“Ye can’t be serious.” Mike snorted. He sat poised, fork and knife stilled by the question that Jess had asked.
“It’s just one night,” Jess insisted. “It’s important.”
“Nevin. Manners. You know how to use cutlery,” Mike said sharply.
Nevin froze with the pizza halfway to his mouth.
“Pizza is supposed to be eaten with your hands,” Jess said, motioning for Nevin to continue. “Besides, I won’t be getting myself in trouble. It’s not as though I’m planning on sleeping out there.”
Mike grunted at that.
Nevin swallowed the bite of pizza. “I can go too.”
“It’s too dangerous up there in the dark!” Mike said, then pointed his fork accusingly at Jess. “You shouldn’t encourage him.”
“Why not?” she said, “All we’re going to do is watch. We can light a few torches at the edge. Have ourselves a nice campfire up the hill. If they fall in, any of them, I’ll have the answer I want.”
“And then what?” Mike asked.
“Then we can come home. Like you said. Dangerous up there at night,” she replied before taking a large bite of her pizza slice.
Mike’s eyes narrowed. “Why can’t ye just go up during the day?”
Jess’s eyes widened, but her mouth was still too full to speak.
Nevin’s wasn’t, and he spoke on her behalf. “We did.”
“And?” Mike asked.
Jess cursed herself and desperately tried to chew faster, but Mike had spotted his opportunity.
“Nevin?” he asked, “what happened?”
Nevin’s eyes flickered between Jess and Mike. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Jess thought, glad that she wasn’t in his position.
“We went up and watched to see what the slimes would do,” Nevin said, “and the slimes didn’t fall in while we were there.”
Mike raised an eyebrow.
Nevin didn’t give him the opportunity to speak. “But then, while we were watching, there were adventurers! They came and they killed all the slimes. So, it was safe, but we couldn’t watch for slimes.”
Mike turned to Jess for confirmation, and she nodded vigorously as she forced the pizza down her gullet. “What he said,” she croaked, before taking another bite before he could ask for any further clarification.
He wasn’t put off. “Why at night?”
“Less adventurers around at night,” Nevin said.
Nevin’s resourcefulness impressed Jess. She knew she’d have to keep a closer eye on him in the future. Though he hadn’t technically lied, he seemed surprisingly well practised at skirting around the truth.
“So, what do you think?” Jess asked. “Are you in?”
The night was cool. Or perhaps it only felt cool when compared to the heat of the crackling fire. Either way, Jess luxuriated in the comfort of that glow. Her bottom half was nestled in a wool blanket and a mug of something warm and alcoholic warmed her hands. Nevin and Mike sat on either side of her, bickering about how best to build up the campfire.
Jess smiled. She didn’t know whether it was the strength of the moonshine or the opportunity to unwind for just an evening, but she felt good this evening. It was bitter-sweet that she couldn’t remember the last time she had just sat around and just enjoyed good company. It wasn’t just since entering this new world either–she was always just too busy. There were too many papers to grade, lessons to plan, and activities to construct. Even during the breaks from teaching, she had always felt so burned out that she needed the time just to recover, usually on the sofa with boxes of cereal and binge-watching rom-coms and historical dramas. She had never carved out enough room in her life for her own Mr Darcy; It was easier to live vicariously through beautiful actors on the television.
“You agree though, right, Jess?” Nevin asked.
The question caught Jess off guard. “Sorry, what?”
Nevin groaned dramatically, prompting a deep chuckle from Mike.
“Sorry. Sorry,” Jess said, “I was just away with the fairies, that’s all.”
“Where?” Mike asked, eyes wide as he brandished a chunk of wood as a weapon.
“Not actual fairies, Mike!” Jess insisted, holding back a grin.
“Just an expression?” Nevin asked with a smirk.
Jess laughed. “Exactly.”
Mike grunted and threw his makeshift weapon into the campfire, throwing sparks into the air that danced like fireflies.
“So, what did you ask me?” Jess asked, turning to Nevin.
“The slimes,” he said, pointing. “The trench is working, isn’t it?”
“I’d say so,” she said, casting her eyes over the flickering lights of the torches and what little ground they illuminated. Not a single slime had entered the trenches whilst they had been gathered around the campfire. Some had come close and slipped away again, but they had never moved over the edge. They didn’t even seem to come close enough that any part of the liquid ooze would overhang. It was weird, but Jess was coming to terms with the unexpected discovery. It would certainly make her life easier in the long run if she didn’t have to worry about exterminating them every morning, noon, and night.
A faint glimmer in the distance caught her eye. Two flickering dots were creeping across the landscape.
“What’s that?” she asked, gesturing with a nod.
Her two companions turned to look with concern on their faces.
“Looks like poachers are out,” Mike commented matter-of-factly.
“Poaching what?” asked Jess.
“Toads, probably,” Nevin answered.
Jess and Mike turned to look at him, and he shrank back.
“That’s an awfully specific guess,” Jess commented dryly.
“Not regular toads,” Nevin said, “fire-toads. They’re supposed to live in those woods.”
“And you know that because?” Jess asked.
“Master Darkhault needs them a lot. For his potions,” Nevin said with a shrug.
“Supposed to be hard work catching fire toads,” Mike said, glancing back at the two dots of light. “I reckon he’d be hard-pressed finding them himself.”
“Other people catch them,” Nevin said. “He tried sending me with them once, but they said they didn’t want me to see where they hunted. Trade secrets, or something.”
“How often does he need those fire toads?” Jess asked.
“All the time,” Nevin said.
“But they’re really rare?” Jess asked, suspicion growing.
“That’s what the hunters say,” Nevin said.
Mike grunted. “Of course that’s what the poachers say.”
“Well, it must be true,” Nevin insisted. “I’ve seen the toad innards. They used to get nice big ones, but Master Darkhault was really cross the last time I saw him. Said that he has to use twice as many toads for the same number of youth potions.”
“That daft old codger is using youth potions?” Jess asked, incredulous.
“No,” said Nevin, fidgeting with his hands, “he makes them for… someone else.”
“Someone?” Mike asked.
Nevin nodded, avoiding eye contact while playing with the hems of his sleeves. “I’m not allowed to say who.”
“You can’t leave us on a cliffhanger like that,” said Jess. “Who’s he making them for?”
“I can’t say!” Nevin insisted. “I’ll get in too much trouble.”
Mike and Jess exchanged a look. Something was fishy about this whole thing and Jess was getting the creeping sensation that the clue to solving who the mystery recipient might be was already in her hands.
“Nevin, how do you know the Druidess?” Jess asked. The left-field question raised an eyebrow from Mike.
Despite the darkness, Jess clearly noted how pale Nevin looked.
“Who?” Nevin asked in a quavering voice.
“Come off it, lad. Answer the question,” Mike said.
“Master Darkhault always needs ingredients. That’s all,” Nevin said.
Jess’s eyes narrowed. “Name one.”
“What?” Nevin asked, his eyes widening.
“Name one,” Jess repeated. “Any ingredient that Master Darkhault buys from her?”
Nevin looked from Jess to Mike but found no sympathy on either face. Jess supposed it helped when Mike also had an axe to grind when it came to the old alchemist.
“Well. I… erm,” Nevin stammered. “I’m not really sure. I’m just a delivery person.”
“So, you know an awful lot about toad supplies, but nothing about druidess supplies?” Jess stated flatly.
Nevin licked his lips nervously before giving a weak nod.
“And you definitely, never ever, deliver to the druidess?” Jess asked, leaning forward to fix Nevin with a hard stare. He froze in place, unwilling or unable to answer the question.
“Time to come clean, lad,” Mike said, crossing his arms. Jess copied him, crossing her arms too as she waited for Nevin to crack.
She didn’t need to wait long. Nevin quickly seemed to deflate, staring dejectedly at the fire.
“Well?” she prompted.
Nevin mumbled something. The sound was so soft that Jess couldn’t make out the words.
“Loud enough for us mere mortals to hear,” said Jess, “if you don’t mind, Nevin.”
He sighed before repeating himself. “It’s true. She does buy them.”
“Well, grab me by the horns and shake me,” said Mike. “What business has a druidess with alchemy potions?”
What business indeed, thought Jess. “How often does she buy them?”
“Regularly,” Nevin said, pouting.
“And that means what? Every day? Every week? Every month?” Jess asked.
“Every month,” said Nevin. “On the full moon.”
“How many?” Jess asked.
Nevin shrugged. “I’m not allowed to look inside. It’s always heavy though.”
“Do you think you’d be able to point out the toad hunters?” Jess asked. “I think I really ought to introduce myself to them.”