The Overside Market’s Flux Tower looked even bigger up close.
A towering, spiraling spire of black metal and vein-like, pulsating cables the size of skyscrapers, the structure dwarfed anything humanity ever built. The tower radiated energy, which Shroud could feel resonate with him, a warm sensation filling his flesh and mind.
There was no doubt that he stared at the source of sorcery itself.
A golden castle surrounded the tower’s base, an aesthetically insulting amalgam of Arabian architecture, medieval towers, and stranger shapes clearly not designed by any man. It looked as if someone had mashed multiple fragments of destroyed palaces into one. This place breathed extravagance.
The brass golems standing on the walls, alongside winged, reptilian fiends straight out of Hell, not so much.
With a well-placed Mad World, he could have them fight each other, create a diversion—
“Oh, don’t tell me you think you can fight your way in and out,” Ace spoke. “You can’t and you won’t.”
“Is there any other option?” Shroud replied grimly, aware of the situation’s direness. Dot Four. That was the highest difficulty level he had ever seen for a Quest.
“Only one, big boy,” she replied, dusting off her hat. “Mammon is a gambler, and he’s bored. So bored, he moved his chest ass personally to catch your team. He needs entertainment and stimulation, and since he’s the embodiment of depredation, he can’t turn down a contest. That’s his only weakness. He honors his wagers, to the word, but never to the spirit.”
Shroud listened, as she invited him to the only way towards the castle: an immense silver stairway leading to the only entrance, a fifty-feet tall Gate whose archway’s content shone with bright, golden light. Brass golems wielding large scimitars stood on each step, yet let them walk undisturbed.
“He will cheat, of course. He always cheats using his magic. Even if you think there is absolutely no way he can fix the game, he will find one. So you’ve got to cheat better.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Shroud asked. “You work for him.”
— Ace looked at the group standing still, statues unable to move, or scream, or cry. A terrible fate she had seen handed out way too many times. —
“But you don’t like him.”
She put a finger on her lips, whispering ‘shush,’ as they reached the Gate. “He pays eight-figures. I’m just doing my job, entertaining my master, like you.”
“No gods, no masters,” Shroud told her.
“That’s what we all think until we see our strings. Anyway, if he’s entertained and you get back your team, everyone is happy. Win-win.” She invited him through the Gate. “After you.”
Shroud looked at the archway, and the large neon name written over it.
KING MAMMON’S SOUL CASINO
“He only values one commodity above all else,” Ace said softly.
With some hesitation, and a deep breath later, Shroud stepped into the light, dimensions shifting around him.
An orgy of sounds, strong smells, and light shows assaulted his senses the second he landed on the other side. The Taj Mahal looked tame compared to the haven of excess he had in front of him.
Shroud found himself inside an immense casino, too big to fit in the castle he had seen outside. Platinum pillars held a shining ceiling of gemstones, while the sorcerer walked on marble covered by richly woven carpets.
The place bustled with people, almost none of them human-looking. Monstrous, six-legged bugs played cards with multi-eyed frogs dressed in golden robes and dwarfish creatures reminding the game designer of stereotypical goblins. Other creatures were too alien for him to recognize, slime-like horrors more brain than flesh, strange entities made from raw clouds and lightning. Shroud even noticed a giant, fiery bird flying above a table, rolling diamond dice with his talons.
Fiendish creatures, archetypes of red-skinned, fork-tongued horned devils and inhumanly beautiful winged succubi served alien food and champagne to the guests. Walking slot machines, which Shroud realized were actually customized steel golems, walked around, trying to tempt people into playing.
One of those machines even walked to him. “Play?” it asked, its pre-recorded voice melodious to listen. While Shroud shook his head, the golem kept following him for a while, which the sorcerer took for harassment.
Everything there looked big, bigger than anything he had ever seen. He glimpsed a roulette the size of a soccer field, and a bar serving forty-feet tall icy giants. Shroud found himself stopping in front of a giant marble chess board, where a crowd had gathered around.
Human-sized chiseled stone golems served as the pieces, under the control of two contestants. On the black side was a strange creature, a being with black wood for skin and four emeralds for eyes. The being stood on two legs, yet kept six arms crossed in close meditation. Shroud glimpsed at an array of weapons, swords, axes, even primitive guns, hidden beneath a tattered cloak. A crown of laurels made the entity seem regal, beyond mere mortals.
The woman on the white side was supremely beautiful. Clad in a black medieval tunic and pants with a red scarf around her throat, she had mid-length platinum hair and the face of an angel. She seemed ageless, with both serene maturity and the youth of a new adult.
But her eyes were too cold. Like chips of blue ice, her eyes shone with cold malevolence. If eyes were truly the windows of the soul, then just by staring at them Shroud knew this girl was one vicious bitch.
Both contestants seemed closely matched, although the White played more offensive than the Black. The woman whispered something with a chilling voice, one of the white-colored golems on her side smashing a smaller black pawn with its bare fists. The other contestant began to give new orders, sending one centaur-like piece to retreat behind his defensive line.
“That’s Graff.” Shroud had seen Ace coming through his glass long before she actually spoke. “The Horseman of War. A warlord as old as conflict itself.”
“And the woman?”
“No idea. She comes and goes without giving her name.” Ace guided him to a spot nearby. “Your friends are here.”
Shroud’s fists tightened.
Sol, Kari, and Maggie stood on a silver fountain near the chessboard. Their colors had turned to various shades of violet, which Shroud found familiar. They were paralyzed in various stances, Sol raising his sword, Maggie’s hand going for her gun, Kari charging. Whatever had taken them out had done it in seconds.
And they weren’t the only ones there. A dozen other figures stood on the fountain, gargoyles and hobs and bullmen and cyclops frozen by a violet hue. “Sol! Kari!” Shroud shouted over the cacophony, without an answer. The various customers ignored him too. “Maggie, can you hear me?”
“They are frozen in time,” Ace told him. “Until Mammon releases them, they will stand there among his trophies.”
One of them was missing. “Where is Mur?”
“The imp? Mammon kept him for his personal use.”
With his lightshards providing him a good view of the area, he didn’t need Ace’s help to find Mammon. He didn’t even need Network to identify him.
He just had to look at his oversized crown.
A traditional monster in fantasy games were mimics, horrors taking the shape of chests to trick adventurers. Mammon was the real deal, and what a mimic might grow into if fed too many adventurers; a chest the size of a van, whose wooden bottom turned into dozens of small, black tentacles to carry it around. Shroud noticed a dozen, tiny eyes around the surface, with a larger central one atop the chest and below a diamond and gold crown. The chest’s fanged mouth held open, revealing a hoard of black gems overflowing within it.
A pinkish, fleshy humanoid torso sprung from the chest’s gems content, a skinless abomination that was human in vague shape only. It had two arms, a torso, and a head, but no nails, no eyes, no mouth or ears, nor any feature of any kind. That creature held a smaller crown on its head, too big for it.
That fleshy humanoid was little more than a tongue, an extension of the true Mammon; the chest itself. Mammon embodied greed in more ways than one.
Sitting on a chair left of Mammon, a giant rested lazily with two winged succubi on his lap. Reaching nine feet tall, the beast had a coat of golden fur and a white mane. With his strong muscles, he looked like a statue of Hercules almighty or Mr. Universe; his feral, fanged, canine-like face revealed his true, bestial self. The monster went around naked, exposing his raw masculinity for all to see. On one side of the chair, rested his long, white spear; on the other, a monstrous black hound bigger than a family car, whose crimson eyes bled fire.
The creature on the right of the Midnight Market’s king was nothing like a humanoid. An icy being in the shape of a giant snowflake, flying above the ground through the power of a mystical, chilling wind, the entity had only a radiant purple core for an “eye.”
The trio played darts with golden arrows. With Mur nailed at the center of the giant dartboard.
The imp clearly had seen better days, with a dart through the wing, and a gaping wound on the left leg. He looked at Mammon with venomous rage. Adamant’s metal plates grew out of his stony scales, only to regress with a faint Violet glow in a never-ending cycle.
Never before had Shroud sensed such raw, unfettered hatred radiating from his imp ally. Mur was contemptuous, haughty, but never hateful; the very sight of Mammon filled him with deep loathing and bottomless fear. Even his ally’s arrival didn’t make him budge from his death glare.
— “You’ve got nerve showing your ugly face again, Murmur,” Mammon spoke, making Mur quake both in hatred and impotent rage. “After failing Malacoda, I thought you would never crawl out of your tiny hole. Like a mole in whac-a-mole.” —
“Lord Mammon,” Shroud started, coughing, as Ace approached her master. Ignoring them, Mammon launched an arrow at Mur, thankfully with a terrible aim, hitting near the head. Gems overflowed from the chest, the tentacles quickly catching and returning them to the hoard. The monster struggled to keep everything in his chest, yet wouldn’t separate from anything.
When he focused, Shroud heard a faint, moaning sound coming from the gems, and the faint pictures of ghastly visages reflecting on their surface. A thousand, a million souls howling in despair, as part of a hoard of damned lives.
He had to spare the Dragonslayers that fate.
“I wish to apolo— ” Shroud couldn’t finish his answer, his tongue getting back in his mouth before he could finish. “I wish to apolo— ”
Once again, his tongue returned to its original place without finishing the sentence. The bestial man roared with laughter. Ace rolled her eyes with a sigh. “I wish to apolo— ” Again, his tongue repeated its movement in reverse, ending his sentence.
“I am sorry,” Mammon gargled with an inhuman, high-pitched voice. “I cannot hear you over the sound of your entrails falling on the ground.”
Pain sharper than even Smokefang’s mightiest blow cut through Shroud in the middle of his thoughts, spread from his back to his belly, alongside the sensation of air filling his innards. The sorcerer coughed up blood, falling to his knees.
Sitting among his bowels flowing out of his chest. The sorcerer stared at the blood on the ground, in a state of shock.
“Oh, listen to the sounds his bowels make.” Mammon looked down on the bleeding Shroud like a child with a pet. “Fascinating. I have my submission for Best Holo-TV Gag. Let’s replay!”
A second later, Shroud found himself back to his feet. His chest intact once more. “What the—”
The surprise pain interrupted him, his chest exploded in blood and bowels once again and bringing him back to his knees.
Time magic. Violet magic.
That bastard chest looped him in time! Without warning, even. And he found it funny!
Realizing he wouldn’t win with words, Shroud called upon Lightbringer, summoning letters of light in front of him all at once. This time, the display of magic made the others react, with the bestial man stopping laughing, the snowflake turning slightly in his direction, and Mammon glancing at his sentence.
“I WISH TO APOLOGIZE.”
Mammon snapped his fingers, Shroud finding himself standing again, unharmed. No blood nor bowels left on the ground. “You have stolen something from me, little coin,” the Midnight Market’s King said. “It was mine. Everything in this entire solar system is mine. The sun and the moon are mine, the people are mine, all that shines and all that is precious is mine, mine, mine. Time itself is mine. Not yours.”
“We were unaware the Crimson King was yours,” Shroud said diplomatically. “Maybe we can compensate you for your loss.”
“Already done for you!” The mimic’s torso pointed a finger at Mur, and then at his paralyzed friends. “Your friends I will keep in stasis forever. Murmur is too ugly for my collection. Ace, have him hurled into a sun after I’m done playing darts.”
“Which one, Your Majesty? You legally own thirty-seven of them.”
“The seventh. Lucky number, the seventh.” Mammon let out a childish cackle that sent a shiver down Shroud’s spine. “Fortunately for you, my good friend the Shadow Queen needs you, so I will let you run around. Defy me again and we will play bowling, with you as the pin.”
That creature, that black hole of assholes, held the Dragonslayers’ life in his hands. Shroud peeked at him with Network, trying to find an opening, anything that could make him listen.
— “Lord Mammon, perhaps we can negotiate, a higher price— ”
“MINE!” Mammon snarled, ripping the banker in half with a bite and letting the sweet, warm blood flow on his gems. “Mine, mine, mine, mine, MINE!” —
Ace was right, he only had one way to deal with this creature. “Then I would like to make a proposal,” Shroud said. “I heard you were a gambler, King Mammon. Would you like to play a game?”
“A game?” Mammon’s voice switched from venomous to childish excitement. “I love games, I always win!”
“Not mine,” Shroud replied. “I have created a game so difficult, no one has managed to beat it yet.”
“Oh, oho,” Mammon chuckled. “You have my interest. King Mammon does not back from a challenge.”
“Then I would like to gamble back the life of my teammates. If you fail to defeat my game, we leave.”
“I always win,” Mammon replied. “And what will I gain?”
“My life,” Shroud replied immediately. He doubted anything else would convince Mammon to gamble his friends away. Mur’s eyes lit up at his words, although the sorcerer couldn’t say in hope or frustration.
“Not fair! I have four of mine, and one of you.”
“I propose a series of rounds,” Shroud responded, his heartbeat accelerating each time that fiend spoke of his teammates as possessions. “Every time I win, one of my friends goes free.”
The bestial man let out a chuckle. “You would need to win four times in a row,” he spoke with a strong, masculine voice, “While Mammon would only need to win once. Challenging odds for a nobody.”
“He serves the Shadow Queen.” It took a second for Shroud to realize the clear, feminine voice came from the snowflake being. “And he is strong in the Blue. You would better not to underestimate him, Lugh.”
Lugh? The Arcadians’ leaders in the Midnight Market? “Maybe I should have a go at him first,” the bestial man confirmed. “Been a while since I have had worthy game.”
“Mine,” Mammon spoke with an authoritative tone. “He is mine, and his little gang, too.”
“There is a game I am confident King Mammon cannot defeat me at,” Shroud replied, baiting the monster by attacking his pride.
It worked. “Mammon rules all games as king,” the monstrous mimic boasted, followed with an unnatural rattle. “Fine, I accept your challenge. Entertain me and I will transfer ownership of those four back to you. What game will you have Mammon play? Chess? Cards? Shooting stars?”
“No. I had a different game, of strategy and determination. A virtual reality game, unlike anything you have seen.” He smiled. “A game I created myself.”