I originally told this story at a storytelling event in Ultima Online, but I didn’t write it down. It’s been a few years since then, and I just had an itch to put it in a less ephemeral format. So, as best I remember it, and perhaps a bit more embellishment:
In the foothills of the Superstition Mountains, in the Arizona Territory, a dead man walks.
He doesn’t know he’s dead. He doesn’t know he’s walking. The sun has baked all the knowing from his skull. His feet move of their own accord now, a fact he notes with sullen resentment for awhile before he stops feeling anything at all.
He had some sort of goal, desire, ambition that drove him into this hot, alien place. Perhaps that’s what keeps his feet shuffling forward, long past the point when any sensible corpse would lie down and summon the buzzards to feast. If so, he doesn’t recall what that goal was.
He doesn’t recall anything, really.
He walks on.
A saguaro looms in his path. He raises a hand to guide himself around it. Sharp cactus spines spear deep into his palm. The pain leisurely twists its way up his arm and into his brain and he dully looks at his hand. “Hurts”, he thinks, and then, “No. Dead.”
He walks on.
It is night. He doesn’t know when it became night. It’s harder to see the ground, but he wasn’t really seeing it anyway. He walks to the edge of a deep arroyo, faintly visible in the moonlight. His feet stop. He tries to make them walk over the edge. The fall might kill him fully, mercifully dead. But his feet turn him away from that blessed release, and a moment later he forgets to hate them.
He walks on.
He’s in a mine. He doesn’t know how he got here. The air is dusty and stale, but blessedly cool. There is a reddish light on the rock that seems to be coming from around a bend ahead of him. A word stirs in his dead brain.
His cracked lips twist into a smile, His feet lurch forward, picking up speed. He rounds the bend, and sees a swirling column of light. His feet don’t miss a single step. He plunges into the light, and is gone.
That’s the word for the sweet pleasure now tricking into his mouth and slipping slowly down his throat. He wants to grab the source of it, to gulp it down into his dried-out husk of a body until his stomach bursts, but he can’t lift his hands. He lies back and lets someone, something, feed him small sips. He tries to open his eyes, but it’s too much work. He drifts back into darkness.
He opens his eyes. It’s hard to see at first. He’s in a small room, pitch black save for a single flickering candle on a low table. There’s a man at the table, a short man, stout, bearded, reading a book nearly as big as he is.
“Who are ye?” the dead man says, and is surprised at how easily the words come. He raises his fingers to his lips and both are smooth and supple. He looks back to the short man and finds him smiling at him.
“Hakzud kratzka,” says the man. “Brazik gud ahkmad.” He puts down the book and stands. He’s maybe four feet tall, but built like a circus strongman
The dead man shakes his head. “Well, this ain’t what I wuz expectin’.” He points at the dwarf. “Yer name. What’s yer name?”
The dwarf squints at him, “Urmaym?”
The man points again and speaks loud and slow, as if to a child. “What. Is. Yer. Name?”
The dwarf stares at him a moment, and then his face lights up. “Ah!” He thumps himself on the chest. “Gonzi! Ik kramin set Gonzi.” He points at the man, and says very loud and slow, “Nek. Set. Et. Kramin?”
The man shakes his head in annoyance. “I don’t speak none o’ that foreign talk.”
“Forrin?” says the dwarf. He tilts his head. “Ah! Thorin! Set da kramin frabije. Thorin!”
“No, ye idjit. Ma name ain’t Thorin! It’s…. it’s…. well…. dagnabbit, I don’t rightly recall.”
The dwarf nods again. “Thorin”.
The newly christened Thorin rolls his eyes. “Well, fine then. Ye kin call me Thorin, leastwise ’til I recall my rightful name. And yer Gonzi?”
Gonzi thumps his chest again. “Gonzi.”
Thorin leans back in the bed. “All right, Gonzi. Now what?”
Time passes. Thorin learns the language and ways of the dwarves, He has an uncanny aptitude for mining and smithing, and learns to wield a might sledgehammer in battle. Clan Ironbeard adopts him with great ceremony.
And when he passes through the mysterious red gate again, trying to find some clue to his past…. well, that’s another tale.