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The world had fallen silent.

Two suns shone in a moonless sky. Crimson clouds flew over a desolate land, blown by the whispering wind. The stench of death choked the heavens above.

The ruins of broken cities stood empty amidst lonely plains and bloodied forests. Corpses festered in the open, in crumbling houses and collapsed temples. Yet neither flies nor vultures would dine on them.

They too were dead.

Everything with a pulse had perished. From mere insects to kings, all had been slain. Every creature worth a single experience point had been hunted down, even the ghosts. Mindless grass and silent trees were all that remained of a planet once vibrant with life.

Only a single woman yet breathed on a hill of swords. She stood alone, the wind blowing on her fair face, on her golden hair and empty blue eyes. Her black armor was drenched in blood, none of it her own. From her peak she watched a plain of corpses, of broken knights and dead monsters.

Some had been her men, whom she had slain like the rest. Infighting wasn't unusual in the Apocalypse Force. Once they had run out of things to kill and levels to grind, all that remained were each other… that had been the demons’ way for many years, long before she joined them.

She was Brina, the Horseman of War; and war only ended when there was nobody left to fight. The peace of the grave.

Yet as she raised a hand and marveled at the sunlight's reflection on her gauntlet, she couldn't help but feel empty inside.

"Not enough," Brina whispered in disappointment. “Still not enough.”

This world had been more of a chore than a challenge. Brina had entered this realm months ago at the helm of an army and found it torn by conflict. A great continental human empire and a union of inhuman city-states had been fighting for control back then, yet they soon put their differences aside when she started laying waste to them both. They fought and haggled and prayed. Some even tried to bribe her to destroy their enemies.

But Brina was not interested in prestige, wealth, and conquest. She had no wish for honor or luxury. All she wanted was to accumulate strength. To gain levels, equipment, new secret techniques and mighty abilities.

Anything that would help her kill that… that man.

Oh, it had been so long Brina had found a foe strong enough to give her experience. Was there a worse feeling than stagnation? The despair of watching a dream elude the dreamer?

She had thought this world would strengthen her steel, but the reality disappointed her. The greatest champion of these people had been level 60. Legendary by his planet’s standards, and pitiful by those of the Horsemen.

He had lasted two strikes. To his credit, that was one more than most. But he was not even a shadow of her true target. Brina’s true enemy was magnitudes stronger, a merchant of death and a thief of souls. She was still so many levels away from beating him.

Brina felt tired as she watched the twin suns above her head; tired of pointless slaughter, tired of stagnating, tired of failing to fulfill her oath to King Odin.

"Is this how my journey ends?” She wondered. “Halfway through? Unsatisfied, unfinished?”

At this point, Brina was strongly considering picking a fight with the other Horsemen. They were all weaker than her, but they should provide her with experience points. The alliance was starting to run its course anyway.

Who was she kidding? There was only one creature in the Apocalypse Force whose death would give her the power she craved… and she couldn’t even reach him.

"Brina." The dark voice echoed in her mind, the words louder than the wind. It called out to her across the veil of time and space. Brina shrugged it off anyway. Meetings bored her almost as much as an easy fight. “A suitable battleground awaits you.”

Belphegor had said the same thing of this world and the reality had greatly disappointed her. Her fellow Horseman was a necromancer, much to her disdain. The death of weaklings profited him as much as the murder of the strong. So she almost told him to leave her alone with her boredom.

At least, until she heard his next words.

“The merchant peddles his wares there.”

Brina’s pulse quickened with fury. She raised a sword and summoned runes of power. The blade caught fire, the black flames of war and wickedness swirling around its edge. She planted the weapon into the bloodsoaked earth.

“Call the Horsemen,” Brina whispered as she activated her Perk.

The sword’s flames rose in a mighty wall of fire taller than a castle’s walls. The heat evaporated the blood off of Brina’s armor and set the grass ablaze, yet she didn’t flinch. She did not fear the Fire element, or any magic for that matter.

The shadows of three visages appeared among the flames: Apollyon’s, whose mandible and antennae betrayed his insectoid nature; the burning skull of Belphegor, Horseman of Death; and the faceless mask of Mammon, Horseman of Conquest. They were assembled in a triangle, at the center of which the dark symbol of a black hand with a fanged maw for a palm shone balefully.

“Brina, how unkind of you to make us wait.” Belphegor grinned wickedly. “We were almost about to start without you.”

“Do not waste my time,” Brina replied sharply. She had no patience for small talk. “Speak.”

“So quick and impatient,” Mammon said with a chuckle. “You were always the kind to skip the setup and go straight for the punchline. After all the work Apollyon and I went through to prepare the stage too...”

Brina had no time for this nonsense. “Is Walter Tye involved?”

“Oh yes, he is.” Mammon laughed. He knew that this vile man drove her madder than a bloodhound on a hunt. “Your favorite merchant of death peddles your fallen master’s weapons to heroes and villains alike. I have a receipt to show you, if you do not believe me.”

Brina seethed in quiet fury, her fingers trembling with cold rage. She had committed odious crimes before and after joining the Apocalypse Force, forsaking her duties as a valkyrie for the sake of power. She had tempered her flesh in Calamity Surtr’s flames and slain the heroes she had been meant to collect, all in the name of vengeance.

All to slay the enemy of the Aesir. The vile archmage who had tainted her universe with the curse of undeath and sold his victims’ mementos for profit.

Yet… yet after so many years of training and bloodshed and hunting, Brina had been no closer to finding Walter Tye, let alone beating him. The sorcerer could only be found when he wanted it. She had tracked a few of his clients, yet the trail always went cold.

It was good to have a lead… but Brina knew in her heart that it would achieve nothing. This warlock stood at the apex of the multiverse, a master of magic and destruction. Only the power of an Overgod, or something close to it, would cement his defeat.

And that elusive threshold looked so far away…

“I see,” was all Brina said in response.

“Disappointing,” Belphegor mocked her. “But fine. More levels for us.”

Apollyon let out a gleeful, droning noise. “My forces have established a foothold on the planet,” he declared with unbearable pride. “My swarm is raising a summoning amplifier as we speak. I shall be the first to descend and reap the harvest of souls..”

“The barrier will be weakened enough to let you through, true, but not at full power,” Belphegor countered. “You will take a hefty level penalty.”

“One that will be quickly recovered,” Apollyon replied with confidence. “The local population’s levels rose from one to the low thirties in the span of months. They will soon grow mighty enough to feed my hunger.”

This brought Brina’s quiet attention. Under normal circumstances, a world’s population increased in strength slowly over the course of years and then stabilized around a relatively low average. Levels were then distributed across a curve, with a handful of champions monopolizing the upper tiers of power.

For a population to grow from an average level of 1 to 30 in half a year was almost unheard of.

“What is this world’s name?” Brina asked, her curiosity aroused.

“Earth,” Belphegor replied. “A common name for the perfect battleground. This world was optimized for quick level progression, to complete the work unfinished in Elysium.”

Elysium. Brina remembered it well. A world of elves and spirits, some of whom had even proven to be a challenge.

They had been so close to raising an Overgod on Elysium. The Maleking had manifested in its last days and came so close to winning the competition. But the Destroyer’s Avatar had come down from the skies right as they were on the verge of victory. Brina had imagined the power of an Overgod on an intellectual level, but seeing fingers larger than a moon crashing down on her from the sky taught her the value of willful ignorance. Even King Odin would have prayed at the altar for mercy.

Brina had to evacuate the planet in short order in defeat and silent awe, her vengeance delayed once again.

No other world had proved as bountiful in levels since. The Unity cowardly manipulated levels to keep barriers up around their dominions, preventing the Apocalypse Force from bringing the good fight to them. Brina would never understand how these dragons could cravenly hide behind machines rather than win their own fights. The likes of Blackcinders and Grandmaster Wyrde would have made for worthy adversaries, enemies whose death would have empowered her tenfold. Instead, Brina had to settle for minor skirmishes and unworthy worlds.

Would this Earth prove different?

“The Unity arrived on Earth already,” Belphegor noted. “Since they’ve failed to keep levels down, they will have no choice but to send their heavy hitters. Those cowards would rather see us lose than become Overgods themselves.”

“Good,” Brina said. She had hunted many dragons, and would relish adding more to her trophy collection. “I am ready to fight them.”

“We know you are,” Belphegor said with an amused tone. “But you will have to wait. The barrier is not yet low enough for you to cross over, even with a level penalty. You will have to wait a few more months.”

Brina frowned in distaste. Months were nothing but the blink of an eye for her kind, but she hated to wait. Walter Tye might lose interest on the planet and move on, forcing her to begin her hunt all over again. She fell silent even as her colleagues discussed how to best occupy Earth.

“What’s the situation on the ground?” Belphegor asked. “What organized opposition can we expect besides the Unity?”

“Very little, my dear friend,” Mammon replied with a dark chuckle. “I have infiltrated the Player factions and divided them in preparation for our king’s coming. These fools spend more time fighting each other than our bug infestation.”

Where Apollyon sought to dominate through attrition and starvation, Mammon wielded cunning like a blade. These two always cooperated to soften up a world’s defenses before the rest of the Apocalypse Force arrived; the former with force and armies, the second with plots and tricks.

“Do not underestimate the local meat, Mammon,” Apollyon warned. “Some are… strong.”

“Oh right.” Mammon cackled. “Your drones were squashed how many times? One? Two? Thrice?”

“A few humans might prove a challenge to you, but to us?” Belphegor chuckled darkly. “They’ll be fuel for my flames.”

Apollyon buzzed angrily. “Scorn me all you want. By the time you cross the barrier, I will have grown wealthy in blood and strength. We will see how confident you are then.”

“Do you wish to challenge me, bug?” Belphegor replied, his laughter quieter and darker. “I’ll be happy to teach you a lesson.”

“Calm down, my hotblooded friends,” Mammon snapped. “You will have all the time in the world to slaughter each other once we’ve dealt with the Unity. You embarrass us before His Majesty.”

Two voices spoke in unison and silenced them all.

“Do as you will.”

The words were spoken in a whisper, barely louder than the wind, yet they stopped the bickering Horsemen right in their tracks. Brina herself tensed up.

“I hear the voices of the meek calling out to me.” Two voices whispered at once: one deep and brimming with rage, the other disturbingly cold and smooth. Their words cut like razors, each letter becoming an invisible weight on Brina’s shoulders. “So many worship at my altar even as I destroy their lives. My grace they seek; my might they must possess. They pray and beg for deliverance when I offer naught but silence.”

The hand symbol at the center of her flaming wall grew to cover it all. The visages of the Horsemen shrank like lesser shadows in the presence of a greater darkness.

“Let me ask you all a simple question, my Horsemen: what determines a life’s value?” The dark maw opened wide to reveal sharp fangs and four glowing eyes where the tongue should have been. “Is it birth? Should the weak and the entitled rule by virtue of their ancestor’s achievements, even when they prove themselves unworthy?”

None of the Horsemen answered. All knew that their opinion mattered not, and none dared to voice it. On a primal level, they all understood a simple truth.

“Is it wealth? A worthless pile of paper or paltry numbers on a glass screen? A golden fetish whose only strength is the belief of those who enforce it?”

They knew that the voices belonged to a being of pure malice and infinite malevolence. An entity that showed no more mercy to his allies than his foes. An incarnation of merciless strength that inspired and terrorized them in equal measure.

“Is it the law? A castrating illusion born of a herd’s consensus? Should a fool’s voice have the same weight as a sage? Should worthless parasites be treated as well as those who fight to live?”

The Maleking.

“I say no!” The demon’s wrath turned the wall of flame blue. “Fate, fame, wealth, the laws of gods and men… all are naught but fabrications! The winner’s justice, that is the one truth! The strong, the cunning, the talented, only those are fit to survive! Life is not a right, but a privilege!”

Brina had heard these words before. She had listened to them in her black heart after swearing revenge on Lord Thor’s behalf and tempering her blade in the flames of Calamity Surtr. They had stayed with her with each slaughter since.

“I offer neither orders nor condemnations,” the Maleking declared. “Do as you will. Kill foes and friends, I care not whose blood is spilled. Your life is yours alone. Yours to lose, yours to wager. But if it is inspiration you seek, then heed my call.”

All across the multiverse, the other Horsemen waited in judgment.

“Mammon, Brina, Belphegor, Apollyon. Go forth, my Horsemen.” The four eyes glowed like malicious stars on an empty night. “Paint the conquered plains with blood. Blow the winds of war to cast down craven lords and false prophets. Let famine starve the weak of breath and spirit. Death to the meek and the unworthy. Bring forth Hell Unending.”

Brina felt the demon’s gaze on her, heavy as gravity. She sensed his will looking into her heart and seeing her true desire within.

“Then, when the craven are dead and only the brave remain,” the Maleking said, more softly. “We shall see which of us is worthy of strength’s crown and heaven’s throne. If you have the power to take my prize, then try. For one’s true wealth is only what they can defend!”

One war to end them all. One tournament among the multiverse’s greatest warriors, to determine which of them was worthy of true godhood.

The wall of fire collapsed on itself. The truth had been spoken loud and clear; no one needed to say more.

Brina glanced at the hill of sword and the desolate plains. Once her role had been to scour battlefields as one of King Odin’s handmaiden, searching for heroes whose great deeds had earned them a place at the Aesir’s table. These had been happy times; times of honor, of duty, and valor. Times when death once meant something.

Until it didn’t.

One day Brina had come down from Asgard to find the rotting corpses of soldiers walking on their own. The vile plague of undeath had swept across the land, poisoning the cycle of soul and condemning the nine worlds to eternal decay.

Brina had lost the war for Asgard the first time around. She had to retreat after watching the heavenly host torn apart by the living dead, swallowing the bitter pill of defeat. Only vengeance could wash away her stained honor.

If she had to sell her soul to a demon for it, then she would pay the price.

Brina had months of waiting ahead of her, but her boredom had been replaced with something else. A stirring fire in the depths of her soul.

Excitement.

“Walter Tye… Nidhogg…” Her fingers clenched around her sword’s pommel. “You will elude me no further.”

She was done waiting for the right time that never seemed to come. Whether she gained the strength of an Overgod or not, she would confront Walter Tye at least. Whether she killed him or he killed her, her long war would end either way.

“My Einherjars,” she said. “Come to me.”

The bound specters of fallen champions rose to wage battle anew, as her Perk warranted. They would die and disappear under the fading sunlight, preparing themselves for the battle to come. She would watch them in silence, keeping herself occupied until the right time.

Soon, the gate to Earth would open for the Horseman of War.

And she would be ready.

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About the author

Maxime J. Durand (Void Herald)

Bio: I'm Maxime Julien Durand ([email protected]), a European warlock living in the distant realm known as France, spending all his time writing tales and forbidden scrolls.

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