Her head toppled from her shoulders. When her killer picked up her disembodied head and placed it so that she had a good view of the city, saying that he was sorry, that it was for his family… Only then did the reality of her betrayal sink in. He’d been bought by the same scum who had turned her home to radioactive glass. Krahe. That had been her name. In the moment her head was severed from her body, a chain of Dead Man’s Switches embedded in her cybernetics went off. Among them, turning her body into an autonomous humanoid weapon was the first. The local news cycle that night ran wild with reports of a rampaging “cyber-zombie”. As the man who she had trusted and who had betrayed her met his end at the radiation-blasters embedded in her arms, the second of Krahe’s Dead Man’s Switches went off. The rotten, corporate heart of Megacity Gamma, and with it the HQ of the Whitestone and Bergmann Financial Group… It all went up in nuclear hellfire. Such was the scale and resilience of corporate megastructures; nothing less than a fusion bomb would have sufficed. The megacity’s intranet followed when the last Dead Man’s Switch activated: a self-replicating AI was unleashed, running rampage through any system even slightly related to Whitestone. These were the treasures of a woman who had lived through corporate wars and cataclysms without number, who had stood against the closest thing her world had to gods. The three curses of a righteous warrior whom her own world had rejected. Brunhilde Krahe died with the image of a nuclear fireball of her own making, burned into her artificial eyes’ corneas. With the last shred of backup power in her head, the cyborg rumbled out her final words. “I. AM. NOT. DONE.” She died filled with regret and refusal, for this was a scene she had never wanted to see. The only reason she hadn’t done this of her own volition, why this was a Dead Man’s Switch to begin with, was the knowledge that the true masterminds of Whitestone would just prop up another finance group in another city with even tighter corporate security. “It was all for nothing.” A truth she could not accept, hoping even unto death that her act would at least stir another like herself into action. She hoped that eventually, the subhuman parasites behind the likes of Whitestone would be strung up from their own ivory towers as they rightly deserved. Those who had killed her thus met the same fate, even if she was not there to see it. No, Krahe had long departed for the timeless journey through the cosmic void between worlds, only to be snatched up by the whims of cosmic coincidence. ____________________________________________________________________ Amidst the vast emptiness of the void between worlds, a consciousness stirred; a being as ancient as the worlds of man, those motes of light which speckled this boundless nothing. It heard the call of a defiant soul cut down on the cusp of greatness, a soul which so vehemently rejected its own death that its cries echoed across the cosmic void of Kenoma and stirred Chernobog from its timeless slumber. Chernobog was called many things. A god of ruin. Misfortune. Apocalypse. It was no such thing. A god of ego, ambition, the peaceless search for ever greater heights. These, it was a god of. It snatched the errant soul, binding it within itself, and drifted back to its ageless sleep. An eon passed, over the course of which an infinitesimal shred of Chernobog’s being seeped into the soul of Brunhilde Krahe. It was an infinitesimal fragment of the Old God’s knowledge and power, equating to less than a drop of water amid a bottomless ocean. _____________________________________________________________________ In the subterranean capital of a civilization long-gone there stood an ancient holy site, now desecrated, turned to the laboratory of a madman. The stern faces of forgotten kings and gods looked down upon a sorry display: An old, once-great man desperately squeezed the venom gland of an arm-sized, lamprey-like worm into a syringe. Filling it the rest of the way with blue-glowing elixir from a beaker, he injected himself with its contents. The terrible pain which had wracked him was carried away on a comforting wave of numbness, the innumerable bulging seams of his pieced-together form receding into no more than lines on his skin. His mind grew foggy and the beaker slipped from his grasp, smashing on the brass-inlaid floor. “At this rate, I shall lose myself before the year is out… Come on Audun, get a hold of yourself…” he thought, listlessly glancing about. All this machinery, all this equipment. It was all worth a fortune, and it had utterly failed him in trying to awaken the ancient city’s machinery. That wretched substance, the venom of a Baneworm, was the only thing which could suppress his affliction, born from centuries of careless fleshgrafting and self-experimentation. Oh, how he hated his younger self for disregarding the warnings of those who held the grafting arts in reverence. He had thought that his raw genius would allow him to just deal with it later, that he could use alchemy and magic to achieve immortality through brute force. The reward for his hubris was a body actively trying to pull itself apart, a body that could not be saved even by the highest masters of the grafting arts, or so they claimed. His brain was being dissolved alive by the same venom that kept his symptoms under control, his mastery of alchemy the sole reason he wasn’t yet a vegetable. He glanced to his right, to his writing desk, and he reached beneath the vast sheafs of paper, pulling a gun from underneath it all. It was beautiful, a century-old work of craftsmanship that still stood head and shoulders above modern firearms. Audun took a clip full of rounds and pressed it into the gun, working the ringed lever next to its trigger to chamber one. He considered taking the easy way out, albeit briefly. “Damn baneworm venom…” he cursed, instead pointing the iron at the cut-open parasite. A single shot ripped it in half, a wrathful thunderclap echoing through these ancient halls. Such thoughts elicited only fury within Audun, knowing that they were not his own. In his state of delirium, desperation overtook reason and he left the gun behind in favor of taking up a notebook bound in black dragonskin. He took none of his myriad precautions, made none of his myriad preparations, drank none of his myriad warding elixirs. Instead, the delirious wizard paged through the tome until he found the pages which detailed his incomplete interpretation of a long-forgotten rite. In his other hand he took a great key wrought of bone and inlaid with gold, its shape blocky and geometric. With it in hand he strode to the center of the chamber. which was separated from its remainder by a narrow walkway over a bottomless pit. There an eldritch altar stood, its form that of a narrow, waist-height altar with a flat, seven-sided top, in its middle a narrow slot. A keyhole. The heads of seven silver serpents surrounded the altartop’s edge facing inwards, their bodies spiraling down around the altar and into the pit. By the altar’s side waited what was to be his new body, should the ritual come to fruition: A perfect ideal of the human form, muscular, symmetrical, and over two meters tall. “O Chernobog, Darkest of the unfathomable Dark Ones, Oldest of the ageless Old Ones! I ignite this beacon and demand an audience, demand that you fulfill thy ancient accord! Trespassing the boundaries of mortality, in this great city of Jas’raba where thy kin once ruled, I now brandish Key of Amrakas, ancient and immortal! Holding up the key in an icepick grip, Audun funneled every shred of his immense arcane might into the artefact. It came ablaze in a swirling vortex of emerald light, coalescing into its form until only the gemstones along its spines shone, even the slightest motion rending through the veil of reality as if it were paper, forcing sights inconceivable into the wizard’s eyes. He brought the key down upon the altar, feeling it demand more and more of him, and more he gave. Everything he could, he gave to the key, and his efforts were rewarded by the eruption of an upside-down waterfall all around him. Rising from the bottomless pit surrounding the altar came a flood of eldritch light, an utter blackness surrounded in burning outlines of every conceivable and inconceivable colour. The altar’s serpents sprung to life, winding themselves around Audun’s arm until they reached his shoulder, where they sunk their silver fangs into his flesh. There was no turning back, now. ______________________________________________________________________ The next time Chernobog woke, it was as if it had barely just closed its eyes; less than a moment by the Old God’s reckoning, a flicker on the cosmic scale of things. There had come the call of another defiant soul. It was the call of one who had already reached greatness, yet now sought to avoid the downfall which his own hands had wrought. The foolish mortal had awoken Jas’raba’s great machinery, the World Needle piercing an infinitesimal pinhole into the artificial veil which shielded that world from Chernobog’s grasp. Chernobog had no choice but to react, for it had an accord with Jas’raba’s long-dead builders in exchange for receiving its inhabitants’ souls upon their deaths. The mortal demanded his soul to be taken from his wretched flesh and placed into a new body by Chernobog’s great hand. A feat as petty as that was well within the Old God’s ability, but… That incantation had nothing to do with the exchange of a soul from one body to another. Rather, it had been written to facilitate the exchange of a soul from this world for a soul from another. Such was the agreement the kings of Jas’raba had forged with Chernobog, and an Old God could not act counter to its own word. Chernobog took no exception to fulfilling such an erroneous deal. It supposed that, in the end, even the Wizard would get what he wanted in one way. Whether he would like the world he ended up in… Chernobog did not care. “Transcending beyond worlds, through the howling vortex, let the astral door reveal my chosen fate! Grant me another chance to face the shadow of endless night, o great Chernobog!” so incanted Audun Sorun. The ground shook underfoot. Instead of what he’d hoped for, Audun received a tsunami of unworldly energies ripping through his form, the Key of Amrakas turning to stone in his hand. Vein-like trails of orange light spread up his arm, shining beneath his skin as the cosmic force flowing through him seared his flesh into something akin to living charcoal. His skin melted into a wax-like consistency and seeped into his robes. What took only moments felt like an eternity; in an instant his very soul was ripped from his body, carried away on the same cosmic current that deposited a soul from another world into his flesh. He panicked, and in a desperate, animal-like attempt to free himself, the last act of Audun Sorun became reaching out for the artificial body… Only to cause its supporting gurney to roll off the platform. It met its annihilation in the wall of cosmic nothingness surrounding the platform, swallowed by Chernobog’s waiting tendrils. The chamber fell dark, and the altar’s serpents retracted. What was left standing there as the light died down was not a wizard, or even a corpse, but little more than a humanoid cocoon. Skin baked to a hardened shell, the flesh within half-molten, already coalescing into a form fit for its new inhabitant. A being corrupted by the touch of an Outer God, suffused with eldritch knowledge not meant for human minds… And these were not that woman’s most dangerous traits by far. ______________________________________________________________________ It felt like waking up from a bad dream into an outright nightmare. She had felt herself fade out into nothingness. Then, it had been nothing. Now, it was this. The image of that nuclear fireball remained imprinted in her mind’s eye. The thought that this suffocating encasement might be some sort of hellish afterlife came into her mind, only for a few seconds of struggle to prove otherwise. Whatever was trapping her came apart like some sort of rotten, waxy polymer. Chunks of the stuff plummeted into nothingness below. Krahe’s first breath in this world was one filled with the stench of decaying flesh and sting of chemicals in her nostrils. She fell on her hands and knees and pain jolted through her body - pain the likes of which she hadn’t felt in a long, long time, so unlike the simulated pain signals of cybernetics. The mental image of a burning Megacity Gamma was banished by the sight of a bottomless void in front of her face and a draft of ice-cold air from below. She was gripped by a sudden survival instinct. In moments, without thinking, she scrambled on all fours over the walkway and well away from the pit, nearly hyperventilating as a curtain of raven-black hair obscured her vision. A layer of revolting, slippery slime coated her skin, and her eyes ached like hell from the lights. And the air, the air was so cold as to make the throat ache… Her chest heaved as she struggled to get her breathing under control, leaning her head back against some sort of wooden table. Wood… That was real wood grain. Not synthwood. She felt it under her fingertips. At first she thought that it must’ve cost a fortune, but she quickly shook her head. This wasn’t her world. That much she knew. Why she knew it, or why she was so deathly certain of it, she couldn’t say. It just seemed… Self-evident, somehow. Krahe blinked a few times until her eyes acclimated to the bright illumination of this chamber, a stark, white-blue glow which spilled forth from great crystalline orbs held in the hands of kingly statues in alcoves all around the chamber. Her attention was entirely taken up not by what she saw, but by what didn’t see: Her HUD. The reality of her situation sunk in when she wrapped her own arms around herself and felt her own skin and flesh, when she ran her fingers through her hair to get it out of her eyes and found a few black strands left in her hand. “I’m… A full organic again,” she murmured. As she looked down at her hands, her eyes were drawn to that which stood out. That which didn’t look like meat. Her left arm. Its surface was like a hunk of charcoal dipped in pitch, yet it moved and felt like any living limb, she could feel her own pulse through its skin and its surface didn’t stain her right hand’s fingers. A black, perfectly skin-tight leotard hugged her body - the only of her possessions which had come with her, as it seemed. She chose not to question it for now, considering her eldritch surroundings. For a while Krahe just sat there, looking around, breathing without thought as she fruitlessly tried to process how she was alive. Krahe’s thoughts drifted towards her own death, the minutes-long decline of her cognitive functions as the backup life support in her head ran out. She remembered it with a brilliant, cruel clarity, the entirety of her death and her own bitter rejection of it, the slow decay of the nuked cityscape’s image into a smear resembling the sun rising over the ocean. The reality that it was all gone sunk in. Everything she’d done in that world, even if that world still existed, was gone to her now. She knew better than to agonize over something as undeniable and irreversible as her own death; she assumed that it would only bring her madness if she tried to understand how or why she had seemingly come back to life in an alien world. A sudden, ever so brief flash of light issued from that strange altar; for just a moment, there came a loud buzzing sound and blue light flooded the chamber, a wave of incredible heat washing over her. Right then, she felt something. Her heart skipped a beat, and into her mind’s eye were burned the words of a foreign intelligence that wasn’t her own, something vast and unfathomable. YOU, WHO WERE CUT DOWN ON THE PRECIPICE OF GREATNESS. YOU, WHO BARED YOUR FANGS AGAINST THE SKEINS OF FATE. YOU, WHO SO STAUNCHLY REFUSED DEATH’S COLD GRASP. LEAVE THIS PLACE. JOIN THE WORLD OF MAN. ACHIEVE THE GREATNESS DENIED TO YOU.