Paul S. Kemp

Midnight's Mask

There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.

— the Bard, from Hamlet



The darkness of the deep enshrouded Ssessimyth. Ponderous currents caressed his body, flowed over and past his bloated, pained bulk. In a lazy, distant way, he remembered long ago swimming those currents, hunting in them. Then, fear at his approach had emptied the sea before him for a league. But no longer. He had not left the bottom in centuries; he had hardly stirred at all since he had found the Source.

Centuries ago the Source's plaintive cries had welled up from the depths and filled Ssessimyth's mind, drawn him to the ruins piled on the sea floor at the base of an underwater cliff. Even that slight initial touch-a mental brushing, little more-had stimulated his brain and sent pulses of pleasure through his limbs. He had been addicted from the first. He had swum down into the dark, torn feverishly at the cast-offs of the ruined city, dislodging stones, pillars, buildings, and mud, until. .

He had found it buried beneath the sediment-covered ruins of the ancient city in which it had been born, partially embedded in the rock of the sea bed. Its sparkling facets had hypnotized him. Their soft orange light was the sole illumination in the depths, and the Source's soft, hypnotic voice was the sole illumination in his soul.

He had extended two tentacles to touch it and the contact changed him forever. Almost instantly, the outside world became vague and unimportant, while the world of his mind, and the mind of the Source, their mind became his universe.

Ever since, he lay in the mud and drank, contented.

Over time, the Source had ceased calling to the outside. Ssessimyth swallowed its cries until it had surrendered to a hopeless, dozy slumber. Now it spoke only to him. He had its universe to himself.

The real world intruded upon his perception only distantly. He felt upon his body the pressure of the ruined temples, shops, academies, columns, and broken statues that lay in a towering heap around and atop him. He had burrowed into the ruins over the years, to get nearer the Source. He lay at the root of a desolate city. The humans who had built the city were dead, destroyed by the foolishness of one of their greatest. When the Source had called for them there had been no one to hear, no one but Ssessimyth. Their city had become their graveyard, his paradise.

Ssessimyth lay unmoving in the ruin's embrace, at the center of creation. Silence reigned; darkness ruled. He and the Source were one. Nothing need ever change.

He lay in the mud and drank, contented.

In the tunnels around him he sensed the movement of his minions. They had found him a few centuries after he had bonded with the Source. Thinking him a god, they worshiped him. He sometimes thrilled them by using the Source to communicate with the minds of their priests. The tribe made him offerings, bringing meat for his beak and cleaning the open wound in his head.

The wound and the chronic pain were Ssessimyth's offering to the Source, his self-mortification. In return, he received a universe.

Over the centuries, he had driven the soft flesh of his head against the Source until his brain had touched it. That physical contact, coupled with the mental oneness, had expanded his consciousness and transformed him into something more than mortal, though perhaps less than divine.

He did not open his eyes to see his minions, though he knew the priests were about to perform some ritual near his body. In truth, he had not opened his eyes in decades. Everything he wanted to see he saw in his mind, in the dreaming mind of the Source. He felt his minions' thoughts around him only as distant echoes.

He lived through past ages in his mind. He felt the elated, terrifying moment when the Source was born, felt it rise from nothingness to sentience on the strength of an arcanist's spell; he saw a city built on a mountaintop that floated through the sky; he saw the arts and sciences of surface-dwellers rise to glorified heights. He lived and died the lives of thousands, alternating experiences as his whim took him.

He saw, too, the death of the city. The magic holding it aloft had failed-for a time, all magic had failed-and the city had plummeted into the sea, leaving the Source as its only survivor, alone in the dark. That part he had relived only once, and never again.

He squirmed his enormous bulk harder against the Source and it sank a minuscule degree deeper into his brain. Pain knifed through his head, but ecstasy too. His tentacles spasmed slightly. The ruins shifted with a grating sound, and he knew his movement had cast up a cloud of mud and sediment.

Ssessimyth sensed the alarm and delight among his minions. They considered any movement of his body to be a propitious sign. No doubt they considered his movement a response to their ritual. Likely the priests would organize a hunt that night and bring him what they slew as an offering.

The acute pain in his head passed, leaving only an ache, ecstasy, and wonder. He let his tentacles fall once more into their places on the sea floor as another mental vista opened before him. He was an arcanist, plumbing the subtleties and mysteries of the Weave; he was a courtesan serving the peculiar tastes of the highborn; he was a priest of Kozah the Thunderer whose sermons sent thousands into battle.

He drank the Source's dreams eagerly-living and dying a hundred times in an hour, eating, drinking, copulating, vomiting, loving, laughing, hating, crying, killing, all within a mental universe in which only he and the Source existed.

Meanwhile, his great body lay quiescent in the cold dark.

He was content. Things need never change.



Plummeting from the tower, Cale perceived the moment stretching. Air roared past his ears. Shadows poured from his flesh, no doubt trailing after his fall like the tail of a comet.

Above him sounded the despondent, furious wail of the Skulls and the crack of breaking stone. The cavern was falling to pieces, smashing the ruined Netherese city on the cavern floor. Lightning and a baleful green beam split the air beside him-ill-aimed spells from the Skulls.

Beside him, Magadon and Jak shouted as they fell. He clutched each of their cloaks in one of his hands. They clutched at him, whatever they could grab. The shadows leaking from his flesh coalesced, enshrouded them.

The floor of the collapsing cavern rushed up to meet them. The moment was stretched to its limit; it was ending. Cale had to act or die alongside his friends.

Cale felt the darkness around him the same way he felt the air-a tangible sensation on his skin. Its touch was as light and seductive as that of a lover. He always felt the darkness now.

Opening his mind, he attuned himself to the correspondence between the Prime Plane and the Plane of Shadow, the link that lived in every shadow. He reached for it, took it in his mental grasp and willed them all to

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