Unveiled: Camelot Unchained Newsletter #29 - City State Entertainment
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End of Year Wrap-Up

-by Mark Jacobs

It has been a very interesting year here at City State Entertainment™. We’ve seen some great things happen, some good things happen, and of course, some not very good things as well. The good news is that even with the disappointment of not entering Beta 1 this year, we are, in so many ways, better off now than I thought we would be earlier this year. Now, that might seem just a little bit impossible, or worse, a case of spin-doctoring by me, but by now you folks know that I don’t engage in that. As to why I believe what I just said, it boils down to two decisions we made earlier this year: to refactor the ability system and to open a studio in Seattle, Washington. Both of those decisions had a huge impact on both the short- and long-term status of Camelot Unchained™ and City State Entertainment. 

First, in terms of the refactoring of the ability system, that decision has cost us a lot of time and money. OTOH, it was, and remains, true to the type of studio we want City State Entertainment to be, now and in the future. We could have taken the path of least resistance, lied to our Backers about the ability system, and pushed into Beta 1. While that would have seemed like a win for both CSE and our Backers, it would have been, in reality, nothing more than a giant chunk of pyrite. I’ve been in the position of having a game released before I thought it was ready. Fortunately, this time, we didn’t have the pressure from the “mother ship,” or internal pressure to release too soon. So we bit the bullet, swallowed our pride (and a whole bunch of refunds), and made the decision to do things the right way. And now, at the end of the year, we have an ability system that is customizable to a level that I’ve never had in any game I’ve ever worked on. It’s a system that we won’t have to scrap, ever. It will always need to be tweaked, improved, etc., but it is so customizable that it will serve Camelot Unchained and CSE for a long time.

Second, we made the decision to open a full studio in Seattle. While this decision was certainly not controversial on the outside, it was one that we have wrestled with for a long time. Fortunately, the stars and talent aligned nicely, and when they did, the other investor and I made the call to put more money into the studio to cover the additional, and considerable, expenses. As a result, over the last six months, the amount of code that our team has generated has picked up considerably, and as the new people familiarized themselves with our codebase, the rate has picked up even more. With another senior programmer joining us in January, we expect that to continue. 

Additionally, we are in the process of searching the Seattle area for the rental property to provide an office for the team (one of my to-dos when I was there). Once we have that, I expect we’ll be able to land a few other programmers as well. What this means to our Backers is obvious: a much-increased pace of production for 2017. To highlight this, here’s a Top Tenish list of things that we accomplished during this past year:
  1. Opening a studio branch in Seattle - This year, we made the decision to open up a full studio in Seattle. In the last six months, we have gone from one remote team member to six team members. We hope to grow the studio even more in the coming months. 
  2. Upgraded engine tech that now supports bloom, environment map based ambient lighting, PBR, HDR, HBAO, Showtime, Cinemax, etc. :) - While we always said that our game was never going to look as good as a AAA game using the CryEngine, I believe we surprised our Backers with how quickly the game’s look went from the late 90s to something from this decade. And fortunately, there’s lots more visual improvements coming as well in 2017.
  3. Upgraded visuals from the art team for biomes, armor, weapons, etc. - Our long-suffering art team has been chomping at the bit to improve the look of our game. Well, as you folks have seen, they have been doing just that over the last six months.
  4. The ability system: “We can rebuild it. We have the technology. We can make it better than it was. Better, faster, more configurable.” - Fortunately, this did not cost us six million dollars (especially in today’s dollars), but it definitely hurt our bottom line. The good news is that because of that, we now have a system that will be the basis of this game, as well as other games from CSE. 
  5. Big Bot testing blows through 1K requirement for Beta 1, passes 2.5K on its way to 3K - For the opening of Beta 1, we said we had to support 1K players on an island. Well, we blew through that, and at the same time, delivered on good framerates and exceptional client/server performance. I bet you can’t name another MMORPG that can handle 2.5K players in an area the size of our beachfront property. Well, we can.
  6. New animation system in development - Thanks to Andrew, we are well on our way to having a much more powerful and performant animation system. The first stage of that is in, and more is coming early next year.
  7. Multi-server tech - This is a really cool and quite powerful bit of tech that allows us to have totally separate physical Servers that can communicate seamlessly with each other. We’re showing it via “Island hopping” but it will also be used to allow players to fight between servers (invisible connections that players never notice) or even Servers (think of the original Westworld but with the Old West engaging with the Romans) if we should ever choose to have something as silly and fun and that.
  8. Stability, stability and more stability - Yeah, this has been a big one for us from day one. Our game is still more stable at this point than any other MMORPG that I have worked on before. And considering how stable Dark Age of Camelot was thanks to the great team that worked on that game, that’s pretty impressive. What’s even more impressive is that we are achieving that stability while refactoring the ability system and launching Big Bot tests.
  9. A Deal with Discord - We only announced this a few weeks ago, but it is already generating some nice buzz for the game both within the Backer Community as well as outside of it. We look forward to having a long and mutually beneficial relationship between our companies, and we will work together to give our user bases the best experience, tools, and power. 
  10. Lots of tool improvements in our editor and for general testing purposes - Okay, this is not sexy, but considering that our tools coding team is pretty much one guy, we are very pleased with where we are today. And while this may not be sexy, without tools, where would we be?
  11. Going to Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Seattle - Okay, this is a personal one, but connecting with old friends, meeting new ones, and having some great meetings was a big deal. Because, as always, who knows what may happen in the future? 
  12. Lots and lots of blocks - 4-5k building plots/buildings with hundreds of millions of blocks in a zone. That’s pretty insane for a true Alpha game, especially one that is not 100% focused on that. And next year, well, this is one area that will improve even more, a lot more.
As you can see from the list, we have tackled the hard problems now, rather than later, or even later-ish. :) For all the reasons above, as well as our overarching strategy of spending money on tech, rather than art or even gameplay, we have rewarded your faith/support with smart decisions and a strategy focused on long-term, rather than short-term, gain. And this coming year, as you participate in large-scale battles that dwarf those of other games, featuring our new animation system and greatly expanded VFX system, the world of Camelot Unchained, that world that you backed us to create, is going to unfold before your eyes.  

From everyone here at City State Entertainment, we wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Festivus, etc., and most importantly, a safe and happy New Year. Personally, 2017 can’t come soon enough!

Team Tidings

-by Max Porter

Hey folks,

Happy holidays, happy December, and happy new year! It’s been a good month to close out a solid year of development on Camelot Unchained. We’re publishing our newsletter a bit early this month, as we are out of the office for a holiday break starting at the end of this week, until the start of next year. Therefore, some parts of the newsletter might seem a bit abbreviated, with this shorter month, but not to worry: it’s still a pretty decent size. :) 

Recently, we announced our plans to integrate Discord into Camelot Unchained for in-game chat and voice, which is pretty darn exciting. You can find the announcement here, and more information in JB’s explanation in the news post, here

Among many other cool game development streams that you can find on Twitch or YouTube, we also recently streamed introductions to folks in Seattle. As we always try to provide additional information and details for you folks, here are the brief bios of three awesome programmers who have joined the Seattle team:

Brad grew up in rural Idaho! After graduating with his 23 classmates, he started college and wildland firefighting as a summer job. He quickly realized he enjoyed firefighting and playing MMO's more than college, and focused his attention on those. After several years, Brad attained a cloak of +wisdom, and decided it was time to finish his degree. He moved to Seattle, finished college, and went directly into game programming. If you can't beat them, join them!
Colin grew up in the Seattle area, where he could always use the rain as an excuse to stay inside and play video games. His passion for games grew into a passion for computers and programming, and he attended DigiPen to become a game programmer. Colin has done game programming for about 10 years, usually focused on writing networking code. He enjoys exploring various areas of programming and technology, and spends countless hours playing with electronics and doing cool things with LEDs.
Computing and gaming got their hooks in Matt early, thanks to a school computer and a copy of Warcraft II. After graduating from UMass Amherst, Microsoft summoned him to the PNW to train in the secret ways of C#. Enterprise software eventually wore him down, and after a stop at free-to-play mobile, he's thrilled to be making the kind of games he's always loved. When not playing computer and tabletop games, Matt occasionally goes outside.
Thanks, guys! These awesome folks have already been adding enormously to development of the game, and we’re looking forward to still more excellent progress. The future is a bright one, and all of us here at City State Entertainment are eager to share it with you all. 

Please click the “view this email in your browser” button at the top right to see the whole newsletter! Read on for articles, art, updates, fun, humor, lore, and warm thoughts, and please enjoy this, the twenty-ninth issue of Unveiled

Hot Topics


The latest topics of discussion on the forums right now are roads and rvr, killing healers, and coordinating testing, meetups, and the like.  

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

Thank You

Many thanks to the awesome folks over at Discord, with whom we are partnering up for chat and voice in Camelot Unchained! As above, you can check out the announcement about Discord integration here. However, now we’d like to thank them for sending us these awesome t-shirts! 
Very stylish! Thank you!

Look What You Did

Many, many thanks to those who joined in this month’s fan art fun! It’s always amazing to see what you folks come up with. This month we’re showing off this colorful piece by Bevie: 
Badass and spectacular. 

For our next contest, let's bring back an oldie but goodie. Write up a holiday that might be celebrated by your favorite Realm, or a scene from such a holiday. Post your piece in 250 words or less in the thread you'll see pop up in the Fan Fiction section of the forums. We'll read 'em and pick a favorite to publish in the next newsletter! 

Dose of Design

-by Ben Pielstick

Concluding 2016


As we close out another calendar year, the emphasis here at CSE continues to be on getting Camelot Unchained ready for the opening of Beta 1 testing. As you can see from our frequent updates to our User Stories page, we’ve completed a large portion of the tasks on our core and extended checklists for Beta 1, but there are also a considerable number yet to be completed. From a design standpoint, the biggest feature set not yet in a Beta 1 ready state is combat. I’ve talked about our ongoing efforts to rebuild our ability system in multiple previous newsletters, but combat as a whole also requires several other features to be ready for Beta 1 testing. These include weapons and armor, functional player stats, banes and boons, and a number of audiovisual feedback systems, from sounds and animations to ability buttons and icons in the user interface.

At this time, each class has access to a range of around thirty starting components, from which they can construct abilities, including those for melee, magic, archery, shouts, and stances. This list of components has undergone an initial round of functionality testing, and continues to grow and receive bug fixes and feature enhancements as development on the ability system continues. No real testing can begin in terms of discovering how much fun using them with our new classes is, however, at least until other supporting features are further along.

Right now, as we run around and use abilities internally, characters play a default run animation, which I hope you’ll agree is greatly improved over what we had implemented a year ago.

Before:                                                      After:
This is one of the only animations that plays in the game right now, however, as the functionality to fire off animations along with ability activation is not yet ready. The animations themselves are ready, so as soon as the code for ability animations are in place, we will start hooking them up, and characters will be playing animations for things like swinging swords and casting spells soon after. Likewise, the features to play sounds and visual effects with abilities aren’t in and finished yet, which means the feedback I and playtesters receive from ability activation for now is primarily text output to the system console.
As you can see here, the ability effects are all working properly, they just aren’t being conveyed in the actual game world yet. Hooking up the visuals and sounds are much smaller steps than getting abilities working in the first place, but sounds and particle effects will definitely will make a huge difference when it comes to playability. 

We can also see the results of what is happening to players in combat through the updates to the character status HUD element, which displays blood, stamina, and health levels for each of a characters’ body parts. While the styling is still very basic, this part of the HUD has been revised to help convey the resource and damage state of player characters more clearly.
As you might notice, some previously non-functional elements for additional resources, such as panic and temperature, as well as placeholder icon slots for buffs and debuffs, have all been removed. These indicators will make their way back into the UI eventually, with buffs and debuffs being the most important, since these effects are already functional in the game. The resources and functionality behind panic and temperature have not yet been implemented, and will be added back in at a later time.

As far as weapons and armor go, we now have ready nine to ten different melee weapons, unique bows and arrow types, and medium and heavy armors with unique stats and models for each Realm. Light armor is also modeled, and still needs its own set of defensive stats implemented. However, armor in general is in a somewhat temporary state, being converted from how it is presently hard coded, to a data-driven system similar to the one already being used for weapons. Along with some additional work on crafting properties, this will also make it possible to craft armor with different stat variations based on alloy types and qualities used. Once armor is data-driven, it will be relatively easy to assign the proper stats to light armor, as well as add more variety to the range armor values available. To really feel the difference between lighter and heavier armors, however, we also need more player stats to work, such as encumbrance, which will slow down heavy armor users. Some of the basic primary stats like Agility and Vitality already provide bonus movement speed and health bonuses, but there is still more work on stats that needs to be done to get the rest of the player stats working as they should.

So, as you can see here at the end of 2016, a lot of our big, critical features for opening Beta 1 testing have already come together. There are still quite a few outstanding features left to be finished too, but many of these are already in progress. Although it may seem like there are a lot of unfinished features, most of these are smaller in scope than the larger, and more technically difficult, tasks we have already completed. As far as combat goes, once a few more critical pieces come together, we will be able to start developing and refining the look, feel, and game balance of the classes and their abilities, in order to get them ready for the first stage of Beta 1 testing. You can definitely expect to see our test frequency ramp up, along with a lot of new screenshots and videos, as more combat features are completed and the start of Beta 1 testing approaches, so keep an eye on our updates as we move on into 2017. To those of you who have been patiently waiting now for much longer than expected, thank you for continuing to support us through this year, and we look forward to making sure your patience pays off with the progress we’re able to show you over the new year ahead.

Developer Quote

  
  “We are certainly trying to keep our Backers informed about everything that is going on with the game's development, good, bad or meh. Sometimes it bites us in butt, and we get refund requests, and hate mail. Other times, we get new Backers and kudos from our current Backers. I'm sure most companies would disagree with our approach, but the heck with that, we'll keep doing things our way until Camelot Unchained is released.”
--Mark Jacobs

Artitup 

-by Scott Trolan

2016 can flat out be summed up as a whirlwind of a year. Reflecting back to this time last year, we were just starting to prove successful game art pipelines and beginning concrete steps to define the look of our game. Here we are now, one year later, and I couldn't be prouder of everyone's efforts in making Camelot Unchained shine, thanks to all our efforts and George’s amazing work and implementation of HDR lighting! 

In my admittedly biased opinion, the world art is stunning. The armor, weapons, and supporting textures are so unique and masterfully detailed. Ultimately, it is the end result that is truly admired, but these results are all due to great concept art done here. For anyone who follows these newsletters and our updates, you already know how amazingly strong these concepts are, but it would be difficult to overstate how vital they are to us. They have served not only as inspiration, but to set foundations and a clear direction to follow. I couldn't be more proud of this team. 

However, we know our work is far from done. We have so much work ahead to implement and expand upon in the next few weeks and months. 2017 will undoubtedly be a year full of accomplishments to be even prouder of. 

We want to thank you and the entire CU Community for all of your support, encouragement, and honest feedback on all that we do here. From all of us here in the CSE Art Team, we wish you a Merry Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Yule, Omisoka, Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and a Happy New Year!

Tech Central

 -By David Hancock

Letter from the Knights of the World Weavers 

As a special treat, we have Dave’s latest high fantasy take on a Tech Central article, written as a knight’s letter to his liege, where our engineers are world-weavers.

Letter from the Knights of the World-Weavers

To our most humble king,

The days grow short as we wrap up another year on the grand quest, and temperatures have plummeted around our castle in the once-verdant urban expanse of Fairfax. It has been a fruitful year for our valiant code warriors with the founding of our second castle to the west, which has aided our efforts and provided a much-needed boon to the numbers of our order. While the passing of this year has included some setbacks on our epic quest, it has been a bright one for the order as a whole, and we hope the Veil’s own luck shall stay with us as we move forward into the new year.

This year has seen a massive improvement in the weaves used to bring our world to life, with the lighting of our world taking a large step forward, along with many other changes that have brought us into a more performant and far more vibrant world, with a significantly larger range. The warriors responsible for this effort have worked to streamline this process, and have also worked tirelessly to prevent a weave shock, in which one is violently ejected from the world we are crafting. This effort is ever ongoing, but this past year has seen many fundamentals of the weave finalized, as we move toward the glorious completion of our quest.

While the weaves governing the visualization of the world have been making strides, our warriors have been fighting equally strong to improve the foundations of the flow of magic through the weave to the central conduit of data, indeed the heart, of our very world. These optimizations and improvements have brought the amount of data down, improved latency, and brought us back to a state where thousands of users can be communing with the ley lines and tapping into the weave we have crafted at any given time. To test this, we have used grand artificing to create devices which connect to the ley lines and pull at the heart of the weave, stressing it to an extreme in the same manner as users.

As you were already made aware many moons back, the system which had once allowed you to use abilities within our world was weighed, measured, and found to be wanting. As such, many of the knights were dispatched to solve this issue. It is with much pleasure we can report significant progress on this front. The system has matured and evolved into something that meets the needs of our grand quest in a way we never could have achieved in months past. The fruits of this labor should hopefully become visible to more users as we move into the new year.

There are many more points we could talk of, but the last of which I would mention, my lord, is that the founding of the second castle has been a great windfall for the order. By tapping a new set of talented world-weavers in the western part of the kingdom, we have been able to expand our ability to move forward on our grand quest both this year and in the next. This, along with perseverance, shall push us ever forward toward the next step in completing our objective.
 
With the greatest respect to our king, on behalf of the lord protector of my order,
Sir David, member of the Knights of the World Weavers

State Of The Build

 -by Brittany Aubert

Brittany’s jumping in to write this month’s State of the Build! Her bio and introduction are above.

Even though the year is winding down, we at CSE are still chugging along at a steady pace. Bot testing and overall network performance has been a major focus. We have also been making forward progress on other areas as well. Check out the notes below for some of the fixes and improvements we’ve made in the last month. 

Animation

  • Our animation system updates are getting integrated into the code base. We've made a lot of interface changes and adjustments to how resources are loaded, so updates are going in incrementally to ensure we break as little as possible.

Physics

  • We've exposed more physics metrics to aid in debugging. 
  • Position now writes a delta position for z when players are on the ground. This reduces the packed size by about 15 bits. 
  • Changed resolution of R-Tree heuristic. The idea of R-Trees is to group nearby objects and represent them with their minimum bounding rectangle in the next higher level of the tree. So if a search does not intersect a bounding rectangle, it can't intersect any of the contained objects. Doing this gives us a performance boost.
  • Laid the groundwork which will enable us to run physics in a separate process from game logic. This will enable us to better scale, reduce interactions between manage and unmanaged threads, and reduce latency of physics data from the server to the client (resulting in the client having smoother and more up-to-date position information). 

Server:

  • While testing lots of bots, we noticed spikes of major delays at consistent intervals. This was due to in part to the way C# does its garbage collection. This was extremely hard to track down. We’ve solved this! A huge thanks to Marc, Tim, and Rob for spending the time to dig into this one. 
  • Database queries when adding or re-spawning players were slowing us down. Not anymore!
  • Player saves no longer grow with relation to time, only with the number of players.
  • The server's memory allocator has been reconfigured to take advantage of more of the memory and cores available to it; resulting in generally smoother operation.
  • Server to Client message queuing - We optimized one of the ways that messages get sent to the client which should reduce latency on these messages and improve overall server performance.

Tools:

  • There were a few cases where the editor was throwing false positives, making it seem like assets were broken when they weren’t. These false positives have been addressed, so our artists can more accurately tell when an error occurs. 
  • We’re in the process of adding a tagging system in our editor, which will allow for robust filtering and quicker iteration. 
  • Saving a celestial body now triggers a build for reals.

Rendering

  • We found a potential fix for a difficult-to-reproduce GPU crash. Plus made a significant reduction in the length of time any individual thread will spend in a shader.
  • We’ve made changes to no longer render characters into cubemaps or into shadow cascades beyond the first two.
  • Particle rendering is being worked on, with the goal of a 50x performance improvement to support 1k player battles!

Banes and Boons

  • Basic stacking support. Core infrastructure implemented for expressing how effects should stack when being applied.
  • Initial support for charges. Much like stacking, the core infrastructure is in, and tracks the number of charges an effect has.
  • Lots of supporting changes to make traits easier to write and read.
  • Significant overhaul of how timed active effect duration and removal works, so that multiple effects ending at the same time all get bucketed into a single update action.

Misc:

  • GenAbilities.cs was getting to be super long. We split up the beastly file. This doesn't have any run-time impact, but makes it easier to work in ability code.
  • Reworked drowning and removed all active effects on death to avoid unintended behaviors. "Rework drowning" is one of those weird phrases that makes sense in game development, but would be odd to see elsewhere.
  • We save the version number on a player, so if we update data we know not to clobber data that is still relevant. 
  • CSE_WARN is a function that allows us to throw errors when specific cases occur. Andrew went in and simplified it, so it’s much easier to use. 
  • Abilities triggering sound effects are starting to make their way into the codebase. You could say abilities and sounds are living in “harmony.” :D  

Lore Corner

-by Max Porter

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

 

The Great Depths Raid


Part 11: Rush of Shadows

The looming, awful tower watched unmoving as the tiny figures of the Delvers began to make their way through the titled maze. It had seen many come this way, but very few that managed to climb its stairs and leave this place behind. The other presence here, one of gleeful destruction and horror and service to this place, made sure of that. The newest servant now crawled, scuttled, and ran invisibly through the shadows of the labyrinth that surrounded the tower. Beneath the dark eye of its upper window, the scene spread out with a byzantine poetry of horror, creatures converging in the murky brown light that had always been here, closed loop of eternal evening spiraling on forever. 

Creeping along cautiously, Xedric curbed his natural desire to run headlong down any pathway that seemed to lead toward the awful leaning tower that overlooked them all. His years of training, and yes, years of mistakes as well, had taught him to redirect his desperate eagerness into the bright twisting flame that now brightened the insufficiently lit corridors. Hanging tapestries of shadow that curled over the walls shimmered and wriggled in the light, but refused to fade or disappear. 

The Arthurian Human looked over his shoulder, his eyes aglow with an amber light, watching for his companions. He was not sure if they yet understood what was going to happen, what the whispers had meant when they tempted them, what the blood script meant when it spoke of the Price. When he spoke, he kept his harsh voice soft, though it rasped at the edges with the fire that burned inside the Flame Warden. “No enemies around this corner. Approach quietly, friends, for I don’t like--”

“Coming, flame-man!” Fogja called, lifting her enormous hammer in her powerful Jötnar’s hands. “Ah, the secrets we’ve seen this day… or night… or whatever time means here…” 

“Breath of the frost dragon!” Xedric swore, spooling the long streamer of flame between his fingers. “Don’t you have any concept of stealth?”

The giant looked down at him disdainfully. “That’d be Hidduk’s job, not mine. And where is that furry shortie, anyway? Shouldn’t he have rejoined us by now?”

Sacriphisto answered her, floating around the corner with his hands ready to mount a defense against sudden attack. It could come from anywhere in this strange and tilted labyrinth, where the eye was constantly baffled and deceived by living shadows. “Perhaps there is something that blocked his egress by a tunnel similar to our own; however, before our noble leader left us, didn’t he say something about his tactics requiring stealth?” The Bean Sidhe paused, waiting while Xedric sent forth his twisting streamer of flame to light the way once more. “I think he meant to join us just in time to ambush our enemies.” 

“Ha! Noble leader indeed.” Jorvald thumped heavily forward. Though the Dvergr warrior had many cracks and chips in his stones from his battles here, those would soon be renewed. “I consider him no leader at all, just a...gatherer, of sorts, getting all of us Delvers together. And here we are, ready to fight our way out! Cracks and grime to that Merchant, wherever he may be.” And with exaggerated bravado to show the shadows he was unafraid, Jorvald tossed his axe up, spinning in the dull brown light. 

“Gathering us? Ah, like one might gather finery and gold…” The mellow, pleasant voice was amazingly relaxed and surprisingly… high up. Jorvald stopped in his tracks and looked up to see Donnie high overhead, watching as the axe spun its way back down to the Dvergr. The little Luchorpán was walking along the top of one of the high walls, picking his way with a soft jingle over the twisted metallic tendons and cables. Nonchalant, Donnie paused to examine the heavy rings on his long fingers in the dull brown light that seemed to have no source.

Xedric stared up as well, his mouth a little open. “How did you…? How did you even get up there? Why did you get up there?”

Donnie shot him a disdainful look, although at that height it was a bit difficult to tell. “In answer to your first question, practice and skill. In answer to your second…” The Luchorpán spread his arms, making his bracelets jingle, and looked around him. “I have all the advantages, up here! I can see the other passages, into places you cannot.” for a moment Donnie’s face blanched, and he gave a little skip to avoid a writhing mass of shadowy membrane that lay over the top of the wall and threatened to block his path. Then he pointed with one long index finger toward the junction where Sacriphisto now hesitated, his Tuatha Dé Danann robe swinging. “For example, I can now see that the left-hand path leads to a dead end. Hoi, healer! Turn right, there.”

Xedric ground his teeth. “Without the Cait Sith, we seem to have turned into a troop of fools.”

“Ha, he was too cautious anyway. Slowed us down,” Jorvald snorted, having caught his axe expertly once more, without gaining any new scars from it. He thumbed the edge of the fine weapon, its surface now marred a little, scratched and slightly nicked by the Collector’s weird metal. He’d have to see if he could find a Crafter who might experiment a bit with that when he got out. The Dvergr looked up at the fuming Xedric and grinned. “A Viking’s way is better. You, Human, told us the Merchant brought us here… let’s get on out, then!” 

Sacriphisto turned and smiled wryly before taking the right-hand passageway, narrowly avoiding some trailing strands of shadow. “Come, Xedric. We all needed a moment of levity to relax. Donnie, you’d best get down from there. You’re going to bring every creature here on us.”

“Or up to me, right?” Donnie stifled a laugh at his own joke, and continued to pick his way along the top of the wall, above the tunnels that the others had to crawl through. He paused, about to make another joke, as he noticed the tendrils of shadow quivering. Not shaking in Xedric’s illuminating firelight, but trembling as if in fear or excitement at his approach. Or perhaps the approach of something else. “Uh, everyone? I think something’s--” 

The Luchorpán would never finish his sentence, as something shadowy rushed up the side of the wall on silent limbs and smote him a terrible blow. He was barely aware of an awful hissing sound, a muted clicking, sharp pain down his side, and then he was falling, falling to the floor. The Luchorpán landed with an audible thump, and bounced, awkwardly trying to roll with his quick reflexes on the uneven floor. 

“Agh!” Donnie clutched at his leg and side, feeling damp staining through his fine clothes, now slashed ragged. 

Jorvald, who was nearest, stepped forward and lifted his axe. “Come on, then!” he shouted, but his challenge seemed to go nowhere in the heavy, brown-laden air. Whatever it was that had attacked had become visible at the moment of its strike, but had dropped back down behind the wall again before the Dvergr’s silvery eyes could detect more than a furry mass. 

Donnie shuddered, clenching his teeth as he clenched his hands over the long wound. “Ach, sorry brother… I’ve let you down…” 

Jorvald glanced briefly at the Luchorpán, but maintained his stance as Xedric and Fogja both whirled at the end of the hall, just before the turn, and began to rush back. The stone-boned man kept his harsh voice quiet. “Well, I suppose there’s one reason not to walk atop the walls… What was it?”

The Luchorpán glanced up, then back down. “I don’t know just how it happened...I let down my guard… He came from the shadows.” Donnie felt a bit mesmerized by the sight of his injury. Blood trickled from the wound, a warm gush over his skin. It flowed in a stream down to the floor, which rippled with faint dark smoke and gobbled up the crimson liquid.

Seeing the red liquid, Fogja paused in her run to return, electric power crackling over her knuckles and forearms. “Hold a moment. We need the healer. Sacriphisto…? She looked back, her helmeted head swiveling to where the Bean Sidhe had turned the corner. 

Xedric didn’t pause, pushing past the massive Frost Giant in his hurry. “Find and protect him. I’ll cauterize the wound if need be…” 


At that moment, Sacriphisto was only barely aware of the sounds of his companions. He was more focused on the strange new life he had discovered. These quivering shadows seemed to react to his presence. The Bean Sidhe was just reaching out one ghostly finger to touch, when a strange noise made him pause and look up. “Who’s there?” 

The thing rounded another corner of this weird maze, scuttling to maintain its grip on the slanted floor as it heaved its strangely sleek bulk onward. The black, furry thing made ever more disturbing noises as it came closer, a long black tail curved high overhead. 

For a moment, Sacriphisto, Bean Sidhe and survivor of great terrors and tortures, was frozen in horror himself. This was new life… but twisted and wrong, so wrong and and so frighteningly fitted to the motions and atmosphere of this place. So fast was the thing that it stood before him and reared up on a pair of its far too numerous legs before the healer could do more than gape in frozen astonishment. 

The smell hit him first, a musky reek of fur, shell, blood, and an unnatural, chemical miasma. In appearance, once it was visibly distinct from the shadows that constantly trickled and edged toward it, the thing was immediately recognizable as twisted from the form of some other creature, a true servant of the Depths. In shape, it was something like a cat and a scorpion… yet, awfully, so much more than that. To look at this creature was to taste madness. 

He saw rows of eyes, nipples, pierced and encircled by strange metals, lips that moved constantly as though muttering strange curses struggling, grasping fingers, a hundred putrid sores leaking their fluids along his heaving musculature. The slickness helped the segmented limbs wriggle silently through, bulk scraping past the thrumming shadows, which themselves urged the creature onward. Sleek black fur, oily-looking and matted, stuck out from rigid segments, gleaming black chitin that appeared to have pushed through the skin, armoring the body all the way up the tail. This piece of anatomy curled high overhead, full of tension and deadly power, ending in a lump and a long, cruel stinger. 

As if to show itself off, the creature spread multiple arms full of claws that clicked and scraped together, apparently still changing before Sacriphisto’s gaze. The eyes all blinked in unison, and stared down at the Bean Sidhe with a twisted sort of affection. 

At last, Sacriphisto caught his breath. Floating just above the ground, he tried to inch back toward the turn, keenly aware of his allies just around the corner. “Is that… Hidduk? You… you of the noble Cait Sith?” His voice quavered slightly at the end of the question, and the Bean Sidhe’s normally inscrutable face, reacting slowly, took on an expression of shock and horror. 

Pulling themselves open like wounds, new mouths spread over the thing’s armored abdomen, gushing crimson before they spoke. The thing’s voice was freakish, incongruously high-pitched like the caterwaul of a lost thing in the night. It stuttered, hesitating as it aped Hidduk’s voice, yet now not at all like the elegant speech or powerful grace of a Cait Sith of Arthur’s Realm. “At l-last, you can join us, friend! It-it’s wonderful, a b-blessing. Give in, g-give the Depths what it n-needs, pay the One Price, and you can at last g-gain the G-Gift.”

To punctuate these words, the highly-tensed tail struck down in a blink. But Sacriphisto was already running, speeding to the turn that led back to the other Delvers. Desperately he cried, “It’s Hidduk! He’s--horrible--he serves the Depths!” 

Hearing this, Fogja was torn, caught between rushing to help one friend or another. “How did we come to this so quickly? What has rushed us from the shadows?” 

Thus ends part 11. 

Bonus Image!

This astonishing Cathedral of the Seventh Star was created by Heartfyre, and we can’t let you go without showing it off! 
Happy holidays, everyone! See you in the new year! 
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