Shining Force: Chapter 4




Chapter 3

Shining Force: Chapter 4

by Archie

A peaceful looking prairie, the Pao plains. A vast stretch of gently rolling hills, with grass growing

tall and green. The grass made excellent feed for cattle and sheep, and thus, the perfect location for the Pao

nomads, a band of wandering ranchers and merchants, who lived in wagons and collapsible tents, driving

from place to place to keep the cows and sheep from overgrazing, and trading with towns on the fringes of

the plains as they passed nearby. The wagons were well kept, lending a comfortable, civilized appearance to

what might have otherwise seemed a ramshackle existance. Max quite approved.

Max wandered the "streets" of Pao, trails of beaten down grass stretching between wagons, as he

admired the vendor stalls, as indeed, all the Force had been given leave to do. Passing by one stall, he heard

"Runefaust." Naturally, he listened closer.

"General Elliotís really back?"

"Yeah! Heís supposed to be engaging some Mercí force thatís opposing Runefaust."

"Wow, I hope he sends Ďem packing!" Maxí eyebrows shot up. "God, I can still remember how he

saved us from those bandits. I donít care much for Runefaust, but when it comes to Elliot..." the voice

trailed off with a dreamy sigh.

Max pondered this for a bit. Then he decided to ponder some more, with the proper lubricant.

Spotting a tent with a tavern sign emblazoned on it, he made a beeline straight for the entrance.

The inside of the tent was lit by a large cookfire with spitted meat hanging over it, the smoke

escaping through a hole in the roof. Max stepped up to the bar. The bartender glanced at him. "You Max?"

Max nodded. "The Shining Force commander?" Max rolled his eyes.

"What did Gort and Luke do now?" he asked in a strained voice. The tavernkeeper shook his head.

"Nothing-but Iíll be keeping an eye on them, now that you warned me. That guy over in the corner

wants to talk to you." Max looked at the imposing figure hunched down at a table for two, a large chunk of

meat and mug of beer at the empty place. He nodded and went over to the table.

"Iím Max. May I sit, friend...?" Max trailed off, waiting for a name.

The armored figure nodded. "Elliot. I am pleased to meet you. Please do, enjoy." Max nodded, and

sat down. Raising the mug to Elliotís own in salute, he quaffed a sip of the bitter brew. Since the first

incident at Rindo, Max had regularly imbibed a single mug at every occasion, trying to build up a tolerance

for the foul taste, to avoid any further jibes by Mae. He now found it quite bearable, though certainly not

his favorite choice of beverage. Putting the mug down, he and Elliot gazed at each other, taking their

opponentís measure.

Elliot was of a species unknown to Max. His skin was leathery, almost a shell, with his head

festoned with spikes and two large horns jutting from the temples. A frilly beak was surrounded by a white

beard. The rest of him was hidden beneath thick armor, which he wore with ease, suggesting great strength.

His eyes were strong, yet clouded with burdens.

For his part, Elliot beheld a warrior far beyond the lanky youth who had first set out on a wagon.

Maxí facial features had finished developing into a strong face, with a firm jaw, high cheekbones, and fairly

full lips. Clear blue eyes gazed strongly from beneath a shock of light brown hair. A tall frame was

massively muscled, coated with a fine set of blued armor, with a comfortable cloak thrown over his

shoulders. All in all, quite handsome, for a human. No doubt the stuff to catch many a femaleís eye.

Elliot took a handful of nuts from a bowl and popped them into his mouth. "A true warrior. Itís

been so long since Iíve seen one."

"You are a General of Runefaust, are you not?"

Elliot snorted through his beak. "Once. Once I was a mighty General. Now, I am a monster keeper.

My ranks of proud warriors are gone, sent into the front lines to die by Darksol-" He spat the name with

venom- "and replaced by skeletons whose only talent is fear, and lizard things whose only redeeming trait

is brute strength. Stupid, unskilled, unprincipled. And my, shall we say, BROTHER generals are no better,

of late. Darksol has corrupted or betrayed them all."

Max took a hold of the roast, drawing his knife and slicing of a piece. Popping it into his mouth, he chewed

and asked, "Why are you telling me this?"

Elliot drank some more beer. "Darksol came from nowhere, and influenced our king. He told King Ramladu

that the world would be his to rule forever. And all he needed was the Legacy of the Ancients. My

Liege, once as noble as the rest of us, listened." He reached into a high necked bowl and pulled out a fistful

of live worms, snapping them up viciously. Max looked down at the delicious roast to regain his appetite.

Elliot sighed, washing the mouthful down with a swig of beer. "I hate Darksol and everything he

stands for, everything he has done. But I swore an oath, and I shall remain loyal to my king." He picked up

the worm container and poured the rest down his throat, then the beer, before standing up. "When next we

meet, Max, it will be on the battlefield."

He looked down at Maxí cool gaze. "Know this, Commander. This warfare is Darksolís doing. My

king is fully under his influence. Please, if you defeat me, free Runefaust from Darksolís clutches!"

Max nodded. "I can do no less-not after you bought me lunch," he added with a ghost of a smile. A

similar smile touched Elliotís lips. He nodded gratefully, then turned to leave. Max watched him go, then

turned his attention back to the roast.

******************************************************************************************

After wandering about for a while longer, Max found a shopkeeper in a wagon, selling swords and other

weapons. Over an hour he spent in that shop, leaving with new blades for himself and Amon and Balbaroy.

Sabres, they were called. A full three feet long, with a sharp, slightly curved blade, sharp fairly back on the

end. The thing balanced less then two inches from the guard, which was a metal bell curving over to protect

the hand, a balance designed for quick reaction and lightning slashes thrown from the wrist. He actually

cradled the blades like children, thinking happy thoughts as he searched for the birdmen to give them their

swords.

He found himself before the lead wagon, occupied by Queen Koron, a pretty little dwarf surrounded by

retainers, who graciously permitted the wagon driver to show off the "engines". "Itís a artifact of the

ancients," the driver explained, waving his hand at the controls. "Itís got as much power as 600 horses,

pulling all at once."

"How is that possible?" Max asked dubiously.

"Donít know. All I know is what my father taught me, how to control the engines, and how to repair Ďem.

No one really knows how they work anymore." A beeping noise issued forth from a console. "Ah! Powerís

up to full. Weíre ready to leave."

"Now, now," chided Koron. "We musnít leave until our guests are ready."

"Oh, itís quite all right," said Max, "I think weíre done shopping, thank you." Koron nodded, and

began issuing orders.

And within an hour, the town was gone. The tents were folded up into the wagons, the wagons tied up in a

row behind the engine, and the engine thrown into motion. Slowly at first, then with increasing speed,

the train moved out, sheep and cows moving alongside, tended by centaurs and humans on horses.

After they were gone, Max finally found Amon and Balbaroy. Specifically, he found them coming in for

a assisted landing, trying to guide Kochichi down to his first safe landing. When the old dwarf finally made

it down safely, he hopped up to Max. "It works!" he cried jubilantly, hopping up and down.

"Congratulations," murmured Max, with a grin.

"Can I come with you? I want to fight those Runefaust beasties that put me in those mines!" Max laughed

and nodded, and after handing a delighted pair of birdmen their new swords, sent him off to HQ.

As he trudged towards HQ himself, he found himself accosted by a muscular knight with a fleshy red nose,

the obvious result of serious and prolonged drinking. "Hey, are you Max? My name is Vankar. Did you

hear about me in Pao?" Max shook his head. "I was a guard there, but I, uh...slept on duty too much. So

they fired me. Mind if I join up with you?"

"Why would I want a guard that sleeps on duty?" Max inquired.

"Because Iím very good in a fight! Itís just sitting around being bored I canít handle. Please? Iíve even

served with the Mercenary Pelle before."

"Oh really? Tell you what. Come with me to my headquarters. If Pelle, my newest warrior, says youíre

worth hiring, Iíll let you come on board." Vankarís eyes widened, then he nodded in agreement.

Pelle admitted to having served with Vankar before, proclaiming him a competent warrior but prone to

overindulgence of drink. "Well, thatís easily solved. Gong?" And Vankar, who as a centaur stood well over

seven feet high, found himself staring... up, at a large and mean looking face. "Gong, if Vankar is found

drunk at any time save when on leave, kindly thrash him within an inch of his life."

Gongís face broke into a mishapen leer. "You got it." Vankarís red nose turned pale, along with the rest of

him. "Oh, by the way, a friend of mine from the monastery showed up just now. Síok if he tags along?"

"Let me meet him." Him, in this case, turned out to be a very large chipmunk with a helmet. "Hi there," the

thing cried, in a high pitched voice, "Iím Jogurt!"

Max looked down at the chipmunk with a bemused expression. "Uh...hi, Jogurt. So, what can you do for the

Force, that I should sign you up?"

"I was the Abbotís quartermasterís assistant! I can keep things organized!"

"Really..."

"And I can sing!" And the little guy pushed a few buttons on his helmet, and music began issuing forth

from the earpieces. Jogurt sang the lyrics in his squeaky little voice, and Max found himself smiling and

tapping his feet:

I told the witchdoctor I was in love with you

I told the witchdoctor I was in love with you

and then the witchdoctor he told me what to do

He said

chorus:

Ooh eee, ooh ah ah, ting tang, walla walla bing bang

Ooh ee ooh ah ah ting walla walla bing bang

(repeat)

You can keep your love from me just like you were a miser

and Iíll admit I wasnít very smart.

So I went out and found a guy whoís so much wiser

and he taught me the way to win your heart.

My friend the witchdoctor he told me what to say.

My friend the witchdoctor he told me what to do.

I know that youíll be mine when I say this to you.

Chorus, repeat and fade.

"All right, youíre in." Max walked off chuckling to himself.

Several hours later, after everyone had been settled in for the night, Mae came to Maxís "room". HQ for

now was a Pao tent, with cloth strung about to form perfectly functional walls. In the gentle prairie weather,

the tent was as comfortable as any house. Max was lying on his bed, reading a book.

"So whatís the plan, kid?" Mae crossed her arms and looked down at him with an inquiring gaze. Max

tossed her the book heíd been reading. "Whatís this?"

"Itís about the Guerillas."

"Gorillas?"

"No, Guerillas. Theyíre a bunch of apes who live in the jungles in a remote area of the other continent.

They few in number and like their privacy, but they keep being invaded. But they always win, no matter

how many forces get sent against them."

"And their strategy is?"

"They run. Then they fight. Then they run some more. They only fight when they have a band of enemies

outnumbered, or when they can lay a trap. They whittle away at the larger forces until itís small enough to

mop up. Most invaders withdraw long before, of course."

"Sounds like the kind of tactics to use on the prairie." Max nodded, and sat up, kicking his legs over the

side of the bed.

Standing up next to Mae, he said, "you bet. Elliot outnumbers us by about 400 troops. Lizardmen and

Skeletons, mostly, according to Amon, Balbaroy, and Kochichiís preliminary recon flights-and what

Elliot told me himself."

"WHAT?" Max filled her in on his little luncheon. "I... see," she trailed off, turning to leave with the book.

"Oh, Mae?"

"Hmm?"

"Um...Ooh ee ooh ah ah ting tang walla walla bing bang."

"What did you say?"

"Uh...never mind." Mae stared at him a bit, then turned to go. Max sat down on the bed and brooded.

Did you really think that would work? he asked himself.

******************************************************************************************

The campaign itself took months. Months of fighting, of blood spilt, enemies slain. Weary, hard months.

The Shining Force found themselves forced to loot the supply trains of Elliotís army on a regular basis,

when their supplies ran out.

Their method was simple, yet extremely dangerous. Khris would stroll down the plains with an innocent,

shepherdess-seeking-her-flock appearance, letting the enemy see her. Then, as evil-minded Lizardmen

chased her up and down the hills, laughing about the horrible things they planned to do to her, Amon,

Balbaroy, and an increasingly adept Kochichi armed with a quantity of throwing spears made a lightning

raid upon the remaining forces guarding the wagons. During the distraction, the knights would charge in and

massacre the off guard enemies. Then theyíd grab what they could and run, while reinforcements moved in.

Meanwhile, Khris would lead the guards onto a carefully chosen and prepared hill, and once they reached

the top, Anri and Tao would torch the grass, now dry and golden from the summer sun. Those lizards who

survived the flames fell prey to arrows, swords, and axes.

This changed when Max informed Khris that they would be finding an alternate plan. "Why?" she asked

petulantly.

"You mean besides the fact that theyíve probably caught on now that weíve done it three times? Iíve

decided Iím not going to risk you like that anymore."

"You risk us all in battle all the time!"

"Yah. But thatís different. Those lizardmen arenít going to just kill you, not right away, at least. Iíll find

another way to get us some food."

Mae broke in. "Max, youíre an idiot." Max turned on her with clenched fists.

"Why? Because I donít want a friend getting hurt?" Mae yawned and arched one eyebrow in a manner sheíd

not used on him in some time.

"No. Because youíve forgotten about that Egress spell of yours." Max stared at her a moment.

"Acts of courage and prowess galore. Danger beyond belief," he whispered. "And none of it

NECESSARY!" He screamed this last out in a roar of frustration, then went to grab some gold and

teleport to Rindo, head to the grocerís, and buy most of it.

Dinner that night, though more abundant then in months, proved a somewhat subdued affair...

******************************************************************************************

Elliot sat in his tent, brooding to himself. For months he had pitted his forces against the Shining Force. For

months, hulking lizardmen and terrible skeletal warriors had engaged a troop that was never where it

seemed, that struck without warning then vanished into the prairie, hiding with the aid of the deceptively

gently sloping hills, that gently sloped to heights sufficient to provide concealment as effective as any

forest. Pegasus knights, the once noble and proud elite air forces of the military(now simply proud), would

scout the plains. Each time they found the SFHQ, the ĎForceís own air contingent would engage his forces,

aided by ground attacks in the form of sniperís arrows, and magic spells. The air division grew smaller after

each engagement, retreating in disarray as Max called for immediate movement of the base to another

location. Only scraps and bits of information could be gleaned from the knights, who, despite obvious

exaggeration of the warriors whoíd fended them off, still managed to convince him that the Sky Warriors

were quite skilled, and that the magicians were surprisingly powerful. One magician had even acquired the

ability to freeze the air, a devastating power when applied to winged adversaries such as he could apply.

Now, he was down to a pitiful remnant of his army. Refusing to call for reinforcements, which would have

entailed begging from...Darksol, the 400+ troop had dwindled to attrition and desertion. Good riddance to

the lot of them, he thought bitterly, he thought once more about his old comrades, soldiers worthy of the

name, whoíd fought battles with courage and honor, who fought hard, partied hard, and always maintained

faith in their King, now Emperor, Ramladu. My king, why have you abandoned us? he wondered silently.

Rising up from his chair, he stepped out into the prairie, disgustingly bright and cheery looking to one in his

mood. His second in command, a centaur Knight with a nasty attitude and worse habits, stepped up.

"Commander," he said, with a salute and tone that were almost subordinate.

Elliot barely glanced at him. "Your armourís rusty, lieutenant," he noted.

"Sir, I rather think we have worse problems-"

"Like officers providing a poor example to the men?" Elliot turned and fixed the full force of his command

presence upon the aide. The knight, despite being several inches taller than his C.O., suddenly felt

diminutive. "Clean yourself up, or Iíll kill you myself."

"yessir." The knight began to back up hastily. Elliot watched him leave, then dove out of the way an instant

before a throwing spear thudded into the turf upon which he had been standing. Rolling to his feet and

drawing his sabre, he turned aside a second spear with his metal shield. He watched the birdmen and that

amazing flying dwarf turn what remained of his command into a bedlam. Then a charge of well coordinated

knights moved in, and the remaining lizards and undead ran, all their bravado of earlier times forgotten.

"Hello, Elliot." Elliot wheeled around to face his rival.

"Hello, Max." They faced each other cooly, their eyes speaking volumes.

"Youíve lost."

"I know."

"Surrender. Join us."

Elliot shook his head. "I still have a job to do." He inhaled through his beak, then raised his sword in salute.

"For PROTECTORA!" He roared, "and King Ramladu!"

Max saluted in turn. "Stay out of this, Mae." And Mae skidded to a halt, then backed away to watch from a

polite distance.

They advanced on each other, swords gently swaying, moving in gentle patterns to conceal an attack. Max

suddenly swiped out with a slash attack. Elliot parried and riposted. Max countered again. Elliot parried,

bound, and shoved, knocking Max to his feet. Max quickly rolled away from the downward chop and

tripped up Elliot with his feet, knocking him down. They both rolled up to their feet and resumed.

And so it went, for many long minutes. Their armour turned aside glancing attacks that made it past their

defenses, and sweat streamed past the metal circlet Max wore as a headband and the metal helmet that

covered Elliotís head, with holes allowing his largest two horns to pass through and a high crown to allow

space for his smaller spikes. Elliot was obviously the greater in skill, but Max was his equal in strength,

while the General fought with a heavy heart, his swings slowed by his internal conflict.

The end was as quick as it was unexpected. Advancing in, Max slipped on a patch of turf, the grass sliding

away in a large clump. Elliotís blade slid home, running into the humanís abdomen. Max gasped, then

gritted his teeth. The ring on his hand flashed, a glow infusing his body, and then he slashed out with his

own blade, catching Elliotís arm at the elbow joint and...disarming him.

Green ichor spewed from the stump, as Elliot fell back onto his haunches. "My kind canít survive a wound

like this," he gasped, "our exoskeletons donít close up the way your skins do." Max dropped his own blade

and slumped down next to him.

"Youíll survive your wound," Elliot whispered, "I know it."

Max nodded. "I skipped breakfast. My guts wonít have been contaminated. What hurts more, is that you let

me win."

"No..."

"I couldnít have beaten you if youíd tried. You fought to lose. You wanted to die at my hands."

Elliot stared at him a moment, then nodded. "They were my command...no matter their flaws... I could do

no less." He gulped, then looked up at Max. "Perhaps you have the strength to rescue King Ramladu and

Runefaust! Stop Darksol! Promise that you will free Runefaust, known as Protectora before Darksol

came..."

"A noble name."

"It was... a noble... king...dom..." Elliotís eyes glazed over, as the last of his life fluids leaked out through

his arm.

******************************************************************************************

Later, that evening, Max reclined in a tent at Pao town, which had staked out nearby, while Khris and Lowe

worked on his terrible wound. "Youíre lucky, Max," Lowe told him. "An inch to the right and two up, and

the wound would have punctured the lower part of the heart. Youíd have bled to death with Elliot. You

were very lucky, indeed. Iíd avoid those honorable duels in the future."

"Elliot deserved it," Max said, sipping his beer from a tankard Lowe had pressed into his hands, both for

itís anesthetic qualities and to restore the lost fluids. "After the disgrace we gave him, I owed him a clean

death." He took another draught. "My woundís not down there, Khris."

"You wouldnít be saying that if Lowe werenít here too," she noted with a pouty look.

"Youíre probably right," Max cheerfully agreed.

A young man burst into the tent, shouting out in an angry manner, "Murderer!"

Naturally, this brought the rest of the team running. The young man pointed at Max, screaming, "you killed

Elliot!"

"Yes." Max eyed the lad cooly.

"Youíll pay, monster!" The boy drew a sword. Then he found himself facing a host of blades and

bludgeons.

"Stop!" Max cried, as a part of his brain noted in passing, Iíve become an untouchable*. He waved the

team aside, then looked at the boy closely. "Elliot was a good man. After I routed his forces, I offered him a

place with the Shining Force. He refused."

"Elliot was our champion. He protected us all."

"I wonít apologize for killing him, boy. Neither will I brag." Max suddenly felt old, as though he were

looking at his younger self, grieving for Sir Varios. "This has been a very long summer, and a very hard

one. I am tired and in pain, and I regret Elliotís death as much as you. I suggest you leave. Your people will

need every sword hand they can get, from now on. You are Paoís defender now, so go away and practice

somewhere. I have a promise to keep-one I made to Elliot."

The boy glared at Max a moment longer, but the heat was gone from his expression. Unable to keep his self

righteous anger in the face of an adversary who refused to be a monster, and the beginnings of a realization

that the world was startlingly lacking in absolutes, he left, his head bowed with grief and troubled thoughts.

Max lay his head back against a pillow. "Damn," he whispered. "God, please let him become the champion

these people need. Donít let them suffer as well." He closed his eyes, and Lowe and Khris continued their

work on his wound.

Sleep came shortly.

******************************************************************************************

The next day, Max and Mae walked about the town, enjoying a quiet moment together, as Max forced

himself to cheer up. At his direction, Gort, Gong, and Balbaroy had led volunteers from Pao in a training

session, teaching them drills to practice to give them the skills theyíd need to protect themselves. God helps

those who help themselves, Max reasoned, deciding that his prayer for the rambunctious young man would

be more likely to be answered if he did something to meet the Supreme C.O. halfway.

"Hey, check it out!" cried a shephard, who came running up. "Thereís a big hunk of iron, shooting steam

and walking all over the place. Itís in the sheep pens!"

Max and Mae looked at each other. "It couldnít-" Mae began.

"It probably is." And they went off to say hello.

Another shepherd was trying to calm the frightened sheep in the presence of the armored elf. "Hey! Good to

see you again! Itís me, Guntz from Rindo!"

"We remember you, Guntz," Max smiled.

"Look at this steam suit!" And Guntz began moving about, his bulky frame moving with surprising speed

and obvious power. He walked about with a kind of clumsy grace. "Look at these moves! The olí Doc

finally got it working!"

"Howíd you get here ahead of us?"

"I was told youíve been running around all summer. I just started running. Itís almost effortless in this suit.

When I got hungry, I ate. When I was tired, I slept. I just kept running. Put some lumber into the furnace,

some wild roots in the belly, and I just kept moving. The Doc wanted me to sign up with you guys, show off

his work. And I want to help you fight Runefaust!"

"Ok." Mae took Guntz by the arm and led him over to the training session, to put him through his paces and

gain his measure. Max chuckled to himself, feeling much better, then moved on.

At one of the shopping tents, he met a man with a strange device. "Whatís this?" He asked.

"This device can hatch any egg in mere seconds, guaranteed! Chicken eggs, Dragon eggs, Easter eggs, the

handy dandy egg incubation enhancement device can hatch Ďem all-"

"Even a Domingo egg?" Max asked.

"Even a- Domingo egg?" Max handed the man a large egg, somewhat bigger than a henís egg, with a

silvery, translucent shell, a red light softly pulsating within.

"Where did you get THAT?" the salesman asked wonderingly.

"Manarina. I was told to keep it until I found a use for it. Maybe this is it."

"No charge. Iíll hatch that baby for free." And the baby was promptly decanted. As Max and the salesman

watched with wonder, then astonishment, the shell itself began to slowly soften, rather then break, then

unfold, as a purple thing with a mass of softly waving tentacles pushed itís way partly out of what had been

the shell. Then, halting itís escape, the white goop that had been protective shell settled on top of the

creatureís head in the form of a white turban, cocked rakishly to one side. A pseudopod extruded from the

turban, waving at them slowly in greetings. Then the thing actually began to levitate up, and fixed two large

squidís eyes, set in binocular arrangement, upon them. "What is that thing?" The salesman gasped.

"Thing indeed!" The creature cried out, in an indignant voice, high pitched and squeaky, issuing forth from

somewhere within itís tentacles. "Iím Domingo, at your service."

"Iím Max."

"I know. I could hear everything while you carried me." Domingo hovered closer. "Your heartbeat spoke to

mine, your words were my lessons, your deeds my example. I will fight at your side, Commander." The

words, despite the almost ridiculously high pitch, were simple yet elegant, and obviously heartfelt. Max

nodded and stepped forward, waving a hand for Domingo to follow. "By the way, thanks for hatching me!"

"It was either that or fry you, and I didnít think that was the use the old mage intended."

"You would have eaten me?" Domingo asked in a small voice.

"That was a joke, kid. No oneís going to eat you. And speaking of food, letís go get something to fill our

own stomachs. Uh, you do have a stomach, donít you?"

"Close enough."

The newly hatched creature turned out to be quite carnivorous, ingesting quite a large quantity of fresh, raw

lamb. Max insisted on the tender cuts rather than mutton, not sure what the hatchling required in terms of

nourishment, edible or otherwise. Fortunately, the little thing was highly intelligent, if immature physically

and emotionally, and easily fed itself, growing silvery white blades and prongs to cut the meat and insert it

into a space on itís underside, where a snapping sound told Max that a powerful beak lay hidden.

"How am I supposed to treat you, Domingo?" Max asked, as he savored his own lamb, grilled to perfection

on metal skewers.

"Iím a mage. I can cast spells with Anri and Tao."

"I meant as a creature, not as a soldier. How long are you a child, what do I need to do for you. Do you

need hugs, do you need regular feedings...?"

"I will function best with quantities such as I have just consumed three times a day. As I grow older, I will

need more food, but less frequently. And we all need affection. Why have you not told Mae of yours?"

Max choked on his meat a moment, before pounding himself in the stomach to cough up the chunk of flesh.

"I heard everything you and those around you said, Max. I know how you both feel."

Max sat perfectly still a moment. "How does...she feel?"

"The same way." Domingo peered at him closely. "Couldnít you tell?"

"I...wasnít sure." Max popped the meat back into his mouth, chewed it thoroughly before swallowing. "I

will try to treat you as my child, if you like. Would you like that?"

"Yes." Domingo gave the impression of a happy expression, though he had no mouth to smile with.

After lunch, Max and his newly adopted kid went to see Queen Koron. "Before he left, Elliot asked me to

give you a message," Koron said over tea, after Max had told her of Elliotís end and offered his

condolences.

Domingo hovered over a glass of water, then slowly sank down. When he raised up, the glass was empty.

"Prompt is a nation across the sea, on the other continent. There you may find people who know much of

the Ancients."

"Do you know anything about it?"

"Only what Elliot told me. He did say that Darksol despised Prompt, which he felt spoke highly of itís

people and rulers." Max smiled.

"He would. I promised him Iíd free Runefaust from Darksolís clutches. I intend to keep that promise."

"I know you will, Commander."

"Your Majesty!" A guard came running up. "Earnest has left for Uranbatol!"

"What? Oh, no!" Koron was quite distraught.

"Whatís wrong?" asked Max.

"Earnest was a warrior in our service. Balbazak, the commander of Uranbatolís forces, murdered his family.

He must have decided that he could kill Balbazak now that Elliotís not there to help him!"

"What forces does Balbazak have?"

"Disgusting creatures. Elliot called himself a monster keeper. Balbazakís a zoo keeper. Hellhounds, Bats,

and sentient beings even more repulsive then the ones Elliot had to make do with."

"Donít worry. Iíll deal with Balbazak."

"What about Earnest?"

"I...canít promise anything. If heís alive when I find him, heíll stay alive. It all depends on how good-and

how impulsive-he really is."

Max turned to leave. "Wait!" called Koron. Max turned back. "Take this. Itís one of the finer pieces weíve

come across. Please, it might come in handy." Max gazed admiringly upon the piece in question, a straight,

double edged blade a full three feet long. He held it up, getting a feel for the balance. More than three

inches from the hilt, and almost two pounds in total weight, it was obviously made for powerful cuts.

Fortunately, Maxí enhanced muscles were well up to the task of wielding such a blade with the speed and

grace of his fighting style. It was the steel, however, that really caught Maxí eye.

"Watered steel," Max murmured. A piece of soft, malleable metal bonded to a piece of hard, rigid material,

the combined stock was then stretched and folded, stretched and folded, until the smith was left with a

would-be blade composed of thousands of layers blended together, forming a pattern like water waves,

rippling across itís length. Making for a blade both strong and hard, allowing it to retain a sabreís sharp

edge, and flexible and resiliant, allowing it to absorb the shock of a hard cut or parry without shattering.

"Thank you."

******************************************************************************************

The city of Uranbatol was fenced in by high walls of solid mortar and stone. Emphasis on the word WASł

after Guntz displayed his armourís devestating strength and itís myriad uses, as the enhanced elf firmly

gripped a large tree trunk felled by Gort and Luke, and with Max and Gong supporting itís bulk, then

charged full tilt at the front gates, smashing them to bits, along with much of the supporting walls, and clear

through the second set of gates as well. Guntz then dropped his battering ram along with Gong and Max,

and the fighting began in earnest.

Interestingly, the forces defending Balbazak were all quite inferior to Elliotís, save for the Hellhounds.

Nasty, two headed dogs, whose bark, not to mention their fiery breath, was considerably worse than their

bite. However, flame breath does not make a creature unbeatable by any means, particularly when the flesh

is subject to all the mortal failings, such as the tendency to yield to sharp edged metal. In no time at all, the

Shining Force, with practiced ease and coordinated skill gleaned through long months of experience, had

made their way into the inner chambers of the fortress walls.

Making his way with sword in hand, Max finally found a battle weary knight doing battle with a particularly

nasty hellhound. Despite the monster adding to his already numerous and grievous wounds, the knight

managed to slay it with a steel tipped spear through the heart. Clutching his hand to his scorched armour,

the flesh beneath seared and blackened, he gasped out, "Now if I can... just find... Balbazak... before I die,"

"Iím afraid thatís not on the game plan," Max said, stepping forth.

"Back off, or...itís you! What do you want?"

"Queen Koron asked me to keep you from getting killed. Plus I need a ship, and I kind of figured Iíd take

one from Balbazak. Khris..." and the elf girl came up to the knight, and laid her hands on his side, beginning

the healing process.

"Aye...letís join forces. We can help each other out." Max nodded in agreement.

"If you fight like this all the time, I certainly think so."

Earnest turned to point at the wall, then stopped. "The secret door vanished. But I wonít let that stop me!

Back away, girl!" And the knight charged full tilt at the wall smashing his shield into the wall with full

force-then bounced off, stumbling. "Charge!" and again, he charged in, this time successfully smashing

through the hidden door to reveal the way beyond. "I really... could use some...rest," and with that, Earnest

passed out.

As Gong and Lowe moved in to help Khris with the fallen knight, Max moved through the portal, muttering

to himself. "I donít have the heart to tell him Guntz could have done that without breaking a sweat..."

******************************************************************************************

Balbazak lay holed up within the harbor, surrounded by a force of his finest. Seabats, mammalian

equivalents of the albatross, only larger. Hellhounds en mass. Artillery. Knights. Even an evil puppet on

loan from Mishaela. These were his finest. Finest being relative to the forces of Balbazak, rather than the

forces of Elliot, however, meant that these creatures quickly fell in short order. Balbazak was not a

gentleman, so Max did not treat him like one, abstaining from swordplay itself in favor of knocking him

down and working him good with fists and feet. Finally, Balbazak stopped whining incoherently long

enough to offer Max his choice of ships. Max agreed.

Then a dark cloud descended. Dark, meaning Darksol. Balbazak whined even more piteously at the

presence of his masterís ethereal projection than at the solid form of Max. Darksol was not half as forgiving

as Max.

As Balbazak lay dying, his heart burst into pieces from Darksolís spell, he managed to gasp out, "Elliot...at

least you remained pure... Max!" he siezed Maxí ankle in a strong grip, and in a voice somehow cleansed of

his earlier whining, he gasped out, "kill Darksol...free Runefaust...Protectora..."

Darksolís mocking laughter sent Balbazakís soul into the hereafter. "Yes, Max! Take the ship, as that fool

said! You will not survive the voyage. Ha, ha, ha!" And the presence faded away, laughing derisively.

Max stood there a moment, when a thought occured to him, which vastly cheered him up. He wouldnít have

said that if he had the power to toast ME, as the sight of Balbazak spasming when his heart exploded

played once again across his eyelids, We may still be the underdogs, but the odds on the home team just

went up a notch.

He turned to look for Domingo. "Hey kiddo. Where are you, Domingo?"

"Right over here, finishing up a meal." Max turned and looked. It wasnít a seabat the kid was eating.

As the other ĎForce members began retching, Max swallowed with an effort and said, "Um, could

you...NOT, eat sentient beings, son?"

"Why? Itís not like Iím eating a friend?"

"We donít eat creatures as smart as we are, Domingo. Try to understand that."

"So what are you going to do with all this meat then?" Max opened his mouth, then shut it, trying to figure

out how to explain THAT one...

******************************************************************************************

Many goods had been plundered and stockpiled within Uranbatolís vaults. The bulk of this was piled onto

ships. Using his Egress spell, Max shuttled crew from Guardiana to take command of the ships, setting sail

for home with comestibles, cash, and sorely missed luxuries for the beleaguered nation. When this was

done, the ĎForce stayed at Guardiana at Anriís insistence, that she might plan a ceremony properly honoring

them. Fortunately for all concerned, the speeches were kept to a bare minimum.

First, came the dubbing of the knights. Each of the centaurs was granted the title of Paladin, a champion of

the light, and given a new set of arms. For Mae, a blood red shield. For Pelle, a dark green. Vankar, a

brown. Ken, Blue. Arthur, the pale blue associated with magical auras, which Anri thought appropriate

given Arthurís demonstrated ability to perform parlor tricks, like simple telekinesis and lighting candles,

which heíd picked up during his stint in Manarina. Earnest, meanwhile, had been given a shield of polished

ebon, befitting a brooding "black knight." It went off quite nicely with the large scar on his face, the remnant of his wounds that even Lowe and Khris working with Gong in unison could not entirely erase.

Next, came the priesthood. The Abbot himself performed the ceremonies, elevating Lowe and Khris within

the ranks of the priesthood, draping the robes of a Vicar upon each of them. "With your new rank comes

new power, and new responsibility. Never flag in your devotions, to your flock or to your Lord," intoned

the Abbot. Repeatedly.

Gort and Luke were titled as Gladiators, an ancient term referring to professional warriors who fought in

arenas, a description alluding to the pairís penchant for fistfights and brawling. And so on, down the line.

But it was Max who faced the most uncomfortable title of all. As he knelt in homage to his liege, who stood

before him in robes suited for both wizard and queen, of soft black velvet, and dubbed him, "Hero."

Great. Now sheíll be calling me, "My Hero" every chance she gets. "Now, my Hero," called Anri, as she

bade him stand, "let us retire to the feasting hall." See what I mean?

And so the entire Shining Force traveled to the feasting halls of the castle, and the meal began in earnest.

When due service had been paid to several roasted seabats and assorted delicacies, Gort raised up a tankard

of ale. "To the Shining Force!"

"To the Shining Force!" and all assembled drank to that.

"To Max, our Commander!" and the mugs were raised to cries of "To Max!" and drained again.

"To Anri, long live the Queen!"

"To Pelle!" "To Ken!" "To Mae..." Things all became very blurry after that...

******************************************************************************************

Why does my head hurt?

Because we drank to much last night. Also, weíve fallen off the hay.

Oh.

Why are we laying in hay? Max sat up. He then fell back down, clutching his head and moaning piteously,

as he tried to take stock of his surroundings. A centaurís chambers. Obviously not used in some time. The

curios and personal items were that of a young femaleís. Huh?

Maeís gonna KILL me if she finds me in her room!

Too late. And Mae stepped into the room, then looked down at Max with an expression his befuddled mind

could not immediately discern. Then, surprising him, she handed him a large mug of water. "Drink this. It

will help the dehydration." Max sipped slowly, letting the water rehydrate him and ease the headache and

sore throat. As he did so, Mae lay down next to him, and wrapped her arms around him lovingly, laying her

head on his shoulder.

Wait a minute. Since when does she... Max sniffed, getting a good whiff of what odors remained of last

night. Beyond the scent of stale sweat and such as one might expect of people recovering from a hangover,

there was something...else. Mae lifted up her head, tilting it towards him for a kiss.

Oh, my.

*****************************************End of Part 4*************************************

Authorís note: Howís that for a cliffhanger?

The asterisk- thatís this guy here, *, denotes a term not many may be familiar with. It was coined by Marc

"Animal" Macyoung, a professional security specialist who writes books on self defense, not so much how

to win in hostile situations, as how to avoid or escape from them. In his excellent text on "Street Etiquette,"

Mr. Macyoung describes a group called "Untouchables," people who, before you can fight them, you must

literally fight everyone else in the room. He divided them into four groups, Musicians, Healers,

Priests/Magicians, and Leaders. The first three I doubt I need to explain(can you imagine punching a priest

of...ANY religion, in the face?). But leaders come in two kinds. Thereís the kind assigned to you by fate,

luck, or the Power That Be(PTB). If someone attacks him, his subordinates will stand up to help him fight.

But an "untouchable" leader, on the other hand, will never get a chance to fight, because his fanatically

loyal team will have taken care of it first. Marc describes a particularly poignant example, where a soldier

threatening the life of pilot of a gunship crew suddenly found himself standing in the open door of his own

gunship, staring straight at the gunner of said pilotís gunship, who promptly aimed his mounted machine

gun at his erstwhile comrade and blew him away. Marc stated that this was perfectly understandable, and

that when the soldier, who was known to be a killer, had threatened the pilot, whose comrades knew they

could trust with their lives, he had literally signed his own death warrant. His work makes for some truly

FASCINATING reading. Iíve yet to read a word heís written I could truly disagree with, save for the word,

"four."(I think a fifth should be added, "Mascot." Thatís the kid brother that everyone looks out for.)

Command Presence? People who are accustomed to command have a way of carrying themselves, an

"aura", if you will, that makes their subordinates more likely to obey them. Itís a variation on the "self-

confident" walk that self defense experts advise one to comport oneself with. Unfortunately, you canít just

choose to walk that way, you have to actually build up your confidence in yourself and your abilities. Thatís

why no half hour seminar can compare with several years of martial training under a competent instructor.

You donít just learn how to punch and kick, you attain the confidence and subtle mentle training needed to

avoid a fight to begin with. Do you really think real martial artists get into fights constantly as portrayed on

TV? I mean, after all, just look at how these guys portray "competent" gun fighters, guys with bad attitudes,

violating every rule of gun safety with weapons that never run out of ammo or jam unless absolutely

convienient.

I chose to make Domingoís relationship with Max be that of foster parent/big brother, since after all, Max

DID hatch him out. I rather did wonder about a new hatchling being sent straight into battle. The creature,

of course, being not only inhuman, but nonhumanoid, has difficulty with the generally accepted social

mores that bind together their truly "multiracial" society. In the next chapter, Max will take some flak over

that. Youíll note the lunch meeting with Elliot, where Max and the General are able to share a meal, despite

the fact that Maxí meat was as repulsive to the General as worms were to Max. Itís all about courtesy,

etiquette. Max would have been fully prepared to choke down a worm for the sake of politeness, save that

Elliot ordered a preferable luncheon platter out of a similar sense of courtesy. Remember that word. Itís the

lubricant that allows our society to function. Itís not about how many forks go on the left or how many

fingers you use to gently grasp the stem of the wineglass. Itís showing consideration for those around you,

and without it...

Dave Seville, of Chipminks fame, was a real person, a musician in fact, who siezed upon the idea of

distorting his own voice, then making it appear that a bunch of hand puppets were doing his singing for him, with a slapstick comedy routine. In his first appearance on TV, he "barely" manages to stop Alvin from

braining the host with a large wooden mallet, as TV audiences for the first time heard the panicked scream, "Aaaalllviiiiinn!" Followed by Daveís own written song, "Witchdocter." And with Jogurt, I just couldnít resist the urge to have him be a Chipmunk.

A note on Religion. If I offend, please take it in stride. If you are Atheist, Iím reform Jew. That means Iím

Jewish, but Iím not obsessed with my culture, nor do I claim that history began and ended with the

holocaust, which excuses any misdeeds that the State of Israel might choose to make, purely in the interests of defending itself against the Muslim threat(proactively), of course... If youíre religious, I believe God has

a sense of humor, and we are his punch lines. So try to laugh, and please donít point out any errors in the SF

storylineís Church, which is nonsectarian, uninterested in missionary work, and whose priests are "cash for

service rendered" sorts. That means they worship God, gain power, tend to flock, get money, flock worships

God, everyone goes home happy. That might sound cynical, but not to me. Jews invented Haggling(and

guilt, hypocrisy, martyrdom, and usury, while we were at it). So thereís no real life saints invoked, no

Triumvirate, no carpenter turned rabbi nailed to a cross for suggesting that the Emperor might not be a

Living God.

And if youíre ambivalent on this, please donít wonder why I felt the need to go to the trouble of stating all

this. People, even today, tend to kill each other over such trivial matters as how best to worship God. I write

these stories for the enjoyment of all, so please enjoy, and if I offend, just let it slide, and keep on reading.

As for sexuality, well, yes, the issue itself will start to become more predominant. However, the way in

which I handle it, through allusion, innuendo, and off screen scenes that "somehow" never made it into the

final cut, will continue. If youíre old enough to play the games without damaging your psyche, you should

be able to handle my stories. And hopefully, youíll enjoy them.

Chapter 5