Unveiled: Camelot Unchained Newsletter #31 - City State Entertainment
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Team Tidings

-by Max Porter

Hey folks, 

Happy end of February and start of March! It’s another beautiful day in a series of beautiful days in not-so-very wintery downtown Fairfax, Virginia. It’s putting a smile on all our faces, and we’ve already got plenty to smile about! 

You may have noticed how very hard we’ve been working here at City State Entertainment™, particularly if you’ve been following our latest news and updates. So much is getting done and going into the build! As we’ve been saying, it’s starting to feel more and more like a “game”, rather than just a engine build. The march to Beta 1 continues! 

In particular, this month we checked off four of the items necessary for entering into Beta 1 on our checklist. This is pretty exciting, and very encouraging. For details on these, check out the recent news updates, “Another three bite the dust” and “Layers are not just for onions and ogres!”.

In the office, we’re getting adjusted to a few little changes. We’ve been adding engineers and others at a rapid pace (as we just introduced you all to Christina last month)! Definitely starting to feel the effects of these new faces adding their skills and expertise. As Mark said the other day, the new programmers are really starting to make a huge difference in our output.

It’s also been a great month for streaming, as we’ve kept you all informed with tons of cool streams, including Andrewmation and other programming streams, jam-packed End of Week Wrap-Up streams, Art streams of all sorts showing off the incredibly creative work by that team, and of course the general hang-out and hello streams. Of course, everything’s still saved on our YouTube and Twitch channels. 

If you’re looking for a more detailed breakdown of this month’s update highlights, head to the State of the Build section by Brittany. For some design discussion, check out the latest Dose of Design article by Ben. The latest on art can be found in Art it Up by Scott of course, and another new lore piece will round out the newsletter this month. You’ll notice that once again, we don’t have a Tech Central piece from one of the engineers! Just like last month, this is because they’ve continued to be heads-down, with so many important pieces of code going in. Really, it’s a good thing in the end, as we all want them to continue making Camelot Unchained™ a reality with their full focus. 

Read on for in-depth articles, art, updates, and lore, to round out a great month of development. Please enjoy this, the thirty-first issue of Unveiled

Hot Topics


The latest topics of discussion on the forums right now include looting, wounds, and tank mechanics.  

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

Look What You Did

The winner of this month’s fan art contest was Inkheart, with this stunning rendition of Hidduk after his transformation in the end of The Great Depths Raid. Here he is in all his terrifying glory!
For our next contest, well, we've had a little holiday this month that's just for love (Valentine's Day!). You might not think the war-torn world of the game we're making has much room for love, but it is often the motivation behind conflict in our lore, source of both great pain and great joy. What would love look like to you for characters in the world of Camelot Unchained? Write up a short fan fiction piece, and we'll pick a favorite little love story to include in next month's newsletter! To enter, keep it to 250 words or less and post your love story in the thread you'll see pop up in the Fan Fiction section of the Forums.

Dose of Design

-by Ben Pielstick

Scrbbles in the Dark


Of the many types of questions I often see asked about Camelot Unchained, one of the most common is about why there isn’t more to see in terms of content. Generally, the later we get in development, the more content we can show off, but when the game seems so far along in some areas, like visual fidelity, it can often be surprising that we aren’t equally far along in others, like class design. This phenomenon has to do with some non-obvious facts regarding the way games are made, especially when the scope of a game includes building a completely custom engine from scratch.

As many of you know, the ability system for CU has been undergoing major renovations for some time now. This means that the initial set of actual ability components for our first set of classes have been designed and ready to implement for up to a year or more, in some cases. Even so, this ability component list has remained fairly small, because beyond establishing an initial baseline as a starting point, additional design without implementation doesn’t really help move the game forward.

There isn’t a lot of great content in games that started off great when first written down in a design document. If everything in a game became final as soon as it went into the game, exactly the way it was first designed without any testing or changes, it isn’t likely the game would turn out to be very good. 

Imagine you must draw a picture, but you have to do so in a totally dark room. Not being able to see what you’re doing means you can’t make sure things line up right, and you can’t really tell if what you’re working on is any good, at least not until later. Worse still, you can’t really improve on your drawings by making more of them, so if you do a whole bunch of drawings in the dark, you’re not very likely to get better at them over time, because you can’t see where the problems are, or correct them. 
Having a bunch of ability components made without the capacity to try them out is a lot like having a bunch of sketches drawn in the dark that you haven’t been able to look at yet. Once animations, visual and sound effects, the combat HUD, and so on are all hooked up and working, it becomes much easier. We can run through some fights between characters in the game, evaluate how well the abilities we’ve pieced together work, and quickly identify which ones are nonsensical scribbles, and which ones might actually be pretty good with a bit of tweaking. 

This is why game design on a game without a working engine often appears to be so far behind on features like rendering and net code. Design can make very little progress, and certainly can’t finalize anything, until the features are ready to implement, test, and iterate on. Continual evaluation and revision of a feature is what allows designers to improve on what starts out as just a guess at what might be fun, and work toward a point where a feature actually is fun. After a feature has been refined as a minimum proof of concept, it is much easier to expand upon it. One can proceed secure in the knowledge that what worked in a limited test will likely continue to work as scope increases, with far less additional refinement required than if content that relied upon that feature was all built out before iteration began.

As an example: work is still in progress preparing our animation, visual effects, and sound effects systems for an initial round of combat testing. A relatively small set of ability components have been prototyped for each of our starting Beta 1 classes under the new combat system. However, since none of them have seen any testing under real conditions with all the audiovisual elements of the game fully working, it is safe to say a lot of these starting components will see major changes once we get a chance to really try them out. Once we discover what works well and what doesn’t on ability components for each class through iterating on this small sampling of components, we will have a much better idea of the direction to take. We’ll start to revise the designs previously laid out for additional ability components, and design entirely new components to be implemented soon after. 

This methodology applies not only to ability components, but also to crafting, territory conquest, and every other element of design. All of these require the verification of implementation and testing before being established as solid foundations that can be built upon to create what will eventually become full systems for the launch of CU. At times, it can seem like there isn’t much to see, because parts of the game engine aren’t in place yet. We’ll need to take untested and sometimes BSC design concepts, which are laid out in a very tentative state in design documents and spreadsheets, and try them out. Then we can make decisions on what we need to throw out, what we can keep, and what we can iterate upon to make the game as fun as we all want it to be. 

Once the technical features to support gameplay features are in place, and the fundamental mechanics can be tested out and improved upon, a lot of the important parts of the game’s design will seem to come together in a relatively short time, which we look forward to showing you as more and more of our User Story items reach completion.

Developer Quote

  
  “For us, the look of the game has always been secondary to performance. OTOH, if we can add the stuff we have been adding, not affect performance negatively and not sacrifice programmers on the altar of "The bright and shiny", it's the right thing to do.” - Mark Jacobs

Artitup 

-by Scott Trolan

It's been an exciting month for all of us artists, as new systems are coming online. Last month, as the new animation code was implemented, I was completely enveloped in migrating our animation clips from one data sheet to another. Amidst the excitement and things in flux, I want to thank Dionne for writing a fantastic and in-depth Art it Up article in my stead.

As I said, we have new systems becoming available and ready to test. Just this week, I have been finishing setting up equipment with our game designer Ben and gameplay engineer Christina. So, we are currently testing new equipment, not only as it pertains to race and gender, but how it associates with item stats and appropriate character gear slots. 
This month has also involved working directly with Andrew on the animation system, or “Andrewmation.” Andrew implemented a tag- and priority-driven animation system. He also streamlined my process of animation clip frame data entry by allowing me to remain within Google Sheets that report straight to the editor database. Currently, we have tag-driven attack animations paired with fantastic timing on flinches and deaths and Realm-unique idle animations playing with their correct fidgets. As of writing this article, Andrew continues to implement supporting code that allows us to correctly tag and pair an ability to its proper animation. We’re adding more and more to the illusion of life in the world of Camelot Unchained!
Sandra has been tasked with animating the polearm, the most complex weapon type to animate in CU, so far. This weapon type delivers three methods of attacking: slash, pierce, and crush. In the current design, a sword only delivers slashing and piercing damage. An axe delivers only slashing damage. So when it comes to animating a polearm, we intend to animate High, Medium, and Low attacks for each of its three methods of use. To make it even more fun, we have two weapon stances for each weapon, Offensive and Defensive Stance. So if you were to total up the required basic attack animations for the polearm, you’d have eighteen six-part animations! Right now, Sandra is only focusing on one polearm attack animation per method of damage from a Defensive Stance. Those select polearm animations will serve best as a first pass. As the animation system rapidly comes online, we will be able to assess our in-game combat animations for the first time. After that assessment, we will be able to expand on what works, looks, and feels right for gameplay.
Michelle has been concepting world assets and Tuatha Dé Danann polearms. Check out her amazing Valentines Heart Axe concept she speed-painted on one of her livestreams.
Jon has been working on a range of things. He has been auditing his work on weapons in regards to scale and geometry pivots. He has been re-sculpting and/or optimizing new Human male and female hands and heads. And when able, he finds time to work on some “twisted” environmental world assets for Tyler. 
Dionne has begun the process of adding finishing touches and exporting the Place of Power environment assets. She is also working with Bull to ensure that they are correctly imported and built within the editor. All of us here are very excited to see this go into the game!

State Of The Build

 -by Brittany Aubert

One of the things I say frequently, so much that it should be my Producer catchphrase, is that it’s important to iterate on our game development process as much as we do on our games. As you’ve heard in updates and seen through our weekly testing, many big features are coming to a head at the same time. As the code base grows in size and complexity, the day-to-day game production needs to adapt. With so many code changes wrapping up at the same time, the risk for build breakages grows higher, and broken builds slow our whole team down significantly. 

So how do we iterate on our existing workflow to decrease this risk? For starters, Tim, Tyler, and I have been experimenting with building a more formal testing cadence, which means putting together a series of steps that give us a more stable build. At the beginning of the week, we identify what major changes are in-flight for the week. When one of them lands, we quickly hop into Hatchery to test and make sure nothing explodes. Depending on the content, we’ll have some Backers come in and help verify the changes. Once we acknowledge the build is stable enough, we quickly take a snapshot and move the current instance of Hatchery through to other servers. We repeat throughout the week as those large features get committed.

 This is far easier said than done. In reality, development sometimes feels like a very fast train! The three of us are physically standing on the tracks with our arms stretched out, trying to slow the vehicle down like 1940’s cartoon characters.

Will this be the only tweak we make to our day-to-day development? Absolutely not. I expect many more! This is just one of the many behind-the-scenes things that goes into making a great game. With any form of iteration, the most important thing is that we remain flexible and able to tackle challenges ahead, whether those challenges are making a game feel good or improving how our team works. 

Speaking of big changes and bug fixing, let’s check out some of what happened this month!

Aiming: Matt spent some time resurfacing the manual aiming code and updating it to work with the re-abilitated ability system. 

  • Players can manually switch into and out of aiming mode. 
  • While in aiming mode, the camera zooms in close to the character to a fixed over-the-shoulder position similar to a third-person shooter style game.
  • This is very much a WIP that is only in its infancy. We want to get it in early, to test and iterate as often as possible.

Animations: February saw a plethora of animation changes following the debut of Andrew’s new animation system. 

  • Ability animations are now synced with the server ability timing. 
  • Skill hit timings are synced with the server, which makes flinching look buttery smooth.
  • We’ve added tag support, so we can call out different attacks - melee, bow, cast, projectile, summon, and instant.
  • To make characters look less like robots, we set some values in OnBecameVisible() so people enter their walk cycles at different points and don't all move in sync. It’s far less creepy looking. 

Audio: While dB made the beats, Gabe fixed the bugs. 

  • We fixed the camera orientation in Wwise by swapping the axis between our space and Wwise space, so everything is positioned the way it’s supposed to be. 
  • The sun angle is now passed to the SoundEngine instead of the time of day. This helps the game feel more immersive, so audio plays exactly as you would expect if you were standing outside.  
  • We added several ambient music tracks to accompany the ambient nature sounds.

Banes and Boons: We’re coming back around to our Banes and Boons portion of character creation, now working toward exposing these traits to the player, so you can interact with them. 

  • The Web API endpoints to support character creation frontend were put into place.
  • While progress on this will continue into March, we’re making headway on things like communicating how selecting specific Banes and Boons affects balance, selecting race and class-specific B&Bs, and acknowledging dependencies. 
  • Ben has created a sampling of test B&Bs, and will work to add more over the next month.

Bots: In honor of Valentine’s Day, we came back around to the bots to give them some love. 

  • We saw the re-emergence of bots using abilities. This was very apparent when it first went in, because of the sheer amount of sword effects playing. We made sure to calm the audio down a bit without losing an appropriate level of chaos.  By utilizing Bots to “spam” attacks/abilities/etc., we get extremely useful performance data, just as we did in the early stages of the engine’s development.
  • Bot performance improved greatly. At the beginning of the month, we were only able to run about 120 bots with a single server. We’ve increased that number to around 350, and are heading to 500 per server. This should greatly reduce server costs during tests.

Buildings: There have been two goals we’ve been shooting for with the recent building work: improve performance now and for the future, and make sure all our previous features remain functional.

  • All the tasty gameplay features reemerged and made their appearance during various tests. Players can capture plots and see flags and the plot UI update accordingly. The actual building construction works as intended, with queues populating and updating appropriately. 
  • There were vast updates on the performance end. We can now grab vertex/index buffers created by BuildingRenderable and use those to build the Physics meshes, instead of redoing all the work of recreating the vertices. We saw a performance boost of nearly 50%. This is in addition to small gains here and there through the cleanup process. 

Items and gear: This is a big one, not only in the paths this clears for us, but in the sheer amount of updates that occurred. 

  • There were updates to the starting inventory code. Now designers can give each class a list of starter items, including armor, munitions, and weapons in an efficient way. The previous process was difficult to update. This also includes what players start with equipped.
  • Data formats were updated to better support crafting, a feature we’re excited to be moving into. 
  • We improved the round-trip for item balancing, so it will be easier in the future to make updates.
  • We fixed deflection rules by making two-handed weapons not deflect for each hand. 
  • Gear can now be setup to support multiple races and genders. If a player picks up a male Luchorpán helmet and equips it on a female Arthurian, the helmet will fit properly, despite the proportional difference between the two characters. We will revisit the rules to this for Beta.
  • Armor is now broken up into more slots. The slot that was previously known as “Helmet” has now been broken down into Skull, Face, and Neck. 
  • Armor now supports an under-layer, so each gear slot has its own under-layer. You can now put on a shirt, or pants, under your armor. That’s a heck of a lot of customization. 

Networking: Colin’s main focus this month was building the Fast Entity Reader, which migrates C# entities from one process to another. This better preserves more of the state of entities when changing servers/zone.

  • Items, including dropped items, players, deltas (changes to existing entities as opposed to entire entities) are all supported. 
  • Utilize code gen to reduce the amount of custom code needed for sending all these things. 
  • In addition to Fast Entity Reader work, Colin merged his changes that separate the physics server from the game server into the main branch, which allows us to update physics independently of gameplay,. You won’t actually see any difference in-game, but this change provides big performance gains to our players.

Patcher: At the end of January, we ramped up testing for the updated experimental patcher. February’s focus was to combine our default and experimental patchers into a single patcher, significantly reducing the complexity and headaches on our end. At this point, and we hope forever, the experimental patcher has been relegated to history.

Performance: A few improvements to our threading library, ParLL, were added.

  • Fix for soft-lock on building loads and performance problems in general with terrain and building code that use Parll::for.
  • There were changes made to idle checking functions so that things work with low priority queued items too. We only count low priority jobs as idle when checking from a high priority thread.

Rendering: After starting with investigations into how to make our particles more performant, we found many more optimizations and fixes across our entire graphics pipeline.

  • We made a lighting tweak for the deeper darker forests. Distant ambient uses more focused samples as it transitions to screenspace, which prevents smearing from nearby bright areas.
  • We’ve dropped in the first pass of an Order Independent Transparency rendering system, which allows transparent items to be drawn in a similar way to solid objects. Water, particles, gizmos, nameplates, targeting, and building UI were all moved to the OIT pass.
  • Greatly increased the efficiency of our depth buffer usage by using the same buffer for drawing and sampling.
  • Fix for a device suspended bug caused by the driver state getting out of sync with the game state. This would cause visual glitches such as flashing and performance hitches.
  • General speed-up of the main lighting shader (about a 40% reduction in fill cost).
  • There was a fix for the coloration and nighttime visibility of targeting indicators.
  • Lastly, our sky got some TLC. We were not multiplying in HDR Exposure values when the sun was below our lowest elevation or above our highest elevation. We removed the variable star brightness based on elevation of the sun, and instead let HDR handle the
  • stars’ visibility, and also slightly increased intensity.

Resource nodes: These are little bundles of data that produce resources for players to collect, which are critical to our crafting features. 

  • We rolled out a new data format for our resource nodes, allowing us to configure nodes through CSV files.
  • Nodes save in the database so they can be correctly restored on reboot.
  • Optional lengths of time between opportunities to harvest can be configured.
  • Resource node spawners are a new entity type which are responsible for creating resource nodes. When created, a spawner will make a resource node that is associated with it. These support a value for start time before any spawning starts, both date and lifetime values to trigger expiration, and how many times and how often they respawn their resource node. 

Tools: In between lots of work to get our model builder playing nicely with the new animation system, lots of little quality-of-life features went in that help make life a little sweeter for anyone using the editor. 

  • As our islands get bigger, we need a quicker way to jump around to various locations for editing. It’s now possible to quickly enter an x and y coordinate and hop to a final destination. 
  • The far clip plane is an invisible barrier in the world that doesn’t draw anything positioned behind it. We added a slider in the editor to make it easier to adjust this.
  • The editor now has a way to toggle rendering planes of water on the fly.
  • Added water plane, fog, and HDR exposure controls to viewers in the editor.

Lore Corner

-by Max Porter

Hey folks! With the end of a big twelve-part serial novella behind us, it’s time to head back into the Becoming™ stories! Allow me to present the long-awaited second part of The Becoming: The Picts, with a third part to follow soon. The first part was written by Mark, and edited by yours truly; this second part is the reverse, where I have done the writing within his vision for this Arthurian race in Camelot Unchained. You can find the first part of the tale here.
 

 

The Becoming: Picts part 2


Brude and the Picts part 2

After the ceremony of tattoos, images, and discussion with the tribe had ended, when the Picts, Goblins, and other friends beneath the hill had filed out of the meeting place, Brude remained behind in the stone circle. As the glow of the shapes on the stones slowly faded, he sat for a long time in the dark hall, thinking. He did not know how to conduct a war; and the elders would not know either. It was for this reason he needed to harden his resolve, and find the determination to drive out the invading Tuatha Dé Danann; he and all of his people needed to learn. The decision had been made by the whole tribe. The king stood and left the hall to begin the many necessary preparations. 

One busy week later, there came a clear day with a pale blue sky, disturbed by a gusting breeze; one of those windy days that often bodes rougher weather. Brude was motionless in the middle of the village, though his hair whipped about, along with his rippling tattoos. He was taking the measure of a man that stood before him, shouting. A braggart, a middle-aged warrior who had more pride than skill. 

Accosted by one of his loyal - or so he had thought - subjects, Brude had been interrupted in his work, preparing his weapons and armor. Others looked on as the braggart, a large, hairy Pict with a crooked nose, continued his tirade. 

“It’s no good, king Bridei! You’re letting the other tribes put one over on us. We may have agreed to war, but not to be wiped out in the first wave!” 

Shaking his head at the rudeness and familiarity that he knew most kings would not allow, Brude Bridei Mac Billi set down the whetstone and blade he had been carrying, and leaned his hands on his waist, staring down at the shorter Pict. “Well, I’m glad you feel you can talk to me man-to-man this way, Nechtan. It just so happens I agree… we do not wish to be wiped out in the first wave. And that, I think, is why we must be among the first of our peoples to fight, and learn the ways of war.” 

Nechtan frowned angrily, snarling like a dog. “Do you see that!?” The man pointed at the southern horizon, where dark clouds gathered in angry scuds, visibly shredded by high-up winds. “A storm approaches! It will surely be here by tomorrow night. Do you really want us to be caught out in the open with no shelter?”

Troubled, Brude shielded his eyes from the sun and looked to the south. He had been so focused on his work, the many concerns of a king and warlord, with supplies, weapons, and training, that he had not paid much attention to the sky. Watching the distant sky-shapes, which looked suspiciously like Vellsign, he said nothing for a moment, and Nechtan continued the tirade. 

“The last time the sky looked this way, it brought destruction and doom to all in the land. Can we not wait and hide a little longer? It is not a question of bravery, but of skill; you of all people should know the tendency of young kings to overreach, to try and prove themselves too soon.” Nechtan’s voice was quieter now, cajoling. He confidence was evident: he had embarrassed the king with his arguments, and now brought in what he appeared to think was the capstone of his point. “Let one of the other tribes try to repel the invaders, first. With time, you will see I am right.”

“There is no time to lose,” Brude raised his voice so that the weavers and shield-makers looked up, listening. “Not if we are to regain our skills. Not if we are to become the warrior people we once were.” 

Brude cleared his throat, and spoke with bold assurance so that onlookers could hear, craning their necks in the stiff breeze that swelled from the nearby forest. “I have heard your words, and will consider them, Nechtan. But remember this: it is given to me to wear these tattoos of prophecy, and it was decided by all of our tribe, coming together as one: We chose war!”

Surprised by the sudden vehemence and sound, Nechtan shrank back a bit, looking to see if any nearby would show him support. Only one face was turned toward him: the sour-mouthed Mael, a skilled healer who had long been Nechtan’s partner in disagreement. 

Brude did not wait to see if any further cracks in his authority would appear. “Now I shall go and consult with my scout to see what news there may be of enemy movements, and of the weather. See to your bow and spear, Nechtan! You may have need of them very soon.”

With that, he made a gesture of farewell and turned away. Brude didn’t want his people to see his reddening face, or how his tattoos were shifting, irritated. Such insubordination was not a good sign. Certainly, he’d learned to endure it well enough growing up, and it was up to him to deal with the fears and uncertainties of a people unused to all-out war. However, this problem would not cease, he would not be respected, until he had truly proven himself as a commander. 

He walked away, feeling the thoughtful eyes of his people on his back. He had done well as a young king so far, but that did not mean the tribe could fully trust his decisions in battle. They had chosen war: now he would have to show them that their choice was right. And that their tribe of Picts would not prove weaker than the others. 

He climbed up to the rocky promontory, the falcon’s-nest where he had often gone to meditate and interpret the shapes of his tattoos. Now, they were forming strange, indeterminate whorls on his chest and arms, odd half-images that indicated uncertainty and a murky future. 

Raising one hand high, Brude whistled piercingly, and sought out his falcon with his mind. Drest was nearby; returning from another long flight south to scout out the land for enemies. The winged shape appeared as a shadow overhead, circling down from a great height. Swooping, the grey-and-brown feathered figure came to rest on Brude’s outstretched arm. Fierce eye boring into his master, Drest eased the penetrating grip of his talons so that Brude barely felt them. 

His mind forming the connection, Brude experienced Drest’s memories. He saw the broad, sweeping view of the world, each leaf of the many-colored forest fluttering beneath the falcon’s keen eye; he saw the green meadows and great grey stones that had lain there since time immemorial; he saw the dark shadows in between the rolling hills of the domain controlled by his tribe, and the streams that marked the border with the lands of another tribe. At last, he came to the telltale marks of a small camp, deep in the pleasant forest; tents hidden expertly among the trees, and bows leaning on tree trunks, along with quivers bristling with arrows. Well-hidden indeed, but not to the clear eyes of a falcon. 

In memory, catching a glimpse of movement, Drest circled lower, wind rushing past his feathers, to get a closer look. The leafy canopy appeared to sweep up toward him, then closed around with welcoming branches. As the falcon fluttered to rest in the top of a tree, he saw the soldiers at last. Camouflaged in colorful armor, the Tuathan warriors communicated in low voices or gestures that Drest couldn’t understand. The falcon simply watched and listened for a few moments. 

Then, one of them made a gesture Drest could understand very clearly indeed: Angry-faced, one of the heavily armed soldiers pointed up toward the tree where the falcon perched, and snatched up a bow and quiver. Without waiting any longer, the bird took to the air once more, putting plenty of foliage between himself and the enemy. 

Then it was a straight flight back to his master, calling on the wind from his stony outcropping on the hill above the village. 

Brude shook himself, both his body and his tattoos shivering as he came out of the trance that let him share the falcon’s memories. Drest, annoyed, fluttered off to a nearby tree stump and glared. 

“Thank you, my friend,” Brude said quietly, his heart thudding with the realization that the invaders had truly arrived in force. “Now I must go and tell my warriors that we are to march tonight.” 


They spent the evening making their warpaints and applying them: Shapes and sigils bright blue on the skin of warrior men and women who intended to fight for their homeland. Most of the tribe would go, for their king wished to blood them in battle and teach them the ways of war. 

Briefly, the ceremony of war was held, drummers beating out the slow, powerful rhythm as the fierce images were painted on. Brude readied his own weapons, and looked to the supplies that they would carry with them. Hearts began to beat in time with the deep-voiced drums, awakening to thoughts of blood and wrath. 

Brude’s tattoos, which had been shifting and uncertain all day, finally settled into a definite shape: Sharp angles and eyelike whorls and lines, speaking of the battle to come. He felt ready, knowing the enemy’s position and approximate number. He felt confident, thinking of the path they would have to take through the woods to come at them from downwind. It would mean a circuitous journey, and would take his warriors through lands controlled by another Pictish tribe; but they should come upon the enemy camp unexpected in the earliest morning hours, when the mist would give his people all the advantages. 

Thinking through his strategy, Brude set off into the woods at the head of his troops in a dreamlike state, the drums of war still pumping through his blood. The forest had its own beat, its own rhythm, which he attuned to as he ran through it; formed of the wind in the trees, the pattern of his feet pounding on the fallen leaves, and the nearly silent leaps over fallen logs and underbrush. His soldiers, painted in their wild warpaint, followed after almost as quietly, putting their lives in his hands. Though the Tuatha Dé Danann were renowned for their woodcraft, masters of moving in the woods and wild lands, yet this was Pictish territory. Brude felt certain that no one, not even these wily stalkers from foreign lands, could move as swiftly or as surely, and never as stealthily as Brude’s tribe in their own familiar home. 

As the Picts settled into the loping run that would eat up the distance, they began to sense a change in the woods. Brude was leading them in a new direction, one that circled around the enemy to attack at a different angle. They leapt over a new stream and thought this strangeness came from that. But there was something else, a wrongness, something other, an outside presence in this place. 

Trees, wind, perhaps the scent on the wind. Then again, it could have been simple changes in the forest they were entering. This was a different part of the wild lands, controlled by a different tribe of Picts. Their ways are our ways, but we are different, Brude reminded himself. Hopefully, their passage would go unnoticed this night.

It was often dark enough, at least. The clouds were gathering, blowing across the moon and stars from the southern horizon. There was a tension in the air beyond mere trepidation for the coming fight: a presage of the coming storm. 

All these thoughts ran through his head, beating their musical staccato notation out in time with his footprints in the night. 

What was this unfamiliar presence, this strange pattern to the forest? Had the enemy come upon them? How? No, it must the other tribe. They were out this night, as well. Brude had not seen them coming, hidden in their woods with their own warpaint and gleaming wet weapons. 

With a rumble of release, the storm broke upon them, pouring down rain in waves. Thankfully, it did not yet have the force of a Veilstorm: No changing magics, no earth-rending forces were at play. It was simply a storm, wrathful but not utterly destructive. 

It was dark, and the fight was quiet in the raging storm. Still, the hush of the rain was broken by yells, the clashing of blades, and the occasional pained scream. 

Few could stand against king Brude Bridei Mac Billi, mighty warrior that he was. He cut his way past one fighter after another, narrow misses in the dark with little real resistance, for all seemed as surprised as he was. That is, until he crossed blades with a short but powerful warrior of great skill, who threw back his assault with a deadly force at least equal to his own. So fast was this warrior that the rain seemed to barely touch skin or steel as the fight spun on. 

All was confusion, and he had to parry by the flicker of blades in moonlight or simple guesswork from brief lightning flashes. 

They fought with increasing eagerness, chasing through the forest, leaping off of fallen logs and battering one another with their Pictish blades as the storm battered them with wind and rain. Brude quickly lost track of his warriors in the chaotic battle, seeing only vague figures slashing and cutting all around. The short warrior came at him again, teeth flashing in a grin, and as lightning struck in a long bolt not far away, all was laid bare in stark brightness for a moment. It was a woman, muscular and lithe, painted in blazing streaks across her shoulders and face. He ducked her blow, but felt the tip of her blade slide through his skin in a shallow cut on his forehead just above the eye. His blood pumping hard, it poured down his face with the rain, but Brude was quick enough to lash out, his reactive instincts jerking his sword up. The tip pierced her shoulder. 

Snarling in pain like a wild wolf, she leaped back, pulling free of his blade and spraying blood of her own. Her foot slipped on a slick root, but she thrashed about and caught herself on the nearby tree trunk. 

For a moment, they just stood there panting heavily and bleeding. Brude was half-kneeling in the muddy leaves, while she leaned against the damp tree trunk, her chest heaving in the moonlight that shone down once more as the wild winds tore the clouds apart high above. 

His breath as ragged as the stormclouds, Brude rose to his feet and pointed his bloody weapon at her. “We did not come to raid or take you captive. We seek the intruders upon Pictish lands, who make their hidden camp in our hiding places.”

The other warrior eyed him darkly, her teeth pulling back in a smile. “We, too, make war. But for this storm, we would have already been crossing blades with these Tuatha Dé Danann spies. Now that you’ve stumbled blindly into our war-troop, we shed blood too soon.”

There was a pause as thunder rumbled all around them, drowning out the sounds of swift and deadly fighting in the dark.

Thus ends the second part of the tale.  

Bonus Image!

To close out this month’s newsletter, take a gander at this amazing C.U.B.E. construction by Swazi, Fortress Ordo Veritas: 
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