!”

“AAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!”

“Ejem” Maddie glared at the teenager at which she groaned. “Come on, dude. They were annoying me before!”

“It’s the mantis going to eat our brains, Maddie?” Lavender shot a quick look at the insect that was frothing and shrieking.

“Don’t worry. Sasha is just being her jerky self.”

“Hey!”

“Anyway, I think that’s enough action for you three. Time to go to your room, and this time, do NOT escape, ok?”

“Are you going to be ok with her?”

“Trust me, Ginger, I’ll be fine. Now,” She regarded Sasha, “please keep an eye on the mantis while I take the triplets back home, ok?” The frog girl pushed the tadpoles gently, the four getting lost in the dense forest.

***************

A little rock was kicked, bouncing on the thick roots still wrapped around the zombie mantis. The animal hadn’t stopped growling and menacing Sasha with its dead stare and gruesome performance very typical of a berserk Frankenstein.

She wondered if Marcy tried the same experiment with Maddie and if these were the results. At the mental mention of her best (?) friend, her hands felt the urge to reduce themselves into fists even if that meant having more nail-shaped injuries.

Why was she so conflicted about this? Ok, what was ‘this’ exactly? Marcy’s betrayal? Her death at the hands of Andrias? Being unable to protect her? Her doubts about the rescue mission? Her wanting or not to save her friend?

Sasha snarled at thin air at that thought. Of course, she wanted to save Marcy, sure she had been lied to and stranded on another dimension but the noirette didn’t deserve any of the stuff Andrias had put her through, especially the stabbing. Though what he had done to her before the bastard revealed his true intentions? The only thing she was aware of before reaching Newtopia was that Marcy and Anne were working for the newt, which would mean Andrias had been pretending from day one, maybe resorting to a happy-go-lucky persona and sweet promises like the one about the three of them traveling to other worlds forever with his help.

‘Make them to love you and they’ll do anything for you.’

Nauseating.

So, back to the point, why so conflicted? Marcy was the good guy, betrayal or not, and Andrias the villain. What else needed to be clarified?

“I bet you’d love what Maddie and I are doing right now, eh Marce? I mean, creating zombies is so overused in those videogames you love or horror movies but you’d still like it.”

She fixed the mantis with a cold stare and her right foot kicked another stone. Andrias wanted Marcy alive for something, he had the means to revive and heal her, would that mean the end of the girl’s personality? A zombie-like state?

“I really, really hope you don’t end up like this thing, Marcy. You owe it to me, you heard? You owe me this!!” She snapped at the giant insect that got more pissed than ever. “Like, whenever I said jump, you asked how high or where and that’s all. You were so easy to invite into my schemes because you just wanted some fun! That was all we needed between us but no! You had to rub it in my face how wrong I was about you, about everything as if Anne choosing the Plantars over me wasn’t painful enough!!”

A few tears splashed into the ground but she paid her no mind as she continued.

“I can’t believe I fell for all your goddamn tricks! The sweetness, the clumsiness, the lovable nerd stuff just to be dragged down to this world because you couldn’t accept the fact you were going to move!! I was supposed to be the manipulator here, not you!! And to make it worse… To make it so f*cking worse, you never told me your family was in such a crisis to move to another state!! I could’ve run away with you! I would’ve but you decided to make choices for me! For all of us and now you’re dead!”

Her ears suddenly perceived the crunching of twigs making her turn around meeting a bewildered Maddie.

“Y-You heard all of that?”

“Except the context.” ‘The context is much worse’ Sasha wanted to say.

The lack of reaction and words made the air unbreathable. Where were the anger, the suspicion, the demands?

“Aren’t you going to say something else?”

“Something like…what?”

“You know, an elaborate defense for Marcy. Didn’t you hear what I said about her? Isn’t it obvious you should go like “No way!”, or “You’re a liar!”?”

“As I said I don’t have the context yet. You just yelled a bunch of stuff that was between you and Marcy. We may be friends but I don’t know so much about her.”

“Not everything is so happy and dandy. Not even before landing here.”

“Mmmm… So, I assume the reason you, Anne, and her ended up in Amphibia it’s because of Marcy, right?”

Sasha nodded. Silence reigned once again but inside the blonde’s mind, chaos ruled. She didn’t get it! Why Maddie was so calm about this? Yeah, she and Marcy weren’t that close but if the noirette could form strong bonds with someone on Wartwood then that should arise some dark feelings due to Sasha’s new information about the teenager. Heck, if she were insulting Anne behind her back, Squeaky Toy would undoubtedly shoot her with his stupid slingshot.

However, Anne and the Plantars were on Earth and this mess was deeply related to Marcy for she was the culprit.

“What--?” Sasha moved her leg back and forth, hugging herself. “What was your first impression of her, Marcy I mean?”

“She was nice and fun. I was happy to meet someone who liked magic as much as I do. We even created our own handshake.”

“When-When I met her, she and Anne were being bullied by two teenagers. At that time, we were very little. I didn’t know them but it didn’t stop me from defending them. But…” Man, this would be the first person with whom she opened up about her dynamics with Marcy. “But I used to be closer with Anne. She invited me to play with them, she was sociable as me but in her own way, and even if we clashed, we found ways to hang out. Marcy was different. She agreed to everything I did or say, she could fit with my schemes because she never went against them. Obviously, that was a lie.”

“You’re saying that as if she set you a trap.”

“BECAUSE SHE DID!!” The scream incensed the zombie mantis greatly. In a sudden burst of intelligence, it started tearing apart the roots.

“Let’s kill it again.”

“Kill it? Don’t we need him for another experiment?”

“We can find another corpse. Come on!”

Sasha didn’t need to be told twice. Two swift swings were enough to cut the creature in half.

“I know this is between you and Marcy but—”

“You won’t like it.” The human girl interrupted. “Besides, why do you want to know? I asked you stuff about Marcy because I feel like I don’t know who she was on Amphibia that much, and it’s my way to cope. But this mess will erase the impression you have of her, just like it did me.”

“And don’t you think it’s up to me to decide if I want to have her in my life whether those secrets are earth-shattering or not?”

It’s up to her. It’s up to her, sure. The same happened with Anne. Who would she choose: a bunch of slimy frogs she had met for a few months or one of her best friends of years? The frogs won by the way. Though, the decision wasn’t fair at the beginning because Sasha tried to manipulate Anne and forced her to let her kill that old frog. And then at the castle, Anne decided Sasha wasn’t worth her time anymore and cut ties with her. Marcy, on the other hand… Well, she still chose them both even if her method was f*cked up.

The blonde sat on the ground, her hands running through her long hair almost undoing the ponytail.

“It happened at the castle.” She started. “Andrias implied Marcy had been hiding something from us from the beginning. Her dad got a new job and they had to move out of state. Marcy panicked; she didn’t want to lose us. Of course, where we come from there are ways to communicate through long distances: video chat, phone calls, plane tickets. Still, she wanted to stay in LA instead of being very far away. On Anne’s birthday, the day we disappeared, Marcy had found the music box. A magic music box, exactly; it had the power to send anyone to another world. She took a picture of it and sent it to me, saying it would be an excellent gift for Anne. Then, when we met with her… I forced Anne to steal it. And when we were in the playground, she opened it. That’s how we landed here.”

The frog girl stayed quiet. Meditative. Sasha pondered if her new information about Marcy had broken her; however, her mood was so low that she couldn’t care less whether she was believed or accused of lying.

“Ok, I would lie if I said the second time isn’t as shocking as the first one, this was seriously messed up.”

“And still you’re taking it pretty maturely for your age. Is it me or you’re being too apathetic?”

Maddie couldn’t make up her mind about the tone of that question, but there was something else in the story that intrigued her. “You yelled in your rant that you could’ve run away with her. Do you mean it?”

“Yeah, I mean she’s my friend.”

“But do you really, really mean it? Running away is not a simple thing and you two are children. And what about Anne? Would you have been able to give up your life, your home, your family, even the chance to see Anne again for Marcy?”

Sasha sneered at her; arms crossed. “What the hell are you implying?”

“Don’t take me wrong, Sasha, but one thing is impulsively saying you will run away with a friend, and another one very different is doing it and sticking to your word. I mean, technically, Marcy did that by sending you three to Amphibia and she was ok with the fact that her old life would be no more. She would have to start from zero. But by the expression on your face, you weren’t on the same page, don’t you?”

The emptiness in her mouth was answer enough and it said a lot about her relationship with Marcy negatively speaking. Which shouldn’t be true! She’d do anything for her friends! She even sacrificed herself for Anne in Toad Tower to prevent her from falling with her for f*ck’s sake! Why Marcy would be different?

‘Marcy, how could you? I’ve been missing my parents… My life!’

But of course! What a dumbass she was! Marcy was ready for such a thing because she was desperate, she considered moving out of state the end of their friendship while Anne and she… The physical distance would’ve hurt, yeah, but not that much to be a big deal for them.

It wasn’t a big deal.

“f*ck… Why did you have to hit right in the nail?”

“What do you mean?”

She didn’t respond for her mind started conjuring images, memories that she thought were harmless but in hindsight, they hid little hurts and mistakes that had accumulated and festered under the rug that was her stupidity.

‘Hey, MarMar, you wouldn’t mind giving me the answers for the Math test tomorrow? Anne and I had a blast yesterday at the arcade.’

‘The arcade? Why didn’t you tell me? I’d love to join you guys.’

‘Don’t worry your pretty little head, maybe next time. Now about the answers—’

‘Oh… Oh yeah, sure, why not?’

‘Yikes, Marcy, be more careful next time!’

‘Sorry, sorry, caught up in the new level. Did you know that this new Sonic game had upgraded the graphics for--?’

‘Ugh, I told you before, I’m not a nerd! Besides, shouldn’t you focus on the REAL world for a while? You can’t expect me or Anne to be your eyes all the time!’

‘Guys, can we stop playing around and progress in this project? It represents 45% of the score for this subject.’

‘It’s ok, dude. We still have next week to finish it.’

‘Anne is right, nerd. Why worry when we have your brains to save us?’

‘Whoa! Spoiler alert!’

‘Sorry, sorry. It’s just such a good movie and I get carried away.’

‘MarMar, I’m joking. I don’t actually care’

“This was bound to happen.”

“Uh?”

Wonderful. Apparently, her mind was given the pleasure of shouting truths from the rooftops.

“This! This mess was bound to happen.”

“That’s nonsense. I mean, it’s not that Marcy’s dad had planned to find another job to move to another place and provoked such an extreme reaction from his own daughter.”

“No! I’m not talking about that! It’s us! The three of us!... I don’t know what Marcy has told you about me or Anne, but things weren’t…perfect between us. Sure, we love and care for each other but before and even during Amphibia stuff was so…complicated. We had like specific roles. I was the leader and Anne and Marcy had to follow my lead. Anne was charismatic, Marcy was the smart one, and I had my own ways to make people do what I want.”

“In other words, you were manipulative and controlling.”

“Alright, fine. Manipulation, schemes, control, you name it. I wanted it to be that way even if Anne complained and protested, even if it wasn’t healthy but I thought it was the only way to stay together. Though, I didn’t consider how Marcy would truly fit in all of this. She may have been agreeable but I never listened to her. My attention was solely on Anne, I was closer to her. We disagreed in many things but we were still friends, I didn’t have the same connection with Marcy. I love her, still now that I think about it, we enabled each other so much that we never gave ourselves a chance to see one another eye-to-eye. That only happened when I wanted something and she willingly helped me get it. Beyond that, what I know of her is…superficial… She was the school genius, she loves videogames and fantasy books and movies, she loves playing Creatures and Caverns, she was clumsy as hell, and a nerd from head to toe. That was all my image of Marcy, but if someone were to ask me about her favorite characters in a movie or videogame, her favorite chapter of a fantasy book, or some piece of trivia she loved to talk about, it would take me hours to remember because that stuff entered and got out quickly.”

And there it was, the rotten truth.

Her eyes searched for a reaction from Maddie. Outrage, disgust, disappointment, bafflement, anything but found nothing. It was starting to creep her out how calm the frog girl was, no one could take this maturely unless the witch apprentice was freaking out mentally and preparing to unleash all her hatred on the girl.

“Seriously, dude, I’m starting to think you aren’t mourning Marcy anymore. Shouldn’t you be insulting me, yelling at me saying I’m such an awful person, friend or whatever?”

“This isn’t about you, Sasha.” The frog spat, her serious demeanor aging her by 10 or 20 years.

“I know—”

“Oh really? You want me to be mad at you, to react according to your assumptions, to validate what has been established already.” At her confusion, Maddie elaborated. “Everyone knows you’ve done terrible things. You hurt us, the Plantars, Anne and Marcy. And you’ve been working hard to keep us safe and redeem yourself. You even told me that Marcy is still alive because I deserve to know for being her friend. And whether we forgive you in the end or not, you’re still doing your best. Screaming and insults won’t change the past; of course, it’s not that I like what you’ve told me of your relationship with Marcy. That was hurtful and jerky of you, but honestly, you’re not the only one.”

“You lost me, dude.”

Maddie sighed. “I used to be close with my sisters and play with them, but I found my new passion in magic and put a lot of my time into practicing new spells and potions. I barely gave the time of the day to them because I started to see it as a nuisance or mere babysitting. The day Marcy and I were creating a potion, I was too harsh with the triplets and told them to grow up. Because they’re too young, they concluded that if they grew up quickly, in a technical way, I’d spend time with them. So, they prepared a growing potion using my book without my permission; however, the potion was poorly made and they grew disproportionately and without an antidote, they would keep growing until their bodies exploded.”

Yikes.

“Thankfully, Marcy helped me create the cure and we saved them. I learned that I had been a bit neglectful with them by focusing so much on magic, and they learned to not mess with my stuff because magic is not a toy or a game.”

Alright, she knew where the frog girl was going, but…

“I mean, you were just doing your own thing.”

“Yeah, but I could’ve made space for both magic and playing games with them; I didn’t which prompted them to look for a way to still be close to me and spend time together.”

‘It sent us to a place where we’d never have to grow apart, where the three of us could be friends forever together.’

‘I just…didn’t want to be alone.’

At the conflict within her, Maddie spoke again.

“I know it’s not the same. Rosemary, Ginger, and Lavender are my little sisters, and Marcy and you are friends, but honestly, things would’ve been different in both cases if we had found a common ground to listen truly to one another and be nicer too.”

Would that have worked though? Would Marcy have let go of the crazy plan of going to another world and sending her and Anne to it too if communication between them had been better and far more honest?

Guess they would never know unless she and the noirette talked, once the rescue mission was over of course.

“We’d better go back home. I don’t want your dad to believe I kidnapped you or something."

++++++++++++++++++

She was under the watchful brightness of the stars and with MicroAngelo in her arms again.

While Grime had teased her that she was getting too soft for carrying the little snail like a baby, the toad also showed concern for her "newfound love of stargazing".

‘Remember, Lieutenant, a commander is useless when is sleep-deprived.’

She snorted, a mix of fondness and annoyance bubbling in her heart. Answers, she only wanted that from the sky, or maybe a bit of closure after the overwhelming conversation with Maddie, surely an epiphany could fall from the sky and help her reorder her thoughts and feelings about Marcy.

“Meerp, meerp?” MicroAngelo interrupted her musing, his adorable eyes asking if she was ok. She scratched his little head.

“I… I talked with Maddie today. She is one of Marcy’s Wartwood friends. Maybe the only one.” The little snail tilted his head, curious. “God, I can’t believe I’m saying this but I took your advice or whatever you have told me in your snail language. What she told me has left me with a lot to think about Marce, about how I was with her, us… And yeah, I gave you tidbits of how it was our relationship but this is so much deeper and complicated… It’s pathetic, isn’t it? I hated to admit it but maybe the best-friends part was only pure name and words, not actions. I failed to sustain that.”

“Meerp meerp?”

“Yeah yeah, I know I had to fix it but… I don’t know. Perhaps Marcy has reached her limit and is done with me. Even if I save her, we’ll have to be on our own. What if she has started believing my love and friendship were all a lie?”

“Meerp meerp.”

“Come on. Of course, I do love her. We failed to understand each other though. Although I was the one who screwed up much worse and when I shouldn't… sh*t, all this overthinking and what-ifs and what-should’ves is driving me crazy.”

“Meerp meerp.”

“You can’t make me follow your sleep schedule, buddy. This is my me-time.” The cute snail only purred against her chest.

Sasha groaned and glanced at the sky again in hopes of an answer. Maybe a few hours of stargazing wouldn’t hurt.

Chapter 6: They did what?!

Summary:

The pass of time is unforgiving whether you have hopped through dimensions or not.

Chapter Text

Her eyes were burning. Clicks of her mouse and keyboard echoed in every corner of the room, the only source of light coming from the screen saturated with multiple windows of websites. Every title in a different style but all of them directed at one of two important topics: the music box or how to open portals to other worlds.

A breeze of air entered through the half-closed window, making the Thai teenager shiver. She straightened her back, hearing a few cracks in her muscles. She rubbed her eyes and opened a new website; however, the arrow of the mouse stayed in one position despite her movements, and when she clicked, a warning appeared in front of her.

“Stupid laptop. Can’t you go any faster?” Anne growled and waited impatiently for her laptop to continue working. Her eyelids felt heavy as if they were chained to rocks and yawns wanted to escape from her mouth but she pushed them away. There was no time for sleep when so much was at stake.

“Anne, breakfast is ready!” Her father said from the kitchen. Her muddled mind couldn’t process the words for the website had finally charged completely, taking all of her attention. She searched quickly for someone in the chat that could have knowledge of interdimensional travels or bits of history about the music box.

“Uh, StarMabes?” Weird username, perhaps it would work.

SayayinFrogGirl: Hi

StarMabes: Hi (。◕‿◕。)!

A nice start, good.

SayayinFrogGirl: Ok, so, don’t freak out but I need some help.

StarMabes: Sure. What is it about?

SayayinFrogGirl: Have you heard about

“Anne!” Her mother opened the door and turned on the light. The teenager covered herself with the bedsheets, bothered by the sudden illumination.

“Sheeesh, mom! Can’t you at least knock?”

“I wouldn’t have to do this if you had come to the dining room. Your breakfast is getting cold.”

“Wait, breakfast? Mom, it’s 10:00 pm.”

“Look at your laptop watch”

A single glance left her speechless.

“7:14 am?!”

“Yep. You’ve been awake for nine hours.”

“Wait, where are the Plantars?”

“In the dining room waiting for you. They said you were into something important when they woke up and didn’t want to interrupt you. Though sleep deprivation isn’t healthy. Sweetie, I know you’re concerned about your friends and keeping the Plantars safe but burning yourself out won’t lead you anywhere. You need to eat and sleep. Now leave the laptop for a while. Your breakfast is waiting.”

“Can you put it on the refrigerator or inside the--?”

“Young lady, I will NOT let you neglect your health just because you have urgent matters. Breakfast, now!”

“Ok ok!”

Meanwhile, StarMabes sent another message.

StarMabes: Hello? Hey, are you still there?

+++++++++++++++

“Anne, there you are!” Polly greeted her excitedly. In front of the tadpole were many pages and her cellphone that the teenager hadn’t noticed wasn’t in her room. “I have great news!”

“Can one of that news explain why you took my phone?” Anne asked as she seated.

“Yep. You see, I checked the infamous TikTok about us—”

“Oh God, please tell me it didn’t get more views and comments.”

“They did get more views and comments.” Sprig supplied unhelpfully. “I think the number like got twice bigger.” Anne covered her face with both hands and groaned.

“It’s ok, kiddo. In fact, why don’t you let Polly tell you the great news?” Hop Pop said while patting her back.

“Exactly. So, I checked the video and wanted to know what people in your world thought about talking, walking frogs. Like, they might be as close-minded as Wartwood or very accepting, or they might not care at all even with the high number of views. I read like almost 1000 comments.”

“1000?!”

“Yeah, they were pretty short so I didn’t take too long. And here’s the best part, Anne, from all the messages I’ve read, 80% don’t believe me, Sprig and Hop Pop are real!”

“Beg your pardon?”

“Here.” She lent her a few pieces of paper with all the comments she could gather. If someone said the Thai girl was flabbergasted that could’ve been the understatement of the year. Her brain was overwhelmed by the sea of emotions as she assimilated each comment.

This is just CGI.

WOW, you love attention, don’t you?

Get a life, loser!

Creepy, taking photos of someone else.

How much did you pay these people for this?

I bet this is Photoshop-crafted.

Do you have witnesses?

Even if he has, they must have been bribed or something.

“Wow, talking about the power of skepticism.”

“Yep, which is good. That means we don’t have to be cooped up in the house. Our low profile can still work!”

“Polly, this sounds fantastic but 1000 comments are nothing against 10 or 20 thousand. And let’s not forget that my school or Sasha or Marcy’s parents might also see this. Wait, hey mom, have--?” Unfortunately, her question couldn’t be heard because her mother had gone to the restaurant pretty quickly. Anne’s cellphone rang, prompting the girl to grab it and check the messages. Mrs. Boonchuy had written her a kind goodbye and asked her to relax.

Anne’s fingers moved at light speed to respond, then copied and pasted the message to her father. She hoped one of them would read it, and if not, maybe after work they could talk.

“So, Anne, were you doing something interesting in your latop thing?”

“No no, Hop Pop, it’s laptop, and—sh*t! I left StarMabes hanging!”

“Starwhat?”

“Someone from a page that might have answers about the music box or how to get back to Amphibia. I’ll show you.” The family of frogs ran behind her and got comfortable on her bed as she opened her laptop. Sprig at one side and Hop Pop and Polly at the other.

SayayinFrogGirl: So sorry, dude, had to take breakfast. Are you still there?

StarMabes: Hey, you’re back (ᵔᴥᵔ)!

Anne sighed in relief.

SayayinFrogGirl: Yep, I’m back. About my question, have you heard of interdimensional travels or magic music boxes?

“Anne, do you think it’s a good idea to tell a stranger about our dilemma? The last time we asked for help somewhere else, we had to fight for our lives against a giant maniac.”

“We have no choice, HP. The more we wait for this ‘trend’ scandal to be over, the more chances Andrias will have to invade Earth. Besides, it’s not that I trust whoever this person is, and if they end up being suspicious, I’ll stop talking to them.”

“At least they can’t be as worse as Sasha or morally dubious as Marcy, right?” At the mention of her former friends, Anne stiffened.

What if Polly was right? Not that all humans were this monstrous, she and her parents were exceptions but she was too foolish in thinking she knew her childhood friends from head to toe just to be proven that the three weren’t on the same page or that they had warped ways to deal with stuff. To make it worse, she didn’t have a single clue if StarMabes was or not part of the government!

“Hey, Anne, it’s ok. You can stop whenever you want.” Sprig placed a hand on her shoulder. “Besides, this person doesn’t even know what you’re talking about. They haven’t answered.”

“Oh, well, that’s because they’re writing their response.”

“How do you know?”

“For these little dots” She pointed at three black ones moving up and down on the white rectangle for chatting.

Suddenly, StarMabes’ answer appeared getting the quartet’s attention.

StarMabes: Ok, I would lie if I said I’m not surprised because I really am \( °□° )/. The only person I know that has traveled to another realm is my grunkle (great+uncle) and that happened a long time ago.

Another human in the multiverse? This was it!

SayayinFrogGirl: Really? Like how? I mean, if you don’t mind to tell me.

StarMabes: He wanted it to be confidential but the danger is over so, long story short, he had 2 partners, one of them was his assistant and the other was a huge asshole. The huge asshole tricked him with the promise of infinite knowledge if he built a portal to other worlds. His other partner had some suspicions but quit the project after an accident. Then a bit later, during a family conflict, my grunkle was transported to another dimension by the same machine he created and his twin, my other grunkle, had to rebuild the portal to bring him back.

Wow.

“I don’t know if feeling hopeful by their story that might get us home or if this is utter malarkey.” Hop Pop opined. Anne was tempted to feel the same but this might be her chance.

SayayinFrogGirl: This is a lot to take in, but hey! It works. It’s the portal still working?

StarMabes: Listen, I might have said the danger was over but what happened to my grunkle is serious. Like bajillion times super mega serious. And I may not be paranoid like him but I don’t want to repeat mistakes so… Wait a second.

The “wait a second” turned into minutes. Long and agonizing. Did Anne scare them away?

StarMabes: Answer me this, and please be honest, are you the frog girl of TikTok?

Of course, TikTok again ruining her life. She was starting to hate it.

“I think you should stop Anne, remember low profile. Whoever that person is there is a 50/50 chance it’s from the FBI and they might experiment with us.” Sprig gulped at what Hop Pop had suggested.

Anne was at loss. After days of fruitless research and this golden chance crossed paths with her just to be a lose-lose situation. But was it really? She didn’t know them, perhaps they were a person who loved strange phenomena or HP may be right and an agent from the government was behind the username, looking for her and her adoptive family.

Why now though?! She hadn’t found anything useful yet against Andrias or to return to Amphibia, this person might be the solution. However, a look at Sprig’s terrified face reminded her of what the king had put him through. The Plantars almost died while fighting that tyrant; she would never forgive herself if she seized the moment at their expense.

Just when she was going to exit the website, StarMabes spoke.

StarMabes: You’re her, aren’t you?

Oh, f*ck! Did they figure it out already?!

“Quick! Close that thing!” Polly tapped different buttons on the keyboard making a mess in the chat until Anne pushed her away and closed the website.

“Frog… This was such a waste.”

“Don’t feel bad, Anne. At least they’ll never know where we live.” Sprig tried to cheer her up.

“But it could’ve ended with us having the means to go back to Amphibia! I mean, someone in their family built a portal. A goddarn portal! The box is still with Andrias and I don’t know why he’s stalling the invasion but that is giving us some time to make a plan to stop him, a plan that will never work without a huge hole to another world!”

“I know it’s frustrating, kiddo but better prevent than lament. And since we are talking about prevention in another world…” Hop Pop picked a dense stack of stapled papers inside a pocket of his coat and placed it in front of his grandchildren.

“HP, what is this?”

“This here is my new book: ‘How to survive on Earth 101 by Hopediah Plantar’ written by me, of course, Hopediah Plantar.”

“You’ve written rules? But why? We’re not even traveling to a dangerous place like we did in Amphibia.”

“Sprig, Earth might not be plagued by batsquitos, meat-loving tomatoes, or bloodthirsty love doves but the reason we are keeping a low profile it’s because our presence can cause a negative massive reaction. Now let’s start, shall we? Rule number 1: never get out of the house without your human disguises and unless it's absolutely necessary. Rule number 2: if there is an emergency that requires getting out of the house, you have to go with Anne or one of her parents. Rule number 3: don't make ruckus on the house. The less attention we draw, the better.”

“Not a very useful rule with the TikTok thing going on.” Anne rolled her eyes as she said that.

“Rule number 4: never hop on the streets. Running and walking only.”

“But what if the circ*mstances force us to do that?”

“Fine, Polly, hop if that’s the only way to get out of danger. Rule number 5: don't use your tongue on the streets. If there is a bug nearby, just ignore it. Rule number 6: if you see something that looks like the FBI, stay away from it without causing suspicion. Rule number 7: always tell Anne or her parents about any suspicious thing that might look like the FBI.”

“Question, how someone looks like the FBI?”

“It’s like this, dude.” Anne showed him pictures of men with formal, fancy black attires using high-tech gadgets.

“Rule number 8: don't experiment in the house, and if it's something related to Amphibia, better leave it how it is. Rule number—”

“What?!” Polly cried outraged. “Not fair, Hop Pop! How will I fix Frobo if I can’t use anything in the house?! He’s been gone for days!”

“Polly, it’s not that we don’t want him brand and new but if three frogs from another dimension got too much attention on Earth it will be much worse with a robot that fires laser from its eyes. The best we can do is wait.”

“Wait for how long? Months? Years? We still have no idea how to get back!”

“Girl, I get how you feel, I’m impatient too but there’s too much at stake to take risks or rush stuff. Besides, no one here is an expert on robotics.” ‘Marcy would know what to do, though’ her mind argued but she ignored it.

“Anne is right, Polly.” Sprig intervened. “And even if you were able to fix him, where would you hide it?”

“Well, the garage is pretty big.”

“Nuh uh, dude. If my parents see Frobo, they’ll freak out. We’re lucky they haven’t asked questions about him yet. And the control remote to open and close the garage it’s always with them. Also, my neighbors might see him and get suspicious.”

The pollywog crossed her arms, unsatisfied.

“Sweetie, I know this is asking for too much but waiting is the wiser choice. I promise you in the end you’ll have Frobo all happy and dandy.”

“Really?”

“Really.” Polly gave in resignedly.

“Ok, going back to the rules—”

“How many rules are?” Anne asked, not wanting to spend half of the day listening to a rule dictionary.

“Ejem, as I was saying, rule number 9: always bring a communication device with you in case you get lost so anyone in the family can pick you up. About that, Anne, remind me to ask your parents if they have more than one rectangular phone.”

“Cellphone.”

“Exactly. Rule number 10: if you get lost on the streets and don't have your cellphone, ask for directions from people who don't look like the FBI. Rules number 11: never mention Amphibia or anything related to it outside the house. Rule number 12: do not touch the animals of Earth. We don’t know what kind of diseases they can spread or how dangerous they are. Rule number 13…”

+++++++++++++++

The activity in Thai Go has been unusually high as the day went on, though that’s what Oum and Bee wanted to believe for every time a new customer distracted them from the real issue, another one asked the millionaire question: were they related in any way with the poltergeist girl AKA their own daughter?

And the answer they gave was no, they weren’t. No, they didn’t know her. NO, just because Oum looked like an adult version of that girl, it didn’t mean they were related. NO! They didn’t think the frog people of the video were real, hell, they didn’t give a sh*t about supernatural stuff!

Have a good day, please don’t bother us anymore, thank you.

Jesus Christ! This whole denying-you-3-times stuff was getting on their nerves!

“Excuse me,” Bee almost crushed his teeth due to the sheer force he put at gritting them and turned around.

“Please, please no more poltergeist girl. We told you before, we DO NOT know.”

“Polter what? No no, I wanted to ask you about the menu.”

“Oh, the menu?”

“Yes, I want to know if you have offers for desserts.”

Not that they were going to apply that idea but the customer’s question gave him the perfect excuse to escape to the kitchen for a while.

“Well, look at that! The cook will surely love some new arrangements. Thank you so much, just wait here and I’ll tell you how it’d go. Good? Good. Haveagoodday,bye~!”

The door to the kitchen opened, joined by a groan and a chair being dragged to a side for Mr. Boonchuy to sit. “This is getting so exhausting.”

“It’s much worse.” His wife commented. “Anne sent me a message. She must have done the same with you.”

“I’m too tired right now for more poltergeist and frog people shenanigans.”

“It’s not about that, honey. Look” She clicked her message storage and showed him. The moment his eyes and brain processed the information he paled.

“Oh boy”

“Oh boy indeed”

“She’ll be devastated when we tell her. Especially with the house on others’ hands.”

“Anne still deserves to know. They’re her friends. Or were? Anyway, she’s concerned about a lot of stuff, especially the Plantars and her friends. At least we could help her catch up with everything that happened on Earth.”

“You’re right. Better now than never.” He hoped so.

+++++++++++++++++

The infamous website glared at her in all its colorful glory. Why did she click on the link despite the consequences? She didn’t know. Maybe desperation, pure impatience, an urge to tread uncharted territory. Who knew? What Anne was aware of though it’s that she couldn’t rely on strangers’ information anymore.

All the websites she had visited were too convoluted about interdimensional travels or had unreliable sources about how the music box landed on Earth. And the only hint she had about that was Andrias’ story of how his friends took the item while he guarded it; however, coming from a manipulator like him, it was more than obvious he would choose the role of victim to lower everyone’s guard.

“Are you going to talk with StarMabes again?” Yikes! Since when Sprig had gotten so good at being stealthy?

“Uh, oh, no… I mean… uh”

“It’s ok if you wanna give it a try. I want to know if they can help us too.”

“Aren’t you scared if they turn out to be an agent?”

“Yeah, a lot. But it’s not only about being experimented on or watching you, Hop Pop or Polly being in danger. I can’t stop thinking of what Andrias might be doing to Amphibia, to Wartwood…”

“Sprig…” Anne side-hugged him.

“Sometimes I imagine that everyone there has been enslaved or held hostage by him. Other times, I imagine my home being much worse than the time when the herons attacked Wartwood.”

“The sentiment is mutual, dude. Even if Earth is my home, Wartwood has become a special place to me. It’s such a boomer not to be relieved at all because at any time he could invade Earth and we don’t know what has been done on Amphibia either. But I don’t want to risk any of you.”

“You won’t, Anne. I trust you.”

“I think that’s the problem.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“…I don’t know who I can trust anymore. I can’t even bring to trust myself.”

“Is it because of Sasha and Marcy, right?”

“Not only them. I forgave Hop Pop time ago, but what he did shook me to the core, dude. And then there is Andrias. It’s like every time I think I have stuff figured out, another nasty surprise comes to get me. What if I make the same mistake with StarMabes too?"

"They seem nice.”

“That’s the same I thought about Marcy until she told us the truth. That’s the same I thought Sasha would be until she betrayed me again. No matter how many times I try, I end up being the stupid, gullible kid!”

“You’re not stupid just because you want to trust others, Anne. It’s their fault for being mean.”

“I know, I know. It would be great to ask for help without fearing you’re falling into a trap.”

“Maybe we could give it a try. With precaution. A lot of it.”

Anne glanced at StarMabes username, her hands itching for the keyboard to write a hello or a question. Like, what’s the worst that could happen?

“Anne, your parents are back! It’s urgent!” It had to be for later.

****************

“Guys, what’s going on? Did something happen at the restaurant?”

“Not exactly.” Oum said. “Sweetie, we received your message.”

“And there is something you should know.” Bee continued. Anne and the Plantars sat at the sofa. The girl’s knees bounced incessantly as her parents debated how to start.

“You see, hun, after you went missing, your father and I talked to the police and even a private detective to find you. Sadly, your case ended up in the archives. No witnesses, no clues, absolutely nothing to help with the search. It was the same for Sasha and Marcy too.”

“Then a few days later, Melissa came to our house and asked if we had an idea where you and the others might be.” Said Mr. Boonchuy.

“Wait, wait, Mrs. Waybright was here?”

“Yep. She had been searching on her own, ended empty-handed like us. We were as lost as her about answers.”

“What about Mr. Waybright? Did he talk to you before or after her?”

“Not a single word from him.” Mrs. Boonchuy said. “Though, when Melissa paid us a visit, she didn’t look very happy, maybe she had an argument with him about how to find Sasha. I even heard her insulting in German.”

“What’s German?” Sprig asked and Hop Pop scolded him that the question should be for later.

“When the detective and the police gave up on the search, Melissa and us tried to convince them to keep looking. She even paid them twice but they argued that without more clues, the mission would go nowhere. I don’t know if she’s still searching or has given up but that day, she didn’t take the news very well.”

“And Mr. and Mrs. Wu?”

Her parents pulled their lips into tight lines. The message conveyed in their eyes made Anne’s stomach squirm in anxiety.

“Mom, Dad, what about them? Did they call you? Help you with the search? Anything at all?”

“Let’s go to the van. We’ll show you.”

+++++++++++++++

The Thai teenager felt her guts being eaten alive.

The basics about Marcy’s parents weren’t enough to have a deeper perspective of them but the image wasn’t that endearing. They were strict, goal-oriented, and academically driven, and if she didn’t know them, Anne would be tempted to say they hated her.

She wasn’t in that bag alone, though. Their dislike also extended to Sasha. Why Marcy then was allowed for so long to be their friend eluded her.

“We arrived.” Mrs. Boonchuy announced. The adults got out of the vehicle and helped the girl and her frog family to exit. “Anne, just a warning. What you’ll see is pretty intense.”

That sentence prompted her to ask why but her mother simply pointed to a letter in front of Marcy’s house.

FOR SALE.

FOR SALE.

‘On the day we left, your birthday, they told me my dad got a new job out of state and we had to move’

FOR SALE!!!

“They left Marcy?!!” Her legs moved unconsciously, her hands grabbed the corners of the letter, gripping them with a turbulent mix of emotions. Despite the pain in her nails and knuckles, the nightmare went on. The sign was still there, mocking her, mocking Marcy. She couldn’t put an end to this mess of a dream because it wasn’t one, this was real.

“They left…”

“Anne,--” Her father approached to comfort her just to be flabbergasted as his daughter hit the letter with such force at the same time her hair turned blue for a few seconds.

“What the heck was that?!” Oum exclaimed.

“…Spoilers?” Sprig commented nervously while shrugging. It didn’t matter, though, not when the Thai girl began a tirade.

“How f*cking dare they?! Their own daughter and they just left, gone! What about calling the police? Asking the neighbors? Caring for once in their goddamn lives?! It hasn’t even been years! Months, several months, and still they gave up on her!! What kind of parents do that?!”

“Oh, Annie…” This time, Bee managed to hug her from a side and patter her shoulder, sympathetically. “We’re so sorry. The moment your mom and I read your message, we were reminded of the moving and knew you wouldn’t take it well. That’s why we tried to let you know more gently.”

“Why couldn’t they wait a bit more? Was that so much to ask? Was it so difficult?”

“We called them a few times to see if their search had been successful or if they needed help,” Oum recalled while she hugged her daughter. “They never answered.”

“How is it possible to give up on someone so easily? As if they didn’t matter.”

“Some people move on faster than others, sweetheart. At least, Marcy still has you.”

No one was able to come up with a solid response but there was no need for that as the girl felt her parents and the Plantars’ arms wrapping around her with nothing but love and compassion.

If that could erase what she had discovered minutes ago.

++++++++++++++++++++

The van made another stop, Anne got out immediately followed by Sprig.

“Be careful you two, ok? Don’t forget the rules.”

“Okie Dokie, Hop Pop.” Sprig saluted. Anne watched the rest of the group bid a temporal goodbye before the vehicle drove home.

The scenery in front of her felt like salt rubbing at her wounded soul. Nothing had changed at the playground. The toboggan, the seesaw, the sand pool, even the swing set. All looked as if they had never vanished.

She noticed some cookies and candy wrappers here and there, the paint on the toboggan had begun to peel off, and the chains of the swing set has some signs of oxidation. Heck, the tree at one corner of the place had lost half of its leaves.

“It was here.”

“This is the place where you three opened the box, right?” Sprig queried softly getting a nod as a response.

“This was also the place where we met each other.” She pointed at the tree. “I found Marcy sitting there, drawing something on the ground. She looked sad so I wanted to cheer her up, say hello. The moment I opened my mouth, Marce smiled super big and started rambling about Pokemon or something, but covered her mouth seconds later.”

“Why?”

“The other kids. I kind of saw how they avoided her and I thought she was pranking them. Actually, she loved to talk a lot and they got annoyed. But I find it cute. It was the first time I saw a grin take someone’s face completely. We were inseparable after that.” Then Anne pointed at the swing set. “We met Sasha while we were playing there time later. Two older girls had stolen the swing sets and bullied us, but Sasha got them to stop. She had these superhero poses and was going to beat them up, easier said than done. Made a huge fool out of herself but she helped us in the end.”

“How were they? You know, before Amphibia.”

“Different. Too different. Marcy was still Marcy. Bubbly, super smart, ranting about videogames and fantasy, oblivious. The lies and the betrayal weren’t there…yet. And Sasha… She was softer and kinder. Sure, she still was abrasive, impulsive, and loved to show off but never manipulative.”

“Are you sure this is Sasha you’re talking about?”

“I know, right? It’s crazy. We have changed so much. Sometimes it’s hard to believe the Anne from months ago and I are the same person. I used to be such a pain in the ass even before we met. And now—”

“Now you’re a hero.” Sprig raised his arms proudly.

“All thanks to you, and Hop Pop and Polly. You helped me be my best self.”

“Nah, a little push. You did all the work.” The frog kid elbowed her, chuckling.

Anne chuckled too until a sob choked that little joy. “I wished the three had changed for the better instead of…of this! We were supposed to return home as better people but instead, Sasha got so much worse, and Marcy kept things from me and she’s dead! It’s-It’s not fair…”

“We can’t give up yet, Anne. At least we should defeat Andrias to prevent more tragedies like Marcy’s.”

“Do you-Do you think it’s over for both of them? What if they’re gone? What if Andrias has killed them?”

Sprig pondered what words were better at such a somber question. “I mean… We saw Marcy and-and the sword. And ok, I dislike Sasha, but I bet she has escaped or beaten Andrias, a little bit, I guess. Whatever Sasha might be doing right now if she has survived, maybe she is planning to bring Marcy back, if there is a way to do that or to avenge her, who knows. So, there’s still hope.”

‘Is there?’ Anne mused miserably. ‘Can I see them again?’

It surprised her a lot that desire. Seeing them alive, talking and laughing with her despite the hurt, the lies, the treachery. Apart from that issue, what the hell could they say to each other?

She had cut ties with Sasha before the massive fight against Andrias and the fate of her friendship with Marcy may be doomed to remain a mystery, so what then?

“I guess I’ll never know if I don’t try.”

“Mhm.”

Anne cleaned her wet cheeks and eyes, her stare hardened with determination. A pretty dangerous one.

“Sprig, you’ll be there for me, won’t you?”

“What kind of question is that? Of course, I will! Spranne against the world!”

“Even if it means taking huge risks?”

“Anne, I trust you. You may make mistakes but you learn from them.”

“Sprig, with these circ*mstances, we don’t have the luxury to slip up anymore.” The Thai girl closed her eyes and inhaled and exhaled deeply. “I’m going to contact StarMabes again.”

“You will?”

“Yeah. But I’ll only do it if you, Hop Pop, and Polly feel comfortable with it. I haven’t forgotten the face you put with the experimentation stuff and after the fight with Andrias, it wouldn’t kill to apply extra precaution.”

“Harsh but true. Besides, we also have to convince Hop Pop to let go of his survival Earth rules for a while if we want to get answers from StarMabes.”

“We’ll think of something when we get there. For now, let’s plan how to interview our mysterious helper on the way, buddy.”

Sprig grinned, taking her hand, and both started walking back home.

+++++++++++++++++

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 00:34 am

Heavy steps echoed in the office; a click got rid of the darkness consuming the whole room that seemed to have had a date with a hurricane. Not that she cared in the slightest.

This day had been the most unproductive, mundane, and monotonous in her whole life. And the firm she worked for was one of the best in the country. It gave her a good penny.

Ha! She’d rather live in a shack in the middle of nowhere than be stuck in the mental hole she had been for a while.

She sat on her disorganized desk, massaging her temples. A family photo caught her eyes. The left side had been ripped apart leaving just a child being held by their mother.

The little girl only had 2 years old with bright blonde hair and a beauty mark under her right eye. Her set of pajamas was orange with patterned cartoons. The woman carrying her was tickling the baby’s stomach while grinning fondly.

Her lower lip trembled as she grabbed the photo. She wished for the clock to turn back time so all the good memories could be relieved again.

Rang

Rang

For f*ck’s sake, couldn’t they deal with whatever was going on in the firm without her for five minutes?!

The screen of her iPhone showed a number she was beginning to despise. Jannice. God gave her patience, when was that brat going to give up?! Sure, she was kind-hearted and wanted to cheer her up whenever she had no energy, but the girl was trying too hard and she was too numb to care or appreciate her efforts.

Hell, if Jannice was sending her another philosophical video to boost her morale, that was it! She would demand Mr. Harris to fire her!

She unlocked her cellphone and clicked the message storage.

Hey Mel,

Look, I know you might not be in the mood right now (YOU THINK?!) but you have to see this.

Trust me.

Beneath the message was a link. She didn’t trust this, Jannice hadn’t even specified what the link was about. But, in the few years working with her, she’d never been dishonest.

‘Just a quick look. If this wastes my time, I’ll tell her to f*ck off’

She clicked on the link. The content left her in a mental void.

It wasn’t because of the title in capital letters: GIRL APPEARING OUT OF NOWHERE WITH 3 WALKING FROGS: IS THE POLTERGEIST APOCALYPSE STARTING? Or the trio of bipedal creatures. The girl; that was the reason.

Tan skinned, bushy, brown hair, school uniform barely noticeable under the armor chest but still familiar.

No. f*cking. Way.

“Anne?”

Chapter 7: The FV meeting

Summary:

Progress isn't linear but it's so annoying when downs come back

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

In front of her was a table, huge enough to put a fest on it for almost 40 people which was strange because why Toadstool would have something of this size if no one else but him and Toadie lived in the opulent mansion? Perhaps he loved to show off. Well, not that it's her problem, the size and shape were convenient for the meeting as all the maps and notes were placed orderly.

"Have all the guests arrived yet?" She asked Grime who was checking for the third time the reports.

"Uh? Oh, don't know." He responded distractedly.

"You don't trust the reports, do you?"

"I'm making sure every detail concords with the words of the villagers. If any of them has poor memory, it may bite us in the end."

Suddenly a cold finger tapped her arm.

"Excuse, ma'am, but the guests are finally here." Said Toadie.

Sasha followed him to the door where Toadstool was greeting Amanda Bronze and the members of the council of Swamp Shiro; there were other frogs and toads, and even a few newts that she had never seen before so maybe they came from the other towns.

"Look, it's the creature of the revolution!" Exclaimed a light-yellow-skinned frog with overalls and a frazzled beard.

"Ejem, hello everyone. My name is Sasha Waybright, I'm a human, don't belong here, and I'm one of the commanders of the Wartwood Resistance."

"Where's the other one?" Asked a female newt wearing an old Victorian-like beige dress.

"In the war meeting. Now follow me."

Toadie opened the door to them and one by one they surveyed the room where Grime was. He got up the moment they entered and bowed respectfully. "Greetings, allies of the Wartwood Resistance. Please, get yourselves comfortable."

"A toad from Southern Toad Tower? Is this for real?" A dark-gray-skinned old newt wearing round glasses glared at the former captain. "Is it me or is he familiar somehow?"

"That's because he's Captain Grime, the leader of the Southern Toad Tower. Or he used to be. I heard that place is no more." Replied a lemon-skinned frog.

"...Eh, yeah, I used to be. But now, I'm the co-commander of the Wartwood Resistance!"

"Lovely. An extortionist back to power." Mumbled another frog.

Sasha faked a cough to bring all the attention back to her and prevent a heated argument. "Before starting, an introduction might be of great help to get to know one another. Who wants to start?"

"I've been a pen pal of Sasha and Wartwood for a while so she knows who we are; however, it won't hurt to refresh the memory. My name is Amanda Bronze, grandmother and farmer, and I live in Swamp Shiro. I'm a member of the council of Swamp Shiro, a group of amphibians that took charge after imprisoning the major."

"My name is Gerald BerryWood." A dark-blue-skinned frog, the size of 3 watermelons put together, cream shorts, and a t-shirt went next. "I'm the second member of Swamp Shiro council. But I used to work as a carpenter for the local library."

"I am Nico SwordTail." A caramel-skinned, well-built newt with formal Victorian-like attire presented himself. He seemed to be kind of pompous by the sound of his voice. "I've been living in Swamp Shiro as a researcher and one of the teachers at the local school for 3 years. I'm the third member of the council."

"I'm Clementine GreenWay." An, ironically, cherry-skinned female frog wearing a lavender old-fashioned dress and pastel pink lipstick made a step forward. "Mother and owner of an ornament store. The fourth member of the council."

"And I'm Gwendolyn Mist." A female toad a few years older than Amanda spoke. She was the color of coffee, had emerald eyes, and wore a turquoise dress and a rusty cane. "I've been the healer of the town until my retirement. Fifth and last member of the council."

Sasha nodded politely and waited for the others to introduce themselves.

The frog who had mumbled displeased about Grime's position as a co-commander presented himself as Melton Darting, a gardener and owner of a flower shop, and one of the members of the Syndicate of Farmers of Bog Bottom. He was orange and wore a red and white checkered shirt and black overalls.

The other members of the Syndicate were two other frogs and one toad: the first two were twins called Dalila and Dylan Croaky, the owners of alittle ranch of cowapillars that used to belong to their grandparents until they retired due to advanced age. They were light green-skinned, Dalila had dark-brown hair in two long pigtails, and a mix of overalls and a dress color blue, and her brother had a tuff of hair that made him look like Elvis Presley and wore caramel old shorts.

The toad with them was called Malcolm, he was a carpenter and toy maker. Coffee-skinned, ruby eyes, and one sharp tooth protruding from his lower jaw; he wore green shorts and a sleeveless gray pullover.

The beige-Victorian-dress newt introduced herself as Merry Rainy, a widow, and writer. She got the idea of making the Lily Paddington Federation and became her leader. Her comrades were the lemon-skinned frog, Tito Rivergleam, an amateur florist. The dark-gray-skinned old newt with round glasses, Theo Gladsun, the doctor of Lily Paddington. And the light-yellow-skinned frog with overalls and a frazzled beard, Chess Jumpting, owner of a little restaurant.

With that, the total of guests was 13 people. Sasha nodded to each of them, face stoic, and waited for them to be well-accommodated while revising the papers, then knocked on the table gathering everyone's attention.

"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for coming today. I guess you all know what's been going on."

"Of course, we know," replied Dalila angrily. "The King went berserk."

"Without reason!" Tito exclaimed.

"You're partially right. Number one, Andrias went berserk but his maliciousness had always been hidden from the public. Number two, he has many reasons to start being evil instead of pretending he's not. He wants to conquer many worlds including the one where I come from."

"Wait, how do you know he lied to us? What if this is a campaign attack?" Malcolm raised an eyebrow in challenge.

"I wish I could have more than my word as proof but the truth is his castle had a mural that depicted him as a ruthless tyrant with a magic artifact capable of destroying towns and lives. And later, when he was confronted by me, Grime, and my friends, he revealed his true intentions and tried to kill us. And if that isn't enough to convince you, Mrs. Bronze can tell you the horrible stuff his killing machines put her and Swamp Shiro through."

"Exactly. He came with a farce of a great project to force the villagers to work in an underground factory protected by dangerous robots."

"Robots?" Theo's eyes widened. "Are those robots big, red eyes, and can fly? Because in the sky and the ground there have been too many."

"And what about the Newtopian army? Are they also with the King's plans?" Merry made a good question with only speculations on Sasha's part.

"We don't know if the soldiers have joined the King or if they have started to rebel but both options won't change too much our situation. He will resort to numbers and power on his robots, his old army will be useful to bully the people into submission until the robots replace them. And this is why we all are here." Sasha places wooden figurines on the table that resembled the robots, the castle, the factories, and Andrias' crown. She made a mental note to thank Loogle for the woodcarving service. "The first robot that tried to destroy a town was massive in size, to the point that inside of its body it could store minions to summon. Wartwood was the first target; Grime and I got rid of it."

"There have been other cases that fallen into our traps but it's a matter of time before an army comes here," Grime added.

"What other cases?"

This time Toadstool spoke, "A robot was found fighting a red mantis while trying to enter the town. Then a few days later, other ones were ambushed by Soggy Joe who was checking the perimeter. If I remember well, while Sasha, Grime, Croaker, and Duckweed were on their way to Swamp Shiro, 3 or 4 robots almost entered Wartwood but Stumpy warned the town and we destroyed them."

"Wait a sec, didn't anyone here on Wartwood suffered the invasion of giant refineries or factories?" Dalila's question prompted the other members of her group and the rest of the guests to murmur and nod in agreement.

"As Sasha said minutes ago, she and I and her friends fought the King after he saw we were against his plans. There were...some casualties." Grime glanced at Sasha the moment he mentioned that word in case he wasn't delicate enough. Luckily, there was no reaction but neutrality. "She and I could escape but some robots of the newt followed us and were going to burn the town to the ground if we hadn't acted. I doubt he knows where we are but if he finds out he will send all his forces to Wartwood."

"But what about the refineries and the factories? Why no one is here?"

"My best bet is that there is no valuable resource to extract. If it were otherwise, we would've dealt with the machines earlier."

Grime's response got another wave of murmurs; Sasha waited for the others to quiet down the hushed conversations before going back to the point.

"Numerical advantage, resilience, increased firepower, resources, allies, those are the factors that will allow Andrias to gain enough power before he can invade other worlds. Our first movement is knowing how much damage he had made already. Grime told you about the robot attacks on Wartwood and Mrs. Bronze said people on Swamp Shiro were forced to work for the refineries. We need reports from Bog Bottom and Lily Paddington to make a plan based on a full picture." The members representing both towns talked with one another and made a decision.

"I'll start first," Tito Rivergleam began, "A few days after the castle flew away by Frog-knows-how, we saw buildings made of metal entering Frog Valley. They were flying! They didn't get closer to the town but after a while, the water surrounding our homes turned murky and was filled with dead fishes and a viscous black goo. It got so bad that now we don't call it Lily Paddington anymore but Stinky Paddington."

"The foul smell is one problem but the worst part is how corrosive the smoke and the odors in the water are. People can barely breathe for 10 minutes until they faint or suffer a cough attack. Children and elders are more vulnerable, and the secondary effects on the skin had become unbearable. Rashes, infections, pus, the worst cases had the skin flaking off, causing worrying bleeding." Theo added.

"Don't forget the lack of travelers. Lily Paddington is well-known for being a tourist spot, but with the water and air pollution, no one is interested anymore. There are rumors that people like travelers and merchants disappear during the night or when the afternoon becomes evening without a single trace behind them. I don't know how those machines manage to take a lot of innocents away from their homes if my assumption is right but that there is no peep or sign of battle the next day is pretty worrying."

Pollution, endangerment of civilians, and massive kidnapping. Noted.

The next one to talk was Melton. "Bog Bottom isn't how it used to be anymore. Like Lily Paddington, it was surrounded by water. The villagers and visitors could travel by boat or swimming, the environment was clean. Now, with those refineries hidden and building more robots and weapons, our home has gone from Bog Bottom to Dry Bottom! Even my own bottom is more humid than the hellhole the town is!" To emphasize his point, Melton pointed at his butt much to Sasha's disgust. "People have been disappearing too. Both villagers and travelers but it's not during the night but at any time! It's like they're being lured by something and then captured. We have tried to find them or the culprit and nothing! 2/3 of the town is gone! The ones who weren't trapped are too paranoid and overprotective of their families and children. The trees can't support our houses anymore due to the lack of water; heck, many of them have died!"

Sasha sensed a distortion in the pattern. Kidnapping and pollution were issues caused by Andrias on Lily Paddington and Bog Bottom but not on Swamp Shiro where the mayor had joined forces with the King thinking he had a grandiose plan for the greater good. 2 possibilities came to her mind: the first one, the most obvious, is that Lily Paddington and Bog Bottom cases occurred after she, Grime, Croaker, and Duckweed helped the people of Swamp Shiro. The second possibility was that Andrias decided to resort to raw strength and dirty tricks to accelerate his plans. Her mind then conjured the image of Mrs. Bronze's letter days ago, that she and the others who were against the mayor were spreading the word about Andrias' malevolence which could explain why the other two towns got worse. Maybe the King discovered what the villagers who had been freed were trying to do and increase the attacks on innocents and the number of factories and refineries to gain more power. That third possibility worried her a lot. If it turned out to be true, that meant a window was open for Andrias to discover where she and Grime were and eliminate them. He could use the townsfolk as hostages to force them to surrender and turn everyone into slaves after killing her and her captain.

She hated to admit it but sometimes she thought it was pure luck that kept Andrias away from Wartwood. Sure, some robots had tried to destroy the town but were easily destroyed. Still, it surprised her that Andrias hadn't figured out yet she was on Wartwood. Didn't Anne and the Plantars who lived in the town work for the king until he revealed his true colors? So, why hadn't he connected the points yet?

The blonde teenager pinched the bridge of her nose, mentally of course. The resistance needed a strong-willed leader and showing any sign of weakness or fatigue would be a bad idea when there were too many people suffering and wanting justice. She made a mental note to analyze the possibilities she had discovered before going to sleep.

"Thank you, Mr. Rivergleam, Mr. Gladsun, and Mr. Darting. Ok, ladies and gentlemen, our situation is this," in a flash, Sasha placed the wooden figurines where the towns were located. Some of the robot figurines surrounded the factories or the frog figurines. "Frog Valley, according to the reports, has a lot of natural resources for the refineries making it a target of Andrias' machines. While Wartwood is relatively safe, it doesn't mean it will last, and we don't know if little villages outside of the main four ones have been destroyed or repurposed to build more weapons.First, we need to gather as many supplies as we can. Can you tell me if there is enough for your towns?”

Mrs. Bronze spoke, “We may have destroyed the refinery and the robots but some disturbance has been heard at the borders of the town. For now, there is still food and water, and we can reuse our farming tools to fight.”

“Very lucky. Unlike us, Lily Paddington has been left with too little water to drink, the crops have been contaminated and too few lands can be used to cultivate. We were forced to calculate every ration at the most minuscule detail.” Merry responded.

“We’ve got it bad too and have been trying to use the grounds outside the town to increase the number of vegetables but the water is becoming more scarce, and it hasn't been several months yet since the King decided to play tyrant! Without water and with this infestation of robots trapping people, we'll starve!” Sasha nodded at Dylan’s words and thought for a second.

Frog Valley wouldn't be the first place to be isolated by these atrocities and the lack of resources, maybe they could find a supplier somewhere without raising suspicion.

“Alright everyone, important question. Does any of you know about a town outside of the valley that can provide us with food, materials, and medicine?”

After a few murmurs and pondering, Tito spoke, “Ribbitvale. But the place might be too stingy to even lend a hand.”

“More like the people there will be too stingy to let go of their precious coins. I bet all I have is that they will join Andrias to keep their stuff and lives untouched by his war machines.” Melton grumbled.

Malcolm looked away spitefully, “Frogdamn snobs, all they do is count their money and get fatter every day while the "peasants" struggle and fight and barely receive something good!” the majority of the allies agreed.

“Let's not change the topic. The first task is to have an outside supplier. Do you know someone rich enough to join us?”

Surprisingly, none of the allies answered her but Toadie although a bit shyly. “Yeah, uh... I think I have the guy for that, ma’am. It's Wigbert Ribbiton, he's the richest frog there for his empire of fine ribbons.”

“Oh, and how’d you know that?”

“The mayor bought a set of ribbons for the carriage of his snail a few years ago.”

“Yep, they have excellent quality.” Toadstool said.

“The little frog there has read my mind. That Ribbiton guy is hella rich.”

“Yeah, and maybe hella desperate to keep it that way. What if he has joined Andrias already?” Malcolm poised a serious question that got the rest to mumble in worry.

“What if it's worse? What if Andrias made him disappear!? He doesn't need rich people to support him when he has a freaking flying castle!” Gwendolyn exclaimed.

“Hey hey, rule number one: do not assume. The more you let your imagination run crazy, the fewer facts we can gather to make a plan and destroy the king.” Sasha scolded authoritatively.

“Our "crazy imagination"”, quoted Theo, displeased, “might be onto something.”

“That something is just conjectured what-ifs or worst-case scenarios. They're made by fear. That's what Andrias wants, he expects us to act solely by dread instead of using our brains. It's a trap. Ergo, no more assumptions. What's more useful is the facts in our hands. Reliable information.”

Her speech didn't get the unanimous approval she had been expecting because the allies crossed their arms grumpily, complained, or nodded half-heartedly.

“Um, ma’am, can we talk for a while? Toadie asked. Sasha was going to tell him to wait but a look at Grime sent her the message that this was relevant to the meeting.

“Ok,” She turned around towards the guests. “Let's take a break, everyone. Toadstool, why don't you show them around and ask Stumpy to prepare some snacks and drinks?”

“Oh sure, so now I'm the tour guide.”

“Just do it!” She commandeered with gritted teeth. The mayor stormed off, offended for not being part of the little meeting.

Once everyone left to eat, Sasha leaned back on the table with crossed arms and an impatient expression. “So, what's going on?”

“Uh, ok, don't take this wrong but don't you think you were a bit, tiny rude with our guests?”

“Rude? Dude, we're in the middle of a war. I have to be blunt to make them understand they can't conjure a horrible ending every five minutes.”

“I-I know, but what if they have a point? It wouldn't hurt to give their fears some consideration.”

“We don't need fear, we need facts. There won't be progress if we imagine every possible ally to be on Andrias’ side or dead. It will lead to pessimism and apathy and that's the last thing we should deal with.”

“I understand but--”

“Ugh, listen Toadie, I know you're all polite and sweet because you're a butler--”

“Actually, I'm the mayor’s assistant.”

“Uhu, sure, but right now that stuff is useless. Our allies must get their sh*t together, or the meetings after this one will be a bunch of blah blah blah and no action.”

“Sasha, as someone who used to be insensitive and cruel to his former soldiers, I think Toadie is right. I know war demands to be pragmatic and cold-hearted to face the horrors of it but it may help in the long run if you try to be more likable with the representatives of the towns and less harsh. Just like you told me months ago, remember? Get them to love you--”

“--and they’d do anything for you.” She was starting to hate that phrase. It was a tactic the old, scheming, and mean Sasha resorted to making others do her bidding. Zero care about genuine connections as long as her goal was easy to reach.

“Before I learned the hard way what I was going to lose by being manipulative, that method was my best card, and being more forceful too. But things changed. I don't want to sugarcoat every speech or come as falsely kind to have them at my hands to create better plans in record time. I would be using them. I'm done with that.”

“I'm not saying you have to go back to your old habits, but at least you could try to be more flexible to show you get how they're feeling.”

“Exactly!” Toadie intervened this time. “Whether they have a point or not, if you make them feel heard and validated, the meetings will be easier to manage.”

“Guys, I know my way might be upsetting but the stakes are too high to delve into the doubts and fears of the unknown. We have to focus on what we were given: we know the name of a city with a possible new ally that is extremely wealthy. Getting information like that is what matters to have a good start. Trust me, the more nonsense I stomp, the better we’ll work.”

As she left the room to get some food, the former captain and the assistant scratched their heads concernedly.

“This was a failure, wasn't it?” Toadie said.

“She is a good leader but is hardheaded. Just like a rhino beetle. Hopefully, she will understand.”

“Hopefully?”

“Yeah... Hopefully.”

+++++++++++++++++++++

After 30 minutes of rest and snacks, the guests entered the room again but this time accompanied by some of the villagers of Wartwood like Croaker, Stumpy, the Sundews, Wally, and others as Sasha requested.

With the people of Wartwood at her side and the allies waiting for the meeting to continue, she straightened her back, and her kind of exhausted demeanor changed to a more commanding one, “Alright, ladies and gentlemen, let's recapitulate what we know before the break. We were talking about possible suppliers and Toadie here,” she signaled to the frog at her left who waved amicably “gave us a name. Wigbert Ribbiton from Ribbitvale.”

Fortunately and miraculously, not a single pair of eyes saw Wally tense after the mention of his father's name. He felt slightly guilty that in all the chaos since the news of the sudden cruelty of Andrias came he hadn't wondered what would be of his dad with all those pesky robots and the machinery hurting anyone that got in their way. His conscience was at war: his father could be in danger while they were speaking but he didn't want to accidentally reveal his other identity. That would only happen of his own volition. And with people, he trusted wholeheartedly, of course, something which Sasha wasn't nor Grime.

Wally may look like a hillbilly but he was no fool, it would take a long time to feel really safe with the two former criminals. However, the matter right now wasn't his comfort but the sake of the rebellion, and having a supplier at their side was essential. Boldness was sorely needed.

“Uh... Y-You know, I was traveling outside Frog Valley and met Anne and the Plantars at the entrance of Ribbitvale. Helped them find that Ribbiton fella because they needed new leashes for their snail.” Wally commented off-handedly, like talking about the weather.

“You? On Ribbitvale? But you look the opposite of it.” The eyes of Clementine Greenway and her judgmental tone felt like stabs, but he ignored them as his mantra was that he didn't care what others thought about him.

“And what a farmer boy could have wanted with a millionaire like Ribbiton, anyway? Sounds suspicious.” Nico added.

“If he met Anne then there was nothing to suspect him,” Sasha argued, taking the word before Wally could speak. “And before you ask, Anne is a friend of mine.” Sasha crushed the little negative thought that corrected her and continue. “A loyal friend and a great person, so Wally has nothing you can deem suspicious to be on high guard about his story.”

“What we must be on high guard about is the role Ribbitvale will have in the war! Everyone there is rich, Andrias might need them for something!”

With the same theory of half an hour ago that Tito decided to bring up again, Sasha had to quell her urges to show any frustration the allies might mistake as hostility.

“Everyone, we have had this conversation before. Do NOT assume. It's part of the rules.”

“Why should be an assumption that the King wants or needs snobs on his side?” Mrs. Bronze asked, “If I were him, I would try to bring everyone with power and money in my social circle to corner the commoners who might oppose me.”

“Andrias’ social circle is almost nonexistent. It just consists of him, two newts that must be too afraid to fight back, and a metal army he can reprogram and upgrade. He doesn't trust anyone so having him gather allies is a hypothesis without a future.”

“And why not force the rich towns or manipulate them to gain more power? If you say he hates alliances that much, wouldn't that make his job faster? Besides, how do you know he has trust issues?”

Sasha doubted answering Gerald’s questions with the short story of the broken friendship between Andrias and two people whose names she didn't know about would be the best movement as she now pondered if that tale was made up.

‘No, it has to be. If he lied to Marcy and fooled us in the castle, then a sob story is no challenge for him’.

She sighed, wasting time with hesitations was not the way a commander should act, it would give the others a bad image of her.

“Andrias told us, Grime, my friends, and I by the way, about his past friendship with two unknown people. He said he trusted them a long time ago but they failed him. That's why I said he doesn't trust others, but villains like him love to play the victim. And this is why I also said that assumptions are not allowed. We don't have the whole picture of Ribbitvale or Wigbert Ribbiton, their conditions are unknown and we'll discover them once we find them and report to the headquarters.”

“Is he the only choice of supplier we have to rely on?” Sasha bet Malcolm was born hating wealthy people though she kept that opinion to herself. “Whether Andrias need him or not, it's about his position in the war that we should be worried about. If he has planned to join the King or hide like a coward then we'll be right back at the start.”

“He's no coward!” Wally protested, incensed at that insult at his dad. Noticing the questioning glances shot at him he made up a story with just a bit of truth. “I saw him challenge Anne to a duel when she defended me from him when he called me smelly bumpkin. He has a strong character, no wonder he made a lot of money.”

“That just proves he can not be trusted.”

“Rich snobs love to be jerks, so what? It doesn't mean all of them are evil. The least we can do is get to know him and convince him to help us.” Said Sasha to bring the task into the conversation.

“If you ask me, the people from Newtopia could be a much better option to supply us. They must have seen the flying castle and the war machines like any of us.” A derisive scoff got Merry’s attention after she suggested that.

“Typical of newts, they lean on where they gather all their stuff like their big brains and knowledge. Stuff we also need but it's not that they care to share.” Merry glared at Dylan for his commentary.

“Excuse me if my way of thinking doesn't fit with yours but Newtopia may be advantageous for us for a reason. The most prestigious university is there; apart from food and medicine, we should also have the best strategists. Or what? Do you expect to tame a tomato plant and make it crush the King?”

“If those oh-glorious brainiacs you talk about didn't lift a finger to stop the soldiers to bully us, the farmers who grow your food, or start paying attention to what's outside their shiny city then they're as untrustworthy as that Ribbiton guy if not more.”

“Forget about that, let’s just find a way to fly to the damn castle and blow it up to sink that mad newt!” Malcolm pounded the table making some figurines fall much to Sasha’s annoyance though she didn't show it.

“Have you forgotten all the war machines at his hands?” Gwendolyn's robust hands also made a few figurines fall as she got his attention by pounding the table with extended hands. Grime and Toadie quickly put them in order.

“They can be destroyed. Swamp Shiro and Wartwood did that!”

“Not all robots are made the same. They will be built faster, more resilient, and more destructive.” Mrs. Bronze’s argument got a disapproving grumble from Malcolm.

“Most importantly, this bull-headed approach is a death sentence and the biggest reason why toads’ only talent is mindless fighting.” The insulting commentary from Nico prompted Malcolm and Grime to glower at him.

A high-pitched whistle stomped the tension that could turn into a heated fight. In all this chit-chat with hints of bias and prejudice, Sasha wondered how the groups from the other towns didn't fall apart with the different points of view of the diverse amphibians. And while some ideas seemed to have a good foundation, they were too risky or too emotional-driven.

“Calm down, everyone. I get it you want Andrias dead, but he's not an enemy you should underestimate. Now, number one, forget about Newtopia.” Merry opened her mouth just to be silenced abruptly. “No, just don't. It won't work. Heck, the castle was in the center of the city. The whole place must be a giant slave camp at this point guarded by hundreds of robots. Number two, no extreme problem-tackling. Recklessness won't be allowed.” Malcolm crossed her arms as Sasha said this specifically to turn his idea down. Nico smiled, feeling victorious only for Sasha to crush that emotion. “Also no insults in any way. With the King breathing on our necks every second is enough, going at each others’ throats will only help him.”

“Then what is the wisest choice if ours can't live up to your expectations?” Chess reclaimed with a frown on his face.

“Yeah, you haven't spoken that much unless it was to stop a fight or to tell us we’re wrong.” Theo joined the complaints.

Sasha’s nostrils inflated. Oh sure, farmers, citizens, and people of different careers who didn't know a thing about the war had the nerve to act as if they could input some knowledge when she had been learning from militaristic toads for months! She had the idea to meet the representatives of the other towns, she and her team saved Swamp Shiro, and she fought to save Wartwood when that giant robot was looking for her and Grime, and she saw what Andrias was capable of! The only thing she had in common with these people was the vengeful urge to burn the tyrant alive, beyond that they were more like children expecting their impulsivity to fix their problems!

“Uh... Sa--I mean, ma’am, your face is getting red. Too fast for their liking. Maybe you should take a break and cool down?” Toadie’s advice was ignored for Sasha grabbed a dagger and plunged it violently into the table in front of the figurine of the crown. “My wisest choice as you have mentioned, Mr. Jumpting is to listen. I may be younger than all of you and not from this world but I've been with the toads of Southern Toad Tower for a while and I know about strategies, fighting styles, and war. I'm the head and what the body must do is stop fighting with the other parts, waste precious time and listen and do as the head says!”

“Sasha,” Grime whispered to her ear, concerned at the disapproval he was sensing from the audience. “Flexibility, remember? Get them to--” Her hand cut his advice short as she kept talking.

“This is more than a war we’re facing. It's the possibility of the end of Amphibia and the future invasion and destruction of planets like mine and others we don't know anything about. Some of you don't like each other or their opinions? Not my problem. You can hate one another once this mess is done. For now, stop with the nonsense and the petty grudges and put the effort into winning!”

The silence permeating the room got heavier as the seconds passed and Sasha regretted a little the brusqueness but justified it as necessary.

“Anyway, our best movement, for now, is to gather the supplies that have survived the last attacks and keep them safe for everyone’s sake, then try to find Wigbert Ribbiton if Ribbitvale is still intact. But, knowing there will be robots at every corner, destroying them the fastest way without losing anyone is the second most important task for today. That's why I brought Croaker, Stumpy, Wally, Felicia and Sylvia Sundew, Maddie, and Gunther here. They may not be soldiers but they have their own fighting styles that have proved to be very useful. Even Toadstool is a decent fighter. Thing is they're not a single fraction of the town capable of defending themselves, almost everyone in Wartwood is tough and creative enough to kick some robots’ butts. I've fought with the people of Swamp Shiro to help them get rid of Andrias’ machines but I want to know if a large percentage of the population there can fight and/or build weapons. The same for the other towns.”

No one spoke which Sasha took as no one could learn or no one had the experience. It didn't make sense because Swamp Shiro showed her they could fight back despite not being soldiers so why the other towns were the exceptions?

“Come on, guys. Why the long pause? It can't be that Wartwood and Swamp Shiro are the only ones able to defend themselves, right? And if that's true, what about learning to use weapons? It’s not that difficult.”

“Honestly, I wouldn’t be so sure about your methods of training, whatever they are, with the kind of army you have. I mean, there are women and a child here!”

“Just so you know, we're not as weak or defenseless as you think,” Felicia replied to Dylan. “My mother, my daughter, and I know about martial arts.”

“I may look old but I can fight even with a cane.” Mrs. Croaker added.

“And I use magic and curses to help others and self-defense,” Maddie added.

“Does that mean the most vulnerable are also weaponized? Doesn't sound too wise for me.”

“I never said that everyone would fight. No one is forced even if the circ*mstances demand preparations. If there is a percentage of people unable or if they feel it's not their thing, ok. But they must contribute with something though. You're a doctor, careers like yours or gardeners and farmers will be indispensable to keep our comrades and allies healed and well-fed.”

“And when we have our army ready, then what? How are we supposed to reach the castle?” Chess asked and Malcolm nodded quickly.

“We’ll be useless without a way to fly to destroy that castle. Can't we use robots to get there? I've seen many of them flying from one place to another.”

Sasha shook her head. “Too dangerous. We don't know how to reprogram them, the knowledge and blueprints are with Andrias, and his castle is weaponized with a giant laser cannon that can turn cities into craters.”

“Laser cannon? What's that?”

“Where Sasha is from, it is a powerful weapon that stores energy and fires it. We've seen the power of the castle laser cannon, it was terrifying. Northern Toad Tower is no more.” Grime explained causing a few gasps in the audience. That, however, motivated Malcolm to keep pushing with more ideas.

“What about flying beasts?”

“A friend of mine has a giant sparrow called Joe Sparrow. Too on the nose, but anyway that's the only tamed flying animal near Wartwood.”

“Besides, other creatures like moths, hyebeenas, love doves, and herons are too risky to tame or ride. Although, we could try with dragonflies.” Grime’s suggestion perked Malcolm up but Sasha’s grave expression lessened the spark of enthusiasm at taking a few steps ahead in the plan.

“Uh, what?” The girl said when she broke her train of thought and was met with expectant eyes.

“Isn't it your turn now to reject our ideas and give us more reasons to listen to yours?”

“And then teach us how much you know compared to us too?”

“What's that supposed to mean?” Sasha leaned over the table, her two hands gripping the borders hard.

“Why are we here? That's the question.” Sasha’s confusion got Dalila to explain herself. “You wanted us to be your allies, but so far you have rejected our ideas, been impolite, treated us like rambunctious children, and labeled the conflict between us amphibians as petty grudges.”

“Because they ARE petty grudges. He,” the blonde pointed at Dylan. “Criticized the idea of asking Newtopia for help because according to him, the newts are too focused on their own stuff inside the walls of the city and haven't done anything for the people outside. He,” her index finger went to Nico. “Kind of insulted the toads by saying they're brutish when that's far from the truth.”

“Excuse me?” Nico took the word, boasting his chest indignantly. “I wasn't being offensive. What I'd said are facts.”

“For you solely. I've been with the toads for several months and not all of them are violent punch-first-ask-questions-later hooligans. They have talents and likes beyond working on the towers. But that's beside the point, you still said something that showed your perception of them. And please don't tell me what the toads and newts gathered here think about the frogs because it will just cause more trouble and waste my time. And about the other stuff, you have pointed out: being blunt is more productive than sugarcoating all the details for your feelings’ sake, and no, not everyone here is thinking things through so it's up to me to stop you from getting yourselves killed.”

“Do you think you know much better than us?” Clementine put her hands on the hips. “You even said you didn't belong here. And despite knowing how to fight and lead an army due to the toads’ influence, they aren't the only amphibians in the country. And if you ask me, I’d rather follow a frog or a newt instead of a toad sympathizer.”

“Oh sure, and what about the toads of every group of every town here? Are you going to kick them out?” Grime, Toadie, Toadstool, and the others shared worried looks as Sasha raised her voice to be more imposing.

“Of course not, don't be silly. By toad sympathizer, I was referring to someone who worked on Toad Tower and likes its ideology. The same ideology that has bullied and exploited us for Frog-knows how long!”

“I'm not like that!” The images of the battle on the top of Toad Tower, Anne standing up to her, the scar on the cheek, and the traumatic fall flashed in her mind.

“You’re working with Captain Grime and I've heard disgusting stuff about him. He and his men loved to "put us in our place" whenever we tried to defend ourselves!”

The toad raised his hands defensively. “Ok ok, I admit I was a morally bankrupt captain, but that part of me is over. I'm taking the honest path.”

“Just because you need our help!” Chess argued.

“And to make it worse, this hummus is acting much more self-entitled than the savage thugs of Toad Tower!” Theo’s accusation was the breaking point but Sasha couldn't unleash her anger on him with her sword or her fists as Toadie clung to her leg like a koala while screaming “Break! Time for a break!”

Toadstool led the outraged allies to his kitchen and asked Stumpy to cook something to calm everyone down despite the protests and insults at Sasha that kept flying.

+++++++++++++++++

The humble fest prepared by Stumpy felt more like a funeral or the aftermath of a bar fight as the representatives of the towns complained with one another.

“The nerve of that hummus to talk like that! Who does she think she is to be this condescending?!” Nico drank a whole cup of wine to quell his anger.

“Let's not forget whom she's allied with. My Frog, befriending the same toad captain who terrorizes towns for money, such commanders we have!” GreenWay pinched the bridge of her nose in disappointment.

“If you ask me, I think Grime was sincere with his change of heart.”

“Of course, because toads stick together even if their cause is wrong.” Gwendolyn’s commentary disgusted Malcolm a lot.

“Come on, Gwen. This is not the time to let this stuff make us fall apart.” Mrs. Bronze patted her shoulder in an attempt to alleviate the tension.

“No no, Bronze, I want to know what she thinks because perhaps she has forgotten that she's also a toad.”

“I haven't forgotten, but I don't know if remember the cruelty they inflicted on us each time taxes had to be collected. We may be toads but we never worked on Toad Tower where soldiers are taught to crush people for standing up to them or anyone that gets in the middle of the crossfire. Heck, some names are still imprinted in my mind like Bog, for example. He and his goons threatened or killed innocents to have their sacks filled with money, they stole whatever they wanted if someone hadn't paid their taxes. It doesn't matter if Grime is a different person he still encouraged those atrocities.”

“I’ve never said I was ok with his past actions but I think he wasn’t lying when he said he had taken the right path to make amends. Besides, what do you expect us to do? Not accepting their help because of Grime’s past? If there is someone here we should kick out of the resistance is that gangly thing.”

“I agree with Malcolm, if partially.” Theo summed up the conversation. “That captain might be a vulgar thug playing hero but at least he didn’t reject our ideas every five seconds with the pretension that he is way smarter than us. Meanwhile, Sasha is too disrespectful to our conflicts and way of thinking.”

“Say, Bronze,” Dylan regarded the grandma toad. “Why don’t we start our own resistance and leave the hummus and that old toad behind? I don’t get why you trust her with the attitude she has. We are four towns of Frog Valley, she’s just one person!”

“I understand that she’s harsh and temperamental but she means well. Sasha and her friends helped us when we told them about the slaved citizens and the robots taking over Swamp Shiro.”

“A heroic act is not enough to make a good impression, especially one that must be lasting,” Tito argued. “Most importantly, you don’t know her. What if in the end, we are all her pawns to ensure her survival and the safety of the few people she truly cares about?”

“I didn’t trust her at first because my family’s well-being was on the line but she has risked her life to save Swamp Shiro.” Bronze’s gaze went from her group to the other ones. “Guys, I’m not saying all this to invalidate your feelings toward Sasha. I also felt she didn't take the hundreds of problems between amphibians seriously. But right now our biggest priority is winning the war. If we lose, no one will be safe. And despite our differences, we are more than Andrias. We must fight together.”

The sentiment was shared by the other guests. The King they once looked up to or believed had their interests protected had become a meat-grinder, lust for power his only goal. Their families and lives would never restart if he was still alive.

The second part of the speech was reluctantly accepted albeit silently. The social system in Amphibia and the role each person had let grievances and injustices fester and the resentment get worse. Frogs were considered weak and easy to bully by the toads, and too simple-minded by the newts. Toads were labeled as brutes and delinquents by the other species even when a small percentage disliked the toxic warrior culture taught in the towers. And newts, despite their intelligence and lots of knowledge, were too immersed in the issues inside the city as if Newtopia was the only worthy place to develop and help. Everyone seemed to dislike or disapprove of everyone and a bunch was content with their lot in life, not caring a little about why others were struggling or if it was right to keep things that way.

Then there was Sasha and Grime which made everything more difficult. At least Grime had a supporter thanks to Malcolm but despite Bronze’s trust in Sasha, the allies weren't satisfied with her performance. Even in the group representing Swamp Shiro, support for Sasha was weak.

“If you ask me, I would like to keep going with this resistance.” Chess broke the silence. “However, it will be with one condition. I do NOT want that hummus commanding it. She has been in Amphibia for what? Several months? That's not enough to understand how chaotic our lives are. And it goes beyond surviving love doves, tomatoes, or the weather, which we have fought much before she landed here.”

“I say the same,” Merry walked to Chess’ side. “I can tolerate former captain Grime as long as he's useful and doesn't ruin anything to benefit himself but the hummus acts as if we can't think or contribute to the resistance. And she's not that necessary. We can form our own resistance and fight Andrias.”

“She has the battle experience that we lack.” Bronze said.

“Who said we can not learn? We'll find our own teachers and ways to improve self-defense but it won't be under her rule. Even you could teach us how to make weapons or use them.”

“Wha-- Me?”

“Why not? You fought with Sasha and Grime to save your home. You've seen her fight and prepare plans, so you have the knowledge that can help us.”

“I second it.” Dylan entered the conversation.

“Me too.” His twin commented. “Better someone who was born in Amphibia than an outsider.”

“And you're more respectful and open-minded that that thing. I bet she loves the sound of her voice shutting down our ideas.” Said Chess.

“Guys, as flattering as that sounds, and trust me I would like to, I'm not much of a leader material. I don't even have the experience.”

“But what about what you've learned from the hummus?” Theo asked.

“It was for a short time. And even when I had the idea of making a council for my town that doesn't mean I have the leadership skills you sorely need.”

“Does that mean you're going back to work for the hummus Sasha?”

“You make it sound as if I'm just an underling. We all are allies. We are equal. No one works for anyone; we collaborate.”

“That’s not how she sees it. Even you disagreed when she dismissed our worries that the King might use or eliminate the rich snobs.” Malcolm reminded her.

“Disagreements aren't a signal that I'm going to replace her. It's normal to disagree among comrades.”

“Well, at least compared to her, you show we're your equals. She has been putting down lots of ideas as if we are too dumb to do something.” Dylan growled.

“Let's admit it, some ideas share too risky and we can't lose more people. Showing ourselves at the King’s doorsteps this early will give him the chance to crush the resistance. However, it doesn't mean we can't give them a try, as long as the King doesn't find out and it doesn't get us killed.”

“That's the kind of attitude we like! You don't say no and leave it like that. You should be the leader, not the hummus.” Merry walked to the center of the kitchen after saying that and raised her hand. “I vote that Bronze becomes our new leader and then we'll leave this useless meeting. Who's with me?”

“Whoa, wait a second. What about Wartwood? Are we just going to leave it to fend for itself?”

“The Sasha hummus can deal with it and protect it. Meanwhile, we will take care of each other and fight back. Why depending on that thing when all our heads combined are enough?”

“What if I say no? I didn't agree to this.”

“Fine by me. You and your group can still listen to her, but the rest of us will face the war at our own pace and with the kind of leadership we choose.”

“I can't change your mind, can I?”

“Nope. And you can't with theirs either.” Merry said at the same time she pointed her thumb at the representative groups of Lily Paddington and Bog Bottom that had raised their hands.

The choice was unanimous.

+++++++++++++++++++++

During the debate in the kitchen...

Sasha was fuming. Seething like a dragon whose treasure had been touched by an intruder or a volcano close to imploding.

Stupid amphibians and their idiotic complaints! Who cared about old disputes between amphibians when the fate of the multiverse was at stake?!

Couldn't they simply listen and not derail the meeting with out-of-mind plans and squabbles?!

“Sasha, stop stomping on the ground. You'll ruin my floor.” The blonde intimidated the mayor with a cold glare, gritting her teeth.

“This is NOT the time for you and your damn floor!!”

“Young lady, you're taking this out of proportion.” Felicia’s scolding got her to gasp as if she was deeply offended.

“Why are pinning this on me?! It's them who can't stop with their issues who have nothing to do with the war!”

“Sasha, ma’am, don't take this the wrong way but those issues aren't mere grudges. Our history is too complex.” Sasha wondered what Toadie meant by that. Then she remembered what Grime had told her when she decided to fight for Wartwood and redeem herself.

‘My point is, that even before the legend Barrel was, there were still issues between the species but not as bad as today.’

“So your species love to be judgemental and racist. Or speciesist? Anyway, so what? Does that mean we have to focus on who's right about the horrible stuff they say about others instead of saving the world?”

“Of course not, but your way to tell them to stop focusing on those conflicts was... A bit invalidating. Ok, no, a lot invalidating.”

“It's just dumb politics! Shouldn't you know that?! You have been working for Toadstool for years!”

“That's the point, Sasha/Waybright” Grime and Toadstool’s voices entered the conversation at the same time.

“What he and I were trying to say is that the bad things we have done to each other and the beliefs we hold about one another aren't that easy to dismiss.”

“Shouldn't it be the time with a common enemy?”

“Maybe, but easy solutions and complex situations hardly combine. You've seen me at my worst, wanting to take over the Valley, perpetuating injustices, resorting to violence to crush innocents when my authority was questioned. You've seen what Andrias is capable of and how little he cares about the damage he inflicts on others. It's not fair to tell the amphibians to shut up when those issues have been hurting them for a long time.”

“Apart from that,” continued Toadstool. “You should've figured out that the other 3 towns aren't the only ones with multiple amphibians living in them. I'm a toad, Duckweed is a newt, and Loogle is an axolotl. And before you ask, we don't get along that well if at all. I used to bedazzle money and raise the taxes a lot for my gain, and the people hated me for it until I started to change my ways. And then when you went to Swamp Shiro, you discovered the mayor had sold the town because he thought Andrias had a great future for everyone in mind. Are you telling me to forget all of that to win a war? Then I bet all my money, Amphibia will fall apart much worse and quicker with the stuff we swept under the rug!”

“Falling apart at the seams, great,” Sasha murmured, stress showing on the lines on her forehead. “Listen, sorry to burst anyone’s bubble here but I'm not a politician to fix this problem. I'm better at battle strategies, not history stuff.”

“It doesn't mean you shouldn't take it seriously. History repeats itself if it's not learned, young lady, even if it isn't yours.” Sylvia butted in.

“But I didn't cause the rifts between all the people in Amphibia, that's on them, that's on you! The meeting wasn’t to find out if our allies or we are filled with biases that come from centuries ago but to create plans to sustain the resistance and grow in strength and numbers but they simply turned it into a wild card party.”

“Wild card what?”

“It means the ideas of the representatives weren’t the best and most productive.” Grime explained to Stumpy.

“I don’t know, they sounded crazy but with a little work they could pay off,” Wally said.

“Pfff, like what exactly? Riding wild beasts that can fly?”

“Well, excuse me for having some faith in a bit of madness.” The hilbilly threw a dirty glare at the mayor.

“Wally, madness won't help us win the war unless you count being eaten by a heron a victory.”

“Finding allies in Newtopia is much more logical and safer than taming wild animals. Maybe we should try there first.”

“It would be convenient except my knowledge of the city is limited compared to Marcy’s. She's the one living there for months before we saw each other again.” Sasha replied to Croaker’s suggestion.

“Then how could you orchestrate a coup against the King with so little information?” Maddie asked.

“Contacts and...using Anne and Marcy.” A headache was forming at the center of her forehead. Nothing was going the way she wanted, the plans were being ignored for others’ problems. Her right hand grabbed the handle of the sword to ground herself but the stress still clung to her side.

“I need some time alone. Everyone is dismissed.”

Once again, Grime and Toadie watched her leave not knowing what to do although they weren't alone.

Croaker sighed and talked to the others “Ok, this meeting is getting worse and with her mood, I doubt anything will be concluded. We should bid farewell to the allies and reschedule another meeting.”

“Maybe I should go check on her.”

“I don't suggest you do that, Toadie.” Grime replied. “Sasha’s temper is explosive in battle but is much more difficult when she's frustrated. This day has overwhelmed her quite a lot.”

“Not only her but the guests too. She has made a pretty bad first impression; it will cost us too much.” Sylvia commented.

“Maybe what she needs is to be reminded she can trust people no matter the differences or the disagreements, not that she failed.”

“Again, she might lash out and things will be awkward after that but if you can give her some advice that can get through her, then sure. Besides, now that I think about it, it would be better if I make sure she and the allies don't tear each other apart.”

With that said, both toad and frog exited the meeting room and looked for Sasha inside Toadstool’s house but after discovering she wasn't in any room and less in the one where the allies were, they got out and walked to the Plantar’s barn.

Effectively, there she was, although outside of the building and practicing her swordsmanship despite the lack of a dummy.

“Sasha, are you ok?” Grime went right to the issue. He knew she wasn't ok but if she resorted to exercises and other activities to distract her mind from the stress of the meeting, then the festering of her negative feelings and thoughts would implode and worsen everything.

“Don’t distract me, Grime. I'm busy.”

“Yep, that's a no.” That got Toadie a dirty eye from the blonde as she continued to swing the blade.

“Alright, enough exercising.” Grime grabbed Sasha’s left arm and gave her his best parental glare much to her disdain. “You can't do this again, Lieutenant.”

“Doing what?”

“You know what I'm talking about! Remember how you acted after the defeat at Toad Tower?” Toad Tower, Toad Tower, it's always Toad Tower! “You spent all your time training to take your mind off of that day. You bottled up your feelings. This is the same! You just have to face it!”

“Face what?! That this meeting was for nothing and our allies are too concentrated on a bunch of issues that won’t help us defeat Andrias?”

“If that's how you see it, yes.”

“Being upset won't help me at anything. I'm training.”

Grime facepalmed. Toadie got closer while making sure to be at a safe distance from the blade. Not wanting a bloody accident to freak everyone out.

“You know, it's ok if it's not ok.”

The blonde girl and the toad looked at him as if he were crazy.

“Care to explain?”

“Oh, uh... Oh yeah! Battle of the Bands! I bet you haven't forgotten that you can't force success on anyone right?” Sasha glanced at the sky, she seemed uninterested but it was her way of remembering. Her eyes sparked, having found that memory. “What about that?”

“The same should be applied here. I know cooperation is essential but if you force it onto our allies they won't feel comfortable and even if they try, the issues they have with one another might ruin things.”

“This success is not for a prize, it's to save Amphibia, Earth, and the whole multiverse! Whether they like it or not, cooperation with people you dislike is important.”

“I know, but maybe there are other ways to have cooperation and harmony. What about sending letters? Communication at distance.”

“Toadie, I think you don't understand, this meeting is to be aware of who's going to fight at your side, to make the best out of our new alliance. No one makes alliances with people whose faces have never seen before or whose names they have never heard of. That's why I brought them all here to try to know if we can be compatible for a bigger team but it seems they couldn't care less about it, it's just their issues. This must have gone perfectly.”

As Sasha pinched the bridge of her nose to lessen the headache, Toadie reflected on her words.

“It makes sense, I guess. But can I ask why you have to attain perfection?”

“Why? Isn't it obvious? Perfection makes you feel safe, it assures you your plans will never go wrong, that...” Sasha realized then why she wanted it so much. “Perfection means control. Being in control of stuff, of people, makes me feel safe... Gosh, I'm such a hypocrite. I'm trying to be less likely controlling but I want things my way.”

“You know, it's not bad to be a perfectionist. Putting attention to detail is good but maybe if you let others contribute despite their flaws or crazy ideas, you won't have to stress that much about perfection. And things don't have to be that way to be ok, as long as it's competent.”

“Not with Andrias though. Whatever weapons and monsters he has hidden, we need to defeat them with a counterattack that is impossible to outsmart, or else... I don't want to think about that.”

“And you won’t have to because we have company right now.” Grime pointed to the crowd getting closer to the barn. Strangely, it was the three groups representing the towns. Sasha didn't like whatever was coming.

“Ladies, gentlemen. It's something wrong?”

Merry puffed her chest before speaking “We’ve decided that Lily Paddington and Bog Bottom will deal with the war under their own rules and leadership.”

“Whoa, whoa, what?! Are you going to work separately from Wartwood and Swamp Shiro?”

“As you said. This meeting made it pretty clear that you aren't the best leader for us. Your perspective as an outsider will hinder us and lead us to disaster. Apart from that, you have shown utter disrespect for the struggles and conflicts between the amphibians and our ideas.”

“Listen, my methods might be harsh but they're effective. What do you expect me to do anyway? Letting you all fight with one another or try ideas that could diminish our numbers?”

“You could at least give them a try, but it's not that our point of view will matter to you if you don't get what you want.” Chess added sourly.

“What I want is the same as you: defeating Andrias to save Amphibia. And to do that, we have to work together.”

“Under your supervision? I don't think so,” Dalila scoffed and crossed her arms. “You’re an outsider who doesn't care a little bit about the issues on Amphibia and deems them petty grudges. You have put yourself at the top without asking us if we were ok with you as a commander. You also work with former captain Grime who used to extortionate and threaten farmers for years; for Frog’s sake, you even trained with the soldiers under his wing! What if your ego compels you to take over after Andrias fall?”

“I'm not him. And yeah, I've been training and living on Toad Tower for a while, I know they weren't good people and I wasn't a decent one either. I did bad things but I'm trying to make amends and be better.”

“Well now, that part of doing misdeeds is putting you in a worse light than now,” Theo commented.

“Misdeeds or not, our decision is final. We are out of this alliance.”

“You know how disadvantageous is this, right? I have battle and strategy training.”

“Who said we can't learn on our own?”

“This is a huge mistake!” Sasha was losing patience increasingly. “You can be mad at me and hate me, fine. But going to war completely blind--”

“Completely blind for you, but if we have survived Amphibia’s fauna and flora much before you landed in our country, then we can face this as well. Now if you excuse us, we're leaving.” Merry and the others bumped into her purposefully and walked to the entrance of the town while Sasha watched, disbelief making a short-circuit in her head.

“Sasha, don't worry, we can still make a dent into Andrias’ army by uniting Wartwood and Swamp Shiro’s forces, and maybe other towns outside Frog Valley.”

Despite the kindness and determination seeping from Mrs. Bronze's words, Sasha was unable to contain her anger at seeing her plans turned into ashes by the rejection from Lily Paddington and Bog Bottom.

Scenes from her previous failures plagued her mind like a virus. Anne defending the villagers instead of doing what she told her, Percy and Braddock leaving the team despite having finally retrieved the legendary war hammer, Anne disowning Sasha from being her friend and calling her a horrible person.

“I think it's better if you guys return to Swamp Shiro. The Lieutenant is going through a hard time right now.” Grime gently pushed Mrs. Bronze and her group outside of Wartwood and bid them farewell.

Minutes later, the fuse exploded.

“FINE!! Leave for all that I care! If you want to get yourselves killed when we're so close to do progress then do it!! Don't come to me when you suffer the consequences!!”

“Ma’am, it's ok, at least we have--”

“Shut your f*cking mouth!” Sasha roared at Toadie. The poor assistant flinched and hugged himself, tearing up.

The blonde girl couldn't care less at the moment due to the fiasco of the meeting and the pent-up frustration.

As she stormed off to the Plantar’s house, Grime met Toadie again and after seeing the barely-contained tears and his saddened demeanor, a heavy sigh escaped him.

So much for a meeting day, uh?

Notes:

So, wanted to say this because I think it is interesting or at least funny in some way. This chapter was supposed to be called “Teach me how to listen” but I decided on something better and not that much on the nose. Also, the end was supposed to be uplifting but maybe a bit of a challenge for Sasha can help her redemption to be better than in canon.

Chapter 8: Wally’s urban legend

Summary:

Otherworldly stuff can be found in the most unexpected ways

Chapter Text

“This is all your fault!”

Sasha turned around and found someone she didn’t know she would ever see again.

“Braddock!” She ran towards her and met a mudball thrown at her face. Surprise and hurt halted her steps as she watched the infuriated and hateful eyes of her ex-comrade.

“Stay away from me, you monster!”

“Monster? What do you mean?”

“Don’t play dumb with me. Not after killing HIM!!” The toad showed her a destroyed and bloodied jester hat. Realization hit her like a frenzied bull.

“Percy… He… He’s dead?”

“Don’t you dare, Waybright! It was bad enough that your ambitions got him killed but pretending to have amnesia is an insult to his memory!!”

“But you two left. After retrieving the hammer, remember?”

“Only the three of us could survive. But he… I loved him. We wanted to be more than underpaid soldiers but then you got this plan of glory and pushed us too far. I saw him falling to the maws of that beast! All because you didn’t want to listen to our pleas and let this go!”

This was a dream. There is no other explanation except that she has been sent in some way to an alternative dimension where her schemes got a friend eaten by a giant worm.

“Braddock, listen, I—“

“I don’t want your excuses, Waybright. That’s all you can give to anyone who has the bad luck to know you. Excuses and hurt.”

“Look what you did to our daughters, Sasha Waybright!”

She refused but her body acted on its own and she saw the sorrow and despise painted on the faces of Anne and Marcy’s parents.

“I knew from the start that you would be nothing but trouble for my daughter. I told her countless times to stay away from you but in the end, your tricks and manipulations turned her into something she hated. She couldn’t stop pleasing you and now she’s a gangster!!”

“How could you, Sasha?! I for once gave you the benefit of the doubt only for you to prove me wrong! My little girl’s life is ruined!” There were tears in Mrs. Boonchuy’s eyes as she screamed.

“To top it all, Marcy is dead because of you!!” This time, Marcy’s dad, Chen Wu, talked. “Her future, her dreams, everything of her is gone thanks to you!”

“How could you?! Our only daughter and you didn’t care! Is this how you see everyone in your life? Like pawns to discard?!” Sasha stepped back at Mrs. Wu's resentful accusations.

But this torture was barely starting.

“What happened, Sash? I thought you always had a smart comeback whenever someone called you out.”

Anne’s nickname for her sounded so wrong with the heavy dose of disdain and coldness that flowed from her mouth.

“Anne...” Sasha observed the girl. The golden chest armor was gone and her complexion, so fragile and malnourished, didn't fit with the strong and confident one-shoe Thai teenager that used to be her friend.

“Wondering what other crimes you committed, Waybright? Let me refresh your memory then. I've made the worst mistake of my life by following you, by picking your side even when what you were doing was wrong! The Plantars were like a family to me, Wartwood was like a second home but you and the toads, and Grime had to ruin it! I should've never let you touch any of them! Because of you, because of my cowardice, Hop Pop was executed and no one, not even Sprig, wants anything to do with me anymore!!”

Anne grabbed the photo of the girl trio and tore it apart, right where Sasha was much to the other’s painful horror. “You did this to me.” The Thai teenager hissed, using the photo as an example. “My new family, my chances to grow, I gave them up because you couldn’t stand me meeting real friends!!”

“Ironic, isn't it? You blabber a lot about caring and protecting us the best you can but it's all about your ego.”

Wait, since when Marcy appeared at Anne’s side?!

“Look at this, Sashy,” Marcy spat the nickname she had created for Sasha when they were little as if it were a vulgarity. Her finger almost poked the accursed, haunting scar Andrias had inflicted on her. “LOOK AT IT!!! This is a consequence! A consequence of your betrayal, your lust for power, your fake care of us. Nothing but a lie you try to maintain to keep controlling us. Look around you, Sasha.” Marcy extended her arms to the others.

The blonde gulped because her hateful audience kept growing. The people from Newtopia, the Wartwoodians, Sprig, Polly, and even Grime!

“You frog-forsaken beast!” cried a newt that was holding a small, lifeless body. “If you had never placed a foot in our home, my son would still be alive! Your existence is nothing but a curse!”

“My family business went to flames because of your rebellion!!” Screamed another newt, a female. Or that's what she sounded like because her appearance looked so filthy, worse than a peasant to even know if she was a woman.

“You killer!! You took our Hop Pop!!” Sprig threw a mud ball to her face and then a stone hit her seconds later courtesy of Polly.

“Murderer!!”

“We should've never let you enter our town!”

“Yeah, Hopadiah was a good man!! You destroyed his whole family!”

Sasha shook her head. If she had the luck or the sheer will to make them vanish, she could get a few hours of good sleep.

But could she? Lucid dreaming wasn't on her list of skills.

“None of this is real” she mumbled. “None of this is real!!” Her gaze steeled, freezing the people around her. “I've been having nightmares, don't you think I'm not aware of the fact many of you are gone?!”

“Gone due to your stupidity,” Said Grime. For some reason, his voice was distorted. A mix of his own and someone else’s. “First you couldn't control Anne, Percy and Braddock ran away from you, Marcy was murdered, and now two towns have abandoned you. Here it is, Sasha Elizabeth Waybright, the girl who uselessly tried to grasp on the sand.”

“You don't know anything about me!!”

“Wrong, honey. I know absolutely everything about you. Your fears, your demons, your dreams, and your hopes. But you always ignored me.”

“Oh yeah? Then show me your real face instead of hiding using Grime’s, you coward!!”

Dream Grime showed its sharp teeth in a vicious smirk, its body melting from the borders to the center of its chest until the dark-green skin and the mismatched eyes changed to pale, smooth skin and a school uniform.

“Hey, girlfriend” mocked Dream Sasha.

“Typical. Yep, super movie cliche. You're me. Bravo” Sasha clapped sarcastically.

“You know, this is exactly why you're in this hellhole, sweetheart~. You don't take seriously the most glaring or obvious of red flags. It has to be always someone else who is at fault. Except you. But you are your own biggest obstacle, and the more you underestimate me, the worse it'll get.”

“After falling from the flying castle, I don't think anything else can surprise me.”

“Trust me, there is so much more you don't know. Now tell me, dear me, why are you slacking off?”

“Slacking off? If we're the same person, then you should know how hard I'm working.”

“After your fiasco of a meeting, I doubt it.”

“Oh sure, and if you were in my place you would've manipulated the villagers to make things easier, right? How's that changing for the better?”

“I can't know because I'm you. I decided to be direct, harsh, perfectionist, and no-nonsense. But bridges that don't bend will break no matter what. It has happened already.” Dream Sasha pointed at the cracks on Sasha’s arms and legs. The blonde blanched in panic but her counterpart didn't give her time to process this new phenomenon. “Relax, it doesn't mean you're dying. It means you're breaking. If a bridge withstands, people will be safe. If it falls apart, there won't be an exit. What are you, Sasha Waybright? People’s downfall or their exit?”

+++++++++++++

Reality crashed on the teenager as her eyes adjusted to the darkness of the basem*nt. Her hands unconsciously searched for the lightshroom and tapped it, blinking hard due to the source of illumination.

On autopilot, she put on her war boots and walked to the exit of the basem*nt without making any sound for Mr. Flour had been tasked to watch over her and Grime hours later after the meeting with the 3 towns.

The humidity and warmth of the air, the rhythmic song of the crickets, and the stars painting the sky greeted her. A snore broke the trance she was in. Mr. Flour's open mouth showed a line of saliva running from a corner of his lips while his whole body made the chair creak with all the weight.

Now out of the weird spell, Sasha wondered what the heck was she trying to do. Perhaps she should return to the basem*nt or else she would get in trouble; however, the words of her dream counterpart echoed in her mind.

Of all the sequences of her dream, that part was the only one that managed to glue itself into her psyche like a bad cold.

Guess a short walk during the morning was to help her sort through her feelings.

The girl walked away from the Plantars’ house, solving the puzzle her new dream was without cracking her head with crazy theories.

Why did she have it?

The nightmare from days ago hadn't been pleasant but at least she could predict it. A miasma of traumatic moments, regrets, and the people she loved the most.

This one, though. Every person she knew, well, the few ones that were important emotionally or relevant in some way to her, had appeared with alternative outcomes she had caused.

The young lieutenant shivered at those possibilities the more she ruminated on her dream doppelganger’s words.

Percy died during the hammer mission.

Hopediah was executed and Anne hated her for it.

Anne and Marcy’s parents considered her a menace to their daughters.

Everyone else in Amphibia too.

‘But you are your own biggest obstacle, and the more you underestimate me, the worse it'll get’

Bah! Bullsh*t!

As if Sasha had been looking down on herself! More like she had been too sure of herself, too ready to test new methods to reach the greater good.

No manipulation, no lies, no sweet talking with ulterior motives, no schemes, yada yada yada.

Did her mind understand it all wrong or didn't it know her well?

She still remembered the dissatisfaction and anger for being rejected despite her honest intentions and taking the situation seriously.

“That face screams a lot of issues, girl”

“Aaaaahhhh!!!” Sasha jumped and pointed a dagger at her enemy which was no other than Wally. The eccentric frog raised his accordion in self-defense.

“Hey, hey! Calm down, would ya? I’m no ghost!”

“Buddy, you scared me!”

“And ya kinda creeped me out”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” She asked angrily.

“Ya would call someone creepy if ya saw them walking in the middle of the night and mumbling to themselves, wouldn’t ya?”

“Our concept of creepiness is different. First, I would call that person suspicious, not creepy. Second, if someone were stalking me or being obsessed with me directly or behind my back I would be creeped out then.”

“How ya know if someone is obsessed with you if they hide it?”

“Feminine intuition. That and I don’t let anyone outsmart me.”

Except for two people of course.

“Two people?”

sh*t, did she think that out loud?

“If you remembered my truthful speech after all of you bumpkins confronted me and Grime for lying to you by omission then you would know it’s Andrias who I’m talking about.”

“Oh… Oh, yeah! I get it!” Good. The conversation was over. “But who’s the other person?” Not really.

Sasha looked away and mumbled “It’s personal” before sitting at the feet of the founder’s statue.

Wally did the same, though he put enough distance between him and the blonde, and then played his accordion.

The young lieutenant groaned. Brilliant, now there is country music as a distraction!

She had no energy to tell him to play his instrument somewhere else or to do it a few hours later, but as strange as it felt, his proficiency in playing the accordion and the big smile on his face while humming a song reminded her of a former friend.

A soft chuckle escaped her lips. “You know, you and Percy would form the perfect band.”

“Percy?” Despite the music of his accordion, the hillbilly frog heard her. “Who's he?”

“A friend of mine,” her smile faded when his last words played on her head. “Used to be a friend of mine. But he loved music and his instruments too. He had a dream related to that. You two would be good friends.”

Better Wally than her after the outcome of the war hammer.

“What war hammer?”

Seriously, what's with her and her lack of discretion? She was never the one that let personal stuff slip out of her hands.

“Nothing... Just a fight I had with him and...and Braddock... But it affected them a lot and they didn't want to be part of my team anymore.”

“And this is why ya’re so conflicted right now?”

“Who are you anyway? My therapist?” Wally raised his arms to placate her anger.

These frogs... She would never understand them. One thing was to bond with them and work in harmony to defeat Andrias, but another one was open up to them, and Grime was the only amphibian she felt comfortable enough to do it even if sometimes she preferred to keep stuff to herself.

What would Anne do in this situation? Did she tell the frogs about her insecurities or weird dreams? And why was she so unsure of herself with this matter? It's not that telling Wally why she wasn't sleeping would change the outcome of the meeting or bring Anne and Marcy back.

Talking about the meeting...

“I never saw you as the guy who would be the target of a rich snob.”

“Uh?” that caught him off guard.

“In the meeting, you said Anne defended you from Wigbert Ribbiton. So I guess you got in trouble or people dislike your taste in music.”

Wally scowled at that teasing.

“Excuse me, but my musical taste is quite fine. Ya fancy fellas just don't have the ear for accordions.”

“Still, a hillbilly pissing off a millionaire? That sounded like Hopadiah infuriating the toads on Toad Tower, especially Grime.”

“It's not pissing off if ya have good reasons to not be or do whatever they want ya to. In yer case, though,” Wally pointed one extreme of his accordion toward her “Ya made everyone angry at the meeting.”

She facepalmed with both hands.

“It shouldn't have been the result! I wanted them to take this seriously instead of fighting each other!”

“Whether we, amphibians, like to hold grudges against one another or not, it doesn't mean we don't feel the effects of Andrias’ doings. They told ya how much the towns were suffering, they gave ya ideas to fight back.”

“Crazy ones!”

“Something is something.”

“Not against Andrias. He mustn't be underestimated.”

“Then why are ya underestimating us? Or our supposed-to-be allies?”

“I was lecturing them. Or did you want me to sugar-talking to them or use manipulation?”

“Ya were too harsh.”

“At least I was honest.”

Why he couldn't get it? Why no one could? Being manipulative and scheming was wrong. Being honest and hard was right.

“What are ya going to tell everyone?”

“Uh, what?”

“The meeting, Sasha. We can't fight with few allies. That and ya made Toadie cry. At this rate, our trust in ya will be as big as the speckles of dust.”

“This is war, not a walk to the park. If you can't take a few hard truths or words in a meeting then that's not my problem.”

She got up and walked away. Wally didn't say anything; however, the farther Sasha got from the statue and the frog, the heavier the memories of yesterday’s failure and the sensation of Wally’s eyes on her were, even if she didn't know if he was looking at her.

+++++++++++++

Metal against metal could be heard in the borders of Wartwood. Loogle and Sadie piled the remnants of robots they had fought with Grime and the vigilance team as it was tasked in the schedule.

The ex-captain toad wrote the number 15 on a piece of paper after counting how many robots tried and failed to invade the town in search of him and Sasha or to capture new possible slaves.

Despite his reservations and biases against the frogs, he was forced to admit that their resilience and knowledge of the nature surrounding Wartwood were pretty sharp, especially Soggy Joe’s. His traps were able to keep the pesky machines out of the way.

But if the traps were that efficient then Andrias was getting rusty or the robots weren't as sophisticated as he thought. For machines that were supposed to surpass the amphibians in intelligence, durability, and strength, they made this so easy by how fast they could be destroyed.

Alas, Grime couldn't let his guard down. They were in the first phases of the war. Any mistake could potentially condemn them.

“Grime, can we talk for a second?” He turned to Sadie and raised his eyebrow. The old woman glared and pointed to the center of the group like a parent ready to lecture their child.

“Is it something with the robots? Because if that's so, I can't be of much help. That's not part of my expertise.”

“It's about Sasha.” Oh.

“People are getting worried...and a bit frustrated...” Loogle mumbled.

Grime sighed. The reason was clear.

“I know yesterday’s performance was less than optimal and I even warned Sasha that inflexibility wouldn't lead her to a good result but if you want my honest opinion, our allies from Lily Paddington and Bog Bottom didn't make it easy for her not any of us. We have issues with one another that are way more complex than Sasha knows but being so narrow-minded about them is fuel Andrias can exploit.”

“You have a good argument; however, as much as we must stay united and put aside our grievances, Sasha made it seem as if only she was able to take the war seriously and give practical ideas. And she invalidated centuries of conflict.”

“If she doesn't fix this, gaining new allies will be harder and slower. And the town doesn't trust her completely yet. Much less with her attitude from yesterday.” Gunther added.

The dilemma in his comment proved to be impossible according to the last events: the Lily Paddington and Bog Bottom representatives didn't want anything to do with Sasha, she proved to be an unworthy leader for them; therefore, begging on her knees, crying, and showering them with gifts might be a waste of time. And don't forget the blonde’s huge ego. Because as much as she was trying to be better, Sasha was still prideful and stubborn, believing her plans were correct from every angle despite the evidence saying otherwise.

“The two other main towns are unreachable, sadly. We can strengthen our relationship with Swamp Shiro and form new ones with the little villages inside Frog Valley.”

“Unless Swamp Shiro changes its mind and decides to never tell us. Some of the representatives weren't happy with Sasha’s leadership. It's a miracle they are still on our side.”

“Alright, we have a problem, Sasha caused it, she has to fix it and learn a lesson, do you want me to tell her she should apologize to the whole town?” It was so funnily hypocritical as he had stated, although mentally, that Lily Paddington and Bog Bottom wouldn't join them anymore not even if Sasha humbled herself and beg for forgiveness. But hey! Wartwood could be an exception! Swamp Shiro!

“Learning a lesson as you said isn't doing the opposite of the bad thing to avoid mistakes. That’s overcorrection. What she needs is a deeper understanding of why her actions were wrong and how to prevent that but it will never happen if she isn't humbled enough.”

“And you suggest that I talk with her?”

“You both share a strong bond but it doesn't guarantee a willing open ear from her.” Sadie stroked her chin, her fingers tapping the handle of her cane as she concocted a plan. An idea flashed in her eyes. “When she and I fought together during our mission on Swamp Shiro, our opinions clashed but in the end, we could find common ground between us. Maybe another Wartwoodian can do the same and crack the obstinacy in her head.”

“Except that to do that we’d need a mission in the schedule and with a plausible goal. Sasha might still be frustrated because of yesterday’s failure but she's not naive.”

“And who's going to keep an eye on her? The person for today is Wartilda. Do you think it might help?” A light-grey female frog inquired. It was Roxanne, a cucumber farmer, and if Sadie remembered well, a close friend of Wartilda too.

“After the brat yelled at Toadie so cruelly, I'm worried about the kind of treatment Wartilda will endure alone with the human. She is not a pushover but has limits.”

“Then we’ll find a better partner. Concerning the mission, getting out of Wartwood for a while may be what is needed to give her a lesson.” Grime’s face expressed his anticipation for Sadie to elaborate on her plan. “It’s pretty simple. Beyond the limits of the town, there are the other towns, little villages, monsters, and those frog-damned robots. By staying here all the time, we’ll never know what Andrias might be doing to other people we can help and convince to join us. Besides, the resistance has two commanders. One can branch out and weaken Andrias’ forces while the other can train the villagers and strengthen the security around Wartwood.”

Impressive. Simple but impressive.

“The—“

“There’s another important step to take into account.” Sadie interrupted him.

“And it is…”

“She doesn’t have to know about the plan. If you tell her, Sasha might get defensive and refuse or get defensive during the whole trip and sabotage this plan. If she is only for the mission and to protect her partner without a suspicion of ulterior motives, we might have a chance to knock some sense to her but otherwise will be useless.”

Yeah, talking about calling for trouble… Grime wasn’t the most honest or compassionate person and before his change of heart, he used to see Sasha’s worst traits and strength as weapons to hone. But she had stopped being his frog-killing soldier. She was his friend, and shouldn’t friends be honest with one another? However, with the ego she had, making her understand how unstable her methods were would be much more difficult.

Her sincerity about changing for the better and letting go of control weren’t lies but her ways to improve herself were pretty flawed.

There were times for harshness and to put aside conflicts for the greater good but there were also times to be more empathetic to the social struggles and unite people without forcing mismatched pieces together.

“If she finds out later about this, her performance as a commander will suffer as her trust in me and the rest of the town.”

“If it's ok, I can take this responsibility. When she confronts me, if that happens, I'll explain why we had to do this.”

Sounds fair. Grime sighed not out of resignation but with somber resolve. “What partner do you suggest?”

++++++++++++++

The sound of the alarm horn resonated throughout all of Wartwood, gathering a multitude to the center of the town. Grime blew the horn once more, expecting the blonde to appear and to give his “super important mission” to start the plan.

“What’s going on? Are we in danger this time?”

“Has someone been kidnapped?”

“Maybe an infestation of hybeenas is close to the town!”

“People of Wartwood, calm down. Everything is ok so far,” the audience’s anxiety decreased. “However, after our recent...disconnection with Lily Paddington and Bog Bottom, I, as co-commander, have concluded that we must branch out.”

“Branching out?” Toadstool asked confused.

“The four towns of Frog Valley have invaluable knowledge about Andrias’ intentions but what about little villages outside the valley? If we keep this information and the resources available for our survival, we’ll grow divided. Andrias will exploit any weakness and division within his enemies is something we must prevent at any cost.”

“Make sense, Grimesy,” Sasha replied. The former warlord observed the facial expression of his protegee. She didn't look happy but she didn't sound depressed or in the mood to avoid people. That should be a good sign. Unless she was going back into her bad coping mechanism of keeping her mind distracted with training, town security measures, and missions. “So, what do you suggest?”

“You and someone else will travel for a few days to investigate the surroundings of the town. It could be anything from missing people to facilities Andrias could be using to enhance his metallic army. If we have luck, we could get more intel and a few new allies. Meanwhile, I'm going to improve the traps around Wartwood and train the villagers. What do you say?”

Sasha was pensive for a while. The Wartwoodians mumbled with each other, glancing at her with disappointment and mistrust which she could feel even when she tried to ignore them.

Doesn't matter. This mission at hand, despite how abrupt it was for their schedule, should be the main priority.

And talking about new allies from outside, a part of her wondered if she could--

“Hey, what if we make the Moss Man join the resistance too?” Wally asked enthusiastically gaining exasperated groans from the others. “What? It's not that it cannot fight.”

“Moss Man?” Sasha compelled him to elaborate. “Is it the name for a weird giant insect?”

“Insect? Nope, nope, girl,” Wally started describing the creature. “The name is self-explanatory. It is a bipedal thing, taller than any newt or even HUMAN, whole body covered in thick moss, and two bushy branches as horns.”

“And of all people, you and Anne are the only ones who have seen it but never came back with proof” Wally narrowed his eyes at Mr. Flour. “Seeing it is proof enough. Thank ya.”

“Forget about that tadpole tale, we must ensure no more factories are built or villages are destroyed.” Chuck scolded. Sasha wondered why it was so rare of him to say more than “I grow tulips”. Anyway, this monster season hunting was a waste of time; her eyes checked over the audience for someone else with a better judgment until Grime placed a hand over her shoulder.

“I think you should give this a try.”

“You’re kidding me, right?”

“Sasha, you’re in a world filled with talking amphibians and you don’t believe in this creature?”

“And you do?”

“I would say no but after watching Anne Boonchuy turn blue and kicked Andrias’ butt, this Moss Man beast might be the least nonsensical story on my list. Besides, even if you don’t find it, there is still intel and allies for the resistance out there.”

Logical.

But of all the frogs why the hillbilly one?

Ugh…

+++++++++++++++

Food, check. Clothes, check. Medicines, check. Map, check. Extra-extra daggers, check. A second pack of hay for Bessie, check. Cut bushes to use as camouflage, check.

It took 15 minutes to prepare everything but what wasn’t in great shape was her mind. She’d seen Wally fight, she was astounded by his ability to use the accordion as a weapon without breaking it; however, his nerdy enthusiasm about the Mossman felt so childish in the middle of a crisis which made her question if this partnership would amount to anything good for the resistance.

Not that she didn’t trust Grime’s judgment. He had decades of experience in battle strategy and missions, though she never deemed him as someone who would bet on a fairytale a kooky frog would mention.

Giant herons, magic music boxes, birds the size of cars, insects that could devour you, you could turn any of that into an advantage to take Andrias down but a Mossman? Wally only said he and Anne had seen it. Did the creature fight? Did it vanish when it was found? Or ran away?

Sasha guessed it was the third option. Heck, if they had the slime possibility of crossing paths with that beast and finding out it doesn’t have fighting skills or anything useful to provide to the resistance, she would never let Grime and Wally hear the end of it, not even after they won the war.

“You’re slipping, Sasha.”

“Uh?”

“You’re troubled,” Grime replied. “Want to share your thoughts?”

She watched Wally making some touches to his accordion and murmured: “Listen, I can find intel and allies, or turn into pieces some factories but it will be more difficult if all I’m going to focus on is chasing a monster.”

“Then just tell him,” Sasha glared disapprovingly at his mentor. “This trip will be long, and you’re the commander. Don’t forget it. You can decide what are the main priorities.”

“I don’t want to anger someone else” Mmmm, now that’s surprising.

“Care to elaborate?”

“Whether the Wartwoodians like me in the end or not, if one or more of them leave the resistance it will give an image of instability and weakness we don’t need right now. Not when we could be so close to an important milestone to defeat Andrias.” Sasha hugged herself. That show of vulnerability was incredibly rare of her; Grime waited for his protégée to explain what was on her mind to cause a such reaction. “I did sound like that after the war hammer.”

“When we retrieved it.”

“Yeah. What a hollow trophy, uh? It wasn’t worth losing Percy and Braddock.”

“But we can use it for good now. Let’s turn the hollow trophy into a chance to save as many lives as we can.” The toad smiled at her fatherly and she reciprocated. Invigorated by his encouragement, she mounted on Bessie, taking the leashes, and nodding at Grime, trusting him with Wartwood and the rest of the resistance’s members.

As the Plantars’ snail got farther away from the entrance of the town and the few people who wished them luck, Grime turned around and let go of his soft side to turn on the military mode. “Alright, frogs. It’s working out time! You’d better pull yourselves together because I won’t be soft with any of you!”

++++++++++++++

Vegetation and nature never were Sasha’s interests, nor Anne’s, that was all Marcy’s little niche she loved to ramble about or show in pictures of trivia and photos she took with her phone.

A sort of tradition was born the moment Marcy found a bug she found cute and sent the picture to her and Anne. Sometimes, the image followed a description filled with emojis, other times, a huge and convoluted wall of text that could replace a lullaby by how fast it would put you to sleep.

She never cared about colorful insects or any documental Marcy had searched about on Wikipedia or YouTube; however, the flora around and in front of her reminded her of Marcy. She would’ve loved to draw and write about every specimen of plant she could touch no matter how dangerous.

If she were here, she could be doing that while blasting Sasha’s ears with plant stuff she couldn’t care less to know about but she wouldn’t mind. As long as she could hear her voice once again.

Her head shook like a maraca. Focus, Waybright! Prioritize first, mourn later!

“Wally, do you know where you and Anne saw the Moss beast?”

“Ejem, Moss Man,” she rolled her eyes at the correction. “Aha, sure. Asking again, where did you see it?”

“It was in the Misty Moors. Mountainous lands covered in mist, with mysterious ruins scattered around. We arrived like in 14 hours? I lost count honestly.”

More than 10 hours?! Not too promising of a goal.

Ok. Perhaps they should pursue a new one. As long as Wally was fine and didn’t quit so early. Although, even if he did, Sasha would handle the rest, but what if Wally got lost or kidnapped by a small army of robots?

Dammit! Why does making the right thing come with so many cons and a few pros? At least the other way gave her advantages but they were little compared to the horrible consequences.

“5 hours. We’ll go there and try to look for it all in 5 hours. If there is no footprint or clue of its whereabouts, we’ll pay a visit to the little villages and help however we can to increase our numbers” Sasha glanced at her partner waiting for a protest but he remained silent and stoic. “Uh? You’re alright with that?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yep.”

“Completely?”

“Aha. Ya’re the boss here.”

“And you like that I’m the boss?”

“Not exactly but we all have agreed that ya and Grime helped us win the war and save our home to make amends, didn’t ya?”

Sigh. “Fine, then.” She searched in Bessie’s pack if there were something useful to command her to accelerate. Her eyes landed on a thick book. Would there be instructions?

“Ugh, old man stories.” She flipped the pages after a few seconds of reading rushedly each one’s content. Turquoise fingers stopped her fast reading when Wally noticed a familiar phrase in a paragraph.

“Oh, here it says: When Bessie is in danger, sit on her shell and yell at the top of your lungs: Bessie, things are getting messy!!"

The snail sprinted like Flash going from turtle mode to cheetah mode in a matter of seconds and what also went away in a matter of seconds as Sasha tried to control the animal and prevent Wally from falling from the mount were the maps and even the book.

“I got them!” The hillbilly’s tongue fired quickly rescuing the items before they were too far away to be reachable. The bad news was that Bessie still ran like a berserk horse and without a guide.

“Dude, the maps! Tells us where to go!”

“I’m on it!” He fumbled with the maps, his fingers desperately gluing themselves to the papers to not lose anyone. “Uh… Left!”

Sasha pulled the leash to the left and then her eyes bulged because there was a rock protruding from the ground.

“Bessie, jump!” the snail thankfully obeyed her and leaped over the obstacle like a professional athlete on a marathon despite lacking legs.

“Now right!” another pull of the leash to the opposite direction. Trees of varied sizes forced Sasha to make Bessie dance around them; it was a miracle the animal still had energy.

“Left! Right! Right again! Be careful with that honeycomb!”

“The what?”

The tiny distraction was enough for her to lose control and Bessie bumped harshly against the trunk of a tree or what it used to be one for a huge honeycomb had taken over.

The shake of the collision warned giants bees of intruders and a swarm chased the two travelers. Bessie meeped in terror and increased her speed; for the way, her tongue was sticking out of the mouth, the snail was reaching its limit.

A bee almost stabbed the blonde with its sharp, venomous sting but the extreme of an accordion hit the bug seconds before. Wally kicked, hit, and whipped with his accordion every bee that dared to kill them. His movements were erratic but precise, a feverish dance mixed with accuracy.

Nothing bad for a hillbilly frog, the human thought.

“Wally, how close we are?”

He turned around and spot the mist covering a mountainous terrain.

“Let me take care of the snail, I have an idea.”

“Wally, this is not the time for--”

“Sasha, trust me.” The one-eyed frog said it with such seriousness that he didn't need any other word to convince her.

Going against her worries, she let him drive and unsheathed her swords.

The blades collided with the stings and deadly mandibles of the bees. From close, she could notice their heads were more resembling fire ants. One of them bit on her silver heron sword starting a game of pull and push with the lieutenant until a blueish smoke appeared out of nowhere and the swarm fled.

Sasha sat again in the mount and almost fell when Wally stopped Bessie abruptly.

“Sorry”

“What happened?” She then gagged, her tongue felt numb and lifeless and her eyes suddenly were inundated with tears. Unexpectedly, Wally covered her mouth and neck with his old scarf, commanding Bessie to get out of wherever they were.

Once they were meters away from the place, the weird sensation of numbness lessened.

“The hell was that?” Sasha mumbled beneath the scarf.

“Those trees behind us had purple berries. They have the size of melons and when they mature too much, they expel a foul odor that can paralyze yer tongue or be so disgusting that ya’d rather live noseless.”

“And it didn't affect you?”

“As long as I don't open my mouth I will be fine. But ya opened yers, so I gave ya a little protection.”

Sasha, unbeknownst to his comrade, blushes at the sudden kindness. “Well, thanks. And good info you shared. I'll make sure to remember that.”

“No prob, strawdie.”

“Strawdie?”

“Yeah, ya know. Yer hair looked like hayco*ck glued to yer skull.”

Ok, if he was messing with her hair he’d better be prepared for the consequences. Besides, it's not that she was neglecting her hygiene on purpose!

++++++++++++++

The whole forest beyond the borders of Wartwood seemed to be in a static mode, frozen as if the landscape was part of a movie and someone paused it.

However, deep in the heart of some bushes, a few pairs of eyes narrowed on a cute, jet-black spider drinking water from a puddle.

In a matter of seconds, a bunch of silhouettes rustled through the bushes and launched themselves toward their prey, landing in a disorganized heap.

Much to their surprise, the spider hadn't been captured and barked at them while jumping on the frog-made mountain and running away.

“Get him!” Toadstool roared.

The 4 other frogs - Quentin, Ferraiolo, Chuck, and Sylvia scampered and grabbed their bows and spears.

Quentin jumped close enough to derail the spider from its escape path but the arachnid spit spider web, blinding him at the last second and sprinted between his legs.

Ferraiolo fired an arrow but it bounced on a rock a bit ahead of his target.

Quentin threw his spear but he didn't see Chuck behind him and accidentally hit him with the back of his weapon, ruining his accuracy at the time to shoot an arrow.

“Sorry!” Then to add to the humiliation, Quentin slipped and his face fell to the ground clashing with the spear.

Sylvia was by far the best of the team as her arrow caressed the leg of the spider though it didn't stop it from running.

“Yaaaaaaaaggggggghhhhhhh!!!!!” a toad-like shadow loomed over the creature and then Toadstool's body slammed the soil. He got up quickly in triumph but the spider wasn't trapped in his arms as he imagined.

A spider web covered his face and the arachnid escaped until it found a little bell in the middle of the forest.

Just when Ferraiolo was going to fire another arrow, the spider picked up the bell with its mouth and shoot it.

“Alright, the test is over!” a familiar female voice screamed at the top of a tree.

Croaker climbed down, Archie ran to her arms and licked her face.

“You did a good job, darling” she praised her pet.

Someone else climbed down from the tree too. Grime assessed the participants of the hunting trial before speaking: “Soldiers, your work has gone from chaotic to average. You, Toadstool, only gave orders and faced the challenge without a more concrete plan than finding the spider and surrounding it,” the mayor huffed, “Ferraiolo, your archery was atrocious! I could do better and I'm half blind!”

“This is my first time with arrows,” he argued.

“Quentin, your clumsiness not only affected you but also your comrade and you made a huge fool of yourself!”

“Hey, I did my best!”

“Sylvia... Well, you were much more calculating and analytical in the trial so that’s something.”

The group grumbled half-agreeing with the observations.

“Seriously, how did you fight and defeat the first army of robots that tried to destroy Wartwood is beyond me. It's like you have lost your touch!”

“Grime, that was the heat of the moment,” Croaker explained. “We know how to defend ourselves but battle strategy and any other that is typical from Toad Tower is unknown to us. Besides, what they lack in training, they make up for in camaraderie and determination. You saw how they helped each other during the trap setting and protect each other’s backs. If we hone those qualities, the rest will be easier.”

“Mmmm… I guess you’re right.” Grime replied, contemplative. His face then soured when he counted the group.

“Where is Loogle?” Croaker expressed what his mind was asking.

“Uh, I thought he was catching up to us,” Quentin said.

The hunting group, Grime, and Croaker ran to the trap set and found a very funny and not-so-encouraging scene.

“Hey, guys… Could you lend me a hand, please?” The poor woodcarver was upside down, his feet tied to a branch of a tree by a rope.

“Exactly how long have you been trapped there and how many traps have you evaded?” Grime questioned, hoping the answer is not a sign that some people were subjected to bursts of strength instead of truly having it.

“...I followed the others while they escaped or destroyed the traps but this one got me.”

“Wait. Hold on. You've been riding on their coattails?!”

Loogle flinched.

Croaker threw a dagger at the rope, freeing her comrade. As he sat up and rubbed his head, she spoke with gravity, “Loogle, teamwork and trust are essential in a mission where more than one person can do the job but you can't expect to tag along and have the path cleared for you. There will be times when you have to make hard decisions, spill some blood, and find the exit or create one inside the enemy’s territory all on your own. If you don't adapt fast, you may affect your own team.”

The old axolotl could only fidget with his fingers, unable to find a good argument to explain his mediocre performance. It wasn't necessary as Croaker softened slightly and thought of a much better idea, “What about some rescue worst-case scenarios?”

“Rescue worst-case scenarios?”

+++++++++++++++

The sunset showed off its splendid amalgamation of colors to the world as the sun slowly lowered to disappear on the horizon. At this point, Sasha’s plan of arriving at the Misty Moors in five hours had been thrown into the garbage can what with the incident with the giant bees and how long the travel was.

And let's not talk about Wally’s choice of music. What if an enemy heard that hideous accordion?

“Meerp, meerp,” Bessie’s pace increased, her attention drawn by an invisible source.

“What happens, Bess?” Sasha tried to control the snail without being too harsh but the animal wasn't listening.

Wally stopped his solo concert and noticed Bessie smelling something. Then his eyes caught a bit of smoke, “Someone started a fire,” he pointed at the smoke trail at the northeast, kilometers away.

There were two options: ignore it and keep going to arrive at least at the beginning of the evening and camp or investigate and face the consequences.

There might be refugees or criminals camping there, the place may be deserted, or it may also be a trap.

They couldn't be delayed by anything, this trip should have at least a length of 4 days, 5 at maximum.

Right now, her doubts were getting on her nerves. She was the leader so if she said: “Ignore the smoke trail”, that's what they would do, but after her last set of decisions, maybe giving space to other ideas might work. Hopefully.

“Ok, stupid thing but let's do paper, rock, and scissors, you know what that is right?”

“Oh, I love that game!”

“Sure, if I win, I'll decide what to do. If you win, it'll be your call. Good for you?”

“Eh, yeah. Sounds fair. 2 of 3?”

“Just one win, ready?”

“Ready?”

Sasha hid her right fist and Wally hid his left one too, and at the count of three, they showed each other their movements.

“Aha! I win!” Wally laughed for his hand, in the shape of a paper, had beaten Sasha’s with the shape of a rock.

“Ok, commander Wally,” she said sardonically, “what's your decision?”

It only took five seconds for Wally to narrow his eyes at the smoke trail and whispered: “Surround the prey”

++++++++++++++

Sasha could barely remember the night when she dreamed she was a lioness or a lion or any kind of wild feline in the savannah. It happened when she was a few days close to her 7th birthday, and it still surprised her that her memory hadn't discarded that dream despite the years.

What she could recollect of that crazy experience was the ground around her paws, how gravel and twigs crunched beneath them or were pushed to the side. Her five senses had been highly alert to any movement that spelled trouble. It was like being on a life-and-death mission where failure was no option.

She also remembered a bit better than Marcy had explained how domestic and wild cats hunted their prey. Their paws had pillow-like sacks of tissue and muscle called metacarpal pads that cushioned their steps, making them silent to ensure the food didn't hear and was caught easier.

She wished to have that as she approached at the speed of a worm at the campsite. The blonde teenager had ordered Wally to do the same because any crunch or sneeze might wake the people up and their chances to find out who they were could be gone in seconds.

Stars and the moon were her only witnesses as she leaned over a bush, barely brushing it with her armor. She picked up her cell phone and turned on the flashlight. Her brain yelled at her for not thinking about giving Wally a better source of illumination that didn't start a fire but she trusted or more like hoped that the hillbilly didn't trip as he had the torch she helped him craft and lit.

As her eyes adapted to the light, she surveyed the area around her. On the other extreme of the campsite was Wally who raised his hand to her, and she returned the gesture.

The ones holding the camp were 4 newts and 4 frogs. Maybe two families of four or four families of two because there were children with them and yikes! Their clothes and appearances looked awful.

Ragged sweaters, dirty shoes, badly-bandaged wounds, pronounced cheekbones, and huge eye bags.

Were they from Newtopia or some town outside Frog Valley?

No matter. The priority at this moment was to give them shelter and food, and recruit them if any of them wanted to end the war.

Sasha signaled Wally to wait for her as she moved, again frustratingly slow, and took him where Bessie was hidden for their next plan.

“Alright, this is what we’ll do. Tomorrow morning we'll meet them and pretend we were just passing and cross paths with them accidentally. Small talk, some convincing, and tada! The resistance gets bigger.”

“With refugees? We don't know if they can fight.”

“You don't look tough at all but kicked some bees’ butts,” Sasha argued.

“Some people are good at defending themselves. What if they aren't or don't want to?”

Good question. Good but complicated question.

As cruel as it might sound, the resistance’s chances to win would only increase if everyone cooperates. It doesn't matter if the job was small or big as long as it was constant. Cooking for everyone, being a healer, foraging food, moral support, anything. There was no time for cowardice or freeloaders. Of course, if she ever expressed that whether subtly or directly, these people might believe she just wants to use them to defeat Andrias which would drive them away.

It’d be better if she resorted to her charisma for once instead of her commander persona.

“We’ll convince them to help. None of them will be forced to fight but we have to gather as much strength and cunning as we can. If Andrias isn't slowing down with numbers, we shouldn't either.”

“Remember, Strawdie. Too harsh and the bridge will break.”

They rested, hope and dread churning in their stomachs as the night turned into dawn and the sun woke everyone up.

The newts and frogs of the campsites got up groggily still feeling the soreness of their muscles and the emptiness of their stomachs.

Mathew checked on everyone, especially the children, before preparing a group to forage for some food. Thankfully, the young ones haven't dared to explore the forests or play hide and seek, and who would in such a dire time give space to recreational activities when Amphibia's capital was in ruins and the towns and villages were being invaded by soulless machines?

He observed her wife tending to their two nieces' wounds. Melody, the younger twin, grumbled about wanting to hunt a bug but Myrtle explained to her this wasn't a good idea and that they must wait with the other youngsters while the adults looked for berries.

“But I don't want berries!” Melody complained. “I want a huge, juicy worm!”

“We could've had it if you hadn't scared the last one during the trip,” argued her slightly-older twin sister, Theresa.

“But you didn't put any trap!”

As both frog girls fought over who was at fault for letting the lunch run away, a sudden painful wave drilled into Mathew’s skull.

Frogdamn stress, that must be it. Also, since when the room has gotten so hot? It was still like 6 in the morning.

“Sweetheart, are you ok?” Myrtle placed a hand over his forehead. He didn't like the hiss that came out of her mouth; it spoke bad news.

“I'll be fine,” his optimism, however, just worried his wife more. But hey, he couldn't simply take a rest. The whole group must stick together and overcome whatever happened.

“Mathew, we have a problem,” A male newt half-broken glasses entered his tent.

“What is it?”

“I think they're visitors. But one of them is extremely weird. Come on, look” As the newt left the tent, Myrtle’s eyes tried to convince him to take a break to no avail.

The frog family reunited with their newt comrades, one of them pointing to an unusual pair: a one-eyed frog, and a gangly, bipedal being with a bump on its face.

His eyes narrowed. He glanced at the newt who had told him about the “visitors”, the amphibian reciprocated the gesture.

If Mathew remembered well, Mordecai and his family had been driven out of their home by the chaos brought by the unexpected toad rebellion that knock on their doors. They had to scramble with a few essentials before reaching an emergency exit path that got them out of the destruction of the soldiers.

Their silver lining was the friendship and hospitality that Mathew and his loved ones shared with them while they waited for King Andrias to put the rebels in jail and restore order.

The wish came true; tragically, the outcome couldn’t have been more than disastrous. Newtopia might have been taken back by the king but the castle suddenly flying and the creepy machines with monotonous voices swarming over the once-glorious city weren’t the good signs they had been waiting for. In fact, people from both sides of the conflict, the rebels and the civilians, and even the Royal Guard were forced to obey the new soldiers and then they were taken somewhere else.

Depending if they put too much resistance or compliance, it could be a new place to work endlessly or the guillotine.

But wait. There was one tiny, tingly, massive black hole of a detail Mathew had forgotten Mordecai had mentioned to him. The toads had an ally. It was a tall-as-newt, yellow-haired thing that seemed to be ready to throw an object on one of the balconies of the castle as some people had witnessed.

With the visitors getting closer, his eyes reviewed the being at the side of the frog.

It looked tall, its hair was yellow with some mud caked on the roots and the tips, and a small bump in the face. Could it be...?

“Hey, you two, stop!” Matthew shouted as he ran, each step feeling like a mullet crashed into his head.

“Hello, travelers,” the creature started with a friendly smile, “My name is--”

“Don’t tell me, you must be the monster that gave the toads the chance to invade Newtopia, aren't you?”

At that accusation, heavy silence enveloped the environment as if someone had made a bad-taste joke in a poor attempt to lighten the mood at a funeral.

“Monster? Sir, I may loo--”

“No no, he's right,” Veenomsty, Mordecai’s older brother, walked to Matthew’s side, his eyes never leaving the thing. “I heard people talking about a being that was no amphibian and had yellow hair. You have all those characteristics.”

The blue one-eyed frog gulped. Matthew glanced at him, was he an ally of this monstrosity, a hostage, or an opportunistic fool that swallow more than he could chew?

Then, if that wasn't weird enough, he thought he saw the frog whisper to the creature, heck he heard some words but it happened so fast that perhaps the still-ongoing headache was messing with his senses.

“...Alright, you caught me. I'm that creature.”

“I knew it!!” Mordecai exclaimed and positioned themself between the thing and his little siblings protectively. “I bet they have some explosives or toads hidden close to the camp!”

“Wha--? No no! I'm not onto that anymore!” it tried to calm them down but the sudden movements and the glistening sword on its waist didn't help. Worse, it jumped from the mount of the snail. Myrtle raised her pan, pushing the girls behind her in case the monster planned to kidnap them.

Sensing the rising tension, the former toad’s ally lowered its arms. There was something strange in its eyes; good strange or bad strange? Matthew couldn't figure it out and it enerved him. Not even wildlife was this unpredictable.

“Listen,” the creature spoke again, its tone gentle “I understand your fear and distrust but I'm not into invading cities or any greater-than-you schemes anymore. I want to help. I'm here to help. Even if you only see me as an otherworldly killing machine.”

“She’s right,” much to everyone’s surprise, especially the creature’s, the blue frog jumped from the mount too. “I've seen her do what she can to aid others.”

“How do we know this is not just you saying something from a script because the beast told you to?” Myrtle questioned.

“She has been helping my home. I'm from Wartwood, in Frog Valley. She and her friend have been pretty helpful during these hard times.” Sasha sighed internally at Wally’s intervention; for being a frog who could speak nonsense and didn't look that reliable he was proving to be the embodiment of “don't judge a book for its cover”.

However, the newts and frogs weren't convinced by his testimony. “Let me guess, her ‘friend’ is a toad.” Mordecai spat.

Here we go again.

“Yes, my friend is a toad but like me, he has changed his ways.” The creature argued. “We’re giving Wartwood and the rest of Frog Valley a fighting chance. And with more help, we may be able to extend our forces to the rest of Amphibia and defeat the king.”

The phrasing turned out to be hauntingly familiar as the older newts placed themselves in front of the younger protectively.

“Frogsh*t!” Veenomsty yelled, pointing an accusing finger at the thing. “I bet you said the same stuff when the toad rebellion attacked Newtopia. The King is evil, the toads can do good, and all that mumbo jumbo to get to the throne. We're not that stupid!”

Matthew wanted to agree with the sentiment but the line between good guys and bad guys had blurred too much since the king took his castle to the sky and let Newtopia be managed by destructive weapons with scarlet eyes. At this rate, their only option would be to choose the lesser evil. And how could it be possible without getting the choice backfiring to you?

The lesser evil could be the greater one in disguise or it could evolve and be more hazardous in the long run.

Matthew made a mental chart to analyze the pros and cons.

On the side of the cons, were the creature and the toad that participated in the toad rebellion and who could be holding that town, Wartwood, hostage. If that were true, he would hate to admit that the monster’s acting skills were impressive, that is if they managed to trick him. He may not be a genius but he had his fair share of street smarts.

Then there was the king who, for some inexplicable reason, summoned flying frog-shaped beasts of metal that started subjugating the population of not only Newtopia but also some parts of Amphibia. What the king would gain with such changes? Was he driven to paranoia by the toad rebellion? Or maybe some toads had a few tricks on their sleeves and managed to scare the whole nation.

No, that sounded too farfetched.

On the side of the pros, unfortunately, was nothing. Speculations at best and wishful thinking at worst.

The thing and their toad companion might be sincere with their change of heart, but would it last? What if they were pretending, playing savior to gain everyone’s trust to use that power for another scheme?

And the king… Perhaps there was a brilliant plan behind all this madness, a good explanation for slavery and the machines.

…Or maybe the king wasn’t what he seemed to be.

He couldn’t dig deeper to look for more possible pros for the one-eyed frog interrupted his train of thought.

“Sooooo~… I have an idea that maybe can calm ya, fellas, down.”

“What kind of idea?”

It was at that moment that the creature’s expression of confusion turned into outrage at whatever meaning it had guessed from the frog’s weird gestures.

+++++++++++++++++++

Wally felt very proud of himself as he surveyed the camp and the big fire made by their camp companions, even the fact that Sasha has surrendered peacefully and given up her weapons and let them tie her arms and legs was perfect.

Of course, she thought this was a huge exaggeration but hey! No compromises meant no alliances so she’d better behave and be polite.

“And as I mentioned before, that’s why Sasha and Grime are helping us to be better prepared for the war and take down Andrias. Sure, they were villains but they are in community service until the mess is over. Is this too risky? Yeah. Are we being too trusting? Not really, we have a high suspicion of outsiders and she proved to be quite a handful. Can we rely on her? Yep, as long as we keep an eye on her, that’s for sure.”

As Wally finished the story, his good eye checked Matthew’s and Mordecai’s families for any trace of distrust and possible hostility. No one has moved or tried anything yet, and Sasha had been silent from the start. He should call this a success, except that the many pairs of eyes that had been glued to him now were stuck on the blonde human as if she was going to implode or become a giant ready to stomp on them.

One of the younger frogs, a female one, grabbed a stick and poked Sasha on the cheek like a child or a madman would to a grumpy bear.

The teenager remained quiet which Wally appreciated, gaining the trust of the possible new refugees could increase the numbers of the resistance a little bit, as long as they were willing to fight, that little detail was still essential.

“Ouch!! What the f*ck, you brat?!” The frog girl backed down in a flash at Sasha’s aggressive reaction, getting everyone off guard.

“Honey, are you ok? Did she hurt you?” Melody shook her head negatively to her aunt.

“She was grumpy and then she got scary”

“That’s because your stick touched the scar of my cheek too roughly and could’ve opened the wound! Seriously, don’t you know anything about carefulness?”

Myrtle and Matthew hugged Melody as she teared up due to Sasha’s harsh scolding while Theresa grabbed a bunch of mud to throw at her.

Time for an intervention.

“Ok, fellas, hehe. She's not threatening ya. Ya can trust me. Sasha usually has the temper of a bull worm.”

“And you think that's going to make this meeting safer?” Mordecai scoffed.

“Don’t ya worry, old reliable Wally here will be on his highest guard. Sasha won't bother ya. Except in your nightmares but something’s something, right?”

Yikes, did someone at least teach Wally to have a better sense of humor? Eh, maybe not.

“Anyway, about the resistance, is it truly safe to go there? Wartwood? When two criminals are in charge?” Veenomsty glared at Sasha as he poised those questions.

“Absolutely. She has been on some missions with people I know and everything went fine. She's tamable” The hillbilly frog slapped her back super hard and she hissed, gritting her teeth.

“With that attitude, I doubt it” Myrtle objected.

“More difficult and unpredictable is her alliance with a former toad lord who wanted to dethrone the king.” Matthew opined “Business in the Toad Towers is always managed with iron fists and threats instead of diplomacy or legality. That doesn't add points to Grime’s supposedly change of heart.”

Sasha rolled her eyes. Marvelous, again with the resentment and the negative opinions. Against her better judgment, she spoke.

“Listen, I know that toads can be brutish, generally, because I've been Grime’s prisoner for a month before becoming his lieutenant but not all of them are greedy or violent. I met two genuinely nice toads who preferred to spend their time together and doing what they loved instead of extorting people. Besides, instead of fighting or holding grudges, we should stick together.”

“A monster that was behind bars and now works with their jailer? I would say that Grime has given you some nice treats and privileges that made you believe this partnership was excellent. And that story of the king being evil? What if this is a smear campaign to get us on your side?” Mordecai put his hands on the hips.

“I'm not the villain anymore. Neither is Grime. You can think of me whatever you want but a collaboration of all the amphibians is crucial if we want to win.”

“Why should we believe you? Any of you?” Myrtle demanded.

“See it this way, you can wait for the king to stop what he’s doing and fix the damage he has done. Or you can help us to save Amphibia.”

“And fight for a criminal?! No way!”

“Well, I didn’t say you have to fight but you can help any other way and all of you will have shelter, food, medicine, and safety.”

“Under the wing of a corrupted toad and his bloodthirsty pet,” Mordecai spat.

“Grime is not like that anymore,” Sasha growled. She knew her captain wouldn’t care a bit what other amphibians thought about him but the blonde didn’t tolerate any sign of disrespect at the former warlord and her mentor. “Apart from that, where else could you go? Andrias and his robots are destroying everything.”

“Because you and your rebellion invaded the city!” Myrtle argued hotly.

“He could’ve defeated us without the killing machines and the flying castle. Be delusional all you want but it won't change the fact that Andrias is not the bubbly, nice king he presented as, he's a maniac. And you are putting too much attention to amphibians’ spats and who's worse than who instead of collaborating.”

“Those ‘amphibians’ spats’” Veenomsty air quoted with his hands “as you called them is the caste system of Amphibia. A way of life older than you can imagine.”

“And still you all are breaking it. I mean, these frogs are helping you and if I remember well, aren't the newts at the top of the hierarchy? Why would someone who is in the best position accept help from a mere commoner?”

“They were kind and honest. Unlike some beast who loves to blubber a lot.” A younger newt got into the conversation. Mordecai sent him a parental glare, reprimanding his littlest brother, Rummel, to meddle with adult issues.

“There is your answer. You don't need to find another family of newts to be treated kindly. Frogs, toads, newts, axolotls, and any other amphibians can be nice to each other. And all can change and improve stuff. Why not give it a chance?”

Wally’s face could be the embodiment of shock right now. What Sasha said was the most intelligent and sensible stuff he has ever heard. Ok, maybe he was exaggerating. Anyone could've said something uplifting or wise with a pinch of sincerity but he never imagined that Sasha Waybright, the former town-kidnapping delinquent, toad-loyalist, and the one who screwed up in the Frog Valley meeting could say such a thing.

Perhaps she was getting a bit more flexible.

“Ha! Give it a chance?” Matthew huffed unimpressed. “Newts and axolotls are one thing but the toads have been nothing but go-getter bullies, feeling all superior in their smelly towers and taking more from decent people.”

“And I mentioned it before, everyone can change.”

“That's what you believe because you're a toad’s pet.” Matthew coughed roughly, the pulse on his head was becoming an unbearable headache.

Sasha’s gritting teeth and red-as-tomato face weren't good signs if the conversation kept going on with incentives and rejection. However, if there was a way to solve this at least partially then Wally knew the solution already no matter how unorthodox it sounded.

“What about if we bargain?” Everyone looked at him as if he had an extra head. Eh, he's used to it. “Stay in Wartwood for a few days, it can be even a week. There ya can see for yarselves if toads are that rotten. After all, captain Grime has been left as the training head for the people. And if by the end ya're still not convinced, ya can leave.”

“Is this some kind of trap or what?” Mordecai questioned.

“Nope, just a little help with bargaining at the top. Besides, Sasha here is kind of right--”

“Kind of?” She asked but was ignored.

“--ya might not find a safe place with hundreds of robots burning whatever they want. Wartwood can let ya in and ya can rest as much as ya want. What do ya say?”

Mordecai and Matthew’s families checked over Sasha like searching for a hidden weapon she might use to hurt them.

The girl felt compelled to intervene again. Their distrustful eyes and hostile expressions spoke nothing but rejection of this idea no matter if Wally was the one proposing it.

As her mouth opened to give another speech, her shoulder was hit by a sticky tongue. She demanded Wally talk, she was the commander after all but he refused to let her. For real? Since when she was demoted? It wasn't supposed to be this way!

“We’ll talk in a few hours,” Matthew declared. “For now, we're tired and want to sleep. Again. Because of you. If you really are who you say you are, you'll sleep outside the tents because going inside is an excellent way to start a ruse and ambush anyone and we're through with that sh*t.”

A thumbs-up is raised with a shining smile to appease the fuming audience. The newts and frogs couldn't care less about his antics and stormed off to their own tents to rest, the two resistance members observed them with different emotions running through their minds.

And if Sasha was about to hear a naively optimistic phrase like “Welp, that went well”, forgive her but she would scream.

++++++++++++++

The blonde human didn't know how much she would stand the roughness of the ropes scratching her skin and the soreness of her limbs’ muscles due to the stiff position they were in. Of course, she could withstand worse than that but the humiliation that poured from such a request of being immobilized like some kind of rabid animal or hunting prize bruised her ego in ways she couldn't imagine.

She didn't ask for a fight, hell, she didn't want to fight. The teenager used all her charm and talk skill points (Great, now she was thinking like Marcy with those nerd terms) to get them to trust her or be at ease around her but it seems having her beneath their feet made them feel much better.

At her side, the hillbilly of a partner she had was playing with a piece of grass while laying on the ground, carefree like a kid on Christmas.

A part of her couldn't wait to yell at him because letting them tie her arms and legs was going too far. What if they had wanted more? Like an amputation or giving up her weapons? Sure, she could fight with fists and kicks but that would only take her so far, but bloody retribution could've weakened her exponentially and jeopardized the whole mission. The other part of her was slightly impressed with his bargain and his people skills for an unstable, almost-not-reliable frog. Problem was that the families were still mad and not too open to negotiation.

“You know, for someone that is on a mission, you're taking this a little too lightly,” Sasha commented, her voice low enough to not wake up anyone but also clear so Wally could understand her.

“Sorry, what?”

“You're taking this too lightly.”

“Am I?” he scratched his chin. “I recall I had been reasonable and approachable to not make them run away.”

“Yeah, but there is also this on my limbs. Don't you see how dangerous this is?” she raised her tied arms.

“They don't trust ya.”

“Sure. But what if they had asked for something else from me like being punished with my own swords or destroying my weapons? Any of that is detrimental to our mission and the future of the resistance, especially the option of hurting me physically to make me pay for my crimes.”

“Ya could've said so and then we would've looked for more options.”

“Buddy, you had that idea of keeping me tied and unable to fight. I don't think more options had been allowed.”

“Don’t know, this position calmed them down a bit and it's not that “forgive and forget” or simply “forget” was going to help. They knew what ya did in Newtopia.”

“But if that wasn't enough? Part of this mission is to find more recruits and help people that are homeless. That's why I acted so amicably with them, but if they had asked for physical retribution what would you have done then? I didn't want to fight them.”

“I could’ve protected ya.” Sasha’s eyes enlarged like balloons.

“As sweet as that gesture is and even if I’m capable of self-defense with or without weapons, do you think that would’ve been a good idea? If it were bandits or robots, fine. But these people need our help and they can make the resistance stronger by numbers.”

“Oh I know, but I could just show them what happens if they mess with my partner.”

Sasha barely believed it— Correction, the situation was too surreal to be taken as genuine. Wally was one of the many Wartwoodians she had kidnapped during the Toad Tower incident, he saw her and Grime trying to kill Hopediah, and he knew that she had betrayed Anne again to defeat Andrias.

‘You’re useful, genius. That’s why he said that’, her mind reprimanded her for not noticing such obvious detail. The blonde human deflated. Even if she and the frogs didn’t have a close relationship, she was growing endeared by their personalities and abilities the more she worked with them despite their disagreements. So, to guess that Wally was willing to keep her safe just because of her capabilities… It kinda hurt.

“Ya ok?”

And now he wanted to know if she was alright. Better rip the bandaid off already.

“Listen, this request might sound weird but please be honest with me. I haven’t forgotten I made a deal with the town about leaving you guys alone after winning the war; that means it’s not necessary to pretend. I’m just useful to you.”

Wally’s eye pierced through her, not in a glare or squinting at her but with a sense of wonder and confusion akin to a child’s that is told something that goes against everything they believe.

He blinked a few times, never getting his sight out of her. Yikes, she was kinda right. He’s creepy.

“Olms have mercy, ya sure are weird.”

“Uh?”

“Ya might not be a saint but ya are hardworking and don’t expect anything in return. That gets good points in my book.”

Sasha opened and closed her mouth before a realization hit her. “You trust me?”

“Completely, nope. Ya still have a long way to go if ya want us to feel comfortable around ya. But ya are making progress.”

“And… And that’s why you will protect me?” Sasha cursed herself mentally at the inflection of her voice. It sounded so vulnerable. Why of all times she felt vulnerable?

“Yep. That and if I return without ya, Grime will kill me.”

The teenager chuckled. Classic Grime.

“Yeah… Whether he likes it or not, he’s a softy inside.”

Wally hummed in agreement or perhaps he did it out of amusem*nt after imagining the former toad captain coddling Sasha like a toddler. Both remained silent after that, watching the blue sky decorated with fluffy clouds, some bigger than others, and others grayer than the rest.

Was it going to rain? No idea, but for now the environment was strangely pleasant and calm, a rare occurrence due to the war going on in and beyond Frog Valley.

Sasha, surprisingly, put those worries aside and tried to name the many clouds she saw. She recalled Marcy rambling about the different types of clouds, their shapes, characteristics, and how and why they were formed on certain days while on others the sky remained blue.

The memory slipped at her fingers like sand, she barely got a few data Marcy clarified just to make sure her friends were listening. Sasha wondered if she was listening and her mood soured.

The answer couldn’t be more obvious, and being aware that in the future she and Marcy had to face years of neglect, toxicity in their friendship, the traumas they suffered in Amphibia, and especially the betrayals against one another… With all that emotional baggage, planning a way to save Amphibia, the Earth, and the rest of the multiverse sounded much more appealing than being face-to-face with her remaining best friends. If they could still be best friends of course.

“Ya know, I liked yer speech back then.”

“Wh-What?” She said, being brought back to reality.

“Yer speech. Ya talked about the possibility of everyone in Amphibia getting along and working together, to be better people. Wise stuff.”

“Oh well, thanks…” She blushed inadvertently due to the unexpected praise. “Honestly, this was Anne’s idea— No, more like she changed quite a lot by being here, in Wartwood I mean…” Suddenly, moisture gathered in her eyes. “I wished I appreciated that more instead of stomping on it…”

“Why didn’t ya use that speech at the meeting, though?” The girl didn’t know if Wally’s question was to change the topic for her sake or to satisfy his own curiosity but bringing in the failure of a meeting tensed her whole body. “It could’ve worked.”

“Who knows? Apart from the lunatic, you’ll-get-yourself-killed ideas, the way they saw each other and talked about one another got on my nerves so much. They were wasting time pointing fingers at each other saying ‘Newts are this way’, ‘Toads love to cause trouble’, or ‘Frogs' farming tips are useless’ instead of joining forces like a cohesive unit. And it’s kind of shocking that the groups representing the other towns had different amphibians with the way they badmouthed or suspected one another. You would think a bigger enemy could snap them out of their petty fights but nope.”

Sasha found it frustratingly funny to the point of forcing her to pull her hair out of her skull. It brought her back to that dark day on Newtopia when she tried to warn Anne about Andrias’ evil plans only to be attacked and almost killed. The true enemy was in front of them all this time but her betrayal against Anne, the anger she received from her, the second sword duel, the failed toad rebellion, and even Marcy’s unexpected lies and treachery had blinded them. Was it the same for the rest of Amphibia? Did this so-called caste system put a blindfold on everyone’s eyes to prevent them to act as a real team?

As she formulated more questions, Wally gave his 5 cents away. “Pettiness can be more serious than ya think. Though it’s not that really, sure people can be annoying and demanding for meaningless reasons but our issues are far deeper and more rotten. The toads stomp on frogs whenever they feel to, the newts live in their city without sharing anything, and the frogs are underestimated, can you really believe that defeating Andrias will solve that?”

Despite how uncomfortable it was to sit with her four limbs tied, Sasha peeked at the grass pensively, “Not really. Andrias’ absence means a vacuum of power is imminent. This is more of—“ she paused for a while suppressing the pained sighed before continuing, “—more of Marcy’s territory but according to her, when a little group or one person that holds all the power and influence is eliminated, then the void they left allows others to try to be in charge in any way possible even if those methods are illegal and harmful to others. You know, anarchy. Similar to my world, I guess.”

“Is it?” Wally asked, genuinely curious.

“Yep. It has its own track record of wars. And every time the bad guy or group of bad guys are defeated, it just takes a little time later and another problem or another villain to put the world in flames again. It’s like the phrase says ‘It fights the symptoms, not the illness’”

“Welp, maybe that’s where ya got the wrong idea.”

“Ah?”

“Just think about it. Ya told these people that everyone can change and be nice to one another and it’s not necessary to meet another newt to receive kindness. But in the meeting, yer speech was different. Ya demanded silence and didn’t want to listen to the others’ complaints and fights because ya thought they were stupid.”

“Uh, hello~? They were. We are in the middle of the war.”

“But after the war what? Is it all going to be hugs and kisses? Will the toads finally stop threatening us for money? Will the newts pay more attention to the rest of the world? Will the frogs have a say on how to improve stuff? And who’s going to take charge? A toad? It will be like having a fifth toad tower and they will be happy to take and take. A newt? Don’t think so. A frog? Ha! Everyone will see it as a joke.”

“Isn’t this going too far ahead? We’re still not devising a plan to destroy Andrias’ castle.”

“It’s important. My life philosophy is not caring about what others think about me, but it has a limit. Sometimes when ya stop caring what others say or when ya don’t make an effort to understand why they’re doing it, ya blind yerself. And a team with people who ignores ya or each other is doomed.”

Sasha’s eyes were unreadable as she distracted herself with some blades of grass, if Wally had been replaced with another person then they would’ve taken offense at her supposed rudeness for paying attention to something else. However, the distraction was a mask to hide her contemplative expression and the storm of thoughts fighting for dominance.

As she mulled on Wally’s words, the calm, soft-spoken voice of Toadie echoed in her mind, ‘Sasha, ma’am, don't take this the wrong way but those issues aren't mere grudges. Our history is too complex.’

Too complex. Why did the familiarity strike her nerves?

‘The more you underestimate me, the worse it'll get’

Why did it feel as if she had ignored a vital detail again?

“Wonder how the others are doing,” she mumbled absentmindedly.

++++++++++++++++

Bessie observed with tranquility the young frogs and newts that climbed her shell and sat on her mount. Matthew’s health had been taking a nosedive after the heated conversation if one could call it that way, and the headaches and temperature forced her wife to treat him like a child in front of everyone and order him to sit with the children while she, Mordecai, and Veenomsty walked alongside the snail.

He hadn't been ecstatic about letting Myrtle exhaust her legs but she was hard arm to break and after minutes of senseless arguing and even begging, he gave in. Although, what hadn't died were his dread and suspicions of the toad’s pet and her ally. The image they formed in his mind confused him a lot.

Frogs and toads working together and an otherworldly being that used to work for the toads helping the victims of the war sounded like a bad-taste story to sell a product of questionable quality. Still, of the two, the one-eyed frog Wally looked more trustworthy so listening to his advice to stay on Wartwood wouldn't be a bad idea. For a few days until his fever was gone and were replenished with supplies, that is.

“Ok, this is the map. There are enough rations for everyone and don't worry about Bessie, she is well-tamed. If you are cornered by a predator or a bunch of robots just look for page 256 of Bessie’s manual. It has a phrase that will make her go faster. Is that sufficient for you?”

“We don't need your handouts, beast.” Spat Mordecai. “And you'd better pray that your owner has better manners than you because I don't want a trip to a butchery or a thief hole!”

The creature only smiled, if tersely, which didn't alleviate the tensions between the refugees and their unwanted helpers but Matthew was at least grateful that the thing had enough decency to not protest when she didn't have the right to.

“Alright, let’s not waste time. We have a long way before reaching Wartwood,” Myrtle took Bessie’s leash and the whole group started walking to the opposite side from where Sasha and Wally were.

“Welp, the bargain worked.” The hillbily frog commented optimistically.

“It's temporal though. And even if they're given good treatment, I doubt they will speak to anyone else outside of Wartwood about the resistance.” She hated the pessimistic tone in her voice but aside from getting them to accept the offer of shelter and food, there wasn't that much progress. They would leave in the end and the resistance would still be lacking in numbers.

‘Maybe I should've told Grime to prepare some recruit-style missions’ she ruminated in that regret for a while until a finger tapped her shoulder.

“Should we keep going?” Wally asked. Much to her surprise, the child-like excitement for finding the Moss Man wasn't as strong in his eye as it was his concern for her. She coughed awkwardly and resumed the walk to their destination: the Misty Moors.

As she took mental notes on the fauna and flora of the area in the case an animal or a giant venus fly trap ambushed them, she became the audience of Wally’s accordion. The music he played wasn't to her taste but the tones soothed her and its extravagancy conjured images in her imagination that belonged to past times when things were simpler.

What caught her attention the most was the mood if that was the right term, of the song. It started soft and idyllic almost touching on an unknown melancholy as if it was telling a story. Suddenly, it got more serious. Honestly, Sasha couldn't find the correct word to describe how the tone changed and why but she felt the song’s tale had a warning prepared.

“In the stars on the horizon

In the flowers that release their perfume

In amphibians of all colors

And in the feathers of the herons

Oh how many magnificent things can ya see

Jumping, singing, laughing

But don’t let yer feet and heart separate

because the road also has thorns

And the answers and treasures that ya are looking for

Vile souls protect them

Ya will find it on the horizon

The flame of your heart

and a beautiful song

That will always illuminate yer path

And the sun will rise again more beautiful and brighter than ever

With all the stars around it”

Against all odds or more like what was typical of her, she applauded him. Wally almost dropped his instrument accidentally, not expecting the once ruthless and immoral Sasha Waybright to appreciate his music.

“Nice, man,” she smiled, a genuine and impressed smile, and the hillbilly frog pondered if she had ingested some weird poison or something. “Didn’t take you for a poet. You have talent.”

“Oh… That…” He glanced at the trees at his side, analyzing his next words. “…It’s…not a poem I’ve made, it was my momma’s lullaby.”

“Oh, really? Then, she must be an excellent poet.”

“Dad said she loved turning poems into songs…” Wally’s melancholic and wistful smile shattered slowly like a panel of glass whose corners were pressed by sharp rocks.

Sasha panicked internally. Did she overstep boundaries or come as too condescending, and insincere?

“Hey, j-just so you know, my praise wasn’t to get something from you or to mock you in some way. I know you don't fully trust me but I'm honest, 100%. That song left me speechless.”

“Thanks... And no, ya didn't offend me. The lullaby is the last thing I have from momma.”

sh*t, that was much worse. “I'm sorry about that. I bet she was a superb mom.”

“Dad said she was. I can barely remember her, though; she passed away when I was 3.”

“I'm truly sorry.” Her hand unconsciously went to pat his back but she retracted it, doubting physical consolation would help when they weren't even friends.

This was a part she loathed to face: her awkwardness in interactions where ulterior motives or hidden goals weren't necessary. She sort of had the same issue with Grime after Toad Tower fell, trying to cheer him up and care for him despite that their partnership was over. She could’ve left him behind and become a vagabond to look for Anne and Marcy; heck, that option was given after she and Grime scared the herons away but she accepted the other one: working for him to get help to find her friends. Then she found Anne but she refused to do what she said and defended Wartwood and her frog family, the rest she knew it like the palm of her hand.

After such failure, she wandered like a ghost from one place to another while wooden posts and trees showed Wanted posters of Grime. Her senseless revenge was the only purpose she had and helped her keep going even if she wasn't sure of its success. The whole army had abandoned them, Percy and Braddock weren't the sharpest soldiers, and Grime was so depressed that nothing but binge-watching Suspicion Island could lift him.

Her team surpassed any expectation of failure and ridicule anyone who saw them could put on them but they were her people despite everything. Percy and Braddock never treated Sasha like an animal and had been so kind and sweet until she f*cked it all up. Grime became a mentor and close friend to her even when he had been pretty awful at the start. It was a flawed, broken team with misfits, a troubled teenager, and a disgraced captain that was reduced to just the enraged teenager and the former warlord but it rose to be better, to do better.

However, no one, not even Wally, was Grime, Percy, or Braddock. The terrain before her was unstable and risky because her frame of reference concerning relationships was unreliable for how toxic it had been since she could remember.

But she wasn't always like this.

Maybe she could change that too and go back to when she wasn't that controlling or dominant.

“I... I also miss my parents.” Wally stopped ruminating on his memories to pay attention to her. “They don't know why and how I disappeared. I doubt Anne is going to tell them because what if she is on a parallel Earth or another dimension that is at least safer than Amphibia; besides, she's pretty mad at me. We used to be close, almost inseparable but then they started arguing, fighting too much and too loudly, every time I got in the middle, I was yelled at or worse...” The moisture made her vision blurry but she ignored it. Must be the weather. “I used to live with my mom until I landed here. My dad lives somewhere else. I had to go from one house to another. All those good times together felt like a dream.” A broken smile vanished from her face the moment it came. She couldn't lose it; her life on Earth was the past. “Dad and I used to greet each other every day with a handshake; it was fun, our little tradition.”

“Ya like handshakes?” The one-eyed frog recalled what Anne had mentioned of hers. “But ya told Anne hers were silly.”

“What?! What are you talking about?”

“She showed me how to do a handshake and then told me that ya thought doing that was silly.”

Oh... That. Sasha shrunk on her shoulders shamefully. Another screw-up.

“I said it out of jealousy. I couldn't enjoy handshakes anymore after my parents divorced and my dad went to another place. Anne bringing that up pissed me off. But now that I think of it, it wasn't her fault. I don't talk about my home life or mention my parents that much so she didn't know why that topic triggered me.”

“Can ya show me that handshake?” Wally’s curiosity threw her off. And if she had been the troubled and unhealthy teenager from months ago, she would've lashed out at him or deflected the question with another one. Anything to avoid the vulnerable moment.

Of course, saying no also worked. Her comrade would understand, right?

“I'm not ready yet.” ‘I don't know if I'll ever be’, she let that thought unannounced.

“Alright then,” Wally responded calmly. Again, she was shocked at his behavior. After the horrible stuff, she put him through like the rest of Wartwood, he had all the right to demand information even if it was about something irrelevant. Yet he accepted the refusal and let it go.

“Hey... Um, thanks.”

“For what?”

“For telling me about your mom. I know it must be painful to talk about her. I can't completely relate because mine is still alive and safe on Earth but without a means to go back there, it's like we have lost each other. Also, you didn't have to but you still did it. Thank you for trusting me with that.”

The corner of his lips formed a tentative smile.

“Sure, the same goes for ya. Ya know with your family, the handshake, and yer dad.” Another tentative smile emerged, this time on Sasha’s face. She was kinda getting why Anne adored these frogs so much.

+++++++++++++++

As afternoon and evening were getting closer to each other, so did Sasha and Wally to the scene of the crime, or more like a massacre. The terrain turned from damp soil and trees to rocky paths elevated by meters and meters and joined by a curtain of fog not that dense to become a serious obstacle but it could be if you underestimated it while climbing mountains or hills. However, the “paintings” on the rocky path to the Misty Moors were the real issue that spoke trouble to them.

Deep marks were caused by what might’ve been clawing and stomping, some of them had a weird liquid splattered inside or at the borders. It may be blood or poison, but Sasha bet it was the first one. A fight between beasts?

“Wheewww! I don't see any broken branches or pieces of moss. Thank goodness. This means the Moss Man wasn't here.”

“But the robots were,” Sasha pointed at the multiple holes in the ground and rocks, nothing would be able to do that except a laser beam, canon, or whatever weapon Andrias’ killing machines had. But while most of the holes had been the product of futuristic canons, a minority looked as if had been made by another weapon. It didn't make sense unless a creature of the fauna had enough intellect to craft a spear or anything pointy.

“We’d better keep moving. We might find clues about the Moss Man or whatever that newt’s robots are planning.”

As they continued through the narrow path, paw prints, and blood splashes never ceased to appear even if the quantity diminished. Sasha pictured in her mind a war between the fauna that inhabited the Misty Moors or any other terrain and the soulless, crimson-eyed machines that destroyed their lifestyle. The space to move could only allow a person thin enough to walk with their back glued to the rocky wall to not fall to their death. A beast with a robust build, on the other hand, is too heavy and their movements too unpredictable to be able to travel in such territory unless it could fly. However, these marks weren't as big as the ones a heron left in its hunting field.

She was so immersed in this mystery that she didn't see Wally making a gesture of disgust. “Ugh! Who farted ‘ere?”

“Uh?”

“Farted. I said farted. Can't ya smell it?”

Sasha inhaled through her nostrils understanding Wally’s complaint. “Fetid. Yeah, something or someone must’ve died here. Or…”

“Or?”

“I'm not an expert but this stench seems to be more... Artificial? Instead of coming from a corpse.”

“Factories. Like the ones on Swamp Shiro?”

“Bingo. And if they are looking for resources, then the landscape must be ravaged as far as we know.”

“But the Misty Moors are the home of the Moss Man.”

“Then he must have left or hidden. We'll find out when we arrive.”

The one-eyed frog directed his eyes to the top of the moor, as a silent prayer.

++++++++++++

The factory or slave camp, if people had been captured and forced to work there that is, had the imposing appearance of a fortress from a horror movie with the lack of stars and moon. The sky was so saturated with the toxic fumes coming out of the tubes high as the Tower Eiffel that you could think the aerial landscape had been painted with the most light-absorbent black to take away your sight.

And the nauseating smell... For Frog’s sake, what the hell we’re they doing there? The human commander and her frog companion could barely breathe, and Sasha doubted an old scarf and a piece of her war skirt she ripped out with her sword would prevent them from being completely contaminated with the poisonous smoke.

The sound akin to a motor caught them by surprise and both hide behind a rock. Peering cautiously, they followed with their eyes a group of robots that were carrying a metal box. It had what seemed to be a little window and some bars; new prisoners.

Sasha scrutinized the area. The size might be of the same proportions as a football stadium or a theme park; it would take them days to examine every corner, liberate every prisoner, and even find clues of new plans for more infrastructure like this one. She tried to calculate how much it would take from now until dawn. Maybe 4 or 5 hours, 6 at maximum.

And there is also security: the quantity and quality of robots, the kind of traps outside and inside the factory, and the weapons.

Suddenly, her stomach growled and Wally raised his accordion just to be stopped by placating hands.

“Yeeeesh, I thought it was someone else.”

“Sorry,” Sasha mumbled embarrassed. She shook her head and changed into commander mode. “Alright, here is the plan. I'm going to cause a distraction. A huge one like an explosion or battling some robots. You will clamber the walls of this place and try to find a way to enter without being detected.”

“How? Using invisibility?”

“No. It's, wait...” She tried to remember what was on some movies a path to invade private property. “Ventilation pathways.” She drew with a stick a crude representation to explain. “Because you're smaller than me, it'll be easier for you to enter and find any useful rooms where there are weapons we can use or free as many people as you can. We have until dawn. If stuff gets overwhelming and you get cornered, escape with the prisoners you managed to save, capiche?”

“What about ya?”

“I’ll come back. Don’t worry. Now,” Sasha took one of her war boots off and multiple daggers fell to the ground.

“How can ya put all that stuff inside and keep using the boot? Ya could get hurt!”

“You’re the third person who says that. Anyway, grab as many daggers as you can. When I give the signal, we’ll start.”

In seconds, he picked seven he put in his hat, careful to not break the fabric, and turned it into an improvised bag with the help of his scarf to close it.

Sasha pointed at the right for him and the left for her and both ran, evading pebbles, dead plants, twigs, and anything crunchable that alarmed the robots.

Her eyes inspected the perimeter in case a killing machine was hiding underground or by invisibility. Then she found 3, their crimson orbs illuminating the area, checking for anything suspicious. Not wasting any second, Sasha picked up a dagger and threw it at one of them; despite the darkness of the territory, her accuracy wasn't affected. The other robots turned on the alarm, it reverberated in her ears like the echo caused by a giant.

At the same time, the ground shook, the prelude for what? An earthquake, explosives beneath her? The doors she couldn't visualize during her attack opened, and war tanks surrounded her. Their size was imposing, frog-shaped heads as tall as towers, thicker and heavier than the tanks from Earth from a history book, and with those red-blood eyes. What concerned her more was how fast they moved despite their composition; however, Sasha couldn't analyze more details from the weapons for they released fire blasts to incinerate her.

The flames barely licked her skin and armor though she imagined metal and flesh had fused due to the hellish heat. She quelled a scream, ignoring the sweat and how uncomfortable it was to carry her sword with the inferno surrounding her as the machines kept moving and spitting fire. Then a swarm of robots began firing their laser beams, all the attention was on her or a big part of it, good.

She climbed one of the flame-throwing tanks and stabbed it in the head, the other ones melted it in seconds in an attempt to destroy her but Sasha jumped as high as she could to one of them, repeating the process while also hitting the robots with her daggers.

++++++++++++++++

Why ventilation pathways were this small? That's what Wally craved to know.

He felt thankful to be born an amphibian because anyone with a no-viscous skin would stay stuck in such tight space and his size also added some flexibility which made the job easier. What didn't make it better though were the hodor saturation and the noise of machinery and roars; what in Frog’s name he got immersed into?

The pathways trembled and he froze. Maybe he could use a dagger and get out of the cramped space to look inside, as long as he hasn’t landed on a trap, he would be alright.

With that decision taken, Wally made a hole big enough for him to slip through and fell into a massive pile of dung inside a half-illuminated room.

“Oh, come on! For real?!”

The wall at his right startled him the moment it began pushing the excrement to the other side. The left wall opened like a door showing an endless treadmill with tubes above; smoke could be seen coming out from some of them.

“Yep, back to the pathways!” Wally jumped and his face met the hard surface of the moving right wall that was advancing faster. He jumped again and created a new hole.

As he entered the ventilation system and moved in whatever direction, the frog sharpened his ears. Maybe if he heard a scream or a laser he could get out and help whoever was in trouble instead of falling into poo.

Yuck, it would take him a shower of more than 2 hours to get rid of the pestilence. “I should've taken the distraction role.” He complained, pinching his snout to not smell the rankness.

The chaos hidden behind the metal plates of the ventilation pathways confused him the more he advanced. Every right or left turn could be a step forward to fulfill the mission or seal his death. For Frog’s sake, Sasha should’ve taken the infiltration role.

“KEEP DIGGING!!” The sound of a whip halted his steps. Whatever was going on outside, it was the sign he was looking for.

Through the vents, he could observe the ruckus between the slaves and the robots but also the colossal jails that harbored scorpileos and killapillars.

Ok, action time. Fast, efficient, and death-proof. Gather information, free the slaves, free the beasts, and let them destroy as much as they wanted. That's how Sasha did this military stuff. Easy peasy and cheesy.

A double kick separated the vents from the ventilation pathways taking everyone by surprise. The desolated eyes of the prisoners sparked in shock at the presence of a free frog until the voice of their hateful jailers commanded them to keep working.

The robots flew toward Wally, firing their lasers and missing as he hopped from pile of rock to pile of rocks, his accordion elongated in a single movement and hit the face of one robot, then another one, and the next one lost an eye because of a dagger.

He threw the daggers he had stored and pointed a finger at them, “Fight back!!”.

While he dealt with more and more robot guardians, the flabbergasted prisoners could only admire the battle and the weapons Wally had given them as if they were scenes from a movie, something beyond reach.

That is until a gray female frog picked up one and screamed, her whole body the embodiment of the work berserk. And then launched into the robots with a frenzy recognizable as a demon. Her actions slowly broke the spell of stupor on the others as they also grabbed the daggers and ran to the battlefield. Despite the little number of knives Wally had brought with him, it didn't stop the prisoner from using whatever they had to tear the robots into pieces.

Rocks and stones rained on the jailers damaging their limbs and heads, and the pickaxes and shovels ended the work with deadly blows, amputating the laser beams from the bodies. And then new robots came, and the frogs stepped back, anxious and exhausted.

These new enemies were bulkier and had for right arms a morning star.

“Free the beasts! Free the beasts!” Commanded Wally, although a second too late. The spheres were thrown at the slaves and they expulsed the sharp spikes freaking the prisoners out as they tried to evade the missiles.

What no one, not even the robots, expected was that one of the missiles clashed with the lock of one cage, freeing a group of killapillars. The cat-like moths batted their wings creating an airwave powerful enough to knock out the new jailers.

A few beasts liberated plus the prisoners ready to fight made for a scheme so absurd that Wally was happy to give it a try. He leaped onto one of the killapillars, struggling to control it, and raised his accordion.

“Fellas! Ya wanna freedom?!”

“Yeah!!”

“Then free the beasts and fight!”

Forgetting about the madness of that plan, the slaves ran to the cages and broke the locks quickly before the robots could stop them. Scorpileos and killapillars got out, roaring and hissing, distrustful of both machines and amphibians though they had no choice but being the steeds of the frogs as they jumped on their backs and ordered them to pounce on the enemies.

23 robots and 15 fire-thrower tanks had fallen but the carnage hadn’t finished yet. The toxic smoke and the suffocating heat were doing numbers on Sasha’s mind for she sometimes slashes air and other times she hit the target. She tried to keep fighting by holding her breath to not inhale the harmful fumes but her lungs couldn’t take this any longer. Air, she needed air now!

3 robots shoot at her feet, forcing her to back down where a tank was; she scrambled from the deadly flames and used the war machine as a cover. In hindsight, her idea wasn’t the best as one of the laser beams hit something inside the tank that made it explode. The shockwave send pieces everywhere, some burnt, some melted. The blonde girl could cover her face milliseconds before the explosion but the rest of her body suffered a lot of damage from the debris.

Stunned and fatigued, she grabbed her sword but her heart halted when she held a bunch of dead grass and broken circuits. f*ck! Where the hell were her swords? Were they gone?

‘The daggers! Use the daggers!’ Sasha got up in a flash and picked up two daggers hidden on her boots. They weren’t that threatening but as long as she used her wits, they would cause a lot of robot casualties. She sprinted to her targets; she wasn’t done with them.

In an unexpected twist of luck, though, blurs of white, brown, and black pounced on the killing machines. Her surprise couldn’t be bigger as she spotted Wally on a killapillar with other frogs at his side also controlling the animals and tearing the robots apart.

“Heya, Commander!” His smile was received with a disbelieving grin and he extended his hand for her to jump into the back of the creature. As she did that, Wally recovered her swords with his tongue and gave them back to her.

“Thanks for the save.” Sasha cleaned her forehead with her arm to rid of the grime and sweat. “Alright, soldier, report.”

“We have a lot of people to save here. This place is enormous. These guys over here are just a fraction and the animals too.”

“Any blueprints or clues?”

“Nothing yet. Came here first to aid ya.”

“Well, now that we have aviary steeds, the job will take us much less. Let's go.” She regarded the freed slaves. “Listen up, this is just the beginning. Let's unleash hell onto this and liberate everyone! Who's with me?!”

“Me! Some of my friends are there!”

“Me too!”

“Then charge!!” Wally’s scream was joined by a chorus of furious, justice-thirsty victims, and the small group rained down on the unguarded parts of the factory.

Sasha felt something was off when she analyzed the size and shape of the place. Yeah, Wally hadn't lied when he said the infrastructure was colossal but the design told her there could be more.

The shape resembled a hexagon in some way, it could encompass two football stadiums if her calculations were right. And why was a giant dome in the center?

“30 minutes,” she commanded. “We have to get everyone out of here in 30 minutes. The more we stay, the more we'll suffer for whatever trap inside.” Her comrade nodded and whistled to one of the riders. “Hey, over here! We need an extra ride!”

A blue-ish frog with cerulean eyes approached them with his killapillar and Sasha jumped onto its back.

“Half of you, follow me to destroy these pieces of junk! The other half, follow Wally and help him free the prisoners. We have half an hour! GO!!”

The goal had never been more unrealistic but at this point, it was that or get a bit of whatever the heck that place was hiding. Dizziness and exhaustion circulated through Sasha’s body, though, the strongest feeling was dread. She suspected or expected a twist that could turn the tables and put everyone back into their cells and her and Wally in a coffin; for that reason, rushing in had to be the priority. No one would be left behind and no second would be wasted, that was a must.

Robots, tanks, and alarms fell to the pickaxes, shovels, and Sasha’s heron swords while Wally guided his team to liberate both slaves and beasts, encouraging the victims to ride on the wildlife and fight back.

From 5 to 10 minutes, the little improvised army had grown in size and strength, invigorated by revenge and freedom. Then the dome blinded them all with a crimson color that bathed the dark atmosphere into a pool of red as if hell had spat on the sky. This new alarm echoed with a roar that stunned the rebels, the animals tried to shake them off, consumed by anxiety. Sasha couldn't blame them, the time frame hadn't ended yet and now they had another problem to solve. Heck, much worse, thick walls of metal were coming out from the edges of the factory as if the entire place was closing itself, aware of the intruders.

The Slavic teenager calculated, rushedly, that it would take a lot of time for the security walls to trap them all, still, she’d better lead everyone to safety than stay a second more in that hellhole.

Her conscience objected. Her eyes scanned the number of people they had freed and it wasn't enough. What if there were more freaking out due to the chaos outside? But was she going to risk her life or use the remaining time with her new army despite the consequences?

Damn it! She truly hated moral dilemmas!

They needed to save more. They had to.

“10 minutes more! We must free as many prisoners as we can! Go, go!”

They restarted the process. Barging into the excavation rooms, ripping the robots into pieces, evading the flames of the tanks, and getting more people fired up to ruin the factory. If the numbers didn't stop going up, they could all escape.

“Sasha, the walls are getting closer to trapping us! We need to get out!!”

“But we aren’t done with this place yet!”

“We don't know what might happen if it closes completely! We must go!”

No. She wanted to say no. They were close to sabotaging the whole factory. They were stronger with these numbers. They--

‘If a bridge withstands, people will be safe. If it falls apart, there won't be an exit. What are you, Sasha Waybright? People’s downfall or their exit?’

It was repeating, wasn't it?

She felt it in her heart. She had lived this before.

“Everyone, follow me! Let's get the hell out of here! Make sure no one is left behind!”

Cries of war resounded in unison. The killapillar and love dove riders took care of the scorpileo and mantis ones by making the cat-like moths and birds carry the no-flying beasts, helping half the prisoners escape.

Secret gates opened and a new model of robots with network triggers flew toward them, firing steel-made nets at anyone too slow to evade them.

“Wally, do you have some boom-shrooms?”

“Did ya need to ask?” The hillbilly showed the pockets of his worn, sleeveless jacket filled to the brim with those natural explosives. Sasha smirked and grabbed a few; she hoped her accuracy was still good with all the chaos and the dark environment getting in the way.

The explosions took the army by surprise but didn't halt them as they were so close to freedom. Multiple nets fell to the ground in pieces forcing the robots to shoot missiles from the inside of their bodies to defeat the rebels and buy the walls more time.

Luck chose to be on Sasha and Wally’s side as they and their new army could escape and fly as far away from the place.

Half an hour the freed slaves and their two leaders traveled somewhere else to hide and rest; their moods reaching a new high point for the ecstasy of not being tortured by Andrias’ machines anymore. Happy cries and songs could be heard for miles but as much as Sasha was elated with their newfound hope to restart their lives, there were more important matters to attend to.

“Ok, everybody, listen.” The celebration quieted and pairs of eyes of every color regarded her. “It's wonderful to have this victory and to not be inside that hellhole but this is just the start. You think that place is the only one Andrias has to keep the people beneath his thumb? You're seriously mistaken then. This is Frog Valley. We don't even know how the rest of Amphibia is dealing with his machines, factories, and whatever atrocity he's committing. Heck, as I speak, I bet other towns outside the valley are being turned into craters for his greed.”

“Then what's the plan?” One frog asked.

“Go back home, spread the word, and gather yer strength because the fight ain’t over yet!” Wally intervened, puffing off his chest. For once, Sasha let him because 1) she was feeling quite lightheaded for some reason she couldn’t remember, and 2) he did the hardest job so why not let him invigorate the others?

“Not many of us have a home to return to anymore”

“Then Wartwood will open its arms to ya. It will always be open for people who want justice, freedom, and Andrias gone foreva! Sure we are slow-to-accept-and-slower-to-respect kinda fellas but if we have partially accepted Sasha, then ya have a better chance!”

Ok, ouch. But anyway, his speech was working. Many former slaves raised their hands to join Wartwood much to her and Wally’s joy. The other ones bid them farewell promising to spread the news that a rebellion to save Amphibia was taking shape on Wartwood so more people could be part of it.

Just when the rest of the new army descended to the ground, the beasts became frenetic, shaking their riders off and growling in deep distress as if they had been poisoned or whipped. All of them fled as Sasha searched for the source. Despite the loss of cavalry, she was thankful to not deal with the predators because her dizziness was increasing and-- Wait, was that a giant island floating above them?

+++++++++++++

Wally sometimes wished for his permanently closed eye to open because his impaired vision might be playing with him right now. There was no way that the factory could have reached them unless a miracle or the dark arts have been involved to make it happen. He bet his remaining boom-shrooms that it was the dark arts.

Straining his good eye, he inspected the infrastructure. From below, he caught 4 giant fans that were inside what seemed to be 4 giant paws. The damn site was a frog-shaped structure that could fly! Unbelievable!

“What do we do?! What do we do?!” the townsfolk were losing it. If that thing sent a swarm of robots to capture them all, the mission will have been a failure.

“Commander, yer orders!”

“R-Right,” Sasha coughed, her eyes disorientated. By the look of it, her mind and body were half in reality and half in limbo. “Don’t panic. T-This,” she coughed again. Worrisome. “This is the plan. Get together in groups of 3 and look for a tree hole or burrow deep enough to hide. Or dig a quick hole and get in there. I will give the signal to leave when the danger has passed. Now!”

The frogs scrambled after a few seconds of regrouping while Wally took her hand and pulled her to a dead tree a few meters away from the others. He must be a pretty lucky guy because beneath the dead tree was a hole big enough for both to fit in.

“Are ya ok?” The one-eyed frog whispered to her, keeping his ears open to any suspicious sounds. “Ya seemed out of it.”

“—ine… Just…ugh…” she rasped her throat. Was she getting the flu? She’d better not, last time Wally got sick it left him hallucinating and making a fool of himself.

After a while, maybe a bit more of an hour, he surveyed the area, peeking outside of the dead tree. From afar, the first rays of sunshine from the dawn were trespassing the clouds. His ears tried to capture anything weird but there was only silence. The factory wasn’t in the sky anymore and wherever it had gone it could be good or bad news for them. Sasha joined him as soon as her dizziness lessened a bit and inspected the area too.

Nothing above them or beneath them, nothing on the ground either. Did that monstrosity turn invisible?

“What's the plan now, Commander?” he whispered.

“Take everyone to Wartwood ASAP and inform Grime of what happened. I'm going to make sure that the factory isn't near the town, Swamp Shiro, or any other one. If I don't return on midday, evacuate Wartwood.”

Wally swallowed. “Ok, but if Grime squashes me with that hammer because ya didn't come back with me, I'll blame ya.”

He whistled to the frogs, making them get out of their hiding spots. “Follow me, fellas. Wartwood isn't that far. Come on!”

Sasha walked away from the group, shaking her head to rid of the lightheadedness. It must've been the smoke, the incessant heat when she fought the frobo-tanks, or maybe one of the robots had poisoned her. Anyway, unless she was 100% sure the factory had given up on looking for them and gone far away from their former location to restart its work, Sasha couldn't come back. She could imagine in her head the myriad of reprimands Grime was going to bombard her with after she explained the reasons for her tardiness. It relieved some tension inside of her that he had her back.

++++++++++++

The surprise at seeing so many new faces after having received two families that came from Newtopia didn't diminish in the slightest the wrath and concern the old toad felt at Wally’s return without Sasha and the why behind it.

On one hand, he could understand her worries. Andrias’ resources and technology had proven once again to be a force to be reckoned with which meant that ignoring the threat or hoping that it disappeared was out of the question. On the other hand, she should’ve asked for help instead of going alone and facing whatever contraptions the maniacal newt had in store. If she didn't return at the time frame she had established, then for Wally’s sake he'd better say goodbye to feeling anything in his body because he would become a tortilla.

“I see someone! I see someone!“ Dereck, a dark-lemon-skinned frog yelled, hitting the bell of the town’s entrance. Grime, Croaker, Wally, and Maddie ran and prepared to fight if it was a possible spy or a bandit only for the former warlord to drop the War Hammer and enveloped Sasha in a bone-crushing hug.

“Gr-Grime... Grimesy... Can't breathe...” She patted her shoulder multiple times but he ignored her.

“You scared me half to death, Lieutenant! What the f*ck were you thinking checking the perimeter on your own in such a deplorable condition?!”

“Grimesy, come on...” She coughed a lot and smiled to alleviate his worries. “This nut is harder to crack, you know? Nothing can take me by surprise.”

“Nothing except your poor-hindsight ego,” he scolded, sighing. “Thank Frog you're ok, though. Wally has told us everything.” Sasha opened her mouth to give her own side of the report but a clawed finger got in the way. “Later, Sasha. You've pushed your body to the limit and we don't know how deep the damage is. Rest first and tomorrow we’ll take care of this.”

“The prisoners--”

“Stumpy and Felicia will feed and heal them. Now, young lady, let's go to rest.” Croaker pushed her gently with her cane toward the Plantars’ house. As she walked, she patted Wally’s back to talk to him, “Hey, you did great, partner. Good job.”

“Oh... Sure,” the one-eyed frog looked away, a smirk appearing slowly. “Ya too.”

“Also... Uh, sorry, for not finding the Moss Man. I... I wasn't that sure about that part of the mission but it must be important for you.”

Wally was surprised at her apology but grinned at her kindly. “Eh, it's alright. We helped a lot of people. I bet next time we’ll find it.”

“Mmmhmmm” She was going to say something else until her eyes landed on the mayor’s house. Deflating slightly, she continued walking. Tomorrow. She would face her screw-up tomorrow.

Chapter 9: I’ll make a man out of you

Summary:

This could be Loggle’s day to shine or to end up in the hospital

P.S.: There is also a Marcy’s Journal surprise!

Notes:

After so many months, I’m finally back. So many thank yous to the people who sent kudos to this fanfic, I’m happy to see they like my work!

Chapter Text

A fly-chicken that, for reasons no one knew or cared about, had ended up on the roof started singing, replacing the Amphibia version of a rooster who should be doing its job at this moment but was delayed whether because of laziness or due to being inside a predator’s stomach.

The off-tone, ear-scratching koo-koo-roo of the hybrid animal echoed throughout the town, but while the rest of the townsfolk were too deep in any wagon of the Dream Train or couldn’t hear the fly-chicken, a certain old axolotl didn’t have the same luxury.

“Uuuuggghhhhh…” He groaned, removing the sheets and pillow from his face. “Uuuggghhh…” Another groan accompanied sluggish, miserable movements when he got up from bed and cracked his back. He winced at the sound; yikes, not even his poor bones were in the morning mood.

He dragged himself to the bathroom, his feet rasping the wooden floor. It was a miracle he hasn’t fallen or tripped during the short journey.

“Well, Loggle, another day, another chance to keep adding more humiliation to your failures.” His laugh sunk his head much more between the shoulders and like that, he began brushing his teeth.

Minutes later, he was changed and had his faithful goggles on his face. He walked to his table, a pool of dread forming in his stomach as he counted the time.

Yesterday hadn’t been his day in any way. While the others struggled and made little mistakes, his issues with the training were worrying if not exasperating. Grime scolded him for waiting for the Wartwoodians to do all the jobs in the trap course so he could advance with no trouble. Then Croaker called him out for not putting enough effort into sensing where a trap was and fighting enemies. Even during rescue mission simulations, he had to be rescued instead of saving the people!

What happened to the Loggle who ripped an eye out from a robot? Beats him. If someone answered such a question, he would be glad. Or maybe not.

And to make it worse, today was th—

“GET UP, OLD MAN!! TRAINING AT 8 SHARP!!” His door flew from his hinges after Grime kicked it. A piece almost collided with his head; thankfully, he ducked in time.

“What on Frog’s name is the meaning of this?!”

“Have you forgotten that today—?”

“I remember. Was it necessary to destroy my door though?”

“Just to emphasize the importance of the schedule. Now let’s go!”

Yep. Another day, another extenuating routine to go through.

++++++++++++++++

In a clearing a few kilometers away from Wartwood, a blonde human rounded up her team. Sasha had been taking a good rest after the intense mission with Wally to appease her frenetic toad companion. Her injuries were numerous but not lethal and the exhaustion and dizziness were due to the endless fight against the fire-breathing tanks and the smoke she had inhaled. Hopefully, it wouldn’t happen again but if it did, she wouldn’t let her stamina fall so short of her expectations. As long as Grime didn’t freak out, of course.

Anyway, today her increased army stood up before her, ordered in rows and columns. A stash of wooden weapons had been placed at her left, as she counted every person from the townsfolk to the refugees.

“Good morning, everyone. Today we have new faces on our side. As you may know, Wally and I went on a mission to look for a mythical monster and found people in need on the wa—“

“About that, I doubt it was polite, considerate, or any other good quality you may lack that we are standing here to partake in barbaric training.” Mordecai’s interruption irritated her; she kept that to herself. She had forgotten the two families she and Wally had found on their mission were staying in Wartwood for a while. Matthew’s family was resting in Felicia’s Tea House while Mordecai’s went to sleep in Stumpy’s. Knowing the frog wasn’t in the best condition, she called the older newts and told them about this training meeting to help them defend themselves. Why they accepted to come despite their disdain toward Sasha eluded her.

“Ehem, as I was saying, we found people in need and now they are with us. Also, no, this is barbaric training. It’s basic fighting training. How to weapons like spears, swords, shields, and other kinds. Evade traps, work in teams, and be alert of your surroundings.”

“No robots will try to capture us, right?” Asked Timmy, a semi-round frog with beige skin and black overalls.

“Nope, don’t worry. Besides, the security here is tight.”

“With a sword-wielding beast and its criminal of a toad master as leaders, I doubt it.” Veenomsty spat in a low voice. Sasha, however, heard it so he wasn’t careful enough to not be heard or planned for her to catch the insults. Anyway, “Ok, we’ll start with sword training. Let’s see, let’s see. Gunther, come here.”

“Ay ay!“ the Hulk-transforming frog grabbed a crafted wooden sword and stood in front of the girl.

“Lesson one: low and high blocking. Gunther, give me your best!”

He obeyed by getting bigger and bulkier, then charging at Sasha with his sword raised. She raised hers vertically and the collision of both weapons ended up in a mess of splinters due to Gunther’s excessive strength.

“Yeah… Ok, putting aside that we are two wooden swords less, this was high blocking. You have to make sure your stance is firm and stable. Your legs and feet will take the part of the weight of the attack so if they tremble, try to regain composure before blocking.” Her students nodded. The new ones looked a bit hesitant after Gunther’s strength demonstration; time to change tactics.

“Thanks, Gunther. Go back to your place. Mrs. Sundew, you’re next.” Sasha said as she went to pick another sword. Felicia did the same and at the order, she launched herself to disarm Sasha. The girl protected her head and legs for two minutes until she signaled to stop.

“There. That’s high and low blocking. Now it comes to the practice. Make groups of two or three and take turns to block or attack. If you have any questions, Grime and I will answer them.”

+++++++++++

Remember the pool of dread on Loggle’s stomach? Honestly, he couldn’t remember it either. Sure, this training session was going too slow for his tastes, or perhaps his sense of time had changed since yesterday, but at least the lessons were small and simple.

“Come on, buddy! Hit strong! It’s like I’m fighting with a fly-sheep!”

“Ivy Sundew, I didn’t raise you to be this demanding and disrespectful to your elders!” Her mother reprimanded her after hearing her talking like that to the axolotl.

“It’s alright, Felicia. I just don’t want to be so hard on the kid.”

“But that’s part of the training!” Ivy complained. Why didn’t she have Maddie as a training partner again? At least she took this seriously.

“It’s something wrong?” Sasha asked, approaching them.

“Sorry, Sasha. I don’t feel right having this fight with her.”

“Loggle, it’s training, not a real fight.” Despite her explanation, Loggle’s mood didn’t improve. “What about this? You block and she attacks. This way you won’t feel bad if Ivy gets hurt because she won’t. Happy with that?”

“It sounds reasonable enough,” he replied, more comfortable.

“Good, then, kyaaaaa!” Ivy hopped, her wooden sword millimeters to strike if it weren’t for Loggle’s burst of reflexes. Felicia opened her mouth with a lecture prepared for her daughter but every time the frog girl interrupted with “kyaaa!”, swinging her weapon at the axolotl’s neck and legs.

Loggle got so immersed in defending himself from the endless onslaught that he couldn’t notice the distance between him and a tree behind him was shortening.

His feet bumped into a root and his head turning around was distraction enough for Ivy to push him to the ground with a hit of her tongue.

“Excellent! Well done, Ivy!” In a rare display of friendliness, Sasha raised her hand for a high-five getting a tongue high-fiving with her. Ew.

Mordecai and Veenomsty were a few meters away from the little group, resting from the lesson.

“The nerve of that beast to indulge in such savagery,” murmured the first. “If I had been the mother, I would’ve forbidden the child to join me in this place.”

“And to make it worse, it enabled the little girl to be threatening to that elder. For something that acts as if it is trustworthy, it leaves much to be desired.” Mordecai agreed to his brother’s words. A fake cough startled them; behind them stood Grime, arms crossed, puffing up with a wide stance.

“Do you have some trouble, gentlemen?”

Now, Grime might still hold prejudices against the other amphibians and try to keep them locked up in a truck where no one could find them but while insults to him or the toads were slights tolerable, any offense to his protege was another story.

“Were you eavesdropping on us?” Accused Veenomsty.

“I was checking on the teams and couldn’t help myself the moment I heard your…complaints,” he mouthed the last word slowly and darkly. “Don’t take me wrong, every issue to fix is valid. Nonetheless, Commander Waybright knows what she’s doing. She’s not partaking in any bullying.”

“Maybe your pet is accustomed to the ruthlessness of toads to think this behavior is not bullying but we don’t buy it,” Mordecai responded. “We’re not that gullible.”

Grime shrugged. Nonetheless, inside he fumed at the terms the newts used to refer to Sasha. At least, she was concentrated on aiding the other teams.

Half an hour later, Sasha gathered everyone and applauded. “Giving genuine compliments is not my strong point but I have to admit you’ve advanced a lot in lesson 1. For the ones who are struggling, keep up the hard work. Remember, you can’t expect to be an expert on the first day.”

The encouragement moved them to applause to themselves and their partners too. In the corner of the whole group, Loggle clapped his hands softly, feeling a bit of comfort.

“High and low blocking will help you dueling beginners but here is the question, what if that beginner uses more than a sword to defeat you? For lesson 2 you will learn how to be resourceful and use your wits to surprise the enemy and strike back. Your surroundings and what you are can be useful: tough skin, heavy build like a toad, agility, and flexibility of a frog, a strong tail of a newt, the stuff you find on the battlefield. With some creativity, they can become powerful weapons. Now, for a little demonstration, who wants to participate?”

“I will,” said Quentin.

“Great, who’s next?”

Loggle wondered what would happen if he raised his hand. More humiliation to deal with or his first good job since he fought those robots? He craved the rush of power from that day, the confidence, and bravery. If he could destroy the robots to save the town, why a training session loomed over him like a hungry monster lifting its foot to flatten him?

He needed to step up to the game!

“I-I will!” His raised hand got Sasha and the others’ attention. Social anxiety had never been a problem for him; however, after the last failure, it had become an issue. He straightened his back. Enough of loser mental talk. Action called!

“Alright then. The rules are the same: disarm the opponent to win. Good luck, guys,” Sasha proceeded to the left side and clap her hands.

Loggle let out a war cry, sprinting toward a disbelieving Quentin. The young frog’s sword got in a vertical position, blocking a strong hit but his slowness, due to his shock, prevented him from defending his legs and one of them received a strike.

He yelped painfully, backing down before more attacks dispose of his weapon. Loggle kept on like a berserk warrior. Victory awaited him; he could taste it already. The more his mind conjured those ecstatic moments, the more aggressive he got.

Desperate, Quentin inflated his throat sack, pushing Loggle back and surprising him. He repeated the action, each time breaking the axolotl’s balance more than the last one. His tongue fired from his mouth, wrapping itself around Loogle’s wooden sword but the woodsmith held on to it hard beginning a pull-and-push game.

The axolotl pulled, dragging Quenting for a few centimeters as the frog resisted. What it couldn’t resist anymore was the poor wooden sword for it break in two due to all the strain and both contenders went flying, each with a piece, back to the ground.

“Uuuuggghhhh…”

“Well done, you two. Great demonstration.” Sasha went to help them get up and clapped her hands on their backs. “Loggle, I liked your spirit. You were quick and fierce. Not bad for a first demonstration. But remember, lesson 2 is about relying on other stuff to win a fight. Quentin, you might have started weak but you applied this lesson by using your frog attributes to get an advantage. Keep going on and you’ll be unstoppable.”

“Eh… Thanks,” He scratched his back, flustered.

Loggle, on the other hand, felt unsatisfied. This was supposed to be a resounding victory to revive the eye-ripping, unafraid Loggle not to make more of a fool of himself.

He sighed. Guess he would have to keep trying in the next lessons.

++++++++++++

Have you ever been told to not say the classic phrase “this couldn’t get worse” because that would piss off the universe for some reason and make your rest of the day a living hell? Welp, Loggle had learned after 30 minutes of more training to not only shut his mouth whenever that phrase tried to be expressed with his lips but also to not think about it. You would think that fighting a child felt unfair and unnecessarily cruel; what about another elder with much more experience and guts than you?

“Kyaaaa!” A powerful kick sent him right into a puddle of mud, his new wooden sword a few meters away from him. Now he understood why Felicia and her daughter were so deadly in the battle. Silvia hadn’t wasted any time in teaching them martial arts.

Hi rubbed his eyes covered by the dirty goggles. This might be the nail in the coffin for the revival of his daredevil persona.

“What’s gotten into you, Loggle? You seem to be in the dump, more than literally.” Silvia asked worriedly. His arms plopped on the mud in answer.

While the woodcarving axolotl struggled to figure out how to bring back his warrior spark, Sasha got confronted slightly by her guilt.

As she checked on each team and gave her critiques to her students, a lightweight suddenly collided with her, making her stumble on her steps.

“What the—?”

“Oh, uh, sorry C-Commander. Didn’t see you.” Said Toadie with an uncharacteristic tiny and submissive tone.

Uh, yeah. That.

“Hey… D-Don’t worry about it. Ummmmm,” side-glancing, she could see Toadstool glaring at her, accusation in his eyes. Yep, Toadie informed him what happened after the disastrous meeting. “Anyway, it seems you and the mayor are doing a great job, so don’t give up. I bet by the end of the day, it will pay off.” Her two thumbs up and her “I believe in you” smile were the most awkward gestures she could’ve given him. Man, she hoped she wasn’t coming as falsely nice or encouraging for the sake of erasing her guilt.

Toadie barely smiled and charged at Toadstool again, although, with less energy than before he bumped into Sasha.

Gosh, so uncomfortable.

Her eyes looked for another distraction, watching the new refugees parring, swinging, and hitting more aggressively than usual.

“Wow wow, buddy, cool down.” She stopped one of them. A female frog with light-grey skin and milky eyes. “Should I be concerned with your berserk mode?”

“Berserk what?”

“You know, getting all riled up with your partner. The same can be said for the others.”

“This is not riled up. This is FREE riled up!”

If memes were a thing in Amphibia, Sasha’s Pikachu face would’ve been the most popular one. “Uh… Care to elaborate,—? What was your name again?”

“Christina.”

“Ok, Christina. Mind explaining that?”

“This is the war cry of freedom! Something that is finally ours!”

“Yeah!” Timmy yelled. “No more jails or slave work, just us fighting for what’s rightfully ours!”

“I’ve never felt so pumped in my life!” Said another former farmer.

Sasha involuntarily smiled. Her old self hadn’t believed in the strength of the frogs or she had mocked their attempts at defending themselves saying they were too fragile to do what toads were good at but the Sasha could only regard these refugees with pride. Frog, toad, or newt, the species didn’t matter as long as their fighting spirit shone brightly.

A thumbs up was enough encouragement for the frogs to keep going with the training. As she advanced and advised some people to correct their stances or take another approach, her eyes landed on the two newts, Mordecai and Veenomsty. Whereas her knowledge warned her of a cold, hostile response from one of them, as the trainer, Sasha must help the students to go through every lesson smoothly and make the best of each.

She got close to the duo, her face stoic and head raised but not too much to not look arrogant or condescending.

“You’re doing a good job,” a careful smile was painted on her face. “If you let me give you some pointers, your tails can also become a disadvantage if you’re not fast enough. Make sure to not let the enemy stab it or stump on it.”

“Is that advice from a former tax collector?” Mordecai asked suspiciously.

“Yeah, pretty strange from a tail-less being to tell us that. Unless you have ransacked newt’s houses before.”

‘There is only one newt I’ve faced and want to destroy right now.’ The dark cloud with the shape of Andrias covered almost all of her mind; however, she hadn’t forgotten about one of his still-possible allies: the pink newt general.

What was her name again? Yuman or Yunan? Anyway, she recalled the overzealous newt using her tail to make her fall and have her where she wanted. If it weren’t for Grime’s help by taking advantage of Yunan’s overconfidence, Sasha would be dead already.

“Not really. Just an advice of common sense. Keep up the good work,” She walked away, ignoring the hard stares of her reluctant students. Then she observed Loogle’s performance and her eyebrow raised questioningly. During his battle simulation with Quentin, he acted impulsively, seeking a clear and quick win. She could give him some credit for the enthusiasm but taking some time to be more observant showed her a different image.

Loggle attacked in a series of crazy swings, with no plan or strategy in mind. On the other side, Sylvia, his partner, evaded and counterattacked with the precision of an expert. And her use of the wooden sword made her look as if she had transformed her weapon into a new limb.

Loggle transpired, gasping like a dog that ran a marathon. His last resort was throwing his sword to land a hit but it missed and met the muddy ground.

“Should I ask what the heck was that?” Sasha said, waiting for a response.

“I’m as confused as you,” Sylvia answered.

The blonde observed for a few minutes at Loggle, expecting him to talk but her method intimidated him a little bit. She sighed and whistled for everyone to hear. “Ok, guys, time for a break.”

+++++++++++++++

If lessons 1 and 2 were hard on the aged axolotl, the other 3 were worse. Accuracy in throwing static and mobile targets, hunting, and teamwork completely put him on the ground.

That was it. Goodbye to Loggle, the fearless. Welcome, Loggle, the scrawny.

The people of his generation like Croaker, Sylvia, or even Hopadiah -if he was here- would’ve made it through this with flying colors!

“Ejem,” he froze at that fake cough. Turning around, his gaze met Sasha’s and his tongue stiffened as if it was turned into stone.

“Ok so, mind telling me what’s going on with you?”

“Uh… Wh-What do you mean?” Loggle tried to play dumb, Sasha didn’t buy it of course.

“At first I thought you were enthusiastic to participate and learn battle movements but what you did during lesson 2 has given me another idea.”

“…”

That’s it, eh? The Slavic teenager pondered her options. Option A was the most effective but it reeked of her old self. By pushing Loggle to explain the source of his impulsivity she could come across as imposing and controlling. Losing the trust she’s been gaining slowly from the Wartwoodians was the last thing on her list and it could decimate her goals to keep everyone safe to make amends, have Maddie’s support to save Marcy, and defeat Andrias.

Option B would take twice the time and work but it respected the axolotl’s feelings. Nonetheless, whether Loggle accepted her offer or not, it concerned her. She couldn’t let anyone who was in good shape face a robotic army if they lacked the training. It would be the same as using them as cannon fodder.

Still, even if Loggle in the end hadn’t the guts or skills to fight, his woodcarving experience could contribute greatly.

“Loggle, whatever problem you have— No wait, that doesn’t sound good. Listen, what if tomorrow we talk? The three of us. Grime, me, and you. Perhaps we could help.”

Loggle fidgeted with his fingers. “I won’t be able to escape this, will I?”

Why he phrased it as if she scheduled a punishment? Forget it. “This is not a prologue from the end of the world, man. It’ll be just a talk. I’ve seen how much energy you put into the training, but something is missing. Maybe we can find that so you can shine in the next sessions. What do you say?”

Was she laying out options for him? Probably. It’s not that he trusted her wholeheartedly but seeing how much the girl had changed from a terrifying warrior that supported Grime’s cruelty to a commander that faced dangers for the sake of the town… A little shot wouldn’t hurt, would it?

“…Alright. Tomorrow morning.”

++++++++++++++++++++++

His eyes hadn’t detached from the door nor closed for hours. It was tomorrow and the wait strangled him, an overdose of anxiety and worst-case scenarios playing in his mind like freeze frames pumped one of his knees to bounce incessantly.

The cherry on the cake arrived as a series of knocks almost made him hop straight to the ceiling like a rocket. He walked to the door and opened it, receiving the human and her toad companion.

“Good morning, Loggle,” Sasha bowed politely. Grime only did the second gesture.

“Oh… Good morning…” Having the once violent blonde human as the leader of the resistance felt weird. As if you were asking for trouble. Having her in front of you and greeting you with no ulterior motives could surpass any surrealist world of his imagination.

“Ok, let’s go to the bottom of this, shall we? First of all, what happened yesterday? You seemed so courageous but then you kind of…forced it?”

Loggle scratched his head. “Not exactly forcing it. I was trying to bring a part of myself back.”

“And that part is…” Grime trailed off and gestured for an explanation.

Here it came. This was the moment of truth. But hey, if he had options before him, then he had a say on how the other two should react to his moment of vulnerability.

“I’m…gonna show you something, BUT no laughs or derogatory comments. If not, you’re out.”

“You can count on us,” Sasha side-glanced at Grime who nodded.

The woodsmith gathered as much strength as he could and approached a piece of art of his that was covered by a sheet. He grabbed a corner of the sheet and uncovered the wooden statue of himself in a pensive position, his body muscular and imposing like the one of a Greek hero.

“This is what I want to accomplish.”

If he was referring to the artistic skills to produce an incredibly detailed masterpiece, he wouldn’t need to because wow! Loggle surely knew how to turn wood into precious decorations. However, Sasha figured out what he wanted the moment her eyes scanned the statue.

Grime got a bit closer to her and whispered, “This guy has a lot of delusions.” She elbowed him in the gut.

“That’s…ambitious,” for lack of a better term. “Really ambitious. So, this dream has been in your mind for a while or it started after the training from yesterday?”

“I used to read novels about powerful warriors that battled enemies much bigger and heavier than them. They wore shiny armor, and unbreakable swords and everyone applauded them. I’ve…always wanted to be one of them but well…” His hands signaled at his scrawny body. “Reality isn’t as kind with anyone’s dreams so it stayed like that. But then the robots attacked the town and you saw what I did to them, right?”

“You pulled out an eye from one of them. And crushed many heads like eggs.”

“Yeah, and it was exhilarating! I’ve never felt so powerful! And can you believe me when I say that I wasn’t afraid?”

“Welp, that’s courage for you. The thrill of battle, the adrenaline,” Sasha was starting to see the pattern Loggle craved to experience again. “You want that right?”

“More than anything. It’s like I could be more. No more noodle arms, or being seen as the old axolotl who can barely get enough wood without getting eaten.”

“Being ambitious is a good step for growth,” ‘Even if yours is as possible as changing the weather with wishful thinking’ Grime thought to himself. “However, this isn’t a competition or an epic tale where the underdog reaches their true potential, this is war. Merciless, unrelenting, and unfair. I didn’t stay as captain of the Southern Toad Tower for a long time by begging for compassion a bit after I lost my eye, I pushed through that and any enemy or obstacle in my way.”

“That’s…where the problem is.”

“What do you mean?” Sasha asked.

“I feel like my grand battle with those robots was just a fluke. A one-in-a-million spark.”

“And because you couldn’t relive it, you got aggressive in the training to make a copy of it?”

“You could say so.”

“I know what your problem is: you want to recapture a moment that put above any fear. But reliving old glories will get you stuck in the past. Instead, we’ll help you channel your ambitions so you can have as many sparks of greatness as you can imagine.”

“Is that possible?” Loggle asked between curious and apprehensive.

“Grime is right, the first step is having an ambition, whether it is for your benefit or the benefit of others. Now, you must turn it into a goal. And that goal is transforming your harmless body into a fighting machine that everyone, especially you, will look up to. However,” he didn’t like the tone of that word. “this personal training will be intense, in capital letters. No pain, no gain as people say on Earth, so you will have to give more than your 100% even if you only have that. Capisci?”

“Capi what?”

“Never mind. I’ll be waiting for you in an hour in the Plantars’ house. Do not arrive late.”

Sasha bid him goodbye with a hand and left, Grime behind her. The axolotl observed them getting farther away from his house and wondering in what mess he got himself into.

+++++++++++++

A few meters away from the backyard of the Plantars was a crafter gym. Rocks, dummies, ropes, and other stuff were at the side of a huge circle that had two other smaller circles inside of it, all drawn by stones. Sasha was sitting in one of those and the moment she spot him, she got up, saluting the woodsmith.

“Nice of you to be punctual. Before we start, I wanna know if you have seen anyone in the town engage in battle just to see how much information you’ve gathered from that.”

“There is this battle formation Toadstool orders us to make in case a mantis invades the town.”

“Ok, but that is teamwork. I’m talking about a 1 vs 1 battle.”

“Hopediah fought Toadstool in the ring during the elections.”

“A ring? Like a boxing ring?”

“Yep.”

“Good. Then we’ll start from that. We don’t have boxing gloves for this so I picked some towels from the house. Cover your hands with them and we’ll begin.”

Boxing. Towel-glove boxing. He swallowed a nervous gulp and wrapped his hands with the towels a bit clumsily. His fingers trembled like jelly and sweat was accumulating on the tips, but he ignored it. He comforted himself with the image of a bulky, immovable version of himself on the top of a mountain. Kind of cliche but it worked.

“Give me your very best, man.”

“Wait, you expect me to hit you? Shouldn’t it go both ways?”

“Trust me. You’ll see what I’m talking about later.”

A shrug followed. He lunged at her, his fist connecting with her chest. Her feet were barely dragged on the ground by the strength of the hit. He punched her stomach but she remained stoic as if she was immune to pain. Another punch, this time to the cheek. Her posture changed although she kept her back straight and confidently.

The next punch goes to the center of her face. A slight crack could be heard which made him step back and checked on Sasha from a safe distance. Her nose seemed fine, not crooked or sunk because of the hit but he knew it would look kind of funny after some time.

“Are you done?” She asked. Loggle shrugged somewhat guilty of the bruise that would form on her nose.

“Good, then watch this,” before he could prepare himself, Sasha sprinted and her fist landed on his face. The force sent him flying, expulsing him from the three circles.

“Owwww…” What the f*ck was that?! She said boxing, not being tackled by a testosterone-saturated rhino beetle.

“Lesson number 1: resilience. The reason why I didn’t move an inch it’s because I developed my resilience. Yours is beneath average.”

“Ugh…”

Sasha pulled him up and pushed him gently to the center of the huge stone circle. Grime entered the circle and put himself in position for a fight.

“Important question: what’s the difference between Grime’s posture and yours?”

“That he resembles a massive rock and I’m more like a crooked old tree?”

“Nope. Weight distribution. Show me your posture.”

Loggle obeyed. Sasha’s eyes scanned him minutely, and a few drops of sweat rolled down his face.

“One of your feet must be behind the other to support you in case the hit is too strong.” Sasha tapped his left foot with hers and he complied. “Don’t lean forward too much nor backward either. Your back must be straight like a line.” She tapped his back with her fingers and he complied again.

“Good. When you hit me, more than the pain I focused on the intensity and your strategy. You hit in obvious zones: the face, the stomach, the chest, because they were in the open and could disorient me. However, if we were in a serious fight or if you had fought someone else, those zones would’ve been useless because I would’ve evaded all your hits or prepared my body to withstand your attacks, or the enemy would’ve used armor or do the other two things I mentioned. Now to the task, try to knock us down or push us out of the inner circle with your best hits, and also withstand our punches. We won’t be moving from her until you manage both.”

“Wait, we’ll be here all day?”

“Just until nighttime is close enough.”

A single look at the once murderous toad captain made him reconsider this training idea. Just say no and go back to your life. But how was he going to catch up with the others in the war if he remained behind?

Think of Loogle, the fearless, Loogle. Think of Loggle, the fearless.

++++++++++++++++

Her mind reviewed for the nth time the number of times when Loggle managed to defeat them and the times when she and Grime were successful, and much to her disapproval, the axolotl’s performance had been subpar.

Alright, she knew she sounded unfair, it was his first day after all but come on! Wartwood was tougher than she gave them credit for or refused to acknowledge, it couldn’t be that there was one black sheep.

“Something bothering you, Lieutenant?”

“We have a predicament.”

“Obviously. No offense but if the old man cannot keep up the pace with us, I suggest putting him on woodsmith duty. At least he has skills for that.”

“Come on, Grime. Let’s not jump to conclusions so fast. Besides, should I remind you that an experienced fighter like you LOST in a battle against Squeaky Toy?”

He snarled, steams coming out of his ears. “That was ONE TIME, Sasha!! One f*cking time! And he got lucky!!”

“Anyway, you’re not as powerful as you say you are even with your years of battle. This means Loggle is not as brittle as he was today. He just needs a little push.”

“Don’t forget about the others, though. Or the town security. Things have been a bit calmer but Andrias could be planning a surprise bombing as we speak.”

While our unorthodox heroes were discussing training tactics and security reinforcements, a disillusioned axolotl whimpered on his bed.

A stampede of mammoth mantis would’ve been far more merciful than the first day of personalized training Sasha delivered to him, and oh Frog, it was the first day and he was on his deathbed already. Sore like he had never been, even breathing hurt him. His arms, legs, and especially face had more bruises than he could count.

Maybe he should give up. Was it really worth it to go through such an extreme regime to become the kind of amphibian he imagined years ago when the numbness and fatigue weighed tons? Although, even if he gave up, Sasha wouldn’t allow him, would she? Unless he hadn’t another talent to contribute to the rebellion which he did have, his carpentry.

Nonetheless, he loathed the scenario where he would stay behind while the others risked their lives and saved more people from the king. If his own hands were able to destroy robots without trembling, why stop now?

“Ugh… My head…” He’d better leave the second thoughts for another day. Right now, he just wanted to sleep.

++++++++++++++

The next morning, Loggle found himself in front of Sasha, battling against sleepiness and nervousness. A high-pitched whistle got him out of Dreamland as the blonde human faked a cough to start the new lesson.

“Yesterday, we concluded that your resilience was underdeveloped so that’s why this new lesson will help you enhance your muscle and stamina. I call this, the sumo lesson. Kind of.”

“Question. What is sumo?”

“A traditional sport from Japan, a country from my homeworld. The rules are simple: if you manage to knock me down, dragged me to the edge of the circle and push me, or lift me and throw me out of the inner circle, you win. And as before, we’ll be here until night.”

“No breaks?” He squeaks, horrified.

“Just one or two. Let’s begin!”

“Wait, wait, I don’t have those weird bracelets and the belt you are wearing! Is it mandatory to use them?”

“Good question. The two of us will take turns in wearing them during the training. These things aren’t accessories as you might think but a representation of what you or the enemy might have on the battlefield -armor or body weight- and they can be your biggest advantage or your downfall. Now ready?”

He gulped and nodded shakily. She twirled her finger towards herself to motivate him and Loggle ran.

He leaned forward, his head pointing at Sasha’s chest like a bull pointing its horns against an intruder. His head and arms collided with the armor of the human, her feet moving a few centimeters. Seeing this maneuver wasn’t working anymore, he resorted to pushing with both hands.

“Owww!” He shook his palms, feeling new bruises forming.

Ok, time to discard pushing. Loggle placed his hands on Sasha’s hips to lift her, gritting his teeth due to the colossal effort on such a task. However, he barely managed to separate her from the ground for a few millimeters.

As he recovered from his overexertion, Sasha grabbed him like a cat and launched to the border of the giant circle.

The axolotl spat dirt and grass, “What the heck was that for?! At least, warn me!”

“Rule number 1 of battling: don’t waste time because the enemy won’t give you any to recover.” Then she took off the bracelets and the belt, signaling Loggle to put them on.

What he was too late to notice the moment he grabbed the items was that those bracelets had rocks and stones tied to them. Sweet olms! All of this may be weighted 10 kilograms or more! How did Sasha stand such a burden?!

“You’re trembling like jelly.” She said matter of factly.

“Thank you so much for the encouragement,” he replied sarcastically.

“Believe me or not, one of the advantages you have is that you aren’t heavy, that makes you agile and fast. But if your body isn’t heavy enough or has weak build-up, you’ll be kissing the ground in a battle in a matter of seconds.” Sasha waited for him to put on the gear correctly and the moment he finished, her legs accelerated, making lengthy steps to strike faster.

Frantic, Loggle raised his arms to use the rocks on the bracelets and knock her down at the right moment. His idea backfired when the sudden shift of weight destabilized his balance and he fell back to the ground.

Sasha’s quick steps slowed down and her eyes scanned the humiliated axolotl.

“Rule number 2 of battling: only apply a new strategy if you’re able to execute it not out of despair.”

“Can we take a break?”

“We’re just beginning, buddy.” Oh Frog…

++++++++++++++

If the first day wore him down, the second one almost crushed him. It was a miracle he could still walk to his home with how numb his legs felt due to exhaustion.

A battle of wills began within him, one part craved nothing more than saying stop and quit whether Sasha liked it or not. And she shouldn’t force him to continue such a tortuous routine when he was no toad and age was no kind to him. The other part refused to let go of his dreams. Who better to train him than a warrior itself? Sasha was a warrior, Grime too, though he preferred the human to the merciless toad captain.

Regardless, at this point, he would never catch up with the rest of the town.

Maybe, as much as he hated to admit it, he got a tiny burst of courage and heroism when the robots attacked and that was all. Maybe he lacked the skills, the attitude, and everything other people like Croacker, Sylvia, or Hopadiah possessed to be fighters.

His doubts grew while he took off his boots and plopped on the bed, groaning. Unless Sasha could turn wishes into reality, this training would lead him nowhere. And the week had barely started!

And what a week he would have.

+++++++++++++

Loggle would have felt pretty offended if anyone had blamed him for the pain-inducing, bone-breaking, and character-forming (the last one is very debatable in his opinion) rest of the week that turned out to be the death of him compared to the first two days. Like, yeah, he didn’t quit despite the protests of his common sense but he didn’t wonder if things would get harder or worse for this to happen. Oh well, that slip-up got replaced by Sasha’s constant pushing, putting high expectations on him.

Like the next day when they had to climb a mountain with those heavy as-heck bracelets while being attentive to their surroundings. Two frobots got them by surprise. Correction, they got HIM by surprise and he could barely fight with the weight on his limbs, being saved by Sasha much to his chagrin.

Or when he was ordered to fight multiple enemies at the same time while protecting a dummie that played as hostage. Or when he tried to defend himself with his eyes covered by a handkerchief only to eat dirt and grass every. Single. Time.

How much would he stand before collapsing? He wasn’t sure but it would be a matter of minutes at this point.

“Loggle, stop staring at the void or thinking whatever you’re thinking, focus!” Sasha reprimanded him. She visualized the little clearing before her. The grass had a mix of green and gray and many trees around it were naked or burnt. The air of the place smelled like one of those days when California got consumed by traffic during vacations.

“We aren’t going to hunt anything good here. What if robots are awaiting?”

“First we check, then if we find clues of a robot settlement, we sabotage it.”

“Sabotage it? We’re just two people!” He argued.

“As long as we have a good strategy in our hands, those machines won’t outsmart us. Numbers aren’t the only thing to weaponize.”

Despite her experience and confidence, such statements didn’t comfort him at all which reeked of irony because the last time he fought a robot, he didn’t hesitate.

Oh, old glorious days! Where are thou?

Luckily for him, there were no sounds or signs of a giant bird or a robot squadron circulating the area so they prepared the fire and their tents.

The silence between the two campers wasn’t as awkward as any of them imagined and there was enough space to escape in case an ambush occurred, though Loggle doubted Sasha would let him.

Universe must’ve heard his thoughts for an arrow with a little sack filled with water landed on the fire creating a dense fog that worked as a cover for the enemies.

Panicking, Loggle tried to enter into his tent clashing with one of the intruders. They grabbed him by the back of his t-shirt and wrapped their bulky arms to prevent him from escaping.

Metal against metal echoed in the invaded camp; whoever was fighting Sasha demonstrated good swordsmanship.

“Hey, quit it with the prey, Vicky! We can convince her with him!” As the dog dissipated, Sasha’s shock emerged when the image of a trapped Loggle by the arms of a Herculean newt was processed into her mind.

“Ha! Excellent, Vincent! See that, creature? Your friend is in our hands. Surrender now!” Vicky, another muscular but also slender newt, threatened, smirking coldly.

“Yeah, you don’t want his bones to break, do you?”

Note to yourself, Waybright: check the perimeter more thoroughly next time.

Think, don’t freak out. Think! Seconds after analyzing what to do, an idea crossed her mind.

“Loggle, balloon! Balloon, neck!”

“Uh?” The three amphibians looked at the human as if she was speaking gibberish, that is until the axolotl figured out what she meant. Inhaling all the air he could, Loggle inflated his neck sack freeing himself, and evading the rough hands of the attacker.

Vicky growled in frustration deciding to stop the old axolotl herself but her little moment of distraction served Sasha to tackle her to the ground and point a dagger at her throat much to Vincent’s horror.

“If you don’t want your girlfriend to be headless, then give up. Now!”

Vicky mumbled a barely audible no at him but he ignored her and got on his knees.

“This isn’t a trick, right? You’re actually surrendering?” Vincent glanced coldly at Loggle and nodded. The axolotl exhaled in utter relief.

As Sasha wondered how to punish their assailants, her eyes landed on the male newt’s belt that had a buckle with the Newtopia symbol. Were they spies of the king?

“You, big guy, who are you working for, and where do you come from?”

“Why should I tell you, creature? It’s not that you’re more trustworthy than the king!” Vicky’s mumbles were muffled due to her snout being pressed on the ground; however, her tone delivered a lot of fear and alarm when Vincent mentioned Andrias.

“So, you don’t work for him? Don’t try to twist any detail or else I’ll kill her.”

Vicky’s tail would like to disagree and it did by hitting Sasha in the face. The blonde dropped her dagger and the tail wrapped around her neck to strangulate her.

“Don’t kill her, sis! We need her alive!”

“Alive or dead doesn’t matter as long as—!” Her sentence was cut short when Loggle, against his common sense and fears, launched at the newt from behind, covering her eyes and pulling on her hair.

Vincent didn’t waste time and run to get him off of her but then Vicky’s scream halted his steps for Sasha had bitten her tail to get free.

Grabbing her sword quickly, Sasha clashed her weapon against Vincent’s huge axe while Loggle had a cartoon-like battle with Vicky.

Her arms pulled at his old pants, ripping the fabric but failing in getting him off of her while he tortured her poor head by using her long pigtails as a steering wheel. From the other side, the other newt kicked Sasha on the stomach so she could burn in the fire but at the last moment, she rolled to one side, evading the flames. She threw a dagger at one of his feet to break his balance only to be redirected towards her by his tail. A swing of her sword blocked the weapons and when she was going to throw another dagger a large tongue trapped her arm and whipped her to the ground like a ragdoll.

Then the tongue got her neck and Loggle and Vicky bumped into her. Vincent’s tongue got too close to the flames of the fire and he screamed, letting go of Sasha and she clashed once again with the female newt and the old axolotl.

Vicky got up, grabbing one of Sasha’s daggers to impale her only to be blinded by a sudden light coming from the reflection of the sun in one of Loogle’s lenses he was using to direct it. With the newt distracted, the blonde managed to knock her down with a double kick and point her sword at her neck.

“I think you’re forgetting something,” Vincent’s voice brought her eyes to Loogle’s terrible situation. Once again as a hostage, with his head under the huge boot of the newt that kept pressing on him. “Let go of my sister, and I’ll let him live.”

“You let go of him first and she won’t die.”

The tension skyrocketed, Vicky tried to move her tail but Sasha’s feet kept it pinned to the ground and her eyes told Vincent to not do anything despite the blade touching her neck. Loggle, on the other hand, grasped the grass, trembling, waiting for Sasha to give up so the thick boot over his head could be removed. It should be easy, right?

After a few minutes of glaring contest, Vincent spoke, “I’ll count to three and we’ll let them go.”

“How do I know you’re not tricking me?”

“And how do I know you won’t hurt my sister?” He growled and pressed further on Loogle’s head. The axolotl whimpered.

Sasha grimaced and nodded.

“One, two…three!” The sword and the boot were removed, and both warriors went to aid their comrades.

“Oh Frog, I thought I would only breath grass and dirt for the rest of the day…” mumbled the axolotl as Sasha helped him stand up.

“Vincent, this wasn’t part of the plan! We must capture her alive or dead for the king!”

“I’m not going to risk your life just for a one-in-a-million chance to save our friends.”

“This one-in-a-million chance as you call it might be our only one! Besides, risking our lives is part of our jobs!”

“But being strategical is also part of our jobs!”

Loggle couldn’t be more thankful than those newts were bickering right now for he found that the perfect chance to run away. Maybe they could restart the training in a very faraway tomorrow.

“Where are you going?” Sasha hissed at him after grabbing him by the back of his t-shirt.

“To safety. These guys are nuts! Shouldn’t you also stay away from them too? They want you!”

“They have information that could serve us. You heard them, their friends are in danger. Sending me to Andrias might save them.”

“No offense, but after all the stuff you’ve said about him, I doubt he will uphold his end of the deal.”

“I know, that’s why I can convince them to join us and forget this plan.”

“But Sasha—“

“Just trust me on this, ok? This is also part of the training, if you cross paths with an opportunity to outsmart or be a few steps ahead of your enemy, you should take it no matter what.”

Olms have mercy on him, the last part of the sentence sent shivers down his spine. Alas, he relented and let Sasha take the reins.

“Ejem!” Both newts glared at her, postponing their argument.

“Listen, we can be at each other’s throats all the time you want but I think it’s better if we exchange information and work together.”

“Trying to gain our trust, creature?” Sneered Vicky.

“Do you hate King Andrias?”

“He’s a menace to the capital!” Vincent replied, furious.

“That and a traitor to the country.”

“Good, because we hate him too. Especially me.”

“Even if that’s true, do you really expect us to be all happy and dandy to you when our colleagues are suffering?” Vicky questioned.

“Do you really think Andrias will do whatever you want just because you capture me for him? Making us fight it’s what he wants, to gain more power.”

“What do you propose?”

“Vincent! You can’t make deals with her!”

“But she’s right, sis. The king could kill us even if we come back to Newtopia with her.”

“What about if we play 20 questions?”

“What’s that? Your species’ way to interrogate?” Vicky squinted her eyes at her.

“Nope. It’s a simple game to get to know each other. I ask a question and you answer it, then you ask me a question and I answer it. But you must be honest with your answers.”

“And you’ll be?” Vincent crossed his arms.

“Absolutely. We can gain something from this.”

The newt siblings shared a distrustful look, pondering their options. Loggle observed behind Sasha, hoping, praying that they refused to comply and walked away so this bothersome day could finish already. Of course, the universe decided to mock him when Vincent and Vicky nodded tersely.

+++++++++++++

The feelings churning in his stomach shouldn’t be labeled dread and anxiety anymore. That would be a serious understatement and an insult to the level of stress on his face, explicitly in the sweat rolling down his wrinkles.

Vincent and Vicky paid him no mind which was a tiny comfort; however, having two warrior newts with murderous intents and a former human criminal who never backed down from a fight meant one thing: the worst combination in history. Much worse than a balloon filled with nitroglycerine replacing a soccer ball. And they were so far away from the town…!

“Alright, let’s start,” Sasha said before shooting the first question. “Who are you and where do you come from?”

A few seconds passed silently and Vincent spoke, “I’m Vincent, her STEP-BROTHER.” He mentioned the last part to remind her of her mistake of calling Vicky his girlfriend.

“And I’m Vicky, his STEP-SISTER. Now, about you. We know who you are, well, the epithet to be exact.”

“And that is what?” Sasha felt it coming.

“The otherworldly toads’ beast that helped with the coup. Pretty long but it’s accurate,” ‘Annoyingly so’ Sasha quelled a roll of her eyes. “However, we don’t know your name or what you’re doing here. What is it with you?”

“I’m Sasha Waybright, a human. And I’m the commander of the Wartwood Resistance against Andrias.”

“Oh, come on! Another rebellion?!” Vincent raised his arms, complaining to the sky.

“This time it’s for the greater good. Also, I have noticed that you didn’t answer completely my first question. Where are you from? And do you work for the king?”

“We’re from Newtopia. And no, we deserted the armies a while after the castle started flying and those frogdamn machines wreaked havoc on the capital.”

“We used to be from the Royal Army and the Night Guard respectively,” Vincent explained pointing at himself and Vicky. “This rebellion of yours is not a farse to get to the throne again, isn’t it? Because I’m done with that kind of sh*t already.”

“It’s not. This resistance is to save Amphibia and defeat Andrias. About you two kidnapping me, as obvious as the reasons are, did you make a deal with the king? Or were you planning to after capturing me?”

“Let me answer you with another question,” Vicky spoke. “Are you acquainted with the former captain of the Night Guard?”

“No. But I suspect they and I must have something in common.”

“You do. You’re humans.”

Marcy’s name blared like a furious alarm in her head.

“Explain.”

“A young group of newts from the Night Guard used to have a captain called Ernst until the bastard faked his own disappearance. After a while, a female human came out of nowhere and was taken in by the king. She looked like you: spindly limbs, tall, bump in the face, though her hair was shorter and black. She passed the test to become a member of the Night Guard and worked as the new leader of that group. From what I heard of her colleagues before they retired she was pretty smart, strategic, friendly, and energetic. Anyway, moving forward, the day of the toad coup some soldiers had opened the gates to her and a small group that accompanied her and an hour later everything went downhill! The toads might have been defeated but the castle was flying, debris was falling everywhere, and creepy machines were getting closer to the capital.”

“To make it worse,” Vincent continued the story. “The king refused to explain why those machines were invading the city or the rest of Amphibia. He only said new changes must be embraced and as soldiers loyal to the crown, we shouldn’t question him. A few comrades of mine didn’t like his answer and tried to have a meeting with him. I’ve never heard from them after that. Others surrendered, while the rest and I gave in for now until we could find a way to escape.”

“Same happened to me. And before you ask, the new leader of the Night Guard, the human Marcy, didn’t get out of the castle to give us a hand. My friends and I don’t know if she surrendered or joined the king.”

“She didn’t. She fought back… But she lost.” Sasha willed her eyes to not turn glassy, to not be dampened by the torrent of emotions. “How did you and your friends manage to escape?“

“An older newt called Priscilla helped us with a diversion and some explosive powder to crack the walls. But of course, when we thought we could make a plan to get rid of the king, those frogdamn machines ambushed us. We destroyed a few of them but many were dangerously weaponized. There was fire, whips, zap-zap, and two of those metal monsters were huge, they could even surpass love doves. Our friends were put inside of them.”

“Inside of them… What happened then? Were they tortured or something?”

“The walking machines had jails inside of them!” Roared Vincent. “So, that’s it. That’s why you’re valuable to save them. Breathing, and tied or chained.”

“It shouldn’t matter the alive or dead part, Vince.” Argued Vicky. “One less enemy means a favor for the king. And she was a collaborator of the toad coup.”

“And that’s the answer as to why capturing me is a terrible idea. If I could outsmart him once, surely I could again. And I’m training a lot of people who also want Andrias gone. Getting rid of me would mean a huge blow to the rebellion and there is no one else that can stop him.”

“You’re boosting your ego too much, Waybright.” Vicky mocked her. “Surely, there are people who can fight and destroy the king.”

“Yeah, and she was a human like me. My former friend, Anne.” Sasha ignored the bitterness in the “former” word. “She had a…special power that gave Andrias the beating of his life though she couldn’t control it that well.”

“And you have that ‘special power’?” Vincent raised his hands to make the quotation marks, looking for a bad joke in Sasha’s statement that could validate his skepticism.

“Perhaps,” the music box was the key to getting that super boost. She still remembered a distraught Anne being engulfed by sapphire energy that came from the box. “For that reason, capturing me must be eliminated from your minds. Be honest with me, is my capture a 100% guarantee to save your friends? You said it. Andrias betrayed Newtopia, his robots are hurting and scaring people, he refused to explain and gave excuses, and now your teammates are prisoners. What I would expect from him if you traveled to the capital with me tied to a pole is my death first and then your imprisonment or execution because remember, you disobeyed him and escaped.”

The argument was solid. Vincent couldn’t deny it.

She was sabotaging their only way to save their comrades. If her step-brother dared to agree with Waybright, he would get the biggest lecture of his life, and Grandma was the only one with that right.

“I—“

“Don’t you dare, Vincent,” warned the female newt. He sighed, “Vicky, I know you hate this, me too, but she’s right. The king is a traitor. Traitors are known for being untrustworthy.”

“Oh and SHE is the embodiment of reliability?!” his step-sister pointed at Sasha.

“I don’t trust her but our goals are the same, aren’t they? Fight back and defeat Andrias.”

Vicky groaned, her tongue wanted to lash out and break the neck of the creature. If Waybright caused this much trouble to the king, her end could make him happy. Enough to pardon them and their teammates. Then the next step would be to remain “loyal” until they were prepared to strike when Andrias least expect it.

As if to object, her logic divided into two parties. The first one, vouched for Sasha’s capture and sacrifice to save the other newts and for this pardon from the king to get close to him and then kill him. The second one voted for joining forces with her. The fastest and most obvious strategy, and also it might work. Her doubts and distrust protested. First, the chances of a betrayal may be high and if Vicky or Vincent ended up badly wounded or dead, their friends would be doomed. Second, Waybright appeared to be the wits and brawn of the duo. Why the old axolotl was chosen as her companion confused her.

For cricket’s sake, if she got stuck with a headache, she would go insane.

She regarded the girl with hardened eyes, “Let’s suppose we ‘join forces’, then what? You have all the information you were looking for. I doubt you’re going to help us out of the kindness of your heart. We’re more muscle for your rebellion if we say yes.”

“At least more muscle and brain is better than dealing with his madness alone. And it’s not only Wartwood. Swamp Shiro is also our ally. More voices to spread the revolution.”

Vincent opened his mouth again being pulled to a side by his step-sister. They walked to a little corner of the camp to come to a consensus and walked back to Sasha and Loggle.

“I loathed to admit this and I dislike you but,” Vicky began. “My comrades' lives depend on a good plan and enough hands capable to execute it. We’ll join you.”

“It will only be for our teams. After that, we’ll recover in your tiny town and leave. No buts. Understood?” Vincent glared at her, daring her to complain or try to bargain.

The alliance’s reward felt kind of hollow knowing her possible allies would go on their own but she still nodded. Getting up with new resolve, she shared a determined look with the newts and Loggle before punching her right palm. “Let’s start.”

+++++++++++++++++

The word hate had never felt like an understatement for Loggle as it was right now while he and his new team walked and checked every corner for clues of the whereabouts of the jail robots.

If he’d figured out this training would include a surprise, extremely risky mission, and potentially painful boss fights, he would’ve declined Sasha’s offer of being his mentor. Olms and axolotls, he had to get away. This new phase of the routine surpassed any skill he had.

“Sasha,” he tapped her shoulder timidly getting no response. He tried again, “Sasha.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I think it’s better if I go back to the town.”

“Go back?” She put her hands on her hips. “Loggle, this mission is important. We must cooperate.”

“This is out of my league, Sasha. Maybe you can, but me.” He pointed at himself with his arms.

“You think you’re a liability because you can’t see beyond that mindset.”

“I’m being realistic. I don’t have what it takes to—“

“Croaker is as old as you and she can fight without breaking a sweat. Sylvia Sundew too. People who are farmers or merchants are doing their best. Do you really want to be left behind while everyone else is progressing?”

He winced. He’d hate if his neighbors faced the worst of the war and lacked someone to have their backs but his self-confidence was too unstable.

Sasha tapped her foot for a little while before ending the discussion, “Being strong takes time, work, and sacrifices. The version of you that you want to be will never come true if you keep chickening out. We’re going to rescue those newts. Backing out isn’t allowed.”

Yeah, he expected that.

The pool of anxiety inside of him deepened as minutes passed. He pretended to be attentive to his surroundings, listening partially to the conversations between Sasha, Vincent, and Vicky whenever they came across a new sign of the jail robots. Now that his mind was immersed in that topic, how big and strong those robots were anyway? And how many? And what if they had a party of the common robots the Wartwoodians had been dealing with these days?

Seriously, he should've asked that. He mentally reprimanded himself, dragging his battered mood to the ground as well, fueling his apprehension. Maybe he was correct when he talked with Sasha and Grime, maybe his battle with those little robots that invaded the town was nothing but a burst of heroism randomly possessing him, and despite how absurd it would be to expect that randomness to choose the axolotl again, in those moments he had never felt so young in his life.

“Alright, we have good news and bad news,” Vincent broke his train of thought and Loggle forced himself to pay attention to avoid one of Sasha’s lectures. “After splitting, Vicky found out that an old inn has been ransacked by huge war machinery and almost every young and able-bodied amphibian inside has been captured. Our targets might be the culprits.”

“Were there any survivors?” Sasha asked.

“A few people in the building were senile. 10 amphibians. The whole structure was demolished during the kidnapping. 4 could make it in the end.” Vicky continued narrating.

“Wh-Where those monsters went?” Loggle managed to ask, swallowing the tremors of his voice.

“According to the survivors, northwest. We might find them close to the former Southern Toad Tower.”

Oh dear, that is bad. Bad, bad, bad, super bad. No matter the number of months, it was difficult to forget the messy events at Toad Tower. And much more knowing the two culprits were helping Wartwood defend itself against Andrias’ mechanical army.

Much to his surprise, Sasha hasn't responded automatically. She appeared to be in deep thought, her forehead wrinkling with conflicting emotions.

“We’d better hurry up if we want to catch up with them and free the prisoners. If we are lucky to find out they are making a stop in Toad Tower, we may use the building to set up an ambush.” The newt siblings nodded at her plan, restarting the journey.

+++++++++++++

He didn't know how many hours they had trekked through the Valley’s landscapes but with each step, the well of trepidation on Loogle’s entire being increased. This mission could take them days, or a few weeks, and even if they never found the jail robots, coming close to the same place where the townsfolk had been imprisoned unbeknownst to them sent chills through his spine.

Paragraphs of questions and mullings, old and regurgitated, filled his mind as if it were a document from Microsoft Word. His mouth opened and closed, moving in synch with his head as he racked his brain with the best argument to convince Sasha to let him go back to the town. Wasn't this supposed to be his training? Wasn't he supposed to establish the terms of his routine? Sasha may call him out because he wasn't what she named a ‘gym trainer’, so what? His body, his rules! He should have a say in this!

Swallowing hard, his hand halted Sasha’s steps by placing it on her shoulder.

“Loggle, what--?”

“Sasha, I want to go back to Wartwood right now.”

The blonde teenager groaned, pinching the bridge of her nose. This again?

“Loggle, we have established that no backing out is allowed.”

“No, you have established it, I didn't get a say in this. Besides, what's the point in me going there?”

“Uh, hello~? It's part of your training? And we can get more allies.”

Sasha was ignorant that Vincent and Vicky were a few meters from the duo and listening to fragments of the conversation, though the siblings preferred to stay out of whatever issues they had.

“Honestly, it's not working,” Sasha retorted or would have done it if Loggle hadn't continued. “And the moment we face those robots, I'll be a burden.”

“Because you think--”

“Because I'm not ready. I haven't gotten stronger, more confident, smarter, or faster. I'll hold you three back and get hurt!”

“Didn’t I tell you this took time?”

“It’s not only yours, Sasha. It's also mine,--”

“Loggle, this isn't funny anymore. We're going to free the prisoners. You're going to end this day of your training. Suck it up, nothing in life is easy. End of discussion.”

At this, a black-hole equivalent of silence loomed over the two. The girl’s intense stare challenged the axolotl to say something else and when he didn't emit a single peep her arms crossed over her chest to put the final nail in the coffin.

Then said nail felt a pull with these next words, “I'm still going back.”

Sasha was taken aback. “Pardon?”

“You heard me. I'm going back to Wartwood.”

A sudden twitch in her left eye warned him of how thin her patience was getting but he didn't relent.

“Orders are orders, Loggle.” Sasha gritted her teeth while explaining this. “I'm your commander.

“Well, your orders will have to wait for a very long time because I won't go with you. I'm done with this training!”

“What?! Now the training too?! So you're throwing away all your work and time spent just because you didn't like it--”

“I didn't like it? That's an understatement, I hated it!” His words punched her. “This training was supposed to help me, to build me up. You and Grime were supposed to give guidance but the more I went through this torture you call routine, the more inadequate and pessimistic I felt!”

“Because you just want results in the blink of an eye!”

“Maybe, but beyond that, the reason was that this training wasn't for me. I forced myself to get up every day and do my best but I didn't see any result. And you kept pushing, and pushing, and pushing. Seriously, if I was going to be benefited, the least you should've done was to lower your expectations!”

“Hello~? I'm a human and I trained with the toads. If I could do it--”

“That’s the other thing, I'm not like you! I'm not young, I can't be like the others of my age like Sylvia or Croaker. This training should reflect how much I'm growing but it's just pushing me down, and you still say it's a good idea! It's a mistake. You may have adapted to the toad’s routine but not me. And to make it worse, you kept putting me inside this “soldier box”. You're trying to mold me into someone I'm not!”

“I'm trying to make you strong! And to be strong you need to deal with some harsh stuff.”

“I should determine when and how I face that, Sasha. Not you. But you haven't let me, and yeah, you're scary and intimidating and part of me put up with this because I didn't want to be the target of your anger but guess what, I'm through with this. This training will lead to nothing but me getting hurt or killed no matter how many platitudes you give, and if you aren't willing to accept that then don't expect me to obey you anymore. I'm leaving!” His back saluted her and the distance between them grew with each second.

Of course, Sasha’s thunderous voice tried to change his mind.

“Loggle, come back here, immediately! You can't run away from your training just because you don't like it! Loggle! Loggle, this is an order! Come. Back!!” No result. He steeled his posture and his steps the more she yelled at him. A part of him feared that she would run and draw her swords to force him to go along with the mission but it didn't happen much to his relief.

+++++++++++++++

3 days later...

If she was made of fire or magma, her feet would be leaving scorching footprints and thin pillars of smoke. That image would’ve amused or concerned her if it weren’t for the lingering frustration simmering in her eyes, the same ones that pretty much ignored a worried Grime that greeted her and the people behind her.

“Sasha! There you are! Why didn’t you try to send me a message? When Loggle returned without you, I thought for a second you had been captured by that disgusting newt!! And who are the—?”

“Not now, Grime,” she spat, taking the shortest route to the Plantars’ house. The toad observed her form getting smaller the faster she stomped through her destination until a fake cough brought him to reality.

His eyes landed on the newts. Something not so friendly caught his attention in the attires they were using. The Amphibia insignia on their belts.

Delightful, throne’s boots licker.

“So, I bet you must be hungry.” He said to get over the awkwardness and distrust. Perhaps Felicia and Stumpy can deal with this for him.

Night covered the whole planet. Everything that had to be done, was done. However, the crunching of twigs and leaves betrayed one person in the apparent tranquility which only the moon and stars were witnesses of.

Sasha wandered about like a soul plagued by the devil. As the chosen one of the gem of Strength, her most noticeable attribute was her strong will. Whenever she had a goal in mind or a plan to have fun, she did everything in her power to execute the scheme. Any protest, problem, or obstacle, ended up crushed under her feet because that's who she was, an unstoppable force. Not right now, though. If her mind could produce one picture, it would be one of a labyrinth scribbled to no end by a hyperactive toddler to the point of no distinguishing between the beginning and the exit.

“Uh?” Then her mind went from that to a blank canvas of confusion. What was Toadie doing at this hour?

“Toadie?” The meek mayor’s assistant froze in a static-y way. His head turned around slowly meeting the curious gaze of Sasha.

“Oh... Uh...Hey, m-ma’am... Good... Good evening?”

Yikes, if he was going to scramble, arms flailing cartoonishly, why not do it now?

“What are you doing here?”

“Uh... Well, wanted to have some me-time, you know...” He played with the fabric of his bowtie, avoiding her gaze.

She watched the ground, looking for something to say. Nothing. She hated awkwardness.

“Did you... fight with the mayor?”

“A fight? No no.” He scratched the back of his head. “We are ok. Watching the stars sometimes helps me to reflect and reminisce for a while.”

Her eyes unconsciously glanced at the stars of Amphibia. When was the last time she saw the ones from her world or this planet without any troubled feelings or coups under her sleeves? When was the last time she enjoyed such a simple activity with her friends as if tomorrow never existed?

“The stars here don't look so different from the ones on Earth now that I think about it.” She mumbled.

“They don't?”

She shook her head.

“I mean, they still shine, are pretty, and appear in the night. I guess the only thing different is the list of constellations.”

“What...kind of constellations do you have?” He asked warily.

Her mind was pulled by the fleeting memories of an excited Marcy rambling about the history of the constellations and astrology. A wistful smile alleviated her sour mood.

“There was Scorpius. Orion. The big dipper. Ursa minor. Though those are the only names I can remember.”

“And...how do they look like?”

She patted her armor but there was no compartment for paper and pen inside of it.

Toadie moved a bit farther away and Sasha grimaced thinking for a second that she had inadvertently scared him, but the frog didn't get up from the log he was sitting in and patted the space at his right side.

Taken aback, her eyes questioned him, almost asking for permission in her surprise. His shy smile answered her affirmatively.

Still not comprehending his invitation, she sat on the log. The problem of the lack of paper and pen was suddenly resolved when she saw a broken stick and started drawing one constellation.

“This is the big dipper.”

“Is dipper a word for a spoon? Because it looks like one.”

She snorted. “Yeah, Anne said the same thing. But no, the big dipper is a group of stars that forms part of the Ursa Major.” She added more dots and lines. Then she drew a big bear silhouette, surrounding the constellation. “That's Ursa Major.”

“Is it a monster?”

She chuckled and shook her head. “It's an animal from my world. Though people call it bear. Ursa is its name in Latin.”

“Oh! And is it dangerous? How big is it?” She found it endearing and funny how curious Toadie was but well, no one in Amphibia had the chance to see Earth. Except for the Plantars.

“Bears are big, like if you put three toads together. They have long claws and sharp fangs. They like to eat a lot. Honey, insects, fish, fruits, meat. Even from garbage cans. They aren't as deadly as herons or mantis but where I come from, it's better to not underestimate them.” Toadie nodded, awed.

“Your world is quite...bizarre.”

“Trust me, if you were there, you wouldn't stop asking questions. Wonder how Anne is dealing with her frog family making “oooh!” and “aaahh!” at everything they see.”

“It must be pretty exciting.”

“For someone from another world, yeah.” The conversation ended there followed by a comfortable silence. Sasha was weirded out, in a neutral way for lack of a better term, because it was like the issues between her and Toadie had vanished. Just two people from different dimensions, having a talk about the stars and enjoying a mundane moment.

She wished life was that easy.

“Are you...ok?” Toadie suddenly asked.

‘Becoming an open book in front of a talking frog? Well done, Waybright’ she chastised mentally.

“This day isn't what I expected it to be.”

“Oh... I'm sorry about that. Were you...or someone else hurt? I wish I could know but I was busy with the mayor.”

“Ugh!” She covered her face with both hands. “I tried to help and be a good teacher, and what did I get at the end? Nothing! He left the mission and his training in half!”

Toadie leaned back, fidgeting with his fingers. Should he ask or wait for the commander to open up?

You know what? Let's try the classic Toadie approach. “I'm sorry things didn't work out. I don't have the full context, but I feel you have worked so hard on this.”

“Loggle didn't appreciate it.”

Oh, so it was him who quit the training.

“What...exactly happened?”

“What didn't happen you could ask. He wanted to make his dream true, I guided him, but then he chickened out when the training got to a new level. He planted his head in a hole like a scared ostrich and refused to continue with the mission. He even disobeyed my orders! Can you believe it?! When I had a mission with old people, like Croaker, for example, my butt was saved by her and she went from A to Z to make the mission a success. But no! Loggle can't even do the smallest of sacrifices and turned his back on this mission. A mission that also encompassed his training!”

Well, that explained a lot...from one point of view that is. His curiosity and worry moved him to ask the next question.

“What kind of training you guided him through? If I remember, you taught us how to use different weapons and make better strategies.”

She blew a raspberry. “Personalized training. Toad style. And he didn't last more than a week and a half.”

“The toad training sounds harsh.”

“It is. I didn't get these muscles with magic, you know?”

“And how was it?”

Once again, she was transported to Memory Land, reviewing the successes and stress of her first days as a newbie in Toad Tower after helping Grime fend against the herons.

“All my body was a sore mess to start. The toads never gave me a break nor they wanted to. I had to get up at 5 am and deal with Grime yelling nonstop. The first time I picked a sword I thought I was lifting 10 pounds of metal. I got used to it with time.”

“Did you like it?”

Such a weird question. Did she?

“The rewards were great. I stopped sleeping in a dingy cell and had my own room with lots of luxuries. I also looked badass with armor and a sword in hand. But it was super hard. Not that I had a choice though… or one that I liked.”

“You were forced to fight?” Toadie sounded genuinely concerned which amused her a bit. Was she forced to fight? Nope. Was an easier path in front of her? Not really. The wilderness and the herons could’ve ended her in hours or a few days. But was choosing to side with Grime wise? The dark and bitter memories of Toad Tower, the War Hammer mission, and the toad coup in Newtopia told her otherwise. Perhaps choosing the wilderness had helped her.

Maybe a parallel her had faced the ferocious nature of Amphibia instead of joining the toads, found Anne quicker and saved herself all the strife and heartbreak of the incidents in Toad Tower and Newtopia. But that would mean no bond with Grime, not even spending time with Percy and Braddock. Sure, the toad couple wouldn’t have been pushed to risk their lives to retrieve the War Hammer but she wouldn't have seen them again. And Grime’s fate would've been a mystery as far as she was concerned.

Decisions, decisions, decisions... Wait, what did Toadie ask her? Ah, yes!

“I had the whole jungle of Amphibia plus two giant murderous birds before me. I could’ve died traveling on my own, or if Grime had deemed me unnecessary during my training.”

“You...sound very calm about that. Unnervingly.” Toadie hugged himself.

“She shrunk on her shoulders. Coming to think of it, her reactions weren't as common as some people expected.

“It hardened everything on me. Much more than my old experiences on Earth.”

Toadie surveyed the area, analyzing his next words. “Maybe being hardened is not what Loggle wanted.”

“What do you mean?”

“What he wanted exactly?”

“To be strong, buff, muscular. He had a statue of himself with the body of a Greek god or a bodybuilder. And I gave him the means to do that but he said I was imposing and going too far! Buddy, what? Getting big muscles is not a walk in the park! How hard is it to get that?”

“I’m not a bodybuilder expert, whatever that is, but have you asked him how he wanted to be strong?”

Her glance questioned him as if he had missed the point.

“The statue was there, he had the appearance of a buff fighting machine. What else should I understand?”

“Mmmmm… Well… Wh-What do you think being strong means?”

“What? Are you serious?” She snorted. “It’s being powerful, being in control, not a single weakness, always knowing what to do or where to go.”

“And what does Loggle think being strong means?”

“Why so many questions? I saw the statue. If you don’t believe me—“

“No no, it’s not that I don’t, it’s just…” He trailed off. He could back down and not risk being Sasha’s fury anger like the other time, or he could help her see from Loggle’s point of view. As long as she didn’t eat him alive, that is.

“Everyone has their own idea of strength.” She raised her eyebrow, humoring him begrudgingly. “Me, for example. I believe strength is to be supportive of the people around you and to have faith in them even when you’re scared for them. It’s tough, and sometimes you just wanna carry them everywhere, but how will they learn to fly if you don’t let them?”

“Just like in the battle of the bands?”

“Yeah!” He smiled encouragingly.

She groaned, rubbing her face with both hands. “Then, what was the point of that dumb statue?“

“Maybe that’s how he would love to look after he accomplished his dream. But his dream is what he considers to be strong, to be ready to face anything, you know? Not being hardened by hard experiences but to have a way that is in sync with his values.”

“Ok, who are you and what have you done with Toadie?”

“Wh-What?” He patted himself, his eyes jumping from one corner to the other. “I’m me! Wait, have you seen a ghost that wants to possess me?”

“No, genius. You’re talking in a very deep and mature way. Way too deep for someone your age.”

“Is that an insult…or a compliment?”

“It’s just me trying to process how mature you are.”

“Oh well… Thank you?”

“You’re welcome.”

A few hours separated the night from dawn, Toadie finally got up and bid her farewell. As she watched walk away to the mayor’s house, her legs moved on her own at the same time her voice made a surprising request: “Do you want me to join you until we arrive at Toadstool’s house?”

Shock and confusion swam in his orbs. For a second, Sasha imagined a kind and wary refusal of that; however, he nodded uncertainly.

The silence between them had lessened its awkwardness. Toadie’s posture proved it as he straightened his back and didn’t curl tapped his fingers anxiously. A warm sensation erupted inside Sasha’s chest. Not frustration, annoyance, or anger, the feeling more akin to companionship than anything else.

“Can I ask you something?” Toadie’s shock highlighted his expression. The fearless commander asking nicely? What a bizarre occurrence!

“S-Sure…”

“Why did you help me?”

“Help you? With what?”

“When we talked about my problem with Loggle, you explained to me what I should’ve done and why. But… We…” Here she went. The bandaid was clutched by her fingertips. “I hurt you, Toadie. I yelled at you even when it wasn’t your fault that the meeting had been a disaster. You could’ve just left, refused to talk with me. You didn’t. Why?”

After a few minutes of reflection, his smile reappeared, “I’m not someone who holds grudges. And you were having a bad day so…”. For some reason, his kindness felt like salt to the wound, one she inflicted.

Was his forgiving nature really genuine or a byproduct of never having an opinion and being the mayor’s sidekick?

“You’re too forgiving for your own good.” The girl commented ruefully.

“That’s who I am.”

She grinned albeit forcibly and halfway. Past Sasha would’ve taken this for granted, said something like “Great, sure! Bye!” and avoid dealing with her mistakes. Present Sasha would throw up if the story repeated itself. Some people might forgive her quicker than others but accepting it without giving something in return felt like backpedaling with the town.

“I’m sorry, Toadie.” Shock once again lodged in his face. “You deserve it. You’re what Anne has become, what she is. I-I mean, you’re so good with people in the real way. I can just smooth talk, manipulate, and intimidate. Genuine support and compassion… I forgot how they used to be without an ulterior motive. You advised me despite how I treated you. It’s much more than I deserve. Thank you. And I’m sorry for lashing out at you. I’ll try to control my anger and not let my feelings hurt others when things go wrong.”

An overwhelming sweetness sparked in his eyes, his lips curling upwards. “Thank you, Sasha. I appreciate it.”

The blonde reciprocated his smile, then she coughed, glancing somewhere else.

“Well… Um… It’s better to go to bed right now. Grime said sleep deprivation is the same as handing your enemy an easy win.”

“Oh, sure. Good night, Sasha. Have good dreams.” She waved before walking away.

From companionship, another sensation surged and engulfed her. Was it pride? Almost. Resolve. There were a lot of things she needed to do to fix the issues she had created. Her mind’s gears began working as she got closer to the Plantars’ House.

++++++++++++++

The weak sunlight penetrating the clouds, the steps of a fly-chicken looking for food, and an unfortunate frog still trapped in the clutches of a dragonfly, waiting to be saved preceded the entrance of a teenage human as she searched for her destination.

Her footsteps marked a path towards a certain axolotl’s carpentry. She stood there as if a spell had incapacitated her to reach for the door and knock. She looked at the piece of paper on her right hand. Nervousness and anxiety plagued her mind; the girl inhaled and exhaled a few times, mumbling to herself a mantra so foreign to her. “It’s alright, Waybright. It’s alright. This isn’t about you. It’s about him. Whether he forgives you or not, whether he accepts your offer or not, the important thing is to show him you were wrong.”

She inhaled one more time and took a few steps, her knuckles almost touched the door and then a few knocks, loud enough to be heard, were made. As Sasha waited, uneasiness spread in her mind. Maybe she got up too early. Maybe she should’ve waited a few hours. Maybe this could make things worse. Maybe…

Shaking her head, she knocked on the door again, a bit more insistently.

“I’m coming. I’m coming! Yeeeesh!” Loggle’s voice made the hair on her neck stand on end. Why though? He wasn’t some kind of threat. Just… Whatever, no time to delve into that because the door was opened by him and his expression was bathed in shock and annoyance.

“Sasha? What are you doing here? If this is to force me to go through that malarkey you call training—“

“No. I’m sorry.”

“I…beg you pardon?”

The human closed her eyes, then they set on him.

“I talked with Toadie last night, and before you ask what that has to do with me being a…a jerk, well it does a lot. He told me stuff I didn’t consider. Stuff I should’ve considered because it could’ve helped you. You were right, Loggle. I put you in a box with my own concept of strength, I tried to harden you to prepare for war but I never asked you what you thought being strong meant to you. Yeah, you showed me that statue and told me about your dream but Toadie said there was more than that… Well, it’s not that you two chatted about this but my point is I didn’t give you time to adapt, or let you figure out how to adapt to the training, or suggest ideas to build your strength and your self-esteem that you found comfortable. I just ordered you to do this and that because I’m so used to the toad style of training. I forgot not everyone has the same experiences as me. I’m sorry I didn’t train you the way you wanted or expected. And I’m also sorry for making you lose your enthusiasm about your dream.”

Loggle opened his mouth in a voiceless “oh”, not a single word came out after that. Sasha feared that at any second he would turn around and close the door, signifying his rejection of her apology. She cursed at herself for feeling this way; no, Loggle didn’t owe her anything. It was she who owed these people more than apologies. Her actions, her efforts, her constant change, her protection. Even if Anne never came back or returned, unforgiving and rageful, Sasha would still work hard to keep the town safe and as many innocents as she could.

“Well, this is…unexpected,” Loggle’s comment broke the series of spiraling thoughts multiplying inside of her.

“Uh, what? Unexpected?”

“Aha. I mean, have you heard yourself when you got angry? Not even scorpileos are that menacing.”

Touché. “Yeah, I…have to practice how to be less commanding and more considerate. And that’s why I’m apologizing to you. I shouldn’t have hurt you but encouraged you. For that reason,” she handed him the piece of paper.

“What is it?”

“Your new training.”

“Oh Frog! Again?!” He exclaimed outraged.

“This is different. This training is not toad style but human style. I used to partake in it to be ready for cheer practice.”

Loggle gave it a cautious peek. His forehead creased in amusem*nt.

“Oh wow, your drawing is terrible.”

“Thank you. It was in the heat of the moment.” She rolled her eyes as she said that. “Anyway, these exercises are simple and you can do them at your own pace. No pressure, no yelling, no criticism. Whenever you have time, you can choose any of those exercises to build your strength.”

“Ha, funny, didn’t you say the enemy wouldn’t give you the time of day?”

“Yes, but I’m not your enemy, I mean not anymore. And you’re not mine either. Besides, this is another mistake I made while training you. I made you feel as if you would never catch up with the others. But it’s not a race or a contest. I know we have to be prepared as we can for anything Andrias throw at us, but your friends or, I don’t know, neighbors, they aren’t your competence. This will sound super cliche and many coaches in my world had said it too many times to count but the real competence is yourself. Being stronger and better than the day before is the real challenge. And at our your rhythm. But you can leave it if you don’t want to train anymore. I’ll understand. You don’t have to worry about feeling behind everybody else; you’re still a valuable member of the town and the Resistance.”

A tiny blush tinted his cheeks. “…Thanks. I can’t believe you’re capable of being genuinely nice.”

“I’m learning as much as I can.”

“I wished I could learn quickly too… But it seems my dream will remain in the form of a statue.”

“I don’t know. Perhaps you need to think about this for a while before starting. I bet the Loggle who put those robots in their place would love to go at them once again. But as I said, this is your choice. And if you have some doubts about the exercises, I’ll be glad to elaborate.”

“…Maybe. Thanks…Sasha.”

The girl nodded. “Take care, Loggle.” She waved and returned to the Plantars’ house.

++++++++++++++++

4 days is a quantity that some might take as too few or too many. For a temperamental blonde and a blue-skinned frog, it meant that the passing of time kept mocking them with the 9th, or was it the 10th? Didn't matter, the thing was that their necromancy project resembled more a double-edged time bomb than anything.

Necromancy. That word formed pools of vile in the walls of her throat. Unlike Marcy, magic and fantasy pop culture weren't so much her thing but from the many times her friend pressed Play to see War of the Warlocks, the scenes of magicians giving life to corpses to raise a rotten army had been engraved in her mind. It didn't help either that Maddie had confirmed that those scenes were necromancy practices. The part of reviving Marcy, if the rejuvenation tank was a bust, didn't concern her, but the possibility of having her friend just in body but not as herself. A mindless, slowly decaying, creepy shell of the sweet nerd following her everywhere she went and doing everything she asked.

Sasha was leaving behind the remnants of her toxic self so having this kind of control over concepts so deep as death and resurrection-via-magic touched the most ghoulish levels of heartlessness. It would be better to just bury Marcy and give her a worthy farewell instead of forcing such fate on her.

Maddie sighed frustrated as she kicked the body of the insect they had revived. “Test subject number 12--”

“Wait, we are in number 12 already?”

“Weren’t you paying attention?”

“Oh, sorry for not being focused because I was thinking of the horrible consequences of accidentally turning Marcy into a flesh-eating corpse!”

“And I told you that your idea of reviving the dead is abysmally primitive compared to the practices of necromancy here in Amphibia. We are trying to bring her back, body, mind, and soul. Her whole...you know, her.”

“In my world, there are more...scientific or futuristic ways to revive the dead but that's just special effects for movies and video games.”

“Video what?”

“A kind of human entertainment, but the point is, we have more means and resources to revive people but they don't always work. And they're not magic.”

“We'll have to resort to magic then. But I still don't get it. Every time a test subject is revived, they lashed out and become too violent. Much more violent than their common nature.”

“Because they're animals. Attacking a threat or prey is what they do.”

“But the level of violence is incredibly high. And there is this weird, viscous foam coming out of their mouths. I double-checked the ingredients, I haven't made any mistakes so why?”

“Do you remember another animal that didn't have this reaction?”

Maddie dug through her memories, then she snapped her fingers. “Flea-fi!”

“Uh, care to explain?”

“He was the pet of my neighbor. I was preparing a resurrection spell to revive him and become a level 2 witch. The spell worked pretty well. No foam, no vicious attacks. He was himself.”

Sasha tapped her chin, analyzing the events.

“The test subjects we used were medium and large wild animals. And they acted like hungry zombies. You revived a pet and it acted like a pet. I think I see it now. This spell is too advanced for wildlife.”

“Pets are still animals though.”

“But they're tamed animals,” she said, emphasizing ‘tamed’. “They have more personality and can control themselves better...I guess.”

“It makes sense. Though the dead creatures we tested weren't decapitated or in pieces and they still became violent. Flea-fi was torn apart during an accident and I had to stitch him back together, but when I revived him he didn't lose his personality.”

“Ugh!” She covered her face with both hands. “At this point, we'll never have a reviving spell ready for Marcy! We can't keep doing the trial-and-error thing! We need more information!” She regarded the frog. “Please tell me you have a secret magic library in your room.”

“Only my spell book. However, we might find more resources in the Wartwood Archives. As long as the robots haven't destroyed it yet.”

Sasha got pensive. The Archives may store the knowledge to perfect this spell and if the travel resulted in a waste of time... “How many are the possibilities of finding books about doing magic resurrection outside of Wartwood, including its archives?”

“Magic and the dark arts aren't that popular or known. But if you're talking about visiting Swamp Shiro for that reason, count me in.”

“You read my mind. Also, I need to assure Wartwood our relationship with the town is still stable. I don't want a repeat of the day of the meeting.”

“Then it's settled. First the Archives and then Swamp Shiro.”

Sasha smiled. She had in mind the right people for this job.

++++++++++++++

“You want him to go where?!” Mayor Toadstool roared. The blonde human suppressed a groan while Toadie looked at her in disbelief.

“Advisor of the alliances? Me?”

“Count me in for the shock. Honestly, I don't think he's the best option here, Sasha. He doesn't even look imposing to make a point.” Grime argued.

“I don't need or want him to be that. Toadie is empathetic, understanding, and supportive. He's perfect to boost morale and infuse trust!”

“And since when you're his boss? I'm Toadie’s boss ad after watching you making him cry, letting him join you is such a bad idea!”

“Sir, it's alright. She apologized and told me she would act better next time.”

“One slip-up is one too many, Toadie. Besides, this is just Sasha pinning all the job on you to have a better reputation with Swamp Shiro because she can't think of a way to get in the good graces of Bog Bottom and Lily Paddington after screwing things up.”

‘Control yourself, Waybright. Control. Yourself.’ She managed to hold back the twitching in her right eye and her urges to ball her hands into fists. She could comprehend Toadstool’s protectiveness and distrust of her but the mission required-- No, no. Focusing too much on one thing didn't lead up to anything good. She did it in the meeting, then with Loggle. She should strategize a way to make everyone comfortable and get stuff done.

“Then, come with us,” The mayor froze. “Come on. It's the easiest solution. You can keep an eye on me and Toadie will be happy with your company.”

The little assistant grinned like the Cheshire cat, eyes shining with fondness and excitement. Toadstool, meanwhile, glared at Sasha, pointing a fat finger at her.

“I don't like how you use logic, Waybright. Alas, it makes sense. BUT I'll do it for Toadie. Not for you. And if things go wrong, you'll take all the responsibility, not him.”

As Sasha nodded, Grime interrupted the meeting to bring up another important topic.

“Putting that aside, what are we going to do with our Newtopia friends? They aren't that willing to join us despite hating Andrias too.”

“For now we can help them recover. I don't know if they will return to Newtopia but if that’s their plan, lending them a hand will motivate them to cover our backs when we try to reach the castle.” Sasha surprised herself with this plan as she understood what it would mean for her rescue mission. Better have a meeting with them and invite Maddie. The more brains to outsmart that blue bastard the better.

“Ok, gentlemen, do we have everything ready then?”

“One thing left, Sasha. The town’s defenses. A few hours ago, I went to talk with Soggy Joe and he told me some of the hunting traps had been destroyed while taking several robots down. Andrias could send weapons far more resilient; we must increase the level of durability and attack of every trap we have. Beyond wooden pikes, rock daggers, normal daggers, giant holes disguised, and other stuff, our next upgrade must fry those killing machines at once to help us save resources.”

We’re talking about robots. The best weapon against them is electricity’, she mused. Did they know what that was though?

“Silly question but you all know what's a thunderstorm, right?”

“Pffft, of course, we know.” Toadstool huffed. “It happens once in a while and the bolts of lightning sometimes cause a fire.”

“Do you know another source of lightning we can find?”

“I've never heard of such a thing before,” Toadie mumbled.

“Me neither,” Toadstool said.

“Please, guys. Think. Try to remember. Isn't there some animal that spits or fires the same kind of energy as the sky when there is a thunderstorm?”

“There is one,” Grime replied albeit darkly. “The zapapedes.”

“You mean centipedes?”

“Not centi, zapapedes. They're a kind of worms with strange-looking, mismatched eyes, about to hunt their prey using lightning. Beatrix and I faced one when we were young soldiers. They're the reason she lost an eye.” Sasha opened her mouth and Grime figured out she was orchestrating a plan already. His hardened stare stopped her. “Just because they're worms, it doesn't mean they are harmless. Zapapedes can be as big as a red mantis and aggressive as a hungry kill-a-moth. One slip-up with a single one and you're good as dead. If we're going to use them to defend Wartwood we must find a way to catch them without being zapped.”

“No offense to Soggy Joe, but I think he's the only one knowledgeable enough, what with living in nature 24/7...and never taking a bath,” Toadstool mumbled disgusted.

“Grime, look for the strongest people and prepare a team for zapapede hunting. Make sure everyone follows Soggy Joe’s instructions to prevent casualties. And if Joe doesn't know, look for information about those things in the books of the Plantars’ house. Established this, we have all the tasks for this week: a new meeting with Swamp Shiro’s Council, hunting the zapapedes, and upgrading the town’s defenses. Everything good so far?” Grime, Toadie, and Toadstool nodded eliciting a grin from her. “Perfect, let’s get moving then.”

As she got out of the mayor’s house with Grime behind, Sasha glanced at the horizon where she imagined Andrias’ castle could be, flying imposingly. This would be a hectic week.

Chapter 10: The world has gone insane

Summary:

Ever wondering how the rest of the cast is doing?
Spoiler and trigger warning: More Marcy’s Journal surprises! And some bloody, graphic scenes.

Notes:

Hi! It’s me once again! Just so you know, after this chapter I will advance with chapter 2 of For Better or For Worse that is another Amphibia fanfic of mine and after that I will take care of other fanfics from other shows: Steven Universe, Steven Universe Future, and Gravity Falls. They have been in hiatus for a looooong time and I don’t want to leave them like that forever. Also, I will be busy with a business I’m starting on Instagram so between that, my fanfics, grasping some inspiration and life, the Amphibia works will be on hiatus until I have all the stuff done. And then I will do the same with the Amphibia works. You know, trying to organize stuff and hobbies. And now that you’re all informed, I want to thank you for the comments and kudos you all have left. I really appreciate it ☺️.

Alright, enjoy 😉!

Chapter Text

“Quickly, they’re getting inside!” A few shots could be heard miles away in a cluttered refugee camp.

The fire extended from kilometers, debris flew away as laser beams tore down the villagers’ defenses.

“Destroy their heads! Don’t let them take more space!” A dark-brown frog with light-green warts all over his head grabbed a burnt plank of wood and chucked it into the eye of the robot in front of him. Suddenly, an explosion threw him many meters away from the chaos.

His hands grabbed at his right leg. The burns and blood arose nausea in him but worse of all was the other robot that had tried to blow him up. It raised his laser cannon to finish the job; the farmer closed his eyes, cursing mentally but the deadly weapon never fired.

His eyes opened, finding the same robot with its head turned into a tortilla by a blonde toad and a big rock.

“Bra—“

The female toad carried him bridal style, evading more shots of the impassive killing machines, passing by the other amphibians who were aiding the injured or holding the enemy back with the resources they had.

“Wait! Brenda is still there! We need to go back!”

“And get ourselves killed?! No way!”

She ignored his protests and kept running to the tent that was the farthest from the carnage. Once inside, she searched for the healer until a pair of arms wrapped themselves around her from behind to which she responded with a scream.

“Sweetheart, it’s ok! It’s me!”

As she turned around, her eyes met her boyfriend’s, washing away all the trepidation that had taken over her mind.

“Oh, Frog! Percy, don’t scare me like that,” she reprimanded, although the harshness of her voice dissipated, replaced by fondness and relief. “I’m glad you’re ok too.” Her lips met his, a gesture he reciprocated eagerly. A bubble of love and bliss encapsulated, though, someone else didn’t have time for their romance.

“Excuse me, if you’re done with the affection and goo-goo eyes, could you put me down now? I need to go back and save my granddaughter!!”

“Oh, yikes! Sorry, Hughes.” As she put him down gently, her eyes asked Percy to call the healers. He complied immediately, arriving a few minutes later with a dark-blue newt carrying many medicines and tools.

The healer grimaced the moment he saw Hughes’ leg. He should feel lucky he didn’t lose a limb.

“Just so you know, restarting the fight is out of the question,” the newt glared at him when the frog opened his mouth. “Don’t you even dare! Our supplies are running out. Instead of becoming another victim, you should at least ask for help and rest!”

“I’ll do that when Brenda is safe and sound!” Argued the farmer.

“Then I’ll go look for her,” Braddock offered. Percy blanched, placing a hand on her arm.

“Are you sure? It’s pandemonium out there!”

“We have no choice. Don’t worry, honey, I’ll be back.” She kissed his forehead and ran to the entrance after picking up a scythe.

The wannabe jester could only fidget nervously. Around him, cries and cursing resonated like a chorus of the Underworld. Healers and assistants ran from one side to another, picking up vials and bandages, asking questions to the patients, and in some tragic cases, covering the bodies with ragged sheets.

Other people were sharpening their kitchen and farming tools, not backing off from the hell outside nor trembling like newly-born tadpoles. Just like he was.

Once again, Percy’s spirit plummeted into despair and inadequacy. Even being aware of his dislike of fighting and the lifestyle of a soldier couldn’t distract him for long from the obligation to be ruthless, to become a hardened warrior to survive. Swinging a sword was one thing but having the talent or the discipline for swordsmanship? By dreaming he would be able to reach that and the subconscious wasn’t able to project itself into reality.

He wished he could be more like Braddock. She despised the soldier lifestyle as much as he and preferred peace instead of the battlefield but at least she made the effort to face the dangers if it meant a few more days alive and together.

His lower lip trembled, and the corner of his eyes filled with tears. Plopping down, his mind kept spiraling with his low self-esteem and doubts. How contradictory that when he cut ties with the toad militia, a new set of events makes him wish he was more like the soldiers he had met at Toad Tower.

Bog, Fens, Mire, Gary, Braddock… Grime… Sasha…

He wondered if she was ok. What did the king do to her? Why the castle started flying and why those metallic monsters appeared out of nowhere?

Well, as long as Grime was at her side, she would be alright. He hoped so.

The curtains of the tent flapped, meaning someone had entered. His negative thoughts vanished when Braddock and Brenda, a light-brown frog with a mix of an overall and a dress, and wavy black hair, ran toward Hughes.

“Grandpa!” Brenda hugged him, relieved to see him alive.

“Oh, thank goodness, Brend! I thought you were done for!”

“Not really, Braddy helped me,” Braddock smiled at the gratitude shown to her. “I have good news and bad news. First, the good news: we are having a sort of upper hand. The numbers of those things are lowering a little bit. Bad news though, one of those frog-damned beasts destroyed the tent of the supplies. Half of them are gone!”

Brenda’s bad news traveled through the ears of some of the patients and healers increasing the tension and panic for everyone.

“Wh-What do we do?” Percy asked, more fidgety than ever.

“The obvious, genius! We fight back!” Hughes attempted to get up only for the healer to stop him.

“Didn’t I tell you to rest? Leave the fight for the ones who aren’t in your condition.” Both healer and farmer glared at each other while Brenda sighed, formulating a good plan to save the refugee camp.

“Maybe… You know, maybe we can hold them back for at least 15 minutes while the others run away.” Braddock suggested.

“We’ll need more time. Our numbers are falling too. Perhaps with half an hour, we can manage to save as many people and supplies as we can.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” Brenda grinned optimistically, following Braddock to the box of weapons until another person joined their team.

“I-I will go t-too!” Percy picked up a shovel and raised it as if it was a sword. “The more the m-merrier.” It was clear as day that terror invaded every corner of his body but his eyes pleaded Braddock and Brenda to let them join them.

He wanted to help. He wanted to keep Braddock safe; therefore, he must fight. Suck it up like a soldier!

“The moment this overwhelms you, you’ll go back and help with the evacuation,” Braddock ordered firmly but kindly. Her boyfriend shakily nodded and the three exited the precarious safety of the net to face the robots.

++++++++++++++

Count and don’t look back. Count and don’t look back. Count and don’t look back.

Percy had never been a mantra kind of guy; however, this madness required his absolute concentration, and what better way to focus and not go crazy than repeating a phrase to cope with the senseless violence around him.

“B-Brenda, look out!” He yelled. His shovel flew toward the head of a robot that was pointing its laser cannon at the frog. One of its red eyes got destroyed by the tool and it gave another amphibian enough time to pounce on the enemy and decapitate it with a spade fork.

“Good one, Perce!” The toad smiled at his girlfriend. Maybe he was good at this. Or maybe he was finally getting good at this. Anyway, his confidence got a little burst, prompting him to pick up his shovel to pummel another robot.

A few meters away from the two toads, Brenda cut the laser cannon arms from some robots with her panga.

24 down. These plus the robot Percy took down amounted to 24 robots eliminated.

She ignored the fallen comrades bleeding out or whose bodies had smoke coming out from the holes in them. There would be time for burials and grieving, for now, their priority was lowering the enemy numbers and buying time for the refugees.

Terrified screams turned their heads around. 3 robots were chasing a child and their siblings, surrounding them in seconds.

Then, much to Braddock and Brenda’s shock, Percy raced to their rescue.

The robots fired their laser beams. Smoke and dust irritated his eyes but didn’t deter him.

He hopped on one of them, crashing its chest with his feet. Before the other two robots could fire, Braddock and Brenda lunged at them. The children sighed, a bit more relaxed.

“Go to the other extreme of the camp. Pack your things and run away. Now!” Brenda ushered them.

As the children escaped, Braddock side-hugged Percy proudly. “That’s my darling! You were so brave!” She kissed his cheek.

“Hehe, it’s nothing. But you know, I’m feeling pumped! Maybe this fighting-back method isn’t as hard as I thought it’d be!”

Fate, unfortunately, decided to test his newfound confidence by summoning three massive Surinam robots. The giant killing machines landed at the same time, shaking the ground and the trio of fighters.

They bowed deeply and from their backs, multiple holes opened, expulsing minions with circular saws and electric whips as hands.

And to increase the difficulty, the giants raised their arms showing huge laser cannons.

Percy paled considerably and felt the center and bottom of his pants dampening, the stench of urine mixing with burnt flesh and blood.

“…C-Can I take a break?” He squeaked.

====================

‘Turns out if you embrace change instead of clinging to the past, you get a say in what the future looks like.’

When Sal gave his piece of wisdom to Hopediah that night, he had meant it. The traditional sandwiches had been a good business for a while but people change, and their likes change; therefore, he had to catch up or else he wouldn’t have a solid base where to stand.

Was it difficult? Yes

Did he doubt his efforts would pay off someday? Sometimes.

Was it stressful and scary? He’d lie if he said no.

However, he persevered and his sauce turned from a little mouth-to-mouth product to a factory-like success!

That’s change for you. You just needed a leap of faith and perseverance to reach the top. The future would embrace you as long as you accept change.

Obviously, though, when he talked about change, Sal didn’t imagine a flying castle and Newtopia consumed by chaos as options.

He’d rather deal with Hopediah invading his property once again, believing he was in danger than whatever King Andrias could be planning right now.

To make it worse, getting out for some fresh air or to check on the time equaled suicide. Half of his staff disappeared or was captured when those frog-like machines with crimson eyes arrived in the capital, replacing the Newtopia army, and even forcing the population of the city to obey the new laws. Was this a test to find the culprits of the toad coup? What did King Andrias do to those hooligans anyway?

“Sal. Pssst, Sal!”

He turned around meeting Jerry. The axolotl gestured for him to follow him until they stopped on a faraway corner of the tunnel.

“I have bad news. Food is getting scarce.”

“At this point, anything useful for us will be scarce.”

“You don’t get it. Priscilla is growing impatient! Ever since she offered provisions and weapons for those military newts, the security on the gates and every street strengthened to a new level. Have you at least wondered why we barely get out to inspect the territory around our hideout? The king and his new goons have imposed a curfew on everyone! Indefinitely!”

Sal tapped his chin. This needed an intervention.

“What does she plan to do?”

“As of now, surviving is the plan. The issue is the food. Some people had heard rumors about every restaurant, store, and house being pillaged by those machines. Boxes and bags of groceries have been taken to the castle in seconds.”

“With that context, the most obvious conclusion is that the king is hungry, or he is preparing a huge party for the elite.”

“Ha!“ Jerry laughed mirthlessly. “As if. More believable is that the criminals who orchestrated the coup are stealing everyone’s food to indulge themselves.”

“You might be onto something; most importantly, apart from surviving what else Priscilla wants to do? She isn’t going to form a team, jump on one of those dangerous contraptions, and forced them to take her to the castle, is she?”

“Better that than her real plan: she wants to destroy the gates.”

“WHAT?!”

“Shhhh, not so loud,” Jerry hissed. “I’m not kidding you. She’s serious about this.”

“Not serious, she’s nuts! What would we gain with the gates gone?!”

“Shhhh! Buddy, voice low, would ya? These tunnels aren’t soundproof. Priscilla thinks that without the gates, Newtopia will be completely open to the rest of Amphibia and by departing to different parts we can make the others know about what the king is doing.”

By the face Sal had, Jerry deduced he wasn’t that convinced with the gates’ destruction.

“Let’s go talk to her.”

++++++++++++

Sal wondered if pure spite, desperation, or a mix of both had been enough for Priscilla and her allies to build an underground base beneath the mall center; however, he’s not someone who complained when such actions can lead to better chances of survival.

His eyes scanned the maps drawn by two former guards of the gates. Phrases and big Xs adorned the papers. Priscilla had also drawn a few blueprints of the crimson-eye machines. Even if they were drawings, the imperturbable gaze of such contraptions disturbed him.

The muscular, female newt entered the planning room, her daughter sitting on her left shoulder.

‘Even children have been dragged to this mess…’ Sal lamented.

“Something wrong Sal, Jerry?”

The axolotl and the frog shared a glance before the second one explained himself.

“Jerry told me about your plan and as much as I want to get out of here or feel as if I won’t be cornered in the next 5 minutes, I don’t think this plan will work. I mean, the Newtopia Gates are huge! We’ll need boomshrooms the size of buildings or whatever nasty invention those bronze monsters have to blow them all up. Apart from that, the king will know. The noise will draw his attention and his army won’t spare anyone! I understand your impatience but this approach is a waste of time; we need another one.”

“I kind of sensed this response.” She replied calmly. “Thankfully, I found a way to turn the size of the gates into an advantage for our escape.”

“Lay it out then,” Sal begged mentally for a positively ground-breaking idea. Or the most thoughtful to start.

Pearl handed her mother a parchment she had been holding and the newt placed it over the rest of the papers.

Inside a crux divided the parchment into 4 parts, each one detailing a different step with schedules and mini steps.

“Number 1,” Priscilla pointed at the first division in the left upper corner of the schematic. “Explosives. Those machines possessed heavy artillery capable of leaving craters on the ground or melting metal. If we manage to destroy at least 5 or 7 each day for at least one month, we’ll have enough power to blast a part of the gates. Now to Number 2,” her finger moved to the right extreme of the parchment. “At least two squads will be put on smoke-bomb-crafting duty. Anything can be used. Mud, dirt, dust, even flour as long as it blinds those blasted monsters. The bombs should be the size of two hands joined together and the contents have to be inside a little pouch that is resilient enough to not break during the battle but that can break easily if you throw it to the ground of the enemy’s body too. For that reason, I also added the pouch-material-gathering duty. Each day, the two squads will get out of the base, look for enough resources without getting caught for at least 3 or 4 hours, and then return to start crafting. These two duties will last a month just like step Number 1. Now any questions?”

“Yeah, I don’t buy this at all. A whole month for a plan to fool a whole army? And let’s not forget our rations are getting smaller the more is stolen each day.”

“We can manage with the supplies we have, Jerry. Gertie and you are the best cookers of the rebellion, and if you need help, I can assign a team for both to deliver the food.”

“The smoke bomb idea has a little problem, Priscilla,” Sal said. “The robots have been stealing a lot of flour and other groceries from every house they could get in. And entering enemy territory just to gather dust, dirt, and materials we might not find… There must be a distraction or else the robots will overwhelm us.”

“Do you know a giant crocodile is living in the sewers?”

“There is?” The two male amphibians inquired at the same time.

“Gertie told me about an incident with two humans and a frog family, one of these humans was a friend of mine, Anne. She could’ve been eaten by that reptile who lived in the sewers but was saved in time. I was thinking, if we manage to tame it, we can order it to attack certain points of the city, empty of people to buy us some time. It can be during the whole month and the moment to enact our plan.”

“That could work if we had meat, which we don’t,” Sal argued.

“Meat won’t be necessary. The crocodile is ok with nachos. Cooking enough for the beast will help us gain its trust.”

“And the other two steps?” Jerry asked.

“Thanks for reminding me,” She pointed to the next step, the 3rd division in the lower left corner of the parchment. “While the first two steps are the preparations, the other two are the real deal. We will start our move at dawn sharp. The crocodile and two smoke-bombs squads will distract those contraptions in different places to confuse them. When they are dispersed enough, the rest of the rebellion will blast a section of the Newtopia Gate using those cannons. A single shot from all of them is sufficient to create a hole for us to reach our freedom. And the last step is to prevent any capture while looking for help to defeat the king. To make it easier for everyone, it is best if we separate into diverse groups and travel to refugee camps to ask for recruits and give some aid to the injured.”

“Sorry to burst your bubble, Priscilla, but how do you expect us to blast part of a giant wall with those weird weapons if the monsters that use them are the only ones with that knowledge? It would be idiotic to kidnap one of them and force them to talk! I doubt they have a mind of their own.”

“Forget kidnapping and interrogating. Their cannon arms are what we must inspect to figure out how to use them against the other killing machines.” Suddenly, a new idea flashed in Priscilla’s eyes. “Perhaps we can give the metal corpses a better use than just taking away their cannons. The material they’re built in is much more resilient than normal armor, even the ones from the Newtopia Army. We can turn them also into puppets for distraction to set traps on more of them.”

“Sounds plausible. But what if we face a contraption as big as the hotel in the center of the city?”

“Or what if those things explode while we are trying to take them down? No offense, but I would like to stay in a rebellion that won’t get me killed.”

“Trust me, Sal. This plan will work. And it starts right now. Prepare your stuff, guys. We’re going to steal some cannons.”

The two amphibians were unable to protest as the muscular newt ordered a bigger meeting to form the squads.

====================

Frantic steps and shouting echoed through the hallways of the castle. Despite having the doors closed, the newts inside made so much noise even a heavy sleeper would twist in bed for hours. But what were they doing that caused such chaos? Cooking, of course. And who did order them to? Andrias, of course.

Why? Beats them, orders were orders and they didn’t want to vanish to Frog-knows-where like some of the royal guards had after questioning the king’s actions incessantly. So, if Andrias craved roasted cricket legs covered in butter, or a 20-layer fruit cake with frosting, fine. As long as that keeps them still breathing, and existing.

“Theo, hurry up! The soup should’ve been ready in five minutes!” Yelled the boss chef. “Roxanne, the cowapillar meat isn’t tender enough! I can even mistake it for a brick from here!”

“I’m trying, ok?!” She snapped and punched the steak to blow off some steam.

“Isn’t anyone here concerned about how we’re getting all this produce?” Wondered out loud another newt while they washed the dishes.

“Dave! For the f*cking last time, NO. QUESTIONS!! The less you ask, the better. And the same goes for all of you!”

“Sir, can I take a b—?”

“Joseph, you’d better be dying right now because if this is another bathroom break to waste my time, so help me!”

“Uh…” Joseph shyly lifted his tail which showed burns due to hot water. However, the damage was a light issue compared to the destruction in his table where another dish should be.

Boldierre’s ears expelled steam like a kettle, veins protruding from his face.

“Aaaaaaaagggggghhhhhhhhh!!!! Can’t anyone here take this seriously?!”

“We’re taking this seriously!!” The other cookers and dishwashers answered, their stress skyrocketing.

“On an unrelated note, is this whole feast for an elite party? Because even with his size, King Andrias wouldn’t be able to—“

“Dave, no. Questions!!”

===================

“Baaaa!!”

“Baaa!!”

“Baaaaaaa!!”

“Baaaaaaaaa!!”

A few sliced vegetables were put inside a wooden plate along with some fruit and grass. The hungry fly-sheep munched on their meal and seconds later, their bulging eyes shined pleadingly for more. A bulky hand petted them gently much to their disappointment.

Their owner, a massive, imposing newt apologized shrugging and hugging them; however, the sheep scurried away from the gesture, digging the dead soil for some blades of grass. A baby fly-sheep stuck out its tongue to drink from a puddle until the newt picked him up. Smelling the liquid, he noticed the water was contaminated just like the many lakes and rivers he had passed by with his herd.

Femur’s life had changed three times, each one filled with ups and downs to learn from. He believed his mentor and leader was gone forever, then Marcy came into the picture. Hyperactive, clever, and amiable, it took time for him to get used to her and consider her an ally until she proved herself and then she became his friend.

Suddenly, his mentor returned although the reunión left a sour taste in his mouth. He lied and destroyed important items of Amphibia's history to run away from his duty. Having his arm amputated would hurt less than such betrayal.

In the end, his team and his new leader won the battle. Ernst fell to his doom and they all returned home. Javi and Kettle retired, settling into a calm town as an official couple. So cute! He, on the other hand, replaced battle armor for shepherd attire, the axe for Marcy’s violin, and enjoyed the wonders of nature.

That is until the castle began flying and the robots appeared. His herd of 30 fly-sheeps was reduced to 9 in a matter of days. Plants and water were decimated by the floating factories spitting venom at the once lively landscapes.

He unveiled his map. Mold Rot Forest wasn’t an attractive name for a forest but before the end of the world, the vegetation and few lagoons had served as food for his sheep; nonetheless, the circular saws and toxic fumes all packed in giant machinery invaded the area he wanted to call a new home. His eyes unconsciously landed on the scars adorning his wrists, the palm of his hands. The uneven skin on his neck, on his shoulders, tense and sore, brought him to the past carnage when two-thirds of his beloved animals had been slaughtered.

He shook his head. No time for grieving.

The tip of the index finger passed from one destination to another, no decision made yet.

He could go to the Amygdala Woods and hide with his flock. Perhaps there was land suitable for cultivation so he can feed himself and the fly-sheeps. As long as the intense pollution and the flame-throwing monstrosities haven’t reached the place before them. Or he could travel to Stony Gulch where Javi and Kettle were living. Would the town still be there? Would he find ruins? What about his friends and former teammates?

He prayed they had fought the odds and survived this calamity. Mmmm…

Maybe if they met again, the three could help each other and the people on the way, build a refuge, or search for one. The chances of survival for his flock would increase.

The inconvenience: Stony Gulch longer distance. There were two paths and none of them appalled him. If he planned to cross the giant river between Newtopia and the sea to reach the Boiling Basil and Death’s Eye Mountain, he would arrive at Stony Gulch in half a month. Stealthily, of course. He bet the river was infested by toxic waste and factories.

Also a boat. An acid-proof boat, and disguises.

The other option is an excruciating journey to Frog Valley, next to the Dry Swamp, then Quarrelers Pass, until crossing the bridge and arriving at Stone Gulch. More than 2 months of travel. His animals might starve, be annihilated by bandits or killing machines, get sick, be devoured by killapillars, anything.

Ugh… Ok, time of truth. The shortest path. He’d figure out how to cross the river during the journey.

Puffing out the chest, Femur stored his map, gathered his stuff, and whistled for his herd to join him. Stony Gulch, here he goes.

+++++++++++

Paranoia would be the bane of his existence.

3 days. 3 sleep-deprived days, guarding the fly-sheep like a guard weevil, pointing Marcy’s violin or what was left of it at anything remotely suspicious.

Even the softest of breezes emulated the breathing of a rabid beast. How much his nerves would put up with the stress, he couldn’t guess. Although, being at your limit had been part of his job as a former member of the Night Guard so he was accustomed to such circ*mstances.

This level… This level surpassed those circ*mstances.

His gaze scanned for anything useful. Dropped weapons, leftovers of food, a sign of civili— Wait, a tent?

Uh, lucky you, Femur. Lucky you.

Unless a bandit owned the tent. That’s a possibility too.

Femur regarded his herd, shushing them while stepping lightly to reach the tent in silence. The pattern of different steps got him to turn around, ordering the fly-sheeps to stay quiet as he minutely approached the sign of civilization.

He stiffened the moment his ears caught whining. An animal? A person? Friend or foe?

Slowly, he picked up Marcy’s violin-turned-spiked-club, enlarged his steps, and opened the curtain of the tent. His weapon pointed at…

He rubbed his eyes.

Small, too small. A flimsy tail, diapers, a thick sheet, and a few toys with them. A baby. It was a baby.

The sleep deprivation was getting at him, that must be. No matter how insane Amphibia had become, abandoning a child would always be unacceptable on his list.

Reality, however, couldn’t care less.

His eyes wandered from left to right, praying to find a clue about where the infant’s parents could be.

A few minutes of dead silence crushed his heart with a possible but raw theory: the baby became an orphan unbeknownst to them. Or the parents were kidnapped during their return and sent to the factories as slaves. Either way, the child had no family or protection, they could die at the hands of mercenaries, herons, or the killing machines.

Another possibility crossed his mind, although the chances were slim to nonexistent. The parents could be lost or return in 10 minutes or more. He didn’t even know how much time had passed since the baby was left on their own.

Wait, that couldn’t be. If they had two parents, why both had to leave the toddler behind instead of taking turns to take care of them and look for food? Unless it was a single-parent case and the female or male newt got lost, killed, or kidnapped.

Whatever happened to them, the result kept being the same: the baby was alone and defenseless.

Femur knew what he had to do, though logic and sentiment were at war for a choice. His provisions were diminishing, rations for him and his flock had gotten smaller in the last few days. A baby added to his group would mean another mouth to feed. They would cry and get the attention of predators; they couldn’t fight yet nor help him with the flock; he would have to administer his time protecting everyone, planning a way to cross the river, and scavenging for food.

His head pushed him to let this go. Better continuing than risking the few stuff he had for a baby when he was barely surviving. Regardless, Femur was a newt of heart. He wouldn’t forgive himself if he ignored the orphan. And if luck smiled at him in the future, he could raise the little guy with the help of his former teammates.

Carefully, he tied the few sheets he found in the tent, crafting a baby chest carrier, then he lifted the infant alongside the sheet and placed them inside the carrier without waking him up. Finally, he picked up the toys and other tools the parents left discarded: a shovel, a pan, and two more diapers. Much to his surprise, there was a bag with some groceries: 4 cans of cowapillar meat, two cricket legs in good condition, a few vegetables, two kinds of bread, and a warm milk-filled feeding bottle.

Ok, perhaps fate or reality had decided to lend him a hand. Whether that was true or not, Femur pushed the thought aside as he got out of the tent.

Thankfully, his flock hadn’t dispersed nor been ambushed by a predator which meant that they all could restart their journey.

Glancing at the sleeping, new member of his family, Femur whistled to his fly-sheeps and kept walking.

================

His eyelids screamed in pain. Correction, all his body screamed in pain.

Breathing, moving his fingers, swallowing saliva and blood, the slow path of drops of sweat from his forehead to his chin and neck burning the wound like a hot piece of metal marking his skin.

“Wakey, wakey! Breakfast’s ready!”

If his ears could talk, they would tell that voice to f*ck off. For some reason, hearing the sing-song-y guy, whoever they were, grated at his eardrums. Sharp nails on the chalkboard would be preferable at this point.

Splash!

“Agh!! Who was it?! I’m gonna get ya!” Wait a second, Fens?

“F-Fens?” f*ck, even his vocal cords hurt like hell.

“Bogs? Frog, you look awful!”

A weak grumble made them turn around and that’s when his eyelids were lifted. The scenery emulated a bunch of paint of different colors mixed. The light stabbed his overwhelmed visual nerves provoking a searing headache.

Several minutes and a few shakes of the head later, the figures at his sides and in front of him got clearer. Fens was at his left, soaked from head to toe, a wooden bucket at her feet. A black eye adorned her face alongside a busted lip, and one of her protruding fangs was broken. Her braid was ruined and her hair showed the consistency of a rat’s nest.

Mire, on the other hand, didn’t look better. His characteristic helmet was gone. Bruises and cuts covered his face, though the worst injury was the tongue on his lap, covered by blood that had tainted his armor and clothes.

The cherry on the top, of course, belonged to the accursed group of amphibians a few meters away from them, chatting amicably, waiting for the food, but more specifically to the tall, blue-gray-skinned, Bugs Bunny-teeth, and orange-curly-haired frog that fitted more in a carnival than in a post-apocalyptic environment.

“Here you are, darlings! Beetle bacon and scrambled red mantis eggs for everyone!”

“Finally, I’m starving!” Said a punk-hairstyle frog.

“And the pancakes?” Asked a Hulk-like toad whose high-pitched voice could shock anyone who knew him.

“Patience, Brian, patience. Ehem, pancakes, honey! Come on!” The leader clapped his hands, and a few seconds later, a toy wagon approached was heard approaching with the other dishes for breakfast.

“Hurry up, lazy bones! Time’s running!”

“Excuse us…for not being big enough to…carry all of…this…!” The bitter voice came from the back of the toy wagon. Tiny frogs pushed the food toward the table, their faces collided with the floor as their sweat dampened it.

“For real, you guys are slow!” A toad complained and placed the pancakes and the honey jar in the center for everyone to grab. One of the Bitties wanted to protest but was stopped by their friend.

“C-Can I see my son now? I have done all that you asked.”

“Not yet, buddy. Not yet. I’m still pissed off due to your bad habit of biting anyone who angers you. B—“ The leader interrupted himself, sensing a pair of eyes boring holes through his head.

Turning around, his gaze met Bog’s and his short surprise turned into ecstasy in seconds.

“Well, well, well. What do we have here? Mr. Sleepy Head and his friends are finally present.”

“They are?”

“Uh, Brian, didn’t you put them to sleep?”

“I did!” Brian protested.

“Don’t cha, worry, buddy. Awake or not, they’re not a menace. In fact, you did well in flattening their ego!” Barry laughed, his cackles infected the others who joined in mocking the three toads.

“When I…get my hands on you…” Bogs’ eyes settled on the carnival-like frog, then on his traitorous men who merely shrugged. “On all of you… Cowards!” He exclaimed, or tried to as his voice could barely be heard.

“Says the guy who got all of us in prison when we had an audience with Captain Beatrix,” complained one of the soldiers.

“Yeah, you’ve fallen even harder and lower than Captain Grime!”

Bogs’ veins pulsed and a sudden rush of energy elevated his voice despite the pain and exhaustion. “Don’t you dare to compare me with that useless softy! He… He let Toad Tower be the laughingstock of the frogs by trusting that disgusting creature! Had it…been me, I would’ve killed her first and then burnt that backwater town to the ground to teach them all a lesson!”

“And still you didn’t do it. Not even before the castle and those machines started destroying everything. Accept it, Bogs. You’re pure blah blah blah and no actions!”

The beaten bandit growled at the traitor choking accidentally with his saliva. His frantic coughs led to more mockery and laughter feeding the urge to yell but his throat’s soreness surpassed his energy so he could only keep growling at his former soldiers and Barry’s group.

He would show them. One day, when the chance came to him to escape this hell, he’d recover, form a new army and make them regret their choice.

Especially that Dark Arts-obsessed frog.

==============

Green. Nothing illuminated the room but green. Beeping from machines and mechanical steps echoed in the dungeon-like place, while crimson eyes surveyed the area, not leaving a single corner unsupervised.

The ground then began shaking, its rhythm constant like a drum. The circular, stone door opened and the booming steps walked down the stairs received by the impassive guards.

“How it’s going?”

“78%, your Majesty.”

“And Olivia and Yunan?”

“They haven’t entered this place. They’re doing their duties as we speak.”

“Hopefully. I have too much to do to deal with another uprising.” Andrias leveled his glare at the person inside the giant crystal tube, Marcy. Well, not at Marcy really. The greenish color of the liquid just pissed him off.

He used to love green, every shade of it, the same went for red. Not anymore.

It didn’t matter, anyway. His plans neared their fruition as seconds passed. His redemption would be finally fulfilled.

As he left the room, his legs led him to a secret laboratory. Machinery and blueprints once left to dust hundreds of years ago now filled every corner, especially the circular structure which many robots were building tirelessly.

Looking from afar, nothing but a badly drawn circle made of wires, cables, and metal plates could be seen. However, the attentive eye would manage to see certain details. Two heads, very similar to axolotls, grasped at the tails of the other like an amphibian version of the Uroboros. Each of their stomachs showed a hole.

Andrias smiled slightly at the progress. First time he would need an alternative portal instead of using the Music Box as he had been told in his youth. The mere image of the room where the item used to be stored and the events that occurred there threatened to sour his mood but he crushed it.

He didn’t need such useless thoughts when his destiny and redemption awaited him.

Just a little more time.

Chapter 11: Mental Labyrinth

Summary:

When people say having some self-reflection is good, this isn’t what they were talking about.

Chapter Text

If floating means nothingness, Marcy must be in a sea of nothingness right now. The sensations all around her felt so muddled and cold. There was a palpable density, pretty familiar but foreign at the same time. Was she drowning? Her lungs worked appropriately which disproved the theory.

One second… Why would her lungs and heart work like they always did? Why would her body be functioning?… They’d been melted. Melted? Burnt? Pulverized?

‘Look what you made me do.’

Andrias!!

“Andrias!!” She yelled, sitting up in seconds. Strangely, no dizziness or headache greeted her but if her suspicions were correct then why and how did she wake up? Unless…

“What the?” The questions in her mind dissolved as shock and wonder overrode the thoughts in her brain. If this was the Afterlife then all the preaching and Bible citing in her school were a complete scam.

No angels or demons, not even those cliche gates of Heaven, or at least a light over her head and a deep voice telling her she was going to be judged. Instead, a starry night bathed in green. Starry night? Was her guess correct? It resembled more a black canvas tainted by green smoke and bits of paint of the same color or—

“No no, not right now, Marcy. Concentrate. Something’s off here.” Where could she start? Such dimension she found herself in messed up the directions. What should be up and down, right and left? Was she dead? Why she couldn’t remember what happened? And why the heck was she in her school uniform?!

“Anne’s birthday… Anne’s birthday! The music box!” A wave of nausea tackled her like a buffalo would to a threat. A few images crossed her mind: the door of her house, the thrift store, the magical item, the playground. She gasped; of course! Anne opened the box and then they were engulfed by light… “So this is where we landed?” It didn’t make sense at all although she’s thankful the artifact worked or else she would’ve had to return home and face the stupid move.

“Guys! Anne! Sasha! Are you there?!” No echo. The dimension must be anti-echo or echo-absorbent for her screams to not extend throughout whatever this land was.

Moving her feet, however, proved her wrong. There was no land, no ground to stand. She was floating! Uh, no wonder the weird sensation before waking up. Her arms drew a circle the same way one would if they were swimming; her eyes scanned every corner of the dimension in hopes of civilization, a sign of her friends, anything.

***********

The seconds passed, then minutes, then hours, Marcy had lost count after minute 5, getting dizzy with so many dark and light green clouds overlapping each other. Disappointment and terror preyed on her, like carnivorous ants overwhelming their next food. This couldn’t be their destination, seriously, this couldn’t be. They were supposed to enter a world of wonder and adventures where no one would separate them!

She should’ve checked the box. Heck, she should’ve stolen it instead of Anne to make sure it was broken. What if it was or Anne accidentally messed something up the moment she opened it which resulted in this place as their journey?

‘Calm down, Marcy. Think positively! Anne opened the box, which must mean she still has it or it must have landed near her. All I have to do is find her and Sasha, use the box again, and ta-da! A new dimension where we can have fun adventuring!’ That is if they were eager to try again and not come back to Earth by using the box, but nah, what could Earth offer them when they had a key to enter other worlds?

Anyway, she couldn’t pick between her leg and the stress as to why her advancement didn’t possess the speed she required. Her body must have suffered from an energy wave hit after the box was opened because she couldn’t feel her leg. “Ugh… What’s going on?”

Her limb had nothing, not a scratch, bleeding injury, or bruise, so why did it feel sore? Maybe poor circulation? Whatever, she’d fix that after she found her friends. They must be—uh? Suddenly, she lightly bumped into a sharp fragment of an object; it was the size of her pinky finger and pearly white. A clue, her mind theorized. Of what? That’s the challenge to deal with.

Alright, the dimension has challenged her. If a puzzle was the path to finding answers and her friends, so be it!

She was the puzzle queen after all!

***********

Dace Leviathan, The Firebringer. His conquest of a dimension filled with volcanos and tornados in flames helped with the improvements for the frobot army as flamethrowers were upgraded to surpass their maximum level.

One of his biggest achievements was bringing the head of the last and strongest creature that inhabited the world to showcase the power of the royal family.

Bret Leviathan, a devious strategist who thought it would be a great idea to keep some creatures as spoils of conquest to study or parade around. He died much before he was able to find and invade the Mossmen dimension.

Galliard Leviathan, The Moss Master, thanks to the battle plans of his father, the late king Bret, his conquest on the Moss Men planet broke the record of the other kings as the extraction of resources and defeat of the inhabitants took only a month. Some of the Moss Men were taken as prisoners alongside the medicinal herbs and rarest flowers and plants for study.

Mellorie Leviathan, great-great-great-granddaughter of the Moss Master, one of the few queens of Amphibia in the Leviathan monarchy history and the only one to be almost kidnapped and used as ransom by the olms. According to some history books, the olms’ cowardice and jealousy of the Leviathan family had grown to the point that the matriarch of that time ambushed the queen by pretending to invite her to a meeting to establish an alliance between olms and newts.

The olms were known for not agreeing with Leviathan’s family's use of the music box. Some of them, sent by former matriarchs, tried to establish communication to warn them only to be dismissed or pushed away by force. Queen Mellorie went prepared for the meeting with a squadron of soldiers and the ambush took almost all of them but the queen could defeat the olms. That was the last time the olms communicated with the Leviathan family.

Roswell Leviathan, great-grandson of Queen Mellorie Leviathan and Ghost Tamer, his war against the Shadowfish was considered one of the biggest breakthroughs of the royal family as he found out the weakness of the species and implemented it in the castle after capturing many of the creatures.

Why those names were so important besides their historical value? Because in a plane of existence artificially separated from death by data and tech, resided such brilliant minds and hundreds more, blood-related or not. Scientists, philosophers, strategists, engineers, politicians, orators, doctors, warriors, there was no end. These people came mainly from the Royal family but a small fraction had to fight with nails and teeth to climb ranks and gain the trust and respect of their sovereigns, to become the crème de la crème of Amphibia’s elite.

While their differences of opinion, tactics, and upbringings could be a source of strife in a technological limbo, there was one goal that had unified before becoming one inside the Core: the supremacy of the Leviathan empire above everything especially the prophecy.

The moment Andrias put his eyes on Marcy during her introduction, they knew the hateful Stars had arrived to fulfill their destiny. Eliminating them was imperative but of course, Aldrich’s son had still a bit of softness they assumed he’d squashed after that slimy frog stole the box. After some pressure to reassure them he wouldn’t fail again, Andrias offered a better solution: use one of the Stars, the holder of the Wit gem, and kill the other two.

The plan was tempting and had some strong points like the brat’s ignorance of Andrias’ real intentions, even one of her friends fell right into his “bubbly persona”. More importantly, the schism between the three human girls lent them a huge advantage as they were separated again. If the 3 Stars were a threat together, on their own, they could only annoy them. Alas…

“We MUST find the holder of the Strength gem and annihilate her immediately!! This plan will never work if those damn brats are left on their own devices!!” Albrecht Leviathan, grandfather of Andrias and famous warrior king, slammed his car-sized hands on the table. Multiple veins painted his face and neck as he gritted his teeth.

“Calm down, Albrecht! Getting incensed because of a fly won’t take us anywhere. Should I remind you that the human has now powers?” An old female newt half the size of him and wearing a mix of a Victorian dress and armor crossed her arms while puffing her chest. Despite being smaller, her aura exuded dominance in spades. “The one we should kill is the holder of the Heart gem. She still has powers and managed to escape.”

“What she lacks is the music box. We might lack it too but we still possess some energy from the box to activate as many weapon factories and even open Andrias’ new portal.” Another newt of adult-human size, wrinkly and covered in scars replied.

“The amount of energy in the generator won’t suffice to invade and take whatever resources Earth has,” Bret argued. “Our priority is to find the box after opening the new portal, and then invade Earth. Most importantly, if the Heart Star is making preparations for war, I suggest blowing up the place where she lives during the night. She won’t know what hit her.”

“Lovely, so we forget that another star is on the loose and also preparing herself to ruin our conquests,” Albrecht grumbled. Once again he slammed the table. “Who we should put aside is the Heart Star! Her having powers doesn’t mean she knows how to control them and there is no information on Earth she could use to practice. And human technology is nothing compared to ours.“

“And waste our time with Strength Star who is powerless?” The same female newt with the dress armor inquired.

“She’s gathering allies and resources while we speak, Amanda! Let’s not forget that she could’ve destroyed our legacy by throwing the box and even putting Andrias in jail!” He spat the last part in furious disgust. To think his grandson would have his guard so low as to not see the human girl’s scheme coming. What an embarrassment!!

“A lucky hit in the heat of the moment, Albrecht,” this time a newt 2/3 the size of Andrias intervened. His robes had many pockets filled with gadgets. “While it’s imperative to keep an eye on her, you’re putting too much importance on that brat. Wasn’t it enough with the holder of the Wit gem?”

A cough caught the attention of the many minds arguing. At one extreme of the table was Aldrich, Andrias’ father. One of his hands held an imposing battle ax that had the symbol of an eye. “She’s different, Augustus. The Strength Star is a nuisance playing hero, The Wit Star is an asset. She’s our hostage and vessel, she’s the bait to doom the other two stars when the moment arrives. And as irritating as it was seeing Andrias befriending the enemy, his relationship with Marcy Wu proved to be useful to keep her ignorant of our plans.”

“As useful as it is, it’s concerning how he pleaded and planned a way to keep her alive even when recharging the box meant she would be worthless. What if he hesitates more and defies us because of this attachment?”

“Impossible!” Mellorie roared. “He should have learned already that sentimentalism is never a priority!”

“He won’t. And even if he tries to make the Wit Star’s suffering a bit bearable, the crown will crush him.”

************

This challenge has become the longest one she has faced in her whole life.

She hadn’t found anyone to talk to and gather clues. There had been no signs of civilization to rest and find answers. Nothing! Only the mix of darkness and different tones of green while she picked up fragment after fragment of whatever object was destroyed in the desolated dimension.

How many had she found again? 139 or 140? Anyway, after organizing them by color, Marcy detected a sort of familiarity with some fragments. They weren’t pieces of a broken item but a puzzle to put back together. An unconventional puzzle if you asked her.

She chose two fragments from the groups she’d made. “What if I connect them?” Her shot paid off as the pieces merged forming a bigger one. Uh… It kinda looked like— “A crutch?” Encouraged by her discovery, her hands grabbed other pieces to complete the crutch. A few minutes later, she had the item in front of her.

What a convenient coincidence! Her leg’s soreness had been bothering her for hours, but knowing her transport method relied on floating, the tool was useless in the end. Her fingers grasped the crutch to push it aside and in the blink of an eye she found herself rolling on the largest row of stairs she had ever seen; suddenly, a non-human face was before her, the white room of a hospital welcomed her and her leg found itself inside a cast.

“What the—?!” She yelled, her hand got away from the crutch as if it was in fire. That… Did that really happen? Where was she? What had she been? Another dimension before or after this one? Was that humanoid creature a salamander or a newt?

Newt…

Newt!

“Olivia… Lady Olivia! General Yunan… Andrias…” Her head was a mess. All this chaos was a mess. For once, her intellect had found a worthy match as it couldn’t make up its mind about what was real: the scenario showed to her when she touched the crutch or the weird world she had landed in. Of course, with the rest of the fragments silently waiting for her it didn’t take so long to figure out what she needed to do.

*************

For the next half hour, hour, two hours (?), she’d lost count honestly, the pieces she’d gathered fused showing a bigger picture of different items that did not correlate with one another: a white shell, a strange Rubik Cube, a leaf, the music box -now that one she must touch!-, and last but not least, the BFF photograph but torn in three.

If dread could be measured by how much one sweated, Marcy would be drenched in her own or drowning. The questions piling in her mind ran around like headless chickens, screaming at each other their theories or the place they thought was theirs. What concerned her the most was the music box and the ruined photograph.

It was clear as water that the box would go first to unleash more images, or should she say memories? The uncertainty surely had fun messing with her. She knew she needed it to travel through dimensions, Anne opened it, so it must be with her unless it had landed near the nerdy girl instead of Anne.

Her eyes landed next to the picture. Why was it torn in pieces? Did that represent a huge falling out between her and her friends? Or was it because they landed very far away from each other? She liked the second theory much more, it made sense even: the book never said anything about the box’s capability of transporting a group of people together to another dimension. The worst-scenario-like theory she hated to add to the list was that a tragedy struck them, a d-letter tragedy.

“Ok… Waiting it’s over. Time to find out.” Marcy extended her arms and embraced all the items, including the crutch. A gasp escaped her mouth as a waterfall of memories rushed through her head.

Becoming the new chief ranger of the Night Guard.

Defeating a dark cult, fighting ants to save Anne and the Plantars.

Her bittersweet goodbye to Anne in Newtopia.

Andrias’ proposal to her about traveling to different worlds and keeping that a secret to her friends for now.

The challenges of the First Temple.

Her betrayal…

Her. Betrayal.

She tried to reason with Anne and Sasha. Sasha rejected her, furious. Anne was heartbroken. Andrias played her like a fool.

‘Look what you made me do’

‘Look what you made me do’

‘Look what you made me do’

‘Look what you made me do’

‘Look what—‘

“Aaaaaagggggghhhhhh!!!” Her heart felt as if a sea of lava had been poured on it. Her hands pushed away the objects but they had glued themselves to her and now were merging with her body! “No no no! Stop! It hurts!! It hurts so much!!” Her cries continued earning zero sympathy from the void, and as the items entered Marcy’s whole being they began shining, consuming everything around them.

*************

Understanding concepts had never been a problem for Marcy for her brain absorbed every bit of information like a kid devouring candy on Halloween. Nonetheless, the knowledge she’d gathered hours ago (if time had meaning in this void) made her reconsider her love for discovering and investigating new stuff.

She had her dreams in the palm of her hands. She had her friends finally getting along. All that mattered was recharging the box and their new life would begin! Instead, her biggest mistake was weaponized, Andrias tried to kill them all and of the three, only she died.

Was this void her punishment? Was it Hell, Purgatory, a limbo between life and death?

Honestly, she didn’t care. Not anymore. And even if a tiny part of her did, what could she do? She was dead.

Dead.

Were her friends still alive? Anne was but Sasha? Did she survive Andrias’ bloodlust? She couldn’t imagine the opposite; she wouldn’t even forgive herself if one of her best friends perished because of her idiocy.

“At the end, all I can amount to is wishful thinking.” At least…if Sasha didn’t make it through, maybe they would meet again.

“Or maybe not.”

“Uh?” As if things weren’t weird and depressing enough before her many versions of herself had appeared. A tiny Marcy of 4-5 years old, a school-uniform Marcy, and then a Night Guard Marcy which wasn’t that different from her except that the cloak was gone.

“What is this?”

“An intervention!” Tiny Marcy exclaimed.

“She’s right. Marcy, as crazy as this sounds, you’re not dead at all. You’re in a limbo.” Replied Night Guard Marcy.

“Limbo? That can’t be… The sword was huge, my vital organs got the full brunt of it, how could I be still alive after that?”

“Remember the weird sensations?,” queried School Marcy. “Floating, coldness, air in your lungs. If you weren’t alive, none of that would have been registered in your mind. Your brain is trying to process all that happened but the traumatic shock of the stabbing shattered your memories. That’s why you found them in pieces and each one in the form of different items. Those represent key moments before the big falling out.”

“That… That’s a well-thought explanation,” There was nothing else to refute that except “But even if I’m alive, barely I suppose, what am I supposed to do? Anne’s on Earth, she must be hating me. Sasha might be in jail or dead for all I know, and also hating me. And I’m… I don’t even know how the heck I survived. Or if I’m still in the castle. I’m useless.”

“You’re not! You have time.” Tiny Marcy argued.

“Time? What time? And for what? To stay in this limbo forever? Accept it, guys. It’s over. I lost… W-We l-lost,” Marcy’s lower lip trembled and a few tears fell from her eyes. Instead of insisting, the other versions of herself wrapped their arms around her. It felt nice even when this was a product of her imagination to compensate for the desperate need for others’ comfort.

“Do you remember what the First Temple taught you?” Night Guard Marcy asked.

“T-The First Temple?”

“Yeah. What was the lesson there?”

“Only the worthy will have the wisdom to choose whether it’s more important to win or have the humility to lose. A choice is made to save thy friends. And honestly doesn’t that make you a winner in the end? But what point are you getting at?”

“Winning or losing doesn’t have as much of a big impact compared to the people in your life. You influence them as much as they do you. Anne and Sasha rejecting your vision of adventure hurt because that kind of life was worthless without them. You risked your life to save Sprig because he is precious to Anne and you two had become friends. You wanted the dinner with your friends to be a success because nothing makes things better than being together. Most importantly, you fought Andrias alongside Anne and Sasha because not only did you know that was right but also to protect them. But if you stop now…”

“Andrias will take advantage of that, and I… I might lose my friends and my home forever…” She was so scared though. They must be hating her so much, their expressions haunted her every time she remembered her betrayal being put in the spotlight. The other Marcys squeezed her tightly.

“They might still be mad, and who knows what will happen for you three but they love you. They were scared for you. Anne was horrified when you were stabbed. Sasha must have lost it too. Despite everything, you’re still important to them.”

“…And they’re important to me too.” She straightened up and looked at the other Marcys. “You’re right. I can simply mope around and let Andrias do whatever he wants, or I can use this time to plan a way out. If Andrias believes I’m gone, he will lower his guard enough for me to strike back.”

“That’s the spirit!” School Marcy cheered.

Marcy smiled at the encouragement until an idea crossed her mind. “Spirit… Spirit! Guys, that’s it! If I’m still alive that means my spirit and my body haven’t been fully separated but if I want to wake up from this…strange mix of limbo and dream, I need to connect mind and body to wake up!” Regarding everyone around her, she figured out her first step.

“Come here.” She extended her arms to them giving and receiving a huge bear hug, the other versions of herself shone just like the items hours ago fusing with Marcy. She inhaled and exhaled deeply, once again alone in the void. Her gaze hardened with determination; it wouldn’t be for so long. Neither her time in the limbo nor Andrias getting what he wanted.

Chapter 12: Family Roots

Summary:

An ordinary chimney can hide a lot

There will be encoded dialogues so this is the key to deciphering them:
Caesar Cipher, a —> x, 3 letters back.

Notes:

Man, this was a pretty long one 😅

Chapter Text

Squeaky Toy AKA Sprig.

Old frog.

Squeaky Toy’s sister.

Anne Boonchuy.

Four names with different values and meanings but all of them equally important. Ok, not that important compared to Anne’s, but at least it’s a courtesy coming from her.

“Here it is the last bunch of books,” Grimes deposited them roughly on the floor, shaking his hands. “Remind me again why are we doing this?”

“Have you forgotten already? Didn’t know you could get that old,” Sasha teased him.

“Very funny, Sasha, but my question refers to the practicality of this task. We lack a new headquarters for everyone to be safe from Andrias, so packing these belongings is just time wasted.”

“We have forests, caves, burrows from animals we could hunt for food.”

“All of them are in the open air. Besides, forests can be burnt, caves can collapse on themselves, and burrows might not be big enough and bury us all just like caves. There is also a lack of ‘electricity’ as you mentioned before, Amphibians don't have night vision.”

Sasha massaged her temples, sitting on the couch. ‘Where am I even going to move the couch?’ Another question without an answer. Grime sat on the other side of the furniture, sensing her distress.

“Wanna share some thoughts, Lieutenant?”

She leaned her neck on the couch. “You're right. I'm wasting time. I should be preparing everything to rescue Marcy already!”

“The stakes are too high to rush in, Sasha. You don't know if Andrias is waiting for you, using Marcy as bait.”

“You don't know if he's using her at all. That's what scares me the most! What if he's messing with her mind? Erasing her memories? Maybe he made her believe already that she is the adopted heir of Newtopia and evil people attacked her, meaning us!”

“Don’t catastrophize.” He placed a hand on her shoulder. “Your impatience is valid but losing composure won't lead you anywhere. Besides, packing this stuff is not wasting time.” She looked at him with the most deadpan eyes he'd ever seen. “Hey, you know moving from one place to another requires excellent planning, this is more like winging it but I understand you want to protect Anne’s and the Plantars’ belongings until they return.”

“Yeah…” ‘Anne wouldn't like it if she found her journal burnt or in the mud’ Sasha entertained herself with an image of her former friend chasing her around, screaming profanities, demanding why her journal was in such a state and how could she not take care of something in her whole life. Would she be more preoccupied with a dirty, torn journal, or the destruction of Wartwood?

Who was she kidding? Anne wouldn't be that trivial.

“Let’s go, Grime,” as she got up and exited the house, the toad warrior inwardly smiled.

***********

As it had been for the last 2 weeks, the Wartwoodians reunited, surrounding the statue of the town’s foundation where the blonde and the toad were waiting for them.

Croaker carried her spider pet in her arms, Felicia and Ivy were talking about something, Maddie was reading a book of spells, Loggle lifted some weights, wait lifting weights?

“Wow, dude, didn't know you had started a new routine. So, how it's going for you?”

“Excellent! I was a bit skeptical with the human-style exercises but they are easy to follow.”

“And the weights?”

“Made them myself. You could say it's the only thing you have drawn right, am I right?” Sasha grinned, not offended at all. It impressed her how the gentle, soft-spoken axolotl had brought to the light some smug sass and confidence. The exercise must have helped him to unearth it. “Except the rocks. They were a bit hard to find and give form, that was the last part to finish my weights. Glad Gunther lent me a hand.”

As if called by him, the Hulk-transforming frog waved at the two and opened a bag of fly donuts.

Sasha clapped her hands a few times, all eyes turning to her. “Good morning, everyone. I came here for a request of help,” her eyes unconsciously landed on Grime. He wasn’t paying attention to her speech but to the newts she and Wally had met in their mission. The hardened gaze he hoped was enough to vaporize them told her that whatever they were murmuring among each other enerved him. Sasha knew Grime’s temper could be somewhat explosive but she prayed he didn’t implode in front of everyone. “Frog Valley might not be a few steps from Newtopia or the castle; however, that hasn't stopped Andrias from expanding his army and kidnapping people to enslave them. Swamp Shiro and the other towns are proof of that. For that reason, we must form groups of five or six people and search for places to hide before his killing machines launch a surprise attack.” At those last words, many women hug their children or husbands, gasps and murmurs bubbling like the anxiety that floated in the air.

“Do you have any other plan than running and hiding?” One of the newts Grime had been glaring at criticized. She bet his name was Veenomsty, although she might be corrected. Anyway, the former toad captain intensified his murderous gaze until Sasha subtly elbowed him in the hip.

“Thanks for the concern, Mr. Veenomsty,” he didn’t correct her so she was right. “However, this isn’t running away and hiding to wait for Andrias to forget about us; it is a backup plan. Rushing in is not advisable because the enemy may be stronger, smarter, or have a numerical advantage. Besides, having a place to meet that he cannot see or find is a great tactic to gather strength and form new plans.”

“Do you have an idea of a meeting place big and safe enough for all of us?” Now Veenomsty’s brother intervened. “And don’t you dare say a cave because we are done with that kind of option?”

“Unfortunately, building a new headquarters that is impossible to find requires time and resources. Even if it’s uncomfortable, the caves and the underground are our best options. Much better yet if Andrias doesn’t figure out where we’re going.”

“Frogsh*t!” Veenomsty spat. “What kind of leader are you if you’re improvising in times like this? At this rate, we’d be better off surrendering instead of going blind with such amateur guidance!”

“Seriously, what was everyone here thinking?” Mordecai regarded the rest of the town. Not waiting for an answer, he continued. “Two criminals leading a resistance and protecting people? You only know how to loot towns, not stand up for them.”

Multiple veins pulsated beneath Grime’s skin. He was reaching his limit, she could feel it. She wondered if his anger originated from his concern for her or for being pissed off at two newts that were insulting them. Either way, she’d better shoot a good response.

“I understand your distrust because of our past actions. I assure you that what I want right now is teamwork to find a good place to relocate in case the town is bombarded. You can still hate me if you want but I need all the support if we want to survive.”

“I’m fine with that as long as it doesn’t take forever,” the newts’ surprise matched their inflated eyes as they glanced at their friend, Matthew. The frog shrugged, “What? It’s pure logic. The more people join in this task, the faster this will be done.” Mordecai tapped Matthew’s wife’s shoulder, asking her kind of telepathically if he was serious about this. Her nonchalant shrug communicated she was ok with this which sent more alarms to the newts.

At least someone was enjoying Mordecai and Veenomsty’s disbelief: Grime chuckled softly, a smug grin on his face.

Before taking on the mantle of redemption and becoming a frog’s protector, the people he distrusted the most were the newts. Dislike and irritation were for frogs; nonetheless, the elite amphibians, the newts, deserved much worse.

Pompous, arrogant, and condescending, they barked orders to the toads, throwing them as rabid dogs to any frog civil unrest but despite following their instructions, no toad in history has ever been promoted to general or even accepted in the royal Newtopian Army. Those positions were reserved for newts.

Much worse, the toad towers had to rely on looting unruly peasants, crushing anyone who hadn’t paid their taxes, and forcing them to give more of their crops to be in shape. Meanwhile, Newtopia still looked as pristine as ever, well protected by its walls, unbothered by the monsters and rebels the toads fought against.

Toad kind might have some advantages over frogs but if you saw it more deeply, you’d discover there was a big hole where frogs and toads had been thrown, fighting each other, resenting one another, and the newts just enjoyed the entertainment.

And now he had to listen to two ungrateful excuses of amphibians who couldn’t stop whining like babies and put some effort into helping Sasha, the same person who gave them refuge.

Crimes or not, his Lieutenant didn’t deserve such treatment from them. Heck, if she weren’t here, he would’ve kicked that pair out of Wartwood.

One newt to defeat, he was fine with that. Having to put up with Albus Buttweep whenever he was tasked to keep an eye on them, was super annoying but not unbearable. Dealing with the insults of two newts who might be lower nobles or pretenders of nobility, what a headache! He couldn’t wait for the war to be over and have them out of his sight.

*****************

“So, what do you need me for?” Maddie asked while checking on all her witchcraft materials. Her little sisters observed curious although silence; a good development if someone asked Maddie.

Sasha unscrolled two maps, one of Amphibia and one of Wartwood. A red circle drawn with yarn surrounded Frog Valley in the second map just like Newtopia in the first one. She put both of them in Maddie’s bed.

“Here is the plan. Andrias has robots who have invaded air and earth. Frog Valley might be protected by huge mountains and its entrance might be blocked by an ice wall but who’s to say he won’t use flamethrowers to take over those parts? By using magic, we could see through the ground layers and find an underground cave strong enough to keep us protected.”

“I don’t think there’s a spell that could give my eyes such ability but I can use an incantation to posses creatures that live in tunnels.” At that mention, a realization entered her mind by kicking the doors open. “Of course! I know exactly the candidate we need, but we’ll have to ask Soggy Joe’s help for this.”

“Who’s the candidate anyway? A giant worm? A mole?”

“You’re kind of close.”

**************

A few fingers touched the dirt, grabbing a spoonful of it. Joe inhaled the essence of the soil, in his mind he counted all the odors he could perceive: the freshness of the rainwater, some decaying grass blades, a few dead bugs becoming earth’s fertilizer, but most important of all, the sweat glued to a few pieces of fur his tongue tasted.

Some “ews” were heard behind him though ignored. He picked up a single strand of hair, examining it like an archeologist would to the bones of a dinosaur.

“Yep, Harold was here.” He informed the others. “I bet he’s sleeping right now or munching whatever vegetables he stole from any farm close.”

“I’m surprised he hasn’t escaped when the first wave of robots attacked.” Commented Stumpy.

“Ha! As if, he’s too big to be pushed around.” Sasha lightly coughed to get the two frogs’ attention. “Alright, super big mole underground. Got it. He might be useful; the question is: how will we trap him?”

“As I said, he might be munching food he stole perhaps days or a few hours ago. When that happens, he either sleeps or goes to the next farm to grab more food.”

“Then we’ll need lots of juicy vegetables. The bigger, the better.” Grime nodded when Sasha regarded him with a glance; he ran to the Plantars’ farm while Maddie opened a wooden box filled with spiders.

The girl lifted her right index finger to the sky in a “Watch and learn” gesture. She whispered unintelligible words to the arachnids; in a matter of seconds, they halted their movements, getting out of the box orderly like soldiers. What surprised Sasha the most was that each of them had the same eyes as Maddie.

“You there! You there! You there! You there!” Each spider left in the direction pointed for them. “Alright, the surface has been covered, if any of my eight-legged friends notice something strange coming out of the ground, I’ll notify you.”

“Good, step one is done. Now step two with—“

“Excuse me,” a pompous voice joined in. The human and the three frogs raised their eyebrows at the same time at the unexpected visit for lack of a better term. Veenomsty, Mordecai, and Matthew greeted them, or more like only the third member did as the two newts checked over the group. “We would like to…help,” Mordecai said, although his eyes were narrowing at Sasha, ignoring everybody else. “Whatever plan you have to ensure our safety must end in a permanent success; therefore, exhaustive supervision of your management is imperative.”

“The help is appreciated but I’ve been tasked already with keeping an eye on her and Grime,” explained Stumpy. Sasha signaled for him to stop any other argument to dissuade the trio. “It’s alright. With more eyes and hands, the work will be faster. And if you have to go back to the restaurant for something, they will replace you.” The chef frog shrugged in acceptance.

As Sasha and Joe explained to the new members of the team what they were doing, the former captain toad had returned, carrying boxes with lots of produce. The soreness on his arms and back became old news as he spotted the unbearable newts who soured the meeting at the plaza.

Grime wouldn’t mind if their frog friend joined them in this mission but having that pair too was pushing his limits too much. They’d better behave or else…

“Yikes, what bit you, big guy?“ Maddie lightly teased meeting with his stony silence.

**************

“Let’s rephrase, hunter, you’re saying that a hole-filled crop or cracked, uneven soil are signs of that “Harold” thing being closer than we think it might be?”

“Soggy Joe, not Hunter, and yes, but the holes are his most characteristic “pawprint” when he looks for food on the surface. Also, I’m not a hunter, I’m a survivalist.” Soggy corrected Veenomsty.

“With all the bones decorating your beard, survivalist is the last thing anyone would believe,” Mordecai replied, walking slowly behind his older brother.

“And those strange drawings on your arms?” Matthew asked curiously.

“Not drawings, tattoos. Each one represents a creature I faced in my younger days tasting the wrath of nature! 50% percent, that is. The other half is nonsense for fun.”

“Tattoos?” Veenomsty peeked at his arms, moved by curiosity.

“What? Never heard of them? They’re like drawings but they cling to your skin.”

“I bet they were painful,” Sasha joined the conversation. What better way to lessen the tension than sharing anecdotes from your home? “On Earth, a tattoo is seen as cool or a sign of rebellion. Others deem it a normal characteristic for ruffians and criminals.”

“And how many do you have by now?” Mordecai asked, the hidden accusation not so subtle although he barely cared.

“I hate to admit it but I lost my nerve when I saw a video about it. Even if I waited a few years to reach adulthood, the sole idea of an ink-filled needle pinching your skin for hours to leave an image is not the kind of experience I would want to have. Those kinds of tattoos are permanent!” ‘And I doubt I even return to Earth to do such a thing. Taking a break from all the craziness sounds better anyway’

“Oh really?” Now Soggy Joe was the curious one. “Mine aren’t that much. Many have lasted several years but that’s because of the materials; others are a part of the past, like this one.” He pointed to his right elbow which showed a few dark green and grey spots. It was difficult to know what used to be tattooed there as it had faded a long time ago.

“Tattoos seem pretty useful. If my book of magic is destroyed, stolen, or lost someday, tattooing my arms with the most practical spells would save me and my family from any danger.” Maddie opined.

Olms have mercy, it’s like all this tattoo talking was like an initiation for bandits that even a child was getting involved! Time to change of topic.

“On an unrelated note, seeing that you’re the leader, what are our orders?” Before answering Mordecai, Sasha glanced at Maddie who shook her head. “Maddie had sent her spy spiders to watch over the surface; we are following hints of Harold with Joe’s help; and Stumpy and Grime are placing the bait in the best farms to attract our target. Our job is to either wait until the creature gets out of its hideout or keep searching for it. Then we’ll surround it, distract and overwhelm it, I’ll knock it out, and Maddie will control it with magic.”

“Better erase the ‘knock out’ part. If the target is unconscious, the spell won’t work.”

“Like how big is the beast we’ll face?” Veenomsty thought Matthew had a good question which prompted him to ask, “Exactly. It’s also pretty concerning that within this group there is a child. This is an issue for adults only, why a little girl should be brought on this?”

“Two,” Maddie corrected. Sasha wouldn’t mind if she were telling the truth except that if the newts were informed the resistance leader was both a kid and a criminal, they’d throw the biggest fit ever seen. “Sasha’s a kid.”

“You are?!” Veenomsty, Mordecai, and Matthew exclaimed in unison. The blonde girl sighed, oh well, you cannot earn someone’s trust by deflecting facts anyway.

“It’s true. I’m a kid, 13 years old. Maybe 14, but time here doesn’t have a clock so I don’t know if my birthday has passed or not.”

“Unbelievable,” Matthew breathed. “Does your kind age that fast? You’re tall as a newt and planned a whole coup against the king. Now you are the leader of a resistance and have a ferocious toad warrior as an ally. I wouldn’t be able to look him in the eye if I were you.”

Before Amphibia, Sasha would’ve reveled in the praise and pumped her chest while giving a speech about all her other qualities and why that made her the best leader, the only one worthy of that position. In hindsight, leadership had never been the glamorous place her head conjured in her dreams.

What used to be a clear path bathed in gold, where applauses and cheers showered over her, had turned out to be a maze filled with traps, quicksands, and dead ends. Each choice must be precise, and thoughtful as it not only affected her but the people around her, strangers or not. The consequences would decide if trusting her was a good investment or the worst idea. Every day had a new challenge or battle in store for her where if she wasn’t clever or quick enough, many lives would be lost. It happened with the Warhammer when the toad coup reached Newtopia, and now she’s facing Andrias, a tyrant with God knows how many years of experience.

Matthew’s question had a scary accuracy with how jaded and stoic Sasha had become.

“I was forged that way.” Sasha ended that topic quickly, pondering what other stuff they could converse about that didn’t touch sore spots.

Maddie, luckily, raised a hand and pointed in one direction. “He got one of the baits. Let’s go.”

****************

As Soggy Joe had described, a terrain invaded by Harold is infested with small holes, many of them beneath the places where the vegetables used to be, and the soil looked like the superior base of a squared-shaped cake when it is baked, all cracked and divided.

One of the boxes that served as bait had been turned upside down, maybe to give the creature more access to the food. From one of the holes, Sasha could hear low grumbling. Unawareness must be taken advantage of, so she moved her group to a corner of the farm for a plan.

“Joe, any way to enrage that thing?”

“Enrage him?” Veenomsty stepped in. “That’s preposterous! It could kill us.”

“Shhh, not so loud. We don’t know if he has good hearing. I won’t let anyone get hurt if that’s your concern. Now Soggy, trigger ideas?”

“Mmmm, his little ‘pals’ are too sensible to touch. The rough kind. Hit any of them and he’ll come out to fight.”

“Pals? You mean friends or babies?”

“I know I should’ve drawn you a picture of him but I doubt you would’ve believed me.” The survivalist frog grabbed a twig and sketched Harold on the ground. The image left Sasha disgusted and disturbed, and if that was her reaction to a simple drawing of her target, watching the animal in real life might ruin her appetite for the whole week.

“Ok, step 1: more bait. Maddie, if your spy spider hasn’t been crushed yet, use it to lure one of Harold’s pals. Step 2: aim and hit. Find lots of stones and throw them as hard as you can when the pals get out. Step 3: stay far away from shaking ground and do as I say. Understood?” While Soggy Joe and Maddie nodded determinedly, Matthew, Veenomsty, and Mordecai were more hesitant although for different reasons.

The witch frog concentrated, commanding the spider to roll a lettuce to one of the holes. As it did, the group picked up lots of stones and even balls of dirt; the vegetable entered the hole prompting Harold to grumble questioningly. Suddenly, a little star-nosed mole appeared, kidnapping Maddie’s spider in seconds.

Moments later, it went to the surface again, smelling the air, blissfully ignorant of the target on its back.

Sasha and her team threw a rain of stones at it, one of them hitting with such force at the sensitive nose, shedding a bit of blood.

“Sorry,” Matthew mumbled apologetically.

The ‘pal’ returned to the underground; nonetheless, a huge fissure deformed the holes and meandered at surprising speed towards the group.

“sh*t!” Sasha and Soggy Joe carried the newts brothers, Matthew, and Maddie respectively, jumping just in time as Harold made his debut, roaring at full lungs.

Abomination, aberration, neither of them was sufficient to label the monstrous version of a star-nosed mole Amphibia had. His back was the nest of little moles as if their tiny bodies were fused to it, and for claws, he also showed off those little guys who shrieked and twitched crazily. Heck, even part of Harold’s nose had a little mole attached!

‘Did you know that parasitic twins are a rare kind of conjoined twins? While one fetus develops normally, the other one stops growing and gets attached to its twin. It lacks consciousness and it feeds on its twin unless it’s quickly found and extracted from the host’s body.’

Was this a super rare case? Too bad Marcy wasn’t there to give her verdict.

Harold roared more viciously at his attackers, unbeknownst to the group, his hind legs were flexing enough for a big jump which happened seconds later leaving the teenager and the amphibians speechless.

A body slam the size of a truck almost fell on them, the impact so brutal it created a crater as if it were a meteorite. Harold smelled the air and the tiny star-nosed mole on it shrieked, pointing to Sasha, the newt brothers, and Matthew.

His abnormal claws scooped balls of dirt the size of beds, throwing them at an alarming speed. Luckily, Sasha’s velocity surpassed the one from the animal although her arms were slowly beginning to protest from carrying three people. Her grip on the newts and frog tightened, shutting up any complaints of her muscles.

Unsatisfied with the filthy bombing, Harold hammered the ground. The layers shook like jelly but Sasha remained unmovable which the giant mutant star-nosed mole translated as a challenge, in seconds he sprinted towards his soon-to-be victims.

Sasha dropped her comrades and pointed in one direction, “RUN!”. In the blink of an eye three things happened: one, Harold’s sharp teeth fell on Sasha; two, Soggy Joe, Maddie, and Stumpy, launched to the back of the mole; and three, the newt brothers and Matthew closed their eyes, unable to watch whatever massacre in front of them.

By the end of minute 3, it was Matthew who dared to open his eyelids as no sound of agony came from the rest of the group. He gasped amazed at the scenery in front of him: Sasha had her hands pushing back Harold’s teeth while Stumpy and Soggy Joe pressed harder on his front paws to prevent him from using them to crush the girl. Maddie, on the other hand, tried to climb to the head but the mole non-stop shaking made her work super hard.

“We-We have to do something!” Matthew facepalmed mentally at how obvious was his statement. Looking to anything that must be missing, he noticed that Harold was backing away from the group although Sasha, Stumpy, and Joe pulled him closer to them. Aha, that’s it!

“The rearguard! We have to keep him from running away!” Matthew’s legs led him to the back and butt of the big animal, not caring how intimidating it looked, the frog pushed as hard as his body managed.

Veenomsty and Mordecai had no words to describe this, whatever this was for a plan leaving Matthew alone would get them in trouble if he got hurt and his wife found out they did nothing, also, the human would call them out for inaction and receiving a scold from her was the last thing they desired to experience.

The two pushed alongside their friend, giving Maddie time enough to reach one of the ears and whisper the mind-control spell.

Harold’s body froze as his eyes turned yellow. The witch frog grinned “It’s done, guys! I have him under control!”

The others exhaled relieved, putting some distance between them and the giant mole. “Ok, people, form a line!” Frogs and newts gathered around her, and the girl checked over them in case of serious injuries; her lips curled up at the lack of any damage done to them and clapped her hands. “Welp, phase 1 has been a success and no one got hurt. A new victory.”

“Frog, I can’t believe we fought this beast!” Matthew touched his chest. If his heart were a marathon athlete, it would be sweating for all the effort.

“At least it wasn’t a heron,” Mordecai murmured.

“I appreciate your sudden appearance and willingness to help us tame Harold, guys. Your intervention made the difference.” The newt brothers hummed kind of arrogantly while Matthew chuckled, flattered.

The sound of soil being dug caught their attention. As their turned around, the only part of Harold they peeked at was his butt as he got deeper and deeper per Maddie’s orders.

“If we find something, I’ll let you know.” Sasha nodded. Now time for the report.

**************

Funnily enough, another person awaited a well-detailed report about his progress on his grand project.

Andrias tapped his foot irritatedly, observing the B triplets debating on a loop who should speak first. Their mannerisms, according to the few interactions he had with them, could be summarized as an agonizing, mind-numbing, pointless battle of ideas because none of them were able to find a way to fuse their perspectives to get the bigger picture. The silver lining from such torture was their intellect and devotion to doing their work, if not, he would’ve sent them to jail already.

“Enough of bickering!” Andrias demanded, reaching his limit. “If any of you have screwed up on something, spit it out!”

“It-It’s not about that, Your Highness,” Blair spoke, suppressing his stuttering due to his nervousness. “The mines have enough people to extract the materials and the factories are producing nonstop, even surpassing the daily quota.”

“Good news if we don’t count the ravaging illnesses many of them are suffering, 30% have fallen seriously ill, 10% of that fraction is dead or with a foot in the tomb, and 68% are rioting or escaping although in vain,” Branson added.

Bartley cursed mentally for being left as the last informant but swallowed his apprehension and continued. “Despite the riots or escapades as my brother has stated, Your Majesty, the Royal Guard, and General Yunan are doing an excellent job in squashing any sign of rebellion. However…”

“However what?”

“…A l-letter from General Yunan arrived a few hours ago. She requests an audition with you, your Highness, urgently.” Andrias’ eyebrows rose. “I bet it’s nothing serious. She’s a capable warrior, the best of her kind but she said she’ll return in a few days for the meeting.”

“It won’t be necessary. Go find Jacinda, tell her to write a letter from me to General Yunan that she mustn’t waste my time with trivial talks. Any issue ordering the peasants around is up to her to handle to the best of her ability. If not, then she’s not worthy of her position and will be replaced with someone else.”

Bartley bowed deeply, his snout millimeters from the ground, and then he turned around leaving the throne room. Andrias dismissed with a hand the other two who also bowed before getting out.

Olms have mercy, what a sh*t show of a report. Mere riotings, people’s weaknesses, and rebelliousness, General Yunan softening up to the filthy commoners, nothing new which should’ve been hint enough for the B triplets to not argue and pick each one a turn. He barely remembered who was who, so the order didn’t matter as long as the information was delivered to him.

Since when people couldn’t be on the same page as everyone else? Why couldn’t they just stay in line and have stuff being done as it should?

His mood soured for those questions led him to memoryland where two painfully familiar faces floated above him.

A childish but deceitful frog and a kind but cowardly toad.

‘I think you’re getting it wrong, Andy’ she replied. Her sweet voice once a source of comfort and happiness, was now as nauseating as the odor from the sewers. ‘Have you forgotten what I saw? What I told to your father?’

“That’s nothing compared to the cost. Everyone paid for that”, he spat. Fortunately for him, the throne room was the only witness to his one-sided argument. “We went from an imposing empire to a shadow because you couldn’t keep your sh*t to yourself.”

‘Andrias, come on. That’s not fair.’ The toad’s whining pushed him to grit his teeth. As if he had the f*cking right to lecture him! He’s not his father! ‘You’re right. I’m not. Neither are you. But I looked up to you because I knew you’d surpass him in ways no one could imagine.’

Tch, obvious as stating water is wet. Why was he then pouring insane amounts of time into building a stable portal? Looking for the blonde human to annihilate her? Planning a sneak attack on Boonchuy before she gets in his way again with those pesky powers? No for fun that’s for sure! His legacy depended entirely on him.

Not that a brutish, weak-minded toad could ever understand the sacrifices he had to make for his kingdom.

‘I fear your concept of sacrifice and ours might not be on the same page, Andy,’ his fist clashed against the arm of his throne, cracking it deeply. A few pieces fell, scattering on the ground.

The audacity of that c*nt to compare her betrayal with his duty would’ve decapitated her if she were in front of him saying such things! The solace in not having her around though lifted his mood for a little while before the toad spoke again.

‘What happened to you, Andrias? You used to be more open-minded.’

Open-minded? More like he used to open the doors to his vulnerabilities, embracing exploitation and questions from people who supposedly supported him. What he proudly called a team, a trio of comrades enjoying time together and facing anything back to back was nothing but an illusion, a farce. All it took was telling them about the Calamity Box for them to pounce on him. First her, and then the other guy.

‘I grew up unlike them,’ he mused. It would’ve brought him some satisfaction if it weren’t for the fact that their failings pushed him to not play with the crown and be all mushy with untrustworthy peasants again. A sort of a positive lesson even if his mouth still tasted the bitterness.

Andrias got up from his throne. Certain items need to be dealt with.

*************

Grime would feel silly and embarrassed if he ever admitted his relief at hearing Sasha’s little mission of taming Harold, the abominable star-nosed mole. While he was aware the newt brothers weren’t a threat to his protégée, physical damage wasn’t on the same level as the emotional kind.

Asking if she felt fine or troubled due to their verbal assaults or hostile mumblings would help; however, Sasha might respond that she didn’t mind the insults because she deserved them or that the resistance took first place on the priority list, not her feelings.

Either answer had its points but the last time Sasha got emotionally crushed occurred in the castle after Anne disowned the blonde as her friend, her resolve wavered, and began questioning her position and goals leading to a change of heart to protect Wartwood and save all Amphibia.

Although, reordering all the events until this day, the cracks in her determination happened much before the incident at the castle, right after Percy and Braddock left.

A manipulative speech, some intimidation, or a cold dismissal, as she deemed them too useless and cowardly to contribute to the mission would’ve been expected reactions from Sasha when the couple expressed they’re quitting; instead, she asked them to stay, some vulnerability even escaped from her tough mask during her begging (?). Was it begging? Perhaps. Still, they refused and left, in her eyes was palpable the mark the event imprinted on her.

Grime disliked the fact that he wasn’t a feelings expert because if he had noticed the attachment or the bonding moments between her and Percy and Braddock, he could’ve stopped Sasha from making that promise to them about calling off the mission. Maybe sending them back to the Northern Tower would’ve changed the outcome in Newtopia. More allies by her side meant fewer cracks in her resolve no matter how many sharp, cruel words Boonchuy threw at her.

Nonetheless, there was the possibility of being questioned by the couple if they began feeling uncomfortable with her quest for power. Maybe they would’ve escaped without them noticing to not keep putting up with the risks of a full toad coup and how far Sasha was willing to go.

Who knew, that leaving after retrieving the war hammer in a hypothetical case could’ve shaken Sasha’s will or pushed her to a much darker path?

Now, being frank with himself, preventing Percy and Braddock from leaving or wishing for a better perception of their relationship with Sasha was kind of self-centered. After all, from the army, the toad couple and the girl were the only ones who stood by his side, and among the three, Sasha was the most ambitious and competent.

Returning to Anne with the tail between her legs or having been pulled up by the kid that night in the tower would’ve meant no plans for Grime except living as a fugitive until Yunan or any other law enforcer from Newtopia found him. After all, Sasha pushed him to get out of his funk to take back control, she made the deal with the toad lords and fought hard to retrieve the war hammer.

Such an ambitious soldier wasn’t easy to find. Bog and his friends couldn’t measure up to her; letting them try would’ve been amusing though.

The thing was that people changed. Sasha began disliking her former self and her progress to change her priorities and strengthen others not to exploit them but to aid them was abysmal.

A determination born from a desire for redemption and self-improvement could prove to be way more powerful than one born from greed and revenge; in the end, who was he to judge that? Heck, the girl’s new resolve convinced him to be a new kind of toad.

Which is why those whining, irritating newts should stay as far away as he deemed it necessary.

“Those brats should be as far away as it’s necessary from us, mainly you,” he commented bluntly.

“Brats? Who? Did you get into an argument with Maddie’s little sisters, or Ivy, or any other kid here?”

“Not them, the newts. The two refugee siblings.”

“Ah…” her self-explanatory reaction concerned him.

“Is that all you’ve got, Lieutenant? Listen, you can accept the consequences of your actions and whether people forgive you or not, but this harassment is nonsense! They must be put in their place. If it weren’t for you, they would still be in the wilderness, hiding from robots or beasts.”

“And if it weren’t for me, Newtopia wouldn’t have become the center of a civil war. Grime, I get your protectiveness but I’m fine. Sure, the insults suck, perhaps they are badmouthing me as we speak, but it doesn’t mean I will let that send me into a funk.”

“I can concede to that point. You’re tougher than anyone I’ve met in all my years as captain,” he stated proudly. “Regardless of your willingness to own up to your misdeeds, one mistake you’re making is putting too much emphasis on what you’ve done that day. Let’s not forget Andrias had in mind conquering other worlds; he never revealed his true colors until he had what he wanted. Amphibia would’ve turned into an inferno whether we were part of the toad rebellion or not, so in the end, Newtopia was never safe.”

“May I ask what brought this topic? First, you don’t want me close to those siblings because they could tear me apart by antagonizing me. Then you go and say Andrias is more to blame than me just because of his hidden evil schemes.”

“Don’t take it wrong, Lieutenant, there were times your resolve got tested.” At her questioning look, he elaborated. “When Percy and Braddock quitted, you got saddened for a little while. And then when Anne yelled she was done with you, you doubted your goals. The newts might be people you feel compelled to help but what if their badmouthing and insolence push you to second-guess yourself? A leader who’s easily shaken and influenced by others’ perceptions of them is not a leader at all. At this rate, you’ll consider gaining their approval more relevant than ensuring everyone’s survival.”

“It won’t happen,” the words came out of her mouth, unmoving like stones forming a barrier. “I said it already, Grime. It sucks that they are being hostile to me but it’s a consequence of the coup. I have to accept it and move on. I did the same with the Wartwoodians when they kept an eye on me and were harsh because of how I treated them and Anne and the Plantars. Crying and being depressed won’t change their opinions of me; it’ll be a shock if the newts show an iota of respect to me after we save Amphibia, and if not, that’s fine by me. This is not a race to please everyone.”

His facial features softened, she considered it a good sign; regardless, she preferred to finish the conversation in a lighter tone. “Still, thank you for having my back. If I become overwhelmed, I’ll let you know to help me.”

“Ready as always, Lieutenant,” Grime patted her back. Getting up from the porch, he signaled her to follow him. As they entered, Sasha noticed new boxes piled one after the other with Anne’s and the Plantars’ names written on them. Unlike the ones she had used to store their belongings, these were bigger, sturdier, and looked as if recently crafted.

“Where did you get this?”

“Boxes used to transport vegetables cannot last that long, and they smell. Thankfully, while you were on your mission, I struck a deal with Toadstool to get better ones for the Plantars’ stuff.”

“Let me guess, you’ll let them hold your weapons in case they are tasked with watching over you?”

“You got that right,” He grimaced as the next part of the deal poured sourness into his mouth. “Additionally, I’ll have to clean the stable of his snail and feed it for a week. All on my own.”

“It doesn’t sound that bad. I remember the tower possessed tarantulas as steeds.”

“I’d rather handle one of them than a spoiled rotten snail. One big reason they aren’t an option in the tower it’s because they are too cowardly. Anything remotely dangerous motivates them to hide inside their shells.”

“Eh, I don’t know. Give them a chance and you might win a good companion,” she answered fondly; images of Microangelo listening to her sprouted in her mind. Grime teasingly raised an eyebrow, crossing her arms.

“Well, look at that, Miss Heartstomper grew fond of a tiny widdle snail.”

She pushed aside lightly to check on the boxes as a way to change of topic. Her hands caressed the wood the boxes were made of. Thick, not-bug-eaten planks, all nailed to each other, there was no sign of putrefaction or weird odors. Anne and her frog family would get their stuff back in the best conditions.

“Thank you, Grimesy,” she grinned. “What moved you to do this, by the way? You’re not fond of any of them.”

“But you matter to me. While you care more about Anne than the Plantars, you’re doing your best to make amends with them too, so why not lend you a hand? At least, they’ll have a better impression of you once you tell them.”

‘Once, not if’ Sasha mused. Grime was certain they could return to Amphibia; however, was this certainty born from a solid conviction? Or from his desire to bring her comfort? Either way, she was elated to know that all the toys, books, ornaments, and especially Anne’s belongings had been organized in each box carefully.

Then her gaze landed on the peculiar portrait above the chimney. Uh, forgot that. Better to place it quickly—

Knock knock knock!

Knock knock knock!

“Who’s it?” Sasha asked from inside the house.

“Sasha, open up! You won’t believe what I found!” Maddie’s excitement and disbelief spoke of good news or transcendental ones if she guessed right. Anyway, Sasha opened the door seconds before Maddie finished her sentence, her eyes commanding for the information she had.

Of course, what the blonde got as an answer could have passed perfectly as a prank, a trap, or both.

“Are you saying Harold found a jail underground where a giant, four-legged, abomination of a white pumpkin lives?”

“The Moss Man Wally loves to rant about is more plausible than some mutated vegetable!” Grime replied, agreeing with Sasha.

“See it to believe it. You’ll have to follow us because there is more than just a jail. Outside there were boxes, books, and a table. I couldn’t see more because that monster tackled Harold and we ran away.” Finishing the explanation, Maddie signaled them to get out of the Plantars’ home.

A few meters away, in plain sight, rested Harold. As he regarded the group, his eyes revealed the animal was still under the witch frog’s control.

The mole entered the hole where he came from, the others jumped one by one, guided by the beast’s fine sense of smell.

As they walked, attentive to any sign of another animal digging or maybe the tunnels weakening; more importantly…

“You couldn’t see if there was someone outside the jail?” Grime asked. It’s not the most original idea that crossed their minds; nonetheless, sharing space and resources with strangers that tamed vegetables should be erased from the list.

“I don’t think there was. If not, they would’ve noticed that thing attacking us. Whoever has lived in that place might have passed away time ago.”

“But the pumpkin monster remained? Perhaps they’re a sorcerer like you.” Sasha commented.

“First, I’m a witch self-taught apprentice, not a sorcerer. Second, I’d rather have them be anything else than a magic user because turning produce into mindless beasts is another reason why magic and the dark arts are so vilified.”

“The identity is irrelevant compared to the knowledge they might have. Weaponizing vegetables is an unconventional method to use resources. If that person turns out to be neutral or is a secret ally of Andrias, raw strength will be used.” Grime punched his left palm as he said the last part.

“Neutral means they’re not against us or with us, I don’t think antagonizing them will benefit any side. And who would want to be that blue bastard’s ally anyway?” Sasha reasoned.

“One thing you should know about the neutral side, Lieutenant, is that anyone is on their own there. You only help yourself and intervene if it’s most convenient, if not, you move on. Bandits, marauders, and mercenaries belong in that category, crushing others to gain more power.”

“We won’t know until—“

“Shhhhhh! We’re here.” Maddie interrupted their debate, signaling to Harold whose nose vibrated as the scent of the pumpkin monster entered his nostrils. A growl from him rumbled softly to the ground, the witch frog patted him to calm him down and led the beast to its adversary, Sasha and Grime followed silently.

Luckily, the vegetable abomination snored, blissfully ignorant of the ambush behind it. Harold roared, his hind legs boosting him in a powerful jump, tackling the other monster and consecutively crushing the jail bars. The human and her amphibian companions exited the cell seconds later while the creatures snarled and pinned each other to the ground to make their enemy submit. Suddenly, a whistle from Maddie prompted Harold to put distance between himself and the pumpkin monster just in time for two curse pouches to blow up on the mutant vegetable.

Thick roots sprouted from the ground, snaring the legs. Maddie whistled again and Harold left where they came.

“There, problem solved.”

Ignoring the wretched sounds of the abominable pumpkin, the trio inspected the rudimentary and improvised laboratory (?). Honestly, its appearance was a bit misleading. No scientific tools, books here and there, the shelves were full of jars, each one possessing a little vegetable inside. although a single peek told you to stay as far away as you could from those due to how disturbing they looked. The table in front of them had nothing but a rope and behind it an old, abandoned axe waiting to be used.

“Impossible!” Maddie’s exclamation lured the others to her. Her hands held a stack of papers, the first one presenting a picture of a yellow-lemon skin frog, wearing a hat too similar to Sprig’s, holding a volumetric flask, smiling calmly. And the first paragraph said…

“SKIP PLANTAR?!” They yelled in unison.

“This place belongs to Squeaky Toy’s family?!”; “Weren’t they supposed to be just farmers?!”, “The plot thickens,” Sasha, Grime, and Maddie said respectively. Their minds asked millions of questions and fabricated countless theories to respond to each doubt after such revelation.

Sasha stepped back, taking in the scenario before her. A pseudo-laboratory with some torture room vibe, underground for who knew how long, an abandoned and still living abominable pumpkin, and the owner was a Plantar? How?

A boring, average, vegetable-loving family like those frogs would never be able to make anyone wonder if they were hiding anything bizarre beneath their…meh kind of life. Although to hide a precious secret from the most fearsome of enemies, the best strategy was blending in and never standing out. She could barely stomach it, not because of her past hatred towards them but due to the shock of this discovery, but it’s impressive how well they applied the strategy. That is if they knew this place existed in the first place.

“Maybe there is more,” she voiced to the others unconsciously. When they regarded her, she came back to her senses, and recalling those words, she elaborated. “What if the Plantars had more noteworthy relatives? Maybe this isn’t the whole family's secret underground location but a part of it.”

“A crazy scientist that turned pumpkins into monsters, that’s remarkable if you plan to strike fear into your enemy’s heart. Yeah, I’m in!” Grime agreed.

“Thankfully he wasn’t a magic user. Science and I are like day and night, but it would be worth a shot to investigate more, and if this place is bigger than we expect…”

“We can turn it into our headquarters,” Sasha finished Maddie’s sentence. Invigorated by their discovery and the possibilities, the trio searched for a door that would lead them to the next room until Grime called them, pointing at a hole and what was beneath it.

Seconds later, they went inside getting smacked by another wave of shock and awe.

An armory, although dirty, disorganized, and forgotten, introduced itself to them with its huge amount of weapons. Battle axes, spears, swords, daggers, crossbows, arrows, shields, morning stars, even kuna is you would only see in anime, enough to supply all the rebellion. On one of the walls, beautifully decorated with more weapons at each side, laid a portrait of another Plantar member, PolliAna.

“First a scientist that weaponizes vegetables and now a ruthless warrior with a secret armory,” Grime murmured as he walked to the portrait to assimilate better the events. “This family is more deceiving than I thought.”

“Who knows? Perhaps they didn’t want their past to be found.”

*****************

The fireplace in this room of the castle used to be a haven whenever he felt overwhelmed by the expectations of his father and subjects. As much as the excitement of being king pushed him to listen to every lecture King Aldrich gave when he was alive, any time the uncertainty of the future got the better of him, he traveled to the chimney alone or with them to find solace in the warmth of the flames, the comfiness of the furniture, even their voices echoing as they talked about anything and everything.

Now though, this room reeked of bitterness. The sourness of a dark, unfinished closure was as contradictory as it sounded.

The pieces of wood crackled as flames consumed them slowly, and his hands weighed tons for they held two items he once considered sacred to him, a portrait and a pair of colorful glasses.

The portrait was slashed mercilessly in a fit of rage, though anyone could distinguish three smiling amphibians: a female pink frog, a huge blue newt, and a corpulent green toad. The glasses, on the other hand, weren’t useful anymore. When Marcy used to send him invisible-ink messages, they had a tiny place in his pockets as much as he felt disgusted to keep using them; however, his master had Marcy where she was supposed to be, therefore, those glasses needed to be disposed of.

The memories each one represented had been tainted and a king burdened by sentimentality was doomed to failure, to exploitation. He learned that the hard way.

He threw both items to the fire, watching silently as they were eaten like the wood.

“Lw vxusulvhv ph wkdw diwhu doo wkhvh bhduv, brx kdyhq’w jrwwhq ulg ri wkh sruwudlw, Dqguldv.”

“My lord,” Andrias coughed and composed himself. Maybe this was a test, or the Core found his choice suspicious. “Waiting for the box to return and destroying the prophecy and the Stars were the priority compared to a relic of a past. And it’s imperative to make space for new stuff in the new era.”

“…” The Core’s lack of response rattled his nerves but he remained strong. It would be inconceivable that being so close to redeeming himself, he would begin to despair over any mistake. “Wkdw'v d frpshoolqj dujxphqw. Brx'g ehwwhu nhhs wkdw qhz uhvroxwlrq dv vwurqj dv wkh rqh wr uhghhp brxuvhoi. Jhwwlqj dwwdfkhg wr pruh sdudvlwhv lv d klqgudqfh wr rxu hpsluh. Zh grq'w qhhg d uhshwlwlrq wr uhplqg brx wkdw.”

The mood reached a new low with the last sentence. He couldn’t deny it though, it’d mean the lesson hadn’t landed in his mind and well of experience which would put him in a dangerous spotlight. For that reason, the destruction of those objects was a must. Nothing that came from those golden days when he used to be naive and malleable brought any advantage to his cause.

The portrait had turned out to be a lie. The pinkish glasses had run out of usefulness and she gave them to him. What else—?

Then the day the box was handed to him, charged and ready, showcased a new angle he hadn’t been observant enough to consider a threat. Former Captain Grime had in his hands a war hammer, but could it be his war hammer?

The design, the thrusters, the metals it was made of, and even the lines carved in the head of the weapon. He shook his head; impossible, he ordered to stop producing those hammers once he became king. The moment that brute got too soft on that c*nt indicated to him that the weapon would be worthless.

Of course, he took the war hammer with him after being ordered to exit Newtopia and protect the villages, then time later, news of his death because of the unbeatable narwhal worm spread. His war hammer? Lost, no one could find it. Good riddance!

Not for so long. It seemed the universe alongside the souls of those two traitors had concocted a plan to rub the past in his face if that pesky theory of him about his war hammer landing in Grime’s hands was true.

Oh well, it wouldn’t matter anymore. Such petty rebellion would be found, the leaders executed, the army punished accordingly, and the hammer melted to be reused. It’d be a waste destroying the materials anyway.

************

Before her change of heart, Sasha couldn’t imagine the Plantars as more than slimy frogs, best-friend stealers like Squeaky Toy. A bunch of weaklings got in her way and Anne got too attached to much to her frustrations and disbelief.

Then she started her path of redemption and while she still didn’t like them, the hatred and deep annoyance she used to feel towards them was gone, replaced by understanding. Understanding that they were people, they were real, and deserved respect and a good apology if they ever came back. They might not accept it, be suspicious of her, or want more proof of her being a good person than just word from everyone she has been helping; nonetheless, it’s something she shouldn’t and couldn’t complain about after all the sh*tty stuff she put them through.

Now, if someone had told her the Plantars had relatives who were warriors, scientists, puzzle enthusiasts, researchers, seers, astrologers, etc., Sasha would’ve mocked both the person and the frogs because what did they have that made them so special? It was just an old man, an annoying brat, and his more annoying sister, also, they’re farmers. That’s it.

Either life or the universe decided to prove her wrong in the most confusing of ways as she read and reread the Plantars’ family tree book and compared it to the documents and diaries found in the secret tunnels after rereading them too thousands of times. Sure, a double life is not as rare as you would think, it not only happened in movies but why the paranoia? Were they being persecuted? Did they fear being betrayed by someone? Having their biggest weaknesses exploited? Or was it because they agreed secret tunnels were cool?

Besides, some of the relatives weren’t even blood-related to the Plantars like Emma, the newt. Unbelievable, a newt being a Plantar. One aspect she could pin on them is being snobbish like that murderous king, acting all superior. Heck, Emma was just an adventurous girl who loved games, so why pour hours into hiding them all? Unless she needed more space to enlarge her collection.

“Ugh,” Sash sighed. How many hours had she been reading the documents? Maybe it was midnight already. Marvelous, wasting time that could be used to inform everyone about this discovery.

“Are you on break, Sasha?”

“On break? Uh…yeah, I think so.”

“Mmmm, I bet all the reading left you with more questions than answers.”

“Too many. Anyway, what time is it?”

“A few hours before afternoon ends. Enough for us to showcase this discovery. Although, it’d be wise to not have all the town inside the tunnels. Anyone may break something, get lost, or activate a trap.”

“Good idea. Let’s go.”

Within half an hour, the Wartwoodians surrounded the Plantars’ house, murmuring among themselves, keeping their children quiet so they didn’t get in trouble, some exasperated and others anxious.

Grime’s frown deepened for he peeked at the newt siblings who were ignorant of the toad’s glare. Whatever they were talking about mustn’t be nice to hear, nice for Sasha to hear if he were more specific but, recalling the girl’s determination to be a good leader despite the hostility, he let it go. Irritating or not, he trusted his Lieutenant’s skills and tough skin to surpass any obstacle and he wouldn’t stop because of two obnoxious newts.

“Everyone, listen up! We have good news! There is a place to build our headquarters and keep us safe!” The murmurs grew in intensity as multiple eyes landed on her, waiting for the explanation. “Ok, first of all, I have to admit that what Grime, Maddie, and I discovered hours ago left us open-mouthed because it came from none other than the Plantars!”

Suddenly, unbeknownst to her, a gasp within the multitude erupted from a certain old woodsmith as some unpleasant memories resurfaced in his mind.

“Many of you have known them as a nice farmer frog family, except they’re more than that. Beneath this land, this house, there are—“

“Tunnels!! Secret tunnels!!” Loggle exclaimed at the same time Sasha pronounced those words. Instead of gasping, the villagers alongside the blonde and the toad turned their eyes to the axolotl as he processed the fact that he inadvertently had revealed what he’d known and everyone needed to hear.

“…Loggle… Can you explain?” Sasha asked slowly, not out of anger but confusion. “Did you…? Did you know all along?”

Oh yikes, oh yikes, oh yikes! This wasn’t the kind of spotlight he wanted to be in! What if they misunderstood his reaction? What if they thought he hid this information for any reason?

“…I…uh… I knew but…” He gulped and twiddled with his finger. Better to be honest and quick. “Hopadiah showed me those tunnels months ago. He was as shocked as me; in fact, it was Anne, Sprig, and Polly who discovered them first while Hopadiah was looking for glue at the store. When he came back, they told him about it and he got so excited he went in with me…because I was literally stuck to his back due to a glue accident. But let me tell you, those tunnels are deadly traps! Deadly! Traps! There were weapons, a sharply pointed ceiling falling on you, a giant hideous living pumpkin—!”

“Aha, yep, that one we faced when we discovered the tunnels,” Grime tapped his foot, if the old guy didn’t get to the point in five minutes, he’d push him to do so.

“Loggle, if you knew why didn’t you say anything? Did Hopadiah ask you to keep it secret? Or did you forget?” At Sasha’s questions, he rubbed one of his shoulders, embarrassed.

“I didn’t want to remember that place after the against-my-will tour and besides, nothing came up that reminded me of it until you said our underground headquarters was beneath the Plantars’ house.” He waited for the reprimand at his attempt to repress those memories. While it was his right to leave that experience behind him and move on with his life, a headquarters for the whole rebellion and refugees who they might meet in the future was a priority because of Andrias’ robotic army. This slip-up could signify a fissure in the trust put on him.

Much to his surprise, though, Sasha only sighed without showing any disappointment, or maybe she was hiding it to not hurt his feelings or to look good in front of everyone, who knows.

“That makes sense. Thanks for explaining,” her tone of voice and smile felt sincere so he relaxed and returned the gesture.

With that out of the way, Sasha kept detailing what her team and she had found surprising everyone, mainly the closest friends and neighbors of the Plantars like the Sundews, Croaker, and even Toadstool.

The next step took more time and organization for the house became overcrowded, excited eyes widening at the chimney whose shape changed into the entrance to the secret tunnels.

Grime placed himself between the curious people and the future headquarters, whistled to catch everyone’s attention, and started commanding: “Listen up, soldiers, this isn’t a walk to the park but a risky survey throughout the tunnels. Every room is filled with important relics and papers that used to belong to a Plantar, and let’s not forget traps because there are too many. For that reason, this group will be up to 10 members. No less, no more. Too many people might lead to a relic being broken, a trap being activated, or someone getting lost and this mission must be done with as less casualties, accidents, incidents, or trouble as we can manage. And before you complain that you all are more than 10 people, we’ll take turns. 10 new people for each team until everyone has the tunnels memorized. Remember, though, it’s not a tour, so don’t touch anything, don’t get separated from the group, and watch where you walk. Understood?” A chorus of yes resonated in the house and outside of it, he nodded satisfied. “OK, who’s joining us?”

“I will,” Croaker raised her cane, her other arm held Archie, the little pet spider barked, barely containing its curiosity.

“I… I will too!” Loggle raised his hand, bumping into the others as he approached the girl and the toad.

“Wow, this is a surprise, Loggle! I thought you would want to stay away from the tunnels. Of course, I would’ve understood if you had refused to enter or wanted to be in the last group.” Sasha replied.

“I’m going to live underground in the future anyway, better get accustomed to it. Besides, it belongs to the Plantars; they’re good people, so that should count for safety I guess.”

“Cool. But if you ever feel overwhelmed, just tell me and I will join you to the exit,” ‘I mean it’ her mind added unconsciously.

“We’ll go too!” Ivy exclaimed, grabbing her mother’s and grandmother’s hand. “Come on, guys! Or we’ll be the last ones!”

“Ivy, should I remind you this is a reconnaissance mission? And most importantly, inside the Plantars’ property? If you’re not careful, whatever you break, you’ll pay for it.”

“That’s right, young lady,” her grandmother added. “Keep your eyes and ears open not only to the exciting stuff but any detail that might come in handy later.”

7 people, Grime calculated. Three members left to complete it. Then, two unexpected though unwanted voices joined the group.

“We’ll go too,” Veenomsty stepped in.

“Exactly. We have to make sure this headquarters of yours is reliable. It sounds too good to be true,” Mordecai commented.

“Don’t forget about me,” Matthew grinned.

Oh well, at least the frog was more tolerable than the snobbish jerks he had for friends.

**************

5 hours. The tour lasted 5 long hours.

Between keeping the groups safe, ensuring the Plantars’ belongings weren’t touched behind her back, and drawing a blueprint of the tunnels, Sasha’s mind begged for a break going on a strike with her eyelids as she felt them heavy as steel-made doors you would see in a military base.

A bit carelessly, she strapped her armor off of her and threw it to the ground, she also dropped her swords and many daggers although more carefully to not hurt herself or damage them.

The exhaustion weighted tons on her back, her muscles just as much as the incoming plans to turn the tunnels into a proper headquarters no one but the rebellion could find; nonetheless, the fatigue couldn’t measure up to the satisfaction, the awe, the thousands of questions and theories surrounding the Plantars’ backstory. Kind of strange as she used to only pay attention to them due to her hate and jealousy.

Anyway, this family had managed to subvert and surpass her expectations in the most ludicrous ways. Thanks to them, the rebellion’s chances of survival and triumph against Andrias were higher.

More importantly, the better-protected everyone was, the more she could be focused on the next person to rescue and take care of, Marcy.

A new set of questions and theories concerning the excitable nerdy girl erupted in her mind: was the rejuvenation tank successful?

What if Andrias was just messing with her? What if that machine had messed up with Marcy during whatever process it put her through? Would she remember what Andrias did? Would there be side effects even if the tank healed her?

Massaging her temples, the blonde calmed down the storm breaming in her heart. No use in spiraling out of control. If she was ever going to find out, it’d be after concocting a fool-proof plan to save her. With that in mind and not wanting to ruminate more on the issue, Sasha plopped on the bed, letting sleep take her away.

All from scratch - Darkspirit (2024)
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