Last time on the BoC: After an Autumn spent beefing up the fort’s military, the new War Mayor Dashmob was spoiling for a fight, when a forest titan marauded into the valley. And while the Mayor and his soldiers made short work of the beast, it turned out it the Titan was only the palate-cleansing prelude to a massive goblin invasion…
Early Winter, Y3
Beyond the fort’s hardwood palisade wall, the jungle darkness echoes with the shrieks of goblins. Lookouts have counted nearly fifty of the lumpen creatures capering through the trees, accompanied by at least a dozen beakdog outriders. The Basement’s military, numbering just twenty-one dwarves – is outnumbered three to one, and Dashmob is sweating like corner shop ham.
While it borrows heavily from the standard high fantasy playbook, Dwarf Fortress has its own canon of magical creatures, and one of its best inventions are beakdogs. These creatures, often the steeds of goblins, are not dogs at all, but huge things somewhere between featherless, dinosaurian lorikeets, and these fuckers from Golden Axe/Altered Beast. They’re absolute murder in a fight.
At the first sign of the goblins, the War Mayor had drawn his troops back within the safety of the fort’s outer wall. But it was only a temporary measure, meant to buy time to plan a proper defence, and that time is already running out. Leaning against the inside of the northern gatehouse, heart pounding, he can already hear the goblins jeering to each other as they prepare to scale the walls. Brave as he his, his heart threatens to desert him at the sound.
Other dwarves are more pragmatic. Etur, the hunter who came within a hair’s breadth of dismemberment by the goblins during the summer, is gathering the fort’s other hunters and rangers to form an impromptu crossbow regiment called the Copper Simplicities. She tries to persuade her wife Deduk not to follow her into battle, but despite never having pulled a trigger in her life, the sturdy farmer won’t hear a word of it. As far as Deduk is concerned, they’ll die together, or not at all.
Another dwarf, Kobuk, is forming a volunteer melee brigade called the Modest Pulleys – and modest is what they are. To be honest, they should be called the Shit Idiots: they’re a gaggle of fumbling nobodies who barely know what a sword is, and they’re only armed with whatever they could find during a frantic rummage through the dregs of the War Bins. Still, with them and the Copper Simplicities, the fort’s military is 35 strong.
Almost enough to have a chance, thinks Dashmob, as he peers through a knothole in the gate to spy what the goblins are up to. The interlopers have split into two vague mobs – one larger and one smaller – and the larger group is leading the way south towards the fort. Hemmed in by the drainage trenches that cross the northern jungle, the goblins are passing just East of Carambola Ridge, where their fellows were slaughtered back in summer. Surely, Dashmob thinks, if he were to attack now, with the goblins all bunched up in the woods, they might win the day. It’s the sort of lager-blooded reasoning that makes a man believe he can fight a kebab shop and win, but it makes his axe-hand itch all the same.
He’s about to order the charge, when a hand like a load of sausages that have fallen into a lawnmower and then been hastily repaired by a narcoleptic tailor falls onto his shoulder. It’s Id, the heavily-scarred dwarf who once served as the fort’s entire military, and whose wife is in Dashmob’s own squad.
He’s pleading with Dashmob to show caution – to get the civilians underground and wait for the goblins to scale the wall, before ambushing them among the fort’s above-ground structures. But Dashmob waves him away in irritation. He won’t lurk in here like a cowering crundle, waiting for the goblins to breach the walls. He’ll meet them like a true dwarf, on the field of battle!
As Id swears and buries his face in his palms, Dashmob bellows for the gates to be opened, and runs into the night hollering. The die, it seems, is cast.
Right as I was about to unlock the fort’s gates for the charge, I got a lovely message come up telling me that a visiting poet called Feb was making a petition for residency in the fort. I absolutely love the idea of this poet swaggering up from the tavern, wine mug in hand, and interrupting Dashmob and Id to ask if he can live in the pub from now on. Read the room, mate. Read the room.
In fairness to the War Mayor, while the whole idea of the assault is a disaster, he really kicks it off in style. Sprinting straight at the goblins, Dashmob descends immediately into a martial trance, and deflects no less than four arrows with his shield before burying his axe in a goblin’s face. The kill doesn’t even slow him down: barreling into the main mass of the siege force, he leaps over an incoming pike, and dodges a lunging beakdog, all while dishing out fresh wounds.
I imagined this bit looking a bit like one of those Zack Snyder slo-mo extravaganzas from that film about all those really angry men with red leather knickers. You know, where the beard man kicks the robe man into a hole while shouting facts about where he lives. Crikey, 300 was properly ghastly, wasn’t it?
As another beakdog surges past him, Dashmob locks onto its hide with his mighty jaws, pinning the beast on the spot with his teeth while he hacks its leg off. Twisting his axe deftly on the backswing, he smacks its flat into the face of a hammergoblin, and slops the creature’s brains out like a hooligan hitting a carton of yoghurt with a cricket bat. The War Mayor claims four kills before anyone else even joins in the fight, but then the opposing forces collide, and the carnage starts.
Thanks to some extremely unfortunate tactical planning, the first squad into the fray are the archers of the Copper Simplicites, and they only manage a single volley of shots before they are given a hulking gulp of Vitamin G (the ‘G’ stands for ‘Goblin’). Two of the conscripted hunters are instantly bungled by the green tide, while new recruit Onget is reduced to using his bow as a club to fend off a trio of snapping beakdogs (but he does so with enough skill that he becomes a hammerdwarf on the spot). Minkot the hunter is not so lucky – he gets his mug seized in the jaws of a beakdog, and is rapidly running out of facial features when the attacking beast gets its fucking beak whipped off.
Minkot’s saviour is Monom “handshake” Boknonudib, brandishing her beloved silver whip, and (I imagine) absolutely belting out the theme tune from Indiana Jones. ‘Lash’ goes the whip, and the skin comes off a goblin’s chest like a tea towel being whisked away from a plate of ribs. “Wa-pow!” goes the whip, and a goblin’s face rips apart like a sun-perished boglin being fought over by two strong children. Monom really loves her whip.
But the whip giveth, and the whip taketh away. Etur, the leader of the Simplicities, has managed to back off from the fight, and has gotten into a duel with a goblin archer, the two circling each other by torchlight in a deadly game of “shoot the other person”. She’s so caught up in the duel, in fact, that she doesn’t notice a goblin lasher coming out of nowhere to thrash her skin into mince. The wounds are horrendous, and it’s almost a relief when a pikegoblin’s blade hisses through her skull.
All the dwarves have now moved in to support the Simplicities, but the goblins have swept in from the side to harass them from a second front. Onget the impromptu hammerdwarf is being choked senseless by a giant, colourful beak, while Deduk – consumed with rage at her wife’s death – is barely keeping the beakdogs at bay using her crossbow as a club. If it wasn’t for Handshake’s whip, the battle might already have collapsed into a rout.
Meanwhile, Dashmob is still out on his own, increasingly isolated behind the goblin front line. He has just shoulder-charged a goblin over the edge of the drainage trench, and, after brawling in the waste-deep mud at its bottom, has hacked its skull to pieces with his axe. But in the seconds it has taken him to dispatch the creature, a half-dozen of its fellows have leapt down to surround him. He’s still fighting, but he’s hideously injured, and absolutely caked in filth and blood – his own, the goblins’ and Lorbam’s.
Id is now fully engaged in the fight, expending his characteristic energy as he probes the goblin line for weaknesses. And when I say “probes” I mean “breakdances, while punching”: he’s moving like a load of eels tied together and plugged into the mains. Still, the goblins are well-armoured, and he’s taking stabs and cuts aplenty for every dent he manages to put in their plate.
Just when Id begins to flag with exhaustion, who should arrive but the wrestler Nomal – the Carnival of Fists herself, leading the Squashed Golds in a wild counterassault. Nomal never wanted to be a puncher, but by Zon she’s good at it: subjected to her pummeling, the goblins might as well be armoured in paper. She punches a lasher’s arms into jam, sends a speargoblin reeling as she turns, then erases a swordsgoblin’s face through an iron helm. The frenzy is only interrupted when a beak dog slams into her, at such speed that her cheek bursts open like a blown tyre.
This was such a weird fight. As ever, I had to decipher much of it from the combat logs, and they have a charmingly cryptic way of describing the game’s odd physics system. As soon as anyone starts colliding with anyone else, it seems they pick up speed exponentially… or something – whatever happens, it reads like the combatants have suddenly begun flying around at supersonic speeds, with parts rupturing on collision as if struck by orbital debris.
Bolstered by the arrival of the Carnival, Id is landing dozens of punches, and has finally struck a wounding blow when he stops and frowns, concerned. “I’ve been wounded,” he mutters, glancing down at his abdomen, “that’s very annoying.” And annoying it is – a copper arrow has opened Id’s belly like an eager student’s pencil case, and his intestines are fully exposed. Throwing one more punch for good measure, he begins vomiting uncontrollably, and staggers backwards to fall on the floor.
This fight was just the latest in a long string of incidents which have made me realise that Id really isn’t that good at non-animal fights at all. He’s astonishingly good at avoiding blows, and phenomenally resilient to the punishment he does receive, but he’s just not that great at taking out humanoid fighters.
Back at the fort, the citizens gathered on the ramparts gasp as Id falls. He’s something of a mascot to them, and his wounding is seen as a terrible omen for the fight. And as the soldiers hear the dismay of the civilians, their morale too collapses: as many as twenty individual combats are now underway, and an alarming number of them are now pivoting into sudden death for their dwarven participants.
More and more fights are spilling over the edge of the drainage trench, and its floor is now a horrid sea of blood, mud, vomit and corpses, with occasional knots of writhing fighters. The Mayor is still swinging his axe amidst a press of goblins, but he’s now bleeding from a half dozen wounds, and his strength is failing fast.
Up by the gates, Handshake has lost her precious whip, and is now bellowing “I’m not uneasy, I’m not uneasy,” to herself, eyes wide with panic. She kicks a goblin’s face concave through the visor of an iron helm, but it’s a drop in the ocean – the dwarves are being overrun.
Id watches from the ground, clutching his torn belly, as the Salves of Shade are encircled by goblins. He sees his wife Avuz battling off two macegoblins, and crawls over on his knees, desperate to help. Avuz is in a martial trance, sweeping her sword around like an orchestral conductor in the depths of a meth binge, although Id knows it won’t save her. She severs one, two and then three limbs from the brutes pressing in on her, but then goes down under a thicket of thrashing multicoloured tails as she gets clever-girled by a pair of beakdogs.
I looked in on Id’s head at the moment he watched his wife die, expecting a bizarrely inappropriate thought about cabinets or something, but what I saw was properly heartbreaking:
Things are very rapidly crunching towards a last stand, but the dwarves aren’t all out of fight: Adil, one of the no-hopers from the Modest Pulleys, turns out to be an utter beast with an iron axe, and hacks down three goblins before his own life gets binned. Handshake too puts in last minute surge for glory, finding another whip and using it to “wha-psssh” off a goblin’s head before her chest gets filled with greenskin blades.
But although they’re down to just twenty or so warriors, the goblins are undaunted. Down in the trench, they finally manage to prise off the war mayor’s armour, and he goes down like a bear under a pack of wet green hounds, cursing Zon. At the leader’s death, a hellish victory scream ripples through the invading force, and the surviving defenders quake.
At the moment of Dashmob’s death, one of the recruits – a 150 year old old metal crafter called Obok – is elected mayor. Moments later, he dies on the end of a goblin’s pike. I am fully in love with the idea that the fort’s civilians took the time, while watching the end of their city, to conduct an election. And that one of them then shouted the good news down to Obok, who gave them a solemn thumbs-up in return before dying.
With the War Mayor’s death, the defence collapses into a slaughter. The Carnival of Fists died as she lived, shaking a goblin around with her teeth (while thinking “that was not satisfying”), while Etur’s wife Deduk makes precisely one kill in revenge for her spouse before being cut down.
When the killing stops, there’s only a handful of soldiers left – the three archers from the Simplicities who managed to retreat at the fight’s start, plus two melee dwarves from the Squashed Golds, and Id (who is convulsing in a lake of his own vomit). The goblins, meanwhile, have pulled back the survivors of their first mob to combine with the second reserve unit, and are now coming back in to finish the job. It’ll only take a few more losses for them to abandon the siege, but with so few defenders remaining, it seems like a foregone conclusion.
The few surviving soldiers charge past Id, and crash into the final knot of goblins with a literal last hurrah. There’s a frenzy of stabbing, a couple of grievous headwounds, and then – as if snow had been poured onto a fire – the dwarves are all gone.
All but one, that is. The marksdwarf Kadol, who was one of the very first into the fray, is still somehow clinging on for his life, in the depths of a martial trance. A trio of goblins die to point-blank shots from his crossbow (one through the heart, no less!), and he just keeps reloading as arrows pierce his hand, his arm, his gut and his lung.
A lasher swoops in, but Kadol kicks their chest flat, driving a rib shard through the attacker’s lung. Three more goblins knock Kadol to the ground and begin hacking at him with axes, but he just won’t give up, biting, and kicking, and clawing at the feet of his enemies. His tenacity is the only thing standing between the fortress and certain death.
Eventually a goblin axe-wielder severs Kadol’s leg, and a great sigh rises from the fortress wall – but then the sigh becomes a cheer as the hunter’s arm darts up and plucks out the goblin’s right eye. In a move too horrible to truly contemplate, Kadol shakes the creature around by its eye, and its skull breaks. The move takes the last of Kadol’s energy and he too expires, bleeding to death, but it is enough: the handful of remaining goblins take one look at each other and decide they are way too freaked out to continue, before scarpering back into the jungle.
They leave behind a scene of stark, reeking carnage. At the forest’s edge, thirty-three goblins, eleven beak dogs and thirty-four dwarves lie dead. A full third of the Basement’s population is slaughtered, and of the sixty-four that remain, twenty-one are children. Almost everyone still alive has lost either a partner or a parent, the air is alight with grief – and a professional poet has taken up residence.
I’ve decided it’s canon that Obok, in his incredibly brief and violent tenure as mayor, decided to grant Feb’s residency petition. That’s the only official act he managed.
But not every member of the Basement’s military was killed in the assault. One has survived, with wounds worse than many of the dead’s, but none of them quite severe enough to finish him off. Torn and broken, Id ‘Snakebuster’ Osustavuz finally hauls himself to his wife’s lifeless body, and looks at it through watering eyes.
Next time on the BoC: How can the fort bounce back from this massacre? Who will take charge? When will the goblins return? And will the fort be lost to madness before they even arrive…