The Fortress Invisibleink

Chapter 1: Fortress

Deep below the surface, the dwarf fortress Invisibleink is being continuously expanded by its inhabitats, collectively referring to themselves simply as The Agency.

Banks swings her pick with glee. Mining comes to her like second nature. Quarrying, rigging down, blasting out; She has done it all, successfully exploited the veins running under goblin pits far and wide. Often without anybody ever noticing the biggest jewel missing.

Those were different times. Back then, she lived in luxury. Robes dyed vibrant green with bladegrass. High boots made of jabberer leather. Lavish meals every day, spiced with quarrybush and sweetened with pod-syrup.

All that changed when her home fortress got besieged. Her hits became more aggressive, yet she took only a small cut for herself. One could think Banks became sloppy, given the cave-ins, except those always just so happened to cause structural damage. A few collapsed pits and towers caught the goblins off-guard, distracted them from smugglers and would-be siege-breakers. And the goblins' own avarice would invite oh-so-much bribery.

Regardless, the fortress fell in the end, and the work took its toll on Banks. Were the sacrifices worth becoming a legend? What of the people she had inspired to likewise engage in underground sabotage?

The gabbro whispers reassurance through its unending groans.

Val swings by with a wheelbarrow to haul ore. She tries not to say anything nor to make eye contact. Banks creeps her out.

*Bnk: "Do you think friendship can cut through metal?"

*Val: "…What?"

*Bnk: "I almost managed to get through, once. Maybe it would have worked with more friends?"

*Val: "Friends are not superpowers."

Banks shrugs, and apparently that is the end of the conversation. The stone screams under the weight of the loaded wheelbarrow. Louder than usual, even. In fact, the whole metamorphic layer above is screaming.

*Bnk: "Take cover! Quick!"

Shalem rushes as quickly as his muscular legs carry him. A bucket of clean water is already available. As is the patient.

*Slm: "Forceps."

His hands wash and rinse with professional efficiency, almost as fast as Aaron can supply the requested utensil. Poor guy has been crying. It certainly isn't the first trauma he witnesses, but perhaps he had never witnessed death.

He won't today either.

*Slm: "Light."

The open wounds are shallow. One vein has been severed, and pressed shut as matter of first aid. Looks like the injury occured about fifteen minutes ago.

Diagnosing blunt trauma is something Shalem learnt only a few years ago. Before then, back when he did business in the goblin towers, it was mostly piercing injury, and he never stuck around long enough to inspect it.

Comminuted fracture in the arm. Somewhat displaced during the rescue. Setting the fragments will take a while. Artery seems intact, nerves impossible to tell.

Before he takes care of this, however, Shalem turns his attention to the rest of the body. It seems unlikely that this alone knocked the patient out.

Her pulse is faint and fast, as is her breath. Signs of hemorrhagic shock. He runs his hands along her torso to find the source of it. Ribs are intact. Pelvis seems fine, too. Good, good. Lower thighbone feels fractured, and a slight pressure that may be hematoma.

*Slm: "Tourniquet."

*Arn: "What?"

*Slm: "Cloth and stick!"

Aaron fumbles in the supply cabinet.

*Slm: "Cloth, damnit!"

Unbelievable. Val is lucky Shalem just came from archery practice, thus not wearing his best suit. This one, she can plausibly replace when she comes to. And so, he liberally cuts off a sleeve and repurposes it to slow the blood flow in the leg.

*Slm: "Scalpel."

He has to get in there. If a fragment obstructs the artery, or even just threatens to break it open again, it would kill her before long. Or at least cost her the leg.

Shalem has pierced so many bodies before. Not with scalpels, but rather with arrows. The Agency doesn't pay as well as the high-ranking goblins, but that's besides the point. He knows exactly where it hurts, where it is lethal.

Blood drenches his hands. He forgot how it feels. It may only be the second time in his whole life. The first time is what made him become a medic in the first place. Suddenly, this feels personal.

Aaron found cloth, and has nothing better to do than tap the sweat off Shalems forehead.

*Slm: "Save it for bandaging."

Shalem lost count of how many lives he has taken. It doesn't matter to him, and he doesn't feel about it. Hell, the entire goblin society doesn't feel about it. If anything, it makes Shalem a celebrity, somebody who can freely walk in and out undisturbed. But that doesn't matter to him either. What matters is how many lives he spares.

He has yet to lose count.

Prism walks out undisturbed. She is the new face. Not just at The Agency, but literally and everywhere she pleases. Right now, she wants to leave the wretched goblin pit behind before any of them get funny ideas.

Her mission was a success. Not only did she learn where the Ak-Sput-Em faction is planning to expand to, but also who the latest abductee is. Not a fit for Invisibleink, that kid, but a good lead for a rescue mission, if the information broker can find his relatives.

One trench lays between Prism and the wilderness that lets her doff the disguise.

*Gbl: "Identify yourself!"

A pesky goblin bothered leaving his post to question her. How annoying. She channels that annoyance into her role.

*Prs: "Reah Tesmxuk, vice inspector. Now keep looking out for Oklâr & Kök troops!"

*Gbl: "If you wish to leave, you must pay the toll."

There is obviously no such thing as an exit fee. Anywhere else, she'd assume he's trying to extort the jewelry off her chest. But judging from the feeble attempt at smoothing his voice and puffing his chest, it's much rather a cheap pretense to engage in the depravity Ak-Sput-Em is known for. Unfortunately for him, this particular vice inspector is not inspecting vices right now. Office hours are from 12:00 till noon.

*Prs: "Get back into that shabby high-stand where nobody can see you beat yourself ere the deputy executioner makes her patrol."

That begrudged pest will surely watch, but whatever. Once Prism has snaked around to the fortress, she'll be able to finish that gem-encrusted bracelet in time for the trade. Jewelry is a nice craft, unlike… pretty much anything else.

Travelling through the wilderness sucks, though. The wild life is rather calm here, and Prism is acclimated to weather, but being alone with her thoughts is too much.

Eversince she joined The Agency, she can't stop remembering her coming of age. Her own life was fine at the time. The war saw those hillocks captured early enough that she cannot remember it, and she quickly learned how to reject and fool the impudent goblins occupying her home. A bunch of tavern performance and some petty grifting fared her well.

Something broke inside when she witnessed the execution of Gladstone – or maybe something snapped into place.

It doesn't help that Prism essentially re-enacted that scene for an uninterrupted half hour at some point. The memory assaults her again. She can see, hear, feel herself get executed.

Monst3r guides his caravan into the foreboding cave. The markers around the camoflagued hatch are still intact. The way down is clear and safe.

"Excessive", his peers mumble. Well, they haven't been at the front of the Resourceful War from start to end. They haven't spectated their own supposed execution alongside that of the supposed Gladstone. Monst3r has. Despite being officially dead, he is one of the few non-goblin winners here, in terms of survival and economy at least. Every precaution he takes speaks to that fact.

The merchandise isn't the finest this year, but he got most of the things Gladstone requested. It's no small feat to scrounge up– No, Monst3r doesn't scrounge, he procures alloy components and mediates craftsdwarfship. Not to mention the livestock they hereby spare of the usual mistreatment.

Contacts are precious. Confidentiality is essential. After the caravan is done unloading, and Monst3rs peers have verified their inventory one last time, they must all leave. Gladstone is his best-kept secret, owing to all the trust and aid she had bestowed upon him in his humble youth.

Unlike her, Monst3r gave up on fighting. He finds strength in trade. His sortiment spans conventional goods, production agreements, information (both the verified and the debunked rumours), research, services (rarely his own), and opportunities. His policies differ from those of goblins, though. As a broker, it is his duty to let his clients thrive and prosper. The more wealth they extract from the earth, the more surplus he can take. That is something his distasteful competitors selfishly ignore as they scam each other for a living.

He straightens himself as his old friend enters.

Central makes her way back from a meager trade. Derek has been a good ally all these years, but things are not looking good across the board.

The caverns are quiet, as they should be. They are essentially a buffer zone, an additional layer of protection. Direct surface access to Invisibleink would be a much graver risk than that of a giant spider sneaking past Overseers attention.

Weighing risks and ranking missions is what she has done eversince she made it out of hell by the skin of her teeth. She's good at it. This is not boasting, it's an undeniable fact bought with a long, hard century of experience.

She could have bailed often, during the war and after, made a living one way or another. Instead, she founded The Agency specifically to amass the military competence and intelligence necessary to bring down the goblins and free their thralls forever. Some of that intelligence coming from Derek just now, of course. Still, it is not enough yet.

The fortress proper comes into sight. Welcomed by a familiar engraving of the vampire Matei Cernat The Dragon Of Blood, a goblin corpse, and a sun. Matei is cringing. This image relates to the Istanbul Run of '57, when Matei slew over a hundred goblins until the break of dawn made him vulnerable. (The vampirism was fine, but even supernatural dwarves vomit when exposed to weather for the first time in years.)

It was an unconventional war. The general did not understand this when she recruited unconventional talent like Matei. Not that it mattered much: The general bailed, and bitterly regretted doing so when Central personally killed him for his treason.

Treason seems to be a guilty pleasure of goblins in general. You'd think, without kings and queens, whoever works with the demons is the de-facto untouchable leader. And yet, that changes so often that Central cannot remember the current names.

With an enemy so self-absorbed and prone to infighting, Central is convinced they could have won the war, had their leadership taken the situation serious from the start.

Maria plucks some hideroot for her scarf. The bright red dye is her favourite colour. It reminds her of the resistance, the war against self-absorbed leadership.

Superficially, they had won. There are no kings and queens anymore. But in truth, not much has changed. They are still oppressed, and they still fight for freedom and common rights, and Maria still holds onto hope.

She still holds onto her nickname, too. "Internationale" because her beliefs transcend nationality. As does her scouting and foraging, right now.

Superficially, nations no longer exist. The whole world is goblin territory. But in truth, their factions are every bit as exclusionary and proud. Instead of discriminating by race (though they still do that internally), they discriminate by demonic sphere.

Oklâr & Kök revels in needlessly violent warfare, shrugging their casualties off as a statistic. Ak-Sput-Em practically honors vices and depravity, ignoring how envy poisons their happiness and errodes their privacy. Gonga, in stark contrast, is ruled by fear and nightmares, manifest as mutilated undead and lesser demons. And while all of those exemplify the diseases that riddled sovereign governments, Pasquek is riddled with literal diseases, glorified as desirable mutations with no regard for the cost.

Invisibleink has none of that. Central accidentally created a great example of a functioning commune. The Agency operates by the numbers and minimises risks to its agents. They acquire resources by ability and share them by need. They exercise discipline while granting the safety to pursue ones skills and interests independently.

It is possible because Central is not an oppressive leader. Granted, she is strict, demanding, sometimes sarcastic, and difficult to bond with. But her authority is limited, her position exists out of necessity, and she is chosen for it by overwhelming majority approval every year.

And it works. If they succeed in ending the goblin tyranny, what rises from the rubble will draw inspiration from Invisibleink.

Speaking of, Internationale can see the eerie lake from here, draped in red mist. That means she is almost back at the fortress.

The sky is overcast and calm.

Decker fastens his hat, as if that would make the rain any less miserable. He doesn't want to be out here. That creepy lake is up ahead, and the secret hatch he's supposed to fix is somewhere around here.

How come he is still the only viable security architect at this company? "Used to be captain of the guard" this, "know their soldiers' flaws" that… It was over a decade ago! And he bloody hated it. Loathed every morning, struggled to run the show all day, probably got caught in the rain while he was at it, and drank himself to bed every night.

The alcohol probably washed most intel away anyways. You know it is bad if dwarves are concerned for your liver.

Thralldom. It was always thralldom. The dependence at Oklâr & Kök wasn't as blatantly obvious as in the other factions, but in hindsight, it is undeniable. His men were there for much the same reasons as he: Rank, admiration, purpose, nostalgia for a glorious age he never was part of to begin with, escaping his actual past;

There is nothing beautiful in war. There is nothing beautiful in any of this. And the weather is ugly as hell too!

He loved collecting real dwarven artefacts. It's all he did with his high position. They are genuinely beautiful. In their every detail and delicacy, they capture a lifetime worth of passion and ambition. In a sense, literally, as no dwarf seems able to produce a second authentic artefact. Some get struck by that strange mood in youth, and others may find their inspiration only in old age, but the quality is always unparalleled. Can't choose when, or what, or how. It just happens when the situation is right.

Maybe Decker will come up with a legendary vault gate someday. Something that not even a horde of demons with adamantine weapons could breach.

Or maybe he will die falling down stairs in his drunken stupor.

Is it thralldom?

Decker looks up to the sky. Droplets hit him in the face. It feels like he is crying.

Decker can choose. He has chosen not to be a goblin. He has chosen Invisibleink. He chooses…

He chooses…

He decides that the rain is indifferent to him. Done feeling angry at it. Done sulking. Done searching for that elven notion of dancing and singing in it. Just… done.

There's a covert access hatch that still demands his attention.

Incognita crosses the blast-door into the fortress. No undead are following her.

*Kln: "Leave the halls! The dead are walking!"

Despite the slow healing of her injury, Val is carefree enough to giggle at Killians crude joke. Humour is secondary to both of them. She interprets it as signals of mutual esteem. He employs it as implicit proof of his good perception. Given Incognitas commonly known perceptive abilities, it is also implicit proof that he does not believe Incognita to think negatively of the remark. A premature conclusion.

Most agents correctly assess Incognitas existence to be different from that of a person, but greater than that of an object. She does not experience an analogue to feelings, but she does have opinions. To put it in terms suitable for his limited comprehension, she is an intelligent undead.

However, she predicts no benefit to correcting Killian, and so moves on.

Centrals office is occupied. The discussion is one-sided and should be terminated soon.

*Ctr: "Do I need to remind you how important that cursed lake is for Incognita, and by extension the entire fortress? Or how dangerous it is if even just an undead worm follows her here?"

*Inc: "I have recharged my animating force and am ready to process the information Monst3r communicated to us."

*Dkr: "Consider me reminded."

An unlikely change to Deckers personality has occured. He is uncomfortable discussing it, and prefers waiting until he is given a new task.

*Ctr: "Do not waste as much time when installing the new traps. Wouldn't want you to get caught in cave weather, do we? Move out!"

Decker tips his hat and mumbles "Ma'am" as a formality. Central sighs, a manner she employs to relieve stress and reserve a moment for redirecting her attention. There is one concern she wants eliminated before moving on.

*Ctr: "How was the lake?"

*Inc: "All observed parameters were nominal for the entire duration. No noteworthy creatures were killed or reanimated by the red mist."

*Ctr: "Good. I will assemble a team for a mission, then we'll sift through the data and find worthwhile targets."

Incognita could instantaneously call the agents, if it were an urgent and important mission. However, Central prefers to personally verify an agents fitness before assigning them, and to give briefings of less accuracy than Incognita would. Incognita has noticed a positive effect on agent discipline when a person of authority occasionally seeks them without warning, and likewise a positive effect on agent autonomy when Central stresses improbable outcomes.

In the meantime, it would be inefficient to begin processing Monst3rs documents alone. Instead, Incognita instead reviews fortress activity. The events in her perception rewind, and reoccur. All developments and causalities are apparent.

An anomalous pattern emerges. She delegates the situation to the entity most fit to manage it…

*Inc: "A fell mood is inevitably commencing. Overseer, direct the subject towards a resource of relatively low significance in order to limit collateral damage."

Tony mounts serrated discs onto the mechanism. The quality of the metalworking is disappointing. It is on-par with what he had worked with at the guild. After demonstrations, his students would ask questions about the state-of-the-art, and he'd have to admit with a frown that the true cutting-edge machines are being built in goblin towers.

He'd also trap his office door with spike balls to work in peace. It wasn't tolerated for long, but it certainly made students think twice before interrupting him henceforth. Good times.

Before that, when Tony himself was a student, the seniors told him that goblins would never and could never rival dwarven engineering. They were convinced of their old ways and did not see what Tony had seen.

He had seen some of those machines. Taken them apart to figure out how they work. As it turns out, that is enough so-called damage to warrant stripping somebody of all rights. It was the first time Tony really, really felt hunger. The bullying was marginally worse than in his childhood, as well. His analytical urge was not hampered, though, and he found ways to earn his freedom back. Barely. The Agency was a promising chance to take his leash off and nevertheless keep up with research. At least the literal leash. He still doesn't get to pick targets freely.

In a sense, he is working on greater projects than the guild could offer him even if they accepted him anymore. But quietly hiding in this hole most of the time doesn't satisfy his curiosity. It's a bummer he never saw the appeal of "defying death of the mind" like the royal necromancers who originally created Incognita did, or he would study her day and night. Or was she "re-created"? Restored? If he cared more for magic, perhaps he would analyse the spells developed for her when the war began, and the ones they slowly piece together nowadays.

This machine is not good enough. Tony tears it down and tries something else. Something new.

Footsteps come down from the fortress. Must be Decker, showing up late and ready to berate Tony for "mischief". Oh, he better not, or there will be "mischief".

Nika eases as her Martial Trance fades. The drunians Overseer wanted dispatched are an unrecognisable bloody mess. Those pillaging primates never stood a chance at causing mischief. It is a let-down, really. She was looking forward to an exhilarating fight, especially since this is the only combat training she receives anymore.

Incidentally, she is the only one with fishing clearance. Those teethed carp have proven too dangerous for normal dwarves.

Now that all threats are eliminated, she can pick up her catch of the day and take a break. Banks ought to be at the dining hall. Chatting with her would be nice.

The path to the fortress is in disarray. Besides loose cogs and axels is a splatter of blood. It looks like somebody cut themselves installing a trap, then hurried to the hospital. Unprofessional.

N-umi is heading out with the giant bat she's been training. She takes a detour when she sees Nika. Good idea, walking by each other too closely might be dangerous. Not because Nika would make any sudden movements or otherwise provoke the bat, but because the bat may provoke Nika.

Sharp exits the butchery workshop, wearing a decorated wet-blue leather coat. This isn't the first time he has slaughtered something or mutilated his own body, but to put this much care into the result and wear it over his shiny full-body steel plating? Something is off.

*Nka: "You. Where is Decker?"

*Shp: "Why would I know? Our nutritional requirements are so vastly different, he could be in the wine cellar all day and I wouldn't notice."

Sharp never wastes a chance to depreciate others, or to portray himself as superdwarven, or both. Nika still awaits the day he dares challenge her.

*Nka: "Somebody got injured fifty meters from the cavern gate."

*Shp: "Ah, the weakness of flesh. You must have found where Tony went missing."

Missing? She had last seen him two days ago.

*Nka: "What happened?"

*Shp: "As you said, he got injured. Nothing unusual for our absent-minded tinkerer, is it?"

How can he be so calm about this? Nika had assumed the time he and Tony spent together at their former guild would make the former more invested in the latters well-being.

*Nka: "You don't seem worried."

*Shp: "Oh, I'm sure he is fine. Or if not, then, well, nothing we can do about it anymore."

Shrug and smile are a mischievous combination, the kind Sharp only rarely displays. Something is off.


*Nka: "Your coat."

He props his collar, proudly presenting the craftsdwarfship.

*Shp: "Do you like him?"

Sinister as Sharps smile may be, his question is genuine.

"Him"? This…

Sharp does not feel remorse. He does not even see anything wrong with what he did – with murder!

He murdered Tony and abused the body to– to–

The familiar hot red haze of Martial Trance flows into Nikas vision. For once, it is aflame with hatred. This monster will paint the walls!

A loud, booming voice interferes. Incognita is compelling Nika to escort Sharp to Centrals office. Judging from his expression, he has received the order too.

For five minutes of silent walking, raw fury lingers in the corners of Nikas eyes. Frangible restraint somehow prevents her from annihilating him here and now. It won't last much longer.

Sharp polishes his splendid knuckle plates.

*Shp: "You told me to cover the armor, to practise modesty."

*Ctr: "Wearing your only friends skin is even more disturbing, you maddwarf!"

Central catches her breath. She is slowly wrapping her mind around the sheer beauty of his form.

*Ctr: "I understand that you were under the effect of a strange mood, but now it is over and you have shown no signs of regret or desire to prevent future incidents."

*Shp: "One coat is quite enough."

*Ctr: "Shut. Up! I am talking about your utter disregard for dwarven lives!"

Central lets out a deep and long sigh.

*Ctr: "You leave us no other choice than to hammer you."

Sharp is unfazed. He already knows exactly how this will play out. First, they'll get a copper warhammer made, since it's the heaviest expendable material available. Then, they will take off his outer helm. He will lay his head on the block, and the hammer will come down with a crack. They will see the blood and think it done, only for him to stand up and reinstall his armour. Petrified by terror, they will let him demonstrate civil behaviour, and concede. The sentence will have been carried out and everyone will carry on with their business, knowing Sharp is both impervious and compliant.

And in the unlikely event his pericranial jacket should fail, Sharp has a back-up skull.

Content with this imminent course of happenstance, he pardons himself to prepare for it in his room. Wary eyes follow his easy steps, an indicator of his supremacy. Nobody dares stop him, nor so little as question him.

At his sanctuary, the most important task is to safely stow the coat, obviously. Wouldn't want it to get splattered with blood, which unfortunately still courses through Sharps fleshy veins.

Behind him, a clack and scraping stone suggest the door has just been locked and barred. Oh well, may be enough time for a full routine inspection, then.

Overseer verifies that Sharp is perfectly isolated. The ceiling and floor are intact. The door is tightly locked.

Overseer keeps an eye on the caverns, always. There are no critters approaching, and the gate is shut. It will have to be opened soon to clean the murder scene. Not yet.

Overseer checks the surface. Nothing of note. A moment to admire the view. (A moment in overseer time can be anything from a second to a day. Time runs differently. In this case, it is less than an hour.)

As Overseers attention returns underground, it glances an open door. This is unusual, since the dwarves usually close doors behind themselves. Furthermore, it is the lake access, which should be of no concern to all but one resident.

There is nobody there, not even an undead worm, so Overseer informs Incognita of it and returns to daily duties.