It is said that by 1 month an Eran learns to speak.
By 5 they can jump twice their height, and be a master of knocking down fine china.
And by 2 years, having completed their required education, go traveling throughout the solar system, in search of an occupation.
Getting embroiled in an interplanetary war is optional, but generally not recommended.
• • •
An alarm rang. Slapping it off, Kev hopped off the bed and rapidly got dressed. Trenchcoat? Check. Exploration and Survival gear? Check. Maps of all fourteen planets with notable moons and stations? Check. It. Is. Time.
He hurried off, wishing his parents goodbye and hastily grabbing a bag lunch, as he headed off to the designated meeting point. Finally! Freedom! The chance to explore the solar system! The chance to... probably wait for everyone else to arrive, he thought. Practically running along the sidewalk nonetheless, he passed by his street for the last time before his year-long exploration trip. Hopping on a bus at the last minute, he stared out the window watching the houses of his town fade into the distance.
Arriving at the spaceport not twenty minutes later, he got off, marveling at the sight of the planes arriving and departing. Let's see... group 532B, should be over here,
he thought, looking for his number among the crowds of other graduated students. Upon finding his section, he walked up to the marker, noticing that Nati was already there. Typical.
"Hey!" he said to her, "I see you're getting an early start today."
"Of course," Nati said, "this is my first opportunity to leave Era in over eleven years, I'm not missing this."
Oh great, not this again,
Kev thought. "So... seen Trav yet?"
"No, not yet. But given that we're still two minutes early, for the first trip of the day, that isn't surprising."
"Cool, well, I hope we make the first trip, I can't wait to get started!"
"You do know it's a fourteen hour trip to Aremi this time of year, right?" Nati said.
"Yeah, but it's the adventure! The excitement! Don't tell me you don't believe in all that," Kev said.
"I think you've been paying too much attention to those advertisements, the primary purpose of the Student Travel Exploration Pass (STEP) program is to encourage cultural discovery, and to help find future employment," Nati said.
"Of course, Miss Encyclopedia," Kev said sarcastically. "I still think you're taking this way too seriously, have some fun!"
"Of course," Nati said, sounding less than convinced. However, before any additional snarkiness could be vocalized, she noticed the final member of their group heading towards them. "There's Trav."
"Oh, hey, Trav, over here!" Kev said to him loudly, "we're about to leave!"
Jogging up to them, Trav said, "hey, whew, glad I made it... on time.
You two are too committed, you know that, right? Took forever to find this spot, too."
"Oh yeah, you haven't done this before..." Kev said.
"No need to rub it in. We're ready to go right? These planes sure do look impressive," Trav said, looking over at the runways. Surrounding the meeting area on both sides, were enormous fences, at least fifty feet tall, with impressive-looking planes parked by the dozens. Each one could easily hold over a hundred people, and were capable of speeds exceeding orbital escape velocity.
"Well, what are we waiting for, the first group leaves now," Kev said, "to adventure!"
"To discovery," Nati said.
"To new beginnings," Trav said.
"All groups in 100, 300, 500, 700, and 900, you may proceed to board now," said an announcement over the loudspeakers.
The three of them walked towards the entrance, boarding a large blue aircraft. A sign nearby indicated departure for Aremi, the fifth habitable planet in their solar system. Taxing onto the runway, their plane took off from the surface, gaining speed in the atmosphere, as their home planet Era faded away below them. The excited graduates in the plane remarked at the sight of the blue marble receding away from them, for many a feat they had not observed in a lifetime, and for a few, the first time they saw their planet from afar.
Coasting through the thin space between planets, the three of them occupied their time with different endeavors. Nati, of course, continued studying her physics textbook, hoping to see the ice clouds of Aremi up close. Kev read more about the wilderness and studied maps of the vast uninhabited sections of the planet, daydreaming of adventures and discovering new species of creatures. Trav looked out at the stars, mesmerized by the beauty of them and the other planets, tiny colored jewels in the sky. Occasionally they talked, but there was too much to prepare for their first stop on this journey.
Almost fourteen hours later, the planet Aremi came into view, a large tundra world, with rings of ice encircling it high above. Their plane skillfully avoided the building-size ice crystals, which were suspended in the sky in seeming defiance of gravity, and gently landed in the capital city.
"All departures for Iitano, deplane here, other destinations, stay onboard," the captain said over the intercom.
"So, do we get off here?" Trav said, looking outside at the tall buildings and the famous ice sculptures the city prided itself on.
"No, we're going all the way to the wilderness," Nati said, "Kev wants to see the middle of nowhere."
"Oh brother, Jhint Outpost isn't the middle of nowhere," Kev said, "it's next to it."
They stayed on board with many others, continuing back into the sky and stopping at two more towns before finally landing at their destination. The town was scarcely larger than the runway, containing a tiny downtown with a few buildings and some apartment complexes. Visible in the distance were a few telescopes, their domes casting semicircular shadows across the starry sky. Down the street and to the north were a few tents, temporary residences for those venturing out into the wilderness.
"Final stop, all passengers must depart here," another announcement said.
"See? We're not the only ones here," Kev said, pointing to another five who had stayed on as well.
"There's like two other groups, let's just find our accommodations, so we can at least get a good night's rest," Nati said.
"We're not staying in a tent, are we?" Trav said, as the three of them hauled their luggage down the stairs and onto the tarmac.
"No, I made sure we at least have a hotel room," Nati said.
They walked along the dark street, finding the Hotel Amianto, and having not slept a wink on their flight over, promptly went to their room, and fell asleep. Dreams of adventure and discovery filled their night.
• • •
The light of the sun shone through their windows, as Kev got up, and checked his watch. Oh crap, it's 6:15am already? I almost overslept!
He proceeded to head straight to the bathroom to shower and dress.
"We're... not leaving yet, right?" Trav said, half-awake.
"Probably pretty soon," Nati said, already reading her physics textbook again.
They got ready and packed their camping supplies, and headed out along the road to the north.
"Whoo, this planet is cold
," Trav said, shivering a bit as they walked, "why are we going here first again?"
"Kev won the toss, so we go to his pick first," Nati said, "next up is Ionus, I believe your choice."
"Ahh, yeah, nothing but beaches and sunshine," Trav said, "remind me again why we had to go anywhere else?"
"Quit the whining," Kev said, "we've got lots of great wilderness and unexplored territory here, you can explore the inside of a swimming pool any day."
"And that is
the plan," Trav said, pretending to relax in the sun.
Nati merely rolled her eyes at this exchange.
They continued along the dirt road, occasionally stopping to check out a natural ice crystal or exotic lizard, until all obvious traces of civilization fell below the horizon. As night fell, they found a suitable clearing off the road, and set up camp, only the creaks and croaks of nature keeping them company. They stared up at the stars, Nati naming all the planets and constellations they could see, and marveled at how much could be seen so far away from the city lights.
"I have to admit, the view is totally worth it," Trav said, feeling a bit warmer since Kev game him an extra coat.
"It is as beautiful as I remember," Nati said, remembering times from lives long past.
"I told you this would be cool," Kev said.
"More like cold," Trav said under his breath.
Nati suppressed a giggle as Kev glared at Trav.
"Ah, anyways, maybe tomorrow we'll find something truly new?" Kev said, thinking about all the undiscovered canyons and caves that must exist just beyond the horizon.
Their tranquil conversation was however interrupted by a pair of bright headlights, traveling along the dirt road surprisingly quickly.
"A car out here at this time of night? Where could they be going?" Nati said.
"I studied this map, this is just a park route, there's nothing but forest and plains further north," Kev said, as they watched the car pass them by. "Maybe they're camping too?"
"Could be, I bet it's warm inside that car," Trav said.
Even more strangely, three more cars approached them and headed down the road in the same direction.
"Alright, tomorrow we see where they went," Kev said, "I don't want them discovering anything without me!"
"I wouldn't worry about it," Nati said, "let's just get some sleep."
• • •
The next morning, they packed their supplies and continued along the road, further north.
"According to the map, this road heads to the Elefor Ravines, then on to the ice cap," Kev said, "they must have gone that way."
"However, they could have turned left here," Nati said, pointing to the tire tracks leading off into a sparse forest to the west.
"But.. there's nothing there," Kev said, turning his map around, "it just shows more parkland, and a few hills, no services or settlements. Not even a research post."
"There must be something, right?" Trav said, "people don't just go nowhere without a reason."
"I say we find out," Kev said.
"Alright, but we head back to the road if it gets too late," Nati said.
They followed the tracks along the ground, winding around a few forest groves and down a small hill, until they saw something most unusual, a large door built into a rocky hillside. They approached with caution, and saw that the tracks ended abruptly against the entrance.
"The door is closed, but the tracks lead into it," Nati said, "they must be inside."
"I'm not sure about this," Trav said, "this looks like some rich person's hideaway, I don't think we should be trespassing on it."
"But the map says this is all national parkland, it's all publicly accessible," Kev said.
"It could be a military base, but it wouldn't make any sense to have it here, there's no runway, and this door looks too small for vertical craft," Nati said, "plus, this gold colored door bears no insignias or markings. The Tri-Planet Treaty mandates that all military installations must be marked with the owner's flag."
"We have to find a way in," Kev said.
"If anyone asks, it was your idea," Trav said.
The three of them scouted around the rock wall, until Nati mentioned there were faint footprints leading into a crack in the wall to the north.
"But... those footprints are huge!" Kev said, looking at them, "they must wear like a size 20, if not 30!"
"Agreed, I've never seen footprints that large either, they would have to have abnormally large feet, be extremely tall, or simply be wearing a heavy suit."
"Oh yeah, that makes sense," Trav said, "thanks for mentioning it."
"Let's follow them," Kev said.
Walking into a small cave, the dripping sound of melting ice echoed throughout, the footprints continued until they reached a smaller door. It was similarly gold colored, looking to be made of the same material as the larger one outside. It was still at least twice as wide and tall as they would expect, but had a small button to the right at normal height, which emitted a faint green glow, the only light in the cave except their flashlights.
After a bit of debate, Kev pressed the button, and the door opened vertically, making an oddly quiet 'shoof' sound. They stepped inside, as cyan lights along the floor illuminated the wide walkway. The interior was made of the same gold metallic material and had no noticeable decorations or markings. The hallway dead-ended into another door, and pressing a green button again, that door opened into a vast storeroom.
"Wow," Trav said quietly, as they marveled at the objects on display.
A sword that glowed with a faint white light, a set of armor for a giant person, twice their size at least, huge gauntlets, set together. A futuristic sci-fi-looking pistol, with the letters 'P5' inscribed along it. A small blue orb, that hovered in its glass case, held up by no visible force. A disk with blue and green lines, balanced perfectly vertically on its edge.
"What... what is this place?
" Nati said, "I've never seen or even read about any of these things before."
"That's a first," Kev said, "but I know what it is."
"You do?" Nati said, surprised.
"It's the discovery of the century!" Kev said triumphantly.
Footsteps and soft humming could be heard coming from a hallway on the right.
"Hide!" Nati said quietly, as the three of them dove behind a large hover-scooter.
"Hello? Ventin?" said a woman's voice from the hallway, "are you in there?"
• • •
The woman stepped into the light of the main hall, but she was not the ordinary sight they had been expecting. She was more than twice their height, at nearly two meters tall, sporting red and brown hair, and with fox-like ears and a bushy tail. She held in her left hand a miniature rabbit, who was wearing a top hat, and held in her right hand a deep blue sword, seemingly made of ice. She was wearing flowing robes, also in beige, brown, and dark red for an almost-overdone color-coordinated look.
"Ventin?" the woman said cheerfully, "I know you're in here somewhere! We came to return the sword!" She looked around with a bit of confusion, then spotted the terrified trio. "Hah! Found you," she said, walking around the room quickly, "I knew... oh wait, you're not him."
"Ah! No, we are not, miss um, fox lady," Kev said, standing up nervously, "I'm Kev..., and these are my friends, Nati, and Trav."
"Oh, how adorable!" the woman said, holding out her right hand for a handshake, then retracting it realizing she was still holding the sword. "I'm Shinako, of the mystic realm, come to return this," she said, holding up the sword, "the Ice Sword of Arkati, back to Ventin. I'm assuming you're friends of his?"
"To be entirely honest, miss, we actually just snuck in here a few minutes ago," Trav said, getting an elbow from Nati.
"Ooo, so you're thieves?" Shinako said, seeming excited about this news.
"No, no! Not at all, we were just taking a look around, we haven't taken anything!" Nati said abruptly.
"We're adventurers!" Kev said.
"Oh! Even better!" Shinako said, "then maybe you can help me find Ventin, he's another one of you, (ah, I forget your species name) similar height, older, always carries a pocketwatch."
"Wait, are you talking about Ventin H. Morison?" Nati said, getting up now that the situation had been defused.
"You do know him!" Shinako said, "perfect!"
"I read about him in a book, he was an amazing adventurer, claimed to be able to remember tens of past lives," Nati said, "but he died twenty years ago."
"The cover story!" Shinako said, "I remember that, good fun, good fun."
"Cover story?" Kev said, "like to fake his death?"
"Yep, he's still alive all right," Shinako said, "er, at least I hope he is." The miniature rabbit on her left hand turned around and looked at her glaringly. "Oh, where are my manners? This here is Baster, miniature magical rabbit and my friend," Shinako said, holding the rabbit up to Kev.
"Pleased to make you acquaintance," Kev said, looking a bit confused.
The miniature rabbit held up a tiny sign, which read 'Likewise'.
"Did that rabbit hold up a sign?" Trav said.
"Oh yes, I did remember to say magical, right?" Shinako said.
"Yes, you did," Kev said, now looking amazed.
"But... there's no such thing as magic, right?" Nati said.
'Perhaps where you come from,' said another sign held up by the rabbit, Baster.
"Well there you have it," Kev said, "you must be from a place where magic exists. Fascinating."
"Then... if that's the case..." Nati said, thinking and looking around.
"All this stuff must be from other worlds," Trav said.
"Yep! Worlds, dimensions, timelines, universes, the usual," Shinako said. The three of them looked around in amazement once more, Shinako with a bright smile, always loving when she could open peoples' minds. Baster glared at her again. "Oh right! Ventin! We actually should try to find him," Shinako said, "I don't want to get a late fee on this sword."
"We'll help you!" Kev said, as Nati and Trav agreed.
The five headed down another hallway, more cyan light illuminating the rooms from the floor.
"How big is this place?" Nati said, "I feel like the hill we entered should barely be bigger than the room we were just in."
"Oh, I think there's some mild spatial warping going on," Shinako said, "but I don't think it's big enough for Ventin to hide much longer!"
Following the corridor down further, they reached another door with a red light.
"I haven't been this way yet," Shinako said, "I wonder what's in here." She pressed the button, but the door did not open. "Hmph. A bit of help?" she said, holding Baster the rabbit up to the button. He took out a tiny hankercheif, and placed it over the button. Removing it a moment later, the button had turned green. He then held up a tiny sign, which said, 'Ta-Da'
"Impressive," Nati said, "although I'm not asking where he gets all those signs from."
Shinako smiled, then pressed the button, opening the door. Walking through, they stood on a catwalk overlooking the interior of a large hangar. Inside were numerous black and red planes, and a small army of men marching around.
"Hmmm, not what I was expecting," Shinako said.
"Look, they're from the Grnist Front," Nati said, "those red insignia are unmistakable. Although I thought they were just a political group, I never expected them to have an army."
"Sure looks like they have one now," Trav said, sounding nervous.
"What could they be doing?" Kev said.
An answer emerged from the far side of the hangar, as two large doors opened up to reveal a purple mist. From this mist a tall woman materialized. She was at least three meters high, and appeared to be made of a gelatinous purple substance. She motioned to the soldiers, as they boarded the planes.
"Oh shit," Shinako said, "that's Yinitrsa, we defeated her like five years ago, how did she get out?"
"What? You know this... um, woman-thing?" Kev said.
"Sure, she's a mind-controlling biotic life form," Shinako said, "I forget which planet she's from, but she's bad news. She can ensnare the weak minded from huge distances."
"She must have manipulated the Grnist Front somehow," Nati said, "they'd take any offer, from what I've been told."
'Maybe the containment seals were too weak?' said Baster through another sign.
"Probably right, Baster," Shinako said, "then we just have to take her out again."
"What?" Trav said.
"Oh right, I don't suppose you're the ass-kicking take-names kind of adventurers, right?" Shinako said, smiling.
"Uh, we actually just started adventuring this week," Kev said.
"We just graduated from school," Nati said, "even if we have the knowledge, I- we- don't have any practice fighting."
Noticing this conversation, a red-and-black clothed guard approached them, and said, "freeze! This is a restricted area!"
"Oooh, I don't do freezing, sorry!" Shinako said, as she dropped to the ground suddenly, flames leaping from her hands and forming a wall between them and the guard.
Yinitrsa, on the hangar floor below, noticed this commotion, and said in a chilling ethereal voice, "stop them!
"Time to go!" Shinako said, "back into the hallway!"
They ran back through the door, shutting it behind them, and headed down the hallway until they reached the storeroom once more. Shinako closed the door to the hallway, as Kev, Nati, and Trav caught their breath.
"Oh wait, this sword is an ice sword - I missed out on a good quip there," Shinako said, looking at her sword.
"I think the fire worked great," Nati said, "but what do we do now?"
"I locked the door, so that should buy us a few minutes," Shinako said.
"Should we leave while we have the chance?" Trav said.
"We can't let these people get away with whatever they're planning," Kev said, "from what I've heard of the Grnist Front they can't be up to anything good with that army."
"We should alert the authorities," Nati said, "too bad the nearest phone is likely miles away."
"Hmm, I don't think that will work," Shinako said, walking towards them, "Yinitrsa is quite powerful, it took multiple people to take her down last time. I think your tech is likely not good enough to fight her."
"So she'll just steamroll the Aremi military?" Nati said.
"Probably," Shinako said, "if only the others were here."
They thought about the situation for a few moments, as footsteps could be heard coming from the hallway.
• • •
"Wait," Trav said, "if our technology isn't advanced enough, what about this stuff?" He motioned to the objects on display.
"I like that thought!" Shinako said, "what do you say, Baster?"
Baster held up a miniature sign, with the thumbs-up symbol on it.
"Alright, let's go!" Shinako said.
Pounding could be heard from the door, as the guards were attempting to break into the storeroom.
"Any recommendations?" Kev said.
"Sure," Shinako said, "first, let me give you Baster." She handed Baster to Nati, "you're the best to utilize his power." Looking around, she said, "and you, Kev, ever used a pattern projector before?"
"I have no idea what that is," Kev said, "but I've played video games?"
"Cool, close enough," Shinako said, pulling the glass case off of the P5 device. She handed him the futuristic pistol, and said, "this is the Polaris Positronic Pattern Projector Pistol, just think of what you want it to make and fire it at your target."
"I'll give it a shot," Kev said.
"And you, Trav," Shinako said, making a thinking face. "How about that armor over there, seems like a perfect fit to give you some confidence."
"Sure, how do I use it?" Trav said.
"Just step inside, it'll fit automatically," Shinako said.
Trav stepped inside the antique-looking armor, as it sprung to life, shining with yellow light, and suspended him within. He stepped off the wall with the suit, and said, "this is so cool, you all look so short from here!"
"Oh, you might want these too," Shinako said, handing him the set of gauntlets.
Nati stared at Baster while this was going on, wondering how she could best utilize his skills.
He held up a tiny sign, which said, 'Place me on your head. Trust me, I don't bite.'
"Okay," Nati said, placing him on her hair. She suddenly felt a link form, a transfer of mental information between the two of them.
the voice of Baster said in her mind, I know you have studied for lifetimes, and never had a chance to use your knowledge. I am a magi-rabi, a giver of power to those who can use it in my home dimension. Once a link is created, all my power is yours. My people are masters of true stage magic, any trick or misdirection can be accomplished, only your creativity and imagination is required to unlock it.
I'm frankly not sure about this,
Nati thought-said back, but given what I have seen, and what I now know I must learn...
She took a deep breath. I'm ready to try.
Trust in yourself,
Baster thought-said to her, and the rest will follow.
The banging from the door intensified, as the group took positions around the back of the room.
"Ready?" Shinako said, holding her sword with two hands.
"As we'll ever be," Nati said.
The door burst open as five guards rushed into the room. Shinako sliced her sword forward, freezing the first one in ice. Trav maneuvered his set of armor to the right, blocking fire from two of the guards. He punched forward with the right gauntlet, sending a wave of silver energy through the air, knocking them unconscious. Kev fired the P5 toward the leftmost guard, encasing him in a cage of orange energy. The last guard fired at Nati, as she ducked behind a glass case. It shattered, and the disk within fell in her lap. She stood up and threw it to the guard. "Catch." The guard instinctually dodged the disk, as Nati said, "sleep," with her left hand outstretched. The guard fell asleep, leaving the one in the cage the last one conscious.
"Alright mook," Shinako said, approaching the caged guard, "what is Yinitrsa up to this time?"
"You're too late," the guard said, "the planes have already launched and Iitano will have fallen before you can even warn them."
"Pssh, typical," Shinako said, motioning to Nati.
"Sleep," Nati said, as the caged guard fell asleep as well.
Kev released the cage, and said, "what do we do with them now?"
"Oh, I always carry a spare stasis cube for just these sorts of occasions," Shinako said, taking out a small gray cube. She held it in the air, and it sucked up all the guards. "See, they'll be totally safe and secure in there," Shinako said, "like no time has passed at all. Too bad it only works on stationary things."
"How will we warn Iitano before they arrive, though?" Nati said.
"Oh, we can just take my spaceship, we'll be there in a jiff," Shinako said.
"You have a spaceship?" Kev said, astounded.
"Sure! How do you think I got here in the first place?" Shinako said.
"Can I keep this?" Trav said, opening the helmet of the armor.
"Totally! The fight's just getting started," Shinako said.
• • •
The five of them headed out of the complex by the back door, and walked up the rocky hillside north for a few minutes. Approaching what looked like thin air, Shinako waved, and a sleek, although small, ship appeared parked on the ground. It was swept back with red and brown colors, surprisingly appropriate for her appearance. Kev couldn't help but mutter a "so cool" as they boarded the ship. Inside was a rather tight squeeze, as the ship only had two large seats, one taken by Shinako in the front, and the second by Trav in the suit of armor. The others held onto the swept-back control panels as the ship gracefully took off from the grassy hilltop. Soaring into the air, they passed underneath a few large ice crystals, and saw a small wing of red and black aircraft below them.
"They're almost to the capital," Nati said.
"Not if we have anything to say about it," Shinako said, as they strafed over the enemy planes, Shinako firing a few bolts of white plasma at their engines. The planes began to lose altitude, deploying their landing gear for a rough landing on the tundra. However, a large purple tentacle flew out from one of the planes and grabbed their ship. "Oh shit, time to eject," Shinako said, as the cockpit opened to the sky, and all five of them were fired out into the atmosphere. Her ship disappeared from sight as the purple tentacle searched aimlessly for it.
The five of them landed, Nati and Baster having pulled a parachute out of nowhere, Kev projecting orange energy onto the ground to slow his descent, Shinako floating down as if she flagrantly violated the laws of gravity, and Trav landing with a thud in his armor. The enemy planes landed just in front of them, and the army marched out, tanks and infantry approaching along the icy tundra. The tall purple woman, Yinitrsa, exited the rear plane, her arms re-forming from their tentacle shapes. She motioned forward, signaling the assault.
"Anything you need to do to get ready, do it now!" Shinako said.
"To be honest," Nati said, "I just want to apologize for panicking a bit back there."
"What? No worries, you did great," Kev said.
"Absolutely, you're the best small recruits I've seen in years!" Shinako said, "you'll be fine."
"No doubt about it, Nati," Trav said, "you're the heart and soul of our group, without you we couldn't do half these things."
"Thanks all of you," Nati said.
"No problem! Let's show them what we've got," Kev said.
The army approached, until the tanks stopped, and aimed their main guns. The infantry stopped as well, just at the edge of firing range. Yinitrsa approached the front of the group.
"Mortals, hear me, and despair," Yinitrsa said, "I am an immortal god, a being of incredible power and insatiable will. You cannot resist me, you cannot resist my command! Join me or perish!"
"Bah, you talk too much Yinitrsa, it's as old today as it was five years ago!" Shinako said loudly.
"Perhaps my will can be resisted by you, you filth," Yinitrsa said, "but are your compatriots so resilient?"
"Of course they are!" Shinako said, turning around, "right guys?"
The three of them looked a bit pained, as the waves of mental energy from Yinitrsa crashed over them. You'll never be a real explorer, there's nothing left to discover,
the thoughts said to Kev. You've wasted your last life, and now you're weak and helpless,
the thoughts said to Nati. You're new and naive, you cannot hope to succeed here,
the thoughts said to Trav.
"Guys?" Shinako said, looking slightly worried for the first time in this adventure.
"Believe in myself," Nati said, "I know who I am, and who we are. We may have only been friends in this lifetime, but it's the first lifetime I remember where I can say I have true friends."
"Well said, Nati," Kev said, "and Yinitrsa, if there's nothing left to discover, then what are you?"
"Thanks for that," Trav said, "I might be new, but if anything, that just means I can only get better from here!"
"Yep, they got this," Shinako said, smiling even more now, "weak-willed only, right Yinitrsa?"
"Destroy them!" Yinitrsa said, as the army rushed forward.
• • •
The tanks fired at the group, but mysteriously the warheads traveled clear above them, hitting nothing but empty ground.
"They missed?" Nati said.
"Oh yes, I haven't properly introduced myself," Shinako said, "I am Shinako, master of fire - and illusions
!" She jumped high into the air, and split into nine identical-looking copies.
"Cool," Trav said, "wait- what should we
"She'll provide the distraction, let's take them out!" Nati said, "get into close range, then their tanks can't fire at us without hitting each other."
"Great thinking, who knows how long the illusions will last!" Kev said, as the three of them, plus Baster on top of Nati's head, rushed headlong into the battle.
The copies of Shinako darted around the battlefield, alternately between encasing soldiers in ice or punching and kicking them halfway across the field. The others ran up to the melee as the soldiers shouted and shooted in confusion. Kev fired an energy bar at the nearest tank, knocking it over lengthwise. Trav ran up and punched the main cannon off another, as some of the soldiers noticed their presence. Before they could react, they were encased in a sudden fog, laid down by Nati and Baster. In this field of misdirection, they teleported around unseen, swiping armaments and tieing them up in seemingly-ordinary hankercheifs.
Yinitrsa spread out from her humanlike form and became a mist of serpentine substance. Her tentacles swiped at the illusions of Shinako, forming into solid shapes at the moment before impact. A few of these illusions dissipated until a previously-invisible Shinako dove from the sky into the center of her form, flames igniting the air.
"Should we help her?" Kev said, flipping another tank as it fired into the air.
"She's the professional, let's worry about the infantry!" Nati said, ducking under bullets as they whizzed through the fog.
"Watch out!" Trav said, stepping in front of a tank aiming at Nati. It fired, and impacted his armor with a loud bang, sending him careening into the soldiers behind them.
"They're crazy!" Kev said, "are you OK Trav?" Kev said.
Shinako's flames subsided as the mist took shape around her. Yinitrsa reached out with four arms from her center, and grabbed Shinako.
"You will not survive this, illusionist," Yinitrsa said, "I am immune to the elements."
"Hah! Yinitrsa," Shinako, "you might be immune to my fire, but are you immune to the absence of any element?" She took out a small bottle, opening the top with her sword.
A sudden wind could be felt, as if the airlock of a spaceship had been opened, the very atmosphere being sucked towards the epicenter of the battle. Kev dug into the ground with an energy hook, as Nati grabbed onto the side of a tank with magnetic grapples. The soldiers were blown off balance, as the purple mist of Yinitrsa was drained into Shinako's bottle.
Suddenly as it had started, the wind ceased. Shinako floated down from the sky, having re-sealed her bottle.
"You know I will escape this prison again!" Yinitrsa said, reforming inside the bottle.
"Then I'll put you back in again every time!" Shinako said, "oh hey, are you all okay?"
"I'm fine," Kev said, getting back up, "what about Trav?"
Nati ran over to the suit of armor, and dusted off the shrapnel and dirt.
Trav coughed from inside, then said, "I'm fine! Sorry about getting knocked over, that tank packed a punch."
"You saved my life," Nati said, "you don't get to apologize."
"No problem! What about the battle? Did we win?" Trav said.
"Sure looks like it," Kev said, walking over and noticing the remaining soldiers were fast asleep. "Nice job with the sleep magic, Nati!"
"It wasn't me," Nati said, getting up.
"Nope!" Shinako said, walking over as well, "with Yinitrsa here all bottled up, the power she was using on the soldiers evaporated, and they all fell asleep. Knowing her she was probably keeping them awake for days getting all this ready."
Before they could say any more, a vertical beam of light appeared next to them. It expanded and formed into a tall rectangular shape, out of which walked a new Eran man, Ventin H. Morison. He was slightly taller than Kev at an imposing 60 cm, with brown hair, and was wearing positively pedestrian attire - a gray shirt, with black pants and a jacket. He looked like he had just come from a smelting factory, what with the thin coating of ash and the expression of exhaustion on his face.
"Shinako! I traced your signal to here," Ventin said tiredly, "although it looks like you've already dealt with everything."
"With the help of my new friends!" Shinako said, motioning to Kev, Nati, and Trav. The three of them smiled at this proclamation.
"Excellent! Because I am exhausted
. You would not believe where I just was," Ventin said, "I had to defuse an eternal battle on a lava planet. Next time I'm bringing more water."
"A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Morison," Nati said, "I've read about you but never thought you would still be alive to this day."
"Ah, I might be almost one hundred, but I've never looked better," Ventin said.
"One hundred!" Trav said with astonishment, "that's like ten lifetimes..."
"An amazing honor," Kev said, shaking Ventin's hand, "the true inspiration for adventurers like us."
"You're too kind," Ventin said, "and this place is too messy for these introductions. Do you have a stasis cube on you Shinako?"
"Of course!" Shinako said, taking out another small gray cube, which proceeded to absorb the entire battle, save them and the bottle.
"Now that's impressive!" Trav said, getting up.
"But wait, why don't you just put Yinitrsa in one of those cubes?" Nati said.
"She'll never stay still enough for it," Shinako said, holding up the bottle containing Yinitrsa.
"Sorry about all this mess, I can explain more back at my home," Ventin said.
"And you can meet Inzami! A true
goddess," Shinako said, sticking her tongue out at Yinitrsa.
• • •
Back at the storeroom, the six of them gathered in an adjacent room with a table, Shinako sitting on the floor yet still towering above them.
"Give me a moment to start the projector," Ventin said, setting a small metallic blue cylinder on the table.
A projection of white light shot out from the projector, and formed into the figure of a human-like woman. She appeared tall, similar in height to Shinako, but was wearing long, flowing robes, made of white light with an echo of green in the background.
"Hello brave adventurers," the projected woman said, "I am Inzami, Transit Goddess of the Ekozet. I am the source and mind of the interdimensional conduit network, the last remnant of my civilization. My purpose is to find people from across the multiverse, and to gift them the ability to help the denizens of millions of other worlds. There are so many ways to make a difference, even with such a small impact. And now, I am looking for a new group, people who would be willing to leave their worlds behind and help wherever help is needed most. What do you say of this?"
There was silence for a few moments, until Kev spoke first. "A great honor to meet you, goddess Inzami," Kev said, "although I don't think we really had leaving our worlds behind as part of this trip."
Nati and Trav shook their heads in agreement.
"I thought you would say that," Inzami said, "I can see you have the adventurer spirit, but perhaps not the desire to do nothing but. I suppose another offer might be in order. What do you say, if I asked you to help find me a new team?"
"Well, that actually sounds a lot more reasonable," Kev said, "what do you think?"
"I think there is too much knowledge out in the multiverse for me to possibly say no," Nati said, "it would be an honor to work with you, Inzami."
"As long as I get to keep the armor and there's beaches involved, I'm in!" Trav said.
"If they're in, I'm certainly on board too!" Kev said.
"Fantastic!" Inzami said, "I'll relay the information on where you can look first." Inzami's form disappeared as the projector shut off.
"Are you coming too, Ventin?" Nati said.
"To be honest, I'm getting a bit old for this adventuring job," Ventin said, "I'm probably going to find a nice planet to retire to, and maybe a safer location for my artifacts."
"I'm coming, for sure!" Shinako said, "I've never been one for the whole 'getting old' thing."
'Count me in!' said a tiny sign from Baster, who had been sitting on the table quietly.
"Then I suppose it's settled," Kev said, standing up, "to the best STEP adventure ever!" He placed his hand in the center of the table.
"You bet!" Nati said, placing her hand on Kev's.
"Can't wait already," Trav said, placing his hand as well.
"Don't know what that is, but woo!" Shinako said, placing her hand above theirs, covering the others' hands and part of their arms.
'It will be an adventure for the history books,' said a tiny sign from Baster, as he hopped on top of Shinako's hand, completing the group.
Ventin merely leaned back in his chair and smiled.
• • •
Our adventurers will return in...
The Ekozet Connection: Wu-Xing