BE FOREWARNED, THOUGH: it gets a bit dark; I'd say on the PG-to-PG-13 end of the spectrum. Spiritual warfare is still a real thing, no matter how inaccurately it's been portrayed in the past, and this doesn't hold back. If you're not sure, don't be afraid to ask someone you trust to read ahead for you. That may seem like a silly caveat, but take it from someone with OCD—you never know what's going to trigger you, and I value the mental wellbeing of other people over entertainment any day of the week.
It was ten-thirty in the morning at Whit's End on a Monday in the spring, and while normally this would have meant that Connie Kendall would have been at school along with the shop's usual clientele, it was graduation exam day at Odyssey High School, which meant that she didn't have to go in until noon, since she'd passed the test the first time. Things had been a little crazy over the weekend, and so she'd asked Whit if she could come in that morning and catch up on some of the more paperwork-y things that she'd been unable to do during her usual hours.
Whit had been more than a little surprised at her offer—she really didn't see why—but had agreed that she could if she wanted and to just leave a note telling him how many hours she'd worked when she left.
So when she heard the bell ring as she was doing inventory on the ice cream she kicked herself mentally for failing to lock the door, and looked up to tell whoever was coming in that the place was closed, but immediately changed gears when she saw who had come in.
"Mr. Barclay!" she exclaimed, then noticed that he wasn't alone. "And you are?" she said to the young man who, she thought, would have been good-looking if he didn't look like he hadn't slept in three days, at which point she noticed that Mr. Barclay had an expression on his face that she'd never seen before. It was…kind of scary looking, honestly.
"Hello, Connie," he said, almost curtly, "Is Whit in?"
"Yeah, sure, he let me in this morning. He's upstairs talking with Mr. Walton." She paused. "What's wrong?"
"Don't worry about it. Could you…go upstairs and tell Whit that I think Len's in trouble?"
"No problem," Connie replied. As she left, she suddenly realized that she'd never gotten the young man's name.
"So you really think that's necessary?"
"Trust me, Whit, if there's one thing I know it's windows. And I'm telling you, that replacement you got was from a bad batch."
"I'll take that under advisement. Now…" there was a knock on the door. "Who is it?"
"It's Connie, Whit. Mr. Barclay's here with someone. He says Len's in trouble." She frowned slightly, and Whit knew she was about to remember something he'd rather she not. "Hey, wasn't that Jimmy's cousin who came and went a few months ago?"
"I'll be right down, Connie." Whit turned to Bernard. "I'm sorry, but I think something urgent just came up."
Bernard waved his hand. "It's alright, it's alright," he said, "just don't blame me if the sun happens to hit that pane just right and fries some napkins crispier than my cousin Janice's chicken."
"Don't worry, I won't," Whit replied with a slight, but somewhat forced, chuckle.
Bernard looked at him searchingly. "Is there something I need to know, Whit? You look like you've seen a ghost."
"I just might have, Bernard. I just might have."
When Whit came down the stairs from his corner office, Bernard having gone to the attic to clean the windows there, he saw a very anxious-looking George Barclay standing near the ice cream counter with a young man he'd never seen before. He wasn't sure if he liked the look of him—skinny jeans, a grungy t-shirt, tattoos, and piercings—but he took a closer look and realized that whoever this kid was that he needed help, and badly, rebellious or not.
He also noticed that Connie was still in the room.
"Hello, George," he said as he walked up to his friend and stuck out his hand. "What's happening?"
"Whit," he replied, his voice slightly ragged, as he took Whit's hand to shake it while beckoning the young man he was with over, "let me introduce you to a friend of my nephew's. Andrew, meet John Avery Whittaker."
"You have no idea how glad I am to see you, Mr. Whittaker."
"Please, call me Whit. Would the two of you like to talk privately?"
"Of course. Just follow me back. Oh, Connie?"
"When you finish the ice cream inventory, leave a note on the counter and I'll order what we need later. And then, could you look at the toppings? I think we might be running low. Leave me a note on that too, please."
They quickly walked back into the train room, Whit turning on the light as he came in and George shutting the door behind the trio. Whit turned to speak to Andrew, but paused when he saw the look of awe on his face as he gazed upon the massive train set.
"Who did all this?" he asked. "They're an artist."
"Oh, just some of the kids and I. I'm glad you like it. Now, why do you think Len Barclay's in trouble?"
Andrew shook his head. "I'm not worried about him being in trouble. I just want to know if he's alive."
"Why would you be worried about that?"
"Because the members of the Castles and Cauldrons group we were in are dying."
Whit blinked. "Dying."
Andrew's head bobbed. "Dying. The police say they're all suicides, but I knew those people. They wouldn't…"
"Slow down, Andrew. Start from the beginning."
"Okay. Sure." He took a deep breath, and his next words nearly tumbled over each other. "It all started about a week ago, the day after one of our game nights. I got the paper that morning, and right there, on the front page, I saw that one of our group members, Sandy, had hanged herself that night."
"That's certainly troubling. I'm sorry."
"It gets worse. Two days later, one of the guys, Melvin, put a pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger. The next day, another girl, Melissa, sat in her garage with the car running. Her dad found her and dragged her out, but she's in a coma and they don't expect her to come out of it." He swallowed. "Then, day before yesterday, another one of the guys, Bill, jumped off the balcony of his tenth-story apartment. Then, yesterday…" his voice trailed off.
"What happened yesterday, Andrew?" Whit asked gently.
"Yesterday I drove over to Gina's house. She was another one of the girls in our group. She was smart, funny, good-looking. She loved life." Whit nodded. "She'd sliced her wrists open."
At this point Andrew looked utterly distraught. "It didn't make any sense. None of them wanted to commit suicide. After Sandy died we were all calling each other, seeing how everyone was holding up. I mean, we were grief-stricken, but no one said anything about how they couldn't live without her. Then Melvin, and the others…And that was when I felt it."
"A little voice, in the back of my brain. It said…things. Things that made me wonder…made me wonder if maybe my friends hadn't made that decision on their own." He looked at Whit, eyes haunted. "And then I remembered Len, and that his parents had sent him here after there had been…incidents, and that he'd never come back to the group. So I drove here, and asked if anyone knew where I could find the Barclays. I don't know what's going on. I nearly drove off two bridges getting here."
Whit winced. He really should have done something besides just getting Len back to his pastor when he saw that Board of Talisman. He'd hoped that things hadn't gotten that far, and he'd allowed himself to believe that that was the only one.
But they had, it wasn't, and now he needed to fix his mistake. Quickly. He also raised his estimate of Andrew up a notch. Maintaining self-control under that kind of pressure was...impressive.
"George, do you have anything to add?"
George shook his head. "Nothing. Just that I haven't gotten any phone calls about Len except to say that he's doing much better."
"Thanks. If you don't mind, I'll take this from here."
"Are you sure about this, Whit?"
"George, this is not something you need to be involved in. Trust me. I'll let you know when this is settled."
"Whit, what is going on?"
"Something I'd hoped I'd buried a long time ago."
After sending George back to the office, calling Tom Riley and asking him to look after the shop for a few days, then locking the front door and telling Connie to close it behind her when she left and that he needed to go away for a couple of days and fending off her questions, Whit climbed into his car as Andrew got in the passenger's side.
"So, Andrew," Whit asked as he started the car, "How did you and Len get into Castles and Cauldrons, anyway?"
Andrew sighed. "Look, I was never really popular back in high school, all right? I wasn't athletic, I didn't have a lot of money, and I wasn't really good at school. So I hung out with some other kids like me. Then someone who a couple of us knew introduced us to D&D." Andrew looked at him. "I don't know what you've heard about it, but it's not like we're doing magic or anything. Okay, yeah, our characters might be, but for us it's just like 'Cast Fireball!' followed by a die roll and the Dungeonmaster saying what happens."
"He's the guy who runs the game session."
"Still, I'm not really comfortable with the idea of engaging in that sort of thing."
Andrew shrugged. "It was all good fun. It gave us all a chance to escape from our miserable teenage lives for an evening." He paused. "For most of them, that was enough. But it wasn't quite enough for me. Well, we heard about a con in Chicago, and so we all decided to go."
Whit was confused. "I'm guessing that you don't mean you drove all the way to Chicago to see people get cheated out of their money."
Andrew laughed, in a shaky sort of way. "No, sorry. It's a convention, we just call it a con for short. Anyway, we got there, had a great time, and that's when I found out about LARPing."
"Live-action roleplaying. It's like tabletop gaming, but you're actually acting it out. Instead of saying 'My character attacks the goblin' and rolling dice, you're actually swinging the sword yourself."
Whit broke his eyes away from the road long enough to give Andrew a skeptical look, and was met by a shrug. "Don't knock it 'til you've tried it. I finally thought I'd found what I was looking for. Yeah, in real life I was just an average guy and kind of a loser, but there I could be somebody. Somebody important, you know? Well, one of the other guys from our group came with me, and we ended up LARPing in addition to our weekly game nights."
"How many people…LARP?"
"Not that many. Maybe one in twenty tabletop gamers? And there's not that many of those. I think that at the con after that year we had about two hundred people involved in the LARP, and players were coming in from as far away as Sioux City and Cincinnati."
"So this was where you ran into Castles and Cauldrons?"
"Yes. It was at last year's con in Chicago. The scheduled Gamemaster for the LARP had to cancel at the last minute—the conrunners all said that he got really sick last minute. But he recommended this guy named Niall Hepburn to substitute for him."
"And then what happened?"
"It was amazing. He was a real storyteller, you know? You almost felt like you were there when you listened to his voice. He took somebody else's story and took it in the direction they would have wanted, but made it his. It was the best campaign any of us had ever played."
Whit nodded. He'd heard that story before.
"Well, after the game was over, but before we left, he came up to me and Mike—he was the other guy from the D&D club I was in—and said that we'd impressed him with how well we'd done, that we were some of the guys capable of appreciating this new game he'd found."
"Castles and Cauldrons."
Andrew nodded. "Yeah. He made it sound like it was a step beyond the usual LARPing. And I wanted that. I told him I wanted in. Mike…Mike wasn't so sure. He told Niall that he didn't have time for another gaming group, and that the LARP we were already in was about his speed. At which point Niall nodded, said that he understood, then gave me a card with directions and a date."
"So, I take it you went."
"Yeah, Mike didn't want me to. Said something about Niall just seemed…off. I blew it off, I figured he was just trying to justify cutting out. I guess I should have listened." He sighed. "That first game night was great—that was where I got to know Len. We'd met at the con, talked a little, but I couldn't say I knew the guy."
He paused. "That first night was a normal introductory game night. Well, mostly. I guess I probably should have figured out that something was a little off when half the group members were girls, though."
Whit turned in surprise. "That's not normal?"
Andrew snorted. "In most gaming groups, there's usually at most two girls, one of whom is somebody's girlfriend, usually the dungeonmaster's. Three girls, none of whom were attached to anyone? That should have told me something was up."
"But, let me guess. You were just excited to see them."
"Yeah, pretty much. And Niall's storytelling was spellbinding. I'd thought he was impressive at the Con; in a small group, he was awe-inspiring. You wanted to go deeper into the story." He paused. "And we did. Oh, how we did."
"What do you mean?"
"Niall was…very insistent on role-playing. You weren't allowed to break character until he announced a break. Which he did regularly, so it wasn't that bad, but sometimes…" his voice trailed off.
"You won't believe me."
"Look, I was a fighter, okay? Straight-up brawler, with a couple of talents, so I never experienced this myself, but…let me just give you an example. Melvin—his character's name was Medwin—was a cleric. His character could do all sorts of things, and I remember, it was about a month in…well, it seemed like he almost thought he was doing them, y'know?"
Whit thought of something. "Wait a minute. You mentioned that that first was mostly a normal introductory game night. What was different?"
Andrew paused. "Well, the vow of secrecy was a little odd."
"Yes, Len mentioned that. I take it that isn't normal."
"It's very not normal. I've never heard of another game that required one. And then there was Niall's mentioning somebody called Shalman. Said he was the spirit of the game, or something like that. I just thought it was an attempt at immersion. He was like that. Always coming up with little twists and turns to draw you in."
"Len mentioned 'interferers'—people who would try to stop the game from being played. Did you always play in somebody's house?"
Andrew shook his head. "No. The main reason the introductory night was at Niall's place was because it was character setup night, and the fact that it's customary for parties to meet at an inn or tavern or someplace like that. Most of the time we played outdoors."
"Fields, forests—y'know, places where there weren't many people. We only ever actually had someone stop us from playing once, and that was because it was dark and we didn't realize that his house was only a hundred yards away, and Len got a little loud when he spellcast."
Andrew paused. "That was another weird thing. Even when LARPing, most games just have your spellcasters say 'fireball' or 'cure critical wounds.' C&C got involved, like with incantations and invocations and everything."
He winced. "Should have guessed something was up, though. Niall was obsessed with people breaking in on one of the gaming sessions. Anybody mentioned that their parents or friends were even slightly worried about how we were playing, he'd just go on this massive rant."
"So, it wasn't just Len's parents, then."
"No. Len was just the youngest, so they could pack him off here. He also had the most issues with separating the game from reality, although…" his voice trailed off.
"Everyone was starting to have issues with that. I mean, sometimes with my old gaming group, we'd call each other by our game names, but it was just for a lark, y'know? With the C&C guys, though—it almost started feeling natural. I'd have to stop myself from calling Len Luther or Gina Gwendolyn whenever I talked to them. Len just got it worse than we did, I think because he was younger."
Whit sighed. Yes, he'd seen this all before. Andrew looked at him.
"You seem to know a lot about this, Whit. And, if you don't mind my saying, you don't look the type."
"I'm an old man, Andrew," he replied. "I've traveled the world, and been on every continent but one. If you pay attention, you learn a few things."
"Yeah, but how do you know about this stuff? Niall said Castles and Cauldrons was his thing…well, I guess he could have been lying, but…"
Whit shook his head. "Castles and Cauldrons isn't the important part, Andrew. The Board of Talisman is."
"Wait, what? How do you know about the Board?"
"There's nothing new under the sun," Whit said softly. "And I can tell that you won't tell me anything else until I tell you something. So let me tell you about how I know about the Board. It all started in Europe, right after World War II…"
A/N: The entire idea for this fic came from one line towards the end of "Castles and Cauldrons," when Whit and George Barclay break in on Len and Jimmy. During the sequence, Whit exclaims "A Board of Talisman?!" like it's something he's seen before, which is odd, considering that he shows no sign of having known anything about Castles and Cauldrons beforehand. While this was probably just bad writing (like the rest of the two-parter), I decided to go with the idea that Whit had actually seen such a thing before, and knew what it was used for. Then I decided to also use it to...well, that would spoil things a little. Enjoy.