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Mob Squad: Never Say Nether – Chapter 30

JARRO

I was terrified when I was kidnapped. I was terrified to journey across the Overworld with people who justifiably hated me. I was beyond terrified to enter the Nether.

And now I’m terrified to go home.

Not only because my mom is going to be furious with me, but because I don’t want to be friends with Edd and Remy anymore. The longer I traveled with the Mob Squad, the more I realized that my former friends aren’t actually good friends. If I tried to hang out with Edd and Remy right now, they’d probably make fun of me for being kidnapped by adults and then hanging out with the town Bad Apples.

They probably weren’t even worried about me, which hurts.

We ride through New Cornucopia, and people stop and stare at us. At first, I think it’s because this is just how people treat the Mob Squad, and then I see the wonder on everyone’s faces and the delight in a little kid’s laugh and realize it’s because they’ve never seen horses before. When a baby waves, I wave back. It feels pretty great.

We ride through the gate in the wall and down the road that leads to the Hub, and soon people are lining the streets, whispering and waving. Before we get into downtown proper, my mother comes roaring down the road, screeching, “What did you do to my son? Jarro, you get off that filthy thing right now!”

I stop my horse but don’t get off. “It’s a horse, and it’s—” I chuckle. “Okay, he’s pretty dirty, because it’s been a long ride. But these kids saved me. I was kidnapped by the brigands who stole all your sweet berries.”

“And where are my berries, then?”

“The brigands still have them. Or maybe they ate them. We were more worried about Tok than about berries.”

“Those berries were valuable!”

“Mom, come on. You have a million seeds, even if you tell everyone you don’t.”

Her jaw drops and her face goes bright red. She’s half crying, half furious. “Well, get down before you hurt yourself and come inside. Stop making a spectacle of yourself.”

“You’re the only one yelling.”

Her eyes fly wide. That might be the first time I’ve ever talked back to her. She’s just opening her mouth to shout at me some more when Elder Stu and Elder Gabe appear, hurrying toward us.

“Are you happy with your little prank?” Elder Stu says. “Stealing and hiding for a week! What will you kids get into next? And what are these—these big-nosed cows?”

“These are horses, and we were kidnapped,” Tok says, loud enough for everyone to hear. “I was stolen out of my bed by brigands, who took Jarro when he caught them stealing the sweet berry bushes. The brigands carried us far away and forced me to go to the Nether and make potions for them. My friends and Jarro saved us.”

Elder Stu shakes his head, just like he always does when we plead our case.

Everyone is totally silent.

And then Elder Gabe shouts, “Balderdash! Lies! Thief! I want to know what you did with my potions!”

Over the years, I’ve seen Tok express a variety of emotions, but I’ve never seen him turn this shade of purple. “You think I’m lying? You think I stole your potions for myself? I went to the Nether, you sniveling ignoramus!” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a swirly, bright purple potion, which he gently hands to Elder Gabe. “That’s a Potion of Harming. Ever heard of it? Because I have, and I can make it now. I can make all the potions you can and more, so I have no need to steal from you. And not only that, but I know your secret.”

The Hub is so quiet that you could hear a pin drop.

“There isn’t a— I don’t have—” Elder Gabe splutters.

Tok pitches his voice louder. “Elder Gabe doesn’t know how to make potions. The Elders left his family with a huge stockpile, and he’s been charging high prices for them ever since. All those bags and chests in his closet were just for show. The only way to obtain potion ingredients is by going to the Nether. And we’re the only people who know how to get there. Or survive there.”

Elder Stu turns to Elder Gabe, whose bald head is burrowed down beneath his pointy shoulders like he’s trying to disappear into his own neck.

“Is that true, Gabe? Do you really not know how to make potions?”

“I, uh, in theory. You see, potions are, um, very complex, yes, beyond the common person’s understanding—”

“Do you even know what a blaze rod is, Elder Gabe? Because I didn’t see any in your closet. You can’t make a single potion without blaze rods.”

Tok reaches into his pocket and pulls out several glowing sticks, waggling them in the air. “Good thing I know how to make potions, now that you don’t have a single one.”

Gabe shakes his fists furiously, his neck wattle wagging. “Now, you see here! My family was given the solemn task of—”

“Distributing much-needed potions for astronomical prices?” Tok asks.

“Withholding help in exchange for money?” Mal chimes in.

“Fleecing the people you’re sworn to help and protect?” Chug adds.

“No! If someone didn’t maintain strict control, we would’ve run out years ago!” Elder Gabe thunders. “It’s not my fault we were left with a finite number of potions! You should all be thanking me for maintaining the stockpile so well!”

Tok smiles as he shoves the rods back in his pocket and holds up the only potion we all recognize—a Potion of Healing.

“From now on, as long as my friends and I are allowed to come and go to the Nether, I’ll provide Potions of Healing and Regeneration to everyone in town who needs them at my usual reasonable prices,” he shouts. “And you can thank the Mob Squad for that.”

There’s the smallest pause, and then the entire town…

Erupts in cheers and applause.

Elder Gabe is trying to shout his disagreement, but there’s no way one old man can drown out a happy crowd of people who thought they’d never see a Potion of Healing again. Elder Stu could probably quiet everyone down, but he’s too busy glaring at Gabe, who’s been lying all along. I can’t help looking around at all the people I know, elated, grinning, shouting, pumping their fists and stomping their feet and clapping.

“Mob Squad! Mob Squad! Mob Squad!” someone chants. More than a few people pick it up, but my mother doesn’t join them. She just frowns, hands on her hips. Maybe she doesn’t know I’m part of the Mob Squad, that I helped save the town again and ensure that we’d have the potions we need from here on out.

Maybe she doesn’t care.

“You’re welcome,” Tok says with a bow of his head. “And good day, sir.” He steers his horse right around the two stunned Elders standing in the street and then looks back over his shoulder. “You guys coming?”

Everyone follows him, and much to my own surprise, so do I.

“Jarro, you get off that thing and come home right this instant!” my mom screeches.

“No.” I manage to pack a lot of feeling into that one small word as I follow my friends, bringing the rest of the horse herd and the llamas with me. My mom keeps shouting at me—first commanding, then begging, then saying some pretty mean stuff I wish I hadn’t heard. I begin to wonder if maybe…she’s the biggest bully in town. Maybe it’ll be better, having some space.

I’m not sure where we’re going until we enter the forest. I’ve never been out here before—my mom told me Mal’s great-great-grandmother was a witch who would curse me with boils. Soon we see a nice little cottage with a pretty garden, and the door opens to reveal Nan. She looks annoyed for the briefest moment before her wrinkly face breaks out in a huge, gummy grin.

“Horses!” she squeals. “Ooh, hello, my beauties!” As she rubs the nose of Mal’s horse, she adds, “And hello, children. It appears that you’re multiplying. Which one is that?” She points at me.

“I’m Jarro, ma’am,” I say, unsure if she has any idea who I am. “And we thought you might like a horse to keep?”

“I like this one already.” She wanders back to the herd, and sure enough, she picks the white one. “I’m calling this one Hortense.”

We all dismount and go inside to eat the best cookies in the world and tell Nan about our journey. Chug gets bored and goes outside to collect wood and make a fence for Hortense. Tok pulls several potions out of his pockets to show Nan, who grimaces.

“Nasty stuff, that,” she says, recognizing them immediately. “Want me to keep them safe for you?”

“At least some of them. I wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt,” Tok says.

He unloads more potions than should ever be able to fit into his pockets, and Nan packs them into a sturdy chest.

“So you went to the Nether,” she says, turning to Lenna. “And did you take notes?”

Lenna produces her journal and flips through it to show sketches and scribbles and mushy red splats that were once fungi. “As many as I could, but—”

“Rescuing Tok was our first priority,” Mal fills in. “But we all want to go back, and it looks like the Elders will have no choice but to let us. Lenna wants to make better notes, and I want to mine the strange ores, and Tok will need more ingredients. He’s going to keep the whole town supplied with potions. Nan, did you know Elder Gabe didn’t even know how to make them? He was just doling out what the Founders left behind.”

“I’m not surprised,” Nan grumbles. “He always was a secretive little creep.” She gets a bit of a wistful look in her eyes. “I always wanted to see the Nether, you know.”

“We can show you,” Mal says. “Probably not a long journey, just a quick jaunt, but we’ll all go and keep you safe.”

“I don’t actually want to go back,” I say, maybe too quickly.

“Me neither,” Chug says as he walks back inside. “Any place with exploding beds is not what I would consider Chug friendly.”

Right when I’m getting bored and tired, Nan stands. “Well, I’m glad you’re all back safe and sound, but having you around is exhausting. Thank you for the horse and bringing my assistant back alive.”

“And your great-great-granddaughter,” Mal prompts, kissing her on the cheek.

Nan flaps a hand at her. “Obviously. I only have seven or eight of those. Goodbye, children.”

“Bye, guys,” Lenna says on Nan’s doorstep. “Good job storming the Nether. See you tomorrow?”

“See you tomorrow!” the others call, and still, I’m not sure if I’m included, so I just wave.

She goes back inside, and the rest of us mount our horses, but no one makes a move to leave.

“I have to go home,” Mal says. “My parents will be worried. And the cows will need milking.”

“So you go on an adventure like that, and your parents are just worried about the cows?” I ask, incredulous.

“Your mom seemed pretty worried about her berries,” Mal shoots back, and the old me would have lashed out, but the new me just chuckles.

“Parents just don’t understand,” I say.

Once we’re out of the forest, Mal hops off her horse so it can rejoin the herd gathered behind me, takes her saddle, and heads down the dirt lane to, I guess, her farm.

“See you tomorrow!” she calls.

“See you tomorrow!” Chug and Tok say.

Chug looks over at me. “Bud, do you not plan on hanging out tomorrow?”

“I, uh, wasn’t sure if I was invited.”

His grin is a surprise. “You’re part of the Mob Squad now. You’re one of us. You’re always invited. But not Remy and Edd.”

“I don’t think I’m gonna hang out with those guys anymore. They’re jerks.”

“They really, really are.”

Mal’s not quite out of earshot, so I call, “See you tomorrow!” and she waves over her shoulder.

“Dinner at our house?” Chug asks.

I smile. “Sounds good, bud.”

It’s a long ride back to New Cornucopia, and I’m worried that my mom is going to run outside and shout at me again as we walk through the Hub on our horses, but I guess we’re old news now. The streets are quiet—except for one frazzled young mother who meets us outside her door and offers Tok a cake in exchange for a Potion of Healing for her toddler’s broken arm. He smiles and happily accepts the trade. I know for a fact Elder Gabe would’ve charged twenty times as much, and it feels good, to know that even with that kind of power, Tok is a good guy.

Through open windows, I hear the sounds of food being served and bowls being scraped and families laughing or arguing at their kitchen tables. Our horses’ hooves clop on the cobblestone, and then we’re back on the dirt path, and then we’re out beyond the wall. It felt crowded in town, after all we’ve been through, and I’m glad to be back outside.

I follow the brothers to their place, which I’ve never seen before. It’s impressive, actually, a nice building with a big sign. Two cats come tearing out of the house and run directly at Tok the moment the door is open, climbing all over him while purring.

It strikes me that if I went home right now, I wouldn’t feel this way. I wouldn’t feel warm and fuzzy and glad to be there. Everything there is the way my mom likes it, just so, never out of place. She would yell at me. Ask me questions and doubt me and blame me for everything that’s ever gone wrong. It would be terrible. But Tok and Chug have their pets and their space and the chance to do what they love. It’s pretty inspiring.

Tok crafts a fence for the horses while Chug makes dinner. It’s the best mushroom stew I’ve ever had, and it’s so good to taste something that isn’t dry meat. We chat and laugh over dinner, and afterward, I realize I’m stalling because I don’t want to go home.

“I guess it’s bedtime,” Chug says, stretching.

“I’m going to sleep for three days,” Tok replies, a cat on each shoulder.

“Okay, well…I guess I’ll see you tomorrow. Thanks for dinner.” I head for the door, trying to seem normal and, I know, totally failing. I really, really don’t want to go home.

I hear whispering behind me and tense for the worst, because old habits die hard.

“You can stay here tonight, if you like,” Chug says. “If you’re too tired to head home.”

I give an exaggerated yawn and stretch. “Thanks, bud. That would be cool.”

I pull my bed out of my pocket and crawl in and sigh in contentment. It’s so quiet out here, beyond the Hub. I can’t hear a single other family—or my mom gossiping with Old Man Finn next door, who’s the second meanest person I know. It’s nice. Peaceful.

The thought that I could have this, too?

Well, I don’t know how to say it, but…I’m glad those brigands kidnapped me.


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