Sleep takes Linus like a fuse takes to flame: swiftly, easily, and completely. In his dreams he is back on the pier of New York city, hanging by his belt from a rope as the water moves steadily away from him. Above him, he sees the others on their cords, Jake, Kelraji, Thomas and Shane, all dangling securely, but suddenly his own line snaps, and he is falling, tumbling, out of control. He grabs desperately with psychokinetic fingers for his lifeline, but it is hopeless, he is gone, done for. He twists in the air to face the murky waters as they rush to meet him.
He passes through the churning water without splash or impact, plummeting down into an endless void. Far below him, a distant spark shines, growing in size as he races toward it. The flame solidifies into a human face as he grows nearer, and Linus recognizes the tortured face of his totem, howling in agony, his features mammoth now, filling the darkness. Instinctually, Linus brings his hands up in front of his face as he falls directly through Prometheus’ gaping maw, feeling the overwhelming heat of the apparition as he passes through the ring of fire.
A rough hand jerks his arms down from in front of his face, and he looks up, bewildered, to see the soot-stained face of a dwarf above him, his forehead knit with worry. The man’s gigantic beard flaps up and down as he yells in his face, his breath thick with the stench of mead and damp. “Git up, ye ninny! It’s no time for layin’ about!” The dwarf hauls him to his feet, shoving something into his open hands. “Get this marak stone to the armory, while there’s still time! The Runeward are our only hope. I will hold the ratmen. Go!”
The summoner looks down at the object in his hands, fascinated by what he sees. It is a stone that glows with emerald light, covered in arcane inscriptions and partially enclosed in a casing made of bronze and iron, which is alive with a network of cogs, screws and tubing which clank slowly of their own volition. As his fingers brush the bare stone, the green light grows stronger, and the mechanical components increase the tempo of their turning. Even more surprisingly, his hands no longer appear to be his own—they are stout and thick-fingered, covered in dirt and matted with coarse black hair.
The dwarf in front of him gives him a shove, pointing down a long, uneven tunnel which stretches on into gloomy darkness. “Go, ye paunce! I will hold the passage, but I shan’t die in vain!” He delivers a swift kick to Linus’ ass, which feels strangely well-padded.
They are in a tunnel braced by rickety frames of wood every twenty or thirty meters, and guttering torches light the way. In the direction the dwarf is pointing, the passage stretches on into the gloom, its length impossible to gauge. From the opposite direction, a noise like a hundred scuttling vermin can be heard, accompanied by the frenetic squeaking of something too large to be a mere house rat.
More out of fear than purpose, Linus careens down the dark tunnel and into the gloom. He does not pause for even a moment to look over his shoulder. In his mind he tries to unravel why this might be unusual, but the thoughts make little progress as adrenaline begins to course assertively through his system.
The summoner runs down the narrow passageway as fast as he can, though his legs seem to take him a shorter distance with each step than he is accustomed to. The chattering of a hundred tiny vermin mouths sounds behind him, followed by a an agonized scream, then silence.
The tunnel quickly dumps him into a massive underground cavern, its roof supported by impossibly large pillars which stretch upwards into the gloom. He finds himself at the parapet of a sizable fortress built into the wall he just came from, and looks over it to see an all-out war raging below him. A host of dwarves clad in silver armor battle in organized blocks of footmen against an unending horde of what appear to be half-men, half-rats. The creatures range in all sizes, from swarms of human-shaped rat-creatures to elephant-sized mutants and larger, all armed and armored with crude iron implements. The dwarves seem to be losing badly, their ranks constantly retreating. Already their rearguard is pressed up against the walls of the castle, and their ranks begin to disintegrate before his eyes as they become unable to retreat against the oncoming masses.
A dwarven crossbowman comes bumbling into him as he stands gaping, nearly knocking the glowing contraption from his hands. “By Thorin’s beard, ye’ve got a stone! Git it to the armory lad, on the double. Are ye mad or daft?” The dwarf rushes him down a central passageway leading into the heart of the castle. He bursts through a set of large double doors to stumble upon another scene of carnage. He stands inside a large workshop, strewn all about with scores of dead, both ratman and dwarf, the stone floor slick with ichor.
In the center of the room, standing on top of a literal mound of corpses, a lone dwarf continues to battle against a half-dozen rat creatures. This last dwarf is covered from head to toe in ornate armor which is encrusted with glowing runes. He wields a wide circular shield in one hand and a gleaming hammer in the other. His weapon throws off an explosion of force and lightning as he strikes one of the lightly armored rat-things, exploding it into large chunks of meat.
None of the combatants seem to have noticed Linus come through the doors.
Linus looks around the room frantically for a home for the glowing stone. He feels like it should belong in a socket, perhaps like the glowing runes of the heroic dwarf making his last stand at the center of the room. Meanwhile, he reaches into his pocket to pull out his lighter, and begin a summoning spell for protection.
Linus makes a concerted effort to stop and look around the room, taking in the details of the space. The walls to either side of him are lined with alcoves large enough to fit a car standing on end. He counts five ports per side, each occupied by a giant anthropoid warmachine, all bearing thick slabs of armor and an array of exotic weapons and shields on each arm. He realizes with passing curiosity that they have been modeled after the dwarven form, round and stout with a stylized beard carved into the frontal armor.
He sweeps his gaze over the rest of the space, trying not to get lost in the details. Workbenches and massive lifts and harnesses litter the floor, strewn about with the wreckage of some awful combat. Ratmen and dwarven corpses carpet the floor where they lay in twisted pantomime of their dying throws. A lone heavy walker stands mere paces from his position by the door, its chest thrown open to admit a pilot. A constellation of tiny runes glow from within the cramped space. Deep at the heart of the contraption, he can make out a rectangular concavity in the jumble of pipes and cogs which might match the strange stone he was carrying.
A concussion fills the space as the last dwarf strikes down another scuttling creature, more gibs of flesh spraying obscenely from the mound of dead. The shockwave blasts another of the rat creatures into the air, sailing straight for him. The beast lands no more than ten feet away, forming a triangle between the summoner, the ratman, and the vacant dwarven walker.
Linus dives into his pocket for his lighter, but finds that he is not wearing his usual pants. He looks down to confirm that his body is indeed that of a dwarf’s, stout like a barrel, with a heavy mat of brown hair for a beard and thick, muscular fingers. He wears a leather tunic and jerkin with matching trousers, covered in a suit of simple iron scale mail. The emerald stone continues to glow in his hands, threatening to mesmerize him at any time. Weapons and bodies lay scattered at his feet, a round dwarven shield, a battered sword in the claws of a ratman, and a curious bronzed pistol-like weapon clutched in the fist of a dwarven officer, its business end terminating in two metal prongs like a tuning fork.
The summoner attempts to open a bridge to the spirit world, but finds it simply unresponsive. Whether this is because of his own inability or something about this world, he cannot say.
The nearby rat creature rolls over on its side, slightly dazed but apparently not seriously wounded. He makes eye contact with the creature, its eyes nothing more than gleaming black orbs radiating cruel semi-intelligence.
Linus makes a run for the walker by the door. The rats gaze has pierced him, somehow, and the feels the desperate need for protection. Scrambling towards the walker over the carrion, he hopes that he can reach the body in time and seal himself within. Figuring at how to operate it will be difficult, but it’s is only chance.
Linus’ short legs carry him to the mechanical contraption, and he clambers over one oversized knee joint to hoist himself into the central cavity. The emerald device in his hands begins to pulse with an ever increasing tempo. At this proximity he can tell that the rectangular opening above the walker’s bicycle-like saddle does indeed match the dimensions of the bronze casing housing the glowing stone.
From behind him, Linus can hear the continued battle of the other dwarf, and closer, the scuttling sounds of a giant rat moving across stone accompanied by a low, predatory hiss.
Linus fumbles with the stone for a second, trying to get a grip with his on his too-short arms and fingers. Getting a grip on the stone with both hands, he gently pushes it into the cavity.. hoping for a kind of locking click or other response. Ever so briefly, he is visited by the thought that this must be a dream, and he wonders what subconscious hole dredged up this odd experience. But the immediacy of the dreamworld almost immediately pulls him back in, and he continues with his task of getting this walker operational.
The device slides into place, the various tubes and gears studding its surface meshing perfectly with the clockwork of the larger machine. Linus twists in the saddle to face forward as a brilliant viridian light fills the walker’s cramped interior. The entire machine stirs into motion, enveloping him like a living suit of armor. Grips extend to meet his hands, and clamps close over his crude dwarven boots to hold his legs in place. The face-like chestplate begins to hinge closed with a pneumatic hiss.
A strange and novel sensation washes over him, somewhat like astral projection but with a markedly different flavor, not quite an out-of-body experience, but rather a different-body experience, as if the walker’s form and his own were suddenly one and the same. He could feel the cold, subterranean air against the steel exterior of the thing as if it were his own skin, could flex the walker’s joints as if they were his own arms and legs, could see the outside world as if his own eyes were attached to the outside of the massive construct. Runes both alien yet somehow familiar begin to scroll across his field of vision, relaying data he does not comprehend. A crosshair blinks into existence in front of him, tracking the movement of his eyes.
A skittering thump jogs the summoner back to reality, and he looks down to see the head and arm of a rat-creature lodged in the opening of the front canopy. Gears whine and protest as the machine tries in vain to close the door despite the monstrous obstruction. The foul thing manages to push the chestplate open another hair, giving itself enough room to reach one horrid claw into the compartment and wrap its humanoid fingers around his leg.
Linus shrieks. “Get out you ugly beast!” he yells as he kicks down savagely with his free foot. Reaching out through the not-quite-astral link, he attempts to determine if he can will the arm of the mechanical golem he now inhabits in such a way as to rip the offending creature out by its tail.
Linus’ boot connects solidly with the flailing rat, but it is wedged too tightly in the opening to dislodge it. The ratman wraps its claw once more around his leg and sinks its sharp, yellowing teeth deep into his calf.
The summoner cries out in pain and the walker responds, seemingly reflexively, grabbing the tail-end of the rat thing with one mechanized hand and pulling it bodily from its chest. The obstruction now clear, the faceplate seals with a hiss and Linus suddenly loses all touch with his meat body as the arcane circuit between his consciousness and the dwarven walker is completed. He is no longer a stocky dwarf, but a massive figure of steel and clanking death. His barrel-like arms terminate in fully articulated fingers, and exotic guns bristle from his forearms, one bearing a ridge of silver nodes which dance with electricity while the other houses a glowing orange cylinder terminating with three pincer claws.
Linus, startled to see this writhing mass of meat and machine moving towards him, raises his guns at the mass. Trying to pick out rats on the outside of the tumble, he takes a shot before careening in to try to pull them off with his newly discovered mechanical strength.
Linus can feel the creature in his steel fist squirming fruitlessly in his grasp. Directly in front of him, the rune-armored dwarf finally loses his feet as two of the remaining rat beasts tackle him from behind. The last three swiftly join in, and all six combatants begin to roll down the mound of corpses toward him in one jumbled clump.
The gun on his left gauntlet crackles with life, sending a fat bolt of electricity leaping from the spines along its barrel. The blast transfers incredible force into the first rat it strikes, annihilating it with a sharp crack and a puff of gore. The arc leaps to two more of the ratmen, blowing one apart in a shower of giblets and frying the other until he is nothing more than a blackened, smoking corpse. Some of the energy is transferred to the armored dwarf as well, causing the runes on his suit of full plate to flash and burn with arcane magics.
The dwarven walker rumbles forward and he levels his other gun, an orange tube with pincers on its end. As he discharges the weapon, an invisible force lifts one of the hapless creatures into the air and sucks it toward him, holding it suspended a few feet in front of his fist. He pulls the trigger again and the rat rockets away, striking the far wall with a wet crack before sliding lifelessly to the floor.
The remaining ratman and the dwarven artificer roll to his feet, and he stomps the beast dead beneath his mechanical heel. Finally, he closes his fist over the beast he holds in his hand, ending its pitiful life.
The rune-encrusted dwarf hauls himself to his feet and taps the head of his hammer against the walker’s chest. Linus’ link with the mech fades, and the chestplate hinges open, its body lifeless once more. Confusion and surprise spreads over the other dwarf’s face. “You? But ye dinnot have the rune touch—how could ye have operated one of the runeward?”
A terrible crash sounds in the deep somewhere far away, but not too far. Fear darkens the artificer’s features as the faint sounds of drums and marching feet reach them from the double doors at their back. “Ack, there’s nay time. They’ll be after the marak stone, but I’ll die before I let that happen.” He reaches behind Linus and extracts the strange contraption, the green rock at its center still glowing brightly. “Take the stone to the altar room and find the statue of Dugmaren. Tap three times upon the tome in his hands, and hide this in the opening. Go, before they return!”
The dwarf thrusts the green stone into his hands and shoves him in the opposite direction of the noise, a set of double doors leading to another torchlit room.
Linus stumbles, confused. Once again he is whisked along by the energy of the situation, carried forward to some inevitable end beyond his understanding. What his doing here, and what body his consciousness might be inhabiting, seems beyond the immediacy of the moment. The fear that pumps through his veins like a liquid metal.
He searches the room for exits, looking for the one that might be the alter room. He beseeches the mech-dwarf:
“Point the way! I don’t know where I am!”
The dwarf turns, frustration and disbelief plain on his face. “Never been to the altar room, boy? Bleedin’ atheist, are ye? Thorin’s beard!” He points to a set of doors at the back of the armory with his runic hammer, then turns his attention back to the front doors as the beat of the ratman wardrums looms ever closer.
Linus follows his directions dutifully, still unsure if he is living out another man’s life or just some terrible, curry-induced nightmare. Sure enough, he jogs down a short corridor to find himself in a room with a vaulted ceiling. Wooden pews fill the spacious room, and massive marble-hewn statues of dwarves in heroic poses line the walls. Linus counts 14 altars in all, each holding conspicuous and likely symbolic objects—a fierce warrior with axe and shield, a perplexingly-bearded she-dwarf holding a flower and interlocking rings, a figure hunched over an anvil bearing mallet and tongs, and so on.
Linus hunts for a figure holding a tomb of some kind. Running down the aisles, hearing the cacophony of the wardrums approach, he achieves a moment of clarity.
Is this the past? Astral resonance theory would suggest that the harmonics of two beings separated through spacetime might come into a kind of binding… though it would presume backward flow of information through the otherwise fully thermodynamically compliant theory. The thought catches his breath, breaking through the fear. In a moment of insight, he thinks, perhaps he should look for a statue holding a tomb looking an awful lot like the one his companions have been carrying, that apparently holds so much power.
The dwarf makes one and a half rounds of the altars before he is certain there is only one statue holding a book. He inspects it closer and sees the carved book bears little in common with their own—theirs has an ornate locking system along the side opposite the spine, and words on the cover which look like the scratches of some primitive race.
The statue is cut from granite, an artfully carved stone figure depicting an elderly dwarf dressed in simple clothes with a plain cloak around his shoulders. He clutches a heavy tome to his chest with one hand, and holds up a single candle in the other, as if lighting his way on some bold new venture.
Linus looks at the cover for a fraction of a second, reflecting on the script. But he is not a linguist, and this is sure to be a futile effort. Huridly, he raps three times on the book, then steps back. He keeps his eyes on the room’s entrance, hoping desperately that the horrific creatures will not breach the room. He fears in his heart that this nightmare is more real than imagined.
The characters on the front of the stone book are foreign yet strangely familiar. They look something like the ancient runes of lost Nordic races, though their form and execution suggest that they are more than just crude symbols. “The Xothor’s Grimoire” a voice from somewhere deep within his mind offers.
The statue begins to rumble with unseen movement as soon as he raps on the book’s surface. The carved hand clutching the tome vibrates, then begins to rotate up at the elbow like the bar of a door. As soon as it is clear, the cover of the tome hinges slowly open with a cascade of dust and grit, revealing a large concavity in the statue’s chest roughly three feet square. Two items occupy the space already, a heavy tome and what looks to be a mechanical head, its bronze casing covered in a fine layer of dust. The dim, lifeless orbs of its golden eyes stare lifelessly up at him.
A sharp “scree! scree!” sounds from the dark, startling the summoner and causing him to bobble the emerald stone in his hands. It falls into the opening on the statue’s chest, which immediately slams shut of its own accord, throwing up another cloud of powder. As the dust settles, He turns to see a dozen points of red light up the gloom of the entryway, a dozen pairs of beady eyes lurking in the darkness.
Linus jerks awake, suddenly finding himself once more in the dimly lit stone room which he shares with his two companions.