The Cloud Castle – Page 70


The Green Pipe leads Perilous Jack through steel walls several feet thick and out into a long, low, dark chamber in the lowest level of the Giant’s Castle.

The steel blocks composing the floor thrum beneath his feet with the vibration of hidden machinery. Windows set near the low ceiling let in the fleeting daylight, which falls in dishearteningly pale shafts to the dusty floor. A puddle of Green Slime oozes hopefully forward, stretching for the toe of his boot with a pseudopod. A single FloatSteel platform hovers menacingly above his head, too high for him to see what might wait on top.

Jack has little time to consider his surroundings, however – for suddenly the steel around and above him rings with the stamp of metallic feet, and the first of the Castle’s guardians emerges into the light cast from the window. Jack has never seen the like before – it is roughly humanoid, although slouched over at the waist so that it walks at one moment on its feet, and the next on all fours. The carapace – for it looks like nothing else, save perhaps a cunningly organic suit of armor – is a dingy shade of blue. The head is turned up at the neck, allowing the creature to walk on hands and feet and still see ahead of itself. The face – if it could be called such – resembles that of a spider, with a collection of eyes housed in a single oval-shaped iris perched atop the head, and a collection of tentacles dangling from the underside of its mandibled mouth. As the creature clanks forward, mandibles clicking, tentacles waving, Jack realizes with a shock of revulsion that this is no organic creature, but a Construct.

He raises sword and shield, thinking the limbs and tentacles to be the threat he must face – and suddenly the Blue Construct opens its mouth and unleashes an invisible wave of energy, which ripples over Jack’s body and tears through his mind. Such anguish, such despair, such hopelessness he has never felt before. It saps his strength, weakens his knees. A second machine-man emerges, this one with a dull crimson carapace. The Red Construct unleashes its own weapon. Now Jack is assailed with impotent wrath, fury such as he has never known, made all the sharper and more painful by the awareness of futility, the impossibility of venting that awful rage. The twin gusts of energy pass over him and he is free again, although badly shaken by the experience. And in the interim, the Constructs have drawn closer – close enough to stretch their limbs and tentacles.

Jack rallies himself and dashes forward, swinging the Rune Sword mightily, and finds that the Constructs’ joints are poorly defended. The grasping limbs are neatly severed, but the machines evince no distress at their loss; instead, they open their mouths to unleash their psionic weapons again. Jack snarls his defiance and thrusts his blade straight into the throat of the Blue Construct, which promptly collapses into silent death. The second unleashes its weapon, but Jack manages to dodge aside, avoiding the worst of the effect. The Red Construct is no more difficult to kill than the Blue, but the deaths of the machines reveal a shocking new truth.

From the shattered skulls of the Constructs spill a sickeningly recognizable substance – a puddle of grey brains, suspended in gleaming green slime. With a chill, Jack realizes that it was the rage and anguish of these imprisoned brains that he felt – and a glimmer of the monstrous truth behind this place begins to awaken in his mind.

The sound of awakening machinery fills the low hall with clangor – ahead Jack can see a Green Pipe, the apparent source of the noise. As he watches, a Blue Construct emerges from the Shaft, joining a collection of others who have wandered toward the noise of the combat.

Jack fights his way through a crowd of Red and Blue Constructs, slaying them without hesitation – for all that he knows it is human minds he is slaying, he is more painfully aware that they desire nothing but death and release. As he nears the Green Pipe another Blue Construct emerges to the sound of machinery, and Jack leaps astride the edge of the Green Pipe to investigate.

Below, he sees only machine arms and wheels whirling with frenetic speed; by the glimpses he is able to snatch, he gathers that the foundation of the castle contains some enormous production factory where the Constructs are assembled and driven up the Green Pipes into the castle itself. Terrible heat rises through the pipe, as if the factory below were flooded with lava.

It would be suicide to attempt to climb down the shaft through all that clashing steel; he would be instantly mangled. If he would learn the secrets of the castle, it will have to be from the Giant himself. Jack passes on, deeper into the low hall.

Turn to 53.