“Jess, do you have a minute?” called a voice from behind. Jess paused, halfway through her classroom doorway to glance over her shoulder. “Can it wait?” she answered, leaning into the room to check the time on the wall-clock, “I’ve only got about fifteen minutes and I need to run and print some worksheets for later this afternoon.”
“I can walk with you… if it helps?” her colleague offered. The hesitation signalled like a giant, fluorescent S.O.S. signal.
“Sure. What’s up?” Jess replied as she ducked back into the room to dump her bags of folders and sheets. After a brief pause, she slung the straps over the nearest set of gas taps so that they wouldn’t be trodden on if any staff rushed through. She knew that she’d probably feel the wrath of the technicians if they saw it, but the small likelihood was worth the risk.
“I just wanted to ask you about the meeting after school tonight,” Charlotte said. She remained in the hallway, clutching her planner to her chest with a meek smile.
“The faculty one or the first aid one?” Jess asked, locking the door with the key on her lanyard. Even when students were supposed to be outside on lunch, there was always the chance that one of the little darlings could sneak in and get up to mischief.
“There’s a first aid meeting tonight?” Charlotte asked, eyes going wide.
Charlotte, her colleague, was new to the area and it had quickly become evident that she wasn’t used to working in such a large school. Jess liked her. She was kind, with bouncing, brunette curls that matched her bubbly personality, and made Jess’ practical dark bob look austere by comparison. It was just a pity that she was so frightfully forgetful.
Jess unsuccessfully stifled her laughter. “Just assume that you didn’t put your name on the list. The one tonight is for staff that volunteered anyway.”
Charlotte looked visibly relieved at that and gave a soft sigh. “How on Earth are we supposed to keep track of it all?”
Jess started walking in the direction of the copier room and Charlotte kept pace beside her. Their heels clicked in unison as they strode down the tiled corridor.
“Have you tried actually using the planner you bought?” she joked playfully.
The pair of them passed by another member of staff and nodded politely in acknowledgement as they walked by. “I know. I know,” replied Charlotte ruefully, “I just get side-tracked so easily.”
“Speaking of which…” Jess prompted, but Charlotte merely wrinkled her nose in confusion. With a laugh, Jess added, “… you wanted to ask something about the meeting tonight?”
“Oh!” Charlotte gasped, “Yeah. Erm.”
They reached another set of double doors and Jess held it open, allowing Charlotte to walk through as she struggled to remember her question. Thankfully, it didn’t evade her for too long.
“It’s for supporting students with dyslexia, right?” she asked. Jess nodded.
“Am I just bringing the names of students in my classes?” Charlotte questioned, “Or do I need to bring examples of their work too?”
“Just the names and a rough idea of how you’re supporting them is enough for tonight. Blue paper, overlays, that kind of thing,” replied Jess warmly, “Anything else?”
“You could teach my next class if you want?”
“Hah! I’ve got enough little monsters on my plate, thank you. I don’t think I need any more!” Jess laughed. Charlotte grinned in return and as they reached a fork in the corridor, they parted ways with a wave.
In a few more moments, Jess reached the copier room and hit release on the machine.
“Praise be, the toner gods,” whistled Jess appreciatively as the whirring appliance began to spit out the printed papers she required. She warily eyed up the single wooden door to the small office before hitching up her navy tights. Blasted things. She hated wearing them, but the idea of walking up flights of stairs in her above-the-knee length skirt without an extra layer between prying teenage eyes and her knickers was inconceivable. Blasted role modelling uniforms, her thoughts added disdainfully. Whether she wore a skirt down to her ankles or bikini bottoms in class, she was sure that it wouldn’t influence the trends of the students. The idea that wearing a skirt of the same length as students would influence them to adhere to the rules felt ridiculous to her. Jess might be fit (thank you, running club!) and of a good weight but she was still in her mid-thirties and hardly worthy of influencer status to a rabble of twelve- to fifteen-year-olds.
There was a slight flicker of the lights above her. A thorough scrutiny of the fluorescent bulbs yielded no clues to explain the phenomenon. She tsked under her breath, unimpressed but already casting the event from her mind. Students could be heard milling around in the corridors outside. Whooping and hollering became increasing loud outside the door. The thought, it’s like working in a zoo, passed through her mind.
The loud hum and clanking of the copier machine indicated that her chore had been completed and she grabbed the still-warm stack of paper before reaching for the door. Outside the door were streams of students, coalescing and meandering towards their various classrooms like debris floating in a slow-moving river. Jess weighed up her options. If she headed back through the corridor she had walked down previously, she would be caught in the tide of students and potentially late to her class. But, if she headed in the opposite direction and cut through the school dining hall, she could loop back outside but would potentially be wet if it were still raining. Worth the risk, she decided and hurried down the corridor towards the hall.
The lights in the corridor flickered with an audible fizzing noise. Jess looked back with concern, but the students seemed not to have noticed. Please don’t be a power outage. Not today. Not in school, she thought to herself with a grimace. Still looking back, she pushed the heavy wooden door open with her shoulder and stepped through it.
“Hail… Adventurer?” Came a friendly but confused male voice.
Jess looked around sharply, making eye-contact with the boy before her as the door closed shut behind her with a breezy wheeze. He was young, she would have guessed around 14 or so, and probably one of the older students. It was difficult to tell under the over-sized green hooded robe he was wearing. It reminded her of when her nephew wore her brother’s band hoodies. Look Auntie Jess, it’s a wizard dress. He looked distinctly uncomfortable under her gaze. She assumed he was one of students in the D&D club, though it was the first time she’d seen them cosplay at school for it. She tried to smooth her quizzical expression into one that was friendlier and offered a quick smile.
“Oh, sorry there! If you’re looking for the drama halls, you’re at the wrong end of… the school…” she began but trailed off, eyes going wide as she took in her new surroundings. What should have been an open and airy school dining hall was a dingey room with a rough stone floor. Her head whipped round as she looked back to the door which she had walked through but, without explanation, it had vanished. She turned back to the student, shocked into silence; her smile replaced by a bewildered expression.
“My name is Nevin Algernon. Master Darkhault informed me of your arrival and -”
“I’m sorry, who?” Jess cut in.
“Ah… uh… M-Master Darkhault?” the boy replied. If he had looked uncomfortable before, it paled in comparison to the distress he showed now. He was staring at Jess as though she had grown a second head. He gave himself a quick shake and began again.
“My n-name is N-Nevin Algernon – “
“Look. Sweetie,” Jess said, her clipped words coming out more bluntly than she wished them to,” I don’t mean to interrupt, but you didn’t actually answer my question. Who is Master Dark… hold?”
“D-Darkhault. The… M-Master Alchemist,” he stammered weakly.
“Right. Darkhault,” she said, emphasizing the ‘t’. She licked her lips apprehensively before asking, “…and where are we?”
The boy, Nevin, stood in nervous silence for a moment before speaking slowly. “My name is N-Nevin Algernon. Master D-Darkhault informed me of – “
Jess cut in again, confused. “What are you doing?”
“…I’m supposed to say the words to all adventurers.”
“But… Nevin, yeah?” she asked, and he confirmed his name with a quick nod before she continued, “You already said this bit.” Jess could feel her patience wearing increasingly thin. Her nerves were already fried. She was supposed to be teaching her class in five minutes. I don’t need this bull, she thought to herself.
“We’re supposed to say it word for word though,” he answered uncertainly, “Master Darkhault said that it’s important to be consistent.” The last three words were heavily stressed, as though saying them would channel whatever greater knowledge this unknown Master wished to impart.
Jess sighed. Her brain refused to process the argument any further. “Fine. Ok. Say the thing.”
“My name is Nevin Algernon. Master Darkhault informed me of your arrival,” Nevin started, before pausing expectantly. Jess twirled her fingers, gesturing for him to continue. “ – and asked me to meet you here in Newhaven to pass on his instructions.” Jess raised an eyebrow at this statement but remained silent.
“In order to prove your commitment to the Coalition, he requests that if you’re strong enough to wield a weapon or cast a spell, you should head to the East. Wild boars are plentiful there, and he requires six unmarked livers to complete your initiation. You will find him in the Mage Wing of Steelvale City to the West.”
Jess stared blankly at him, dumbstruck. He shuffled his feet, visibly unsure of what to say next.
She looked around the room once more, before focusing her narrowed eyes on Nevin and asking, “… He wants… What?”