It took the entire day to rescue the prisoners, heal them, set them up with sleeping arrangements in the Chieftain’s hut, and manage various concerns from the rest of the villagers. All in all, they managed to save six humans from the Lich King’s dungeon. Only one of which was conscious. Unfortunately, consciousness didn’t guarantee sanity, a fact that James was busy ruminating over as he finally laid down for the night. His nap by the portal did him good. It allowed him to tie up some loose ends and address various concerns with the villagers long after Patrick and Alex went to sleep. Before they did, James managed to get a debriefing of the events that unfolded after he got locked out of the dungeon.
Ogrim was back, and according to Patrick, stronger than ever. The duo managed to take apart the golem with their pickaxes. As soon as the golem died, the rock walls that trapped them inside the cavern fell away. Alex said that the Golem fell into the rock walls, essentially knocking them over, but James suspected it was just a game mechanic. A well-hidden one, but a game mechanic nonetheless. After the Golem died, Alex had to enter Ogrim’s cavern to get a key to unlock the prisoner’s cages. He was surprised to see Ogrim alive and well, but managed to find the key while sneaking. When he grabbed the key, Alex said that his sneak ability must have been deactivated, since Ogrim was immediately alerted. He hit Alex with one strike that almost immediately sent him to respawn. Alex said he got away thanks to his blink ability and the fact that Ogrim didn’t erect any barriers that prevented him from leaving the cavern like the Golem did.
Alex finished his debrief with a harrowing sentence, “We aren’t strong enough to save anyone else.”
James hated that fact. He felt strong, he was practically two feet taller than he had been when he first entered the game and with an estimated twenty pounds of additional muscle. And if that wasn’t enough, which apparently it wasn’t, most of his party members had even more impressive statistics. So James sat there in his fur pile in a room on the second floor of the cabin, trying to come up with a plan to grow stronger as fast as possible so they could rescue more prisoners. Hopefully, before they went even more insane.
“Report,” James commanded as his inner circle gathered around the training area, mugs of Spiced Cider in hand.
“There are a few buildings that need your attention, sir,” Birger, the chief builder in Dreng’s Rest reported, “As you have probably noticed, we have dismantled our old stone wall and built a new one that stretches further away into the Great Savanna. We have also built a number of guard towers and other buildings. These buildings are not yet complete though. Since they were started under my direction, and not yours, they would not benefit from any boons granted by your Builder’s Interface. We have left all this new construction with one or two pieces of material not yet placed. If you could kindly navigate to your interface and start construction on the things we have already almost completed, I have a feeling that once we add the final pieces, they will gain your buffs.”
“Good thinking Birger,” James commented as he navigated to his builder’s interface and selected the partially completed buildings for construction. “We will have to come up with an appropriate reward for your proactiveness.”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary sir,” Birger replied with a wave of his hairy, and rather large, hand.
James raised an eyebrow, but before he could insist that Birger be rewarded, Torunn leaned in and whispered into James’s ear, “My people do not require rewards, Brother. It is a weird Martyr thing, as you would say.”
“Okay,” James replied without whispering and turned back to Birger, “Well, at the very least, just call me James. You don’t have to call me sir.”
This time Torunn didn’t have any commentary and actually looked just as confused as James did about the sudden formality of the Chief Builder.
Birger, aware of all the attention focused on him, offered an explanation, “Uh, of course, James. It was just a suggestion from Freydis, I meant no offense by it. She just remembered from long ago that humans liked to be addressed as sir or mams, and said I should address you that way. I actually wasn’t sure which one you preferred, the sir or the mams. Is it because I chose wrong? Should I have said mams?”
James chuckled briefly and laid a hand on Birger's shoulder, “No, no my friend. Human men are sir, and human woman are mam,” James said, purposefully pronouncing the terms correctly and loudly, “you had it right, but I am your equal, so you do not need to address me that way. James will do just fine.”
Birger nodded, relieved to have the attention off of him and eager to get back to things he could understand, like stones, hammers, wood, rope, and motivating exhausted laborers.
Alex spoke up next, “Lilly briefed me on the Library before she left. Unfortunately, she thinks something is missing and that she wouldn’t be able to translate the books no matter how long she spent with them.”
“Damn,” James swore after swallowing a gulp of his hot cider, “we will have to put that on the backburner for now then. In the meantime, everyone keep the library in mind. Information is always a priority, so if anyone comes up with any ideas, or comes across anyone that could help, let me know.” James turned to Omero and dipped his mug at him.
“The people are happy with their new cabins,” Omero said with a smile, “I think having somewhere to call their own and some privacy is doing them good. Quite a few people have already begun growing things in their backyards. I think we will have quite a few new crafting or gathering classes to study soon. Also, in the future, we might have to build bigger cabins. Family sized cabins if you catch my meaning. No one is pregnant yet, but I have seen some budding romances as of late.”
“Can a woman even get pregnant here?” Patrick asked with an uncharacteristic amount of interest.
“I don’t really know for sure yet,” Omero said with a shrug, “but we will probably find out soon.”
“Interesting,” James commented, “Anything else? How is the morale?”
“Morale is okay. It could be better and it could be worse. For the most part, people are happy that we are finally able to rescue people from the dungeon, but they are still worried about the two people that went in while we were gone.”
“Who were they?” James asked.
“A water mage, named Jess, and a fighter named, Trevor,” Omero said, without even consulting his book.
James cringed. He had hoped to consult with Jess so she could teach him how to get water mastery. Now he would have to do it the hard way. “Is there anything in your book about how she got her mastery?”
“No,” Omero answered, “Nothing that you don’t already know.”
James nodded reluctantly, “Okay. Well make sure to let everyone know we are doing everything possible to get Jess and Trevor back." James paused and looked around his circle, "My turn then. Patrick, Alex, and I need to get stronger so we can defeat Ogrim and save more prisoners. I expect we will be intensely training for the immediate future. So if anyone of us needs anything, or asks anything of you, make sure to give it priority. If you guys have anything to report save it for these morning meetings. Do your best not to disturb any of us during the day. If there is an emergency, see Torunn. If Torunn can’t help, and only then, come to find me.”
The inner circle gave a collective nod.
“Anyone have anything else to report?” James asked as he finished up his mug.
“Yes,” Michael said, “I want to establish some sort of science community. Maybe not science, but something. We need calendars, we need a way to keep time, we need infrastructure other than buildings. Omero, can you look out for people that might be good with this sort of thing? I’m looking for smart people that I can sit down with and we can brainstorm ways to improve our quality of life here.”
Omero nodded and tapped his book, “Yes, I have a few people that come to mind already. I will get with you after this.”
“Great,” James added, “I am glad that we can finally worry about our quality of life, instead of just if we are going to be alive or not.”
“Exactly,” Michael added, “It will make it easier for new prisoners to adapt once they are saved from the dungeon as well. I will call it the Culture Initiative.”
James held in a chuckle at the name. His brother had always been terrible at picking out names for things. Maybe not terrible, but certainly not creative. His names were always bland, like the time he had the brilliant idea that they created a moving company and name it, ‘Two Brothers and a Moving Truck.’
“Great, I look forward to your next report,” James said before giving a wink to his brother and turning his gaze to his game-brother, ‘Torunn?”
Torunn nodded his large hairy head, causing his ears to flap slightly, “Freydis would probably like to join this Culture Initiative of yours, Michael.”
Michael smiled, “I would be happy to have her.”
“Other than that, our Great Savanna is doing well. It is nowhere near as balanced as it should be, but it is a lot better than many of us have ever known. If anyone ventures out, please be aware that there a lot of aggressive things running around. Even some of the plants have been known to attack,” Torunn said as he idly fondled a scar by his ankle, “They can be vicious as well. Still, though, it is best not to kill some of them. Birger has built us a wooden structure that I have placed at the entrance of the village, on it you will find drawings of what can and cannot be killed. Please consult the board anytime you leave the village.”
“A quest board!” Patrick whispered, letting James know that he wasn’t, in fact, dozing off.
James printed off some more maps and handed them to Omero to top up his supply, “Okay, let’s get to work. See you all tomorrow morning at first sunlight.”
The meeting was adjoured with the imperfect echoes of everyone clapping there hands together, moments after James did.
“What are you doing?” A voice interrupted James’s concentration, causing him to jump and the water that was carefully pooled up in his hands to spill, “Oh, I see you got your boots back?”
James sighed, “I am trying to learn water mastery and yea, it was a good thing I wasn’t wearing them when I died cuz I probably would have lost them.”
Alex gave a surprised look, “Oh, yea, I forgot that happens, you know, since I haven’t died yet and all.”
“Yea yea, rub it in why don’t ya,” James said as he pulled up another bucket of water from the town's well.
Alex laughed, “So what did you lose?”
“Man, I lost my Martyr’s Skinning Knife and a pair of uncommon bracers,” James said with another sigh.
“So you can’t dual wield anymore?”
“I can. Freydis had a bunch of knives and just gave me another, but it isn’t the same ya’ know? That specific skinning knife was the first item I ever had. I am more pissed that I lost that than my bracers,” James laughed.
Alex chuckled as well, “Gotchya. Well, how is the water mastery thing going?”
“It’s not,” James said as he dumped the a bucket of water over his head, since it was the only thing he hadn’t tried yet, “I have been out here for hours and haven't got a single notification about learning a new mastery.”
“Odd,” Alex added insightfully, “didn’t you gain the fire mastery pretty easily.”
James nodded his wet head, “Yea, it was a bitch to level up, but I got the mastery almost immediately.”
“Hmmm,” Alex pondered, “Maybe we all have different predispositions for magic. I know a lot of the villagers have been trying to learn fire mastery after they saw you shoot that firebolt for the first time. Pretty sure none of them have succeeded yet.”
“That would make sense,” James said, pulling up another bucket of water, “I’m not gonna give up though.”
“Yea, you wouldn’t” Alex commented knowingly, before bidding James farewell and good luck.
A few hours and hundreds of buckets of water laters, James gave up. Except he didn’t admit that to himself, instead he walked away from the well, frustrated and dripping, under the guise that pursuing water mastery wasn’t an efficient use of his time at the moment.
“What are you doing?” A voice interrupted James’s intense concentration for the second time that day.
“What are YOU doing?” James rebutted as he flapped his arms and legs into the mud he was laying in.
“I work here,” Patrick said as he hefted his pickaxe up and let it land on his shoulder to rest, ‘no one ever comes into this cave beside me. Seriously though, why are you making mud angels?”
“I am trying to learn a new mastery?” James finally answered.
“Mud mastery?” Patrick asked with a completely serious expression.
“We.. well…” James stuttered “I was thinking Earth mastery or something like that...” James trailed off.
Patrick harrumphed, “Is that a thing?”
“I don’t know man!” James replied, loud enough for his voice to echo in the small, torch-lit cave Patrick had been digging into the mountain to harvest stone and other building materials.
“I see,” Patrick said knowingly, “Well, you might want to watch out. I am going to try and mine until my will increases or I pass out from exhaustion. Seriously, I go beast mode in here and it’s probably not a safe place to be.”
James leveraged himself out of the mud with a loud sucking sound and backed away from the red-headed miner. Just before he turned to leave, he caught a glimpse of Patrick in action. He swung his new, rarer pickaxe at the stone, which exploded angrily under the impact. The next few seconds became a blur of stone and grunts that flew through the air. Between the dust, James could see that Patrick had already made it a few inches into the stone, confirming that he did, in fact, go beast mode in there.
“What,“ Torunn’s voice echoed from behind James, “doing?”
James turned around from his spot on a guard tower and watched Torunn deftly navigate one of the many rope bridges that hung above Dreng’s Rest. “Just thinking about lightning bolts.”
“What are those?” Torunn asked as he joined James on the tower.
James chuckled, remembering Torunn’s experienced rain for the first time,” It is… it’s like. Well, do you remember those large dark clouds that floated in the sky when it rained?”
Torunn squinted his eyes as if he was looking into the past and nodded.
“Well sometimes, big powerful sparks come out of them and hit the ground,” James said, happy with his explanation. Torunn nodded again, but this time much more slowly. James figured that Torunn must have seen the sparks that flew from the blacksmithing anvil and that he was just trying to picture it happening in the sky, so he continued on, “One of the Mystics I met told me that he was once a powerful Lightning mage. I was trying to work out how someone would gain such a mastery.”
“Just catch one,” Torunn growled simply.
“A lightning bolt?” James said, “I don’t know if I could. You can’t really predict where they are going to land.”
“Then it sounds like the Mystic was very lucky…”
“Yea,” James sighed, shelving his hopes for casting lightning bolt spells for the time being, “Besides, it doesn’t even rain in the Great Savanna anyway.”
James sat with Torunn for the next hour or so, or at least, he predicted that it was about an hour or so. It was hard to tell without a reliable way to tell time at night, a problem which he hoped the new Culture Initiative would solve eventually. The two companions talked about the good ole’ times, leadership, life, nature, and other fundamental truths. An anxiety that told James he had to grow stronger grew in his stomach, but he pushed it back down. He seemed to have precious little time to spend with his Martyr brother nowadays, and he decided that an hour or so whenever he could get it was important for multiple, logical reasons that all boiled down to, “he missed Torunn’s company.”
But then James got a wonderful, awful idea. An idea so wonderfully awful that if he could pull it off it would solve his most pressing issues and get rid of his growing anxiety. James hugged his game-brother and bid him farewell before running out across a maze of rickety rope bridges.
“Ah, I knew I would find you here,” James said to his actual brother as he entered the Cabin on the Cliff, “What are you doing?”
Michael turned in his chair by the bar, “Just going over my notes from the Culture Initiatives first meeting earlier today. We got some really smart people to join. Ya’ know, I think I should maybe change the name-”
“No, the name is perfect,” James interrupted his brother as he pulled up a chair next to him, “What can you tell me about death magic? How did you get it? How long did it take you to get the notification that says you learned the mastery? How long does-”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Michael headed, “First off, please tell me that you are not trying to learn death magic. Two, do you really like the name? You always think all my names are terrible.”
James nodded impatiently, “It is terrible, but that is why it is perfect. And yes. I want to learn death magic. I figure it should be okay for me to learn since I don’t have the mark of the Lich King and I won’t go mad.”
Michael shook his head, “No, man. It won’t be okay. I wouldn’t choose to learn death magic again even if I never had gotten the mark. It’s fucking terrible man. You have to be very close to death. Not only your, real, death, but you also have to be around people that are actually dying, and not just being sent to respawn. There was a reason I was crazy when you guys found me, and honestly, it had little to do with the Lich King’s magic.”
James deflated, “Yea, sorry. Maybe I got a little too excited about casting those death bolts.”
Michael gave a soft chuckle, “Man, those things are terrifying as well. I know they probably look cool, but every time I cast one I have no idea if the thing is going to consume my enemies or me. I have nightmares about that skull chomping its way toward me every night. I swear I can still hear the skull’s laugher for a few minutes after I wake up.”
“Damn,” James said quietly, “I knew it was bad, but I had no idea it was still bad. Anything I can do?”
“Nah, I think I am okay now. I think the fact that I am not able to fight in the dungeon right now was a blessing in disguise. I have high hopes for the Culture Initiative. It's nice to focus on something other than violence right now. In a weird way, it helps me see the bigger picture better. It gives me clarity. It is so easy to get lost in stat points, abilities, and skills, finding ways to do more damage, finding ways to take less damage. I don’t know how to explain it,” Michael paused, “It's like you get lost in the fighting side of things and YOU get lost, ya know?”
James nodded his head knowingly, “Yea, I have been lost all day, trying to learn a new mastery so I can fight Ogrim better and break into another floor of the dungeon,” James paused long enough for him to turn his gaze to every inch of the cabin in thought, “Maybe I need to step back to get ahead.”
“Probably a good idea,” Michael agreed.
“I am going to learn a craft. It will clear my head, and who knows, maybe I will get some good gear or stat points in the end,” James said matter of factly. He stood up, found his spot behind the bar, and pulled a small wooden barrel from a lower shelf, “Beer?”
“You know it,” Michael said, happy to take a break from studying his notes to achieve an even higher level of clarity, “Only one or two though. My boss is a dick and makes me report every morning at the crack of dawn”
James chuckled and raised his mug to meet Michael's, “To your dick of a boss!”