Young and ambitious Earmon has climbed up the ladder in Levitor city to become the Queen’s topmost advisor. He seems to have everything he’s dreamed of, except for one thing: princess Zenithia’s love.
When he witnesses an intruder inside the city and decides to keep it quiet, he unwittingly unleashes a terrifying chain of events. His friend, Turak, has an episode that results in a fracture in Levitor’s shield, and the horde of Reavers prowling outside the city advances.
In a world of intrigue, blood, and war, Earmon must battle for survival against savages and beasts.
His hardest trial is yet to come, and he will have to face a choice no one should ever have to make: protect the life of the one he loves the most at the risk of losing his own.
In the end, will he be enough to save her and the city?
Shackles of Guilt is a page-turning novel packed with suspense with a touch of romance and fantasy.
You reap what you sow, Ma used to say.
And she was right. Earmon couldn’t help but ponder the events of his life and how every choice he’d made had steered him along this path. One that led exactly to where he was: sitting alone on a wobbly bench in Sana Park.
On his left stood Krohnur’s gray stone walls, and in the distance rose Ankur’s glass spire. To live within its pristine walls had been his dream, and he had made it. While most people drifted through life, he had forged his way through, believing his fate rested in his own hands, in his deliberate choices.
In truth, had it been worth it? Somewhere along the way, he knew he had lost so much more than he had gained. He had yearned for so much more than living deep under Levitor city, surrounded by rough stone walls.
It had all begun one night eight years ago, when his ten-year-old self and Grunt had waited for Ma’s return in that one cramped room dimly lit by candlelight.
“Leave it alone,” Grunt muttered. “You’ll see. One day, it will bite your bottom.”
Earmon stopped poking at the critter that had invaded their space, lowered his stick, and scoffed. He was facing the snarling creature, wasn’t he? No way could it bite him from behind. He lunged forward, and the creature flinched, curling itself into a ball. And each time the creature did, Grunt flinched, too.
Earmon remembered the glee that had sparked inside him and washed away the pang of guilt. Grunt had never stopped him, though. He would never dare.
Then, suddenly, the creature lurched, all spikes out, startling young Earmon. Sure, he was toying with it, curiously noting its reactions, its swings between flight and fight. But he wanted to understand why Grunt would cradle it and stroke its coarse fur.
Nothing special about that critter, Earmon finally concluded, shooing it away. Other than sharp claws and fangs.
Most of all, Earmon never understood why the corner of Ma’s eyes crinkled with warmth when they fell on Grunt. He was a chubby boy of the same age. Earmon was the son and Grunt a mere stranger tagging along. That ought to count for something.
Ma had never lifted a finger to them and had always been proud of her sons, even when Earmon had been such a brat back then. She had put her faith in the elements. Whatever those were.
We’re safer underground, she’d say.
But Levitor has a dome, he’d argue. How much more protection do we need?
We live underground because we believe in the soul, she’d retort.
The argument went on and on. It made little sense in Earmon’s logical brain. Back then, he’d rather have a tasty loaf of bread than the slap of mush they ate each day and believe in such things as the soul and elements.
A knot twisted in his throat at the memory. From Ankur’s spire, his gaze drifted to the cracked dome above Levitor city, and he shifted uncomfortably.
Suddenly, a splinter from the bench pierced his bottom. Earmon hissed and blinked the sting from his eyes. Not from the pain, but at the memory.
Grunt had been right after all. Life had a way of clawing its way back to you.
Part of Earmon always knew that his deeds would one day catch up and come full circle. You reap what you sow. Inexorably.
If only he’d known how it would end… Would it have made a difference? Earmon sighed. Bitter regrets didn’t change endings. They only poisoned the mind. True, he was alone, but he couldn’t give up on Grunt and all the others.
The time for reckoning was coming, and he vowed to be ready. Behind him, a rustling echoed in the empty park. Earmon glanced at the screen on his wrist and retrieved Grunt’s last message before he went missing.
Earmon knew it by heart: I found something, Earmon. Moles’ honor, I know who committed the murder.
Four men carried his forever-sleeping Ma away on a wobbly stretcher, muttering and grumbling under her weight. It wasn’t that Ma was heavy—the sickness had whittled her to half her normal size. Before that, in cage fights, she had been the queen warrior. She had taken down each of these burly men before, and now they resented her for it.
In the end, she lost the fight against the coughing sickness. Her illness had been short. The black tendrils that marred her neck were proof that she had been poisoned. Both Earmon and Grunt were ten, too young to attend the burial in the farming grounds. Ma would be buried in her soil patch. Her body would feed the plants and, in turn, provide for the Underground dwellers—the Moles.
Darn the Moles. Mon hated to be among them anyway. He hated the farming grounds—the glare from the mirrors blinded him, the smell of mud sickened him. On the other hand, as the farmers’ errand boy, Grunt enjoyed digging dirt, planting, and harvesting. With his job, Grunt would now even be closer to Ma.
Jealousy surged inside Mon. Life wasn’t fair. He scrubbed his cheeks, where dried tears left white, crusty patches. Ma wouldn’t have wanted him to cry or mourn.
His gaze followed the stretcher down the narrow path, then back to the corner of the room where Grunt was crouched down.
Since Ma had fallen ill three days ago, Grunt hadn’t said much. When she had taken her last breath, he had sat there, frozen. Now, he was still in the same place, eyes vacant. Awesome and helpful, he’d been.
It had been Mon who called out for the men. The reality of their situation struck him then, pushing his grief to the side. In the underground, the Moles were merciless toward orphans. They were forced to work long hours in the grubbiest places, maintain the latrines, do the laundry, and clean until their hands were red and raw.
Skinny, weak orphans like him didn’t last long on the job.
Grunt’s chances of fitting in with another foster family were better. His smile melted hearts, and mothers would pinch his chubby cheeks. They all loved the runt. Ma did too, giving him shelter when he lost his mother to sickness.
No family would take Mon the Ugly into their dwelling. Mon hated that nickname. Darn the Moles.
Watching Grunt sit down with his head lowered, Mon realized for the first time that, even though he and Grunt were alone and defenseless, they were in this together. They needed each other to survive.
Grunt finally moved. His head whipped toward the door. Mon followed his gaze, frowning. The door was ajar, and two men came into view. The high ceiling echoed their whispers, drifting inside the room.
“At least she got buried, ya?” one of the men said. “Think, man, she coulda be sent to Elementizer if she was above, and her body broken down.”
“Don’t talk like that, Fon!” the other said. A hint of fear made his voice quiver. “Our Rana worms do a better job. Her soul will be passed on and at peace.”
Whether Ma’s body was cremated, buried, or sent to the Elementizer, it was the same to Mon. Ma was dead and would never be back. One thing was for sure: while the Moles believed in intangible things such as the soul, it didn’t mean they were kind-hearted. They wouldn’t hesitate to throw Grunt and him out.
Mon swallowed. For a moment, he was tempted to fight the two men for the room space. His chances of actually winning were slim.
“Lookin’ good here. What d’ya think?” Fon continued.
To Mon’s horror, the two men were perusing the room, peering at the ceiling. They frowned at the damp spots—the one thing everyone hated about living underground—and totally ignored Grunt and him.
“Ah, that’s a good spot, innit? Darn lucky it just got vacant, eh?”
Fon snickered. “Yep. Blazes, I need a break from my dank place.”
Mon’s fists clenched. Most of the rooms and tunnels underground were damp. Water from aquifers and the river seeped through every nook and cranny. It ruined bedding, spreading moss and algae that stank like blazes. But not here in this room. Ma had fought hard for this dry place. It was high above the underground river and next to the power plant. Light reflected from mirrors streamed into the cubby hole, giving it a cozy feel and warmth. Like home.
That home was two rooms with a kitchen area on the left and thin mattresses on the floor, and a bowl to wash up. But it smelled fresh, and that room was everything Mon had ever known.
The two men took a hesitant step inside, their gazes still cast upward at the ceiling. The leeches! Only a few minutes ago, his Ma’s body had been taken away, and already there were people vying for the place.
A rush of anger swept over Mon, but he clamped it down. He couldn’t take on two big men, nor could he accuse them of getting rid of Ma.
But Mon had no proof. Down here, it was all about survival. It wouldn’t be beyond these two men to kill Ma to secure a dryer room and a better abode. Now all Mon could do was move on and remember the lessons she’d taught him.
Fon finally seemed to register their presence and stared at Mon with a raised eyebrow, as if challenging him. Mon swallowed, crossed the room, and nudged Grunt on the shoulder with his knee.
Grunt’s glazed eyes stared through Mon for a moment. Slowly, they focused, and he came to the same understanding.
“We need to move out,” Grunt croaked, startling Mon, who hadn’t heard his voice for a long time.
He wiped the rest of his tears from his cheeks and tallied their meager possessions: three bowls, three spoons, a few jars, and canteens. Other than that, his only belongings were two frayed shirts, the pants he wore, and one pair of shoes with a bulging lump where his big toe poked out.
Feet shuffled outside, and hands thudded on the wall. Mon rushed to remove the single tattered pillowcase and filled it with pickles and dried fruit jars. He put on his other shirt and pants. From his trips to Levitor city, he knew it would be cold.
He took a last glance at the single room that had been his home. Layers and pieces of cloth piled into a makeshift bed. The crimson stain on the stone floor where Ma said he had been born. The hole where Grunt hid his critter-pets.
“Need a hand, lad?”
Mon startled and looked up. In his haste, he hadn’t noticed the man called Fon take a step forward. At least the men had the decency to look uncomfortable.
Fon’s gaze rested on the jar of pickles. Mon’s hand wrapped tight around the pillowcase. This was the only thing from his Ma, and he would keep it. Knuckles white, he brought his fist to his chest, ready to fight. The air shifted, thickening with tension as the men flanked him. They were about to snatch the pillowcase, and Mon could do nothing about it.
Then the men stepped back and raised their palms. Mon glanced at Grunt, who was brandishing a knife in one hand and a full pillowcase in the other. The two men gave them a wide berth as they stepped out and walked down the dimly lit, narrow corridor.
Mon had never been so glad to have Grunt by his side. He had never understood before why Ma took him in, but now he did.
Even before Ma fell sick, Mon had tried to find work. But the Moles would take a long look at his gaunt frame and sunken face and shake their heads. At first, Mon wasn’t picky on the job, whether at the farm or the waterhole, but the repetitive, manual work always got to him after a few weeks. His lack of attention and daydreaming got him in trouble more than once.
He had to admit it was his fault. Unlike Grunt, he wasn’t cut out for digging, carrying, fixing, or scrubbing. Instead, he was fascinated by the discarded devices from Levitor, dismantling them and toying with the pieces. He’d watch the underground river and plan routes for redirecting the water flow. Worst of all, he questioned everything. His ideas landed on deaf ears. There was no place for him among the Moles.
Once, Mon blamed Grunt for his lack of friends. Now his chubby brother was his only friend. The truth was everyone liked Grunt. He fit well in this place when Mon and his Ma never did. He saw the men’s resentment when she beat them in the cage. He also saw the women’s spite and jealousy because Ma was prettier. When they all looked at him, though, they only saw Mon the Ugly. With his gaunt frame, there was some truth to that.
Above ground lived the Lapalites, who were no better than the Moles. There, no rules prevailed. No one to protect them and no one to watch their back. Grunt and Mon would only have each other.
The shared area the Moles and Lapalites cohabited—one underground and the other aboveground—was named the Edge, the lowest tier of Levitor city that stretched in an arch around the border. There, the dome’s Edge was entrenched deep into the ground.
The barrier, which consisted of interconnected six-sided shapes, fascinated Mon. Its hum spoke of its power. From the rumors he’d heard, the barrier protected Levitor city and the Edge from horrible beasts and creatures on the other side.
A flimsy fence separated the Edge from Levitor city, and that was where Mon intended to go. It wasn’t patrolled and was the boundary to Levitor city. Traders and vendors moved to and from the city center daily with their wares.
The Lapalites chose to live separately from the Levitorians, like the Moles did. Ma said two things separated the Lapalites and the Moles from the Levitorians: the food and the Royals.
The Lapalites and the Moles ate the food they grew, and the surplus was traded in the market square. Levitorians mainly ate bars. Mon understood Levitor had some machinery called Elementizer, where dead bodies were liquefied and processed, the nutrients then fed to processing plants and machinery. On the other hand, the Lapalites and Moles used the Rana worms to process their dead and fertilize the ground.
The whole thing made little sense to Mon. It did make him wonder while eating a few carrots from the farms whether some parts of Grunt’s Ma were inside the orangey bits. But he couldn’t tell, and he was hungry. The carrots tasted too good to be thrown away. He reckoned the nutrient bars and meals fed to Levitor citizens tasted as good, if not better.
As for the Royals, that made no sense either. The Lapalites and Moles wanted a king, while Levitorians had a queen as their leader. Ma would have made a great queen, Mon reckoned. A pang knifed his stomach.
“You coming?” Grunt said, interrupting Mon’s thoughts.
In the dim light, his puffy eyes glowed, and the hint of fear in his voice belied the determination. Mon realized they’ve come to a fork in the path, one leading to the outside and the other leading farther underground.
“You go to the Taps family,” Mon finally said. “They like you, so they’ll take you in their home for sure.” He was surprised there was no resentment in his voice. It was the truth and the right thing to do.
“But what about you?”
“Go. I’ll find my way.”
“I’m not leaving you,” Grunt said, his eyebrows furrowed. His voice went a notch higher. “You can’t force me. I know you don’t want me around, but I promised Ma I’d look after you. So, I will.”
Mon sighed. A promise was a promise, and among Moles, it wasn’t something to take lightly. Why did Grunt do such a silly thing? There was no point in telling him off either, or making him go back on his promise. So, Mon braced himself and stared at Grunt.
“Here, I absolve you of your promise. Go away.”
“Absolve. Mean you don’t have to keep your promise, and I can take care of myself.”
“That was what Ma said you would say. I promised her I wouldn’t leave your side, no matter what. I’ll always have your back.”
Mon was about to argue but realized the futility. Grunt could be stubborn, like him, at times.
“Then I’ll have yours, Grunt.”
“I won’t leave you. I promise I won’t be trouble.”
Mon sighed again. That was one promise Grunt surely could never keep. Trouble had a knack for finding him. Or was it the other way round?
“Where are we going, Mon?”
“Above.” Among the Lapalites, they had to stay low and avoid trouble. Keep away from the Reds, Ma also said. The Levitorian red-uniformed guards were infamous for their cruelty.
“They eat from the Elementizer,” Grunt said in a small voice.
Mon swallowed his frustration. “But we don’t have to. We’ll eat the food from the market. Right now, we need to make sure we got a job.” He lifted his pillowcase. “These pickles aren’t going to last. You follow me?”
Grunt nodded. His eyes lit up, and his jaw tightened. Perhaps he was starting to realize their precarious situation.
They headed up the tunnels. The slope turned steep, and soon they struggled to keep a steady footing, their muscles screaming in pain. Mon slowed his pace when Grunt wheezed, but he didn’t stop until they climbed out of the grill door. Then their legs gave way, and they slumped to the ground.
“You been there before, right?” Grunt asked doubtfully.
“It’s no big deal. What I remember most is it’s very bright. Lots of glare. And then there’s so much space above your head.”
“There’s a dome, Ma says.”
“Yes, but it’s really high up, you’ll see. Ma used to leave me in Bo’s Kitchen. It’s a shop, sort of. Maybe he’ll have a job for us.”
Mon didn’t add that Bo owned a tavern, and most customers were drunk. Ma used to leave him in the kitchen while she went away to trade her carrots and cassava in the market. Mon didn’t mind the errands for Bo, delivering the drinks. It gave him a chance to be outside and visit the Edge. The scrubbing and washing were the worst chores, though. The place stank, his eyes watered, but the work earned him enough for sour candies. All worth it.
They emerged from the house with the trapdoor in the pitch-dark night. During this time, the Edge was most dangerous. Mon hesitated. Maybe they should wait till dawn to head to Bo’s tavern. His hesitation made Grunt falter, and his eyes widened in fear. Staying at the exit in the dark was dangerous too, Mon decided. They’d just have to watch their backs.
The heavy, eerie silence frayed Mon’s nerves. A big red X marked the front wall of the rundown house that was a warning for the coughing sickness. Mon picked up a rock and scratched in a line under the X, just in case they had to flee to the Underground again.
Shadows lingered in doorways and loitered between buildings: glinting eyes, hard angles, and edges. Mon clutched the pillowcase to his chest, and a soft gasp escaped Grunt’s lips as he scooted closer to him.
Outside the marked house was the unguarded fence separating the Edge from Levitor. For a moment, Mon considered crossing it. After all, the Lapalites were free to move about inside Levitor and sell their wares in the marketplace. But he shook his head. He’d be roaming about homeless and looked down upon as a thief. Maybe he’d end up in the Quod, Levitor’s prison, where a lot of prisoners died working for Levitorians. Then his body would be sent to the Elementizer and be fed to plants and trees.
That’s your problem, Mon. You think too much and well ahead of time.
Even though that made him unfit to live among the Moles, Ma had been so proud of him. My clever boy, she had called him. A surge of anger rose inside Mon. Life was so unfair.
It was stupid to let Lapalites roam in Levitor. They were mainly thieves, he’d been told. Maybe the Moles were right: a stupid, soft-hearted queen ruled Levitor.
Mon turned away from the fence. Bo’s tavern it would be.
On their right was a hangar with many aircraft, their wings spread out like moths with crooked feet. A stone’s throw away before them sprawled the dome’s edge. Six-sided frames interlinked, and the area within swirled with smoke. The structure arched from the ground to the ceiling, forming a dome that hummed. The sight and the sound filled him in awe. Next to him, Grunt also emitted a gasp of amazement.
On their left was the long path to Bo’s Kitchen, open at all hours. Mon tied the pillowcase around his belt. He took out two flat glass jars on second thought and slid them into his trouser pockets. The small knife hidden in his shirt’s hem was within reach.
A scream from the back of the tavern drew their attention. It was too high-pitched to belong to a boy. Grunt spun around, but Mon gripped his arm, stopping him.
“Don't. Not our problem. Let's get inside the kitchens.”
It was the right thing to do. They weren’t alone. In this dark, Mon felt eyes digging into his back, shadows shuffling within the houses. Not a single shadow moved toward the back of the tavern. Living in the Edge meant they had to watch out for themselves.
Grunt shrugged his hand off. “But what if it was Ma out there?” he said and rushed down the dark alleyway.
Mon grimaced. He was too weak to take on a fight. He hadn’t eaten since Ma took her last breath. Yet he steeled himself and ran after Grunt. The chubby boy was no good in a fight either. Maybe together they could take on whoever was out there.