Unveiled: Camelot Unchained Newsletter #30 - City State Entertainment
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Team Tidings

-by Max Porter

Hello and happy end of the first month of 2017! It’s a new year, one that will certainly bring many new achievements, challenges, and most importantly, fun in the development of Camelot Unchained™. We’re really looking forward to sharing it with our Backers! As I write this, we’re finally getting the second snowfall of winter here at City State Entertainment™, a light snow in keeping with the unusually warm winter. It’s pleasant, and a lot easier to deal with than an extra cold one! 

We’ve really hit the ground running at the start of the year, and there’s lots to talk about. Let’s head right into an exciting introduction! We have a new engineer that has joined us this January, and her name is Christina Carr. She’s already gotten started updating our in-game item-related system to be more consistent as well as flexible, and I hear she will be working on the crafting system very soon! Here’s a little bit about her in the form of her bio as it will appear on our website: 

Christina hails from the Pacific Northwest, and has been making neato software up there for over ten years. She spent her early development years learning disciplined coding principles in the secret monasteries of the coding monks. On the game front, she was a major contributor on the Scribblenauts and Marvel Avengers Alliance franchises, specializing in gameplay programming. Her hobbies include classic Z-cars, greyhounds, cooking, and mask making. 

Very cool. :) Here she is in a Zettai Hero Project costume, dressed as the character Etranger:
To see just how busy we’ve been, head on deeper into the newsletter for the State of the Build article from Brittany, which is jam-packed with some of the fruits of our labor. Because it is so packed, and also because of how hard-working our engineers really are, there’s no Tech Central article this month. As heads-down as we’ve been, we didn’t want any of them to lose focus on their work on Beta 1 long enough to write a great article for this newsletter! Fortunately, we’ve got you covered with another excellent Dose of Design article from Ben, and an Artitup written by special guest writer Dionne (not Scott this month, he's way too swamped with his work on animations)! Plus, the climactic conclusion to The Great Depths™ Raid story and other fun stuff can be found toward the end.

As ever, we have striven to keep you all as updated as possible, between streams on YouTube and Twitch, as well as weekly updates with news, and regular emails about playtests. So without further ado, please remember to click on the "View this email in your browser" button on the top right to see the whole newsletter. Read on for articles, art, lore, and all the goodness you might expect, and please enjoy this, the thirtieth issue of Unveiled

Hot Topics


The latest topics of discussion on the forums right now include gathering materials, protecting crafters, and of course death and dying.  

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

Thank You

Huge thanks to Jorvald and Clan Sverker, who sent us these ten amazing drinking horns! They are really cool, and look amazing. Here’s to a hearty swig of mead after a battle!
So many thanks are due to Ludovic, who has sent us so many gifts. :) Let the halls ring once again with Ludovic’s praises, as he sent me (Max) these astonishing and gorgeous office tools. A pen holder, stapler, and letter opener have never been so cool! Thanks, Ludovic!

Look What You Did

What marvelous entries we had in this Fan Fiction contest for a Camelot Unchained holiday! Since we had a few really short entries as well as longer ones, in this newsletter we present to you no less than three of the amusing holidays invented by our literary Backers. First up, this narrative entry by Majule: 

“Papa, where are going?,” asked Ulla as she scrambled over the barrels and baskets to join her father on the wagon’s front seat.
 “You know we are going to Gothenburg, little bird.”
 “But why?”
 “For the Jol Blot, of course.  Do you not remember?”
 “I do but … last year I was only a baby.  Now I’m already five years old!  And Papa … why do we have so much stuff?”
 “For the feast, little bird.  A great feast it will be.  The lords, ealdormen, and jarls in all of Gotaland are all coming. So we bring ale, wheat and goats to feast upon - for ourselves and for those who are blessed with such rich lands.”
 Ulla’s brother Jurgen came up besides them on his horse.  “Don’t forget the blood, father,” he said with a teasing look at his little sister.
 “Blood!” gasped Ulla.
 “Yes, little bird, blood indeed.  This is true meaning of Jol.  We give sacrifice to the gods and the priests take the holy blood and see that all the gods and people are blessed by it.  A big girl like you isn’t afraid of a little blood, I’m sure.”
 “And after the blessing, the next most important part occurs.  Jurgen?”
 “The toasts!  Father is letting me drink the true Jol ale this year.”
 “Only if you remember the toasts, Jurgen.”
 “First, to Odin, the Yule-father, for victory.  Second, to Freyr for good weather.  Third, to King Destin for uh …”
“Wise rule,” finished his father.

Awesome. :) Next, this thoughtful entry by Tierless: 

The Alignment Paradox; On this day, once per year, the Veil, the Depths, the moons and the planet align distorting the barriers that separate them allowing for physical (and physics) crossovers! Nothing is as it appears and everything is as it should never be! Making things worse abominations escape into realms they are otherwise banished from. Reality itself breaks down as friend, foe, and abomination all become indistinguishable! The only day more feared than The Alignment Paradox is Dragon's Day.

I thought that was really neat! And finally, this crack-up entry from Guinness, which you will understand if you’ve followed CU’s development closely: 

Drowning Door Day, a sacred Viking day. On the night a viking man or woman is declared a Viking Warrior. They are tasked with an impossible challenge. They must Drown a Door.

More often than not they just drown themselves in spirits instead.

I laughed, hard. :) Now, for our next contest, it’s time for Fan Art once more! This month, we are presenting the epic conclusion to The Great Depths Raid, which can be found on the Lore page of our website. Choose a character from the tale to illustrate, whether by painting, finger painting, drawing, or dressing up for a photo, using the story for inspiration. Post your creations to the thread you'll see pop up in the Fan Art section of our Forums, and we'll showcase one or more of them in the next newsletter!

Dose of Design

-by Ben Pielstick

From Systems to Content


As work continues toward completing our feature set for the start of Beta 1 testing, the emphasis for our ongoing development slowly shifts from creating limited prototype features for testing server and client performance and stability to building out player-facing content that will provide a first look at what Camelot Unchained will eventually become. There will, of course, still be a heavy emphasis on performance testing once we enter our first phase of Beta, but unlike our current Alpha builds, by the time we reach Beta all our core features need to be working together in a way that starts to convey some of the fun that will be present in the final game.

In terms of combat, work continues on the visual effects, sound, and animation systems, in order to provide an exciting look and feel to the game, while also communicating key information about nearby allies and enemies that players can use to their advantage. A selection of initial ability components, as well as passive Banes and Boons for each character, have been composed in XML and will be ready to start a round of more thorough testing once their associated audio and visual elements are in place. Additionally, new armor and weapons have been created, with stats to match the new abilities and unique models to fit each Realm. There still remains some work to be done to allow characters to equip all of these items in the way that we want, which is obviously a very big part of getting to a point where we’re ready to start taking a deeper look at combat balance and fun.

Since a lot of the combat we want is meant to take place around objectives, we’ve also got a lot of time and effort directed toward building out our first Place of Power (as you can see from some of our recent updates). We’re also working at improving our building system, including stability and destruction, which will allow for our first round of siege testing. In order to knock down buildings, we need to put together a basic siege engine. This opens up a whole range of other features, such as reticle-based targeting, the ability for a character to deploy a gameplay object in the world, and the ability to walk up and interact with an object in order to use it. While little features like these don’t take long compared to, say, rebuilding our entire ability system, they still add up to a sizable amount of work that must be overcome before we can see how much fun our first iteration of sieging feels.

To fill all the space between objectives, and to provide options for locations where fortifications can be built, a large amount of world space must be created. This is largely being accomplished via our procedural terrain system, using environmental assets specially created to make up each biome. In order to facilitate specific gameplay, however, a lot of work also has to be done by hand. This means going through the procedurally created map and making edits to the terrain, balancing open areas with choke points, creating switchback trails between areas of sharply different elevations, and so on. To see if the world we create is truly fun to play in, however, we’ve got to get all these other important pieces in place, so that we can judge our area design not just based on aesthetics, but on how it shapes gameplay.

The open world area we’re creating also needs to support the gathering of materials for crafting, for which we’ve already got the basics of a resource node system in testing. There are still more gathering features needed before the start of Beta 1: For example, we need to provide more easily identifiable visual indicators for resource nodes, make sure it is obvious whether a node is full or empty, and even improve the way that gathering actions are executed by players. These are just the basics, and we’ll definitely add a lot more features to this system later on, after the start of Beta 1 testing. 

Since crafting is one of the core features for the game, providing a solid foundation for gathering the resources players need to craft items is extremely important. The multi-step process of crafting itself is also getting a lot of attention, in order to fully implement the formulas that will allow raw substances to be refined, blended into alloys, and used to generate items with all of their proper attributes, based on the type and quality of substances used. As with gathering, there will be a lot more work going into crafting beyond the start of Beta 1, but the core gameplay loop of gathering, crafting, and using items is one we want to start with early. That way, any issues with the core principles of how items are created show themselves right away, and can be resolved before many layers of additional features are built up around them.

As you can see from our User Stories page, there are of course many more features we’re going to be working on, from metrics and progression, to NPC guard AI, all of which will be coming together. At first, the focus will be on stress testing to ensure we maintain our performance standards. Later on, this will shift to evaluating the gameplay value these features add as they become integrated with the rest of our core features and start to provide a look at the type of game Camelot Unchained will eventually become. For those of you already participating in our early rounds of testing, expect to see a lot more new features coming together. These features make their way into the game, and will start being refined and expanded from very basic functional systems to full features that will make up the content of the game.

Developer Quote

  
  “One of the keys to our success has been, and will continue to be, our willingness to put our money where our mouth is, [not just] in terms of actual cash, but also to be willing to say something sucks and change and then improve it. That will continue, and I expect the result will resonate with players who want an RvR-focused game where their actions really matter. As I've said before, it's going to be an interesting year.” - Mark Jacobs

Artitup 

-by Dionne Phua, with an introduction by Tyler Rockwell

Introduction 

By Tyler Rockwell
I’ve been in the industry since 2001, when, upon meeting an Art Director for Tiger Woods PGA Tour, I was asked if I’d like an internship. This is a common place to start in games. It’s generally a balance of menial work to learn the ropes with lots of learning opportunities to see where you want to focus, plus figuring out how best the company can make use of your unbridled enthusiasm (as in "Oh my god, I’m working on a video game!"). The important thing your employer and direct reporter has to balance is the time it takes to bring the intern up to speed vs. the amount of time saved on their own workload.

In my time in the industry up until working for CSE, I’d worked with a bunch of people as a lead, but I hadn’t yet been required to go out and find my own intern. Knowing what I know now, my biggest concern was finding someone who was not only enthusiastic, but hardworking, quick to pick up new ideas, and had a desire to learn and grow. All of those requirements really lend themselves to adding to the project quickly vs. taking up more of my already limited time. 

So here’s the big takeaway from my preface: I totally lucked out not only in finding Dionne, but in getting her to hitch a ride on this crazy adventure! Dionne has evinced an enthusiasm for her work, as shown in her piece this month, and has also been more than willing to help out on character and weapon modeling and materials, something that was not expected, but which has been invaluable these past months. I am truly thankful to have found such a talented person to join the team, now as a full-time employee of CSE. I just hope I can live up to her expectations, and pay her back in full by sharing all that I have learned in the industry since I myself started as an intern.

-t

The Place of Power Process 

By Dionne Phua

Hi everyone! In this month’s Art it Up, I will be taking you through the process of making the Place of Power. I’ve had the honor to create this environment as my main project for the last couple weeks, and it has been an intense learning experience. 

Here we have Ben's original mock-up for gameplay before it went to Michelle:
And here is Michelle’s very rad Place of Power concept art:
As usual, working with Michelle was a breeze. All throughout the process, she was very clear with her vision: creating a grand and ominous space that would inspire players to fight for power! She drew inspiration from cracking waves of lava, steep shards of rock, and various crystals to give a mystical and dangerous atmosphere. We worked closely during the process to make sure everything I made fell in line with the original concept.

The initial blocking out stage and getting a feel for the overall shape:
This project was the first time I have been able to work directly with Ben. Having his input as a game designer really helped me create a space that is more interactive for the player. We had a lot of back-and-forth editing, where I would make tweaks and then Ben would play through and give me input on player distances, collison, and maps. This kind of process really allowed me to prioritize gameplay, and challenged me to balance the aesthetics and the functionality. There was a lot of trial and error that went into making this area, and a lot of changes were made to allow players strategic vantage points over the open middle space. 

Final model of revised ramp to the left; slowly solidifying lava flow to the right:
Right now, the Place of power is about halfway done. The silhouette is pretty much set, and that leaves the refinement still to be done. I’ll create debris and other little details to give the player a more realistic and visually interesting experience. My goal is to make every inch of this area unique from every angle. An aspect that I am personally looking forward to (and hope you are too!) will be the light emitting from the crystals. I’ve never done lighting like this before, and I am ready for the challenge of incorporating it in a natural and aesthetically pleasing way. Other things you’ll see in the next few days include the start of unwrapping assets and putting on base textures. 

Here I am working on it with Ben!
Working with a designer like Ben and a concept artist as talented as Michelle is always the best. The design that she and Tyler came up with for the Place of Power is incredible to look at and to make. Also, the opportunity to work with Ben has really stretched me as an artist to think more critically about not just the looks, but the ease with which the player is able to interact with a space. Everyone that has guided me during this project has allowed it to become the best environment it can be, and I can’t wait until we can show you the final product. 

The great thing is, we're going to take a lot of this hard work and find a way to turn it into its own mini biome around the PoP. Tyler keeps reiterating that we need to work smart on these bigger pieces. Yay! Woo hoo! Ta da!

State Of The Build

 -by Brittany Aubert

Following a relaxing holiday break, CSE came out swinging in 2017. After making lots of progress in the ways of bots, animation, rendering, abilities, and much more at the end of 2016, we’re now more heads-down than ever solidifying our codebase, expanding on our existing architecture, and tackling new features, thanks to our growing team.

Both coasts got hit pretty hard by the awful illness sweeping the states. Despite our soldiers occasionally falling down for the count, we still made great progress. Check out a sampling of what we’ve done this past month:

Animations:

  • After much anticipation, Andrew has merged his first phase of improvements to the animation system into the mainline. The major player-facing change is the vast improvement in animation blending. Multiple different clips are referenced at a single time during a movement cycle. This makes motion look far more fluid when characters turn, change their speed, transition from state to state, etc. 
  • On the tool side of this change, Google Sheets has been integrated into the animation workflow. This allows our animators to copy and paste values and names into cells in a way that significantly cuts down on the time to enter data. Sheets also displays errors when the data is unrecognized. You can actually see an example of this in a recent stream.

Abilities + Banes and Boons:

  • Tagged expressions were a major addition to our Banes and Boons system, and gave Ben a lot of flexibility in how he is able to modify data. Tagged expressions gave Ben the ability to distinguish values as being 'Damage' vs 'Cost', 'Fire' vs 'Ice', 'Magic' vs 'Physical' etc. Then he’s able to state things like: "All fire damage is increased 5%" or "All costs are reduced 10%", with arbitrary specificity.
  • After implementation, it became clear that incorporating this new system into our existing abilities system would extend functionality while requiring less code to be maintained. Bonus!
  • Fixed the interaction between disruption and auto-applied ability skill nodes where the marker tag was being lost and so things were getting applied twice and failing.

Buildings: 

  • The building code had developed a bit of cruft, having not been tended to for a bit. Rob was able to brush the dust off the system and get the core loop working again, allowing us to have Backers jump in for a weekend test. 
  • Following a Backer test, we addressed more ancillary building systems that also needed to be brought into the present - like displaying the correct output in the combat log, and updating the UI.
  • Changed the APIs for getting BuildingGrids to speed up iteration over their children. This had the added benefit of making the code significantly less complex.
  • We improved the threading model for creating building renderables.

Items:

  • Changed the available slots from a single set of flags to a list of flag sets. This list defines each valid combination, and also defines priority for the list. This makes it easier to support and maintain left-handed vs right-handed vs left OR right-handed vs two-handed items. 
  • Sets of gear slots are read from CSV files as the flag number with a way to split multiple sets. We’re now updating the current data files for armor and weapons to conform to the new standard while maintaining the current gear composition.

Networking:

  • We now wait for physics to finish loading before creating dropped items. This fixes issues caused by querying the terrain height before the terrain existed.
  • Server auto-restarts make significantly less noise on the console. It’s also much easier to configure intervals. 
  • We split out hard launches and soft launches from each other so that hard launches won't stop soft launches from occurring.
  • We started working on exponential backoff, an algorithm used to pace out repeated retransmissions of the same block of data, which helps us to avoid network congestion.
  • When performance on the game client starts running slow (less than 30 FPS), it makes the server difficult to update. We’ve added a slash command that limits the server update rate for the current client, a pretty handy debugging feature.
  • We upgraded from OpenSSL to LibreSSL. OpenSSL is a software library used to give us secure communications over the network. LibreSSL is based off OpenSLL, but is more secure. It also has the benefit of having the exact same APIs as its predecessor, which means dropping it in just…worked. 

Rendering and particles

  • We continue to make speed improvements to our particles. On the main line, particles are 5-10 times faster (depending on your machine). There are still many more improvements we can make, allowing us to increase performance even more.
  • A debug variable was added to the client that will spawn a random assortment of local point lights around your player, kind of like a debugging disco!

Threading:

  • For simple threading jobs, we can now immediately do the work if there are no conflicts.
  • Fixed a bug where cancelled tasks could sneak through one extra run.
  • ParLL, our threading library, allows overridden assert handlers, which allow internal errors in ParLL usage to be caught by the CSE assertion system, alerting us when things don’t work as expected.
  • Threading within our terrain code was vastly improved to take advantage of all available cores and avoid locking threads when editing data in our tools.

Tools:

  • A while back, we started adding ‘trash’ tags to the editor, a way to manually mark and filter out unused assets. This change was propagated to our material editor image selector, item editor, the image set editor, the FBX wizard, and more.  
  • There’s now support for previewing sound packages from within the editor. 
  • The gameplay config XML editing experience has been improved from what we had before. One of the major gains is that we can now validate from the editor that the file parses correctly and compiles. 

Misc:

  • Fixed a nasty bug where chat would randomly swap back and forth between global chat and the combat log, which added quite a bit of difficulty to verifying things were working in game. 
  • Ben regained the functionality to set up default abilities for testing purposes. 
  • We made some VERY large islands for testing - 256 square km, and then 1024 square km! The subzone count also needed to increase from 2x2 to 5x5 to support this.
  • Fixed a stack corruption in the patcher when using windows function for Windows 32/64 check on the patcher. Fun fact: BOOL is not equal to bool. 
  • Zones now have a world space translation, specified in the game server's config file. The positions for doors, buildings, and items were then updated to support this change.
  • Two characters of the same Realm will now collide with each other unless one or both of them are in Travel Stance.

Lore Corner

-by Max Porter

Allow me to present the climactic conclusion to The Great Depths Raid, a twelve-part serial novella about The Depths. It’s been a true journey to write this epic story! Working on a serially published work has been a very interesting experience, and very different from the pieces I usually write (like rewriting or writing original Becoming™ stories with Mark). I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the adventures of these Delvers as much as I have enjoyed creating them.

In particular, it’s been an absolute blast to take the opportunity to really explore some of the possibilities of a horror setting like The Depths over the past year. In many ways, The Depths is a character itself, and I’ve tried to capture the eerie and disturbing qualities and inspirations that Mark came up with years ago for the RvR dungeon stretch goal. Read on for the climax this series has been building toward, or check out any parts you might have missed first. You can find the firstsecond, thirdfourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh parts of the tale in the Lore section of our website, here.

 

The Great Depths Raid


Part 12: The Tilted Maze and the Tower

From the throat, to the gullet, pulsating blood-red; from there to the collected stars above the roaring river; and then through a tunnel of darkness to the tilted maze. So the Delvers had journeyed, fighting together, bleeding together, braving the mysteries and dangers of The Depths together. And now, like a black spike in their hearts, one of their number had fallen to darkness; their leader, the one who had gathered the Raid: Hidduk. Noble Cait Sith of the Arthurian Realm, now become a monstrous scorpion and catlike thing, a creature from his own nightmares. 

All of this flashed through Fogja’s mind as she broke from her hesitation and rushed to help Sacriphisto, the Bean Sidhe healer who was screaming for aid. Her heavy boots pounded across the uneven floor of the maze, incongruous Viking leathers on a surface formed of curling metallic tendons and gleaming glass arteries. As she ran, the Jötunn opened her free hand, while the other held fast to her hammer. White-blue lightning crackled and swirled in her palm, and she thrust the energy into her weapon, which flashed and pulsed with the power of the thunder-god whose battle style she followed. 

Fury in her step and her ice-blue eyes, Fogja rounded the corner, meeting Sacriphisto as he fled the other way. At that moment, the thing that had been Hidduk pounced. 

The newly made Servant of The Depths had many mouths, which whispered to him as he ran and leapt through the air. “Come, come to my claws, for they shall rip you revelations. Come, come to my teeth, for they shall take you and keep you. Come, come to my tail my poisoned darling, and know the shaking and final white unknowing.”

Nearby, the shadows flickered and flowed like liquids as the rush of claws and pincer met an explosion of bright lightning. Furred and armored, Hidduk thrashed, his tall, arched tail striking down to pierce the armored Frost Giant. His swollen form dwarfed her now, but Fogja struck back, her hammer cracking claw and crushing chitin wherever she stuck. The smell of burned hair filled the passage, along with the acrid miasma of poison as the enormous stinger gave her another near miss, penetrating the floor by her foot with a thunderous crack

With a hiss and a roar, the monstrous scorpion-like creature unleashed a burst of dark power, blasting everything nearby with waves of the same thick, coagulated shadow that laid over the walls like curtains. The force flung Fogja down another side passage, though she kept her feet. Snarling, Hidduk rushed in to keep on the pressure. 

As the blast hit him from behind, Sacriphisto stumbled, though he didn’t quite touch the ground; then kept running, barely slowed, to where Donnie shakily stood, leaning on Jorvald. The Dvergr stood firm with a grim expression, belying the jokes he periodically told to Donnie to keep up the injured Luchorpán’s spirits. 

“Don’t pay any mind to that puddle of red from your leg, there. Makes a good crimson dye, I’ve heard!” His gruff voice fell on dull air, but that didn’t seem to deter Jorvald in the least. 

Xedric straightened, the Arthurian Human’s eyes and fingers sparking as he looked up from his quick cauterizing of the Luchorpán’s wound, which was still smoking. “Ah good, the healer returns just in time.” 

Donnie spoke through clenched teeth, trying to ignore the intense pain he clearly felt. “What’s going on?”

Sacriphisto, breathless, bent to examine Donnie’s injury. “It’s the Cait Sith. He’s become some monstrous thing of The Depths. You two should help Fogja while I heal this wound. And… be careful, he’s become enormous. And insane.” 

Before the Bean Sidhe could finish speaking, Xedric and Jorvald were already on the move, rushing along the oddly angled maze to the flashes of lightning and searing trails of shadow that marked the shifting location of the raging fight. One trailed flame, preparing his new magics, enhanced by the laughter of The Depths themselves; the other grinned, his eyes alight with the joy of battle about to be joined. 


A few moments away, the Servant of The Depths loomed over his prey, seeing the blue-skinned form mirrored through many new eyes. Though she was panting, and cut to ribbons by his righteous claws, still she stood, defiantly rejecting his Gift. It was time to try something else, the whispers told him. Attack Fogja in a new way. 

Hidduk reared up to his full height, feeling the pain in pairs of his claws and dents in his shell where her crackling hammer had hit him. Once again, mouths opened like blisters across his front. Fogja watched in blank horror as from each mouth razors emerged, slicing open each tongue to reveal more tongues, wriggling as if reaching out to taste her flesh, her mind. 

The mouths spoke in a hesitant chorus, as though still learning to speak. “O-oh, wrong w-way F-Fogja.” 

The sound of her name emerging from such awful sources made Fogja shiver as the coldest of winters never could. “What? What do you want, you corrupt thing? What do you know of my story?”

“Oh, the story is a good one.” Hidduk’s largest mouth licked its lips, as if delighting in the taste of its truth. “The other V-Vikings all tell it, and laugh. That overbold, o-overgrown girl! Thinking she c-could lead a war-party. Too b-bold to consult with her m-maps, too foolish to stop when the scouts t-told her the layout of the land! To think, the v-victory we c-could have achieved… if only we’d g-gone the right way! Toward the en-enemy, fleeing with their lives, instead of away and into the woods! We had to return home in shame, and the b-beer was watery that night, tasting also of our own battle-brothers’ and sisters’ blood.”

Fogja’s blue eyes were wide beneath her dented helmet as she swayed a little, leaning against the tilted floor. “How do you know?”

Hidduk laughed, shaking as he did so. The sound was a horrible delight, like newly spawned kittens drowning. His speech seemed to clear as he babbled his madness, losing the stutter as he finally learned to speak with his new mouths. “How do I know! Ah, with my gift, I know so many things! The blood of innocents tickles my nostrils and delights my eyes. My hair pricks up at the thought of the excesses and violent celebrations to come. My love, my love is deep, I feel it tugging at my testes as this place, this home, calls to me. Time to settle down and make a hundred, no, a hundred thousand children, all weeping with joy at the crawling things they can spear with their freshly-grown claws, virtuous hunters all. They delight in their abilities, and follow their father, who leads them kindly to kill all their prey swift and silent and - erk!”

Pain! Burning pain in his back like the wicked blades of the little jumper he had flung from the walls. Hidduk whirled to see a trail of smoke in the air, leading back to the pointing fingers of the Flame Warden, his lined face set in a pleased smirk. 

Just ahead of him, charging forward with axe at the ready, Jorvald roared a challenge. “You’ve changed a bit, kitty! Looks like an improvement!” 

Fogja shook herself, smelling the burnt flesh of her opponent, her spirits lifting as she saw her companions coming to her defense. It would seem she had gone the wrong way, one more time… but now, it had allowed her to flank the enemy. She too charged forward, hammer raised once more. 

Hidduk had no time to open the Veil carefully. A good hunter knew when to return to stalking his prey, and that time was now. His reaching claws, though hungry for flesh, instead scythed out in mysterious arcs, trailing lights that glittered and flickered but revealed nothing in the roiling blackness that gathered swiftly around him.
    
Yet he could not possibly get away fast enough to escape the charge from two directions. Jorvald’s axe slammed into the monster’s side, ducking under some of the claws that were not engaged in opening the invisible Veil. 

Jorvald plunged his father’s axe in, grunting as the burning claws tore at him, ripping out chunks of stone and flesh in blood-red streaks. The blade bit, but shallowly, barely able to split the rough chitinous armor that encased his former friend, even weakened by Xedric’s flame. The Dvergr poured everything he had into the pressure of the attack, but Hidduk was was ripping, tearing; Jorvald knew he could not hold on forever. 

Fortunately, Fogja’s attack arrived just a moment later. Her hammer came down, using the back of Jorvald’s battleaxe like the wide end of a wedge splitting a log. Fogja grinned, exulting, as the armor cracked open, snapping under the heavy blow. Ichor sprayed from the wound and painted her and the other Viking in dark brown. It was disgusting, a thick fluid that smelled awful, as though Hidduk’s blood had been replaced by something much worse.  

There was an explosion of lightning, and Hidduk’s many-mouthed scream ripped through the brownish air in a wail of pain. Muscles rippled along his furry body, making the armored chitin shake. He leaped, snapping upward so fast it was hard to follow the motion, ripping free of Jorvald’s axe. The Dvergr growled as his arms were jerked upward, and he pulled, drawing the blade down as more foul ichor spilled over his armor and clothes.

Hidduk rose, raising his clawed fists, then came slamming down to the twisted metal floor. The ground shook under the blow, and the earthquake of force tore through the nearby Delvers, unstoppable in its power. They were tossed violently away, scrambling or rolling on the sloped surface. 

With his many mouths grinning through the pain, Hidduk shuddered as he completed his violent ritual of opening. The Veil’s angry embrace would hurt almost as much as the smoking wound in his side. He cried out in a many-voiced farewell before he shimmered and faded away, “Everyone’s dying, my former friends and Delvers, and it is good sport to see!” And then he was gone, leaving more trails of the quivering darkness that refused to go away, even in the light of Xedric’s fires. 

Sacriphisto and Donnie came limping into view, each with a nasty scar up one leg. It appeared that the Bean Sidhe had not been able to fully heal Donnie, any longer.

The Luchorpán’s voice was a little rough and ragged. He kept glancing down at the long tear in his kingly robes where the pale scar showed through. “What happened here? Did he get away again?”

Xedric nodded bitterly, quelling the flames that still licked over his wrists and forearms. “Somehow, even with all the horrible changes… it was still Hidduk. And I thought he was suspicious of me.”

“Heh.” Fogja picked herself slowly up from the corner where she’d tumbled down the sloped floor, leaning for support on the ridged wall of metal cables. She was battered all over, scratched and clawed. Some of her wounds leaked dark blood in lines, marking her like an unreadable page. “We were all suspicious of one or another at some point. I’m glad I… I’m glad it’s clear I wasn’t the one corrupted by the whispers.” 

Jorvald snorted. “Wrong-way Fogja might make a mistake or three.” Then he grinned, showing a gap in his teeth where one of the fierce claws had caught him. “But she’d never willingly fall to corruption or madness.” He hefted his axe, now streaked with ichor. “And she hits hard, too!” 

Xedric nodded, then swept past, pointing toward the next junction. “While we can, we must make progress toward that tower. Maybe we can escape before he attacks again.” 

Donnie held up one hand covered in rings. “Wait a moment.” As Xedric paused, curious, the Luchorpán screwed up his face, deep in thought. Sacriphisto, meanwhile, moved to Fogja and Jorvald to see what could be done for their injuries. 

As Xedric was opening his mouth to urge haste once again, Donnie spoke. “I think… no, I am fairly certain from the look I got atop the wall that we must turn right… and then left, and right again. It’s not that difficult of a maze, once you get a good look at it.” 

Sacriphisto laughed, a rare, strange sound from a Bean Sidhe, as green energy flowed between his ghostly hands over Fogja’s arm. “Heh, as I often say, only the foolish underestimate the cleverness of the little folk of the Tuatha Dé Danann Realm.”

Jorvald grunted in assent, and led the way onward through the winding, tilted maze, stepping carefully over the streamers of shadow. They seemed to be getting more frequent, and darker, as the Delvers made their way closer to the awful tower that speared up from the center of the maze. It was hung with many dark shadows of its own, pouring from the oddly placed and shaped windows, as if they spilled from the stairwell that climbed out the top of the tower and through the brown sky. 

Hidduk hunted them from the Veil, stalking through the maze by himself. “They deserve it, they deserve it,” the Veil whispered to him lovingly, or he whispered back. It was getting harder to tell. “They deserve it so well, so completely; this action is the poetry they need! I can smell the sharp scent of blood and guts, bowels clenching and loosening, saliva drying on cracked lips, fingers sweating and clutching, clutching the weapons that will do so little good when the time comes… You should know, you should know, and pay the Price!”

Wary, tense, wincing at their wounds, the Delvers reached the base of the tower, staying away from the shadows that spilled out to one side. There was clearly something odd, something wrong with the architecture, especially close up: the square doorway and the randomly-placed windows weren’t quite square after all, and seemed to stand straight up even through the tower leaned at such a crazy angle over the Tilted Maze. Above the entrance, there were words inscribed in a baffling language.

Fogja motioned Jorvald over, then wiped her hand with the ichor that still dripped from his axe blade. Stretching up with her giant’s height, she smeared the dark liquid over the stone-carved characters. As she expected, they bubbled and shifted beneath the blood, until the script changed to something readable. The Delvers frowned and glanced at one another, before quickly hurrying beneath the strange words and into the tower. The blood-script now read: “What do you hope to gain from your life, your existence, your knowledge, your understanding? You must consume in order to gain; you must ingest in order to live.”

Within the tower, there was a wide, awkwardly angled stairwell. Nothing else appeared to have been built: there were no landings, no living quarters, no apparent purpose to this place besides the tall stone stairs. Unless one counted the periodic windows, apparently made just to stare out into the dull brown light that seemed to go on forever in all directions, or to survey the labyrinth below. At each window there was a hook, tied with a number of shadowy streamers, hanging almost down to the ground like shrouds of long-forgotten dead.

An ominous presence filled the air inside the tower, layering over every surface like an invisible blanket of hungry dust.

“It is the will of The Depths,” whispered Donnie, jumping onto the first stone slab, as brown as the light outside. “It doesn’t want us to leave.”

As they climbed the steps of the tower, panting and bleeding as wounds reopened with the efforts, each of the Delvers was prompted to a flash of memory. It was difficult to tell where it had come from, this power of remembrance; but like the oppressive atmosphere, it was inescapable. They remembered the man, the Merchant that had come to them, long ago. Something he had said had hooked them, pulled them to this place; and it would take all they had to escape.  

Below, Hidduk hunted, following the trails they had left him. He came to the shadowed side of the leaning tower, where the black streams of shadow hung down from the strange windows. “I need to feel something… I am all alone,” said Hidduk to himself in his mind in the Veil. And so he reached out to touch something, and in touching, tried to destroy it; his closest companions, ones he had recruited to gain glory in this place that the wise old Merchant had so pleasantly suggested to him long ago. 

The Delvers were more than halfway up the tower when the Servant of The Depths caught up to them. Fogja was in the lead, her long legs making quick work of the broad steps; Sacriphisto followed her closely, while Donnie and Xedric were in the middle of the line, with Jorvald bringing up the rear. 

In the dull brown light, the Dvergr’s eyes caught a shadow at the window. Jorvald reacted instantly, hurtling up the steps and throwing himself in front of the healer and mage as a long black stinger burst in, its deadly arc descending. He tried to take the blow on his stones or even his axe, but there was only an eyeblink’s time to move in. Xedric threw up an arm and fell back shouting, while Donnie immediately jumped, making it up five steps in one bound. They both narrowly avoided the spray of blood and poison that painted the wall and floor. 

Jorvald still stood, snarling even as he wobbled. For a moment, everything was still, but for the droplets falling down his face. Then the stinger ripped out of his eye in another stream of blood, as Hidduk chuckled in triumph and swung back on the dark vine of shadow his claws held onto, ready to plunge in for the final blow.

Fogja, at the next oddly-shaped window further up the stairs, heard Hidduk’s chuckle outside the tower and rushed to the opening to see what had happened, holding the edge of the wall to stop herself tumbling out. She could see Hidduk swinging, his great black form with too many arachnid limbs, like a spider on its web. He was hanging on one of the streamers of shadow that attached… to this very windowsill, spilling out like a black rope. 

Without hesitation, she put aside her hammer and plunged her hands into the stuff. It was surprisingly solid, and felt like something slightly elastic, tied to a hook in the wall. Hidduk swung out, then back in, rushing claws open wide to rip out Jorvald’s throat. He cackled, his delight echoing through the tower and the passages below. It was so amusing, the sight of the Dvergr still standing and gripping his axe, grimly defending the other Delvers as he watched oncoming death through one good eye. 

Nervous fingers fumbling, sweaty, she finally managed to undo the knot, and the thing dropped away. The rope slapped and zipped across the stone, pulled down by the great weight of the creature that clutched it. Shrieking and yowling all the way, Hidduk fell, landing on the hard floor of the labyrinth below the tower with a tremendous crack and a splintering explosion of shadows that mostly hid him from view. His shrieking and thrashing continued, but whether these were his death throes or an attempt to climb the tower again, it was hard to tell. 

“Come on!” Sacriphisto shouted, pouring the last of his healing arts into the Dvergr to clear the poison from the gap in his skull. “Let’s climb, climb, climb!” 

Jorvald turned, touching the leaking hole where his eye had been. “Can… can you heal it?”

As they pounded up the stairs, legs aching, Sacriphisto snorted. “No… but if my magic works and the poison doesn’t kill you, you’ll have quite a scar.”
Jorvald grinned, showing his new gap-tooth as they pushed into the open, where the stairwell continued into the brown atmosphere free of the tower, upward and out. “That’s good, then.”


His vision rapidly fading as he lay and twitched upon the ground, Hidduk watched the specks of the Delvers leaving him behind, climbing the tall spiraling stairs that pierced the endless brown above. He felt The Depths reclaim him, to be used and reused forever. The Depths wasted nothing, especially not a corrupt soul. 

He recited the words that were whispered to him, that the Merchant had told to him when he left his fellow Delvers to be claimed in his first Raid. “This is existence, this is sex and gore and death and triumph. This is victory and blessed Gifts.” Metallic pipes sucked him down, making him one with the very fabric of this place. 

He licked his dry, bloodied lips and spoke on until there was nothing left. “Slowly, my skin begins to melt off my body. My eyes weep tears that burn my exposed flesh, and where they fall upon the ground, there spawn wriggling, blind things, hungry for suffering. The black shell that protects me is thickening, filling with the blood I have spilled. The whispers that chased me now abhorrently egg me onward, imprecations and songs of lustful bloodletting. I am of The Depths, its Servant forever. To all else, an Eternal Adversary…”
    
    
The rest of the Delvers made good their escape. The stairwell led them to a cave on the edge of the Stormlands, and to true sunlight at last. Donnie jumped for joy, Jorvald coughed with relieved laughter, and even Xedric smiled as the heavy presence and influence of The Depths faded from his mind. Blinking in the strong wind, the five survivors watched the dark crevice where they had emerged quickly disappear in layers of blown sand. No one made an effort to try and mark the place. 

They had come out on a hill of loose sand and scree, and in most directions there was nothing but the blasted landscape of the Stormlands, constantly torn apart by Veilstorms. However, on the horizon there was a clear green and blue line, marking the start of more habitable lands and the Realms that were their homes. 

Xedric was the first to break the silence. “Well, we lived. Despite Hidduk’s betrayal. Breath of the Frost Dragon, we did it!”

Tossing one of his crowns into the air, Donnie jumped to catch it. “And we found our rewards! At least, I found mine.”

Jorvald gently touched the open wound where his eye had been. “Aye, and a wonderful reward it is.” He grinned wide, belying his sarcastic statement. 

Fogja patted the Dvergr on the shoulder with one big blue hand. “Now, don’t be losing that famous humor of yours. I intend to tell everyone how you helped me discover secrets and destroy a great enemy! So, your glory will live on with mine.” Jorvald made an annoyed noise, and the Frost Giant laughed. 

The pale Sacriphisto stood solemnly, watching the sand blow until the last sign of an opening was gone. “We learned much, and saw many wonders and horrors.” He glanced up at the others. “We delved into The Depths together, and though we part ways now, we can forever say one thing is true.” 

“That it was definitely me who killed the biggest monsters?” Jorvald chuckled, wiping down his axe. 

Sacriphisto smiled back. “That we went on a great Raid to the darkest of places, and yet we returned.” 

Xedric nodded. “And there are very few who can say that.” 

Examining her punctured, dented, and disheveled armor, Fogja sighed. “I just wish we could have learned more about what really happened. With the Merchant, and our memories, and why the Cait… Why Hidduk became that thing. Was he planning it all along?”

“I truly don’t think so.” Xedric looked troubled, frowning at the plumes of dust devils that looked like smoke coming over the hill. He spoke slowly in his raspy voice. “I’d hate to believe a true Arthurian could fall to evil like that, but I think… I think we all felt the corruption seeping into us. Hidduk had been on a Raid to The Depths before. Something happened then, something that stuck with him, some secret taint that made him fall to the corruption first.” 

Donnie shrugged and made a sour face. “Or maybe he was just unlucky. I suppose I don’t think it needs to be so complicated. The way I see it, we had an adventure. We beat the dangers we could, escaped the ones we couldn’t, and got out with...whatever we managed to get out with.” 

The Dvergr grunted. “Maybe he made a sacrifice. Maybe he paid the price for us.” 

Sacriphisto pointed up at the swirling streaks of dust that Xedric had been staring at, siroccos blowing over the crest of the hill they stood upon. “There’s a storm coming. We have to get moving.” With that, he started toward the green horizon, and the others followed.  


Donnie became a famous storyteller, as well-known for his enormous wealth as for his tall tales, not to mention winning every local competition for high jumping. Sacriphisto returned to his people with great knowledge, a scholar and builder of a vast cathedral and hall of learning for the healing arts. Xedric rose to become head of his order for a period of time, known as one of the greatest and most powerful Flame Wardens ever to walk the Realms. Jorvald took up with a great many ladyfolk and earned great glory as the One-eyed Warrior, while Fogja took up residence in the icy peaks as a sage and keeper of many secrets. The two Vikings often met in years to come, and spent much of their lives debating who truly deserved credit for the demise of the Servant. A good-natured debate between friends, and more often than not, one that led to a competition to prove a point.

Few of them spoke of The Depths; or if they did, it was always to call it a bad place, a wrong place, a place they would never go again… unless, of course, it was for a very good reason.

This concludes the tale of The Great Depths Raid.

Bonus Image!

This small outpost under construction was created in C.U.B.E. by ProphetWtf. It’s pretty neat! 
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