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Dwarf Fortress diary: The Basement of Curiosity episode seven - The Battle of Carambola Ridge

Witness the horror of the Dwarven Handshake

Last time on the BoC: The culture war between fort founder Lorbam and the usurper mayor Urist reached a head with the “accidental” death of administrator Mistem. Maddened by the insulting tomb constructed for her supporter, and by the droning of a hopeless freestyle rapper, Urist lost the plot and made some greaves. But amidst all this drama, nobody noticed the goblin raiders approaching until it was too late...

As the mid-season finale for the BoC, this episode picks up immediately from last week’s cliffhanger, and will cover the events of a single battle in early summer of the fort’s third year. CW: there’s a good bit of gore in this episode, courtesy of DF’s absolutely unflinching combat modelling system, although I’ve kept it to text-only depictions.

Early Summer, Y3

As the first goblins are spotted slinking through the trees, bells of bismuth bronze clang from atop the mayoral tower. All over the woods, dwarves drop their tasks and run to safety - but some are far from the gates, and the goblins are fast.

Mistem is nearest to the invaders: a trapper, working in the northern woods. He’s one of the few dwarves still setting cage traps to catch wildlife for the zoo, and he’s too engrossed in his task to notice the warning bells. Hearing grunting and rustling ahead, he takes it to be wild beasts, and continues to tinker. Only too late does he look up and see a dozen goblins capering towards him with the unsettling speed of apes, rusty weapons clutched in their claws.

The trapper fumbles to load his crossbow, but a goblin archer has already loosed an arrow. It punches through Mistem’s upper chest and lodges in his spine, with the dull thud of a knife’s tip driven into wood. The dwarf’s convulsing finger twitches the crossbow’s trigger, and it spaffs a useless shot into the air, ripping through the canopy with a wet hiss as he collapses.

Note: With the administrator’s death last season and now this, it seems fair to assume that Mistem is a cursed name among the dwarves of the Basement.

The goblins sprint towards the fallen trapper, malice gleaming in their eyes, and their archer takes the opportunity to get in some target practice by absolutely boromiring the dwarf’s paralysed body as her packmates close in. But if Mistem is hoping to be put out of his misery when the creatures fall on him, he will be sorely disappointed.

A cruel macegoblin lopes in first, cackling as she destroys the dwarf’s appendages with the casual ease of someone bursting bubble wrap. A hand splatters under her cudgel, then an eye, exploding into pulp like fallen fruit. The mace thuds down again and again, crushing a wrist, cracking a scapula, and working a whole leg into bloody splinters from ankle to thigh. And still Mistem will not die - he just lies there stoically, remembering a good chair he saw the previous week.

But even as this sadistic nightmare draws out, the rest of the moist, green pack has raced forward, and caught up with a newcomer hunter called Udil. A swordsgoblin hacks their leg out from under them in an arc of hot blood, and the gleeful dismemberment begins again.

Poor Etur -- the hunter who arrived last week with her wife Deduk -- is now the nearest dwarf to the invaders. Already, arrows are skidding through the leaf litter around her, and the gates seem so far away. Her feet pound on the loam, but as Mistem and Udil’s gurgling screams rise from the jungle behind her, she knows she will be next.

Mayor Urist watches all this (presumably through opera glasses), from the top of the mayoral tower, her mouth open in horror. She splutters for a military response, only for Lorbam to respond angrily from the roof (her little tower is built atop Urist’s big one, after all), saying she’s already made the call.

While the mayor was gawping at the bloody scene on the north ridge, the former expedition leader was hollering for the Salves of Shade -- the ten-dwarf squad under the leadership of the veteran Eshtan -- to armour up and get into the fray. Even so, it will take the soldiers crucial moments to assemble and reach the northern gatehouse, and by then it will be too late for Etur, and all the other dwarves still outside.

The situation seems hopeless, until Lorbam spots another figure beneath the trees. There is another dwarf out in the woods, of course, and they haven’t run anywhere.

As the goblins gain on Etur, a compact shape steps out from the shade of the carambola trees, without a tremble of fear, to stand between their beasts and their quarry. Cracking a weasel like a meat glowstick, Id ‘Snakebuster’ Tamedmine issues a guttural roar of mirth, and runs at the goblins with his arms outstretched.

Here we, here we, here we fucken go.

Id never makes it to the goblins. He takes an arrow right to the kneecap and goes down like a side of beef being hurled down a bowling lane by twelve angry builders. As soon as he skids to a halt, the vile things are upon him. For a few horrible moments, Id is fighting two, three and then five goblins from a prone position, and only his astonishing dodging skills, honed during a lifetime’s dancing and then an astonishing career swerve into snake persecution, keep him from the same grim fate as Mistem. He is breakdancing for his life, with a shattered knee.

Still, they crush one of his hands with a cudgel, and with his movement slowed, it’s only a matter of time before the forest of clammy hands latches on and prise off something vital. Id prepares for death -- and he knows he will have died buying time for innocents, and that’s enough for him. But a shout from the gatehouse brings him unexpected hope: with a joyous shout like a giant pile of dog-toy geese reinflating, the Salves of Shade charge into the light and race straight towards the block of goblins.

On the way in, a wrestler, Nomal, is struck in the head by another one of the merciless bowman’s arrows, but it merely jolts her brain into the mystical dwarven high known as the ‘martial trance’. Face set in a grimace of concentration, she ploughs into the goblin ranks like a carnival of fists coming to town.

Next into the madness is Avuz, Id’s wife. She gives her husband a nod of camaraderie and respect as she hurtles past, before shoulder-charging a goblin right into a carambola tree. Other dwarves don’t fare so well, however. A young warrior called Cog is a goner straight away, hacked into bloody horror by a goblin’s axe and stumbling away with fountaining stumps, before collapsing dead in the leaves.

Nomal is a dynamo of rage, kneading goblin faces like some sort of devilish baker, and pinning down half the invading force with just two comrades. Emboldened by Cog’s death, however, a knot of goblins surges forward and surrounds squad leader Eshtan. He’s fighting ferociously, bone jewelry clattering as he swings to and fro with his mace, but at 156 years, he’s getting too old for this shit. Swing after swing gets blocked by the axe of Cog’s slayer, and eventually, Eshtan overextends in frustration. Hissing in cruel satisfaction, the goblin drives his axe through Eshtan’s foot, pinning it to the ground, then pummels the dwarf as his impaled limb impedes his dodging.

COMEDY INTERLUDE: During all the action, poor Rakust the accident-prone lumberjack fell in the fort’s well while taking the roof off in attempt to renovate the hospital. He ended up desperately treading water, so I had to knock out the bottom of the cistern and spill a load of muddy water into the stoneworks factory just so he could escape. Oh Rakust.

There's good old Rakust, getting swept out of the cistern like a little origami boat. You can also see Udil the manager and her loyal apprentice Tirist building tables in the bottom left, which is cool.

Now, back to the fight.

On the outskirts of the brawl, a mace-wielding goblin -- the one who dismantled Mistem so cruelly -- is stepping back to build room for a massive run-up on the soldier Shorast. But he has not been mindful of what lies behind him. An iron grip snaps to around his ankle, fast as a rattlesnake, and the goblin’s piggy eyes glint in horror. For there, looking up from the jungle floor with a bloody grin, is Id. It’s time for the macegoblin to taste his own medicine.

Yanking the goblin to the ground, Id maneuvers his prone body like a crab on cheap speed, kicking one of the goblin’s eyes clean out of its socket, then following through with a lunging snap of his jaws. Biting onto the flapping eyelid, he shakes the goblin around bodily by it (by Zon, the strength of his neck), fracturing the skull with the ferocity of the mauling. But he is not finished. A ghastly staccato of fists comes next, with Id’s one good hand smashing bone after bone like an industrial stamping press. For the briefest of moments, Id pauses to reflect on how happy he is with the improvement of his wrestling technique, before he lets out an undulating holler of joy, rips off the goblin’s trousers, and smashes the creature around the head with them until its brain is gravy.

Eshtan, somehow, is still fighting on. Foot still pinned, he parries countless strikes with his mace, but he is slowing. Eventually, the axegoblin who has been his chief tormentor slams its shield edge-first into Eshtan’s chest, and the impact is enough to jam a rib-splinter through the veteran’s heart. Gritting his teeth as blackness rises, the ancient bruiser looks at Id for inspiration, and draws one last time from his well of strength.

“Death is all around us,” he growls, blood pouring from his lips as he seizes the axegoblin by the neck. “This. IS. TRULY. HORRIFYING,” he grunts, each word more distorted than the last, and each punctuated by an almighty thrust with the head of his mace. On the final word, the goblin’s head caves in, and so does Eshtan’s heart. The squad leader falls dead.

He soon has company. A wrestler called Rakust, the mayor’s husband, has been making merry work of decorating the ridge with goblin teeth, smashing them from jaw after spongy green jaw. But as he turns to find a new victim, a vicious strike from a goblin’s iron flail carves a ravine in his chest, and scoops out at least one organ that he needs. He sinks to his knees with a blood-drowned honk, and mayor Urist screams in grief from her tower.

But Eshtan and Rakust have bought time for the rest of the squad to thin the goblins’ numbers. And when I say ‘the rest of the squad’, I largely mean Nomal. Honestly, she’s like Diomedes in book five of the Iliad. It’s insane. At one point she strips every piece of clothing from a goblin and smashes them in the face with it, finally killing them with their own filthy sock. She’s got a gaping hole in her torso, and her liver has been wrecked by an arrow fired into the wound, but she’s on her sixth kill and has no care for stopping now.

Also worthy of note is Monom Bokbonudib -- the most technically skilled of all the soldiers, and the happiest dwarf in the fort. Despite worshiping Arban, the god of generosity, sacrifice and peace, the only generosity they’re showing now is in their dispensing of batterings. They are pummeling the head of a goblin wearing an iron bucket helm, putting a bigger dent in the metal each time, until it crumples entirely with a whoosh of blood from the eyeslits. And they did all this while holding the goblin’s hand.

I’m calling this move the “Dwarven Handshake”.

Meanwhile on the floor, Id is just finishing dismantling the macegoblin, when a grisly form pounces on to him -- the goblin bowman, who has been skulking around the outskirts of the fight, sending wicked missiles into the mayhem. By this point poor Id is exhausted, and is weakly batting away the goblin’s claws as they creep ever nearer his throat.

But then the goblin is seized from behind, in an unlikely bicep clench, Id’s own signature move, which he has taught to only one other dwarf. Bruised but unwounded, Avuz winks at her husband, and hauls the snivelling bowman off his body. Keeping the goblin in a headlock, she pounds and pounds at the creature’s head, like a blacksmith working at a watermelon, until it is nothing but rags of skin and cartilage.

Avuz lets the awful remnant droop to the floor, and the surviving dwarves give a roar of victory -- for that was the last goblin. The grove is awash in mangled body parts, drenched in blood and sewn with teeth, and five dwarves lie among the dead: Eshtan, Cog, Rakust, and the two tortured civilians. But the Battle of Carambola Ridge is won, and the Basement has prevailed.

A montage of some of the fun detritus left on the battlefield, which is at the centre of the image. You can see the settlement wall at the bottom of the picture, and all of those little white spiky symbols are piles of goblin teeth. Also, under the big text box on the left, you can see a rattlesnake, looking over the carnage with a sense of awe.

As her trance fades, Nomal looks down at her hands, and then at the gaping wound in her side, where an arrow still protrudes from her liver. She’s a ludicrously wholesome dwarf, valuing art, law, friendship, loyalty, family and honesty, but she’s just ripped open seven goblins like bags of crisps, and from what little she remembers, she loved it. Nomal’s life has changed forever.

Incredibly, a look at Nomal’s thoughts after the fight showed her to feel distressed, horrified, or both, at the death of every goblin she killed. It reads, very creepily, as if she was a spectator to her own rapturous killing spree. This is a troubled dwarf.

But before the dwarves can reflect further, their attention is drawn to their brother Id. Because beneath his battered but living body, great red wings are spreading across the battlefield. A pool of Lorbam’s blood: a sign of victory, from the great god Zon.

There it is: the haunted blood again! I wonder if at this point, Lorbam's blood is somehow running in Id's veins, as it keeps appearing when he's wounded. Is he like a sort of avatar for her? Is Lorbam... a warlock?

They’ve done it, and, aside from Eshtan with his mace, they did it entirely unarmed. Wrestling, once again, has saved the day. As a light rain begins to fall, The dwarves head back in to the fort, with Avuz carrying her husband on her shoulders, ready to patch up their wounds and then head to the Great Harvester to get completely blotto.

But one dwarf is not happy. Urist the mayor, stricken with grief, runs out from her tower into the drizzle, and staggers up onto the bloodied ridge. Stepping over goblin teeth and scraps of armour, she finds her husband’s body and screams until her throat is raw. Falling to her knees, she clutches his silk shoe and sobs, her tears mingling with the supernatural blood of her rival in the battlefield soil.

With a maddened shriek, she bans the export of greaves (I guess you could say she was... greaving), but her mind has clearly snapped. Her key allies are dead, and her usual cohort of yes-dwarves have abandoned her, disgusted by how she watched from her tower as the fort nearly fell to goblins on her watch. Nobody is interested in taking orders from Urist any more.

A rapid jungle sunset brings twilight, and the rain patters around Urist in the glade. Then, behind her, a figure looms.

Shuffling out of the dark, an armoured figure of colossal, almost chungusian, girth stands behind the stricken dwarf, and claps a gauntleted hand on her shoulder. This is Dashmob Domainwork, and he’s in charge now. He is... the War Mayor.

Sometimes I can’t believe this game. The lorbam blood glitch, Urist losing the plot over the loss of her husband, and the sudden change in mayorship: all the game’s work. Lovely stuff. I can't wait to tell you all about Dashmob either - he's a real piece of work. But before we close up the Basement for the mid-season break, a couple of notes:

- Sorry there were a few less images this week! I wanted to do a fully illustrated episode so I didn’t take any screenshots of the actual fight, but then I didn’t have time to do all the pictures I wanted. Perhaps, given the stomach-churning contents of the fight, that was a mercy.

- Another tidbit of classic Id psychology: as the new doctor, Bembul, slowly reassembled him after his latest hellish brawl, I looked into his thoughts and found this: “maybe I give up too early sometimes”. Oh, Id.

Next time on the BoC: I’m going to be on holiday all of March, so I thought I’d do this mid-season finale to offer a natural place to pause. Next Monday (the 4th), I’m hoping to do a quick post with a character list, a diagram of the basement, and answers to any questions you have - so please ask away in the comments, and let me know what you’d like to see in the next half of the season. In any case, the Basement will return on April 8th. Thanks so much for reading so far!

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Nate Crowley

Former Section Editor

Nate Crowley was created from smokeless flame before the dawn of time. He writes books, and tweets a lot as @frogcroakley. Each October he is replaced by Ghoastus, the Roman Ghost.