People sometimes say that they are having one of those days. The days in question are rarely specified. The listener isn’t expected to ask, “What kind of day is that, then?” They’re just expected to know.

Would you like to die?

[Yes] or [No]

Maximus Rums’ day looked like it was going to be one of those days. He stared at the words. They floated in front of him in a transparent blue prompt box, the same shade as his skin, reminiscent of ye oldie computer games of yore.

Would you like to die?

[Yes] or [No]

The words followed his vision as he moved his head around to see where he was. A rough pebble beach stretched out ahead and behind. Thick trees lay inland. Rough waters lapped against the shore. His lower body was numb with cold. This was probably because while his upper body was dressed in a suit jacket, shirt, and tie, everything from his family jewels down was exposed to the air. Naked. He didn’t even have shoes!

Would you like to die?

[Yes] or [No]

Max tried to think. It wasn’t easy. He didn’t know how he’d gotten here. He didn’t know where he’d been before or what he was doing now. In fact, apart from his name, Maximus Rum (which sounded rather like a drinks brand, or possibly an order being shouted at a barkeeper) he couldn’t remember anything about himself at all!

A quick search of his jacket pockets for clues proved only modestly helpful. A leather wallet contained a thousand Earth dollars, a few credit cards, a small photo of an adorable black kitten, and a business card which identified him as an employee of the RING corporation (junior advertising writer). There was also a multi-tool with knife, a can of tuna, a tiny notebook—which turned out to be empty—a solid gold fountain pen(!), and two pairs of women’s underwear(!!!) — one red and lacy, the other, white and frilled.

Max wasn’t sure about much right now. But top of his suspicions list was that whatever he’d been doing last night, must have been a good time. Too bad he couldn’t remember any of it.

Would you like to die?

[Yes] or [No]

One thing Rickard was certain about though, was that he didn’t want to die. He was also certain that he wanted to find out what the hell was going on. Why was he here? Where was he? Who was he? And why didn’t he have any pants?!

He still hoped the answer to that last question had something to do with the underwear he shoved back in his jacket pocket.

Gingerly, Max reached forward and pressed the [No] button.

A bolt of lightning cracked from the clear blue sky above and struck the ground right next to him, sending stone everywhere.

Max recoiled in shock. Bare arse landed on the cold pebbles behind him. His hands scraped on the the ground, breaking his fall.

— Bong —

Congratulations on passing your first quest!

The Right Choice.

You have decided not to die. A simple choice at first, but one which will become more challenging to commit to as time goes on in the Trial by Conquest. Would you like to learn more about the Trial by Conquest?

[Yes] or [No]

Holy shit! Did this thing mean to say that if he had pressed [Yes] that lightning bolt would have hit him and killed him?! This was some seriously messed up crap he was dealing with. Luckily none of the flying stone had hit him.

The only reason he wasn’t utterly freaking out was that he was vaguely familiar with the technology he was facing. This looked like one of those total emersion virtual reality games that his selective memory chose to supply his consioussness of. But that didn’t mean that getting killed by lightning or flying rocks wouldn’t have hurt!

Max hit [Yes].

This is not a VR game.


This is not a VR game. Isolation exists as a pocket dimension between worlds, created by an ancient god as a get-well gift for his demi-god son. Every thousand years, the Trial by Conquest pulls in players from across space and time to become Master Builders, competitors in a magical battle-royal civilization build-off. For the winners, the freedom and power to do as they wish, to live as kings in the world of Isolation. For the losers, death.

Do you want to die?

[Yes] or [No]

“No!” Max said loudly, punching his finger into the button. This had to be a joke, right? Gods? Magic? He lived in a world of science! His bright blue skin was proof enough of that. But even as he thought the thought, some small part of him he didn’t recognize whispered its doubts. He couldn’t remember exactly, but where before there had been nothing, now there was at least the shape of a memory.

“Take this amulet,” a woman in shadows had said. “Take this amulet and never let it go.” Then there was something about a magic portal, and…

Max’s hand flew to the tie around his neck. It was just a tie — orange and silk. There was no amulet. Not above his shirt, nor beneath it.

It took a second for Max to realize that hitting the [No] button this time did not cause a second lightning bolt to drop from the sky.

— Ping! —

You have received a quest.

Win the Trial by Conquest

Your arrival in the world of Isolation coincides with the thirteenth Trial by Conquest. A thousand years ago, the Great Dragon burned down the civilizations of the previous Trial, reverting the world to a near-primitive state. Now it is your turn. Build your civilization, conquer your enemies, win the Trial by Conquest, and rule over Isolation as a king!

Quest objective: Win the Trial by Conquest.

Requirements: To win the Trial by Conquest you and your allies must control at least two-thirds of Isolation.

Penalty for failure: Death.

Max took a deep breath. This was real. As absurd as it sounded, this was not a game. He was caught in some kind of magical inter-dimensional blood sport, designed by a god with little to no idea of what good parenting looked like. Now was not the time to panic. But seriously! Who the hell creates a whole world so their kid can play Fantasy Generals in real life?

Hang on. Max took another deep breath. He had to focus himself. Not panicking wasn’t good enough. Now was also not the time to purely react. He had to take control of the situation. There were two major themes being presented to him — classic carrot and stick. The carrot was the prospect of being a king. That sounded kinda cool, although Rickard didn’t want to imagine what he might have to do to achieve it. While he still couldn’t remember who he’d been before being sucked into this world, the business card heavily suggested that ‘king’ wasn’t part of his job description.

The stick, on the other hand, was the prospect of death.

He certainly didn’t want that.

He briefly thought of the world he had left behind, but only briefly. There simply weren’t that many thoughts to have.

“Okay!” he said out loud, pulling himself to his feet. The pebbles felt hard under foot. A crisp sea breeze still blew around his exposed nethers. “I’m in. What do I do now to win this Trial by Conquest?”

All across Isolation, breathed a whisper on the wind. “The Master Builders are coming.”

It swirled around the trees, planes, mountains, and swamps. Across the great unknown and the lived-in lands. It whispered into the ears of all, no matter their species, race, or disposition. If they could hear and understand, the wind brought the message.

Chieftains of villages convened panicked meetings, raiders on the steps roared battle cries, petty tyrants of ruined cities immediately started plotting, and deep down in the depths underground, where no day-light being had stepped for a thousand years, ancient evils stirred.

All of this was lost on Maximus Rum though.

He starred at where the prompts had displayed themselves before, willing more to come into being.

Amazingly, this actually seemed to work.

— Ping! —

You have received a quest.

Establish your Village.

Every civilization starts small and grows to greatness only by the whims of fate, the resolve of its leaders, and the skills of its people. As your civilization’s Master Builder, it is your task to plant the seed and nurture its growth.

Objective: Build a Commander’s Residence 

Penalty for Failure: Death

Be Aware: Only certain areas are suitable for founding a village. These areas include, near dungeons, concentrations of resources, or natural transportation hubs. Maximizing the number of advantages your eventual capital will have can be key to the long term success of your civilization. Choose wisely.

Max started at the prompt. So now he was a Master Builder? The prompts had said so before as well, but how did that work? He didn’t know anything about building. But at least he now knew what he was supposed to do. Find a suitable place for his village. And then what? Just hope people would turn up to help?

‘Hey, there! We’ve been happily living our own lives in this world for a thousand years, but now that you have turned up, oh great Master Builder, we’re going to drop everything we’re up to, join your banner, and fight to the death so that you have the chance of becoming king.’

Even in his head, it sounded highly unlikely.

People just weren’t like that.

It was then that he realized that after the quest appeared, something in his vision had changed. There was a small transparent menu button hovering in the top right corner of his vision.

He pressed it.

All at once, a huge glowing blue menu prompt full of options winked into existence. It was so large, it curved slightly around him.

[Relationships] [Civilization] [Deity Engrams] [Inventory] [Map] [Quest Log]

All the options were grayed out, except for the [Quest Log] button. Naturally, he pressed it.

Unsurprisingly, the quest to win the Trial by Conquest and establish his village showed right at the top of the list. What was more surprising, was that he already had two other quests.

3. Know they-self

You are currently suffering from amnesia. Such is the status of all who arrive in Isolation, and only by completing key milestones will your memories slowly return.

Objective: Complete a dungeon.

Reward: Knowledge of yourself. Experience Points.

4. Open for Business 24/7

   You have arrived in Isolation lacking garments covering your lower body. While there are beings in Isolation who will not care about such matters, many others will. It is recommended you remedy this situation before attempting to persuade others to join your banner.

Objective: Cover up your nether regions.

Rewards: Experience Points. The quest you were actually supposed to receive along-side Know Thy-self.

Holy, hells. This world was judgmental! What was this?! A fancy restaurant that wouldn’t let you in until you’d put on your shoes and shirt? “Hey!” he said out loud. “Are you listening to me? Can we talk?”

Max waited long moments for a reply, but none came. “Not even a little bit?” he tried again. “I mean, clearly you can hear me or you wouldn’t be able to give these prompts. If you can perceive, form opinions, and judge, then you must be intellegent.”

Still no reply.

Max groaned. If the world was going to play mum, he would have to complete the Open for Business 24/7 quest before doing anything else. He needed the quest this one was blocking. Without it, he could be stumbling around missing half of what smelled like a tutorial. Max wasn’t sure how many computer games his old self had played but he felt like he had enough common sense to tell that skipping the tutorial in a life or death situation was a bad idea.

Unfortunately, the moment he’d finished reading the quest text, his mind had instantly jumped to a solution for how to complete it. Pursing his lips, he drew out of his pocket the women’s underwear. Panties, knickers, bikini-bottoms, whatever you wanted to call them, one thing was clear. Nothing that could easily write its name in the snow was supposed to wear them.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he muttered.

He picked the soft white pair on the logic that it looked to be the only one with a hope of actually covering him up, even a little. He had his right foot in one of the leg holes when he stopped. Dark blue flushed his cheeks.

“Maximus, you are an idiot!” he shouted. Just because this was one solution to the problem, that didn’t mean it was the only one! Quite apart from the damage to his masculinity, it wasn’t even the best solution from a practical point of view.

Very glad that no one had been watching, Max quickly shoved the underwear back into his jacket pocket. He then took off the jacket and tied the arms around his waist, forming a skirt at the back. He then repeated the same trick with the button up shirt around the front. The result more than covered up his lower half, leaving him bare-chested on top. Would that be good enough for his…her… its royal highness?

— Bong! —

You have completed a quest.

Open for Business 24/7

Through lateral thinking you have avoided abject humiliation. Congratulations. The first solution you think of is not always the best solution long term. Remember this as you journey through Isolation, or else end your journey impaled on someone else’s magnificent weapon.

Oh, great. This world also had a twisted sense of humour. Wonderful.

— Ping! —

You have received experience points.

For completing the quest Open for Business 24/7, you have gained 5 experience points. 95 experience points required to level.

Be aware: Experience can be gained through many avenues. Each level gained rewards you with a choice of boon to help you on your journey. The personal window in your UI is now unlocked.

Max quickly navigated to the [Personal] section of the menu system and indeed saw that the button was no longer greyed out. On pressing it, he was presented with a blue window, which showed an empty inventory, his current level of one, and an icon displaying his amnesia status.

Experimentally, Max tried placing his solid gold pen into the inventory window. The moment the pen touched the screen, it vanished, and a cartoon representation appeared in one of the sixteen boxes before him. This would certainly come in handy. Max wondered if there was any limit to the size of item that could be placed in one of the squares. Something he’d have to test.

The experience prompt hadn’t been the only one to pop into his vision though.

— Ping! —

You have received a quest.

Where the map leads — Part One

When you came to Isolation, you were placed in a random location near an appropriately low-level dungeon. Find the entrance to the dungeon. Your [Map] is now available from the menu.

Reward: Experience points.

Penalty for failure: Unknown

At last progress! Max navigated to the [Map] in the menu system and studied it carefully. It only showed the area immediately around where he now stood. Everything else was covered in fog. There was, however, an icon far off along the coast and slightly in-land — the cartoon representation of a cave with a locked door. That had to be the dungeon.

Max took out his multitool and flipped open the tiny knife that was his only real weapon. If he was going to be forced to compete in this ‘Trial by Conquest’ then he was going to give it his all. He didn’t know much about who he was, but what he was sure he wasn’t the kind of man to back down from a challenge.

He now had a direction, a short-term goal, and a long-term objective. The dungeon. Establish his village. Win the Trial by Conquest. He still wasn’t exactly sure how the dungeon and his village were linked, but he was sure going to find out.

It was time to get stuff done! He started off in the direction of the dungeon, every stride long and determined.

— Dong! Dong! Dong! —

Master Builder number 43 has been eliminated.

Cause of death: Eaten alive by giant worms.

Max’s blood ran cold. He stared at the prompt for a long moment. Then he set off along the sea shore again, eyes alert, ears straining, every stride short and cautious.

— End of Chapter 1 —

— Ding! —

You have received a repeating quest.

Head over to the discord server and react to the chapter in the exclusive , patrons-only trial-by-conquest channel.

Reward: A happy LeadVonE

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