Last time on the BoC: After a wild summer in which the fortress was revamped, a ghost wrestler arrived, and the Bird Hole was finally bricked over, autumn arrived with its traditional goblin siege. This one was heavier than most: despite an attack from within the enemy ranks by a shapeshifting Werepanda, the blockade remained all season, leaving the fort without a supply of water - and its founder slowly dying of thirst...
Lorbam lies in the hospital bed, half-flattened by masonry and drenched in mud. All around her, a pack of shivering dingos lick her blood from their haunches, waiting for their queen to recover, or to die. She is far into the liminal space between life and death - the threshold which the dwarves refer to as the Interesting Door - but the fort has not given up on her.
Since sick dwarves don’t drink booze, Lorbam needs fresh water. And while the goblins are occupying the forest above, the only place to get that is in the wild, monster-haunted caverns beneath the deep mines. And it just so happens that, since the first day of winter, those caverns have been inhabited by a gigantic, flying bristleworm.
Despite her reputation for prudence and caution, however, Mayor Urist won’t be dissuaded. Once Lorbam’s hated rival, she is now the beastmaster’s most fiercely loyal friend, and she won’t let anything so petty as a forgotten beast from the dawn of time get in the way of saving her pal. And besides, if her plan works, the flying worm won’t even see the dwarves coming.
In a narrow, pitch-black tunnel, miners Ineth, Nil and Uvash dig with demonic speed. They are deep below the estimated floor of the underground lake, and the air is thick with chill moisture. Any second now they will break up through the silt of the cthonic waterway, but there’s no time for caution with their friend’s life hanging in the balance.
There; water springs from the tip of Nil’s pick. A hair-thin jet at first, and then a curtain, filling the cramped space with the stink of ozone. The miners turn and run, just as the ceiling gives way altogether, and they are pursued down the tunnel by a wall of rushing water. Reaching the stairs at the far end, where a well has been built, they are clapped on their backs by Bembul, the doctor, who has a bucket ready to dip into the new, icy torrent.
Lorbam is saved, and Urist’s gambit has worked - while lookouts peeking through the fortifications at the cavern entrance have reported the winged worm embarking on a horrid killing spree out in the dark (it seems to be straight up biting the heads off of everything it sees, chaining instant kills), it can’t access the fort through the new well channel. Screw you, wormo.
In one of the Basement’s regular masterpieces of timing, the completion of the founder-saving well was followed instantly by the climax of a strange mood. As if in celebration, the afflicted stonecrafter emerged from seclusion bearing a granite amulet engraved with an image of the fort’s founding, and named LIONTRIFLE, THE HOPE OF BRUTES. The Hope of Brutes. The Hope of Brutes. And just when these brutes needed hope, too! The amulet also bore an image of ‘broad bean plants’, but I think it’s much funnier to imagine hemp plants instead, as the idea of a stone medal with a crudely engraved weed logo on it being a symbol of national hope is really funny.
Finally, as the winter rolls on, the siege lifts - and when the dwarves emerge outside, they find a half dozen goblins imprisoned in cage traps. This news brings Lorbam great delight, and she has the grotty warriors hauled to the wing of the zoo which has become known as the Bastard House. There they will stay, draped with slugs and laughed at by leisurely bards, until another purpose can be found for them.
Despite the merriment raised by Lorbam’s survival, however, all is not well within the fort. Sakzul, the fish-gutter who was conscripted as the fort’s original doctor, and who was the architect of Id’s stitches, is crawling around in complete desolation, totally endgamed on wine, while the woodcrafter Ushrir and the asexual farmer Melbil are taking it in turns to beat the tits off the pub. Chef Ushat keeps dragging them down to the dungeon (for she seems to be a cop now???), but as soon as they get out, the walloping begins afresh.
When Dwarven Christmas arrives, it is to a bleak scene. The Great Harvester is awash with snarls and dog juice, as the fort’s traditional canines fight a losing turf war against Lorbam’s ever-expanding pack of dingos, while at one of the great feasting tables, the farmer Lokum sits completely dead, his neck snapped and his face down in a bowl of scrambled yak brain. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from a pub where the landlord is called Snakebuster.
But the patrons don’t even care. Over Lokum’s cooling body, a haggard lumberjack is gossiping darkly to a visiting human spearman, nodding over at the artefact crossbow carried by one of the Harvester’s resident mercenaries. The crossbow, called the Beak of Hermits, is a masterful piece of work with a stock carved from giant lion ivory, and scrimshawed with images of the nightmare creatures called Moon Crones. The spearman nods with great interest, and then saunters out, never to be seen again.
I don’t know why the game informed me so emphatically that this conversation had taken place (no spoilers please), but I have a horrible feeling it will become relevant later. We’ll see. Also, while investigating, I discovered that Ebir, the human noble Lady who took up residence a couple of years back is not in fact an idle aristocrat, but a 44 year old mercenary with waist-length hair and a massive scar. How did a Joe Abercrombie character get into my fortress?
But the big news of Dwarven Christmas is yet to come. Up above the debauchery of Id’s rowdy tavern, in the crafting halls, a new artefact has been produced by one of the woodcarvers. It is called Snarledend the Drab Shreds, and it is a rubber wood crown engraved with a crude image of Tol Athodsnen, the great winged worm.
When Lorbam receives word of this dread tiara, she sees it as a challenge to her courage and - to Urist’s dismay - she orders the walls blocking off the underworld to be torn down. The dark spaces below the fort are crawling with astonishing monsters ripe for her ever-expanding zoo, and she’ll be damned if she’s going to miss out on that for fear of a big feathery silly.
After a double set of retracting gold bridges are erected as a failsafe measure (operable from Id’s quarters in case the caverns need to be sealed again in a hurry), the walls are knocked down, and the passage to the caverns is thrown open. Immediately, the dwarves rush out.
Ineth the miner is first, his nose smashed from a bar fight and his face smeared with pus where the wound has become infected. He can’t look very pleasant, but he seems in a jolly mood: immediately, he hoists the mouldering skeleton of a giant mole onto his shoulders and charges round in the dark, snarling in challenge to the darkness.
Other dwarves follow, scampering out to collect the carcasses of the other monsters slain in Tol’s rampage, while the fort’s textile workers scurry to collect the webs sprayed by the worm, in order to spin them into silk. But of the worm itself, there is no sign. Nevertheless, Lorbam is canny: she has a pair of cavy pups chained up by the underworld gate as a lure to the beast, and a series of cage traps set in the surrounding passages.
Someone has the bright idea of chaining a goblin at the entrance too, and the dwarves cheer the suggestion, but unfortunately, nobody thinks to remove the prisoner’s sword and shield before it is manacled.
After a moment of shock at the stupidity of the dwarves, the goblin shanks a poet in the kidneys, leaving them crawling around in a slick of their own blood, and then lays into the next closest target - Uvash, the wandering miner who was instrumental in defeating the ettin during the previous summer. Despite having his left arm bitten off at the elbow during that fight, Uvash is an excellent fighter, and blocks the goblin’s first strike with his pick. Indeed, the counterblow is so stout that the goblin’s sword is knocked from its hand, and the snivelling creature is forced to fight with its shield.
At this exact moment, a giant bat swoops out of the dark and seizes the goblin’s head in its talons, but still it continues to flail at Uvash. The flapping nightmare lifts the goblin up into the air and then, in a move that seems to be becoming sickeningly common, bites out its lower back teeth. It’s like a sort of death metal makeout session. Then the goblin is dropped to the cavern floor, mangling its leg, and Uvash piles on. The one-armed miner only goes and bites out the goblin’s other lower back teeth, before delivering a wellying kick to its neck that severs the spine.
With the goblin out of the equation, the bat swoops back in, and wrecks Uvash’s remaining arm with its jaws. The dwarf fights on, but as the sounds of combat filter up the main stairwell, help is summoned. Id is midway through pouring a mug of carambola wine for a mercenary, when he hears the miner’s shouts of rage. He was there during the battle with the ettin, and he won’t see a comrade get bruted by some overgrown chiropteran fuckwit on his watch.
Streaking down the stairs like a meteor, Id flies out of the underworld gate and Eric Cantonas the bat right in the chest. With its heart bruised by the dwarf’s barefoot kick, the beast shrieks, and flaps off into the dark in a state of terror - Uvash is rushed off to hospital.
Yes, this happened. Id kicked the bat in the bloody heart, and it got terrified. Honestly, at some point that dwarf is going to run out of luck, but that won’t stop me charging him in every time someone needs rescuing.
Deciding that perhaps the dwarves have had enough underworld excitement for one day, Urist orders all the dwarves back into the safety of the fort, so the gold bridges can be withdrawn and the way sealed. The underworld gate will need better defences before a permanent outpost can be established. One by one, she counts the dwarves into the safety of the main stairwell - but there is one missing.
During the triple threat chaos of the goblin/bat/dwarf brawl, Lorbam hopped out of her hospital bed, still injured, and snuck out into the depths. Now she is returning, plodding up the slope from the muddy shores of the underground lake, and she is hauling something - a titanic blue feather.
It is all that remains of the forgotten beast Tol, and the state it is in tells a tale of horrible violence. The feather is coated in the blood of troglodytes, blind cave ogres, dralthas and crundles, and slicked with the opalescent shine of giant cave spider venom. Lorbam can’t say for sure what monster finally managed to slay the terror of the underground, but she doesn’t care - she wants this relic on a pedestal in her zoo.
Urist feels profound relief on seeing her friend alive, but it quickly turns to icy dread when she sees a shape moving in the darkness behind Lorbam. It is a Jabberer, one of the tyrannosaur-sized flightless birds that haunt the deepest caves, and which are second only to cave dragons in the hierarchy of subterranean terror. The great bird stalks forward with steps that dislodge stones from the cavern walls, but Lorbam, like a kind of gonzo Orpheus, doesn’t even look back.
She is nearly back at the stairwell now, but the weight of the feather is slowing her, and the beast is gaining. Urist screams in warning, begging Lorbam to drop the feather, but the founder just clucks in irritation. Either she is unaware of the slavering avian giant behind her, or she’s gone too mad to care.
The jabberer lunges, beak splayed wide - and a ring of lead rods erupts from the floor, encircling it with bars. As the beak snaps shut just a hand’s breadth from Lorbam’s head and the beast screams in frustration, Lorbam’s blunt prow of a face erupts in a wild grin. Never underestimate a cage trap.
Next time on the BoC: How to Train Your Jabberer.
- This was an “action” session rather than a building session, so there wasn’t too much time for weird incidental stuff to happen in. Nevertheless, I thought it would be worth relating some of the topics of discussion among the scholars in the Mechanical Home, the fort’s library. This winter, they were enjoying chats about hospitals, combination locks, causation, grammar, social welfare, diagonals, suturing, grammar, and tracheotomy.