Unveiled: Camelot Unchained Newsletter #27 - City State Entertainment
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Team Tidings

-by Max Porter

Hey folks, 

A happy end of October and beginning of November to you. If you celebrate Halloween, I hope you’re getting into the proper spirit! It’s one of our favorite times of year here at City State Entertainment™, and at least for our East Coast office, the trees are really turning brilliant colors as they put on their own “Fall Court” armor (of the Tuatha Dé Danann, of course). 

There aren't too many ways of saying it; this has been a really productive month in the push toward Beta 1. As you may have noticed in the past couple of updates, the User Story entries grew so numerous that Tyler was utterly swamped by them, and had to split ‘em up over multiple weeks! You can really see how things are getting dropped into the game build at a truly rapid pace, now that so much more of the backend structural pieces have been built. If you want to get right to reading about all the new stuff, head down to State of the Build, where Cory sums up a bunch of the progress. 

At the same time, we have not been neglecting to give you more in-depth presentations on certain important pieces of the developing game. For one thing, our most recent Bring Out Your Devs™ livestream in that series brought you a massive deep dive into the ability system for Camelot Unchained™, from Ben, Rob, Tim, and Marc. The discussion was quite involved, and so were the many questions answered on stream! On top of that, you won’t want to miss the important update on the Min Spec for Camelot Unchained that Andrew streamed, where he also answered a bunch of technical questions! Really, the airwaves have been brimming with livestreams from us of all kinds, from the lovely art streams to detailed programming streams and regular doses of lore from yours truly (and there’s a new installment of that further down)! With all this streaming, we’ve also stated simultaneously streaming to YouTube as well as Twitch, and all our videos are saved here and here

If you’re more the type who likes to read an in-depth piece rather than listen to it, you’ve come to the right place. Read on for art, articles, designs, lore, and much more goodness, and please enjoy this, the twenty-seventh issue of Unveiled

Hot Topics


The latest topics of discussion on the forums right now are the latest tests and the ongoing, friendly C.U.B.E. competitions!  

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

Look What You Did

Thank you so much to those who participated in our fan art contest for Gargoyle illustrations! We had two entries, and they’re both awesome, so here they are. First up, this dramatic entry from Necromaniak, with some of the inspirational text pulled from the Gargoyle Becoming™ story: 
"Unheard, Romain begged his old stone guardians, his mascots of the cathedral, to protect the children, caring nothing for himself. His blood poured from the open wounds in his back, and then right out of his pores as the supernatural thunder burst on him."
And next, this dark and gothic entry from Orkbane, along with some of the inspirational text from the Gargoyle Becoming™ story: 
A tiny girl grasped the statue that had once been Goji by the arm. She wept into his shoulder, instantly soaked by the whirling storm. The rain whipped at them, and she shrieked as her hair was twisted and pulled by the fingers of the wind.
Amazing stuff! Thanks again!

For our next contest, we return to the realm of fan fiction! In fact, let's make it a multi-Realm contest. Briefly describe the history of a place that all three Realms might fight over. What qualities might such a location possess? What draws each of the vastly different Realms to battle for it? How has such a place survived through the ages, or through so many battles? Use 250 words or less, post your entries in the thread you'll see pop up in the Fan Fiction section of the forums, and we'll pick a favorite to publish in the next newsletter! 

Thank You

Let the halls ring once again with a big thank you to Ludovic, who sent us duck humidifiers, duck soap, and a strange… duck… mask….Oh no!!!
A big thank you to Apollon, Backer and German translator, who sent us a package that we opened on stream! It contained an amazing collection of special coffees, gingerbread treats, and of course a stunning gingerbread heart, which we showed in a newspost! Here’s Tyler with the very last package of special coffee, about to make it in the pot.

Dose of Design

-by Ben Pielstick

Finding the Fun


A lot of the time and effort that goes into game development revolves around getting things into a basic functional state. In last month’s newsletter, I talked about how this happens during prototyping; taking ideas get from abstract concepts to working, playable systems, ready for testing. Now that we’re a month further along in our development, I thought this would be a good time to discuss the next step after getting the foundation laid for an important game system (such as combat), which is “finding the fun”.  

When the prototype version of a new feature makes its way into the game for the first time, it almost always still has a long way to go before being finalized and ready to ship. While a good prototype will accurately bring the core concept of a design to life for the first time, there are still likely to be a lot of details yet to be worked out, and many rounds of adjustments yet to be made before a feature really starts to bring about the level of enjoyment it was meant to.

Laying a good foundation has a lot to do with how easy or difficult this process is. This can be for many reasons; for example, modularity—to replace parts of a system with better ones without having to perform a total rebuild--or scalability, such as requiring a lot of optimizations to improve performance. As another example: Restructuring data sources to move from hard-coded values to a scripting or database-driven solution. An ideal prototype is one that can be built quickly, iterated on, and expanded easily. These attributes are often at odds with each other, however: Rough, inflexible systems are generally the fastest to build in order to see if an idea works, and throw out as little as possible if it doesn’t, while more cleanly written and readily extensible solutions tend to take longer, but can be more easily built upon when it comes time to iterate.

Iterating on game features, testing them, and iterating some more, is where game designers tend to spend a lot of their time. A lot of the fun that gets put into a game comes from the subtleties of layering details on top of a system that play the largest role in defining the player’s experience of the game. This includes things like revising audio and visual cues, adjusting balance numbers, and revising scripted responses to input. It is surprising sometimes how even small changes can make a big difference in the player’s perception of how fun the game is. Things like the number of footsteps a character takes per meter, the way a button highlights to indicate it is ready for use, or the volume of the sound effect that plays when a player initiates a certain action, can drastically affect how responsive and “fun” a game feels without even diving into far more obvious things like how much damage an attack does, or how long a spell takes to cast.

As you might expect, it can be a long and difficult process to analyze every aspect of a system and carefully adjust it to maximize fun, while maintaining harmony with all the other parts of the game. Abilities, after all, must be fun to play against and counter as well as to use against opponents, and effects that work well on their own also must work well in the chaos of a battle, where they get mixed in with lots of other effects happening all at once. This is why a lot of testing and multiple rounds of iteration are required, and why going from the first pass at a new system to a completed experience players will find a lot more fun takes quite a while. 

As of right now, we are nearing the end of our prototyping stage for combat in Camelot Unchained. The core ability components for each class have been scripted and are currently being tested. Very soon, our new system for providing audio and visual feedback to the client will be ready to let us play animations, sounds, and particle effects coinciding with the use of abilities built from these components. As the first time the system will be in place, this will give us our first look at combat gameplay as it is meant to be in Camelot Unchained. (Although, of course, many features and content will still need to be created.) This is a major step forward in the development of the game, but of course, this is only a starting point for trying combat out, seeing what parts are fun, and deciding how we can make them better. Likewise, we will also be paying close attention to what parts are lacking in fun, and deciding what we can change about them or how they could potentially be replaced. That’s how we’ll find the fun. 

We’re counting on those of you anxious to test the game to help us make these determinations, both by providing your feedback in polls and on our forums, and just by participating in our playtests. This will generate data for our metrics system, which we can look at to help decide where our attention is most needed. It may be a bit of a bumpy ride at first, as we hammer out the rough spots in our initial system prototype, but the more we adjust and add extra features to help improve the experience, the more polished and fun the game will become. We’re all very much looking forward to sharing this process with you as we continue to work toward a point where all the major parts of combat are ready for gameplay testing. Until then, keep an eye on our progress updates and any testing invites that go out, as we continue to make sure all the pieces coming together continue to improve every step of the way.

Developer Quote

  
  “You can swear on a stack of Luchorpáns that you will not need the latest and greatest system specs to run CU when it comes out.” - Mark Jacobs

Artitup 

-by Scott Trolan

Another wicked productive month by the art team. Lots of additions, corrections, and experimentations were added to the editor and the build. 

Dionne and Jon (Dijon?) are hitting their stride as they submit a mass assortment of Realm-unique weapons to the editor. Jon continues to turn his high resolution models into low poly versions for Dionne to UV, texture, and import into the editor. Our available weapon inventory grows more and more every day.
Last month, we added a new run and walk animation cycle to our characters. This month, Sandra took the existing run file and successfully repurposed it into a female run cycle. In addition, she animated a tastefully subtle swaying female walk cycle.
As new animations and the ability to equip weapons to the right or left hand have become available, corrections to the existing attachment markers in every animation file were required. That process is close to getting finished up, and we will soon see correctly-facing shields, axes, and asymmetrical sharp-edged weapons facing the right way when equipped and unequipped. Here I am working on shields:
Michelle has been concepting and providing additional art details and examples to Jon and Dionne as they texture weapons. She is currently working on designing new armor for the Tuatha Dé Danann Fall Court. 
Mike C. continues to prep his files for incoming improvements to the particle editor. Mike is also experimenting with new ways to reuse his existing VFX for faster prototyping and repurposing capabilities.
James K. has been wearing many hats this month. When not creating UI assets for the game, he has created and branded a new logo and motion graphic for our livestream segment “Bring Out Your Devs™
From the whole Art Team, we wish you a wickedly happy and safe Halloween!

Tech Central

 -By Rob Argue

Layered Arithmetic Expressions or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Math


How math works in games can be a tricky thing, where even subtle changes can have a large effect on the outcome. These subtleties can come from a number of places: How the math gets applied, screwing up order of operations, or even math from (otherwise unrelated) systems interacting. Since we are making a PvP game, this is one of the main things that min-maxing is born of: we need to be able to have a very good handle on the math in order to keep things balanced and sane.

Let’s do a quick word problem to look at some of the potential issues and complexities with a totally hypothetical example. Again, I repeat, everything in the following examples is completely hypothetical, and does not reflect real in-game abilities or values:

You have a base move speed of 10m/s. You have a +50% move speed buff from your swiftfoot boots, a +50% move speed buff from being on a road, a +50% move speed buff from a group haste buff, and a +50% move speed buff from being a werewolf during the full moon. What is your move speed?

This is a pretty straightforward calculation, but the answer actually greatly depends on how multiple buffs get applied.

If you add all the buffs together first then apply them you get:  10 * (1 + (.5 + .5 + .5 + .5)) = 30
But if you instead apply them one at a time you get: 10 * 1.5 * 1.5 * 1.5 * 1.5 = 50.625

Which is of course a HUGE difference (exponential growth is one hell of a thing). Clearly we want to generally avoid this sort of thing, but that can be hard to do when these systems don’t know about each other. The person designing the equipment was working independently from the person working on abilities, so how are they supposed to know that they should be adding their buffs together before applying them? Then the whole werewolf system didn’t get added until a year later, but now the person doing that needs to know about how both equipment and abilities work, and use those as well. If the code in each system needs to be aware of the code in each other system in order to work, then it quickly turns into a hot, unmaintainable mess. 

This becomes even more complicated when we decide that the road bonus should be applied after all the other bonuses to give us this:
10 * (1 + (.5 + .5 + .5)) * 1.5 = 37.5

And then you also gain the Wingfoot title, which gives you +5 move speed, but does that get applied:
Before any buffs?        (10 + 5) * (1 + (.5 + .5 + .5)) * 1.5 = 56.25
After the first set of  buffs?    (10 * (1 + (.5 + .5 + .5)) + 5) * 1.5 = 45
After the road buff?        (10 * (1 + (.5 + .5 + .5)) * 1.5) + 5 = 42.5

The worst case here is that it matters which order the buffs got added to the player (did they get the Wingfoot title before or after putting on their boots?), meaning that sometimes you get one number and sometimes you get another, but even when you manage to avoid that, it’s still complicated to get this right. When doing math with lots of operations and numbers, there is a good chance of screwing it up somehow, so much so that it is a fairly universal joke that one should strive to make an even number of sign errors in order to get the correct solution to a problem. And don’t even get me started on missing parentheses or how commonly order of operations gets messed up.

Basically, math is generally a giant pain to get 101% correct, especially when it has lots of pieces, and even more so when pieces are coming from multiple sources that don’t necessarily know about each other. Anything we can do to simplify this will reduce bugs and make balancing easier.

What we’re using to help with all this are what I’m calling Layered Arithmetic Expressions (LAEs). The idea is pretty simple: Have expressions which are completely order of operations independent, and then use a small number of layers of those to get control back over order of operations. This is the format that almost every number in the ability system exists in, so we can super easily add/remove buffs, modifiers, bounds, etc. to everything. As we go through using an ability, we accumulate all the math up into one of these LAEs, and then whenever we need the value, we evaluate it. This also works out to be great for debugging, because we can see WHY a number comes out to being a specific value really easily (and therefore can quickly adjust numbers as needed), which is something we hope to be able to allow players to access in the future.

The specifics of the math are:

For each layer
  1. Add all of the additive values together.
  2. Add all of the (normalized) multiplicative values together
  3. Apply bounds to the multiplier (this prevents things like resists causing negative damage)
  4. Multiply the results of 1 and 3.
  5. Apply bounds to the result (so we could theoretically have a universal speed limit, for example)
  6. Pass that value as an additive value to the next layer
Going back to our earlier examples now:

In the first example (with the four +50% buffs), we simply throw all of those, along with the base value, into the first layer, and we get the desired result. In our made up internal syntax, it would look like this (with labels underneath):
[Layer1 + 10] | [Layer1 * 1.5] | [Layer1 * 1.5] | [Layer1 * 1.5] | [Layer1 * 1.5]
      (base)         (boots)               (road)                (buff)           (werewolf)

Notice that the order of these operations doesn’t actually matter. For example, if the base speed gets moved to the end for whatever reason, like this:
[Layer1 * 1.5] | [Layer1 * 1.5] | [Layer1 * 1.5] | [Layer1 * 1.5] | [Layer1 + 10]
     (boots)          (road)            (buff)                  (werewolf)           (base)

It doesn’t actually matter; it will evaluate to the same thing. 

Oh wait, we wanted the road bonus to apply after the other buffs? Just put that in the second layer, done:
[Layer1 + 10] | [Layer1 * 1.5] | [Layer2 * 1.5] | [Layer1 * 1.5] | [Layer1 * 1.5]
      (base)          (boots)               (road)              (buff)            (werewolf)

No need to think about where to put it in, or what parentheses to use, like earlier--it just works.

And now for our Wingfoot title. We can control if it goes before any of the buffs by putting it on the first layer, before the road buff by putting it in the second layer, or after all the buffs by putting it on the third layer. For example, let’s put on layer 1:

[Layer1+10]|[Layer1*1.5]|[Layer2*1.5]|[Layer1*1.5]|[Layer1*1.5]|[Layer1+5]
 (base)         (boots)          (road)           (buff)        (werewolf)     (wingfoot)

Again, none of the mess we had above, just add it and be done.

Another great thing about the LAEs is that they can be combined painlessly, so we can do things like store all of the attacker’s damage math into one, and the defenders resist math into another, and then just smash them together and get the correct expression for how much this sword attack does against the guy wearing chainmail.

Overall, the LAEs are a flexible, straightforward system that seeks to minimize the amount of math minutiae that we have manage, allow for easy introspection, and all around reduce math bugs, which should allow us to avoid unintended explosions of numbers, and generally keep a better handle on balance.

State Of The Build

 -by Cory Demerau

Wow, this has been a busy month! A lot of big back-end projects came together in the last few weeks, allowing us to knock out several big features all at once. The biggest of these was a major upgrade to our netcode, which enabled a large number of things to be done much more easily/quickly. Skills are also making some major progress now that most of the core systems are complete, and we’re making a lot of progress in getting all of the abilities ready for each of the nine classes we’re planning on for beta. Whether it’s skills, warbands, lighting, or server performance, there’s something in this month’s changes for everyone. Let’s dive in!

Skills:

  • Added many more nodes for use in creating Skill components.
  • Skills can now be dependent on consumables. Archers can use arrows, Physicians use elixirs, etc.
  • The Stonehealer’s stones now have health, and thus can be destroyed by attacks.
  • Deflection effects no longer invert damage or healing. This means that if deflection brings the damage of an attack into the negatives, it won’t heal you.
  • Fixed some issues with Disruption (having your abilities cancelled by moving/taking damage).
  • Skills can now have Armor Penetration, making it more likely to defeat your target’s heavy armor and deal your full damage.
  • First pass of stances. For now, players automatically enter Travel Stance when they start the game. More stances will be added soon!
  • Fixed an issue with armor resistances.
  • Skill tracks have been implemented, allowing players to execute multiple skills at the same time.
  • Players can now use skills other than the ones they have crafted, such as from siege engines.

Warbands:

  • Fixed various bugs in Warbands, and improved their performance.
  • Warband leaders now have more options, and are properly displayed in the UI. If the leader leaves the Warband, another player becomes the leader. The leader can also give leadership to another player with the /makeleader command. Warband leaders can now /kick other players out of the warband, or /promote members to allow them to invite other players.
  • There is now a maximum size for a Warband (8 players).

Characters:

  • Fixed some issues that were causing regeneration values to not work/display correctly.
  • Characters can now receive traumas when they take too many wounds to a particular body part.

Server:

  • Fixed some issues that caused our script compilers to use way too much memory. This is a major gain in server performance.
  • The client now dynamically connects and disconnects to servers depending on which zones are relevant to their player. If a server comes online while you're playing and its zone is nearby, the client will connect and you'll see the zone pop in. Also, if you run far enough away from a zone that's in the distance, the client will disconnect from that server
  • Massive overhaul to our UDP network code that contains several benefits, including the following:
    • Codegen that automatically creates code for communication between the Game Server and Proxy Server. This generated code will eventually allow other types of servers, such as the Group Server, to automatically get data from the Game Server.
    • Several improvements to bandwidth usage in all areas used for skills, with enough generalization that non-skill systems can take advantage of it in the future.The network layer now supports the new entity-component model that we created for re-abilitation.

Client:

  • Fixed an issue with our code signing, so that Windows doesn’t complain that we’re unsafe for a few weeks after we renew each year.
  • Fixed a crash on startup.

Items:

  • Weapons now have stat requirements. If you fail to meet those requirements, you can still equip the weapon, but will not be able to use it for abilities.
  • Items now support equipping to one of several options of slots. This is currently used for any-handed weapons (that can go in either the left or right hand).
  • Weapon Crafting has been updated so that weapons are no longer defaulted to only being equipped in the right hand. Two-handed weapons now actually use both slots, and any-handed weapons can go in either slot.
  • Weapon appearance is now dependent on which realm you belong to, and each realm has a different set of weapons. Check out each realm’s unique swords and staves!
  • Added a server command that allows us to easily wipe items and regenerate the default items for every character, so we don’t need to wipe characters when items need to be reset.
  • Arrows are now properly treated as munitions rather than weapons themselves.

Crafting:

  • Resource Nodes can now exist in the world, and using /harvest while near one will cause a player to gain the appropriate substance (Note: None have actually been placed in Hatchery’s zones...yet)
  • Plots:
  • Fixed a bug that would cause plot information for the player to update only when another aspect of the player updated.

Graphics:

  • Enabled High Dynamic Range Lighting (HDR). This will make atmospheric lighting more realistic (the sky will be brighter while you’re in dark areas, and dark areas darker when you’re outside of them).
  • Fixed a driver crash on older nVidia cards.
  • Various improvements to the way we build particles will allow us to produce more interesting effects much more quickly.

UI:

  • Chat messages are throttled, making it less likely to freeze from too many incoming messages.

Lore Corner

-by Max Porter


We hope you enjoy this piece, the ninth 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, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth parts of the tale in the Lore section of our website, here.

 

The Great Depths Raid


Part 9: The Whispering Dark

Where does evil begin? In the heart, yearning for something it should not? In the hands, eager to do wrong? Or does the source lie in something else, somewhere else, a supernatural force that reaches out to clutch at the innocent, miring them and remaking them as Innocents -- No Longer? In the Depths, the questions are one and the same, for to exist in its dark, twisted reality is to lose all innocence in the face of its malevolent evil. 

The Delvers, pausing before the inscrutable gate with its mysterious, ancient writing, had begun to understand this truth. Transfixed beneath the Collector’s piercing, earsplitting screech from high above, they felt like wriggling, helpless insects skewered on a table. 

Or so the Collector assumed. As it turned out, spending so much time in this dark, dangerous place had raised all the Delvers’ nerves to the highest pitch. Even as he launched forth his wriggling metal coils of limbs and the Depths erupted with answering tentacles below, the Delvers moved to counterattack.

With one furious glance at the plummeting enemy, Jorvald swept up his axe, scarred from the battles already fought here, holding it in readiness to connect with the Collector’s strange metallic parts once more. He was bolstered at the same moment by a swelling power, a glow that shimmered about him and his weapon, increasing his destructive potential. 

The Human Xedric had already learned how far down he could fall and still be himself; there was nothing that could surprise him now. He sent curling flames hissing through the air, lighting the broad stone dais and the ancient, crumbling steps in a flare of orange fire. 

The Collector saw all of this in but a moment as he fell. The foul air rushed with him, teeth exposed in points of light, a cloudlike tangle of arms reaching, crushing, grabbing, all the rage and twisted hate of his existence coiled into twin springs. 

A twisting, metallic finger whistled by his head as Donnie leaned back to avoid the blow, eyes round and wide. He had attained what he had come for; now for the fun of escaping! The Luchorpán sent another hissing pulse of magic through the air toward Jorvald, as if to say, quicker than words, attack now! The magic rippled and expanded along Jorvald’s axe, making it shimmer. The Dvergr glanced down and grinned. 

Using some power unknown to the others, he caused the stone to shift beneath his feet, throwing him upward even as the attacks came crashing down. His axe, swinging with terrific force, smashed into an uncoiling cluster of the Collector’s limbs, exploding in such a shower of vivid sparks that for a moment he was hidden from view. 

Fogja, for her part, felt on the brink of understanding the secret she had sought in the Depths; that the mistakes of past battles meant nothing. Everything you know, everything you thought you understood, you have to let go; and in its place, you must write your soul anew, darker and harder, a shimmering gem through which the eye can view the truth. 

The frost giant twisted, her hammer slamming through the air and crackling with lightning. A thunderous rumble sounded as she hit home on a writhing coil of metal limbs that had burst from the ground at the Collector’s call. Her attack sent shockwaves of lightning and sound that splintered the metal and nearly destroyed the cluster of deadly cables. 

His way now clear, the Bean Sidhe Sacriphisto howled his own Dire Scream, and called forth the energies that kept his companions safe. He was finally certain; certain not of answers, but of his question. It was not the strength of their arms or their convictions that must be decided, but who they and the mysterious denizens of this place would become. Their identities and characters would be altered forever--but as servants of darkness, or its enemy? 

Forcing the healing influence to reverse its flow, Sacriphisto sent a ripple of power through the nearest limb that stuck down like a bolt of steel lightning from above. Empowered by the gleeful chaos of the living Depths, it shot up and through the Collector’s torso, reacting with whatever blood was left in his mangled body. A discolored liquid burst from the screaming figure, splashing against the great stone archway as he continued to come crashing downward. 

Hidduk slipped away, as if blown by the wind of the attacks into the shadows. He was far more used to being the ambusher than the ambushed, and he knew this quality of his alone had not changed; for it seemed that everything else about him had. That, he knew in his soul, is the darkest secret of the Depths. That through the horror, the touch of true, pure evil, a new and stronger soul can be made. Like hammers beating steel in a furnace, the thrumming heartbeat of our worst fears and desires forces a new shape, a new existence. 

When the creature hit the dais, his fury split the stone, making a great crack appear, and threatening to tip the Delvers from their feet. 

One of them, however, was steady enough on that surface to attack again. With a wordless roar in place of a battlecry, Jorvald lowered his head, and the stone along his shoulders and back lined up to form a battering ram shape, while he held the point of his axe forward to form a piercing nose. Then the Dvergr charged. Stone rippled and cracked where each foot fell, and as he rushed forward, stone seemed to rush forward with him like an oncoming wave, sweeping into a concentrated blow. 

Ramming into the enemy, already damaged and off balance, Jorvald managed to send the awful creature skidding over the stone, striking sparks and clicking. Gears and ichor alike flew from his wounds, and the screaming attack was cut short as the Collector managed to stop himself at the brink of the dark abyss. He turned, just enough of his mangled visage left to express desperation. 

The Collector’s torso teetered on the edge, shaking in twisted rage, shrieking and hissing without forming recognizable words. So loud was the cacophony that as his stone protections crumbled, Jorvald was forced to hold his hands over his ears, eyes almost crossing as the waves of vibrating noise washed over him. 

Once again, Hidduk told himself, it was up to him to strike the finishing blow. The Cait Sith sprang from hiding and spread his arms wide. Still recovering from the onslaught of attacks, the Delvers looked up in surprise as a hiss escaped their companion’s lips, his eyes glittering as he flew through the air. The shadows seemed to cling to him and peel away in dark waves, while his tattered cloak billowed behind him like the wings of a misbegotten angel. 

The Depths themselves seemed to propel him forward, and the howl of rage that burst from his throat, startling the enemy, covered the whistle of his daggers as they descended, flashing in the firelight. There was a shriek of metal on metal, and the click of gears rattling together. 

Shivering, the Collector glanced at the his ruined arms. They fell from his slashed and crushed shoulders, twitching. Unbalanced at the edge of the utter dark and the fall to the river, he leaned back on his central wheel. He had not failed. He smiled, and would have winked at his destroyer but for the bright edge of the cliff that rushed up and whisked the scene from view as he let it all go. The Depths would swallow him up, take him into its dark heart once again, only to be reborn for more exquisite pains and horrific delights. 

“There,” Hidduk grunted, panting with exertion as the Collector fell. “That’s the end of that. And now for new beginnings…” As he turned back to the others, there was a crash, far out in the shadows of the vast chamber, that echoed around and was met by further noises, whose source he could not yet see. 

The other Delvers picked themselves up and began to examine their newest wounds. Both of the heavy fighters, Jorvald and Fogja, had taken serious damage, and looked weary. Xedric was pale, still not fully recovered, if he ever would. Sacriphisto seemed nearly spent, his ghostly appearance faded and frayed at the edges. Even Donnie had not escaped entirely unscathed: He wiped away blood where it trickled from beneath his piled crowns, still miraculously perched upon his head. If they still meant to leave this place, they would have to do so soon.

The tall, blue-skinned Frost Giant gasped and pointed upward. “Look!”

Across the top of the archway, a smear of brown-black blood across the stone glistened, the vile fluid of the Collector. It appeared to be bubbling, while the deeply carved letters that had presented such an inscrutable meaning shifted across the tremendous bulk of curved stone.

Another loud explosion of sound made them all look away, up at the columns of glowing jars, which stretched on forever, mockery of the infinite stars that lay outside this nightmare realm. 

The stars began to fall. Not one by one but in streams, a flood of miniscule lights twinkling and tumbling down, growing larger. Some of the glowing jars collided in midair, dashing themselves and their contents to pieces, spreading and glittering in the dark. The flood of falling objects became a deluge, crashing and collapsing with a torrential noise as they fell down, down toward the watery abyss. 

“Time to go through the door!” Sacriphisto shouted, and floated up a set of the cracked and crumbling stone stairs that still stood.  

As if to punctuate his point, a jar crash-landed on the other side of the dais, exploding into glass, embalming fluid, and what seemed to be a torrent of small coins. Faces, grimacing or grinning, appeared from where each bit of old metal bounced and skidded on the stone. The faces were ghostly, flickering like flames. They howled and twitched in a macabre dance, mocking the poor lost souls. Then they stretched up, long long mouths wrenching in a silent scream, as, fading like smoke, the bits of memory contained in each collected item melted into nothing. 

Fogja refocused her attention on the writing above the tremendous stone doors. The carved sigils were finally slowing their bubble and shift beneath the discolored splash of the Collector’s blood. Then the Frost Giant’s jaw dropped. “Of course!” She shouted over the cacophony of the collapsing room as her companions ran up be behind her. “I’ve never seen it before--it’s blood script! I will remember...” 

“Is it the way out? Can you read it?” Hidduk shouted back, wondering if the doors would give way to a concerted push. 

He had an answer before she could respond. The writhing, scrambling characters froze, forming a new, short phrase beneath the stain of the Collector’s passing. 

It now read, plain for all to see: The price is One.  

There was nothing else. The stone doors swung inward of their own volition, revealing a shadow that Xedric’s flickering torchlight seemed unable to penetrate. 

The Delvers stared in wonder, heedless of the falling stars breaking apart the platform behind them. Like the petals of a dark orchid blooming, layers of shadow within the gate unfolded into a slowly spinning portal into the unknown. 

A long, glittering stream of stars threatened to crash upon the dais. Before the deadly projectiles could hit, the Delvers exchanged a quick glance. Then, they went in together through the broad doorway. 

Beyond, there was a passage made of darkness. The steps they found themselves climbing, the struts holding up the roof of the tunnel, everything--it was all made of some utterly black material that lacked proper substance. It was barely visible but for the crimson sheen that reflected their flickering torchlight like volcanic glass. 

“Well, this isn’t so bad… now, if that Merchant were to suddenly show up, I might get the creeps,” muttered Xedric, mostly to himself as he focused on lighting their way as best he could. 

Then the whispers began.

They came up from the cracks in the floor like the voices of the damned and all their demons, smoky twists of sound and tempting words. There was something absolutely hypnotic about the whispers, something that invited the ear to bemusement and confusion, a desire for more desire, a yearning for cupidity. Each Delver saw their companions shift and bend beneath their eyes, along with the floor beneath their feet, a sea of choppy waves in the solidity that was supposed to be stone. 

The whispers felt like an atmospheric force, a physical presence pressing in around them like tiny pinpricks insistently trying to seep through. The voices were speaking secrets, laughing to themselves, speaking in sibilant sounds of the many treasures left to find, the mighty riches and power still to be had within the Depths: songs of mistrust and misunderstanding.  

Still the Delvers pushed on, following the winding tunnel of black on black. They came at length to a crossroads.

In the shifting, uncertain nature of the passage, it was hard to tell exactly how many tunnels branched from here; Hidduk counted five. 

Jorvald stepped forward, peering down one branch and another with his silver eyes. His gruff voice could barely be heard over the rasping whispers. “It seems to me that all of these go to the same place. Also, this farthest path on the right leads upward, which is promising.”

Sacriphisto joined the Viking, blinking in the futile attempt to shake the shadowy haze from his eyes. “Come, friends. We have traveled this far together. Let us proceed the same way.” The Bean Sidhe motioned toward the right-hand path with one ghostly finger. 

As most of the Delvers nodded and began to follow, Hidduk paused. “You are right as usual, good healer. However, my tactics rely on stealth; it would do no good for me to enter through the same path. I shall take this one.” As he indicated the central tunnel with his curved dagger, the swirling darkness all around appeared to coagulate into quivering, unreal shapes, weaving and melting as they inexplicably clustered around the Cait Sith. The whispers grew louder, rising to a deafening moan that sounded like pain and delight in one. 

Fogja shook her head at the lithe, furry creature. “Come on, shorty. You don’t--you don’t want to end up going the wrong way.” She glanced away from Jorvald’s smirk, which in those conditions was hard to see in any case. 

Donnie beckoned as well, the stack of bangles on his wrist rattling sharply above the whispers. “You don’t want to get lost, now.”

Hidduk snorted at the shorter man, rolling his yellow eyes. “Please. Have you forgotten who among us has braved the Depths before, and survived where others could not? If a little Luchorpán can find his way through a side path and steal some treasure to boot, then so can I. It is decided: I take the left-hand path.” 

Hidduk glanced once more over his shoulder, eyes peering from within his hood, which in the strange light appeared to be leaking tendrils of shadow like tentacles. He nodded, and seemed to smile. Then he went through, vanishing in a moment. The rest of the Delvers were left to follow the upper path, together, and to arrive wherever it would take them. 


It was an evil place, a wrong place. Even for the Depths, it was a place of dark hallucination and nightmare. Not the center, but a centerpoint; not real, but all too deadly; not truly alive, yet utterly malevolent and evil. The place itself was a presence, weighing heavily on all souls. The pressure of the whispers mounted higher and higher, pushing on through the mind and into the core of one’s being to ask: What is your pleasure? What is your pain? What is your corruption?

Bonus Image!

We can’t let you escape without looking at a cool C.U.B.E. image! This mighty castle was created by KnightValor: 
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