Unveiled: Camelot Unchained Newsletter #24 - City State Entertainment
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State of the Game Address

-by Mark Jacobs

Folks,

It has been a long time since I was able to do a proper “State of the Game” for any game, especially Camelot Unchained. As I write this, I think back to my first State of the Game, which I wrote for Dark Age of Camelot. When I came up with the idea for this style of communication (unabashedly, and with full acknowledgment, ripped off from our country’s State of the Union addresses) with our Community, I hoped that they would always be positive, but I knew better. No matter what, a State of the Game message delivered by me must be an honest communication between our studio and our Backers/players. And, in keeping with this tradition, so will this one be.

As you know, we have struggled with hiring issues (not enough programmers), delays, and sadly, the occasional (thankfully, very occasional) “Whoops” that everybody suffers through in life, whether you are a programmer, artist, designer, doctor (hopefully, very small and non-lethal whoopsies in their case), etc. We’ve dealt with these issues the way I hope the vast majority of you want us to: using open and honest communication with you, and the right mixture of caution and aggression in our approach to solving these issues. You have read or seen how we dealt with and are continuing to deal with those problems. How we are opening a studio in Seattle, that myself and the other investor are committing additional funds to the studio to make this happen. You know that we have added four programmers to the team in the last two months, and that we are still interviewing more. 

And now, as we approach the end of July, I can say, with no shortage of pride, that we are finally climbing out of the hole that ill fortune and, well, simply being human, put us in. The ability system is coming back to life; smaller in lines of code, but better in current functionality, speed, and scope. And that’s just the beginning. Over the remainder of summer (and beyond), the programmers, Ben, and I will be adding abilities at a rapid pace, with the goal of delivering a system that shows you just how much potential our ability system has now and in the future. We are getting our in-house animation system in place, and while it isn’t perfect, or even close to being finished at this point, it is tailor-made for this game. 

In the coming weeks, we will open the game to more testing, and we will also put out some videos (non-retouched, as always) that show the new animations, using our own armor and weapon system. As you know, we are writing almost the entire engine (client/server) from scratch, and all of this takes time. The good news is that with the additional programmers, the time these tasks are taking us is being reduced. The “new guys“ have been checking in code that has begun to really affect the Beta 1 list, and not just C.U.B.E., or other parts of our engine. As I told Andrew just before I began writing this letter, for the first time in a long time, I know that even if we don’t add another programmer, we have enough talented programmers to make sure that this game releases the way we want it to, on every level. 

On the other side of the room, our artists have begun to make the world of Camelot Unchained feel like a real world, and not just a fun place for a Friday Night Fight. The weapons and armor of the world are being created at a rapid pace, and the crafting system to create them will support enough customizations to keep the vast majority of you happy and content for a long time. And, of course, all of this will be player-driven, and not cash-shop-driven, even considering the additional expenses the studio and myself are going to have to bear to bring this game to fruition, with our expanding presence in Seattle. 

Our “Reward Tier” gifting system has almost finished its trials, and thanks to help from all of the team and some of our Backers, it should be up and running before the next newsletter. Our writer/lore keeper/newsletter guru, is happily not only writing, but also continuing to iterate on our board game, among other things. In other words, the team is busy bringing the world of Camelot Unchained to life, and not just the game’s engine.  

Now, having said all of that, what does this mean for the opening of Beta 1? That’s the question that is, I know, on so many minds. The answer is a complicated one, since, quite frankly, we have to have the ability system in and fully operational before we can announce a date. First, let’s start with what our Backers can expect when Beta 1 opens. We’ve been very clear about that fact that Beta 1 is intended to be an “old school” Beta 1. That hasn’t changed (“Duh, really Mark?” said an “Imgn Airy Backer”), as our focus is on delivering a lot of new foundational systems for the game and then beating the heck out of them with the help of our Backers. Whether it is the new ability system, or even the in-house animation system, you folks will be testing them along with us, so pain, on both sides, should be expected when Beta 1 opens. It won’t be perfect, but I think it will be prettier than many feared it ever would be, and with more than enough functionality for lots of fun testing and iteration. The past and upcoming chats with Ben, Marc, and Tim are very informative (building slowly, of course), so I urge the Backers among you who are worried about whether the wait will be worth it to take the time to watch the videos such as this one, and even participate in the Q&A sessions. I know that by the end of the summer, you will like what you see here, if not way before that.

In terms of progress on the ability system, right now we have four programmers working on it (some part time, some full) on a daily basis, as well as the occasional helping hand or two. Our immediate goals are to get our Backers using the ability and progression system as soon as possible. To this end, over the next few weeks we’re hoping to have Camelot Unchained and C.U.B.E. pushes that will include even more abilities, animation sets, and other improvements to the game. After we see how that goes, I’ll be able to announce the date for the opening of Beta 1. 

The good news is that, so far, things are going quite well from our end. Considering the sheer amount of code that we have rewritten/purged/burned in the last few months, I can safely say that we’ve made major improvements to our engine on so many levels, and at the same time, have begun to add the kind of functionality that our Backers want to see in the game. We’ve made major improvements to both the client and server in terms of size, memory footprints, etc., and we made them now, rather than waiting, as many developers do, till far later in the project. We began a series of tests I’m calling the “Star Wars” tests, because with the ability spammers we’ve created, the projectiles flying through the air make our game look a lot more like a scene out of Star Wars than out of Camelot. And that’s one of the impressive things about our tech: We are not just building an MMORPG engine and making it perform at scale, we are building an FPS engine that can handle anything we throw at it in terms of performance, because the engine was designed to handle the stress of more intensive FPS games. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be inviting our Alpha and then Beta 1 players to help “Break the Build” in these tests, in preparation for the next scheduled Friday Night Fights. And no, this does not mean we are making an FPS game, just that our engine is being designed to perform on a level on the client-side that is more demanding than your typical MMORPG.

This attitude of not rushing a “Not ready for Prime Time Beta” has meant/means/will continue to drive a slower march to release than we would all like, but after certain games’ issues at launch, do you really want us to do it differently? I hope not, because this is the right way to do things, and one of the advantages of being a crowd-funded game – we won’t be rushed into releasing a game to meet somebody else’s needs, other than the long-term needs of our Backers for a stable, fun, and 100% “Ready for Prime Time” game. And as Alpha, Beta 1, and IT Backers will be seeing over the next few weeks, our time and your/my money has been well-spent.

Does this mean that there is a light at the end of the tunnel? Yep, and let me tell you, it is going to be a very bright one indeed, especially during the SW tests. :)

As always, we thank you for your support and patience.

-Mark

Team Tidings

-by Max Porter

Hey folks, how’s your July been? Here in beautiful downtown Fairfax, Va, it’s been quite hot, with the summer sun brilliantly shining down on us, and making us only too eager to remain indoors and continue work on Camelot Unchained™.  

I hope you enjoyed reading the State of the Game Address that Mark provided above. It’s yet another important way for us to ensure that we continue giving our faithful Backers as much information about development as possible. Good and bad, we want to tell you whatever we can about what we’re doing here at City State Entertainment™, whether through these lengthy articles, numerous streams, or weekly updates. It’s good fun, and as Mark often says, very important to us. 

In the office, the Hot Streamy Summer has continued, and it’s been great to feel as though our fans in the Twitch channel are hanging out with us as we work. With the aid of our media intern Jules, we’ve added some fun new features to the streams as well, such as proper lighting and the awesome video intros she created. It’s all a part of improving the way we communicate with you as we continue the march toward Beta. 

There’s definitely a sense of eagerness and relief as the valiant re-abilitation efforts continue, and begin to bear fruit (for a pretty detailed discussion of our new ability system, you may want to check out this video with Ben, Tim, Marc, and Andrew!). Ben and Mark especially are excited as designers by the flexibility and power of the new ability system, and by the prospect of using it. For some of Ben’s detailed thoughts on that topic, check out his Dose of Design article in this very newsletter! 

Your faithful lorekeeper and editor will sign off here, and encourages you to click “View this email in your browser” at the top right to view the full newsletter. Read on for the articles, lore, news, detailed discussion, and cool pictures, and enjoy this, the twenty-fourth issue of Unveiled.

Hot Topics


The latest topics of discussion on the forums right now are the new skill system, body part targeting, and of course the various streams we have been running.  

Join the discussion on the forums on our website to bring your thoughts and ideas to the discussion table!

Look What You Did

For our next contest, let’s reach for the sky… like tree branches. Create an illustration or other fan art for the Hamadryad Becoming story, and post it in the thread you’ll see popping up in the Fan Art forum. The Great Protector trees and people of the Alsea family eagerly await your rendition! You can read about the Hamadryads and their Becoming story here. We’ll feature our favorite fan art pieces in the next newsletter, as well as put them up on our website, here!

Thank You

Many thanks to Ludovic for this amazing duck bubble gun. A great deal of hilarity and bubbles have resulted from this gift! 

Dose of Design

-by Ben Pielstick

Re-abilitation Results


As you have all been hearing for quite a while now, we here at CSE are in the midst of rebuilding the combat system for Camelot Unchained, under an effort we’ve whimsically termed “re-abilitation”. As illustrated in our recent livestream, this is quite a challenging process, with a large portion of our programming staff involved in one way or another. It takes so much of our attention because it includes everything from the nature of entities such as player characters as they exist on the server, to how characters use the stats of their weapons and armor, to the chain of events for characters executing and being affected by abilities, to the visualization of playing sounds, animations, and particle effects in synch with ability timing. With all these complicated, loosely-related parts, it can be a little hard to see just how beneficial all this effort will end up being, especially since the goal is the same as it was before we decided we had to start over on the way we are programming our combat system.

While in some ways the combat system is still very much a work in progress, in other ways we are now much further along, with some fundamental capabilities that are going to enable combat gameplay to be as deep and engaging as we need it to be. For example, the way in which abilities are structured behind the scenes: Using Nodes that can be created and assembled together in a free-form structure, we are now able to support far more combinations of features that will enable the creation of complex abilities used by each of our classes. On the other hand, the number of features at present is still relatively low, so though the structure itself is strong, there is still work being done to increase the breadth of tools that structure can support, in order to construct abilities. While this incomplete state doesn’t leave us with a lot to show off right now, the result of this major refactor will soon be functional classes with working abilities along the lines of those you’ve already seen in the sample pages listed under the class section for each Realm on our website.

Once all the major pieces are in place, the result of this effort will be combat based around many of the concepts from the early generation of MUDs and MMORPGs most of you are familiar with, with a few BSC pieces to add depth and facilitate a game purely based around Realm-Versus-Realm encounters. Up through the start of Beta 1, each player will choose from one of six initial classes, each with a set of starting abilities and equipment, allowing them to jump right into the combat-focused encounters that will take place in the early stages of testing. Players will also have access to the individual components each ability is made up of, allowing different combinations to be made, forming entirely new abilities. This allows a high degree of flexibility in how each class can be played, which will grow even greater as time goes on and more and more new components are implemented for each class. 

As far as the experience of fighting other players goes, movement speed will be moderate, with few ways to traverse distance quickly or instantly, making careful positioning and maintaining range and high ground advantage important. Each ability will take time to prepare and recover from, ranging from fractions of a second for fast melee abilities, to several seconds for powerful spells. The targeting system is pretty similar to some other MMORPGs in that it allows cycling keys or mouse clicks to select both a friendly and enemy target at once, with abilities being applied to the targeted ally, enemy, or both, based on their effects. Additionally, we’ve included a manual aiming mode that players can toggle at any time, allowing abilities such as projectiles to be fired in any direction, in order to enable the precise placement of effects at a location on the ground, or to attack our destroyable structures. These structures take damage block by block, and can’t be targeted individually in the same way as characters. 

The extensive use of physics-based projectiles, especially for our Archer classes, creates an experience a little different than what some of you may be used to. Arrows, as well as other projectiles, can miss far-away targets who are moving erratically, and can be blocked either by terrain features or other players in the projectile’s path, as it physically moves through the game world. The balance of these abilities of course will take these difficulties into account, but most projectiles also have a very long range compared to almost any other MMORPG. Physical projectiles coupled with a very far view distance mean that engagements will be able to start off at relatively long range, giving Archers and eventually other classes that primarily rely on ranged attacks more time to engage before enemies reach them.

Once player characters start dealing and receiving damage, equipment will start to be a major factor. This includes the weapons and arrows that provide the basis for damage, attack speed, passive deflection, and other important stats, as well as armor that provides Armor Class to protect against slashing or piercing penetration, and also percentage-based resistances to all the various types of physical and magical effects, as well as some special items unique to specific classes that use them. 

One of the more unique and understandably controversial parts of our first pass at combat is that armor parts only protect the part of a character’s body they are equipped to, so different attacks can affect different parts of an opponent’s body and deal varying amounts of damage based on the armor they have equipped there. Heavy Fighters especially will want to choose the body parts their abilities target carefully when they build their abilities, and create powerful combo attacks that create and exploit vulnerabilities if they can successfully get through the weak points of their target’s armor. Also in our initial design, body parts each can be damaged independently rather than all damage being aggregated into a single health pool for a character. Understandably, this complicates our damage model substantially, and as this sort of a system hasn’t really been tried in a game of this type, at least as far as I am aware, it is already a major focal point for future potential iteration and may change substantially over the course of testing to find a good balance of depth and complexity. 

Healers, likewise, will have several challenges in their job of keeping their allies alive, using a variety of abilities to prevent or reduce incoming damage, restore health, and cure the wounds characters suffer at certain health thresholds which apply detrimental trauma effects, and effectively reduce a body part’s maximum health until they are cured. This job is made even more difficult due to the capacity for abilities to be interrupted. Virtually every attack carries with it some amount of Disruption, which counts against the Stability (previously referred to as “disruption health”) of any ability the target is currently activating. If a character suffers more Disruption than the ability they are using has Stability before its activation is complete, that ability is interrupted. While this isn’t quite as harsh as a system in which any damage automatically interrupts any ability, it will be unlikely in most cases for a character to successfully use powerful abilities while actively being attacked. For this reason, careful attention to positioning, and the assistance of allies for protection, will be critical to a healer’s success.

As with every part of our game, we ask that once you get the opportunity, you try out our combat system and let us know what is and isn’t fun, and why you think so in each round of testing. Iteration is critical to the success of any unproven concept in game development, and very little ever comes in perfect as a first pass. 

Combat in Camelot Unchained is definitely something that will feel in many ways familiar. However, at the same time, as we bring together so many elements that haven’t been used in quite this way before, we find a lot to get a new feel for, which should lead to some exciting times as it continually improves over the course of testing. 

All these pieces are in the process of coming together, with more being completed and tested internally virtually every day, and this is only a brief summary covering a few of the many details making progress. We very much look forward to more of the testing already starting to take place internally with our new combat system, which will ramp up and continue through Beta 1 and beyond, where all of you will eventually get to enjoy the results of our re-abilitation effort, and help us improve the combat of Camelot Unchained.

Developer Quote

  
  “What we do is BSC, not BS.” - Mark Jacobs

Artitup 

-by Scott Trolan

The Art team has been working away as usual, creating new animations, weapons, armor, rocks, and trees! Many of us have streamed our work process on our Twitch channel. We’ve been doing the streaming for weeks now, so there’s lots more than what I mention here! Just recently, you can see Jon sculpting new swords in Zbrush, Mike creating procedural ground textures in Substance Designer, Michelle concepting Keg Hammers, and I added to the mix, showing how I animate a looping Tuatha Idle clip.

Jon is modeling melee and magic staffs for each Realm.
Michelle is concepting maces and polearms.
Sandra and I have been developing poses and animations to define Realm and gender.
Mike is developing a deep understanding of how Substance Designer works, so he can share his wisdom with the rest of the team! Not only will this knowledge help us improve the visual fidelity of the game, but it will also help us do it faster. 
Jules is hard at work developing a new highlight reel for C.U.B.E., and is always making new off-the-wall introduction videos for each scheduled segment of our daily HOT STREAMY SUMMER Twitch stream.
When James K. isn’t busy prototyping UI design with JB, Ben, and the Mod Squad, he is always maintaining and improving our website.
Dionne continues playing the role of Mother Nature by bringing baby sapling trees into the world of Camelot Unchained. Here you can see a fun model she made of a “charm” tree.
Until next month, summer on and stay hydrated, people!

Tech Central

 -By David Hancock

Delving into Texture Compression


So it’s been a little while since I wrote one of these; seems like ages ago, although in reality it’s been only a few months. Since my last Tech Central piece, we have all been working hard moving forward on the game, and at times like these I can come up for air and look back to get some perspective on the progress we have made across the board. This isn’t one of my end-of-year write ups, where I try my hand at writing a bit of fiction describing the progress we have made, though I hope I am asked to provide another piece like it this December. 

So now you are probably asking yourself “What is the topic of July’s newsletter piece?” and for that, I’m going back to a bit of work I did earlier this month, which touches on a broader technical subject important to the game’s performance, one which is admittedly not all that glamorous, yet very important to delivering a high quality visual experience: texture compression. I am going to attempt to break it down for this month’s Tech Central.

When most people think of compression, what normally comes to mind are highly packed storage formats for drives. That is not the kind of thing I am talking about this month. When I say texture compression, I am specifically talking about graphics hardware supported formats that can be decoded on the fly by the graphics card in a way that is friendly for cache coherency and speed. 

As modern processing power has gotten faster, graphics cards vendors have been creating increasingly more powerful cards. One aspect that has become an issue as the demands for the numbers of textures and the number of samples needed to render those have gone up, memory technology has been hard pressed to maintain the pace. Having to hit memory can be a significant slowdown, as memory bandwidth becomes a limiting factor. This is where the BCn formats come into play. George wrote our build pipeline code for this and client implementation late last year. Many people probably didn’t notice when it happened, but this was a big step for us, as up to that point we had no such support. 

BCn stands for Block Compression, where the n in the name is a easy descriptor for a number subscript. We currently have support for BC1-5 which are all DirectX 10 supported formats. There are two additional formats supported in DirectX 11 that we are not currently using, but that we are planning to use in the future, which go by the monikers of BC6H and BC7. True to its name, it works on 4x4 blocks of pixels, splitting the entire image into these blocks. Each block has a fixed size, either 8 or 16 bytes, based on the specific BCn format that is stored contiguously in memory with all the data needed to decompress the block. This makes it ideal for GPUs to both find the specific block that contains a pixel, and allows it to take advantage of a concept of locality, in that it’s generally expected a given pixel will access those near it, and decompressing 1 pixel makes doing the entire block trivial. This can be stored in local cache, making further samples in that block faster. The other benefit is that each of these textures does have a smaller footprint within video memory, allowing for more and larger textures then we might be able to support otherwise.

In a 4x4 block, there is an expectation when dealing with RGB values that there will be limited color variation. This is one of the primary ways in which this approach works. Taking BC1 for example, two colors are selected as the endpoints for the block, and when it comes time to reconstruct the color of a pixel in the block, we take the two endpoint values and then build a color set based on the blending of those two endpoints in different quantities. One of the cool concepts in BCn formats is that it is degenerate; the order in which you encode the endpoints is interchangeable, allowing you to use this to effectively build two different sets of available colors based on which endpoint has the greater value, being the first or the second one. This gives us the ability to get more detail out of block, and in the case of BC1, also gives us access to a single channel alpha option. There is another important part of this equation: To get from these color values back to pixels, there is an index table following the two endpoint values, which correlate to the color set. BC1 uses 8 bytes for a block, storing the two end point colors in two bytes each, and then storing the index table in 4 bytes. 

It should be noted that this is a brief overview, and each of the specific formats have variations beyond what I have covered here, but are built on similar foundations to the above described approach. Take BC3 for example, which uses an implementation of BC4 for handling the transparency channel in addition to handling RGB as described above. BC4 is a format that supports a single channel grayscale image, and does a much nicer job preserving quality for that single channel. It is also the foundation of BC5, which is just two BC4 channels per block. BC6 and BC7 are much more complex than what I described above, and are out of the scope of this newsletter piece, as it has already gotten quite long on us here!

So if you managed to follow all of that, you might have spotted one of the main weaknesses of the RGB setup described. When you have three or more distinct colors in a single 4x4 block, it starts falling apart. This goes back to what I mentioned above about limited color variation. When you only have two endpoints and you have to use those two to construct the other colors, your color palette becomes quite limited. As you can see in the below image, this does provide some visual differences between the source and compressed images, and in practice it does work rather well. 

Hopefully you have come out the other side of this hefty article with a greater understanding of texture compression. If you found any of the aspects of this article interesting, I encourage you to do some research into the subject; there are tons of good resources out there that will take you a lot deeper than this surface look. The primary takeaway should be that we are approaching this game with performance in mind, and this is one of the ways we are going to be able to deliver it.

State Of The Build

 -by Cory Demerau

Greetings and salutations! Lots of great stuff this month, as our new engineers have hit the ground running! Specifically, we’ve got several cool new additions for building (both on the server and in C.U.B.E.), as well as significant progress on our re-abilitation campaign. Shall we dig in?

Looking back on this month, it’s clear that our re-abilitation efforts are beginning to come to fruition. We now have the potential to do significantly more than the old system ever could, with far fewer lines of code and a much easier interface for us developers to use and to improve. We’ve also made some excellent strides to get back into our regular rhythm of testing, so you can all expect more visible progress in the near future. In the meantime, let’s dive into the patch notes!

Skills
  • Skills now support costs, so Stamina/Blood are once again resources for combat.
  • Skills now support scriptable values, allowing us to create interesting effects like “damage = 20% str + 15% dex + 150 if day == Tuesday” much more quickly.
  • Skills are now more fluid in their required parts. Until now, the only requirement for a skill was that it have a Primary and Secondary component. Now, we can be much more specific on a case-by-case basis, for example saying that Weapon skills require a Style, Stance, and Modifier.
  • Basic projectile skill parts have been added. You can now make an archer character!
  • Added more options for conditional triggers, so now it’s easier to create skills with effects like “explode for X damage after taking fire damage from another source.”
  • Stability Damage has been added back in; currently used in Crushing damage!
Testing
  • Roboduck is online!
    • Roboduck is a custom tool designed to automate tests on our data and systems. This will help us to prevent problems with missing/corrupted assets, incomplete character data, and many other issues that have popped up every so often due to bad data.
  • Loadtesters (bots) have been updated, after their long absence. If you’re a tester, be prepared to see swarms of them running around on the server...
UI
  • Updated chat to introduce many new features, including emoticons!
  • Updating variables via chat has changed. You’ll no longer use Shift+Enter.
    • /<variable name> <value> - sets the named variable to the entered value.
  • Block selection, Blueprint selection, and Building Action UIs have been updated!
    • These changes should provide a greatly simplified and more cohesive experience when placing blocks.
    • Also included in the Build Actions bar (now on the left-hand side of the screen) are the much-requested Undo/Redo buttons!
  • The indicators for how many blocks are selected while dragging an axis have grown significantly larger, and should be much easier to see.
Plots
  • Plot capture and combat has been reintegrated in the game. Fight for your land once more!
Performance
  • Threading improvements across the board for buildings means that you should see improved framerate.
  • Shader data is now run through the patcher, rather than being compiled into the executable. This will mean shorter load times and less memory usage on the client, and more options for us in using different shaders in the future.
Visuals
  • The default armor for the C.U.B.E. character has been updated. Shininess improved significantly.

Lore Corner

-by Max Porter

We hope you enjoy this piece, the sixth part of The Great Depths Raid story. This lore of The Depths™ was penned by Max Porter under the vision and guidance of Mark Jacobs for Camelot Unchained. You can find the firstsecond, thirdfourth, and fifth parts of the tale in the Lore section of our website, here.

 

The Great Depths Raid


Part 6: Suspicion Blooms

Deep in the bowels of the Depths, in the dim light of the rows of jars that lined the Collection Room, the Delvers were ready. Even as one of their number fell toward the deadly, churning waters below, the rest sprang to their places. Hidduk smiled grimly at the enemy, the Collector; a vision of grinding gears and twisted, stretched-out limbs. With more than one good battle already behind them, the members of this Raid knew what to do. Xedric, the Human mage who had lighted their way, would have his rescuers come to his aid. 

In that breathless moment before they clashed with the Collector, Hidduk felt as though he could hear the rage pumping in the hearts of his allies, and sense the flashing of their eyes. Even as a fissure opened in the ground and writhing arms sprang out to clutch and grab at the Delvers, they were unperturbed. Only more tricks of this new creature of the Depths, another extension of his telescoping limbs; what more could surprise them now? As one, the Delvers rushed forward along the stone shelf, back to the cliff where the monstrous creature had pushed Xedric over the edge to an unknown fate, along with his fiery lights. 

But then, the Collector smiled, a horrible expression that seemed to stretch over a mechanical interior. The half-man tilted his scarred, misshapen head, which bulged as though stuffed with gears and wires. Before the Delvers could even come close, he cried out, and the walls of his domain shifted in response. “Ssssorting time!” 

Stone slid screaming over stone, and walls shot out at crazy angles, bursting from the shelves, the walkway, and the very ground beneath the Delver’s feet. For a moment, all was confusion, and the titanic shelves that held the row upon row of stars above could be heard to grind and rotate in the unquiet dark. 

So unexpected and so powerful were the movements of the Collection Room itself, that none of the Delvers could react effectively. They were separated as the walls sprang up, lost in shadows suddenly shifting, and blocked off from one another. Fogja managed to shout, “Stand fast--!” before the Frost Giant was herself engulfed in the unpredictably sliding panels of solid rock. Suddenly, it was silent.

And Jorvald, Dvergr of the cold pine forests and the harsh mountain foothills, found himself alone. The maze of new pathways seemed to go everywhere and nowhere without end. The stony man ran along the shelves, glancing at the roaring river far below. Nothing made any sense, and nothing seemed to connect to anything else. He couldn’t even hear the shouts of the other Delvers. 

Sweat. Cold and clammy in the wind from the river, it beaded and clung to his face, tickling him even as he hunted for the elusive foe in the cracks and corners of the impossibly twisted walls. Jorvald’s chest heaved as he turned his head to and fro, seeking a hint of the Collector among the glow of the rows of jars, their contents floating eerily in the luminescent liquid. Nearest him, scraps of parchment slowly turned and twisted past one another. A faded, crumbling label stuck to the stone plinth beneath the jar read “Memories - Madmen.” 

The Dvergr tried not to look at the disturbing images, and focused his attention on finding something, someone, either his companions or a sign of the Collector. Licking his lips, Jorvald listened for the telltale noise, the clicking that would foretell of oncoming danger. The sound came from the twisted torso of the creature that lurked here rolling along a metal track on gears that had replaced its legs in some unspeakable operation long ago. 

Then he heard it. Not a click, nor a hum, but a whisper, a breath of something sliding on the smooth stone floor. “Fascinating,” came a voice, “The things we--” 

Jorvald spun, axe up in a ready position, to cut down his strange opponent. He was confronted by a ghostly visage, pale, with dark eyes. It seemed to be reaching out, in Jorvald’s direction or the jar behind him. Startled, the Dvergr took the swing, and his axe bit deeply into the creature’s shoulder with a satisfying thunk

“Arg! What! Why!?” Sacriphisto sprang back, fear and horror rushing across his face. The Bean Sidhe Delver had faithfully accompanied the Raid to lend his healing powers to their band, and had helped them all on more than one occasion. 

Jorvald stared, aghast. “Sorry! Sorry, I didn’t realize! I thought you were that creature… What… what were you saying about something being fascinating…?” His voice trailed off as the Dvergr realized this might yet be a trick, and he held his father’s axe close. 

Sacriphisto glared, then narrowed his eyes. The Bean Sidhe raised his hand over the wound, and green light flickered there, rapidly healing his injury. “They say a good warrior knows the difference between friend and foe.”

For a moment, Jorvald remained motionless. “They say a lot of things about good warriors, but the oldest warriors tend to be the quickest and the strongest.” Finally, he lowered his weapon. “I am sorry, but please tell me, Sacriphisto. What is so fascinating here, in the Collection Room?” 

The Bean Sidhe’s dark eyes slid away, then back to Jorvald’s face, still narrowed in suspicion. “I was going to say that it is fascinating, how the objects we collect, the things we have, can define us. I wonder if this Collector was not like us, once. A Delver, seeking things within the Depths, who became… enamored of it. I find all life fascinating, in all of its many forms.” As if to punctuate the idea, Sacriphisto gestured at himself, turning his cheek to show his pallid skin. 

Jorvald ground his teeth and spat. “Hel’s bells, why would you go and say something as creepy as that? Why make me think you’ve got this place workin’ on your mind, corrupting you?”

Sacriphisto pressed his lips together in anger. “I think it a far stronger sign of corruption to strike at one’s allies with an axe.”

In the silence before Jorvald could retort, they both heard the sound. The telltale hum, a series of clicks often too fast to distinguish, approaching at speed. 

Both of them turned and ran along the walkway, their quarrel forgotten for the moment in the interest of survival. Neither of them wanted to face the Collector alone. 


Xedric slid down, bumping and scraping on the stone as he went. He twisted wildly and reached out, his hand bleeding as he tried to catch on the tiny cracks in the nearly vertical cliff. Time seemed to slow, and he could see the shiny streaks of the blood from his fingers on the stone as he plummeted. The wind battered him against the cliff, blown by the tumbling waterfall. 

His breath had stopped. Through the howl of air past his ears, he could make out the sounds of battle above, which also seemed slowed and almost ritualized. As though the beating of weapons against armor were metallic drums, the back and forth blows were rhythmic, loud in his head as he bounced and tumbled, too surprised to feel pain. 

Until he hit a solid sliding panel of rock, shooting out of the side of the cliff. Then, the pain hit Xedric from all sides like blunt needles, penetrating deep into his bones and muscles, and he cried out. The Senior Flame Warden rolled twice on the slanted surface and collapsed, panting. Warm blood trickled from his forehead and his fingers, and he could feel sharp pains in his abdomen as he struggled to breathe. Something was definitely broken. 

Squinting into the shadows, Xedric tried to get his bearings. He could hear the river beneath him, louder than ever; above him, the sound of the battle was completely muffled, or too far away to hear. All around, more stone panels had emerged from the cliff at all angles, blocking out the orderly rows of stars stretching upward. 

It would be difficult to find his companions again, in the labyrinthine passages that had been formed by the new stone walls. Xedric sighed, and called upon the fire that always burned within him, inexhaustible. He blew fire from his mouth, the orange flicker hanging in the air. Then he doubled over, coughing up blood. He had better find the healer, and fast. Stumbling and wheezing, the Arthurian moved off, seeking a path upward and hoping to find the other Delvers before he was found himself. 


Up above, Jorvald and Sacriphisto found their steps slowed by freakish openings in the stone, as metallic limbs erupted out to grab at them. The pair ran and changed direction constantly, forcing the Collector to find or create a new metal track for him to ride on by manipulating the room. At last, Fogja spotted them through an opening in the crisscrossed walls. 

The Jötnar woman bellowed at her fellow Delvers. “This way! There’s an open space where we can fight!” 

In response, the Bean Sidhe and Dvergr directed their steps up over one leaning stone panel and down another, trying not to stumble in their haste. A long, long metal arm telescoped out of the dark and slammed into the stone they ran upon, sending cracks spiderwebbing across the surface. As the walkway shook under the sudden blow, Sacriphisto laid a hand on Jorvald to steady himself, for the Dvergr ran solidly on, heavy and surefooted. 

They met Fogja on a broad shelf of stone, having made their way across the vast dark cavern. Looking back, Sacriphisto marveled at the mad path they had followed to Fogja, through the shifting stone bridges. Here, the shelves followed the pattern they had originally seen, switchbacking up past the endless rows of sealed jars. The blue-skinned giant greeted them with a grin, but had to jump back as another metal arm shot past, threatening to snap her leg with its force. The Collector was coming on fast. 

A fissure opened in the rock behind the Delvers, and a cluster of metallic tentacles thrust out, thrashing and clacking together. There was no time to form a proper battle line, and the Delvers ran up the shelf, while the twisted form of the Collector appeared in the light of his many jars, speeding up his track from below. His lidless eyes were wide, and gleamed with fixated madness. 

The Delver’s lives hung by a thread. Dodging and ducking beneath the springing arms of the Collector, Jorvald tried to get in close to land a cut with his axe, but one of the Collector’s extended arms caught him a glancing blow, knocking the breath out of the Dvergr. Glancing up, Jorvald managed to roll out of the way just in time to avoid the massive stone panel that came slamming down from above, a grey wall of rock that would have crushed him to a powder. Instead, just one of his own protruding stones at his shoulder was caught and scraped along the falling trap, cracking and breaking off painfully. 

Jorvald tried to ignore the injury and struggled to remain on his feet, his balance lost as he teetered on the edge of the stone pathway. He watched his faint shadow slip over, and was about to follow it into the lethal fall himself, when he felt a sharp pull on his elbow. 

From the shadows, a streak of fur emerged from nowhere and tugged Jorvald back with sharp claws extended. “Be careful, there are traps everywhere,” Hidduk hissed between his teeth as he ran toward another cluster of telescoping limbs emerging from a fissure in the ground. 

Fogja pushed past in a rush of blue-skinned fury. With a icy snapping noise and the loud crash of metal on rock, she flung herself into the wall that had appeared. The sheet of stone cracked and crumbled, breaking apart under her onslaught. There was no time for Jorvald to marvel at the Frost Giant’s power and strength, as a click-click-click warned of the Collector’s swift approach. Whirling his axe, Jorvald knocked away the gnarled fist that came at him, almost too fast to see. Though his father’s blade struck sparks from the elongated metal wrist that telescoped past, the Dvergr’s blow did not seem to damage the surface. He had no time to follow up, as another far-too-long limb struck at his torso, seeking to toss him into the river, and the valiant Viking found himself forced to give ground, again. 

Fortunately, that seemed to have been Fogja’s plan: by smashing apart the wall that had been intended to cut off escape, the fighters could retreat as far as the walkway would take them. He should have known that notorious Wrong-way Fogja would come up with something like this… 

A quick glance upward confirmed the stratagem in Fogja’s answering grin, and the pair of fierce Viking fighters stood together, weathering blow after blow from the Collector as they backed up the path. 

After a few more loud crashes of metal on metal, the Collector shivered all over, then glanced upward. Before Fogja and Jorvald could react, the twisted creature hopped up on his elongated arms, throwing himself in the air. He landed on another metal track, and spun click-click-click around a bend, vanishing past a jar that was labeled, “Caught Fishermen - Their Own Hooks.” 

Hidduk and Sacriphisto, meanwhile, cut their way through clusters of strange waving limbs that seemed to spring up like mechanical plants serving a mad gardener. With just a few scratches for their trouble that the Bean Sidhe found easy to heal, they secured the path farther and farther for the heavy fighters to follow. The pair rounded a bend, and Hidduk’s enhanced eyes widened as he saw something that made him thrust out an arm to halt Sacriphisto.

They both stared for a moment, barely able to make out the pair of silhouettes perched on the edge of the precarious pathway, outlined against the glowing yellow jars that stood against the far wall. A torso in the center of a twisted tangle of extended mechanical limbs, the Collector clutched at the stone, holding himself just above one of his metal tracks, where he had pulled himself up from a lower path. Standing straight and unafraid before him was the diminutive Donnie, heavily wrapped in his new finery. The Luchorpán simply stared into the Collector’s bulbous, misshapen face, and the monstrous keeper of this place stared back with his too-wide eyes. 

The small figure reached out a hand, but with a slow, almost tender gesture, his jewelry softly clinking. For a moment, it almost looked like he was caressing the monster’s shoulder. 

Hidduk’s face twitched. Had the corruption spread? What had happened to the Luchorpán while he was separated from the other Delvers, seeking his treasure? “Donnie! What are you doing?” 

Donnie started, and the infuriated Collector lunged forward with his mouth open, teeth rapidly extending. However, the Luchorpán recovered instantly, slapping the Collector’s head to one side and cutting across the monstrously twisted face with a wicked dagger. 

His enemy let out a howl of pain and rage, shrinking from the blow with arms folding and retracting like rattling straws, speeding toward a crack in the wall that opened to accommodate the hideous form. Black ichor spewed forth in a fine spray that hung in the air as the Collector retreated into another hidden tunnel, and the dark chasm closed up behind him, nearly catching one long limb, shivering as it was withdrawn. 
    
Donnie looked up at Hidduk as the Cait Sith came rushing to him. The Luchorpán was panting, but he managed a wry smile nonetheless. “Hypnotic, these awful creatures of the Depths, aren’t they? Did you like my… distraction technique, there?” To punctuate the sentence, he flicked some the dark blood from his blade, eyeing Hidduk sidelong. 

Hidduk stared down at the Luchorpán, his own daggers still clutched tightly in his hands. He let out a long breath, caution overruling his fear. “Certainly, I liked it. Perhaps you should consider letting our larger, stronger companions do close-up work such as that, however?”

Donnie laughed a little. “What do you think, Fogja and Jorvald? Should I run back behind you every time I see an enemy? Or should I claim my prize as bravest of us, first to mark the enemy with my weapon?”

“Ha,” Jorvald grunted hoarsely, joining them in the light of the jars, his stone-studded legs heaving him up the path, “And what prize would that be? You seem to have gathered yourself quite a bit of loot already.” 

His fellow Viking, the tall, broad-shouldered Fogja, brought up the rear. “Can’t be expected to give up the opportunity to strike a blow on such an enemy. Well done, little one.” 

Donnie smiled up at her, though he felt Hidduk’s piercing eyes still fixed on his face. “My thanks, Fogja. Now, hopefully we can follow this track or the bloodstains to find a way out of here. I’m fairly positive we’re near the ceiling by now…”

Hidduk’s eyes bored into him. “And leave our companion behind?” 

Now it was Fogja and Jorvald’s turn to stare. “The human?” Jorvald shook his head. “There’s no way he could have survived that fall into the river, or being dashed against the sieve. Not with his brittle bones. I fear there is little doubt we have lost a Delver on this Raid, and with no time for mourning…” 

Hidduk turned to Jorvald without lowering his daggers. “We don’t know what happened. No one saw him after he went over the edge, and the walls shifted. Even if he is a soft-skinned Furless, I will not go on and leave a fellow Arthurian behind to become part of this horrific collection. Something like ‘Human parts - Long Charred.’” The Cait Sith shook and stretched his shoulders, the powerful wiry muscles folding across one another beneath his dark cloak. “Come. I still hear the river, below. Let us see if we can find any sign of him.”

And with that, he set off back down the path, daggers glinting dully in the light of the endless rows of jars. 

Thus ends part 6. 

Bonus Image!

Did you really think we’d let you go without an awesome C.U.B.E. image to say goodbye? This impressive fortification’s latest update comes from the skilled hands of Red_CU. Check out how this mighty mountain fortress has grown!
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