Shining Force: The Legacy of Great Intentions
The inky blankness surrounds him, enveloping him in a comfortable blanket of peace. He drifts, content, at peace with everything. Then a voice calls to him dimly.
"Max...Max...WAKE UP MAX! Come on, I didn't hit you that hard!"
Max came awake snorting and spitting, cold river water dripping from his face.
Max limped off on exhausted legs. For four hours that day, he'd trained. First, a 5 mile run in practice armour, made of lead, to give his body explosive strength and speed. Followed by stretching all the muscles in his legs, torso, and arms, for agility, and lengthening of his strides and lunges. Then, formal kata with a lead sword, fully twice as heavy as the real thing, for flashing speed in his bladework. Then, a padded stick to take the place of the real thing, as Varios took him through drills, teaching use of the sword against sword, lance, staff, ax, mace. Finally, free sparring, culminating in a terrific blow to the cranium.
Max limped through the back door of the chapel, and slumped against the doorframe. He slowly breathed out, closing his eyes.
"Well, how're you doing, Max? Looks like you had a fun time?" Max opened his eyes and smiled wryly, looking down at Lowe, three feet of best friend, swaddled in the robes of a disciple, a priest in training. Max grimaced. "Oh yeah, you had a ball," continued Low, grinning, "Me, I'd be dead after an hour or so."
"I'm halfway there," said Max, clutching his pounding skull.
"What, another concussion? Come here, it's my turn to practice." Max slowly lowered himself to a kneeling posture, and let Lowe lay his hands upon his brow. The young Halfling began to quietly pray, calling on his Lord to heal his friend's head. A gentle warmth emanated from his hands, seeping into Max’ skull to mend the damage. As the migraine slowly faded, Max smiled in relief. Lowe continued, mending the damage of exercise, accelerating the rest period until Max could move without too much discomfort.
"Thanks, Lowe." Max got back up, and walked back outside, to talk to his teacher. Lord Varios nodded to his pupil.
"Keep it up, Max. Someday, you will be a worthy warrior-eh?"
The chamberlain of Guardiana, Rochefort, came stumbling up to Lord Varios, gasping for breath.
"Max, I shall speak with you later. Rochefort, lead the...no, just hop on.” And he swung the portly beaurocrat up onto his back, then cantered off, his passenger clinging tightly with frightened eyes.
Max followed more slowly. Lowe met him at the door. "Did you see Varios' face? Something's up, Max! Let's go see what."
Max nodded. "I'll go check the castle. You ask around town."
Max walked through the gates of the castle Guardiana, raising his hand in salute to the warriors standing guard. Walking into the main yard, he moved past the knights in training, who shot contemptuous glances at him, making snide remarks quietly to each other or openly shouted. Max, whose training at Varios' hands was an attempt by the great knight to redeem an orphan hoodlum, was well used to the harassment.
He made his way to the main throne room. The King sat in his throne, made of strong wood, padded with many cushions in an attempt to compensate for the fact that a throne is a remarkably uncomfortable piece of furniture. Varios was speaking as he entered, "-and I think that Max, my pupil, would be perfect for-ah, there you are, lad. Come stand with us."
Max stepped up next to his teacher, then kneeled before his King. "Stand up, my boy," said the King with a kindly smile. Max blushed at this familiar treatment at the hands of the august figure. Later in his life, he would come to realize that this was merely a cultivated personality, a politician's facade, developed by rulers for dealing with the public. But now, he was just a youth, and found himself speechless.
"Max," began the King, "Our nation was formed to guard the Gate of the Ancients, the edifice to the east. This gate was crafted by our remote ancestors, to contain some great power. Whether this power was of the Light or Darkness, we do not know. But now we find that we may have failed, in this, our reason for existence."
Varios, standing impassively, spoke one word. "Runefaust."
Max gasped. Runefaust, the tyrannical empire! Growing year after year, claiming country after country by treaty or conquest, trickery or brute force. Here, in peaceful Guardiana?
"Our spies have reported that agents of Runefaust have been spotted at the Gate. We must investigate, but we cannot afford to alert the people. This could cause a panic."
An old werewolf standing next to the throne, broke in. "You see, Max, we believe that the best way to proceed is to send a hand-picked force to the gate, to deal with this situation. We would like you to lead this force."
Stunned, Max made stuttering noises before finally achieving a barely audible, "Me?"
"Precisely. We want you to pretend to be a mercenary leader of a band calling itself "the Shining Force." A mercenary band could travel freely without undue attention, and make it to the Gate without attracting the notice that a band of Knights would."
"Max!" cried the King, filling the air with a sense of urgency and destiny, "will you accept this charge? Will you aid us in our hour of need?"
In later years, Max would come to realize that Kings and leaders must necessarily use drama to embellish their words, even when they are being sincere. But even then, he would never forget the feeling he felt upon hearing his King's words. Sinking back to one knee, he fervently uttered, "Yes, your majesty!"
The King smiled. "We thank you, brave warrior. Nova shall go with you, as your quartermaster. May his counsel serve you as it has me."
The old werewolf adjusted his spectacles on his mustached muzzle, then nodded to Max. "Follow me, Max."
The werewolf lead him to a building on the outside of the castle. "This is the headquarters for our Intelligence services. The volunteers for the Shining Force have already gathered." Max nodded and opened the door-and buried his face into a breastplate.
That Max, who was fairly tall for a human, found his face in someone's chest was disconcerting enough. Furthermore, the metal of the breastplate was strangely curved, and the chest underneath was surprisingly soft for a muscled warrior. Max backed up a step, and looked up, into the beautiful face of a female centaur in the arms of a knight. Max stared openmouthed. The centaur stared back with cool blue eyes. Max swallowed with an effort. The powerful shoulders and loins and slender legs of a champion mare were topped by a shapely human torso, a body muscular yet rounded. A shock of golden hair framed a lovely heart shaped face, the back disappearing into her armor, running down her back to join with a mane, the same gold of her tail. The centaur stared back at him with a look that showed that his admiration was somewhat less than mutual.
"So, you're Max," The knight stated, looking him up and down with appraising eyes.
A light flashed in Max's head. "Lady Mae," Max murmured, lowering his eyes- then immediately raising them with a flush to his cheeks. Mae gave a mocking smile.
"The other knights claim that my father has been wasting his time with you." She looked him over again. "We shall see." She stepped past him and trotted to the gates. Max stared after her until a polite cough from Nova shook him out of his stupor. He went into the little room, then down the stairs.
The stairs led to an underground lair. A table with several chairs stood immediately in front of the staircase. One hall led off into what appeared to be storerooms. Max looked around, at the several people sitting in the chairs.
Nova stepped forward. "This is Max, the leader of the team. Max, this is Ken." A centaur no older than Max stepped forward and extended his hand.
"Glad to meet you, Max!" Ken gave a boyish smile. "I can't wait to get going. A chance to become a real knight!" Max found himself grinning in return, and shook Ken’s hand firmly.
Nova continued. "Luke." A young dwarf just into adulthood nodded and touched his brow, with his feet propped up on the table. "Tao." A cute elven girl in the robes of a mage smiled mischievously and winked. "Hans." An elven youth in the garments of a woodsman smiled and nodded carefully, then went back to examining an arrow for signs of warpage.
"We've prepared a wagon with horse, to carry our provisions. We’ll be setting out tomorrow, so take care of any loose ends you all may have. Dismissed, all. Except you, Max.” As the others departed to say good-byes to friends or have fun at the tavern, Max took a seat at Nova’s prompting. Nova sat down across from him. “What has Lord Varios taught you of military leadership, my boy?”
“He taught me that a leader must be willing to die for his troops, before his troops become willing to die for him, sir.”
Nova chuffed, the whoosh of air blowing his mustachios about. “That is the basic lesson, my boy, only the first of many. No, do not bother protesting, I mean no disrespect for Lord Varios. We must always start with the basics, and that is a first lesson that too many officers never learn.” Nova pulled out a scroll. Unrolling it on the table, he directed Max’s attention to it.
“Geography, my boy. Know the terrain. High ground for attacking, low ground for hiding, open ground for open battle, cluttered obstacles for stalking and evading, the best path for the quickest route, all of these you must learn. Look here. This is the Gate of the Ancients. What do you see?”
Max peered closely. After a time, he slowly spoke, “If we are met at the front steps, we’ll be attacking from the low ground.”
Nova raised one eyebrow. “So you see a potential problem. What can you do about it?”
Max thought. “Make sure we are not discovered before we enter the Gate.” Nova nodded.
“What about the inside, once you enter?”
“Uh, it’s a large building, so if once there, we’re outnumbered-”
“Always assume the worst.”
“We’re going to be hurt, even if we’re lucky.” Max thought about it a moment. “Can I bring in a friend to help?”
“His name’s Lowe. He’s a Friar. We can use a good healer.”
Nova raised his head and peered at Max down his nose, for a moment. Then he grinned. “Unorthodox thinking. Bending the rules. You justify my old friend’s faith in you, lad. Go fetch this friend. Oh, and take this.” He stood up, and ambled over to a weapons rack, selecting a suitable blade. Taking a matching sheath, he handed both to Max.
The blade was 2 feet in length, double edged, balanced just in front of the guard. It weighed just over a pound, with enough of a pommel to make a powerful fisticuffs. The edge was a 30 degree angle, sharp enough to cut strong, yet strong enough to stay sharp. My first real blade, thought Max to himself. He buckled the sheath, then saluted Nova. “Thank you, sir. I’ll do my best to prove worthy of it.”
Nova smirked. “It’s just a piece of steel, boy. It won’t come alive until it’s in your hand.”
Later, upon returning to the chapel, he met Lowe. “Well, what did you-hey! That’s a real sword! What-”
“Ssshh,” cautioned Max, bending low and putting a finger to his mouth. “I’ll tell you in private, but- how’d you like to go on an adventure with me?”
“If I’d known you meant to leave at first light, I might have said no,” yawned Lowe sleepily, as he sat like a lump in the wagon seat, next to Nova, who drove the horse, a stocky Clydesdale with fully twice the mass and considerably more strength than a racer. The animal plodded slowly along, gazing about occasionally with a bored expression as he chewed on the bit.
“You’re sitting on a wagon,” pointed out Max, as he walked alongside, “Just take a nap if you like.”
“What? And miss out on all the excitement?” Lowe smacked his lips, then lowered his head to his chest, to take a snooze.
They stopped shortly before sunset to make camp. As Tao made the campfire, Ken, Luke, and Hans gathered up moss to make soft bedding for the night. Once the fire was ready, Lowe began cooking dinner, melting cheese and jerky on crackers, with onions gleaned from the forest to make tasty hot sandwiches. They ate their fill, drank from their water barrels, then bedded down for the night, posting 2 man watches in three shifts to stand sentry.
Next morning, they cleaned up camp and set forth, nibbling on bars of granola and nuts held together with dried honey in lieu of a breakfast. At the river, they stopped to refill the water barrels, pouring the water into a pot that evening to boil. Most of the water was returned to the barrels, but some was made into stew.
The third day, the Shining Force reached the Gate. Max stopped the wagon a mile off, and had Nova stay with the wagon, as the team moved through the forest alongside the road, reaching the gate by stealth.
Hans moved in first, and stopped outside the entrance to listen. He motioned the others to join quickly. They all looked in and peered around the doorframe, to spy on a force of goblins hacking at the floors with their rusty swords, peering through every bit of refuse. Larger dwarves with axes stood watch over the surly goblins, while a centaur Knight in the regalia of Runefaust oversaw the whole operation.
“Keep working, vermin,” muttered the Knight, “find that key! Or so help me, I’ll kill one of you...” He trailed off, and looked up at the entrance. Max drew his sword and moved in, trying to keep his fear from showing.
“So, a little boy wants to play? These Guardiana wimps think they can match with a warrior of Runefaust? I won’t soil my hands with you. Goblins, attack!” And at the prodding of the venomous dwarves, the goblins moved in slowly.
Max heard his friends moving in at his side, ready to aid. Suddenly, the ground began to shake.
“Earthquake!” several throats cried in union, as the tremors grew in intensity. Chunks of rock fell from the ceiling, then with the horrible sound of rock tearing, the side of the Gate opened into a chasm. Several goblins lost their balance and fell shrieking into the pit.
Max began thinking to himself quickly, okay, the ground’s become a lot narrower. Lost some enemies, too. Form a shieldwall. Max called out, “Ken, Luke, form up on my sides.” He crouched in readiness, as Ken moved up, holding his spear, and Luke moved in, holding a foot long blade with a wide base, meant for terrible stabbing wounds.
As the first of the goblins moved in, Max gave a war cry and leapt in, taking the handle in both hands and hacking down with all his might. The goblin reacted too slowly, and took the edge right in his collarbone. Sharp steel cut through flesh and bone, lodging far enough down to have chopped the heart in two. Max put his foot on the corpse and shoved off, pulling the blade free. The other goblins, seizing the opportunity, lunged in, slashing wildly. Max backpedaled out of range, and one goblin found a short sword rammed into his throat, another taking a spear from above, down through the torso to puncture the subclavial artery. Ken kicked the goblin off his shaft, to collapse a ways away, dying quickly of internal bleeding. The last goblin backed away fearfully, only to be cut down by a contemptuous slash of an ax. The dwarves moved in, braver, stronger, and more skillful.
Max shivered a moment, then cried out, “Now, Tao!” And Tao focused her chi, sending it outward to combust in the fiery conflagration of the Blaze spell. A dwarf raised his arms and began beating at his face and torso, beard and clothing aflame. His companion moved away from him hastily, trying to avoid a similar fate. “Yah!” cried Max as he lunged in and took the dwarf in the gut with 8 inches of blade. The dwarf grunted, then grabbed the blade with one gloved hand, and drew back his ax, swinging it forward with all his might in a sideways hack. Max caught the dwarf’s wrist and tried to keep the weapon away, pitting his leverage against the dwarf’s stocky might. Luke moved in and began stabbing the dwarf repeatedly, making numerous deep wounds while trying to avoid hitting Max, before the brute finally succumbed to blood loss and trauma. Ken meanwhile, had killed the burning dwarf clean, being careful to avoid the flames himself.
Max lifted his gaze to the knight, who raised his lance in a mocking salute. “For children, you’ve proven quite good. Good enough, in fact, that I’ll show you what a real warrior can do.” And he threw his arms wide in open invitation, before bringing his shield up to block and his lance ready to stab.
“Surround him,” called Max, and Luke moved to one side, having shifted his sword to the left hand, to hold an ax in the right, while Ken sidestepped warily to the other. The knight arrogantly allowed them this advantage, until Max moved in. Then, with practiced ease, the Knight reared up on his hind legs, avoiding the ax cut at his legs while blocking Ken’s spear with the forte of his lance. Lashing out, he kicked Max in the chest, knocking him back, then came down, using the momentum to bash Ken with the butt of his weapon, while catching Luke with the edge of his shield. Ken stumbled backwards, as Luke fell back, his nose bloodied. The knight looked hungrily down at Tao, standing alone before him, before Max rose up on unsteady feet, to assume a guard position.
“My, those ribs must be hurting, whelp,” murmured the knight. “Here, let me give you a splint!” And he began lashing out with the shaft, making quick thrusts that Max desperately parried and catching his counters with the shield. Offhandedly, he backhanded Luke with the shield again without pausing his assault, then kicked Ken with his rear legs a moment later. Finally, he made a thrust that brought Max out of line, set up for the coupe-and reared back, writhing in agony, the shaft of an arrow erupting from his visor.
The knight breathed deeply, once, twice, then swept his lance across the eye, snapping the shaft off. The Rune knight focused his mind, coped with the pain, and moved in again. Moving in determinedly, he failed to notice Luke moving behind to swing his ax straight at the knights foreleg. Hacking through tendons and flesh to bounce off the greaves, luke rebounded the ax for a backhand at the rear leg of the same side, then scrambled forward, running underneath the body as the knight collapsed.
The knight grimaced in pain, then tore off his shield straps. Pulling off his helmet, he managed to fix a smile onto his face. Max kneeled before him, as he spoke. “Good fight, that. Too bad for you, though. Even now, Runefaust marches on your town.” He coughed blood. “Finish it. Then go aid your people... as best you can.” Max stood up, horrified at the knight’s words, then remembered belatedly and administered the coup de grace, ending the knight’s pain with a clean blow to the throat.
“Lowe!” he grunted, and his friend rushed in. “No, do the others, first.” Lowe hesitated a moment, then nodded, tending to Luke’s bloodied nose and split lip, then Ken’s scalp wound, before Max finally let him mend the cracked ribs. Finally, Max spoke. “We’ve got to hurry. We need to warn Guardiana, before it’s too late!”
Nova met the ‘Force with a collection of packs next to the ransacked wagon. “The road’s been cut off by that earthquake. We’ll have to go around the mountains, and that means we have to leave the wagon behind. I’ve already packed the essentials.”
Max looked around. “What did you do with the horse?”
“We left him with the Friar of the monastery to the east.” Max whirled to see an enormous brute step out from behind the wagon. His hand immediately went for his sword.
“It’s all right, Max,” reassured Nova, “This is Gong, and he’s in service to our king as well.”
“In service to the Church,” corrected Gong, in his baritone voice, “but the Friar has sent me to aid you.” He picked up one of the largest of the packs, and planted it squarely over his massive shoulders. “I know the shortest route through these mountains. Follow me.”
The team moved quickly, following Gong’s path through the mountain range. Their packs started heavy, grew heavier as they soaked up sweat, then quickly shrunk as they were emptied of food and water. Occasionally Hans would catch a bird with an arrow, for Tao to roast on the move, but otherwise, there were no hot meals, only jerky and cheese on crackers, granola bars, and water.
Finally, they crossed through to the main road. Max ordered a stop. “I have an idea,” he said to Nova, chuffing beside him.
“We break for the next few hours. Then we run, until one of us drops. Then Lowe can heal us, and we’ll walk for a while more.” Nova looked at him a moment, then nodded. “Everyone take it easy, and rest up as best you can. Eat as much granola as you can, ditto the water. We’re leaving the packs here.”
2 hours later, they began their run. Max let Nova set the pace, and the old wolf set a surprisingly fast stride. Soon Luke’s gulps for breath were fully audible to those even up front, ditto Lowe. After the first 15 minutes, even Max’ legs were tiring, the muscles protesting the lactic acid buildup. After half an hour, their legs were in a cyclic series, of numbness, pain verging on cramps, finishing up with a short burst of relief from marking a milestone on the road that boosted their confidences. Finally, after three full hours of running, Max saw Tao fall. Before she hit the ground, Ken scooped her up and sat her on his back, where she clung, crying in pain from cramping leg muscles. Max turned to look behind, and saw Gong holding Lowe in his arms, while Luke clung to his back. The ogre was crying himself, his mammoth frame requiring such considerable effort to move it.
A half hour later, Nova began to fall. Max caught him by the arm, and swung him onto his back. Nova held on as they pressed on grimly. Finally, after four hours of constant running, wearing weapons and/or armour, Max teetered to a halt. Letting Nova down carefully, he tried to keep standing, lest inaction after such strain lead to cramps. Gong lowered Lowe and Luke down carefully, then toppled to the ground. Lowe went to help him, but the ogre raised a hand weakly. “I...am...monk...” he gasped out, “I...heal...er...too...” As Gong began calling on his God to heal the damage caused by running so long and hard, Lowe went to Nova, then Max, then Tao. Gong managed to heal Luke with his remaining magical strength.
“What...about...me?” gasped out Ken. As a equine, he couldn’t even lie down with ease, and his muscles were in great distress.
“Let me repay you, Ken,” said Tao, and she bent down and began massaging his legs. Ken sighed in relief, as she did both his forelegs with vigorous rubbing motions, then began work on his hindquarters. After a few minutes, she murmured, “Put it away, Ken.”
“Sorry,” said Ken sheepishly, “It’s not exactly controllable.” Lowering his visor so no one could see him blush, he stood stock still as Tao worked on him. A few seconds later, she gasped, then swallowed and continued. The others looked at each other for a moment.
“Let’s go wash our faces at the river,” suggested Lowe, and the others quickly agreed. A few minutes later, a greatly embarrassed Ken and Tao joined them. Ken and Luke used their helmets for bowls, the others using their hands to clean their faces and necks.
“Let’s move on, people,” ordered Max, “We’re only a few miles from the bridge.”
They walked on, reaching the last rise before the bridge. Max called a halt when he saw the town. “We’re too late,” he whispered, aghast. Wind brushed against his face, as he stared at the enormous army, currently laying siege to the castle. The remaining Knights of Guardiana fought in a shield wall at the gates, while pitched battles in the town’s buildings and streets took place between goblins and dwarves, and priests with staves, and villagers with whatever weapons were at hand.
Max stood there, as everyone muttered to each other, aghast. He brushed the hair from his face, then looked at his hand. He gave a grim smile. “I have a plan. It may work, it might not.”
“Like we have an alternative?” pointed out Ken.
“Yesterday’s half baked ideas are today’s text book stratagems,” reminded Nova, “let’s do it, whatever it is. We certainly can’t make things worse.”
At Max’ direction, they skulked towards the army. Upon reaching a suitable location, They waited for the winds to shift in the right direction. “Now, Tao. And spread it wide.” Tao began casting her Blaze spell, repeatedly igniting the dry grass. Soon, the plains had become a quickly spreading wildfire, with the winds sending the conflagration in the direction of the Runefaust army.
Upon seeing the fire coming, the army panicked. The goblins fled first, followed by a more orderly retreat by the dwarves. The ‘Force cheered as they withdrew, then sobered as they saw the fire heading straight for the town. “I think we just made things worse,” muttered Lowe.
The winds suddenly shifted, and the fire turned back in the direction it had come. Having already devoured the vegetation in that area, the fire slowly died down. “Good thing I’m not the only mage in Guardiana!” cried Tao happily.
The Shining Force headed into town, looking to aid the survivors. At Max’ orders, they split up, everyone looking for refugees. Max found himself heading to the tavern. He stopped, astonished. The tavern had always been on the top floor of a building, with a staircase leading up. The staircase was mostly blocked off, by an enormous pile of dead bodies. Goblins, mostly, but a few dwarves as well. Someone put up one hell of a fight, Max realized. “Hello in there!” he called out, “Runefaust has retreated. I’m coming in!”
He put his hands through the door first, to show that they were empty, then came in slowly. The bar was mostly empty, save for a broadly grinning old dwarf, and the barkeep, who stared at the dwarf with an amazed expression as he refilled his tankard. As the dwarf downed his beer, the keep said in an awed, reverent voice. “Killed ‘em all, he did. Just took that ax and chopped ‘em down as they came in, one at a time. Saved the bar. His drinks are on the house from now on.” He just shook his head, and took the dwarf’s mug to fill again.
Max found his voice. “I’m the leader of the Shining Force. We’re the ones that forced Runefaust’s withdrawal... We... could really use someone like you.”
The old dwarf snorted. “Shining Force, huh? Rather pretentious for a ‘merc outfit. All right, better than drinking myself to death here. Just let me say goodbye to my grandkids, huh?”
“Take all the time you need, sir,” said Max. “We’re not going anywhere until we’ve done what we can for the villagers. I’m Max.”
“Gort. Good to meet you, kid.” They shook hands, then Max continued on.
At the Gate to the castle, he heard a scream. He ran forward, as fast as he could, to be met by a quivering Rochefort. “Kane, Kane, he’s still here! He’s injured the King and Lord Varios!” Tears of fear and grief streamed from his fat cheeks. Max cursed and ran on.
In the throne room, he came across the awful scene. Varios, one arm limp at his side, tried to shield the King, whose fist was jammed into his belly to hold himself together. A gut wound, Max determined.
Max swallowed and stood up straight. “I’m Max.” Kane nodded once.
“I must say, Lord Varios, you should feel proud. This boy will come to surpass you by far...if he lives long enough, that is.” Varios glared at Kane with a look of hatred. “Anyway, the treasure of Guardiana is now mine.”
“You’ll...never...live to...spend it...Kane,” grunted Varios, hefting up his lance.
“Ha!” cried Kane, then in a tone that chilled Max’ blood, he intoned, “Sword of Darkness! Show me your power!” His ebon blade began to glow a sickly gray, then he swept it forward, venting forth a wave of inky darkness. Most of the blast hit Varios, though a portion hit the King, as well. As Kane laughed, Varios’ lifeless body collapsed. Max stared, too horrified to attack or even cry out. But someone else could.
“Father!” And Mae charged in, lance couched to impale the evil General. Kane sheathed his sword and spread his hands in invitation, then at the last moment, knocked the lance and caught Mae on the jaw with a right hook, knocking her down.
“Hmph. Seems there’s no one left to provide me with a challenge. I’ll be leaving, then.” And he flashed once, then disappeared. Max shook himself free of his stupor, and rushed to help Mae. Helping her stand, they rushed to the King’s side.
“Mae, Max...I won’t last much longer...though Varios helped shield...” The king swallowed, and continued. “Max, Kane told me...things. You must stop them, whatever the cost... Mae, go with him...Find my daughter...tell her...to be strong...for her...people...” The king gasped, jerked once, then his eyes glazed over. After a moment, Max reached out, and closed them.
Mae looked down at her father’s corpse. “Kane killed my father.” She said it simply, quietly.
Max looked at her. “Lord Varios was the closest thing I had to a father.” Mae looked at him.
“This is not the time for tears, Max. We must avenge him, and avenge our King!” Max nodded. “You’ve already shown your worth as a leader. Lead me!”
Max nodded. “Let’s go,” he said simply.
The Shining Force did what they could for the villagers, before leaving for Altena. Nova drove a new wagon, filled with just enough to see them through their journey. They marched down the road, Tao sitting in the wagon studying and honing her Chi, Hans sitting next to Nova with arrow nocked, ready for trouble.
The journey was fairly uneventful. Bandits and wild animals preyed upon travelers, taking advantage of the times of turmoil. The Shining Force fought off the bandits, liberating the stolen wealth as the spoils of battle. They ate the animals. By the time they’d reached Altena, Max found himself developing a taste for giant bat, particularly since Lowe had developed a recipe for frying the dark meat in a spicy sauce. His method of grilling the breast meat into fajitas with onions and wrapping them in flat bread cooked in the pan also proved quite tasty, though.
Altena was a peaceful city, with no outer wall, and a contented citizenry. Upon entering the city, the city guard let them enter in peace after only a preliminary questioning. Max bade Nova set up an HQ at a fairly large Inn, then sent the ‘Force out to find out the political climate before seeing the king. While he waited, he studied with Nova.
“How many troops do you have, Max?” asked Nova.
“Let’s see, Gort, Luke, Tao... nine, including myself.”
“And how many enemies would you expect to face in any one battle with Runefaust?”
“Uhhh...at least several dozen.” Nova nodded.
“You can’t expect to win in a toe to toe battle. Guerrilla tactics, lad. You must learn to maximize your forces, to use any possible advantage to win.” Nova handed Max a book. “This text chronicles the life and campaigns of Robin, a notorious bandit in the country of Prompt. Though possessed of only a small band of rogues, he commanded a large area of wilderness, using countless tricks to capture even the most well armed caravans, avoiding entire armies sent to catch him. When he was finally caught, the King of Prompt offered him a choice: the gallows, or a pardon and commission in his military. Many of the words in this book came straight from Robin’s lips. Start reading. When you’ve finished, I’ll give you another text.”
Max perused the first few chapters, skimming over Robin’s justifications for turning to crime. He became more interested when Robin began describing his recruitment of his “Merry Men,” and the strict standards he required of them. Each bandit was required to train a minimum of 10 hours a week with their bows, and were trained in group drills, learning to work together as a team. Robin also took care of his men, spending much of his loot on “reinvestments” much like a legitimate business, constantly upgrading the quality of their weaponry, hiring the services of wandering priests, and taking the consumable booty-wines and foodstuffs- to throw lavish celebrations to keep morale high. Thus, he owed his formidable success to his possession of a small but elite force.
Putting the book down, he noticed Mae standing above him. Rubbing his eyes, he asked, “So what’s up?”
Mae favored him with the sardonic, half mocking look she seemed to reserve just for him. “The King’s invited you to speak with him, kiddo,” she said, “I suggest you get a move on.”
“All right-uh, wait a minute.” He stood up and stretched. “Listen, get everyone together. I want you and Gort to lead some team drills.”
“Team drills?” She raised one eyebrow.
“Yah. Divide everyone up into teams of three. Use practice weapons and spar, three on three. I want you to emphasize teamwork.” Mae looked at him closely a moment, then nodded.
On his way to the castle, Max passed a beautiful woman, and stopped to glance at her. Dark skin, black hair, pointed ears, tall for a dark elf, dressed in a cloak with a hood thrown back, over a comfortable but expensive looking dress. “Greetings, Max,” she murmured, in a rich, velvety voice. She stared at him with a knowing smile, and he found himself blushing.
“You know me?”
“I am Mishaela, a fortuneteller, young warrior. Shall I tell you your destiny?” Max nodded slowly, still blushing. “Death lies to the north. Go back now, or you doom yourself and your friends.”
The blush disappeared, then was replaced by a flush of anger. “Just who the hell are you?” he demanded angrily.
“My, such language! And to a lady, as well. You remind me of another brave warrior. Handsome too, just like him.” She advanced slowly, and Max found himself fighting the urge to back up at this violation of his personal space. Bringing her head only inches from his, she smiled. “We’ll meet again, Max. Count on it.”
Max blinked. She was gone! Looking about, he could find no traces of the dark elf, nor any sign that she had ever been there.
The castle was very big, and so were it’s guards-and not all muscle, either. The soldiery of Alterone seemed to include pot bellies and double chins in it’s list of common physical traits. Max noted a large tavern, right next to the armory. Guards lazed about drinking beer and eating rich foods-much of it fried. He stared at this a moment, then turned to an elven girl standing nearby. “What’s with the, uh... military regimen?” He asked, jerking his head at the tavern.
The girl stared at him a moment, then giggled. “We’ve always been peaceful. Our military’s never actually done much but guard against bandits and wild animals.”
“It keeps taxes down, which makes this a very prosperous city.”
“Aren’t you worried about invaders?” The Elf looked troubled.
“Um, I’ve...said enough. Good day, sir.” And the girl ran off. Max stared after her a moment, then shrugged and continued.
The King was well suited to his country, plump and merry. “Greetings, Commander Max!” he cried, as Max approached and knelt before him. “I’ve already been appraised of Runefaust’s attack upon Guardiana. Terrible business, that.”
“Will you assist us, then, milord?” asked Max.
“I have...a tactician we should consult on this, Commander. Come, let me introduce you.” And the King bounced up out of his throne, and bustled down a side hall. Max followed him, through a door, up a flight of stairs, down another hall...and smack into the midst of a familiar face.
“Well, Max, good to see you again.” Kane chuckled from behind his mask of living iron. “Though I rather doubt the feeling is mutual.”
Max stared at him a moment, then socked him one, right in the jaw. An instant before he connected, he remembered in time to open his fist and strike with his tensed palm instead. It still hurt. Kane reeled back, then countered with his own palm. Max went down, with a dislocated jaw and bleeding mouth. Hawking and spitting, he glared up at Kane. “You murderer,” he mumbled through his discomfort.
“Flattery will get you nowhere, my boy. Good hit, though.” He motioned to a pair of knights. “Take him to the dungeons. I’ll decide his fate later.”
“You said you’d leave as soon as you caught him!” cried the king, aghast. “You promised!” Without even looking, Kane lashed out with a backfist, knocking the king down.
As the Rune Knights dragged Max off, he struggled against them, screaming out in spite of his jaw, “Don’t think you’ve won, Kane! I’ll get you! Do you hear me? I’LL MAKE YOU PAY!”
Max was tossed into the cell unceremoniously. Laying there a moment with his head spinning, he slowly regained his senses.
“So, it seems someone else offended Kane.” Max turned slowly to stare at the speaker.
“Greetings, my son,” said the Abbot, “It’s good to see a friendly face.” Max struggled to sit up. “You are hurt, child,” murmured the priest, “Here, allow me.”
While healing Max’ jaw, and the assorted bruises received at the hands of the knights, the Abbot filled him in on recent events. “It happened shortly after the sacking of Guardiana. Kane showed up with a fair sized invasion force, and threatened to burn the city to the ground unless the King agreed to help him capture the mercenary commander from Guardiana. I must say, child, you’re quite young for a command post. Anyhow, I protested the King’s quiet acquiescence, and Kane tossed me in jail.” He finished his work, and Max stood up, stretching his sore muscles.
Max went up to the cell door, looking for a way to open them. Maybe I can pull them open, he thought, pulling on them for a bit. Maybe not. Who’s coming now? It was the elf girl. “Hi, I’m Khris. Hold on, I’ll get you out.” Producing a key from her pocket, she unlocked the cell door. “It’s too dangerous to walk out this way. There’s a secret passage this way.”
“Greetings, Khris. I’m glad to see you again.”
“Oh, Father!” Khris ran up to the priest, and knelt before him. The Abbot raised a hand and laid it on her head in benediction. “Come on, I’ll get you out of here.” Khris stood up, and ran over to the wall. Pushing a bunk out of the way, she raised up a trapdoor, exposing a secret staircase. “Come with us, Father!”
“I’m afraid not, little one,” said the Abbot apologetically. “I’ll stay here and cover your escape. Take the Commander and go.”
“Wait a minute,” said Max, “I hate to argue, but I’ve got to get to my troops somehow, and go after Kane. That’s not a place for you, Khris.”
Khris gave a humph of frustration. “I’m a healer, buster!”
“The name’s Max, not Buster.”
“Whatever. You’re going to tell me you can’t use a good healer?” Khris planted both feet, hands on hips, and glared at him. Max looked her over. She was a cute thing, petite and blonde, but with firm muscles and a stubborn set to her jaw. The eyes bothered him, though. They were the eyes of a naïve schoolgirl, not a hardened combat healer.
“All right,” he said finally, “you can come. But you do what I tell you to do, no matter what. I don’t want to have to tell your mother that I got you killed.” Khris nodded, and led the way down the staircase. Holding out her hand for him to take, she led him down the dark path. “Where does this thing lead, anyway?”
She told him. “You’re kidding. You’re not kidding. Now that’s dumb luck.”
Max led the charge out of the Inn, the Shining Force at his back. Looking out, he saw the forces of Runefaust arrayed against him. Rune Knights, Dwarves, Archers, even a Mage. And Kane! “Now, then, Max,” sneered the metal faced monster, “I guess we’ll never know how great a warrior you could have become. Farewell, BOY!”
A Knight came running out of the castle. “Lord Kane,” he cried, saluting, “Darksol has demanded your return to Runefaust immediately.
Kane nodded once. “I’m on my way.” Turning back to Max, he called out, “Guess I won’t be killing you myself after all, little fool! Farewell!” Lifting his Dark Sword in salute, he closed his eyes a moment, then he and the knight both shimmered and vanished.
“NO!” Screamed Mae. “Come back, you coward!”
“Never mind that now, Mae,” admonished Max. “We’ve got more urgent matters to deal with. Luke, Gong, Gort, you go that way, and take out those dwarves! Hans, start sniping! Lowe, stay with him! Everyone else, follow me, and remember, work together!” He moved down the road, and crossed the bridge, heading towards the open land kept for merchant’s stalls. In front of him, a force of knights couched their lances and charged. Mae cried her own challenge and started, only to be restrained by Max.
“Wait, set to receive them. Tao, get ready.” The knights moved forward in an implacable gait, tearing up the ground with their hooves. The very earth seemed to shake as they charged in. “Steady...steady...NOW TAO!” And with that, Tao cut loose with her Blaze spell, and the knights found themselves riding into fire.
The charge faltered, as the knights found themselves being toasted from below, their unarmored underbellies painfully vulnerable. Max charged in with a war cry, and cut low, aiming for their legs. Ken and Mae charged in with their own lances, deflecting the knights’ shafts as they aimed for the weak spots in their armor. Tao kept the heat on, burning the knights where they fell. Soon, an entire troop of knights had fallen to blade and burn.
Max looked to make sure that Ken and Mae were all right, then turned to check up on Khris. She had the stunned, shocked expression that comes from seeing violent death for the first time, and realizing that it’s not as much fun as it sounds. Then, greatly impressing him, she shook her head to clear it, and ran up to him. “Let me heal you,” she said.
“I’m not-” Max looked down. An ragged gash in his side, seeping blood, contradicted him. I never even felt it. Now he began feeling a little queasy. Red is definitely not my color. Khris swallowed her bile down, placed her hands upon him, and began mending the wound. While she worked, he looked around. Hans was up on a rooftop, behind a chimney stack, taking careful aim at the remaining archers. Lowe had managed to climb up with him, and kept drawing fire with a large piece of wood he used for a shield, occasionally turning it around and carefully pulling the arrows free. As he worked them free, he stuck them into Hans’ quiver, keeping up his rapidly diminishing supply.
Dwarf bodies littered the ground at irregular intervals. Looking around, Max finally spotted Luke, being
chased by a large force of axewielders. Then Gong and Gort ran out from a house and attacked from behind,
lashing out with heavy ax and ogre propelled kicks that moved surprisingly fast. Taken by surprise, several
dwarves fell before the others turned and counterattacked. As Gong and Gort went on the defensive, Luke
turned about and attacked his former pursuers, taking them by surprise and hacking off many heads.
“This way,” he cried, and charged to the other side of the field, working his way around to the other side of the archers, hiding behind houses as they moved. “Spears, guys,” he told the knights, then to Tao, “See what you can do to that Mage. Now!” And he leapt out from behind the last house, charging in quickly to take the archers by surprise. Ken and Mae both hurled their spears, sending them flying to land in leather tunics, then continued to charge, drawing their lances from where they’d been slung across their backs.
Tao blasted the Mage with all her remaining power. “No!” she cried out in frustration, as she proved too weak from blasting the knights. The Mage quickly doused the few flames that sprouted, then prepared to return fire. I don’t recognize the incantation, Tao thought, as she sensed the mental posturing and watched the mudras he formed with his hands, but it looks powerful. The mage prepared to unleash his power-and collapsed, as Gort chopped off his leg at the thigh, his gathered chi diffusing harmlessly. He should have cast a fast spell, instead of a powerful one. Soon, it was all over.
“I thank you, Max,” the King said, his eyes downcast, “And... I apologize. I was a fool to trust Kane. Better to have fought as you did. How can I repay you, and expiate my shame?”
“We came here to ask for aid for our countrymen, your Majesty,” said Max, kneeling before the throne.
“You shall have it. Foodstuffs, healers, tools and tool users, we will gladly help rebuild Guardiana. Also, we will give you provisions for your journey, and funds.”
“No, no, you fought for us, and won the day. You shall be paid the wages commanded by top mercenaries, as you deserve.”
“Thank you, your Majesty.”
“It is I who should thank you, Commander, for saving my Kingdom.”
Soon, two wagons had been loaded with water, clothes, blankets, cooking apparel, all the necessaries for travel. Each wagon pulled by a team of two horses. Nova took the reigns of one, as Lowe took command of the other. Max looked over his team proudly, admiring their look of confidence, and their new gear, then turned to lead the way.
“Hold on! You forgot me!” Max stopped.
“No, I didn’t.”
Khris stamped her foot. “You said I could come with you!”
Max turned to glare at her. “That was for the one battle, Khris. You’re not coming with us.”
“Yes I am!” Max looked at her a moment. Then he made a very rude, and for him, a very uncharacteristic, suggestion. Turning around, he started walking away, then jumped in the air, and turned around with an astonished look in his wide eyes.
Khris straightened up and gave him an infuriatingly innocent look. “Do whatever you tell me, no matter what,” she echoed him mockingly.
Max stared at her a moment, then glanced at the others. Ken was staring in astonishment, as was Hans. Mae looked fit to kill. Tao was silently mouthing, you go girl! over and over, and Lowe and Luke were trying to stifle giggles. Gort wasn’t even trying, bellowing his laughter openly. Only Nova and Gong were polite enough to look away, fixing their attention on a tree on the side of the road.
Max looked back at Khris, who smiled sweetly. “Anything else you want me to do?” she asked in a little girl’s voice. After a endless moment, during which Max thought his cheeks would explode from the rush of blood to his face, he finally screamed, “Aaargh!” turned, and stomped off.
“Everyone move out!” And so the Shining Force, now 10 hands strong, moved on towards their destiny.
************************************End of Part One****************************************
Author’s note: I’ll be including one of these notes with each chapter, so please bear with me. Martial Arts for me is something more than just a hobby. While I abhor gratuitous violence, i.e. innocent bystanders being graphically killed just to use up the extra fake blood, et ad nauseum, this is a Fanfic based on a RPG about a military force. Without dwelling on the gore, I fully intend to make the action as realistic as possible. Except for the magic, of course! These notes will elaborate my reasoning for the action proceeding as it does.
The battle wounds and reactions are what can be expected in a real fight. Such minutiae as the Subclavian Artery can be read in “The Complete Book of Knife Fighting,” by William L. Cassidy. Surprisingly short for such a grandiose title, the book actually covers the two style of western blade fighting developed during WWII, by Fairbarn and Applegate, and Styers and Biddle, and includes history, targets, techniques, grips, and of course, the backstab, which sets the whole concept of knife fighting in perspective. Also included is a chapter on assorted combat knives, which ends with an advertisement for the author’s own line of battle blades. This book is available from Paladin Press, you can find them online, and I highly recommend it for good people looking to increase their ability to defend themselves from bad people.
The differing times before dropping from wounds is also true to life, being taken from a number of reports by medical examiners and federal and local law enforcement experts. In one case, one of two suspects pursued by FBI agents in a running gunfight, managed to kill or wound several of them, despite taking a fatal wound in the first few seconds of the fight, lasting for about half an hour, before falling prey to wounds to the neck, heart, AND head. The experts all agree-that they CANNOT agree-on when a given person will drop, stating that it depends on the exact location of the wound, the temperament of the subject, the chemicals in their bloodstream, and numerous other factors. The dwarf in the Gate of the Ancients, for example, filled with battle rage and adrenaline, required numerous stab wounds to down, while the dwarves in Altena, caught by surprise, and attacked with weapons inflicting far greater trauma and concussive force(i.e. hand axes and the kicks of a martially trained ogre eight feet tall), fell considerably easier.
The sword Max used in this chapter was fairly standard for a western blade. Contrary to the opinions of classical fencers and eastern fans who disdain the occidental arts, the standard swords were balanced, and fairly light, being in fact a little easier to swing than the Katana, which is balanced to maximize shearing ability and cutting power. The lance work was also fairly accurate, since the lance is a development of the spear, evolving after the development of the stirrups, which meant that a mounted warrior could put the full power of his steed and himself behind the point. However, most lances then developed the tendency to shatter, due to the enormous forces being channeled through them. In the world of Shining Force, however, with the lances apparently enchanted, to judge by their glowing green/blue/purple/magenta, that is not a problem, nor is being dismounted. That being the case, I reasoned that the Knights would choose to make slings to hold their lances across their backs when not in use, then after the initial charge, would adopt a style similar to that of the Roman soldiers, with spear and shield, or that of the rapier and shield swordsman, stabbing with the blade in short extensions, with an occasional lunge.
The training regimen Max engaged in at the start? Standard practice for medieval swordsmen was to drill with swords twice as heavy as normal, making the real blades dance in their hands (another reason to scorn the classical stereotype of the western knight as a clumsy, awkward buffoon, easily dispatched by the graceful samurai). I myself train with one, as well as an iron pole for staffwork. Anyone training with weapons is well advised to try using this principle. Use Nunchuku made of solid metal instead of wood, chain weapons with the extra heavy stuff for lifting 1000lb.+ loads, etc. Weighted armour? I practice kicks and gymnastic routines with weighted clothing. Beware, though, this is an EXTREMELY draining workout. If you want to give it a try, use LIGHT weights, LOW reps, and build up SLOWLY. Of course, my own regimen pales in comparison to that of the Army Rangers, who can EASILY run 20 miles or more with 60 lbs. of gear. No wonder they’re so pissed at the Pentagon taking their black berets away and giving them to the army at large. If I’d earned a place in an elite force, then was told my badge of honor would be given out to everyone to “raise their self esteems”, I’d be pissed, too.
How could someone run that hard, for that long? Max was able to train like that, at levels of intensity even I would not seriously contemplate, because of “sports medicine.” Modern athletes speed their recovery time and enhance the amount of stress they can handle, through nutrition, massage, chemicals, and psychological training (sitting down with a collection of comedy books/movies after a workout is a good example). Max, on the other hand, has an edge we don’t, namely, a 3 foot tall trainer who can heal wounds. Exercise causes the muscles to literally break themselves down, only to build themselves back up, harder and stronger than before, learning to cope with the demands placed upon them (and once they learn to cope, the athlete increases the demands accordingly). With a competent healer to restore him at the end of each workout, Max could train like that every day without need for more than the usual period of REM sleep and a nutritious diet with lots of protein and carbohydrates.
Well, that’s it for this chapter. If you have any comments, please send them (with polite phrasing!) to Andrew.L.Miller@usa.net and I’ll respond to them in the following chapter.