Once again, Ko Syn Wu found himself in the endless desert. In this realm, a jagged crystalline sun never rose and never fell. It just hung there, leaking out a horizon of pink and violet light; a celestial ornament pinning the featureless land to the starless sky.
“Come out keeper,” Ko Syn Wu said. “Each night you summon me, and each night I wander until you appear. Might we just eliminate the wandering? Show yourself.” He stood quietly for a few moments, but when there was no response, he began his journey, a huff of disappointment in sync with his first step.
The dry earth crunched beneath his boots, each step echoing for miles, the only sound in this empty land. He had walked some immeasurable distance when the cloaked figure appeared. A crystal skeleton shrouded in shimmering golden robes hovered above Ko Syn Wu; death’s enduring grin smiling down at him.
“Hello again,” Ko Syn Wu said. He knew next to nothing about the entity or it’s realm. The creature had appeared in his dreams when he had first picked up the Master Shard, his spear: The World Piercer. Each night the entity forced upon him visions of apocalyptic futures, promised him weapons of devastating power, and even offered to wipe away the mistakes of his past, all the while never revealing its true purpose. The nightly manipulations had become tiresome.
"The time has come to make a choice," the entity hissed, golden robes billowing in a non-existent wind.
Ko Syn Wu looked around expectedly, “What? No glimpse of the future? No need to show me the deaths of my people, yet again? To what do I owe this mercy?”
“Make a choice,” the entity repeated, biting off each word.
“This is futile. No matter what I choose, it seems my people are fated to die.” He paused for a moment, considering his next words, “I don’t need another weapon. I need a tool. One that will make my people whole again. Offer me this, and you will have my allegiance if that is what you’re after.”
“Time is limited,” The entity hissed. “The other Shard Masters have grown strong. One has already made their choice, the others will follow.”
Ko Syn Wu gave a growl of frustration. “Let them,” he clenched his fist. “It is not my concern. My only concern is—“.
"You are a fool, Ko Syn Wu.” The entity was suddenly face-to-face with him. “It was indecision that led your people into Oblivion, and it will be your indecision that sends them back.” A bony hand gripped his throat. “Make a choice. Make it soon.”
Ko Syn Wu choked out words, “I choose... to save... my people.”
The skeleton’s eye sockets flared with violet energy, and the creature hurled him out of his realm.
Ko Syn Wu woke with a jolt, weightless and floating in the sensory deprivation tank where he slept. Monitors wired to him detected consciousness, and the chamber split open from the center. He and the liquid were dumped out onto a circular draining platform.
Ko Syn Wu collapsed onto his knees, dripping with the thick emerald fluid, and he reached forward to grip handles that were built into the platform. He breathed deeply; inhaled the acrid smell of heated iron and melted plastic. Of saline solution and human waste. Of rapid evolution and slow decay. Small nozzles rose all around him and hissed as they washed the gel from his body.
An array of sensors spun above him, whirring as they went. Red beams of light scanned his body, searching for subdermal energy trails; interdimensional rifts manifesting under his skin. The veins of his left arm began to swell, red blood thickening into a black ichor. Ko Syn Wu bellowed out a scream, the first of the morning, as the vein split open in a spray of violet flame.
Pumps in the wall shifted up and down, mixing liquid biometal with pulverized fragments of lesser shards. 3-D printers and skeletal mechanized arms worked in tandem, fabricating and attaching plates of armor over the blazing violet wounds.
Ko Syn Wu shouted out in short bursts, a rhythm of violent sounds to help him block out the pain. This was the morning ritual that each Wraethe was cursed to endure, a fate for which Ko Syn Wu felt wholly responsible.
As the final plates were pressed into his skin, smooth metal hooks lifted him to his feet, and the last component of Ko Syn Wu’s transformation rose from the floor: The World Piercer. He lurched forward, still weak from the process, and gripped the relic. The crystal blade flared to life and Ko Syn Wu along with it.
He stood on the platform, gathering himself and looking over today's placement of the armor: one-hundred sixty-three plates. Two more than yesterday and four more than a week ago, quantifiable evidence of his worsening condition. As he considered his fate, the door to the chamber slid open with a hiss.
A young Wraethe burst into the room, only a few black plates on his arms and neck, and he stumbled over the door frame. “Ko Syn Wu,” he called out. “Someone is coming through. There’s someone-”
“Then today is a good day.” Ko Syn Wu gently placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder, calming him. “Let us welcome them back to existence.”
The boy led Ko Syn Wu through black reflective halls of the facility. “The engineers say that the rift’s density is… ” he paused, looking for the right word but couldn’t find it. “It’s denser.” The boy looked down at his feet, disappointed.
Ko Syn Wu patted the boy’s shoulder. “Thank you for telling me, we’ll see how we can help.”
Since Ko Syn Wu’s return to the material plane, they had discovered how to use the minor shards to work like a magnet into the anti-plane, using them to predict when and where a Wraethe would be reborn into this world. For years, Ko Syn Wu and his band of returned souls, searched out new Wraethes, nomads wandering the changing world. In time they were able to draw the energy to a single point - this facility: The Refuge.
The birthing room was active by the time they got there, it’s transparent energy wall up, to keep the violent energies of the rift from destroying the rest of the facility. Inside were two engineers, clad in their own patchwork armor, standing on either end of a cushioned table, and holding short spears. A holographic screen hovered just above the table displaying complex algorithms, maps, and charts with jagged lines that were growing more severe with the passing seconds. They kept their eyes fixed on the space above the table and waited.
Ko Syn Wu and the boy stood outside and watched in silence, the boy looking over periodically to check his leader’s reaction.
A flash of violet lighting streaked through the chamber. One of the engineers leaped back, startled. Another flash and space cracked open high above the table. A black viscus whirlpool swirled in the air reflecting the light of the chamber, colorful like gasoline on the surface of the water.
“Don’t move from that position,” one engineer shouted to the other, “they’re coming through.”
The swirling black liquid of the portal distended downward, creating the silhouette of a humanoid figure, then it burst open. A woman slid through, naked and screaming. The reborn Wraethe crashed onto the table below, missed the cushioned center, and rolled off to the ground.
The engineer closest to the woman, tossed his spear to the side and grabbed under her arms, dragging her away as she screamed; as they all had screamed.
He did his best to comfort her, but she kept her eyes focused on the darkness. A thick tendril of black liquid pushed through the rift, extending itself toward the reborn Wraethe.
The other engineer stepped between the woman and the tendril, spear tip held firmly in front of him, and stabbed it. The weapon flashed with violet energy. The tendril lapped at him like some giant demonic tongue, and the engineer stepped to the left and right, jabbing methodically, pushing it back into the portal.
“Look out,” the boy warned, but the engineer was caught by surprise as another tendril extended from the darkness and tightened around his neck; a featureless snake to choke the life out of him. The Wraethe struggled, but it was no use, the darkness lifted him off his feet and whipped him into the wall and ceiling, then tossed him away. The other’s watched as the engineer’s head hit the corner of the table and his body slumped to the floor.
“It’s going to take her,” Ko Syn Wu muttered. Instinctively, he reached forward to stop the horror within but was halted by the protective wall of energy. He turned to the boy, “Open the door.” The timid Wraethe hesitated; transfixed by the chaos within. “Now!” Ko Syn Wu roared. The boy snapped out of it and ran to the entrance panel.
Inside the chamber, the remaining engineer dove for his spear, but the tendril darted toward him, thinning and hardening as it went, and plunged into his chest. The woman screamed as the darkness withdrew from the engineer’s body and whipped around toward her. Scrambling away, she backed herself against the wall. The tendril crawled across the floor, slid around her ankles, and tightened.
“The wall is down,” the boy shouted.
The barrier flickered away, and Ko Syn Wu stepped through fast. The tendril pulled hard, lifting her off the ground; she was being dragged back up into nothingness. He managed to catch the woman’s arm just before she was hip deep in the portal. Her breaths were sharp and short.
“You are not going back to that place,” he said and thrust The World Piercer into the rift. The black liquid darted away from the Shard, flashing with bright light, and the darkness began to waver. With one arm Ko Syn Wu pressed the spear deep into the portal, with the other he heaved on the woman’s wrist and ripping her from the grip of Oblivion.
The rift would not be denied, it seemed to writhe with anger and launched a flurry of black tentacles at Ko Syn Wu. He drew his spear back for another thrust, but a tendril lashed at him first. Back he went, crashing into the table. The tendril swung around, this time he ducked under it, turned and caught it with his hand. Energy crackled out from where the two came into contact; a burst of violet sparks lit up the room.
Ko Syn Wu loosened his grip on the World Piercer, letting the spear slide through his palm until he was holding the blade like a knife. The tendril writhed as he severed it from the portal, but Oblivion was relentless. As one tendril melted away into a black ooze, two more slithered around his arm and wrist and shook the World Piercer loose. It twisted through the air, clattered across the floor, toward the woman.
He glanced over, her arm already extended, reaching out for the spear.
“Don’t—” Ko Syn Wu shouted but was cut off as another tendril slid around his neck, lifting him off the ground.
The moment she gripped the spear, the shard flared with violet light and so too, did the woman’s eyes. In an instant, she was on her feet and humming with power. Lightning arched out from the shard to lick her flesh, transforming the sweat that rolled down her body into liquid fire.
She vaulted toward the portal, bellowing out an inhuman roar, thrusting The World Piercer forward. Ko Syn Wu could feel the shard’s heat as it passed within a hairs-breadth of his face. She drove the shard into the rift, and the portal started to collapse.
The tendrils released Ko Syn Wu. He fell to his knees, gasping for air. “Let go of the shard,” he choked.
With both hands on the weapon, the woman shook the blade back and forth, tearing into the portal, aggravating the wound, until the darkness swirled away into nothing.
“You have to put it down,” Ko Syn Wu said, extending an open palm to the woman.
She spun toward him and roared, her face twisted up with rage.
He stood slowly, and took a careful step toward her, “The power is a lie. Do not give in to it.”
She pressed the shard against his chest, and spoke, “You are a fool, Ko Syn Wu.” The voice was deep and familiar, and not her own. “Make your choice,” it said, prodding him with the shard. “And make it soon.”
He stared at the woman. Shocked at first, then thoughtful. “You,” Ko Syn Wu said, “You’re in the Shard,” he muttered.
The entity ignored him, just as it always had, and continued. “Or I will find another who will,” the woman’s lips turned upwards in a skeletal grin. “This one is nearly as powerful as you.”
Ko Syn Wu’s face stiffened; a cold mask of anger.
“She feels eager to accept my—”
Ko Syn Wu would hear no more, he pushed the spear aside, shard scraping across his armor with a piercing shriek. He pressed forward, and with a grunt, he shouldered the woman into the wall. As he pulled The World Piercer from her hands, and the power leaped back into the weapon from her body.
For a moment, she just stood there, leaning against the wall, weak and wobbling from the ordeal. Then, barely conscious, she collapsed.
Ko Syn Wu caught her as she fell, and the two stared at each other for a long moment, perhaps appreciating the eerie silence. Her irises still burned violet, even after she’d lost the shard. His gaze drifted down her body, and suddenly, the softness on his face melted away. Thin black trails were already beginning to form along her ribs, crawling beneath her skin. “The reaction is starting,” he shouted to the boy. “Get an engineer.”
The young Wraethe nodded and ran off.
Ko Syn Wu laid the woman out on the table. “I’m going to help you, do you understand?” She nodded and reached for Ko Syn Wu’s hand, squeezing it hard. “It’s going to be alright,” he said. “You're body has changed. It’s reacting to this world.”
The press of a button on the floating holographic screen and a sensor array went to work, scanning her body, as the black trails stretched down her stomach.
“Do you remember your name?”
“Rue,” she muttered. “I am Rue Bo Vai.”
“Rue Bo Vai,” he repeated. “Welcome back.”
A faint smile lingered on her face. Then black trails along her ribs split open, and violet flame licked up from under her flesh. The smile constricted into a look of agony, and her eyes began to dart from side to side.
“Scream, cry, take deep breaths. Find something to focus on. Find your ritual,” Ko Syn Wu said. “Because this is going to hurt.”