Hugan always took a while to wake.
Not that he was prone to sleeping in--his ba trained that out of him before he was old enough to pump a bellows--but before he woke, he almost always lay in his bed, his mind drifting slowly in and out of alertness, landing on topics at random.
It was what he’d been reading before he went to bed, from a book Lila had lent him from her mother’s personal stores. Hugan liked stories the best, but most of the books in the Temple were drier than the tales he was used to. Histories. Just seemed like tavern yarns with all the fun bits sucked out and replaced with nonsense.
But he’d been reading a lot of them lately. Reading. The thought made a dull glow of pride shine through the fog of his drowsiness. Finally. He’d asked to learn since he’d heard about Juris the Illuminator, the mage who’d read a thousand books and penned hundreds with his own hand. Reading was the key to wonders he couldn’t even imagine.
And, apparently, history. Not so wonderful, but still useful.
Thenaria had been a general. A Master Stinger, whatever that was, who’d campaigned far to the west, past even where the Ulterion Empire now stood. They were fond of big campaigns in those parts, apparently. Thenaria had hacked her way across ‘Gainos,’ a land Hugan had never heard of, winning every one of her battles with a combination of better trained armies and superior tactics, building an empire in her wake. She was unstoppable.
Until she’d gone up against an outpost of the neighboring empire. A single keep, well staffed and positioned, but ultimately insignificant compared to the forces that Thenaria had at her command. Thenaria campaigned at the head of her army, leaving generals and political allies to rule over her conquered territory, so she’d overseen the siege personally. When the empire objected, sending reinforcements and diplomats to dissuade the general, she outmaneuvered them all with her usual ability, playing with her soldiers’ lives like cards at an inn table. Her mages made rockslides to intercept enemy detachments at appropriate areas, her warriors kept the reinforcements from grouping, decimating them before they so much as saw their outpost.
The book outlined it all, in exhaustive detail where it could. Hugan had to admit that the woman sounded brilliant. He couldn’t understand the purpose behind many of the maneuvers, but he was getting better as time went on, and he could begin to see why the book called Thenaria’s Folly the most masterful siege in history. Thenaria turned a single insignificant keep at the border of an empire into the linchpin for her enemy’s defenses. She drew the campaign out for years, forcing her opponent to sink their resources more and more into what should have been a minor loss for their nation. When she finally took the outpost, the empire fell with it.
The story, according to the book, was that the next day a pair of rebel armies came marching for Thenaria from either side of the empire’s border. The small folk of the enemy empire, disgruntled and distraught at their nation’s fall from grace, mobbed together and organized. The generals and politicians Thenaria had left behind in her own country, had fallen to petty squabbling and infighting in her long absence, and the general who had won the bloody civil war promptly took his army to defeat his last rival.
The keep Thenaria had spent years besieging became her only refuge. Its defenses had been destroyed by her own armies, and what forces she had left were weak, scattered, and helpless when their supply chain was cut away from behind them. Genius that she was, she still nearly escaped, but in the end she was trapped and executed, her head paraded by the triumphant rebels of her own fallen empire, while the other army took her spear for their own.
Hugan’s mind played out the entire story for him, skating over the parts he didn’t remember or understand, but a clear set of images held him. Thenaria, her face dark and cut in clean lines, hair hidden behind a helmet, a long thin spear at her side, standing triumphant before a fallen tower. A horde of angry men and women, faces indistinct, waving weapons and brands as they charged toward the lone general. And a city outlined in fire, dots of men and women and children in dirty rags fleeing as combatants clashed in bursts of power behind them. The city was Caelos, as he’d seen it hauling horseshoes and nails out into stables on its outskirts.
“Hugan!” The voice cut through the image, shattering it so suddenly that he sat up straight in bed, heart instantly hammering.
“--how in the hells did you sleep through--never mind, just get up, fast. We have to go.”
Hugan sighed. Lila always seemed to be in a rush. You would think, seeing as how they were all staying in just one place now, there wouldn’t need to be so much hurry. But he still stood up. Lila was standing at the door, dressed in her white tunic, with Ziya beside her in the same guard. Lila’s face made Hugan jumpy just looking at it, and even Ziya had a frown crinkling her brow.
“Oh hells.” Ziya? Frowning? Hugan’s heart, just beginning to calm from his fright, pounded in his chest again. He picked up his long white tunic, pulling it on as he spoke. “What’s wrong?”
“Come. We will explain.”
Still belting his tunic at his waist, he obeyed.
Lila set a blistering pace down the halls, which only served to irritate Hugan further. Ziya couldn’t move that fast. He stayed by her side, letting Lila realize her mistake and double back. And he listened to Ziya.
“There was a great deal of rumbling during the night, like an earthquake, though we didn’t get any shaking in here. There is a huge wall around us now, apparently.”
Hugan nodded attentively, imagining the structure Ziya was talking about. Everything about this place was grand, so he imagined something truly massive. Maiz would be excited to see it, he had no doubt.
“So what’s the problem? And where’s Maiz? Should I go back and get him?”
Lila growled, low in her throat, and stepped forward a few paces before slowing back down. Ziya looked at him, and Hugan could see worry in her dark eyes. Hells.
“The Path is closed. And Maiz isn’t in his room.”
Hugan’s fists clenched, and suddenly he sympathized a great deal more with Lila. “So, what, he was in the Path? Let’s go to the door then, I can break it down for us.”
“Doesn’t work.” Lila sounded frustrated, tired. Suddenly Hugan wondered how long she’d spent looking for Maiz before waking him up. “And I’m more worried about whether he was in a dungeon when the godsdamned wall came up. Stupid blind old--”
She stopped herself abruptly, the growl returning. They rounded a corner, then another, then ascended a set of stairs--the first Hugan had ever seen in the Temple. No, he’d seen some when they’d gone to see the Jin that one time, hadn’t he?
Hugan thought as they continued to walk. What could he do? He could stock up on water and food he supposed, and go into the desert to find Maiz, but he had no idea which Dungeon his friend was in.
“Do we have a way to find him, like…” He didn’t want to say, ‘like Falin Eagle-Eye,’ but there it was. Someone with a title that could locate people at a distance. “I can go and get him.”
“Just wait. We’re almost…”
They rounded another corner, and entered a simple, open space. It seemed like a larger version of the Jin’s rooms in the Path, fitted with a few mats to rest on, incense burners and a small shrine to Nomenadon at the back.
Hugan, looked around, feeling the knot of frustration and fear in his stomach grow and twist. “What are we doing here? We have to find Maiz! Get your mother to--”
“--I’m trying.” Doubt and anger playing across Lila’s face. “It’s not so easy as that, for this.”
“Why not?” His voice sounded louder than he’d meant. He took a deep breath. Don’t be stupid. “Just remind her that he saved our lives. She can do that running thing she did when she saved us.”
Ziya put a soft hand on Hugan’s arm. “It isn’t so simple.”
Lila snarled. “Godsdamned right it isn’t. Not her fault either, though that isn’t saying much. She must have known that this would happen soon. Why didn’t she just warn everyone the old lunatic was going to--”
“--I didn’t know, girl. And watch your tongue.”
Hugan blinked. Lila’s mother, the Jin’Teslin, was standing in the center of the room, a slight breeze the only indication that she hadn’t been there a moment ago. Before his brain could fully adjust to the Master’s appearance however, his mouth opened. “Ma’am, will you please help our friend Maiz? He was stuck in the Path when the wall went up.”
The middle-aged Warrior Monk looked at him with cold eyes, a match for Lila’s but with an added measure of steel to the fire and intensity. “I cannot.”
“Why not?” Huh. I should really ask Ziya if she can check out what’s wrong with my head. But more words were flowing out, and to his horror, he took a step forward towards the Jin’Teslin as he said them. “He’s done more for this place than half your godsdamned Monks, and I remember the bruises he had from your ‘thanks.’ You trapped him without warning anyone, so you get him out of it!”
His mouth snapped shut at that, and he was almost tempted to put a hand over it for good measure. But he didn’t stop looking at the Master before him. Glaring, possibly.
She returned his gaze with cold impassivity. “I did nothing. I can do nothing.”
“What the hells does that even mean?”
A hand on his shoulder. Ziya had reclaimed her usual stoniness, putting even the Jin’Teslin to shame. “The Grandmaster.”
Lila’s growl split the air again. “Mother, you need to talk to that idiot before goes napping for another hundred years. Can you get him to bring it down, or at least find Maiz for us?”
Now the Jin’Teslin showed an emotion. A mother’s worried anger, almost incongruous with her raw physical presence but not quite. “Lila. Your brashness will get you kill--”
Hugan looked around. He’d been standing a moment ago, hadn’t he? Hadn’t Lila? He tried to shift, then to lift an arm, and failed both times. He was locked in place his muscles straining to hold his new unnatural position. He knelt on the stone floor, his jaw clenched hard enough to hurt, his arms pressed tight to his sides.
A long sigh broke the sudden silence, a sound containing such deep weariness that Hugan felt a bit drowsy hearing it.
Though it was difficult from his rigid position, he craned his neck and lifted his head towards the sound. For the second time, a person had appeared in the room, wearing the white tunic of the Temple and exuding an aura of pure authority and power. But in the white haired man before Hugan, that power was balanced by an impression of deep age. The man stood stooped, hunched so that he was barely taller than Hugan kneeling. His skin sagged, pale and almost translucent despite vague hints of once having been closer to Lila’s light brown. He looked like nothing so much as a grandfather--a great-grandfather with one foot in the afterlife.
“One of... many, many flaws.” The words came to the elderly figure after seconds of what seemed like deep meditation. Or drowsiness. “This… is to be my successor? She has much to learn.”
Was he talking to Lila, or her mother? Frozen as he was, Hugan couldn’t tell for certain.
“She lacks… understanding. I see her talent, but not the will she needs. Nor the insight. Hum. She is not a Journeyman yet.” Lila, then. Even Hugan could guess that this man had to be the Jin’A… the Grandmaster. Hugan would have started shaken at the thought of seeing such a being, if he could have moved. Poor Lila. “She needs experience. Hum… let her lead. Her peers, her elders, I do not care. It should not take much… if the fools have muddled through the Dead Forest.”
The man let out a yawn, stretching with an easy grace that seemed out of place with his frail appearance. “I will sleep. Wake me if... they get to the wall, yes?”
Wait. Hugan struggled with all of his might. Strained, pushed, pleaded with his own body. It was infuriating--not only did his muscles fail to respond, they continued to do the exact opposite of what he wanted. Just my jaw, please.
The stretch ended, and still Hugan’s jaw didn’t budge. Fine. Heaving in the best breath he could manage, he screamed through closed lips, closing his eyes and wondering if they would ever open.
The sound went on for only a second before another sigh interrupted it. “Stop that, child.”
Suddenly, Hugan’s mouth sprang open, hard enough to produce a painful pop in his jaw. “Ow!”
The old man--the Grandmaster--looked at him wearily. “Two… breaths.”
Hugan didn’t want to find out what would happen in two breaths. “Uh, our friend was in the Path when it closed sir--uh, Grandmaster. Please, can you--”
For an instant so brief that Hugan thought he might have imagined it, doubt crossed the ancient face. It was gone even before Hugan’s mouth snapped back shut with a clack.
“There was… no one.” The words rang with such finality that Hugan stopped struggling against his own body. For a moment. But he was still locked in place as the man turned to the Jin’Teslin beside him. Lila’s mother’s face was locked, rigid, but her eyes betrayed more of that feral fear.
“This one has… potential as well. Let him help my successor grow.”
With that, the man vanished, and Hugan, Lila, and Ziya all collapsed to the ground. A fourth thump told the part of Hugan’s mind that wasn’t screaming at his sheer idiocy that the Jin’Teslin had joined them, lying on the floor.