The Cloud Castle – Page 154


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 Shield of Balance on his arm and readies the hammer Storm Fist, 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.

The Giant bellows arcane phrases and raises his arms in a gesture of command. Flames erupt from the roof of the castle and blazing meteors begin to rain from the sky, exploding with flame and fury when they strike. Yet Jack finds himself unharmed by this initial onslaught; the Shield of Balance glows and hums, drinking in the arcane power. He flings Storm Fist, narrowly dodging the outstretched talons of a Wyvern as he does. Suddenly aid comes, in the form of several screaming Giant Eagles, who dive from the murky heights and strike at the Wyverns. The hammer connects with its target, driving the Giant back two steps with the terrific force of the blow, and returns to Jack’s hand to be flung again.

Now the battle erupts into new heights of frenzy. Chanting and gesturing mightily, the Giant rains new and more terrible magic upon the warrior – lightning bolts and fireballs, dancing flames and thunderclaps. The Eagles dive and scream, trading blows with the Wyverns while dodging their fiery breath. And Jack flings the magical hammer again and again, striking terrific blows which fill the night with the sound of thunder. The corpse of a Wyvern collapses to the roof of the castle amid triumphant Eagle-screams, the first of the three to fall.

Where the magical hammer has struck the Giant, the power of the blow lingers in the form of a radiant latticework, wrapping the Giant in lines of pulsating power. Where the strands of the web meet, they erupt into incandescent fury, glowing balls of lingering power which spit dazzling sparks into the Giant’s face. And all the while the Shield of Balance draws in the Giant’s magic, channeling it into the magical hammer and increasing the power of its blows.

Sensing that the battle is going awry, the Fire Giant casts new magic, levitating himself above the castle roof and out of the reach of Storm Fist. He casts a massive lightning bolt at Jack, perhaps imagining that he will end the battle with a decisive attack. The Giant’s plan is foiled by the Shield of Balance, which simply deflects the bolt back to its caster. Stunned and injured by his own magic, the Giant falls to earth again with a terrible crash. With him falls the second Wyvern, slain by the Giant Eagles.

His magic nearly exhausted, the Giant attempts a final gambit. He gestures and flings ropes of magical force at Jack, seeking to bind and paralyze his body. The gamble was poorly chosen; the Shield of Balance absorbs the power of the spell of paralysis and channels it to Storm Fist.

Jack flings the hammer a final time, while the Eagles slay the third Wyvern.

The hammer connects with ear-shattering force, and the network of magical energy surrounding the Giant collapses with a roar of fury. The resultant explosion launches the Giant over the battlements. He falls into darkness, bellowing his terror at the long, long fall ahead of him. Storm Fist crumbles to dust in Jack’s hand, its magic spent.

Perilous Jack is victorious!

Storm Fist has lost its magic forever. Jack can keep it as a trophy, but it cannot be used in combat again. Remove Storm Fist from Jack’s right hand slot and replace it with the Rune Sword or another weapon from the Pouch of Ghrul.

Turn to 142.