Maelys’ entire body ached, sore and heavy. As he woke, he found himself still wrapped with an unshakable chill, but the chill was everywhere, now. Coming to consciousness, he realized he was lying on stone. Cold, hard stone that did little to ease the discomfort of the Red Teeth that still coursed through his body. He let out a strained groan as he sat up to lean against the rock. It wasn’t any more comfortable, but at least the pained muscles could relax a bit.
The room was dark. The slow, orange glow of a torchlight twisted around the stone walls and iron bars.
“Rise and shine,” a feminine voice said nearby. Maelys glanced towards it to see a woman staring back at him from the other side of the cell. It was hard to make out details in the darkness, but she seemed young. Her voice carried an air of authority with it, but it was contrasted by her posture. Her shoulders were slumped and her head was low.
Maelys frowned. “Where are we?”
“The dungeon under the barracks. It seems we’ve both fallen victim to crimes we didn’t commit.”
Something in the way she said that sparked some recognition. “We’ve met before haven’t we?”
The woman crossed her arms and looked away. “Yes. I’m the H—” she stopped herself with a sigh. “My name is Varra.”
Varra. Rozire had mentioned that name. It had seemed so long since his teacher was at his side, though, that he couldn’t remember anything beyond simple recognition. He coughed and felt a stain of wetness on his arm. Dizziness followed, and Maelys wavered a bit. He pushed against the ground to steady himself. “Maelys,” he said after a moment, more a confirmation for himself than an introduction to her.
He anticipated a response, but there was none. Varra seemed content that the conversation had finished, which suited him just fine. He didn’t have much strength, and talking seemed like a waste. The questions of what had happened and what was to come came to mind, but they seemed trivial. Unimportant when compared to the prospect of getting some rest.
But just as that thought came to him, he heard a dull rhythm. The loud clanking of footsteps echoing down the corridor. He opened his eyes again to look at Varra, and watched as her composure completely shifted. She remained seated, but her back straightened and she pulled her hair out of her face, head lifted to address whoever approached their cell.
Maelys was surprised to see two figures walk into view. The one that carried a torch was a tall young man wearing plated armor. He wore no helmet, and his hair was much lighter in color than what few people Maelys had met in Upper Terrace. The other figure was small and hunched. Even sitting on the ground as he was, their head wasn’t much higher up than Maelys’. What little skin their simple white robes exposed had a glossy texture, as if they were covered in sweat. This figure wore an intricate mask over their face, and overall there was no indication whatsoever of the person’s gender.
“Well, Exalted One,” the armored one said, a smile on his face as he looked at Maelys. “These are somewhat different circumstances than what I thought we would be having around this hour. Unless you expect me to believe these are your chambers.”
“I’m over here, you idiot,” Varra huffed, words peeking out from gritted teeth. “And it’s just Varra now.”
He looked to the other side of the cell to where she was, then back to Maelys. “Oh, my. You’ll have to forgive me, you two look… nevermind.” He walked a few paces towards Varra. His face grew more serious then. “Xan told me what happened.”
The hunched figure nodded vigorously, smashing it’s hands together. “Yes, yes. Xan saw the lady being dragged out of the palace towards the dungeon. Some time after the light faded, yes.” The voice sounded somewhat masculine to Maelys, but jumped up and down in pitch. He vaguely recalled seeing this figure in the infirmary, but had never heard this voice before.
“Thank you for fetching Eathe for me, Xan,” Varra said.
“I suppose you’re going to tell me how to do your job?” the guard asked. “I appreciate the sentiment, but I think we both know the other Hands are going to replace me as soon as possible.”
“Well, funny enough the conversation I wanted to have with you has only been made more necessary by recent circumstances. I have a plan.”
“Are we going to bust you out?” Eathe said, skepticism and worry coloring his tone.
Varra shook her head, trailing a hand through her hair. “No. At least, not yet. That will only get us killed. No, the four of us have some work to do. We’re all outcasts in one form or another, so we have to stick together. I can get us through this, but we’ll all need to work together as one.”
She beckoned everyone to come closer. They all did so with reluctance, but when she was insistent they all did as they were told. Maelys was far too lost to agree to anything just yet, but he had little choice.
“We’ll start with introductions,” she said, voice slightly louder than that of a whisper. “You all know me, but I’ll go first anyway. I’m Varra, former Hand of Defense of the city.”
The light-haired guard started to introduce himself, but Varra cut him off as she pointed in his direction. “That’s Eathe, former Guard Captain of Upper Terrace and de facto Hand of Defense. A capable tactician and a loyal friend. You’re going to be the one pulling all the strings for now.”
She addressed the masked figure next to Eathe. “Xan, Upper Terrace’s only Athaxi resident, and our only medical expert. Xan, you’re going to have to be our eyes while everything is going down. Nobody is going to think anything of you wandering the streets since you’ve been around longer than any of us. And since Maelys is here, you coming to the dungeon frequently isn’t going to arouse any suspicion.”
Xan stomped their feet on the ground, making soft thumps. Maelys had never heard of an ‘Athaxi’ before. Everything about this creature was strange.
Soon Varra pointed towards him. “And lastly, we have Maelys. A bundle of questions himself, but undoubtedly a big piece of the puzzle. He has some connection with Rozire and the Spear Gate, though how much remains to be seen. Maelys is the key to figuring out what’s really going on. Also, it goes without saying that none of this information leaves this room. And it especially doesn’t reach the ears of the other Hands.”
Eathe nodded. “That goes without saying. So what’s our first move?”
“It starts here,” Varra replied. “The Hands have arrested me for treason against Tebrein. I think it’s only fitting that I commit the crime that put me here. I’m going to tell you three everything the Hands know about the Spear Gate and our watchful sister-planet.”