Anders looked at the young man standing before him. He scanned the near-indestructible, smooth, silver-plated armor, he glanced at the glowing white sword in the young man’s hand, and then he met those deep, olive green eyes.
Anders felt something warm inside and a tear trickled down his cheek.
This emotion, it was pride. And Anders had never really felt it before.
Sure, he’d been proud of his ability to laze out of the defense of the capital claiming a sprained ankle. He’d been proud of his one-week term as a member of an adventuring party, where he actually just partied and didn’t do any adventuring. And he was proud of how he could sleep so soundly and quickly with hardly a moment wasted in tired, existential despair.
But this was something beyond that. Pride in doing something and not in avoiding something.
It was too much to bear.
Anders sat down on his rump with a loud huff. He stared at the floor. Couldn’t let the kid see him tear up. He might misinterpret it, considering what he was about to do.
“I’m off then!” Hazen said in his bright, hopeful voice. A voice that hadn’t yet been scarred by the world and time. “I’ll be a hero. THE HERO. And it's all thanks to you master.”
Anders shrugged and tilted his head to the side. “That’s true kid. But you put in the work.”
Except it wasn’t true, exactly. The kid had put in the work, but Anders hadn’t done all that much.
Hazen had come to Anders’ hovel 5 years ago. The old man hadn’t opened up until the 15th knock, because even he couldn’t sleep through that. The boy’s fist was like a sledgehammer pounding the door, even back then.
“Sir, sir!” Hazen had said, as eager-eyed then as he was 5 years later. “I’ve heard you were a great hero! I want to defeat the Dark One, I’ve sworn I’d do it. On everything I hold dear. And only you can help me.”
Anders had rubbed his temples trying to figure out where the kid was getting that nonsense about him being a hero from. It took a while, but he remembered spinning his week-long adventure party stint into a full-blown epic of heroism to get out of paying at a local bar once. Now the lie was coming to bite him in the butt.
“Sorry kid, I’m nobody, and I’d like to be left alone,” he’d said, slamming the door closed. The boy stuck his foot in the way, and didn’t yelp as Anders continued to try and bang it shut regardless.
The more Anders denied his past, the more Hazen was convinced that he was a great mentor who would only teach the truly worthy. Only the most wise could be so self-effacing.
Finally, Anders said something to get the kid to leave. The most random, useless thing, to make sure he never came back. “You want to defeat the dark one? Then find the sacred sword, the lost blade of the dawnlight. Pull it from the crevice where it's hidden. Then I shall teach you.”
The boy perked up and practically bounced as he ran off and swore to accomplish the task.
Months passed, and Anders forgot about the kid he sent off on a fruitless quest. He yawned through life, drank more than he could afford, spun stories and conned debtors. Life was good, and no one bothered him much.
And then, after a year, a knock came at his door. And then another, and another. He couldn’t wait till 15 this time, because the blows were so strong.
The boy was on the other side of the door, except he wasn’t a boy anymore, exactly. He’d gained a foot in height. His features were guant, his eyes’ feverish, it seemed he hadn’t just avoided sleep, he’d forgotten how to rest.
But in his hands was a sword that shouldn’t exist. “I found it, master!” Hazen said as Anders stared at him dumbfounded. “I found the blade of dawnlight! It was in airless cavern in the depths of the-”
Anders slammed the door shut before the boy could finish. But there was that blasted foot again.
“What should I do now, master? What should I do?”
Anders spewed off increasingly insane tasks, hoping to drive the kid off. But the kid came back every time- with a dragon’s skull crafted into a helmet, armor that didn’t just stop blows but deflected them, and an elixir that could instantly cure any hangover, crafted from over a thousand ingredients.
Anders told the kid to do 500 push ups and he came back sweating in 5 minutes. He asked the boy to do 50 reps of a 200 pound dumbbell with each hand and he came back in 60 seconds saying he’d done 200 reps. Anders’ sleep had never been so broken.
Anders wasn’t sure exactly when he realized he couldn’t drive the kid away, but it must have been when he gave the boy a quest to find ancient sound-proof wood. He had Hazen build an extension to his hovel- his very own room.
Anders started writing out his training regimen on increasingly long scrolls to protect his rest from interruption as much as possible. And now, four years later, the boy actually had a shot of accomplishing his dream.
“You remember what's going to go down?,” Anders mumbled. He rubbed the back of his balding head. The paternal instinct was uncomfortable like a shirt three sizes too tight. It didn’t fit really, but he couldn’t get it off.
Hazen recited the events like a litany. He’d dreamed of this moment long enough that it had become his mantra. “The dark lord established challenge day on the first day of each month because the constant rebelling and fortress raids were causing too much property damage. Various mages have confirmed that there are no tricks in the throne room, no invisible obstacles. He accepts up to three fights each time. He had never lost. But today, that’s going to change.”
“I know you won’t be there to watch me Master, because if I spend a moment looking to you for advice, the Dark Lord could take advantage of the distraction. But please, wish me luck!” Hazen said, shuffling his feet and revealing how young he really was despite the bulk.
“Of course, son,” Anders muttered. That wasn’t the real reason he always avoided watching the kid in action. But this time he wouldn’t be able to sleep.
Like pride, the tightness in his stomach was new. The boy might win, he had a better shot than anyone who Anders had ever heard of.
But the Dark Lord hadn’t reigned for 30 years by accident.
Hazen lifted a hand in farewell, and walked off with a determined step. It was two hours by horse to the Dark Lord’s castle, but the young man had done it in half an hour on foot during training.
Anders watched him go, and then he kept watching, sitting on the threshold of his door. He watched the sun glimmer and then shine as it peaked above the clouds. He watched till it dipped along with his hopes.
His body ached- he hadn’t sat for this long since he was forced into a schoolhouse chair as a child. He wanted more than anything to slouch, and nod off. But his mind wouldn’t let him. It was moving, faster and faster, deeper into the darkness as the night blanketed the sky.
“Why did I let him go,” he muttered as the sun started to rise again. His eyes were dry- it had been a rainy night.
“Why did I let him go. I never showed him how to do anything, why did I think that talent and practice without actual teaching-”
The knot in his stomach tightened as he saw a dark speck in the red horizon. And then it unwinded entirely as the speck drew close.
The boy, his boy. Hazen, that powerful, passionate young man. Returned, whole and sound, blade in hand, not a mark on his silver armor.
Anders stood up and his knees wobbled. He’d forgotten to even pee. But the worry, the only worry in his life, was worth it.
“You did it my boy,” Anders said, stepping forward to clasp a hand on Hazen’s shoulder. “You killed him. I knew you could- I knew you-”
Hazen looked to the ground. Anders had never seen him look so tired, not after a thousand sit-ups with a log tied to his chest, not after he spent a month moving a small mountain.
“He fell,” Hazen said. “The dark lord- before the challenges even began, he tripped on the steps off his throne. He fell and hit his head… and died.”
“What?” Anders said, gaping. The words weren’t registering.
“My dream… I couldn’t do it. I didn’t even get the chance. People are rejoicing everywhere, casting down their swords, saying it’s an era of peace and justice at last. The new government was installed and not one fight broke out.” Hazen’s voice choked as he finished speaking. His eyes were puffy and red.
“Well, your parents are still avenged right?” Anders said. “You didn’t slay him but he’s gone.”
“My parents are alive,” Hazen said. “I ran away from home because I wanted to become a hero. I wanted to be remembered, to be known. I thought you knew that.”
“Well, you could claim that you killed him,” Anders said, to save face. The kid was alive, but Anders’ investment was gone, wasted. He’d gambled, lost sleep, spent a full day worrying. If his mentee was a hero then he also had it made, but if not…
“People witnessed him fall,” Hazen said. “I wasn’t even in the chamber. Nobody knows who I am.”
Anders took a step back, and slammed the door shut on instinct.
But there it was again. That same foot, a few sizes larger, wedged imbetween.
“What should I do now, master? What should I do?”