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Shining Force: Chapter 2




The town of Rindo was a bustling seaport, filled with entertainments, merchants, and rumors. In itís harbor, ships from many ports far and wide came to trade exotic goods. Itís theaters were famous for their great actors and playwrights, itís streets filled with street performers. Circuses occasionally came to town to delight the tourists, and carnivals were held by the town whenever things got too slow. On one sunny afternoon, the townspeople and tourists were treated to a new sight. Out on the grassy plain where circuses and carnivals customarily were held, a ragtag team of warriors trained intensely. Two dwarven axemen practiced shield parries and ax chops, in both two man competitive drills and two man team drills against imagined opponents. An elven archer shot his arrows at a target fully 100 yards away. Two elves and a halfling sparred with staves, while two centaurs took turns tilting at a ball on a string, trying to hit dead center at full speed. And a human whom most would call a fool or madman, was wrestling with an ogre.

"Hhhnn," cried Max, as he desperately strained against Gongís arm, pitting the strength of his entire body in an attempt to straighten the arm in an elbow hyperextension. Gong gave a similar grunt, and tore his arm free, then spun about and jumped on Max. Max wrapped his legs about Gongís waist in the guard position, and began desperately parrying Gongs attempts to lock his arms or choke him out. He fought with every ounce of strength he had, until he finally gave out. Gong stood up, swaying a little unsteadily himself, then used his spiritual strength to restore Max.

"All right, thatís enough for today," called out Max. Wiping the sweat off his face with a towel, he continued, "Iím giving everyone a two day leave. Weíll wait until the day after tomorrow before we head for Manarina."

"All right!" "Yes!" "Letís check out the theater!" "Iím headed to the bar, myself." The Shining Force headed for the Wayside Inn, to clean up and change clothes, before heading out, Max included.

After soaking a bit in a large bucket of soapy water, Max donned a tunic and leggings, topping it off with a set of boots and a comfortable cloak. He buckled his sword, then took a moment to examine himself in the mirror.

For six months now, the Shining Force had traveled northward. In that time, they had fought many a bandit, and served many small towns in defense against an assortment of thieves, wild predators, and even a scruffy old mage who lived in a dungeon with a penchant for frightening the wits out of the locals. In that time they had acquired a small but growing reputation as a mercenary outfit who could get things done.

In that time Max had seen his birthday come and go, gained two inches of height, and a considerable amount of muscle. He now resembled a strapping lad less and less, and a muscular young man more and more. Smiling at his reflection for a moment, he turned and walked out of his room. "Hey Lowe," he called to his old friend, "how about joining me at the theater?"

Lowe shook his head. "Iím going with Khris to see the local Abbot. Why donít you ask Mae," he said, jerking his head over at Mae, who had just walked out of her own room, hair loosely caught up in a ponytail, and her human torso covered with a light blue shirt that showed off her décolletage nicely, as well as both a simple chain necklace, and a similar chain strung about her waist to accessorize her equine chest. She raised one eyebrow at Max.

"Sure, I was heading that way myself. Letís go, kid," and she walked down the staircase to the main room. Max stared after her a second, then followed.

The Rindo Theater was housed in a large, elegant building, consisting of a little entrance foyer, a large hall and stage, and large complex of back rooms for the props, actors, and stagehands. Fully half the building was concealed from the sight of the audience, fully 90% of the stagecraft diverted from their gaze.

The ticket master stood behind his table, calling out, "Come one, come all! Come see ĎThe Glory of Runefaust!í Come watch the mighty army of Runefaust trounce the Guardiana army! Watch as..." Max and Mae both stared at the ticket master a moment, their faces red with anger. Almost against their will, Max paid for two tickets, and they went to their places, Max sitting in a chair, Mae standing next to him in the aisle.

Their anger only increased as the play commenced. Actors dressed as shining knights bearing the arms of Runefaust, trounced a team of inept warriors led by a human actor who bore a surprising resemblance to Max. Before the actors had even finished taking their final bows, Max and Mae had stormed out of the theater. "Too weak to live, my ass," growled Max, "WE beat THEM off..."

They went off to a local restaurant to cool off. Max ordered himself a large hot sandwich, made with chicken and swiss cheese and a mug of milk, while Mae ordered herself a large bowl of oatmeal and a tankard of ale. Flushing slightly at her smile, Max added a second tankard of ale to the order.

After chomping down on his sandwich for a bit, Max took a sip of his ale. He managed to swallow it, making a face at the bitter taste. "Ugh, is there ANYTHING to recommend this besides alcohol?" he spat.

Mae laughed softly. "Adults donít need everything to be sweet, kiddo," she mocked him, taking another bite of oatmeal. Max flushed.

"You know, I AM supposed to be your commanding officer," he mumbled, "I donít see why I have to put up with your constant abuse." Mae shrugged.

"Probably has something to do with your constantly ogling me whenever you think Iím not looking," she said, her smile widening. Max flushed brighter, then looked down.

"You wanted dessert?" he asked shortly, trying to hide his embarrassment.

Mae nodded, and when the waitress came by again, she asked for "something sweet, and sticky," glancing at Max as she did so.

"Iíd suggest the peach pie." Mae nodded and the waitress went off to fetch the pie. Max sat and brooded for a bit, then he suddenly looked up with a smile.

"I thought you Ďadultsí didnít need sweet stuff," he taunted. Mae froze, a forkful of pie halfway to her lips, and blushed. Max laughed, and promptly paid for both of them, in a much better humor then before.

After eating, they walked for a bit, strolling around town. After a time, they stopped before a house, from which loud clanking noises and shrill whistles issued. Looking at each other, they shrugged and looked back at the house. Then they both ducked as a spear went flying through the door, embedding itís head in the wall of the building behind them. Max swore sharply, then drew his sword and charged in.

He stopped upon seeing the inside of the building. The entire room was filled with strange contraptions that blew steam or smoke or both. An old man stared at him with widened eyes. "Sorry about that, sonny," the old man said apologetically, "I need to reinforce the target. Wasnít expecting quite THAT much power." He gestured at a thick wooden target, lying on itís side with a huge hole torn in it, then at a strange suit of armour. "Iím Professor Cratchet, and this is Guntz."

Max stared at what appeared to be an elf, stuffed within armor plate so thick it was a wonder he could even stand. Cratchet pointed at various points on the suit, commenting as he did. "This device on the back, is called, a Ďsteam engine.í It boils water, then uses the escaping steam to turn a wheel, to supply power to the suit." Opening up a flap on the chest, he revealed a series of taught cords and pulleys. "The power of the engine allows these cords and pulleys to increase the strength of the user many times over, giving him much greater power in his strikes, while allowing him to wear this thick plate to protect against almost anything.

Here, show them, Guntz."

The elf began to stomp over to a tablet, his steps shaking the house even through the thick leather soles cushioning his feet. Picking up a rod of steel, he proceeded to tie it in a pretzel shape with little effort. Then, he turned, and took a few more steps back to the professor, before suddenly halting. "It happened again, professor!" Guntz complained.

"Oh no!" And the professor ran over and opened up a hatch on the legs, revealing cords tangled up and off the pulleys. "How exasperating. I need to reduce friction to increase efficiency, and increase friction to keep the cords from slipping. Ah, well, back to the drawing board." He turned back to a drawing board, tore off the top sheet, and began scribbling furiously. Max and Mae looked at each other, then backed out of the house slowly.

Next, they walked along the harbor, noting the lack of large numbers of boats. Only a few privately owned vessels were still in the harbor, leaving the horizon uncluttered, for them to enjoy a beautiful sunset together. Finally, they headed back to a tavern, for a nice dinner.

Over salad and steak, they traded jokes and bantered stories with the other patrons. One in particular struck Maxí notice, a blond traveler named Bokken. "Iíve been many places," he said, draining his mug in one swallow, "From all over this continent. Manarina, Pao, Guardiana-shame, what happened to Ďem-Bustoke..."

"How do you handle monsters and bandits?" asked Mae.

"Simple. I run!" Everyone laughed, while Bokken took a chomp out of a chunk of cheese. "Or, if I canít get away, Iíve got a recipe I learned at an alchemists, way back, for making something called grenades. You break the seal to mix the chemicals together, then throw Ďem. When they hit something-the ground, a body, whatever-they blow up. Most monsters and bandits will let me get away, after Iíve blown up a couple of them."

Max nodded. "Ever consider mercenary work?"

Bokken shook his head. "Naw, Iím just a wanderer, not a soldier. Iím sticking around here for a while, though, just until I can check out the circus, before I move on."

The next day, Max spent the morning bailing Gort and his newfound protégé, Luke, out of the drunk tank,

then joined Lowe for the afternoon, roaming the shops, filling up on supplies for the trek to Manarina. That evening, he dined in his room with Nova, going over stratagems and travel routes.

When they set out the next morning, they took two wagons, pulled by teams of mules. They traveled 20 miles that day, then set camp, that evening. Lowe made a delicious stew out of some giant bats that had mistaken Luke for a tasty morsel, which he seasoned with a rare spice heíd found in one of the shops. The taste was truly exquisite. The aroma that issued forth was not.

"My God, Lowe, I thought those bats were fresh caught, not carrion!" complained Mae, holding her nose.

Lowe grunted as he stirred the pot. "Thatís just the gildenroot I added."

"Gildenroot? As in the plant that keeps grazers at bay with a foul stench AND taste?"

"A small amount at the right time, makes for a dish truly divine," Lowe countered piously, raising his face up to his employer.

"You mean because one taste sends us to the great hereafter?"

"You donít like it, you donít have to eat it," said Lowe, glaring at her as he filled a bowl and handed it to a still chuckling Max, who had enjoyed every nuance of the exchange. Max took a deep whiff of the stew.

"Shouldnít have done that," he said, gasping, then blew on a spoonful and tasted the stew.

"Oh. Ooohh! OOOHHH!" He began crying out, eyes bugging out.

"Oh come on, Max, it canít be THAT bad," said Lowe, with a highly offended look on his face.

"No, itís that GOOD!" Max said, taking another bite, savoring the taste before swallowing. "Smells awful, but SO delicious!" Lowe nodded triumphantly, then handed out steaming bowlfulls to the entire ĎForce. Everyone, that is, except Mae, who stood there a moment, before asking for her share.

"Sorry, you didnít want it," said Lowe.

"May I have seconds?" asked Max.

"Sure. Thereís just enough for one more bowlful." As Mae stared with a highly indignant look, Lowe handed Max the last bowlful. Max took a spoonful, blew on it, then savored it with an almost sinful expression. Mae stared at him with an anguished expression. Max looked up at her.

"Would you like some?" he asked innocently. Mae smiled, and reached for the bowl. Max pulled it away, then held up a single spoonful. Mae stared at him a second, then snarled, before meekly kneeling down and letting Max spoon feed her. She glared daggers at him, even as he gently fed her with an enormous grin the whole time. When the bowl was finally empty, she stood up and glared down at him a moment, before stomping off. "Youíre welcome," Max called out, as she moved into a trot.

On a log a short distance away, Khris and Hans sat together. Khris sat on a blanket that Hans had gallantly laid out for her, and she sat with hands in her lap as he strummed at a fine lute, drawing forth pleasant background music, while singing sweet words that she giggled at, having been taught by her mother just how sincere such words were. Not that that stopped her from listening, of course.

At other seats, Luke listened to Gort telling tales of long ago campaigns, and what heíd done to survive them; Tao read from a textbook, Nova read from a novel, and Ken and Gong traded jokes. After a bit, they all turned in for the evening.

Two more days brought them to the edge of the desert surrounding Manarina. Four more days of slogging through the sandy wastes, with everyone taking regular drinks from one wagon, which had been filled almost entirely with water barrels in preparation for the journey, and snacking on salted nuts and dried fish to replenish the salt lost to the sun, brought them to another battle.

"Halt!" cried one of the magi from within his dark robes, "You may not pass!"

Max called out, "Weíre here to speak with Princess Anri!"

"Over our dead bodies, scum! Literally!" And with a wave of his staff, his troops issued forth. A whiff of their reek, and their appearance as they shambled closer.

"Zombies!" Cried Lowe, "Perversions!"

"Come again?" asked Max.

"Those things are the bodies of the dead, stolen from their eternal rest by the powers of necromancy!" Lowe, underneath his good humor a priest to the core, was livid with righteous wrath.

"Okay. So how do we put them back to sleep?" Max asked.

Nova answered. "Fire works well, as does slashing attacks that dismember. Piercing and bludgeoning attacks wonít."

Max nodded. "Okay, Tao, youíre up!"

Tao looked at him. "You expect me to take down an entire troop of zombies with my Blaze spell?"

"Yes."

"Just so we understand each other." And Tao began chanting lowly, a mantra that theyíd never heard her use before. As she worked her hands into a mudra, the chanting and mudra worked together to focus her mental imaging and focus her chi. Finally she cut loose all at once. And the desert erupted.

The zombies wavered slightly, as the sand itself began to burn with an intense blaze. The air about them began to burn, little fireballs erupting about them and whipping about by the intense winds generated by the heated air. The Mage cried out once, then cut loose with his own magic, a freeze spell that cooled the flames, pitting his strength against Taoís. Finally, he won out over her, and the flames ceased. By that time, however, the Zombies had long since been burned down to stumps of limbs and torso, unable to fight or even stand. "Youíll pay for that, Runefaust scum!"

"Weíre not Runefaust," said Max.

"Your souls shall be sucked from your bodies and feasted on by daemons!"

"Weíre not Runefaust," said Max.

"Your bodies shall be turned to that of slimy wriggling things!"

"Weíre not Runefaust," said Max.

"Your flesh shall be seared by the biting cold of the polar winds!"

"WEíRE NOT RUNEFAUST!" screamed Max, finally out of patience.

"Your-what?"

"WEíRE NOT RUNEFAUST!" screamed Max, jumping off the wagon and stomping towards the magi, barely noticing the steaming corpses enough to step around them. "WEíRE THE SHINING FORCE! WEíRE FROM GUARDIANA! WEíRE ANRIíS SUBJECTS, FOR GODíS SAKE!"

"Oops." The Mage folded his hands within his robe, looking down at the sands.

"Oops. Oops? OOPS? YOU BROUGHT THE DEAD TO LIFE, AND SENT THEM TO ATTACK US, TRIED TO KEEP US FROM SEEING OUR SOVEREIGN, THREATENED TO KILL US IN HORRIBLE WAYS, AND ALL YOU CAN SAY IS OOPS?!"

"Wait," spoke the other Mage, stepping forward, "What do you mean, Sovereign?"

"THATíS what we came here to talk to her about," Max said shortly. Explanations followed, and the team was escorted to Manarina.

The city of learning was surrounded by a protective wall, seemingly formed of black snakes that writhed between twin planes of force six feet apart. The mage laughed at their looks. "Donít worry, itís just an illusion. Nothing in their right mind would try to attack a city surrounded by such a wall."

"What do you do for the oneís that arenít in their right mind?" asked Nova with a glance at Max that said, "Learn from what this putz has to tell you."

"The illusion covers a length of blue granite 3 feet thick and 12 feet high, and a trench filled with real snakes in front. They have tunnels leading into the caves underneath Manarina. We donít have much of a vermin problem here."

Inside the walls, the town was a single building, a massive complex, with high towers with arching walkways between, terraced patios on top of the roofs, set at numerous levels, none of them less than 3 stories high. "Weíre basically one big college, so we have classrooms, labs, and dorms. No need to waste space on roads. We use that for growing food."

"What do you raise?" asked Lowe.

"Mostly grass for sheep. And some desert plants, like pear cactus. We sometimes head over to Rindo to pick up exotics to round out the diet."

"Actually, we just came from there," Lowe said. "We could trade you some of the stuff I picked up."

The Mage gasped from beneath his hood. "Do you have any gildenroot?"

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

As Nova organized the team in an empty dorm, Max strode into the main hall, ready to face the distasteful task of telling Anri the bad news and the worse news. Anri met him at the end of the hall. Max looked her over shortly, then did it again, taking note of her slender form beneath simple robes, the hood thrown back to reveal a long face with bright, inquisitive eyes, framed by long hair of blonde so pale it was almost silver.

"Iím Princess Anri," she said, in a charmingly sweet voice, "I was told youíre from Guardiana?"

Max stepped forward before her, then dropped to one knee and bowed his head. "I am Max, leader of the Shining Force, a mercenary group formed by your father to further the needs of the kingdom." He swallowed, then forced himself to add, "Your Majesty."

Anri did not miss the nuances inherent in the title. "What are you saying?" She said, her eyes widening.

Max forced himself to look at her before continuing. "We were attacked by Runefaust, Your Majesty. We

barely fought them off. My mentor, Lord Varios, died at Kaneís hands, as did His Majesty, your father. He bade me seek you out and tell you to be strong for your people-"

"NO!" Anri shouted at him, "Youíre lying! Heís not dead. He CANíT be dead. Get out of here-"

"Thatís enough!" snapped Nova, stepping up behind Max. "Max speaks the truth, Anri. He always does."

"Nova," whispered Anri, staring at the old werewolf, whoíd spent many a time minding her when she was a child, or "a wee hairless pup" as heíd called her. "Oh...no..." Tears began to shimmer in her eyes, and she fought to hold them back and maintain a regal appearance. "I... I apologize for doubting you, good vassal," she stammered to Max. "Please excuse me." And she began walking towards a side hall in a stately manner, then upon reaching it broke into a dead run.

Nova put a hand on Maxí shoulder to raise him up. "Go after her, Max. Remind her of her duty towards her people."

Max looked at him. "Why me?"

Tears began to shimmer behind Novaís spectacles. "Because I need some time alone myself." And he turned away and headed for the dorm. Max watched him go, then walked through the entrance to the side hall to follow Anri. Then realized he had no idea where she was. For that matter, he had no idea where he was. He thought for a moment, then took the first door on the left.

This led to a cave underground. A short tunnel opened up to a chamber filled by an altar, complete with candles set out in a mandala. A black robed mage stood before it. "Ah, a student come to watch my genius.

Come closer, young one." Max slowly stepped forward. "Behold, the ritual of nightmare summoning. I shall summon forth a creature of darkness, a being from my deepest nightmares, bringing it into the mandala. I shall test my will against itís own, and win, bringing it under my power. By mastering my fears, I shall master my subconscious mind, bringing itís near limitless power into my control."

Max stared, interested now, as the mage did his work. Finally, he began to conjure, and a wave of darkness swept over the altar. When the wave passed, Max stared at the creature raised forth, as did the mage.

"There you are!" The old woman screamed, shaking a spatula. "I work in the kitchen, TRYING to make a nice dinner for you, and here you are, playing conjurer and pulling me away from my wok. Youíre coming home right now." And she promptly stepped out of the mandala, grabbed the mage by the scruff of his robe, and hauled him off.

"Yes dear. Sorry dear. I wonít do it again dear." The mage humbly responded to each of her biting remarks and demands.

Guess we know who won THAT test of wills, thought Max, leaving the chamber to continue on.

The next chamber he reached was the library. Three stories of rooms, connected by several staircases, filled with textbooks, journals, and even good old works of fiction. Max passed by an elf who looked quite familiar. Tao sat there, devouring a text on magical theories, her face rapt with interest. Max shook his head and continued on-to find Nova, reading a text on history. Max continued on to the staircase leading up and out of the library, noting in passing the message board with numerous postings for "Lab assistant."

Climbing up the stairs, he came to a laboratory. Peering in, he noted a strange device, and a middle aged woman standing there preparing the device. Looking up, she said, "Ah, there you are. Youíre a bit late, you know."

"I see," Max said, nonplused.

"Oh donít worry, I just need to work on my soothsaying abilities, I guess. Come, youíre in time to help me with my experiment."

Max stepped forward slowly. "How much does this pay?"

"Oh, donít worry about that right now. Just step into the machine, and weíll get started." As Max complied, she moved about, explaining as she went, "This devise can standardize transmutations, allowing me to transform creatures into different creatures with no effort at all. Just think of the possibilities."

"Like what-"

"Quiet now. Starting now!" And the old woman pushed a button, and Max found himself starting to spin. This is odd. Iím not moving, my feet arenít moving, the bottom of the chamber isnít moving, so why is the room spinning around me? While weíre at it, why is the room getting bigger? Finally, the room slowed, then stopped, and Max hopped out of the device. "Success!" cried the mage. "Oh, what a tasty looking hen! Finally, an end to the monotonous diet around here! No more lamb meat, mutton stew, and sheepís milk cheeses to contend with!"

Three thoughts occurred to Max in short order.

Iíve been turned into a hen!

Hens are FEMALE chickens!

SHEíS GOING TO EAT ME! Chickens can move quite fast when properly motivated. Max raced through Manarina, trying to lose the woman, chasing after him with a pot, crying out, "Come back! I promise youíll be delicious! Iíll even prepare you with gildenroot!"

When Max finally lost her, heíd ended up in a dorm room near the top of the tower. Looking around cautiously, he searched around for anyone else with a taste for white meat. There was only one occupant in the room, fortunately, lying on the bed, crying bitterly. "Puckaw?" Max clucked inquiringly.

Anri looked up and stared at him for a moment, then a small smile tugged at her lips. "Oh, Max, itís nice of you to try to cheer me up," she said, sniffling, "but Iím really not all that fond of chickens."

"Whereís that hen? Come back here, Iím getting hungry!" Maxí head jerked up, and with a squawk he resumed running. Up to the terraced roof, across walkways, even jumping off the roof and flapping down to a lower level. Finally, he ended up in a very attractive room, with a sign stating, "Faculty lounge." Max hopped up to the guard, who simply smiled at him then let him pass, then into the room.

An old man sitting at a table, sipping coffee, looked at the little hen. "Looks like Gertís been fooling around again," he sighed, "Donít worry. Iíll fix you up." And Max was restored to the ranks of humanity in short order. Thanking the old man profusely, he turned and walked out.

The guard met him at the door with a grin. "A chicken walked in and a hen walked out. Neat job, huh?" Max grinned back, then retraced his steps back to the Princess.

She was still sniffling into a pillow, quietly now, in the quiet tears after the initial outburst of sorrow. "Your...Highness," Max corrected himself, deciding the term would be less painful to hear. He walked up to the bed, looked at her a moment, then slowly sat down inside the bed. After pausing a moment, he made himself put his hand on her head comfortingly. Anri tolerated this for a moment, then jumped up and hugged him fiercely, sobbing onto his chestplate of boiled leather. After a few moments of indecision and desire to bolt, Max made himself put his arms around his liege lady, and stroked her hair, though he couldnít think of anything better to say than, "there, there."

After holding him for a few minutes, Anri finally looked up at him, and smiled bravely. "Thank you, Max. I will do what I can to aid my people."

"When we left, Alterone had promised to aid in the rebuilding and relief effort. They shouldnít be doing TOO badly."

"How did Alterone come to aid us?"

"The Shining Force liberated them from Runefaust. The King promised aid as thanks."

"Then I truly do owe you my thanks, Max." She smiled up at Max, then brought her face up to his, and kissed him.

Max lost himself in the sweetness of the kiss, before a single thought blazed through his mind, My QUEEN has her TONGUE in my mouth! Jerking his face away, he gasped out, "Your Maj-Highness- Anri..."

"Whatís wrong?" Anri looked at him quizzically, before grabbing the back of his head and pulling him down to resume. This time, it took longer for him to break away. By this time she was on her back, and he, most embarrassingly, was on top of her.

"Anri, youíre my QUEEN! I canít be doing this!" Anri looked at him a moment, then smiled in understanding.

"Sorry. Iíve had it drilled into me since I came here, that I was no better than any of the other students. I kind of forgot about all that royalty mingling with commoners stuff."

"Thank you for understan-hhhhmmmmff." This time it took a good minute before Max pulled away, flinging himself off the bed, landing on one buttock, then rolling to his feet. Anri got up, smiling

mischievous .

"If youíre both quite finished, Otrant will see you now." Another apprentice, standing at the door, looked at them both with arched brows. Anri smiled at Max.

"Thanks, Max. I needed that." Dried tears still streaked Anriís face, but the worst of her sorrow was relieved, at least temporarily.

"My pleasure," gasped Max, swallowing with an effort.

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

Otrant met them in his office, a comfortable place filled with bookshelves and dominated by a large desk.

Max took a seat between a Nova and Anri, who had taken a moment to wash her face. Otrantís face, except for his lower face, with hairless skin, pointed chin, and red lips, was hidden in shadow, save for three glowing eyes in the upper part of his hood, set in a triangular pattern. "Greetings, Max," spoke Otrant, in a quiet voice. "I have awaited you for some time."

"I thank you, Sir-uh, Madame, uh...what are you?"

"Here at Manarina, it doesnít really matter." The head mage smiled slightly, and held out a pot. "Cookie?"

"No thanks."

"Young lady?"

"Iíve already been offered one, than- uh..." Max blushed and stammered, "uh, never mind." Anri looked away with a smile. Nova arched one eyebrow, and Otrantís trinocular set contorted in an equivalent expression.

"I see." Maxí blush spread to the back of his neck. "Max, great events have been set in motion. A dark presence is stirring from itís prison, and evil ravages the land." Otrant took a bite of cookie before continuing. "Behind that door, you will find a stairway, leading to a cave, unconnected to the others. Within dwells a group of dark magi, exiled for crimes it is best not to dwell on. Their punishment, is to guard the Orb of Light. I charge you with entering the Cave of Ancients and reclaiming the Orb."

"Oh...kay..." Max looked at Otrant levelly, now on his own territory, that of mercenary commander. "Why allow criminals to guard this Orb?"

"They cannot touch it, nor use it. Itís very light causes them pain. Only one of pure heart such as yourself may take it."

Pure heart? Aloud, Max asked, "What forces can I expect to encounter?"

"Three magi at most, depending on how many of them have killed each other. Bats, a few undead creatures."

"Zombies?"

"Allies who volunteered to be granted unlife for itís advantages. They took their weapons with them. I donít know how many are left."

"Why would they want to be undead?"

"Theyíve been down there for 500 years, Max. If they hadnít been imprisoned, they would have been greatly enjoying themselves."

"Do you have a map of the cave?"

"Iíll find it soon enough."

"Then Iíll see to my troops." Max stood up, nodded respectfully to Otrant, then turned and left, followed by Nova and Anri.

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

Upon entering the dorm, Max sent Anri with Lowe to be outfitted and briefed on the basic regulations, from standard tactics, to basic code phrases, then sat down with Nova to talk about the incident in her room. Nova listened until heíd finished, then nodded. "Excuse me a moment," he said, removing his glasses and walking into the closet. A resounding growl issued forth, along with the sound of claws ripping through wood. Nova then emerged, donned his spectacles, and sat down. "You dealt with the situation quite well, Max," he continued mildly.

"But why did she do that?"

"Itís probably my fault, lad. I used to tell her bedtime stories about princesses being saved by handsome princes, and you ARE quite handsome, for a human."

"But Iím not a prince."

"That would be Manarinaís work. We sent her here because sheíd become a bit snooty, and her father wanted her to learn some humility, along with a decent education, the better to rule the land. She seems to have learned quite well, actually. And except for the title, you certainly fit the image of dashing hero."

"Hero? Iím a Ďmerc commander! I get PAID to do heroic deeds. And Iím an orphan and a former criminal!"

"Swiping bread at age 9 is not exactly grand larceny. Donít worry, child. Iíll speak to her. If sheís coming with us, sheíll have to keep in line with everyone else."

"But they donít keep in line, either. They get into drunken brawls, goof off, and make fun of me behind my

back and to my face, both!"

"Thatís normal, for soldiers, especially irregulars like Ďmercs. They respect you though, lad, donít ever forget it."

"You call this respect?"

"When you give an order, do they obey? Or do they smirk, say Ďyessirí, then halfheartedly set about their tasks? They tease you because they know they can, Max. That doesnít mean they donít respect you."

 

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

The cave was dark.

That would seem to be a redundant statement, but it bears explaining. Picture your home at night. The dim

light from the moon, stars, maybe a nightlight at best, all makes for a dark so profound you can barely see

your hand in front of your face. Thatís bright, compared to a cave. There were NO light sources. Except for

the torches Max, Tao, and Anri were holding, of course. As a result, they could BARELY see 10 yards

away.

They issued forth, in standard spelunker formation: Max, Luke, and Tao in front, the magi and healers in the center, and the knights and archers in the rear. They moved through the cave slowly, cautiously, barely making a sound. Until the bats attacked, that is.

Even Gort panicked slightly at the enormous winged beasts swooping out of the darkness. Barely retaining

their skills under the stress, they barely managed to slash accurately, though hardly with their normal skill.

Fortunately, most flying creatures are extremely delicate, discarding durability in favor of light weight for

lift. Slashed wing membranes brought two of the creatures down, while two more were dropped by a slash that cleaved a rib cage and collarbone, and an arrow down the gullet. After dispatching the downed creatures, Max wiped his blade, and they ventured on.

Eventually, the cave opened to a cavern that seemed quite bright in comparison. Luminescent fungi bounced their light off of the mineral deposits in the walls and rock formations. Several undead humanoids, their weapons in ill repair and their flesh decaying, sat about. "Iím bored."

"So Ďm I."

"So what else is new?"

"How about them?" The creatures looked up, and smiled-at least, the oneís retaining their jawbones did. "Fun time!"

"Shield wall on me!" Cried out Max, and Ken and Mae moved up next to him along with Luke and Gort, forming a wall from which to defend. The undead with melee weapons charged forth as fast as possible, and Max and the others set to receive them. Then it all became a blur, as the ĎForce attacked their foes as a team, Ken and Mae parrying with lance and shield, as the swords and axes did the actual work of removing limbs to incapacitate the things. The two undead that retained working bows fired, but Mae stopped one with her shield, while Max flicked his blade out and cut the shaft out of the air. Taking a moment to glory in

his achievement, Max cried out, "Anri! Tao!" And flames consumed the rotting archers, old wood and flesh both.

Max dipped his torch on the remnants of the dismembered corpses, dispatching each in turn, before they moved on, to another chamber, this one brightly lit by braziers. Within dwelt three ancient magi, their robes hanging in tatters, their flesh so wrinkled and dusty their gender, and indeed, their species, was uncertain. Behind them, a skeleton brooded on a rock, an enormous scimitar at his side, a shield on his arm, and a ring glowing on his finger. "You dare!" cried out a mage in a voice cracked with disuse.

The three of them began chanting, joining together their powers to forge a powerful spell of destruction. Then they began screaming, their concentration broken, as Tao and Anri cut loose with blaze spells. All three were horribly burned, before they stilled the flames. By this time, blades had found their mark.

"Why do they always prize power over speed?" wondered Max idly, before raising his blade up to the Skeleton. It peered at him a moment, itís gap toothed grin parting, before it stood.

"Iím impressed, mortal," it spoke in a hollow voice. "Iíve waited a long time for a worthy opponent."

"Who are you?" asked Max.

"I am Xander. Once I was the mightiest warrior on the continent. I came to Manarina to join these-" it gestured contemptuously at the fallen magi, "Fools. They promised me immortality in exchange for service.

We were found out, and cast down into these caves. If you are here, then the door must have been unsealed.

I have a chance at freedom."

"Not really," Max countered, assuming his guard.

"Face me with your men, or will you fight in an honorable duel?" Max halted a moment, then nodded. "What is your name, young warrior?"

"Iím Max. Everyone else, is just a spectator. Understood?" he added, glancing around. The others nodded.

"You got him."

"No comment."

Max moved in slowly, holding his blade ready. The skeleton drew his scimitar, and crouched behind itís

shield, moving stiffly, yet with obvious power in his movements. Max waited for it to make the first move,

a diagonal slash to the shoulder, then dodged to one side, slapping the flat of the blade with his sword,

knocking it out of line, then slashing out at the skeletonís head. It blocked with itís shield, then remised. Max blocked with his hilt, and they struggled a moment, before Max was knocked back by the powerful

skeleton. He fell, rolled over his shoulder, and came up to his feet in time to parry the scimitar and slash at the skeletonís legs. It leapt up, lifting itís knees to dodge the blow, then came down with a chop. Max sidestepped and hacked at the skeletons sword hand, shattering a few of itís fingers-including itís ring

finger.

The skeleton fell back, obviously weakened, crying out, "My ring!" emboldened, Max moved in-then received a glancing cut across his ribs, slicing through his pectorals and cutting through to the bone. Gasping in pain, he clutched his sword in both hands, and hacked forward, destroying the rest of the hand.

He then chopped through a shin bone, then raised his blade up for the killing blow. "Wait!" cried the

fallen skeleton. Max paused.

"The...Orb... is behind that stone. Take my ring, as well. It increases the strength of the bearer. Also, take

my respect... Max. Now end it. 500 years of everlasting boredom... death will be a release." Max chopped through the skull, destroying the enchantment and sending Xander on to the afterlife. Lowe and Khris both moved in, healing the terrible gash in his chest, as Max saluted the shattered remnants, before taking the ring. Looking at it a moment, he slipped it into his pocket, then found the heavy chest behind the rock. He nodded to Ken, who tapped the chest with his lance, then, satisfied that there were no traps, Max opened the

chest and withdrew a softly glowing ball of smoothly polished diamond. Max stared into itís depths for a timeless moment.

"Mission complete," he softly said. "Letís get out of here."

 

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

Otrant nodded to Max upon eyeing the orb, then sent Max back down, to the pool of ancients. This proved to be a room with walls of polished quartz, filled with a pool of clear, calm water. The door, a sliding affair with an eye mural covering it, moved aside as he approached it. Stepping up to the end of the pathway, he stood a moment, then pulled out the orb and held it up. The light of the orb mingled with light of the water, bouncing off the walls, the water, blinding him momentarily. When the light cleared, a beautiful woman

appeared before Max, hovering on the surface of the water.

"How long I have waited for this summons! Max, you are truly a hero without peer!"

"Who are you?"

"I am the spirit of the pool. Listen carefully Max. The legacy of the ancients is an evil being that has been

sealed away for a thousand years. Darksol seeks the key that will unlock that seal. You have been chosen

to stop him."

"Why me?"

"Because youíre the only one who can." And with that, the spirit faded away, slipping beneath the still

waters. Max stared at the space where sheíd been a minute or two, then turned and left.

Otrant met him in his office. "The spirit of the pool has chosen you, Max." the head mage spoke quietly.

"You and yours are truly the servants of Light. The Shining Force! Just as prophesied!"

"What do you mean, prophesied? You mean the King knew about this, when he named us?"

"Yes. You must stay here with us for a time. You will study with our finest instructors, learning wisdom to help you in battle, and some magic to aid you. Then you must go back to Rindo and take a ship to the

Eastern continent. Kane must be stopped!"

Max thought about it. "As long as I donít get turned into a chicken again," he decided.

Otrant stared at him a moment, then laughed.

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

The Shining Force stayed several weeks. During that time, Tao and Anri studied together, steeping

themselves in the wisdom of the greatest magi the academy possessed. The warriors continued to train,

along with a new addition, a knight named Arthur, a guard at the school, whoíd volunteered to sign on

with the ĎForce in the hopes of new adventure. "Even this place gets a little humdrum after a few years,"

he explained.

Max studied under Otrant himself, learning the spell of Egress. It had been this spell that Kane used to

disappear. "It can help you return quickly to Rindo, or any other place you have visited. With this spell,

you can summon a quick retreat of your forces, should the battle prove too fierce, or travel between

locations quickly, as long as you have visited it and remember the place."

When theyíd finished their lessons, Max mustered the ĎForce together, and cast the spell of Egress. Reality

itself warped and twisted, then snapped back into focus-and they were back at Rindo. After taking the time

to quaff some beverages to settle their stomachs, Max went over to the harbor to inquire about purchasing a ship.

He quickly found that he had no choice but to purchase a ship, "a" being the operative factor. "What

happened to all the boats?" He asked the grizzled old harbormaster.

"Kane of Runefaust showed up, and everyone who owned a boat sailed out," he grunted. "Then he bought the ones that were left, and sailed THEM off." He hawked and spat onto the ground.

"What about that boat?" Max asked, pointing at the vessel, a small but speedy looking schooner, obviously a pleasure ship for transporting people in style.

"That one?" The old manís eyebrow arched. "Thatís the mayors. Talk to HIM, if you want it. Doubt it though. Thatís his pride and joy, the Joy of the Sea. Even if heís willing, itíll cost you a pretty penny." Max

thanked the harbormaster and went to see the mayor.

The mayorís home was large and opulent, quite what would be expected of the mayor of one of the largest

seaports in the world. The mayor himself wore fine blue cloth over his wrinkled old body, gnarled and

leathery from the sea. He quickly received Max into his office, and poured Max drink of some exceptionally powerful liquor. Max raised the glass and moistened his lips politely, before setting the drink down. "Iíve

come to ask about purchasing the Joy of the Sea," Max said.

The mayor grabbed Maxí glass and poured the liquor back into the bottle. "I didnít sell it to Kane, and he had an army at his back for persuasion. What gives you the consummate GALL to believe Iíd sell you my

ship?"

"Necessity. I need a ship, and itís the only one available."

"Hmph. Then I guess youíre-" A younger woman came running in, and began whispering in the mayorís

ear. The mayor whispered back. She whispered some more. This continued for a bit, before the mayor

turned back to Max. "Perhaps we can make a deal, after all. The Shining Force bills itself as an outfit

that can get things done."

"As long as theyíre just."

"My grandson is missing. You find him, Iíll name a price."

Max stared at the mayor evenly. "First of all, letís get some things straight. The Shining Force is not that

cheap. Our last job paid us enough to buy THREE of those ships. You want your grandson back, our pay

IS the deed to the ship, upon completion of the contract."

"You expect me to just GIVE you my ship."

"Yes. Because if you do, your grandson will be found. No matter where he is, or who heís with. Failure to complete the contract means forfeiture of payment, which for us is not an option." The mayor looked at Max for a moment.

"For someone so young, youíre quite professional." He reached into his desk and withdrew a blank sheet of paper, and began drawing up the contract.

"I had a good teacher. Let me talk to the boyís mother."

While the mayor drew up the contract, then drew up another after Max rejected the first oneís fine print,

Max interrogated the mother of the child, asking about the boyís whereabouts and the time heíd been

missing. Max thought about this a moment, then stood up. "Iíll find him maíam, donít worry," he said, nodding his head to the distraught lady, "mayor."

He returned to the inn, to muster his troops. Khris was bubbling over with excitement as he approached. "I canít believe it! A circus!" Max perked up.

"What circus?"

"Thereís a circus that just arrived in town, two days ago." The boy was kidnapped two days ago. "Theyíve been setting up since then, and theyíll be opening tomorrow. Can we stay until then, please?" She was hopping up and down with eagerness. It was really quite cute, and Max shook his head to shake out an

earlier memory.

"As a matter of fact, I was thinking weíd go over there right now. Spread the word, everyone suit up for battle, and meet me at the circus tent in 15 minutes."

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

The circus tent filled the field where the ĎForce had trained during their stay in Rindo. Boxes were stacked

around itís sides, and the entrance hung open invitingly. "Looks like theyíre expecting someone," muttered

Gort.

"Then letís not keep them waiting," said Max. "Ready for battle, everyone. Hostage situation, unknown

force, stay sharp." They moved in.

The tent was filled with...dolls. Quite a few of them, large puppets that seemed to move without strings. They hopped up and down on their wooden legs, their faces painted with malicious expressions. At the

other side of the tent, at the end of the stage, stood a dark elf who seemed quite familiar. "You!" swore

Max.

"Nice to see you again, brave warrior," smiled Mishaela, "Iím glad to see you were smart enough to solve

my little...puzzle."

"Whereís the child?" Max demanded.

"The boy? Oh, heís here," Mishaela waved vaguely off to one side, "heís fine. But you wonít be. Iím afraid

it ends here, Max. Darksol has commanded your death. Attack, my pets! Destroy these fools!" Mishaela waved her hands in what Max now recognized as the motions for the Egress spell, and departed. The

puppets bounced forward, as one of them lifted the latch on a cage door, releasing a flock of giant bats.

Max pointed his sword as the puppets advanced. "Mae, Ken, Arthur, Hans, take those bats. Khris, medic

them. Gort, Luke, form on me, Tao, Anri, blast them when they cluster."

As the first group of puppets closed, Max swung his sword, hacking off one leg. The puppet bounced on

itís remaining leg and swung a wooden fist at him. Max leaned away from the mallet-like fist, and hacked

off the hand as well. Lifting up his leg, he thrust kicked and caught the puppet in the upper torso, knocking it to the floor, where it proved unable to regain itís feet. Gort chopped off both legs of one puppet, then,

split itís head and torso with his axe, while Luke took a nasty thump on the head, then recovered, jumped

up, and chopped downwards, splitting the wooden torso from collar to hip, before stumbling back. Lowe

healed his head, as Gong moved in with a big grin. "Board breaks," he grunted happily, smashing their

carved frames with the power that comes from lightning quick strikes with 400 lbs. of mass.

Max cried out, "TAO! ANRI!"

"I canít use Blaze!" cried Tao, "Iíll burn down the tent! We donít know where the kid is!" Max swore, even as he slammed his shoulder into a puppet, knocking it back and off balance, before chopping off itís arm.

"I have another spell!" called Anri. She closed her eyes and began murmuring. Her hands moved in a negative pattern, as opposed to the positive pattern of the blaze spell.

The rear groups of puppets began slowing down, as Max caught the edge of the blast of cold that erupted. Frost began to appear on the puppets, then congealed into a thin layer of ice, as they became obscured by fog. Then they began to break, their limbs shattering at the joints, falling to the ground in mid bounce to shatter. Soon the group of monsters had all been rendered nonfunctional one way or another.

Max glanced on the knights and bats. Mae and Ken were in the process of trampling the puppets to bits with their hooves, while the bats lay about with stab wounds and arrows marking their demises. Arthur was

being tended to by Khris, her spiritual powers healing some nasty scratches on his hindquarters.

Looking up at the stage, Max noted the three remaining foes. Two were goblins, painted with clown faces,

with an surprising lack of fear for such creatures. The third was a cloth doll, tall as Gong, with button eyes that glowed a dark red. They met Maxí in a kind of dull recognition, an unspoken challenge. Max nodded, and called, "Luke, Gort, take those clowns. Iíll take the mannequin." The clowns gibbered with

laughter, and leapt in to attack.

Gort and Luke both chopped at the clowns, but the painted goblins twisted and moved in close. They

dropped their axes and fell to the floor, grappling, hands seeking joint to lock and eyes to gouge, as fangs and teeth sought out exposed flesh.

Max fared little better. The mannequin waited for him to slash into it, the cloth and padding easily

absorbing the blow with little effect. Then it waved itís hand, and the selfsame spell that Anri had

cast, caught Max square in the face. He stumbled backwards and fell, rolling out of the path of the

worst of it, then came to ease feet unsteadily, shivering uncontrollably. The mannequin turned towards him,

then blasted him again. Max dive rolled as itís hand came up, and avoided most of it. Still, his reflexes had

slowed considerably, he shook uncontrollably, and worst of all, he found himself feeling sleepy, fighting

to stay upright and keep his eyes open. He desperately tried to throw his sluggish synapses into gear. It...doesnít...attack me...physically...itís just...cloth...spellthrower...

Max stumbled forward in the best approximation of a body check he could manage. He slammed into the mannequinís torso, all padding around a single hard lump where the heart would be. He wrapped his arms and sword around the thing, as it frantically tried to escape and blast him from a safe distance. He held on like it were a tigerís tail, while he considered his options. Heart...center...destroy...? He released the mannequin, then when the thing leapt backwards, he stumbled forwards, driving his sword into the mannequinís chest, piercing the center, Feels like coal, and shattered it. The mannequinís eyes died, and it

slowly collapsed, as though invisible strings had been cut. As it slumped, smoke bellowed from the torso,

where itís heart had lain, and a hollow voice called out, "Fools! Light can never defeat the Darkness..."

Max turned to look at Luke and Gort, being tended to by Gong and Khris for numerous bite wounds. The clowns lay dead, their bodies riddled with bites and stab wounds from knives. Gort fixed Luke with a smug, tired grin. "See, lad? Thatís why you always carry a knife with you, no matter what." He held up the bloody blade, and wiped it clean on his pants, before slipping it back into his boot. Luke nodded, and cleaned and sheathed his own small knife.

"Lowe," whispered Max, then blacked out for a moment. When he came to, his old friend was finishing the healing, and a little boy had been recovered from a pen off to one side. "Are you all right?" Max asked tiredly.

The boy nodded. "I wanted to see the circus, but that woman grabbed me!" He jabbered excitedly, tears streaking his face, "She was gonna take me to Runefaust and feed me to a dragon! She told me so when she told me to shut up and I didnít and she was scary and I wanna go home and-"

"Someone?" Max looked up pleadingly. Anri put her arm around the boyís shoulders.

"Come with me, child. Iíll take you home now." Max nodded his thanks, and passed out again.

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

After regaining consciousness again, Max went to see the mayor. The mayor was grateful as only a

grandfather can be, so much so that he barely hesitated to hand Max the deed to his ship. The mother pulled herself from her son long enough to give Max a big hug and kiss. The father shook his hand solemnly, before turning back to hugging his son again. When Max left, all three were still taking turns holding the

lad, as if afraid heíd be kidnapped again if left alone for even a moment.

And so Max headed back to the harbor, whistling as he went. His whistle went up in an appreciative tone,

as he eyed his new ship. Long lean lines, made for speed. It was a passenger ship, not the largest to be had,

but he only needed space for a dozen. Nova stepped up behind him. "Come, lad. Letís check it out." They

both stepped up the gangplank, and admired their new ship. The powerful masts, shaped from the trunks of

trees. The deck, covered with nets, cables, and ropes. The dark elf glaring at them.

"Mishaela!" Max swore, his hand reaching for his sword.

"You may have defeated my pets," hissed Mishaela, her eyes blazing with fury, "but you wonít be bothering

me any more. Youíre going to burn!" Max shoved Nova to the deck, falling the other way as Mishaela sent

blue fire blazing at them. The fire missed, instead setting the ship itself ablaze.

"Burn, Max, burn! Youíll serve as an example to all who oppose Runefaust!" She hurled more fire, ensuring

the shipís demise. "Farewell, insect!" And she blasted the mast to bits, before winking out.

Max crawled over to Nova, who was staying low, trying to avoid the smoke. "Hold onto me, Nova!" he

cried, holding the werewolf close. Closing his eyes to blot out outside distraction, he cast Egress, and

brought them both safely to the docks. Max breathed deeply of the clean sea air, then helped Nova up.

They both turned to stare at the ship, as it burned down to the shoreline.

"Looks like weíre in trouble, sir." Max said evenly.

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

The mayor took the news of his beloved shipís demise surprisingly well. And after Lowe and the town

Vicar had succeeded in restarting his heart, it only took half a bottle of whisky to calm him down.

"Ships. Damn ships. All they do is break yer heart," he mumbled in between sips from the bottle.

His son was a bit more informative. "Iím afraid that was the last ship in Rindo. And the next seaport is

Uranbatol. Thatís quite a ways from here."

"Iím afraid it canít be helped." Max tried to ignore the mayor, who was now sobbing into his daughterís arms, moaning "Joy of the Sea...Joy of the Sea..." over and over. "Weíll just have to make the journey."

"Very well." The man reached into his fatherís desk, and pulled out a map. "This is the route to Uranbatol,"

he said, tracing the path with his finger, "And here are the towns where you can resupply. The first one is

Shade Abbey, to the north. Take the path through the forest to reach it." They continued to discuss travel

routes, until Max finally bid a good day to the man, his wife and son, and his father, who lay in a comatose

stupor on the floor, occasionally sniffing.

On the way back to the inn, he was met by Mae, doled up in a nice blouse, with the same matching neck and

waist chains, and bracelets to boot. "Thereís a new play in town, kid," she said, smiling. "Wanna go see it?"

Max nodded. "Sure. Has the issuing of knives been taken care of, yet?"

"Gortís in charge of that. He wants to issue individual knives to each person. Something about different

people doing well with different blades." She shrugged, and Max was almost successful in avoiding ogling

the action. Mae pretended not to notice, as usual.

They left the theater some time later, after thoroughly enjoying "the Might of Light." They were both

chuckling over the saga of the Shining Force soundly trouncing the Runefaust army, played to the hilt by

top slapstick geniuses who did more damage to themselves than to the ĎForce. As they headed to the

steakhouse where the rest of the ĎForce was waiting for them to join for dinner, Mae asked in passing, "By

the way. Nova was putting all the fresh supplies back onto our wagons, instead of the ship. What happened,

is it being repaired or something? Did we get damaged goods?"

Max laughed a little nervously. "Funny you should mention it. Well you see..."

Dinner proved a somewhat subdued affair...

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

They made it to Shade Abbey without undue difficulties. The abbey was large, dark, and forboding, the path

leading up to itís main gate shrouded by overgrown greenery, their dark foliage spreading like shadows

given substance. Max turned and looked at Lowe, driving on of the wagons from his perch. "Isnít this place

supposed to be a chapel of Light?" he asked.

Lowe frowned. "Something seems wrong, here. Khris, Gong?" He waved to the other resident holy types,

who came up.

Khris concentrated a moment. "It feels... violated...kind of like what happened to that one maid we met back

at..." she trailed off, not needing to extemporize.

Gong nodded. "There is definitely something in the air here, as though the Light has been smothered."

"Pssst!" A hand waved from the shadows not far from them, and Max started in the martial fashion, drawing

his blade even as he leaped backwards and landing in guard position. "Please, good warrior! You are of the

Light?"

"Come out into the Light, if you are of it," said Max evenly.

Out stepped a...Never seen a birdman before, Max thought, Iím impressed. She, to judge by the slightly

feminine tone of her birdís voice, and the rounding contours of her leather cuirass, in imitation of a

mammalian chest, bore a lovely pale gray plumage, that of a dove. Her arms were raised in supplication and

her wings folded at her back. "My name is Amon, and I came here with my husband, Balbaroy," she cawed.

"We came here to find the abbey like this, and Balbaroy went in to see the Vicar. He was attacked, and

taken prisoner. Please help me rescue him!"

"What do you know of this place?"

"It was a stronghold of the light, with a great library. I donít know whatís happened now. We just arrived

here some hours before you did." Max nodded slowly.

"Everyone stay here. Iím going in. Give me five minutes, and if I donít come out, then come in swinging."

Lowe started to protest, but he cut him short. "This calls for investigation, not invasion."

Max stepped through the door cautiously, to find the abbey deserted. The place was a mess, the walls

pocked with holes, the floor seared with scorch marks. He moved slowly to the other side of the main hall,

and through the door into the cemetary. The graves all seemed to have been dug up, the coffins missing with

their occupants. Max swallowed nervously. Thereís enough open graves to make a lot of undead, he

thought to himself. He found himself shaking, and forced himself to stop with an angry shiver.

He moved into the chapel. The pews were deserted, the fine carpet leading up to the pulpit soiled and

scorched. At the pulpit stood a figure clad in shadows. Max held his sword at the ready, and slowly creeped

forward. His every step came with an effort, as he steeled himself against his terror and pressed on. After

the several minutes it took to move 20 feet, he found himself close enough to see the figure as a birdman,

his body bound with ropes and his beak tied with same. The whole while Max had been approaching,

The birdman had been worrying the rope with his beak, and finally managed to get a coil between his

jaws. Snipping the rope, he cried out, "Look out! Itís a trap!"

Max whirled to see a small army of zombies and skeletal warriors advancing upon him. At their vanguard,

a terrible figure emerged. His face was the color of gloss black, his body covered in thick plated armor, his

head topped with a high peaked helmet from which downward curving horns like a ramís issued. Maxí heart

raced wildly with fear and panic, as the man laughed. "This? This is the hero? THIS bested Mishaelaís

best efforts?"

Max whispered, "Darksol." The thing nodded. "God in Heaven, grant me the strength-"

Darksol cut him off with a booming, mocking laugh. "You and your pitiful ĎShining Forceí canít be saved

by prayers! You wonít escape!" His deep voice cut into Max like a knife. "How fitting that you perish

in a former chapel of Light!"

Footsteps sounded at the entrance to the chapel, as the ĎForce charged in to battle. Darksol barely spared

them a glance. "I leave you now in the care of my minions, who know well what to do with you..." He motioned for the attack. "Undead! Dispose of these pests once and for all!" Darksol snickered as he

Egressed away.

As if of itís own accord, Maxí hand stole towards his pouch, taking out the ring that Xander had born.

Dear God, please let Xanderís gift be genuine. He slipped over the ring finger of his right hand. Wow.

He suddenly felt himself, gaining, enhancing, growing. His muscles began to bulge, and his clothing

began to rip at the seams, become tight over his now considerably broader chest and arms. This should

help.

He gave no orders to the ĎForce, and they needed none, as they plied their trade to great effect. Max

devoted himself to attacking the undead with newfound courage, the sword feeling almost weightless

in his hand, like a willow wand. He sheared through decaying flesh and yellowed bones with effortless ease,

and delivered his blows with newfound speed. At one point during the chaotic melee, he found himself

beset by three zombies and a skeleton at once. Where he once would have chopped thrice, he made a single

slash to bisect the torsos and limbs of all three zombies. When the skeleton caught him out of

line to parry or riposte, he caught the skeleton with a round kick to the rib cage, putting his hips into the

strike, with the leg straightened throughout like a stiff club, as Gong had taught him. The brittle structure

simply shattered, his shin slamming into the spine to mete out a similar fate to the vertebrae. The remnants

of the skeleton collapsed in a heap.

Soon enough, the battle was ended. Gong, Khris and Lowe tended to wounds, as Max untied the Birdman.

"Thank you," he cawed, "is Amon alright?" Max nodded, and motioned for Lowe to treat Balbaroy, then

submitted to Khrisí ministrations of the scratches and scrapes taken in the course of the battle. He noted

with no small amount of satisfaction Khrisí reactions to his new musculature, as well as Maeís reactions

to both said musculature, and Maeís reactions to Khrisí reactions.

Max joined the warriors in reburying the dead, as Lowe and Khris provided a funeral service. Tao and

Anri spent their time with Nova, searching through the library. Rather, what was left of it. "Monstrous

BASTARD," swore Nova, trying to salvage what little he could, "setting fire to a library. All these BOOKS..." Eventually, Max joined them, and Nova displayed their findings. "From what we can tell, the Legacy of the Ancients was created to confine a vast Evil."

Nova pushed his glasses up on his nose before continuing. "The Abbey was apparently built to prepare

the way for a young warrior who will appear." Nova peered at Max closely, before continuing. "At

any rate, the bulk of the records and books have been destroyed, but there are still a few scraps left, for

us to study."

"Weíll take them with us, then," decided Max, "and study on the way. Iíll use my Egress spell to warp back

to Rindo, quickly, and let the Vicar know what happened here. Then Iíll come back and weíll continue on."

"Excuse me." Max turned to see Balbaroy and his wife standing in the doorway. "You wish to reach Uranbatol?" Max nodded. "I owe you my life. We will guide you to Uranbatol."

"Do you know who we are?" asked Max.

Amon nodded. "The Shining Force of legend. It will be an honor to guide you."

"How about signing on? We could use scouts who can fly." Balbaroy and Amon traded startled looks,

then knelt before Max in supplication. "Stand up, please," Max rolled his eyes, "Just shake my hand and

leave it at that." They did so.

And so the Shining Force moved on, having encountered their nemesis, Darksol, for the first time, and discovered the first inklings of their true destiny. But as their powers and reputations had grown, so too had the forces arrayed against them...

*****************************************End of Part 2*************************************

Authorís note: First and foremost, Iíd like to point out that this story focuses on the relationships within the game, what went on, behind the screen. That being said, those of you who might be offended by explicit content, donít worry, what youíve seen is as "hentai" as it gets. Those of you who WANT hentai, I may do companion stories, that will be posted ELSEWHERE. "Shining Force: Behind the Screen" will remain in the PG through R ratings, no violence or sexuality unless it advances the story, with an emphasis on allusion and innuendo. Itís far more difficult to allude than to be explicit, and makes for better stories, in my opinion, as well.

He who is most original, conceals his sources the best. The Gildenroot stew scene was taken from an episode of "Golden Girls," in which Rose Nylan, the inbred Norwegian from St. Olaf, where cows have the right to vote, prepares a pastry delicacy that must be eaten with the thumb and forefinger of one hand, as the thumb and forefinger of the opposite hand clutches the nose to avoid the smell.

Max and Mae will continue on their little relationship, as Mae continues to tease Max, even as she finds herself increasingly drawn to his good nature and pure heart, not to mention his newly grown biceps. Max, in turn, will gradually learn to handle her teasing and flirtations, even as he matures as a commander, and warrior.

I decided to have Anri toy with Max for a bit, on the assumption that no girl would be sent to a prep school in another country, unless her father had spent time drinking and muttering to himself, "Iíve got to do something about that kid..." Iím a nice guy, as people who know me today can tell you. Wasnít always, as my parents can attest to. My father used to have a nice thick head of dark hair... Maxís reactions, on the other hand, are the reactions common to a member of any society with a hereditary aristocracy. Nobles and commoners simply do not interact, nor do low nobility spend time with the elite royalty. This is why the Brits were so upset at Prince Charles for making time with that "peasant" behind Diís back, and why Di was snubbed by most everyone in the house of Windsor. Of course, the fact that she proved more popular than a family whose sole purpose in life at present is to be living symbols of a nation might not have helped, either. Americans do not share this view, which is why I felt necessary to explain it, and why the vast majority of Americans are both so pissed at the Kennedy clan and Liberal Democrats, for trying to establish themselves as our new ruling class, and worried about President(Yes, he IS legitimate!)Bush, due to his vast connections with oil consortiums and big business, and his fraternal relationships with state and federal leaders both past and present. At any rate, the lovely Libertarian monarch will provide a nice little lead for a few sidelines, both with risqué jokes, and scenes centering on her emergence as one of the gameís most powerful spellcasters, in either PC or enemy ranks.

Only two bits of martial explanations this time around. One is on that ring, which turned Maxine into Maximum. I chose Maxí new physique, as opposed to his simply gaining mystic power while retaining his wiry frame, for plot advancement down the line. Wait and see...

The other is on Maxí repeated rolling upon falling. Iíve practiced breakfalling and rolls numerous times, to the point where anytime I am tossed, I can land with minimal injury and regain my feet in short order. One of the men who taught me these techniques survived a motorcycle accident on the freeway with only a broken ankle from his bike rolling on top of him, when the paramedics came up with body bags, fully expecting to be dealing with a corpse. This pales in comparism to Judo masters, however, who can literally jump off the third floor balcony of a building onto a parking lot, and survive with only a few scratches, depending on what clothing they wear. They START their training, by being instructed to perform 1000 rolls. Iíve did a hundred at one time shortly after learning this little fact. Itís not easy. Also, those of you who drive should take note from my instructorís mishap, and always pay extra attention for bikes and pedestrians, AS WELL as those big cars that are so much easier to see.

Once again, feel free to write to me at Andrew.L.Miller@usa.net, and Iíll be glad to respond to any questions.

Chapter 3

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