Roughly thirty years ago, the icy wasteland of Cocytus.
To be the strongest.
His kind lived by this one rule. From the lowliest imp to the master below. Strength over all, winner takes all. Woe to the defeated.
He had lived by this rule since his birth in the fiery pits below the icelands. The tenth of a budding of twenty, his first memory had been running from the gargoyle that spawned him. Those slower died so he could live.
He survived the struggle for life, hiding in the tunnels, eating stones to grow himself a skin that would stop the teeth and fangs of his kindred. That was his kind’s lifecycle. From imp to gargoyle, and with enough time and effort, to a higher form.
In the tunnels below, life was nasty, brutish, and short. Warbands fighting one another in an endless struggle for dominance, for the control of the forges, or for the right to ascend to a greater form. He fought alone, fled when outmatched, struck when he had the element of surprise. He survived but didn’t strive.
Then, when the cracks to the icy surface opened, he crawled out of it, to seize the world above for the master below. Competition was less intense there, the locals already weakened by the winter. He grew older, wiser. Learned to speak, to fashion weapons.
Always, always, he fought alone. He needed no one. Could trust no one. Hunt or be hunted.
And then, he set his eyes on the ultimate prize.
Only four could stand at the Maleking’s side when he would escape his bindings to throw the cosmos into chaos. His Horsemen. Conquest, War, Famine, and Death. Only the strongest deserved the spot, to receive the Horseman’s spirit, mantle, and powers.
Each wielder was the link of an endless chain. One day a challenger would come, and fight the current Horseman. Either the Horseman would defend his title, or fall with the unworthy. That way, each new link strengthened the chain as a whole.
Even impkind enjoyed no privilege in that struggle. The Maleking only respected strength and skill, and so he would grant the mantle of Horsemen to anyone who proved themselves.
In time there would rise Horsemen so powerful, no one will ever topple them. Death herself had killed off so many challengers, no one remembered if someone ever held the title before her. The current Conquest had conquered a large territory in preparation for the Maleking’s arrival. Famine kept changing titles, to the point the imp couldn’t prepare to fight the current holder before a new one took over, so harsh was the competition.
And so, the fiend chose the challenge War. He prepared, waited, laid the ambush, and stuck. He thought with surprise, he could win. He would win.
No. Loss wasn’t strong enough.
His strikes, the Horseman deflected with casual blows; his armor and hammer, made from the bones of other fiends, he cut through like snow; his stoneskin, he ripped apart, revealing his frail true form. With a kick, he broke the imp’s legs and forced him to crawl in defeat.
He never had any chance. All the effort, all those struggles, for nothing.
“Disappointing,” the Maleking’s voice echoed in the icy cavern, his dark spirit having observed the battle from start to finish; as he watched over all those who walked the path of chaos. “I expected a better showing from my own kind, Murmur.”
So did the imp. He didn’t even find words to defend himself, so savage the humiliation. Not that it would last long. He knew the fate of all failed challengers. A final pain, and then the darkness beyond.
War sheathed his many blades without delivering the killing blow.
War. Having mercy? No. Never mercy.
“He is not worth killing yet.”
There it was, the ultimate insult. To be ignored like some shit in the snow. To not even being considered worth bragging about. The worst fate for a warrior. “Finish me off!” Murmur asked bitterly.
“I have no compassion for the craven,” the Maleking confirmed. “Weed him out.”
“He has potential. A flicker, yes. But potential.” The Horseman watched over Murmur with a contemptuous gaze. “You are not a challenge yet, but one day, you might be a passable one.”
Contempt and boredom all rolled into one. It hurt more than the steel and broken bones. So bored was War, so eager for a fight, that he would let him live to fight another day. Because that one wasn’t even worth remembering.
The Maleking didn’t care enough to overrule his servant, indulging him in his cruelty. “Then he will live, for now,” the archdemon said. “But I will not suffer your presence in my home, Murmur.”
“Murmur is banished, yes. I will have you exiled on another world, far from home, far from my sight.”
Exile. No glorious death, no opportunity to claim territory, greater form, or honor. Oblivion.
“Do you understand, Murmur?” the master below went on, his servant sheathing his last blade beneath his cloak. “Only the strong strive and the dragons are strong. Their Ministers can fell gods, and they have. To overcome them, demonkind must improve and weed out all those who hold us back. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. You think strength only comes from muscles and what you can kill.
“Those were the old ways, but now we must learn from our enemies and steal what makes them strong. Their technology, their sorcery, their knowledge… and by blood and steel we shall have them. Until you learn to learn, you will never rise above your meager station.”
Murmur listened, looking at his limp legs in shame.
“Return as my Horseman of War, or do not return.”
Mur hated the Midnight Market. And not just because a werewolf tried his best to eat him alive, Mur holding his strong jaw away with his tiny metal hands.
He spent years in this shithole, didn’t like it, and never would. Dumped here while not healed, forced to eat trash for months like a parasite, struggling almost as hard as he did in his early days. With one stroke, War had undone decades, brought him back to zero.
Mur had remembered the Maleking’s words. He had learned; learned the languages, learned the ways. He had learned of money and booze—one of the few things he liked about the Market—and how to make it work for him. He had regrown his skin, sold his services, gained enough money to buy weapons and enhancements.
When Mur didn’t speak, he listened. Growing smarter, grower stronger. He had even smashed a few servants of the scalies and their tinmen slaves, earning himself a bounty. He hated civilization, though. Too complicated, too ambiguous, too far from the purity of the feral wild, where the rules were simpler and the sides clear.
The latest job had been both a blessing and a disaster. He had lost his stoneskin, and years of work… but he had gained sorcery and a warband of his own.
It was the first time the imp had joined a warband. He had fought with others in the past, as a bodyguard or muscle, but only for temporary jobs. Never on a permanent basis. There were both good and bad sides. Mur and the old man hated one another, but he liked hanging out with squishie Maggie. The pay wasn’t that great, but he got the nice sorcerous powers that would lead him all the way to the top.
Shroud was the leader. He asked too many questions, but he was strong, stronger than Mur for now, and he made the whole warband stronger; so Mur wouldn’t challenge him for the position. Mur would learn his tricks, replicate them, make them his.
While he would never admit it, he also respected the human, a bit. Unlike the old fool, he understood why Shroud chose to leave his old name behind, for the path of the warrior. Mur did the same thing himself.
Murmur the Imp was a loser, killed on Cocytus by War, his name forgotten. The Mur would be a winner. A champion. Mur would become the strongest, regain his honor, and then he would return to his sweet home.
But now wasn’t the time for memories.
Now was the time to destroy.
“Heatriser!” Mur snarled, increasing the temperature around him, his body heating up. Lyber spat him out, his tongue drying up. Mur hit the roof, the metal plates of Adamant absorbing the shock.
Sharpshoot kept firing at Lyber, but unless she fully charged her bullets with red power or lightning, her bullets bounced off the werewolf’s skin. The doctor, Stitch, was nowhere to be found, his promised help waiting; in all likelihood, he had fled.
Mur knew they should have recruited a real warrior.
The old geezer, who had been flying around them, cast Reinforce upon his weapons and armor in preparation for a falling strike on Lyber; however, a crimson mist suddenly covered him, obscuring his vision.
The vampire in mist shape swirled around Sol’s helmet, trying to find an opening in the suit and suffocate him. The geezer tried to cut through the crimson veil, his sword swirling with light, but he couldn’t harm Storck in that form.
The machinery making up most of Lyber activated, pumping him with green drugs. The wolf’s muscles expanded, his veins bulged, and his eyes turned white. Like a rabid beast, he lunged at Mur with his fist raised.
The imp barely had the time to fly out of the blow’s way, Lyber’s fist going through the steel with enough strength to make the building tremble. Maggie prepared to fire a final, deadly shot right at the werewolf’s face when the red aura around her guns dissipated. “Huh?”
Warning: Hostile Terminal disabled your Lock!
Mur felt Adamant’s metal plates recede back into his body, his connection to his sorcery broken. “What?” the imp asked, a Magik Online notification appearing right in front of him.
Warning: The Shroud and Yoshikage accounts have experienced an unknown bug and are temporarily offline. Inactivity for ten minutes will result in total Guild shutdown.
Offline? Could that be why Adamant had stopped working? The website’s staff did warn them the Moderator’s death would negatively impact their account…
“Sharpshoot!” Sol said, keeping Storck at bay. “Go help Mathias and Kari!”
“You don’t have anything that can take down the vampire or the werewolf! Go, we will take care of these two!”
The sniper hesitated, before leaping over the building’s edge and vanishing into the void below.
“We will take care of them?” Mur snickered, as Lyber freed himself.
“I don’t like you either, imp,” the knight replied, managing to escape Storck. “But we will not prevail if we do not cooperate.”
Once, Mur would have looked down on that word. Cooperation was only good for those who couldn’t help themselves. But cooperation had made the scalies strong, more than their fires and sorcery. Teamwork had power.
And so, Mur decided to give it a shot.
Sol fell upon Lyber like a bird, his reinforced blade of Orange Flux cutting through his impervious fur and engaging the rampaging beast in close combat. Storck followed, but Mur interrupted him, trying to fry him with Heatriser.
Regaining his true form mid-flight, Storck clawed at Mur, impaling him through the waist with one of his spikes. Mur felt the pain, but it was a mere sting compared to the bite of Graff’s sword.
Mur knew he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the armory. He had been bred to grow and fight, not to ask questions. But he had learned to learn.
Two to make one. “Mur goes Berserk!”
The magic filled him with sweet power, unleashed the rage within him, removed his limits. He focused that sensation to Heatriser, to try and break the fetters and—
New Hack created!
Components: Berserk + Heatriser
Activation: Active, Thought.
The user transforms into a demonic berserker; gaining hellish might, strong skin, and the power to channel fireballs through their hands. The user keeps control of themselves, but no longer feels pain and trades finesse for brute strength. The transformation is reverted should the user fall unconscious, or die
Mur had just triggered his first Hack.
And his body grew slightly, like Berserk. Except it kept growing, his skin turning to searing stone. Not the shell that was his stoneskin, but true skin of fiery stones, like those of his old tunnels.
Magik Online knew. It knew of the tunnels, of his own growth cycle; and so it gave him the power he dreamed of.
Mur grew into a titan of demonkind, with strong limbs, a spiked tail, and spiraling horns. While his vestigial wings vanished below his skin, his hands burned with magical fire; his flesh pushed Storck’s spike out of his body, forcing the vampire to disengage.
Mur was big again.
Mur was bigger than puny Lyber now.
Which was nice, except he couldn’t fly anymore. And so, Mur fell, landing on his feet with a loud crash. “Haha!” he cackled, his voice now echoing with the sound of a raging volcano. “HAHAHA! Mur big again!”
The vampire didn’t share his joy. “Lyber Lyber!” Storck shouted. “We switch!”
The werewolf answered with a roar, leaving Sol to tackle Mur head on. The fiend relished the challenge, trading blow for blow, meeting claws with a flurry of punches. Both lacked any technique, any skill; Lyber had a slight edge in strength, but Mur matched him in ferocity.
Storck landed on the roof, even as Sol charged at him. Instead of turning to mist this time, the vampire held his ground, gazing at Sol directly.
“Stop,” Storck said, as his eyes met Sol’s.
The knight stopped, enthralled by the vampire’s gaze. “Drop your sword and remove your helmet,” Storck told Sol, the knight obeying. The second he exposed his neck, the vampire attempted to slice his throat with a spike.
Channel fire through hands…
Reacting quicker, Mur pointed a hand at Storck and tried to bring fire into existence. A small fireball manifested from his fingers, moving in a straight line and impacting Storck’s skull before he could deliver the coup de grace.
The vampire’s face burned. Storck let out a scream of anger and pain, reflexively putting his hands on his eyes as they caught fire.
Sol, instantly recovering control of his mind, grabbed his sword, and shouted, “Quasar!” Channeling the dim light of the stars into his blade, he stabbed Storck through the chest before he could turn into crimson mist.
Storck let out a scream, his undead flesh seared off his bones. Lyber instantly tried to drop Mur to try and save his teammate.
The fiend caught his metal arm first.
Activation: Active, Direct Touch Vector.
Temporarily increase or decrease the weight of inorganic matter on touch. The more prolonged the contact, the stronger the effect and the longer it lasts.
Mur had purchased that spell for his weapons, but there was more than one way to apply strength. “Diceweight!”
With an orange flash, the weight of Lyber’s cybernetic enhancements suddenly increased.
Lyber, more metal than flesh, collapsed on Mur himself, both unable to move; the ground below them began to crack under the weight, which kept increasing the longer Mur maintained his contact. Neither could move from their spot.
Within seconds, Storck had turned to dust and ashes. The old geezer moved on to assist Mur, raising his blade as Lyber let out a final, bestial roar.
With both hands and a strong, firm motion, Sol sliced Lyber’s head off, killing the beast.
With the werewolf dead, Mur undid Diceweight, tossing the corpse off himself. The old geezer watched Mur’s new form with a mix of disgust and confusion.
“You saved my life,” the old fool said. “Why?”
Mur spat, his saliva evaporating before it hit Sol’s armor. “Same team,” he grumbled. “Mur hates you, but he hates everyone else more.”
The knight seemed to accept his explanation, putting his sword back and offering him a hand to get back to his feet. Mur looked at it for a few seconds, before accepting it. “Maybe I shouldn’t have judged someone by their appearance,” the geezer said. “I guess we are condemned to get along.”
Mur shrugged. Deep down though, he had to admit… it was a new strange feeling to have someone watching his back.
It felt nice.
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