The Cloud Castle – Page 47


Perilous Jack emerges from the Warp Shaft into thin air.

He falls a few feet, landing easily upon a solitary block suspended in a dim chamber of bluish stone. Something about his surroundings is uncannily familiar – but he has little time to consider, as the low growls of Wolves echo before and above him. There is a floor beneath him; he jumps down, hoping to fight with solid earth beneath his feet and his back to a wall.

Instead, he lands nearly in the petal-edged maw of a giant Death Blossom. He dodges the lashing tendrils of the carnivorous plant, stumbles, and leaps up again at the sound of blades leaving their sheaths behind him. He whirls to see a trio of ragged men with sabers in their hands advancing on him from a low corridor. A giant shape lands on the flagstone nearby, having leapt from overhead. Jack does not need to look to know that it is a Winter Wolf; he can tell by the low growl, the strong wolf-scent, and the palpable aura of cold it radiates. Meanwhile he senses a second shaggy shape leap from the heights onto the stone block he has recently vacated.

Thus surrounded, Jack grimly tightens the grip on his sword and backs carefully away from the men. Already his agile mind, keenly sharpened by many such desperate encounters, has crafted a strategy. He knows that the Death Blossom, being an unintelligent plant, will not know friend from foe, and thus is a threat to both man and wolf. If he can stay just out of its reach, the plant will unwittingly defend his back and flanks. His enemies will have to come at him from the front, where the narrowness of the chamber will limit how many can attack him at once – and the Wolves in particular will have to fight with caution, so that they do not overleap their enemy and land in the jaws of the flower.

The ruffians step together into the flickering torchlight, and Jack instantly pegs them for pirates or sea-reavers, for the men walk with the rolling gait of sailors unused to the land, and their garments, jewelry, and slit noses speak of the consummate thief. What Jack finds most curious about the men is their age and the quality of their garments. None is younger than sixty, and they are bedecked and bejeweled like robber barons. Clearly, they have been at this business awhile.

Just as Jack crosses blades with the first man, a huge lumbering shape barrels from the dim hallway, briefly blocking the torchlight and throwing Jack into shadow.

“Hold!” the monstrous figure bellows, and the pirates withdraw, muttering resentfully. The Wolves likewise return to their perches, leaving Jack alone with the huge man-shaped figure. The master of this place shifts himself, and now Jack can make out his countenance. It is Ghal-lul, the Ogre Mage who Jack has encountered twice before – and suddenly he realizes why this chamber feels so familiar. It is here that he liberated the kidnapped Fairy – only a few short weeks ago? It seems another lifetime.

The Ogre Mage stares at him incredulously. “You – again!” He raises his club, which is heavily carved with magic sigils. “You pestiferous little peon! I can’t have a moment’s peace without you intruding!”

“So, this is your lair,” says Jack. “I thought I might be losing my mind.”

“Oh, there’ll be nothing left of your mind when I’m done with it, manling,” the Ogre promises. He lifts his club higher as if to dash out the warrior’s brains – and then pauses, realization dawning across his ugly features. “Wait. You’ve come this far already?”

Jack levels his blade at the Ogre. “Teach your tongue to speak sense, monster, or I’ll cut it out.”

The Ogre ignores his bravura, lost in calculation. “If you’ve come through that portal, it means you’ve already made it as far as the Hall of Lava –” a new revelation lights up his face “– and you can fly. That means you can reach her.”

“What did I tell you about that tongue?” Jack asks warningly, lifting his sword. The Ogre gestures irritably, and suddenly Jack’s right arm turns into smooth white stone. He gasps and clutches at it, but the arm is frozen in place. Ghal-lul kneels down nearer to eye level with Jack, leaning on his club, and taps his tusks with a fingernail.

“Doubtless by now you’ve seen that the entrance to her chamber is warded.”

“The Green Pipe in the ceiling of the Spike Room,” Jack says, still prodding at his arm. “Yes, there’s a magical field protecting it. Who is this ‘her?’”

“There is a key,” the Ogre says, ignoring Jack’s question. He gestures again, and Jack’s arm returns to flesh. His sword clatters to the stone, fallen from suddenly nerveless fingers. Jack clutches the arm painfully, gritting his teeth as sensation is slowly restored. The Ogre examines him critically. “You might actually be able to do it,” he pronounces.

“Do what?” Jack demands.

The Ogre grins at him. “I’m going to help you, manling. Come with me.”

The Ogre turns and strides toward the low hallway, ducking his shaggy head as he enters. The pirates press themselves against the wall as he passes. Jack clumsily resheathes his sword with his still-tingling hand and follows Ghal-lul.

“Pirates, Ghal-lul?” he asks. “Gone from Winter Wolves to sea-wolves, eh? Have you suddenly developed a love for the sea?”

Ghal-lul stops and turns to him, still grinning. “Do you know of the Pirate Lords of the Wyvern Sea, Jack?”

“That’s a long way from here,” Jack says.

The Ogre shrugs. “What is a few thousand leagues to a wizard who can fly with wings of shadow?”

“Yes, I know of the Pirate Lords,” Jack says. There are five, as he recalls, and together they are said to control all the pirate captains in the Wyvern Sea – which is another way of saying they control all commerce in the Wyvern Sea. The identities of the Pirate Lords are close-guarded secrets, although history names many such Lords who flaunted their position.

“Shyamala Song of Nazavabh has grown weary of the necromancies of Princess Kalliope of Sapah, and has determined to be rid of her,” says the Ogre. “In exchange for certain favors, I have agreed to aid Lady Song in this regard.”

Jack is astonished at this bald-faced revelation. He knows both names – Shyamala Song is the self-styled Pirate Queen, a fabulously beautiful and wealthy woman rumored to dwell in a gorgeous palace deep in the jungles of Nazavabh – and Princess Kalliope is whispered to be one of the most powerful and ruthless practitioners of the black arts alive. The thought of intrigue and magical combat among these three figures – Song, Kalliope, and Ghal-lul – is enough to stir even the least lyrically inclined to the composition of ballads.

“From a Cloud Giant’s lackey to a Pirate Lord. You are ambitious,” Jack says.

The Ogre turns away with a laugh. “My ambition may be to your benefit, Jack. I remember men who render me service. Kill my old master for me, and I may introduce you to Lady Song. I think even a warrior of your stainless virtue could find amusement in her pleasure gardens.”

As they walk, they pass more pirates and a gang of goblins. Jack notices that the walls have been scraped clean of the Slimes that formerly infested the lair.

“You’ve cleaned the place,” Jack comments.

The Ogre snorts. “It was my brother’s filth that encrusted the walls when last you paid a social call, Jack. Now that you have unburdened me of my brother, I have had his filth removed.”

The Ogre pauses near the Green Pipe that serves as an entrance from the TowaShroom Forest. “It seems you have rendered me more than one fine service.”

At the foot of the Green Pipe in the corner – which Jack sees is now occupied by a Devil’s Bloom – stand a pair of familiar-looking steel treasure chests.

“I recognize those,” Jack says with a smirk.

Ghal-lul grins at him. “I would thank you not to mention them when you see my old master – just in case he kills you.”

The Ogre heaves open the nearest chest and rummages among the coins and gems. He withdraws a small throwing hammer, battered and well-worn.

“As I said, there is a key to her chamber – but it is well guarded. I doubt you have the power to defeat the guardian with that rusty pig-sticker you wave around. This will help.”

He holds the hammer out to Jack. The warrior reaches for it, and then pauses.

“I am hesitant,” he confesses.

The Ogre laughs. “The artifact is certainly cursed – but not by me, and not against the living. It is a Hammer of Disruption, a holy thing.”

“What does it do?”

“There is a category of creature which cannot decide whether to die or continue living. The Hammer forces the issue.”

“Ah,” says Jack, and accepts the weapon.

“The artifact is ancient, and its power is fading. I doubt it can be used more than once, so time your strike carefully. In the Chamber of the Guardian stands an Emerald Orb. The Orb will open the door to her.”

“My thanks,” Jack says. The Ogre gestures toward the hall; clearly it is time to leave.

As Ghal-lul walks him back to the other end of the lair, Jack nods his greeting to the suspiciously glaring pirates. “Captains,” he murmurs. They reach the end of the corridor, and Jack eyes the Death Blossom speculatively.

“When did you become interested in gardening?” he asks.

The Ogre laughs. “Since I met Shyamala Song, I have become enamored of all things beautiful and deadly. The next time you visit, I will show you my collection of frogs I brought back from the jungles of Nazavabh. Lovely to look at, deadly to hold.”

Jack bows his thanks to the Ogre Mage, tosses off an ironic salute toward the glaring pirates, and turns, preparing to leap into the Portal.

Add the Hammer of Disruption to the Pouch of Ghrul and add the following to Jack’s Journal:

I have received a Hammer of Disruption, which is powerful against the undead. However, it can be used only once. I should save it for when I meet the Guardian of the Orb.

Before he can, he catches the eye of one particular pirate captain, who regards him with much more friendliness than the others. The pirate gestures at him to approach; throwing a glance over his shoulder, Jack sees that the Ogre has retired to his chamber.

Curious, he approaches.

The pirate grins and leans near. “Captain Hank Harkaway at yer service. An adventuring man such as yerself needs more than just a fancy hammer, aye? I might have some merchandise to intrigue ye … if ye have gems. Gold’s too heavy, ye savvy? What say ye? Interested in having a look?”

If you think Jack should decline and be on his way, turn to 15.

To see Captain Harkaway’s merchandise, turn to 82.