Prologue - Clan Havoc

"Twiz! Wake up!" Somebody yelled.

I didn't see who it was, but I knew I was the one being addressed. Anyone speaking with a really bad Scottish brogue had to be a MacThoi, and only Slappy's boys were brave enough to call me "Twizzler". It was a name I'd gotten back in my first year with Arcadia, when I was part of Clan MacThoi myself. I hate it. Of course, like all crappy names, it sticks to me like duct tape.

Suffice to say, I prefer to be known as the Dread Pirate Morgan. I thought I'd made that obvious that Twizzler was dead when I'd started wearing all black, carrying a rapier, and donning a mask. I totally ripped my character from the Princess Bride, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. It's not original, but it's fun as hell to play.

Apparently, being "the Dread Pirate" is also great for picking up underage girls. Now before you get the wrong idea, I should probably make it clear that I don't want to pick up jailbait. It's just something that happens to me because I look like a teenage boy. A new throng of giggly little idiots follows me around at every Arcadia event, at least until someone informs them that I'm not the second-coming of Cary Elwes, but twenty-three year old female with stupid genetics who's made some bad life decisions.

"We're ready!" I shouted back. Although I was supposed to be in character already, and shouldn't have answered to "Twiz", I took that warning and readied my flintlocks.

Looking out across the battlefield, I could see a slow-moving sea of blue and white. The Alliance formed by Clan Oleander and Clan Pendragon outnumbered us three to one, and they looked a lot more imposing than we did, all dressed in their matching tabards. Only three people on our side are even wearing Clan Havoc's official colors of red and gold. One of them was Alexi, and the other two were Bryce and Kit. Without Steve standing right behind them, they all looked lost. Still, Steve would have wanted us to finish what he'd begun. We couldn't back out now. One was or another, King William Pendragon was going down.

We waited. The melee should have started already, but we were still missing at least fifteen people, most notably Lucrezia, our most powerful wizard.

Finally, a third army appeared on the field, one as mismatched as ours. After waiting for Clan MacThoi and Clan Black Sun to get their act together for most of the morning, it was nice to know that our allies were finally ready to play.

"It's about time you lazy bums! Everyone was waiting on you!" Phil yelled from the steps of his silver Airstream "castle".

"Our apologies, Emperor Phil!" Captain Slappy shouted back. "A set of keys were locked inside of a horseless carriage. Perchance do you have a hanger of clothes of the bendable metal variety?"

"Perchance I do," Phil replied. "To whom should I deliver this mystical device of door opening?"

"To Mistress Lucrezia of Black Sun, so it please you," Captain Slappy replied. Lucrezia waved, dunked under our yellow battlefield tape, and headed up the hill in the direction of Phil's trailer. It was funny to see her in regular clothes instead of her wizard garb. She looked like a different person when she wasn't laced into a corset and pitching beanbags. It was even funnier to see her try to curtsey before Phil while wearing pajama pants with ducks on them and a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" t-shirt. Phil bowed in return.

Phil Jackson, better known as "The Emperor" has been letting Arcadia host its annual Harvest War on his organic berry farm for fourteen years. He was a grizzled old Vietnam vet with a limp who always reeked like patchouli. At first Phil had just let us use his property, but over time he'd started to play with us, and eventually we'd crowned him Emperor of Arcadia. Phil still didn't dress in costume, but he was around and in character all weekend. So that all the new players would recognize who they were talking to, somebody in Clan Oleander made him a crown. He seemed to like that, and he wore it with his usual tie-dye shirts and ancient, stained Carhartts. Phil thought we're hilarious, and it was fun to have the old man in charge of everything.

"We await your command, noble Emperor," King William, the current de-facto ruler of Arcadia, and the head of Clan Pendragon, announced.

The old man stood up and cleared his throat. Everyone else bowed. Phil was the Emperor, after all, and regardless of who won the war, the new King of Arcadia would still be subservient to him.

"You may now kill one another," he announced. "Have fun!" With a military-style salute, he went back inside his trailer.

A bizarre hooting noise reminiscent of Bruce Lee echoed across every corner of the field, the war cry of Clan MacThoi. I readied my pistols. The sound of the hordes descending on us brought a smile to my face, and I fist-bumped my best friend, Booger Joe.

Of course, Booger Joe was looking out for me, like always. When the fighting started, his claymore kept our enemies at a distance, so that I could pick them off one by one with my flintlocks. My belt pouch was full of ammunition – wads of surgical tubing. It took me weeks to make all the slugs, and I knew I wouldn't find most of them when the battle was over. If we won, I'll have all the time I need to make more. If we lost… I'll be really pissed.

Some Oleander wizard hucked a fireball at my head and I dunked. The kid behind me didn't react fast enough. The red beanbag full of birdseed hit him right in the chest, and he picked it up off the ground, reading the number written on it. All the color drained from his face. Dead in one shot, he put his hands up over his head and walked off the field.

Thought it sucked to be killed so early in the first melee, I didn't have a lot of sympathy for the kid that had gone down. He'd shown up at the game wearing cheap fangs and had introduced himself as a demon named "Castiel", despite the fact that our website said there weren't any demons in Arcadia. When he was told he couldn't be a demon, he wanted to be a vampire or a dark elf, two things we didn't have either. In the end, we let him keep his pretentious character with the understanding that he'd fight using the normal rules and wouldn't relate his entire non-canon backstory. As I saw it, a few well-flung beanbags would knock some of the emo out of him, and the orange "first time player" tabard he was wearing would keep him from getting completely clobbered.

The next few minutes were intense. I let loose a hail of surgical tubing on everyone who got within three feet of Booger Joe, and I took almost enough hits to die. When I finally ran out of ammunition, I drew my rapier. I apologized to a girl I accidentally hit too hard, and helped her back on her feet. She was a good sport, and she shrugged it off.

As Booger Joe cleaved through some new guy in plate mail dressed like a Templar, I discovered one last slug in my pouch. I loaded it just quickly enough to nail King William in the face, which was something I had tried to do every year. The real William, not the "King", is a dick who thinks he owns Arcadia, and making him look like an idiot is something I cherish.

"Five lethal," I told him.

In Arcadia, every body part has a certain amount of "points" and then it can't be used. You take too much damage and you're dead. Technically speaking, we weren't supposed to be hitting each other in the head, but if you got popped in the nose with a beanbag or a wad of surgical tubing, it was usually good form to walk off the field.

With a sigh of defeat, King William "died" dramatically and then got back up, holding his hands up over his head so that nobody would hit him anymore. A couple of kids hit him anyway, and one of them was a member of Clan Black Sun who was already supposed to be dead. Booger Joe gave him a dirty look, and he sighed and slinked over to the sidelines.

Booger Joe and I had a reputation for beating the crap out of people, but we didn't cheat, except when it came to shooting William in the face. I did it to him because he does it to everyone else, even though he made up the rule that it should be illegal.

Kit Fox, fighting right behind me, died right after King William did, but she took her time shambling off the field. Groaning like a zombie, she waved to Phil who'd come back with his promised coat hanger and a cup of coffee. I saw Kit stop several times and realized that she was probably looking to see if her brother was still alive. Bryce Fox is affectionately known throughout Arcadia as "The Foxman" or "Steve's Fox" because he was Steve's squire for years. Seeing him leading the charge against Clan Pendragon all by himself, I smiled.

I was sure I'd lose my last health levels before the battle ended. Still, regardless of whether I lived or died, Clan Havoc was going to win this one.

If Steve had been with us, I knew what he would have done at that moment.

"Comrades, the day is ours!" I shouted at the top of my lungs. A cheer rose up from all of our dead and non-fighter allies.

"For the true king of Arcadia!" Bryce roared, waving his sword in the air and rallying the MacThois. Captain Slappy whooped in approval, and all his usual miscreants were right there with him.

Most of them didn't know what had actually happened to Steve, but that was fine by them. They'd fight for him anyway. Steve was just that kind of guy.

I turned to Booger Joe.

"Cry havoc and let out the dogs of war?" He suggested, messing up Shakespeare.

Booger Joe always messed up Shakespeare

I didn't bother correcting him.

"HAVOC!"Alexi threw his fist in the air. He was dead too, but that didn't matter.

It felt like Steve was with us. We gave our best war cries and charged.

So what is Arcadia, you ask?

Well, Steve would describe it as a parallel universe which more or less resembles a war-torn version of medieval Europe ruled by magic-wielding elves and overrun with pirates, gypsies, and nine feuding mercenary Clans. And he'd be right about that. That's his Arcadia.

On the other hand, my Arcadia is what's known as a LARP, an acronym for "Live Action Role-Playing" game located in Seattle, Washington. It's one part "Lord of the Rings" and one part Geeks Gone Wild. A bunch of us get together once a month, dress up in costumes, and hit each other with sticks.

That is to say, we don't use foam weapons like a lot of other LARPS do. Rattan means more armor, more rules, more waivers, and a lot more bruises, but at the end of the day, we can laugh at those kids in nylon Batman capes who run around whacking each other with pool noodles. Although we're essentially playing the same game, Arcadia is hardcore.

When asked to define what that word meant in respect to LARP, Booger Joe famously stated that "When people knock us down,we knock them out". Winston Churchill, my buddy is not – but that didn't stop "Knock us down, we knock you out" from becoming Clan Havoc's unofficial motto.

It's written in fancy Latin on all of our shields and bucklers, except for Steve's, which Alexi did for him in Tolkien-style Elvish, and Booger Joe's, which he wrote for himself in Klingon.

So… yeah, we're not those classy reenactors who match their shoes to fourteenth century paintings. We wear sunglasses during events and make kilts out of kitchen tablecloth material instead of real tartan. Our members can probably name more Star Wars characters than historic kings, but we're cool with that. Our priorities are to have fun and not get sued, generally in that exact order.

To be honest, I can't remember what I did on weekends before Arcadia. These days, if I'm not an event, I'm getting ready for the next one, working on garb or weapons, calling people about permits, or driving across town to Booger's place for impromptu fighter practice.

The characters we play are just another layer of the LARP onion, and the only rule we really have about creating them is that nobody can play Drizzt Do'Urden. Because that's just stupid.

Generally, the people who stick around the longest play characters that are a lot like themselves, or maybe they become more like their characters the longer they play. In a way, imagining the kind of person you want to be is the first step to actually becoming that person.

I suppose I should start at the beginning. But before I do, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. This story is not about me. This story is about Steve.