There was a natural meadow between Camp Lavery’s arts and crafts hut and the old staff campsite. Full of high, thick grass and wild plants and brush, it was rough ground that didn’t reward an offensive surge over it, and that was why Wayne chose it as the field for the closing battle of the war.
Absentmindedly, he mused that it might also be the final battle of the Battle Country, too. Among his ranks, murmurs about the death of the game were spreading and some players were even researching where they were going to play next season. Katie, the de facto leader of the Arbor Elves, was so mortified by her kidnapping that she and her tribe of wannabe-Wiccan followers were in the midst of designing their own game, splintering away from Darren’s game and wicking off another rivulet of players with them.
Terra Elva, Katie was calling it. In a stroke of either sheer onanism or marketing genius, all of the player characters would be one of several varieties of elf. According to one of the young dark elf players, there would be wood elves and mystic elves and steel elves and dark elves and water elves and frost elves and fire elves and rock elves and at least four other types of elves. Terra Elva, according to Fat Chris, sounded like “a complete shitshow,” but Wayne knew it would last at least a few seasons. Hell, he thought, it could even thrive under the right circumstances.
Seven Skulls orcs, dwarves, dark elves and gnomes stood in ranks across the meadow. Behind Wayne’s army, the camp truck sat, a working catapult erected in the bed. A team of engineers had built the thing with hand tools, expert knotwork and lots of duct tape. The catapult would launch massive foam balls wrapped in thick, double-sided tape. The missiles would, in theory, stick to whoever they struck and serve as an annoying distraction from their charge; they were a gnomish innovation.
Wayne felt a bit of a pang. Not guilt, not really, but nostalgia maybe. If Battle Country was doomed, he was sad that it was his hand that doomed it. That was never his intention, just sowing chaos and trying to change the game up. Just to have some damn fun again.
That the game wasn’t fun anymore was exactly why Darren had convinced Wayne and the rest of them to leave Ioun and start their own game.
“It’s just politics,” he told them, as they drove Darren’s mother’s minivan back from an Ioun weekend. “The nepotism is really starting to get obvious – it’s all the same clique becoming staff and they reward their friends with everything.”
“We have to drive two hours just to get there,” said Tom Courts in the back seat. Wayne and Darren had met Courts in “Survey of the Renaissance” during freshman year, and he got an invite to weekly D&D and, soonafter, to LARP weekends, and he was quickly becoming one of the guys, taking Jimmy Yeung’s spot now that Jimmy was at Princeton. “Seriously, we can’t just come down here to hang out all the time just to curry favors.”
“I would be okay with just nothing but one big battle all weekend, honestly,” Wayne piped up. He sat shotgun with Darren and was engrossed in the important task of keeping the music going. He was going through a hefty pleather folio, looking for Darren’s road trip mix from that summer.
That was where the name came from.
Every LARP that Wayne had ever played, seen or heard of was the byproduct of infighting or outright collapse at some other LARP somewhere else, as though LARPers were whirlygigging seed pods, sprouting up new pool-noodle swords and handmade costumes where they landed. If so, how did the first live-action game start? It seemed that each LARP was a literal child of divorce, with all the dysfunction that came with it.
At any minute, Darren and what was left of his loyalists would march on them and attack. They would walk straight into an ambush: while they were being harried with arrow and catapult fire, Aldomar’s wizards would come in from cover and cast a devastating combination of spells that would debilitate and kill the enemy as well as making it more difficult for them to come back to life.
But if the Seven Skulls did kill off the staff’s characters and the in-game government, what next? The staff was still the staff and they still called the shots. Wayne had no plan to replace what he was tearing down, and he was acutely aware of that as he stood at the head of his army.
Behind Wayne, Chris and Aaron, in full makeup and costume, worked the ranks of revolutionaries, stirring them into a frenzy. The crisp air was alive with shouts and chanting.
The chants and shouts died out, though, as the sound of drumming and singing grew. Coming down the wide path, with The Count’s golf cart at the head, the Hawk riding on the back, one arm hanging onto the roof while the other waved the Battle Country’s flag, the loyalists’ diminished numbers marched in lock step, their voices raised in hastily improvised battle hymns.
It was eleven o’clock Sunday morning; while the world slept, brunched and clipped coupons, the fate of a world hinged on an unseen, imaginary war.
Without preamble, the Country Guard charged across the meadow. One of the charging guards was knocked onto his back by the impact of a catapult strike. The gnomes scrambled onto the camp truck, resetting the slapdash siege engine and loading another foam bullet.
Worked up into a frenzy, Aaron roared as he led a half-dozen insurgents in a premature counter-charge, oblivious to the plan in the heat of battle. Wayne saw Aldomar leading his spellcasters in front the left flank, ready to unleash hell. They paid no heed to the small band of orcs and dark elves.
Another shot from the catapult took down a member of the Hawk’s detachment just as they came into melee with Sniksnak’s party. The teenager and the guardsman clashed – FWAP! FWAP! FWAP! as foam and tape met foam and tape. The Hawk swung a devastating roundhouse blow with his two-handed sword; Aaron struggled to parry the blow, catching the blade on the crux of his crossed swords. With a sneer of frustration, the guard captain delivered a knee to the orc rogue’s solar plexus.
Aaron doubled over with a shout; the loyalists advanced over him carelessly.
Aldo was nearly in position and the front ranks of the charge were almost out of spell range.
From behind Wayne, Fat Chris ran forward, snarling in rage. With a whirlwind blow, he knocked the sword free of the Hawk’s hands and dropped his massive axe and punched the Hawk in the face. Blood fanned out, spattering Chris’s tunic and those closest to the melee heard the crunch of the guard’s breaking nose. With a squeal, he dropped to the ground. Chris lumbered over to Aaron’s side, shoving aside a gargoyle who was about to trample him.
Aldomar raised his arms to give the signal to his mages. Wayne stared on, watching helplessly as his lieutenants – who was he kidding, his friends – were caught in the line of fire. This was, he thought again, supposed to be fun, right?
Above the din of the fight, Wayne’s voice bellowed out “HOLD!” and, instantly, the war paused.
Aaron had a sprained wrist to match the Hawk’s broken nose. Nobody knew just who trampled him. Under other circumstances, there might have been finger-pointing, and maybe there still would be; the immediate concern, though, was getting first aid for the wounded combatants and getting them to an emergency room. A couple of players who were also Scouts took charge as soon as the hold was called. As they worked, Wayne sat on the ground next to a bruised and crying Aaron, holding his good hand while his wrist was splinted. His green orc makeup was streaked from tears and sweat and marred by sneaker treads in places. Wayne apologized five times.
Across the camp, in an abandoned campsite, the dark elf guards untied their prisoners and released them on the orc chieftain’s orders.
Play did not resume.
As Wayne watched Chris drive the Hawk – Steve, he finally remembered – and Aaron out to civilization, Darren approached him quietly. He was in his street clothes, a frame backpack slung over his slight shoulders containing his costume and gear. He looked exhausted.
“The orcs,” he said to break the silence, “are getting a seat on the Council. I just talked it over with Tom Courts and the rest of them.”
Without turning to face him, Wayne replied, “That’s surprising, actually. It should go to Chris. He’s a good guy.”
“I was hoping it would be you, man.”
Wayne turned, glanced at his friend, looked at the ground beyond them. Looked at the volleyball court where his rebellion began earlier that weekend. “Darren, I nearly ruined your game.”
Darren reached out toward him, but Wayne cut him off.
“No, dude. I know what you’re gonna say, and it’s not the way you think it is. This wasn’t about ideals or principles or equity. That was convenient after the fact. It got the right people on my side. I just wanted to stir some shit up, exert some force. And it got people hurt. I need to do some thinking about that.”
“Maybe so, but you didn’t do it all by yourself. Those tensions were there. We were being too cliquey. We were playing favorites, marginalizing people the way we hated being marginalized at the old game. You acted out because you were frustrated. I get it; everybody gets it. The problem, you know, with any collective is that everybody is ostensibly equal, but someone has to be the guy who takes out the trash. Not everybody gets to be the king; someone has to be the peasant, you know?
Wayne dared a knowing grin. “The peasant problem, yeah. I’ve heard it before. So…I’m not being kicked out?”
Darren chuckled. “Not yet. But we’ve lost our Arbor Elf playerbase, so we might need you to switch characters for awhile.”
“Okay, so you just hate me.”
Darren sighed. “Wayne, I don’t. You’ve stuck by me since we were kids. This? This isn’t real.”
It wasn’t real. Wayne knew that, but there were times when you could almost suspend disbelief and forget it.
Wayne stuck out his hand; Darren grabbed it, and his more rotund friend pulled him into an awkward, bromance-y hug.
“I’m glad you don’t hate me,” Wayne confided. “You’re my ride home.”
[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.]
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.
[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.]
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.
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.