The Cloud Castle – Page 56


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 leathery wings of a giant bat brush his face. He lashes out reflexively with the Rune Sword, and the bat screams in a chillingly human-like voice as the steel bites into its flesh. The room is pitch black; Jack is only able to see by virtue of his magically enhanced eyes as the bat tumbles down to the barely perceptible floor below.

More shapes shift in the darkness, on the floor below and in an alcove in the wall opposite the stone on which he stands. By their shapes and the stench they emit, Jack realizes that he is surrounded by the undead.

He leaps to the floor, neatly dodging the grasping claws of a Ghoul with blazing red eyes, and nearly fetches up against the rusty sword wielded by a Skeleton Warrior. In moments he is embroiled in battle with a teeming mass of undead – Skeleton Warriors, Ghouls, and Zombies. As he fights, the shape of the chamber around him gradually insinuates itself into his memory, until he suddenly realizes why the place is so familiar. This is the lair of the Ogre Magi – the brothers of Clan Ghal, both of whom now lie dead by Jack’s hand. Apparently comfortable, out-of-the-way subterranean lairs are at a premium, for it has been mere weeks since Jack slew the first brother and watched the second sail away on wings of shadow to meet his end here above the Plateau.

The battle is not difficult, even with the sheer number of monstrous guardians assailing him and the random diving attacks of giant bats. In moments, Jack finds himself standing in the same place where Ghal-rolfli met his end.

Suddenly, insinuating among the dying echoes of sword-stroke against bone, a quavering voice hisses through the lair. “I had thought that portal defunct. It seems I was mistaken.”

Jack glances up to see a cloaked figure crouching on the lip of the Green Pipe in the corner. In an instant Jack realizes the nature of his adversary – he is a Vampire!

Yet the Vampire makes no move to attack. Wary of the Vampire’s hypnotic gaze, Jack advances another step or two. The first detail of the Vampire’s form he can see clearly is the feet; twisted claws like the talons of a terrible bird, tightly grasping the lip of the Green Pipe. The finery worn by the emaciated body of the Vampire is tattered and filthy from years of undeath. The creature slumps forward over his bent knees, in an attitude of despair or weakness. The Vampire shifts, and now Jack can see a cruel spike projecting from his chest, stained with thick black blood. The spike appears to be made of an ancient forearm bone, splintered and sharpened at the end. The Bone Spike radiates cold in regular pulses. After a moment, Jack realizes that the Bone Spike must be drinking the Vampire’s life essence, slowly sucking him down into permanent death.

Jack lingers a moment, debating what is best to do. The Vampire does not speak or move again. Keeping one eye on the slumped figure, Jack explores this end of the lair. In alcoves near the ceiling of the lair he finds a number of steel treasure chests, evidently ransacked from the Giant’s castle by the Ogre Mage before he met his untimely death at Jack’s hands. The steel chests are empty, perhaps ransacked by the Vampire. Among the steel chests he finds a wooden chest as well, stoutly locked.

He returns to his contemplation of the dying Vampire.

“Please,” the Vampire whispers. “Take it away with you. My servants will not molest you further. Take what treasure you will and leave – only take this thing with you. Have mercy, warrior. Take the thing away with you. Leave me in peace.”

But now Jack hears another sound – the sound of a human voice crying for help, distant, muffled – but clearly within the lair. Jack and the Vampire lock eyes, and the Vampire opens his mouth to protest.

“Very well,” Jack says over the Vampire’s excuses. “I will take it with me.” With these words he takes up his sword and strikes off the Vampire’s head, ripping out the Bone Spike as he does. The Vampire’s body erupts into flame and tumbles backward into the Green Pipe. Tucking the Bone Spike into his belt, Jack turns away, choking at the terrible stench of burning undead flesh.

He recrosses the lair quickly, remembering now that there is a small passage near the ceiling where he entered, which leads to another section of the lair. Doubtless the voices came from here.

Even as he enters the low passage, he hears the human voices cry out again – and another sound, a dry rattle and hiss, a scraping noise like that made by a giant serpent as it slides across stone. This is what Jack imagines as he leaps down to the next level – and thus the reality is no great shock to him. For rising up from the twilight, gleaming white jaws agape, is an enormous skeletal dragon with a long, serpentine body.

Although the creature has no flesh in which to plunge a blade – a hammer or mace might be a better weapon against such a foe – there is nevertheless a cold core of energy visible in the chest cavity of the Bone Dragon, which Jack regards as his likely target. But as he dances around the snapping jaws, trying to aim a blow at the creature’s foul heart, suddenly the powerful bony tail coils around his waist – and before he can spin or twist away, the tail has wrapped him twice. The tail begins to squeeze . . .

… and below him, he can hear the anguished cries of captives!

Jack must fight the Bone Dragon.

If Jack has the Belt or Gauntlets of Gorodin, turn to 16.

Otherwise, turn to 80.