March 16th, 2009

legend of hero

Wandering Merchant Joix: Act IV

Hall of Heroes B1

Joix lay sprawled in his sleeping quilts, staring at the unchanging illumination of the stone ceiling, listening to the occasional rustles and thumps of groundlings and flightlings passing by outside. He was alone and trapped. Sooner or later he was going to die.

What a giant, unholy mess. Could he have kept it from all going wrong? Gotten out, somehow?

Every time his mind wandered, it kept returning to that first conversation with Diune. The words played over and over in his mind ...

 

"So I guess it's safe to say you believe in the Sunlit Land?" the unicorn asked.

"I've heard some of the stories," Joix answered noncommittally. "Why?"

"The Shadowscales have been telling me about a Sunlit Land warrior with incredible power who will visit our world and fight against Eversor. They say that the warrior is our only hope of survival. With every passing day I fear more and more that they're right."

Joix fidgeted. "Surely it can't be that bad?"

"The Blade Legion alone used to be 200 strong. A tiny elite at the head of the Shadow King's army. And now? We'd be lucky to field that many shadows -- total. The irregulars you saw upstairs are half the Resistance."

"What happened to the rest of the army?"

"Defected. Or slaughtered like grazers."

Diune stared at Joix. The silence again grew awkward. Was there something he should have said?

"So ... what does that have to do with me and the Sunlit Land?" Joix asked, slowly.

"We're not short on food stores," Diune said, picking up a vial again. "So I can't imagine you made these with shadows in mind."

Food? Joix had wondered. Later, he would pry out of Hope that the potions were like concentrated rations for shadows. But at the time, uncertain of what he was supposed to know, he had pivoted the subject away. Had sticking to his story been a mistake?

"Well," Joix said, "Hope told me that you work with outsiders."

"Did he now," Diune said, tone perfectly even.

What had that meant? Had Diune taken that as an insult? Had he figured out Joix's secret?

"Ah -- I mean -- the Resistance --" Joix stammered, lurching into a meaningless "You know."

To Joix's great relief, Diune shrugged the subject away. "Rumors fly and truth trots. I've never met an outsider face to face, except for Eversor's beasts on the battlefield."

"Oh," Joix said, then flailed around for a conversational foothold. "Er -- then --"

"A friendly one apparently visited the Temple of Lost Light in the early days of the invasion -- a pink thing like a wingless shadowangel, wearing impossible robes the color of snow. But by the time the Resistance reached the temple, she was long gone." Diune rotated the vial in his fingers. "Stayed around just long enough to give the shadowscales some cryptic instructions about portals that they're still struggling to figure out. Didn't even leave her name."

Joix tried to act casual. "Oh."

Right there. He should have volunteered to check it out. His one clear link to humanity. If he had spoken up --

"And these outsiders my shadowscales mention -- assuming they're going to show up at all -- aren't here yet," Diune said, standing up and gathering the five vials. "I'll stow these somewhere safe upstairs, just in case. But with the next load of crystals, would you mind crafting things our warriors will find more useful?"

-- if he had volunteered, what would Hope have done?

 

After Diune dropped off another armful of crystals and left for the second time, Joix sat, frozen, barely warding off panic by organizing his mental notes about the tools. He didn't consider himself a timid person, but he knew he was in way over his head. Merely keeping straight his sorry excuse for a cover story was taking up all his brainpower. Never mind the impossible mountain of "craft something more useful."

Hope returned after what seemed like an eternity. He wouldn't meet Joix's gaze.

"Hope-cat sorry," Hope said, voice breaking. "Hope-cat has to go."

"What?!" Joix squeaked out, his plea for crafting assistance left unsaid.

"Hope-cat has to go," Hope repeated, "to Oncelight Temple."

"Temple?" Joix asked. "You ... you've found faith?"

Hope shot him a strange look, locked eyes with him for a fleeting moment, and nodded uncomfortably.

Strangely, that calmed Joix down. He was stuck in a world that was alien beyond his imagination. He was never more than one dumb word from a mistake that would reveal him as an outsider. He had a single friend, who was about to depart for parts unknown. But it was faith that was getting Hope so agitated ... and problems of faith? Those he knew, right down to his bones.

Joix got up, checked the hallway to make sure they were alone, and gave Hope a tender, sympathetic hug, heart pounding. "Hope," he whispered, "with everything you did for me while I was struggling with God ... I completely, totally understand. I promise I'll take care of myself. You take all the time you need with your faith, and let me know anything I can do. Anything."

Hope wedged a hand up against his chest and pushed him back a few inches, finally returning Joix's stare -- and jesus christ he was crying, trails of tears glinting in the unlight against the matte black of his fur.

"Joix-cat not understand," Hope said. "Not faith like lord-book."

"Huh?"

"Faith-cat."

Joix said nothing. Somehow, he knew what was coming next, as if the words had been custom-crafted from within his own heart to rip it apart as deeply as possible:

"Faith-cat is ... big friend," Hope said. "Hope-cat thought Faith-cat not want to see him again."

 

Another patrol of groundlings loped by outside, pausing to sniff at the smithing room's door before continuing onward. It was enormously ironic that Joix owed his life to the room wards; they had been designed to contain beasts waiting to be killed for shard harvesting. He wondered when someone was going to show up and harvest him.

Joix balled up on his side, running his claws slowly over the smooth floor stones and listening to the sound.

He had told Hope to go. He had promised to stay and wait for Hope's return. Nothing else would have been fair; his feelings weren't Hope's fault. And it had clearly been hard enough for the shadowcat already, without him complicating things.

He had sworn with great solemnity to maintain his secret identity -- no matter what. Hope had insisted. Hope still wanted to keep him safe more than anything. Well ... more than almost anything.

... Almost anyone.

And for all that the conversation was stabbed and seared into his memory -- it was a clean, cauterized wound. It didn't come with the self-doubt of his other interactions.

How could he have done anything differently?

 

Hope quickly left, too distracted to offer any further crafting lessons. Then one of the shadowscales -- the same one who had grabbed his leg? -- visited him in the basement with a third tool as a gift, and started teaching him right where Hope had left off. It was too dumb to be luck and too fortunate to be coincidence.

"How did you know I needed help?" Joix blurted out.

The reptile smiled inscrutably, then merely whispered: "If you were truly a crystalsmith, you would not be here."

"How do you know --"

The shadowscale pressed a cold finger to his lips. "Hush," he murmured. "The others will hear."

Joix learned to craft weapon crystals and to dye armor material with charged shard essence before the shadowscale abandoned him to his solitary labors. Time passed quickly as he worked.

After his first smithing shift, he took a break to watch the shadowmancers seal up the top of the pit, hardening the twohorns' diggings into thick, solid stone and camouflaging the roof's top surface into an unremarkable, grassy hillside. The Resistance was going fully underground.

 

Soon after the roofing project was complete, Diune told some twohorns to remove the spotlight -- and its segment of arch -- from its lofty home.

"Where are you taking it?" Joix asked.

"The Temple of Lost Light," Diune replied. "The shadowscales want it."

"What for?"

"They think they've cracked it -- a way to bring outsiders here from the Sunlit Land. There's no way of telling if they'll be friendly -- but we no longer have a choice. Once Eversor finds a way into the underground, we've got days, at best."

A connection to the Sunlit Land? Joix had almost volunteered on the spot -- but it was then that he had realized. "Oncelight Temple." The Temple of Lost Light.

He wasn't ready for Faith.

"Bring them back if you find any," Joix said. "I bet they'll need crafted gear."

 

But Eversor found the Hall of Heroes first.

Joix was crafting a weapon crystal when a low rumble built up to a splintering crash. The entire room pitched and yawed. Shouting echoed from upstairs, along with a bloodcurdling bellow. There were the scuffles and thuds of a fight. Screams. Roars.

Stampeding feet and hooves. The sounds of nearby death. Joix slammed the door shut, reflexively started to pray, and then realized he no longer had anyone to pray to. He moaned, sank to the floor, and waited for the end.

 

He had been in the room since.

Once, he had worked up the nerve to sneak out and try to flee. Only once. The instant he stepped foot out of the door, a pair of spiky shadow things the size and shape of Doberman pinschers with red glowing eyes had whirled around, growled, and charged. He had slammed the door shut again, and waited, heart thudding. They had sniffed around outside, puzzled, and walked away.

He had tried to call out for help, too. Nobody had answered.

So there was nothing left to do but consume his dwindling supply of snacks and water -- and dwell on his situation.

 

Finally, the memories yielded to uneasy sleep.

Then the crafting room's door clicked as someone disengaged the handle. Sleep yielded to adrenaline. "Aaaah!" Joix said, instantly scrambling upright.

Breathing hard, he stared into eyes he had given up hope of ever seeing again. Human eyes. A young woman in gleaming silver armor with green trim was staring at him in disbelief. Some teenaged boy in blue jeans and a disheveled jacket was staring wide-eyed over her shoulder.

Joix's mouth fell open. Someone from Earth! He was saved! They could go home --

-- No. Something felt strange. What was the deal with the strangely armored woman? Was she the "Sunlit Land" warrior Diune and the shadowscale had speculated about? Maybe Earth wasn't the Sunlit Land after all; the frightened-looking kid couldn't possibly be the one. Probably just a refugee from the Wastes like himself.

And then ... there was the promise he had made to Hope. Not only to keep himself safe, but to give him a chance, just maybe, to help the Resistance save Hope's world. If he broke his promise now, revealed himself as an outsider at the wrong moment, he might not ever get to see the shadowcat again.

As Joix's mind churned, the woman stepped forward, leveling a wicked-looking set of gleaming metal claws at him. "Identify yourself, stranger, and state your allegiance."

Joix swallowed. Here it was: another moment of irrevocable choice. His heart thudded in his chest.

"I'm Joix," he said. "You're with the Resistance too?"

"... Yes."

"Thank goodness you're here! I'm just a simple crystalsmith from Dragon Lake. I got stuck here when Eversor's beasts attacked. I thought I was going to die."

The woman slowly lowered her claw, startled. "Wait. Dragon Lake? Here in the Shadowlands?"

Joix nodded. "I can tell," he said slowly, "we have a lot to talk about."