The Cloud Castle – Page 152


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.

The Giant advances on Perilous Jack, reaching for his broadsword. But as Jack settles the Sun Shield into place and draws Storm Fist, the Giant pauses, narrowing his eyes at Jack’s weapons. A broad smile dawns across the Giant’s face.

“You have come well-prepared,” the Giant says. “Perhaps this will be more of a contest than I imagined.” He stretches his arms wide and pops his neck, loosening himself for combat. “Very well, little Giant-Slayer. Let us see if you are truly up to this task.”

With these words the Giant turns and leaps from the roof of the castle. Jack runs to the edge and peers over the battlements, wondering if the Giant has leapt to his death – but there, floating below the roofline of the castle and within leaping distance, is a bank of cloud which looks to be solid. Even as he peers into the gloom, Jack can make out the red figure of the Giant bounding along the cloudbank, then leaping over the far edge into the night air beyond.

There seems to be no other choice – Jack gets a running start and leaps off the edge of the castle roof.

Turn to 94.