The temple on top of the pyramid looked a lot larger from within than outside.
Victor could have fit two copies of his manor in these golden halls, although the building had clearly degraded over time. A pillar holding the roof had collapsed, wall mosaics had eroded into incomprehensible gibberish, and a thick layer of dust covered the ground. It appeared no one had stepped in this place for eons.
Yet, the sealed evil of El Dorado had made its lair there, waiting on the other side of the hall.
The beast lurking in this hall was a terror to look at. A monstrously long, crimson worm with an armored exoskeleton covering its entire body, the entity had six clawed insect legs to support it and the tail of a scorpion. Six blue eyes circled its mouth, a lamprey-like abyss of golden teeth.
While already an unnatural mishmash of verminous animals, what terrified Victor the most was its size. It was even bigger than Vainqueur, reaching eighty feet in length from the tip of its tail to its mouth.
And yet, the group found it reading a book.
Victor blinked at the surreal sight of a giant abomination even bigger than Vainqueur lifting a book and flipping its pages through telekinesis, paying no attention to its visitors. The Vizier recognized the cover as “The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker;” with a quick glance, he noticed a tower of volumes, folios, and treaties at the creature’s right, and a smaller pile of miscellaneous toys on the left. They looked a lot like...
“Wait, is that a Super Nintendo?” Allison recognized one of the items on the pile.
Her words echoed through the walls, making the creature peek from his book towards the disparate group crossing the temple’s threshold. “Yes?” the creature sounded like a horde of locusts painfully trying to imitate human words. “What do you want, mortals?”
“Are you the source of the Shiny-ing, wormling?” Vainqueur asked with haughtiness.
“Yes,” the creature replied, not bothered at all by the silly name. It looked a lot like paintings of…
Victor activated [Monster Insight], and started praying.
Sablar, God of Destruction
There is absolutely nothing you can do to me. Go home.
I am the Worm who Eats the World, and I am too lazy to say more.
“Sablar!” Victor had never seen Allison angry, but a demonic spirit seemed to have possessed the priestess of Cybele. Her face had twisted into a raging snarl, and she immediately channeled magic through her fingertips. “[Blackthorn]!”
“Allison, this is a terrible idea—” Victor protested, but she already launched a volley of spiky thorns at the deity. Vainqueur instinctively imitated her by unleashing a mighty fireball, while only Malfy did nothing, knowing it was useless.
Even Furibon started casting a spell in panic, as the projectiles threatened to hit the giant worm. “[Za Waru—”
Sablar peeked from his book, as the group crossed the threshold. “Yes?”
Victor blinked and glanced at his surprised companions. The projectiles had vanished as if they never had been launched. While Furibon quickly understood the situation and Allison remained confused, Vainqueur immediately went on the offensive again.
“[Spell Purge]!” The dragon used his favorite defensive perk. “Ah! Now you can do nothing to—”
“[Spell—” Vainqueur paused, realizing time had rolled back right before he launched his spell. This time, he simply glared at the worm of the world. “How do you do this, wormling?”
“I erased time,” the god replied flatly.
“That makes no sense—” Victor protested.
Time rolled back again before he could finish his answer.
“You cannot roll back time anytime someone contradicts—”
“What were you saying?” the god asked, sounding vaguely smug.
“It totally makes sense when you think about it,” Victor grumbled.
“Yes, it does.” Sablar closed his book, the volume joining the top of the pile. “Why are you here, mortals? I have no desire for crude violence, especially during my holiday.”
“Your holiday?” Victor blinked at the surreal answer. Was he dreaming?
“This is my vacation resort,” the god said. “I cannot destroy the world seven days a week. I have been overworking these past centuries, so I am taking it easy for the current millennium. While my rivals roam the planes to play games together, I prefer alone time in the ruins of Outremonde.”
“But…” Furibon struggled for words, completely at a loss. “What about the seal outside? How can anyone keep a deity sealed?”
“That weak barrier? I raised it to keep wandering explorers out of my room. I can come and go as I wish.”
Yeah, it seemed Xolotl's info might have been a little unreliable. “You read and play games at home all day long?” Victor frowned. “Are you a shut-in?”
“Social distancer,” the deity defended his lifestyle. “I am currently playing Last Fantasy VI since a Claimed of mine brought it from Earth.”
“Really?!” Victor had always wanted to play that game!
“Vic, this is Sablar, the god of destruction and despoiler of the environment!” Allison seethed, her hatred for the vile deity overwhelming her better judgment. “Don’t cozy up to him!”
“A Claimed of Cybele.” Sablar let out a heavy, condescending sigh. “I do not understand you people. We both love nature, so should we not get along?”
“A nature lover? You?” Victor had to admit it, the dryad showed complete fearlessness even in the face of her own deity’s nemesis. “You turn forests to sand, and people to gold!”
“I wish to return Outremonde to its original environment, a perfect sphere of earth and metal,” the worm responded much more calmly. “I do not comprehend what beauty you find in trees. They are ugly and full of noisy creatures. Can you not see the beauty in silent, motionless mountains? Of lifeless gems and gold?”
“There is nothing more beautiful than a shiny hoard,” Vainqueur said, defending his own way of life. “They would agree with us if they had any taste.”
“Indeed, Vainqueur,” the god added. “Dragons and I share a belief in the superiority of minerals and metals over life itself.”
“You know us?” Victor could have sworn the worm’s words had shaken his dragon friend, albeit only a little.
“Of course he does,” Vainqueur replied, showing his chest. “Who would not?”
“The dragon raised a disgusting city where my followers left a beautiful desert landscape, and you, earthling, created a landmass where there was nothing but water. Yes, I know you both.”
“What are you calling disgusting, wormling?” the dragon’s mood soured instantly.
“Island?” the Vizier repeated, more confused than insulted. Sablar was… surprisingly laid-back for a god of destruction. Seeing the deity in the flesh shattered every myth Victor had created in his head about him.
“Did you not roll Dice yesterday?” the worm god asked. “You willed a new island into existence, west of this continent.”
Victor did his best to ignore the glances Malfy and Allison sent him. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“This is a waste of time,” Furibon said, at his wits’ end.
“The lich speaks true, no matter how unlikely that sounds,” Vainqueur raised his voice. “Free my minions immediately, fairyspawn.”
“Wait, that soulcrest thing, Wotan gaining levels…” Victor glared at the deity. “It was your doing?”
“No,” the deity replied, “Mag Mell may have created me for his wars against mortals, but I have no love for the fomors. I support those who walk the path of annihilation, and I will not release anyone. Children of the earth your minions have become, and they will remain so until this world comes to an end.”
Malfy, who had remained silent until now, cleared his throat. “If I understand the divine laws—and since I attended Hell Law School I do—you should not be able to directly interfere with the life of those who do not worship you.”
“We deities have a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with loose rules,” the god corrected. “We can affect Outremonde and grant miracles within our purview. Dice rains destructive weather, Camilla unleashes undead plagues, and Shesha fulfills requests paid with money.”
“At an overpriced rate!” Vainqueur complained, still obsessed with getting a refund.
“Prices are a meaningless, abstract value,” Sablar added with a nihilistic tone. “The citizens of this city petitioned me, wishing to turn everything they touched to gold. I granted their request, and those foolish enough to let greed overcome their heart deserve their fate. That is all.”
“This is not satisfactory,” Vainqueur let out smoke from his nostrils.
“Your Majesty, this is a god,“ Victor protested. “He could kill us all without blinking, and I do not even know why he hasn’t yet!”
“I have found that patience and stoicism are the keys to a peaceful, fulfilling life,” Sablar replied calmly. “Time consumes all eventually. You will all die in the end.”
Yeah, Victor suspected the deity was just being lazy. No wonder the world still existed.
“If you granted a wish, that means you must have crafted a contract with the citizens of El Dorado,” Malfy guessed, ever the cunning one. “I cannot imagine any mortal foolish enough asking a blessing from a higher power without building a strong legal case. If we could examine the wording...”
Great idea, if they could find a loophole in the curse, they might have a shot at freeing their allies without violence.
“They did make a very long wish.” Sablar’s eyes blinked, a floating long scroll appearing before the group. “I granted it to the letter.”
Malfy immediately seized the scroll and read it, Furibon peeking over his shoulder to find a line. “There,” the fiend found a weak spot. “Disputes over the wording of the wish or amendments to its nature shall be decided in contests of wits and skill.”
“It seems the citizens of the city were smart enough to leave a backdoor,” Furibon noted.
“There!” Allison pointed a finger at the destructive deity. “If we win, you will cancel the curse!”
“I am under no compulsion to agree, and I am starting to wonder if I should simply turn you all to sand,” Sablar replied, starting to get annoyed.
“I am blessed by the goddess Cybele,” Allison replied.
“And I by five deities,” Victor boasted, his dryad friend glancing at him in shock and jealousy, “Do you truly wish to piss off half the pantheon over such a trivial matter? Not that you are very popular already...”
The worm examined the group in silence, weighing his options. “You will not leave me alone until you have your way…” he trailed off, before reaching a conclusion. “I have neither the time nor the will for games with mortals. If you only seek only the freedom of a few, then I can offer you… a compromise.”
“Afraid you will lose, wormling?” Vainqueur taunted him. “You should be.”
“I was a mortal too once,” the deity replied, “Only fools underestimate others, no matter the rift between our respective strengths. So I make you a proposal: I will release your friends and the lich’s allies from my [Curse of Greed]. You will be allowed to leave El Dorado alive and free.”
“But the city, the curse, and its other victims will remain,” Victor saw the huge catch.
“And it will keep claiming more people,” Allison added, very much against it.
“My city of gold will stand, and keep expanding into this forest,” Sablar promised. “But you will be long dead when it is time to suffer the consequences.”
“Like global warming?” the Vizier joked, Allison glaring at him.
On paper… it wasn’t a bad deal. For them. They avoided a very risky endeavor and pissing off a deity, and they left unscathed. No win, but no loss either.
The rest of the New World would be BLEEPED though. People would still come to the city even if forewarned, and El Dorado would keep claiming victims. The curse would infect more people, and they would probably spread it outside its confines.
“We can’t accept that,” Allison said, and Victor mostly agreed. Abandoning hundreds of thousands of people to an eternity as gold statues was just plain wrong.
“I believe it is a fair deal,” Malfy countered. “His Majesty came here to find the lich, and we have. Once we free Lady Chocolatine, we have nothing else to gain from this risky venture.”
Much to Victor’s surprise, Furibon too seemed hesitant. “You said you were saving the world from that curse,” the Vizier reminded him.
“Before I knew the god of destruction was behind it,” the lich replied, probably afraid. The creature in front of them was one of the entities capable of killing the undead permanently. “Confronting him is an all-or-nothing gambit, and even if we win, he will certainly bear a grudge.”
“I refuse your compromise.”
Victor looked up at Vainqueur in surprise, and so did Sablar. “Why?” the worm asked, voicing the Vizier’s own thoughts. He would have expected the dragon to at least consider the offer.
“I am the minion liberator,” Vainqueur replied haughtily. “You transform would-be minions into lifeless furniture, however shiny. Like slaves.”
“They are worth more as gold than as flesh,” the worm god replied with cold disdain.
“They are worth more if alive, and I have the proof right here,” Vainqueur glanced at Victor. “Your scheme is a cruel mockery of everything a dragon should stand for; making gold something shameful instead of praiseworthy. How could I look at a golden statue now, without wondering if it was not created by your foul sorcery?”
“If I strip the curse, the city will return to its original state,” Sablar attacked Vainqueur’s weak point. “Do you truly wish to see all this gold vanish forever?”
The dragon bristled but stood firm in his decision. “A true dragon has quality standards. Your wealth is what lead is to true gold.”
At this point, Victor thought he had never respected Vainqueur more.
Sablar observed Vainqueur for a moment, then turned to look at Furibon. Even though he hated the dragon, his sheer arrogant resolve convinced even the lich to stand firm.
With his ultimatum denied, the deity finally lost patience. “Fine,” he declared, “It is, as they say, your funeral. If you beat me in a fair contest, I will lift the curse and return this city to its original state. But if I win, and you will swear that my rival deities cannot complain about it…”
The deity moved until his head reached the golden hall’s ceiling.
“Is there nothing else you could want from us?” Victor asked innocently.
“You die permanently.”
He walked right into that one.
“I agree,” Vainqueur replied with pride. “Prepare yourself for defeat, wormling! I will defeat you at the only game worth gambling this city's fate over!”
The dragon let fire from his nostrils, preparing to make his grandiose announcement.
“This shall be the ultimate test of my dragon skills,” Vainqueur declared confidently as if he had already played the game a thousand times before.
“Sound strategy will always prevail.” To Victor’s astonishment, Furibon seemed to support the decision. “Vainqueur! For this time alone, I shall fight by your side!”
“You will only drag me down with your poverty!” the dragon refused. “Never!”
“Are you two seriously considering to gamble our lives over a card game?” Allison panicked.
“There will be no cards,” Sablar buzzed threateningly. “My kind of social entertainment is of the... rougher sort. I thought more of an ancient tradition, practiced by both dragonkind and my own creators.”
“The minion battle.” Vainqueur glared back.
“Of a sort," Sablar replied, "You and your four minions will fight my favored champion to the death.”
“I shall not be treated as that wyrm’s animal!” Furibon protested, but the deity ignored him.
Instantly, golden collars materialized around the mortals' necks, with an annoyingly tight hold. “If you leave the city’s confines until a winner decided, you will die,” Sablar declared, a summoning circle appearing before him. “Now come, my prophet. Let loose sweet destruction. Your god commands it.”
A familiar creature materialized, projecting an overwhelming, suffocating aura.
A malevolent mummy of black bones and scroll bandages, clad in dusty green robes resonating with sheer arcane power. The funerary mask covering his face only revealed two glowing lights in place of the eyes.
“My fellow Vizier.” Akhenapep, master of Mot the genie and destroyer of the southern continent, glanced at his one-time student Victor. “Long time no see.”