The Anxious Hero, Chapter 2
Checkers, Bets, and Death Threats
Content warning: The fact that this story features an under-18 protagonist does not mean that it is necessarily suitable for younger kids. It contains strong profanity, sexual humor, significant violence, and depictions of bigotry by unlikable characters.
Note: Reading the prologue first is recommended.
The Council of Twelve was in the middle of a meeting when Titus Kane entered. Urien Seville, Master of Ceremonies for the Council, looked over at Titus with his eyes flashing and nostrils flaring. “What is the meaning of this interruption?” Urien asked. The Councilman was a fit wizard in his early sixties with a receding, gray hairline and thin, gray mustache.
“Forgive me, Councilmen,” Titus said. He was in his mid-sixties, paunchy, and balding, with a black goatee. “But you told me to let you know immediately if anything changed regarding the Master’s condition.”
All twelve councilmen’s eyes widened. After a few moments of silence, Urien asked, “What has changed, Doctor?”
“His heart rate and breathing are faster today than they have been the entire time that he has been in a coma.”
“Is that all?” asked another Councilman. Now that Urien was taking the doctor’s words seriously, other members of the Council would attempt to undercut him. Since the Master had gone into a coma thirty years ago, they had all jockeyed for position, each trying to seize power at the expense of the others.
“No, Councilman. Fifteen minutes ago, I saw two of his fingers twitching briefly. I haven’t seen that since he went into the coma either. Additionally, based on scans of his brain, he appears to be dreaming.”
“Of killing Finch mostly likely,” one Councilman said.
“I’ll drink to that,” said another. “I’d love to kill himself myself.”
“Then why don’t you?” Urien asked, icily.
The Councilman fell silent, and Titus continued, “I don’t want to be overly optimistic, but if he continues to progress like this, he may wake up soon.”
There were murmurs from the Council. Most of them were thrilled with this possibility. A few of them looked less enthusiastic but were smart enough not to let on. When the Master had been conscious, he had been the unquestioned, autocratic leader of the Edelmiric League. Other people had positions of authority within the League, but they were completely answerable to the Master. His word was law, and any decision they made could be overridden instantly. If he wanted to, he could kill them at any time. Now, power was shared among all twelve Councilmen, but if the Master woke up, all their power would be gone. They also realized that if any of them expressed any negative feelings about the possibility of the Master waking up, other Councilmen would inform him when he woke up. If that happened, retribution would be swift.
“Keep us informed of his progress,” said Urien. “If he starts waking up, contact me immediately.”
“Contact all of us,” corrected Arnold Snipes, a young, fair-haired Councilman.
“Now that we have discussed that matter,” said Urien. “It is time for us to speak with Adolphus.”
Moments later, the door to the Council’s chamber opened, and another wizard walked in. The perpetual glint in his eyes often frightened other members of the League, including some Councilmen. He was 6’1”, and his physique was muscular, with broad shoulders and bulging muscles. His face was disfigured, with some of the skin having clearly been peeled off and only partially healed. He wore a suit of chainmail that, despite his relatively young age, looked like something from Medieval Europe. “Greetings, Councilmen,” he said curtly, with a quick bow.
“Adolphus,” Urien said. “Welcome back. Did you successfully complete your mission?”
Adolphus grimaced. “I’m afraid that Waldo was more alert than we had hoped. He showed up before Taney could extract the kid. We’re going to have to come up with a different plan.”
“Why didn’t you go try to take Gowen yourself?” asked Arnold, his eyebrow raised. “Is it possible you and the wizards you brought with you to Portland are afraid of him?”
Adolphus’s lip curled, and he replied, “I’ve killed plenty of strong magicians.” He pointed to a series of tallies tattooed on his throat. “Twenty-three to be precise. And if any of you want to see how powerful I am, you’re welcome to duel me. But I was only given a unit of six men to take with me. Meanwhile, every magician in Portland is keeping an eye out for me. All of them know who I am. I would be recognized instantly, and I would likely end up heavily outnumbered. Now, if you let me take the boy at school—”
“We’ve been through this,” said Arnold. “It’s too crowded there. A lot of people are going to see you, and then, we’ll have a harder time operating in the shadows. Of course, if Finch saw you—”
“There’s nobody at school to protect him,” Adolphus interrupted. “Taking him from there would be very easy.”
“You are not taking him at school,” said Urien. “Especially not with you having to use mind control. It wouldn’t be hard for Finch to put the pieces together, and once he traced the kidnapping back to us, we’d be like rats in a barrel. Until the Master wakes up, we don’t have the strength to openly fight the opposition.”
“Fine then,” said Adolphus. “But outside of school, the kid is too well-protected. Most of the time, he’s with a witch in her late teens, a full-fledged wizard, a Nannuke, and Finch. I could kill any of them except Finch on my own, but if they figure out that I’m with a unit in Portland, they’ll get a few dozen other magicians together, and all will be lost.”
“Very well,” said Urien. “It may be that we are taking all of this risk for nothing. Randy Gowen has no magical genes from his father’s side. He may very well never develop any powers, in which case, he’s no real threat to us. For now, focus on finding the talisman. That’s the most important thing right now. And if the Master does wake up soon, we’ll be in a much better position to move against Finch and Gowen.”
“Councilman, does the Master seem likely to wake up in the near future?”
Titus chimed in, “As I just told the Council, he is showing some very promising signs.”
Adolphus took a step toward Titus, and the doctor flinched. “Did you leave him alone?”
“Because you know what the penalty for leaving the Master unattended is, don’t you?”
“One of my assistants stayed with him!” said Titus.
“Adolphus, that’s enough,” said Arnold. “You have no authority to impose the death penalty on other members of the League. While the Master is incapacitated, only the Council can order executions of League members.”
“I know the law, Councilman,” Adolphus said, continuing to glare at Titus. “And you should know that while I report to you, I don’t work for you. I work for the Master.”
Arnold glowered at him. “As long as the Master is unconscious, you work for us. And if you want to continue working for us, you need to watch yourself.”
As soon as the words were out of Arnold’s mouth, his head began expanding like a balloon. Adolphus stood there, performing the spell with a look on his face as nonchalant as if he were getting the mail. Arnold tried to deflect the spell, but Adolphus was too strong.
“Adolphus, stop!” ordered Urien. The head continued to expand. “Stop it now!”
The head stopped expanding and had returned to normal a moment later. Adolphus smirked as Arnold looked at him venomously. “Still think I’m a weak magician?”
Christmastime was as enjoyable and peaceful as ever. Randy spent lots of time with not only with Waldo, Dafna, Tank, Mike, and Terkel but also with his paternal grandparents, Donald and Rachel and various other extended family members. He ate plenty of delicious food and received many wonderful presents, especially from his four grandparents. He was very happy with the gifts, but in truth, he would have been happy with anything that they had given him and would not have minded receiving no presents at all. He was simply happy to be around people who genuinely loved him and enjoyed his company.
On December 20th, Waldo dropped Randy off in Hope, Maine to spend the afternoon and night with Donald and Rachel. Hope was a tiny town located about eighty-five miles Northeast of Portland. Its population was so small that it made even Portland look like an immense metropolis. His paternal grandparents lived in a small, one-story farmhouse on the outskirts of the town. The orange paint was beginning to peel off the walls, and it had not been necessary for anyone to hang the Christmas lights this holiday season, as they were displayed year-round. Nearby their house was a barn where their sheep, cows, and chickens were kept. When the car pulled onto the property, Randy asked, “Do you think I’ll be safe here tonight?” He was alternately excited to spend time with his other set of grandparents and panicked about the thoughts of being caught by malevolent magicians without adequate protection. Neither Rachel nor Donald were exactly helpless, especially as regulars went. Rachel was a retired deputy for the Knox County Sheriff’s Department. She also continued periodically working as a vampire hunter, something she had been doing since her late teens. In fact, she had worked at one point with an old Dutch wizard who still lived in Amsterdam and specialized in dealing with vampires. Donald owned a total of fourteen guns of various types, from a glock to an AR-15. But none of their skills or weapons would be of much use against sorcerers.
“I certainly understand why you are worried,” Waldo said. “But I think you can relax. I have taken the liberty of enlisting some protection for you. They will be hanging back but still saying close by enough to watch over you all. Waldo gestured with his right hand to a hill a mile or so away. Atop the hill were four large, white shapes. It took Randy a second to realize that they were polar bears. They were all smaller than Tank but still much larger than the non-magical black bears Randy had occasionally seen as a lifelong Mainer.
“Are those Nannuke?” Randy asked. “Because Tank and his family, I’ve never seen any of them. I thought there were all in the Arctic.”
“They are Nannuke,” said Waldo with a smile. “And in general, you are right, but when I told some of them that you needed protection, they were more than happy to help. Nannuke are nothing if not willing to help, and Tank has many friends among them, which, of course, means that many of them were particularly happy to help you when I asked.”
Randy felt a surge of gratitude. “Well, please tell them I said ‘thank you.’”
“I certainly will,” Waldo said. He and Randy walked into the house. Rachel and Donald both came forward to hug Randy and Waldo. At five feet even, Rachel looked tiny next to Waldo but was still nine inches taller than Randy. She was sixty-two years old and mostly fit though with a bit of paunch. Her hair was a bit less than shoulder-length and gray, and her nose was turned up. Also sixty-two, Donald was lean and five foot-six. His hair already white and receding, though covered by a Boston Red Sox cap, and his face was whiskered. Randy had inherited his lack of height primarily from there. Both were lifelong residents of Hope.
“Randy, dear, it’s great to see you!” Rachel said. “We’re going to have so much fun!”
“I know!” Randy said, beaming.
“I think you’ve grown since we saw you a few weeks!” Donald said, affectionately clapping his grandson on the back. Meanwhile, Sadie, Donald and Rachel’s German Shepherd puppy, had run forward and was licking Randy vigorously as he scratched her behind the ears. The couple had purchased Sadie back in September and were eagerly teaching her how to herd their livestock.
“You three all have a lovely time tonight,” said Waldo, giving Randy a hug goodbye. “As I told Randy, I have a few Nannuke nearby for protection.”
That evening, Randy, Rachel, and Donald first went to a local Italian restaurant that they all loved called Rocco’s. This was perhaps the hundredth time that they had attended. A picture hung on the wall of the three them eating there when Randy had been a toddler. They had tickets to see a production of A Christmas Carol that night at the local community theater. After they had ordered their food, Rachel said, “So, Randy, do you have a girlfriend yet?”
Randy laughed. “I think I’m a little young for that, and I don’t think I’m very appealing to girls anyway.”
“Nonsense!” Donald said, waving a hand. “I think you’d be a major chick magnet!” The conversation went on animatedly like this for several minutes before Randy cleared his throat and said, “Guys, I have to ask you something,”
“Sure, pal, what is it?” Donald asked with a smile.
“Yeah, you can always us anything,” Rachel said.
“Do you know anything about how Mom and Dad died?” Randy asked.
Donald spit out a piece of a roll that he had been chewing. Rachel dropped her fork, which made a loud clattering sound as it hit the table.
“Oh, um, see … ” stammered Donald.
“W—W—Why do you ask?” said Rachel.
“It’s been something that I’ve wondered about for a long time,” said Randy. “I’m twelve years old, I don’t have any parents, they were murdered, and I have no idea who did it, how it happened, or why it happened. I don’t understand any of it, and Waldo and Dafna aren’t telling me.”
“Hoo boy,” said Donald. “I can’t say I blame you for wanting to know. That’s heavy stuff, though.”
“You do have a right to know,” said Rachel, looking down at her plate. “It’s affected you as much as it has us.”
“The problem,” continued Donald. “Is that you’re still awfully young. And what happened to them was an incredible atrocity. It’s a lot for a boy your age to hear about. And you already have to deal with so much anxiety. I’m worried we might add to it if we tell you about this.”
Rachel hesitated for a moment before saying, “Donald, I think he might be old enough. He’s not a little kid anymore, and he’s going to need to know sooner or later. I’m also not convinced not telling him is making it any less painful or scary for him.”
“Trust me,” Randy said. “It isn’t.”
“Waldo asked us not to tell him,” Donald said. “He won’t be happy if he finds out we just completely ignored what he told us.”
“We’re his grandparents too,” Rachel said, rolling her eyes. “And I’ve never even seen Waldo raise his voice. What’s he going to do if we tell Randy? Not invite us to his next drum circle?”
“The man’s a very, very powerful wizard!” said Donald, irritably. “That’s not someone you want to piss off. I’ve never seen him angry, and I don’t want to start.”
Randy had never seen Rachel and Donald argue, but he could sense from their furrowed browns, frowns, and raised voices that they were on a collision course for an argument tonight. This is all my fault, Randy thought. If we go on like this, it’s going to ruin the whole night. “Guys, just forget I mentioned this. I didn’t mean to cause a problem.”
“You’re not causing a problem at all,” Donald said, glaring at Rachel. “I get why you want to know.”
“Are you sure, Randy?” Rachel asked.
“You know,” Donald said to Randy, perhaps hoping to distract him before Randy changed his mind about no longer wanting answers, “We made some peanut butter fudge before you got here, because we knew how much you like it. Maybe you’d want some after the play tonight?”
“Sure,” Randy said, resolving to enjoy himself tonight even if his question remained unanswered. I’ll help Grampie change the subject, he thought. “Dang, this batch of Republican candidates are nuts, huh?” Despite their rural background, Rachel and Donald were mostly liberal and solidly non-bigoted. Although much of Maine’s rural Northern country was conservative, Knox was a Democratic county.
“Tell me about it,” said Rachel. “Bunch of racist, sexist, homophobic kooks. Especially that Santorum guy.”
“Here, here,” said Donald. “Gingrich might give him a run for his money in the crazy department, though. Gotta love a guy who believes in ‘traditional marriage’ and has been divorced twice and cheated on both his ex-wives.”
“Don’t forget Bachmann,” added Randy.
The rest of the night was quite enjoyable. The production of A Christmas Carol was fairly well put together, especially for a rural community theater. He felt a twinge of anxiety at seeing Jacob Marley’s eternal damnation depicted onstage. Randy had never been taught that belief by any of his grandparents, but one of Donald’s fundamentalist cousins had brought it up in an attempt to evangelize him at a family gathering five years ago. The concept had filled Randy with terror and anxiety despite him knowing on an intellectual level that there was no eternal damnation. Even Dafna’s assurances that it was fictitious had only lessened rather than eliminated his anxiety on the topic, despite the fact that her being dead logically made her a pretty reliable source. Otherwise, Randy loved the play. A Christmas Carol was the lone Charles Dickens novel that he had ever read, and the story had always fascinated him.
After the play, Randy sat on the sofa between Rachel and Donald and ate some peanut butter fudge with a glass of milk. For as long as Randy could remember, Rachel, with some help from Donald and sometimes Randy, had been incredibly adept at making arguably the best ever peanut butter fudge. Tonight, it was as moist and gooey as ever. By the time Randy fell asleep with his paternal grandparents on the sofa, he had forgotten for the time being about trying to find out why his parents had died.
On December 22nd, Randy spent an evening with various distant cousins from Waldo’s side of the family. Due to Waldo’s extremely long lifespan, his only relatives left besides Randy were indirect descendants dozens of generations removed. They were scattered across England, Norway, and the Northeastern United States, but some lived in Maine and kept in touch. Many of them were magicians. While the evening was generally fun, Randy heard rumors that frightened him. There was talk from some of his cousins of increased dark magic coming from the Bermuda Triangle. Malevolent vampires, who generally feared magicians, were congregating in large groups and being increasingly aggressive. More magicians and regulars were being killed under mysterious circumstances. There were whispers of someone named Adolphus Kassalen. Nobody elaborated about who he was, but it sounded as if he was a very dangerous, evil magician. Randy wondered if this man was the head of some malevolent order or if he was something more terrifying—the servant of an even more powerful magician. When he asked Waldo and Dafna about this, they again smiled, ruffled his hair, and told him to try not to worry. Everything would be alright.
2011 turned to 2012, and winter turned to Spring. Terkel and Mike continued accompanying Randy to school, keeping him safe from sorcerers. Seventh grade drew to a close. Randy passed all of his classes. History and English were the easiest. Math and Science were harder, but he managed to make passing grades in those courses as well. Sometimes, he entertained the idea that Jed Taney and whoever the young sorcerer might be working for had given up on capturing him. But those thoughts were fleeting. Most of the time Randy was still anxious about being tortured kidnapped or killed, to say nothing of other fears. Tank asked several times to come to school with Randy, but Waldo and Dafna said that they thought it was a bad idea. Even in his fake human form, a near-seven-foot biker would stand out far too much. Besides, Tank was too erratic. Randy was somewhat disappointed by this. As good protection as Mike and Terkel were, Tank had an advantage over all but the most powerful magicians due to his size and strength mixed with considerable resistance to magic.
On the first day of June, Randy sat across the checkerboard from Waldo trying to decide his next move. Dafna had made one of her occasional disappearances the previous day. Randy had learned not to worry much about the disappearances. She always returned within a few days. Checkers were one of the first games Randy had learned to play besides poker, Scrabble, and Dungeons and Dragons. Having an eclectic set of extended family members came with its advantages. Waldo had taught him to play at age six, and Randy had immediately loved the game. Waldo smiled at his grandson. “I have an idea. Why don’t you see if you can read my mind and figure out what my next move will be? There is absolutely no need to feel badly if you find you are not able to do it, but it cannot hurt to try. I can lower my telekinetic defenses while you see if you can do it.”
Randy sighed but managed a sad smile. “I’ll try, Waldo.” Trying to summon whatever magical prowess he might have, Randy made his best effort to probe his grandfather’s brain.
“Come on, Randy, you can do it!” cheered Tank. Tank sat on the sofa, which had tilted to his size under his immense weight.
“Yeah, Randy, we believe in you!” said Mike, who was sitting on the right arm of the sofa, despite it being titled in the air. Turning to Tank, he added, “Hey, you big furball, quit tilting the sofa, will you?”
“Oh, don’t get your panties in a wad, Small Fry!” Tank said, standing up and grabbing a beer can in one of his giant paws. The sofa slammed down, and Mike had to use a spell freezing himself in midair to keep from falling face-first to the ground. “Not like that!” snapped Mike.
He was going to be turning thirteen in two weeks, which in most families would simply mean that he was becoming a teenager. In his family, however, it meant that it was time to test him for magical powers. Traditionally, witches and wizards started having identifiable powers at the age of thirteen. If a magician was exceptionally gifted, powers might appear around the age of ten. Randy’s maternal grandfather, Waldo, and mother, Katie, had both displayed powers at the age of nine. Dafna, his maternal grandmother, had displayed powers at eleven. Randy doubted he would have any magical powers. He would like very much to be a wizard, which made it very unlikely that he would be. Instead, he was probably going to be a regular. Randy had learned that generally speaking, if he wanted something very badly, it was not likely to come. True, he had been raised by Waldo and Dafna since the age of three, and as grandparents were wont to do, they had doted on and indulged him. Discipline had been a nonstarter for them, and the other adult figures in Randy’s extended family had been no more willing to impose it. In fact, it would have been surprising to an outside observer that Randy was such a sweet-natured, well-behaved boy. No amount of permissiveness or indulgence seemed to negatively impact him.
But when it came to his deepest desires, Randy had a poor record of getting what he wanted.
Randy tried to search Waldo’s brain. He thought he might be feeling something. While Randy was not aware of this at the time, it was actually a mild headache. As it turned out, Randy would end up not being a wizard, though it would be awhile before everyone realized this for sure. I think he’s going to try to jump my king. Randy used one of his own pieces to jump Waldo’s piece. The old mage beamed at him.
“Did you feel me reading your mind?” Randy asked.
“No. You were not able to read my mind this time, but you did something just as good: you used your prior experience of how I play checkers to anticipate my next move. Then, you acted accordingly. That shows great intuition.”
“Right on, Randy!” cheered Mike.
“You’re killin’ it, little buddy!” said Tank.
Wendell continued smiling and wagging his tail. Waldo reached out and tousled Randy’s hair. “I am very proud of you, grandson. Shall we continue?”
“Sure,” Randy said. “But if I beat you, can you tell me what you know about what happened to Mom and Dad? You always said I was too young for you to tell me everything, but I feel like I’m old enough to know. I already know they’re dead, I already know I’m an orphan, and not knowing the real story behind them dying doesn’t make it any better.”
“This just got a little more interesting,” Mike muttered.
Waldo nodded, slowly. “I suppose that is reasonable. Even if you lose, I will tell you before too much longer. But yes, if you can beat me, I will tell you everything I know today. If you are sure that’s what you want.”
For the next thirty minutes, neither of them maintained the upper hand for very long. At several points, Randy thought that Waldo had him beat. But each time, he managed to reverse the advantage. Waldo was very patient, allowing Randy to take as much time as he wanted to make each move. Finally, the boy managed to jump Waldo’s king, winning the game. Tank and Mike stared silently for a moment before beginning to loudly cheer.
“Randy’s the fuckin’ man!” proclaimed Tank. He stood up to cheer, causing the sofa to slam to the floor and forcing Mike to stop himself from falling a second time. Wendell ran around in circles. Waldo smiled with pride. “You played an excellent game. Now it is time for me to fulfill my end of the bargain. I assume that you still want to hear what I know.”
About the Creator
I'm a dog dad, historian, activist, and writer. I taught for 3 years and am starting a History PhD program. I write fantasy, mysteries, and historical nonfiction. I'm proud to get blocked by white supremacists, antigay activists and TERFs.
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