The Cloud Castle – Page 127


Jack enters a room unlike any he has encountered before.

The floor is flagstone, and the walls are brick, leading him to question whether he is in the Cloud Castle any longer. This induces a twinge of anxiety; if the Warp Portal is one-directional or requires a key to pass through again, he may be stranded far from the place he has labored so hard to find. There is no help for it; he is here now. He resumes his inspection of the room.

Tables and chairs are arrayed haphazardly around the room, some toppled on their sides. Old food and drink crust the surfaces of the tables, an enticement to some of the largest rats Jack has yet to encounter in his wide-ranging travels. A merry fire burns in a hearth, consuming a chair evidently thrown there in a rage or as a prank. The room is otherwise empty but has an aura of recent inhabitation.

Jack puzzles for a moment over why a communal dining area should be accessible from a Cloud Castle infested with inhuman monsters but concludes it must be for the refreshment of the maintenance staff. In which case, an encounter is likely if he lingers.

A large and strange-looking machine dominates one side of the room and Jack draws nearer to inspect, kicking rats out from under foot as he does.

The purpose of the machine is initially inscrutable, but as Jack examines it, understanding begins to dawn. Rows of small parcels, each wrapped in colorful paper and ribbon, line curious shelves, divided by spiral-shaped metal spacers. Judging by the crude artwork and lettering on the parcels, the top several shelves contain various portable foodstuffs, and the middle shelves contain children’s toys. The lowest shelves are stocked with hefty glass vessels filled with various beverages, tightly stoppered with wax. Evidently, nothing is free for the taking; the shelves are displayed behind a sturdy glass window with no obvious handle.

Rows of numbered buttons fill a panel on the right side of the glass window, and four large light bulbs – currently dim – are spaced above the small buttons. The light bulbs are green, blue, yellow, and red. Below the rows of small buttons are a narrow slot the width of a coin, a small tray, and at the very bottom, a swinging door. Lettering above the window advertises:

SnackMaster Vend-O-Tron X-9000

Jack puzzles over the oddity for a few moments longer, until additional details leap out. There are three controls just above the numbered buttons – a green dial, a yellow switch, and a blue lever. It seems plausible that the controls are related to the color-coded light bulbs, although there are no red buttons or other controls to correspond to the red light.

He peers through the glass at the metal spiral holding the packaged snacks, frowning in concentration. Although Perilous Jack is not an engineer, he has been menaced by enough mechanical traps in his career to have a reasonable grasp of how simple machines work. The spiral must be intended to turn, pushing a parcel forward until it falls into the delivery bin below, where it can be accessed through the swinging door.

Amusing, but Jack is neither hungry nor thirsty. He moves to turn away but notices an additional detail. In the center of the machine among the snacks is a strangely shaped piece of equipment made of tarnished and pitted brass. It is a key! If he has the Silver Key, he will notice that the two are very similar.

Jack’s instinct tells him the Brass Key is important. But how to obtain it? He has the general idea of how the spirals on the shelves dispense their contents, but what controls the spirals? He reexamines his options.

If you think Jack should shake the SnackMaster Vend-O-Tron X-9000 to force it to dispense the key, turn to 46.

If you think Jack should try to break into the SnackMaster Vend-O-Tron X-9000 with the StarSteel Hammer, turn to 81.

If you think Jack should try operating one of the controls, turn to 115.

If you think Jack should try inserting a coin into the slot, turn to 78.