Shining Force: Chapter 6




Chapter 5

I run as fast as I can, trying to reach her. Too late. An explosion sends her flying, her body falls to the

ground limply. My heart falls to the ground beside her...

...I cannot do a thing. I cannot fly. I can only watch, as he falls into the sea, his shattered flight pack

pulling him beneath the waves...

...He clutches the stump where his hand was, and collapses next to me. I respected him like only one other

man, a person whoís pain and grief rent my heart, and I killed him...

..His body collapses to the ground lifelessly, the darkness tearing away his life force. A mask of living iron

laughs triumphantly as he kills my friend, my mentor, my father and my soul...

...A thousand wounds and deaths. Friends lost. Living, intelligent warriors dying under my blade, their

blood covering me, their dead eyes haunting me, I killed them, their friends will kill my friends...

...Will kill my friends...

...Will kill my friends....

"NO!" Max lurched up, sitting up in bed. His eyes darted about, wide in terror, drenched in sweat. A pair of

arms immediately moved around him, and he clung to Mae, shaking from the nightmare. He swallowed

heavily, and his breathing slowed with effort. "Where...?" he finally asked.

"Weíre in a town called Rudo. Youíve been unconscious for many days." Mae swallowed with relief at his

revival. "Amon and Balbaroy found this place, and Kochichi... pulled us here, with his new flight pack."

Max pursed his lips. "Itís that powerful?"

"Youíll see for yourself. The, uh, village leader wants to speak with you, when youíre ready." Max nodded.

And a little girl walked in. Maxí first thought was. I must have been hit in the head pretty damned hard. He

blinked. Nope, sheís still a kid. 12 years old, about, with a serious expression on her pretty little face. "Hi,

Iím Karin."

"Is this a joke?" Max blurted out. The little girl stamped her foot.

"No, itís not! Itís just us kids here, and Iím the town leader."

"How-?" Mae squeezed him gently, and he subsided.

"We need your help. To the east is the town of Dragonia. The Runefaust army is near Dragonia. But Bleu is

all alone in the village. And heís our friend, a baby Sacred Dragon. Youíre supposed to be the Shining

Force that has Runefaust so scared. Please help Dragonia and Bleu!"

"Weíll be glad to," Max assured her. "Though..." and he tried to get to his feet, falling back into bed

heavily, too weak to stand.

"Max needs time to recuperate," Mae explained to Karin. "Weíll go as soon as heís recovered."

"No." Max sighed. "Youíll lead the team to Dragonia yourself. Gong and Kochichi will stay with me here.

Gong can help with rehabiliation, Kochichi can fly me there when Iím ready." Mae stared at him.

"Me? Lead the team?" Max nodded.

"You are my lieutenant, my second in command. I trust you with my life, my friendsí lives," he reached for

her hand, "and my heart." Maeís eyes became huge and round, shimmering with tears, and she returned his

squeeze.

"Iíll make preparations." Mae turned to leave. Max watched her go, then closed his eyes and let sleep claim

him.

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Max trembled with fatigue, lying on the ground exhausted. Gong kneeled next to him, letting his magic

course through Maxí body. For an hour, heíd engaged in slow motion drills, moving in prearranged forms

that Gong set out for him, warming up his muscles. Then, an hour of stretching. Painful, difficult stretching,

as his chest, arms, and legs fought to resist the attempts to increase his atrophied flexibility. The scars left

on his body by the gargoyleís raking wounds pulled taught over his muscles. Then a half hour of strength

training. Here, his body had not failed, his eldritch strength still with him. Calisthenics while wearing his

armour, lifting heavy objects, even resistance training, pitting his muscles in the effort to bend or straighten

against Gongís efforts to keep the joint straight or bent. Finally, high impact aerobics, striking a heavy

canvass bag filled with sand with fists wrapped in protective bandages, until he finally collapsed from the

effort. Gong now finished his healing efforts and began to massage Maxí body, beginning with his calves,

and working his way up.

For a week now, heíd been practicing like this. One day of such effort, followed by a day of forms,

stretching, and walking. Gong also forced him to spend ten hours a night in bed, sleeping. Before this, he

had endured two weeks of six hours of swimming in the ocean, followed by an intensive infusion of healing

magic, then ordinary massage, kneading the muscles like bread dough, Max grunting in agony as Gongís

powerful hands found knots of tension and sensitive nerve endings-and completely destroyed them. After

Gong finished, however, Max always felt far more relaxed and at ease-though he secretly suspected that that

was due more to the relief at the cessation of physical pain than actual therapeutic effect.

Meals were plain cereals, breads, and grains for energy in the morning, fruits in the midday, lean meats in

the evening. And throughout the day, plenty of fluids, cups of warm water throughout the training, hot green

tea made with healing herbs such as ginseng with his meals, and in the evenings, his meat was accompanied

by chicken soup, made with thick chunks of meat, carrots, celery, and a dumpling made with ground cracker

meal, called a "Matzah Ball." "Theyíre the secret in the magic," Gong explained. "You put all the

ingredients together, and they make powerful long term healing medicine."

"How?"

"Dunno. They just do, I guess. Something in the chicken, something in the veggies, the balls, all mix

together, and it makes you feel better. It was the Abbotís specialty for treating colds and flu."

Maxí walks took him about the village, and he got to know the children that lived in the village. From his

conversations with them, he gather that they had had a huge fight with the adults of the community, the

children wanting to help Bleu in Dragonia, the adults more interested in day to day needs. So the children

actually built a barricade, keeping the adults out, and were taking care of themselves with surprising

maturity and ability. Fishing, vegetable gardens, and trading with befuddled merchants who had come

expecting to deal with adults kept them fed. Some of the children were responsible for keeping clothing

clean and mended. Others worked the gardens, or used fishing rods with amazing skill to catch enough to

feed the entire community.

Krin, Karinís sister, keeper of a hellhound named Brit, was in charge of keeping the town library, and

gladly shared important lore with Max. "The Manual of the Seal is a book that contains several chants. One

of these breaks the seal on Dark Dragon, another renews the seal. The Ancients used the second chant to

bind Dark Dragon 1,000 years ago. The Manual has been guarded by the Sacred Dragons for centuries."

"How many Dragons are left?"

"Just Bleu, and heís only a baby. He canít protect the Manual on his own!"

"My team is already on the way. Iíll join them when I can." Krin nodded, and tossed Brit two large fish,

which were promtly snapped up, one in either mouth.

Max also discovered a secret: Some of the adults had snuck back into the village. "We couldnít just leave

all the children alone," an old man explained.

"How do you feel about the children pulling this stunt?"

The old man thought about it for a moment. "Proud. Theyíre standing up for what they believe in, theyíre

taking care of themselves, and theyíre even handling the merchants by themselves. We watch the whole

thing from the tower. We just wish..."

"Yes?"

"We wish theyíd let us come home. We miss them."

Max met with all the adults in the tower. Most of them were eager to speak with them, to find out what their

son or daughter had been doing that day, listening with fascination as Max tried to tell them everything they

wanted to hear.

One adult, however, was not interested in children. "Iím Lyle," explained the centaur, as he fondled a large

metal cylinder. "Used to serve under General Elliot." Max tensed. "Iíve come here because Runefaust tried

to develop a new set of weapons to use against you. I stole the prototypes, and Iíd like to serve with you."

"Even after...?" Max asked.

"Elliot sent a message to me during his campaign. I know what went on. I know heíd have wanted this."

Lyle showed Max the cylinder. "It uses an explosive charge to drive a plate forward. I load a projectile into

the front end, load the charge, then pull the trigger to strike a spark into the explosive."

"What sort of projectiles do you fire?" Lyle showed him a large quiver filled with arrows.

"I can fire off a dozen arrows at once. They were also working on other devices as well. And here," he

reached into a bag and pulled out an enormous crossbow, with a box covering the stock where the arrow

would normally be placed. "Same thing, with a crossbow instead of a bazooka. It can fire off a dozen

arrows, or a large, heavy object." Max nodded, and held out his hand to shake. Lyle took it and thus joined

the Shining Force.

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

After a month of therapy, Gong pronounced Max fit for travel, but not combat. Max nodded, and turned to

Kochichi for the means of rapid transport. Kochichi went into his quarters to fetch his new flight pack-and

came out in a suit of plated armour, with an even stranger backpack then before, with nary a wing in sight!

Max looked him up and down, then waited for an explanation.

"I got the idea when I saw Guntzí steam engine. Iíve got a variation of the specialty brew that Gort and

Luke made up a while back."

"You mean the one that peels varnish if you spill it onto a countertop?"

"Thatís the stuff. I pour it into the fuel tank here-" he pointed at the assorted locations with his lance,

"which then is fed into this part here, and mixed with air into an explosive gaseous mixture. The gas is then

fed into these large plugs here, and then a battery containing a small charge of electricity sends a spark into

each plug in sequence. The resultant little explosions cause the plugs to ram forward in turn, turning this

shaft with more power than a hundred centaurs all pulling at once."

"My god," murmured Max. "But how do you translate that into flight?" Kochichi smiled and flicked a

switch on the side, then grabbed a handle, and pulled hard. Then swore and pulled again, and again. Each

time, the engine gave a snarl, then quieted. Finally, it coughed and roared into a violently noisy life. As it

roared noisily, Kochichi tapped his covered ears, then held out a pair of wax ear plugs for Max. As Max

took them, he pulled a lever and extended a set of stirrups on levers, allowing for steering with the feet,

leaving the hands free for fighting, while simultaneously extending a very large set of twin blades high

above his head. The blades spun about, faster and faster, becoming a blur, then becoming almost invisible,

then seeming to stop entirely, as they hummed at a high number of decibels. Dust swirled up from the air,

and Kochichi lifted up in to the air like Domingo levitating up. Kochichi dropped down a harness, and Max

grabbed on, tying himself securely to Kochichi.

As they lifted off, Max waved to Lyle and Gong, who stared at each other a moment, then shrugged, and

waited for Max to reach Dragonia, then use the Egress spell to fetch the pair of them.

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

Dragonia was only a few days journey from Rudo, on foot. Longer, when one had to cleave her way through

an army of darkness with naught but guerilla tactics to even the odds. With an aerial form of transportation,

the journey over the mountainous wooded terrain was a matter of hours. Max showed up just in time to

catch Mae mopping up the last of a large camp of horrors, a force of magi and a horde of what were later

described by Anri as Golems, captive spirits housed within a large mass of clay. Without vitals, and with

flesh that sealed up without injury, the golems had proven a sticky point. "Kane didnít seem to feel he

needed anything else with them here. Tao came up with the idea of baking their clay, and I set up a trap to

get them all at once. The Magi were easy to take after we shattered their overgrown pots. Darksol keeps

employing Magi with the same stupid tendencies, lots of power, no common sense or fieldcraft. Half of

them responded to ambushes with those spells that take half an hour of ominous chanting to cast, the rest

were too absentminded to see it coming! No, donít kiss me, Iím all sweaty and stinky." Max settled for a

firm clasping of the hands instead, before heading into Dragonia proper.

Dragonia, the ancient home of Sacred Dragons. Dragonia, seemingly abandoned. No dragons. No monsters.

Finally, Max encountered an old friend. "Bokken!" Max cried.

"Max! Hi again! This is Dragonia, so where are all the dragons?" Max grabbed him and pulled him along,

as Bokken gave a startled cry.

"Never mind the dragons, Runefaustís army is here, led by Kane himself! Ah, Zylo," he pulled Bokken in

front of him, to the silently stalking War Wolf, "get Bokken to safety in our camp. Heís a friend, not a

prisoner of war, mind you." Zylo nodded, and motioned for the bemused traveler to follow him.

After further searching, he finally discovered Bleuís home, by dint of discovery of his motherís journals.

Poring through them momentarily discovered the secret passage in the back of the house. Not to mention an

attractive new blade to work with. Large enough handle for one or two hands, with a heavy cleaver edged

blade two inches wide, heavy enough to chop through just about anything, with a swelling of the forte into a

three inch wide section, with no edge at all, for parries. He slung the sheath over his shoulder as he

continued on through the passage.

Behind the passage, he found a hidden warehouse. Inside, he found Bleu. Cute enough, for a six foot long

lizard with wings, the baby dragon shivered in fear at Maxí approach. Backing away fearfully, he cried out,

"Hey, go away!"

"Iím here to help, Bleu..." Max called as Bleu turned and ran off into the interior of the warehouse. "Bleu,

Iím a friend, wait..."

"I donít want to fight, OK? Just go away!" The dragon cowered behind a stack of crates, hiding his face

under his tail.

"Bleu!" Max turned to see Karin come running up. She smacked Bleu on his nose, with a light flick of her

wrist. "This person is our friend. Heís here to help! Stop being such a baby!"

Bleu cried and whined, "Oh Karin, you are so mean!" He snuffled and rubbed his nose, then ran away

deeper into the warehouse. "Just leave me alone!"

"I flew here with Domingo, when he came back to Rudo to check up on you. I was worried about Bleu, so I

decided to follow you. I really think heís hopeless. Iím so disappointed in you, Bleu!" Karin turned and

stomped off, leaving Max in the warehouse with Bleu. Then a moment later, "Help! HELP! Bleu! Max!"

"Karin!" Bleu rocketed out from his hiding place past Max, and out the door of the warehouse. Max

followed close behind. Max drew his new sword with the one hand, then drew his hideous serrated knife

with the other, ready for battle.

But not for a hostage situation. Those are always far more difficult. The creature was horrifying, a centaurís

armour, without the centaur. It just hung there in midair, all the pieces moving in coordination, as though

worn by an invisible knight. Instead of a helmet, a face was carved into the cuirass. A face which sneered

and growled, as it held a large sword at Karinís throat, "Well dragon, if you want to save this girl, open that

shrine door!"

Karin jerked her head free of the creatureís restraining gauntlet, and cried out, "Bleu, donít listen to him!

Remember that youíre a Sacred Dragon!" The creature snarled and shoved the poor girl aside. Karin

slammed into the far wall and collapsed.

"Karin! No!" Bleu stepped forward, tears of terror replaced by tears of rage.

The monster stared down contemptuously at the little dragon. "Oh, I agree, that was simply terrible of me.

And what are you going to DO about it, crybaby dragon?"

Bleu showed him.

"Aaargh!" The spout of blue flames that came out of Bleuís mouth engulfed the armour, the creature

writhing in more than mere physical agony. Sacred flames, Max wondered in amazement, as the animating

spirit shriveled and died, the metal collapsing heavily. Bleu turned and ran to Karinís limp body, Max

coming up behind to help.

"Donít touch her head," Max cautioned, "Or her neck." He saw the chamber pot and scooped his hand in,

pulling out a couple fingers full of the fragrant mixture. Holding it under Karinís nose, he waited for her to

stir. "Can you feel your toes? Do you know who I am? What day is it?" Karin groggily answered each

question in the affirmative, and Max gently helped her to his feet. Bleu nuzzled her face worriedly.

"Iím OK, Bleu. Thank you. Max is the one youíve been waiting for." Bleu looked at her, then turned to

stare at Max. He looked at Maxí feet, then up, past the steel shod muscles, the heavy, well used, well cared

for blades, the strong face. Slowly, Bleu forced himself to remember and recite the words.

"Hero of Legend, Leader of the Shining Force, I am Bleugrandifichalafax, Sacred Dragon of Dragonia,

Keeper of the Manual of the Seal. I am yours to c-co-command." Bleu(the chala part is pronounced like

hacking up a wad of phlegm, if youíre trying to pronounce it) swallowed and added, "Iím... not very

confident yet... but Iíll try my best!"

Karin nodded, "Iíll return to Rudo. I have to tell everybody that Bleu found his courage!"

Max nodded, then led the way out of the house. Then he swung up his arms to ward the children as he

skidded to a halt. "Remember me, Max?" Kaneís deep voice issued mockingly from his mask of living iron.

Maxí eyes narrowed. "I remember you, Kane." Only the presence of the children kept him from roaring to

the attack. He settled instead for quivering with rage.

Kane glanced at him, down and up. "You have indeed become a worthy challenge. Ready for your last

fight? Go back to your camp, and get ready. Then youíll meet your doom!" Laughing cruelly, he faded

away.

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Briefing proved difficult for a number of reasons. Max stated up front that Mae and Anri were to remain

with him at all times, and not try to engage Kane singlehandedly. This nearly resulted in a fragging(the

murder of an officer by the troops under his command), followed by a near catfight, as both women

demanded the right to avenge their fathersí deaths. Max finally settled the issue by grabbing both of them

by the throat(reaching high up to reach Maeís) and squeezing gently. As they felt the eldritch strength of his

fingers on their throat and the look on his face, they both subsided. His expression further induced them to

take several hasty steps backward, once he released them. So did the rest of the team, for that matter. Gort

turned pale beneath his beard. Zyloís tail curved underneath his legs. Guntz seemed to shrivel within his

armour. Bleu hid behind Karin, who hid behind Nova, who hid behind his fur.

Maxí voice came out with effort, coming to him faintly through the roar of blood throbbing through his

head, hoarse with emotion, sounding more terrifying then Kaneís. "Kane. Is. Mine." He swallowed

painfully, his throat muscles knotted with long bottled up rage and the promise of itís immanent release.

"Gort. Leads. Left. Bal. Ba. Roy. Takes. Right. I. Take. You. Two. Pelle. Kids. Guntz. Ko. Chi. Chi.

Teams. Gort. Ba. Roy. Choose. Teams." He turned and headed for an empty section of the house, where the

team waited, hearing the smashes with trepidation. Mae flinched with a mixture of negative and painful

emotions, when Maxí gauntleted fist slammed through the near wall with an explosion of adobe chips,

showering those closest with dust.

For some time, the pounding resounded. Finally, the wall exploded, and Max knelt on the rubble, gasping

for breath. Gong edged up closer. "You didnít...reinjure yourself...?" He asked hesitantly.

Max shook his head, trembling with spent emotion and exhaustion. "Did anyone understand what I said

before?"

"I got the general gist of it," Gort raised his hand. Balbaroy cawed agreement. Max nodded wearily.

"Then pick your teams. Pelle, Mae, Anri, Guntz, Domingo, Bleu, you stay with me. Everyone break and

prepare for battle. Lowe, attend me." Max shivered. "Please."

Lowe stayed and healed Maxí exhausted muscles, then stood there, waiting. After some time had passed, he

asked, "Well?"

Max continued to stare at the floor, as he had been, then slowly raised his head to look Lowe in the eye.

"Iím afraid."

Lowe put his hand on Maxí head in benediction. No matter what else he may have been, he was a Vicar of

the church, with a Vicarís authority and responsibility towards his flock. "Of what?" he asked.

Max continued to kneel, while looking the halfling in the eye with his own shimmering orbs. "Iím afraid

Kane will kill someone else before the end of the day. Iím afraid Iíll lose someone else I care about." Tears

began to trickle down his dusty cheeks. "Iím afraid of losing. Iím afraid Iím not good enough to beat Kane."

The tears poured in earnest. "Iím afraid Iíll die. Iím afraid," he repeated. He began to sob quietly. "Iíve

never been this scared be-before, Lowe. Everyoneís counting on me, and I have to fight an undefeated

warrior who killed Varios and my King, and I have to keep my friends alive, and I have to care for the kids,

and I DONíT KNOW IF I CAN WIN!" He fell forward into Loweís arms, sobbing.

Lowe held him tightly, with stubby little arms tightly corded with the sinewy muscles of a combat chaplain

and field medic. After Maxí sobs had quieted, he began his sermon. "Max," he said quietly, "You are my

best friend. You always have been. You always will be. I know you. I knew you would fall in love with Mae

the moment I saw you together. I knew you could get us this far, and I know youíll take us the rest of the

way."

"But what if I-"

"Hush. Just listen. I am a Vicar of the Church of the Light. The strength of all that is Holy flows through

me, that I might serve. I also carry that," and Lowe jerked his thumb at his Holy Staff, leaning against the

wall. Longer than he was, tipped with a majestically carved symbol of spiritual significance, formed

completely of steel with gold trim, it seemed to audibly beg for the chance to cave in the skull of a heretic.

"No oneís dying today, unless I give them permission. That includes you, my Son." They both smirked at

the use of the traditional term of address used by a Vicar in the course of his duties. Lowe suddenly looked

up, then stepped away from Max, and walked away.

Mae took his place, kneeling down, then grabbing Max in a tender hug. "I want you to do it," she told him.

"I want you to be the one to kill Kane. Avenge my father. I know you can do it." She swallowed. "And I

want you to be alive at the end of the day, with me." Max looked her in the eyes, tears resuming their course

down his now thoroughly soiled face.

"What did I ever do to deserve you?" he asked, and kissed her, hard. When he finally came up for air, she

grabbed him and demanded another.

"You... think of me as a reward of some kind?" she asked, searching his face. "Think of me like that. Iím

the reward for your heroism. Iím the end of your quest." Max kissed her again.

"You are my Lady, you command my heart, my soul. I will survive this day. Because you wish it, Mae."

Mae glanced up, then smiled down at him, and stood up, trotting out the door with a flirtatious swish of her

tail.

Anri now stood before him. "Mae commands your heart, my Champion. But We command your service."

Since her heart to heart with Nova on the ship, Anri had become more and more the image of a Queen, her

rebellious and flirtatious attitude matured into a quiet dignity. "We charge you with the execution of the

Regicide Kane, and restoring the Honor of Guardiana." She smiled then, her face lighting up into a beauty

combining her newfound dignity and old spirit into a radiance that took Maxí breath away. "Rise, my

Champion, and discharge your duty." Max smiled in return, the tears, finally stopped.

He stood.

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"Ha, I knew you couldnít hide in there forever! Come on out and play, little hero!" Max returned Kaneís

glare with a cool and steady stare. Well, glare, really.

"Balbazak said much the same thing," he called out to Kane from across the battlefield. "And you donít

look half as tough as he did." Kaneís mask glowed bright red with the heat of his anger, then abruptly

cooled, twisting into a half sneer, half smile.

"You ARE a worthy challenge!" Kane laughed. "Itís been too long since I had one. Come then, Max!"

Max stepped forward, almost casually, as though he were simply headed on a country stroll. The Gargoyles

attacked. As Max dodged and sheered one of them open with his new blade in a powerful two handed grip,

Bleu dove in on the second to tear, rend, and bite, and Domingo, grown since his hatching from a ball the

size of Maxí head to the size of his torso, latched onto the third with his tentacles and pseudopods. Max

tried not to show too much satisfaction at the screams the monster issued as Domingo...shredded him.

Max continued on, accompanied now by Pelle, Mae, and Guntz. The Golems stepped forward awkwardly,

responding to the commands of their Magi masters. "Lyle," Max called, and the sniper aimed and cut loose

with his new projectiles, courtesy of Bokken. The grenades slammed into the Golems with a Thud!, sinking

into the clay of their torsos before exploding. What was left of the automatons toppled over, their animating

spirits freed from their earthly prisons.

Guntz now showed off one of the new enhancements that Kochichi had installed in his armour. Massive

wheels swung up from his mechanized feet, locking into place in long rows. Pushing off, Guntz moved

faster and faster, slamming his enormous metallic frame into the Magi and sending them flying, before

spinning around in a graceful pirouette to halt his immense forward momentum. The knights barely paused

to stab the Magi where they lay, before moving on.

The Durahans were next to go. The possessed armours were no match for the armour worn by the knights.

Guntz took the liberty of demonstrating another new enhancement, that of the increased strength afforded

by his new internal combustion engine. 100 horsepower whirred, the cords strained against their pulleys, his

oversized gauntlets squeezed tightly into a fist and sent the cuirass flying, the demonic face dented and

crushed, the rest of the pieces falling to the ground. Pelle settled for impaling and trampling his target, while

Mae utilized her new weapon, a halberd, a long metal pole tipped with a heavy axe blade and spiked tip.

Her equine muscles were more than powerful enough to wield the heavy instrument with ease and cleave the

nightmare in twain.

Finally, only Kane remained. Max pointed his blade at him, in salute and challenge. Kane grinned and

returned the gesture with the Sword of Darkness, his steel blade held over his head in complimentary

position. Max assumed a guard, his blade held in two handed grip before him. Kane fell into a wide stance,

his blades held to either side. The two warriors circled each other, waiting for opportunities, seeking out

vulnerabilities.

Kane attacked first, his steel blade leading high, then his ebon blade thrusting low. Max parried the steel

blade, then sidestepped the thrust and pivoted into a double handed spinning stance with incredible speed.

Kane blocked easily, then swung again. Max fell back, suddenly weakened. The sword drained my energy,

just by coming near me... Max realized. He fell back, his sword spinning about him in a defensive pattern to

keep Kane at bay.

Heís better then I am, Max thought. No, thatís not it. Itís his equipment thatís better, not just his skill...

Max drew his knife for a two bladed stance like Kaneís own. Max waited for the right time, then his arms

shot forth in a double punch motion, his hands relaxing at the zenith to send his blades flying in a double

toss. Kane reflexively smashed the blades out of the air with a double swing, giving Max the opportunity to

close in, one hand gripping each wrist. Kane roared in surprise and frustration, as they grappled.

As Kane fought to free his swords, Maxí legs began lashing out. His armoured shins slammed into Kaneís

sides and thighs in the roundhouse kicks Gong had taught him, his knees striking into his abdomen and

chest. Finally, Kane dropped his blades and began grappling as Max intended. Knees slammed into

armoured flesh, shins struck with resounding blows, hips shifted in attempts to unbalance their opponent

and find the leverage for a throw. Soon, Maxí face was a mask to match Kaneís own, sweat streaming, face

set in a ferocious grimace, teeth bared with the effort not to flinch at each new painful blow. Kaneís metallic

visage was similarly set, his lips pulled back to expose shockingly white teeth underneath his mask.

Max decided to take advantage of the opportunity. His long right leg bent up and lashed out in a powerful

thrust, his foot slamming into Kaneís face. Kane screamed and fell back, his mask flashing suddenly. He

recovered into a fighting stance. Max followed in, hands ready. Kane jabbed, then followed with a cross.

Max slipped past the jab, his forearm blocking the cross. His right armís gauntleted fist slammed into

Kaneís face in a lightning strike. His left hand followed up with a powerful hook. Even with his protective

gauntlets, the force of the blow still broke his knuckles on Kaneís face. Max grinned, the pain part and

parcel with the fierce joy of pounding Kane physically. Swordplay just wasnít as emotionally therapeutic as

good old fashioned fisticuffs, when it came to unleashing pain and rage. His right hand shot upward in an

uppercut and several knuckles broke on that hand as well. Each facial shot caused Kaneís mask to flash.

Now thoroughly disconcerted, Kane lost all his effective skill. A wild hook went wide of itís target, as Max

ducked underneath and positioned for a knee strike, then threw Kane to the ground. He then kicked Kane in

the side where he lay, the force of his blow assisting Kane in a roll to his feet. More facial shots followed,

combined with torso and leg blows in brutal combos. Kane reeled, his mask flashed again and again-then

cracked.

"Aaargh!" Kane barely avoided toppling, as the cracks spread. Max finally leapt up high into the air, his

foot lashing out in a powerful side kick. The blow sent Kane to the ground, where he lay, softly moaning,

his mask frozen into lifeless shards.

Max gasped for breath, his hands aching, already shivering with the beginnings of the after fight letdown.

Slowly Kaneís head shifted, the mask falling away, to reveal his true face. It was a handsome face, no

question about that. Pointed chin, thin lips, delicate cheekbones, with gentle brown eyes clouded by

confusion. White hair cascaded everywhere, free at last from the confines of the mask. "Wh... where am I?"

Even the voice was different, lighter, gentler. Kain looked around, then his eyes widened. He scrambled to

his feet wearily, leaning against a wall for support, surveying the battlefield. "I... remember now. Darksol...

Darksol masked my face to control me..." He gasped. "What have I done? He... he even made me fight

you!" He shuddered in self revulsion. "Fo-forgive me, Max!" This time, his Egress had no trace of

arrogance about it, only despair.

Max reached for his blades, sheathing them with exhausted and trembling limbs. As he collapsed in the

shade of a nearby building, Lowe tended him. Max noted that Kainís weapons had departed with him.

Soon enough, Max was restored. "Everyone take a break. Bleu?" The baby dragon swooped down to him.

"Where is the Manual?"

"In the shrine," Bleu answered, his right foreclaw gesturing.

"Iíll check it out. Well fought, by the way." Blue preened and threw back his wings at the praise. "Lowe, a

little something nice in the pot tonight for Bleu and Domingo tonight, OK?"

Lowe nodded with a smile, and walked off with Bleu, querying him on his tastes. "Do I cook the meat, or

serve it raw? Domingo enjoys my steak tartare, itís got pepper and raw egg with the fresh beef..."

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

Max entered the shrine. Large enough to fit a large number of fully grown dragons, a lifesized statue of an

ancient Sacred Dragon dominated the scene. Behind the statue, Max found a double door, and an inscription

on a tablet set flush with the wall. Dragonís Shrine...The door opens for two heroes who come forward and

show the way. Max stepped up to the door, only to hear a mysterious voice whisper from the frame. "This

door will only open for two heroes." Max stepped back. Do I go fetch Mae?

A sudden noise made him whirl around. Kain stood behind him, his swords sheathed, his face ravaged by

dried tears. They stared at each other for a full minute, just watching each other. Finally, Kain spoke. "We

must stop Darksol at any cost." He swallowed. "I want revenge for what he has done to me. For what he has

made me do. We must keep that Manual away from him!" Max nodded, and Kain stepped forward to take

his place next to him at the door.

At the touch of their hands together, the voice spoke again. "Two heroes. I have waited long for such as

you!"

The two heroes went down the stairs, to the little chamber below. A dustless, ageless little catacomb,

dominated by a large altar topped with an ancient text. Max and Kain both stepped towards the altar...

Suddenly, a shadowy form materialized. "Ah, Kane. Feeling more like yourself now, are you?"

Kainís face contorted with hatred as he spat. "This is the end, Darksol!" Glancing to his side, he called out,

"Max, get out now! Youíll only be destroyed if you stay!"

"I canít let Max go!" Darksol boomed. "Now that I have what I wanted, I have no further use for him! For

you see, dear friends," and the text flew up into his hands, "I have both the Key AND the Manual." His face

took on a new and far more terrifying visage, that of the religious fanatic. "Dark Dragon will soon be free

again!"

"Go Max, run!" cried Kain. "Iíll deal with Darksol!" With his free hand, Kain shoved Max out of the path

of the demonic blaze that Darksol shot out, causing Max to trip and fall behind one of the large wooden

stumps that had once served as a chair for a Sacred Dragon. A resounding explosion boomed. Max rolled

backwards to his feet, only to find the altar completely destroyed. There was no sign of either Darksol or

Kain.

"Kain." Max spoke the name quietly, with a mixture of emotions, bitterness, compassion, hatred, pity,

anger, and a sense of There but for the grace of God go I, all rolled together to leave a taste of ashes on his

tongue. Or maybe itís just the ashes from the explosion...

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

Max was joyously received upon his return to Rudo. Bleu, with even more enthusiasm. His friends

immediately bore him off to play, asking him many questions about the battle, and about Max. Max went to

speak with Karin.

Upon entering Karinís room/office, Max glanced at the table and reflected that the girl, once grown, would

make an excellent political leader, rich manís wife, or other position requiring strength, decisiveness-and

diplomatic skill. He sat down and began stuffing his face with the delicious spread laid out, mumbling out a

proper thank you for the pastries filled with the flesh of sea creatures beautifully prepared, the pickled

vegetables, and the bottle of chilled, quality white wine. After washing down a pastry and a pickled onion

with a sip of the beverage, Max eyed his glass. "Since when did you start drinking, young lady?" The girl

blushed prettily and held up her own mug of fruit juice.

"We traded some of our fish for a few bottles. I found out that the traders get more and more generous, the

more theyíve had to drink." Max looked at her a moment, his respect for the responsible and mature young

girl increasing even more.

Snapping up a green tomato, crisp and cold, from itís brine of seawater and spices, Max spoke meditatively,

"I trust you have no problem with my taking Bleu along with me."

Karin shook her head and bit into a pastry. "Iím sure heíll be very happy with you, Max. Kids need adults

around," she added quietly.

Max looked into her sad little eyes. "Are you going to let your parents back home?"

Karin nodded, her face starting to screw up. "I miss my mommy. I mean, my mother." Max smiled gently,

then decided after a moment, NOT to tell her about the hidden adults. Let her have her triumph. "Krin said

she found something in the old records," Karin added, her face brightening again. "It sounded important."

Max nodded, and grabbed up a large handful of the delicious pastries, eating all but four on the way to see

her sister.

Brit snarled and barked with his two heads as Max approached. Max immediately tossed each head a pastry,

which the beast immediately snapped up. Looking up at Max with a slightly friendlier expression, Brit

accepted the second pair by hand, allowing Max to put one hand under the ears of each head and begin

scratching. Britís teeth became hidden by a pair of beatific smiles, as his heads writhed about, guiding Max

down his cheeks, to his neck, his chest. Max continued to scratch his chest with one hand, then shifted his

other hand to scratch that place at the base of the tail, where NO dog can resist. Brit ended up on the floor,

as one hand scratched his back and the other his furry belly, gazing up at Max with limpid eyes.

Max finally stood up to see Krin, only to have Brit suddenly snarl with bared teeth at the cessation. Sighing,

Max resumed scratching, calling out, "Krin?"

"Brit, come!" Brit jumped up and went to his mistress, Max following. "I checked the old records and read

something interesting." She found the right page, as Max resumed scratching Brit. "The Manual of the Seal

holds the key to awakening Dark Dragon. He must never awaken. The Sacred Dragon must keep the manual

from falling into evil hands." She reached for another book, opening it. "Also, thereís something here about

a sword called the ĎChaos Breakerí." Max peered at the page, but there was no picture of the blade, only an

odd sketch of lines connecting symbols together. "It says that when the sword is used at the westernmost

point of the land, the Castle of the Ancients will rise from the depths of the sea." Krin shrugged. "Whatever

all that means! Did you get the Manual?"

"Iím afraid Darksol has it," Max apologized. Brit sighed with pleasure, as he continued to scratch.

"Oh my. This is bad, very bad! He can use it to awaken Dark Dragon!" She screwed her face up. "I have no

idea what to do."

"Donít worry," Max reassured her. "Iíll think of something." Brit decided he had been caressed enough, and

permitted him to leave without further demands.

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

Max spoke with the hidden adults, who were delighted to hear that their children were allowing them home,

now that Bleu had found his courage, and his destiny. "I canít wait to hold my little girls again," the old

man said, his eyes shining. "Iím so proud of them!" The adults, on their return, spent much time hugging

and kissing the children, and walking around to express their delight at their accomplishments. They also

had many compliments for Max and the Shining Force. When they finally left, it was with wagons loaded

down with fresh water, beer, fish, vegetables, foodstuffs of all kinds, all generously provided by the

inhabitants of Rudo. Their supply of cash on hand, which had dwindled somewhat, was greatly increased

after the sale of the repaired ship. Max appropriated the bulk for reinvestment into weapons and equipment,

then paid everyone their wages, including Bleu and Domingo.

Speaking of Bleu, Max found him down at the harbor, sitting there almost alone, save for Domingo. Max

went to speak with them. "How you feeling, kids?" Max smiled at them.

Domingo looked at him with his great eyes. "Bleu needs reassuring." Max nodded, and sat down next to

him, pulling off his boots to rub sand between his toes before talking with the dragon.

After a series of questions, responded to with short, terse, monosyllabic answers, Max finally gathered that

the baby dragon was afraid he wasnít strong enough for his destiny, his ancient charge, when all his kind

had already withered away. Max thought a moment, then decided on a course of action. "You know, back in

Manarina, where I got Domingoís egg, I had to fight a warrior called Xander. He was a skeleton, guarding

the Orb of Light. After I beat him, he bade me take the Orb, his respect-and his ring." Bleu began to be

absorbed by the tale, his face perking up with interest.

"The ring had the power to enhance the strength of the wearer. Anyone who wore it on his finger, had his

strength magnified many times over, as long as he wore it." As Bleu opened his mouth to ask a question,

Max held up his hands.

The hands were completely bare.

"Shortly before I sailed here, I took the ring off, and found I still had my eldritch strength. I think it was

because I was still growing when I wore it. As I grew to maturity, the magic infused me, and now my body

is permanently magically enhanced. Our Magi, Anri and Tao, agree with this theory."

He reached into his pocket, and pulled out the ring. "Iíd like you to have the Ring of Power, Bleu." Max

held it out, and Bleu held out his clawed forehand for Max to slip the ring onto.

The change was immediate-and drastic. Bleuís body swelled up, his scaly skin transforming, the soft white

baby scales become harder and stronger. His muscles began to bulge, his wings threw back as their

membranes thickened, the muscles and sinews become swollen with power. Horns broke through the

surface of Bleuís skull, ridges through his spine, fangs through his mouth. He opened his mouth to roar- and

a jet of sacred flame, far more powerful than the one that destroyed the Durahan, shot out across the bay.

Finally, Bleu nodded to Max. "I thank you for this gift, Max," even his voice stronger, deeper, "and I will

make you proud!"

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

"Why do WE have to pull these stupid wagons?" Vankar complained.

"They didnít exactly have a substantial supply of draft horses on hand in Rudo," Mae pointed out, her own

harness taught as she pulled. Each of three wagons had two of the paladins strapped to the front, hauling

away. A fourth was pulled by Guntz in his powered armour, and Gong with his ogreís muscles. At Guntzí

insistence, Tao sat perched on the seat of the wagon, where she studied with Anri and Domingo. At Gongís

insistence, Diane sat in the wagon as well, where she kept an eye out for monsters to shoot with her

crossbow. Khris, of course, had her pick of wagons.

"Donít see why the humans couldnít help pull," Vankar continued to mutter.

"Theyíre a little busy at the moment themselves," Mae pointed out. "Itíd be a little difficult to fight back if

ALL of us were pulling-and none of us scouting."

The wagons pulled along the way south. Without a set path, the scouting warriors cleared brush and built

ramps across ravines, allowing the centaurs to move along without pause. Gargoyle and Belial attacks were

easily repelled by the "Air Wing," as Max dubbed his contingent of flying warriors. After it was determined

by Zylo that the Gargoyles, though humanoid, were no more intelligent than a monkey, Lowe adapted his

recipe for bat fajitas to the beasts. Good thing, too, as Bleu grew visibly with the passing of their journey.

After a week or so of travel, Max had an unexpected-and unsettling-encounter. After breaking to set camp,

Max felt breakfast demanding a reappearance. Moving off to find a suitable location, Max unbuckled,

squatted, wiped, and buried. He then turned around, to find a totally unexpected watcher. "Nice butt,"

remarked Mishaela. Maxí eyes widened at the sight of her, then her words registered, and he blushed

furiously.

He glanced about, looking for possible attackers. Unfortunately, he wore no armour, while his only

weaponry was his light sabre and trench knife, leaving him unprepared for a full ambush. "Donít worry,"

Mishaela smiled, her eyes aglow with a curious light, "I didnít come here to fight."

Max swallowed, unreassured. "So then... why?" Mishaela took another step closer, and Max found his back

to a tree.

"Youíre not far from my home, Max," she murmured. "It looks like youíre coming to visit me. Did you

come for the Sword?"

"Sword?" Max asked blankly. Mishaela smiled, and took another step closer.

"The Sword of Light," she uttered in a parody of the reverent tones others might use in referring to an

artifact of goodness. "The blade that burns as it cuts. The source of power of the legendary Chaos Breaker. I

have it, you know," taking another step closer. "Will you come to take it?"

Max nodded slowly, trying to guess her game. "Naturally." His voice kept from cracking with an effort.

"And will you take anything...else, from me?" NOW Max realized the import of the gleam in her eyes. Mae

would give him the same look, before they would steal away for an hour or two of privacy. Mishaela took a

final step, and they were corps a corps, bodies pressed against each other, her mouth seeking his out in a

hungry kiss.

Maxí mind blanked momentarily, as her obviously experienced tongue sought his, her hands roaming. Then

his mind reasserted itself, and his own hands began to roam her body. Mishaela moaned quietly, then

gasped as Max found what heíd been searching for-and yanked it free from itís hiding place. He held onto

her arm with one hand, as he held up the mask accusingly. "Now I see how Kaine was enslaved," Max said

in a grim voice.

Mishaelaís eyes blazed with an accusation of her own. "Donít remind me of how you took him away from

me, Max. Iím still quite upset about it." Her face momentarily softened with recollection of painful

memory, then hardened. "You took my lover away. You owe me another."

Max sneered. "You mean STUD, not lover. A witch like you is INCAPABLE of love."

Mishaelaís face reeled with the verbal shot. Her eyes widened in sudden and extreme pain, then narrowed in

white hot fury, as she countered violently. But not with a magical attack, but rather a physical one, as old as

the sexes. As Maxí knees buckled, she followed up her knee strike with a slap to the face, then began

kicking Max where he lay, in the same vulnerable spot, until Max finally began to throw up, his face

contorted in agony.

Mishaela, tears of rage and pain streaming down her face, bent down to whisper in his ear. "Come to

Demon Castle," she seethed, "Come and die, you little BASTARD. Iíll see you suffer a thousand agonies

for what you took from me." She fled on foot, sobbing, too distraught to concentrate enough to cast Egress.

After a few minutes, Max had recovered sufficiently to crawl back to camp. He insisted on Gong

performing the healing, as he utterly refused to allow either Khris or Lowe to handle his...indignity.

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

A short time later, the team entire bore witness to a display of emotions with a far happier ending. Amonís

time had come. Balbaroy woke the team up with the joyous news. "Iím so happy!" he cawed. "All is

RIGHT with the world!"

"Whatís with you?" asked Pelle, grabbing a leather strop and a throwing spear to be sharpened and

polished.

"Surely you havenít forgotten how we birdmen only mate once a year?"

Vankar gave him a funny look. "And this makes you happy? Why?"

"Because todayís the day!" Balbaroy tore into his pack, pulling out a special brush for cleaning his feathers.

Not far from him, on the other side of the camp, Amon preened herself as well, assisted by Tao, Anri, Mae,

and Khris, all coming together to assist their girlfriend. They gossiped and teased, as Amonís feathers were

brushed free of dust, misted with water spray, claws polished and sharpened, beak trimmed and several

sprigs of parsley munched for fresh breath. Finally, nervous husband and radiant wife were ready.

Every teammate to have found a love of their own sat together to watch the display as a couple. The rest of

them watched as a group of bachelors or bachelorettes, as Amon took off, high into the air. Higher, higher

she went, followed intently by Balbaroy, until the two of them were merely pinpricks in the sky. Max and

Mae, Gong and Diane, Guntz and Tao, all snuggled and watched as the two pinpricks became a single

microscopic point in the early morning sky.

The bachelors cheered and shouted encouragement to the couple in terms that bordered on vulgarity, then

gave occasional shocked glances at the bachelorettes, as they showed no concern for such borders. Even

Anri, as regal and dignified as she had become, gave occasional remarks that proved even more shocking,

given her new majestic manner. You donít expect a Queen to make those kinds of comparisms.

Nova gave the most shocking statements of all. "I do hope they finish before they come to the ground," he

remarked. The other bachelors all turned to look at him. "Didnít you know? Once they come together, they

donít come apart until itís over. If they donít finish before they hit the ground..." Nova trailed off.

"So basically, theyíre risking death for this?" Earnest asked, his ordinarily grim and humorless face having

expressed more emotions that morning than in the past couple of months.

"Itís worth it," Gort said seriously. He raised his morning cup to the couple in salute, as their pinprick

became an indistinct ball, coming closer and closer.

"Itís actually considered a mark of pride, among them," added Kochichi, "how close they can come to the

ground without dying." He smiled up at his friends.

Finally, the pair came apart, in a swooping separation only a few dozen feet above the ground- "thatís

considered very good, for birdmen," said Kochichi-and came to land near the group, Balbaroyís wing

curling around Amon in a tender gesture.

The entire team gave them a standing ovation.

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

Demon Castle. Built of hardened mortar, crafted in the likeness of a demonís skull, it was a sight to instill

terror. Max paused a moment, to remind the team of one of their earlier jobs. "Remember that ĎDemon

Masterí, Mae?" he asked in a voice intended to carry on their conversation to the rest of the team. "He took

the skulls of goats and set deer antlers into them to look like demon skulls? And of course it turned out that

underneath all that frightening display, all he actually had were a few simple spells and a team of goblins..."

Thus reassured, the team moved in.

The inside of the castle proved to be a mixture of both luxury and decrepitude. Lush carpeting covered the

floor where they entered, over a bare stone floor, filthy and uneven. Treasures of gold and silver decorated

rooms filled with dusty cobwebs. At the far end of the hall, stood Mishaela, escorted by two Durahans.

Obviously, the creatures were her own handiwork, rather than something Darksol had cooked up.

Mishaela had recovered only a little of her composure in Maxí presence since their last encounter. Her face

attempted a vindictively gleeful expression, as the pure black hatred seethed in her voice. "Well, hereís the

little hero, come for my Sword of Light! Take it, if you dare!" She leaned forward, her pose of malicious

triumph beginning to crack. "Youíll never leave my castle, you pitiful fools! This is as close as youíll ever

come to the Sword of Light!"

"This is a trap, everyone," Max pointed out, as he divided the team up, and moved out. First came the

Gargoyles, screaming and clawing. The paladins were dispatched to deal with them, sharpened claws

scraping off their polished armour as their lances and spears went through tough hide. Then, the rest of the

team moved on, as the archers engaged in a brutal missile fight with the Bowriders Darksol had given

Mishaela, and whom Lyle had deserted. As the two sides fired off shots from behind cover, Max led the rest

of the team further on and further. Mishaela continued to flee, leading them on into further traps.

Her apprentices were next. Tao, Anri, and Domingo unleashed their magic as the rest of the team dove for

cover, and the Air Wing took on the Belials that swooped about the immense inner chamber. After the

furious exchange, Anri commented on the abilties of their fallen opponents. "Theyíre finally learning," she

noted, tapping a body ravaged by the explosion of steam, "They tried a fast spell, instead of a powerful

spell. Good thing Tao countered in time, or weíd have been the ones that fell, here."

Finally, Max stood in Mishaelaís inner chamber, staring at her on her throne. "Let me handle this," Max

said. He stepped forward cautiously, thinking on the course of action heíd decided on, after having

reviewed their last encounter of a few days previous. Mishaela glanced at him, to the Shining Force, then

shifted back uneasily to him. Finally, Max spoke. "I apologize."

Mishaelaís eyes widened, and she drew back slowly, blinking. "My remark at our last meeting was uncalled

for. I shouldnít have said it." Mishaela began to tremble.

"You said...THAT, and now you apologize," Mishaela said softly. "And will you apologize for killing my

apprentices? For killing my pets? For taking KAINE AWAY? For taking EVERYTHING that mattered to

ME?" And the lightning coursed from her hands, slamming into Max and sending him flying. He didnít

even have time to scream, as the shock sent him to the ground several feet away.

Mishaela was on her feet now. "YOU TOOK EVERYTHING FROM ME! NOW YOU WANT MY

SWORD?! IíLL KILL YOU! IíLL MAKE YOU PAY!" Tears streamed down her face, as she cast a wall of

flames, encircling them both, keeping the rest of the team at bay. She hurled forth an acid arrow, which Max

barely avoided by rolling to his feet. As he came up, he stumbled over a table, knocking a metal rod to the

ground. Mishaela saw it and gasped. It didnít take Max much thought to figure it out.

It would be much, much later, before he learned the truth of the blade, how as his hand wrapped around itís

length and his thumb touched a stud on the side, the end of the handle shot forth a blast of photons, the

elementary particles of light. How three feet from the tip, the photons reached a powerful electromagnetic

field, bouncing back as though off a mirror, only to reach another EMF at the base of the handle. How the

photons bounced back and forth within the EMF barriers, their numbers increasing as the ancient machinery

continued to generate additional photons, until they had reached a number sufficient to fill the blade with

enough photons that the light, normally invisible save when reflecting off solid objects or thick smoke,

shone brightly as it reflected over the sparse particles of fresh air, humming softly. No, all he knew now was

that his hand wielded a blade of pure light. The Sword of Light.

Mishaela roared in incoherant fury, and her hands raised to send forth more lightning. Max extended the

blade, his forefinger touching another stud, and the tip of the blade was freed from itís EMF barrier,

shooting forth in a laser blast that slammed into the wall next to Mishaela. She flung herself sideways as the

wall exploded, itís molecules excited to extreme and sudden heat. Max also ducked, to avoid the chunks of

molten rock that sprayed everywhere. Oh yeah, definitely gonna have to spend some time training with this

thing before I take it into battle again...

Mishaela leaned against the wall as she stood up, her voice hoarsened from her usual silky overtones, to a

demonic snarl of rage. "Though you can take... my sword..." she gasped for breath, "you will never... stop

Darksol... Dark Dragon will be set free..." She stopped suddenly, and stared down at the energy blade that

projected from her chest, her blood sizzling away with an acrid stench as it encountered the beam.

All the rage and hate left Mishaelaís face, leaving only pain and sadness behind. She looked young, and

scared, and lonely. Max found his face only inches from hers, as she clutched his shoulder, her eyes

streaming tears.

"Thatís the third time," she said softly, "youíve broken my heart."

Max shut off the blade, and grabbed her as she fell.

"Iím sorry," he said stupidly, because he didnít know anything else to say. "Iím sorry." He lowered

Mishaela gently to the ground, then stood to find the spells she had cast all ending with her death. The wall

of flames ended, many of the braziers died down as well. Max looked around for a moment, then began

issuing orders. "Standard looting procedure," he said. "Lowe, Mae..."

As Lowe attended to his wounds, and Mae stood by, her mere presence reassuring to him, the rest of the

team organized the treasures into piles and counted them up. Many rings, most possessed of Darkness, a

few captured artifacts of the Light, were given over to Anri, whose studies had gradually shifted to an

emphasis on the esoteric, rather then the expressive, rituals and enchantments suitable for a resident mage,

rather than the battle magics of a traveling spellcaster. Much gold, set into a large pile to be transported

back to Guardiana- "This should go a ways towards rebuilding the economy," Nova noted- and many luxury

items that Mishaela and her apprentices had kept about. Max found these last particularly troubling,

particularly when he found objects-portraits, keepsakes, and such- that were of obviously sentimental value.

Pictures of her posing with Kane, pictures of Kane in battle... Max abruptly ordered all personal items left

alone, and left to find some time to think, and reflect.

Some time later, after the looting had finished, the team moved on south, towards Prompt. Max walked in

front with the scouts, chopping down trees with the Sword of Light, smoothing the bumps and potholes out

for the wagons, and experimenting with the blade, learning itís balance, itís abilities. And thinking.

*****************************************End of Part 5*************************************

Authorís note: Didnít expect this many tears, did you? As the title indicates, this is all about what went on

behind the screen, the joys and pains, tears and triumphs, the Roles in the Role Playing. Thatís both more

difficult to write about knowledgeably, and more enjoyable to write about. If youíve been pulled into the

story, eager to find out the next twist in Max and Maeís relationship, the next character to join and the

teamís reaction, the continuing growth of Maxí "little" ones, then I have succeeded, and that makes ME

happy.

Remember what I said last chapter, about what happens when you fight, even if you win? At the beginning,

you got a TASTE(just a taste) of what happens when you LOSE. Gongís healing magic allowed Max to

make a decent recovery in two months, when in THIS world, a person would have to undergo physical

therapy for such extreme injuries for TWO years. Another real life anecdote: I studied Taekwondo for 14

years, the first art I studied, starting from about 6 years old. When I was old enough to drive, I was also

skilled enough to assist in teaching classes. I met someone who taught me not to commit juvenile offenses

like speeding, by her very presence. She had been a model, a very beautiful woman. Then she took a ride in

a car, with an idiot who thought it was okay to go at TWICE the legal speed limit, since HE was SUCH a

great driver. To make a LONG story short: She spent eight months on a respirator, in a coma, with every

doctor around assuring her parents that sheíd never recover. Then she spent another two years in physical

therapy, BEFORE I met her. Those selfsame doctors had piously informed her that sheíd never walk again.

Under the tutelage of myself and the other instructors in the physically challenged class, she learned how to

kick at the height of her thigh. And thatís AFTER two years of physical therapy.

As far as the therapy itself, however, the techniques described are excellent for recovery for atrophied

muscles, broken limbs, disaligned joints, and even spinal injury and osteoporosis. Water training not only

supports the bodyís weight, but provides stiff resistance no matter which way you move. Itís actually good

for regular training, as well, for strength/speed training. Stretching is always a good thing, when properly

done. It prevents reinjury, and strengthens the joints. Massage is indeed good therapy(despite what Max

might think), as is Acupuncture, Acupressure, hypnosis, and other so called "new age" or "experimental"

therapies. Scientists arenít sure how they work, but they definitely work. So does chicken soup. It really

does work, for treatment of colds and flus, headaches, joint aches, and just being really cold from running

around outside. Itís ART, though, not science. Art means that through trial and error, humanity has

discovered a way of doing something, that has a definite and desirable effect. Science means that humanity

knows just how the act results in the desirable effect. Because of scientific principles being applied to

physical arts, modern athletes are able to achieve new heights, from learning EXACTLY how to position

their bodies in the perfect stride, for maximum speed when running, EXACTLY how to punch, to deliver

the greatest amount of force, EXACTLY how to exercise, to achieve maximum results with minimal

expenditure of time and effort.

And one of those discoveries, is sport nutrition. Max ate plenty of

carbohydrate rich foods for energy in the morning, when he really needed it, fruits in the midday, for both

sugars for additional energy, and vitamins(since concentrated multivitamin pills were not available) and

lean meats in the evening, for lots of protein, to increase the benefit of the therapy that only a good nightís

sleep can provide, Maxí muscles had plenty of material available to repair and strengthen his muscles. And

one thing that he ingested, that everyone else should, is WATER. Very few of us take the time to drink

enough (nonalcoholic)liquids. Doctorís recommend at least eight glasses of water a day, for an ordinary

person in an ordinary clime, who maintains the minimum recommended amount of exercise. As a person

who lives in a desert climate, who exercises considerably more than most, I suggest a simple rule of thumb.

When you go to the toilette, check your urine. If itís clear, youíre drinking enough. If itís yellow, youíre

not. If itís dark greenish yellow, and has been for a while, I suggest going to the hospital, as youíve

probably given yourself kidney stones. If you males want to find out what itís like for a woman to give

birth...

Strength training is also good for both therapy, and preventative training(like stretching). Another anecdote:

The day of writing this paragraph, I went to Mui Thai training. There, I took several HARD shots to the

head, right on the chin, cheek, and temple. However, my neck muscles had been strengthened by proper

"abdominal" workouts, the ones that those infomercials that advertise those "magical" ab-strengthener

products claim are BAD("Oh my goodness, Iím getting muscle fatigue in my neck, how horrible!), as well

as wrestling techniques for strengthening the neck (Wrestlers have a simple last ditch method for avoiding a

pin. They "bridge", standing on their feet and the tops of their heads, their back curving like the arch of a

bridge. I knew one who could do it while I sat on him-and I wrestled heavyweight, and he didnít. This guy

could also take bets on whether someone could successfully choke him. I was the only one to ever make it

past those steel cords that his neck muscles had become, and it was NOT easy...). So those punches, as hard

as they were, only fazed me, instead of laying me out on the ground. Strengthening the muscles of the body

will protect against all kinds of injuries, increasing the "tensile strength" of your body until a given force

loses the ability to injure or maim(That doesnít include serious auto wrecks, save for preventing whiplash.

An auto accident involves several tons of metal and plastic, traveling at up to 85 miles an hour-if youíre

obeying the posted speed limits-well, for America, anyway. Seatbelts fastened, anyone?) But strengthening

the muscles WILL guard against injuries from falling, from physical strikes, and from most other standard

injuries that the average person can expect to incur. Thatís how those hardcore practitioners of "Soft" arts

can have a 2X4 broken over their skull, or smash a block of stone with a head butt. Chi or no Chi, theyíre

practically made of steel cords and rawhide. Impact training, like hitting the bag, is good for increasing

bone density, good for both preventing against broken bones, and the serious malady of senior citizens,

Osteoporosis. Not too many boxers who kept up their training suffer from it in their 70ís and 80ís. Itís also

fun to see an old man beat the crap out of some snot nosed punk who tries to mug him...

I wonít dwell on the childrenís predicament, save to say this: Kids have it tough. Donít believe Ďem when

they say "this is the BEST time of your lives." They LIE. Parents love their kids. My older brother was the

most irresponsible jerk around, until my niece came along. Now, heís become a lot more dependable, with a

steady job, working to support my sister-in-law and his kids both current and still cooking(and donít think

Momís not just tickled pink about ANOTHER little grandkid. NOBODY loves kids like their grandparents.

Grandkids are all the joys of parenting, with none of the responsibilities- they act up, you just hand Ďem

right back to the parents. Theyíre also REVENGE. "I hope, when you grow up, you have children who act

exactly the same way, that you act." When Laura looks up at her father with a cute little innocent

expression, as he pulls at his hair in exasperation at her latest stunt, Mom and Dad are enjoying a romantic

dinner alone, raising their glasses in joyous triumph). So itís only natural that the parents and grandparents

would appoint some of their number to stay behind. The rest, of course, spent much of their time wondering

desperately, "Is he eating enough? Is she dressing warmly? Do they know how much I miss them?"

Fear and anger are things we all experience. How we handle both is what proves our mettle(from metal: are

you steel, strong and resilient, or lead, soft and a heavy burden to bear?) There are countless ways to handle

fear. One is to allow yourself to become angry. When one is angry, one cannot be afraid. Another is to talk

yourself out of the fear, to make "tough guy" talk, until youíre psyched up and ready for action. These are

both ways to handle fear. Not very good ones, though. A better one is to pray. Thatís right, PRAY.

Religious or nonsectarian. For a good prayer for an agnostic or atheist, try the Bene Gesserit litany against

fear, from Frank Herbertís Dune: "I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that brings

total oblivion. I will face my fear, by allowing it to pass over and through me. When it is gone, then only I

will remain." Try repeating that one three times, and see if that doesnít help. Another good one is deep

breathing and meditation. And of course, iron discipline, refusing to acknowledge the fear. Or to visualize

the results of facing your fear, the positive goal you want to achieve, that your fear blocks you from

reaching. Try the method, or group of methods, that works for you.

Anger can be dealt with by deep breathing, through discipline, through immediately removing oneself from

the scene until youíve calmed down, etc.. The really important thing to remember, though, is that you can

cause anger as easily as experiencing it. And itís ESPECIALLY easy, with family and friends. The better

you know someone, the easier it is to push the right buttons and shoot their blood pressure through the roof.

Remember that courtesy thing I talked about after Chapter 4? The lubricant that makes the gears of society

run smoothly. And since the gears of a family spend more time grinding against each other then with the

gears of strangers, you need PLENTY of lubrication for dealing with intimates. Nine tenths of all family

problems can be cleared up, if all sides commit to treating each other with the same courteousness shown to

outsiders. About half can be cleared up if you do it by yourself, and then wait for the rest of the family to

start following your lead.

Dogs are wonderful. Remember that little spot at the base of the tail, and watch them melt. Dogs are

wonderful(I think I already mentioned that). They have no shame, no restraint, no inhibitions. Theyíll bask

in the sun, belly up, with a look of sheer bliss, curl up and do something with their tongues that a human

would need to spend 20 years becoming a yoga master in order to emulate, with no care for anyone else in

the room, beg for food with the skill of a Shakespearean trained actor. They give unconditional love, to

anyone who feeds and cares for them. Not to mention their proficiency at useful tasks like tracking, or

assisting disabled persons. Cats are wonderful too, donít get me wrong. But thereís a reason why a Native

American legend speaks of a rift that opened up between Man and Beast, which only Dog had the courage

to leap across. He didnít make it, but Man grabbed him and pulled him up, to stand beside him through the

ages. Weíve used them in every culture, bred them to countless tasks until their DNA looks like spaghetti,

relied on them for food, rescue, warmth, companionship, and a thousand other things. And as long as they

get food in the belly when itís empty and a rub on the belly when itís full, they are content. Dogs are

wonderful(Iíd better move on, before Iím tempted to rush down to the pound and adopt them all en mass).

Now youíve finally seen why I chose to have Max swell up like that when he first donned the ring. What

will happen to Bleu? Watch and see... As for Amonís mating flight, well, some birds mate on the ground in

a quiet and leisurely manner, some do it in the sky, fast and proud, risking death itself in the process. I

chose to have the winged warriors procreate like the Eagle, noble and fierce. And as for Balbaroyís

comment at the start of the day, well, I know itís an old joke, but it WAS appropriate to the occasion...

I felt that Mishaela had a lot more going on then just sitting around, being evil. A recurring villain means an

entertaining to watch, and thusly, complex, character. Kefka. Sephiroth. Garland. Three good examples(and

all that from just one series). No one is a villain in their own eyes, they are always justified in their own

minds("Letís go to the Promised Land, Mother, and destroy the usurping traitors..." as they decide theyíre

the good guys, or "Life sucks, everyoneís evil in their hearts, so thereís nothing really wrong with my

looking out for number one- and stealing the power of the Espers to do it..." as they justify themselves with

cheap rationalizations. Thatís why bad guys always assume everyone else is out to get THEM). Next

chapter, weíll get to see more about her, how she turned to Evil, how Kaine became her plaything and

lover.

The LASER(Light Amplification through Stimulation of Emitted Radiation) has been horribly garbled by

Hollywood, when displaying it as a weapon. Lasers do not hit with concessive force and make a

Stormtrooper fly back as though getting hit with a sledgehammer. A laser will do one of two things,

depending on the laser and the target. One, melt the target, creating a hole the circumference of the

(invisible)beam, as it burns itís way through. The other, is to cause the target to melt so quickly that it

vaporizes, turns from solid directly into gas. The resulting rush of expanding gas, CAN cause the bulk of the

target to fly backwards, from the gas propelling it forth in a jet effect, i.e. Stormtroopers flying back in a

spray of molten ceramic alloy and boiling tissues. Light Swords, on the other hand, were

created by George Lucas for his Star Wars Saga, and then dissected in ruthless detail, by scientists

desperate to uncover a way to make it work, because like the rest of us, they wanted to be Jedi Knights too.

You just read one of the theories, the one I like the best. Itís the one used in "I, Jedi," part of the series of

novels that continues the story(since half the audience canít stand Mark Hamil playing Luke again, and the

rest of the audience canít stand Mark NOT playing he who is now Master Skywalker, head of the New Jedi

Order), and described when Corran Horn, one of Lukeís initial students at his new Jedi Academy, crafts his

Lightsaber in preparation for defeating a ruthless pirate queen, and saving his wife Mirax. By choosing to

describe the Sword of Light in this manner, I can combine it with a theoretical explanation for the Sword of

Darkness, to create an explanation for the Chaos Breaker, that a physicist can look at and say, "Aaaahh... it

could happen." Maybe it will even prove to be realistic, or maybe it will go the way of classic SFís Alien

Death Rays and Light Years as a measurement of Time instead of Distance("How long will it take?" "Oh,

about 20 Light Years." And the knowledgeable reader groans along with the rest of them...).

And given that note, Iíll end with a classic ending from the old SF shows of the Golden age of Radio.

TUNE IN NEXT TIME, FOR ANOTHER EXCITING EPISODE OF... SHINING FORCE! Brought to you

by our sponsors...donít forget to click on Ďem!

Chapter 7