Prologue – Free Waffles

Content warning: Severe depression

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On a chill autumn night, two days after his twenty-third birthday, Andrew Huang made a payphone call and learned how the world was going to end.

He picked up the phone on the empty corner of Coach Street and Walnut, at three in the morning in the remote town of Helmfirth, near the heart of the Principality.  It cost him five pence.

When it was done, Andrew let go of the phone and slumped down against the stand.  A thick cloud of despair and apathy settled over him, and he lay there, half-dead, too tired to walk away.  Too tired to stand, even.  The weight of millennia pressed on his shoulders, crushing his spine.

As he lay back, shivering, he closed his eyes, and contemplated the decisions that led him to this point.

Three minutes and thirty-seven seconds later, forty-one Voidsteel-lined V-4 rockets slammed into the town, impacting in a window of twenty seconds, launched from a silo in the Principality’s Glasbron Valley.

Pale flashes of light lit up the sky, turning night into day.  Peals of thunder roared through the air, drowning out sound and thought.  The ensuing blasts leveled every building in Helmfirth, killing every person within miles and setting the forest nearby on fire.

When the smoke cleared, the corpses had been vaporized, or torn to pieces and blackened from the flames, crushed beneath the rubble of their own houses.  Manicured lawns and flower gardens were reduced to ash.  Cafes and bakeries and newspaper stands had been flattened, unrecognizable.

Eventually, the forest fires died out, and the flames over the wooden rubble ebbed, then faded away into the moonless night.

Only silence remained.

________________________________________

To celebrate his twenty-first birthday, Andrew Huang lay in bed.

Not that lying in bed was special.  He did it every day, for hours and hours.

And today, he got to lie in bed and feel even shittier than usual.

Maybe a meteor will strike the planet, he thought.  End this miserable experiment in sentience.  A sweet fantasy, one he imagined often.  He would die, and nobody would remain to gloat over his corpse.

“Do you ever wish you were someone else?” a man shouted on the street outside, into a megaphone.  “Do you ever wish you were living a different person’s life?  A happier person.  More successful.  More attractive.”  His voice sounded distant through Andrew’s drapes.  “Don’t be constrained to dreams!  Open your minds to the Harmonious Flock, and your souls shall gain a thousand facets!”

That Ilaquan street preacher was at it again, right outside the apartment.  Screeching and making noise during Andrew’s prime sleeping hours, noon to four PM.

Andrew turned over in bed and folded his pillow over his ears, muffling the noise further.

Get up, parasite, he told himself.  You’re going to be late for work.

A headache throbbed in the back of his skull, common after lying down for this long.  Afternoon daylight shone in through cracks in his drapes, the dim yellow of the setting sun, taunting him as it left.

It illuminated all of the failures in his studio apartment.  The piles of dirty clothes.  The cigarette butts and cans of Jwala’s Orange Soda and torn food packages, some of them starting to smell funny, filling up his sink and his trash can.

He could have cleaned up, but then it’d get dirty later, and he’d have to clean it again.  And again, and again, and again, until he died.

Andrew couldn’t think of anything more pointless.  And besides, he lived alone and never had people over.  No one important had to endure the filth.

Clean your room, dear, his mother had told him, in that concerned, grating voice of hers.  You’ll feel so much better.  Studies show that people with clean houses are forty-three percent less likely to develop mental health diseases.

A stack of unread Nekean manga sat on the floor.  The Mountain Slayer, an action series.  He was at least several months behind.  A radio sat next to it, turned off.

But Andrew felt too tired to read his favorite manga.  He felt too tired to listen to the radio, even, a passive act that only required him to open his ears.  Fun took too much energy.

He felt too tired to live, even though he spent all day resting.

Andrew looked at his yellow notebook, filled with his scribblings, half-stuffed under his bed.  The scariest item in the room.

The thought that struck him, most of all, was how similar his birthday felt.  Similar to the day before, and the day before that.  Why did I think it would feel different?  Another year.  Another year ticking down from his life.

What was he supposed to do during the afternoons?  His job shifts happened in the evenings.  With their time off, other people might go out for lunch with their friends, go on dates, call up their acquaintances to get drinks or see a movie.

But he had none of those.  He could have called his family, but – 

You are a parasite.  His father’s voice rang in his head.

After months of a gentler approach, his parents had refused to leave meals outside his bedroom door, starving him until he came down for a ‘family meal’.  Then they’d cornered him.

We love you dearly, which lets you hurt us more than anyone alive.  His father’s tough love continued.  Right now, all you do is read your comics and listen to your radio, locked up in your room.  Do you produce anything?  Do you add anything of value to anyone else’s life?  ‘Parasite’ is a strong word.  But maybe that’s what you need.

The 99 Precepts didn’t think much of unemployed people.  Caoism, the ideology of the Black Tortoise, thought even less.  In Shenten, Cao Hui assigned every person an economic score and sent the lowest ones to ‘redemption’ camps, for job training.

The Huang family had moved to the Principality seven years ago, but his father still loved Caoism, still followed tradition with all the discipline of a zealot.

Andrew’s father couldn’t send him to a camp.  But he could kick his son out of the house.

So Andrew had left, before his father got the chance.

And guess what, dad?  I’m not spending your money anymore.  Andrew had his own place, a job.  He had to get one, once he left home, or he’d starve.

Now, he was a functioning member of society.  Ready to work until he died.  Though it wasn’t like his job added any real value to society.

The Shenti had a term called Guolaosi, for when people overworked themselves to death.  The combination of poor diets, anxiety, and grueling schedules caused strokes or heart attacks.  Or workers took their own lives.  That counted as Guolaosi, too.

It sounded like a nice way to die.  Go out working too hard, making rude gestures at your boss and the coroner.  And then his father could read the obituary and feel like a failure.  See, squidfucker?  Your tough love didn’t work.  You don’t get to feel smug about your parenting.

Yes, you have a job, parasite. Andrew yelled at himself, clenching every muscle in his body.  Which you’re going to be late to.  So get the fuck out of bed.  If he stuffed a candy bar and some crackers down his throat, maybe he’d have enough energy for a full shift.

And then, when his shift ended, he could reward himself with a meal from Philosopher’s Waffles, his favorite restaurant.  He could get a whole plate, slather them with dark chocolate sauce and cherries, and scarf them down during a less busy part of the day, when he wouldn’t have to look at couples or friend groups or anyone else that might bother him near his table.

He might go hungry for a few days after that, or skip his next drugstore run for toothpaste and the like.  But if it took that to get him out of bed, then the sacrifice would be worth it.

That’s all he had to look forward to.  The sum total of his plans for the future.  I used to have so much more.

Because, a year ago, the magicians of Paragon Academy had revealed themselves to the world.  An entire secret society, a world of marvels hiding right under their noses.  Matched only by the wizards of the other Four Domains, the other great nations with their own projectors.

The Scholar of Music, the Symphony Knight herself had done a presentation in the town square near him, performing in front of a cheering crowd.  He’d been on his way to buy groceries, otherwise he never would have left his room.

Andrew had seen the crowd on his usual path, and turned away to find another route.

Then, the sound of his footsteps and the cheering crowd had drained out of the air, turning to total silence.

Andrew froze, and an orchestra rang through the quiet, an ensemble of flutes and pianos and horns playing in perfect harmony.

He turned back to the town square, and an ensemble of glowing dots materialized in the air, purple-green, like a swarm of fireflies.  They vibrated, and music came out of them.  Each one of them acted as an instrument, flickering and swirling, like a pattern of shooting stars in the dim evening sky.

Andrew didn’t even like classical music.  But it was the most incredible song he’d ever heard.

Then, the Symphony Knight had floated herself on top of the glowing dots.  A slender beauty with wavy red hair, wearing a bright green gown that flowed around her as she conducted.  She balanced on her tiptoes, each dot strong enough to hold her complete weight.

The entire audience had stared up at her, transfixed.  By her song, by her beauty and her light show, and by the spectacular display of her power and grace.  Andrew stared, too.  Tears welled up at the edges of his eyes, unbidden.  The perfection, the majesty, it all overwhelmed him at once.

Andrew froze up when looking at girls half as pretty as the Symphony Knight.  The woman’s beauty made the effect a thousand times stronger, more overwhelming.

Then the music stopped.  The Symphony Knight balanced on top of a single floating dot, hair flowing behind her, as the audience sobbed and applauded and cheered.

She bowed, and launched into a speech, her voice ringing through the town square.

“There are rare individuals!” she shouted.  “Around the world.  Born with the incredible gift of projection, who can apply to Paragon Academy and join us in our eternal quest.  To defend this nation.  To discover the secrets of the universe, of the human soul.  To achieve enlightenment, and forge the stars in our image.”  She smiled, and her face looked more radiant than the sun.

For a moment, Andrew forgot his misery.  He raced forward, and grabbed one of the pamphlets being handed out by Paragon representatives, along with a practice test to see how he’d fare applying to the academy.

He bought his groceries, raced home, and imagined himself as a mythical Guardian, blessed with a unique, powerful Vocation.  He pictured himself going to Paragon Academy, and going on adventures overseas in his wingsuit, fighting enemies and performing feats of heroism.

Just like the main characters of his manga.  Ordinary people, that got pulled into fantastical worlds where they could learn ultimate power and engage in epic melees, surrounded by beautiful girls, admirers, and friends.

Then, Andrew started the practice test, and gave up a quarter of the way through.  All the sections seemed impossible, requiring feats of math and science and strategy that dwarfed anything he’d ever done.  Just that fraction took him an hour longer than the time allotted for the entire exam.

And the critical reasoning section asked for an essay.  Common wasn’t his first language, and the test had no option to fill it out in any other way.

Andrew had always had trouble with writing.  Even Shenti, his first language, had taken him years longer to master than normal students.  Xue Feng, Andrew’s best friend, had helped him with class assignments, so he didn’t fall behind too much.  Eventually, Andrew got up to a respectable level.

But when the Huang family had migrated to the Principian city of Alcaross for his father’s job, Andrew had to learn Common on his own.  A whole new hell.

Thanks to the war, the Principality held no great love for its Shenti citizens.  All the signs had been written in Common, and almost nobody spoke their native tongue.  It made the job hunt even more impossible.  And Andrew could forget about making new friends.

The Shenti had a community of sorts in Elmidde, on Gestalt Island, but to be honest, Andrew’s other countrymen didn’t like him much either.  They saw him as a slacker, a weirdo with weird interests and no respect for tradition.  Parasite.  You are a parasite.

And trying to write an essay in Common was the deepest nightmare he could conceive of.  It wanted eight paragraphs arguing for or against a philosophical statement, using examples both from his own life and from history.

Andrew couldn’t have done that in two years.  Giving him half an hour was just cruel.

So Andrew just accepted it.  Magic was real.  But he wasn’t a wizard, and would never be.  Paragon offered pamphlets on how to resist Nudging, a common and dangerous technique, but the information looked dense, unintuitive.  Paragon offered free classes to go with the pamphlets, but the lotteries were always overstuffed.  And Andrew didn’t want to go to some lecture hall where an instructor would shout at him.

No, Andrew was what they called a “Humdrum”, through and through.

And that was so much worse than before.

You don’t know real pain, but you will, he thought, shaking himself out of his stupor.  If you get fired, you’ll never get a new job.  He would get kicked onto the streets like a feral dog.  Get the fuck out of bed.

Andrew curled up under the covers, and buried his face in his pillow.  A headache throbbed in the back of his skull, and his muscles ached where they’d been pressing into the mattress, his joints stiff like an old man’s.

Xue Feng could have gotten him out of bed.  He always knew how to pull Andrew out of these spirals.  No one else at high school had bothered talking to the quiet kid.  He was invisible to most of them, and the ones that saw him thought of him as creepy.

But Xue Feng, outgoing and curious, had adopted him, took the time to eat lunches with him and hang out after school.  They’d read manga and listened to the radio and hiked to the interesting nooks and crannies in the snowy woods outside town.  Xue Feng had regaled him with his scientific theories about gold semiconductors, and Andrew had nodded along, pretending to understand.

Andrew didn’t love school, but Xue Feng made him want to love school.  And for a time, he wasn’t alone.

“Do you ever wish you were someone else?” the preacher shouted, starting his speech again.  “Do you ever wish you were living a different person’s life?  A happier person.  More successful.  More attractive.”  Shut up.  Please, shut up.  “Don’t be constrained to dreams!  Open your minds to the Harmonious Flock, and your souls shall gain a thousand facets!”

Xue Feng’s not here, parasite.  Just Andrew, and his boss, and this rotting world.  So get the fuck out of bed and go to work.

But for that, he’d have to get dressed, change into a whole new outfit.  Walk to the tram and endure an entire shift, then come back and get ready to do it again.  Dying a slow death from unemployment wasn’t fun, but it sounded better than that.

And Xue Feng might not even have been real.

Who is Xue Feng? His father had said to him.

My best friend! Andrew had shouted.  You’ve talked to him dozens of times, he’s slept over here.  And now he’s missing.  We have to do something.

A mixture of concern and horror had descended over his mother’s voice.  Andrew, I have no idea who you’re talking about.

Andrew had gone to the police, but none of them had any record of Feng.  He’d gone to Feng’s house, and the boy’s parents had no recollection of their son.  Feng’s photos were still in the school yearbook, but nobody except Andrew seemed to notice them.

He’d showed the photos to his parents, the police, everyone.  But no one else noticed them.

It was like Andrew’s friend had never existed.

Andrew had dropped it.  Nobody believed him, and he didn’t want to get sent to a mental hospital.  He kept his grief to himself, letting it out when he tried to fall asleep, crying and shaking on his bed.

A part of him held onto Xue Feng.  His friend had existed, and vanished, for some reason.

But those thoughts faded over time.  Because it didn’t matter if his friend had been real.  Because he only existed in Andrew’s head, now.

If Xue Feng was here, maybe Andrew could have made something out of his life.  Wouldn’t be such a worthless loner, who’d never kissed anyone except his mother.  He’d wanted to be an archaeologist, exploring the ruins of Great Scholars and uncovering buried secrets.

But there were no jobs in Archaeology, no money.  He’d gone to college to learn history, to become a teacher.  But that hadn’t lasted either.

I’m so tired of this.  But dying sounded so painful.

If he could just pass away in his sleep, that would be best.  In some way that didn’t traumatize his landlady when she found his body, that didn’t force other people to clean up his rotting corpse, and wouldn’t make his mother sad.

Andrew wished he could disappear, just like Xue Feng.  That someone would just write him out of reality.

Alright, he promised himself.  If you get up and go to work, I’ll reward you with some planning.  The forbidden type of planning, that ended with him vanishing.

Andrew opened his eyes, threw his covers aside, and pushed himself out of bed.

________________________________________

Andrew showed up to work just in time, out of breath from the tram he’d sprinted to catch up to.

Some oil magnate was holding a birthday party in a Hightown ballroom, so he’d picked Milk and Honey to cater for him.  No guests had shown up yet, but the caterers had to set up in advance.

Andrew’s dress shirt looked wrinkled at the bottom, unironed.  And he hadn’t had time to shower, so he probably smelled bad, with some kinks in his hair.

But still, Andrew had shown.  He’d pulled himself together just in time.

Simon, his boss, glanced at him.  “You look sick, Huang.”

“I’m fine, sir,” Andrew lied.

Simon sniffed.  “Go to the bathroom and throw on some deodorant, at least, please.  We’re in food services.”

You disgust him.  You disgust everyone.  Andrew’s stomach clenched.

Andrew put on his mask, the blank, easy smile of a waiter.

Father said a job would build my social skills.  And he’d been right.  Now, in the prime of his life, Andrew was a friendless virgin who also knew how to serve appetizers to rich people.

“Right away, sir.”  Andrew nodded, and jogged over to the bathroom.

His co-workers had gathered in a group, leaning on the only sink.  They murmured, gathered around a thick red tome.  The 99 Precepts.  The foundational text of the Shenti’s philosophy.  Andrew caught snippets of their conversation.

“I really can’t – “

“Incredible – “

“If that’s not fucking magic, right there, I don’t know what – “

“Um,” said Andrew.  “Excuse me.  Sorry.”  He stared at the ground, avoiding eye contact.

The closest one, Edward, looked at him.

Ask them.  Or Simon is going to yell at you.  Andrew’s stomach ache doubled.

“Hey, um,” said Andrew, his Shenti accent slipping through.  “Do any of you guys have deodorant I can borrow?  The boss says I need some, but I, um, forgot to bring any.”

A spark lit up in Edward’s eyes.  “Huang,” he said.  “You listen to the news lately?”

Andrew shook his head.  The war stressed him out, and that’s all the news talked about these days.  Which city the Shenti had taken.  Which battle group was engaging the Black Tortoise’s forces.  And now, which magical Guardian was fighting where, engaging the enemy’s fearsome Commandos.

At this rate, Cao Hui would take over all Eight Oceans, the Principality included, and send Andrew’s life into an even deeper hell.  He didn’t need reminders of that.

Another boy, Oliver, stifled a laugh, and extended The 99 Precepts towards him.  “Want to try reading this out loud for us?  Any passage.”

Andrew kept staring at his feet, at the green tiles on the bathroom floor.  “I’m, um, not a Caoist.”  Not a follower of the Black Tortoise’s strict interpretations of the text.  “I don’t follow any of the teachings in it.”

“Sure,” said Oliver.  “But can you read it anyway?”

This sounded like some sort of prank.  But it seemed harmless, and if he did what they said, maybe they’d let him borrow their deodorant.

Andrew flipped to a random page in the middle, and recited the first line his eyes landed on.  “‘No,” said The General.  ‘I fight three wars.  One with the Qishou, one with my nation, and one with myself.  If I neglect any one of them, then our libraries shall burn and my nightmares shall crawl over the ashes.

The boys broke out into laughter.  Edward doubled over, leaning on his knees.  “The look on your face.”

Andrew’s throat clenched, and he felt a pressure behind his eyes, tears of embarrassment waiting to burst forth.  They’re laughing at me.  But why?  “What’s so funny?”

Oliver snickered.  “You can’t read it!  You can’t read any of it.”

“No,” said Andrew, confused.  “I just read a line from it.”  He looked at the line and read it again, articulating every word.  “I fight three wars.  One with the Qishou, one with my nation, and one with myself.

“You didn’t read shit,” said Edward.  “Your freak religion has been wiped off the planet.  And now, you’re losing the war.”

Andrew read another passage out loud, from a different page.  “The General wept, and the blood of his wounds mixed with the blood of his foes.  When he looked at his red-soaked palms, he could not tell them apart.”  He spoke in Common, not Shenti.

His co-workers kept laughing, none of them reacting to the phrase he’d just thrown at them.  This has to be another prank.  A stupid one, that made no sense to him.  Just go along with it.

Andrew handed the book back to them.  “You got me,” he mumbled.

Edward stuffed his hand into a backpack, and tossed Andrew a can of deodorant.  “Hey.  It’s fine, it’s just a bit of fun.  No need to get worried about it.”

Andrew sprayed under his arms, on his chest, and once on his face, the fresh scent covering up his body odor.

He tossed it back, went up to a sink, and smoothed down his hair.  When he went back to the kitchen, his boss gave him a platter of pomegranate lamb skewers.  “You’re up, Huang.”

Andrew steeled his mask and strode into the ballroom, balancing it on his palm.  What were those boys playing at?  The platter wobbled, and he caught it with his other hand.  Stay focused, or Simon will fire you.

Men and women chatted with each other in the ballroom, wearing expensive suits and dresses, all of them looking young and beautiful and perfect.  Other caterers milled around the social circles, carrying platters of appetizers and fizzy wine, the dappled light of the chandeliers shining over their flawed faces.

Andrew approached a group of men, with a blank smile on his face.  “Shimofuri Lamb with a pomegranate-garlic glaze.”  A few of them grabbed skewers off his plate.

This was Andrew’s job.  To serve appetizers to rich people too lazy to walk to a buffet table.

But technically, it was a job, which meant Andrew stood a few millimeters above the bottom of the barrel, in the eyes of society.  And it paid for his cheap noodles and manga and the rent on his miserable cage.

As Andrew patrolled the ballroom, he listened in on conversations to pass the time.  A lot of it seemed boring.  Who snubbed who, who the cliques secretly hated and which Paragon students looked promising.  Even when Andrew walked next to them, the party guests kept talking about their private matters, as though he were invisible.

But then, Andrew started hearing conversations about the war, and a startling new development.  It seemed like the Principality had done something to The 99 Precepts.  The Shenti holy book had been wiped out of reality, pulled into some parallel, alternate mode of existence.  No one could remember a single word from it, or comprehend a single line of its text.

Now, every Caoist on the planet had lost their core beliefs, with no way to get them back.  They called it the Spirit Block.

But I can read it, Andrew protested in his head.  I read those lines in the bathroom.

Later that night, after work, Andrew listened to the news broadcast and found out just how strange the world had become.

Nobody else on the news seemed to have this unique ability, this power to see through the lock on The 99 Precepts.  Cao Hui’s empire was collapsing because of this “Spirit Block”.  With no ideology to hold them together, the Shenti people were committing suicide en masse, or were giving up and refusing to fight, refusing to go to work at their factories.

Cao Hui, the Black Tortoise himself, had gone missing, and his opportunist generals were squabbling amongst themselves.  Infighting had already started between some divisions of troops, and all offensive operations against other nations had ceased.

In a single day, the Shenti War had ended.  Not with a battle, but a spell.  The Principality’s projection had, somehow, wiped an entire set of beliefs out of the world.

So, Andrew felt special for a few months.  For once in his life, he had an ability that no one else did.  Not even fancy Praxis projectors who could modify their own minds.

He could see through the hole in reality.

It didn’t take long for the thrill to fade, though.

Because it didn’t matter, his special ability.  He couldn’t use it to make money, or do anything fun like wingsuit flying.  All it let him do was read a book.  He didn’t even like The 99 precepts.  When he tried reading through it, it took him weeks just to get through the first few sections.

This ability hadn’t gone to a priest, or a devout Caoist.  It had gone to some random filth, who didn’t even care.  Fate’s cruel sense of humor.  And it wasn’t like Andrew could share this with anyone.

For all Andrew knew, he was deluding himself again, just like with Xue Feng’s existence.  He had no way to verify it.  And all the isolation, the erratic sleep schedules, the shitty food.  None of those helped his sanity.

Andrew could offer himself up as a guinea pig.  To Paragon or Cao Hui’s crumbling empire.  But the Principality had shown him nothing but cruelty, and the Black Tortoise’s world deserved to burn.

At the end of the day, he was still a Humdrum.  A friendless Humdrum who’d never even held a girl’s hand.  Not that he blamed them.  Rejecting Andrew was a sign of common sense.

So the novelty faded.  And Andrew’s life settled back to its normal monotony.

He woke up at all the wrong hours, lay in bed all day, and struggled through his catering gig in the evenings.  He read porn magazines and manga to give himself brief flits of escapism, before he remembered where he was.

This time, he started to notice all the aches and pains in his body.  His skin itched from the bedspread.  His stomach burned from all the trash he stuffed into it.  His crying sessions and drinking and long stints in bed left him shriveled up and dehydrated, cursed with headaches and parched lips and dizzy spells and nausea, often all at once.  Every waking moment, he wanted to lie down and fall asleep, but he never got any proper rest, lying in a perpetual middle ground between consciousness and dream.

And this is my fleeting youth.  One afternoon, Andrew had a vivid dream about his fortieth birthday.  About lying in this apartment, a middle-aged man, with nothing else different in his life.

He woke up covered in sweat, an empty candy wrapper lying on his pillow.  The mental agony was like a dull knife, tunneling into his skull.

So Andrew picked up his yellow notebook again, and started researching methods.  At first, to distract himself from the screaming agony.  And then, to give himself twinges of feeling.  Something to look forward to, to get him out of bed.

Then, he catered for an Epistocrat party.  Some charity gala, for the Elmidde Symphony.  The orchestra charges a hundred pounds a ticket.  They didn’t need charity.  Where were the galas for underemployed lonely trash bags?

But he showered for it.  He got dressed, froze a smile on his face.  And he found himself wandering around a massive rooftop patio, a warm summer breeze drifting over the hardwood floor and the fire pits.

Andrew balanced a platter of chocolate-hazelnut mini-eclairs on his palm, and offered them to men and women with breathtaking beauty.  All rich people, nowadays, had a certain raw elegance about them, but Epistocrats were on a different level.  They made the normal rich people look like wrinkled anglerfish.

He stepped behind a dark-haired man and a blonde woman in animated conversation, preparing to offer them a micro-dessert.

Then the man spoke.  “The wise man will never provoke war.

Andrew froze.  That’s a line from The 99 Precepts.

But if war is provoked on him,” said the woman.  “The wise man will achieve victory.

Andrew’s throat clenched.  He hadn’t heard a line like that since the Spirit Block – not spoken by another human being.

“So you’ve become a member,” the man said.  “Congratulations.”

“‘Egress’ is a pretty silly name,” said the woman.  “But it makes a certain sort of sense.  But shouldn’t we keep this conversation to a more private setting?”

The man laughed.  “The Spirit Block has dealt with that problem.  Even if someone listens in, they won’t pick up anything important.  And without that line you just said, they can’t impersonate us, either.  We use memory wipes on ourselves a great deal on our operations, so catching up is part of the game.”

Andrew’s skin turned to ice.  The warm rooftop became a frozen tundra.  He turned away and glanced at them from the corner of his eye, so it didn’t look too suspicious.

“If you want to keep up,” the man said.  “You’ll have to think sharper than that.  And besides – ”  He indicated his hand around him.  “We’re in the presence of friends.”

“Who else is a member here?”

“Not everyone in Paragon,” the man said.  “But more than you think.  And a good chunk in the field, or in deep cover.  The woman who invited us here is in on it too, Scholars know why.  She’s a complete book-burning idiot.  I can’t say more than that, not at your current level.  Most people, even Guardians, aren’t ready to know what we know.”

Andrew’s palm grew sweaty beneath his platter.  The party faded out in the background.  The spectacular view of Elmidde turned to a blur.

“That’s what the Lavender Book’s for,” the woman said.

The man nodded.  “If the wrong people found out about our plan, the entire thing could collapse.  Our allies are strong, but our enemies wield unimaginable power.  And if the public found out what we’ve done…”  He shook his head.

“And do members receive any concrete benefits?” said the woman.

The man chuckled.  “You’re saving humanity.  Isn’t that good enough for you?”

“I know, but I was hoping – “

“For your debt to be forgiven?” the man said.  “For Afzal Kahlin to be arrested?”

The woman said nothing in response.

“I know all about your money troubles, Rowyna Ebbridge.”  The man’s voice hardened.  “And this isn’t a country club.  We’re not here to bail you out.”

“Of course, sir.”  A note of pain drifted into Rowyna’s curt tone.

“Prove your worth, and we can help you.  But not before.”

How do I prove my worth?” said Rowyna.  “I barely understand it right now.  The mechanics, the laws, the calculations.  It’s almost impossible to wrap my head around.”

“You don’t need the details,” the man said.  “But we will prevail.”

“Either that,” said Rowyna.  “Or the water drowns us all.”

“When its host is dead,” the man said.  “A parasite will eat itself.”

An eclair slid off of Andrew’s platter and landed on the floor.  His stomach wrenched.

He turned away from the two of them, weaved through the crowd to the edge of the patio, and staggered into the side bathroom, the one for the servants.

Andrew dropped his platter on one of the sinks, and doubled over, dizzy.  He turned on a faucet and splashed water in his face, then grabbed an eclair off his platter and stuffed it into his mouth.

The world blurred around him.  What the fuck did I just hear?

Edward, his co-worker, stepped into the bathroom, his hand covered in meat gravy.  “You look like dog vomit,” he said.  “Boss yell at you again?”

A thousand thoughts swirled within Andrew’s head, pushing out everything else.

“When its host is dead,” murmured Andrew under his breath.  “A parasite will eat itself.”

Edward looked at Andrew, confused, as he washed his hands.  “What?”

“It’s a saying I heard, once,” said Andrew.  “When its host is dead, a parasite will eat itself.

“What saying?  You haven’t been saying shit.”

When its host is dead,” said Andrew, again.  “A parasite will eat itself.

Edward scowled at him.  “Are you going to talk, or are you just going to stand there gawking at me?”

It hit Andrew.  That piece of information is like The 99 Precepts.  Written out of reality.  Unknowable, except to him, and now, the trusted members of this Egress thing, too.

“I’m sorry,” said Andrew.  “I’m feeling really bad.  Can you tell the boss I went home?  I’m spending one of my sick days.”

Edward dried his hands, grabbed a mini-eclair, and tossed it into his mouth.  “Will do.”

It took all of Andrew’s energy to make it to the tram station.  He slumped down on the seat, his hair coated with sweat, water dripping off his face, as the city rushed by him and the tram puttered down the slopes of Mount Elwar.

Then, a short walk, a few agonizing flights of stairs, and he was back home.  Andrew slammed the door behind him, jumped on his bed, and curled up, shivering, even though his room felt warmer than ever.

He didn’t sleep that night.  He didn’t even change out of his work clothes.  Egress.  The Lavender Book.  The rising water.  When its host is dead, a parasite will eat itself.  And a conspiracy of people that also had his ability to peer through the Spirit Block.

In the morning, Andrew ran to the library, still wearing his servant’s uniform, and rifled through old editions of newspapers to see who this “Rowyna Ebbridge” was.  An Epistocrat.  Married to a former newspaper tycoon, who lost his popularity and fortune after the Pyre Witch shattered the Treaty of Silence.

Then, he rifled through pictures and catalogs of known Epistocrats.  The gleaming profiles and the magazine spreads about their glamorous lives.  Finally, he found the man she’d been talking to.  Lord Chester Benthey.  An admiral in the navy.  Another Epistocrat, another figure with limitless prestige and clout.

And he’d said there were other conspirators in Paragon.  Not everyone, but more than you think.

And of all the heroes who could have uncovered this, all of the powerful projectors and savvy investigators, Andrew had stumbled onto this.

This doesn’t change who you are.  The core of his failure.  But still, he had a unique opportunity.  A person who could see through the Spirit Block, but hadn’t joined this ‘Egress’ conspiracy.  The ones talking about committing atrocities.

It gnawed at his curiosity, the way nothing had before.  An unanswered question, with implications that could be devastating.  Andrew needed to know the answer to this puzzle.

And so he had a purpose, for the time being.

When he got home from the library, he kicked his yellow notebook full of methods under the bed.  I don’t need you.  Not yet.

Andrew would solve the greatest riddle in the universe.  Then, he would kill himself.

________________________________________

Andrew swapped his yellow notebook with a new one.  Purple, to match the mysterious lavender book the conspirators had mentioned.

And he stopped spending his days asleep, or reading manga, or listening to the radio with his mind rotting.  He had work to do.

Getting information on this “Egress” conspiracy would be difficult.  The conspirators valued their secrecy, and would kill Andrew, or worse, if they found out how much he knew.

And Andrew couldn’t even win fistfights against grade school bullies, so taking on a Guardian sounded like a tall order.  His unique Spirit Block abilities hadn’t given him anything with actual power.  He was still a Humdrum, despite all this.

But Ebbridge and Benthey hadn’t been talking in a dark alleyway, or a secluded chamber.  They’d been discussing their plans at a cocktail party, surrounded by non-members and caterers.

They’re relying on the Spirit Block.  That strange effect that prevented everyone outside the conspiracy from hearing even the most basic concepts.  Everyone but Andrew.

Which meant there could be other details, other elements hiding in plain sight.

As Andrew assembled the basics, he checked out books from the library, for the first time in years.  He’d loved reading as a child, but these days, even getting through a few chapters felt like such a chore.

Andrew took out every pneumatology book he could get – anything left open to the public that talked about the complex mechanics of the Pith.  All of them had been written in Common, with tiny letters and no paragraph breaks, which made his eyes ache when he tried to read them.

But he struggled through it, fueling himself with a diet of coffee and chocolate and Jwala’s Orange Soda, rather than sleep.  He learned basics, like Rashi’s Three Laws, and more advanced concepts, like Pith Burning and the Synapse.  He studied how babies picked up projection, which involved a lot of talk about genes and evolution and innate ability.  Though pneumatologists didn’t seem to know much about that subject.

Andrew spent the whole weekend thinking over these details.  Then he took another sick day.  He paced back and forth around the room, bouncing concepts and theories and ideas around in his head, stepping over piles of food wrappers and empty beer cans, his room turned to an oven of stale body odor.

He was on to something.  The rest of the world could wait.

After his second sick day, Andrew did go to work for the week, since he didn’t want to get fired, but he barely got anything done there, his mind focused on the puzzle rather than his platter of wine glasses.

As he researched pneumatology, Andrew looked into the two conspirators, and Paragon Academy itself.

He found the basics of Rowyna Ebbridge – that could be found in the public record.  Her youth, marred by rowdy public behavior and alcoholism.  Her young adulthood at Paragon, where she’d inexplicably pulled her act together.  Her marriage to Athel Ebbridge, the son of a newspaper tycoon, before their newspapers went under.  And her meteoric rise through the ranks of the Principian Navy, earning the nickname “The Typhoon of the South”.

General Benthey’s profile had less on his personal life, just his impeccable record on the field and his careful stratagems.

As for Paragon itself, all the history books had only the boring, basic details, the ones revealed five minutes after the Treaty of Silence had ended.  Its noble and esteemed history.  The formation of the Conclave of the Wise, and all of the noble decisions they’d made to intervene in other nations’ barbaric affairs.  The various heroes it had produced, and a list of its headmasters over the centuries.

Nothing about its shadier affairs.  Nothing about its ancient history, or its founding, or any hints towards the conspiracy.

So Andrew looked into the history of the Great Scholars, the magnificent civilization that came before.  The philosophical root of all Four Domains.

And how they died, by a great drowning, that created Eight Oceans and turned their tallest skyscrapers into buoys.  A cataclysm that ripped apart their civilization and erased the stars from the sky.

But when they’d drowned, so many of their records had vanished.  Their philosophies had survived, but their histories had been destroyed, to the point where modern researchers weren’t even sure what their technology had been.  Were they masters of engineering and science, or medieval thinkers who’d used projection to compensate for their primitive machines?

Historians knew that Voidsteel had been a significant part of their culture.  Great Scholar ruins were often made of the stuff, common enough to be used as a building material.  As a result, most of the available ruins had been ransacked by governments or scavengers.  Archaeologists and historians had objected, hundreds of years ago, but no one in power had given a shit.  More records lost, melted down and repurposed for the modern world.

The rest of the Great Scholar ruins sat on the ocean floor.  Below the ten thousand foot marker, the lowest depth that humans could legally go.

In the older years, during the Treaty of Silence, it hadn’t been illegal, just dangerous.  The projector-run governments of the world had talked about the great dangers of going down there – storm krakens and water pressure and the like.  But now, certain records had been released, and it turned out, projectors didn’t go that deep either, though submarine technology and projection could protect them from the pressures there.  When anyone descended past a certain point, communications went haywire, and they vanished.

The public had pressed governments for answers.  Why can’t we go past ten thousand feet?  For that matter, why couldn’t people go higher in the sky?

The governments of the world had collectively shrugged their shoulders, and answered: More krakens.  The ravages of low atmosphere.

Ranjil Nagashima was not satisfied by this explanation.  A Nekean scientist with big ideas, he’d built a helium balloon and a gondola to go twenty-five thousand feet above sea level, since none of his probes had come back, or successfully sent back information.

What happened to stars?  He’d said.  I want to see.

So he’d gone, equipped with a high-powered radio, and, more importantly, armored message packets, that he could write notes in, seal, and drop out of his balloon every thousand feet, for when his radio failed.

Hundreds of telescopes had aimed at him, hoping to see his progress.  Then, he’d risen into a thicket of clouds, out of sight.

Ranjil Nagashima never came back down.  Nor did any radio broadcasts, or message packets, or even the remnants of his balloon.  He’d vanished.

This would come to be known as ‘The Nagashima Incident’.  A month later, the governments of the world passed laws to make future expeditions illegal.

This did not help with the conspiracy theories.  He went to heaven and ascended to the afterlife.  He met the gods of the moon, entered the gateway of the universe, and kissed the Oversoul.  The whole planet is inside a giant Voidsteel cage and the government doesn’t want us to know.

Theories or no, everyone knew the implications of this.  This world is a cage.  Locked in from above, by whatever had made the stars vanish, and locked in from below, by the force that made the seas rise.

But why?  Who, or what, had built this massive prison for humanity?

Someone knows.  Someone had to know.  That was the answer to the universe’s puzzle.

A stabbing pain erupted in Andrew’s stomach, dragging him back to reality from his swirling, chaotic thoughts.

Andrew doubled over, kneading his belly.  I’ve been eating too much.  Or too little.  And missing a few nights of sleep.  He felt dizzy, too.  Thirsty, with a throbbing headache at the back of his skull.  And he’d run out of sick days.

That’s fine, he thought.  Because now that he’d done research, he could run tests.  Gather information without breaking into Paragon, which was impossible.

At his next catering gig, some party for a yacht club, Andrew gathered every bit of courage in his body, and chatted with his co-workers in the bathroom.  Even though it made him want to crawl under a table and cry.

Andrew tried to steer the conversation towards the history of Paragon and the Great Scholars, with some pneumatology on the side.  And he floated his theories to them, his best ideas.  If a piece of information had been blocked from his co-workers, incomprehensible to them, then that meant the Spirit Block was locking away that specific bit of knowledge.  That meant it was true.

With this method, Andrew could brute-force information by sheer process of elimination.  Figure out what the Spirit Block was blocking, besides The 99 Precepts.

But after a few clumsy attempts, Andrew lost all hope for this method.  He barely knew anything about this conspiracy, which meant his test statements were shooting in the dark.  And for all he knew, the Spirit Block could be wiping out false information, too.  It could be slicing away the truth with a broad axe, to prevent this exact sort of testing.

He tried anyway, but the conversations earned Andrew confusion and irritation from his co-workers.  And almost nothing else.

After the fourth failure, Andrew concluded that he had only one path forward: spying on another conversation.  Listening in to more conspirators like Ebbridge and Benthey who thought that nobody could hear their secrets.

Lucky for Andrew, his catering company served food at lots of fancy, exclusive events, so he’d have lots more opportunities.

Andrew finished serving his mini-tarts, helped clean up, and walked towards the exit door, ready to go home and do some more reading.

Simon, his boss, stepped in front of him, blocking his path.  “Hey, Andrew,” he said.

Oh, no.  Andrew’s chest tightened.  “Um, hi.  Is everything okay?”

“I just want to tell you – “ his boss said.  “There’s no need for you to come into work tomorrow.  Or any days after that.”

Andrew blinked, confused.  “What?”

Simon’s voice grew tight.  “You skip days when we’re understaffed.”

On official sick days.

“You wander around like some drunk bum and take twice as long to serve than the other waiters.”  He clenched his teeth.  “And, you’re unhygienic, in a job that handles food.

“I – I’m sorry,” said Andrew, feeling tears of embarrassment well up at the edges of his eyes.  Don’t cry, it’ll make you look pathetic.  Imagining that scenario only made the tears stronger.

“I’ve talked to you about this before,” said Simon.  “But it seems like you’re not interested in changing.  So I’m afraid we have to end our relationship.”

A normal person might have protested, begged or argued.

“I understand,” mumbled Andrew.  “I’m sorry.”

Then he turned and speed-walked away.  The tram ride and the trip back to his apartment went by in a blur.  When he got back to his studio, Andrew slumped down on the bed and didn’t move.

Andrew was no longer a crusader for truth.  He was just a virgin in his twenties, who smelled like fish sweat and had no friends.  And now, unemployed too.

Welfare and unemployment could keep him afloat for a while, but in this state, how was he supposed to find a new job?  Without a good reference, he had almost no chance of getting another waiter gig.  Not with his problems, and his Shenti accent, and in this economy.

And without his catering job, Andrew had no way to listen in on Epistocrat conversations.  No way to get new information on Egress.

Stupid, fucking book-burning idiot.  Worthless, inhuman filth.

His obsession with the research had sabotaged him, preventing him from holding down his job.  And now, Andrew had come to a dead end.  He would die without ever knowing the answer to his puzzle.

“Do you ever wish you were someone else?” the preacher shouted outside.  “Do you ever wish you were living a different person’s life?  A happier person.  More successful.  More attractive.” Repeating his speech.  “Don’t be constrained to dreams!  Open your minds to the Harmonious Flock, and your souls shall gain a thousand facets!”

So many preachers.  So many solutions.  Clean your room.  Learn to speak Common.  Apply to become a Guardian.  Join the Harmonious Flock.

This time, Andrew didn’t even have his work to push him out of bed.  He couldn’t even drag himself up for food.  When the hunger pangs grew too intense, he ate a bag of crackers, or swallowed a few candy bars.  But he ate just a single meal a day, or less.

His appetite had shrunk to that of a locust.  A pitiable, filthy one.  Parasite.  You are a parasite, his father said.

What would Xue Feng think of me, now?  Would he still care about Andrew, feel his pain and help him back on his feet?  Or would he get tired of his spiraling, hopeless friend and move on?

Maybe it’s better that he never existed.  That Xue Feng didn’t have to watch his friend become such a wretch.

Andrew felt too tired to cry, too tired to scream or beat himself up more.  He stopped reading his manga, stopped listening to the radio.  On many days, he didn’t even change his clothes, which, combined with his skipped showers, made the stench even worse.

In a few months, the unemployment checks would end, but Andrew couldn’t bring himself to care.

After another few weeks of this, Andrew summoned up all the energy in his bones, threw off his covers, and fished his yellow notebook out from under his bed.

He opened it up, picked up a pencil, and started making plans for his demise again.  And that, more than anything else, gave him energy back.  For once, he got to control something in his life, build towards something that wouldn’t be ripped away.

He ran the numbers, and his odds seemed good, especially if he did it in the early, dark morning, making him harder to fish out of the water.  Jumping didn’t require health insurance to obtain meds, or a proper gun permit, neither of which he could afford at the moment.  A good budget solution for his needs.

It’s settled, then.  The thought filled him with relief.

At first, Andrew set the date for a month from now.  The next day, something cracked in his shoulders when he crawled out of bed to buy groceries.  He saw a girl at the twenty-four-hour store, buying cigarettes at two in the morning.  Pretty, his age, with dark circles under her eyes and smeared eyeliner.

Andrew avoided looking at her, kept his distance to avoid making her uncomfortable.

It didn’t matter.  She took one look at Andrew, put down her cigarettes, and hustled out of the store to her car, driving away without buying anything.  I terrify her.  And he didn’t blame her.

That night, he changed the date.  Why the fuck wait?

Andrew was going to do it right here, this morning.  In two hours, at four AM.  No prep needed.

With the sudden burst of energy, he shaved, showered himself, changed into a clean set of clothes.

An hour later, Andrew walked through his neighborhood, one last time, in the peaceful twilight, under the warm light of the streetlamps.  The busy roads had emptied, the rest of Elmidde asleep.

A magical hour, when the sun had almost risen, and it felt like Andrew was the only person in the world.  An hour that belonged to the insomniacs and the loners.  People who had no motivation to fall asleep, and no motivation to wake up.

Andrew stuck his hands in his pockets, walking in the center of the street, past darkened storefronts and houses and apartment buildings.  Past the town square where the Ilaquan preacher shouted from, with a burbling fountain in the center.

He sighed.  It’s a nice view.

Andrew turned and started on the path towards North Bridge.

Then he stopped.  Philosopher’s Waffles, his favorite spot, had a new sign out front.

NEW SALE!
1 FREE WAFFLE DISH WITH EVERY BREAKFAST FOOD AFTER 1PM ON WEEKDAYS

They must be trying to pick up business during quiet days.  When they didn’t have weekend traffic or the morning breakfast rush.

An incredible sale.  You could buy a cheaper breakfast food, like a single sausage or an egg, and leverage that into a free platter of high-quality waffles.  And Andrew loved eating in near-empty restaurants.

Andrew had never seen anything that good from Philosopher’s Waffles.  And he hadn’t eaten there since getting fired, thanks to his money situation.

Should try that.  He’d been craving those waffles for a while.

He turned around, walked home, and went back to bed in his apartment.  I can wait a day, right?  He wasn’t in any rush.

The next day, at 3:30 in the afternoon, Andrew went to Philosopher’s Waffles.  The perfect time – after the lunch rush, and before early dinner-eaters.

As expected, the place had emptied, despite the sale.  The waiters were off shift or on breaks.  The only other human in the building was the owner, an old Nekean lady he’d seen around the place before.

Andrew sat down in a booth and ordered a breakfast sausage, with a free add-on of his usual meal: Waffles with cherries and dark chocolate sauce.  The old woman took his order, nodding.  I’ll give her a big tip.  He was going to kill himself tomorrow anyways, so he could spare the change.

Then he pulled out the Mountain Slayer volumes he’d fallen behind on, and started reading them.

A few minutes later, the old lady came out with a steaming plate and set it in front of him.  It looked like she’d added extra chocolate sauce, slathering it on until it formed a miniature lake beneath the waffles.  Perfect.

Andrew cut into the first waffle, and the old woman called out to him.  “Wait.”

A cringing sense of dread washed over Andrew.  Oh Scholars, no.  Was she going to start up a conversation?  Make small talk?

What if she asked what Andrew did for a living?  He wouldn’t be able to give a convincing lie.  And then she’d be disgusted by him.  What a worthless, unemployed slob, she’d think.  In his early twenties, and already such a great failure.

Andrew’s throat clenched.  His hands shook under the table.

“That’s The Mountain Slayer, right?” the old woman said.

Andrew blinked at her.  “What?”

“The comic you’re reading.  Have you caught up, yet?”

An old lady, reading Nekean manga?  “Um – “

The woman leaned in, reading over his shoulder.  “Ah.  You’re a few arcs behind.  Golden Fortress is terrible, total downer.  But it’s over fast, and the next one, Lightning Bridge, has some delightful fight scenes.”

Andrew stared at her shoulder, avoiding eye contact.  What?  “You, um, read The Mountain Slayer?”  He couldn’t hide the surprise in his voice.

“Yes,” she snapped.  “We don’t all just sit around playing bridge.”  She rapped his stack of comics with her knuckle.  “My grandson introduced me to this last year.  After I finished the first arc, I made his parents visit every week so I could read more of it.  They thought I needed help grocery shopping.”  She snorted.  “I don’t think so.”

“Oh,” said Andrew.  “Um, thanks.  I’ll keep reading, then.”  He didn’t know what to make of this, but the longer the conversation went on, the higher his risk.  The old lady could find him out, or something terrible and dangerous.

“I have all the volumes on me, up to the latest one,” she said.  “Come back here after the weekend, and I can lend them to you while you take advantage of the sale.”

What?  Why was she doing this?  Did she want something out of Andrew?  There had to be something wrong here, some way for this situation to twist the knife further.

“Um,” said Andrew.

“I see you here all the time,” the old lady said.  “When nobody else is around.  You’re one of my best regulars.”

“Thanks,” said Andrew.

“The free waffle sale’s gonna keep going on weekdays, and I’ll even cut the breakfast food price in half for you.  Come here again and read.  Then you can tell me what you think of the grand kerfuffle that comes after chapter one-fifty.”

Such a generous offer.  Like the original waffle sale.  If Andrew could do it while invisible, he’d accept it in a heartbeat.  But what if she wants something?  What if she grew to resent him, when he didn’t act grateful enough, or did something embarrassing?  What if this all blows up in my face, and she’ll hate me, and – 

“I’m sorry,” Andrew blurted out.

The old woman raised an eyebrow.  “Sorry for what?”

“I just – I’m sorry.”  Blood rushed into Andrew’s face.

The old woman adopted a sympathetic expression.  “Hey, if you’re not interested, that’s fine, no pressure.  And you don’t have to show up all the days, just a few.  If you want to.”  She smiled at him.  “But the offer stands, if you’re ever interested.  That’s all I wanted to say.  I’ll leave you to it.”

She walked away and went back to scrubbing tables.  Andrew went back to his manga.  And he dug into his waffles, getting sauce on his cheeks.  Spectacular.  Sweet and rich and chocolatey with a hint of sour balance from the cherries.

Andrew went home for the evening, lay down in his bed, and thought about jumping off that bridge tomorrow.  Your life hasn’t changed.  He was still worthless trash.

But he couldn’t afford the rest of The Mountain Slayer, right now.  It would be nice to catch up, at least, before he offed himself.

So if Andrew went back to the waffle house next week, he could read more and eat more free waffles, at an even better price.  He could try some of the zanier items on the menu.  Nothing wrong with postponing again.

So he lay in bed.  And endured the pain.  And waited.

The next time Andrew showed up to Philosopher’s Waffles, the old lady gave him a free side of fries.  You would think that they wouldn’t go well with the waffles – all the salt and sweet together.  But they worked great.  The time after that, Andrew got katsu pork as a topping with cabbage and a savory brown sauce.

Andrew ate it, and he finished the Golden Fortress arc in his comics, starting the next one.

Like the old woman said, the manga got way better starting here.

When he finished his meal, he found himself disappointed, as he thought of his plan.  Never getting to eat here again.  Never getting to finish this series.

I want to do this again.  Even though he’d lost all hope for solving the riddle of Egress.  Even though he hated being in debt to someone.  Even though the old woman might find him out, and the prospect of more conversation terrified him.

And even though he could hear his father’s voice whispering in his ear.  Parasite, parasite, parasite.

So he went back a second time, showering before so he didn’t gross the old lady out.  He ate waffles with a berry compote and a side of bacon, and got through more of the Lightning Bridge arc.  This time, the old woman talked to him about the sequence he’d just read.  When Andrew talked back, with enthusiasm, the old woman sat down across from him, and ate a waffle of her own.

“I’m Sarama,” she said, extending her hand.

“Andrew.”  He shook it.

On his fourth visit, they talked again.  And on his sixth, and eighth, and ninth.  Andrew made use of the sale every time.  I’m practically stealing food from her.  The guilt rose in Andrew, a thick cloud engulfing his mind.

And on the tenth visit, he spoke up, staring at his plate of ice cream-topped waffles.  “I, um.  Just wanted to say.  That you don’t have to do this sale for me every time.”

“It’s fine,” she said.  “Good sale.”

“I mean, I don’t see a ton of other people using it.”  Andrew wiped his sweaty hands on his pants.  “And I just wanted to make sure that, um.  That you thought it was fair.  That I’m not costing you too much money or anything.”

“I’m not trying to make money off of you,” Sarama said.  “And I know you can’t afford the normal prices.”

“I just – “  Andrew stuttered.  “I don’t want to be a negative influence, or anything.”

Sarama leaned forward on her elbows, sighing.  “I know what you’re going through.”

No, you fucking don’t.  “What?”

“I came to this country forty years ago.  Back when it was less popular, and the companies here just wanted cheap labor from the colonies to work their fishing boats.”  She gazed out the window.  “When I got off work, reeking of trout, I just sat in my room.  Sometimes, I read books.  The few ones I could find in my language.  But most of the time, I just hated myself.  For not speaking Common better, for not having more friends.”  She closed her eyes.  “Most of all, I hated myself for leaving my home, and coming to this strange, rainy nation.”

“I’m sorry,” said Andrew.

“Then,” she smiled.  “I met my husband.  Qazi.  The sweetest man I knew.”  Like Xue Feng.  Minus the death and vanishing and maybe not even being real.

“And he pulled you out of your spiral?”

“No,” she shook her head.  “I got cold feet before our first date.  I was terrified that he’d find me repulsive, or weird.  I stood him up.”  She looked at Andrew.  “I came to him, apologizing, trashing myself, dumping all of my problems on his lap, and he told me something: I can reach my hand to you.  But only you can grab it.

Andrew avoided eye contact with her, staring at his syrup-coated waffles.

“I didn’t choke on our next meeting.  Or the next one.  And with his help, I made enough friends to last a lifetime.”  Sarama leaned forward even further.  “After getting a miracle like that, figured I owed the world.  So please.  Keep coming back.”

Andrew thought about those words as he lay in bed afterwards, almost two weeks since his initial planned demise.  I can reach my hand to you.  But only you can grab it.

Instead of planning his next jump, Andrew exhaled, picked up his purple notebook, and took another crack at Paragon’s grand conspiracy.

Andrew lay in his room, and went over the conversation he’d overheard between Rowyna Ebbridge and General Benthey.  They’d recognized each other.  But they started off with an exchange of passages from the 99 Precepts.  Why bother with that?  Principians didn’t seem to care much for Shenti philosophy.

The answer came to him, obvious.  It’s a password.  To recognize other members of Egress – others who had been given the power to see through the Spirit Block.  A perfect code, since no one except them could even comprehend the words, much less steal them.  If someone wanted to impersonate a member, they’d have to know the lines that had been written out of reality.  An impossible task, even for the strongest projector.

But not impossible for Andrew.  And that gave him an idea.

So, Andrew took a shower, and put on his best, most official-looking outfit.  He shaved, combed his tangled hair, and glanced at himself in the mirror.  I look presentable.  Ugly, still, of course, but presentable.  He wouldn’t catch any dates with this look, but he could at least seem official and serious.  Not like the stinking wretch who’d gotten fired for incompetence.

Then, he went to Milk and Honey’s offices.  A few floors in a crowded building, filled with other companies stuffed into the narrow hallways.

Andrew pushed through the front doors, looking as confident as possible, and approached the secretary at the front desk, carrying a package stuffed inside his messenger bag.  “I’d like to see Simon,” he said.

The secretary smiled at him.  “I’m sorry, sir, but Mr. Whitt is busy at the moment.  Do you have an appointment?”

“Tell him it’s an old friend,” Andrew said.  Normal people have those, right?  “He’ll know what that means.”  I sure don’t.

The woman nodded, picked up the rotary phone, and called the upstairs offices.  “Yes, Mr. Whitt.  Of course.”  She glanced at Andrew.  “Go right up.  Floor five, room 581.  He has a few minutes.”

Andrew forced a smile back at her, and strode to the elevator.  Can’t believe that worked.

The elevator stopped at the fifth floor, and Andrew stepped out into a hallway lined with offices.  A lamp and a vase of flowers sat on a table outside some of them, each identical to one another.

Andrew removed the envelope from his bag and got set up, making sure nobody was looking in his direction.  Then, he walked forward to room 581, and knocked on the closed door.  “Come in!” Simon called.

Andrew opened the door, and Simon’s expression curdled.  “You,” he said.  “Are not an old friend.  Please leave.”

The shame and loathing washed over Andrew again, and he flinched.  “A minute of your time, sir,” said Andrew, making his voice calm and measured.  “Just a minute.  I’d like to, respectfully, ask for the chance to get my job back.”

“Then you should have made an appointment,” said Simon.

“Would you have accepted an appointment from me?”

“No,” said Simon.  “But you should have done that anyway.  This is not how you get a job.”  He stared at the pile of papers on his desk, his voice tight.  “Get out, Huang.  I don’t have time for this.”

A woman’s voice called out from the hallway.  “Simon Whitt.  Simon Whitt to the front desk, please.  Simon Whitt to the front desk.  Simon Whitt to the front desk.

A look of confused irritation spread across Simon’s face.  “There’s always another thing,” he muttered.  “Always.”  He stood up, and glared at Andrew.  “The answer is no.  You’d better be gone by the time I get back.”  He stepped out and speed-walked down the hall.

Andrew closed the door, turning the handle before to avoid making noise.

Then, he sprinted to the other side of the desk.  Andrew yanked open the file cabinets sitting behind Simon’s chair, and stared at the labels on the top.  Accounting, Recruiting, Supplies, Dividends.  So many categories.  Three whole cabinet’s worth.

But then, Andrew hit the gold mine.  Contact Spreadsheets.  Andrew yanked the file out, and flipped it open on the desk.  Recent parties, recent parties, recent parties.

Then he got it.  Elmidde Symphony, Charity Ball.

Andrew looked at the names and numbers associated with that.  The owner of the venue, the janitors he’d hired for cleaning.  And – 

Client | Lady Alice Pakhem | 65 – 9209 – 4362

The one who’d paid for everything.  The Epistocrat who’d hosted the gala.  And a member of Egress.  General Benthey called her a ‘book-burning idiot’.

And now, Andrew had her phone number.

Andrew pulled a pen and paper from his bag and scribbled the number down.  65-9209-4362.

Then he shut the file, adjusted the papers like they were before, and stuffed it back into the cabinet.  Simon will come back any second now.  His hands shook, sweaty, so it took him several tries to fit it in.

Andrew slammed the file cabinets shut, ran to the door, and opened it, stepping into the hallway.  The elevator doors opened, and Simon glared at him, striding down the carpeted floor.  “The fuck are you still doing here?  Get out.”

Andrew bowed his head.  “I’m sorry, sir.”  He walked past his boss, and heard the door close behind him.  Nobody’s looking at me.

He leaned forward next to one of the tables, reached behind the flower vase, and pulled out a tape recorder, complete with a larger speaker to amplify the volume.

Sarama had lent him this, and recorded some lines with him, after Andrew promised he wasn’t going to steal anything or hurt anyone.  Forty-five seconds of silence, followed by her voice calling out.   Simon Whitt to the front desk, please.

Andrew had not expected this to work this well.

He stuffed the tape recorder into his bag and strode to the elevator.  Next step, buy a train ticket.  To the most remote town he could find on a map.

It was time to make a phone call.

________________________________________

Andrew pushed the five-pence coin into the slot of the payphone, his hands shaking.  A chill breeze blew across the empty street, and he shivered.

He glanced down the street.  Empty darkened storefronts, all.  No lights on.  Nobody awake, or looking at him.  No cars, either.  People in this town seemed to use bikes more.  The moons didn’t show themselves, so Andrew had to go by the pale, dim light of a single streetlamp.

People were sleeping in these buildings, but right now, it looked like a ghost town.

Andrew had chosen the town of Helmfirth for just this reason.  It was remote, in the rural heart of the Principality.  If someone traced his phone number, it would take a while for law enforcement or Guardians to get here.

His twitching fingers turned the dials of the rotary, entering Lady Pakhem’s number, wearing a pair of cheap gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints.  He got it wrong the first time, and had to hang up, pay again, and enter it a second time.

Calm down.  He had to act confident, if he wanted to have any chance for this ludicrous plan.  Odds were, this woman would figure him out, tell him nothing, then have him killed.  Andrew wasn’t some super-spy projector.  Just some unemployed dumbass with an idea.  She might not even pick up.  Most people’s offices closed during these hours, and even a military office might have those rules.

He finished entering the number, and picked up the receiver.

“Office of Lady Pakhem,” a man’s voice said.  “How may I help you.”  It worked.  Lady Pakhem was available twenty-four-seven.

“I’d like to talk to Lady Pakhem,” said Andrew.  “It’s urgent.”

“She’s sleeping at the moment.  Can I take a message?”

“Wake her up,” said Andrew.  “Tell her it’s about the exit.”  A different way to say ‘Egress’.  Should get her attention.

The assistant put him on hold.  Andrew clutched the phone and gazed up to the starless sky.  Are they tracing my location now?  Were they getting ready to hunt him down, and stalling him to buy time for themselves?

He stared the other direction down the street, towards the hill and the thick forest on the outskirts of town.  I can run there and hide if things go bad.  The bikes on the street nearby hadn’t been locked down, so he could use those.  But he wasn’t going to outrun a wingsuit.

An eternity seemed to pass.

Then, a woman picked up the phone.  “Hello?  What is it?”  Lady Pakhem’s voice sounded panicked.  “Oh, right, um.  The wise man will never provoke war.

The same line from The 99 Precepts.  The perfect password, that only Egress members could even hear.  They didn’t change it.  Why bother, when it was impossible to steal?  When the laws of reality itself protected your secrets?

But if war is provoked on him,” said Andrew.  “The wise man has a duty to win.

Who is this?” said Lady Pakhem, her voice crackling from the speaker.  “I don’t recognize your voice.

“You ever heard of body-swapping?” said Andrew.  “I’m on a field op.  We don’t have time for introductions.  You’re the only number I remember.”

I – um – I don’t think this is according to protocols.

And here comes the big lie.  “I’ve forgotten the protocols,” said Andrew.

What?

“I erased my memories to prevent enemies from picking up key details about Egress.  I think.”

But why?”  Lady Pakhem sounded confused.  “All the details are sealed away by the Spirit Block.

“Some details,” said Andrew, making his voice sound hasty.  “Not my mission.  I don’t have time to explain.  I’m not safe.  I only have a few minutes before I need to leave this location.”

A pause on the phone.  “Shit.”  Her concern sounded genuine.  “I can get someone else on the line, someone more experienced with forward operations.

“No!” said Andrew.  “No time.”

A slow exhale.  “What do you need me to do?

Andrew’s stomach clenched, and his skin felt tingly.  She actually believed it.  This conspiracy didn’t just recruit brilliant generals and spymasters.  It pulled in weak spots, too.

“I need details about my mission to finish it,” said Andrew.  “Who am I?  What am I doing here?  What’s my objective?”

I don’t know,” she said, flustered.  “I’m sorry, I don’t know.  I’m new here.

“Then tell me as much context as you can,” said Andrew.  “What you do know about our operations from the last two weeks.  I’ll piece together what I can.  Then you can give me the other phone numbers, and I’ll call them in a few hours.”

This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever thought of.  There was no way they’d fall for this.

But a conspiracy like this thrived on elitism, on their perception of exclusive access.  They weren’t expecting anyone except one of their own to even comprehend the password, to see through the Spirit Block.  The moment Andrew had repeated those lines from The 99 Precepts, a switch had flipped in Lady Pakhem’s mind, and she viewed him as a trusted source.

And if Lady Pakhem was as gullible as the other conspirators said, then this just might work.

Then, she told him how the world would end.  And everything dropped away from Andrew.

She didn’t tell him everything.  But she told him enough.

“Wait a moment,” said Lady Pakhem.  The tone of her voice shifted, suddenly.  Becoming more hesitant, more careful.  “I can explain more to you, I just need to pull up my records.  Can you wait just one minute?”

She’s stalling, Andrew realized.  She’s caught onto me.  And was buying time for her to trace the call.  Or they’d already traced it, and they just needed time to fly here.  She’s not great at subtlety.

But they know.  They were onto him.

Andrew hung up, let go of the receiver, and slumped down onto the concrete sidewalk, leaning against the payphone’s stand.

The night closed in.  The pitch-black sky surrounded him, starless, moonless, infinite.  An icy wind blew across the empty street.

Tears welled up at the edges of Andrew’s eyes.  His breath quickened, shallow, rapid movements that made him feel dizzy.  His chest ached, and the world blurred into the distance.

Andrew imagined the dark sky reaching down, filling him with its emptiness.  He imagined the waters rising over this country, this entire continent, a tsunami crashing over this quiet valley.

And he imagined worse things.  Far worse things.

He wouldn’t have to imagine for long.

What they’re planning for this world.  It defied logic, sanity, everything about this universe that Andrew took for granted.

Andrew had grown up with Cao Hui’s rise to power.  He’d seen his share of utopian fanatics, driven by mad ambition.  And the hatred.  So much hatred.

This conspiracy was full of love.  And he’d only caught a sliver of their machinations.

Andrew shivered, his limbs twitching.  Sweat soaked into his armpits, the back of his shirt.  The sense of doom permeated on all sides.  Infinite.  Bottomless.

No.  It was too much to think about.  Too much for any one person to handle, much less one idiot twenty-something Humdrum having a constant mental breakdown.

Andrew lay back, and stared up at the empty sky.  If his guess was right, then someone from Egress was already on their way, to put him out of his misery.

Not long ago, he’d thought that this was a good way to die.  Uncovering the world’s greatest riddle, unlocking secrets most people couldn’t even comprehend.  A suitably epic method of suicide.

Not anymore.  I don’t want to know these things.  He didn’t want this crippling burden on his mind.

But at least he’d be dead at the end of it.  That would get rid of his problem.

Andrew sat there, the metal of the payphone pressing into his back.  And as he did, he thought about the implications of all this horror, despite himself.

I’m the only person on the planet who knows about this.  Other than the members of Egress.

Everyone in the Eight Oceans was in for some deep shit.

And Andrew might be one of the few people who could do something about it.

It’s pointless.  All of the most important details would be impossible for anyone else to comprehend.  He’d just be some crazy Humdrum to them.  Despite their slip-up here, the members of Egress had developed a true air-tight method of keeping secrets.

And even if other people could comprehend it, they’d be fucked anyways.

And why would I want to save this rotting world?  This vicious, miserable place that rendered him a worthless creature, turned his life into constant misery.

Sarama’s voice echoed in his mind.  I can reach my hand to you.  But only you can grab it.

And there was a chance, an infinitesimal chance, that Andrew could alter the world’s path.

Andrew reached his hand above him, grabbed the metal lip of the payphone, and pulled himself up.

Then he shook off the dizziness, and sprinted down the empty street.  He grabbed a bicycle lying on the sidewalk, unchained.  No lock needed, in a small neighborly town like Helmfirth.  Sorry.

Andrew slung his leg over the saddle, put his feet on the pedals, and biked down the street, pumping his legs as fast as he could, headed for the forest on the far slope of the valley.

It took him about five seconds to get out of breath.  He doubled over on the handlebars, wheezing as the novelty storefronts and quiet houses zipped past him.  Should have done more push-ups in my room.

None of the lights flicked on nearby.  No dogs barked.  No one came out to look at him.

The only sounds were his breath, rapid and struggling, and the whir of the bicycle’s gears beneath him.

Then, he reached the end of the street.  The buildings receded in the distance, and the pavement below him turned to an uphill dirt path, next to a fishing store for the lake nearby.  Andrew’s legs burned, and his speed slowed to a crawl.

So he jumped off the bike, pushing it into a thicket of ferns to hide it.  With luck, his pursuers wouldn’t see it, but someone in town would stumble on it eventually, and return it to its original owner.

Then, Andrew ran up the hill, his chest and stomach on fire, his shins aching and his muscles shaking.  Nausea swelled in his belly, and his pace slowed to a pathetic half-jog.  I’m going to throw up.  Or collapse.  But he didn’t stop.

Then he reached the treeline, and fell to his knees, gasping and coughing.  I can’t go any further.  Not up this slope, not with his puny bird legs.  He had to take a breather.  He crawled behind an oak tree, putting it between him and the town.  Here, at least, he would have some cover.

Andrew turned himself around and peeked out from behind the trunk, taking deep, aching breaths and stifling his nausea.

He squinted at the buildings in the valley below.  Is anyone pursuing me?  From this distance on the slope, he had a good view of the whole village.

But Helmfirth looked normal.  Quiet, dark.  No movement.  No sign that anyone had noticed his mad dash with the bicycle, or that anyone had woken up, for that matter.

Andrew exhaled, relaxing his shoulders.

Then the town blew up.

A flash of white light lit up the sky, swallowing the buildings of Helmfirth.  A deafening roar blasted in his ears, and a scalding wind crashed into Andrew’s head and shoulders, lifting him and flinging him through the air.

Something slammed into Andrew’s back, knocking the wind out of him.  His ears rang, pain erupting inside both of them, like someone had stabbed them with chopsticks.  His vision went white, filled with spots.  His eyes, and the skin on his cheeks burned, a searing agony.

Andrew screamed, but his voice sounded distant, like he was hearing it from the other side of a swimming pool.  More explosions went off in the distance, their blast waves thudding into Andrew like a giant boot stomping his ribs, over and over again.

Then, they stopped.  Andrew blinked, the spots on his vision clearing, the dark world coming into focus.

In the valley, below, a thick grey cloud swelled over the city of Helmfirth, swallowing the buildings and streets and gardens.  Dots of red and orange blossomed within it.  Fires, started by the explosions.

Near Andrew, several of the trees in the forest had caught fire, but not the one he was hiding behind, or the one he’d been slammed against.  That could spread.  He needed to get out of here.

His entire body ached, or burned.  His cheeks stung, and a headache thumped in the back of his skull.  The world wobbled back and forth around him, unsteady.

The cloud expanded, engulfing the edges of the forest where Andrew hid.  A grey blizzard of dust filled the air, making Andrew cough, settling on his burnt clothes and getting in his eyes.

They didn’t send someone to Helmfirth.  They just blew it up.  With bombs or missiles or something like that.  All this for some idiot.  Why waste so much ordinance on a puny Humdrum like him?

Not quite.  They didn’t know who’d made that phone call.  Maybe they thought Andrew was some mighty projector who’d broken the Spirit Block, gathering intelligence on their plans.  Maybe they thought the missiles were safer than letting that enemy go.  That slaughtering their citizens was worth it, if it meant keeping their secret.

Me, a mighty projector.  Andrew would have laughed, if he wasn’t in so much pain.

He rubbed the dust out of his eyes, wincing.  As the smoke cleared, he got a sharper view of the town below.

The entire village had been flattened.  Every building had been reduced to a pile of rubble and ash.  And they’re all dead.  Hundreds, maybe thousands of people had been vaporized, burned, crushed in their sleep.  Because of his phone call.

Because of me.

In his room, he’d fantasized about a meteor striking the planet much like this, wiping the slate clean.

But this wasn’t clean.  There was no rest here.

Just silence.

Andrew pushed himself to a standing position, his chest and legs aching, his ears still ringing.  I have to get out of here.  The forest fire might spread.

And the enemy was coming.

A tree burned next to him, flames crackling over its trunk, warming Andrew’s skin.

He blinked, shook himself out of his stupor, and ran up the hill, into the forest.

________________________________________

“You did what?” said Sarama.  She dabbed ointment on Andrew’s burnt cheek, a horrified look on her face.

“I tried cooking,” he said.  “Left the stove on.  Bit of a boom.”  Please buy that.  Please don’t ask more questions.

“Scholars,” muttered Sarama, brushing ash out of Andrew’s hair.  “Lost your job, then this.  You’ve really been through it.”

“It is as you say,” said Andrew, sipping from a glass of water.  “Rough few months.”

“I’ll do what I can,” said Sarama.  “But I’m no doctor.  Can’t you go to urgent care?”

Andrew shook his head.  “Can’t afford it.”  And he couldn’t go to the hospital with these injuries, or the members of Egress might find him out.

“I can pay for you,” said Sarama.  “Your health is worth it.”

“I’m good,” said Andrew.  “Really.  Thanks.”

Sarama got to work on his broken wrist, wrapping a splint around it.  As she did, Andrew glanced at the newspaper on the booth table, and the headline.

STOLEN MISSILES DESTROY TOWN

He choked on his water, coughing, and skimmed the article.  Droll Corsair rogue faction breaking into silo.  Intent unknown.  No survivors.

So that was the official explanation.  It wasn’t like the members of Egress could tell the truth.

As far as Andrew could tell, a majority of Paragon wasn’t in on Egress, so the internal explanations must have been a pain.    Even ignoring the price of those Voidsteel missiles.  They spent a lot of resources on that strike.

They saw Andrew as a serious threat.

But after that phone conversation, he understood.  Andrew knew things, now.  Information etched into his soul.

He glanced at the middle of the article, at the death toll.  Three thousand, one hundred and sixteen innocents.  Murdered in their sleep, because of his idle curiosity.

Andrew’s chest clenched, and his breath quickened, a wave of dizziness passing over him.

“Andrew?  Andrew, are you alright?” said Sarama.

Andrew squeezed his eyes shut.  You’re worse than worthless, now.  Before, he’d only ruined his own life, and leeched money off of society.  Now, he’d gotten an entire village bombed, from his sheer stupidity.

I should have made that phone call in a city.  The Guardians might have found him more easily, but they never would have launched missiles at a city.  I should have seen this coming.

Sarama glanced at the headline.  “Listen,” she said.  “About where you got these injuries.”

“A gas explosion – “ he blurted out.  “Really.”

“I wanted to say that I don’t care,” she said.  “And I won’t tell anyone about this.  Your business is your business.  I trust that you won’t do anything nasty.”

But I did.  That phone call had ended so many lives.

Andrew exhaled.  “Thank you,” he mumbled.

When she’d finished patching him up, Sarama gave him a plate of his favorite waffles: Dark chocolate and cherries.  “On the house,” she said.

Andrew picked up a fork with his good hand and dug into them.

Then they talked.  Not about his injuries, not about the horrifying news in the papers or Andrew’s future.

No, they talked about the Mountain Slayer, and the latest, controversial chapter.

“He belongs with Akagawa!” said Sarama.  “And that’s obviously what’s going to happen in the end, anyway.”

“I hate love triangles,” said Andrew.  “They’re always so forced.”

“And?”

“And Sachiko is a much better match.  They’re not just childhood friends, they’ve fought each other.  Forged a bond of trust.”

Sarama snorted.  “I’ve fought with my landlord, and we’re not about to date.”

Andrew savored the chocolatey, fruity waffles, and the conversation.  I found someone who enjoys my company, Xue.  Not someone he’d expected.  But someone.

Halfway through their talk, a truck of supplies drove up outside.  Sarama walked to the back to sign off on it.  “Finish your waffles,” she said.  “I’ll be back in a bit.”

“Wait,” said Andrew.

The old woman turned back to him, raising an eyebrow.

“Thank you,” he said.  “For getting me off my ass.  For everything.”  He still had a thousand suicidal thoughts every day, of course.  But now, he had something else, too.

She shrugged.  “Sometimes, all you need is a hand and a friend.  One day, I hope you’ll do the same.”

Then she stepped out of the room.  Andrew closed his eyes, leaned his head forward, and murmured a quiet goodbye.  To her, to the Principality.  And to Xue Feng, once again.

Because Andrew had a responsibility.  He couldn’t abandon himself, or the world anymore.  Couldn’t retreat into his room and his self-loathing, or sheer terror.  Even if he was a parasite.

I have to make this right.

Andrew stood up from the booth, left a fifty-pound tip, and strode out the front door.

________________________________________

A month later, his ferry docked in Wuxian, the largest port in Shenten.  And Andrew’s hometown.

Andrew walked onto the gangplank, out of the boat and into the sun.

He hadn’t visited Shenten in years.  And the city looked different.  Cao Hui no longer commanded Shenten.  Nor did the line of emperors that came before him.  The warlord Luo Cai now owned it, and used its profits to fund his military.

Before, a giant concrete statue of Tegudar the General stood on a hill at the center of the city, watching over the port with patience and discipline.

Today, the statue had lost a head and an arm.  The rest of the structure leaned at a sickening, unstable angle.  A bomb attack, probably.

In Andrew’s childhood, the street near the docks had been filled with market stalls and food carts, selling all sorts of wares and delicacies for killer prices.

Today, beggars and refugees filled up the sidewalks, holding up bowls and murmuring for coins.  Cooking rats on sticks, huddling close to shield themselves from the cold.  Snowflakes fell through the sky, covering the ground in a thin layer of white powder.

They’re fleeing from poverty.  Or the battles happening in the rest of Shenten, as the Black Tortoise’s old friends fought each other for a piece of his fallen empire.

Soldiers filled up the streets too, guarding key locations in the port with submachine guns, slouching over with dark circles under their eyes.  Trucks filled with gunmen drove from a building in the port towards the main road, splashing brown slush in their wake.

The war’s over.  But Shenten was still at war.  They just fought themselves now, instead of the world.

Near the port, a monastery had burnt down, or been bombed out, missing a front wall and half of its roof.  Squatters slept on the floor, on piles of rubble and the burnt pages of The 99 Precepts.  Why bother repairing it?  Such buildings had lost their sacred power, thanks to the Spirit Block.  They can’t even remember the real name of their religion.

“Please excuse me,” the man behind him said, in Shenti.  I’m blocking the path.

“Sorry,” muttered Andrew.  He shuffled down the gangplank, into the crowd on the pier.  Snowflakes drifted through the sky, landing on Andrew’s face, and he shivered.  He’d thrown away his winter coat when he came to the Principality, and he didn’t have the money for a new one.  So he had to make do with a thin sweater.

The crowd pushed forward onto the streets, shoulder to shoulder.  Andrew stepped into a grey puddle of slush, making him even colder.

After a few minutes, he broke off from the crowd and walked down the street with a wet sock, to a building he remembered from his childhood.  The Military Laboratories.  A building where Cao Hui’s best and brightest carried out experiments for the betterment of the nation.  Xue Feng had loved it, of course, and had dragged Andrew there multiple times, even if they couldn’t get past the lobby.

It hadn’t been blown up.  So it would work.

Andrew stepped into the lobby, his body warming as he pushed through the revolving door.  The building had been made in the wartime style, all brutal angles and cold grey stone.  And yet, Andrew felt a certain comfort from it.

“Hello,” said the woman at the front desk.  “State your business.”

Cao Hui’s world deserved to burn.  But Cao Hui was gone.  Someone needed to uncover the secrets in Andrew’s head, share them with the world and save humanity.  The stakes were far too high to sit on this, and he didn’t have the expertise to accomplish much on his own.

And Paragon wasn’t going to do it.  It was up to Andrew.

“My name is Andrew Huang,” he said.  “I can see through the Spirit Block.  And I think I can help you.”

He reached his hand forward.

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12 thoughts on “Prologue – Free Waffles

  1. Hi all! A lot has happened over the last few weeks. Pith got on Royalroad. Then it got on TopWebFiction. Then it got on Patreon.

    So to any new readers from those sites, welcome! Thanks for joining us. If you’re on Royalroad, don’t forget to give us a rating for visibility! We’re now fully in swing with Volume 2, which I’m pretty excited to share with y’all. There’s still an immense amount of work to do on it, but that’s the way it is with web novels. As of this publishing, I’m still working on the Volume 1 retrospective, but that should probably come out sometime over the next few weeks.

    This chapter, like many pivotal chapters in Pith, is about choosing to live. So, very dark, in a lot of ways, but also, not. It’s very long, even after I’ve cut a lot of material to tighten it up. I hope it’s not too soul-crushing, or difficult to get through. There’s a lot of critical content in it, and it sets the stage for all the main conflicts this Volume.

    And, as always, I hope that the chapter is honest, and true.

    Episode 14, the first full episode of Volume 2, will be titled “Imposter Syndrome”. Thanks for reading!

  2. Andrew believes he’s powerless, but then he makes one phone call and blows up an entire town. Seems a bit OP personally 😛

      • I know Jun’s name isn’t Andrew Huang, but something about this character’s personality made me think it was a younger Jun and that Jun might be a pseudonym. Thank you for the clarification.

  3. If not even unmanned probes come back from more than ten thousand feet down or twenty five thousand feet up, how did Kahlin get the Vantablack water from the bottom of the ocean, and how do the Principality’s ballistic missiles work?

    • We do not currently know how Kahlin got his water supply! And the Principality’s missiles fly at an altitude below the vanishing point.

      • Oh, so they’re cruise missiles. That makes them considerably less useful as a strategic weapon against really high-level projectors. At this tech level they’ll be coming in at ~500mph, rather than ~15,000mph, and pack much less of a punch. Pictogram with a dozen anti-materiel rifles would by himself be enough to severely limit the damage of even a saturation strike.

        On the plus side, they don’t have to be fired from a silo.

  4. So immunity to whisper vocations exists.

    Would be interesting if everyone can become a projector. Should be so because projectors switch bodies and so their kids aren’t genetically releated to them.

    A little mean to let the characters know the secret but not the readers.

    Tftc

  5. You should consider putting a depression trigger warning on this. The first part was accurate enough to send someone in a vulnerable place spiraling, I think.

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