Peasant Problem: Interlude

Peasant Problem: Interlude

Nov 15

[Before the story reaches its senses-shattering conclusion next week, enjoy a brief interlude with the enemy. New to this story? Catch up from the beginning.]

Peasant Problem

The Following Morning

Sunday morning was cold and foggy. The Hawk, driving Darren’s golf cart, could barely make out the path ahead. They drove in silence as Darren texted furiously. Overnight, two-thirds of his Council had vanished and wasn’t answering text messages or returning calls. They were ghosts, and that just wasn’t possible. He tried to gather whoever he could find and summon them to the Lodge.

The orcs’ rebellion was getting out of hand, and he had no idea how it had gotten to this point.

The cart crested a hill, puttering on its electric motor. “Sitrep?” he asked, glancing at his Captain of the Guard.

The Hawk, his features truly aquiline in profile, began his report, not taking his eyes off the dirt road. “Town guard is at half capacity. Two permanent deaths resulting from the overnight fighting, several poisoned and magically weakened knights who cannot fight effectively, and three disappearances with no contact. Guilds and mercenaries have either declared neutrality or sided with the Seven Skulls. Sixty-six percent of the Councilors have also been disappeared. A dawn patrol found the Arbor Elves gagged and bound to trees near the creek. Perhaps most distressingly, sir, the launch has disappeared from the lake. If it is not returned, we’ll certainly be on the hook for the cost of a replacement.

“The event ends in four hours. I don’t need to remind you, sir, that calling a stop right now would be disastrous for the game setting – the downtime between events would be anarchy.” Dazed from lack of sleep, Darren said nothing for a long while. The Battle Country was falling apart. His councilors had abandoned him. One of his oldest friends had betrayed him. His players were in open war. This was supposed to be a game.

“What?” The cart had stopped and The Hawk was looking at Darren oddly. He’d been talking out loud, he realized. He needed sleep.

The pair were across the parade green from the Lodge. Tired and unfocused as he was, Darren didn’t notice the flag flying. It was red, with six small skulls surrounding one large skull. The standard of Wayne’s orcs. As he reached mid-field, he noticed that the Lodge’s windows were all open. When they’d met a day earlier, those windows were closed.

The THWANG of a bowstring broke the silence. An arrow, tipped with foam and tape, droned past Darren’s head and plunked into the earth behind him like a lawn dart.

For a moment, Darren and The Hawk stood there, stunned. After a beat, a hail of arrows came from the open windows. Arrows came close to hitting them, but none struck home.

Suddenly, The Hawk dove in front of Darren, pushing him backward and down to the ground. Two arrows took The Hawk in the upper chest and a third caught him in the cheek. From the Lodge, three bowmen each shouted out, “Three damage!”

The Hawk was not wearing his bulky combat armor; nine damage was too much for the guard captain to withstand. He collapsed to the ground, slain.

Darren inched toward him, but his guardsman whispered, “Get out of here!” With a salute, the Count turned and scrambled back across the parade field to his golf cart.

The seat of his kingdom had fallen.



Nov 12

[Every November, Jeff attempts to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo); he has never successfully finished. This year, he’s trying again, and you are about to read a little bit of it. Enjoy (hopefully)!]


You never end up taking the money for exorcisms.

It’s a moral thing, right? Like how could you not save this poor little girl’s life, or how could you keep this boring middle manager from going home to play with his kids, especially over something as banal as cash?

Worse than a zero-sum game, it’s a losing game – putting on the whole Baby Jesus Light Show isn’t cheap, and you also get knocked the fuck around in the process more often than not and, a line of work like this, you don’t get stellar fucking benefits. Late night trips to the urgent care clinic add up.

Fuck it, you say, I’m doing ghost tours from now on. The income is more stable, the risks are nonexistent. But you never do, because you can’t feel good about the work and you’re not the cynic you play you are.

But you tell everyone that you’re retired from exorcisms. Of course, all that does is make people more convinced that you’re the right person for the job, right? The word ‘no’ is the most powerful marketing tactic in the fucking universe.

And just like you never end up taking the money, you never end up saying no, either. You know about a demon, you let it run around, that’s irresponsible, one, and shitty karma, two.

And that’s why I’m currently being drowned in a toilet bowl by a seven year old boy in footie pajamas. Happy birthday to me.


Four days ago, Trip Parker’s father told a stranger in a bar that he would do “anything” for the chance to stay home from the office for a few days. The next day, Blaine Parker II called off sick because his namesake, age seven, was running an aggressive fever and vomiting. He called off the next day because his son broke into his bedroom at three in the morning and tried to murder him with a mandoline slicer while ranting either at or about something called ‘Sariel’; his breath stank of sulphur and Blaine swore, once he could be convinced that Kit wouldn’t think he was a lunatic, that Trip’s eyes glowed red.

Right now, Blaine Parker II was hiding in the back of his walk-in closet and trying desperately to ignore the voice in his head. It sounded like his stepmother, and it kept telling him to hang himself with one of his YSL ties, which hung enticingly in front of his eyes as he pressed himself as close to the back wall of the tiny room as he was able.

If she were able to scream underwater, Kit would have shouted at him to grow a pair and help to clean up his goddamn mess.

She thought a cantrip – a minor spell – in the direction of the flush handle. Normally, magic required focus, but rage could be a potent substitute in a pinch, especially if the magician didn’t care about collateral damage. The handle pulled, then wrenched itself free and flew wildly across the room, ricocheting off the tile and finally landing in the sink.

The water drained out of the bowl quickly and Kit could breathe again. She breathed deeply, elbowed the little boy in what she hoped was a kidney, and silently thanked her stylist for the pixie cut that she had originally protested: longer hair probably would have meant the end of her when the toilet flushed.

Trip gave out an ‘Oof!’ and slid off Kit’s back, dazed and babbling. Dragging herself to her feet, Kit caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror – half-drenched, makeup running, the start of a bruise on her jaw. And, she thought, there was still a birthday dinner tonight to look forward to. Here’s to seventeen more blissful years of this bullshit, she thought. Then she gave the child at her feet a kick in the ribs. It made her feel better.

It was also the wrong thing to do. Instantly, Trip skittered straight up the bathroom wall on backward-bent arms and legs. Above his bloody – Kit’s blood – Handy Manny pajamas, the possessed eyes glowed red again. The boy’s mouth hung open and a chorus of low voices chanting Aramaic poured out.

Kit was very rusty with dead languages, but she thought she picked up ‘sacrifice’ and ‘disembowel’.

Trip’s dad had found Kit through Craigslist. Six months ago, she’d dated a college freshman, and he was charming, cute and knew enough about the occult that he could keep up with her most of the time when she got roped into the inevitable crazy bullshit. She’d dumped him when she caught him enchanting weapons for the campus fraternity’s annual bum fight. He had responded by taking out an add on Craigslist once a month in Kit’s name. This not only pissed her off, but it also made her more findable on the web, and Kit Marlowe took online anonymity very seriously. Nearly everyone in her world did. She thought very long and very hard about just changing her contact info completely, but decided in the end that she didn’t want to capitulate to the asshole, so she endured the annoyances it brought her way.

Grabbing the porcelain lid of the toilet tank, she flung it two-handed at the demon kid and immediately bolted for the bathroom door, not looking back. As she leapt into the bedroom and rolled behind the bed, she heard a vomiting sound followed by the shattering of porcelain. Her mind’s eye decided to hate her a bit and pictured several scenarios for what just happened, all of them revolting.

“Asshole!” she shouted at the closet door, “Get out here now, or I will punch you in the head until you forget the hell-toddler’s middle name!”

Peasant Problem, Part 2

Peasant Problem, Part 2

Nov 08

[Last week, the orcs of the Battle Country declared war on their fellow LARPers. Keep reading to see how they got there and what happens next.]

Peasant Problem


Wayne crouched in the underbrush. The fast-fading twilight of the late October afternoon raced against him toward darkness as he worked. With a tortoiseshell compact mirror – an old one of his mother’s, pocketed while cleaning the master bathroom – balanced in one hand, he daubed green makeup onto his round, shiny face. Next to him in the crunchy leaves, lay his glaive, all pool noodles and PVC pipe and duct tape and spray paint. The polearm was Reapsong and it swung for eight damage and, satisfied with his makeup, Wayne was Grimgnash, the orc warleader; mighty was his fury and swift was his vengeance.

In the trees around him hid the other eleven members of the Seven Skulls orc tribe. In his periphery, Chris swung a two-handed axe, testing its heft. If everybody stuck to the plan, in the morning, Wayne and his orcs would have changed the face of the Battle Country.

Through the clearing ahead, the game’s population of Arbor Elves sat around a campfire, a dutch oven hanging over the flames. One of the elves strummed an acoustic guitar while another sang along. It was, as near as any of the orcs could tell a hundred yards away, an acoustic cover of a Lady Gaga song with parody lyrics about the LARP; it was the sort of thing that meant you never got laid if you did it among a normal group of people. Everybody here, though,was predisposed to love that sort of thing, especially the elf girl swooning over the guitarist. As the tune ended, the elves all clapped and whistled. Their guard was down; staff never sent out roaming monsters on Friday nights, and when they did, it was never near a camp area.

Complacency, Wayne told the Seven Skulls, was their biggest advantage.

Looking down at the glow-in-the-dark numbers on his watch face, Wayne watched as the hour of the attack inched forward. He reached down and lifted his glaive up, resting it on his shoulder. The polearm is made from a six foot length of 3/4” PVC pipe wrapped inside a foam pool noodle and swathed in duct tape. It has been colored with spray paint and markers with an eye toward verisimilitude – the length has been painted a deep, oaky brown with bands of dark grey at the butt end to represent the iron-shod description the weapon has in some edition of the Player’s Handbook. The blade is thick foam padding, the kind they use in hypo-allergenic pillows. The fluff has been shaped into a spike, wrapped in tape and sprayed bronze,then painted with archaic-looking runes that, as far as Wayne knew, meant nothing. He’d used Reapsong for years, yet he still wondered how people gripped these things; it is still slightly too big for Wayne’s not inconsiderable hands. There were times in melee when he’d lose his grip on the haft, which had contributed directly to two of Grimgnash’s deaths over the past four years.

The orc chief checked his watch once again; it was time.

The signal was a duck call blown twice in quick succession. The HORK! HORK! was louder than Wayne expected and he waited for the elves in their camp to notice the loud, incongruous noise but they never did. He advanced forward into the night, his tribe closing ranks behind him.

The plan, as Wayne explained it at the volleyball courts that afternoon, was to hit the Arbor Elf camp quickly, wipe out the population and use it as a springboard to take the other camps throughout the night. It had to start, he instructed, with the healers. Taking out the clerics and shamans meant that the dead stayed dead, at least for thirty minutes, at which point they would just regenerate at the temple.

Wayne leaped out of the brush, his glaive swinging wildly as the blade slapped into the side of the most powerful elf cleric in the camp. He bellowed, “EIGHT DAMAGE!” as if It were a rallying cry. The huge foam beard of Fat Chris’s axe caught the girl who had been swooning over the guitarist, knocking her flat on the ground as he called his damage on her. Sniksnak, the youngest orc player, struck an elf warrior down from behind, invoked his invisibility powers and made his way to another target.

The singer made a run for it. Wayne nodded to Matt, the lone orc spellcaster, and he lobbed a beanbag toward the runner. It struck him square in the back and he stumbled for a step. As the bag hit, Matt intoned, “Slow,” and the elf slowed to a walk at once. Wayne signaled with his free hand and five orcs jogged down the escaping elf and all struck him down at once. Overkill.

The orcs looted the elves’ in-game money and their scrolls and reagents; the ones they couldn’t use could be sold at market. The raid was flawlessly executed.

There were two fatal mistakes that Wayne made. The first was in thinking that the elves would not, as soon as they were able, run straight back to their camp with allies, but the second was in not noticing that the escapee that Matt had Slowed had cast Whisperwind before he died. The Whisperwind spell allowed a player to text a message to another player at the event that weekend.

This was why the orcs were taken unawares not fifteen minutes after they cleared the elven camp. Just as they were making ready to move out again, a squad of guards came down the path at them. Wayne was the first to fall, subdued from behind by the Mikes as he struggled with a gargoyle guardsman. He watched a few others fall, then heard Fat Chris give the call to scatter into the night. It was smart thinking, Wayne knew. Otherwise, they’d all have fallen right there.

Nonetheless, all the orcs would be captured by dawn. The attack was over just minutes after it began. But the coup was just beginning.


Nobody questioned why the two boys had green-smudged faces inside their hoodies. Fat Chris and Aaron – the teen who played Sniksnak – trudged through the Wal-Mart, still sore from the night before. The cart Chris pushed was full of PVC and duct tape and hypo-allergenic stuffing and about a dozen pool toys bought on clearance. Chris had also indulged and stacked a few five pound barrels of cheese puffs and two cases of off-brand Mountain Dew, which he thought would be good for morale.

The Wal-Mart was in the town closest to Camp Lavery, about 10 miles down the state road. They’d taken the camp staff truck, which Chris acknowledged that he and Aaron had essentially stolen, even though it was common knowledge where the keys were kept, because the Council had a pair of scouts watching the camp parking lot; the Count had declared a truce until sunset, but he wanted the orcs under close observation until then. Wayne hadn’t made that easy, though: they abandoned the orc campsite and split the tribe into small groups that spread out amongst their ally races.

None of the other groups had officially thrown in against the Council yet, but they were not turning the Seven Skulls away, offering food and a place to rest at least, though Wayne was negotiating for more earnest support from several sources.

“I don’t understand why we don’t just raid the armory, Chris.” Aaron, being relatively new and young, wasn’t privy to Wayne’s grand plan. That meant he kept trying to wheedle details out of Chris, who did know most of what the next day was going to bring.

“We’re totally unarmed, Snik. We had our weapons confiscated. If we try to storm the armory barehanded,” Chris explained for the third time, “we won’t have a chance.”

“We could buy them from the smiths, though.”

“Wrong again, little buddy. The Count declared that we’re at war; nobody is going to sell us weapons overtly, and even if they did, we got all our coin taken when we were captured, just like our weapons.

“What we need to do,” Chris continued as he pushed the cart down the Nerf aisle, “is make a new stash of weapons. Nobody will expect it. It puts us one step ahead of the enemy and leaves them operating on incorrect assumptions.” He selected a derringer-sized dart gun from a rack, the gun designed to be palmed and kept secret. Chris tossed it to Aaron, “See if you can find five more of these.” As he did, his cell phone buzzed. It was a text message from Wayne, and it simply said, Rope. One more item for the list, then.

Twenty minutes later, Chris and Aaron were headed back to camp, the truck bed laden with the implements of war. They’d take the back entrance and drop off their cargo in the woods outside the dark elf camp before returning the truck to the staff garage, reapplying their makeup and rejoining the revolution.

As Chris drove the stolen truck back to camp, Wayne met with Aldomar, the head of the Necromancers’ College. The rendezvous occurred behind the First Aid station, with the orc chieftain flanked by armed dark elf bodyguards. Aldo came alone, but they all knew he was far from defenseless.

Aldo affected a shrill old-man voice. “I take a great risk being seen with you, orc. The College moves in shadow.”

“And your influence wanes,” Grimgnash countered. “We have common goals. Since the Council elected new members, your men at the table have become outnumbered. The death cult doesn’t carry policy in Battle Country the way it once did.”

“We are more comfortable when we aren’t an over threat. If the study of undeath teaches us anything, Grimgnash, it is that we must bide our time in patience.” Aldomar gave an uncomfortable cackle as he leaned on his foam boffer staff.

“Or that, regardless of boldness or reserve, the same fate awaits us all. ‘Fate dooms oft the undoomed man when doth his courage fail.’ We need support and manpower, Aldo, but what we need most is zombies.”

The necromancer looked hesitant beneath his fake, crooked nose. Aldomar pondered. Wayne was sure it was the “Beowulf” quote that had put him over the edge. “I will not,” the magus finally said, “commit my forces to a hasty ambush. Prove to me that you have a real plan this time.”

Wayne told him the plan and the two villains shook hands. By midafternoon, he had struck alliances with the dark elves, the necromancers, the thieves’ guild, the gnomes and a company of dwarven mercenaries who had no common cause with the orcs, but simply admired Wayne’s audacity. Hidden from scouts in the deep woods, the orcs assembled their new arsenal in secret.


Father Sukor was the Count’s chosen emissary to the orcs. Darren knew he had to send someone important, or the enemy would be insulted, but he also knew he could not waste a skilled warrior. Tom Courts, who had always played healers and was well-liked by most of the player community, was the ideal choice. And nobody targeted the healers or singled them out; it wasn’t illegal, but it was gauche.

Sukor walked into the orc camp to find it empty. When the scouts last reported in, there were a handful of green-skinned players in the tents and around the fire, and that had only been fifteen minutes ago.

Tom Courts never heard the approach of the dark elf assassin. He pressed his foam dagger to the cleric’s throat and whispered in his ear, “in lieu of lethal damage, I render you paralyzed; you may take no action for five minutes starting now.” Tom Courts felt the impulse to run – knew he’d been trapped – but also knew that rules were rules. Besides, he thought, they would likely kill him and he could return to his temple in thirty minutes’ time.

The coup de grace didn’t come. Instead, a pair of orcs came out of the trees behind him and held him steady while the dark elf bound his hands and feet. The orcs led Tom Courts to a campsite further down the path and deposited him inside one of the tents, along with the two scouts assigned to watch the orc camp.

Wayne sat on the bunk across from the guards, smiling, a new glaive on his lap. He looked up as the healer came in.
“Hello, Pastor. You’ll be our guest for awhile.”

Wayne took Tom Courts’s fake beard and passed it to a runner. Back in the orc campsite, the beard was tied to a note that said “WAR” and attached to the flagpole. Then the orcs, armed with new weapons and in the company of new allies, went about their night’s work.

Peasant Problem, Part 1

Peasant Problem, Part 1

Nov 01

Peasant Problem

The autumn air was crisp and smelled of lake fog and tart apples. In the dawn half-light, the paths that crisscrossed the forests of Camp Lavery were abuzz with bustling silhouettes, all heading toward the Lodge, where the Boy Scouts who used to summer there had their parade grounds. They came in cloaks and mantles, padded leather, denim jackets and wool peacoats, some still wrapped in their sleeping bags, some still wearing prosthetic ears and beaks. Mostly, they dressed to fight off the chill in the air.

Wayne had his hands lashed together behind him. One of the new players, an elf girl whose name he didn’t know, gave him a prod with her staff. The foam tip gave against him, even as he stumbled forward, freshly stoking his indignity. A newbie was his jailor. Wayne had been there for years, since that first silly, fumbling weekend. This was how he was repaid. He squinted against the coming dawn and felt the sting of green makeup in his eyes.

The anonymous elf led Wayne up a rocky incline, past the volleyball courts and delivered him to the parade ground. As he crossed the green rectangle in front of the Lodge, dew kicking up and clinging to his brown wool trousers with each step, Tom Courts approached him. There were five Toms at the LARP, so everybody called Tom Courts by his full name all the time. He didn’t seem to mind. From his fake white beard and off-white robe, Tom Courts was fully in character as Pastor Sukor, leader of the local temple and the most powerful healer in game. Sukor proffered a canteen and Wayne shrugged, trying with limited success to indicate his bound hands. The pastor lifted the canteen to Wayne’s lips and tipped the mouth of the canteen forward, fresh water spilling out. Sukor dismissed the elf girl with a nod, taking Wayne by the shoulder and leading him forward, silently, to stand beneath the bare flagpole amid a line of eleven other green-painted faces. Not twenty-four hours before, Wayne thought, the dozen of them had stood on the volleyball court scheming. In the harsh light of day, they were failures. The whole thing had seemed so perfect. Where, he wondered, was the hole in things?

Wayne was still puzzling it all out when The Count arrived. Instead of a horse or a chariot or a regal palanquin, the ruler of the Battle Country arrived in a puttering golf cart. Wearing a puffy shirt from a Renaissance Faire clearance rack and a cape that epitomized ‘dainty’, Darren unfolded himself out of the cart. He’d always been tall and lanky like that – Wayne remembered sitting in the sixth grade cafeteria, watching Darren fumble across the cafeteria under the weight of kids chanting “Lurch!” and grimaced again reflexively. Wayne had known Darren since before his freakishly tall friend had helped to found the Battle Country LARP, but now The Count stood in judgment against him. It was a betrayal, Wayne was sure.

An orc on Wayne’s left – Fat Chris – yawned, and Wayne was exhausted, too. He had been up all night, part of it in captivity. Tom Courts supplicated his fake pantheon for mercy and kept order over a line waiting to have oatmeal doled out of a giant pot by two sprightly gnome girls. Darren strode through the crowd, stopping to hear the entreaties of the LARP-populace.

Wayne wondered how these assholes could stay in character at this hour. He imagined asking Tom Courts this question and saw Courts in his mind’s eye, asking Wayne how he could not.

Darren reached the center of the parade grounds. With a flourish, he spoke.

“CITIZENS OF THE BATTLE COUNTRY! We arise this morning to find our lands shaken by tragedy. I have summoned those accused to stand here before you in judgment, and I assure you, citizens that justice. Will. Be. Served.”

Give it to Darren, Wayne thought, the man can act. For someone so unassuming in real life, so uncomfortable in his gangly body, The Count really came out of his shell when he was role-playing. Wayne considered that this was probably because he was pretending to be someone else, and wasn’t sure whether or not the thought made him sad.

“Those of you in The Vale last night have told me what occurred,” Darren continued, Count voice booming across the camp, “but the Battle Country is governed by laws and a spirit of fairness. There will be punishment for the guilty.”

Several of the orcs were blubbering, inchoate whimpers in their throats. Just to the left, Fat Chris had tears rolling down his face, streaking his shoddy makeup. Wayne had been stoic until now – had to be stoic, but now a worm of a thought crept into his mind. I’m doomed, it said. I’m doomed, I’m doomed, I’m doomed I’mdoomedI’mdoomedI’mdoomed.

“But,” The Count intoned, “we believe in equal time, and the perpetrators that stand accused will have a chance to speak. That is why I am convening my Privy Council to hear testimony from Grimgnash Hordecaller, chieftain of the Seven Skulls orcs.”

It took Wayne several moments to realize that he was Grimgnash Hordecaller.

Some Time Ago

“And then, just after midnight, during the bonfire, we were attacked by a hippogriff stampede!”

It was tenth grade and they were huddled around a round lunch table on Rib-B-Q day. Darren’s cousin Ralph had taken him live-action role-playing over the weekend, to a game in Delaware. It was called Ioun, which Wayne knew had to be a rip-off of the Ioun Stones from Dungeons and Dragons.

“Right,” Wayne countered through a mouth half-full of Rib-B-Q, “but guys in hippogriff costumes. How do you even take that seriously?”

“It’s suspicion of disbelief, Wayne. When I’m in cos-”

“Suspension, Darren. Suspension of disbelief.”

Darren fired back immediately: “Your face suspends disbelief.” Across the table, Jimmy Yeung slow-clapped while a few other sophomores groaned. “Really, though,” Darren went on, “when you’re out there and you’re dressed up, it’s easy to ignore the fake masks and the fact that an elf has a Slayer t-shirt on under his armor. It’s like…it’s like doing improv. Like you’re playing D&D and acting at the same time.”

Darren’s face was all twisted up from the effort of trying to articulate something that he didn’t have the vocabulary to communicate. “Look,” he said, with a bit of a stammer, “there’s another event next month. You guys should come with me.”

Wayne broke the silence first. “You really want us to drive two hours to play Hobbits in the woods all weekend? We could stay home, order some pizzas, and roll some dice.”

Darren gave a snort. “Well yeah, except that there are a lot more girls there.”

A month later, most of the table went down to Delaware for the weekend. Most of them told their parents that they were just camping. Jimmy Yeung had mononucleosis, so he had to stay home.


The Lodge only got used a few times a year, and now it was covered in dust. The waxing light filtering in through the shaded windows made the air look grainy like old film, enhancing Wayne’s ever-growing sense of dread. He stood in front of a long mess table as Tom Courts stood behind him, untying his hands. His wrists were raw where they’d been tied by a pair of overeager fourteen year olds. Mike J. and Mike R. he remembered, who were inseparable and dressed in all black; they used asinine swords, designed to look like giant keys. Anita the blacksmith had told Wayne that the swords were from a videogame. With Disney characters. No wonder, Wayne resolved, that those kids were terrors.

One of the Mikes had knelt on Wayne’s back, holding his hands steady, while the other Mike tied the knots – good, Boy Scout knots. Wayne could still taste the peat in his mouth from where the Mikes had tackled and held him. They had come at him from behind.

The Mikes were going to get hailed as heroes. They’d get titled, at least, for taking down the orc chieftain. Which was preposterous to Wayne. Wayne had been here for four seasons and still had no title. Because he was Darren’s friend. Because the staff wanted to avoid the perception of bias. Darren had told him as much when he’d pressed the issue. That talk was just one thing piled onto the list of problems with the game that led to what Wayne was already thinking of as the Volleyball Court Coup.

Darren sat at the center of the table, surrounded by his staff – Anita, Tom Courts, Sendhil the king of the dwarves with his atrocious Scottish accent, all the rest of Darren’s staff of cronies. Their stares bored into Wayne, and he felt himself starting to sweat.

The Count slouched in his folding chair, the facade dropping; he was just Darren again. His head sunk for a moment, and when it came up again he asked, simply, “What the hell, Wayne?”

It was a question that Wayne hadn’t really considered. He was angry. He felt slighted and betrayed. But not just on a personal level. He thought about the Mikes again, how he couldn’t understand why someone would want to play somebody else’s concept instead of making something on their own and there, maybe, Wayne found clarity.

“Count,” he said, launching into the gruff Tom-Waits-as-a-Caveman voice that he used in-game, “I don’t think we should proceed without the Orc councilor present.”

The council expected contrition. It hadn’t come. They were taken aback.

After a beat, Tom Courts looked at Wayne. “There is no orcish councilor. As chieftain, you know this.”

Anticipating where Wayne was going, Anita added, “The dark elves don’t have a seat on the council, either.”  She was trying to be conciliatory. She probably should have known she was making things worse. Some of the elves and gargoyles at the table realized this, as did the swarthy, beardless dwarf: Sendhil buried his face in his palm.

“They’re evil races,” one of the other voices at the table blurted out. Again, Wayne thought, not helping.

Grimgnash’s eyes lit up. “Then you admit this body has no authority over me,” Wayne improvised. “You openly admit your prejudice against the Seven Skulls orcs and expect me to submit to your rule? Laughable.”

Through his cleric’s beard, Tom Courts spat, “There are rules, Wayne. Procedures. You can’t just tinker with the plot.” Of course he’d say that; Tom Courts was head of Plot on staff.

Dropping character for a second, Wayne fired back. “Tom, there hasn’t been any decent orc plot for over two seasons. No orcs have title. Orcs can’t sit on the council. We’re ignored, we’re ostracized from the rest of the player community, though they’re content to accept our aid when there’s a mod that they can’t defeat on their own.” He paced in front of the table, stopping in front of Anita, the treasurer. “We pay to come out here each month and be ill-used. I refuse to accept that the only way out of that is to quit and go elsewhere and I refuse to play a game in which I have no agency.”

Wayne and Darren locked eyes. “You’ve had ample time to fix this imbalance. You haven’t. My people no longer recognize your authority to adjudicate us as a result of that. And you bring me in to punish me for playing the game the way I wish to play it. Weak.

“Let me tell you what’s going to happen. I am going to walk out of here, take the other orc players with me and return to our campsite. From there, the ball is in your court; send an emissary with a truce flag to us by sundown, or we are at war. And this time, it won’t just be the orcs. It will be the dark elves with us. It will be the other disenfranchised races. The guilds without influence. They will rally around the orcs, my friends, and we will come for you. We are relentless; we are orcs.”

With a deep bow, Grimgnash Hordecaller, chieftain of the Seven Skulls orcs, stormed out of the Lodge. Wayne was certain that he’d just done something awful and irreparable, but he knew that he’d take none of it back. As he walked across the parade grounds, the other orc players fell into line behind him, a bit hesitant at first, not knowing what just happened. Along with them came a handful of dark elves and some other stragglers of various races. The Country Guard brandished their weapons and created a human barricade, but the orcs kept walking. They knew that, stripped of their weapons, they couldn’t fight back in-game. They were willing to be martyred. At least, Wayne hoped they were.

The guard captain, a particularly hawkish teen who Wayne never liked, was about to call the order to attack, when the voice of the Count broke out from the doorway to the Lodge. “Guards, let them pass!”

The players all looked bemused. They were all anticipating the fight. Wayne smiled at the hawk, knowing his cockiness would result in bruises later. He no longer cared.

The Hawk looked back at Darren for instructions. Once more, the Count’s voice boomed, “Escort the townsfolk back to their camps and then we will meet to discuss our defenses. Let all the Country know we are at war with the orcs!”

Just like that, Wayne knew the end had begun.

3AM, Banshee, Part 2

3AM, Banshee, Part 2

Oct 25

[In September 2008, Jeff Stolarcyk participated in a professional paranormal investigation. He survived, and this is his unvarnished account of the incident. A version of this essay appears in Grok #3 – Nameless Horror.]

There are at least two major groups of ‘ghost hunters’ in Northeastern Pennsylvania; Joe’s group is the one I’m most familiar with. As I helped the crew – team leader Joe and his investigatorsTony and Jeff – set up their equipment, I took the opportunity to talk shop with them, camcorder in hand.  They run down what each of the cameras, recorders and meters does, what bells and whistles each has, and how each piece of gear is used in documenting or disproving a haunting.  All of the equipment they use comes out of their own pockets, and they don’t charge clients for investigations or canvas for donations.  Even after an hour with them, it’s clear that they’re not doing this to make money, get famous, or sign a TV deal.  During one of our conversations, Joe even admits that he suffers a lot of teasing from his coworkers.  “But later, I’ll be alone with them in the break room, and those same people will be asking me for advice or asking about something they saw or heard,” he says with a smirk.

The group is amicable and frank, joking with me about the super-serious youths on A&E’s collegiate reality series Paranormal State. “We are now entering Dead Time,” Jeff jokes in allusion to the show. They talk about conducting an investigation with TAPS, the ghost hunters on SyFy’s aptly named Ghost Hunters; Joe doesn’t divulge any details out of respect for the other team, but he does remark that there are concessions made for the television audience. Over Cokes in the barroom (none of us are imbibing alcohol), we talk about their recent investigations at Fort Mifflin near Philadelphia and at Andy Gavin’s, another Irish pub in Scranton. Earlier in the week, Joe emailed me a collection of EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena – phantom voices on digital recordings) from Gavin’s, the most striking of which is a husky, Irish-brogued voice that seems to be counting, though it’s far from crystal clear sound. The voice is warm and jocular, and according to anecdotal evidence from the Gavin’s owner, the speaker is a former employee – an unlikely proposition, considering the man in question is dead.

Joe became involved with paranormal research after a personal experience that he couldn’t explain. Like me, though, Tony and Jeff are simply lifelong horror buffs out to satisfy their curiosity about the paranormal.  The team is passionate about its work, but it’s also rational, and Joe reminds me several times that their primary goal is to debunk as much of a reported haunting as possible. Far from being crackpots or wild goose chasers, the investigators are methodical and skeptical. Maybe more importantly, they are each normal guys with day jobs and families doing this to learn something about the nature of the world.

That doesn’t mean they haven’t had personal experiences, though. On a recent investigation at Fort Mifflin, near Philadelphia, Tony was accosted by an unfriendly entity. ‘Entity’ is the term they use for ‘ghost’. “We’re not certain what they are,” Tony tells me as we check camera batteries and set up equipment. “They could be ghosts, or elementals, or maybe even something demonic. We don’t know.” But Tony, like the others on the team, and like the home and business owners that invite the group to investigate claims of supernatural activity, believes that something is out there.

We have recording equipment on each of the Banshee’s floors – the main dining area on the ground floor, the private party room on the second floor where many report seeing an apparition of a small girl, the attic which is mostly used for storage, and the basement – where the majority of experiences befall the Banshee’s employees. “Whatever is upstairs here is not malicious,” the waitress who pushed for the paranormal investigation tells us, “but the thing in the basement is.” She tells us that she’s been shoved by the basement entity and has a distinct feeling of being watched whenever she’s in the room. It was a feeling I had minutes earlier when I was shadowing Tony and Jeff. I held my tongue.

In addition to the little girl in the white dress, there is also a man in a black suit and hat. He’s been spotted on the stairwells to the second floor and basement, and according to one story, a young boy was found wandering in the basement, claiming “the man in the black hat” beckoned him to follow. In the boy’s version of events, the man in the black hat was carrying a rope. What nobody knows about these apparitions is how they are related to each other, to the presence in the basement, or to the history of the structure they haunt.

The building where the Banshee stands now was not always a pub. Prior to its current life, the building was a department store, and its identity before that is something of a mystery to me. The waitresses claim that, during an epidemic at the turn of the century – TB, flu, yellow fever, depending on who you talk to – the basement of the Banshee was used to store corpses from a nearby hospital. At the time of the investigation, no evidence had been uncovered that this ever actually happened, but the story has managed to become a potent part of the pub’s lore among the employees.

Once all the patrons had cleared out for the night, the investigation team and I got started. I went to the second floor with Joe and Tony. Jeff took the basement by himself.

When Joe told me we were going to try to use a Ouija board, I was almost ecstatic. Almost. Pop culture has set us against the things since, well, forever. I also knew from the Witchboard movies that sometimes what comes through the board is worse than a ghost, but I also told myself to keep an open mind.

The Ouija isn’t a standard part of a ghost hunter’s arsenal; Joe’s brought it along to see what will happen. He attempted the same experiment at a prior investigation and got surprisingly active results. Aside from a few tics, bumps and jumps, the board’s planchette stays silent and immobile after nearly an hour of questioning. If the Banshee is haunted, its spirits did not want to communicate with us.

In the quiet dark, we asked questions without expecting answers and trained our cameras on the blackness, searching for electronic proof. Earlier in the night, one of the team remarked that ghost hunting was incredibly boring except for the short bursts in which interesting things happened, and it was so true that the act of waiting became painful.

That’s when Jeff, clearly spooked, asked for extra help in the basement.

Trailing behind Tony, we dropped our hands off of the planchette, snatched up our flashlights and hustled from the 2nd floor through the barroom and down into the basement. I half expected something to grab me as I rushed out of the stairwell; nothing did. Jeff was safe, though he had been rattled pretty badly by the sound of a breaking bottle.  Using our lights to scan the room, we couldn’t find any trace of the broken bottle until we found two employees still hanging around, one of whom had dropped a bottle while taking out the night’s trash.  Our first scare of the night had been debunked.

That brings up back to three AM in the basement.  After our first sweep of the basement, we found an inexplicable EMF hot spot in the middle of the basement’s front room.  We also discovered that all of the cameras and recorders set up in that room were now either dead or nearly out of power, despite everything being fully charged before we started only a few hours ago.  My own handheld recorder was behaving erratically, but still had full power.  We started questioning and monitoring the responses we’d get on the meters.  I’m not going to say we were communicating with something, but I will say the timing of the spikes and beeps on the meter were definitely intriguing.

After a cursory walk through the rest of the building, the entire team gathered in the basement to try another EVP session.  It’s three AM, and the temperature in the basement is dropping rapidly. It’s gone from 65 degrees down to 52 over a period of thirty minutes. To my right, Joe asks, “Are you a male entity?” No answer.

“Make the device go off twice for yes,” he instructs we-don’t-know-who, motioning to the meter placed on the floor two meters away from any of the four of us. Within thirty seconds, one beep sounds in the silence, followed after a pause by another. Two lights.

“Are there other entities in this room with you?” we had already asked it. Beep Beep. Two lights.

“Is there an evil entity in this room?” Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep; no delay at all. All the lights are bright and steady.

Using this schema, we confirmed that the male entity’s name began with the letter Q, and that he had a daughter who was here with him.  In the best of circumstances, thorough research can corroborate these details, but the consistent problem of  this investigation has been a lack of reliable history to refer to. Perhaps with a few hours of library time we might be able to nail down a more accurate history of the premises or look deeper into what could be a clue or erratic behavior caused by an unshielded line.

My initial instinct about the investigation is to say that whatever has happened in The Banshee to the waitresses is most likely the result of them scaring each other with ghost stories.  But what happened in the basement isn’t easily explainable.  Was it all a fluke?  Possibly.  We didn’t see any apparitions, didn’t hear any voices, and didn’t experience any poltergeist activity; the Ouija planchette did not move on its own.  Though none of the events that earmark a movie haunting manifested themselves, there’s still research to be done on the hours of film, audio and photographs that were taken during the investigation to be combed through and they could likely contain spectral images or EVP, and analyzing that data takes longer than a commercial break.  As always, reality is never as glamorous as reality TV, but it can be just as rewarding.  Accordingly, the trio of investigators confess to a certain boyish glee whenever they can find a piece of evidence they can’t explain away, bringing them one step closer to finding out what really is out there.