Scribes Aflame

Scribes Aflame book cover

Once the water runs out, millions trapped in a mine will die. Unless civil war kills them first. Book 2 of the Scribes Series.

Available in Kindle, paperback, and hardcover.

Free Sample (first 6 chapters)

1 – Sanctum of Sweat

Mallory held the Sword of Psiros in high guard position, ready to strike.

Byron, the handsome prince in ugly armor, lunged at her with a two-handed spear thrust.

More by instinct than skill, Mallory swiped down at an angle, lopping off the spearhead. This would’ve been impossible with a normal blade, but her Sword’s supernaturally sharp edge made the cut effortless.

While the Prince’s momentum carried him forward, Mallory sidestepped and slashed upward, stopping the blade just shy of his neck. Onlookers gasped.

He regained his footing and grinned. “Good! You stopped at the right moment.”

Mallory had begged him to let her use a regular sword instead because she might swing a little too far. She had zero experience with flirting, but lopping off body parts seemed decidedly unromantic.

But so was this training area. Its windowless brick walls adorned with weapon racks looked nothing like the rest of the palace. Staying with royalty for the past week made it easy to forget she was a mile underground in what should’ve been an empty mine. Until three weeks ago, Mallory had no idea an entire civilization had survived down here. Nicknamed the Bioprison, this mine was rumored to harbor all manner of monsters. Friends back home didn’t know how true that part was.

Bloodstains on the floor and gouges in the stone transported her back to the room swarming with ragna, that oversized mantis she’d rather forget. Prince Byron’s armor was once its carapace. Even without that memory, the air here smelled of struggle.

And yet this was the Prince’s favorite place.

“Your instincts are good,” he said. “But the Sword of Psiros makes them better. As will practicing with it.”

Mallory resisted the urge to complain about the training. The Bioprison killed the weak and unwary. Here in the city of Faisis, one might get by without brutal strength and deadly skill. But to venture outside the city walls… well, that was different. Especially now with the rumblings of a coming civil war.

Most of Prince Byron’s training partners were bigger than him. They watched from the sidelines, meaty arms crossed, scarred faces smiling approval. No wonder the Prince’s armor was packed with so much muscle. He’d been forged in rooms like this, fighting men like them.

He dropped the ruined spear, pulled off his helm, and ran a gauntleted hand through his short brown hair. “We need a new tactics guide just for that weapon. A blade like that lets you try stunts you wouldn’t risk with a normal sword.” His olive green eyes turned light blue, indicating his pleasure—only one of his quirks Mallory discovered in recent days.

His voice sang with joy when he spoke of combat, as if fists and blades were the sun and moon in a place without such things. He didn’t seem the cruel type, taking thrills in the harm of others. No, his thrill came from puzzling out how to beat taller and stronger opponents.

And now he’d inducted Mallory into this essence of himself, swept her into his sanctum of sweat and soreness. This was nothing exclusive—he sparred with many. That’s how he trained his brawny limbs to bend like myophos tendrils and strike almost as fast. And yet… their sparring meant something special, letting her into a place his guards never entered. A place that pushed aside the rest of the world. With her, his eyes softened the air around them. But with his men, they sharpened into razors.

Mallory snorted. Probably because his men posed a real challenge. Thankfully, the palace guards kept loyal to the King. As for the militia regulars… well, it was hard to say which of them might defend the city and which might lay siege to it.

Applause broke out on the sidelines, shattering her reverie. Rain and Boxer, her fellow Scribes, loved all this physical stuff.

“Were you on the Feldencourt High fencing team?” Boxer asked.

Rain tilted his head. “She was homeschooled, remember?” He shifted his gaze to Mallory. “Were you in a homeschool fencing league?”

She stared at the dark weapon, marveling at how comfortably it conformed to her hands. “I think it’s wielding me, not the reverse.” Which made sense. This Sword was meant to be used by the Scribes of Legend, and Mallory was one of them—a fact that still flipped her brain inside out.

“It’s teaching you to use it?” Boxer scratched his head and shrugged. “Maybe the metal has nanotech.”

“Probably.” Mallory ran a careful finger down the flat of the blade. “How else would it change shape? I’d love to put this under a femtoscope. See the tiny bots at work.”

Prince Byron adjusted the exposed chain mail under his arm. “I don’t know what a femtoscope is, but Mallory’s technique does improve faster than normal.”

“Why train us against spears?” Mallory sheathed the Sword and sagged onto a wooden bench, fatigue catching up with her.

Prince Byron scooped up the broken weapon, his irises returning to their normal olive. “All the militiamen carry spears. It’s what you’re likely to face. We may need to defend against our own if Mammoner Riscine chooses this moment to strike. For now, he seems content to help with the Emergence.”

Emergence. There was that word again. Like Mallory needed more reminders of such an undertaking. Along with Rain and Boxer, she was supposed to usher entire cities of Ground Dwellers up to the surface and find new homes for them. But would the surface army really allow that?

The Prince held the severed spearhead up to the light and ran a thumb over the smooth cut. “He’s always opposed the idea of leaving this place. I can’t fathom why he’d change his mind now. I’m just glad for the time to train you three before you leave.”

“The Mammoner knows that Rain, Boxer, and I are the Scribes, right?” Mallory let down her hair. “This Sword changes from spine form to blade form only when we touch it. The Mammoner’s spies should’ve reported that to him.”

The Prince worked his stubbled jaw. “Perhaps he feels forced to go along with events for now. Turn them to his advantage. Even overthrow my father to do so.”

Back in the Garden of Bones, the Mammoner sat on a throne overlooking the field, glaring at Mallory with hatred she still didn’t understand. What had those eyes seen to make them so grim? The heart behind such a face wouldn’t change so quickly.

Rain said, “What would he gain from sending food up to Paito?”

Three main cities lay stacked within the Bioprison’s main shaft: Paito, Faisis, and Sendia. Along with Rain and Boxer, Mallory would soon climb down to Sendia, a city surrounded by magma. Would this limited combat training really harden her for whatever new monsters awaited there?

Prince Byron handed the broken spear to a guard. “The Mammoner seeks to curry favor, I suppose. Or spy on them. He can’t truly want to help Paito emerge to the surface. He thinks our army ill-prepared to face the Surface Dwellers, both in number and technology.”

“Is he right?” Rain asked.

“Without question,” the Prince admitted. “Except we have you Scribes. And you might call the Protector to our aid. With him, we could defeat the surface armies.”

“And the Mammoner doesn’t realize that?” Mallory asked.

Prince Byron pulled out two sheathed daggers from a nearby rack and handed them to Rain and Boxer. “He claims the Protector died long ago.”

Boxer unsheathed the dagger and held it up in a massive fist. “Are we going to train with these?” His eyes lit up.

Boys and their weapons.

“Go with Sinjin.” Prince Byron pointed to a guard in the doorway of the next room. “He’ll teach you to find gaps in plate armor.”

After Rain and Boxer trotted off, the Prince sat beside Mallory, his black shelled armor clinking against the wooden bench. Though the material resembled chitin, it was stronger than steel, able to repel bullets without the slightest dent. Its ultra-black surface absorbed most light, including the glow of the Prince’s bioluminescent face and hair.

He gave the Sword a long, thoughtful gaze. “Have you ever killed a man?” he asked suddenly, body tense as if bracing for a blow.

The question made Mallory’s head jerk back. What answer was he hoping for?

“I didn’t think so,” he said. “And I hope you never need to. But in the days to come, you might. We ordered a militia stand down, locked the armories, and put all cities on alert, but that’s no guarantee of safety. If a soldier seizes you, you must assume he’s one of the Mammoner’s men. I want you to pull out that Sword and cut him down.” His beautiful eyes studied her, following the spill of her long auburn hair. “Don’t let yourself be captured…” He seemed to choke on his own words. “I may not be able to save you.”

Mallory knew what it was to need saving. She could still feel the snarl of hands lifting her from the safety of her feet and whisking her off into the catacombs, smell the smoke of the roasting spit and read the hungry leer in her captors’ eyes. Mallory returned the Prince’s gaze, remembering how she’d instinctively hacked through the ragna with her newfound Sword. “I won’t hesitate.”

He set his gauntleted hand on hers, heaving out a deep sigh. “Good. There are moments when violence is the only answer. If I do my job well, those moments will never come to you.”

Have you killed a man? Mallory wanted to ask. But did she really want to know? Such a question seemed too intimate for someone she’d met only six days ago. And yet here they were, training with swords and preparing for a civil war.

She shook her head. It was this place. Death scorched itself into the very stone of the Bioprison. Every breath was a silent victory. Each heartbeat a stolen morsel.

Mallory’s eyes lingered on the Prince’s rugged jawline. Speaking of stolen morsels…

She lifted her canteen, hand shaking from exhaustion. Some water sloshed out, so she brought up another hand to steady it. But then her fingers gouged holes into the hard plastic, causing water to gush out. The canteen turned black, as if encased in barrier stones.

Huh? Mallory rubbed her eyes and examined the canteen. No holes. No barriers. It was fine.

What on Daishon did she just see? Was this a vision from the Voice?

The Prince rose and extended a hand. “Break’s over. Wrestling is next. If an attacker grabs you before you can draw the Sword, you must know how to break free.”

She reached out and let herself be pulled to her feet. “Wait, what? I’m going to watch you wrestle someone else, right?”

He snapped into a T-pose, and a squire rushed over to unbuckle and peel off his armor.

“You’ll need to practice grappling an armored man at some point,” Prince Byron said. “But I’ll have you start against one in plain clothes.”

“I’m going to wrestle you?” The words raked Mallory’s throat on the way out.

He pulled off his vambraces. “Only basic drills for now. I’ll find someone closer to your size for actual matches.”

Actual matches?”

Whatever Mallory’s face was doing, it made the Prince laugh. “Never fear. This will be fun.”

With his armor and gambeson removed, he led her to another room with a padded floor. “Take off your sheath and boots.”

Mallory did so, put her hair back into a low ponytail, and then faced him. Only then did she realize how muscular he was in his tight jerkin and trousers. He hunched and circled her, elbows tucked at the sides and hands forward, curled downward like a ragna.

His rolled-up sleeves revealed bare wrists. Where were his inscription bands? Right. Protectorists were allowed to remove them for activities like this. For a time, she wouldn’t be the only one without those bands. The thought made her feel less alone.

“Do as I do,” he said.

Mallory mirrored his movements, feeling unsure of herself.

The Prince lunged. Mallory felt herself being lifted off the mat and brought down on her rump. It wasn’t a slam, but not gentle, either.

“Turn onto your belly!” he ordered, holding her around the legs from behind.

Mallory turned and struggled up to all fours.

“Excellent! Now stand.”

He grabbed her wrists, making it impossible. She tried in vain to free herself.

“Settle your weight back, like you’re sitting on your haunches. Then reach back and roll your wrists inward.” Prince Byron guided her, showing the motion.

Mallory tried it with one arm and found that the action popped his hand off of her wrist. She did the same with the other hand, bucked him backward with her hips, then leaped to her feet.

Claps and whistles drew her attention to the watching guards. The Prince rose and joined in, admiring eyes fixed on her. “You’re a fast learner. Are you sure you haven’t wrestled before?”

“Oh, I’m quite sure.”

The armored man said, “I’ll wager five mikkles this one beats the Princess on her first try.”

Mallory’s mouth fell open. “Is that the actual match you had in mind?”

The Prince smiled. “She’s small, but quick. Has years of experience.”

Mallory didn’t know what activities princesses did, but wrestling never would’ve come to mind.

Prince Byron spent the next half-hour showing Mallory how to perform a double leg take down—the exact move he did on her earlier.

Mallory became a puddle of sweat on the mat, her slender limbs splaying like a starfish. Her whole body ached as it did after hours of rock climbing. Was this what it meant to be a Scribe?

The Prince smiled down at her, his face upside down in her view. “What was it like? Down in the vault, I mean.”

The question first surprised her, then deepened her fatigue. She searched the room for guards. Seeing none, she said, “Have you ever held your breath for over two minutes, certain you’d never breathe again? That at any moment, you may black out and die?”

Prince Byron drew in a deep breath, as if reminded to savor what he’d taken for granted. “I didn’t consider how scared you must have been. After all, you are the Worm Ender and a Scribe of Legend.”

Mallory snorted. “Before I came down here, I was a grilled hycus ender and a book reader of legend.”

“You weren’t an athlete?” he asked.

She choked on a laugh. “I couldn’t trot across my back lawn without gasping. I never exercised at all before this place. Avoided it. Told myself I only needed smarts, not brawn. If my father were still alive, I’d tell him how right he was.”

If my father were still alive. She said things like that now. Mother was gone, too, along with the mother of her best friend, Leah. All three lost in that corrupted quake. The memory no longer crushed her ribs with the weight of an ocean. Time must’ve cauterized that wound.

Hopefully, it had done the same for Leah. If only she were here to see her father. Poor girl didn’t know where he or Mallory went. Would the Facility send her down here next?

The Prince helped Mallory sit up, his uncovered hand lingering in hers for a jumble of heartbeats. His calluses spoke of untold hours gripping metal. “Fathers are right more often than we care to admit,” he said with a knowing smile. “What was yours right about?”

“‘You never know when you’ll need to be strong,’” Mallory quoted in something like her father’s voice. “I wonder if he suspected I’d end up here, needing a lifetime of exercise behind me. I should’ve listened. Rain and Boxer spent a decade lifting weights and climbing rocks. If anyone should wield the Sword, it’s one of them.”

Prince Byron shook his head. “I’ve watched them with it. They’re competent, but not natural like you. The blade doesn’t teach their hands as it teaches yours. Which reminds me. We should also train you to use a regular sword, just in case Rain or Boxer have the Sword of Psiros when the enemy comes. I’d give you armor, but it would weigh you down during the climb ahead. The annals describe the way to Sendia as a straight vertical channel without stairs and few ledges.”

He held up a helmet and made a chopping motion against its side. “Besides, armor won’t protect you from heavy blows. Even if a sword doesn’t cut you, its blunt force could break your neck. If you’re riding a barnit, and someone slashes its legs, your armor won’t cushion your fall. If anything, it’ll make it harder.”

“I still know nothing about combat,” Mallory said. “But with months of training, would I be ready to lead a kingdom to the surface?” As an eighteen-year-old, Mallory hardly felt ready to raise kids, let alone deal with a whole nation. She took up her canteen again, imagining its plastic splitting apart as if by a quake. She gasped, finally understanding. “We may not have months.”

“What do you mean?”

“Armor can’t protect against heavy blows. Well, the barrier around the Bioprison acts like its armor, but the recent quake still damaged it on the inside. You said the water flow rate fell in recent months. I think this may be the cause.”

“Are you hearing this from the Voice?” the Prince asked, slipping his inscription bands back on.

“I don’t know,” Mallory said. “Maybe. But not in words. More like an impression.” She closed her eyes and visualized the Bioprison as a vast underground vault encased with black barrier stone. She zoomed out her mental picture to include the surroundings. Above it lay the Thassi Mountains and the watershed region beside them. Below that sat the Feldencourt aquifer. The quake had destroyed that whole area… including the aquifer.

She opened her eyes. “The ground beyond the barrier isn’t protected. The quake broke it, compromising the Source, which brings water into the Bioprison from the outside world. The quake might’ve disrupted it.”

Her words appeared to knock the wind from him. “So this water slowdown isn’t temporary?”

“No, not if my guess is correct,” Mallory said.

“But the Protector wouldn’t let a million of His people die, would he?”

“A million?” Mallory asked.

“More, actually,” the Prince said. “But, let’s go get the latest flow readings at the palace farm.”

Mallory grabbed the Sword and put her boots back on, ready to head out with barely a thought for her sweaty state. “Let’s hope I’m wrong.”

But she probably wasn’t. The last time she ignored a hunch like this, an entire city collapsed and her parents died.

The quake had many more people left to kill.

4 – Food Delegation

An afternoon train whisked everyone from the palace to the top of the Triurn. The last time Mallory was here, she and the boys had just arrived from Paito, unaware of the rails hidden behind the tall grass and the vast kingdom sprawled out across this set of three parallel caverns. Had that really only been a week ago?

Lupix flew through the open barrier door in the ceiling to bring back his other myophos friends from Paito. Watching him float through the air never got old. A rubbery orb covered in tendrils didn’t look like it should leave the ground, much less soar at high speeds. Even Boxer, with all his zoology expertise, couldn’t figure out how these beings moved. Or how they zapped enemies with enough heat to leave nothing but char marks.

Thank the Highest the myophos were on their side, not Mammoner Riscine’s.

The Prince brought along a full platoon of palace guards, just in case the Mammoner tried something. It would’ve been safer to stay back at the palace, but Mallory had to come and say goodbye to her friends. Especially to Leah’s dad. With any luck, Klein would get back to Leah within a month or two, depending on just how long this Emergence process took.

So Mallory had found Klein. That was one problem solved. But others still swirled in her head: she still didn’t know what caused the quake, preparing everyone to emerge would be a huge undertaking even without military tensions, and nobody knew how long the Source would keep flowing—not even the farmers. To know for sure, one would have to swim up the Source to its aquifer and use sonar to look for cracks draining water into lower-lying cave systems. Assuming someone could swim up such a powerful current, nobody down here had that kind of technology.

“This place looks the same, but feels different,” Rain said. His voice held nostalgia, which was odd given they’d only been in the Triurn for a week.

And yet that week contained several major life events.

The blue flowered ceiling and white blossomed trees were still here, along with the pebble path that split the central urn into two forested halves.

Workers unloaded a few dozen crates of food from the train and carted them to the grassy top of the entire Triurn. Mallory followed, gazing up at the start of the vertical shaft leading to the Constriction.

Boxer pointed at the open barrier door. “Remember what that engraving said?”

“Something about a time of gentleness,” Rain said. “Wished it had lasted longer.”

The men left the crates on carts laid out in a grid. Based on the labels, they held a staggering variety of grains, fruits, vegetables, and salted meats. Hopefully, Pinni would get a decent share of that meat, along with any other children having her protein deficiency.

Half of this was donated by one of the Mammoner’s food producers—a fact that raised a lot of eyebrows. The Mammoner had announced this gift as a gesture of goodwill to help Paito with their Emergence preparations. Given that travel always required extra on-hand rations, it was a big help indeed. But if the Mammoner didn’t want the Ground Dwellers facing off against surface armies, why do this? Why did he need political favor with the Paitoans?

Mallory took in the busy scene. Men rigged myophos harnesses to each crate—chains from each corner hooked to a thick leather patch resembling a round saddle. Lupix had assured everyone that a single myophos could carry over five hundred kilograms across the whole distance, but would take rests along the way, if needed.

Rife and Aliza, their Paitoan visitors, chatted with the Faisian trade delegates who would visit Paito and ensure the food was delivered safely.

Prince Byron said they would also report back to the Mammoner with intel about Paito: a count of the humans and myophos, tech levels, and military posture. Such info would prove helpful for sending Paito further aid, but also for planning to invade the city. Would the Mammoner dare such a thing? Paito had hundreds of myophos and Faisis had none. Could men armed with crossbows expect to defeat myophos? Perhaps the Mammoner sent spies to find out.

As if summoned by her thoughts, a stream of myophos descended, making the tunnel bloom with light. People cheered as they formed up beside the crates. Workers helped fit them into their harnesses. Each myophos gave its crate a test lift, bringing it a meter off the ground before setting it down again.

The Scribes and royals bade farewell to Rife, Aliza, Hallinger, Klein, and Lupix.

“You can stay here with us,” Rain said to Hallinger in Imnan. “Join us for more sword fighting and wrestling practice.”

The grizzled soldier smiled. “Tempting, but Paito may need my help dealing with drop team soldiers.”

Mallory asked, “Would General Magon send down more?” His ponderous midsection and twitching toothpick came to mind. And those beady eyes.

Hallinger shrugged, causing the contents of his backpack to shift. “He’d want to know what happened to our drop team. We never did radio back our status, after all.”

“Just watch out for the ragna,” Mallory said. “I won’t be there with the Sword, so bring a myophos with you.”

“Roger that,” Hallinger said. “I doubt I’d get back up there from the grotto without a raft of them, anyhow.”

One myophos flew out from under its harness and bumped into Mallory.

“Hi, Lupix. I wish you could stay,” she said to him.

He flashed out, “As I wish you could come with us. Something about the delegates feels… wrong.”

Though glad she’d learned the Spectrum sequence for “delegate”, his message made her tense up. “What do you mean, wrong?”

Mallory didn’t understand Lupix’s response, so Princess Vivienne translated it: “I can’t wrap my tendrils around it. Something in their voice and manner.”

Aliza broke away from Rain and Boxer to wrap Mallory in a big hug. “I knew from first sight that you were special. The Voice will guide your hands to steady holds and your feet to wide ledges as you journey to Sendia and back again. You can expect a warm welcome from all of us when you return to Paito.”

Rife stepped over and climbed arms with Mallory—the Ground Dweller greeting that involved grabbing and releasing the length of each other’s arms. Solid triceps flexed under his green hunting jumper. “I won’t be near if you fall into more danger. Neither will the myophos.” He pointed to the Sword. “Save yourself with that, Scribe of Legend. We’re going to need you alive to get us out of here.”

Aliza clucked her tongue and tugged at Rife’s arm, making the crossbow sway across his back. “Is that the kindest parting word you have for them?”

Rife grabbed a fist of his glowing violet hair. “Oh. Um, what I meant was… may the Highest shelter you in His protection.”

With a big grin, Boxer leaned over and whispered, “She’s putting him through nice guy school.”

Aliza pulled Rife aside for a talk that made his shoulders stoop. Mallory bit her lip. “He must be smitten. Nothing but love produces that sort of obedience.” That and those soft green eyes and long lashes of hers. Aliza could’ve been Leah’s twin.

Klein cut through the crowd and laid a hand on Mallory’s arm, his dark brown eyes misting with unformed tears. “A short goodbye this time, I hope. I’ve told King Sandros all I can about the surface. Now it’s Paito’s turn to hear it. I’ll keep Lupix company ‘til we see you again.”

Mallory whispered into his ear, “Pay close attention to the delegates. They might be spies for the Mammoner.”

He stroked his now unruly beard. “Will do. And practice your Spectrum. We’ll have a full conversation in it later.” He pulled out flashcards from his breast pocket. They had colored dots and dashes.

Mallory grinned. “If only Leah were here to scold you for this.”

Klein put a finger to his lips. “Not a word to her when we emerge. And I trust that day will come soon.” Then he seemed to realize something. “Are all the barrier doors open between here and Paito?”

“The Scribes left them open on the way down,” Rife said. “That’s how I followed them.”

After words of farewell from King Sandros, a myophos raft bore the people up into the vertical shaft overhead. The other myophos lifted the crates and filed up through the tunnel in a lone line. Lupix hung back to follow them as a rear guard. Unencumbered, he’d be free to zap any ragna that dared attack the group.

“Young Scribe.” The voice came from behind, startling Mallory. She turned to find an old man with leathered skin wearing overalls. His face was as craggy as it was creased with worry.

“I’m afraid your guess is correct,” he announced. “The flow rate has dropped by twenty percent in the past four months, and it shows no signs of improvement. If anything, it’s getting worse each month.”

The Prince put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “This is Bassim. He runs the palace farm.”

The farmer shrugged. “Until the water stops flowing, at least. My men have taken measurements on seven branches scattered all throughout the Triurn and found the same result in them all. We’ve had brief clogs before, but none had ever slowed water for this long. Levels in the Great Reservoir are at an all-time low. Any lower and our biggest vessels will run aground.”

Prince Byron’s eyes drifted over to the stream across the field and squinted, as if to look for a change in the water. Then he turned to Mallory. “Can we fix it?”

Mallory shook her head, noticing that Lupix still hadn’t left with the others. “The Protector might seal the leak with barrier stone. But if he could do that, I imagine he would’ve already done so.”

“How long will the water last?” The Prince asked.

Bassim said, “Hard to say without more information.”

“Does someone have a bowl and a straw?” Mallory asked.

A nearby guard dug each item out of his pack.

Mallory held up the bowl. “This is the aquifer feeding the Source.” She poked the bowl with a finger, high on its side wall. “Let’s say water is leaking from a hole up here. Drainage will stop when the level drops just below this point.”

Rain tapped the bottom of the bowl. “But if the hole is here, the aquifer will eventually empty out.”

Mallory held one end of the straw up to the side of the bowl. “This is the tunnel feeding the Source. Its placement also matters. In the best case, the leak is high, and the tunnel taps in at the bottom.”

She turned to Lupix, an idea occurring to her. As a myophos, he’d been alive down here for over three hundred years. He’d know more about this place than any human would. “Do you know where that connection lies?”

He made a red pulse for “no.”

“Then we must prepare for the worst,” Prince Byron said.

Lupix flashed a message Mallory didn’t quite follow. The Prince translated it. “Lupix will find out. He can swim up the Source and into the aquifer. Maybe even look for the leak.”

“Oh, wow. You can really do that?” Mallory said. “That would be perfect! But remember there could be multiple leaks. And we need locations and rates if you can determine them. Wait, you can hold your breath for that long?”

The Prince translated the next set of pulses. “Myophos don’t breathe. He’ll be fine.”

Mallory gave Lupix another hug. “Thank you! That’ll give us a much better idea of the problem.”

“I’ll go with all haste,” Lupix flashed out, then took off after his fellows.

Watching him go, Mallory said, “Until he returns, we keep preparing to emerge. Let’s just hope the water flow doesn’t come to a sudden stop.”

“What makes you say that?” Rain ran his knuckles across his freshly shaved jaw. Even down here, he managed to look clean-cut and refined.

Mallory moved the straw to the top of the bowl. “In the worst case, the leak’s at the bottom and the connection’s at the top. That means—”

The Prince drew in a deep breath. “—that our water could stop at any time.”

5 – Triurnian Queen

That evening, when the Prince and Princess entered the dining hall with ashen faces, Mallory set down her fork and steeled herself. “What happened? Did you get word from Lupix about the water situation?”

Princess Vivienne traded looks with her brother, then turned back to Mallory with her lips pressed into a hard line. “Mother wants to meet you.”

Her voice seemed solemn, like she was reading another court summons. Even the Prince looked subdued.

“Is this a bad thing?” Mallory searched her lap for stray crumbs and suddenly wanted a mirror to check her face and hair. “Am I in trouble?”

Prince Byron gave a nervous chuckle. “Not at all. She’s excited to meet you at last.”

“Then what’s wrong?” Mallory pressed.

Princess Vivienne twisted her long blonde hair, looking upward as if seeking the right words. “Mother is… intense. And nobody else may enter her study when you see her.”

“Will she grill me with hard questions?” Mallory asked.

Prince Byron shrugged—a gesture that felt out-of-place on him. His shoulders seemed too sturdy to convey uncertainty. “Probably. She wouldn’t divulge anything, and we won’t be there to protect you.”

Protect me?”

Princess Vivienne’s smiles were usually radiant and child-like. This one looked forced. “Look at us being dramatic. The Queen will adore you. But she’ll ask you lots of questions. Surprising ones.”

“Such as?” Mallory wondered why the Queen hadn’t also summoned Rain and Boxer.

“You’ll soon find out.”

With those warnings buzzing in her head, Mallory followed the two out to an unfamiliar hall on the third floor. They stopped at a rather ordinary door—perhaps a servant’s quarters—and Prince Byron knocked.

“Is she here?” came a voice from within. It was pleasant and tinged with excitement. Not the gruff rasp Mallory had expected.

“May the Highest protect you.” Princess Vivienne winked as she pushed the door open.

Bookshelves lined the walls. Above those, printed diagrams of stairs and decking formed a mural, reminding Mallory of her father’s office. At the far end of the room stood a woman with blonde hair draping to the small of her back. She looked like an older version of Princess Vivienne and almost as thin.

As she approached, her green eyes widened. “Klein said you were eighteen, but I didn’t believe it until now. City Beyond, but you’re young!” She made a shooing gesture at Princess Vivienne, who shut the door. The click sounded final.

The middle-aged woman removed a glove, and touched Mallory on the cheek. Her skin was rough, as if she’d been in the training hall with her son. She withdrew her hand, sucked in a deep breath, and gazed into Mallory’s eyes. A smile dimpled her cheeks, and she blinked away tears. “City Beyond. I’ve imagined this moment my entire life but realize I’d gotten it all wrong! I can’t decide whether to bow or embrace you. Do I call you Scribe or Ipsiat One?”

Mallory shuddered. It never occurred to her that anyone would be worried about meeting her, much less a royal personage. “Please. Call me Mallory.” And what did Ipsiat One mean?

The Queen threw her arms around her and squeezed with suffocating force. Then she stepped back with her hands on Mallory’s shoulders, inspecting her. “It feels irreverent to address you by name, but I’ll try.” She let go and gestured to a pair of padded chairs. “Join me.”

Unlocked from the woman’s gaze, Mallory’s eyes wandered to the maps on nearby desks. One showed Daishon, but with unfamiliar place names and territorial boundaries. The world as it looked three hundred years ago, when the Ground Dwellers still lived on the surface. She wanted to stop and examine it, but the Queen drew her along with the gravity of her presence. Mallory had met this personality type before—bubbly on the surface, but quietly scrutinizing everything with eyes that missed nothing. How long until this woman found all of Mallory’s flaws and deemed her unfit to be with her son?

Mallory crossed the long room and sank into the chair opposite and tried to relax.

The Queen smoothed out the front of her white dress. “In casual settings like this, you may call me Minnala. Forgive me for not being here when you first arrived. I was visiting a village in the upper eastern urn. And I’m sorry about the court fiasco. Although you proved yourself spectacularly in the Garden, from all accounts. Perhaps I should call you Worm Ender.”

Mallory tensed at the memory of that giant millipede. Why did the royals keep mentioning monsters?

“A dreadful title, I agree.” Queen Minnala patted Mallory’s hand. “I’ve heard much about you from everyone but you. I want to meet you for myself and prove I’m not the imposing commander my children make me out to be.”

Mallory almost barked a laugh. Despite what the Queen said earlier, this was not a casual setting. Not with her in it.

The Queen lapsed into another thoughtful silence, studying Mallory as if preparing to draw her portrait. At long last, she leaned in and whispered, “Do you love him?”

Him?” Mallory asked, though she knew exactly who the woman meant.

Queen Minnala gave a distant look, as if sifting through memories. “Byron’s face never could hide a secret. A non-military one, anyway. His feelings for you are written there in plain Daishonic.” Her blue eyes lasered in on Mallory’s as if to read what was written there.

“I’m not sure,” Mallory admitted, voice low. “I barely know him. But… I like what I’ve learned of him so far.”

The Queen gave a curt nod. “Fair. Though from the heat in your cheeks, you do find him dashing.”

Mallory covered her face with her hands and wanted to disappear. Highest help me. Must my face give me away every time? No way a queen will see me as a match for her son. I’m a stranger here, raised among the people who enslaved their ancestors, and I belong to no royal bloodlines. I’m not even inscribed. Saps, I was born on a different spiral arm of the Moren Galaxy.

The woman roared with laughter. Mallory looked up to find her clutching her belly and doubling over. “You needn’t hide from me, Mallory.” Then she dropped her voice again. “It honors me that you should like him.”

“It does?” Mallory uncovered her face and tried to decide what to do with her hands.

The Queen gasped and pulled up Mallory’s sleeve, then looked at her neckline. “Where are your inscription bands?” she shouted. “Did they come off in the Hydrarium Vault?”

“I’m not inscribed,” Mallory admitted.

The Queen froze as if stunned by a myophos. “But you’re the Ipsiat One.” She lifted a sleeve to expose her own band. “We wear these to model ourselves after your example!”

The door flew open, and Princess Vivienne strode in. “Mother, please. If we look at the relevant passage of The Book, I’m sure it’ll make sense.”

She must’ve been listening at the door. So much for the Princess not being allowed to protect her. No wonder the Queen had been whispering earlier.

Prince Byron followed her in with an old leather-bound volume. He opened it and read.

Three Scribes will execute the fall of corruption. Three who will be hated when they should be loved. Stripped when they should be robed. Imprisoned when they should be housed. Rejected when they should be honored.

The words flowed out as if memorized. Both he and his sister must have anticipated this question. The Prince flipped a page and continued.

When you come to the Highest, you must do so like the Scribes to Come. For four weeks, you must cover yourself in a suit of natural fabric and with black stones interwoven.

At the end of the four weeks, another must strip you of the suit down to your inner garments, in which you will remain for nine weeks. This is your period of exposure.

When your exposure is complete, you will put on your customary clothing again, but also wear about your wrists, ankles, and neck a black band of natural fabric, with black stones interwoven. Wear these as barriers for the rest of your days.

Princess Vivienne steepled her fingers below her chin. “Notice the part that says, ‘another must strip you of the suit’. Like everything else about inscription, this symbolizes real-life events that happen to the Scribes.” She turned to Mallory. “Has anyone stripped you?”

Mallory blinked. “Uh, not that I recall. Unless you count my diaper changes as a baby.” Amazing that she remembered the Daishonic word for diaper. It sounded like the Imnan word for explosion, which seemed fitting.

Princess Vivienne laced her slender fingers together—a very Leah thing to do. “See? Our court imprisoned Mallory. That’s one of the four offenses. Our city hasn’t hated and rejected her just yet. And we haven’t stripped her. That must happen later.”

Mallory clutched her robe as if to keep it on. “Must it?”

The Prince held up The Book. “It’s written here in the Prophecies of Semme, chapter three.”

Princess Vivienne dragged over a chair for herself and another for her brother. “You see? Mallory doesn’t need inscription bands. She’ll be inscribed differently. I bet the suit she’ll wear someday will offer better protection than what we wear during our four covering weeks.”

Queen Minnala leveled a stern gaze at her children. “I’ve warned you two about listening at my door.”

The Prince scooted his chair right next to Mallory and sat, laying The Book open in his lap. “Can you blame us?” Something about the gesture felt symbolic. Ceremonial. Or maybe it was just a mirage in Mallory’s mind.

“I suppose not,” the Queen said. “You must’ve known our talk would turn theological since you had a ready copy of the Scriptures. And while you Protectorism scholars are handy, I have more questions.” She took The Book from her son and flipped a few pages in. “What does it mean that the Scribes lift Semme up from the darkness and restore his throwing power?”

“That also hasn’t happened yet.” The Princess turned to Mallory with a furrowed brow. “Have you been to any other planets?”

“Only Imna, my birth world,” Mallory said.

“But what about the other prophecies?” The Queen flipped idly through the pages of The Book. “You’re supposed to confront the Ipviat in Arven with the sharpness of your Sword. Have you ever led an army?”

Prince Byron put a hand on his mother’s knee. “I think Mallory needs a break.”

“But The Book says the Scribes will lead armies!”

The idea made Mallory’s stomach want to invert itself and digest her other organs.

Princess Vivienne only seemed to suppress a sigh. “That’s in The Oppression of Worlds, which is to happen at the end of the era.”

“I thought so.” The Queen took the Prince’s hand from her knee, turned it over, and inspected his calluses. “But which prophecies have already been fulfilled?”

The Princess ticked them off on her fingers. “One, the Scribes have come. Two, they hold the Protector’s Light and Sword. Three, we imprisoned Mallory.”

Queen Minnala put a hand on Mallory’s and squeezed. “That never should have happened. I’ll look at how to fix our judiciary once we’re on the surface. But to get up there, we have much preparation to cram into a short span. If only we could keep you, Rain, and Boxer to assist. But alas, you should visit Sendia first and bring its people up to us. And we must prepare to receive them, however many remain. They once had five hundred thousand, according to the annals. Better assume double, which would mean another million plates to fill.”

Mallory let out a low whistle. “I still can’t believe you have a million people here.”

“Maybe more. The Triurn is bigger than it looks.” Prince Byron shot a quick glance at the door—he was always looking at doors and windows. “The villages scattered deep in the Downshoots are impossible to find, let alone keep census figures for. Those people may get left behind when we Emerge.”

“Most of them are Drammadon Followers. They wouldn’t come, anyhow.” The Queen turned to Mallory with a look of remembering something. “We have no way to warn them that the dwindling water supply is a permanent condition. That was a brilliant realization on your part, Mallory. I wonder how I missed it.”

“We knew nothing of the quake ‘til Klein spoke of it,” Princess Vivienne pointed out.

“Yes, but that was a month ago.” The Queen’s face soured. “I should’ve thought about the ramifications of that more completely.”

The Prince leaned close and whispered, “Mother is skilled with logistics. The army consults her on occasion.”

Queen Minnala smiled, clearly pleased with the compliment. “The little details foul up the best plans. This Emergence will involve math that makes even my eyebrows twitch. Take inducting new Protectorists, for example. We inscribe thousands each month. That requires materials. If we spend several months relocating to the surface, how many chryalis gems and bolts of jenul fabric should we bring?”

The Queen gripped the arms of her chair. “And that’s in addition to food and water. We can’t carry all of that without carts.” She stood and pointed to a drawing of stairs. “See how steep these are? We barely have enough steel to spiral them up the chasm. If we replaced them with ramps at a shallow angle to accommodate hurn-drawn carts, we’d need much more material.”

Princess Vivienne said, “We wouldn’t have any emplacement fixtures already produced if it weren’t for Mother. She ordered thousands of them over the last decade and secreted them away in her own warehouses.”

Mallory noted the glint in the Queen’s eyes as she spoke further. She’d make a better Scribe than me.

“But now to install them.” Queen Minnala crossed her arms. “Something we should have started a year ago, but that corrupted Mammoner blocked every bill our Sector Delegates put forward. I don’t know how we’re going to weld all those ramps into place within a reasonable time.”

“What are we welding them to?” Mallory asked. “The vertical shaft is made of stone, not metal. Unless you mean to drive spikes into the walls.”

Prince Byron nodded. “The spikes are already there, installed when the chasm was dug out.”

“Do you have welding machines?” Mallory asked. “Well, I suppose you must, given all your metal structures.”

“We do,” the Queen agreed. “But even if we had long enough power cables, it would be dangerous to send welders and their bulky gear up the sheer vertical shaft to weld thousands of fixtures. That could take at least a year, and we don’t have that long. As you’ve mentioned, our water is running dry. Sure, we might fall back on static sources like the reservoir and Hydrarium Vault for a time. But that’s only for drinking. That would not irrigate our crops.”

Princess Vivienne frowned. “We might starve before we install the fixtures. Paito and Sendia, too.”

The Prince turned to Mallory, his eyes somehow unworried. “The Voice alerted you to the problem. Has he told you how to fix it?”

“Not sure you can fix rock, unless the Protector plugs the holes with barriers. Otherwise, we just have to hurry.”

“But how do we hurry?” Queen Minnala asked. “We can’t ask the myophos to carry millions of people to the surface, can we? Along with all our supplies? The annals say there were only four hundred myophos down here at the start. Myophos are sterile, so at best we still haven’t lost any.”

“They can’t reproduce? Interesting. Better not tell Boxer.” Mallory quirked a smile. “He’d climb to Paito just to pester Lupix with endless questions about this.” She pinched the bridge of her nose and squeezed her eyes shut, thinking hard. Colors blurred in her vision, reminding her of when a myophos blasted Corporal Rawls. Nothing remained of him but a soot stain. How much heat did it take to vaporize bone? Of course. She opened her eyes. “They can weld the fixtures!”

The three royals gaped, comprehension making their bioluminescent skin shimmer. Prince Byron tapped on his black armor and licked his lips. “It could work. Some historians claim King Alin had the myophos forge this very shell with their blasts. No other fire was hot enough to melt it.”

“But would the myophos exhaust their power after a few welds?” the Queen asked. “How quickly does it recharge? I suppose we won’t know until they try.”

“Lupix said only the biggest bursts exhaust them,” Mallory pointed out. “If they can reach welding temperature with ease, they might last a long time. And the myophos can lift the fixtures and hold them in place without being burned. No cranes or scaffolding needed.”

“I’ll send a messenger to Paito at once,” the Queen said. “We’ll ask them to send some myophos to test this out. Now I realized something else. Something political, I’m afraid. You’ll disappoint most of Faisis when you continue down to Sendia. They’ll want you to stay and lead them out right away. If word gets out about the water supply, their impatience will flash into panic.”

“But the Scribes came to save all three major cities,” the Princess said. “They should know that.”

The Queen visibly tensed. “Perhaps the mature do, but they are few. The selfish majority may not. Keep this plan quiet for as long as possible.” She turned to Mallory. “When were you planning to leave?”

“Not ‘til we’re sure the threat of revolt has passed,” Prince Byron chimed in. “If the Scribes go now, they might get caught in whatever the Mammoner is scheming. Give me another week to find out more.”

Mallory nodded, relieved for an excuse to stay with the Prince longer.

“Are you going to trap them in the palace the whole time?” Queen Minnala asked. “And train this poor girl into a pile of dust?”

“The Eastern Heights District should be safe,” Prince Byron said. “There’s enough sights for them to see within a five kilometer radius. If anything bad happens, we can return quickly.”

“Introduce them to the working folk, not just politicians,” the Queen added. “The Scribes need to meet Faisians of every station in order to lead us.”

The Princess traded smiles with the Prince. “We have an itinerary in mind.”

6 – RF Romance

“Sorry about that,” Prince Byron said the next morning, wearing a plain jerkin and trousers instead of his armor. “Mother means well.”

“I like her,” Mallory said. “She asked important questions. Glad she’s thinking about the finer details of getting everyone out of here.”

The Prince sighed deeply, as if relieved at her response. “Still, that wasn’t an easy talk. And when I said you needed a break, I meant it. Let’s take a day off of training to do something fun. Just the two of us. You like to build robots, right?”

“How did you know?” Mallory said.

“Klein told me.” The Prince smiled, his cheeks reddening. Due to his bioluminescent skin, it looked extra bright, like twin alarm lights.

Mallory’s breath caught. City Beyond, he was blushing. “Have you been asking him about me?” The Queen was right. His face really couldn’t keep a secret.

“Of course.” He forced calm into his voice. “Now, what are nanobots? He used that word often.”

“Very small robots.” Mallory made a pinching gesture. “I built them in my father’s workshop with my best friend Leah. Seems like a long time ago.”

The Prince perked up. “Come with me.”

He led her up to the top floor of the palace. Mallory practically floated up the stairs, the words just the two of us throbbing in her chest like a second heartbeat. He said us. It was as if she’d never heard that word before.

Her girlish reverie ended when they stepped into a room she hadn’t expected to find here.

A workshop.

The familiar, indefinable smell hit her first. Then the powerful overhead lighting, the tiny plastic cubbies stacked in vast grids, the perforated hardboards bearing tools—it was all here, begging her to plunge into some new project.

The sight was as wonderful as it was odd. Had she been transported back to the surface? No. Her father’s shop had ULPA filtered glove boxes, 3D model printers, and glass cases of her and Leah’s prizewinning drones. None of that here. Not even a single computer workstation. But this was still an electronics shop.

One that was buried more than a mile underground.

The Prince took in Mallory’s reaction with a wide grin. “You like it?”

Through a haze of shock, she only managed to nod.

Steel cabinets lined the walls. Work tables bore soldering irons, breadboards, analog multimeters, and spools of copper and soldering wire. Mallory turned to the Prince with big, blinking eyes, the realness of it all settling in.

He spread his arms wide. “Nothing’s off-limits. Dig in.”

The nearest bins held large components: resistors, capacitors, inductors, transistors, and basic integrated circuit chips—all straight pin, nothing surface mounted. Stuff from five hundred years ago.

In a drawer labeled PCB, they even had sheets of copper clad laminate and bottles of ferric chloride solution. “A printed circuit board kit!” Mallory put a hand to her chest. “You manufacture all this? I mean, you must, because it all looks new.”

“Carvien has a few factories,” the Prince said. “One of them produces almost everything in this room.”

“Is this your personal shop?”

He chuckled. “I don’t know what half of this is. But our best engineers work here, and they’ve granted us permission to use it. Are these the sort of tools found in your father’s workshop?”

“Some,” Mallory said carefully.

“Yours are more advanced, I imagine.”

“They are.” Mallory looked over an analog oscilloscope with its dark green glass display and large black knobs. She’d only seen machines like this in history books. “But I could still make some useful devices with these. May I build you something?”

“Actually, I was hoping to serve as your apprentice for a day,” Prince Byron said. “I know only very basic electrical theory, thanks to the limited tutoring I received a few years ago. But I can fetch parts and follow your instructions. Fair warning, I’m bad at soldering.”

Mallory clapped her hands and grinned. “I have a student! What would you like to help me build?”

“Whatever you want. As long as we can make it in one or two days.”

Mallory rummaged through cabinets, making mental notes of what she found, mind whirring with possibilities. “Hmm. A flying drone needs very small batteries. Maybe a remote-controlled car. Do you have radio down here?”

“We do, but it doesn’t work well for long ranges. Short line-of-sight is the best we can manage, since rocks absorb radio waves.”

“That’s good enough.” Mallory turned on a soldering iron to warm it up.

They started with a plastic toy car the size of a lime and just as green, which the Prince had a servant bring up, along with bottles of water. At Mallory’s direction, the Prince disassembled the car enough to slide a gear onto the rear axle.

“I’ll do this next part.” Mallory held up the soldering iron. She selected a thimble-sized DC motor and soldered a gear onto its shaft. After it cooled, she mounted the motor to the chassis so that the teeth of both gears meshed together. “That should be it for the drive axle. Let’s test it.”

The Prince spun the gears. “They fit each other perfectly.” He gazed at Mallory with eyes turned blue, his lips playing into a smile.

“Yeah,” Mallory whispered, her face warming. “No binding. Always… turning in the same direction.” She tore her gaze away from his and caught her breath. “Right. Let’s apply some power to the motor.”

Prince Byron touched the motor’s leads to a battery and watched the wheels blur into motion. His grin lifted the bottom of his ears. “I’ve been around plenty of motors, but this is my first time really seeing one.”

Mallory gave a knowing nod. “Because it’s part of something you’re building.”

For the front axle, she built a rack and pinion, then mounted a servo motor to turn the front wheels.

“Now for the electronics.” She took out two breadboards to model each half of the remote control circuit. She hadn’t used a physical breadboard in a long time, preferring the ease of designing in software. “No need for a micro controller at the receiving end, so we’ll connect inputs directly to the motors. A two-channel transmitter and a matching receiver should work.”

She rummaged through a components drawer and sifted through various ICs. With a smile, she pulled out two chips. “Premade RF modules! That makes our job a lot easier. Building radio frequency circuits from scratch would eat up at least a day.” She held up an IC. “This converts parallel inputs from the control sticks into a serial input and transmits them as radio waves.” She held up the other. “This converts the serial transmission back into parallel signals. We’ll feed them into the steering and drive motors.”

Mallory sketched a layout for the circuit on paper for the Prince to follow. His large hands struggled to thread tiny component leads into the breadboard holes, bending up a set of capacitors in the process. Mallory resisted the urge to place her hands on his to guide him.

To simulate input, they used push buttons. LEDs flashed to show the received signals. “Looks good.” Mallory gave a thumbs up. “Now to commit the design.”

She pulled out the PCB kit and set aside protective gear: rubber aprons, goggles, and gloves.

The Prince cut the laminate into two small pieces, then sanded down the rough edges and copper surface with steel wool.

With pencil and paper, they sketched a trace layout to fit the circuit in a compact area with no overlapping lines. Mallory couldn’t remember doing this without the aid of software, so this was new for her, too. Not having automatic checks for poor design made her triple-check everything.

“I can’t think of any glaring flaws with this.” She had the Prince copy the layout sketch onto the top layer of copper with a pencil, then trace back over it with a black marker. Mallory pointed out the traces that needed to be thicker to handle more current. “Darken in the large copper patches without touching the lines you already drew. Those parts will form the ground plane, which helps reduce electrical noise. Important for RF circuits like this one.”

After they donned an apron, goggles, and gloves, Mallory turned on the room’s vent fans and held up the clear jug of murky brown liquid. “Prediluted and ready for use. That’s convenient. Try not to put your face directly over it. Don’t want to breathe the fumes.” She poured some into a ceramic basin.

Prince Byron dipped both laminate sheets into the etching solution.

“Now we let those sit for a half hour.” Mallory glanced at the wall clock and jotted down the time. “Any questions about what we’re doing so far?”

The Prince’s eyes, which had returned to their usual olive color, widened in something like awe. “Does everyone know these things where you come from?”

Mallory blew on the ink to dry it faster. “All the Imnans do.”

“But this is so complicated. How long do you study this?”

“Most start at age five.” She grabbed a marker and added a second coat.

“How many hours a day do you train in your workshops?”

“Generalists only spend around two. Roboticists like me? Eight plus.”

“Every day?”

“Most students, yes. Not me, though. I take one day off for leisure reading.”

Prince Byron asked about her favorite books and listened carefully, as if the Mammoner and his plots had faded into nothing and she became his only concern. Only Leah had ever listened to her for so long without interruption. In a world brimming with other priorities, such undiluted attention seemed an impossible luxury. People had important work to do.

Mallory lapsed into silence, taking in the scene, observing it as a memory in mid-flight. No matter how bleak things got in the days to come, she’d always have this moment fluttering inside her. Dear Highest One, let this perfect time, however brief, remind me how beautiful life can be. Her eyes misted, and a lump gathered in her throat.

If only every day could be like this.

For a day, the man beside her traded his helmet for goggles and his gauntlets for gloves. In doing so, he entered Mallory’s world to experience it with her. More than that, he’d transported her to the only place down here that felt like home.

All too soon, the thirty minutes had passed. The Prince pulled each PCB out with a pair of tongs and inspected them, ensuring all the copper not masked by marker had been etched away to reveal a green board. Satisfied, he rinsed each sheet with water, dried them, removed his gloves, then drilled holes into the marked points.

Mallory brushed the dust off the board and checked the holes. “We’ll attach components using the through hole method. It’s simpler than surface mount and these chips have straight pins, anyhow.”

After brushing away powder and smoothing the surface with steel wool, the Prince snapped each part into place.

“The trick to soldering these,” Mallory began, “is to heat up the pin with the iron, then tap the solder flux with the hot pin. Don’t touch the flux directly with the iron.” She demonstrated the technique on the first IC chip, then handed it over for him to imitate. He struggled, making a mess and nearly burning himself. Mallory was again tempted to guide his hands. No, he just needed more practice.

Touching would only distract both of them.

The Prince wicked away the stray globs of solder and tried again. And again. My, but his look of intense concentration made him even more handsome, his mouth moving silently as if whispering to himself. Mallory had never noticed a man’s lips before. Not like this.

Eventually, he formed clean, solid connections. “Those are good, right?”

“Your electrical tutors would be proud.”

The Prince gave a thumbs up, which looked so odd coming from him that Mallory snorted. “You’ve spent too much time with Boxer,” she said.

Once both PCBs were done, they encased the transmitter in a plastic housing. Pushbuttons poked up through holes they had cut out ahead of time, and they mounted the receiver onto the chassis.

“Normally, we’d use control sticks for steering.” Mallory wiggled her thumbs. “But I don’t see any premade parts for that, and the buttons will work well enough.”

Another hour of fine adjustments and troubleshooting, and the car was done. Prince Byron set it on the floor, took the controller, and pressed the forward button. The car zoomed across the room, and his eyes lit up. “Look at what we made! Well, it was more you than me.” He steered it around the table, under work benches, and bumped it into cabinets. “It handles well, despite my poor driving.”

“I haven’t hand-etched a PCB since middle school,” Mallory said. “Surprised it works.”

Prince Byron set the controller down, turned to face her full-on, his hands at his sides, looking like he was trying to decide something. “I learned more from you today than I did from a week of electrical tutoring. Thank you. What do I owe you for the session?”

Mallory’s brows knitted. Nothing about his tone suggested anything flirty. “Owe? I eat your food and drink your foiza milk teas. If anything, I’m in your debt.”

The Prince drove the car out into the long hall and sent it zooming down to the very end, which must have been fifty meters away. Then he brought it back, almost bumping it into the foot of a passing servant. “This is no mere toy, you realize. With that kind of range, this could be a tool. Maybe even a weapon.”

Prince Byron set down the controller and faced Mallory, his eyes swimming with concern. “This isn’t anything like the modern weapons Klein said were used on the surface. What he described gives me nightmares. It sounds like they’ve engineered war into neat little procedures that feel clean and easy. Push a button to launch a missile that wipes out an entire city. Seems like you could forget how you’ve just ended thousands of lives that way. Down here, war means ramming a blade into your enemy and watching the life drain from his eyes. Even crossbowmen see when bodies drop from across the field.”

Before Mallory could think of a response, Boxer and Rain came up the stairs and trotted over to see the car. Just like that, their little RF romance was over.

“I thought you’d be in the library.” Boxer lifted the car and flicked the wheels into motion. “Instead you were playing with remote-controlled cars? Surprised they exist down here.”

“They didn’t until today.” Prince Byron patted Mallory on the back. “This engineer built it from scratch.”

“We built it together,” Mallory amended.

Rain peeked into the car’s open window. “Ah. Missing your robotics. I’m glad you get to keep those skills sharp down here.”

Rain and Boxer took turns driving the car around the workshop while Mallory and the Prince cleaned the shop.

“That was a lot of work.” Prince Byron scraped dried solder from the workbench. “It gives me new respect for our engineers. But I wonder what else this car can do. Could it help us during a siege?” His eyes strayed to the window, as if enemies were gathering outside. “Rumors of unrest in the army make me suspect the Mammoner will finally attempt an overthrow. And if that happens, we might sneak this car past enemy lines.”

“Has anyone laid siege to the palace before?” Rain asked.

“Yes, a long time ago. When the attackers couldn’t ram the front gate in or scale the walls, they tried explosives.”

Rain’s brows shot up. “Sounds like the makings of a cave-in.”

“It would’ve been had we not stopped them from detonating.” The Prince washed his hands in the lab sink. “Our hidden reinforcements took out the breach team before it lit the fuses. The Highest One protected us that day.”

Boxer picked up the car and squinted at it. “Could this be outfitted with something to put out the fuse?”

“A small radial saw, perhaps,” Mallory said. “To cut the fuse so close to the explosive that nobody would dare light it. If the string isn’t so long that it gets wrapped up in it.”

Prince Byron dried his hands and turned to face the door, his security instincts always on. “I can have the engineers mount a saw to this car and test it out.” Standing beside Boxer, it struck Mallory just how similar these two men were in build. Between the two of them, they looked able to lift a full-sized car. Their main difference was height—Boxer stood more than a head taller.

Mallory frowned. “It might be easier to build another car, since you’d have to redesign the PCB to use a third radio channel for the saw controls.”

“With this design to start from, I’m sure they can do it,” Prince Byron said. “But let’s hope we never have to use this for anything but a toy.”

9 – Market Mayhem

Queen Minnala had drafted a long list of places for the Scribes to visit—a grand diplomatic tour. Because of time and risk, Prince Byron haggled that list down to only three, and the Eastern Heights Marketplace was first.

The train stopped there now. The Scribes followed the Prince and Princess into the avenue, where vendor stalls stood abandoned and no shoppers milled about.

“Is it always this empty in the afternoon?” Mallory asked.

The Prince strained to listen, a hand cupped to his ear. “A town hall meeting. That’s Mammoner Riscine’s voice. What is this about?”

Princess Vivienne shook her head. “It wasn’t approved.”

Side-by-side, the Prince in his black armor and the Princess in her frilly white dress made quite a sight. Mallory felt under dressed in her rugged field clothes, but at least she matched Rain and Boxer.

A quick trot to the square revealed where the shoppers and vendors had gone. They clustered around a stage where an unmistakable figure spoke. That black hair and those orange eyes blazed across the distance into Mallory’s mind, to the memories of a giant millipede and towering stone walls. Here stood her accuser.

The man wasn’t sitting on a throne this time, but exuded the same air of authority as he jabbed a finger to the rocky ceiling. “From the start, I’ve told the King we can’t uproot everyone from their homes all at once! That we must protect the livelihoods and businesses of every citizen!”

The people answered with roars and upraised fists.

The Mammoner looked down at an old woman near the stage. “Lady Chilnette, can you carry all your pottery to the surface?”

She shook her head and spread her hands over a table laden with large vases and bowls.

The Mammoner pointed downward and cringed. “That basin looks at least ten kilograms. You are strong enough to lift that onto your booth, but I daresay your entire collection exceeds a hundred kilos. More than double your bodyweight, I’m sure. Who’ll carry all of that up kilometers of steep stairs, if indeed we have them installed in time?”

The Mammoner turned to the middle-aged man beside the woman. “Will you, Horil? She’s lucky to have a strong young builder for a son. Can you lug her pottery along with your saws and hammers? And tell me, fine Faisians. What’ll become of him if he can’t bring his tools? What happens to Lady Chilnette’s three grandchildren if she and Horil can’t work?

“King Sandros has a simple answer, does he not? Take only food and water and figure out the rest when we find our new home. Wherever that is. Does that sound like a livable plan? Do you want to throw away everything you’ve worked for and start over from nothing?”

When the furor died down, he went on, “And you proprietors stand to lose the most. The legacy you were going to pass on to your children, the lasting impact on society, the wealth you sacrificed to gather… gone overnight. You can’t liquidate your business if nobody’s here to buy it. You see, the King has ordered us all to leave this place and never return.”

Someone near the front called out words Mallory couldn’t hear.

The Mammoner pointed to him. “What would I do? Great question, Lord Tirai. Everyone lean in and take note: we send people in waves. Those who can travel light go first. They pioneer the way. Together with government leaders and soldiers, they find suitable land. The others follow when they can.

“As for our possessions, I’ll negotiate with the Skytakers to install cranes to hoist our belongings by the pallet load. And we station guards to prevent looting. Nobody snaps their spines or leaves their livelihoods behind. What about houses? We can’t bring those along, so anyone who wants to stay may do so. King Sandros would force every one of us to abandon our homes. But if I have my way, we all get a say. Your life, your choice!”

This last point elicited a chant of “my life, my choice.” Mallory’s skin prickled with the static electricity in the air. People hugged their neighbors and cried, just like when the Facility showed off the release video of the namiron comm system on the day of the quake.

A mother clutching her two infants looked over to Mallory and said, “The Mammoner will save us!” Then she spotted the Prince and Princess and froze.

Others turned and fell silent. The Mammoner put a hand to his brow and peered out. “Looks like some royals decided to join us! Prince Byron Aryea, come and discourse with me before your fine subjects.”

Prince Byron squared his shoulders. “Can’t back away without appearing weak.” In a trice, he sucked in all his apparent apprehension and strode forward with two of his guards. The crowd parted to let them through.

The Scribes and Princess Vivienne followed at a distance, surrounded by their own bubble of guards, and stopped beside Lady Chilnette.

Rather than go around to climb the stairs, the Prince leapt onto the stage with a clank of armor, then marched right up to the Mammoner. He poked a finger at the man. “You are out of plumb, Mammoner Riscine. Your little town hall was not approved.”

The Mammoner’s orange eyes looked wounded. “Prince Byron, I only heard the cries of the populace and responded. Surely that requires no approval from you, does it? Would your father dare refuse to let me calm tensions?”

“Sounds like you’re escalating them. Pitting the people against their King.”

“So much anger, Prince Byron.” The Mammoner waved his hand as if to fan away hot air.

“You dent my father’s crown in public and expect anything less?” The Prince squared up with the man, hands ready.

The Mammoner backed up. “Easy there, young ruler. Why don’t you explain to the citizens why you’re in such a hurry to leave our glorious realm?”

The Prince cringed and cast a look at the Princess, who nodded sadly. Then, turning to the crowd, he said, “The Source is running dry.”


“The King was going to announce it after another set of flow rate measurements, but since you demand an immediate answer, there it is. We’re not sure when the water from Paito will run out. It could be days or months from now. We do know this: when that happens, our crops will die.”

The crowd gave a collective gasp.

The Mammoner raised his hands, “Nobody panic. The Prince speaks only of the Source. Fortunately, I have a backup plan. Another supply of flowing water that isn’t affected.”

Prince Byron crossed his arms, grinding his vambraces together. “Do tell us, Mammoner Riscine. Where are you hiding this river of yours?”

“I’ll reveal it in due course.” He turned to the crowd. “You can all rest easy that I’ve prepared for this, so there’s no reason for panic. We have time to do things the right way.” He put a fist to his chest and bowed.

Prince Byron didn’t flinch. “You will disclose this to His Majesty forthwith. By royal decree. You don’t get to assure the public of anything until we inspect this water of yours.” Then he faced the people. “In the meantime, nothing changes. We prepare to emerge. Anyone with grievances or feedback should speak to their Sector Delegates. Our process hasn’t changed. We still follow the constitution.”

To the Mammoner, he said, “You are hereby ordered to stand before the King. Without delay.”

Ignoring the Prince, the Mammoner swung his gaze to Mallory and grinned. “Look who else condescended to our midst. The Scribes to Come… have come!”

All eyes narrowed in on Mallory, Rain, and Boxer. Some whispered about how the young trio didn’t glow. When angry murmurs broke out, the Mammoner said, “Now, now. It’s not their fault we’re being rushed into things. The Scribes are just going along with whatever King Sandros is planning. Aren’t they?” His brows hiked up so high they threatened to launch off of his forehead into the charged air.

Prince Byron put up a hand. “You will not drag them into this.”

Wasn’t this why Queen Minnala wanted them here—to talk to the common folk? She must’ve known the grolnod nest she was sending them into. Mallory took in all the suspicious faces and shivered. These were the people she was meant to lead?

The Mammoner spread his arms. “Drag them into what? Their role as deliverer? The Highest One already did that. Come on up, you three. Assure the people.”

Thousands of sneers dared Mallory to move. Prince Byron winced, looking unsure of what to do.

Princess Vivienne whispered, “You don’t owe them a speech. We can leave.”

No, they couldn’t. Not without looking weak. And yet, she was weak. What could she say to allay fears when she had plenty of her own?

Mallory steeled herself and leapt onto the platform. Standing between the two men, she turned to face the people. She hadn’t spoken before a crowd this size since her speech and debate days back in the eighth grade.

The people fell into such a stunned silence that Mallory wondered if she’d broken some taboo. No, their eyes morphed from suspicion to intrigue. And without knowing how, words came to her lips. She opened them to let them fly. “Those of you who’ve built your life with your own hands, stay here. You need no deliverer. But those who live under the hand of the Highest, follow it wherever it leads. Whenever it leads.”

The words felt ordinary, but their effect was anything but. Eyes widened, as if she’d uttered some great surprise. The hardest faces among them seemed to soften. Some even clapped. Her speech coach would’ve been proud. Rain and Boxer gawked at her in quiet wonder.

“Fine words,” the Mammoner said. “But are you saying that the Highest One is pushing us out of our homes with a water crisis? Is this his doing?”

Great. She’d never been good at cross examination. Mallory sighed. “No, I don’t think He caused it, but He might use it to stir His people to leave this place.”

“And are you one of His people?” The Mammoner pointed to her sleeve. “I see no inscription bands on your wrists.”

The crowd fell eerily quiet.

“Roll up your sleeves, Scribe,” the Mammoner said.

Mallory held up her hands. “It’s true. I’m not inscribed yet.”

Before she could say anything further, the crowd booed her. The sneers returned, along with angry shouts.

“They liked me for a full thirty seconds,” Mallory whispered to the Prince.

He took her by the arm. “Time to go.” He helped her down from the stage as the guards formed a tight circle around them.

Nobody dared attack, but their collective hiss and following stares sure stung as if they had. Mallory bit back tears.

So much for getting to know the people.

11 – Power Plant

Despite the marketplace fiasco, Prince Byron took the Scribes to the next stop on the itinerary—the Royal Geothermal Power Station.

From the outside, it resembled industrial plants on the surface: a network of pipes flowed out from a steel corrugated building and into four stacks that sent up plumes of steam. Palace guards fanned out to cover the grounds, and another dozen escorted them into the turbine complex. It almost felt like they were here to invade the place, not tour it.

Princess Vivienne had stayed back at the palace to catch up on her schooling. Even in the middle of summer, the fifteen-year-old had to study. While Imnans never indulged in extended breaks, Daishon Natives on the surface took summers off. Either Natives did things differently here, or royalty needed more training to deal with their unusual duties.

A power plant worker in blue coveralls handed out earplugs and a hardhat and gave a safety briefing. Then he led the way through double doors into a space that seemed too vast to fit underground.

Several workers inspected Mallory’s visitor badge, looking for the stamp that authorized her to carry a weapon inside. Good thing they didn’t make her leave it outside. Entrusting it to a stranger felt risky.

She was about to strap the scabbard across her back when Prince Byron put up a hand. “Wear it at the hip. Always be ready for a fight. Especially in days like these.”

“Won’t the bottom bump against the stairs?” Mallory asked.

“Lift up on the sheath while you climb.”

So many little things to learn. No monsters should be roaming these spaces, but judging by how the Prince kept his helmet on, Mallory started to wonder.

A guard whispered something to the Prince, making him scowl.

“What’s wrong?” Mallory asked.

“We got word that the Mammoner’s men just attacked the Central Armory,” he said.

Mallory shouldn’t have been surprised. Prince Byron had expected something like this all week. “I thought the militia was disbanded.”

“It was,” the Prince said. “But these men reactivated themselves under fraudulent orders from the Mammoner.”

“Should we return to the palace?” Mallory asked.

“No reports of attack against the city itself, though I suspect that will come next, since the armory lies two kilometers north of Faisis. We’re safer here ‘til we receive more reports. Let’s continue the tour in the meanwhile.”

Mallory favored the handle of her Sword with a twitchy hand. It felt strange to sightsee while an attack was in progress, even if it were happening outside the city. Eager for a distraction, she focused on her surroundings instead. She’d toured the fusion plant in Mitria last year. This sprawl of steel girders, pipework, and electrical cabling looked familiar, except this was more spacious and lacked the touch screen panels.

They climbed several flights of stairs to the main generator floor where five enormous turbine housings dominated the room, covered in white lagging and leaking puffs of steam in random places. The smell of lube oil was unmistakable. Metal decking rattled against her boot soles like a model printer with poor vibration dampening.

“Each generator produces six hundred megawatts—enough to supply all seven cities and their factories.” The plant worker pointed to a huge pipe. “When water from the Source collects in the reservoir below Sendia, it approaches magma deposits and flashes to steam. Their pipeline guides it up here, where it turns these turbines.”

On the other side of the generator, a girl of about fifteen turned a valve handle while a man holding a binder supervised.

Their escort noted the amazement of his guests with a smile. “We start our trainees young. Genaia started doing valve lineups this month. Poor thing broke down when she learned we may be emerging before she fully qualifies.”

Mallory traded looks with the Prince, who nodded sadly. So many major life events would be cut off by the emergence. Things that were only available down here. Sure, power plants existed on the surface, but none would allow teenage operators.

They toured the control room next, which allowed them to remove their protective gear.

The panels looked ancient with their analog meters and indicating lights. Clad in blue jumpsuits, operators took log readings on clipboards and consulted thick manuals bound in hard plastic cases.

A large panel caught Mallory’s eye. It bore a diagram of silver lines branching out from five central boxes. Black switches broke the lines into segments, each bearing a letter-number placard.

“You’re looking at the electrical distribution for all the Triurn.” The tour guide pointed at the switches. “Our generators deliver power across the switchgear we operate here. With a flick of the wrist, we can de-energize up to three cities.”

“Have you ever done that before?” Boxer asked.

The operator sitting before the panel squinted at a set of gauges and scribbled numbers in his logs. “A couple of times. Once for an electrical fire in the substations outside of Fetchner. And another time for substation overhauls in Carvien and Rios. With any luck, we’ll only need to open these breakers once more.”

“When would that be?” Rain asked.

The operator exchanged a sad look with the tour guide. “When we decommission the plant.”

Mallory snapped her fingers. “Right. Nobody will be left to operate this after we leave for the surface.”

The man set aside his clipboard and spun a loose bolt on his panel. “I hear we’ll be heading for a rain forest, whatever that is. I’m told it won’t have power stations.”

“You could say that,” Mallory said. “At least not until we build one.” She put her hand on the back of an operator’s chair, suddenly dizzy. After helping these people relocate—a feat unto itself—they’d have to establish a whole new kingdom. The enormity of it weighed on her like a planet.

An older operator leaned over and stage whispered, “There was another time we dropped power.”

The tour guide’s brows shot up. “Really? When?”

“Ninety years ago, not long after this station was built, when the Civil War broke out.”

The tour guide pursed his lips. “That was two kings ago. Stidos, I think.”

The old operator nodded. “Drammadon Followers tried to overthrow our government. Battles waged all across the Triurn—”

“—I thought it was just a siege of Faisis,” the tour guide said.

“Rogue battalions cut off reinforcement from other cities,” the old man said. “And part of that fighting turned hot.”

Prince Byron said, “That means they resorted to shooting firearms, even though our law forbids it. The noise could trigger rock falls.”

“Which it did!” the old man said, his voice quivering with something like remembered fear. “Massive stalactites broke loose and flattened homes in Toppler. One slammed onto a substation, causing an explosion loud enough to trigger another rock fall. We dropped the entire eastern half of the grid and waited two weeks for the fighting to stop before dealing with the fires.”

The tour guide crossed his arms. “Just how old are you, Sheflor?”

A few others chuckled.

The old man thumped the nearest one on the head. “My father was an operator in quals at the time. He told me all about it.”

“We might be about to relive those events. You might want to start preparing now,” the Prince said while putting his helmet back on.

The tour guide’s eyes snapped to the Prince’s. “Prepare for what?”

Prince Byron told him about the attack on the armory.

The operators’ faces went slack. The control room supervisor picked up a phone and started demanding answers.

Mallory could hear his shouts through her earplugs as she put her protective gear back on. They left the control room and walked the aisles of high voltage switchboards. Then they waded through a maze of lagged piping to the adjacent water treatment plant.

The tour guide hollered out, “Paito drains its bathroom flushings down to us. Don’t worry—we clean it in these distilling units.”

Mallory gazed up through the overhead pipes at the nearest distiller, marveling at the sheer bulk. Its condenser housing was almost as big as the Use Our Words office up in Feldencourt.

Operators roved the steel catwalks above, reading gauges and inspecting pipes. Most carried a clipboard, but one cradled a crossbow. Mallory froze.

It was pointing down at the Prince.

Mallory tugged at his shoulder. “Get back!”

To his credit, he did so immediately, without questioning.

A loud ding rang out over the din of machinery. From the way he favored his arm, Prince Byron was hit. The crossbow bolt hadn’t penetrated the ragna armor, but it made sense that its impact would still hurt.

Mallory darted her eyes in all directions, trying to spot the attacker again. A series of bolts struck the floor and surrounding pipes, causing water to gush out with a loud hiss.

“Follow me!” the Prince shouted. He broke into a run down the long alley of pumps, valves, and drainpipes. Mallory followed, breath ragged, only remembering to hold the hilt of the Sword when the sheath banged against her thigh. Boxer’s hulking form trailed close behind her. Knowing him, he was probably doing it intentionally to shield her from further projectiles.

A door at the end opened into another vast area. A river-sized canal lined with concrete flowed into a chemical plant where a grid of water tanks seemed to stretch on forever. A thin catwalk crossed over them and ran the length of the building until it disappeared in the distance. Prince Byron led the group down the catwalk at a hectic pace, his shoulder not seeming to bother him.

Adrenaline powered Mallory along. The side rails offered scant protection from falling into the churning vats below. At any moment, she and her friends could be shot from behind. That fear propelled her forward, despite the burning in her legs.

How did an attacker slip past all the guards outside the power station? Well, the man was wearing an operator’s jumpsuit. Either he was impersonating someone or he actually worked here. But would an operator really be authorized to bring a crossbow inside?

And just how many shooters were there?

They’d crossed several intersections in the catwalk labyrinth before the Prince turned onto a side path. It ended at a brick wall with a rusted ladder which led to a steel platform near the ceiling. Prince Byron stopped and pointed up. “Mallory, cut through those bars in that drain cover and climb in.”

She scaled the ladder and made the cuts, careful not to let the loose metal fall and clang against the platform.

“Everyone in!” the Prince called out.

Mallory sheathed her Sword and pulled herself into a dark concrete tunnel, which was just high enough for her to crawl through. A beam of light shone from behind her—perhaps from the cipher block. The passage soon came to a T intersection with a much larger pipe. She clambered out into it, almost falling into a stream of water running down the center.

She doubled over and gasped for breath, but gagged at the smell. She looked around in the dimness. This was a sewer tall enough to stand in, just like the one in The Sewer Lord.

When I first entered the Bioprison, I thought I was Gedov jumping off the slave ship in Emolecipation. Now I’ve become Sevroog.

As others filed in, she advanced down the tunnel to make room. Boxer held up the cipher block and wore a look of fear, which looked out of place in his brown eyes. “What in the Observable is going on?” he demanded. “I thought the attack was outside the city!”

Prince Byron waved everyone forward. “This leads to the palace. I’ll explain there. Keep quiet. I don’t know if we lost our pursuers.”

As the group started moving, Rain whispered, “You seemed ready for this. Like you expected it.”

The Prince shook his head. “It’s my job to know all the secret escape routes. Still, the timing surprised me. I knew the Mammoner had men within the city, but I didn’t expect them to attack yet.” After a long pause, he came to a sudden stop. “The armory hit. That was just a diversion.”

“A diversion from what?” Mallory asked.

“Nobody thought his inside troops would strike without weapons,” the Prince said. “Unless they’d stashed weapons away inside the walls.”

He turned to lock eyes with Mallory. “I fear another civil war has already begun.”

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