As the light fades I see the Jorgdaughters, Gloria, and Feir, carrying torches out to the tiring villagers. Whether the workers are hanging from the beams running across the ceiling of the first-floor entryway, or all the way on the Temple rafters, they pause to grab a torch. The hand-milled planks forming the temple’s frame still have small strips of bark, like tufts of hair missed by a barber’s shears. The doorway, taller than two men, faces me, north of my hill in the center of town. The tallest trees, further north, rise well above the fifteen-meter rafters running across the top of the church.
When it’s complete, three rooms on the first and second floors, laid out east to west, will front the church. The main chamber of the church, directly behind those rooms, will span every floor of the temple and run another twenty meters deep and ten meters wide. A waste of space and manpower in my opinion, but when building plans appeared in a notification three days ago, titled, ‘Vitalia’s Temple’, I decided her divine majesty would not approve of deviations.
I have two days left until Null Division comes to see progress on the Smithy. According to his terms, if all my people were working on upgrading the Smithy and collecting resources specifically for forging armor and weapons, all would be well. Mary Jorgdaughter would be returned, he’d defend the town from dangers and in just two short game months I’d be free to do with my time what I will. Complete and utter nonsense.
I’m not going to pretend I’m sticking to his terms. The Smithy will not be Level 2 when he returns. Null Division will see the new Clay Workshop, Sawmill, Water Wheel, and Vitalia’s Temple. I’m hoping that the Temple and associated quests somehow offer us protection from him. Something about Vitalia doesn’t make me believe it will solve all my problems. Maybe it was her opportunism. She didn’t seem to care about Mary’s plight, only that it would push me towards her goals of building a temple.
My town's odds of survival increase slightly when I factor in my team of elites. I believe Dan will convince Samantha to return and protect the town, maybe even kill some of Null’s allies, but in a confrontation with Null, I still don’t see it going our way. She’s nowhere near as powerful as Null. She was what, level nine when I saw her days ago? That’s nothing compared to Null’s thirty-six. If this game is anything like those before it, a character’s power doesn’t increase at a gentle slope, it goes up rapidly level to level. Even with Dan, Leonard, and Doc with low-to-mid twenty levels, their chances of defeating a single level thirty-five player are slim. Counting on Null’s incompetence won’t work either, he’s beyond competent. Maybe they’ll all gain some levels and their abilities will somehow overwhelm Null’s but the odds are low. Too low. I have an idea of one other thing I can offer Null to get him to throw out his quest, but it won’t turn him to my side and it wouldn’t align with James’s wishes.
I rub my face with both hands, briefly obscuring my vision. I’m not at my best. If I was at my best when I came up with the plan for Athens, I would have recognized the danger that a single high-level player presented to my resource acquisition and building advancement strategy. I had considered it briefly but dismissed it as unlikely. Players need Homesteads like mine and the NPC vendors that my villagers represent -- why would they try to kill them all? I can imagine another Homesteader attempting to conquer my territory but that’s not in play at this stage of the game. I didn’t realize a quest with good enough rewards is all the motivation most players need. Another mistake, not discovering that Gods can issue quests, and will give them to other players specifically to thwart you.
I slept and ate some the past few days, in accordance with Dan’s wishes and to try to up my mental clarity, but I can feel my mind struggling, like a runner up to their waist in water. I know I miss James, I’ll always miss him, but I refuse to be crippled by it any longer. I have to focus. There must be more we can do.
“Matteus, Raul, Valeria, please come here for a moment.” My builder and husband and wife hunter team put down their tools, grab the beams running across the first-floor ceiling with both hands, hang in the air and drop to the ground before walking towards me. Once they are near and bow slightly, I nod and say, “Matteus, can we pull more lumber up to the roof of the temple?”
“Yes, the ropes and pulleys are still in place.”
“Raul, Valeria...” I pause slightly, a man I don’t recognize, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and worn leathers emerges from the darkness surrounding the temple work site. I refocus on Raul and Valeria and keep speaking while Mitchell intercepts the stranger. “do you think you can trap any predators, Jaguar, Bear, anything that could cause a problem for the marauders at the end of the week?”
Raul shrugs, “Of course, but it will likely take more than just Valeria and me.”
“Ok, here is...”
“Lady Francine, a moment,” Mitchell says, the stranger by his side, hands in pockets with a long leather jacket tucked behind his arms.
“Make it quick.”
“This man, Bradford Buchanan, wishes to speak to you.”
I look at Bradford, noticing brown eyes, forward set shoulders and a green wool sweater underneath his leather coat. I wait, it’s not my place to speak first. He doesn’t make me wait long.
“Good to meet you, I am, as your man said, Bradford Buchanan. I represent an allied group of Homesteaders near yours called the Border Council. Impressive town you have here, is that a Sawmill you are building near the river?” Bradford says.
“Why?” I say.
“Excuse me?” Bradford says.
“Why are you forming an alliance? And why are you telling me about it.”
“The founding Homestead of our alliance, Riven, was approached by a man, much like myself, representing a different group of Homesteads. That group, unlike ours, wasn’t offering an alliance. They offered protection. A ‘natural extension of the game’s immunity’ they called it. They hinted at all the disasters that could befall us if we didn’t have the backing of a strong group of warriors like theirs. Malicious players, warlike Homesteads, wrath of the gods, and more, all solved by signing up for their protection. It would only cost us a small tribute of food, resources, and weaponry. Extortion, you understand?”
“I’m familiar with it.”
“Riven doesn’t like threats. And yes, he named his Homestead after himself, make of that what you will. Riven set out to gather other Homesteads, not on the basis of threats but cooperation. We trade with each other, allow our sworn players access to each other’s dominion and if the time comes, protect each other from outside aggression.”
“Where are these allied Homesteads?”
“Forgive me, but I will not disclose our location to a Homesteader of unknown disposition.”
“If I join this Border Council, can you have defensive forces here in two days time?”
Bradford’s eyes widen slightly.
“No, it is not possible...”
“I see, so you would have me join your alliance, to protect you when the wolves circle your Homesteads but offer me no assistance when they are sniffing at my henhouse? ”
“It’s not possible or we would most certainly honor terms of the alliance. We are at least two days journey from you by foot and we don’t have mounts. I think if you consider the possibilities in trade alone...”
“Two days journey to the southwest then? You aren’t east or north, I founded Athens at the northeast journey of the settleable lands. I understand your point on trade and I will consider it.” I have no intention of considering trade with nearby Homesteads, but I don’t need to make the road harder for myself by being overtly hostile to the neighbors, at least not yet. I hold out my hand and shake Bradford’s when he offers his.
“Thank you for speaking with me Bradford, I will consider your offer of alliance. I will not accept or deny at this juncture. Please return in a game week’s time and you will have my answer. Mitchell, please take Mr. Buchanan for refreshment at the Don’t Mess With Texas Saloon. That will be all.”
I turn back to Matteus, Raul, and Valeria.
“This is what I want you to do. There is no room for error, these measures may just save our lives.”