Truth. Justice. Minesweeper.

Monday, July 19, 2004

So. The vigil wears on, and I really do start seeing all these weird things in the dark (none of which I remember now). Eventually Sir Calos and Sir Jeremis haul me out of there and I babble something at them in my sleep-deprived state. They decide my soul’s been sufficiently purified and put me to bed.

Next morning I wake up and it’s time to go. Greyghost and Perseid are off doing something martial, so I don’t get to say goodbye to them or anything. The idea is that Sir Calos is going to escort me to the great Eft Temple out in, where else, the Unpronounceable Swamp. (Actually, that’s not the swamp’s real name, but the real name is, guess what, unpronounceable. By me, anyway.)

It took us about a day and a half to get there. Observation number one: Horseback riding? Overrated.
The swamp was... what shall I say? I’ve never been a wilderness guy. It was dark and dreary and really, really wet, and there were a lot of bugs. They didn’t seem to be bothering Calos, though, and that was another thing. He could ride; I couldn’t. The bugs left him alone; not me. I got branches whipping me in the face; he didn’t. What’s the difference between him and me? (Other than the fact that he knows how to ride, I mean.) I know there is one, but I can’t put my finger on it.

Eventually we arrive at the temple. I’m covered in mud; Calos is not. Doesn’t look like any temple I’ve ever heard of. Basically it’s a stone tiled floor in a raised area. The tiles make all kinds of patterns, but the important part is the circular hole in the center tile. About the size of a manhole.

"There," Calos said, pointing at the hole.

"There what?"

"That’s where the Ordeal takes place."

"Not following you."

He smiled faintly. "You have to go down that hole, Master Relser."

I went over to check it out. The thing was full of murky water. "Come on," I said.

"It’s true."

"I’m not going down there. Are you kidding?"

Calos shrugged. "Then let’s go back."

I sighed. "No, hold on. What’s down there?" All I could see was black water.

"I don’t know," he said. "It’s supposed to be different for everybody."

"I know, I’ve heard the stories. But is there, like, a tunnel or something? It’s not all underwater, is it?"

"Are you going or not?"

Aw, man. I really didn’t want to. It looked gross and scary; not a good combination. Plus there was that whole not-everyone-comes-back-from-this aspect of things. "Oh well," I said, held my breath and jumped.

Observation number two: Cold!

Usually when you jump into the water, you drop for a while and then bob to the surface. I didn’t bob. I sort of drifted further down, and was starting to run out of breath when I felt some vines and weeds and stuff start to twine around me and pull me into the earth. (There was, suddenly, earth from somewhere.)

The weeds pushed me through the earth until I came out, gasping and spitting, in the middle of a chamber. It was dimly lit with phosphorus or something. There were stone walls and arches and whatnot all around. A man, your basic hooded figure, was seated on a throne against the far wall. I decided this was my guy.

I brushed some of the mud off my face and clothes, staggered to my feet, and approached. He turned his head and regarded me. I couldn’t see his face under the hood.

"Before we get started with the ordeal part," I said, "I’d like to know how I’m going to get out of here afterwards."

"It’ll take care of itself," the HF said. His voice sounded familiar, in a way.

"All right," I said. "So what’s first?"

"Well, the deal here is that you’re supposed to face and overcome your greatest fears and inner demons. That’s me. So go ahead."

"Okay. I face you." I was looking right at him, after all.

"Okay." He took off the hood and robe. Underneath was the stupidest-looking damn superhero outfit I ever saw. It looked kind of like that cheeseball Greyghost costume I found in the back room of the office, only it had a plastic Lone Ranger mask and a beach towel for a cape. And instead of the little ghost emblem on the chest, there were the words ‘Eft Man’.

"You’re trying to tell me that you’re my inner demon? A lame-ass superhero?"

"I’m one of them. I’m the one who’s plaguing you the most these days."

"Uh huh," I said. "How do you figure?"

He pulled off the plastic mask to reveal his face. For a moment I couldn’t figure out who I was looking at, and then I realized it was my face. I laughed.

"What?" he said.

"Don’t even start," I said. "Of all the unoriginal things I’ve seen in this world, you are the most recent. What a frigging waste of time. Look at this mud and crap all over me."

"Very funny," he said. "But you’re not doing what you have to do to get through this ordeal. You have to face me and overcome me. What you’re doing right now? It’s called ‘avoiding the issue’."

"What issue? There’s no issue. I came to the swamp, I went swimming, I met myself in a funny suit, I want to go home. There’s your issue."

"I must admit you’re different from most of the questors I see coming in here. Usually I’m a giant spider or something and they’re coming after me with swords. This is more fun. But you’re not doing that well."

"Oh, well why don’t you help me out, then?"

"Yeah," he said, "because that’s just what I’m here for."

"Of course it is," I said. "If you’re supposed to be me, you have to help me. Because that’s what I’d do if I was me. You. Me."

"Nice try."

"I’m gonna sit down over here," I said, pointing at a fallen pillar.

"Be my guest."

I looked at him. Me. Let’s say ‘him’. He looked ridiculous in the costume. "The idea is, I’m a superhero, is that what I’m trying to get out of this?"

"Close. The idea is that you’re a lame superhero. Aren’t you? Look at your life. Not only are you a superhero, you’re the worst superhero in the world. This isn’t just a funny suit I’m wearing. It’s the reality of your life."

"No, it’s not. How am I a superhero? What the hell are you talking about?"

"Bob already explained this to you. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten the conversation, because I happen to know that you think about it at least ten times a day. The good news is that we seem to have moved on from ‘humor’ to ‘denial’, which is progress. I suppose."

"Oh, you mean that because I have no life, I have to keep my work a secret from everybody, I work about seventy-five hours in an average week and I’m involved in crimefighting, that makes me a superhero? Makes me a loser, maybe, but I’m generally willing to admit that."

"Actually it makes you a loser and a superhero," he said.

"Well, I don’t have any powers, or a costume, or a lame codename, so technically--"

"To hell with technically," he said. "I don’t deal with technicalities here. I’m talking about what you are."

"But I don’t want to be a superhero," I said without thinking.

"Ah!" he said, and walked over and fingerflicked me on the forehead. "That’s the point! That’s why I’m your damn inner demon! You are one, but you don’t want to be one!"

I thought about it, but didn’t see any way out. "Okay. Fine. For all intents and purposes I’m a superhero. I accept that. Can I go now?"


"What the hell! Why not?"

"You’ve faced me, but you haven’t overcome me."

"Okay. Rock, paper, scissors?"

"Oh good," he said. "The humor’s back. How I’ve missed it."

"Kiss my ass," I told him. "There’s no way to overcome anything here. Okay, so I’m a superhero. There’s nothing to be done about it. And I don’t want to be one. Nothing to be done about that either."

"Okay. Then I guess you’re going to be down here for quite a while. Hope you brought some sandwiches."

"Is this the ordeal here, having to listen to your rapier wit?"

"No. Usually it’s me killing whoever shows up. But you’re a different kind of customer. You’ve got a very different set of fears than the run-of-the-mill visitor."

"Well, let me ask you this, then. Is there a way to overcome you? In this case?"

"Yes, but you wouldn’t be interested," he said.

"You’re about to say that I have to stop not wanting to be a superhero, is that it?"

"No, actually I wasn’t about to say that; I was going to make you figure it out. Congratulations."

"Well, why would anyone want to be a superhero?" I said.

"That’s not the question. The question is, why would you?"

"It would be cool having superpowers," I mused.

"That’s nice," he said. "Nobody’s offering them to you, though, so it’s not a real helpful reason."

"The problem is, it’s a violent way of life. And I’m not a violent guy. So that’s a problem right there."

"Really," he said.


"If you’re waiting for me to do your heavy lifting here, I’m not going to. Work it out for yourself."

Fine. "But it’s not like I have to do anything violent anyway," I said. "Greyghost and Perseid take care of that whole side of things. Usually."

"There you go."

"But I’m supporting them. Like I approve of what they’re doing."

"And you don’t."

"Well. Yes and no. In theory I don’t. In practice I don’t think either of them would ever do anything I had a real problem with. Much as I hate to admit it." I thought some more. "There are other reasons. The whole superhero thing. It’s so... It’s so corny. Look at what you’re wearing. ‘Eft Man’. How can I take Eft Man seriously, for Christ’s sake?"

"I know what you mean," he said. "Seems insoluble. Might as well give up now."

I was on a roll, though. Is this what therapy’s like? "I do take Greyghost seriously, though. And Perseid, and Bob. They have perspective, and they’re, you know, real people. Down to earth. They aren’t corny. It’s like the costumes and codenames are just a way of... I don’t know."

"You were doing pretty well there for a second," he said. "You know exactly what the costumes and codenames mean, but you’re scared of it."
Ever have it, when you’re talking about something really intense, and you start trembling? Like you’re keyed up all over? I was doing that just then. "All right, I do know. To be a superhero, you have to believe in being a superhero, and you have to believe it strongly enough to put on leotards and call yourself Eft Man. And I don’t believe in anything that strongly, and I don’t see why these people should."

He let that hang in the air for a moment, and said, "That’s most of it. I’ll give you this detail for free, though. You can’t be ironic about being a superhero. You’re used to being ironic about everything, and that’s why the names seem hokey to you. But superheroes aren’t ironic about their names or costumes. They’re trying to make a point."

"So that’s my problem," I said. "I have to believe in something."


"Well, helping people. Saving lives. That’s what it’s all about, right?"

"Is it?"

"No. I mean, yeah, it is, but I really don’t get knocked over by that aspect of what Greyghost does. For one thing, I’m not sure it does help people in the long run. Plus, if all I wanted was to help people, there’re lots of ways I could go about it. So I can’t really say that I believe in it."

"I told you you were an unusual guy. You’ve just told me you don’t believe in helping people, and I’m telling you that that’s progress. Never thought I’d hear myself say that."

I thought some more. About the job, about what I liked about it, what I didn’t, what made me come into work every day. At the start it was the money, but now I didn’t really think about money. The work itself was interesting, sometimes, but almost all work is interesting if you can get into it. And it was a unique opportunity, but that kind of appeal wears off after about a week. I was glad to be helping Greyghost help people, I guess, but the connection between me and them was too indirect to be really satisfying. Then I realized.

"I like Greyghost," I said.


"Yeah. I like how he never says anything unless he has to. I like how he always has a plan. I like how he ignores me whenever I smart off at him, despite the fact that that’s what he keeps me around for. I think he’s a good guy. I think Empire City is in good hands with him around. I believe in him, and I’m proud to be able to help him out. You said before that I was a superhero? I’m not just any superhero. I’m Greyghost’s assistant, and I want to keep being his assistant.

"Another thing," I continued, "I believe in Perseid. Anyone who wants to be a superhero out of gratitude? I respect the hell out of that, and I’m glad to be able to help her get started. Also I’m proud to be Bob’s friend. Here’s one of the most famous guys in the country, and he totally refuses to act like it. He’s cool. I believe in him, too. All these people--I’ve gotten to know them, and I want to help them. It’s not because I want to fly around and stop the train from going over the cliff. And I don’t believe what they believe, but I do believe in them."

"Great," he said. "Turns out that didn’t take long at all."


"That’s it. You overcame me. Congratulations. Ask your question."

"Oh. Um. Right. Thanks. How can we best help defend King Perethur’s throne from Baron Spinbryony?"

He snorted. "There’s other stuff you want to know a lot more than that."

"Tell me about it. That’s my question, though."

"There’s going to be a ball a couple of days after you get back to the castle," he said. "You three should attend."

"Simple as that?"

"No. But that’s what you need to know."

The phosphorus was fading. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Then Sir Calos was shaking me awake.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

"Fine," I said. "Can we get out of here?"

Greyghost and Perseid were there to greet me when we rode in. I fell off my horse and limped over to them.

"Care to explain to me why you picked me for this mission?" I asked Greyghost.

"I know a lot about my inner demons," he said. "And I can guess something about Perseid’s. You, though... I wasn’t worried about anything dangerous in your subconscious."

"What was it like?" Perseid said. "Did you have to fight anything?"

I shrugged. "It was one of those deals like in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke goes into the thing and takes his lightsaber even though Yoda says not to, and Vader’s there and Luke kills him only it turns out Vader was Luke all along. Kind of pathetic, really."

"Wow," she said. "So did you kill yourself too?"

"Nah. It turns out I’m kind of an asshole, though."

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