The Cloud Castle – Page 118


As Perilous Jack draws near the edge of the castle roof, the sky begins to transform.

Whether it is a consequence of the Shard entering dormancy, or some quality of the Giant’s magic, the darkness fades somewhat and a vast panorama of sparkling stars appears overhead. For a moment Jack is mesmerized by the display, until he begins to notice certain chilling details. There are no familiar constellations among the stars he sees, no shining Wanderers like Hod the Silver or Netsa the Evening Star, such as sailors use to mark their vectors. There are strange clusters of stars wreathed in glowing clouds, smatterings of brilliant yellow and red giants, and whorls of darkness. A dark band cuts through the center of the sky where no stars wink, save for a blazing nova which glares down upon Malkat like a malevolent eye. Jack shivers and turns his gaze away from the alien sky.

Gradually the chill of the powerful wind whipping over the roof of the castle is overborn by sulfurous heat. A towering figure blocks a portion of the sky, and Jack realizes that the heat is wafting from this figure. He recalls the vision shared with him by Phae the Fairy Dragon and remembers that the Giant he seeks is no ordinary Cloud Giant, but one of the powerful and malevolent race of Fire Giant – red-skinned, barrel-chested, infused with volcanic fury. It is highly unusual to find one of his kind in the clouds; Fire Giants generally prefer to dwell near to the blazing hearts of volcanoes. Yet this machine castle with steel for skin and lava for blood seems to suit the temperament of the Fire Giant well.

The Giant’s back is turned when Jack approaches, and the warrior halts, unwilling to attack even this foe without meeting him eye-to-eye. The Giant seems lost in contemplation, staring out into the starry void. Just when Jack thinks the Giant has not even noticed him, he speaks.

“Michael John, Fifth Duke Hartshorne, though you hide from your responsibilities behind the absurd title ‘Perilous Jack.’ I am Solfatara Stark, also a duke in exile.” The Giant’s voice emerges as a low roar, like a raging forest fire heard from the peak of an overlooking mountain. “You have darkshine on your eyes. I can sense it, though it is weak.”

“I can see you well enough, Giant,” Jack retorts.

“You can see into the heart of darkness, but not far. Look yonder, there in the glaucous blur where the walls of the world are worn thin.” The Giant gestures over their heads and Jack looks up to see a terrible sight, rivaled only by the nightmare he experienced in the Realm of the Nightcrystal. The fabric of reality itself has been breached, or at least worn thin as the Giant said. Through the resultant window shines a sickly leprous radiance, as alien as the stars flickering overhead. In the blur of the alien light Jack thinks he can make out vast shapes, amorphous and suggestive, shifting, pushing at the film restraining them, trying to find a way in . . .

“Do you see them?” the Giant asks.

“I see . . . something,” Jack says, unwilling to reveal how shaken he is by this vision.

“They are impatient. Night after night have I stood on this precipice, staring out into the black abyss. After long years of this lonely vigil, they looked back.”

Jack draws a ragged breath and clutches the handle of his weapon to draw resolve. “What did they promise you?” he sneers. “Power? Do you imagine that if they succeed in conquering all of Malkat, that you will be their regent? They will show no more mercy to you or your kind than to any other.”

The Giant does not rise to this bait; he remains silently staring out into the stars. After a moment he chuckles and shakes his head. “You cannot restrain this tide, manling. Should you survive this night and bear the Shard away, the darkness will still spread. All will be consumed.”

Suddenly Jack draws his weapon with a flourish. “Enough philosophy, monster,” he snarls. “Turn around so I can grant you eternal relief from your melancholy.”

Slowly, the Giant turns. His eyes burn with demonic fury and his huge muscles quiver, spoiling for the fight. He fingers the pommel of the huge broadsword strapped to his back and clenches his fist. The alien stars fade away, as does the vision of the window in the sky. The night is pure black again.

“As you wish, manling,” the Fire Giant growls.

As Perilous Jack settles the Sun Shield on his arm and readies the sword Giant’s Bane, the Giant draws his own weapon – not the broadsword on his back, but a small whistle of tin, shaped like the scaled head and throat of a red dragon. Placing his lips to the whistle, the Fire Giant blows a single, barely-audible note. Suddenly, as if they had been hovering there invisibly all along, a trio of snarling Wyverns appear in the sky. Their scales are flame-red, and like the Fire Giant, they glow with internal heat. The Giant advances and the Wyverns dive, flame dancing in their fangs. Suddenly Jack is outnumbered.

Now the Giant draws his own blade, and with a flourish and a magical command word, the blade splits in two. Wielding a cruel broadsword in each hand, the Giant attacks. Jack dodges and parries, trying to avoid blocking the powerful blows of the Giant’s huge swords with his own weapon. With every step, the Wyverns snap at his heels and seek to trap him in a crossfire of their fiery breath.

At last relief comes, in the form of a chorus of outraged shrieks from the upper atmosphere. The Giant Eagles dive, engaging the Wyverns in battle and drawing them away from Jack and the Giant.

Now the Giant tries a new tactic. Withdrawing from the swordplay, he gestures and chants again, this time summoning a billowing wall of white flame from the roof of the castle. Jack is startled by the magic – for this is not the white heat of flame, but the bitter chill of ice magic, an element which should be antithetical to a Fire Giant. But there is no denying the power of the magic, however strange it may be. Jack is forced to retreat – but only for a moment. As the ice magic blossoms into the fullness of its power, the Sun Shield on Jack’s arm does the same. Radiant heat spills from the Sun Stone at the center of the shield, driving the icy flames back. Jack renews his assault on the Giant.

Outraged, the Giant calls upon new magic, causing his huge blades to erupt in icy fire and leaping into the summoned flame-wall to attack. The Sun Shield responds with showers of burning, sparkling motes of energy, which blind the Giant and drive it back. The sparks linger in the air, like a cloud of insects tenaciously clinging to the Giant, hampering his every attack.

In a fury the Giant summons huge spears of ice from the air, which crash to earth, threatening to impale Jack. The warrior rolls and leaps, dodging as many as he can, and catches the rest on his burning shield. The Giant’s ice magic is not spent yet; now huge boulders of jagged ice crash to earth, shattering into razor shards and filling the air with glittering slivers of ice. The Sun Shield burns brighter and hotter, cutting through the cloud of ice shards. Overhead, the corpse of a Wyvern falls from the sky, slain by the Eagles – the first victory of this battle.

Heartened by the Eagle’s success, Jack presses forward, Sun Shield held out before him as if deflecting powerful winds. A moment later, there are winds indeed – the Giant gestures and chants, summoning a trio of Air Elementals to his aid. The whirlwinds manifest in the midst of the sea of broken ice separating Jack and the Giant, swiftly sucking the jagged shards into their bodies. Thus fortified, the Air Elementals swoop toward Jack, gnashing their icy teeth.

A terrific onslaught of solar heat pours from the Sun Shield, erupting in bursts of blinding golden light. The heat and explosions rip the Elementals apart and blast the remaining ice shards into steam. The Eagles slay the last two Wyverns in quick succession, and suddenly the roof of the castle is silent and still.

Jack and the Giant eye each other for an instant, and the truth of their situation dawns. The Giant has spent his magic, and the Sun Shield – Jack glances at the item and sees that the magical stone in the center is blackened and dim. The magical copy of the Giant’s sword has faded, and now he wields but one weapon in his huge fist. Jack strides across the roof and attacks furiously, beating the Giant back with the magical blade Giant’s Bane. At last, the Giant blocks one of his blows and succeeds in holding him there, blades locked together.

“There is a place for you in the new order, Jack,” the Giant grunts, straining against the furious might of the warrior. The edge of Giant’s Bane is uncomfortably near the Giant’s neck, and he looks at it apprehensively. “My masters have need of men like you.”

“So they can put my brain in a machine,” Jack growls, shifting his grip on Giant’s Bane’s hilt in an effort to free the captured weapon.

“No such fate for heroes!” the Giant laughs. “They’ll make you High King of the Heart Lands, with Vasilisa for your consort.”

Jack meets the Giant’s eyes and bares his teeth in fury. “I’d rather be a brain in a box than grovel before alien masters alongside whipped curs like you.” With a terrific howl, he wrenches Giant’s Bane free and strikes with all his might. The Giant’s head flies free, surprise stamped on his features.

Perilous Jack is victorious!

The Sun Shield has lost its magic forever. Jack can keep it as a trophy, but it cannot be used in combat again. Remove the Sun Shield from Jack’s left hand slot. If he has another shield, equip him with it instead.

Turn to 114.