The Drink of Champions

The Shining Force is heading into its first decisive battle. Rumors of a legendary swordsman known as General Elliot have reached the party and with this in mind Max mentally prepares himself for the worst as none of the fighters he and his team have bested were anything remotely resembling a general of the Runefaust Army.

"I've heard of Elliot." Max thinks to himself. "This is not good."

"Max, is something wrong?" Mae asks. "You seem preoccupied."

"Just thinking. There's a lot between here and Runefaust."

"It's more to it than just that. I've known you too long to fall for something that transparent."

"Varios spoke of Elliot more than once. He's said to be near Pao and if that's the case we are surely going to run right into him."

"Then we'll have to take him down like we do anyone else. Runefaust has loyal soldiers that leave us no choice."

"I don't think you understand."

"Maybe I don't but I have faith in you and that's all that matters to me. When it comes down to it and you and Elliot cross swords I know who will win."

Max sighs and returns to the head of the Shining Force to continue the march. After a few hours of trekking down the other mountainside of Bustoke they arrive in a prairie. Plains stretch on for miles before them and on the outermost range of sight a convoy of wagons is on the move.

"That's the mobile town of Pao." Nova states. "They are roving sheepherders who live off of the land. In a way this entire prairie is a town to them."

After a few more hours of marching they manage to catch the wagons and it so happened that they were stopping for the day. With a new town to explore everyone scatters as Nova searches out a makeshift headquarters. This leaves Max alone for a while as he meanders around.

"Varios spoke of Eliot as an equal." Max thinks to himself. "Elliot trained Kane the same way that he was training me but he didn't get to finish training me before Kane killed him. He was better with a sword than I am to the very last; how can I defeat someone as good or better than he was?"

Max's musings take him into a tavern of sorts. Though it's more scaffolding and burlap sheets than actual solid walls and doors it has tables and alcohol, which is enough for the patrons. Taking a seat at the bar the bartender gives him a hard look and pours him juice instead of ale. The young swordsman doesn't care very much and sips it contemplatively trying to figure out his conundrum.

"If Kane was that much better than Varios and Elliot is at least as old as my teacher was than that means even if I do beat him I'll probably still have no chance against Kane." Max thinks grimly. "I'm supposed to be a world beyond my teacher if I'm to defeat Kane and the same day that Kane killed him he still knocked me around like a novice. It looks pretty bad from here and I don't even have a choice."

"Hey." Comes a voice from over his shoulder. "Are you Max?"

"Who wants to know?" The red-haired swordslinger replies, edging his hand to his well-worn middle sword with a less than friendly look at the speaker.

"Easy there, the big guy in the back is who you want."

Max gets up and walks to the rear of the establishment. A positively huge person sits at a table alone with two tankards of ale before him. The young man approaches cautiously to the edge of the table and stops.

"You were looking for me?"

"You're Max of Guardiana?" The sitting man replies. "I thought you would be taller."

"I am Max, who are you?"

"I am known simply as the Red Flame of Protectora."

"What do you want with me, Red Flame of Protectora?"

The big man laughs, a hearty and sincere sound. "So formal, young hero! My friends call me Red."

"Do they now? I pick my friends well, Red Flame."

"Indeed you do. Your exploits travel faster than wildfire of you and your friends but you would do well to add me to that list."

"And why is that? You wish to aid us in our fight against Runefaust?"

"No, no no!" Red laughs again. "I'm not out to fight a young man's fight anymore but I do have an extra mug of ale in front of me for a new friend and it would be a shame to waste." He smiles in the gloom, a bit hard to make out but a toothy smile nonetheless. "What is it for swordsmen to swap tales and share a drink?"

Max looks over and next to Red is a weathered longsword in its scabbard leaning against the table. "Indeed." He concurs, sitting across from the larger man and unhooking his own sword.

"Not long on the path are you, boy?"

"Long enough to be able to handle myself." Max says defensively. "I assure you."

"Not an insult my friend, just an observation. You wear your sword on your left as I do but you put it on your right side of the table next to my blade and I'm across from you. A beginner's mistake."

"Why is that?" Max asks, switching his weapon to the other side of the table.

"Simple. Without the scabbard fixed to you somehow you will need your off hand to hold the sheathe while you draw if there was a need for action in here."

Max weighs the proposition and nods. "I understand."

"I've seen action in a few taverns myself. I've lived a long life of battle."

"It looks it." Max agrees, looking at the battle scarred armor the older one is wearing. "Whom did you train under?"

"Alexander, my friend." Red takes a drink of his glass. "Long before your time."

"I studied with Varios."

"I imagine. Varios of Guardiana is a legend himself and you can't be too bad making your way through Rune with that training blade and still be intact. You were trained well, I can tell."

"I have him to thank for that and to avenge as well." Max replies somberly. "Kane of Runefaust killed him a few weeks ago."

"Guardiana was the first casualty of Runefaust declaring war with the world. I am sorry." Red downs another draught. "Varios was a good man."

"Indeed." Max follows suit with a swig. The taste is bitter and he gags on it, choking and sputtering.

"Easy, boy! I'm a bit more experienced holding my ale. Sip to start; it's strong stuff." He sets his mug down. "What is your quest exactly, Max of Guardiana?"

"I need to stop Darksol from awakening Dark Dragon and save the world."

"Sounds like a heavy task for a boy."

"I don't think anyone would call it easy."

"Indeed." Red drinks again. "What of Runefaust in your quest?"

"What of it? Darksol has Runefaust's army to command and he can't be stopped until he has nowhere else to go and no one else to fall back on."

"I know that you want vengeance for your master and your own home. Do you wish an eye for an eye with Runefaust in the place of Guardiana?"

Max shakes his head grimly. "That is the last thing I or any of my team want. The killing of innocents is what we are here to stop and Darksol is here to make it happen. I have no choice but to go to Runefaust to confront him, generals or not."

"So even Runefaust is a victim?"

"No city is safe from Darksol. That's why we are banded together as the Shining Force. All of Rune is to be freed from him and his influence."

"I wish I could join you."

"You can; no one is too old to fight for what's right."

"I have my reasons and I am sure you understand."

The two of them drink in silence for a time. Neither of them saying anything until the off duty guards of Pao in the bar for a refresher off of watch duty start making a fuss. Holding one's liquor is not a universal talent of all warriors and the title makes you no better at it. Red looks amused at the whole thing but it bothers Max.

"Those two could get rowdy." The boy mentions.

"That's what some do in a bar. It's why you're supposed to take your weapons off in one."

"They still have theirs on."

"Not too much'll happen I assure you." Red says easily. "Enjoy your brew."

"I don't want to see anyone hurt and we're the only other ones in here with swords." Max stands and grabs his sword, looking at his drinking partner with a determined look.

"Well if you have to be a hero about it, let's be about it." He follows suit and walks with Max up to the barstools.

"I tell ya that lazy bum Vankar isn't worth a damn thing!" One of them yells. "And he's ugly, too!"

"Hey don't talk about the captain like that!" The other yells back. "He'll kick your ass!"

"I have half a mind to kick your ass!"

"The other half must be good sense!"

"Hey guys, cool it." The bartender says. "No getting loud in here."

"Shut up!' The two of them say together.

"Gentlemen, you should listen to him." Max says from behind them. "Maybe step outside and get some air?"

It is sudden, especially for a pair of drunks but both men go for their swords as they turn on their stools. Max gets a hand on one of them, keeping his sword arm from freeing his blade while Red steps forward and simply shoves the other man off of his stool and onto the floor flat on his back with one hand.

"Alright, I don't want any trouble." Says the one prone on the floor. "Jeez…"

"Let me go and I'll leave." Says the other.

The two ruckus raisers walk out at that. The bartender smirks and gives them both another mug and thumbs up. "On the house, guys. It's appreciated."

"You can handle yourself for a little guy." Red says approvingly to Max. "Good nerves and instincts."

"Thanks for backing me up. Good nerves by themselves are not enough."

"For what, young friend? I've seen a lot of battles and the rattled under pressure are the casualties."

"A skilled opponent doesn't care if you've got the jitters or not. You still have to best him blade to blade."

"Good nerves and reflexes are important and you've got both. You have yet to run across anyone better than you are so what are you worried about?"

"Everyone's luck runs out at some point." Max sighs and takes a heavy swallow of his new glass. "I've got Elliot to take down and he's got a lot of experience on me."

Red laughs. "Experience? That's a polite way of calling someone an old fart in my book. I doubt it's as serious as you think."

"It is. I don't know if you've met him or not but they say he's the best with a sword in all of Rune."

"Pah. The oldest maybe." The taller one chuckles at the thought. "You can take him if you have to."

"I have no choice. I have to stop Kane and Darksol. Elliot is loyal to his ruler and I am to mine and his last wishes. With these things in mind he will not simply just let me pass." Max puts his mug down and stares at his new friend in the eyes. "What would you do?"

"I'd invest in a longsword first thing if I was dead set on fighting someone with one." Red strokes his chin. "Matter of fact, I'll let you borrow mine. That training blade would get you killed."

"Don't you need it?"

"I'd hate to see a promising swordsman like yourself killed off of something so dumb as a wobbly training blade." Red offers his sword to Max. "Keep it till we meet again."

"When will that be?"

The taller one does not answer. He simply walks out and vanishes into the prairie with the wind. Max takes the thought of giving chase in mind but doesn't move from his seat.

"Until we meet again." He says to himself, draining his glass.

Later that day Max is sitting on the edge of the tracks watching the sun set. His 'new' longsword is on the ground by his side in the scabbard with his left hand resting on it. He looks up at the sky, watching the clouds change from orange to pink as the day wanes and sighs to himself.

"Is something wrong?" Mae asks, walking over to him and lowering herself to the ground. "You've been out here since you came back from the tavern."

"Ever hear of Protectora?" Max asks, ignoring her question. "Did we pass through it yet or are we even stopping there at all?"

The second-in-command knight chuckles darkly. "That is at the end of our journey."

"It's next to Runefaust?"

"It IS Runefaust or have you never read a history book?"

"Nope. Varios didn't teach history." Max sighs again, looking down at the longsword again. "But I kind of knew." He says while running his fingers over the inscription of the Red Flame General on the hilt next to the crest of Runefaust. "Red Flame indeed."