Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Welcome to Part 2 of The Cloak of Shrouded Men

The Cloak of Shrouded Men is the complete story of Cotton Colinaude, the hero at a crossroads after Part 1 of the story. Follow the label links on the right to read the chapters in sequence. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Chapter Twenty-Eight - Dust

“You’re probably going to want to sit down for this,” Dust said. Cotton decided to take his advice. “Everything has its price. When I first learned I had the ability to turn my body into grains of sand, I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. I was five years old and my parents didn’t find me until the next day, and I was in the backyard, in my sandbox the whole time, sitting there. I didn’t even shift around, I just sat there, reveling in the sensation of this new form. The next day, when I appeared at the dinner table, waiting for my parents to return, I assumed that it had been a dream, and wondered why they were so concerned, why there was a policeman, why there were reporters, why there were so many people with them. I thought it was a good joke. I laughed, and so did my parents. I didn’t understand why they looked so nervous, why they were so uneasy that night, tucking me into bed. Later, I would discover that my father had once been involved in a super-power play between Mindbender and Flower Child, a victim. He had feared my disappearance might have been a product of that experience, which haunted him until the day he died.

“And maybe it was. I never found an adequate explanation for my powers. The next time they manifested, I was twelve, seven years removed from the last time, and so when the dream became reality, I let it get out of control. I was at school, attempting to swing across monkey bars in gym class. My arms began to disintegrate. I fell, but I fell into myself. The class was horrified, until someone jumped into me and started throwing me around. At first everyone thought I was the coolest thing they’d ever seen, but then the fear crept in. They couldn’t understand me. Within a month, my disruptions had gotten me dispelled, and no school in the area would take me again. Within a year, my parents had disowned me as well.

“On my own, I took to self-education, using my talent to earn money at carnivals while reading voraciously, about every subject imaginable. No one had an explanation for the unusual properties of my molecules, how they could transform, eventually at will (and it had been most fun, for myself and others, when it happened randomly), into sand while still leaving my consciousness in there. I had no form at first, while I was sand, and that was what had disturbed my classmates, and had originally thrilled them. In the carnivals, I learned to reclaim the shape of man, having begun to master myself again. I began to wonder if there were more practical uses of my talents, which alone had awakened my curiosity, even at the age of five. So much curiosity, so much to consider. I saw the world as no one else did. And I did not like what I saw.

“Silt was born at the age of twenty-three. The so-called Sand Man, as I had called myself in performances, now dedicated himself to the fight of injustice, using his unique abilities to thwart the criminal element in ways they would never expected, emerging from spaces they would never have conceived. I unlocked possibilities of architecture that the original creators could never have considered, could only have assumed were not there. I found the holes in the wall, because I alone could access them.

“For a time, I was glorious, and I reveled in it. Time went on, the novelty of it wore on. Silt’s adventures seemed hollow, of little more substance than the man himself. He no longer thought of himself as a man. Nick Sanders, though he possessed the ability to do so, ceased living as an ordinary man and instead existed solely in sand form. He had discovered that each transformation had taken something away from him, a part of his ability to identify with humanity, both physically and emotionally. He became withdrawn. Silt’s heroic days were numbered.

“Cotton, Silt no longer cared. He had lost himself. He no longer believed his own hype, no longer cared about it. He withdrew himself. He no longer knew what he was fighting for. He didn’t see the point.

“And then he died. You didn’t realize you were seeing me in my darkest hour that day, did you? Well, let me tell you, dark hours can last for a long time. Mine lasted for fifteen years. You never knew me but by reputation. It wasn’t because I wanted to snub you, but rather because I had lost my motivation. I had heard about you, Cotton. You inspired me. That’s why I told Calypso I wanted to help you, and in more ways than one. Things just didn’t turn out so well for me. I spent months thinking I was dead, in facts, for stretches I couldn’t think at all. I really was gone. Then I came back, and I brought with me a renewed determination, a new resolve. And a new understanding.

“I’m glad you’re seated, Cotton. When I found you in the parking garage, I found you trapped in your own mind. Don’t you see, Cotton? You were Balthazar Romero. You had convinced yourself that you were one of your old aliases, one of your more established ones. The trauma of murdering Rodrigo Ramirez must have caused it. You couldn’t deal with it, so you became someone else, someone who hadn’t murdered the Cad, someone who liked to tell himself that he wasn’t a murderer at all. You lost your mind, but you had another to fall back on. You had a whole other life ready to assume. You even had a wife.

“All this was inside your mind, but you hid yourself from it, from yourself. Cotton Colinaude lay dormant for months, while Balthazar Romero lived his life as normal, until the encounter with Lotus, whose unique abilities included the tampering with memories, which usually meant he would absorb them, but in your case, he couldn’t, because there were two competing sets of memories within you, Cotton. They were fighting. You didn’t surrender to a fantasy, Cotton. You finally allowed yourself to fight a battle you had long ago surrendered to. This was the only way you could.

“In the form I had now found myself, a cloud, and as such I now called myself Dust, I was able to manipulate your mind, to free yourself, but Balthazar remained, so the both of you commenced to pitch your cases, until one finally took back control. Lotus had already assured the victor. Balthazar could not remain, but he would not become the property of Lotus. I had been watching you, Cotton. In a strange way, we had been linked. A part of my had been in you, too, from the instant of my demise in the museum. I knew everything you knew, and took it back in the garage. And I have been watching you since.

“In the time you have been having your reckoning, I have mastered myself, at least to a greater degree than I have in the past, and I have had my own reckoning. I had never accepted what I had become, not on anything greater than a superficial level. I never understood what I should do, and why. I regained the form of a man with great trouble, and made myself Nick Sanders again, too, with great pain. I cannot do that again, at least not soon. I will have to work on that. But I have control of my body again, and now understand the cost. I have centered myself, Cotton.

“And I have found peace, too, because I know it is an illusion. You can keep order, Cotton, but you can’t keep peace. It’s human nature, this struggle we are forced to endure, because we are imperfect, and can only proceed in life imperfectly. To expect peace to eventually come is to wait in vain. We can only hope for order, because order is the closest thing we will ever have to peace. This has always been known, but it has never been understood. We have civilization and rules to live by because we know it. But each of us has our own motivations, our own interests, and these motivations, these interests clash, and will always clash. We call it arrogance, to not care for our fellow man, but it is really individuality asserted, and that’s all there can be.

“You can find your own peace, but you can’t expect to keep it forever, not without a price, or expect you can grant it to everyone. I think that’s what Tekamthi realized, Cotton. He’d found his peace. Denny Hay had found his peace, too. Even Ratbeard.

“You’ve threatened to abandon the Eidolon once already. You can’t. You found your peace. You’ve found that even an attempt at maintaining order is worth it, because the effort is what sustains you. That’s what bothered you, all those years ago, when you couldn’t remember saving Denny Hay. You couldn’t find peace because you couldn’t find order. You became the Eidolon to find order, and then find peace. Eventually you realized you could have no peace, because all you really cared about was order. The Eidolon exists for this sole purpose, not because of guilt or to carry a burden, but to ease a mind that wants to see things as they should be rather than as they are, a mind that sees through the veneer of chaos and understands that what anyone really wants is for things to make sense. There are so many ways to make that happen. Some people make the wrong choices. You’ve decided that it’s your mission to set them straight.”

“All I want is things done right,” Cotton said, “not things simply done.” He spoke in a whisper, as if he didn’t want anyone to hear, not even Dust. “That has never been too much to ask.”

“But it has,” Dust said. “You can’t ask more of people than they’re capable of, more than they’re willing to do. But you can try. All you can do is try.”

“And watch as peace slips away,” Cotton said.

“Because you are busy maintaining order,” Dust said. “It’s hard to accept, that there’s no choice, that one simply isn’t possible. You become willing to tell yourself anything. You become willing to betray yourself. The hard part is accepting that you will have to, because that’s what everyone does, every day. It’s called compromise. If you find that you are incapable of compromising, then you are lost, but you have to understand when it is acceptable, when you will have to take the hit and pay for it later. Cotton, everything we do has consequences. You can’t avoid them, no matter how clever you think you are. If you intend to abandon your life as the Eidolon because Peter Cooley turned out to be Viper, turned out to be your archenemy because he wanted to destroy you, you will have done his job for him. You will have fulfilled your fantasy of following in the footsteps of your hero. There is no retirement in this line. There is always failure, but giving in is the greatest of them.

“You brought the Eidolon back because you thought he was necessary, because of the looming war. The Eidolon is always necessary, necessary for you, and necessary for everyone else. Heroes are a part of the natural order. They’ve always been present, in one form or another. In these times, we’ve just made them more obvious, because we think there’s a more obvious need for them. The need is the same as it’s always been. Don’t romanticize. You will be hurt, you will lose, you will make mistakes, you will not be embraced by all. But you will do what you set out to, and that’s all that matters. Yes, Traverse will burn, but the Eidolon will be there to soften its blow. There is no such thing as an end. Humanity does more than survive. It lives.”

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Chapter Twenty-Seven - The Eidolon and Switchblade Together

The Solomons were always there. Traverse just wouldn’t have been Traverse without them. The funny thing, however, was that it could be really easy to overlook them. Their ambition never matched their activities, and they must have known it. Cotton had never bothered with them, not even him, who had singled out the overlooked threat of the Cad and inadvertently begun a war because of it. Truett Solomon, otherwise known as Cutty, was the current head of the clan, and Cotton had never worried about him. He was, as they say, mostly harmless, with the bark bigger than the bite. But in the new atmosphere of the looming war, he was suddenly king, and even he couldn’t appreciate it. With all of the factions, from Boy Benjamin to Lotus to Viper to the scores of others, some resident and other opportunistic intruders, that colored the battlefield Traverse would soon become, Cutty Solomon alone had the roots to withstand the storm, and roots would ensure survival, if not victory. Survival was all that really mattered. Survival was the credo of the Solomon clan. Survival was an unbelievable source of strength.

Lotus, whether he was aware of it or not, was dependent on the Solomons for his own survival, his unnaturally prolonged life both a product of his own ornate abilities and the support of successive Solomon generations, who saw in him a pawn. It didn’t matter if he was ever a danger to them. Benjamin Russ grew to power in part because he proved to be a useful challenge, and challenge was a natural extension of survival, and so his challenge was tolerated. Viper, why Viper had sprung out of nowhere, and that was another challenge in itself. The Solomons loved a good fight. They didn’t get it, very often, from the heroes, certainly not from the likes of Godsend. Only once, with Switchblade. Cotton had been there, and so had Cutty. Neither Cotton nor Cutty would have remembered seeing each other then, not with those circumstances. The death of a hero tended to distract everyone.

It happened in the days Cotton had been going soft, losing his ideals, in the days the murder of the Cad would have been an absurd suggestion, something Cotton would never have believed himself capable of. Switchblade would have been, oh yes. He didn’t get his name for nothing. He was a villain among heroes. More than once he had been treated as such. Cotton might have done the same if he’d been given the chance, but he never did. Switchblade sought him out, first for a conversation and then for a demonstration, which the visiting hero took in Cotton’s own backyard. Before that, Cotton had never heard of the Solomons. Cutty was still growing into his role, his uncle assuming leadership at the time. This was the time, in fact, that he earned that name, and it was no coincidence. He always enjoyed his share of bravado. He had believed he could take on Switchblade, who was so notorious for leaving his opponents run red with blood. Heroes didn’t do that. Cotton hadn’t believed Switchblade was a hero. He changed his mind even before the tragedy had played out.

The Solomons were engaged in one of their periodic efforts at consolidating power, Rancor being a chief target, through the services of Viper in his comparatively innocent days, before he revealed his own genius, before he revealed to Cotton his betrayal, before he led Cotton directly to the Cad, before he murdered Rancor. Viper had infiltrated the Solomons, an act in a pattern of behavior Cotton had never recognized, and brought help along with him. Having learned of this, Cutty’s uncle was prepared to eliminate the threat by encouraging an indiscriminant massacre within his own ranks. Switchblade’s partner, Manner, was included within those ranks, and she stood a real chance of losing her life, or blowing her cover, and Switchblade did not want to risk either one. He came to see Cotton so he could prevent it, and cut the Solomons down to size at the same time. He would have let the massacre carry on had Manner not lay prone within it.

So instead, he decided to open Cotton’s eyes. Cotton’s immediate interest was the involvement of Viper, who had been as much a thorn in his side as his master, the two constantly battling each other, almost as rivals from the start. Whatever Viper’s original motives had been, he had now long since abandoned them, for a single pursuit. He wanted a war so he could ruin the Eidolon once and for all, and every other hero of his kind. Switchblade had not been much different. He favored objectives over methods, because he prized the objectives above all. He did not want them lost amidst mindless details, which stood every bit to numb the mind as confuse the hero, which he’d perceived as Cotton’s problem. Had he known that he was sending the Eidolon on a path to self-imposed retirement, he might have tried harder, or fought to survive the fight with Cutty. Or perhaps let Cotton die that night.

Cotton had not wanted to listen, when he heard what Switchblade had to say, about his attitude and his direction. Switchblade had no love for Godsend, but Cotton would not let go of his faith, both in his partner and to the advantages of diversity in tactics. The more he listened, though, the more he found a new focus, a new need for determination. He began to believe in fatalism. Switchblade preached the gospel of compromise, that believing in the existence of good, even in evil, was giving in to evil itself. He didn’t believe in good, but rather that all men were inherently evil and that the only way to change this, and he believed change was possible if fought for, was to eliminate rather than accommodate the worst forces of evil. He had tried many times to kill Rancor himself, Rancor who had embodied so much of it, the excess that characterized it so well. In a way, Switchblade only described himself. His war was against himself, and he had made Cotton’s a personal war as well, if it had ever been anything else. Somehow, though, he had found out about Denny Hay, and he stressed that event most of all. He had called Cotton a coward.

Well, Cotton had decided then that he was not afraid, and so he took Switchblade’s challenge and joined him in his crusade against the Solomons, the rescue of Manner, whom Switchblade confessed he would be parting ways with afterward, because she had allowed herself to be compromised. He didn’t seemed phased by arguments that he had just recruited a compromised man. In his eyes, he should not have had to rescue her in the first place, because he did not respect his foes. He said to do so would have been to empower them, and that was the last thing he wanted, was in fact the very thing he fought against. He thought he would be salvaging an entire city by this single act, by taking on the Solomons, the overlooked threat. In Cotton’s later experience, such threats should almost have been left like that. They were less dangerous. To seek out a fight only made the fight worse. He didn’t understand that then. He was under the spell of a maniac, damned if he was going to break it.

Cotton had suggested a subtler approach to their infiltration, but Switchblade insisted it would be a waste of their time, so they invaded the Solomon stronghold with such bombast that they might as well have been invited, so little resistance being possible. Switchblade happened to like explosions as well. He took half the compound down in a single act, and countless lives. Whether Manner might have been lost was immaterial. In the panic, Viper blew his cover, and Cutty had to decide who he was going to fight, to save face. Cutty was already in his fifties, but was remarkably spry for his age, thanks to a lot of pent-up anticipation for a moment like this, where he could begin to prove himself. Switchblade had in fact walked right into a trap. Cutty had struck a deal with Viper, having realized who he was, and Manner was the bait. All he needed to do was decide if he was going to remain loyal to the deal, if he could trust Viper.

He didn’t have the chance to make the decision, because Viper disappeared soon enough, apparently not wanting a piece of this, though he left the rest of his men behind, to die as they pleased. Manner freed herself before Switchblade could for her, and they fought as if nothing was between them, with the Eidolon following their lead. Cutty found his man, stood his ground, and gave what he could, which wasn’t enough, but the confusion was. Between Viper’s men, the Solomon men, and the heroes, the heroes eventually became overwhelmed, first Manner, then Cotton. Switchblade spared him, at his own expense, felled by Cutty’s blade. With his dying breath, he implored Cotton to leave. The implication was that he wasn’t worthy after all.

The event left yet another mark on Cotton, one that scarred with his original heroic motivation, creating something he thought he could never escape. When he finally did, he learned the price was too great to accept. He became overwhelmed again. It seemed all his life he had been overwhelmed into submission, and it was because he had never known peace, not with himself and not with the world. He was restless, and he had thought he could put an end to it in Traverse, finally find himself. As he approached Cutty Solomon again, he wondered if he ever would. The significance of Solomon escaped him, at least until he saw him.

All he seemed to have gained from that day was a nickname and confidence from his clan. Cotton was unmoved. He wanted to know what went through the mind of such a man, if he’d ever given that day a second thought, if he’d known who he killed, if he cared. He wanted to know what Cutty hoped to gain from this war, what he thought survival alone would do for the Solomons. At first Cotton thought he was asleep, but then he realized that Cutty was dead, slumped in his chair, seated at a desk cluttered with strategies for survival. Well, it would have to be someone else’s job now.

“You’re probably wondering how he died,” a voice, low and uncomfortable, said from behind. “You don’t have to. I killed him.”

Cotton turned around and saw, in fragile yet breathtaking form, more elegant than he had ever been, Nick Sanders, the man once known as Silt, but now called Dust. “You,” he said.

“In the flesh,” Dust said. “So to speak. We have much to talk about.”

Cotton heard these words with trepidation, but he no longer let his fear control him. Switchblade had sought to engrain in him the culture of fear, had sought to use the birth of the Eidolon as motivation to steer Cotton back to an acceptable path. He might have been right about that, Cotton straying from the path, but he was wrong about Cotton, what he needed. What he had needed, all this time, was acceptance, not an irrational need to hide from the truth, or distort it, but to embrace it, to embrace reality for what it was and not what he made it to be. All this time he had been running from it, from himself. He could no longer afford to do that. He could no longer live in a world of his own conception. He had brought back the Eidolon, and he was going to make that count for something.

Dust suggested that there were still things he needed to face, and he believed it. He believed that this man, who had gone and come back again, had answers he needed, had something to give that would leave the world with something more than it had without him. Dust promised Cotton Colinaude the meaning of purpose.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Chapter Twenty-Six - Ratbeard's Widow

Bessie Mueller never intended for it to happen. When she had made her pact with Lotus, it had been under the strict agreement that her husband be strictly off-limits, but that had not been with understanding on her part as to the wider implications of the times and conditions the pact were made under. She knew better now. All too much better. Freddy was dead.

The life he had led, the one he had made no effort to shield her from, because she’d had plenty of experience in it herself, had always threatened such an end, but both of them had believed they could escape it. The memory of Butler still haunted her. It had happened again, and once again she had been the cause. And in a way, Balthazar Romero as well. She and Balthazar had had an affair, Butler had found out, blackmailed Balthazar, and Butler found out how easily Balthazar could have his problems solved for him, by Boy Benjamin, who could always come up with a reason for Balthazar to get what he wanted while giving him an excuse for his conscience. Well, damn and his conscience. He was probably already burning. There had been no affair this time, just jealousy. Bessie had gotten what her sister never could, had given two husbands what Balthazar never got, and never would, with Ashlee dead. Bessie should have felt worse about that. She couldn’t bring herself to. She had her own pain.

She had regret. She was bringing her own calamity onto herself, and she couldn’t feel sorry for hurt she’d caused others because she couldn’t handle the pain she’d brought into her own home, when Lotus made it clear all deals were off, by violating her husband’s corpse in front of herself. In front of her kids. Hansen, twelve years old and as much a reflection of the suave loose-cannon Butler as wiry Freddy, had tried to get his revenge there on the spot, pouncing on Lotus as he sucked her husband dry. Hansen, who’d been thrown and broke his neck, dead. Rose, nine years old and a reflection of her mother, who did not realize her own strength, following suit with her brother’s retaliation. Rose, who broke her neck and died. Lotus was an animal. He did not even glance at Bessie when he was finished. He simply left the house behind.

She couldn’t call the cops. The cops would never believe her, would never trust her. She might even have been arrested on the spot. She just couldn’t take the chance. She left her family behind, left her home behind. All Lotus had wanted from her in the first place was reassurance, that he had her support. He had presumed it meant her family’s as well. He did not know the Solomons, and Bessie had not bothered to clarify the issue. She had not bothered to. She couldn’t believe it. She had wasted her entire life. Her own mother had warned her; she hadn’t listened. “Don’t embrace your father’s life,” she’d said. “It’s my own choice,” Bessie had replied.

Choice. She had made all the wrong choices. She had grown up assuming it was her destiny to have everything she ever wanted, and secretly she had coveted everything, had suspected that if she played her cards right, she could surpass her family, surpass her father, surpass everyone else in Traverse, surpass even the moguls of the world. She had been granted knowledge of how the whole system worked, and had decided she didn’t need it. She was content with her own ambition. Then she crossed the family, crossed her father, marrying Butler Epstein, a pawn of Rancor’s, a rival of the family, of her father. She had been assured that this would not affect her welcome. She should have known that wasn’t enough.

She should have known how naïve she really was. Butler had made her forget her concerns, had told her his only plans for the future were to retire, even though he was a rising star. He had told her he didn’t care. Well, someone did, and not just her. Why hadn’t she just listened to him? Why couldn’t she be content? After his death she seemed to have learned her lesson. Freddy made the same assurances, except his star was fading, his day in the limelight long gone. He was nothing but a snitch now. Again with the family’s disapproval, again with her father’s. Again with those who would like to see her husband dead. She’d made the pact with Lotus to spare him the same fate as Butler. She had been naïve.

Bessie was still a Solomon, still a member of one of the most-established clans in Traverse history. Ancestors had helped found the city, had decided to rein in their claim to it, had fought Sidewinder, had found William Tekamthi’s ambitions contrary to their own, had liked to see the Eidolon go away as well. In every instance they had prevailed. Had she known half the implications of her associations, she would have seen it coming. That Butler’s master, Rancor, had been assassinated in the move that withdrew Eidolon from the scene, that the Eidolon himself was married to her sister, that Lotus lay claim to Traverse because he had been there when the Solomons made their first assumption, that he never had any intention of moving on, let alone sparing Freddy Mueller, captain of a tugboat in the underworld sea of the city, Ratbeard himself. It should have been obvious. It was, too. Bessie had simply chosen to ignore it, all of it. She put herself above all of it, because she had thought it was her right, her destiny. Now she knew that she had been wrong. She had no such claim, no such birthright.

Did she have a future? She didn’t know where to turn. Grovel at the feet of her family, of her father? Her mother died trying to turn the tide of rationality. In a way, she had been Butler’s antecedent, Freddy’s as well. Bessie should have known, all the signs had been there, every way out marked for her, every indication of what was going to go wrong. She made the same mistakes time and again, and still hadn’t learned. What was so different about Lotus? That he had been so brazen, so unearthly, so alien, that he could not be ignored? For a man clouded in mystery, he stood in great relief.

It suddenly came to her, what she should do. She would need the watch that had killed her husband. Oh yes, she had know right away what had happened; she was no fool, certainly not to old tricks. She knew how to do it herself, too. She would spring the same trap. She would send this watch back to Boy Benjamin, and she would be there when it arrived. She didn’t even care if he would be able to recognize what was happening.

Her thought returned to the urn of ashes, of Butler’s father, which had been such a torment for them for so long, and for her after Butler’s death. They knew that Balthazar’s only interest was the torment, and that his father was still alive. When this urn arrived, however, Bessie also knew that it was real, and that it had been sent by Lotus. It had arrived before he did, and she should have understood then what was going to happen. Freddy was still alive, but he hadn’t been showed the urn. Bessie had not wanted to frighten him, had not yet accepted what it meant. She hadn’t been ready. The idea was absurd to her now; it mortified her. Hadn’t been ready?

Everyone in Traverse had known about Lotus, had heard the legends. But no one believed they were true, that such a man could exist, even with so many other fantastical figures about. Precedents did not always prepare people for something so shocking. If anything, they made such things harder to believe, as if they could not, should not be matched again, or excelled. That would truly have been unnatural. Yet Lotus was real. The idea had intoxicated Bessie the moment his existence was confirmed. He represented power, power she wanted a part of. She had believed that cutting a deal with him early would have granted her special privilege, even a piece of his power, more power than she could have ever imagined, because she could never have imagined Lotus himself.

Having arranged delivery of the package, Bessie tried to prepare herself mentally for the task ahead. She would be entering the dragon’s lair. This dragon was not her greatest menace, but he was the most accessible one, and she would settle for that. She no longer had the courage for great things. She despised herself for ever wanting them. They had cost her so much.

She found herself at a local watering hole, Tin Can, seated at the bar. There were very few patrons this evening. Besides herself and the bartender, there was someone playing pool and a professional-looking man on what appeared to be his third bottle. She asked the bartender what the man was drinking. “The Old VM,” he said. “If he keeps this up, he’ll drink us out of it.” She told him she’d have the same.

“Mind if I have a seat?” she said, bottle in hand.

“Why don’tchou?” he said in reply, keeping his hand, almost defensively, on the third bottle. “I’ve been looking this stuff up. It turns out this place getsit, and it’s the only place that getsit. I even found out who put in the original order. Somebody by the name of Locus or something. Sounded biblical. Like the end of the world.”

Bessie gave him a double-take, which he didn’t notice, and decided not to open her bottle, not out of fear, but instinct. “Is it any good?”

“You betcha!” the man said. “I can’t help but drink it, youknow? I haven’t been to work in days. The last article I wrote was about this place. Damn this place. Damn this liquor!”

Yet, Bessie noticed, he didn’t put it down. In fact, he ordered another. The bartender did not look amused, but it wasn’t about this man. Something else was bothering him, something far more personal, far worse than a bum on a bender. It was written in his eyes. He seemed to have lost a friend, and all he needed was confirmation, which was what he feared most of all. Bessie knew that look. She’d seen it on Butler’s face, Freddy’s, countless others’, countless times. She’d seen it in her own face, the day the urn arrived. She was sick and tired of that face. She left the bar immediately. The man would no doubt help himself to her beer.

All she could do was wait for the day the package arrived. She would beat it there, act like it was a social visit, so that Boy Benjamin, if he suspected a thing, would know immediately, like she had known after Lotus had stolen her family away, known that she had lost her unborn child.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Chapter Twenty-Five - Godsend's Reproach

What struck him about Culver St. was that everyone seemed to have a garage, and that every garage actually housed the cars that had been intended for them. It was unusual to encounter that, especially on such a scale, an entire street. It bothered Cotton, like it was unnatural. It also helped explain, to a certain extent, the phenomenon that was Tekamthi’s portal in the shed. It just wasn’t that out of place, and couldn’t have been coincidental. Yes, Tekamthi had been a clever one. Strange, too, that he was now in the past tense, strange that anything could exist in the past tense, not so much gone as now living in an altered state, the kind that had been the motivating factor in the original birth of the Eidolon. Cotton now suspected that everything man achieved was motivated by trying to compensate for altered states, one way or another. There was no such thing as normal, unless normal was to be construed as a series of abnormalities. In that case, a grown man who still dressed up in a costume was not so outrageous, pretending he was something other than what he really was, pretending he was a ghost.

Except Cotton was exactly that, a ghost. It was not pretension. He was not really there. It was not a psychological pretension, but a constant state of mind, the only way he could keep the Eidolon alive, as would soon be the case again. Cotton wasn’t really there; he would once again assume mastery over perception, for that was what a hero did, impose a view of reality that said what everyone else presumed to be perfectly acceptable, actually wasn’t, what seemed to be perfectly natural, wasn’t. The Eidolon meant to set straight mistakes, draw them out and correct them, while bending the rules of possibility. That was were the super heroic came from, because he went beyond the realm of ordinary possibility, not with power but with pure force of will, his own volition, determination, and skill.

His greatest skill was misdirection, the ability to confuse perception. His archenemy had decided that this was actually Cotton’s weakness, and had in his outing cast aside the importance of it, become its opposite force. Tekamthi, on Culver St, had in a way validated this edict of Cotton’s, misdirection, with the shed, and as he made his way down he found comfort with every step. There were no dogs on this street, which was another thing he found odd, as if every sign of life had been hidden away, like Tekamthi himself. How careful had he been? Had he gone too far? There was almost no risk at all, and that disturbed Cotton most of all. He had found himself living for the challenge, and that most of all had finally convinced him to reclaim the mantle of the Eidolon, which presently sat inside a plastic bag, which he struggled to carry, awkward and heavy as it was. He would shift it, in intervals of minutes, the periodic rate of it almost embarrassing, the frequency of it. Did he possess no strength? And he was a hero? Had he lost that strength, or ever had it?

The shed loomed. It became apparent that the shed had been breached, not in any ordinary way or even an obvious way, but in an unspoken sort of way, like an aura that penetrated it. Cotton could not help but notice; the sensation was all around him, the closer he got, like the shed had been violated and its wound were still fresh. This had not been someone who had know it, but rather a stranger, an intruder. An interloper. They had discovered its secret, which Cotton could still not quite grasp that he knew so easily, without having to be told. Balthazar had somehow bequeathed Cotton his memories, even before his passing. They had become a part of Cotton, even before they left Balthazar. As they left their original owner, and the owner felt them slip away, Cotton could not understand. They were still very much present for him, even more so, almost as if they should be, or had always been, and he just hadn’t known it, or realized it. Balthazar’s death had been a revelation, one he still needed to understand.

The door to the shed was breached, and placing his hand on it Cotton immediately jerked it away again, as in shock. The interloper had left his mark. There was also another presence. There always seemed to be, these days. Nothing was truly alone anymore, like it was all sending Cotton a message he could not help but learn, at last. He did have to be alone. He almost didn’t have a choice in the matter. Inside he noticed an old gardener’s bench, warn down not just by time but by use. Whomever had originally erected this shed, they had tended to their garden constantly, obsessively. Tekamthi tended to his own garden in the same way. Cotton his own, too. Everyone seemed to have their own garden.

By instinct again, Cotton found access to the secret passage, and found his way into the dark tunnel that had so alarmed Balthazar. Cotton produced a light on his keychain, and it helped him navigate his way, his fear. Outside, no one would notice this, no one curious. He could have left the passage unobscured, but he was not that careless. He could never allow himself to be, consciously. Except he knew had had been, in the past. It was what had created his archenemy, almost initiated the demise of the Eidolon. Instead, the hero within him had taken to hibernation. The thought of it was not a pleasant one. Wasn’t a hero supposed to be selfless? What part of the Eidolon had ever been?

In the almost complete darkness, Cotton could not help but reflect, and that may have been by Tekamthi’s design as well. If there was ever to be an invader to his fortress, they would not invade unscathed. Perhaps there had been others, and they had been repelled by this very defense. The interloper still left his mark, everywhere. Cotton could not properly observe them, but he knew there must be walls, and that these walls had known the interloper, who groped them in his own darkness, his despair. The passage continued for what seemed an eternity.

Finally, he knew he had reached the end, and the second presence was there with him. He reached for the light switch, reconsidered it, knowing the mystery would be revealed.. He called out first instead. “I know you are there.”

He didn’t need the light, or a reply, to know who it was waiting for him: Godsend. Revealed, his costume blinded more than the light, the sheen on the purple and gold preternaturally emboldened, which was of course by design, and perhaps unconsciously so. The second half of the Terrific Tandem, a relic of the past that perhaps, too, needed resurrecting continued to stand there in silence, as if expecting only Cotton to speak, as if Cotton alone needed to explain himself. How had Godsend known as Tekamthi’s lair? How had Godsend known of Tekamthi at all? How much had Cotton never truly known of his complimenting force?

“There is much to talk about,” he said. “Isn’t there?”

“There always seems to be,” Godsend said. “With you, that’s all there seems to be. I remember a time when you spent your time in silence.”

“A position you seemed to have assumed for yourself,” Cotton said.

“Every void is filled,” Godsend said. “Perhaps you hadn’t realized that.”

“You replaced me?” Cotton said.

“Don’t take everything so literally,” Godsend said. “The Tandem could never be replaced. I’m surprised you would make the suggestion.”

“I apologize for that,” Cotton said. “I have much to apologize for, don’t I?”

“Do not trouble yourself,” Godsend said.

“That’s what I’ve been doing, all my life,” Cotton said. “You didn’t come here by chance. And you’re not the first ghost of my past to find me today.”

“You could only avoid him for so long, Cotton,” Godsend said. “Did you really think you could avoid him indefinitely? He is your responsibility. I came here because of a different responsibility. You remember Rancor, of course. This war we face is because he is no longer alive. He maintained the balance within Traverse, even when he wasn’t here. His reputation, his activities, his battles with us, all this deterred the rest of the element from this war. Without this figurehead, the element deteriorated. Who could have ever seen that coming? Your friend. Viper.”

“I suppose that makes this my fault,” Cotton said.

“You should have seen this coming,” Godsend said. “Didn’t you tell me that the rest of us were overlooking the obvious? The obvious is what keeps the rest in check. You misinterpreted it, Cotton. We do not blame you, but we do wish you would reclaim your responsibility.”

“No such friendly embrace here,” Cotton said.

“Do not make light of the situation,” Godsend said.

“Says the man who waited in darkness,” Cotton said. “How long did you wait? How did you even know to come here? How did you even know this place existed?”

“Your resource at Humbert Savings,” Godsend said. “She only recently discovered this street’s secret. She knew what to do with her newfound knowledge. She doesn’t know what else to do. Another victim of your folly, Cotton. You haven’t been very careful. Isn’t that what you have always prided yourself on?”

“Since when did you adopt an attitude?” Cotton said.

“Since you forced me to,” Godsend said. “You changed the whole landscape. Congratulations. It may be your lasting achievement.”

“I was like that all along,” Cotton said. “Nothing changed.”

“Everything changed,” Godsend said. “Everything changed because you allowed it to. Everything became worse. You let everything corrupt.”

“Even you?” Cotton said.

“I fight the same battle,” Godsend said. “It never ends. You have actually made sure of it, haven’t you?”

“Tell me what I need to do,” Cotton said.

“You already know,” Godsend said, levitating and flying back down the passage, leaving Cotton alone, Cotton, who realized he still clung to the bag with the costume in it. He needed to put it on again, the costume he had worn only once before, the first time he had become the Eidolon.

Which wasn’t even true. He had become the Eidolon that day in Stonewine Alley, the day he saved Denny Hay, the day he lost himself. He liked to think that he had finally found himself again, that all the years he had obscured himself, even to himself, were finally in the past. But he was still fighting that past.

Later, when he had transformed himself again, Cotton noticed as he made his ascent the red cap that had been discarded by the interloper. The cycle continued.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Chapter Twenty-Four - Viper Sounds the Drums of War

“You just couldn’t give it up,” a voice said behind him. Cotton knew immediately who it was. He should have known long ago, but because he had heard it in two contexts for so long, even the minor hushes of Peter Cooley should have told him that his archenemy was present, for so long, for all those years. Of course, Viper had not been the Eidolon’s archenemy from the start, or at least not seemed that way. He had calculated his reveal, and it had come the day Cotton killed Rodrigo Ramirez in cold blood. Cotton himself had made the reintroduction. It was the kind of realization Viper had planned for, but he had miscalculated the impact. Cotton no longer cared.

“Whatever you thought I did to you, it was always in your mind, Viper,” he said.

“It was nothing you did to me,” Viper said, “but rather what you represented. After all this time, you still don’t understand. There is a limit to the imposition of will.”

“And you happen to draw the line at costumed heroes,” Cotton said.

“Because they assume too much,” Viper said. “Because they think they can operate out of the system to protect it.”

“So you did the same,” Cotton said, “only on the opposite side.”

“We all make compromises, Cotton,” Viper said. “Turn around. Drop the rags on the ground.”

Cotton did as he was told, even to the point of looking his enemy in the eye, which he had never done before. He was going to make a point of it from then on. “Compromises define us,” he said. “Congratulations on the obvious. But we don’t have to let them compromise ourselves.”

“You don’t know me,” Viper said. “You thought you did, but you didn’t, and you never bothered to try. Peter Cooley was the deaf man who helped you gather information at the Traverse Tracks. Viper was a nuisance. Don’t bother to say otherwise.”

“You were those things to me,” Cotton said. “I freely admit that. You also had my respect, in both identities. But it wasn’t enough. What did you need, Viper?”

“I needed nothing,” Viper said. “That was exactly the point. I needed nothing and you needed everything. I’m doing you a favor. I’m putting an end to your self-serving charade.”

Cotton heard the click on the barrel he knew was mounted to Viper’s wrist, the barrel that had murdered Calypso. He did not look at it, but he knew Viper was lifting it toward his head. “I will not play your games,” he said. “If you want to do that, go ahead. If you want to see this war of yours and live, you won’t. Yes, Viper, I don’t wish to see you dead. Even this calamity you’ve brought upon yourself, I won’t let it collapse around you, if I can help it. That’s all I can do, all I know how to do. If you don’t want me to try, kill me now. You think I brought this on you. You brought it on yourself. This costume is mine. The Eidolon is mine. You may think you can take it away from me, but you are mistaken. You have always been mistaken.”

“Fine,” Viper said, lifting his arm. “I’d like to see you try. I’d like to see what you think you can do in this war. And it isn’t mine. It belongs to the city of Traverse. It brought this upon itself. I will try my best, and while I do so, I will watch you fail. Again.”

Cotton watched as Viper made his exit, with no attempt to obscure his tracks. He had once played that game, but no longer found it necessary. Now everyone knew about him, and he reveled in it. For his part, Cotton determined to stage his transformation in the last ruins of the Dread Poet, the underground bunker on Culver St, long a legend and recently revealed to be fact. Balthazar had as much as told him so, Balthazar who no longer occupied the space in his mind as he had. There was something happening, something neither could understand.

“I did have more to lose,” Balthazar said. “I didn’t think so, but I did. I’m losing my mind. It’s not how I would have imagined it. When someone says they’re losing their mind, it’s to say that they’re becoming less rational. That’s not what’s happening. I feel myself fading away, and I can’t fight it. I don’t even want to try. I know I can’t. I don’t have the strength. It feels natural, somehow, as if this is supposed to be happening. I’m losing strands of myself, like threadwork coming undone, a lifetime uncoiling. I can’t even remember my wife’s name. What was she like? What did I do for Boy Benjamin? What is my earliest memory of him? I can’t remember. It’s as if they were never truly there to begin with, that they were somehow figments of my imagination. I know they were real, but their connection to me, they’re like lies, piercing into me, digging their way out again. I’m still rational, but my life begins to seem less and less so. How am I supposed to understand this? I feel as if I should accept it, and I don’t even know why.”

“I wish I knew what to say,” Cotton said. “You’ve been inside my head. I feel as if I should know, should be able to help you, but I can’t.”

“I’m getting what I should have gotten,” Balthazar said. “It’s finally come. This is the end.”

“Then don’t surrender to it,” Cotton said. “That’s the last thing you should be doing.”

“But I have no other choice,” Balthazar said. “Don’t you understand? That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I’m sitting here, watching things fall apart, and I feel helpless, and that is not a terrifying thought. It fills me with peace, Cotton. I can’t explain it, but it fills me with peace. I now understand that I have never known such a thing.”

“We’re going to Tekamthi’s bunker,” Cotton said. “That’s all you need to know. He said that he did not keep his memoirs, but he could have just been saying that. We’re going there and from there we will make our stand.”

“It’s very kind of you, to hold out strength for me,” Balthazar said. “But I don’t need it. I have to let this happen.”

“I’m telling you, Balthazar,” Cotton said. “You don’t! You don’t have to let this happen!”

“Believe what you want to,” Balthazar said. “We can go to William Tekamthi’s bunker. We can search through his files. Even if we did that, there would not be enough time. I wouldn’t last long enough. You don’t even have the time. There is so much to see there, and so much for you to do. You made the resolution to reclaim the Eidolon, now you’ve got to live up to that. Traverse needs you, more than I do, more than I ever did, more than you ever needed me. Don’t you understand?”

“We’re going,” Cotton said. “We’ll sort out the rest later. But we’re going. That’s all there is to it. I have to try.”

“Tell me, Cotton,” Balthazar said, “what happened to doing the smart thing? I can feel more of myself fading, as if I was never really here. Lotus took everything from me. He took everything. And now the rest of it is leaving me, what even he couldn’t take. I wonder what he would say? I wonder why he thought he had to do this. I wonder why he thought he had to plunge this city into Armageddon. How tormented a soul is he? Doesn’t he understand we all are?”

“Of course he does,” Cotton said. “We all know that. Some of us just care more than others, some of us can ignore it, because we only care about ourselves. I cared only for myself for so long.”

“You only thought you did,” Balthazar said. “You didn’t understand yourself, Cotton. You only thought you did. And you know what? You never will. You will find peace when you accept that. And that‘s what you‘ve been doing, Cotton, trying to find peace. That‘s all we have ever done.

“Cotton? Who is Cotton? Who am I? I don’t even know anymore. I don’t know anything. I’ve lost everything. I watch it as it fades away. I can follow its trail. It makes a lovely light.”

With these words, Cotton felt Balthazar Romero leave him, for the last time. Once again, Cotton Colinaude was alone, almost as if he had always been that way, and that it was only delusion that told him otherwise. He continued onward, to Tekamthi’s bunker. Thanks to Balthazar, he knew where it was, how he could access it. Such a clever man, Tekamthi had been, to accepted cleverness as the only redeeming quality of man, to understand all that it gave mankind, to realize that it alone gave mankind anything.

He was already failing Balthazar’s memory, for he had no idea what he had been talking about, and could feel nothing in regards to what Balthazar had lost, before he lost himself utterly. He should have felt something, but there was nothing, nothing but emptiness, and it troubled him, this void that Balthazar had created, as if he had been there forever, inside Cotton’s mind, and once gone, had taken a part of Cotton with him. All he could do was continue on, and he was angry with himself for doing so. He had not allowed himself to be angry in ages, and the fact that he was troubled him all the more. Anger led to worse things. He knew this all too well.

So he walked, onward in his torment, as if the walking was his own punishment. He passed the gas station again and noticed that two more cents had dropped. This time he could say that it had finally, unequivocally, fallen below two dollars, and that cheered him a little, like a triumph, even though he had no part of it and would not be in the least bit directly affected. He had no car. Still, he accepted it for what it was. He would have liked to have had that conversation with his father. Just the thought of it cheered him more. He could use all of that, all of the cheer he could muster. As dark as the days were he was finally escaping, darker days yet loomed ahead, darker than he had ever known, had ever expected to know, and nothing like he would ever had expected. This war that lay ahead, it would be like none other, and yet like every other in history. It would bring about devastation, destruction. No one could say what would be lost, but it would be great, incalculable, unfathomable. He could not face it alone.

And he knew who to turn to. It had been so long, like everything else he had once known. But he would have to see the Alabama Lamb, one more time. He would need to ask for one more favor. This time, it would not be personal. He had that much consolation. He wondered if Godsend would listen, if Godsend already knew what was about to happen, and why. He wondered what Godsend would say. He wondered if Godsend was already fighting it.

But first Tekamthi’s bunker, where the Eidolon would be reborn.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Chapter Twenty-Three - Waking the Eidolon

Something was happening. Balthazar couldn’t quite pin it, but something was happening. Cotton, who seemed to have been absent recently, had appeared again, but they were no longer talking. Cotton was, instead, directing them somewhere, as if they finally had somewhere to go, which was refreshing, but also curious in turn. Had Cotton been scheming? If so, why was he not discussing it, or at least letting Balthazar in on it?


When he had made the decision to give up his heroic career, Cotton had burned every last costume, save one. He kept the first he had ever worn as the Eidolon, ostensibly for nostalgic reasons but also, he gradually realized, because he knew if he was ever going to wear this guise again, it would have to symbolize a new beginning, and he could think of no better way to do that than to wear the original garb of the Eidolon, which actually took slightly different form than the others. As the template, it looked a little bolder, even now, years after its creation by Matilda Grenier, friend of his mother in a previous life. The midnight blue that formed the base of the composition was not quite as dark as it would become, while the silver trimmings, from the half-crescent logo on the chest to the belt, visor, boots and gloves were thinner than they later turned out to be. He found he still liked it best, even though he had barely worn it originally, though he could never have explained why. Grenier, and her successors, had made modifications along the way, perhaps in response to work he had commissioned for a traveling stage show featuring a similar design for the lead character of the Begotten Fowl, whom Cotton had conceived as a way to deflect attention from the Eidolon’s own origins. The Fowl reflected a variation on his struggle to gain flight, as it were. Not surprisingly, he would later reflect, that flight became tragic by play’s end, with his Icarus repeating history in very much the same manner the original story had conceived, felled by his own hubris. What had he been trying to escape? His own father’s shadow. In Cotton’s case, his own.

Of course, William Tekamthi had not helped. It was Tekamthi who had given Cotton his copy of the Sidewinder’s memoir, which had so inspired him, both to make Traverse his home and to become a hero himself, as well as warn him of the risk he ran in doing so. At the time, Tekamthi was more engaged in his latter-days activities. On the day Cotton received his public adulation for rescuing Denny Hay, Tekamthi had approached him with the book, and told him to heed it wisely. He had emerged in the daylight, in front of all, had been an official participant in the ceremony, headlined with the mayor, whom Cotton had no memories of other than a photograph he for years kept in his back pocket, until it became too worn, so he threw it away without another thought. The assembly had loved Tekamthi then, still aware of who he was and what he had publicly accomplished. Then he withdrew himself and became forgotten. Even old men couldn’t recall him in later years, and it was exactly what he wanted.

Well, that was not going to be the Eidolon’s fate. Cotton had been thinking about it since Balthazar made him, and there had been so much to consider. He had so much to fear, so much more to lose, and he had all but decided against it when an old friend reappeared. Well, old friend wouldn’t be quite right, but he was at least an old acquaintance, if old were considered liberally enough. He called himself Dust now, but Cotton had mostly known him by reputation in the past, and when he finally met the man, everything fell apart around him, from Calypso’s murder to Dust’s own apparent death…and the assassination of Rodrigo Ramirez, the Cad. They were terrible times indeed, and a bad omen, but Cotton was open to discussion. Discussion just wasn’t what Dust had in mind, though.

He seemed to present Cotton with images for consideration, of past accomplishments as the Eidolon, some he remembered and others he had forgotten, and still more he could never have known about. It was then that he learned the fate of a boy he thought had died, on the day he killed Ramirez, which had had such influence on his actions and thoughts, had plagued him, the failure of it. He could never accept failure, and the Cad had been his greatest failure, when all along he had been telling himself that it would be his greatest achievement, because no one else had been concerned about him. He learned that there were, in fact, those who had been concerned about the boy who had become so entangled in Traverse’s gang culture, shot in crossfire the Eidolon had so desperately tried to disrupt. Besides the EMTs Cotton had not seen arrive to collect him, there was the concerned family, a widowed father and three sisters, all younger, who had given up on the boy, and each other, but who now came together to watch over his recovery, which carried on steadily. Cotton wept to learn this.

Dust, in fact, had nothing to say to Cotton, but he wanted to. Cotton could tell, and he could see that Dust was waiting, although for what Cotton could only guess, perhaps for Cotton himself to be ready. What did he need to do? The decision to resurrect the Eidolon was a pleasing one, a step in the right direction. Even before he had recovered the old costume, the glimmer of thought he’d given it was enough for Dust, who took it as all he needed, departing just as soon, as quickly, as he’d made his appearance.

Resurrecting the Eidolon. There was so much implication in it, so much conceit; Cotton had perhaps avoided it, rejected it for so long, because he really did fear himself, and he began to understand that he had taken on this role, in the beginning, for the same reason. He wasn’t saving others, but rather himself, directing a force he had found within himself that he could not understand, or accept. He became the Eidolon because he did not believed the Eidolon existed, and Rodrigo’s murder had finally convinced him, for a time, that he had been right all along. He really wasn’t a hero. There were no heroes, not really, just pretenders, poseurs. He had come to the conclusion that he had been part of the problem all along because he did not believe in good anymore. It was nothing more than a concept, and an abstract one at that. It was amazing the things one could convince oneself of.

But there was merit to the things he had learned since then, in his explorations, in his time off. He would adopt a new method, sparing himself the rod while he became the ram with greater efficiency than he had ever known before, and he had been a student of efficiency, or so he had always thought, had always told himself. He could no longer allow himself to make mistakes. If he accepted a new burden, it was to carry the memory of his failure with him, as a constant reminder of the path he needed to remain on.

He knew it was impossible, but he was willing to accept that, too, because he had finally found a measure of peace, borne of the peace that dead friends had left behind. Tekamthi had been his friend, whether Tekamthi realized it or not. Hopper’s death, in the way it played out, had validated the course their lives had taken, which was important, because it brought closure to what had ruptured Cotton’s life in the first place. Whereas Hopper had never lost his innocence, it seemed as if Cotton had never truly known his, and that was the greatest loss any individual could bear. Cotton almost hadn’t. He spent most of his life agonizing over it, wondering if it had ever been in his control, if it were ever in anyone’s.

Tekamthi’s life seemed to suggest it wasn’t. As the Dread Poet, he had dedicated the remaining years of his life to anonymity, the theory that good things did not need to be recognized to be understood, or appreciated, but rather that they merely be allowed to be what they were because that was all that truly mattered. In effect, it seemed to work better that way, because it negated the possibility of analysis, which was both mankind’s greatest gift and worst failing. Putting too much thought into anything, whether well-intentioned or otherwise, had an alienating effect, and mankind was not meant to be alone.

To recover the costume, he made his way to Cumberland Cemetery, located in one of the older districts in the city. Most of those buried there had been so for a long time. The recently added needed special claim. Cotton had made a burial plot he thought filled such a need, in the memory of Odin Roy, digging the hole himself and leaving the costume within, filling the dirt again so that no one would have noticed the ground had been disturbed. It was only a grave of sorts, and had no tombstone. He supposed there might have been a possibility that someone might have eventually used the site for a more official ceremony, but it was a slight one and he had been willing to take the chance. Perhaps he had always risked too much. This time, however, the risk paid off.

He noticed that not so far away from his unmarked plot lay the final resting place of Aubrey Oldenburgh, someone who had once shown him kindness. He had nothing to leave for her except his vow to become the man she had always believed he was. Others had already left flowers, and a card. Cotton wondered if he should read it, if he owed her that, too. He no longer knew what he owed the world, but he knew he owed it something, and the Eidolon would be, would continue to be, the method of his repayment. Maybe not everyone had a debt, maybe no one did, but he had chosen to assume his, long ago, and that choice had bound him to itself. He no longer had a choice. This was his consequence, and he would learn to deal with it; he had no other choice.

It was still early in the afternoon. He had time to retrieve his costume and refill the hole once more, and consider where he would make his transformation into the Eidolon. He had once had so many options. They were gone now, as was his past. This was a new beginning, and he was determined to make the most of it. He needed to choose wisely.