Recreational Reality

The Ekozet Connection: Wu-Xing

A small red and brown ship soared silently through the night sky. It flew above the central continent of the planet Domatu, world of the five elements.

    "We're approaching the city on the lake," Shinako said, in the pilot's seat, "so be ready to land."
    "Cool! What was the name of this city again?" Trav said.
    "Didn't you read the world information briefing?" Nati said, "This is Bavat, the capital of the Elemental Kingdom, in the state of Thuringia."
    "Right, right, sorry," Trav said, fiddling with an orange summoning bracelet on his left wrist. It glowed for a moment before turning off. Kev and Nati wore similar bracelets, although theirs were seemingly dormant.

The ship flew over the clouds, as a smallish city could be seen below. It rested on the side of a large lake, and shone with relatively dim lights. A large forest surrounded the city to the south, and they headed in this direction.

    "I bet it looks a lot cooler during the day," Kev said.
    "Yes, but it's much easier to be sneaky at night!" Shinako said.

They gracefully landed just outside the outskirts of the city, their ship cloaked from visible sight. They could hear the soft crash of waves nearby, and the creaking of trees in the wind.

    "Okay, we're here!" Shinako said, "any last recommendations Inzami?"
    A projection of Inzami appeared on the center console. She was clothed in her ethereal robes of white and spoke with a distant, but clear voice. "I'm sure you can handle this mission without my help. And just a reminder - you're to meet with Zhi Xing Ying at the Lakeside Inn, and ask him if he wants to join," she said. "If he needs help with something, that's perfectly fine, but try to keep a low profile," she said, "as this world isn't accustomed to interdimensional travelers."
    "Yeah, neither was ours," Kev said.
    "Exactly," Inzami said, "and good luck out there!" Her projection vanished from the console.
    "Alright everyone, let's pack out!" Shinako said, opening the rear door of the ship.
    Baster hopped off of the left control panel, and into Nati's hand, as the five of them walked out into the cool night.

    "Brr," Trav said, "it's pretty cold, could I put on my armor? It's from this world originally, right?" He grasped his bracelet.
    "It's from this world, yes, but like 500 years ago," Nati said, "and your armor is huge and loud so I think that's the opposite of 'keeping a low profile.' Better to not activate your summoning bracelet."
    "Dang," Trav said, letting go of the bracelet.
    "We just have to walk faster!" Kev said, "the inn is just down on the lake, right?"
    "Yep!" Shinako said, sashaying across the forest floor.

They walked through the forest for a few minutes, until the trees gave way to a rocky shoreline. Continuing along the lakefront, they saw a light off in the distance. It hovered above the water slowly, and shone over the city shoreline.

    "That must be an airship," Nati said, "are you sure they won't spot us?"
    "Nah, the patrols don't come this way for another 15 minutes," Shinako said, "and we're almost there."

They continued along the gravel, until they saw a dirt road. They followed it up a slight hill, and to a small inn. It had two stories, with windows facing the lake. However, all the lights in the windows were out except one near the front door. Shinako knocked softly on the wooden front door.

    A small window opened in the top of the door, and a man's eye could be seen through it. "What business do you have on the lake at this time of night?"
    "I'm Shinako, these are my friends," Shianko said, pointing to the others, "and we're here to see Zhi Xing Ying."
    "Zhi? What?" the man said. Then looking around at the odd group outside, he said, "okay, you probably are actually here to see him."

The door slid open revealing a tall burly man, easily seven feet tall, wearing old-fashioned woodman's gear, and with a few smaller tools strapped to his belt.

    "I'm Grayvor Thordghrod, a friend of his. I'll get Zhi," he said, stepping out of the doorway. "Feel free to wait in the main room." He then walked up the wooden stairs behind him, towards the rooms above.

The five of them walked inside the inn, and into the main room to their right. It had a few windows with a lake view, although the curtains were drawn. Nearby were a few wooden chairs and tables, plus a rather uncomfortable-looking old fabric couch. To the left was a wooden bar, with a variety of strange-looking dark bottles behind. The room was lit by a sole lamp near the window, glowing with a steady white light.

    Shinako closed the door behind them, and said, "I always love these historical inns, such rustic charm!"
    "Yeah, this place is all made out of actual wood," Nati said, "the floor, bar, chairs, they all look almost hand-carved."
    "Must be super fancy," Trav said, "or super old."
    "Is it just me, or does this place feel like we're in the past?" Kev said, "I mean not our past, but older in technology level?"
    "Something like that," Nati said, "although I was confused by the descriptions of electric trains and airships in the original world information briefing."

    "The trains and airships all run on elemental energy," a man said, walking up to them from the hallway, "so perhaps we haven't advanced quite the same way as wherever you're from." He was vaguely Chinese in ethnicity, and was almost six feet tall. He was wearing dark brown robes, with flowing pants. He had only a small amount of gray hair left, as he looked to be in his 60's, if not older. "I am Zhi Xing Ying, a pleasure to meet you all," he said, bowing slightly. "And Shinako? I haven't seen you for ages, how are you? And what brings you back to my world?"
    "Oh you know, the usual," Shinako said, smiling slightly. "The old team has disbanded, and I wanted to offer you the chance to join up again, if you're interested?"
    "To join?" Zhi said, "I'm afraid the situation has gotten much worse, Shinako. Our attempts to overthrow the Elemental King have failed miserably. The oppression is even worse that it was all those years ago."
    "Oh jeez, sorry to hear," Shinako said, the cheer draining from her expression.
    "Hello. I am Nati," Nati said, "and the Elemental King, you say? I remember reading about him in the world information, it said he reunited the warring states after the original Kingdom of Amantia fell."
    "That is correct, Nati," Zhi said, "although not in a good way, his rule is with an iron fist. (Literally.) He uses the five elements to control the kingdom, and attack nearby neighbors. Such as my homeland, the Qin Empire. We've done what we can to return this world back to a state of peace, but our attempts have been in vain."
    "Nice to meet you too, Zhi," Kev said, bowing, "and sorry to hear about that. I don't suppose you could just vote him out?"
    The man from before, Grayvor, approached the group, and stood next to Zhi.
    "Voting?" Zhi said, looking astonished, "he's a dictator, and one with more power than any who have lived on Domatu. There's no such thing here anymore."
    "I'd heard rumors of that," Grayvor said, "but never seen it with my eyes. I've been leading the rebellion here in Bavat, not that we've had much luck."
    "Sounds like he's pretty powerful," Trav said, "oh, and I'm Trav, nice to meet you two. Too bad you can't defeat him fairly."
    "Actually..." Zhi said, trailing off and thinking upon this suggestion.

    "Oh well, if you're not interested, I suppose we'll have to find someone else!" Shinako said, walking towards the door quickly.
    "Wait," Zhi said, placing his right hand on her shoulder, "I know you have a mission to help. Perhaps you can help me defeat him fairly."
    "Oh, you're suggesting we help you?" Shinako said, "that is a good idea. But I'm not so sure about it..."
    Zhi rolled his eyes at these comments, and said, "he has given a proclamation that anyone who defeats him in one-on-one combat would be able to take his throne. However, he won't let anyone approach him, and we can't just blast through the palace."
    "But perhaps, we could sneak in?" Nati said, "although this does sound dangerous."
    'I agree!' a tiny sign from Baster said, as he had been silently sitting on Nati's shoulder.
    "Hah! Danger is my middle name!" Shinako said, "and sounds like fun!" Her voice sounded a bit more flat than usual, however, during this comment.
    "Yes, I suppose," Zhi said, looking a bit exasperated at Shinako, "although we will need help. Grayvor, can you wake Ati?"
    "Sure," Grayvor said, "we'll be ready to leave in 15 minutes." He walked back up the steps to the top level of the inn.
    "Excellent," Zhi said.
    "Wait, we're leaving right now?" Kev said.
    "Sure, why not? Are you tired?" Zhi said.
    "No, not really, it's supposed to be morning for us," Kev said.
    "Perfect, then we leave in 15," Zhi said, walking back up to get dressed and ready.

    "Wait so now we're toppling a dictator in another world?" Nati said, "my suggestion of sneaking regardless, how is this 'keeping a low profile'?"
    "We are here to help, right?" Shinako said, "sometimes Zhi just needs a bit of encouragement."
    "I guess," Nati said, noticing Shinako did seem to be acting strangely around him. Well, more strangely than usual, she thought.
    Agreed, Baster thought-said to her, although I don't know what it could be. Usually nothing gets her down.
    "So does this mean I'll get to use the armor?" Trav said, holding onto his bracelet.
    "Zhi said one-on-one combat," Kev said, "and we're supposed to be sneaking in, so... maybe next time?"

• • •

Fifteen (or so) minutes later...

The five of them met with Zhi, Grayvor, and a new woman, all in the central room. She was very short compared to Zhi and Grayvor at barely three feet tall, and had wavy bright red hair, down to almost her waist. She was wearing purple robes, and held a small wooden staff in her left land, topped with a red crystal.

    "Alright, so you're the new recruits?" the short woman said, "I'm Ati Xi, wizard and master of the elemental arts. Specializing in fire, explosions, and lighting things on fire. And Shinako, where did you find people shorter than me?"
    "Last world I was in," Shinako said, "they're quite nice!"
    "I see..." Ati said with a look of suspicion. "I hope they can fight."
    "You bet!" Trav said.
    "Stealth mission, remember?" Nati said.
    "I agree. We sneak in, I defeat the Elemental King," Zhi said, "then we can take it from there."
    "Sounds like a plan!" Shinako said.

The eight of them walked carefully out of the inn, and stepped into a small rowboat docked nearby. Casting off from the lake shore, they slowly moved out into the water, with no visible source of motive power, as the oars were still safely stowed away.

    "How are we moving?" Nati said.
    "Just a bit of water manipulation," Zhi said, sitting perfectly still.
    "Okay..." Nati said, looking around the boat.

They coasted along the water, as the city could be seen along the shore. Ahead and to the left was a great palace, built into the lakefront. It was tall and made entirely of metal, the walls and ramparts providing an imposing view of the water. It had four central columns, and a larger tower in the center. It shone brightly with many white lights in all directions, and multiple airships could be seen hovering just outside it.

    "How are we going to sneak past those airships?" Kev said.
    "If you please, Shinako?" Zhi said.
    "Of course!" Shinako said, raising her hands, and enveloping the boat in a field of illusion. To an outside observer they were practically invisible, only a handful of ducks silently swimming along the top of the water.
    "Now I feel silly for worrying earlier," Nati said.
    "Not bad," Ati said.

They continued closer to the palace, turning to the left and approaching the tall metal walls of its exterior. There were numerous grates built into the wall, some at water level, likely for boats, and a few above, possibly for airship docks. One of the grates in front of them opened, as a small metal ship hovered out of the palace and skimmed across the water.

    "Now's our chance!" Shinako said quietly, as they slipped past this hoverboat.

It sped off into the distance, as the grate closed behind them. Inside of the metal walls there was a large dock, with smaller hoverboats scattered throughout. A few people walked around, all wearing uniforms sporting the emblem of the Elemental Kingdom. It was a red sword behind a gray pentagram star, symbolizing the force of the five elements. Some of the guards carried what looked like rifles, but they glowed a soft blue, and had extra-long barrels.

Continuing down the water, they approached a small door at the end of the dock. The boat came alongside a lower portion of the dock, and came to a stop.

    "Alright, everyone off here. We will head up through that maintenance door," Zhi said, standing up in the boat.
    "Won't they see us?" Trav said, "this dock is totally out in the open, probably every guard in this palace can see that door."
    "Not with my illusions!" Shinako said, "although... do try to be quiet."

The group stepped off the boat quietly, as a few guards milled around, although none apparently saw this action.

    Ati hovered off the boat and floated next to the door. Pulling on the handle, she said, "It's locked."
    "I can force it open," Zhi said, "although that might leave a mark. And be rather loud."
    "Let me handle this," Nati said, walking up to the door. She placed Baster on her head, as he pulled out a miniature top-hat and put it on. Waving her hand over the handle, it unlocked itself and the door opened to reveal a dark hallway.
    "Nice," Ati said, "these new recruits are worth something." She held up her staff and it glowed a bright red. "Follow me."
    "Thanks?" Nati said, walking behind her.

The rest followed Ati down the dark hallway, with Kev closing the door behind them with a soft click. Ati's staff lit the way, but the red light and the odd geometries of the hallway lent to strange shadows dancing along the metal walls.

    "This guy really loves metal, doesn't he?" Trav said.
    "You bet," Grayvor said, "even to the exclusion of his own people and nature. Keeps talking about how it's the strongest element, even though that's clearly not true."
    "It's obviously fire," Ati said, still hovering in the hallway.
    "I vote for fire too!" Shinako said, raising her hand.
    "To be honest, all elements are equally balanced in harmony," Zhi said, "each generates and overcomes another, in the balance of nature."

Continuing along the dark hallway, they came to a set of stairs leading up and down. Zhi motioned for them to head up, where they found another set of hallways. He then pointed to the right, and they continued along.

    "The Earth Hall is just down this way," Zhi said.
    "How do you know this layout so well?" Nati said, "I certainly wouldn't make the plans to my fortress so easily discoverable."
    "This is not the first time I've been here," Zhi said, "although it is a long story. Perhaps another time."

They came upon a door, which had a brownish-yellow symbol written upon.

    "This is the overlook for the Earth Hall," Zhi said, "I will jump down and confront the Elemental King. Do not interfere unless something goes wrong."
    Grayvor and Ati nodded in agreement.
    "Sure!" Shinako said, "but how do you know he's even in there?"
    "Because I know him too well," Zhi said, "and he knows me too well. He'll be expecting me."
    Kev, Nati, and Trav nodded in agreement too, as they watched Zhi open the door.

• • •

Below them was a great hall, covered on all sides by solid rock. The ceiling was made of metal, and the floor of dirt. In the center-back of this hall was a great throne, upon which a large suit of armor was resting, sitting down. Directly in front of the door was a small catwalk, which Zhi walked out onto. He then leaped over the railing, and fell to the ground below with a large billow of dust. It settled a moment later, and Zhi could be seen standing up, having created a small crater in the earth below. He had thrown off his outer robes, and could be seen wearing much lighter attire, a chromatic arrangement of White, Green, Yellow-Brown, Blue, and Red.

    "Keka! I know you are there!" he yelled out.

The large suit of armor sprung to life, its eyes beginning to glow with a cyan light.

    "Ahh... Zhi," the armor said, standing up and walking onto the ground. "You're late."
    "A master arrives at just the right time, every time," Zhi said, "and I challenge you to solo combat for your throne, Elemental King!"
    The Elemental King in the armor laughed a bit, then struck a pose in a martial-arts stance, "your failure will be complete after today, old man. You cannot hope to exceed my power!"
    "Then let me try," Zhi said, striking a pose as well.

    "Should we help him?" Kev said, the rest of them stood on the metal catwalk overlooking the hall.
    "No, the combat has to be one-on-one for it to count," Grayvor said.
    "But he's wearing that huge suit of armor!" Trav said.
    "Yeah, he doesn't really play fair, but that's still technically only him," Ati said, hovering up the edge. "Give him the fury of the elements Zhi!" she yelled out to the hall.

The King was the first to make a move, and lowered his right fist into the ground, sending a shockwave of dirt towards Zhi. Zhi dodged this wave with a flip, and clapped his hands together, as two huge rocks fell from the walls towards the King's armor. The King raised his fists, and struck them upwards, shattering the two boulders above him. Zhi made an uppercut motion, as the ground beneath the King rose up towards the ceiling. The King leaped off before the dirt and rock hit the ceiling, and lunged towards Zhi, who sidestepped the attack. Zhi raised his two fists, and pulled them downward as a metal plate from the ceiling came detached and fell downward.

    "Metal?" the King said, "I live it, I breathe it, I am it."

The King reached up and grabbed the metal plate with one hand of his armor, then twisted it into a cylinder, and swung at Zhi. Zhi ducked below this swing, and hit his hands on the ground. Flames sprung up from beneath the King, engulfing him in a small inferno. The King merely walked out of these flames, seemingly unharmed.

    "This suit is fire-proof," he said, "I would be a fool to not guard against the strongest element against metal!"

He tossed the metal cylinder aside, and raised his suit's wrists. From them sprung small bolts of blue energy, directly aimed at Zhi. Zhi raised his right hand to guard, as a wall of dirt blocked the energy blasts.

    "Already using your Qi blasters, I see?" Zhi said, "you know those aren't part of the normal five elements."
    "Who said there was a limitation to power?" the King said, blasting away at the dirt and rock protecting Zhi.

Zhi hit his fists on the ground, causing a large explosion of dirt and fire, sending him into the air, and temporarily covering the hall in a thick dust. The King looked around for Zhi, firing a few random blasts. The dust cleared, and Zhi could be seen holding the metal cylinder lengthwise. He let it drop, and side-kicked it towards the King. The King fired a few bolts of energy, but they harmlessly bounced off the metal cylinder, which crashed into him, knocking him back into a rock wall. Zhi punched into the air, as the rock wall behind the King cracked and split. Boulders fell on the armor, burying him underneath the rubble.

    "Woo!" Shinako said, from up above, "go Zhi!"
    "It's not over yet," Zhi said, looking at the rocks.

The boulders moved, as the suit of armor broke free, scattering smaller rocks around the hall. The armor looked a bit dented, and the glow in its eyes had subsided, as if the King was becoming tired.

    "I'm done with you now," the King said, raising his left hand.

Metal panels unfurled from the ceiling, and a large group of metal constructs fell to the ground with a loud thud. Each one was a larger design than the King's suit of armor, but bore many similarities in form and function. They raised their wrists at Zhi, preparing to fire. In the back of the room, near the throne, a shorter woman could be seen walking out of the shadows, watching the fight.

    "Oh, I see Jin Zhouliu is here too?" Zhi said, noticing the woman in the back. "Between her and these constructs I'd say this hardly counts as a fair fight."
    "So?" the King said, "it matters not, what can you do about it?"

    "This!" Shinako said, as her and the others leaped down to the hall as well.

Grayvor landed next to Shinako with a thud, taking out his axes. Ati hovered nearby, and blasted a metal construct with a bolt of fire. Kev landed near the center, and created an orange sphere of energy around himself and Zhi with his P5 pistol. The constructs fired at this sphere, but their blue bolts of energy were deflected by the shield. Trav landed with a thud next to the Elemental King, having summoned and activated his armor as well. Nati, with Baster on her head, landed near the throne, and took out a small selection of throwing knives from nowhere.

    "Sorry lady," Nati said, "but you're not invited to this party."
    "You will rue the day you interfered with the Elemental King!" Jin said, materializing icicle spikes from a water source behind her, and throwing them at Nati.

Nati dodged the spikes and threw her knives at Jin, each one grabbing her flowing robes, and pinning her to the back wall. The Elemental King punched at Trav, knocking him into a construct. Trav got back up, and picked up a small boulder, throwing it at the King, who deflected it with a swipe of his armor's arm. Ati continued blasting the constructs, some of them beginning to melt from her onslaught of fire, as Grayvor alternated between punching, kicking, and slicing them with his Axes. Kev dropped the shield, and vaulted into the air on an orange beam of energy, landing on top of a construct. Another fired at him, but missed, blasting the one he was riding on instead. Zhi jumped over to the other wall, and pulled his fists backwards, sending huge boulders falling onto the nearby constructs. Shinako ran around the constructs, dodging any energy blasts nearby, and walked up to the Elemental King.

    "Looks like you've lost!" She said, holding a ball of fire in her right hand.
    "No," the Elemental King said, vaulting backwards and landing back on his throne. "It is over."

He twisted his right fist, as the ground beneath them suddenly gave way, showing a grated metal floor below. Upon the grate were strange magical symbols written in a circular fashion, repeated many times across the metal ground.

    "Teleportation circles!" Ati said.
    "Not again!" Zhi said, as the Elemental King's armor clenched its fist, and the eight of them disappeared from the floor.

    The Elemental King slumped back on his throne, letting out a sigh of relief. "That was getting tiring. We'll see how long it takes for them to get back, I want everyone prepared and on alert."
    "Of course, my liege," Jin Zhouliu said, standing next to him, having pulled the knives out of her clothing. "Although how do you know they'll be back?"
    "It's Zhi and his otherworldly friends," the King said, "I know them too well to give up."

• • •

The eight of them reappeared in midair, and promptly fell into the deep, powdery snow below. Surrounding them on all sides were tall mountain peaks, blanketed with snow and occasional trees. The stars shone above for a dim, eerie light around the landscape.

    "Jeez, what happened? Where are we?" Trav said, standing up in his suit of armor.
    "Looks like the surface of Thena," Nati said, "although these mountains are huge."
    "These are the Antarctican Mountains," Zhi said, standing up and dusting the snow off of his robes, "the place I last went to on my journey of discovery."
    "Brrr..." Shinako said, "I should have dressed more warmly if I known we'd end up here. And brought skis, too."
    "Maybe you have something warm in your ship?" Kev said, standing up as well and looking at his bracelet, "these summoning bracelets don't seem to have anything parka-related."
    "Probably!" Shinako said, "I'll called for it to meet us here, should be five or ten minutes, since we're pretty far away and it has to travel in stealth mode. But then we can all hop back in and get right back to the palace!"
    "No," Zhi said, looking out at the mountains, "we're not going back."
    "What?" Shinako said, "don't you want to beat this Elemental King guy? It's all you've talked about here... not to mention last time too."
    Zhi turned around and glared at her, then calmly turned back, and began walking down the snowy hillside.
    Grayvor sat up in the snow, and said, "what last time? Do you two have history together?"
    "It's... a long story," Shinako said, looking down at her feet.
    "It sounds like a story we all need to know," Nati said.

    Zhi stopped a few feet away, and turned around to face the group. "Let's get a fire going," Zhi said, "then I'll tell you all about it." He continued to walk down the snowy slope.
    "I agree with the fire suggestion," Ati said, hovering above the snow, "this place is completely cramping my style. Absolute Hell on Domatu."
    "I vote for fire too!" Shinako said, raising her hand again, as the rest of the group followed Zhi down towards the forest below.

The group approached a small forest grove of pine trees, snow covering their branches and the surrounding ground. Grayvor took out a small ax from his belt and cut apart a few nearby fallen branches into firewood. Zhi found a suitable clearing and with a few flicks of his wrists, reformed the snow into a center pit with chairs surrounding. Grayvor placed the firewood in the center, and Ati promptly lit in with her staff, and more than a small look of glee.

The group then sat in their snow chairs around this small campfire. The fire crackled and sparked from the small logs, the scent of ash slightly filling the air. The almost-morning twilight could be seen arcing over the mountains, as a few birds could be heard chirping nearby. A few even landed on Grayvor's shoulders until he shooed them away, to a small giggle from Ati. They stared at the flames, mostly silent, unsure of who should speak first.
    Zhi let out a sigh, and said, "I suppose there's no avoiding it now."
    "Sorry Zhi," Shinako said.
    "Please leave all apologies for the end of the story, Shinako," Zhi said, "and so it is time." Standing up, he began to tell his story...

˜ ˜ ˜ ˜

Long ago the center of the world was united as the Kingdom of Amantia, a great alliance of eight states. It was a prosperous kingdom, a center of trade and culture. I was but a young man back then, visiting from across the land. I brought with me knowledge of the Qin Empire's innovations in metalworking, and the mastery of the elements - the martial arts of Wu Xing. We were the first kingdom to master control over all five: Earth, Metal, Water, Life, and Fire. We showed the Amantian people how to manipulate these elements at a scale they had never before seen. And one truly gifted person, Keka Olumar, I trained personally, to be a shining example for the mastery of the elemental arts. However, had I know what was to happen next, I never would have continued along this path.

Only a few years after I arrived, a great army marched into the kingdom. It was an army of undead monsters, brought back to life by an undead King, Javork Minshaka. He rode from the snowy lands of the south, and ravaged everything in his path. His army was Death incarnate, and the peaceful Kingdom of Amantia fell to ruin.

In the old capital of Genoa, Keka and I held off the army for days, we were among the only survivors when the army finally exhausted its evil energy. The two of us had lost so much, but none more than Keka. Save me, all his friends, and all his family were killed in the invasion. He turned to the dark powers at this time, studying the anti-Qi energy that had powered the army. I warned him that study down this path would only lead to more pain, but he did not listen. I helped rebuild the fallen Amantian Kingdom, but in this vacuum many different powers took shape, and each state claimed its own independence, that only their own government alone could keep their citizens safe. And so the states warred with each other for many long years. Even more families were lost in this civil war, people fighting against their own neighbors in a time where all logic and reason seemed lost.

But then he appeared, The Elemental King. He always wore a powerful suit of armor, and had mastery over the elements like none other. He conquered the states one-by-one until the entire empire was under his control. Only once it was too late did I realize, that this Elemental King was in fact, Keka Olumar, my old apprentice. I tried to turn him away from the oppression he brought upon the kingdom. But he ignored me, cast me away, and said that his way was the only way to bring order to the chaos we had experienced.

I called out for help, and found many who would join my cause. We rallied together, and were joined by a most unlikely band of adventurers, from across space and time.

    "Oh yeah, this is where I come in!" Shinako said, interrupting.

Ahem. Back to the story. Anyways, this team said they were sent from a great goddess Inzami, who sought to find and help fix problems across the cosmos. And yes, Shinako was among them at that time. Of course, how could we turn down this offer? So we accepted, and we marched upon The Elemental King's palace. It was a great battle of elements and energy, like none the world had seen before. We won the day, but Keka was nowhere to be found. We searched the land in vain, but assumed he must have fled to a distant land to escape justice.

The team offered me the chance to join, but I turned them down, knowing that much more work remained yet to be done. Perhaps in the future, I said, when all this is but a distant memory. And they left.

But we were more wrong than we could have imagined. Keka had created an immense crystal, one that was capable of harnessing the powers of the five elements like no other. He placed it in Bavat, and from that stronghold, no-one could dare challenge him. He and his forces retook the kingdom in only a matter of weeks. All our work was erased, almost as fast as it had been done.

And so in this fallen state I have been trying, leading the rebellion to defeat The Elemental King, to defeat my old prodigy. But he is too good, and too powerful. We cannot defeat him by force alone, and the people have come to accept this sordid stability too much. They don't want to change, and would rather rot under his boot than take a chance for something better. He knows well enough not to make us martyrs, nor to allow any victories, and so the rebellion never gains much ground.

I was at a loss until you all showed up, realizing that if another interdimensional team was here, perhaps I could undo the wrong I did last time. But I was foolish. I'm too old to make these naive mistakes, but I did anyways. I roped you all into my quest for vengeance, and my goal of redeeming Keka's honor. He clearly has none left, not even enough to follow his own most sacred proclamations and traditions.

I have failed. Myself, my country, and all of you. And for that, I am sorry.

˜ ˜ ˜ ˜

    Zhi sat back down in his snow chair, and sighed.
    "You've always been an inspiration to us," Grayvor said, "the rebellion would never have had so many chances at victory without you, Zhi."
    "Yeah, you've always said to keep going, even when all hope seems lost," Ati said, "I know you'll never give up! You always have some crazy plan or strategy to get us out of a mess."
    Shinako merely looked down, dejected over the memories of their past failures.

    "There has to be another way," Nati said, "if we can't defeat him directly, and we can't rally the people. Hmm."
    "Maybe we could beat him if he wasn't wearing a cool suit of armor?" Trav said, still wearing his suit from before, "I'm practically useless without mine."
    "Wait - you said there was another team with Shinako here before," Kev said, "did they leave anything behind?"
    'All team incursions leave a workroom for their past efforts,' a tiny sign from Baster said, who was still sitting on Nati's head. 'Although it usually gets cleaned out when they leave.'
    "Baster does have a good point," Nati said, pointing to him on her head, "maybe we should see if they left any notes or guides. If we knew what went wrong last time, maybe we can solve this for good."
    "Worth a try as far as I'm concerned!" Kev said.
    "Agreed!" Trav said, "you were all professionals back then, right Shinako?"
    "I suppose..." Shinako said, "I don't remember what was left here, but I can take you all there, if you want?"
    "Let's go," Nati said.

• • •

The eight of them squeezed into Shinako's ship, which had conveniently parked itself nearby. They took off from the forest, and flew high into the atmosphere over the snowy mountains. The landscape gave way to an ocean of water, until the great plains of Markland filled their view. Passing by these plains and port towns, they flew over another small section of ocean, and approached the Qin Empire on the other shore. Sunlight could be seen from the east, indicating the first hour of morning.

    "This is my original home," Zhi said, pointing down to the lands of hills and farmland they passed over. "A wonderful place, although a bit secluded."
The rolling hills of the Qin Empire gave way to a great desert of sand, dunes as far as the eye could see.

    "This is truly a fantastic ship!" Ati said, "this is a distance covered in months by foot! Even by train this would take days or weeks!"

The sandy desert butted up against tall mountains, taller even than the range they had been in before, where a lush green tropical forest could be seen on the other side. Stopping short of the forest, they flew between a few peaks, and landed on a rocky slope. Opening the side hatch, they saw a gravel valley, surrounded by tall mountains on all sides.

The eight of them walked out of the ship, and up to a rock wall, a shear section of the mountainside, cut by glaciers thousands of years ago.

    "Do the honors, Zhi?" Shinako said.
    "Of course," Zhi said, "let us see what our past selves have left for us." He struck a pose, and motioned to the left, as the rock wall gave way, and fell over. This opening revealed a gold door, not entirely unlike the one protecting Ventin's Storeroom.

Shinako stepped up to it, and laying her hand on the right side, the huge door opened to the left. It revealed a nearly-empty room inside the mountain, lit only by a few dim lights in the ceiling. The room contained an assortment of cardboard boxes, a few old swords, and what looked like an old furnace stove.

    "Great, it's basically empty," Shinako said, turning away.
    "Let's check just to be sure," Nati said.
    'Agreed!' Baster said by way of tiny sign.

They walked inside the room and began looking around, save Zhi and Shinako who stayed outside in the dim morning light.

    "I don't have anything I want to talk about Zhi," Shinako said, sulking against the rock wall.
    "Shinako," Zhi said, "you cannot blame yourself for the failures of the past. You weren't even here when the Elemental King retook the empire."
    "I know, but I don't like leaving a job unfinished!" Shinako said, "we're supposed to be the heroes who come save places. Not make them worse."
    "You didn't make it worse," Zhi said, "if anything you showed us the light of hope. That The Elemental King can be defeated. We just didn't quite get there."
    "I know," Shinako said, almost looking as if she were to cry. "I just... hate when things don't work out, alright?"
    Zhi gave Shinako a soft hug, and said, "it'll be alright."
    "I know, it's just my world has no great villains or oppression," Shinako said, "or even really wars or famine or drought or anything. I just don't know what to think when those things all happen. I just don't know what to do."
    "We do what we must, to make things better for everyone," Zhi said, "and for ourselves. We cannot feel the weight of the world on our shoulders, much less the weight of all the worlds we've visited."
    "Thanks Zhi," Shinako said, "this is why I wanted you to join, you've always been that unshakable foundation. A team like ours needs someone like you."
    "Maybe once this is all over," Zhi said, "and all this is but a distant memory."

Inside the room, Grayvor and Ati examined an empty cardboard box.
    "This is so strange," he said, turning it over, "it's like paper, but hard. And brown."
    "It's like nothing I've ever seen," Ati said, "I wonder if it's flammable?"
    "We should try not to burn down the place," Grayvor said, "although I'm not sure what this strange futuristic device could be used for?"
    "I have no idea," Ati said, "it's sorta box-shaped, maybe people put things in it?"
    "It seems too flimsy to hold any weight, nothing like wood, much less metal."

Trav was swinging around one of the old metal swords with his armor, while Kev watched.

    "Hmm, seems pretty ordinary to me," Trav said, "I'm not feeling anything unusual."
    "Dang. Probably not going to help us, then," Kev said.
    Trav placed it down, and looked around. "Not much else here, unless there's a secret room or something?" he said.
    "Don't see any obvious secret rooms," Kev said, feeling the wall, "but we can keep searching."

In the back of the room, Nati was looking inside some cardboard boxes, when she noticed one had a bit of weight to it. Opening it up, she took out a medium-sized dark purple crystal, which looked like it was made of plastic.

    "Huh," she said, looking at it, "I wonder what this is?" Do you sense anything unusual about this crystal, Baster? she thought-said.
    Not really, Baster thought-said back to her, it looks depressingly ordinary. Although I'm not very good at identifying objects if they're from another magic system.
    Makes sense, Nati thought-said, best to show the others, just to be safe.

Zhi and Shinako walked into the room, and looked around at the others.

    "Found anything?" Zhi said.

    "Some old swords, but they're probably non-magical," Trav said.
    "No obvious secret rooms either," Kev said.
    "There's plenty of this 'card' 'board'," Grayvor said, holding up a box, "but it seems pretty useless."
    "Except for lighting on fire!" Ati said, smiling. "Which is actually not very helpful either. Sorry."
    "I found this purple crystal," Nati said, holding it up, "but it looks plastic."
    "What is 'plastic'?" Ati said, turning around. She gasped as soon as she saw the crystal. "Is that what I think it is?" she said.
    Zhi walked up to Nati, and took a close look at the crystal, as she handed it to him. "Yes, I believe it is. This is a time crystal, one of the largest I've ever seen."

    "A time crystal?" Kev said, "so you can travel in time, or does it just slow down time?"
    "It allows both," Zhi said, examining the crystal closely, "although requires a huge amount of power."
    "Zhi, you're good enough to use it, right?" Grayvor said.
    "Yes, although even I could only travel back in time a few weeks," Zhi said.
    "Couldn't we use it to slow down time so you could beat the King?" Trav said.
    "I suppose, although I doubt a fight with time manipulation could ever be considered fair," Zhi said, looking at the crystal intently.

    "Wait," Nati said, "I have a better idea. If you said all you need is a massive energy source - why not use The Elemental King's crystal in Bavat? You said it's more powerful than any other?"
    "It is," Zhi said, "but to harness that much energy would require the use of a focusing rod, probably one that was crafted by the original time master, Kelarius. Those are exceptionally rare, and there's only two known to exist."
    "One of which is owned by Jaold Brana, head adviser for Mazovia," Ati said, "he makes the trip by train twice a week between the Capital of Mazovia and Bavat."
    "And that trip is likely happening right now," Grayvor said, "it's a six hour journey, we'd have practically all day."
    "How could we know which train he's on, though?" Nati said.
    "There's only one train a day nice enough for dignitaries," Grayvor said, "and it's unmistakable from the ground. I would expect it to be even easier to see from the air."
    "Well, what are we waiting for?" Shinako said, sounding peppier again.

    "If this works, what time-period are we going to?" Trav said.
    "Leave that to me, I know the exact time and place," Zhi said.

• • •

They flew high above the Mazovian plains, small lakes dotting the landscape below. Below them were train tracks, upon which was a thin, metal train was traveling at high speed. It glowed blue from the Qi energy it was using to levitate above the ground, maintaining minimal contact with the tracks below. The morning light casted a dramatic shadow of the train across the plains, as it passed by farms and small towns alike.

    "That's the one all right," Ati said, "if he's not on there, I'll set something on fire."
    "You'd set something on fire anyways," Grayvor said.
    "Let's try not blowing up the train," Zhi said, "if we can sneak on board and steal the staff before anyone notices, maybe we'll have time before The Elemental King is on alert of our plan."
    "Alright, pulling alongside the train now," Shinako said, dipping the ship down and coming alongside one of the cargo cars.

Shinako opened the side hatch, and Kev used the P5 pistol to project an orange energy beam, which forced the door open. He then used it to make a walled platform from the ship to the open cargo car.

    "Everyone over!" Kev said, as Zhi, Ati, Grayvor, Trav, and Nati with Baster hopped over into the car.
    "I'll fly the ship - just call me if there's trouble!" Shinako said from the pilot's seat.
    "Alright!" Kev said, as he walked over the platform into the cargo car as well. Once over, he shut off the platform, and Shinako closed the side hatch of her ship and flew off into the clouds above. Zhi flicked his wrist at the door, as the metal door closed itself. Ati lit her staff, once again glowing red, and they walked towards the entrance to the passenger car ahead.
    "The guard cars are all in the rear of the train, except for the motivator car up front," Zhi said, "you stay here and stop any guards from making it into the main passenger compartments, and the three of us will sneak in and steal the staff. We have the best chance of blending in, unlike you all, no offense."
    "No worries, sounds like a plan," Kev said, holding up the P5 pistol to emit an orange light.
    "Of course, that's only logical," Nati said.
    'None taken, and good luck!' a tiny sign from Baster said.
    "You got this for sure!" Trav said, giving them a thumbs-up sign.

Walking through the door from the cargo car, Zhi, Ati, and Grayvor saw rows of seats, mostly filled with sleepy and half-awake people. They were dressed in a variety of outfits, mostly bearing symbols of the Elemental Kingdom and Mazovia. The smells of coffee and tea filled the car, as the dim morning light shone through the windows and the lowered curtains.

They walked up the aisle, until they approached the forward car. At the door was a guard, bearing the uniform of the Elemental Kingdom. The three of them walked up to the guard, as he merely stared at them suspiciously.

    "We're here for a random inspection of the diplomatic car," Ati said, hovering up to his eye level.
    "Random inspection? Without uniforms?" the guard said, "what kind of a dupe do you take me for?"
    "I assure you sir," Zhi said, "our orders come from The Elemental King himself, I was in his palace just yesterday."
    "I still need to see some authorization," the guard said, folding his arms.
    This isn't going to work, Ati thought, time to do this my way. She pointed her staff at the guard's feet, as his shoes lit on fire. "You're shoes are on fire!" she said melodramatically.
    "What the-" the guard said, hopping back into the door.
    "Let me help," Zhi said, levitating a glass of water from a nearby refreshment stand, and splashing it on his feet.
    "What are you guys doing?" the guard said, "this is crazy!"
    "Nope," Grayvor said, leaning on the door the guard was up against, "we're just going to help you get a new pair of shoes."

Zhi struck his right hand out, and hit the side of the door next to the guard, as the door swung open into the space between the cars. The guard fell backwards, before being caught by Ati.

    "Careful, there!" she said, as the others stepped inside the junction room, and Zhi closed the door behind them.
    "There's no way anyone will buy that show!" the guard said.
    "Maybe, but they are barely awake," Grayvor said, "speaking of which, aren't you a bit tired this early in the morning too?" He then punched the guard out cold, and Ati laid him down on the floor.
    "That was a bit sloppy," Zhi said, "we probably only have a couple minutes until this place is swarming with security."

They opened the other door into the diplomatic car, and saw rows of large seats, each filled with someone wearing a rather ornate uniform. Near the front on the left was a man, Jaold Brana, with short dark brown hair. He was reading a single-page newspaper, and had a dark purple staff set down next to him.

    "That's him, let's go," Zhi said quietly, as the three of them walked quickly up to Jaold.
    "Got it!" Ati said, grabbing the staff.
    "What!" Jaold said, "stop! Thieves!"

Suddenly the front door of the car opened up, to reveal a small group of Elemental Kingdom guards.

    "You three!" the first guard said, "stop right there!"
    "Now we just get out of here alive!" Zhi said, as he made a stance on the ground, the metal floor bending upwards and making a wall between them and the guards.

The three of them ran back towards the previous car, as the guards took out their rifle-looking weapons. They aimed and blue pulses of energy shot out, shredding the metal barrier.

    "Great! Of course they have Qi rifles," Ati said, "but that won't save you from FIRE!"

She pointed her staff at the guards, as a huge fireball sprung out and headed down the train. The guards ducked as the fireball passed them by and melted the door to the motivator car.

    "Perfect, now they can't call any reinforcements!" Grayvor said, as they entered the junction room again, closing the door.
    "Not what I was going for, but that works too," Ati said, shrugging her shoulders.

Meanwhile in the cargo car, the four of Kev, Trav, Nati and Baster were looking around at some of the containers, when a door opened from the other side.

    "The signal came from the guard to the diplomatic car, let's go check it out," said an Elemental Kingdom guard, walking into the cargo car from the door. He was followed by five more, all holding Qi rifles.

    "Crap!" Kev said, as the four of them hid behind containers.
    "We have to stop them," whispered Nati, as Baster nodded his head in agreement.
    "It's armor time," Trav said, pressing on his bracelet again.

With a thud, Trav's armor summoned into existence behind him, as he jumped backwards inside and it activated.
    "What was that?" one of the guards said, as the others took aim around the car.

Suddenly a mist enveloped the car, a fog so thick one could barely see.

    "Your worst nightmare," Trav said, stepping up to the guards in his armor.

They fired blue bolts of energy at him, but this only succeeded in knocking him back slightly, tipping over a couple of containers.

    "I think this is your stop," Kev said as multiple bolts of orange energy sprung forth from the P5 and grabbed ahold of the guards' guns, pinning them to the ceiling.
    The guards stared at Kev briefly, before getting in stances, preparing to fight him hand-to-hand.
    "Sleep!" Nati said to the guards, behind them, as they promptly fell unconscious.
    "Cool!" Trav said, as more footsteps could be heard from the car behind them. "Uh-oh"
    "Lock the door!" Nati said.
    "On it!" Trav said, as he walked up to it, and punched it shut with his armor.
    Kev then used the P5 to move a few containers in front of the door, sealing it shut for now. "That should hold them for a bit," he said, "I wonder how the others are doing?"

The door from the passenger compartment opened, as Zhi, Ati, and Grayvor ran inside, a few bolts of blue energy whizzing past them. Zhi shut the door, and with a flick of his wrist, moved a few more containers in front of it as well.

    "We have the staff," Ati said, holding up the twisted purple staff, "let's get out of here."
    "Agreed!" Nati said, then into her bracelet, "Shinako! We're ready to go, get us out of here!"
    "Sure, no problem!" Shinako's voice said over the communicator, "although I have to warn you that there's a bunch of blimps just up ahead, and they look angry!"
    "So much for not alerting security," Zhi said, shaking his head, "we need to slow down. Shinako! Is there some sort of technology you have that would allow you to decouple these cars?"
    "Of course!" Shinako said, as her ship flew above the train.

Four plasma bolts later, the couplers between the cargo car and the guard and passenger cars were blown out, and the passenger cars sped ahead, the cargo car slowing down on the track. The guards shot a few bolts of energy at her ship, having stepped back during the explosions, but Shinako effortlessly dodged them.

She then brought the ship down across the side, as Zhi forced the side door open again.

    "Hop on!" Shinako said, as the side hatch opened.
    Kev once again made a walled orange walkway, as the seven of them joined Shinako on her ship, and flew off into the sky.

• • •

At the capital city of Bavat, a small fleet of airships patrolled the palace, and guards manned the anti-air Qi turrets below on the palace roof. A small red and brown ship appeared in the sky, having dropped its cloaking field. The airships and anti-air cannons fired mercilessly at it, but it dodged and weaved around, deftly outmaneuvering them.

    "Whoops!" Shinako said in the pilot's seat, "looks like they knew we were coming. And there's way too much plasma fire for me to land here, we'll have to eject!"
    "We're going to do what now?" Ati said, sounding surprised.
    "No time to explain!" Shinako said, "hold on!"

She slammed a button on a control panel, as the top window of the ship opened up, and the eight of them were ejected out into the sky, her ship disappearing shortly after. Shinako gracefully flew down towards the palace, with Zhi following her.

    "I'm only really good at hovering!" Ati said, falling through the air.
    "And I can't fly at all!" Grayvor said.
    "Don't worry, we've got you!" Trav said, grabbing the two of them with his suit of armor.

Kev maneuvered on top of Trav's armor and formed a large orange box around them, deflecting any bolts of energy that happened to come their way. Nati landed on the box, and taking out a parachute from nowhere in particular, put it on and unfurled it while holding onto a small handle of orange energy at the top of the box, slowing their descent. The bolts of energy whizzed around them, but surprisingly it looked as though everyone had a different opinion of where they were, and generally they were all at least somewhat wrong.

    "Sir, we can't seem to hit them!" a guard on the roof of the palace said.
    "That's right, we were informed the fox-lady is a master of illusion," the head air defense guard said.
    "You bet I am!" Shinako said from behind them, knocking the guards out cold. She then waved at the others to land on the roof.

Zhi landed behind her with a thud, denting the metal from his impact. The orange box landed next to him, as Kev deactivated it and stepped off of Trav's armor. Nati detached her parachute, thinking a thanks to Baster. Grayvor stepped onto the metal roof, with Ati hovering nearby.

    "Thanks, all," Grayvor said.
    "Although we could use a bit more warning next time!" Ati said.
    "You made it fine, don't be a baby," Shinako said, waving her hand.

The airships above converged closer to their position, as blue bolts of energy hit the metal roof nearby.
    "They're shooting at the palace?" Grayvor said, confused.
    "Wow, our display motivated them to join the resistance!" Ati said. "Thanks!" she yelled up at the airships.
    "No. They're trying to hit us, but Shinako's illusions are keeping them guessing," Zhi said, "this way!" He walked over to a door, and kicked it open, the metal bending from the great force.

The eight of them hurried down the stairs, entering a large room, the stairs leading across the wall. A few guards took potshots at them as they ran down, but walls of orange energy from Kev's P5 blocked these shots as Zhi kicked open another door into the Metal Hall.

The Metal Hall contained a large group of metal constructs, similar to the ones they had faced before in the Earth Hall. In the center of the group was Jin Zhouliu, the woman who was assisting the Elemental King from before.

    "Your intrusion ends here," said Jin.
    "Zhi, go!" Ati said, "we'll hold them off!"
    "Thank you!" Zhi said, as he pounded his right foot into the metal ground. A large hole was bent from this spot, and he along with Shinako, Kev, Trav, and Nati with Baster fell into it. The hole closed up nearly as soon as they had left, leaving Grayvor and Ati facing Jin.

    "They'll never make it into the centrarium that way," Jin said, "so now you die."
    "Don't you know fire melts metal?" Ati said, with a fireball hovering in her right hand.
    "And anything is vulnerable to just plain force," Grayvor said, striking a martial-arts stance.
    "We shall see!" Jin said, as the metal constructs ran forward, meeting the fire and fisticuffs of Ati and Grayvor.

• • •

Below this racket, the six of them ran through dark hallways, Kev's P5 lighting the way. They approached a large metal wall, a column supporting the halls above. Zhi placed his hands on it, as the metal melted and bent. It formed itself into stairs, which they took upwards into a large room.

This room was surrounded on all sides by thick metal walls, and in its center was a truly massive crystal. The crystal was at least three stories tall, and as wide as a bus. It had five smaller spires heading upwards into the nearby halls, and one large spire heading directly vertical.

    "This guy really likes crystals, that's for sure!" Shinako said.
    But before anything else could be said, a large suit of armor walked around the crystal, and stared at the group. "How did I know I'd find you all here?" The Elemental King said from within the armor. "You know my crystal is indestructible."
    "I suppose you could say that about the normal elements," Zhi said, pulling out the twisted time staff, and placing the purple crystal on top of it. "But not to the forces of time itself!" He slammed the staff onto the side of the crystal, which began glowing with an unearthly purple light.
    "No!" the King said, lunging towards Zhi.

The time crystal glowed brightly, and its purple energy coursed through the larger elemental crystal, absorbing and integrating its power. The larger crystal shattered before their eyes, until the fragments froze in midair.

The world halted, and time ceased its normal flow. The seven of them vanished from the face of Domatu, as the world moved backwards in time. The sun and stars reversed their course, as battles and harvests reeled backwards in time. The world that they were in ceased to be, and the world of the past returned to its former glory.

• • •

53 years, 2 months, and 6 days ago...

They re-appeared upon a wide open plain, the short brown grass moving slowly in the light wind. The afternoon sun shined down on them from a cloudy sky.

    "What. Did. You. Do?" the King said, getting up from the grass in his armor.
    "I brought us back to the beginning," Zhi said, holding the staff with the small purple crystal still intact. "Where this whole mess began. The plains of Aquitaine, 50 years ago."
    Nati looked around at the field, and said, "this is right before the invasion of the undead army, isn't it?"
    "Yes," Zhi said, "don't you see? We can, together, alter the course of history. Prevent the invasion, and save everyone that we know and love. Keka, please. Help me do this. Help me fix our world, once and for all."
    The King, Keka Olumar, looked around at the field and sky in his armor, and said, "no. They are lost. It is too late. My empire cannot die."
    "Then it is as I had thought," Zhi said, "some wounds cannot be healed."

The two of them stared at each other for a moment, until a crow could be heard in the distance.

    "I hereby challenge you for your rule, Keka Olumar," Zhi said, "in honorable solo combat. Do not interfere, friends." He tossed the time staff to Shinako, and said, "and hold this for me."
    "Very well, if this is what it takes," the King said, "then so be it." He held a stance in his armor, and motioned to Zhi, while the others watched on.

    "We're just going to let them fight?" Nati said, "we outnumber him six to one."
    "He needs to do this," Shinako said, "to prove he can."

Zhi was the first to move, forming a pillar of dirt from the ground underneath himself, and leaping at the King. The King reacted with a guard, absorbing the blow of Zhi's kick. The King fired back with bolts of blue energy from his suit's wrists, but Zhi dodged them effortlessly. Zhi fell to the ground, and whispered an incantation. Water sprung forth from the ground, geysers covering the field. The King walked through this rain, and struck a fist at Zhi. Zhi redirected this blow into the ground, as the fist hit nothing but dirt. Zhi jumped over the armor, and gathered water streams to himself, creating a huge ball of liquid above himself. The King stood up, and hit his two fists into the ground, causing rock spires to appear on the sides of Zhi. Zhi jumped up into the water, as the rocks collapsed on his previous position, crashing into each other in a whirlwind of dust. Zhi let the water flow around himself, and struck it out as a great stream into the King's suit. It covered him, and shorted out his Qi blasters, causing the hands to start smoking slightly.

    "You know shorting out my suit won't stop me," the King said, "I move it with my own force of will over the elements, not with some technology."
    "I know, Keka, old friend," Zhi said, "but it's not for that."

Zhi made a fist with his hand, and fell to the ground, as the water in the suit froze, breaking the metal apart. The pieces of armor fell to the ground, revealing the King's form for the first time in decades. He had short brown hair, and wore tattered clothes, more of a peasant than nobility. He stood up and shook off the ice crystals.

    "I don't need my armor to beat you, Zhi," Keka said, "you've taught me everything you know."
    "Not everything," Zhi said, placing his hands on the ground, as tall vines sprung forth and ensnared Keka.
    "What? How?" Keka said, "no-one has learned the secret of creating life!"
    "Ah, you see, Keka," Zhi said, standing up and dusting himself off, "no-one had learned it until I did. After all, banishing one to the Antarctican Mountains has a way of teaching one many things. I trained for years there, understanding more of the elements than any before. My greatest defeat allowed me to rise up again, to be reborn and understand aspects of the elements that only one of a clear mind can realize."
    "That's ridiculous!" Keka said, "I studied for all those years too, trained with the greatest masters in the world! How could you beat me with no training, and no guidance?"
    "I have all the guidance I need," Zhi said, "the universe and nature is my muse, and it can teach anything. But only to those wise enough to stop and listen." He motioned to Shinako, who tossed him the time staff back again. "And now, I'm afraid your story is at an end. Keka, I have failed you before, but I will not fail you again. This is the last time we will see each other for a long time, old friend. I hope your life is better this time around."
    "What? No!" Keka said, "you can't send me back, I'll forget any of this happened!"
    "Precisely," Zhi said, tapping the wand on Keka's forehead.

Keka disappeared from the ground, his armor melting away into nothingness as well, as the vines returned to the ground below.

    "Where is he now?" Nati said.
    "I sent him back to the present time," Zhi said, "he won't remember any of this happening. And if our plan works, then no-one else will remember that horrible timeline either."
    "That explains how we can get back without another huge crystal," Kev said, "although what's the new timeline going to be like?"
    "One where the invading army is mysteriously defeated by a band of unknown adventurers. Who save the world, then disappear into air," Zhi said, smiling.
    "Ooo! That sounds good!" Shinako said.
    "Cool! Who are these adventurers," Trav said, "and when do they arrive... oh wait, that's us isn't it?"
    "Exactly," Zhi said, as the sounds of trumpets could be heard in the distance from the south. "Right on time, too."

    "So all we have to do," Nati said, "is defeat a world-destroying army of undead creatures, right?"
    "Sounds like fun!" Shinako said, "too bad Grayvor and Ati aren't here too?"
    "It's for the best they forget as well," Zhi said.
    "I guess it's as good of a plan as any," Trav said, summoning his suit of armor, and hopping inside, "so bring it on!"

    "Yeah, if they're undead they're probably pretty easy to kill, right? I saw a movie with zombies in it once," Kev said, "all you had to do was blast their head."
    "Any particular recommendations for these undead?" Nati said.
    "Just do enough damage and they will return to ash," Zhi said, "they have no mind or soul. They are merely automatons driven by the energies of death itself. Spare no mercy, for they will show us none."
    "Got it," Nati said, looking a bit nervous.
    You'll do fine, Baster thought-said to her.
    Thanks Baster, she thought-said back, I know you're always there for me.

    "Oh, and I will deal with the leader, the undead King Javork Minshaka," Zhi said.

• • •

A great army marched up the field, easily ten thousand strong. It was composed of undead soldiers, wearing tattered robes and half-assembled armor. A few rode skeletal horses and guided the flanks of the army. At the center of all this was a tall man, also looking like nearly nothing but skin and bones, and riding a large skeletal steed. He waved his banner in the air, as the army halted.

    He rode up to our heroes, and yelled out in a thin voice, "who dares to impede the progress of the King Minshaka?"
    "It is I," Zhi said, "Zhi Xing Ying, Master of the Five Elements. We are guarding the free state of Aquitaine, in the Kingdom of Amantia. You can go no further."
    The skeletal man laughed at this proclamation, "if you wish to die, then so be it!"

He rode back into the ranks of his army, as the undead marched upon them.

    "I feel like we should have plastered him right there," Shinako said.
    "Oh, I forgot to mention he's nearly indestructible as long as his army is standing," Zhi said, "many tried that tactic during the invasion to no avail."
    "Good thing you'll take care of him, then," Nati said.

The army marched towards them, the shuffling of feet and crushing of grass could be heard. They marched in near unison, all powered by the same unnatural force, the magic that bound their existence to this world. The trumpets sounded, as they suddenly ran forward at greater speed.

Shinako was the first to jump into the fray, waving her hand forward, as a huge arc of flames sprung out and liquefied many of the nearby undead, their flimsy suits of armor crashing to the ground. Kev fired his P5 into the group, knocking back a large section of them, crushing them against the others still marching behind. Nati disappeared in a mist, only to reappear near the right flank of the army, as she yelled, "Unbind!" A section of the undead turned to dust in front of her, as more still changed direction to follow her. Trav stepped up in his armor, and hitting his gauntlets together, sent out a wave of silver energy arcing across and slicing many of the undead in half.

They'll do fine, Zhi thought, as he too ran into the army, jumping over a variety of the undead soldiers flailing at him. He made a direct course for the undead king, and side-kicked his horse in the snout, shattering its bones.

    "How dare you?" The undead King said, getting off the ground, and raising his sword and mace.
    "How dare you?" Zhi said, "you should have stayed dead." He whirlwind-kicked the undead king, sending him flying into the left flank of his troops.

Shinako danced over the undead army, alternating between smacking them into each other and lighting them on fire. Kev was walking over the battlefield on orange energy stilts, occasionally kicking any undead that approached too close. Trav brawled with a variety of the skeletal horsemen. One tried to skewer him with a lance, before he flipped the undead horseman off, and swung him into another. Hitting his gauntlets into the ground, a silver shockwave sprung forth, and disintegrated the skeleton horses nearby, their bones clattering to the ground before vaporizing. Nati weaved throughout the mist of the right flank, spears and arrows alike missing her and hitting their own, as she unbound as many undead as she could find. Baster's magic was not able to manipulate the dark energies, but it could cancel them out, and return the undead to the dust they had been forged from.

The undead king's mace hit the ground, as Zhi effortlessly dodged. Vines sprung up from the ground, but were promptly cut back by the king's sword. Zhi raised a huge boulder from the ground, and sent it flying towards the undead king. The king raised his mace, swinging it and shattering the rock.

    "You cannot defeat me!" the undead King said to Zhi, "as long as my army stands, I am invincible."
    "Yes, yes, I already know that," Zhi said, as water geysers sprung up and soaked the undead king. "But I'm not defeating you right now, I'm just keeping you busy."
    "What?" the undead King said, as he looked around the field.

His army was in tatters, only a few infantry remained, as the group of Shinako, Kev, Trav, and Nati with Baster, closed in on the last remaining stragglers.

    "How?" the undead king said, "no army on Domatu can match my might!"
    "Maybe not from this world," Zhi said, freezing the water on the undead king, locking him in place. "But who said we were all from this world?"

The last straggler was dusted by Nati as they looked at Zhi, who was pinning down the undead king.

    "And this time, Javork Minshaka," Zhi said, "stay dead."

Zhi snapped his fingers, and the ice shattered, slicing the undead king into thousands of parts, and unbinding his magic from the world. The undead king's form disintegrated into dust with a black flash, and blew away in the wind, only his battered armor and a faded crown remained.

    "May he rest in peace," Zhi said, "hopefully permanently."

    "Congratulations!" Shinako said, as the rest of the group walked over to Zhi.
    "So he's really dead?" Nati said.
    "He was already dead," Zhi said, "bound and corrupted by the dark magic he studied. He once was a noble King of the Rus Land, but was twisted by those dark energies. If anything, he has been set free, and can now enjoy his place among the other kings in the afterlife."
    "Sounds pretty sweet!" Trav said.
    "So... do we go back to the present time now?" Kev said, "or, at least your present?"
    "I suppose so," Zhi said, "these empty suits of armor will be evidence enough for what has transpired. And no sense giving anyone more clues than they need." Zhi took the time-staff out, and held it in the air. "To the present time!" he said into the air, as the six of the disappeared from the plain.

Time threw itself into overdrive, as the worlds' days passed by at a stunning pace. Harvests passed and cities were built. Airships flew and trains crisscrossed over the landscape. Great stories were told and recorded in the many libraries of Domatu.

• • •

The present day...

Our six intrepid adventurers reappeared near the Lakeside Inn. A bright afternoon sun shone above, and the lake glinted with the reflections of a clear sky. To the distance a variety sailboats could be seen on the lake, and a few airships hovered over the city, ferrying passengers to and from distant destinations.

The front door of the Lakeside Inn opened up, and Grayvor and Ati stepped outside.

    "Zhi!" Grayvor said, "there you are! You told us to meet you here, but we were starting to get worried since you didn't show up this morning."
    "Oh right," Zhi said, looking at the time-staff, which he quickly put away. "I forgot the time spent in the past added to our arrival time here."
    "What? Can you speak up?" Ati said, as the two of them approached closer.

    "Oh nevermind," Zhi said, "anyways, these here are my most honorable friends, Shinako, Kev, Trav, Nati, and Baster (he's the rabbit)."
    'Hi!' a tiny sign from Baster said, as the others bowed slightly.
    "So those people from other dimensions are real? Fascinating," Ati said, hovering up to them, and looking intently at Trav's armor. "Xin State vintage. Nice."
    "Yes, they are," Zhi said, smiling, "how has everything been since I left?"
    "Everything's been fine," Grayvor said, "my woodworking business is going well, and Ati's been teaching at the Trivani Academy."
    "What a relief to hear," Zhi said.
    "So fox-lady," Ati said, hovering up to Shinako, "are those ears real, or just a fashion statement?"
    "They're real," Shinako said, "but no touching!"
    "Zhi, why would you think otherwise," Grayvor said, "I know you were gone on your pilgrimage for a few years, but the Kingdom of Amantia is the safest place on Domatu. There's no way anything would happen to us."
    "Of course not," Zhi said.
    "But seriously, besides the pleasantries, why did you call us here?" Ati said, "need something blown up?" She smiled hopefully.

    "No, no. Nothing of the sort," Zhi said, looking at the two of them, then back at Shinako and the others. "I just wanted to tell you that my friends here have gifted me with a great honor, to join them on an adventure across the stars. And I have decided to accept."
    Shinako smiled and jumped up and down slightly.
    "Glad to have you on board, Zhi!" Kev said.
    "You'll make a fine addition to the team, no doubt," Nati said.
    "Absolutely!" Trav said.
    'Looking forward to working with you more in the future!' Baster said on a tiny sign. Although not necessarily implying more time-travel! he thought.

    "Going so soon?" Grayvor said, "you just got back!"
    "Yes, I'm afraid I must," Zhi said, "my work here is done. And this world will be here when I get back."
    "I can't promise I won't set anything on fire while you're gone, all right?" Ati said, looking a bit sad. "Just make sure all your keepsakes are non-flammable, alright?"
    "Of course, Ati, I'll miss you both," Zhi said.
    "And we'll miss you too," Ati said, giving Zhi a slight hug.
    "Go help the universe," Grayvor said, giving Zhi a slight hug as well, "I can't think of a better person for the job."
    "Thank you both so much," Zhi said, "in more ways than you know."

The two of them waved goodbye, as the group of six left them and walked into the nearby forest, where they found Shinako's ship parked conveniently nearby.

    "Perfect! Right where I left it!" Shinako said, "gotta love self-parking ships!"
    "So Zhi, you save the world, then leave it?" Kev said.
    "Ah, I've always had a bit too much adventurer in me to live in a world like this," Zhi said, "maybe when I'm old enough to retire, I'll come back here, set up a nice cottage, and watch the boats on the lake. But I'm afraid I'm still too young for that. After all, I'm only 143."
    "One hundred and forty-three!" Trav said, amazed. "How is everyone we know so darn old?"
    "You look really good for that age," Nati said, "I never would have guessed over 8, or maybe 10."
    "Hah! I see ages aren't the same in all worlds, are they?" Zhi said, laughing a bit at this remark.
    "Nope! After all, I'm over three hundred years old," Shinako said, winking at them and getting inside the ship, "although my actual age is a secret!"
    "She looks like she's not even 4!" Kev said, "although I am a bit inexperienced with fox-people ages."
    "She does look young," Zhi said, "I'd reckon 30, tops, but she's a woman of many mysteries. You'll learn more the more you get to know her."
    "We'll have to take your word for it," Nati said, "either way, now I feel incredibly young. Oh, Baster, you're not actually super old, are you?"
    'Nope, only 5,' Baster said by way of tiny sign. 'Although I have been told I look very youthful.'
    "You look amazing, Baster, keep it up," Kev said.
    "Agreed!" Trav said, "I wonder where we'll go next?"
    "Inzami says something about a world with weather, so hurry up and get in the ship already!" Shinako said from inside.
    "Well that narrows it down... not at all," Nati said, as the six of them walked into the ship, "what world doesn't have weather?"
    "Beats me!" Shinako said, closing the hatch and lifting off from the ground, "but we'll just have to find out!"

Their ship took off into the sky and soared across the reaches of space. They traveled back through a green wormhole of the Ekozet Transportation Network, on to rest up until their next adventure.

• • •

Our adventurers will return in...

The Ekozet Connection: Weather World

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Published on Recreational Reality by Metafictional Press. First Version 2018 July 4, Latest Version 2018 July 7.