Shining Force: Chapter 7
Max looked about the city of Prompt, eyeballing it's buildings, it's people, it's scenery. And was pissed. He muttered to himself angrily, having found it to be far more helpful than speaking with the natives. Plump, mild, and ignorant...
"Who says thinking is boring? I think about dinner all the time!"
"Dark Dragon? Who cares? Let's talk about food!"
"Have they posted the lunch menu yet? I can't wait!" Hmm, a running trend...
On to the schools, an appropriate feature for a city that lay heir to the Shining Path.
"School is good, they say. But you can't prove it by me!"
"All I need to know I learned from my cat!"
"School! Who needs it?"
"My brain hurts!" And by the time he stumbled out of the madhouse run by a pair of stressed out schoolmistresses, so did Max'ss.
Max stumbled along to one of the shops, looking to relax with a little shopping. No dice, and no decent weaponry, either, only cheap junk. And an old friend. "Budo!" Max cried, bearing down on him like a drowning man on a floating piece of wood, "good to see you!"
"Same... here, Max," Budo said, glancing around uneasily. He swallowed, then asked, "Is this really Prompt? The people seem a little... well, dense, don't they?"
Max shrugged. "I don't know. I'm going to find their king, see if I can't figure out what's going on. Something seems... false, about all this."
Prompt's castle, to all appearances, was a hole in the ground. Max was ushered in by the guard, into what appeared to be the top of a tower-set flush into the ground. Down the stairs he descended, into what very much appeared to be the inside of a tower, submerged beneath the surface of the earth. Finally, he touched bottom in what so greatly resembled a subterannean castle that Max'ss headache had become a full, pounding migraine, from a mixture of frustration and confrontation with the unusual.
King Kosuko received Max with an expression that mingled vague stupidity with an unsettling amount of wary suspicion. Max gritted his teeth against his pounding head and feelings of ill omen, and parted his lips into a smile, bowing before the king with the grace of one grown accustomed to dealing with royalty. Max unclenched his jaw to introduce himself, and explain the nature of his mission.
Five minutes later he was in the royal dungeons.
"Just TRY hiring the Shining Force now!" he roared to the retreating guards. Fuming, he paced his cell a few times, before stepping up to the bars to rend them apart with his supernatural strength. And stopped. Iron bars do not a prison make-especially this prison. Whatever this metal was, it was far too tough, even for Max.
Fuming, Max barely registered the sound of footsteps. Finally, Budo burst into sight. "OK, now I'm really lost," he muttered to no one in particular.
Max cleared his throat. "Budo? A little help..."
"Max! What's up?" Budo peered at the lock momentarily. "Don't worry, I'll let you out."
Once Budo had picked the lock, Max stepped out and gripped his shoulders in gratitude. "Thank you, my friend."
Budo shook his head. "Max, I think I'm going to stop wandering and settle down. Maybe in Waral," he mused, with a contemplative smile.
"Now that's a perfect place to retire," Max grinned in turn.
"See ya!" And Budo was off.
Max crept up the stairs, up to what might have been a courtyard, had the castle been above ground. Casting about, he found a doorway, and carefully peeked his head through.
Ah. The throne room. Right behind the throne itself, in fact. Max hunkered down and listened to the meeting in process.
"King Kusuko! A message from those who left for the Tower of the Ancients!"
"Alef and Torasu say Darksol seems unbeatable. They cannot hold out for long!"
The king bowed his head, deep in thought. Max considered a moment, then coughed to signal his presence. He slowly slipped out into plain sight, and crossed his arms over his chest, one eyebrow arched inquisitively.
The king stared at him a moment, then nodded. "You heard the report, I assume."
Max nodded, the bland expression still plastered on his face.
"The Tower of the Ancients is east of here. When I heard Darksol was there, I sent troops there to stop him." The king shook his head, and grabbed up an hors d'oeuvre, popping it into his mouth without much appetite. "He is trying to raise the Castle of the Ancients from beneath the sea. He must be stopped before he awakens Dark Dragon."
The king gave Max a look not unlike that which the King of Guardiana had bestowed upon him, when laying the charge of the Shining Force upon an untried youth. His voice filled with the same sense of urgency and destiny, as he cried, "since my troops have failed, it's all up to you, Max."
Of course, Max had matured quite a bit, since that time. His face maintained it's bland expression, as he cooly returned, "certainly, your Majesty-as soon as we discuss the fee."
Kusuko's jaw dropped, and he stared at Max disbelievingly. "How... how can you say that?" He wondered, aghast. "Is the fate of the world not enough?"
"Oh, it was... until you threw me in your dungeon," Max retorted, his voice going chill. "Now it's going to cost you."
Kusuko's mouth worked without making any sound, as he worked to process this new information. "How... how much?"
"Well, let's see... for advance payment, how about new weapons, new armour, plenty of provisions, and oh, yes," Max's eyes narrowed, "I want any and all information you have that I or my scholars might require. No hesitation. No witholding. Or you can find some other legendary band to fight your battles."
Kusuko listened to these demands with disbelief, anger, chagrin, and finally, tentative acceptance. He nodded shortly. "Very well. Consider yourself Our guest, and your troops, as well." He raised his hand, and platters of tidbits were brought to the commander. "Rest for now, until We have decided whether to accede to your demands."
Max nodded, his teeth working away at a savory morsel. "You know, you people really do have very fine cuisine," he mumbled, reaching for a goblet of wine.
"What is going on?" complained the foreign teacher at the school, "I feel like they're teaching me!"
"Teacher!" cried a little boy, looking up from the scribbled notations on his pad, "that calculation is wrong. The correct answer is 34, 765, 492!" Max stared at the kid, glanced down at the elaborate series of equivalent expressions, then walked off, shaking his head.
Max and Mae returned to the castle to enjoy dining with the king. The preoccupation with food might have served as disguise for the wonders of Prompt, but the results were real enough-and the king reaped the benefit of the finest cooks of his land. Max discovered that snails could not only taste good, but in fact become an exquisite appetizer, the garlicky "escargo" seducing his taste buds like an experienced temptress. The wines were delicate touches, a differant vintage for each course, each flavor complementing that of the food. After the dessert pastries were served with hot black infusions, Max strolled the castle with Mae, hand in hand.
After exploring the more pedestrian sections of the castle, Max decided to tour the area behind the throne room. Beside the dungeon itself, there was a small room, a bedroom... an occupied bedroom. Max peered at the figure sleeping in the bed, then recoiled with a startled gasp. Behind him, Mae's eyes widened, then narrowed in a face contorted with rage.
"His name is Kane," said the king, standing behind them in the doorway. "Someone found him seriously injured, and I had him brought here." He came over to the bedside, and dipped a washcloth into a pitcher, using it to mop his guest's feverish brow.
"Do you have any idea who this IS?" Mae grated out, shaking with rage.
"Yes." The king peered down at him. "I also know what he did, and how he was controlled. He is as much a victim, as anyone."
Mae snarled. Literally, she snarled, like an enraged beast. "Tell that to my king. Tell that to my FATHER..."
"Is his condition contagious?" Max asked suddenly, shaking his head to fight off a sudden wave of dizziness.
"No, it's just an infection caused by a wound. But it won't heal, for some reason." The king was looking rather weak, as well. For that matter, so was Mae. Just like it was back when...
"Where's the Sword of Darkness?" Max demanded. Casting about, he saw the dark blade on the nightstand. Max took the blade up-and gasped in shock, as the drained feeling intensified. Gritting his teeth, he hurled the blade out the door, as far away as he could.
Almost immediately, all four of them felt much better. "So, his sword was as cursed as his mask," the king mused. "Very well. He should recover now."
"We'll be speaking with him, NOW..." Mae began.
"When Kane recovers his strength, you two can talk," the king retorted. "Just be patient."
"He's right, Mae," Max told her gently, "let's just go to bed." They started to make their way towards the door.
"P...please..." Kane stirred from his feverish dreams and fixed the king with as steady a gaze as he could muster. "King Kusuko... let Max... go to... the Tower of... the Ancients..."
The king bent down over him. "Rest, Kane. There will be time to talk later."
Kane began to thrash his head. "I... owe Max a great deal... please... let him go..." He passed out, again fading into the fevered slumber.
The king shook his head angrily. "I give in. Max! You'll get everything you demanded. You have Our permission to draw from the royal armories. Enter the Tower of the Ancients and stop Darksol!" He stomped off, ruefully mourning his soon to be depleted treasury.
"Let's go get some sleep, Mae," Max said, taking her hand.
She jerked it away. "What about him?" She gestured rudely at Kane.
"Mishaela tried to use one of those masks on me, too, Mae. And you know how powerful she was."
"She...?" Mae stared at Max, blinking her eyes. "And how did she get close enough to try?" she demanded.
"She..." Max began to falter, in the presence of a jealous female. "She... tried to..."
Mae's face grew cold. "You didn't."
"No! Of course not! She just, uh... kissed me..."
Mae's lips pressed into a tight line. "And what did you do?"
"Um, well... once I realized what she was trying to do... I took the mask away from her. She had it hidden behind her back."
Mae glared at him, unwilling to give him an inch. "Fine." She left it at that, and stalked off, leaving Max to wonder what she meant by that one word. He followed her to bed, and spent an uncomfortable night. She pushed him away everytime he tried to hold her, keeping her back turned to him at all times-not an especially difficult task considering the size of a centaur's back.
The next morning, Max assigned Amon, confined by the egg burgeoning in her belly, to quartermaster duty. In between work on assembling her nest, an intricate affair of the freshest straw available, she supervised the Prompt soldiers bringing in new provisions and arms. The weapons were made of an alloy unknown to any of them, lighter than steel, yet virtually indestructable. Max called in tailors, to take their measurements for armor made of the same. Kochichi, for his part, requested-and got-sheets of the stuff, along with access to the ancient machinery required to cut and shape it, to replace large portions of his flying pack with the lightweight yet strong substance. Hardy travelling versions of the exquisite Prompt foodstuffs went into the wagons.
Anri and Tao spent their days with Nova, deep in the castle library, poring over the ancient manuscripts. Max let them alone. He also left Mae alone, while she maintained her cold silence towards him. Once she'd made it quite clear that she had no intention of forgiving him any time soon, he went to sit by Kane's bedside with a good book.
He'd almost finished yet another chapter when Kane finally woke. "...Max...?" Kane murmured, blinking his eyes.
"I'm here, Kane." Max shut the book with a sigh, then looked down at his fallen foe. The fever had broken, leaving him pale and exhausted looking. Max poured a glass of water, and helped Kane sip the cool fluid.
"Thank you," Kane managed, when he'd drained the glass. He lay his head back, resting. "When do you leave?" he asked.
"Ah." Kane sighed. "I wish I could join you. I... would have been..."
"I know. Hush."
Kane closed his eyes for a time, seeming to doze. "Max?" he asked suddenly.
"Where's... what happened to..." he swallowed. "Where is Mishaela?"
Max debated how to break the news. Finally, he decided to be bluntly honest. "I killed her."
Kane stared up at the ceiling for a time, uncomprehending. Then he began to laugh, quietly, bitterly.
"I'm sorry, Kane," Max offered.
"Sorry? Sorry?!" Kane laughed harder. "Don't be! Only fair..." he shook with uncontrollable laughter, tears streaming down his face.
"Calm down," Max told him. "Stop it, Kane. Stop it!"
"I... I can't..." Kane continued to laugh hysterically. Max drew back his hand and slapped him across the face. Kane's hysteria broke, and he slumped in the bed, reduced to quiet tears.
"So you did love her." Max peered at him wonderingly.
"Yes." Kane began to whimper. "She came to me, after you freed me. She wanted me to come back of my own accord. I was so angry at her, I couldn't forgive her. So I..." He swallowed, and shook his head, salty tears sent flying.
"Do you know of the Ritual of Nightmare Summoning?" Max nodded in the affirmative. "Mishaela told me about it. Her deepest fear... her... greatest terror... was to be alone. And I left her alone. She died alone... because of me..." His breaths came in shuddering inhalations, faint keening exhalations. "My anger killed her..." Kane flung his arms over his head, covering his face. "Just go, Max. Please, just leave me alone!"
Max encountered Mae, outside the door. He stared her in the eye, waiting for her to make the first move. "I heard everything." She swallowed, hard. "I don't... I don't want us to die angry at each other." Then they were in each others arms, their lips seeking each other out. His feet dangling around her knees. His arms twined around her neck for both physical and emotional support, while her strong arms held him tight.
When they finally drew back for air, she looked him in the eye. "Let's go to bed, now."
"It's still the afternoon," Max protested.
Mae fixed him with a wicked gleam. "Don't you know the best part about making up?"
Long, long afterward, after a skipped dinner, after a long, wonderful reconciliation, Max held Mae tight. "I love you," he told her, for the umpteenth time that evening.
"I love you, too," she returned, for the umpteenth time. She sighed, clasping her arms around his, holding her from behind. "I don't know if I can hate him, anymore," she admitted. "Even after all he did, he doesn't deserve..." She sighed.
"No one deserves to lose their love."
"Well, actually..." began the man.
"All right," Max sighed, "What did Gort and Luke do this time?"
The innkeeper blinked. "Nothing-this time. No, you've got a message."
"So lay it on me."
"I can't. It's on the wall outside." He escorted Max outside, to where words had been carved into the wall. And after handing the innkeeper money to fix the defaced building, Max read the inscription carefully.
"I am Musashi the Samurai. I have come at King Kusuko's behest, to join the fight against evil. I await at headquarters."
"Lovely." Max sneered. "Another nutcase to stick on the front lines." He headed out to HQ to meet his newest recruit. He wasn't hard to spot, either. A short, squat, powerful looking human, wearing armor made of the Prompt metal, cut into small plates and arranged like the scales of a fish, stood toe to hoof-and nose to navel-with Mae, snarling from behind a helmet shaped like a horned demon with a fierce mustache. "Stand aside, creature!" the man snarled. "I would speak with your master, not with his PET!"
When a male loves a female, he becomes very protective of her. And of her honor. The strange man went flying through the air, after Max rushed up and threw him over his shoulder. He lit rolling, coming to his feet with a curved sword held in clenched fists. "Kee-YUP!" The strange warrior cried, lashing out with his blade. As he cut, a flash of energy coursed from his blade, in a conflagration similar to that thrown by Zylo or Gong in battle.
Max sidestepped the blast, then snorted. "Not bad, jerk. But my sword shoots out, too!" And a touch of the buttons sent a laser blast flying from the Sword of Light. The swordsman leapt to one side, as the wall behind him erupted in a cloud of superheated gas and debris.
"Hah!" cried the stranger. "You are the Hero, Max, then?"
Max nodded, eyes narrowed, blade in hanging guard.
"Then you are the one I have come to find." The swordsman reversed his blade, offering it to Max hilt first, as he knelt in the street before him. "I am Musashi, Samurai in the service of King Kusuko, and I am yours to command."
Max pursed his lips, staring thoughtfully. Then he holstered his Sword. "Very well, Musashi. Welcome aboard." He reached out and took Musashi's wrist, clasping his arm firmly and bringing him to his feet.
Musashi bowed deeply. "I shall be honored to serve as your second in command."
Max did a double take. "You... may be confused. Mae," he jerked his head in Mae's direction, "is my Lieutenant."
Musashi stared at the centaur, aghast, then turned back to Max. "But, my Commander, she is a mere animal, and a female besides. Surely..."
As Max began to swell with rage, Mae interupted. "I'll handle this, Commander," she told him, in a deceptively sweet tone. Max recognized it, and shuddered, stepping back instinctively. The last time she'd spoken in that tone, she'd immediately followed by stomping a dwarf into the ground so thoroughly that they'd "buried" him afterward via the simple expediency of kicking a little dirt over him.
Hips and tail swaying, Mae stepped up to Musashi, a demure little smile playing about her lips. As the smile slowly broadened into a cheerfully nasty grin, her hand snaked around the metal gorget protecting his throat, and her arm muscled knotted, lifting him high into the air, to stare straight into his eyes.
"I've fought my way across two continents, against every species of foe imaginable, for over two years, now," she told him brightly. "I've killed things that were alive, I've put things that were dead back in the ground, and I've taken apart things that the Ancients put together. How much combat have YOU seen?"
Musashi choked out, "I've served my lord for over fifteen years."
"But not in combat, huh?" Mae straightened her arm further, lifting him high overhead. "Piss me off again, and they'll POUR you into your coffin." Her grip loosened, and he fell to the ground, landing heavily on his feet. "Do you understand?"
Musashi glared at Mae, then glanced at Max. "Very... well. I will obey."
"Good!" Max smiled, clapping Musashi on the back. "Then go report to Amon, our Quartermaster, and Nova, my advisor. Oh, and Musashi," he added, as the Samurai began to walk off, "don't forget to compliment Amon on her nest. Birdmen can be very sensitive about those things." His smile twisted slightly, mocking the man.
Musashi nodded heavily, stomping off.
"Idiot." Mae sniffed.
"Give him a chance, dear," Max smiled, then slapped her rump affectionately. "Let's get going, huh?"
As they reached the second floor landing and out onto the wide roof atop which the actual tower, a long thin structure, rested, the monsters of Runefaust detected their approach. "Stop them!" cried their commander, a nasty looking wizard, "Lord Darksol must not be disturbed!"
Max charged ahead, Musashi and Mae at his side, the stumpy legged dwarves trailing behind. As he reached the top of the first flight of stairs, he encountered his first foe, a hideous worm, over 30 feet in length. Darksol's been hardpressed to find replacements for Mishaela's summoned creatures, thought Max, and all the regular troops we've killed hasn't helped, either. The thought gave him no small amount of personal satisfaction, as he cut into the disgusting thing with his Sword, causing it to jerk back in pain, thrashing about madly. Then he aimed the blade at the thing's centerline and fired, flicking his wrist to make the beam sear a path across the worm's hide. The brute writhed about in agony, and he moved past it, leaving the thing for the axes of the dwarves.
Mae had charged past Max, in the meanwhile, aiming her coached lance at a war machine, hovering above the stones in a threatening posture. The lance, taken from Prompt's armory, pierced the metal hull of the thing, which dropped heavily as something vital within was destroyed. As she kicked the scrap off her lance with both front hooves, Musashi sought out his own foe, another of the Ancient robots. With a deafening shriek of battle, he struck, the razor edge of his blade biting heavily into the robot's armor. All but severed in twain, the machine collapsed before him, and the Samurai strode forward, a fierce grin on his face.
The battle moved on, along the tower. Max glanced upwards to see his aerial forces doing battle with a couple of wyverns. With nothing to be done to help them, he turned his attention back to another worm, and busied himself with frying the thing to a crisp.
"No!" cried the wizard, "I will not let you... AAAHH!" As the dark master continued to scream, an oversized Bleu grasped him in his claws, flying out over the pavilion, the let him go. "AAAAAHHHH!" The wizard screamed in utter terror, as he sailed through the air, only to be cut short with a sickening thud. Max stepped up to where the wizard's broken form lay on the stones, his breathing shallow, slow, and punctuated by the nasty gurgling sound of fluid in the lungs.
"Lord Darksol..." the wizard moaned in a barely recognizable voice, "I have failed... they're coming... into the tower..." Max finished him off quickly, then moved on, rushing up the steps to the top of the tower.
At the top, he found yet another room, this one filled with boxes-and two occupants, a pretty female werewolf, and an elderly halfling. "Are you the reinforcements?" one of them asked, clutching herself above a nasty cut, trying to stem the bleeding.
Max nodded shortly. "I'm Max. Commander of the Shining Force."
The werewolf's jaw dropped, both from the shock recognition, and the shock of severe wounds. "Never mind us," she finally said. "Keep going... Darksol... top of tower... hurry...."
The halfling bent over her arm, trying to heal her wounds with holy power, and not succeeding very well. "We can't go on... you must stop Darksol..."
"Right," Max said, curtly. "Mae," he called to his Lieutenant, as she charged in the door, "get these two healed up. I'm going ahead."
"Don't... worry about us..." the werewolf complained, "get Darksol before... it's too late..." Max ignored her, waving as Lowe and Khris moved in, to stabilize their wounds.
"Maybe you are... strong enough... to succeed where we... failed...." the halfling moaned. Max charged past them, and up yet another staircase.
My legs are getting tired, he thought to himself.
"Too late, Max!" Darksol's voice boomed from the roof, as Max reached the very top. Max leapt into a ready stance, teeth bared in hatred. Darksol merely laughed.
"It has begun!" he waved his hands at the altar before him. "The Castle of the Ancients is rising from the depths. Soon I will awaken Dark Dragon and he will rule the world!"
Max responded with a blast from the Sword. The beam slammed into Darksol's magical barriers and was absorbed in a pulsing flash of light. Darksol sneered. "And now, the time to end your meddling is here!" He raised his hands. "I call upon the Darkness to crush this.... No! It cannot be!"
As Darksol whirled about in shock, Max's gaze was drawn to the figure that appeared behind him. "Kane!" Darksol swore.
"Yes, Darksol." Kane's face was a study in grim determination. "And this time I will stop you! For everything you made me do!" He drew his new sword, a blade of good Prompt metal. "And for the way you twisted my Mishaela's heart for your own purposes!"
"Fool!" Darksol spat back. "I am now many times mightier than when we last met. Your doom is here!" And with that, the dark energies that the disciple of evil had intented for Max went slamming into Kane, instead.
"Arrrggghhh!" Kane screamed in pain, his flesh sizzling from beneath his armor
"Kane!" Max cried. "Darksol!" He charged in, lashing out. Darksol fell back, as his barrier began to give way beneath Max's attacks.
"I have no more time to waste with you two," he sneered. "Dark Dragon awaits!" He teleported away. Max cursed under his breath, then rushed to his fallen... friend.
"I'm dying..." Kane gasped, clutching the hand Max offered as he knelt beside him.
"No," Max refuted, "my healers are downstairs. We'll get you..."
"It's okay, Max..." Kane coughed weakly, his eyes bright with tears. "Maybe I'll get to see Mishaela again..." He sighed. "At least she won't be alone... in death..."
"Max... go to... Metapha..." He began to shiver. "Hurry!" His shivering became more violent. Then it stopped.
And Kane, the fallen hero of Protectoria, lay dead.
Max continued to kneel before the corpse, his eyes bright with tears. His eyes slowly raised to the heavens, to the One that his healers worshiped, that he served. "Please," he implored. "Please let them be together. Let them know a little happiness in death. I won't ask for anything else. Just let their pain have an end, at last." He lowered his eyes, and his head, weeping quietly.
Behind him, Lowe silently raised his hand in benediction. Too quietly for the self absorbed Commander to hear, he chanted.
"Thy will be done. Amen."
"We are doomed, Max!" the King whimpered, pulling on his beard. "Darksol is awakening Dark Dragon. It cannot be stopped!"
"No!" cried a familiar voice. "Do not give up. All is not yet lost!" And a robed and cowled figure with three eyes rushed into the room.
"Who are you to barge into my throne room?" the King demanded, as Musashi drew his blade in defense of his king.
"I am Otrant of Manarina, King Kusuko," the mysterious archmage explained soothingly, raising sleeved arms in peace. "Have you heard of the Chaos Breaker?"
"Yes," the King mused, "a sword spoken of in ancient legends..."
"When ultimate evil arises, a Sword of both Light and Darkness can defeat the evil." Otrant recited the legend from memory. "Max has the Sword of Light, and Kane had the Sword of Darkness...."
"Kane left it with me." Kusuko waved for servants to fetch the Dark blade. "Max, take both Swords to Metapha. Once there, you can create the Chaos Breaker." As the servants entered, bearing a long chest made of lead, he waved. "Here is the Sword of Darkness."
"I'll keep it in that chest, your Majesty, if that's all right." Max curled the hefty container under his arm.
The King nodded. "Now, leave for Metapha!" he cried, again resorting to a voice filled with urgent destiny. "Create the Chaos Breaker and stop Darksol!" And even though he was long since inured to such manipulations, Max played the part anyway, bowing deeply with a flourish.
"As you wish it, Your Majesty!" he returned, mimicing Kusuko's tones perfectly, to the point of satire. He whirled with a flourish of his cape, and strode off.
"Let's see if this works," Max muttered, raising up the Orb of Light. The softly glowing ball illuminated the chamber, including the eye symbol. As if the symbol were an eye in truth, it... blinked? and split in two, as the wall parted into the surrounding stone, revealing a tunnel. Max continued to hold up the Orb to light the dark passage, and stepped in. Behind him, Mae, Musashi, and a handpicked team followed, ready for trouble.
Not far into the cave, they came across a teleporter, of the sort found at the Shining Path in Waral. Max hesitated a moment, then stepped on. As he stepped off the receiving platform, the others followed.
"Place seems a little run down," Max noted, glancing about. He stepped up to a strange elevated platform, and glanced at the plaque affixed to one side. "...and two heros will appear after 1,000 years." Max's eyebrow arched, and he sniffed. "I hope both heroes weren't supposed to stay alive for the duration, or we're in trouble."
"You are too late." Max whirled, as did the others. Only his hand held up in restraint kept them from attacking out of panic. The figure that advanced bore no resemblance to anything they'd seen before, except possibly the durahans created by Mishaela. Metal armor in the shape of a man, with the helmet floating above the breastplate... and two glowing white eyes peering out from beneath the visor. "Darksol took the key to the Accursed Door."
"Who are you?" Max demanded.
"I am Adam. Go to the eye symbol and use the Orb of Light." It waved it's arm to the side, gesturing at...
"Another Pool of the Ancients?" Max blinked, then nodded. He stepped up to the symbol. The light of the Orb mingled with the watery glow, just as before. "Hello, my Lady," Max greeted the spirit, when the light had cleared.
"I know about Kane," the spirit began without prelude. "Darksol has the key and is on his way to revive Dark Dragon."
"What can be done?" Max asked.
"The Chaos Breaker may be able to reseal Dark Dragon if Darksol frees him."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," Max set his mouth in a grim line.
"Follow Adam. He will lead you to where you can create the Chaos Breaker."
Max turned, and faced Adam expectantly. "And you are...?"
"I am Adam," the thing repeated, "a robot soldier. I will show you how to create the Chaos Breaker." He moved forward, stepping past the assembled warriors, Max in tow. Past the strange platform and mysterious devices they moved, until they came to a door, freshly sealed. And in front of it, another robot.
"Screech!" it roared, the horrible noise of a buzzsaw on metal. "Kill... kill..."
"Stop!" Adam commanded, stepping forward. "You are Chaos. You have been reprogrammed by Darksol. Revert to original function."
"Screech... go away!" It raised one arm, pointing the lens that served it for a hand, and fired a beam of light. Adam crackled with the electronic equivalent of a scream, as he collapsed in a heap, his torso cored by the beam.
Max swore, drawing the Sword of Light. The increased illumination revealed more figures, in the recesses. "Looks like you're not the only 'robot' Darksol reprogrammed," Max cursed, falling into a guard. The machines moved in on the warriors, targeting the nearest warrior to engage. Chaos, however, made a beeline straight for Max.
Max ducked out of the way of a swipe of the hand on Chaos' other arm, calling out to Mae. "Take charge!" Then he devoted himself to fending off the attacks of this devestating automaton. For her part, Mae responded with verve. A single command sent the knights in a charge against the machines that most closely resembled the Laser Eye that she'd destroyed so long ago. The brave centaurs barely flinched as the robots spat beams of light, which seemed to sizzle with the promise of death... only to bounce off their mirror bright armor, with nary a mark. As coached lances pierced the metallic hulls and ravaged the interiors, the robots shuddered, collapsing in a tangled heap. Musashi and the dwarves busied themselves with obscenely shaped things that floated above the ground, attempting to ram them with their massive bodies.
Max met the next hooking punch with his glowing blade. Chaos reeled back, it's arm falling away in a burst of vaporized metal, turned into a cloud of gas by the awful energies of his blade. The next slash hit Chaos on it's other arm, near the shoulder, removing the terrible weapon before it could bring it to bay. His final blow, a thrust to the torso, sent the robot crashing to the ground several feet away, it's eyes flashing. "This unit... now ceases to function... mission incomplete... system failure..."
"Hurry up and die," Max snarled, moving on to help his people. Soon, the short, yet brutal melee, was over.
"Some of these guys were alive," Mae noted, nudging a corpse with her lance. She bent over to inspect. "Yes, Darksol didn't seem to trust his new recruits without his mages on hand to coordinate."
"Lot of good it did them." Gort snorted.
Kokichi and Guntz, meanwhile, had attended to the fallen Adam. "Max," Kokichi called, "I think I can save him. But I'm not sure."
"Do what you can," Max replied. "Do whatever it takes. And do your best. I'm going on ahead." And he did, opening up the sealed door and moving on to the next room. This proved to be yet another Pool, with several plaques set about it's shores. Max read each in turn.
"Those who seek the Chaos Breaker must prove themselves..." Max moved on, "Use Light on the left altar, Darkness on the right..." "...The Chaos Breaker is forged from Light and Darkness. It appears on the center altar..." "...Take the Chaos Breaker from the central altar and go forth to battle evil!"
"The writing on the stone slabs explains what you must do." The spirit spoke to Max, her voice echoing through the chamber. "Read them and obey."
The left altar was not only formed of the same material as the rest of the chamber, but it's surface was painted a once brilliant white, now tarnished by age. Max held the Sword over the altar, the hole from whence the blade issued pointing downard. A complicated looking claw device opened up. With a slight feeling of trepidation at losing his precious weapon, Max lowered the Sword into place. The claw closed, locking the Sword of Light into position. A soft humming emanated from the altar, as the altar began to drain the Sword of it's power.
Max moved on, to the altar of Darkness. It's black paint was now a dusty brown, faded by the ravages of time. Mae stepped up behind him, holding the heavy chest containing the Sword of Darkness. With a grimace, Max opened the chest, fighting off the wave of dizziness as he clasped the Sword's hilt. Oddly, he began to feel enervated, as if the energies sucked up by the Sword were being channeled into him. Yet at the same time, he felt even more drained, almost... dirty. Grating his teeth in disgust, he plunged the blade into the claw lock.
"Is that what you felt, Kane, when you wielded that Sword?" Max wondered. He had no further time to wonder, as the central altar began to hum. All three altars began to throb with power, as the process continued.
Then it stopped.
Max glanced at Mae uncertaintly. The altar of Light continued to hum, yet the altar of Darkness issued nothing but a grating noise. Max looked at the altar. Then he whacked it with the palm of his hand. The grating noise stopped, and the process resumed.
Finally, it ended. And the hilt of a new blade slowly revealed itself, hoisted up by a claw within the central altar. With barely contained excitement, Max went to this new blade.
The grip felt as if it were molded to his hand. With a slight smile, Max hoisted the Sword up to face level, and pressed the stud. A blade of bright green flashed forth, differant from either the Sword of Light or the Sword of Darkness. To make things even stranger, this blade was sharply defined. Unlike the blade of Light, which had been a mere rod, this one had a clearly defined edge, which seemed to sparkle even more clearly than the blade itself. Max's smile grew into a broad grin.
Beyond the central altar, another door opened. Max moved on, Mae and Musashi in tow. Yet another Pool? The spirit's voice... "Use the Chaos Breaker to stop Darksol. I have done all I can. The rest is up to you!"
"Can you give me any further answers?" Like what you really are, for one, he mused...
The spirit shook her head. "Adam can answer your questions. Go now, Max. The hopes of all of Rune go with you!" And she faded away.
"I will not fail, spirit!" Max promised. "The people I've lost in this war won't let me!"
"Thank you for repairing me," it said, holding up it's own arm to inspect it. The elaborate mechanisms that allowed individual parts to float in seeming midair had been replaced by hard metal supports, and it's body moved somewhat more stiffly as a result. But the personality, and the memories, remained intact.
"We were honored to do so," Guntz said, idly playing with a tool, before stretching his wiry, unarmored frame. Kokichi nodded agreement.
"Can you tell me about the Chaos Breaker?" Max pressed. "How does it work?"
Adam hummed a moment, considering. "Are you willing to spend the time necessary to obtain the education needed to understand my explanation?"
"Estimated... twelve years..."
"Okay... Just tell me this: can I rely on it in battle?"
"Affirmative." Adam's eyes flashed with what might have been humor.
"That's good enough." Max shook his head and turned away.
"Help us take the rest of these spare parts back with us," Kokichi pressed the robot, as Guntz climbed back into his armor. "Should come in handy." Adam's eyes flashed again, and he began to assist in the scavenging effort.
As the rest of the team threw themselves into the task, Max headed back to Prompt. Over a delicious assortment of tidbits, Max displayed the Chaos Breaker for all to behold, activating the deadly energy blade. Otrant's delicate little mouth, visible beneath the hood, curved in a smile. "At last, the Chaos Breaker!"
"The one and only." Max relayed the tale of Adam and the robots, and the forging of the Sword.
King Kusuko, in turn, discussed history, the very backdrop against which current events were cast.
"Long ago, Max, the Ancients founded the cities of Guardiana and Runefaust. Though back then, Runefaust was called Protectora..."
"Until Darksol came, you mean."
"Hmph... Where was I? Oh, yes. Guardiana held the western Gate of the Ancients, while Protectora held the eastern. Though Protectora has fallen into evil hands, the gate remains and still functions. Darksol entered the Castle of the Ancients through the eastern gate."
"What!? Already?" Max felt a sudden chill.
"You must enter Runefaust and fight your way to the gate."
Max shuddered. "You don't ask much, do you? I'll be facing everything Runefaust has left to throw at us."
Otrant joined in. "You must go to Runefaust now. There is no time to waste."
The king nodded. "My treasury is gutted on your behalf. Whatever provisions I can provide, are yours. It's all I can do, but I hope it will prove enough."
Max nodded. "Thanks."
"There are friends even within Runefaust, Max," Otrant offered. "See Mahato there. He is honest and can help you."
"Mahato. Right." Max nodded again, to both the archmage and king. "Guess there's nothing for it but to win or die."
Kusuko grimaced tightly, and returned the nod. As a servant brought forth goblets of wine, Kusuko's gaze fixed Max's eyes. As they took the goblets, he led them in a toast. "Good luck, Max!"
They drained their goblets, then shattered them against the far wall.
Next to Max, Mae shivered and suppressed a gasp, as Lowe tended to her leg, and the open fracture, clean white bone poking through the flesh. As Max held her hand comfortingly, Lowe removed the fragments of lead from the bullet that had struck her, pulled the bone back into position, and mended the flesh with her magic. At Lowe and Max' insistence, she remained prone a while longer, until the Vicar judged her bones sufficiently strengthened to bear her weight.
Next to them, Pelle and Ernest stood guard, the other centaurs at work looting the corpses. After consideration, Max had divided the force, putting Mae in command of the other Paladins-an assault force; Anri in charge of a rear guard, with the other Wizards, Gong, and Gort and Luke; Musashi in charge of the harrassment group, with the snipers whitling down the enemy forces with explosive charges, Guntz and himself to defend against attack, and Khris to heal; and Nova driving the wagon train, kept as far behind the action as possible, with a contentedly nesting Amon, and with Adam, Torasu, and Jogurt in charge of the supplies. As Bleu, Balbaroy, and Domingo performed invaluable recon duties, Max put his Egress spell to full use, teleporting between groups, accompanying them to each new temporary base camp, then teleporting back to another to join them. Kept on the verge of exhaustion by covering the same distance four times over, he compensated by sleeping in the wagons as they trundled along, or resting on Mae's back as she led the assault team. Rather than engage in pitched battles, the Shining Force enaged in the same guerilla actions as when facing the forces of General Elliot. Attacking the minotaurs, magi, and centaurs by ambushes and fading into the terrain, they slowly but determinedly advanced towards Runefaust itself.
When Mae was once more able to stand, Max began assigning orders to return to the temporary camp, to set up for the night. Then, he teleported back to the wagons-to find himself in the midst of a force of charging minataurs. Instinctively recoiling, he drew his Sword, only to realize that the monsters were running away, not towards, stepping around him in their haste to flee the wagons.
What's happening? Max wondered. Then dropped to the ground as the sound of gunfire raked the air. Rolling towards the wagons, he slid between the wheels and cast about wildly, searching for his comrades. "Nova!" he called.
The gunfire ceased.
As Max watched from his position of safety, Jogurt hopped out of one of the wagons. "Max?" he called out, in his high pitched voice.
"Right here." Max cautiously slid out from underneath the wagon.
"Are they gone?" Jogurt asked.
"The minataurs, yes. Whoever was shooting..." Max trailed off, searching the rocky terrain with his eyes.
"It's okay, Max," Nova said, climbing out from another wagon. "That was Jogurt."
Max turned to Jogurt with raised brows. "I used my helmet," he explained, again producing the startling sound of the machine guns used by the skeletons Runefaust had thrown against them lately. "I think I scared them off."
"I think so, too," Max said drily. "You certainly scared me." He climbed into Amon's wagon, and after reassuring the frightened mother, curled up within her nest, and curled into sleep next to the precious egg and the birdwoman. He barely registered Amon folding additional bedding around them both, as his adrenaline levels dropped and he lost consciousness, not so much falling asleep as passing out.
They continued on, in this vein, until reaching the borders of Runefaust itself. Runefaust, in classic paranoid military fashion, had surrounded it's borders with a high, thick wall of strong stone, with but a single gatehouse. With nothing to be done for it, Max arranged the convergance of the Shining Force, and laid siege to the gates. Fortunately, Runefaust's forces were depleted to the point that only a handful of skeletons stood watch. Unfortunately, they were armed with those machine guns. After long consultation, Max decided on a plan, with Anri and Mae.
Coming as close as possible to the guardhouse itself, Anri and Domingo froze the greenery surrounding it, until dew became frost then became ice. After this, Tao and Alef unleashed their own magics, burning the greenery, and filling the air with dense smoke and mist. With the very air before the gatehouse obscured, Max, Musashi, Guntz, and the dwarves made it to the gate itself, reaching the entrance under the covering smog. The Chaos Breaker proved sufficient to penetrate the thick steel of the gate, and the warriors quickly busied themselves with crushing the skeletons to bits. Once this had been done, they lowered the banner of Runefaust... and raised the banner of Guardiana, both heralding their triumph, and signaling the others.
The wagons trundled through the gate one at a time, as Mae oversaw the looting of the gatehouse for useful supplies. Max stood upon the threshold, staring out at the lands that were Runefaust, lost in thought. His mind wandered back and forth, between the friends he'd lost, the enemies he'd known and slain, the wrongs Darksol had wrought, their triumphs, all they'd seen and done. "It's almost over," he said, even as Nova came up to stand beside him.
"It's been a long road," Nova agreed. "But we're almost there."
"Kind of makes you wonder, doesn't it?" Max' lips quirked in a faint smile.
"What we'll do for a living after this is all over."
Nova stared at him a moment, then burst out laughing. "I'm sure we'll all find something to do. But for now, Max, into Runefaust!"
"Yes." Max turned away, in the direction of the city, and the final reckoning.
"Let's finish this."
Author's note: Finally, after well over a year on hiatus, I finally finish the next chapter. First, let me explain why this chapter took so long.
Did you know computers can fall apart from overuse? I'm serious. My old computer, a Pentium 90, fell apart in September of 2001. The CPU itself fried to a crisp, as did the hard drive, with the initial copy of this chapter... and my roms, savestates, etc. Finally, several months ago, Constance Drachenfals, a long time supporter of my works, sent me his own savestates, and I was able to resume the work. After that, it became a matter of hammering through writer's block, finding time to work on my stories, etc.
In the past year, I've increased my own knowledge of a number of issues. In particular, I've been studying to aquire an EMT-B(Emergency Medical Technician-Basic), a required certification for becoming a firefighter these days. As such, I've got even more medical knowledge to add to my descriptions of Lowe and co. and their ministrations of battlewounds. Unfortunately, my efforts to learn to speak Thai have not born similar fruit. I'll just have to start trying again. Not that the Thai language will affect this story... but I'd still like to learn it...
Dustin, from the Western Martial Arts forum, I salute you. Though you will probably never read this, I owe whatever accuracy I have in the field of energy blades to your technical explanations. For the rest of you, Dustin explained how a laser blade would not cut, so much as superheat the tissues into a gaseous explosion. That's why Max' victims don't fall apart so much as fly backwards in a spray of steam, chunks of their bodies converted into red mist. Once I started discussing the Sword of Darkness, Dustin became seriously... irritated, with my theories and questions. Essentially, it drains energy, all energy around it in general, and the energy of whatever comes into contact with the field of the "blade" in particular. I thought to call it an entropy field, but entropy, according to Dustin, is more of a concept than a specific force, a theory like chaos, rather than an established condition like time. With that, my concept for the Chaos Breaker collapsed, and I went with a more pragmatic solution that Dustin suggested. "Does it work?" "Yes." "Good enough." It's a sword with a cutting blade of pure energy. How it works, I cannot say. If a student of physics reads this and has a better answer, feel free to e-mail me.
I'm glad I finally got the scenes with Kaine and Mishaela out of the way. Now, if/when I run out of steam on Ch. 8, I can set to work on a companion tale, concerning Mishaela and Kaine, their relationship, their lives and deaths, that I was loathe to set down without laying out this groundwork first. I hope you enjoyed reading it. And learned a lesson from their pain.
I won't spell the lesson out, since looking back on the afterwords for each chapter now, a year after first writing them, I find them a little... pretentious. No big deal. I'm sure I'll find something to groan about with these words, in a year or so. We live, we learn, we grow.
Moving on now, to Chapter 8, and the end of the established tale as set within the game itself. Later!