3. The Abandoned Rookery — Part Two
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— Battle Sounds! —

You have triumphed in battle.

Congratulations.

You have faced down your first foe in mortal combat and survived. The birds of the Abandoned Rookery were once messengers for an empire that spanned from the Emerald Forest to the None-Shall Pass. They are probably the most harmless foes you will ever face in Isolation.

You have gained 10 Experience.

“Fuck my life,” Max groaned, just in time for the next prompt to pop up.

— Trumpet Sounds —

You have levelled up!

That made Max sit up and take notice. Or, to be more accurate, it made him sit up and curse in pain at the various wounds he’d taken in the fight against the rook. The cuts across his legs in particular hurt like the blazers, as did the gash in his palm. He inspected his various other scrapes and bruises for a moment before returning his attention back to the prompt.

You have levelled up!

Master Builder — Level Two

Be aware: With each new level comes a new boon. The higher your level, the higher the chance of rarer and more valuable boons. Do you wish to choose your boon now?

[Yes] or [No]

“Yes!” Max said enthusiastically. Anything that would help him not have to go through what he just went through again.

— Ding! —

You may choose any one of the following three:

[Steel Short Sword]

This is a mundane quality item

[Steel-Headed Spear]

This is a mundane quality item

[Minor Healing Potion]

This is a common quality item

Choose!

Max groaned. He’d been hoping for something a lot more impressive than that. If they were talking gear, he’d have wanted a staff that shot fireballs or a suit of armour that could take a hit from a semi-truck. To be honest, when the prompt had said ‘boon’ he’d imagined some kind of super power. But it was what it was, and he wasn’t going to complain. At least not too loudly.

Three-dimensional representations of the three options hung in the air in front of him. They looked like slightly transparent versions of the real thing, gently spinning so he could see them from every angle. The potion was red and stored in a small glass vial. It didn’t look like anything special, but honestly, he’d love to grab it and get rid of all these cuts and bruises he’d suffered. But he knew instinctively it was not to be. He needed more offensive power. His club/stick had proven just how ineffective it was against these creatures, and no doubt there would be the deeper in he pushed.

That left the sword and the spear.

Neither looked amazing by the standards of fantasy tropes, although they were clearly well made.

Max spent a few more moments before making his choice. In the end, it was an obvious one.

While the little boy in him desperately wanted the sword, the adult man in him knew that wasn’t the correct choice. Swords were for showing off to other people that you were armed and dangerous.

Beasts didn’t give a crap. When fighting animals, what you really wanted was a sharp point on the end of a long stick, as far away from you as possible.

He reached out and pressed the [Steel-Headed Spear] button. The floating transparent spear became solid in the air and dropped into his hands. The other two items vanished in puffs of smoke. The spear felt weighty and solid in his hands.

— Ding! —

Congratulations!

You have acquired Steel-Headed Spear

While poets and bards proclaim the sword as the noblest of weapons, real warriors know that on the battle field, the spear reigns supreme.

Max raised an eyebrow. Was the Trial mimicking his thoughts? Or was he just that on point? He ran a finger along the tip of his new razer sharp weapon. “On point. Hehe.” Thankfully, no bolts of lightning descended to smite him in the name of pun jokes.

Looking down at the dead rook to his side, he realised something else. He had breakfast! He got down on his hands and knees and got to work.

— Ding! —

You have found:

 Giant Rook leg x 1

Giant Rook breast x 1

Giant Rook feathers x 50

Giant Rook meat x 5

— Ding! —

You have found 2 copper coins.

— Dooong! —

You lack the skill to butcher animals. As a result, your yields from this kill have been halved. Become a resident of any primitive-level building to gain this skill.

The penalty to his butchery was annoying, but he supposed he should be grateful he could get anything from his work at all.

What was more surprising was that the bird apparently had coins! They hadn’t been stored anywhere, as far as he could see. They’d just clattered onto the floor the moment his hands touched the body.

No time to wonder about that, though.

He opened his inventory and put all his new stuff safely away. Although he did have to do a bit of juggling to get everything to fit. Some items, like his wallet, he’d pulled out and put back into his jacket-skirt pocket, while the meat had all been shoved into his empty clay pot.

Once done, Max got to his feet, hefted his new spear, and turned his attention back to the second door on the far side of the room.

It was amazing the difference in confidence one could feel when they were holding a really pointy stick.

It was time to kill some more rooks.

 


 

Much to Max’s delight, it turned out that his new confidence was well placed. After creeping along the spiralling corridor up another level, he came across not one but two more Giant Rooks in the room above.

He decided to use the same tactic as before, luring them down to the room below, where the door was wedged almost shut. It turned out to be an even better tactic against multiple enemies, and his spear proved much more effective than the stick he’d been using before.

He knew he should feel a bit sick about the whole thing, but honestly, it felt so satisfying to shove that razor-sharp point right into the squawking monsters. Especially after they both made their intention to eat him so very clear the moment they laid eyes on him.

After the deed was done, he set about them as he had with the first.

He collected another 4 copper, two legs of Giant Rook, and another one breast, before he ran out of inventory space and had to re-jig things around again.

Only having twelve slots was starting to wrangle. It had seemed so much to start with. Now that he was bringing home the bacon (or should that be turkey?) it didn’t seem like nearly so much.

He also gained experience.

— Battle Sounds! —

You have triumphed in battle.

For the first time in your epic journey, you have faced down more than one opponent and emerged with barely a scratch. Your use of basic strategy ensured an easy victory.

Be Aware: As your battles grow larger, your prompts will be consolidated into summary format, but you can still access the details from your personal U.I.

Killed: 2x Giant Rook @ 10 experience each.

You have gained a total of 20 experience. 100 more experience required to level.

As Max returned to the room where his latest two foes had been hanging out, he immediately saw something that caught his attention. Actually, he heard it first before he saw it.

Running water!

On the far side of the room, in one of the alcoves along the wall, a marble fountain spilled crystal clean liquid out into a white stone basin, which overflowed into a miniature marble aqueduct.

There were Rook feathers all around the place, and Max realised that this must be what the two Rooks he’d just killed must have been doing before he disturbed them — drinking.

He stared down into the pool of liquid and carefully dipped the tip of his finger in. When it wasn’t burned off from acid, or some other nonsense, he cupped his hands and drew out as much of it as he could hold.

— Ding! —

You have discovered clean water.

Rock on!

Max brought the liquid to his mouth and drank. The water washed down a throat as dry as sand paper. He hadn’t realised until just then how thirsty he’d been. Greedily, he drew out another hand full and drank that too. Then another. Then another. Finally, he gave up all restraint and dunked his head clean into the stone basin, gulping down huge mouthfuls of the most perfect drink he’d ever tasted.

He was thoroughly soaked when he finally came back up for breath. Water poured down his hair, chest, and back, soaking the jacket and shirt tied around his waist.

A quick check of his U.I showed that he was still dehydrated, but he suspected that would start to fade. Water wasn’t magical, after all. It took time to get into his system.

Much to his disappointment, there wasn’t another chest in the room, so he merely hefted his spear, and crept out of the third room of the dungeon, and up to whatever might be waiting above.

What turned out to be waiting for him above was something that he could only describe as suspicious.

The next room up the tower was totally empty, save for a pile of bones laying all around the room. Human bones. Well, humanoid, at least. Some of them looked too big, or too small for them to be strictly human.

The first thought that crossed Max’s mind was, ‘massive predator chamber’. But then he noticed that the floor was made up of dozens of clay tiles, each one with different markings.

“A puzzle?” Max wondered out loud. “A trap?”

A knelt down and examined the first line of tiles at the entrance to the room. There were all kinds of shapes and symbols, none of which meant anything to him. Experimentally, he got back up, picked up the femur of some unfortunate soul, and casually tossed it onto the tiles, about one fifth into the room.

On the exact point where the bone landed, a series of metal spikes, each one as long as he was tall, thrust up from the beneath the ground with lethal force.

Max’s first thought was, holy hells! Anyone standing on that spot when those spears did their thing would be impaled and killed in an instant.

Max’s second thought was that he was pretty sure he hadn’t climbed up high enough for there to be enough space under the floor for a spear as long as he was tall to hide without poking out into the room below.

He got back down on his hands and knees and inspected the symbols again.

Max’s third thought was there had to be some symbols safe, because otherwise the Giant Rooks wouldn’t be able to pass. Those huge birds were well beyond the ability to fly. The best they could manage was a kind of flapping hop, and he was pretty sure they wouldn’t be able to cross in one jump without spearing themselves.

On the other hand, he also wasn’t exactly sure how dungeon logic worked. If you could ‘re run’ a dungeon multiple times, fighting the same enemies again and again, then anything might be possible. Maybe the Giant Rooks existed in a kind of stasis until he arrived. Maybe time in the pocket dimension was reset on each new attempt.

Max found one tile which showed a three-toed foot, rather like a bird’s. He backed off a few feet and tossed another bone onto it.

This time, no spears shot up.

Maximus smiled wryly.

Less than five minutes later, he succeeded in working himself to the other side of the room.

He was hoping for another prompt to shower him with some extra experience points, but apparently the Trial didn’t count defeating traps or puzzles as a real battle. Stingy!

Max took one more look around the puzzle room he’d just crossed. Just to confirm that the empty room didn’t have anything left he might have missed, and he was glad he did.

There was something else.

Now that he was on this side of the room, he could see an alcove in one of the walls, blocked off from the view of the entrance. It had a path of safe tiles leading to it, and in the small hidden space, lay a chest. It sat next to a small writing desk, and while the rest of the room was strewn with random bones, the chair in front of the desk held a single skeletal occupant, bent over with a dagger in its back.

Despite the grizzly tableau of the murdered skeleton, Max grinned.

He quickly hopped across the safe tiles and laid his hand on his newest discovery. The chest lid opened.

— Ding! —

You have found stack of empty letter paper (20)

These are mundane items.

— Ding! —

You have found bottle of Horse Chestnut Ink

         This is a mundane item.

— Ding! —

You have found Master Builder’s Diary of Life

This is a Quest item.

— Ding! —

You have found Master Builder’s Record of Conquest

 This is a Quest item

Quest items? Max gleefully inventoried all the goodies before making his way back to safety across the puzzle floor.

He first took out the diary.

It was old and wrinkled, the leather on the cover cracking and dry. He wasn’t sure how long ago it had been written, but if he was to believe his prompts about how the Trial worked, it could to be anything from 1,000 to 13,000 years old! Possibly more!

Flipping through the pages, Max saw it was a detailed accounting of the author’s own Trial by Conquest. To his shock, he realised he could read the writing, despite having never seen the alphabet before. The man’s name was Helmond — a noble fish-knight from a world of only oceans and seas. The words told tales of mighty battles, great cities built across the world, and the priceless comrade of a close knit-circle of friends, born in the fires of war.

Much to the author’s dismay though, he did not end up winning the Trial by Conquest. Instead, his empire had been overrun by an undead horde from the South-East.

The forces of death laid waste to his cities and villages, raising each to the ground before turning its inhabitants into more undead soldiers.

Max shuddered as he pictured it.

The final entry spoke of Helmond’s hatred for the monsters that had destroyed his new home and people. But it was the final line that most caught Max’s attention.

But be aware, Master Builder of the future. You need not suffer the same fate as me.

There exist weapons of great power, capable of turning back the undead horde. I’ve no idea if this will work, but...

You have received a quest!

Find a great weapon of life and turn back the power of death.

Destroy the undead where ever you find them.

And if the Deep Necropolis still stands in your time, destroy it as well.

Avenge my family and friends.

And win the Trial by Conquest, for Life.

Max looked up from the diary. He looked around at the skeleton with the dagger in its back. Now that he looked more closely, it was true that the skull wasn’t quite human shaped. He gave what he suspected was Helmond a respectful nod.

He then fixed his gaze on the area just in front of him where his prompts would normally pop up.

“Well?” he said out loud in an expectant tone.

— Ding! —

You have been offered a quest.

Enemy of Undeath — Part 1

Acquire a weapon or spell of life, capable of harming undead beings.

Rewards: Experience, Greater Powers against the Undead.

Penalty for Failure: Unknown.

Be aware: by accepting this quest, you are choosing to align yourself irrevocably with the powers of Life in Isolation. This will mark you as an enemy of Death, Undeath, and Unlife. This could have consequences in your future options.

Do you accept the quest?

[Yes] or [No]

Max stared in shock. He hadn’t actually expected haranguing the Trial for a quest to work, but it had. And not only that, but this dead Master Builder had succeeded in creating a quest for him from hells knew how many thousands of years ago. That was something to think about.

One thing Max didn’t need to think about was if he was going to accept the quest. The horrifying descriptions in the diary of what the undead forces were capable of was more than enough to convince him. If there were sapient beings out there that delighted in eating the flesh of the still-living while their victims cried out in terror and pain, then he wanted nothing to do with them.

Max pressed the [Yes] button.

— Dong! —

Congratulations, Master Builder.

You have chosen to align yourself with Life, against the forces of Death, Undeath, and Unlife.

Be aware: Beings of Life, Death, Undeath, and Unlife will be able to sense your alignment. Betraying your alignment can have dire consequences.

Be aware: There are dozens of forces in Isolation you could have aligned yourself with. Beings of neutral forces will still rally under your banner, but will not gain any special alignment benefits for doing so.

Max read the prompt with mixed feelings. On the one hand, he was sure he had just made a good choice. On the other, he had been forced to make it without much knowledge of the situation, and only afterwards had he been filled in. He hated that.

He hated it even more when he dipped into his inventory to retrieve the other quest item he’d received.

The moment the book touched his fingers, his skin started to burn!

“GAHH!”

Max dropped the book in shock. It fell to the floor, began smoking, then burst into flames. In seconds, there was nothing left but a small pile of ash.

— Ding! —

Be Aware: You have already chosen your alignment. You are unable to choose another. Items suffused with Death magic will cause you pain to touch.

Max stared. So that second book had been a quest item offering him the chance to align himself with Death?! Is that was the prompt was saying?

He sucked at his burned fingers, which were already starting to turn shiny.

— Ding! —

Be aware: You do not have to accept a quest offered from an item immediately. You can place the item into your inventory to save the decision for a future time.

“Oh, come on!” These prompts were starting to piss him off. The last few had given him useful information only after he needed it. He was pretty sure he’d have made the same decision either way, but that wasn’t the point. He’d never know what was in that book now! It could have held critical information!

Max shook himself and hefted his spear. Lesson learned. Now was not the time to look backwards, he had to look forward. He needed to focus on completing this dungeon, getting his first deity-engram, and then finding a place to establish his village.

He carefully made his way through the door he’d been making his way towards this whole time, circled up another abandoned spiralling corridor, and approached the room one level up.

The door was almost closed, but there was enough of a gap for Max to put his eye up to.

What he saw made that eye widen in shock.

This was clearly the last room of the dungeon. The open air of the surrounding country could be seen among a circle of large open windows. There were no other doors.

What there was, however, was a freak’n gigantic rook in the middle of the room. It had to be the size of a bear! He had no idea if he could take such a monster or if he’d just be crushed like a bug.

Max felt his palms go sweaty. His first thought was of  the choke point he’d used before. Big bird, big target, small door, safe Max.

He didn’t get time for a second thought, because the bear-sized rook turned its head, spotted him peaking through the gap, and let out a delighted CAW! that shook the door in its frame.

Max was already running when that same door exploded outwards and half a tonne of hungry bird crashed through into his corridor. He barely avoided getting speared on the tip of that razor beak as he threw himself around the spiral passageway, around the next doorway, and into the room downstairs.

Too late, he remembered the traps.

He may have avoided getting speared by the beak, but he didn’t avoid getting speared by the spears.

Pain exploded throughout Max’s body.

His world went red, then dark.

And Maximus Rum died.

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