Chapter 71 :: Heart of Slade

December 17th, 2023

It is the 5th of Granite, in the early spring of 1280.

It is also the 24th of February, in the late winter of 2023. I am still riding high off of the excitement of the recent Steam release, not to mention three new chapters written and published in as many months. To my surprise, I find myself cautiously hopeful - not only to go four for four, but also to secure for the dwarves of the Momentous Dye one final victory, a prize that has lain in patient waiting in the depths of this save file for nearly ten years of my time.

As often happens in Dwarf Fortress, something unexpected snags my attention before I even have a chance to unpause.

A situation has already developed within one of the old residential wings - it must have happened, unnoticed, while I was recording the previous chapter.

A blind cave ogre corpse has cornered Cerol Viperbrass at the end of a hallway.

The planter put up a good fight, but the monster landed a lucky bite to the dwarf's axe arm, shattering the bone. Both axe and planter now lie on the ground.

In a moment of thoughtless desperation, I activate all of the remaining military squads, ordering every dwarf left in the fortress to converge on this foe.

I unpause. The game seizes and lurches like a sinister gravedigger, exhuming data and shambling forward like a corpse all its own.

Cerol is dead in seconds.

The ogre shakes and tears away Cerol's arm, and she bleeds out quickly.

Dwarf blood pools at the end of the hallway, spreading out from Cerol's dismembered corpse. Soon, it will rise again - but surely the blind horror standing over it, severed arm still in maw, poses a greater and more immediate threat.

I cancel my ill-considered military orders, and have both doors leading to the hallway to be shut tight and locked. Then, I order the construction of a wall just inside the doors.

With only eighteen - no, seventeen dwarves remaining, surely these bedrooms can be done without.

Within a week, the work is complete. Like so many dwarves who have gone before, Cerol's fate will remain a mystery to the dwarves of the Momentous Dye - but not to me.

It doesn't take long to figure out where the ogre corpse came from - I had been keeping a trio of them in an animal stockpile, along with many other cave creatures. Only two ogres remain, beside an empty cage. Before this year, I might have been convinced to let these cages remain - something to keep things interesting in the fortress' twilight years, a dangerous wild card.

But no. With my FPS hovering around 10 or 12, I must often let the game sit and run idle for extended periods simply to allow time to pass. These creatures, all of them, pose more frustration than fun. I designate all of them to be dumped into the open shaft to the north.

...well, not all of them. Trolls have extremely long lifespans, which may eventually pose useful in the struggle against the immortal demons of hell. I can't bear to throw away such a unique resource, no matter the risk it poses.

I cancel the dump order on the cave troll's cage.

The dwarves soon get to work, hauling and dumping the other trapped creatures.

Meanwhile, I order a slab to be engraved for the recently-slain planter.

Eventually, all of the cages have been tossed, and only the caged troll remains in the stockpile. I check the bottom of the shaft, taking one more look at the caged creatures before I order the lever to be pulled.

The bridge lowers, stamping the pile of cages into oblivion. A notification at the bottom of the screen informs me that some of these cages were masterworks crafted by the recently-deceased Sigun Savepaints, legendary farmer. I'm torn between relief - that Sigun is too dead to be offended - and melancholy - that yet another irreplacable piece of this conflicted fortress has been lost forever.

Life continues in Roomcarnage - at a slightly faster pace, now that I've moved to my newer laptop, the fourth which has been tainted by this fortress' main save file. The difference in speed is only a matter of a few frames per second - and I happily take them - but the real blessing is avoiding a mysterious and fatal crash that has only cropped up within the last few months of my time.

For all its history - eight decades for the dwarves, nine years for me - Roomcarnage has been surprisingly crash-free. Bugs, or odd happenings that could be called bugs? Sure. But no crashes. Even while the weapon was at its most active, spewing a volcanoful of molten rock across the surface of the map, the game chugged along at whatever pace it could manage.

I sit back in my chair, arms crossed, as idle as the dwarves in the old common area. This crash - sidestepped, apparently, but unsolved - has left me deeply unsettled. I can only pray that it does not return before I have a chance to bring this story to a close.

A close - what ending could there ever be for Roomcarnage? A fortress I swore would crumble to its end in time for me to enjoy into the upcoming new release? A thousand times I have hopefully anticipated its end, only to be disappointed. And while I have enjoyed the new releases, I cannot be said to have played them - certainly not with the level of devotion and attention and abandon which I prefer to give to Dwarf Fortress. A portion of my soul is ever claimed - gripped by cold fingers and fixed by violet eyes. Until I have freed myself from the clutches of this narrative, I have come to realize, I will only be able to dabble with other fortresses. Roomcarnage - my albatross.

And so, I have sought an end.

Years ago, the dwarves discovered an ancient demonic fortress at the base of the map. The initial assault went poorly, but since then a trap has been constructed, and many demons have been successfully captured in cages. Free demons still lurk in the area, preventing the dwarves from claiming the trapped fiends, but it is a good start.

This is the final prize, the last test of the dwarves of the Momentous Dye, a fittingly traditional victory condition in a game without victories: conquering hell.

For now, I am content to wait, and to watch how the remaining demons behave. I am not so optimistic to hope that they simply flee the citadel on their own accord, but I decide to give them the opportunity to do so anyway. My decision is not unfounded - the last time the dwarves pushed into the fortress, many demons took the opportunity to exit the map.

Ensuring that there is clear path from the interior of the slade structure to the edge of the map outside - and that there is no passage leading to the dwarves - I allow time to pass, and simply watch how the demons behave.

Two years scrape by before I remember about Cerol's memorial. Oops.

Sorry, Cerol. I place the planter's memorial in an alcove within the enclosed passageway, at the base of the slade citadel.

All 75 years of Cerol Viperbrass' life has been spent here, in Roomcarnage. She was still a child when the caravans stopped coming. There has been no other world - the narrow tunnels of this fortress, hewn from igneous stone, are all she has ever known.

Now, she is united with limestone.

I return my attention to the task at hand - that is, simply watching the demons move back and forth. I notice trends - individual fiends dive down corridors, seemingly making an escape, only to dance back the way they came. It is frustrating, but I remain determined to wait - along some sort of time scale, surely, there will be some difference in behavior that spurs the demons outward.

My expectation is rewarded, as it often is, in the worst way possible.

It happens one morning, as I boot up the game, antipating another long day of Dwarf Fortress. I load Roomcarnage, I unpause, the game runs for a couple of seconds, and then -

Error. The window flashes grey for a moment before the program closes.

I can already feel my stomach twisting into knots as I double click the .exe file again. No. No, no, no.

I unpause. Crash.

I do everything I can to improve my computer's performance - I close all other apps, turn on airplane mode, and overclock my CPU. I turn off temperature and weather and everything else in the game settings. I use dfhack to slay thousands of undead creatures. I uninstall dfhack and run the game on a clean, new version of DF. Nothing seems to work.

Desperate, I return to past seasonal autosaves, but to my horror many of these appear to be broken as well. To find a save file that opens without immediately crashing, I am forced to go as far back as 1278 - prior to the beginning of this chapter. It's only four years - about four days of play time - and I throw myself back into it, re-recording the last few years up to the same point. I'm able to play up to and pass beyond the date I reached previously, but after I save the game and try to boot it back up, the result is the same - all of the saves, going back to around 1280, crash immediately upon unpausing. I consider going back and trying again, with a different combination of changes to the settings - but it doesn't matter. The crash looms large and inpenetrable, a wall of unfun technical problems. Even the most careless accident, the most deliberate self-destruction would be preferable to the dispiriting fate of a fortress stymied by a predictable crash.

I could ask for help - but who would know, or care, to help diagnose (let alone solve) a crash in a version of the game that was out-of-date nine years ago?

I am devastated. After weeks of throwing myself against the wall, I give up, and concede defeat. The story is over, and in the most disappointing way possible.

It was inevitable.

continued in part two...