The Dreadmask Chronicles

Chapter 5: Aspect of Harshness

the dreadmask, horned and sigiled

"The rest of them reached the ship, and as the last man came reeling through the port, the door swung shut and began spinning upon its threads. Almost instantly I gave the order for vertical ascent at emergency speed, but before the order could be obeyed, the ship lurched suddenly, rolled half over, and swung back with a jolt. As the power was applied, the ship rose at a crazy angle, hung there trembling for a moment, and then sank back to the ground. The load was too great. I knew then that we were in the power of the thing that had come wriggling out of that sea of rotting weeds.

"I got the message off to Arpan before our radio emanation plates were grounded or destroyed by the coils of the monster. At intervals, I have tried to pull away, but each time the thing tightens its coils angrily, until the fabric of the ship groans under the strain. We have heard you calling us, faintly and faultily. I have been waiting for you to reach me with the menore. You have come at last, and I am at your orders. If you cannot help us, we are lost, for we shall all go mad."

"We'll have you in the clear very soon," I assured him with a confidence I did not feel. "Stand by for further communications, and—are your generators working?"

"Yes. They're in perfect order. If only the beast would uncoil himself—"

"We'll see to that very shortly. Stand by."

"I will try, but my men grow frantic. If there is anything we can do that will be of use to your rescue efforts, any task I could give them—"

"Keep your generators working. Reinforce their casing, should the beast attempt to crush those chambers. Beyond that, all you need do is stay ready for our arrival. You will be saved."

I hung up. Unfortunately, there was no way to save him or his men from the kraken. Its coils were too strong, its hide too thick. But there was no point in telling him that. Better to let his final moments keep some glimmer of hope.

"Arpan, how long do they have?"

He swallowed. "Uh, it's looking pretty bad. Maybe another half-hour or so. Less if they panic and do something that makes the kraken even angrier. But, if we use the menore—"

"No! We don't know if it would work, not with certainty. Even if it did, using it now would draw too much attention. And if it didn't? If the menore didn't stop the kraken, and it then turned its baleful coils toward us? You would have the menore lost to the wriggling monstrosity of the depths?"

Arpan, despite his faults, has always been able to admit when he's wrong. He flushed with shame and could barely meet my eyes. "You're right, of course. My apologies, Commander."

"Accepted. Assemble a recovery team and prepare a shuttle. I want them ready to move out the minute it's clear out there. I'll handle drawing the kraken away personally."

"Personally? But, but—"

"You have your orders, Arpan. Do I need to repeat them?"

"I— no, Commander. I'll see to it immediately."

As he left the bridge, I permitted myself a smile. The loss of lives that would inevitably come was regrettable, yes, but the salvage we could reap! Especially if those generators stayed intact.

I have often thought, looking back on my life, that the desire to help others and the desire to enrich oneself are not so different. Indeed, those who see them as opposites betray their own hypocrisy, their own refusal to treat all persons equally. I do not regret my avarice, any more than philanthropists regret their charity. I merely regret that the two are not commonly accepted as equal. Our society is harsh to the salvagers and vultures of the world. They wish us to have no moral consolation beyond our vast wealth and power. But I, I have consolation aplenty. A loyal crew, a love of myself, a treasure waiting to be drawn into the hungry hold of my ship, what better life could there be? What surer sign of my virtue?

I charged into my walk-in closet, eager to gird myself for battle. I strode past my formal uniforms, past the racks of useless party dresses that were here only because regulations mandated it, past the shoe-tree whose fruits littered the floor. I had eyes only for the wall of armor.

The nanomesh breastplate, the wristguards with their concealed flamejets, the rocket boots, the cold iron skirt, the sorcerous spined shoulderguards of Silnova, all would be valuable. But those alone would not suffice. I had to look imposing enough to seem a fitting target for a kraken. No common warrior would appeal to such a hulk. Its prey were the fiercest beasts and the largest airships.

The public believes me fond of masquerade balls, famously so. I do find enjoyment in them, but in truth, this image I have cultivated for practical reasons. Not only is it one of the more palatable justifications for maintaining a collection of dreadmasks, it serves as encouragement for the creators of such objects to make themselves known to you.

Dora Belmopan is the most timid-seeming girl I've known, but her skills as a masksmith are unparalleled. Years ago I persuaded her, at great expense, to construct one to my precise and rather illegal specifications. At the time, I had no idea when I would get an opportunity to use it against a kraken. I knew only that someday such an opportunity must come, for I could not tolerate the existence of a beast more terrible than me.

The dreadmask fit perfectly, a testament to the hours I once spent sitting for Dora as she mapped out every contour of my face. She believed the process aroused me. She was not entirely wrong, but once the commission was fulfilled, I found it impossible to feign further interest. No matter. The mask was just as I wished it. And now, with it between me and the world, I saw everything as it should be, and felt the power to make it thus forever.

Of course, I also had with me the menore, nestled safely in my purse. I had spoken the truth to Arpan: using it here and now would be a grave mistake. But to leave it behind would be worse.

Thus prepared, I made my way to the airlock. The heels of my rocket boots clicked along the gleaming chrome floor. Crewmembers prostrated themselves before my armored might. My penis throbbed with battlelust.

As I rose into the air, I beheld the kraken. I had seen them on screens, or in illustrated manuscripts. Never before in person. Even through the sight of my dreadmask, it was daunting. The sea of rotting weeds still obscured its bulk, but its coiling tentacles were a forest filling the sky. They were a sickly greenish-gray, covered in suction cups the size of cattle. I resolved to commend my pilot's bravery later. Few would be willing to take us so close.

The kraken's attention was still fixed on the ship it had caught. I watched as the coils tightened, and the cracks in the hull deepened.

Would that I were able to save them! But the kraken does not abandon its prey. Once caught, you will not be willingly relinquished. If I were able to incapacitate it— No. I knew that to be beyond my limits. For now I could only watch, hovering in the air. I imagined how I must look to anyone below who dared to draw their gaze skyward. I would be to them an angel of the sun, radiant and harsh to look upon, defiant against a backdrop of malevolent chaos.

I didn't have to wait long. The captured ship finally snapped in half. Each half was then squeezed further by a separate tentacle, as the kraken's coils were more than plentiful enough for the task. Those too cracked, and the kraken, assured now of its victory, let the scraps fall. I was pleased to note that one such piece was the generator housing, still intact. They had taken my advice to heart, and I would reap the rewards.

Naturally, Arpan's team couldn't do any meaningful salvaging while the beast was still here. I activated my dreadmask at full strength, and flew towards the center of the coiling mass.

The kraken reacted instantly. Its tentacles thrashed wildly through the air, and its head, large as a mountain, reared up. A single eye stared with perfect focus as it tried to make sense of me.

The exact appearance projected by a dreadmask depends on the viewer. I know only aspects of what the kraken saw in me, and those only through the resonance that permits it to affect my perceptions in turn. To it I was a monster out of the beginning of time, a twisted thing of scales and talons, a sky studded with eyes, a poison at the heart of all that lives. I was a threat, and my presence unbearable.

Although I saw the world as though I were a beast even a kraken could dread, I remained aware that I was in fact a mere person. Albeit a person outfitted with the finest armor on my ship; a person who blazed through the sky like a beautiful explosion; the first person, as far as I know, who found a way to grab the attention of a kraken single-handedly. In that moment, I was the most glorious Commander the world had known. Was I so far off from the might of the horror my mask made me appear? Was the reality any less wondrous than the illusion?

I flew off, taunting the kraken and leading it away from the valuable scrap metal below. I laughed as I raced. The wind whipped my hair around, but the dreadmask kept it out of my eyes. Well constructed, Dora. I have to give her that.

My rocket boots are faster than what I believed the top speed of a kraken to be. But never before had one been so goaded as this. A tentacle, thick as a redwood, slapped against me. It flinched away when it felt the cold iron of my skirt, but then grabbed me once more, flinching no longer. That was to be expected. No substance is so noisome as to dissuade a kraken for good.

I patted my purse to reassure myself I still had it, and the menore within. Then I realized my mistake. I had never seriously considered the possibility of losing to the kraken, or the disaster of the menore falling into its clutches. And even if I were foolish enough to use it as a last-ditch measure, it seemed unlikely to accomplish much against such a titanic foe.

Another tentacle lashed at my face, and pulled my dreadmask away. I was exposed now for what I was, and for the first time in many years, I felt powerless.

Editor's note: The first five paragraphs of this chapter were originally published in 1931, as part of "The Terror from the Depths" by Sewell Peaslee Wright.

Venture into the map room?