The Cloud Castle – Page 39


In retrospect, Jack muses, he never should have imagined that this would be a fair fight, man against giant.

The moment he swings across the gap and releases hold of the Beanstalk, an Illithid Priest confronts him – undoubtedly an ally of the Giant. Jack has no time to ponder whether the Illithid is the Giant’s puppet or puppet master. The alien monster unleashes its first salvo, a withering blast of psionic power meant to strip away the defenses of Jack’s mind and make him the Illithid’s willing slave – the feared spell Mental Domination.

Ordinarily, Jack would have no defense save his own willpower, which – while formidable – would inevitably yield under such insistent hammering. But the Illithid has not counted on the mighty magic of the Shield of Balance. The Mental Domination reflects off the shield and washes over the Illithid Priest instead. The creature staggers, clutching the temples of its slimy, tentacle-fringed head. For a moment, Jack can sense that its will has collapsed. He pounces on the opportunity to pull some puppet strings of his own.

“They’re plotting against you,” he says. “Everywhere I go in this castle, people who claim to serve you tell me how they hate the Illithids and want to kill them. Even the Beholders are in on it. And the Giant wants it most of all. You should kill them before they kill you.”

The Illithid rises, and Jack can see the fury in its eyes. “Kill them,” it hisses to itself. “Kill them all.” Staggering under the effects of its own Mental Domination, the Illithid disappears into the night, presumably toward the Giant, muttering under its breath. Jack follows at a wary distance.

Jack catches up with the dazed Illithid Priest in time to catch a glimpse of the Giant. Jack flourishes Giant’s Bane and prepares his attack.

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 and his pet Illithid are outnumbered.

“The Wyverns are the Giant’s assassins!” Jack says to the Illithid. The monster vents an outraged scream and begins to fling bolts of magic force at the hissing, snapping reptiles. The Giant’s eyes widen and he stumbles back in confusion at the sight of his ally so casually redirected by the human intruder.

The Illithid and the Wyverns are occupied with each other. Jack advances – and the Giant retreats!

A moment later, Jack catches up with the Giant in conference with an Illithid Wizard. They are speaking in a language he does not recognize, and the Giant is making furious gestures in Jack’s direction. He smirks, guessing that the Giant is trying to explain Jack’s inexplicably mastery over the Illithid’s kin.

The Illithid Wizard gestures and chants, pointing his magic staff at Jack. Tendrils of force gather around the warrior, a sensation he recognizes from long association with wizards as telltale signs of an impending Teleportation spell. The Illithid Wizard clearly intends to dispose of Jack in some dungeon cell, vat of acid, or bottomless crevasse. The Shield of Balance comes to his aid again, deflecting the spell back upon its caster. Caught it its own spell, the Illithid Wizard teleports away to face whatever fate it intended for Jack.

The Giant is nowhere to be seen. Next Jack encounters a Beholder, a foe as vicious – and as magically adept – as any save the Dragons and Giants. Beholders cast their magic spells from their eyeball-tipped tentacles, often casting numerous spells at once. As if this were not deadly enough, they can also cast a cone of anti-magic force from their large central eye, capable of debilitating spell-casters and removing magical enhancements like those granted by PowaShrooms.

This Beholder wastes no time in attacking; perhaps the Giant has prompted it with dire warnings about the fates of the Illithids Jack has already confronted. The Beholder bellows magical phrases in its native tongue and unleashes four spells at once in Jack’s direction, each fired from an eye-tentacle. Spears of ice, globes of molten stone, and explosive meteors rain down on Jack from above, while lances of heat lightning stab in his direction and cords of energy struggle to bind his arms. Jack drops behind the Shield of Balance, which absorbs the magic assault, charging with terrific force.

With a fierce battle cry, Jack unleashes the energy stored in the Shield of Balance, returning it to the Beholder. The combined forces of all the stored magic rip the Beholder apart. Jack cackles with glee, but the victory comes at a cost; the Shield of Balance is noticeably warped and pitted after the attack. Jack mourns to think that Fearghal Notchblade’s fine craftsmanship might meet its end so soon.

The edge of the castle roof is near; the Giant ceases his retreat and turns to face Jack. Before the warrior can speak, the Giant springs his trap – a second Beholder suddenly appears from the gloom of night!

Jack braces for another magical onslaught, but this monster must have learned from the mistake of its kin. Instead of death-dealing spells, the Beholder unleashes its anti-magic cone, doubtless eager to strip the Shield of Balance, which has wrought such havoc among the monsters of this castle, of its magic. For an instant, Jack suffers the gnawing bite of anxiety; the Shield of Balance is a magical artifact and certainly susceptible to an effect like the anti-magic cone.

His fears prove unfounded; not only does the Shield of Balance not succumb to the onslaught, but it also reflects the anti-magic cone back, bathing both Beholder and Giant. Both monsters shriek in horror, feeling their magical abilities stripped away. The Beholder tumbles from the battlements, unable to support its natural levitation.

Jack knows that the effect of the anti-magic cone is temporary; soon the Giant will be able to use his magic again, making him an exceptionally powerful foe. But for the moment, Jack has leveled the playing field. The Giant will have to meet him sword-to-sword.

The Giant retreats again, disappearing into the blackness of the Nightcrystal-haunted horizon. Jack notes further damage to the Shield of Balance, but there is nothing to be done now. He grips his sword with more determination and sets off in pursuit.

As Perilous Jack draws near the edge of the castle roof, the sky begins to transform. Perhaps as a consequence of the Nightcrystal Shard entering dormancy, 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. At last, he can see the Giant clearly.

The Giant before him 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.”

Jack flourishes his weapon. “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.

Now the battle proceeds as Jack has wished; no magical tricks, only skill against skill. The Giant’s sword – far outmatching Jack’s in its size and weight – is wielded by a hugely powerful and cunning monster who has had centuries to hone his swordcraft. But Jack is swift, agile, and patient. He works to keep the Giant fighting, to stoke the flames of the Giant’s fury so he will wear himself out, miscalculate, and open an opportunity. Jack knows he cannot do this forever; the effect of the Beholder’s anti-magic cone will wear off sooner than he would like, and the damage to the Shield of Balance makes Jack suspect he will not survive another onslaught of magic.

The Giant is a daunting foe; despite his great bulk, he moves with astonishing speed and the length of his lunge is formidable. Time and again, Jack is forced to dance back, barely dodging a cut or deflecting a thrust with his increasingly battered shield. However, his tactic of wearying the Giant seems to be working; the monster’s blows come more slowly and sloppily. Jack slips inside an off-center cut, bashes the Giant’s wrist with his shield, and scores first blood!

The cut is not deep, and the Giant swiftly bats him away, but the effect is profound. Giant’s Bane is not idly named; Dwarves forged it specifically to hunt their traditional enemies and drain their life force. The Giant renews his attack, but now he grips the injury to his abdomen with his off hand as if the cut threatened to spill his intestines.

Jack scores two more cuts in quick succession, one a glancing blow to the Giant’s thigh, the second a much deeper cut to the Giant’s wrist. The huge broadsword clatters to the stone and the Giant stumbles back, clutching the wound. Jack sees fear in his eyes, and he presses the advantage, driving hard at the Giant’s face. The Giant trips and fetches up hard against the battlements, scant inches away from a miles-long fall to the earth.

“Join us, Jack,” the Giant croaks. “You have passed every test, proven yourself worthy of the highest honors. The masters I serve will make you High King of the Heart Lands if you wish it. Wealth, power, dominion; all shall be yours.”

“They will make of me what they have made of you, spineless,” Jack spits. “A puppet!”

With a terrific howl, he lunges with Giant’s Bane in hand. The Giant raises a hand to protect himself, but the blade, charged with the bloodlust of the Dwarves who crafted it to destroy their oppressors, cuts clean through the wrist and buries itself quivering in the Giant’s eye. The monster twitches once and collapses in a heap, terror stamped on its features.

Perilous Jack is victorious!

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

Turn to 114.