The sun slowly made its way across the sky. All across the land, tribes and villages readied for war. The more ruthless didn’t even wait for that, striking out against their helpless neighbours the moment they heard the news. Young-ones screamed, females cried, warriors roared in frustration and grief. The Master Builders were coming. Be ready to fight for victory, or suffer the tragedy of defeat.

By the time Maximus Rum made his way to the dungeon entrance, evening had already arrived. Orange and reds stained the heavens above and bathed the forests in rich browns and long shadows. Sitting down heavily on a ruined column in the middle of a ruined temple, dirty, sore, and grateful for the rest, he reflected on his journey so far.

It had started out totally fine with no hint at all at just how messed up things were going to get. Just about the only thing of note as he made his way along the shore front had been when a large sea monster had poked its head up from the waves a long way out to sea.

Max had been sure to keep a little further from the sea line after that, but apart from that, nothing.

When the time came to turn left and head into the forest though, that’s when things started getting hairy.

He’d almost been eaten by a giant man-eating plant when he’d tripped over one of its vines. It had only been some quick cutting with his knife on the vine around his ankle that had saved him from becoming plant food.

Then later on, he’d encountered a massive wolf on the path in front of him. He’d frozen like a deer in the eyes of a predator, which he’d quickly realised was exactly the wrong move to make. Luckily there had been a vaguely club-like branch in easy reach and after snatching it up, along with his best roaring cave man impression, the wolf had apparently decided there was easier prey around, and loped off.

After stripping it down a bit, he’d kept that branch-club in hand the rest of the way, sometimes forcing his way through bits of forest seemingly thicker than setting concrete.

It wasn’t all bad though.

His various encounters had resulted in some positive prompts popping up. He also discovered the ability to keep these prompts minimised until he was ready to access them.

— Ding! —

You have retreated from battle.

You have succeeded in escaping from a flesh-eating vine trap. Many an unwary soul has found themselves melting in this dangerous plant’s digestive sack. Your quick actions helped you avoid this fate.

You have gained 10 experience. 85 experience required to level.

— Ding! —

You have triumphed in battle.

Forest-Wolves are dangerous predators that usually hunt in packs. Although this one was alone, facing it down still required courage and resolve.

You have gained 15 experience. 70 more experience to level.

— Ding! —

You have crafted a primitive, mundane artefact, basic club.

Be aware: In Isolation, crafting items above the primitive level requires skills conveyed by buildings above the primitive level. Simply knowing how is not enough. Build your civilization and watch your quality of life soar.

Max adjusted the shirt and jacket tied around his waist and turned his attention to the massive structure now standing before him. It looked to be a temple of some kind — some kind of unholy cross of Grecian pillars and South American pyramids. The pillars started low at the edges and got taller the closer to the centre of the square. Right in the middle was a huge stone tower. Many of the surrounding pillars were broken, but the pyramid structure was still clear. A massive staircase led up the middle. Now that he was closer, his map showed that there were in fact two dungeon entrances. They looked to be almost on top of one another.

The sun was already almost gone.

After fully getting his breath back, Max decided that at least checking out the dungeon entrances would be a good idea before he put he figured out what he was going to do for the night. And besides, he didn’t actually feel all that tired. Sore, yes. Exhausted, you bet. Tired, not so much.

Of course, there was the worry that he would run into something horrible between here and the dungeon entrance, but that was just a risk he would have to take.

A quick walk around the pyramid of columns didn’t reveal any kind of entrance down into the ground around the base, so he resolved himself to climb the stairs.

His muscles continued to complain as he put one foot in front of the other. About a quarter of the way up, he could look over the tree-line, out across the endless expanse of forest and hills in one direction, and the endless ocean in the other.

When he reached the half way point, however, he paused.

The stairway split. One half continued up to the top, while the other half led straight on into the central tower at about half its height.

Max stopped to think. If there were two dungeon entrances here, and two stairways leading to the tower, and the dungeons had ‘appropriate levels’ as his prompt had said, then presumably one of the dungeons he was travelling to was the correct one. The question was, which dungeon was likely to be lower level, the one at the top or the one in the middle?

Probably the one in the middle.

After making his choice and edging carefully forward, club at the ready to take out anything that might lunge at him, Max realised that he had been wrong. Very, very wrong.

— Ding! —

You have discovered a dungeon.

Lair of the Spider Nymph.

This is an epic-level dungeon.

Warning: While your bravery is to be admired, your foolishness is not. Attempting this dungeon is well beyond your current capabilities. Do you wish to enter the dungeon?

[Yes] or [No]

Max was standing in front of a whirling purple portal with an ethereal skull chatting away at him in the middle. The portal was built into an open doorway in the tower. Max could just make out copious amounts of cobwebs on the other side of the portal. Spiders creeped him the hell out! No, thanks!

By the time he’d backtracked, taken the other stairway, and ascended all the way to the top of the pyramid-tower, a full moon had risen. It bathed the land and sea around in silvery light.

Max put both hands on his knees and bent over to catch his breath. This time, the portal into the tower was simple grey and didn’t have a ghost-skull laughing at him.

— Ding! —

You have discovered a dungeon.

Abandoned Rookery.

The Master Builder who built this pyramid tower was skilled in the magics of communicating across great distances. Now abandoned, the rookery has become a dungeon for Master Builders of the future.

This is a mundane-level dungeon.

Do you wish to enter the dungeon?

[Yes] or [No]?

— Bong! —

You have completed a quest.

Where the map leads — Part One

Reward: 60 Experience Points. 10 more experience to level.

— Ding! —

Be Aware: Dungeons exists all through-out Isolation and serve many purposes. Foremost among them is the acquisition of Deity Engrams, the blueprints required to build your settlements. But there are many other rewards to be gleamed by those with the fortitude to withstand the rigours of dungeoneering.

— Ding! —

Be Aware: Dungeons exist in pocket dimensions closed off from the outside world. Many of the normal rules of the Trial by Conquest do not apply within. Death is not permanent. Only Master Builders and their commanders may enter dungeons until they have been conquered at least once. The maximum group size that may enter a dungeon is five. If all group members perish within the dungeon, it may not be re-tried for three weeks. If conquered, it will not open again for one week. The rewards for first completing a dungeon are high. The rewards for every subsequent run are lower.

Remember, while death is not permanent within a dungeon, status effects can be. Do not take dungeons lightly, less you end up irrevocably disabled for the battles to come.

“O-kay!” Max said out loud. Apparently the old adage was true. The trial prompts giveth and the trial prompts taketh away. It was great that he couldn’t actually die in the dungeon, but on the other hand, didn’t that just make it more likely that stuff was going to try and kill him? He really didn’t want to know what being eaten alive felt like. That had almost already happened twice! And, Max remembered with a shiver, there was already some poor sap out there who hadn’t been so lucky.

On the other hand, he now knew how the dungeon was connected with completing his Establish your Village quest. He needed these Deity Engrams to construct the Commander’s residence. And completing the quest had given him a whole tonne of experience points!

Max gave the portal another look over, considering whether he wanted to press [Yes], enter the dungeon, or [No], don’t.

If he’d seen even a hint of life around the pyramid-tower, he might have been tempted to actually accept. If he couldn’t die in the dungeon, he might actually be safer inside, ironically. But that wasn’t going to be his choice. At least not yet. He didn’t know what awaited him inside. And if he failed, he’d have to wait three weeks to try again.

The thought hadn’t escaped him that he was in a race against time, along with every other Master Builder sent to this world.

He was going to make sure he had at least some rest before jumping in.

Max made himself as comfortable as he could a little way away from the portal, hit [No], and tried to get to sleep.

— Trial by Conquest: Book 1 —

A thousand miles away, a rat-being from a world of justice and torture made a deal, signed in blood, with an orc war-chief.

A hundred miles away, a mountain dwarf, out scouting beyond the realm of his tribal lands, stumbled upon a cursed magic sword.

Only a dozen miles away, a beautiful Forest Nymph dashed through the trees, eyes wide, arm bleeding, fleeing from snarls unseen in the shadows behind.

And on top of the pyramid-tower, Maximus Rum dreamed.

He dreamed of the fantasy stories he’d known as a child — of the virtual worlds he’d explored as a teenager. Colossal realms where great armies of magic and steel faced off on battlefields so grand and majestic, they made the finest terraformers blush with shame. He dreamt of the time before.

Before what?

The sun came up.

Max opened his eyes.

The first thing he noticed was that the menu icon in the corner of his vision was pulsing. He pressed it.

— Whoosh —

You are dehydrated.

If you do not find water soon, you will suffer continually decreasing capabilities in both mental and physical aspects. If you continue to go without drink, eventually you will die.

— Whoosh —

You are hungry.

While small periods of food deprivation are healthy, eventually the cons outweigh the pros. This is particularly true in life or death situations. Your strength will fade as your fast lengthens, and if it continues for long enough, you will die.

Max shifted on the stone and groaned. He really didn’t need the Trial to tell him that. Also, his night of rest had not solved his aching muscles. He guessed that he shouldn’t be surprised. What else should he have expected from sleeping on literal rock?

Max got to his feet.

It didn’t matter. Sore or not, he was rested now, and he was going to beat this dungeon. He could also take the opportunity to find some food and water. Maybe the tower had some? A man could hope. There was always the can of tuna for food if he got desperate, but he sure as hells couldn’t drink water from the sea. On top of that, he only needed 5 experience points to level. He was eager to see what kind of boon he could expect.

Hefting his primitive club, which was really little more than a large stick, he walked forward towards the dungeon portal.

 — Ding! —

You have encountered a dungeon.

Abandoned Rookery

This is a mundane level dungeon.

Do you wish to enter?

[Yes] or [No].

Max pressed [yes].

The moment he did so, the whole world shifted around him. The sensation was that of waking up after a feinting spell. One moment he was on the outside looking in, and the next, he was on the inside looking further in.

Turning around, he found the portal again.

Experimentally, he reached out a hand to touch it.

— Ding! —

Be aware: Leaving the dungeon will constitute its failure, activating the three week lock-out.

Do you wish to exit the dungeon?

[Yes] or [No]

Max smiled. He’d been worried about being trapped in here with no way out. Now he knew that if he found something he couldn’t handle, he could always return to this point and leave.

Satisfied of his immediate safety, he turned back around and inspected his surroundings. A large entrance hall of dirty marble and quartz greeted him. Faded tapestries of red and blue, emblazoned with the crest of an elephant-like creature hung from the walls. Dust lay everywhere. The air felt dead. The only sound was the faintest whistle of a wind coming from the far side of the room.

There, behind a broken wooden door, a long marble corridor snaked out in a lazy curve, around the tower and out of sight.

Max was pretty sure that even this small bit of the dungeon was larger than the tower, as massive as it was, could actually contain.

He only wondered about that for a moment though, because off in the corner of the entrance hall, lay something far more immediately relevant.

A large wooded chest.

A tiny fragment of memory from times gone by whispered at him that chests in dungeons contained loot. And that loot was good.

He took one step towards the chest and hesitated.

Another fragment of memory shouted caution. After all, who just leaves a chest containing anything valuable where anyone could take it?

‘Someone who doesn’t expect their rookery to eventually become a dungeon that people loot for goodies,’ said another part of his brain.

Max shook his head. He didn’t know anything about how the whole ‘becoming a dungeon’ thing worked. Until he knew more, he wasn’t going to take any chances.

Carefully, he crept over to the chest, trying to spot anything that might resemble an alarm or a trap.

He put his hands on the chest lid.

— Ping! —

You have found a dungeon chest

Be aware: Dungeon chests contain the boons of Isolation and refill each time a dungeon is completed. Items gained after the first successful run will, however, be of lower quality.


Max opened the lid and was greeted with a small cascade of prompts.

— Ding! —

You have discovered rope.

This is a mundane item.

— Ding! —

You have discovered empty clay pot.

This is a mundane item.

— Ding! —

You have discovered iron ingot

This is a resource item.

— Ding! —

You have discovered small coin purse

Total contents: ten copper coins.

Coins? Resource items? Max made a mental note to wonder about the economics of Isolation later. In the mean time, he picked up each item in turn and stored them away in his inventory. He might have to prioritise and organise his slots later on, but right now, he’d just grab everything he could get.

“Time to find out what else this dungeon has for me,” he muttered.

The corridor on the far side of the entrance hall curved around and up the tower for quite some time. Long enough that Max figured they should have already breached the roof, if not for the apparent strange geometry of dungeons.

After a few minutes of climbing, he slowed down as he approached a doorway in the stonework ahead.

He could hear shuffling.

The door itself was only half open, wedged in place by a bit of fallen masonry.

Max crept forward and, for the briefest of moments, spotted something on the other side of the door — black, feathered, bird-like, and as large as a leopard!

It was a crow — a crow far bigger than any crow had any right to be.

Right at that moment, the crow stepped to the side, tilted its head, and, with an eye that could already see you as carrion, spotted Max.

It gave a massive “CAW!” and leaped towards the door.

Max reacted on instinct.

Spotting a choke point when it was presented to him, he ran forward with a roar of terror, club held high. He swung as hard as he could.

It wasn’t enough. The giant rook took the hit right on the head, but the feathers absorbed most of the impact, letting the huge bird swing its head back around and lunge for Max through the door, pointed beak thrusting forward like a spear.

The dumb part of Max concerned only with survival screamed at him to retreat, but he knew that the door was his best chance. He pushed himself aside as the beak tore at the empty space where he’d been at brought the club down a second time.

Again, it wasn’t enough.

The rook shook it off, just in time for Max to dart in through the door, lashing out all the way, and position himself again on the other side to deliver another heavy blow. He gave it two more desperate swings with the club as the bird lunged for him through the gap before the rook decided it had had enough.

On the fourth attempt to gut its prey, the huge bird crouched down and scrabbled through the gap, forgoing lunging at Max to simply get through the opening and block it’s pray from escaping again.

Desperately, Max gave the bird another whack, but huge wings flapped open, and the blow was easily shrugged off.

The rook lunged.

Max felt the impact.

It was like being hit in the chest by a feathery cannon ball.

The next thing Max knew, he was on the ground, struggling, wrestling, feet to claws, and hand to beak, his club knocked out of his hand.

If he didn’t do something, he was going to be killed! The bird was stronger than him! From some unknown and extremely unappreciated part of his forgotten memories, images of a crow tugging at the intestines of a rabbit that was still alive and twitching flashed through his brain.

“No!” he shouted. He had to do something!

His eyes flickered towards his menu icon.

Without his even having to use his hands, his personal menu flashed open — along with his inventory.

— Ping! —

You cannot put Giant Rook into your inventory.

“I’m — Not — Trying!” Max shouted angrily, hands desperately wrangling the sharp beak away from his face.

He focused on the slot containing his open multi-tool.

Searing pain flashed across his lower body.

The multi-tool fell onto the floor beside him with a clatter.

“Just a — bit — more!”

He forced the rook’s beak away with just one hand. The beak slashed his palm. Max grabbed at the tool with his free hand, found his grip, and in one powerful motion, brought it up and stabbed with the blade, hard, right into the bird’s eye.

The rook cried in alarm and pain. In mere moments, the equation had shifted. Now it was Max who had the upper hand. The rook tried to back off, but Max was having none of it. He stabbed again and again, running on adrenaline, anger, and fear, plunging the knife into any vulnerable point he could find.

Eventually, the desperate scrabbles of the bird slowed, then ceased.

Max felt the weight of muscle and claws collapse.

It fell to the ground beside him.


— End of Chapter 2 —

This chapter was released to patrons four chapters before the general reading public and constitutes an alpha release. Any feedback, reactions, or discussion is highly prized.

— 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

One thought on “Chapter 2

  1. I like this chapter. The only changes I’d suggest are in regards to the first Portal; is the skull talking/chattering, or is the portal? Does it have a voice? Is it an annoying one, or something soothing, like James Earl Jones inviting you over for some Dark Roast Jedi?

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