Last time on the BoC: Due to a prolonged water shortage during a goblin siege, the dwarves finally breached the underground to slake their thirst. Despite attacks by giant bats and a mishap with a captured goblin swordsman, great treasures were unearthed below – basement founder Lorbam retrieved a feather from Tol, the great winged worm, as well as using herself as bait to catch a mighty jabberer alive.
Far above on the surface, the spring rains have arrived at the Jungle of Hides. Down in the caverns, however, the air is thick with the same stale chill it has held for a thousand years. Water plops from the web-choked ceiling into dark, silent pools, while the stalactites grow drip by drip, like sleeping trees.
Among their slumbering thickets, Dodok hunts. Back when he joined the fort, he was known as “that creepy butcher”, and derided for sharing a name with the beloved glassmaker Dodok Strapfountains, who made the patriotic goblet known as the Lightning of Clods. Nevertheless, over the last five years, Dodok (now known as Meatsmith to avoid confusion) has become a legendary hunter and bonecarver, and has developed a reputation as one of the most morally upstanding dwarves in the settlement.
After the excitement with the Jabberer, mayor Urist has restricted most of the citizenry from entering the caverns, but Dodok the Meatsmith has been given a pass to come down and bag the shaggy, hippo-sized herding beasts called Draltha. He’s joined by a nervous young hunter called Urvad, and between them they walk the echoing roads of the underworld, steel crossbows in hand.
Hearing the lowing of a sick Draltha, they head north in hot pursuit, only to find the beasts have disappeared down a narrow stone passageway. Sharing a wide-eyed glance, the dwarves decide to follow, and descend down a winding tunnel slick with silt and trickling cavern run-off. Midway down they encounter a wide hollow, where the mouldering skeleton of a blind cave ogre lies in a thick drift of bristleworm web – this explains the ogre blood coating chief Lorbam’s feather, they figure.
But they don’t linger long beneath the eyeless gaze of the great tusked skull, and soon they find the tunnel widening out again, into a whole new cavern. They are now deeper than any other dwarf in the settlement has been, and have discovered a wonder: a whole other underworld, layered beneath the first like yak-cream beneath the syrup in a dwarven Victory Cake. The draltha tracks lead on into this new wilderness, but Dodok is not reckless. To Urvad’s immense relief, the older hunter insists they return topside with news of their discovery.
As it happens, the hunters’ news barely registers. Mayor Urist is in the library known as the Mechanical Home when they arrive, deep in worry over the corpse of a dwarf. It is ‘Doc’ Sakzul, the fort’s ancient fishcleaner-turned-surgeon, who had spent the winter shambling around in the fort in a queasy nightmare of wine. Apparently he spent his last hours here, curled up beneath a library bench like a ruined dog.
Ironically, the scholars of the Home were too engrossed in a discussion about medical prognosis to notice the shaking, booze-reeking doctor crawling inside their sanctum to die, and offer only shrugs of apology to Urist. She’d be happy to write the death off as misadventure, but it isn’t even the first mortality in the library this spring.
Just days ago, the croptender Melbil showed up dead behind one of the library’s statues (of a dwarf being whipped to death by a goblin during the Violent Attack in Y3). Melbil was a repeat offender in the fort’s now near-constant string of tavern brawls, but nobody seemed to witness the moment of their death, making Urist suspicious. Then Ingiz – the fort’s forgemistress – turned up dead right in the middle of the craft cavern, and not one of the dozen workers on duty had a thing to say about it.
Deep in thought over the string of deaths, Urist takes the news of the new cavern with a brief nod, and ushers the hunters upstairs to speak to Lorbam, before ordering the underworld gates closed behind them. Valuable though the flow of draltha meat is, it’s not worth the risk of keeping the passages open for now.
Arriving at the Basement of Curiosity itself, Dodok and Urvad find Lorbam’s zoo alive with activity. Dingo pups are scampering everywhere, nipping at the heels of the mercenaries, poets and off-duty labourers who are here to take in the menagerie. Under the doleful gaze of a jailed bear and a couple of otters, a grim smith hammers a final gold plate over the stairs that lead down to the Bird Hole, sealing it off for good (best not to think about that, thinks Dodok).
Then around the corner races chief Lorbam, waving a fistful of cow entrails. The floor shakes, and a wall of purple feathers rushes into view, right behind her. A massive black beak plunges from the ceiling, snapping the guts from Lorbam’s hand, and she roars with laughter. This is Medtob Hammercastle, a five-ton terrorbird from the depths of the earth, and it is Lorbam’s newly declared best friend.
I love that it took Lorbam the best part of two years to tame the fort’s captive dingos, but she managed to essentially domesticate a troglobiont T-rex in the space of a fortnight. Apparently, the civilisation she came from had knowledge of jabberer domestication, but no fucking clue as to what to do with slightly skinny dogs. Anyway, I can just imagine Lorbam pondering this giant monster in a cage in her room, slavering and running its beak menacingly along the glass bars, before realising there’s an old manual down in the Mechanical Home with training instructions for it. It’s not been opened in years, and it’s still stained with eagle gut runoff from the long journey here (the pages are foully gummed together), but she’s damned glad she thought to bring it along.
The hunters wait patiently for Lorbam to finish roughhousing with her vast pet, but they are out of luck. A shrill whistle comes from the craft cavern upstairs, and Lorbam’s eyes light up: the Elven trade caravan has been sighted! Smirking in anticipation, the chief sprints for the stairs, and Dodok and Urvad must dive sideways to avoid first the flood of dingos that follows her, and then the huge, clawed feet of Hammercastle.
Up at the depot, a brisk trade begins. By now, the elf who comes here with her caravan each year is firm friends with Lorbam, and knows the fort will never fail to pay over the odds for whatever beasts they can scare up from the groves of their people. The two settle into their comfortable, familiar routine: dwarves load crates of stone carvings onto the elven donkeys (I imagine they’re like normal donkeys but with even longer ears), while Lorbam scans the manifest for beasts.
She nods with satisfaction – it’s a good haul this year. A warthog, a wolf and a mink to provide mates for the specimens she has already bought. A third kangaroo, for good measure. A hyena, which will probably end up on a gold chain with all the big cats. Two alligator snapping turtles for the reptile house. A sparrow, a grackle, and a bushtit for the aviary, plus a white stork to mate with the one down there already. And… no. She can’t be reading it right. But she is.
A chimp. A second chimp. A female chimp. Lorbam already has a male chimp. If she buys this animal, she has the potential for infinite chimps. It’s her life’s dream: it must be done. Without hesitation, Lorbam offers the elves her entire stock of stone crafts – a fortune, but she doesn’t want to waste time counting.
The elf refuses.
Lorbam barks a quick laugh – it’s a good joke. But the elf is dead serious. Apparently, somewhere in the craft haul being sold, there is a wooden item – and trying to sell wood to an elf is like trying to sell a vegan a shirt made from the stitched-together meat of abused circus elephants. As Lorbam realises the truth of the situation, the entire gathering is gripped with silent, rigid tension.
Lorbam tries to make the deal again, without the wooden item, but the elf – calm and polite, but grievously offended – will have none of it. They are prepared to come back next year and give the dwarves a second chance, out of respect for the business conducted so far, but there will be no deal this time.
Lorbam’s face turns white, and her eyes twitch. The elf is her friend, and has been instrumental in helping her build up the zoo of her dreams. But those dreams are nothing, without an endless supply of apes. She must have that chimp. In the blazing light of that imperative, no other consideration casts a shadow.
With a single twitch of her hand, clad in its grim glove of giant cave toad leather, she signals for her retinue to raise their weapons.
Three days later, Lorbam emerges from the Chimp Dome she has been building in the rock behind her private quarters, and gives her speech. She’s not much of an orator, but the fortress population, already on edge after the near-constant tavern brawls and the string of unexplained deaths, has been seriously jittery since the Incident at the trade depot.
If she is to have the swarm of captive chimpanzees she came here to create, she’ll need to put some courage in the hearts. So she stamps onto the gold floor above the Bird Hole (which has been designated a temple to Zon, her god), and speaks loud enough to drown out the sound of snapping wings and strangled squawks from beneath.
“So the elves are to be our foes,” she intones flatly, staring up at the dwarves peering down from the mezzanine of the Great Harvester. “Let them come; we have survived the goblins. And besides, when they do arrive, they will find only forest. Because from now on, we live underground, like true dwarves. This jungle is sweaty and disappointing, and we have everything we need to create a new paradise beneath the earth. An underground pleasure-garden, teeming with beasts of every description. And chimps. Many, many chimps. Send farewell messages to your friends elsewhere: when midwinter comes, we will seal off the aboveground for good.”
As Lorbam closes her eyes and raises her arms in rapture, intoning a silent prayer to Zon, the assembled dwarves look at each other with deep worry. Their spiritual leader has gone barking mad – and yet what can they do but follow her? By the Haunted Blood and the Stranger of Apes, they have been given their holy orders – all they can do now, is put their trust in the Hope of Brutes.
As ever, there’s a delicate interplay in these episodes between the things the game decides to do, and the things I decide to do. I was chatting with RPS editor-king Graham last week, and he laughed when I said “the dwarves” had built the Bird Hole, when actually it was me. And yes, that sin sprang from my heart. But wherever possible, I try to make my decisions based on reading the personality descriptions of the dwarves involved, and roleplaying as deeply as I can. For example, while the elf’s refusal to take the trade goods was entirely an accident (I was puzzled as it didn’t seem as if any wooden crafts were on offer), Lorbam’s… extreme reaction was my doing. But then, Lorbam is described as being impulsive, reckless, and completely laser-focused on her ambitions, so it seemed appriopriate. Her speech just now was one of the very few incidents in this series I have made up entirely – but its consequences will be very real.
Next time on the BoC: Preparations begin for the Great Leap Downwards, and Id gets into a spot of lycanthropic bother.
- A while ago I got one of the engravers to carve a triptych of panels on the stone walls of Lorbam’s private office, and I just remembered to take a look at what they depict. Here’s what she stares at while planning the fort’s future:
- Curiously, spring saw the arrival of a friendly Gorlak spearman called Jath, who came looking for information on some book or other, which I think is in the library. Gorlaks are strange creatures who apparently resemble a tusked head a bit like an orc’s, but… the size of a large child? And they’re golden. Just chill golden orc heads with arms and legs, showing up to read books. Reasonable.
- While I love that we now have a bushtit in the aviary, every time I read its name I think it just says “bullshit”.
- Speaking of birds and bullshit, let’s take our weekly glimpse into the state of the combatants in the bird hole:
- A note of respect for the cavy I chained up by the underworld gate to act as a lure for beasts, and then promptly forgot about when I locked the doors. It didn’t get eaten, but it did starve alone in the dark, and I feel bad about that. Still, its carcass attracted a pack of ghoulish troglodytes (which I imagine to be a bit like the shrieky lads from the film The Descent), and our cage traps caught a breeding pair!
- When looking at the fort’s chances for surviving underground, I realised there are actually only 46 working dwarves in the Basement – the remaining 70 are either children who spend all day playing, mercenaries, bards or monster hunters. Still, of the 46 workers, some 18 are legendary in at least one skill, so they’re a pretty competent bunch.
“The Yell of Animals” – an abstract image of two small, smooth pebbles
“The Sever of Gluttons” – a gaudy depiction of the war mayor’s election
“The Odious Seal” – a stylised depiction of three sceptres, which is the fort’s symbol