Shining force: Chapter 3
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Max paused for a moment at the top of the trail to rest his weary legs. Behind him, the Shining Force gathered up and rested as well. For over a week, they had traversed the mountain range north of the Abbey. They had traded in their wagons for hardy, sure footed mules with saddle bags instead of riding saddles. All save Amon and Balbaroy, working as scouts to find the easiest paths, were forced to climb the trails, sometimes at such steep inclines and declines that they were forced to rope themselves together to keep from falling. Finally, they had reached Bustoke, the town set into the side of a mountain.
Max took a moment to admire the well kept roads on the mountain side, the sturdy doors leading into no doubt beautiful and comfortable homes cut into the mountaintop. The people walked about quietly. Max frowned. This wasn’t the quiet of people seeking to avoid an avalanche of falling rocks, particularly since they would never have built a town in an unstable position. “Something’s wrong,” he quietly muttered to Nova and Mae, coming up beside him. “Mae, set up a base of operations. Keep everyone together until I come back. Nova, let’s go see who’s in charge.”
As they headed towards the obvious house of rule, built out of cut stone on a flat area instead of being dug into the ground, he noticed something else. “No men,” Nova whispered, coming to the same realization. All about, only women-humans, dwarves, a few elves, and some werewolves- and children were in sight. They glanced continuously at the two males out of the corners of their eyes. Max and Nova traded glances, and Max opened the door, keeping his left hand on the sheath of his blade, ready to shove his thumb on the hilt to loosen it and draw.
Inside, two elven women waited. “Are you members of the Shining Force?” The older woman asked bluntly, staring at Max. Max glanced at the elf, and loosened his sword.
The lady began with two syllables. “Runefaust...” Max listened to the rest of her words with considerably more interest.
“So Runefaust is using your men as slave labor to find a weapon of the Ancients?” Max repeated in summary. “We’ll be glad to help.”
“We don’t know what your fee is, exactly, but we’ll pay however much you-”
“We’ll discuss that later. For now, I’ll be heading to the quarry with my people. Your men will be freed shortly.”
The woman grinned, her thin face beaming with delight. “That’s wonderful! Diane will help you. Zylo could help too, if he were sane.”
“A War Wolf.” War Wolves were an elite order of werewolf fighters, skilled in the arts of hunting, tracking, and fighting. They not only used their claws, but their chi, as well. “Runefaust had a spy plant something in Zylo’s drink before they attacked, and it made him crazy. We can cure him, but only with the Moon Stone, which is in the quarry too.” Max nodded, then turned to eye Diane.
Typically lithe for an elf, her muscles showed the tone of one accustomed to light, continuous work. Her bow was well cared for, a quiver filled with arrows with sharpened arrowheads on her back. Red hair was clean but not styled, hanging loosely about her, and she wore a jerkin of boiled leather, over thick woolen clothes to protect from abrasions with the stones of the mountains, along with bracers to protect her wrists from the snap of the bowstring. Max nodded. “Come, then,” he smiled at Diane, and headed off to find Mae.
He found the Standard of the Shining Force, a bright blue eye, hung over the door to an empty dwelling, over a “For Rent” sign. I hope we got a good deal for the place, he thought as he opened the door. Inside was a fairly large room, in which the group was sitting around, taking the opportunity to take a few quick pointers on sharpening from Gort. “The angle of the edge, that’s the important thing, you see,” he said, holding up his foot long single edged bowie blade, “this big guy here’s got power, so you only need to sharpen it like a sword, 60 degrees, maybe 30 tops if you only go after bare skin. Now this one,” holding up his boot knife, a three inch blade no longer than it’s handle, double edged with a double taper, “this baby’s made for speed and penetration, it’s for stabbing or slicing, not slashing. You want a razor’s angle to go with the thinness of the steel, 20 degrees or less. This little one can do more damage than the big one if you use it right.”
“What about this one?” Max grinned as he pointed to his sword, while leaning on the wall. Gort snorted.
“That’s for removing heads off humans or giving dragons a pinprick,” he grinned. “By the way, catch.” And Gort pulled out a blade and tossed it to Max hilt first.
Max snatched the blade out of the air and looked at it. It was mostly handle, due to the knuckle guard formed of quarter inch thick steel, swelling into pointed knobs where each knuckle would go, over an inch wide. The “blade” was a 9x1x1/2 inch bar, obviously sharpened into a needle point by the smith, a cleaver edge on one side, then later modified by having saw teeth cut into the bar on the false edge. “Did the serration’s myself,” Gort noted with pride. “That kind of blade used to be popular for fighting in tunnels, fighting vermin, but I thought the serration’s would make it better for your sort of thing. It’ll penetrate any armor you go up against, and when you pull it out, those teeth’ll be taking all sorts of stuff with ‘em. Makes it good for blocking, too. Should be a help next time you’re in a sword fight.”
Max nodded approvingly, then held out his other hand for the sheath. “This would have been a big help against Xander. All right, everyone, listen up,” he raised his voice, and tried not to grimace as Khris, Tao, and Mae all made a show of giving him their utmost attention, staring at him with vapid expressions. “Runefaust is here. They’ve kidnapped all the men, and are forcing them to work in the quarry, digging for a weapon of the Ancients. We need to stop them from finding it, rescue the men, and, oh yeah, there’s a rock of some kind called the Moon Stone in the quarry, too. We find it, and we’ll end up making a War Wolf available for recruitment.”
“That’s good,” Gort grinned.
“Ever meet one?” asked Luke.
“A couple. Smell kinda funny from never using soap, but OH BOY, are they handy to have around in a fight.”
“All right then,” continued Max, “Mae, take Diane here and give her a quick run-through on the basics. Amon, Balbaroy, you stay here.” He cut off their protests by raising his voice over them, “Your wings won’t be any good in there. You stay here with Nova-and Mae, Ken, and Arthur. You’re a bit bulky to be going in there.” Mae’s eyes flashed, both at the thought of being left behind, and the use of the label, “bulky.”
“You may need me-”
“We may need you as backup, if Runefaust catches us. Stay here, and, uh... clean the place up.” Max waved a hand at the dwelling, cobwebs and dust covering the wooden floors, and the general disarray of the furniture next to the earthen walls.
Two guards held the entrance to the mines, large humans with bows. A quick shot from Diane and Hans each, took them out before they had a chance to alert anyone. Max nodded in approval at the fletching sprouting from the throats, then formed up a marching order.
The mines were fairly bright, with lanterns placed at regular intervals for the benefit of the workers. The team moved through the mines cautiously, Max making frequent glances down at a map to pinpoint their location within the labrynthian maze of tunnels, as well as the probable location of the prisoners. Several times, they encountered the unfortunate men, being escorted to another point within the mines by mages, priests, and skeletons. The Shining Force dealt with them by virtue of the blitz attack, rushing the surprised forces and killing them before they had a chance to sound the alarm or fight back. Each time, the freed captives were instructed to head for the surface quickly and quietly.
Finally, the team reached the lowest chamber of the mines, with rich mineral deposits still in obvious abundance. A particularly powerful looking mage stood over the laboring workers, laughing. “Finally, we have found the Laser Eye! Ha ha ha! I guess we won’t be needing you workers anymore...”
Max did a quick tally. One Mage, one Dark Priest, one skeleton, and one lizardman. Nodding his head in satisfaction at how the odds had dwindled down to his favor, he waved one hand to the team and rushed forward silently, heading for the lizardman.
The scaly monster turned to meet Max’ rush, and swung his axe in a deadly arc. Ducking under the swing and rolling, he came up with a sidestepping upward slash. The lizardman avoided the worst of the cut by taking it on his tail, losing a couple of inches to Max’ blade. He roared and swung his axe in a downward chop, looking to bisect the miserable human who had shortened his dignity. Max drew on his enchanted strength and chopped off both hands at the wrists with one mighty blow, shearing through bone and scales. Drawing the sword back into guard, at the same time he thrust his left hand out, his knife’s serrated edge catching the scaly brute in the throat. Pulling it out, he noted with mild nausea how gobbets of flesh actually clung to the thick saw blades, literally tearing the lizardman’s throat out. The blood loss of the throat and hand wounds was too much, and the lizardman sank slowly to the ground.
Max looked up to see how the team was doing, and saw the skeleton in shattered bits, Gort and Luke grinning at the sight of the captives smashing their picks into the bones with barely controlled rage. A similar fate had befallen the Priest, who had never even had a chance to fight with the Force, the nearest prisoners stabbing him in the back with their mattocks. The mage appeared to have ducked into a side cavern.
Running in after him, Max saw the glimmer of a large metallic object, shimmering as it faded from sight. “You’re too late, Shining Force!” laughed the mage. “We’ve already gained the Laser Eye! Now you are-” Max’ sword removing the top half of his skull cut off any further conversation.
Max stared down at the mage’s body a moment, then at the space where the Laser Eye had been. His lips curled in a disgruntled sneer.
The people of Bustoke were overjoyed at their freedom from Runefaust’s nefarious designs. The Force was treated to everything they desired. Their arms were upgraded, the merchants taking their payments from the town. Their provisions were resupplied, and their evening meals were nightly feasts.
Zylo spent a week, recovering from his madness, before Lowe pronounced him fit to travel again. The handsome War Wolf happily joined with the Shining Force. Max happily noted that while Zylo never used soap(“It smells too strong. Anything with half a nose could smell you guys a mile away...”), he regularly bathed in clear water, giving him an odor far less repugnant than he’d feared. Diane agreed to continue on with the Force, as well, spending the time in Bustoke with her family and friends before they continued on.
Anri took advantage of the break in journeying to make use of Max’ Egress spell. Transporting them both back to Guardiana, Anri met with Rochefort to discuss the rebuilding of her city.
“I’m truly glad to see you again,” the chamberlain enthused, as he sat at the table with them with a pitcher of good wine, pouring for his liege, then Max, before himself.
“How have rebuilding efforts been going?” asked Max. Anri punched him in the arm. Rochefort’s eyes widened at the familiarity.
“Maa-ax! That’s MY line! Rochefort, how have the rebuilding efforts been going?” Rochefort swallowed.
“Alterone has been sending us food and medicines, along with raw materials. We’ve insisted on doing the rebuilding ourselves, however. We’ve already finished repairing all the homes that were damaged, and now we’re working on the business districts.”
“How has-” Max shut up at a glare from Anri.
“How has the economy fared?” Rochefort paused to refill her goblet before answering.
“About as well as can be expected with our business districts in ruins. I’m not sure WHAT we can do to help boost the economy.”
“Lower taxes,” said Max.
“All the wealthiest towns we’ve visited had one thing in common. They kept taxes as low as possible. It just seems that no matter what, there’s not a thing a government can do with money that’s better than what the people who make the money can do with it.” Anri nodded.
“Bring me the current tax plan, and we’ll see what we can do,” she instructed. Several hours later, they had finished hammering out a relief plan for the people. “When will you be returning, your Higness?” asked Rochefort. Anri smiled, and kissed him on the cheek.
“I’ll be coming back for another visit as soon as possible. In the meantime...” she shrugged, then wrapped her arms around Max. “Let’s go, commander,” she smiled.
The environment twisted before their eyes curiously, to become the base camp at Bustoke. “You know, you really don’t have to cling to me to teleport,” stated Max, blushing.
Anri moved in closer. “I know.”
Max nodded slowly. Then he twisted free, and backed away hurriedly, bowing as he fled. Anri watched him, giggling.
Amon and Balbaroy introduced Max to a new friend, a dwarf named Kokichi, who had been researching a flight machine. The two birdmen spent many enjoyable afternoons there, discussing the finer points of bird wings, air currents, and the little tricks of heavier than air flight. They also helped rescue Kokichi whenever he crashed his machine, that is to say, on a regular basis. Max was struck by the gleam in Kokichi’s eyes, the look of a man with a personal dream, committed to a goal in life.
But quite possibly the most memorable moment of their stay in Bustoke, was when the dwarven smiths presented Max with a suit of armor, made from the finest alloy of steel, with a special coating of “blue”, rendering the whole of it a glossy dark blue while protecting it from rust. Plates covered his entire body from head to toe, with a blue cape of cotton woven so tightly as to be almost waterproof thrown over his back. It took a good 10 minutes to get into the stuff, but it proved so comfortable as to be wearable all day. Max thanked the smiths repeatedly, as he admired himself in their mirror.
Two days travel brought them a week’s worth in distance, thanks to Zylo’s skill at pathfinding. They set up a field HQ within sight of a bridge, crossing a high chasm dug by a raging river that streamed far below. “This is a good place for an ambush,” pointed out Nova, as he pointed at the aerial map formulated by Amon and Balbaroy. “If I were Runefaust’s commander, I’d use the Laser Eye, whatever it is, right here. Max?”
Max stepped forward in his blue armor. “Whatever the Laser Eye is, it’s almost certain that we’re going to take some casualties on this one. I’m assigning Amon and Balbaroy to fly interference, drawing attention away from a team of volunteers that will make a beeline straight for the Laser Eye, and attempt to destroy it. I will lead this team myself. I’m stating up front, there’s a good chance the team won’t survive whatever happens.”
There was a moment’s silence, then Mae stepped forward. “I volunteer.”
Max said, “Not you, Mae. I need you to command the rest of the Force. All of it, if I fall.”
Mae looked at him a moment, then reached out and gripped his shoulders fiercely. Bending her head down to look him in the eye, she whispered so only he could hear. “I pledge to stand at your side through all the coming battles. If you fall,” she swallowed, “then I fall with you.” Her eyes bored into him.
Max returned her look, staring into the eyes of a blood sister through much shed blood. I feel the same way, Mae, he thought to himself. Aloud, he said, “Alright. You’re in.” Attempting a half smile-and achieving only a grimace, he added, “I guess I have to keep myself alive after all.” Mae nodded, then slowly backed away.
The other warriors volunteered to a man. Max finally settled the issue by selecting Mae, Ken, Gort, Luke, and Zylo for the charge, with the others held back for the second assault. Everyone prepped for battle, then they moved out towards the bridge.
The bridge was formed of solid stone, an ancient edifice weathered yet still strong. As the Shining Force appeared out of the woods, they quickly realized they had walked into a trap! Lizardmen and elven archers stood ready to attack. Pegasi knights, members of Runefausts elite air units, flew through the air, ready for action. And a large mechanism stood at the far end of the bridge, an enormous ruby lens glowing softly.
Why aren’t they attacking? Looking across to the far side of the chasm, Max saw the Runefaust commander, a centaur in gleaming, polished armour, screaming at another knight. “You’ve betrayed Lord Kane!” The commander screamed. The lone knight snorted.
“I owe no allegiance to you OR him, foul fiend that he is!” the knight countered disdainfully.
“You are only a mercenary. You do what we PAY you to do, fool!” The knight reached for his side bags, pulling out a large pouch of gold. He casually tossed the pouch to the commander.
“I shall no longer follow your orders, toad!” The commander’s eyes narrowed behind his visor.
“If you are not with us... then you are against us.” Abruptly he surged forward, not even bothering to try to impale the knight, but simply forcing backwards. Over the ledge. The mercenary screamed in rage and horror as his hooves lost their footing and he fell towards the ravine floor below. “Thus fall all who oppose Runefaust!” The commander looked and saw the Force. “Attack!”
Even as Max charged forward, sword and knife at hand, another knight pushed buttons on the device. An expressionless voice issued forth. “Targeting system activated. Ten...” Then everything became a blur.
Upon later reflection, Max would consider how time seemed to slow, as his team made a head on charge for the Laser Eye. “9...8...” They came to the first group of lizardmen, and his panicked and magically enhanced strength pulled his blades through their toughened hides, as spear heads and axe blades did the same. “7...6...” The Pegasus Knights dove in, and things became busy indeed. “5...4...” Out of the corner of his eye, Max watched Amon and Balbaroy harassing the archers, keeping them from taking potshots. “3...2...” The commander laughed gleefully, as a new horde surged towards them. “1...Fire!”
Max screamed out, “HIT THE DIRT!” And he grabbed the corpse of a freshly slaughtered lizardman, rolling it over him as he fell, for protection. Then the backs of his tightly shut eyelids turned white, as a terrible pain consumed him. Gritting his teeth, he vented a strangled scream of pain, as his skin blistered beneath the suddenly superheated armor.
Then it ended. Max shoved the burning remnants of the reptilian corpse aside, and wearily got to his feet. He could feel the burns all over his body, underneath his armor. His team were all in similar conditions, burns all over their bodies, the worst of it fortunately absorbed by the creatures sacrificed by their own commander. Then ice settled in his gut, as he heard. “10...9...”
Venting a war cry, Mae charged forward at top speed. “Mae, no!” Max cried, as he tried to chase after her. “8...7...6...5...” Mae’s lance slammed into the ruby lens-which shattered. Electricity flared, then the Laser Eye exploded, in a fiery conflagration, that knocked Mae’s limp body to the ground some feet away, and leaving the centaur who’d manned the device a unrecognizable mess.
“No...” whispered Max, as he limped up to Mae’s body, salty tears stinging his scorched cheeks. “Ha, ha, ha...” snickered the commander at his grief, as he moved in to finish off his rival. Then something in Max’ skull burst, and his senses fled.
When he regained awareness, he saw the body of the commander before him. His sword lay next to him, unused, as his knife repeatedly stabbed into the corpse, tearing out flesh with each strike. Shocked, Max forced himself to stop stabbing the carcass, then turned and hobbled to Mae. Collapsing next to her, he whispered, “Mae...” then louder, “MAE...”
Mae’s eyes opened. “Mission accomplished, Max...” Max choked out a sob.
“Yah. You did it.”
Mae closed her eyes slowly. “I’m... tired.... Max...”
“No...NO! Stay awake Mae. STAY WITH ME!” He clutched her head in a fierce embrace.
Mae whispered in his ear. “Max.. I...”
“No Mae... Don’t you dare die on me... I need you...”
“Max, I l-lo...” her voice faded. Max sat there, uncomprehending, tears flowing freely, until Lowe tapped him on the shoulder.
“I’ve finished her other wounds, Max. If you’ll move, I can do her face and chest.” Max jerked back, and saw her unarmored chest clean of injury, the slow rising and falling of the ribcage. He began to snort, heaving, gasping breaths of relieved laughter, and fell backwards as Khris began to mend his own wounds. When he had healed enough to stand, he looked the Force over, watching the healers do their work. Then he turned at the sound of grunting below him.
The mercenary knight clung to a tree branch jutting out of the cliff wall. His hooves scrambled for purchase, as he held on tight. “Rope!” called out Max, and Tao handed him a length to toss to the knight. The exhausted knight held on tightly as exhausted warriors pulled him up. When he reached the top, all of them collapsed on the ground.
“I don’t...know who you are...but you...impressed me...” gasped the knight. “Name’s Pelle...” Tearing off his helmet, he revealed a dashingly handsome face, all chin and blue eyes and long black mane.
“I’ve heard of you...” Max retorted. Indeed he had, the name belonged to a mercenary knight of great renown. Pelle had made a name for himself as a singular Mercenary, hiring on as a champion in duels and gladiatorial fights, and temp jobs with larger groups. His lancework was known to be exceptional among the ranks of professional duelists.
“Looking...for some...help?” asked Pelle. Max smiled and nodded.
Some time later, the secondary team having made camp and tended to the needs of the exhausted primary team, the Shining Force relaxed next to warm campfires, drinking hot tea and eating good hot food. Max and Mae sat next to each other, staring into the fire for some time.
“Mae?” Max finally asked.
“Back there-I mean, when I thought you were dying, you started to say something...”
“Uh...yeah...what I meant was... um... I lo-lo...lost my temper back there. I shouldn’t have charged off without orders...”
“Oh...well, don’t let it happen again. But at least you got the job done.” Max continued to stare into the fire. Mae gave occasional side glances towards him, a furtive, almost guilty expression on her face.
They stayed that way until long after the moon had risen.
**************************************End of chapter 3**************************************
Author’s note: Not much to say here, except for the talk about knives. And soap.
Weapons are a personal matter, and individuals should choose weapons suited for their own needs, body characteristics, and personal preferences. For knives, one should choose a blade suited for their own fighting style, preferred carry method, and in this day and age, legality (thank you VERY much, Mr. Liberals...), and functionality-it’s best to carry a blade that’s likely to see a lot of use as a tool, that can also make a handy weapon. The Bowie knife was the original American survival knife-sharp enough for a razor, sturdy enough for an axe, big enough for a sword, the favored tool of the outdoorsman of the latter 19th century, as opposed to Balisongs, easy to carry and well suited for tasks in the Philippines.
Guns, to pick a more down-to-earth set of tools (and even if you’re one of the Million Moms, at least hear me out), should be picked out based on primarily, how well you shoot with them. I favor revolvers, in the .45 caliber variety. My brothers find themselves performing better with the classic .45 Colt M1911A1s. Also, consider the needs. If you’re a hunter, you want a rifle, preferably powerful enough to drop the target with a single shot (never mind what they say about the accuracy of the weapon. It’s all dependent on how well you shoot with it, how much you practice. The snipers of WWII used iron sighted Springfield 30.06 rifles). If you’re mainly interested in home defense, a shotgun would be the best bet, well suited for powerful attacks at close quarters. Assault rifles should be avoided by almost everyone, not because of their legality, but because they are an attempt to create a single gun to be carried instead of handgun/rifle/machine guns, by all members of a platoon. Not as powerful as a rifle, and fully automatic weapons should be avoided by anyone who doesn’t need to create “suppression” fire. Too many people-including many cops, sadly-rely on large magazine loads and “spray-and-pray” tactics, filling the area with a large volume of lead instead of taking the time to make accurate shots. The fastest gunslingers weren’t the best, it was the ones with nerves of ice that won the day. Wyatt Earp, the famous lawman, was one of the SLOWEST draws around. He’d LET the “kid” get off that shaky first shot, while Ol’ Wyatt could take his time and make his shot perfect... anyway, a single, powerful round delivered accurately, is FAR better than a hail of lead that misses the target. Forget the M-16 and FN-FAL, and stick with something in a 12 gauge or 30.06 variety, with a .45 for backup (anything smaller rarely tends to be effective. The only virtue of the 9mm is that you can stow more ammo in the clip-which as I’ve stated, is not always a good thing). Find a gun range, rent a weapon that intrigues you, try it out to see if it fits you, and if you like it, than purchase one of your own. Even if you have no desire to shoot any living creature (like most gun owners, actually), you’ll find that any fears you may have about firearms will be greatly diminished by replacing the specter of uninformed opinion with the reality of facts and experience.
As for soap, what Zylo said is indeed true. Animals can smell soap on a person from far away. Hunters mask their scents with strange things that make them smell like deer urine, or stuff like Buck Lure, which makes them smell like does in heat. Only problem there is, you miss the shot, you have to fend of the amorous advances of an aroused stag (“no, really, I have a headache. No it’s not you, it’s me...I just don’t swing for quadrapeds...particularly male ones...) Some hardcore martial artists have taken sabbaticals into the wilderness, to practice in the midst of nature. After a few weeks, they find they can smell people fresh from the city from far away, as their senses are sharpened by their trials out in nature.
Well, on to chapter 4, where we see some new additions to the force. Some STRANGE new additions... Chapter 4