8. Greasing the Wheels — Part Two
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The next few minutes were an exercise in frustration. Of all the possibilities that now lay open to them, Max certainly didn’t want to just randomly travel through the forest until they stumbled on something interesting. They could be at it for weeks!

He tried calling out to the Trial for a quest like he had before, but for whatever reason, that didn’t work this time.

He considered backtracking to the sea and continuing to make their way along it. Maybe eventually they’d find a river, or something else important. They could then follow the river upstream.

Eventually, he decided to climb the pyramid once more to get another good look at the surrounding countryside. But this time with the intention of actually figuring out where they should go.

And he was ever so glad he did.

There was a trail of smoke making its way up from the forest some way off inland. And it wasn’t just any kind of smoke. It was smoke puffs! Someone was sending a signal!

“What do you think?” Max asked Thorax when he arrived back at the bottom of the Pyramid and relayed what he’d seen. “Is it safe? Is it a trap? Are there any people around here who use smoke signals?”

Thorax stared at him. “I do not know the answers to any of those questions. What we do is your decision.”

Max let out a frustrated sigh. “Can we just clarify a few things? What exactly do you know about? You seem to know a lot of stuff about things to do with the Trial, but little about your own back yard.”

The moustache twitched again. “I know about the Trial because my mother has spoken with many master builders over her long life. She in turn told me and my brothers and sisters. I myself was not alive during the last Trial by Conquest. We do not live as long as our queen. This is the first time I have left the dungeon. I was only able to do so because of you.” The huge spider’s body quivered. “The air is disturbingly fresh. And the plants are wet.”

Max ignored the last comments in favour of considering their options. It didn’t take long. They could ignore the smoke signals and travel along the coast. There was no doubt that he was only one man with a spear. And Thorax, while large and strong, was also slow. It wouldn’t be hard for any dangerous enemy to avoid him.

On the other hand, he couldn’t put off finding other people forever. It had to happen eventually. And every day he delayed was another day other Master Builders were racing ahead.

Max made his decision.

 


 

“Will you stop rocking so much!”

“I’m afraid I cannot do that, Master Builder.”

“It’s like being on a water ship in a storm!”

“I don’t know what that is, Master Builder.”

“The water ship or the storm?”

“Both.”

“Gahh!” Max scrabbled to keep his grip on one of the many silk ropes as Thorax stepped over a particularly dense bit of forest foliage. “You did that one on purpose!”

“I assure you, I did not, Master Builder.”

“What did I ever do to you?”

“I really couldn’t say.”

Max glared at the head bobbing ahead of him. He swore no spider moved like this. He was sure of it. “If you don’t want me riding you, just say the word.”

“I have been tasked by my queen, Mater Builder,” came the curt reply.

“If you don’t stop rocking so much, I am going to get down.”

“I highly advise against that, Mater Builder. The forest around here is incredibly difficult to move through for one such as you.”

“Uhhh, I think I’m going to throw up.”

“Perhaps you should not have drunk so much fermented plant products from your magic artefact.”

“It’s my food! Oh, god. Blurghhh!” The sound of a Master Builder being sick echoed throughout the canopy. Several birds took flight in alarm.

Max didn’t want to think about how long they’d been making their way through the trees. The sun was directly overhead now and his head was swimming.

He didn’t need the prompt that popped up to let him know that he was feeling like crap.

— Ping! —

You have acquired the status: Sea-sick

Is down up or is up down? Your brain is having difficulty knowing the difference.

Dizziness: Decreased dexterity

Nausea: Decreased constitution

Increased chance of throwing up.

Max wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and swore to wash it ASAP. “Are we there yet?” he asked groggily.

“If your estimates of how far away the smoke signals are were accurate, we should have arrived one thousand full steps ago.”

Despite his mind feeling like it was full of gently sloshing liquid, Max came to full attention. Well, more attention, at least. “They already left?”

“Or your estimates were wrong.”

It turned out to be the latter.

Not long after, the two approached a clearing in the trees. They stayed hidden, but could clearly see a group of dark-skinned humanoid figures resting ahead. They sat around a carpet of leaves and grass. Several huts made of branches stood behind them. A campfire sat in the middle, roasting some kind of meat on spits. One of the males of the group was occasionally throwing back a huge leaf from the fire, producing the smoke signal that had first caught Max’s attention.

What really caught Max’s attention now, though, was the wide variety of items laid out on the carpet of leaves in front of the group. The way they were placed was unmistakable. It was for display, as though at a bazaar.

“Merchants?” he muttered, almost unable to believe it.

“I do not know.”

Max rolled his eyes. “What should I do?”

“That is up to you, Master Builder. If you want to talk to them though, I suggest total confidence.”

Confidence? He could do that. He still had the beer! He pointed dramatically. “Forward, then!”

As Thorax started to move into the light, Max stood tall on his back. “Ho there, good people!” he boomed and then failed to duck a branch which smacked him in the face.

“Pfuh, I am—”

The moment his voice called through the trees, every member of the group ahead leaped to their feet.

“I am Master Builder Maximus Rum!”

Thorax fully emerged into the clearing. Max looked down at the collection of stone-tipped spears now pointed at him.

“And I have come to trade with you,” he finished, suddenly not nearly so confident as he’d been a few seconds ago.

Things were tense for a few moments before one of the older men said something. To Max’s shock, it was in a language he didn’t understand.

It had an effect, though. Everyone in the group laughed. They then lowered their spears and stepped one step backwards. The older man stepped forward. Another sentence was spoken, and again Max didn’t understand a single word of it.

Until the final two words, that was.

The older man swept his hand backwards towards the carpet filled with assorted goods, and finished his sentence. “—, Master Builder.”

 


 

They had water!

Max drank the clear liquid like it was the gift of the gods.

He sat cross-legged on the carpet of leaves, basking in the sheer civility of it. He’d already been given fruit and nuts and even strips of roasted meat from the campfire.

Max’s stomach rumbled in appreciation.

He looked around, just taking in the new company he found himself in — about twenty of them in total.

The beings were dark-skinned, tall, and elegant. They moved with a grace that suggested professional dancers. Max had analysed one the moment he sat down, and what he’d read surprised him.

— Whoosh —

Ebony Elf

Alignment: Mercantilism

Race Type: Common

Ebony Elves are one of the many trader races of Isolation. Well known for their adventurous ways, Ebony Elves are willing to travel far outside their domains in search of rare and exotic goods to trade. Beware. Ebony Elves live by a strict code of ethics based on the fulfilment of contracts. To an Ebony Elf, a verbal contract is as good as a magical one, signed in blood with a magical pen of contract-making. Break your word with an Ebony Elf at your own peril.

Powers: You are not high enough level to analyse this being’s powers.

The older elf sitting opposite of him nodded gently, a continual smile on his face. The smiles hadn’t left anyone’s faces since he’d descended Thorax (or to be more accurate, fallen from) and been led into the fire-light.

Several children of different ages played by one of the stick huts. A few of the warrior-like ones were inspecting the amber-weave stacked on Thorax with wide-eyes.

Considering the fact that all of them were dressed in little more than grass skirts, he imagined the silk was leaving an impression.

He did have a few questions, though.

“Why can’t I understand anyone?” Max asked Thorax. The giant spider was standing off to one side, enjoying the attention of a couple of elf women who were brushing his thick hair while giggling between them. At least, Max assumed Thorax was enjoying it. It was impossible to tell.

“I should have thought that was obvious, Master Builder.” Thorax intoned. “You are life aligned. They are not.”

Ohhh! Suddenly a lot of things made a lot more sense. In the back of his mind, he’d wondered why he’d been able to understand Thorax and the Spider Nymph. He’d just assumed Isolation had some kind of magical universal common language. He was suddenly incredibly glad he’d chosen life alignment in the first dungeon. He didn’t want to imagine how his encounter with the Spider Nymph would have gone without it.

A few elves were also inspecting his Keg of Wonders with puzzled expressions. Even his spear was drawing more than a couple of speculative looks.

“And why do I get the feeling I’ve been dumped back to start of civilisation?” Max asked.

“Because you have, Master Builder,” was Thorax’s reply. “When the Great Dragon burned down the civilisations of the previous Trial, technology and magic were also reset.”

The full enormity of that hit Max hard. “So these people don’t know anything beyond this?”

“I imagine they have heard tales of the great wonders of the past, Master Builder. Passed down from parent to child throughout the generations. I doubt any of them expected to be born into the time of the Master Builders. I certainly did not.”

The older elf apparently decided that enough time had passed for whatever pleasantries this counted as. He swept his arms down among the many goods in front of him again.

Well, no time like the present. Max inspected each in turn. Obviously he planned to buy something today, but he couldn’t help feeling in the back of his mind, that what he really needed was information. And his inability to talk to these people was severely hampering that.

There were exotic-looking seeds, fruits, and nuts piled high in tightly woven grass baskets. There were dozens of flint tools of different sizes and functions. Ornaments of bone and stone. Hides of beasts and sharp horns long enough to impale a man from crotch to head.

Max inspected each trade good and didn’t feel particularly impressed. Not one was magic, for starters. On the other hand, he had no idea when he might need any of them.

This resulted in Max playing a complicated game of charades with the older elf, in which Max tried to both buy a selection of goods and obtain information on where they’d come from. If they came from nearby, that might be a good place to start his village.

Unfortunately, he was eventually able to determine (probably) that none of the goods for sale here were native. They all came from ‘a long way away’. Or at least that’s what Max suspected the sanguine hand gestures of the older elf meant.

Behind him, the Ebony Elf children were starting to climb on Thorax, laughing happily while their mothers watched.

He then had the idea to take out one of the pieces of paper he’d acquired from the Abandoned Rookery and try to copy his map from his menu.

That had an effect.

The elf’s eyes went wide as he stared at the paper.

Several more rounds of charades followed, which resulted in a line drawn that the elves had taken to get here. Apparently they’d travelled from the mountains along a river still hidden by Max’s map fog.

The elf then gave Max a thoughtful look.

“So, if you know anything else about the area, could you draw it on the map?” Max asked, proffering his pen again. He knew the elf couldn’t understand, but the constant talking seemed to help, anyway. It was amazing how much meaning could be put into inflexion.

The elf stared at the map one last time, then back up at Max and seemed to reach a decision. He called over two of the younger males and gave them an order.

The elf turned back to Max and smiled warmly.

A little while later, the pair returned from one of the huts.

Max’s eyes went wide.

The two ebony elves had a bamboo pole slung over their shoulders. And hanging from that bamboo pole, from her wrists and ankles, was a nearly naked female. She had green skin, long brown hair, and was bound tightly with grass cord. Her mouth was gagged.

Her eyes met his with a look of utter fury.

He used analyse.

— Whoosh —

Forest Nymph

Alignment: Life

Race Type: Unusual

Status: Slave


— End of Chapter Eight —

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