Last time on the BoC: Fort founder Lorbam has lost her mind, and ordered the whole fortress – once a thriving tourist destination – sealed off from the surface so that she can breed her beasts in the safety of the Great Beneath. During preparations for the move underground, the fort was very nearly breached by a Werepanda: only the bolts of a sharp-eyed hunter – and the harrowing resilience of a war tiger – saved the day.
This entry gets a little bit bloody. I mean, let’s face it, this series often does. But things take one of their darker turns tonally this week, and I know some people appreciate warnings about blood and bones and stuff. So yeah, maybe don’t read if you’re iffy about maulings.
Autumn comes in like a bailiff with a brick-hued face, bursting into a council house to roar at children on Christmas Eve. Rain batters the leaves of the trees, and slickens the crumbling wood of the buildings that lie abandoned on the surface. The interior of the defensive wall has long been a midden of black sand and blood-smeared detritus – snake gristle, weasel skulls and rotting fruit – but now, the dense jungle grass is beginning to overtake the valley floor once again.
Pushing through that long grass are the last of the dwarves on cleanup duty, grumbling as they drag the final barrels, trinkets and stacks of hide towards the downward staircase. They are soaked to the skin. It makes them cross; that anger follows them down into the fort, steaming off them like the dog-mouth wetness from their clothes. It’s more crowded down here now. The air is thick, conductive as water. All it would take is one cross word to send the red lightning of dwarven rage coursing down every bolthole.
It’s Ushrir who does it. Of course it’s Ushrir. The damned woodcrafter, who would have been exiled weeks ago if his family hadn’t made half the fort’s most treasured items, and knows he’s untouchable. He’s in the Great Harvester, slurping up wheatbeer with a mouth so downcast it’s like a croquet hoop made from beef. He’s not had a fight in a few days, and with his son-in-law Goden having been dismantled by a werepanda, he’s got every excuse he feels he needs to start a real spot of Barney Rubble.
Ushrir’s sullen gaze flickers around the room like a fly, waiting for someone to acknowledge it, but everyone has their back turned to his table. Everyone except one poet, who’s either too new – or too slow – to know not to look back at Ushrir. Barking a four-letter word, Ushrir explodes from his seat with the force of a killer whale beaching itself, and lunges at the poet. The poor sod doesn’t even have time to express his shock in dactylic meter before his neck is opened like a bag of crisps. And then, carnage.
I’m not describing every fight as they can get quite repetitive, but there was one absolutely sick moment in this tavern brawl. A bard called Eshtan got chucked off the Harvester’s mezzanine edge, and landed right on the golden flagstones that cover the Bird Hole. Since the Bird Hole’s cover is designated as a temple to Zon (the fort’s main deity, and the god of fortresses and war), the bard immediately began to meditate on war. I utterly love the idea of him landing in a superhero pose, streaming with blood from a dozen wounds, and slowly standing with an expression of violent rapture, drinking in the power – and the dismal honks – from below. I named him ‘Birdsoul’.
By the time the violence is over, three dwarves are dead – the poet and two other visitors – while seven are laid up in the hospital with serious wounds. Including the fort’s diagnoser. With Doc Sakzul dead last season, remaining medics Bembul and Inod have their work cut out for them. Still, they stop everyone from bleeding out, and when the screaming stops and Ushrir is bundled down to the jails once more, a fragile peace resumes.
And what happens in that peace? A tiger crawls outside to die. Subscribe, the war beast that tanked for the whole fort during the werepanda attack, can’t face living a moment longer. I don’t blame it – it doesn’t even have feet anymore. With a sad mewl, it collapses in the rain, and Id the snakebuster sheds a tear. The beast will have a hero’s resting place, and if Id sees any fucker show up wearing stripy trousers, they’ll regret it.
This tragedy passes Lorbam by entirely – she has been too concerned with the ever-slowing passage of time. The autumn pomegranates now fall like feathers, raising slow-motion puffs of leaves, while seconds can plod by between each footstep across a room. She has had the scholars of the Mechanical Home studying night and day, searching for an answer, but all they can offer is this: the animals must die.
Not the zoo animals of course – they are precious beyond the value of every other life in the fort. And not the Birds of the Hole – they are part of a strange engine of religion now, an infernal prayer wheel of sorts. No – it’s the goats that have to die. Them, the cows, the donkeys, and all the rest of the filth clogging up the universe’s capacity for cognition. Lorbam will soon be able to breed exotic animals for meat, and so these common vermin are expendable. A great sacrifice will be prepared. Something special.
But first, Lorbam wants to test some mechanical principles.
Down in the dripping deep of the dungeons, Ushrir stirs from sleep, on the grime of his cell floor. He can hear a sort of grinding, like something being rasped away on rough metal. It’s coming from the door. A door, in fact: for now his cell has two, where once there was just one, and the new one is made of steel. That’s interesting. It also makes him angry. But then, everything makes Ushrir angry.
He glances over at the green glass plate inset in the wall, and at the grinning skull just visible through the smoky pane. Udil: the last occupant of this cell. As usual, she won’t tell him anything, the musty old shit. Then the new, interesting door starts to open, clanking upwards on some sort of hidden mechanism. Ushrir bellows to know who’s there, but there’s no answer. It must be being operated from elsewhere.
After a moment, something happens that surprises Ushrir. Peering under the raising door, with an expression he can only read as a smile, is a large beaked head. The beak is broad and colourful, and the head it’s attached to is like something between an alsatian’s and a lorikeet’s. It looks playful. UIshrir hates it. With a chirrup, the beakdog nudges the door fully open, and hops out into the cell. Ushrir scrambles backward, but soon comes up against the limits of the copper chain that tethers him to the room’s centre. The beakdog bounces forward again, tilting its head in curiosity.
Ushrir calls out again, voice cracking a little this time, but nobody responds. He’s on his own. Getting to his feet, the sweating woodcrafter hobbles to the cell’s original door and hammers on it, staring through the barred slit for any sign of help. He’s about to shout again, when the beakdog sweeps forward and knocks him over with the flat of its beak, winding him. By Zon, the beast is strong.
The beak closes around Ushrir’s shin, and snaps it like a twig. He sees bone flash through the blood that fountains up, and goes to scream, but his lungs remain empty. This can’t be happening. He’s Ushrir, damn it! The creator of Wiltworries, and father of the architect of the Lightning of Clods! Nobody would allow him to come to harm – least of all that soft sod Oddom, who calls himself Sheriff.
But then the beast is standing over him, and the beak is closing around his pelvis. It’s very real. Gasping in horror, Ushrir flails at the beakdog’s snout with his scarred fists, but it’s like beating on a tree trunk. Even as it drags him across the room, snorting the smell of rotten meat through its nostrils, the bloody thing still looks so friendly.
Without warning, the monster thrashes him around like a chew toy, hard enough to make his vision dim. Something major cracks in his lower back, and a cold numbness shoots up his legs. His spine has broken. The beakdog drops him, and he crawls on his elbows, dragging his body behind him, towards the door. This time, as he looks up at the slit, he sees a face – Lorbam’s, staring right through him with otherworldly blankness.
“Help!” he wheezes. “Save me!” Lorbam does not so much as blink. And then the beakdog is on him again, spinning him round on the blood-soaked floor until he’s facing the steel door again, and the empty cage behind it. Although he feels nothing, a horrible scraping tells him his leg bones are being gnawed. Then the beak is clamped around the sides of his head, and he can feel hot breath on his neck.
It takes Ushrir far too long to die. Toughened by endless brawls, his body just doesn’t want to give up. When it finally does, however, the last thing he considers is just how interesting the new door in his cell is.
Lorbam nods once, when it is finished. Ordering the door to the cell opened, she sends in a macedwarf and a human swordsman from the pack of mercenaries who hang out in the tavern – she doesn’t want her citizens seeing this. The macedwarf brains the bloodsoaked beakdog, before the swordsman runs it through. A quick kill, and the conclusion to a successful test. Her design for a remote cage release mechanism has been proven functional, and her biggest troublemaker has had an unfortunate accident with an escaped animal in the process. What a shame; he will have to have a tomb next to Udil’s.
That can wait, however: it’s time for the Sacrifice of the Beasts, and the inaugural show in Lorbam’s Grand Arena.
Next time on the BoC: A star is born. Goats are busted. Physical laws are violated. More trouble with dingos, and the gates close forever.
- Yikes, sorry it was such a tough read this week. I guess you can see this as the grim moment at the start of the third act, where the supposed hero of the piece makes a colossal heel turn. I’d say it’ll be lighter next week, but all I can really promise is that the dismemberment will be a bit less harrowing and more slapstick in tone.
- Credit this time goes to my wife Ashleigh, who created and photographed the lego diorama of Lorbam, Ushrir and the Beakdog! The ‘gore’ was made from baby shampoo, raspberry pulp and tomato soup (she says it’s an old theatre trick). She has asked to do more dioramas in future, so watch this space!
- Bastard though he was, Ushrir did not go unmourned. He was found by his cousin – the dwarf known as Giantslayer, who broke down in grief at the sight of the maimed body. I imagine Dodok the glassmaker is quite spooked at her father’s ominous death, too – especially after losing her husband Goden. She’s always been a fanatic follower of Lorbam’s – but for how much longer?
- Ushrir met his grisly fate in the cell reserved for repeat troublemakers. But in the more general dungeon across the corridor, there has been a bard called Adil imprisoned for years. He’s not a citizen, I can’t find any record of his sentencing, and there’s absolutely no clue as to what crime he originally committed. As far as I can tell, he’s just a wandering musician who has been locked up for no reason, ostensibly until the end of time, while the fort’s worst murderers stroll in and out of prison without so much as rinsing the blood from their hands. Adil feels perpetually drowsy.
- I can’t say for sure that this was a result of Id’s dismay on losing Subscribe the tiger, but I noticed during this episode that every single weasel in the cages in Id’s room has died. Carnivores can’t currently starve to death, so their death is a total mystery – in my grimmer imaginings, Id has just been rummaging through the cages in a blank rage, cracking them open like furry pepperamis and sobbing at the pointlessness of it all. Or maybe he fed them to the tiger as a final treat?
- This week, the scholars of the Mechanical Home have been discussing: social behaviour, notation, light and colour, camera obscura, and displacement.
- Down in the caverns, the captured troglodytes have bred, resulting in a baby trog. Assuming chimps have a similar gestation period, we could be hearing the panting and hooting of tiny primates soon…
- Oh, and speaking of breeding. A stray female turkey that somehow escaped the Bird Hole before it got sealed just laid a bunch of eggs. The only male turkeys… are in the Bird Hole. Covered by gold flagstones. This leads to one horrifying conclusion: somewhere down there is a turkey so unpleasantly hench that it managed to fuck its way through six inches of solid gold.