Max’s eyes snapped open. He flailed around wildly with a scream before his brain reasserted control over his nervous system and communicated the message that he wasn’t impaled on spikes. That didn’t stop the huge surge of adrenaline coursing through him, nor the deep labored breaths his lungs insisting they needed.

He had been killed. And it had not felt good. Even as quick as that death had been, it had not felt good.

Max rolled over onto his hands and knees, panting.

The white mist of the portal swirled in front of him.

Max was back at the entrance, outside the dungeon, back in the outer world, where death was more than just an inconvenience. Max groaned. But what an inconvenience this was.

— Dooong —

You were defeated in battle

In the face of the Gigantic Rook, you chose to retreat to a more favorable position, forgetting in your haste the treacherous footing between you and your goal.

Be Aware: Throughout the history of the Trials, many are the commanders who sort advantage for their armies, only to lead their people to doom on terrain unsuited for continued living. Learn this lesson now, Master Builder, lest you repeat it later.

Experience gained: 0

— Dooong —

You have failed the dungeon (Abandoned Rookery).

Dungeon locked for three weeks.

Max collapsed onto his side, then pushed himself up into a sitting position with his back to the wall of the doorway that was his only shelter between him and the open air of the top of the pyramid-tower beyond.

Three weeks lock out.

What was he going to do for three weeks? From what he understood, he needed to complete his dungeon quest in order to continue. He needed that first Deity Engram to start his village. He also really wanted to know more about who he was, and why he was here. Oh, and since he was day dreaming, he’d also like a proper pair of pants so he could put his shirt and jacket back on as well. Maybe a hot bath too. And food.

His thoughts flickered to all the stuff he’d grabbed in the dungeon. A wave of his hand showed his inventory. It was still full.

Well, that at least was a blessing.

Max stared despondently at the now locked portal to the dungeon for what felt like an age. That was until something happened that snapped him right the hell out of whatever funk he’d been threatening to fall into.

— Trumpets! —

Master Builders of the Thirteenth Trial by Conquest!

Be Aware: One of your number has founded the first village of the Trial! By doing so, they have earned the title of Speed Lord, gaining three percent reduced construction time to all buildings. Strive for great deeds, Master Builders, and glory can be yours as well. Build your civilization, conquer your enemies, win the Trial by Conquest, and rule over Isolation as a king!

He was falling behind. Max scrambled to his feet, snatched up his spear (which had fallen by his side when he’d arrived back at the entrance), and started pacing. What should he do now? What could he do? There didn’t seem to be many options. He could try to find another dungeon that was low enough level for him to complete, but he had no idea how he was going to do that.

He could scout out the areas around the dungeon, so he had a better lay of the land. That sounded like a good idea.

The prompts had talked about finding places with good resources for his village. He’d been a bit confused about why he’d want to put his village right next to a dungeon, but after having been in one, he thought he understood a bit better. Dungeons were themselves resources to be mined and managed.

At the same time, the Abandoned Rookery didn’t feel like it would make for a great dungeon in that regard. A few copper coins and a handful of giant rooks every week wouldn’t constitute a bountiful resource for very long once a population started to grow.

He could use the three weeks he’d been given to find somewhere better. Whoever had just founded their village probably hadn’t put much thought into it. They’d just been like, ‘Yep, here’s good. Gogogo!’

They’d have a speed advantage, but maybe later on, it would hurt them?

Max could only hope.

At the same time, every other Master Builder had also received that message, and would also be scrambling to catch up as well.

How many Master Builders even were there? He knew there were at least 43, because of the one that had died. That was a lot of people competing. But how many more were there? Hundreds? Thousands? The map showed that the world was certainly large enough for it.

Max looked out across the landscape from the very top of the pyramid-tower. It being day time now, gave him a much better view than the previous night. There was the ocean that he’d woken up next to. The forest seemed to spread off in every direction. Except over there, where a line of mountains blocked his view. And obviously, he couldn’t see what was behind him. The tower blocked that.

Max opened his map and decided that the best course would be to push forward in a straight line away from the pyramid in three different directions. Three days in one direction, then three days back. The repeat three times. He could adjust his plans on the fly if he found anything interesting.

But he couldn’t just sit around here for three weeks, waiting for the dungeon to unlock. Even if that would probably be safer. There were people out there who wanted to kill him! His only chance of survival was to become powerful enough to defeat them first.

He started making his way back down the steps of the pyramid-tower, his spear clicking on each stone step as he used it like an impromptu staff.

He paused when he got half way down. The pathway to the Lair of the Spider Nymph lay just to his left.

Max pondered.

He was under no delusions that he was ready to face a dungeon that was described as epic-level. Especially when he’d just had his arse handed to him by a mundane-level dungeon.

But… well…

In the Abandoned Rookery, there had been that chest right next to the entrance, hadn’t there? The room had been empty. The chest hadn’t contained much, but that was because the dungeon was a mundane-level dungeon. What powerful treasures might an epic-level dungeon contain?

What if there was a chest just on the other side of the portal and he just skipped it by?

What if it held a powerful relic?

What if that powerful relic was the key to his survival in the hostile lands surrounding him? A spear was a great step up, but it was just a spear.

What he could do was quickly enter to see what was on the other side. If it looked too dangerous—or the place was empty—he could just exit the dungeon immediately. Sure, he’d fail it, but it wasn’t as though he was in any position to actually take on an epic-level dungeon, anyway. Certainly not in the next three weeks.

Max nodded grimly to himself.

Just a quick snatch and run.

No hanging around.

No waiting for something to jump out at him.

He walked down the corridor to the purple portal with the skull and put a hand up to it.

— Ding! —

You have encountered 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 capabilities right now. Do you wish to enter the dungeon?

[Yes] or [No]

Max steeled himself. He mentally went through his first real fight with the first Giant Rook in the Abandoned Rookery — the fight when he’d managed to activate prompts with just a thought of his mind. He went through the procedure to exit this dungeon in his head several times.

Phase in, activate the exit prompt, look around. If safe, continue looking. If not safe, mash [Yes, get me the hell out of here!] as quickly as possible.

Max reached up and pressed, [Yes].

Everything went black.

Max appeared on the other-side of the portal, in the corridor full of webs. He didn’t even have time to turn before the entire floor collapsed under him, and he plummeted downwards, screaming into the darkness.

— TbC: 1 —

“SHHHhhiiiitttt!”

Max fell.

“Crap! Crap! Oof!”

Within seconds, the fall had leveled off and turned into a slide made of rock as smooth as polished marble.

“Damn it!”

Max twisted onto his front and tried to slow his descent, stretching out his hands, searching for purchase, but he might as well have been attempting to find friction on ice.

“Come on!”

Eventually, after what felt like a lifetime of zooming downwards, Max slowed, but that was only because he’d run out of slide. His body came to a halt on a long flat bench, like the world’s most screwed train pulling into the breaker’s yard.

“Hells damn it,” Max muttered.

He quickly looked around. When he saw no immediate threat, he looked back up the way he’d come. From down here, the white marble slide he’d just arrived down looked almost vertical. Bollocks.

No time for beating himself up, though.

Max swung his legs off the bench and picked up his spear, which had arrived next to him, and, amazingly, not impaling him in the process.

His eyes caught something laying in a corner of the small antechamber he found himself in. It was large, wooden, and bound in brass. Max started to laugh without mirth. He’d been right. There was a chest right next to the entrance. Max finished laughing with the eternal words of wisdom spoken through the ages. “Fuck my life.”

There didn’t seem to be anything else in the room. Like the Abandoned Rookery far, far above, the walls were made of the same marble as the walls of the tower. And since the way he’d come by was not an option, the only way out was a large marble arch that lead to a long dark corridor.

Max stood and made his way over to the chest. How ironic would it be if it was trapped, and he immediately got himself killed again? That might be preferable to death by spiders — giant or otherwise.

Max shuddered.

The chest, however, was not trapped.

— Ping! —

You have found a dungeon chest

Do you wish to open it?

[Yes] or [No]

[Yes]

The moment Max pressed the button, the chest shook, then exploded open, flooding the room in a bright-blue light, so bright it was almost blinding. A scroll of parchment shot into the air, unfolded itself, and a stream of stars flew from the scroll to Max’s UI button, which then started gently pulsing. The scroll then rolled back up and poofed into dust.

Max stared.

— Ding! —

You have found a new Deity Engram.

Level One Tea House

After a hard day’s fighting, people need a place to relax. Whether noble knight or undead ghoul, everyone can enjoy a nice cup of herbal tea. Provide your people with a place to relax and increase your settlement’s general contentment for the hard road ahead.

Grants all domestic residences in the same settlement the skill: Identify herbal tea leaves.

Grants residents of the Tea House the skill: Brew basic herbal tea.

Check your Deity Engram Menu for construction requirements.

Max couldn’t help feeling a bit let down. How was a blueprint for a teahouse going to help him survive, right here, right now? Sure, people needed to relax, but that really came second to not getting eaten. This was a chest in an epic-level dungeon, and still no magic armour or weapons!

Despondent, Max turned away from the chest, still bathing the room in bright-blue light, and towards the corridor that led out of the room.

The corridor wasn’t nearly so dark now that the chest was lighting the room.

Max stared down the long straight passageway and could make out the exit at the far side.

A shiver of dread travelled up his spine as he realized exactly what he was seeing.

Eyes were staring back at him.

Hundreds of eyes.

Hundreds of eyes attached to dozens of creatures — huge, hairy, and many-legged.

Spiders ranging in size from dogs to horses.

They were all looking down the corridor at him, perfectly still, as if to say, “What the hell is this clown doing?”

Max felt something warm run down his leg.

As if they had all been waiting for the perfect dramatic moment, every spider screeched in unison and surged forward.

Max tried desperately to fend them off with his spear, but he might as well have tried to fend off a phalanx charge.

Huge mandibles grabbed him, sticky silk wrapped around his ankles and wrists, and he was carried away, screaming again, in a tidal wave of screeching arachnid, down the corridor, out into a gigantic cavern, deep into the lair of the Spider Nymph.

— TbC: 1 —

Blackness.

Max hung blind from his wrists, dangling above the ground, wrapped tight in a cocoon of silk. The last thing he’d seen before his eyes were sealed shut was a huge stone room filled with other cocoons just like his.

Every moment of his capture he was expecting razor sharp pincers to pierce skin and deadly venom to start juicing his internal organs. That hadn’t happened yet, but he suspected it was only a matter of time.

Why the fuck hadn’t he let well enough alone? This was an epic-level dungeon. The prompt had warned him. The most he could do was hope his upcoming death would be as quick and as painless as his death on the spikes before.

What the hell had he been thinking?

The moment the tide of spiders carrying him emerged from the corridor to the entrance room, Max had been able to look around, and what he saw had left him screamless.

He was now deep underground. The marble walls stretched up on all sides for what seemed like miles. Blocky buildings by the thousand filled a gargantuan underground valley. And everyone of those buildings was covered in pure white silk. Tens of thousands of spider nests, many larger than elephants, clicked and moved around the cavern.

The only other thought going through Max’s head, apart from terror, was, ‘How the hells was he expected to ever defeat a dungeon like this?!’

If he could only bring four other people into a dungeon, the Trial was asking him to go up against an army at many-thousand-to-one odds. How the actual hells?!

Max wasn’t sure how long he stayed hanging from his wrists in that room. Time ceased to have any meaning. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t even access his menu. Something was stopping his thoughts from bringing up his U.I.

Occasionally, he felt the huge spiders moving around him and he thought the time had finally come, but they merely passed him by. Then a scream or roar or other terrible sound would fill the room, cut of abruptly.

How long had it been? Days?

Even if he couldn’t access it, his menu button had started pulsing different colours again. Max’s brain felt foggy and he wouldn’t be shocked if his dehydration status had returned. Of all the ways to die in a dungeon, dying of thirst would be the worst. Would his dehydration status even be gone when he resurrected outside the dungeon portal? Would he wake up alive again, only to die again moments later?

His wrists had stopped aching. He couldn’t even feel them now. Every other muscle felt like it was made of old rubber.

Just when he was starting to lose all hope, he heard something through the silk cacoon — something incredible — a voice.

“My, my,” it said, as deep as the cavern around them, “You do seem to be in a pickle.”

Max tried to cry out. He tried to shout that he needed help. That this person should cut down out so that they could join forces and escape together. But all he managed to produce was a muffled, “Mmmhhrrrr! Mmmmhhrrr!”

“Gentle, little one,” the deep voice said. “I really must apologise for the way you’ve been treated. If I’d have known, I would have come for you earlier.”

What? Was the voice saying?! Then Max felt the familiar feeling of something huge moving around his cocoon, and a fresh shiver of dread went up his spine.

Suddenly, he dropped to the ground and rolled on the floor.

“There we go,” the voice rumbled. “Come on, you. It’s time to meet the queen for dinner.”

Oh, wonderful, Max thought. Another comedian. And rather a cliché one, at that. Even through the anxiety about what was about to happen, he couldn’t help but groan.

Max was then picked up and carried, still blind and bound, for what felt like miles.

Eventually, he was deposited on something soft and bouncy.

The silk around him was slowly removed, digested away by clicking mandibles far too close for Max’s liking. But even as his legs stopped feeling the pressure of the wrappings, he still couldn’t move them. They were stuck to something else now.

It was only when the wrapping around his face fell away that he could finally see what was holding him. He was in the middle of a huge spider’s web. And in front of him was a sight that took both the breath from his lungs and the blood from his face.

A woman lay on a massive spider-web bed, surrounded on all sides by dozens of hungry looking spiders the size of house cats. Her skin was the colour of midnight and moonlight — half pure black and half pure white. The markings wove all over her body, from the flat of her forehead to the very tips of her toes.

Max could see all this clearly because, despite the large amount of silk lying around, the woman herself was utterly naked.

She looked into his eyes with a gaze that caused Max’s breath to hitch. She opened her mouth to speak.

“Welcome to my parlour said the spider to the fly,” said Maximus Rum.

— End of Chapter 4 —

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.

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