The Cloud Castle – Page 133


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 draws the Wand of Wonder and prepares for magical combat, 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, drawing his broadsword, and the Wyverns dive, flame dancing in their fangs. Suddenly Jack is outnumbered.

“Camliax!” cries Jack, flourishing the Wand of Wonder. The head of the djinn carved into the wand’s tip parts its lips and half a dozen tremendous lightning bolts erupt from its mouth, spraying in directionless fashion. More by accident than design, the Giant is struck by one of the massive bolts and knocked back on his heels. At the same time, a cloud of sulfurous bubbles appears and burst around the Giant’s body and head, filling the air with their volcanic reek. The Wyverns, stunned and blinded by the display, flap away screeching in confusion.

Although he is startled by the effect of the Wand, Jack cannot dispute that he has decisively struck the first blow in this battle. With no other weapon suitable for attacking the Giant and no protection capable of withstanding his foe’s magic, Jack has no choice but to pursue his attack with the Wand.

“Camliax!” he cries again, and this time a vivid bolt of magical fury lances down from heaven, striking the Giant. Meanwhile the atmosphere surrounding the battlefield suddenly erupts with brilliant, smoky explosions, which drive Jack to his knees and batter the already-dazed Wyverns. As he struggles to scramble and roll out of the way of the bursting fireworks, Jack catches a glimpse of the Giant’s fate – his foe has been reduced to man-size and is as hard-pressed as Jack himself to avoid the bursting fireballs. A Wyvern, battered into insensibility, tumbles to the castle roof and lands with a resounding crack that can only mean the creature has broken its spine. An instant later the twin magics fade; the Giant regains his stature if not his calm, and the atmosphere is silent again. The Giant snarls a command word and gives his broadsword an irritable shake. The huge weapon bursts into flame, and the Giant advances on Jack.

“Camliax!” Jack cries and braces himself for the worst. The effect is considerably more pronounced this time; sulfuric bubbles explode in mid-air, blazing meteors rain down, and a brace of tiny thunderclouds appear overhead, rumbling with unimpressive thunders and spitting tiny lances of lightning. A cloud of swirling swords appears over the combatants’ heads and flies toward the Giant, briefly engaging him in swordplay. Although the Giant succeeds in battering the blades away, he is wounded several times for his efforts. Hard on the heels of this manifestation comes the next in the form of giant muscular tentacles, which erupt from the castle roof and grapple any they encounter. A Wyvern, diving too near, is crushed by one of the powerful tentacles, while others bludgeon and batter the Giant, who repays their fumblings with vicious sword-strokes. The magic fades, leaving the Giant staggering for weariness.

Jack cries the magic word again, determined not to lose the advantage he has gained. Terrific fires erupt from the roof of the castle, followed by what is undoubtedly the strangest of the Wand’s effects. From the sky rains a vari-colored assemblage of slime creatures, ranging in hue and potency from the relatively innocuous Green Slime, which dissolves flesh only with effort, to the Blacks and Crimsons who dissolve varying hardnesses of earth and stone, to the feared Whites, capable of consuming steel and etching the hardest gemstones. The last Wyvern falls screaming, smothered by a Black Slime, and others rain upon the broad shoulders and head of the Giant, sending the huge magician into an almost-comical apoplexy of furious dancing and scraping, from which he emerges alive but hardly intact. Badly wounded and alone, the Giant yet advances upon Jack, doggedly raising his flaming blade to attack. In the distance, a chorus of Eagle-screams signals the decisive end to this battle.

“Camliax,” Jack says softly, and this time the power of the Wand strikes him, instead. The world seems to swim around him, the roof of the castle teeter and sway. He watches as the Giant’s eyes widen in astonishment, a feeling he echoes an instant later when he realizes that he is able to meet the Giant’s gaze eye-to-eye. He looks down at himself and sees that the Wand of Wonder has transformed him into the perfect antithesis of the Fire Giant – his skin is the blue-white of glacial ice and radiates cold and the hair upon his head is the color of snow. He has been transformed into a Frost Giant, the eternal enemies of the Fire Giants. As a final touch, the Wand has thoughtfully provided him a huge broadsword flickering with chill radiance to counter the flame of the Fire Giant’s blade.

The Giant Eagles, free of their confinement and returned from their triumphal swooping, dive from the upper atmosphere and strike at the reeling Giant with beak and talon, beating his face with their huge wings and screaming to further befuddle his senses. When the cloud of snapping beaks and flying feathers has cleared enough to see, a vision fills the Giant’s sight – Perilous Jack, wrathful and terrible in his new form, bitter winter cold pouring from his body to quench the life-heat of the Fire Giant.

“Mercy,” the Giant groans.

“Mercy?” Jack demands in the booming voice of a Frost Giant. He narrows his ice-white eyes. “What did you intend for Princess Vasilisa? For the world?”

He sees the truth in the Giant’s eyes and shakes his head in heartfelt sorrow. “It would be folly to allow one such as you another chance to practice his villainy. I will bequeath my store of mercy unto the Gods, that they may intercede for you in Hell.”

The broadsword in his hand, still blazing with icy fury, cuts cleanly and silently. Jack watches the Giant’s head as it sails free from his body, turning in the clear night air, seeming to grow larger and larger even as the magic of the Wand of Wonder fades from Jack’s body and he diminishes, regaining his true shape. He eyes the severed head with mingled pity and distaste, and at last turns away.

Perilous Jack is victorious!

Jack used five of the Wand’s charges in this battle. Note how many charges remain. If there are none, the Wand shatters, leaving only the ornamental tip – shaped like a grinning genie – behind. Jack can keep this in the Pouch of Ghrul as a trophy.

Turn to 142.