Max still wasn’t all that sure about who he was or what he stood for. He’d arrived in Isolation without his memories, without knowing what the hell was going on, and without trousers.
Despite all that though, he had just discovered an important fact about himself. The presence of a beautiful woman turned his brain into overly masculine mush. That was the only conceivable reason for why he’d just made a vaguely flirty pass at the being in front of him.
The moment the words were out of Max’s mouth, he instantly regretted them. The woman laying naked before him was incredibly beautiful, but she also radiated power. The jet-black half of her skin was actually shiny chitin, and her fingernails looked like they could rend flesh.
“Welcome to my parlour, said the spider to the fly?” the woman repeated with a quirk of her lips. “I like that one. I will have to remember it. And what an amazing thing it is, to have such a handsome fly in my parlour.” She swung her legs off the giant web she lay in and stood up. Long black hair spilled down her back. “Especially so early on in the Trial by Conquest,” she continued. “Most Master Builders don’t try to conquer my dungeon for years after the Trial starts.”
“Err, yeah. That might have been a mistake on my part. I don’t suppose you’d be okay with just letting me go?” Max strained his neck to look around. Dozens of smaller spiders surrounded them. A huge one the size of a medium-sized elephant stood in front of a doorway equally gigantic.
The woman chuckled, low and sultry. “Oh, dear. You really don’t understand how this works, do you? But then, that is understandable. You are new to Isolation. So allow me to give you your first real lesson. In this world, we must all follow the rules. I am the final boss of a dungeon, so I must kill you.”
Max took a sharp intake of breath.
“Orrr…” the woman continued, sashaying over to where Max lay and placing a long fingernail on his chest. “You can offer me something that I want.”
Something that she wanted? Max stared. She’d just said she needed to stick to the rules!
“What do you want?” he asked.
The woman smirked. “I want you to feed my children.”
The clicking of dozens of pincers filled the room. Not good.
“If you’re willing to wait a moment, I’ll go and get us a pizza.”
The woman looked quizzically at him. “What is pizza?”
“It’s a baked circle of dough with tomatoes and other things on top.” At this point, it was all Max could do to keep her talking. “It tastes really good, you should try it!”
The woman made a face. “Wheat products. Urgh. I am gluten intolerant.”
Now that Max could see again, all the questions he had about dungeons while hanging in darkness flooded back again. Did a new dimension spring into existence every time a new master builder entered? it seemed like dungeon monsters came back to life after he killed them, but would they retain their memories? Did they remember every time they were killed?
What happened when there was no master builder in the dungeon? And if the monsters existed in the dungeon when there was no master builder, what did they eat?
The woman’s last statement brought all those musing to a halt. In the absence of claws and teeth ripping apart his flesh, Max couldn’t help but ask the question. “This place is supposed to be almost Neolithic! I refuse to believe that you know what gluten is.”
“Oh? Just because I live in a hole in the ground, you assume that I am ignorant? I’ll have you know that in the last 10,000 years of speaking to master builders from all across the cosmos, I have picked up many things that would blow your mind.”
Stories? That implied that she kept Master Builders alive long enough to gain such knowledge. Although, given how impossible it was for Max to move right now, the being before him could happily take her time. Maybe that was the answer! “Maybe we could trade,” Max said. “I regal you with stories and you let me go.”
The woman laughed. She threw her head back and let rip, completely unashamed by what this movement did to the rest of her naked form. “And what stories would you tell me? You are still suffering from the amnesia debuff, human. I can see it on your character screen.”
Max’s eyes widened. Both because his idea to get out of here alive had failed, and because this being could apparently inspect his status.
She walked right up to him. So close he could smell her scent. It was sweet.
“No,” she continued. “If you don’t want me to feed you to my children, you’ll have to do better than that.” She licked her lips. “Why don’t you start by emptying your inventory?”
Max couldn’t bring his menu up quickly enough. Seconds later, item after item started clattering to the ground. His wallet, the gold pen, the paper, the chestnut ink, the iron ingot, the multi-tool, the rope, the can of tuna, the rook feathers…
It was amazing how much random stuff he’d accumulated in such a short time.
When the clay pot full of rook meat fell to the floor and spilled its contents everywhere, every spider in the room clicked in excitement. But it was the clothing that most interested the spider woman.
“Ohhhh,” she purred, picking up his tie. “Silk! And such a fine weave, too. My, my.” She held the tie up at its full length and looked at him quizzically.
“You wear it around your neck,” Max supplied quickly. “Well, men do,” he added as the woman wrapped it around her neck like a scarf. “Typically.”
“Do men wear these too?” she asked, picking up the feminine underwear.
“Mmm, but these are not silk.” She actually looked disappointed.
Max saw an opening and took it. “No!” He said quickly. “They’re cotton and lace. They come from plants, but they can be made in silk as well. Do you like them?”
“Mmm…” the woman held them up and inspected them. She then stepped into the white pair and tried them on. She turned this way and that, inspecting herself.
Despite the situation he was in, Max’s mouth went dry. They fit her perfectly, and there was plenty to fit.
“I do like them,” she declared.
“Well then!” Max smiled. “How about a deal? I can—”
That was as far as he got before the woman snapped her fingers and the spiders descended on the rook meat that had spilled out of the clay pot. Razer sharp teeth shredded meat and crunched bone with equal ease.
The grizzly show went on for a minute or two and when it was over, not one scrap of meat remained.
The woman smiled at Max. “You were saying?”
Max decided to choose his words very carefully. “We could make a deal,” he said, slowly. “I’m supposed to build a civilization, right? Once my village is developed enough, I’ll make you many more of these clothes, or any types of clothes you like. In silk.”
“Mmm…” the woman put a finger to her lips. “I don’t know…”
Max couldn’t help feeling he was being played with.
“My home world has many types of clothes!” he invented wildly. “Hundreds, thousands! You can have them all!” He was bullshitting heavily at this point. He didn’t know anything about women’s clothing. A massive stereotype shoved itself to the front of his brain. “And shoes!”
“Mmm… that sounds acceptable.”
Max’s heart leaped.
“And in return,” she continued, “You will become my servant. You will fight for me. Your empire will serve me. Anything I want, you will bring to me. Forever.”
Max’s heart fell. “What?!” he spluttered. “I just offered you a tribute deal. How is being your servant an even offer?”
The spiders around the room hissed in reply at his tone.
“With respect,” Max added quickly.
The woman glared. “Don’t forget who you are speaking to, my blue friend. I hold your life in my hands.”
Max breathed deeply. This could escalate badly, but if they were talking about his indentured servitude, he’d risk it. He looked the dangerous woman in the eyes. “If you kill me, I will resurrect outside your dungeon. It will hurt. You could even torture me to death. But it will be temporary. Why should I agree to be a servant for life, when life is not something you can take from me?”
The woman held his gaze for a long time before a seductive smile spread across her face. “Oh, but I can take your life, Master Builder.”
“I can take your life.”
“How!?” Max felt the first tendrils of panic.
“Easily. You came here into my domain right at the start of the Trial. No one else will enter for months, if not years. Normally, the dungeon would open again after a week, and anyone stepping within would reset it. But you are alone. You have no followers outside, ready to save you. I can keep you here, for as long as I like. I can imprison you for years and then release you back to the outside world. To a world full of strong Master Builders, backed by armies of hundreds, if not thousands. How long would you survive then?”
Max groaned. She was right. If she kept him prisoner, he would die. Not now, but eventually, he would die. This was a battle royal. He doubted other Master Builders would be sympathetic. It was as she said. She could take his life.
“Come now,” the woman said, seeing his despondent look. “I am not evil. And you… impress me.” Her gaze fell across his naked torso. “I will offer you a choice.” She gestured to the spiders surrounding them. “Release him.”
Minutes later, the stickiness of the spider web that held him fast had lessened enough that he was able to pull himself free.
“Walk with me,” she commanded and sashayed out of the room.
Max fell into a tense gait just behind and to the side. Despite everything, it wasn’t a terrible place to be. The sway of her hips, the shape of her body. She was about as tall as he was, and Max wasn’t short. Best take advantage of the little pleasures in life, he thought.
They walked in silence down several huge chasms, filled with the comings and goings of what looked like a whole city of nesting spiders.
Eventually, they came to what looked like an abandoned roman temple. The spider woman walked up the steps and beckoned him to follow.
Now that he was free, Max briefly considered the idea of making a break for it, but quickly dumped it. He’d never make it far, and besides, where would he go?
The inside of the temple was full of silk. Silk lay everywhere. Not the rope-like strands that had held him fast just before, or the cocoon like weave that made him prisoner for hells knew how long, but rolled up actual bolts of dark-orange fabric. In a corner, several spiders were painstakingly weaving threads together.
“If you become my servant,” the spider woman said without preamble. “You will be able to make silk armour strong enough to turn aside arrows and spears.”
Max raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“You do not believe me?” The woman turned to the huge spider which had followed them, the one that had first fetched Max from the cocoon room. “Thorax, bring us the Master Builder’s spear.”
“Yes, mother,” the gigantic spider intoned before moving away.
Max was slightly startled that the spider had a name, but quickly realised he’d been foolish not to assume so. Come to that, he didn’t even know the name of the now only nearly naked woman standing before him.
“I am the Spider Nymph,” she said, once he’d asked the question. “You are not worthy to know my name, Master Builder.”
Jeez. Tough sell.
When Thorax returned with his spear, Max took it and tried to thrust through two-dozen layers of fine silk that had been stretched out over a leg of some, thankfully, unidentified meat source.
“Wow,” Max breathed. It took a lot of work to break through the barrier. He had to really put weight behind it and twist before the material let the spear-head through.
“You see now?” The spider nymph asked, as another swarm of spiders descended on the leg of meat. “With this silk, your armies could sweep through hordes of your enemies without suffering so much as a scratch. If you are smart.”
Max took the dark-orangey silk in his hand. He did, in fact, see. For the first time in what felt like forever, a prompt popped into being in front of him.
You have found scrap of Amber-Weave Spider Silk.
Drawn from the children of the spider nymph, this silk is unique in Isolation for its strength, elasticity, and comfort. Breathable and durable, those lucky enough to clothe themselves in amber-weave are looked upon with envy by those who must make do with lesser fabrics.
This is a rare resource.
Max let his fingers run through the ever-so smooth fabric he was holding. He felt excitement. This could be his ticket to win the Trial by Conquest. This could legitimately be the edge he needed. And there was so much of it. He looked around the room. Bolts lay everywhere.
But in order to get it…
He turned back to the spider nymph who was now looking at him with a carefully blank expression. In one hand, she held his golden pen, and in the other, one sheet of his paper.
What was it she wanted? Really?
“Well?” she asked, impatiently. “Will you accept?”
— Ping! —
You have been offered a written deal. Written deals are stronger than verbal deals. Backing out of a written deal can have medium consequences enforced by the Trial by Conquest.
Terms of the deal: Your safe passage from the dungeon and the ability for your civilization to produce Amber-Weave Spider Silk in return for regular shipments of lingerie, other enticing feminine clothing, shoes, and you and your empire’s absolute servitude to the spider nymph, now and for all time.
Do you wish to accept this deal?
[Yes] or [No]
Medium consequences?! Max stared at the prompt details in incredulity. He was being held to ransom to a life-time of servitude, and the contract would be enforced by medium consequences?! The way the woman had spoken, he’d assumed that any such deal he made would be impossible to wriggle out of.
He looked at the Spider Nymph in front of him. She returned his gaze, face as unreadable as a statute. All around him, flesh-eating spiders continued to chitter and chatter.
Max steeled himself, ready to be torn apart if this didn’t work. “How about this, instead?” He made a counter offer.
— Ping! —
You have offered a written deal. Written deals are stronger than verbal deals. Backing out of a written deal can have medium consequences enforced by the Trial by Conquest.
Terms of the deal: Your safe passage from the dungeon and the ability for your civilization to produce Amber-Weave Spider Silk in return for regular shipments of lingerie, other enticing feminine clothing, and your alliance with the spider nymph. You will fulfil any reasonable request she makes of you for the duration of the Trial by Conquest and grant her a boon on your victory.
If you win, that is.
Max rolled his eyes at the last line. If he was being honest, he’d kind of missed the snark of the prompts while held in darkness.
The spider nymph stared at a space a few feet in front of her face, presumably reading a prompt of her own. “Add in one quest in the future,” she eventually said. “And I will also grant you free choice of one of three items to take with you, possibly even an epic item.”
She shrugged. “It is your luck, Master Builder.”
The prompt updated itself.
The spider nymph reached up one slender finger and pressed, [Yes].
In that moment, her entire countenance changed.
“Excellent!” She clapped her hands. “Now it’s time for me to eat you all up.”
“WHAT?!” Max felt a shock of rage and betrayal shoot through him. Just before his mind registered both the potential double meaning of the sentence and the sultry smile now on the nymph’s face. He also realised that the room was empty. Every spider had left, leaving them alone with just each other for company — just each other, and countless miles of soft, silky fabric piled up anywhere one (or possibly two) might happen to fall.
“I can’t give you anything if you don’t complete the dungeon,” the nymph said, folding her arms. “And the only way you can complete the dungeon is by conquering it.” She was smirking now. “And the only way someone as low-level as you is conquering it, is by ‘conquering’ me.”
— End of Chapter five —
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.
— Bong! —
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Head over to the discord server and react to the chapter in the exclusive , patrons-only trial-by-conquest channel.
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