The Plateau of the Endless – Page 67


Plateau (67)

The Shaman leads them through the winding corridors deeper into the dungeons, to a place where few guards linger, where the cells are mostly empty and the spiders have greater claim. 

Perilous Jack and Colonel Firebrand march ahead of the group, obeying rasped commands from the Shaman, who stumps slowly along behind, surrounded by a protective knot of Dwarves.

Finally, at the end of a hall guarded only by a pair of Giant Lizardmen, they reach what must be the furthest cell of the dungeons. To judge by the torn and twisted iron bars, it appears as if a great explosion had occurred within the cell. In the murk, Jack can glimpse a huge dark shape crouching like a spider, cloaked in shadow and menace.

A pair of Dwarves emerge from the cell, ducking under the huge shape, and peer suspiciously out at the sound of the group’s approach. Their shoulders relax when they see the Colonel, and they wave him companionably in.  Jack follows Colonel Firebrand into the cell, under the huge shape, and through a shattered hole in the cell wall, which leads into the adjoining cell. Here there is more room for the group to stand and observe the occupant of the cell with the torn bars. Only the Shaman and three or four other Dwarves join them; the rest stand guard in the hallway. Jack observes that three of the Dwarves who follow them into the cell are the ones who made such a show of his prowess after the battle in the hall. They seem less interested in the mysterious object than in Jack himself.

As Jack’s eyes adjust again to the dimness beyond the torch lit hall, the huge object in the adjoining cell gradually comes into focus. It is a war machine of some kind, constructed in the shape of a giant spider from rough-hammered plates of iron riveted together.  A dome-shaped hatch stands up from the machine’s back, permitting access to a cockpit inside the thorax. Service panels hang open all around the thorax and abdomen, revealing hoses, wires, gears, and pistons nestled in among a material that resembles gray flesh. A pair of huge guns pokes from the underside of the thorax, their muzzles blackened with soot. The whole thing stinks of iron and oil, sulfur and decaying flesh.

Jack shudders at the mere presence of the thing, for he recognizes its kind. It is Qliphoth, a creature of the Nether World, part machine and part undead flesh, wholly unholy. Of all the charges leveled against Dwarvenkind, their meddling with Qliphothic Engines is among the most serious. Colonel Firebrand whistles in a mixture of disgust and admiration.

“An IO! I have not met their ilk since that ghastly campaign in the Graciezie Desert! Well, for all of Thorson’s high talk about the purity of the Cloud Kingdom, about the cold wind blowing away the dust and sin of the Underworld, about Dwarves being little better than worms mucking about in the bowels of the earth, he certainly didn’t take long to go back to the old ways.” Firebrand strokes the carapace of the machine with a forefinger. “What were you doing, old man?” he muses. “You didn’t have to come down from the clouds, didn’t have to come to this place, build this ugly old castle with walls tall enough to keep out a Giant.” He shakes his head in amazement. “I should like very much to know what other secrets this castle holds,” he declares. “I know the courtyard and Great Hall are full of CacheStones; I wonder what they contain?”

Jack draws nearer, fascinated with the machine in spite of himself. He reaches out to touch the carapace as Firebrand did, when suddenly the cold hand of the Shaman grasps his wrist, preventing him.

“Take care,” Wagbeard rasps. “Dwarves may touch what men dare not.” He elaborates no further and Jack withdraws.

“How did you find this?” Jack asks.

A Dwarf pauses his tinkering with the IO’s mechanisms to answer. “We busted out of our cell, thinking this was a corridor.” He indicates the broken wall between the two cells. “When we saw what was here, we decided to stay a bit and see if we could get it fixed up. We figured the rest o’ ye’d be along soon enough.” Indeed, there are tools and pieces of equipment strewn around the room, by their appearance left behind long ago by the original occupants of the castle. Jack suddenly has an uncomfortable image of Thorson, the Dwarf King, down here alone in the night, tinkering with his secret devil. Assuming the thing belonged to Thorson at all . . .

“Is it operational?” Firebrand asks.

The tinker Dwarf shakes his head. “No heart. We got it back together, cleaned it up, and tested everything we could. It’s fit for operation, but without a power source . . .”

Suddenly Jack laughs, and the Dwarves turn to him in surprise. “How tidily the universe fits together,” he comments. “Truly we are pawns of the Gods.” He feels around inside the Pouch of Ghrul and produces the machine heart he used in the lair of the Guardian to briefly resurrect the Iron Golem.

“Will this do?”

The tinker takes the Golem’s Heart and turns it over, peering through a monocle. “Well, this is perfect, lad. It’s exactly what we need.”

The reaction among the Dwarves who witnessed Jack’s piercing with an arrow is astonishing. As one, the three fall to their knees. “A Hidden One!” they cry, and the rest of the Dwarves, with the exception of Colonel Firebrand and Brother Wagbeard, stumble back in confusion.

The Colonel raises his hand with some weariness, as if he had anticipated this. “Remember where we are, men. If the Heart will power the IO, then install it and let us be off. We will sort out – other details – later.” The Dwarves reluctantly rise and set to work. Firebrand touches Jack lightly on the shoulder and gestures toward the torn bars of the Qliphoth’s alcove. “Let us speak in the hall, shall we?”

Jack follows Firebrand into the hallway, where they stand some ways apart from the Dwarf sentries. Jack notices that they are all stealing more or less surreptitious glances at him.

“They are cave Dwarves,” the Colonel begins, waving his hand vaguely in the direction of his followers. “To them the sky and sea are nearly mythological. Their kind have dwelt in darkness so long, it has become part of them. You are Maimish, are you not? You must have grown up amid tales of the Duke’s Wars and the Witch-Crusades launched by Piamos against Maim and Mahorela?”

Jack nods.

“Then you well understand how darkness breeds superstition. There is a legend among the cave Dwarves that there are Hidden Ones, creatures with Dwarven souls but wearing the bodies of Men, Elves, Lizardfolk, even Giants. The tales explaining why this should be so are as numerous as the clans that tell them, but the superstition is universally accepted. The legends attribute many powers to the Hidden Ones; Dwarven powers, of course, the kind of powers the Shamans wield. If a man displays three of those powers in a single day, it is a sign that he is a Hidden One. I’ve been listening to those three whisper, and I know what they are thinking.”

Jack shakes his head. “I don’t understand –”

The Colonel raises his hand, counting off with thick fingers. “You see without light. You are immune to poison. You have power over the Qliphoth. These are among the powers wielded by Shamans, and by the Hidden Ones.”

Jack shakes his head more firmly. “No, no, you’ve misunderstood everything. My darkvision is an enchantment – my friend, a priestess of Yisod –”

“I am well familiar with the process, and I have visited the Yellow River in southern Ors, where the healing clay is harvested to make shields like yours.  In addition, I am well aware that simply having a useful device in your pocket does not make you a Technomancer. However, I repeat, you and I both know the power of belief, of superstition, of delusion. It may be better for everyone if you refrain from performing any more miracles while you are with us.”

With a companionable smirk and a clap on the back, Firebrand leaves Jack to his thoughts.

The Dwarf engineers install the Golem’s Heart in the IO in a matter of moments. The machine rumbles to life, amid a ragged cheer from the weary prisoners. Jack and the Colonel exchange a private glance as the machine trundles from its lair, and Jack gathers that Firebrand is no happier about relying on the Qliphothic Engine than Jack. Yet both men are keenly aware of the overwhelming odds they face in this situation. If they will survive to see the world beyond these black walls, they will need every advantage they can summon.

The IO emerges into the hall and stands at full height, filling the suddenly cramped and narrow hall with its dark glory. All eight of its eyes blaze with green fire, and blue-white electricity crackles at the mouths of the gun-barrels, filling the chamber with the stink of ozone. They linger only a minute longer, while Brother Wagbeard traces Dwarven Runes on the carapace of the IO, muttering prayers to Lug the Tinker and the Black Brothers of the Axe.

Then together, bitterly joyous, the hard-bitten band advances through the dungeon, watching with satisfaction as the Lizardmen they encounter retreat before the awesome and terrifying spectacle of the Qliphothic Engine they command. They reach the stairs to the courtyard unopposed and begin the slow climb up and up the spiral, toward the surface and the Pyrohydra of Blackrock Castle . . .


Add the following to Jack’s Journal: some of the Dwarves of Clan Oakstump believe that I am a Hidden One; a man invested with the soul of a Dwarf, and possessing secret powers. Of course, this may just be rank superstition . . .


Remove the Golem’s Heart from the Pouch of Ghrul and turn to 82.