Unveiled: Camelot Unchained Newsletter #23 - City State Entertainment
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Team Tidings

-by Max Porter


Greetings all, and happy end of June! A really great month has passed us by, with tons of announcements, achievements, and lots of progress on Camelot Unchained™. 

The biggest changes in the office involve people. Next to me, Jenesee’s desk no longer contains our beloved CM, as she is saying farewell both to the studio and to her intense commute. I’ll just say it’s been a pleasure working with her on these newsletters, and point you toward more from her below! On the other hand, just behind me, we have two new programmer seats filled, and just beyond them, the television where we video conference with another two new folks on the other coast. Across from me is one of our two summer interns, Jules. You’ll be seeing more of her during the “Streamy Hot Summer” livestreaming the studio is going to begin tomorrow! Our busy little office has become even more so, and it feels great. 

With the warm weather have come thunderstorms, and with thunderstorms has come plenty of inspiration for the whole team, as the real world matches the one in the lore of our game. When thunder rumbles above, many of us rush out to our covered balcony to watch the downpour and feel the power of the elements. (Believe it or not, as I was writing that sentence, that’s exactly what happened! City State Entertainment™ is an exciting place.) It’s part of what makes downtown Fairfax, VA so beautiful, as greenery brightens the landscape. You may have seen the landscape brimming with greenery in our game as well, of which our environment artists are quite rightly proud!

As always, your faithful editor and lore-keeper urges you to check out our full newsletter (hint: click "View this email in your browser" on the top right), so crammed with articles, stories, thoughts, and news, not to mention detailed patch notes, informative essays, and dramatic lore. Please read on and enjoy this, the twenty-third issue of Unveiled

 Updates

Hey folks, next month, instead of an Updates section, Mark is planning to start doing a full State of the Game article in the opening of the newsletter! It’s something he came up with originally for Dark Age of Camelot, unabashedly ripped off from our country’s State of the Union addresses. It’s going to be yet another important way for him and us as a studio to give you the open and honest communication that we always strive for. 

This month, big strides were made in the re-work of the ability system that is so core to our game. Code has been written and even more has been purged, for a trimmer, sleeker, and far far better ability system, one specifically made for Camelot Unchained. I know Mark and Ben are looking forward to adding abilities, and to hooking up our in-house animation system down the line. You can expect some videos to come out eventually as that gets put together piece by piece, and in the right way for this game. More on all of these topics can be found later on in the newsletter!

We also announced that we’ve added four new programmers to the ranks! As part of that, we’re opening a small satellite studio in Seattle, and we’re very excited. More programmers means we’re smiling, and as they have all hit the ground running and are showing their talents, things are definitely looking up. More smiles all round! And, by the way, Mark is still interviewing additional programmers as well!

A lot of work, testing, and perhaps on Charles’ and Tim’s part, blood and sweat have gone into our “Reward Tier” gifting system, which is finishing up testing. A lot of testing! Both the studio and some of our Backers have been beating on this, and by the time the next newsletter swings around, we hope to be able to write that it’s up and running. Thanks to all the Backers who have been so helpful and so patient, especially patient, during this process.

In addition to all of that, there have been updates to terrain, materials and lighting, sound events, and lots lots more. Check out our User Stories or the State of the Build with Cory later in this newsletter for details!

CMSphere 

-by Jenesee Grey

This is where we talk directly to you, the Community!

Happy June, Community!

There have been so many changes in the last few weeks that my head's still spinning. I hope all of you had a chance to join us for the various livestreams this month. Check out the big announcement with MJ and our exciting new prospects in Seattle for a satellite studio. I’m sure a clever acronym for that is on its way, if I know MJ at all. We even snuck in a stream with JB, as he programmed and showed off the talent of the Mod Squad to bring a new grouping UI to the game.

This month, we celebrated Programmer Rob and his nuptials with his new wife Taylor. A number of team members attended the wedding, to offer their congratulations and support.
Lastly, even though we have had a lot of new beginnings and progress this month, there have also been some endings. I hope you had a chance to see my goodbye livestream/video with MJ and the crew, as the studio and I prepare to part ways in the near future. It seems only appropriate to take a paragraph (or two) in what may be my last Unveiled to say some words here as well. 

As a Community Manager, I have worked on a lot of projects for our wonderful Backers and game enthusiasts, but I have to say one of the most fun is helping to assemble and write for Unveiled. I remember when there was no newsletter at all, and MJ asked Max and I to create some column ideas and ponder a good way to share even more news with you. Max took on the big job of being the editor for the “longest MMO newsletter” (thanks MOP :) ), and really made this come alive. 

I’ve certainly also enjoyed working with James Koo, who created the template for this publication, redoes the header almost every month, and makes sure the design reflects our sensibilities and style. The first one that I created in Indesign was really difficult, and things have changed a lot. James is the best! 

It’s wonderful to get an idea of what various team members in the art, programming, and game design parts of CSE are thinking about, as they work toward the completion of Camelot Unchained. I will always be just a little proud of suggesting the name of the newsletter, and working with such a talented team and editor. As Jon Young (who sits across from where I did) says, “you and Max argue like an old couple.” I will miss this so much! 

I cannot say enough about how well MJ and CSE have treated me after we had the discussion that I needed to move on due to my commute and financial constraints. These last few weeks have been extraordinary, allowing me to take the time I need to find a position that helps me continue to grow as a Community Manager, and meanwhile enabling me to continue helping out with Camelot Unchained. I know CSE is taking the time to look for the best person to serve you as a new Community Manager, someone who will really be a huge asset to the team. It’s an exciting time! 

While I can’t give a final date of when our ways will part, I want to thank everyone for the well wishes and kind words I have received over these last few weeks. I’m truly blessed to be a part of such a great Community now, and in the future.

I’ll leave you with my picture of the day. JB missed out on my goodbye team hug (was this deliberate?!!) so I had to include him somehow…

Hot Topics


UI Design and guilds are the hot topics on the forum right now. 

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, artistic folk, for your awesome fan art that you’ve shared with us over development so far. Last month’s contest was all about the place a Fir Bog might live, and this month’s winner is Bevie, who used a mixture of hand drawn work and photo manipulation to create this verdant and mysterious locale. It’s lovely!
For our next contest, well, we’re starting the Streamy Hot Summer over here. Lots of streaming in the near future, and enjoying the weather, stormy or sunny. What sort of summery activities can you imagine your favorite race in CU doing? Write up your summer shenanigans featuring your best beloved CU race, whether of the Viking, Arthurian, or Tuatha Dé Danann Realm, in 250 words or less. Post your piece in the thread you’ll see pop up in the Fan Fiction section of our forums, and we’ll pick our favorite to feature in the next newsletter! 

Thank You

Major thanks to Oakblade, who sent us this amazing metal dragon! He looks so cool up on our corkboard. Rawr! 
Another big thank-you to the ever-generous Ludovic, who sent us lollipops...a LOT of lollipops! I think there might have been a thousand of ‘em in there before the hungry team started in on them. Thank you so much, Ludovic!
Thanks to Rehk and Noveltease for their touching and poignant gift to Jenesee. We love our Game of Thrones! 
And last but not least, you remember that we had some kids visit from a local school last month? Well, they sent us this thank-you card! It gave us all the warm fuzzy feelings. 

Dose of Design

-by Ben Pielstick

Combat Look and Feel


In a previous newsletter, I talked about the process of rebuilding the combat system for Beta 1, and how important it is to get the look and feel of combat right, in addition to designing fun and interesting systems and abilities. Look and feel can, however, be highly subjective and difficult to define. We talk colloquially about how some games feel “clunky,” or “unresponsive,” but it can be hard to translate these into exact features or adjustments that would lead to a better experience. 

One of the things that often, but not always, contributes to this kind of problem is latency. No matter how much bandwidth you have, there is still a round trip time it takes for your computer to send a message from something like a key press to the game server, and for your computer to get a response back from the server once that input has been processed. To help mitigate this issue, we often start the action as if it will succeed, while in the background we send it to the server and receive a response on whether it did succeed. This helps to cover for the fact that there is an unavoidable delay without compromising the security of the game, since we still check with the server and cancel out of any invalid actions hackers might try and tell the server to execute by illegitimately modifying the game client. 

There’s another problem with latency: While we can cover for the round trip delay between each player’s computer and the game server, we can’t do anything about the further delay when the actions of one player have to be sent to the server for processing, and then subsequently the results of that action are sent out to the clients of all the other players with nearby characters who need to be notified about those actions. 

That was a big concept, so let’s break it down a bit. When you press a button to activate an ability on your computer, the message is going to take a while to get from your computer, through the server, to the computer of the target you’re trying to use the ability on. This means that different players don’t see abilities happening at truly the same time: one player’s character isn’t standing in exactly the same place when viewed from another player’s computer, and so on. This is an even bigger issue for Camelot Unchained than it is in most games, since we are supporting battles with hundreds if not thousands of players in one area, all needing to know about what each other’s characters are doing. There are a number of little things we do to try and compensate for this delay, such as adding some forgiveness to non-tracking projectiles, using positional interpolation to keep characters from snapping to catch up when messages arrive a little late, and so on, but it’s something we can never do away with completely.

One of the compromises we have made in this area is to balance an “instant” feeling of responsiveness with ability actions that don’t take effect “instantly”. Even if it’s just the length of a short animation, there are always at least a few fractions of a second between pressing a button, such as to swing a sword, and seeing the outcome, such as damage inflicted on a target. This may not sound significant, but milliseconds add up quickly, and even though the real world analogy makes sense, as a real person would take time to start to move their arm to swing a sword once they have recognized the need to do so, game responsiveness often demands a much higher degree of instantaneous feedback. This is because the same time delay already exists for a player at a keyboard pressing a button, meaning any additional time delay before the character on the screen responds becomes extremely noticeable. That is why we always start the animation resulting from input immediately, so that to the player performing an attack, the game seems to instantly respond to input. We then use the short time between the start of the animation and the strike hitting the target to make sure the message has time to reach the target, so that we can sync up the timing before the hit actually happens. This way we don’t end up with discrepancies where a player might have seen their character performing a defensive ability that should have prevented them from being hit from their perspective, while their attacker already would have already seen the strike hit successfully. 

As we work toward the start of Beta 1, we’re paying close attention to how combat feels, and working on these and other features to start off Beta testing with the game as solid as we can make it. That said, Beta 1 is just a starting point for serious gameplay testing, compared to the technical engine testing we have done during our Alpha and Pre-Alpha stages. A whole lot of iteration will happen once we get Beta testing started, and start to gather feedback that shows where the game needs improvement. We know how critical it is for us to deliver a combat experience that looks and feels good, so as testing proceeds, we plan to work closely with testers to continually gather feedback and make improvements until we arrive at the right features and settings to make that happen.

Developer Quote

  
  “For me, the best part of the announcement is that now I can look at the size of the programming team we have now and smile. And hopefully, I'll smile even more when we can increase it [further].” - Mark Jacobs

Artitup 

-by Scott Trolan

This month, we have continued to make weapons for each Realm in the modular fashion I spoke of in the last newsletter. Michelle is seen here creating concepts for Shields, which consist of modular elements such as shape, border, handles, and ornamentation. These, again, will all be textured on a unified texture sheet, so that parts can be swapped out to create a wide range of unique results.
Jon has been modeling each weapon concept into high and low resolution game models. 
Aside from all of Tyler’s environment asset support tasks, Dionne has had the additional task to create new specular and roughness maps for all character armor, clothing, and skin materials. 
Sandra and I have made character combat locomotion (walking) cycles for each permutation of equipped weapon combination. We could have simply used an upper-body idle animation for all of these cases, but we believe it is worth the effort to push our animations to look as natural and believable as possible.
Our intern Jules has not only proven her ability to make fantastic videos for the studio but has done an amazing job supporting Max on livestreams and moderating questions from Twitch. She plans to increase the production value of these videos with the use of brand new lighting equipment, etc. I think everyone around here agrees, “She’s ah keeper” - Lotso the Bear.
Till next month, everybody!

Tech Central

 -By George Davison

All About Threading


In our updates, we often make reference to threading various portions of the game. What does this mean? 

Threading is the process of breaking a game’s operations up to run simultaneously on all of the processors in your computer. Modern processors have between 2-16 slots, which can each be running a separate part of the game. Most gaming machines have 4 or 8, and using them correctly can increase the speed of the game by nearly 4-8x.

To understand how this works, first you have to understand processes and threads. A process is the operating system’s representation of a running application. Each application, or game, is represented by a process. The process keeps track of all the code and the memory of the application. 

A thread represents which part of the code is currently running. Each process can have multiple threads, each running a different location in the code.

On the single processor systems of yore, the operating system could only run one thread at a time. The OS would interrupt the currently running thread when it ran out of time, and start running a different thread. This would let operations that take a long time run a small slice of the work while keeping the main loop, with input and rendering, responsive.

Choppiness, stuttering, and latency

Games update the screen at regular intervals. These updates are called frames. The rate that the game updates is called the frames per second, frame rate, or abbreviated as fps. Faster frame rates make for smoother gameplay. Most games strive to update at 60fps, but many only achieve 30 fps, which can be noticeable during fast motion. These two rates are chosen because they match the rates that most monitors update what they are displaying.

When a game gets choppy, it is usually because the frame rate has fallen below 30 fps. When a game stutters, it is because one frame has taken too long and the fps is changing erratically. This is often times more noticeable than choppiness, so it is just as important to keep the frame rate consistent as it is to keep it above 30.

Latency is different. Latency is how long it takes for an input from the keyboard or mouse to affect what happens on screen. If the latency is high, it will make the player seem to be skating, and will make movement, aiming, and gameplay difficult. In an MMO, most times when we talk about latency we are talking about the amount of time it takes for information to come back from the server and update the game. The latency of updating the player locally can be just as important to how the game feels.

On Windows, the default time given to each thread is 10-20 milliseconds (ms). A game running at 60fps only has 15ms per frame to do its work. To run at 60fps, games using multiple threads have to use an array of tricks to make sure that the main game loop runs at least once during this time each frame. Games can limit threading to major subsystems that run for the entire frame (like physics), at the cost of showing the player actions on screen a full frame or three after they happen, latency. Or games can change the threading interval to 1ms at the cost of battery life and performance of the whole system. But the most common approach is to not thread the application at all. 

Threading is Hard

Threading is hard. Consider this problem; Thread One is running an AOE effect that loops through all the players and applies damage.Thread Two deletes a player who has logged off from the game. Oops, thread one is now trying to modify a non-existent player. Crash!

Threading crashes are not like ordinary crashes, where the problem can be easily seen debugging the code. Threading crashes often crash a completely unrelated area of code, mess up values at random, or make systems unstable so that they fall apart much later. 

An easy way to avoid this problem is the one I mentioned earlier. Splitting the game into subsystems that only exchange information between themselves at one or two points per frame. Each sub-system runs on one thread for the entire game. 

Subsystem threading is simple and it works great, but it can cause massive amounts of latency. 1-3 frames, or up to 90ms of latency, is not uncommon in console games. This is nearly a tenth of a second. On consoles it can be hidden, because controller input is slow to change direction. But on PC with mouse and keyboard, this kind of latency would be unacceptable.

One additional problem with this method is making it scale to the number of processors on each person’s system. If a game has four threaded subsystems, it will run slowly on a single-core PC. This is why many PC games opt to go as fast as they can on only one thread.

How we do things differently

Camelot Unchained uses a fully threaded game engine. We use a type of threading system called task-based. In task-based, threading the work is split into small tasks. Tasks are put in queues, which are basically to-do lists, and each thread runs tasks from the queue as quickly as it can. In a task-based system, it doesn’t matter how many processors a PC has, we run as fast as we can on all the available processors. Task-based systems use just as many threads as there are slots on the CPU, so task threads don’t have to worry as much about being interrupted every 10-20 ms by the OS.

Task-based systems have traditionally had many problems that made them difficult to use in games, problems that we have solved in a unique way with a threading library written by myself.

Remember the problem of two threads changing the same information at the same time? Most task-based systems solve this problem by limiting the tasks to one system, like rendering, or pausing every time a shared piece of data is used, until everyone else is done with it. Pausing like this is called “locking” and can make a multithreaded game slower than a single-threaded one if done incorrectly. Our system is lock-free. We solve this problem by ordering the to-do list so that tasks that use the same information will never run at the same time. 

Another major problem with traditional task-based systems is that when you divide work into small tasks, the overhead of grabbing a task from the to-do list and starting them can be higher than the time taken to run the tasks themselves. Especially with systems that order the to-do list. Our system is 50 times faster than the industry standard, allowing us to break up millions of small jobs per frame. 

Locking is a painstaking process, and breaking code into small local chunks is much easier than designing large tasks or subsystems. This means that we can write multithreaded code much faster than your average studio. This is one of the reasons such a small studio can do things like building destruction and dynamic terrain, and still run well above 60fps on a variety of different machines.

State Of The Build

 -by Cory Demerau

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

Graphics:
  • All Heavy Armor items have had their materials updated.
  • Fixed a bug with material properties on characters. Materials on characters should now look more realistic.
  • Performance:
  • Patcher now sends data to the client in a more efficient way, saving memory usage on the client.
  • Block loading (and the rendering of their icons) now properly occurs during the loading screen, rather than before the splash screens. You should see much less of that ugly white screen while the game is launching.
Server:
  • Fixed a random disconnect that’s been plaguing the server for far too long.
Abilities:
  • Fixed a bug where cooldown time wasn’t being recorded properly
  • Several types of skills have been created, including Guard, Sprint, Snare, and Damage Buff.
  • Skill Crafting has been (re-)implemented! You can now connect a root-node to a single secondary-node to create your own skill. There aren’t yet any limitations on their combinations, so testers, feel free to create a skill to Guard an enemy, or damage yourself!
  • Sound:
  • Models can now have sound events tied to their components. For example, we can play the sound of buzzing bees when you pass a tree with a beehive in it.
  • Text:
  • Created a whitelist for usable unicode characters in our various places for entering text (names, chat, blueprint names, etc.).
Config:
  • Fixed a long-standing bug that caused players’ config files to fail saving and loading properly. Changes to your keybinds and graphics settings will actually persist between sessions now!
  • Building and Plots:
  • Split the Substance and Shape IDs in the building UI, so that you can more easily communicate about specific materials.
  • The indicator for how many blocks are selected along a particular axis has had its size increased dramatically, and is now less likely to be occluded by the resizing gizmo (Yes, that’s our actual technical term!).
  • The placement of the phantom block can now be nudged in any direction using the keyboard (defaults to arrow keys, Home, and End).
  • Improvements to building and terrain rendering.
C.U.B.E.:
  • Added a UI element to the Zone Select screen, allowing C.U.B.E. players to load backups of previous versions of their C.U.B.E. files.
  • Added several useful slash commands for replacing substances and shapes in your C.U.B.E. world or in your blueprints.

Backer Spotlight

-James “JB” Brown asks Tyrsis

This month’s spotlight is on Tyrsis, a member of the Mod Squad and awesome Backer of Camelot Unchained! 

Q: Hello! Tell me a bit about yourself and how you got into joining the Mod Squad for CU!

A: I am a lifelong gamer, married with kids and all that jazz. For majority of my gaming life, I played PvP-centric games like DAoC, Darkfall, and Warhammer. By day I am a UX Architect for a company that builds imaging SDKs (compression, conversion, etc). Being a long-time fan of DAoC, I joined the Kickstarter for Camelot Unchained and followed it for a bit. Given my day-job, and the alignment with what the Mod Squad was looking to accomplish, I figured it would be something fun to do on the side.

Q: What is a UX Architect, and how does that apply to helping CSE develop the UI for Camelot Unchained?
 
A:Well, UX stands for User Experience. Roughly put, I conduct user research to determine the wants, needs and frustrations of a targeted user, and create a design specifically for that user, leveraging those research findings. Designs typically come in the form of low-fidelity wireframes (black and white UI designs) and are introduced into a prototype that can be tested and iterated on subsequent to user feedback. Once I get a high level of validation after multiple iterations I send it out into the wild for real-world testing. In CU, I have taken the same approach for the various UI elements we're looking to implement. We iterated through a lot of concepts until they got to a solid and viable point.

Q: Very cool. What parts of the UI have you worked on so far for CU, and how was that experience?
 
A: I worked on the Health & Party UI, and a complete overhaul of the C.U.B.E. UI. I had a lot of fun with it, and enjoyed a very positive experience, iterating through concepts with the CU team. I'm currently working on some of the more standard UI sections like keyboard settings, video settings, etc.
 
Q: Awesome work on those, btw! Readers can see a few screen shots of them in the recent update! Are there any parts of the UI that you are particularly looking forward to helping design the user experience for?

A: Thanks! As far as future UI items are concerned, I am really interested in helping out with the ability bars. I know CU has some really great ideas for it and I look forward to helping out with it wherever I can.

Q: Do you have plans for any UI mods outside of helping with the official UI?

A: If the edge case occurs where I see an opportunity to create a mod that augments the official UI, I will likely go for it. The only downside is my skillset stops at HTML5/CSS3, so I would need to team up with a talented Frontend Dev.

Q: As someone who doesn't write code, how do you design a complex user interface experience that may have many moving parts, like the building UI design you did for CU?

A: I've been fortunate enough to work on dozens of applications with developers from a pretty broad range of disciplines. I always try to communicate and ask questions to ensure that what I have done or plan to do is technically feasible. After about 12+ years of doing that, I have learned what’s possible and what isn't. Keeping that line of communication open with the development teams has provided me with a much better understanding of technical limitations. Which translates to fewer UI prototype iterations…which ultimately means continuous delivery.

Q: That sounds very useful. Now, probably one of the most important questions of this interview: What Realm are you planning to play, if you have decided, and do you have a particular class or classes that you are planning on playing?

A: Viking - Child of Loki

Q: Anything else you would like to say to those reading?

A: I hope you enjoy what the Mod Squad has put together - and remember to get in to test C.U.B.E.! All the feedback is incredibly helpful when we're considering new design approaches. Even if nobody responds, we still read it.

Lore Corner

-by Max Porter


We hope you enjoy this piece, the fourth 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, third, and fourth parts of the tale in the Lore section of our website, here.

 

The Great Depths Raid


Part 5: The Sudden Plunge

The river thundered through that place of living nightmare called the Depths, its powerful waters rushing past lurking horrors unknown and unseen. The swirling liquid surely had an intelligence all its own, hurrying to an unpredictable destination deep below the world and its malevolent evils. The waters were dark, hiding secrets; and the river’s ferocious roar as it went along seemed to warn against anyone touching it, lest the sucking waters carry them off with irresistible force. 

When the water came to the canopy of stars that were not stars, the stars that never were in the sky that never was, it strove to tear down the great metal sieve that filtered it. The current battered itself against the massive construction, thrusting on through before tumbling down a huge waterfall, to crash into an abyss below. It left behind any objects that it carried, and dashed the bodies of unfortunate creatures that fell in. The current was deep, and cold; so cold that even a Viking might shiver, and so strong that even an ancient giant might be swept away. 

Fogja was far from ancient. When the trap sprung, its hidden trapdoor mechanisms threw the Frost Giant from the narrow stone pathway, lined with the glowing jars that looked like stars. In the light of the strange objects, she twisted in midair, clutching at the edge for purchase. Her blue fingers caught a crack in the stone, and she hung on, powerful grip straining. One hand still clutched her massive hammer, and she refused to let go. However, as she kicked against the side of the cliff, part of her armor came loose, metal rings flashing in the starlight as it tumbled into the river below, leather straps fluttering.  

Fogja’s view swung wildly, masses of uncaring lights wheeling above. “Help!”

A little way down the path they had been climbing, the other Delvers rushed up, alarmed. Fogja’s fellow Viking, the stone-boned Dvergr Jorvald, was the quickest, for once. His eyes adjusted far better to the cloying darkness of this place than anyone else’s, even the magically enhanced eyes of the sly Cait Sith, Hidduk. In the faint light of the eerily glowing jars that lined the walls in gigantic shelved rows, he stomped up the path and threw himself down, his axe blade clanging on the uneven stone. Reaching out with his scratched and scarred hand, he cried, “Grab hold, quick!” 

The giant woman grabbed the short man’s stone-studded fingers, and he let out a rush of breath as her weight slammed him to the ground. The sound of his straining stones as they scraped against the edge would have echoed, but could hardly be heard above the rush of the river below. 

Jorvald strained and grunted. If his training would stand him in good stead now, perhaps they could both survive. Carefully, he swung his axe behind him, slamming it into a crack with heavy force. Then he pulled, so that the bottom of the axe caught in the stone. Feeling his muscles burn as though they might tear in half, he heaved on the giant’s oppressive weight. Fogja scrambled up, teeth gritted as she threw one blue-skinned leg up over the edge, then the other. 

The orange flicker of flame illuminated the darkness of the chamber, and in a moment, Xedric’s thin hand was there, steadying her. The Arthurian Human was flanked on one side by the furry form of Hidduk, and on the other by the ghostly form of Sacriphisto. Balancing on the now sloped pathway, they took on the giant’s hefty weight, and pulled her to safety before she could slip back to the watery oblivion crashing below. 

Jorvald let out a groan and collapsed, panting. The blue-skinned giant loomed over him, dusting herself off. “Thanks, Jorvald.” Lying on the ground, the Dvergr could hear the stilled shakiness in her husky voice. “You’re strong for your size, shorty.” 

Without getting up, the Dvergr chuckled, deep in his chest. “You’re heavy for… uh…” He trailed off as the armored giant glared down at him, weighing her enormous hammer in her powerful hands. “...Ahem. Anyway, how about a hand up for your savior?” 

In response, she leaned down and hoisted him up, stones, axe, and all. Jorvald grunted and shook his arm to loosen it. “That’s better. And now… hm, I don’t seem to recall your name…?” 

The giant hesitated, glancing around the group. It was no accident she hadn’t told Jorvald her name. “Eh, um, you see…” 

Sacriphisto put up one discolored hand. “If she does not wish to share her name, we should not press her.” 

Hidduk eyed the giant with a yellow stare. “Although, as your fellow Delvers in The Depths, we may begin to wonder just exactly why…” To himself, he wondered if he had been wrong to suspect Xedric of corruption, first. 

The Frost Giant looked away from Jorvald. “It’s all right. I, uh, I am called Fogja.” 

There was a moment of silence. Eventually, Xedric spoke in a sarcastic tone. “Fascinating. Now, if we can get back to the business of trying to get up this--” 

He was interrupted by a shout of laughter from Jorvald. The short, stone-studded man doubled over, laying a hand on his knee, and howled, tears coming to his eyes. “Ahaha! That Fogja! I get it now! I get it!”

Mystified, the folk from other Realms glanced at one another, then back at the two Vikings, one turning a deeper sapphire color in her cheeks, the other barely able to breathe with his intense merriment. 

Jorvald gasped out, “Right, well… no need to dwell on… it’s a Viking thing… a while ago…” before he slowly descended into laughter once again. 

Fogja raised her head and shrugged. “Well, time to be moving on.” She strode up the long stone pathway without looking back, focused only on watching for more traps. 

Shaking their heads, the others followed, climbing after her. Jorvald brought up the rear, trying to catch his breath and wiping his face. “Ahhh, if my father could but see me now. Walking with--with a living legend, I am. Wrong-way Fogja…” And he nearly collapsed again. 

As they continued their journey, following a strange metal track that ran along the shelf past the jars, silence and the sound of the river’s thunder began to take over their hearing once again. Hidduk raised his ears and pointed them in all directions, but that strange series of clicks he had heard earlier, hinting at some sort of enemy, were either too distant to hear, or had been covered by the sound of the water. He was just resolving to call for silence if he caught the noise again, when Sacriphisto, just ahead of him, started and came to a halt.

The Bean Sidhe turned and whispered, so that only Hidduk and Fogja could hear him. “Look, up ahead. It’s another one of those openings, like the little one went through.”

Waving his hand at the other two, Hidduk came up the steep section of pathway and looked. His eyes slowly adjusted to the different lighting while he struggled to see what Sacriphisto was talking about. There was a plateau where the shelf of stone, and its ever-present metal track on one side, went past another row of glowing jars with a series of labels. In the strange glow that seemed to come from the jars themselves, these labels were legible, as opposed to the unreadably ancient, crawling letters on the jars on lower shelves. The first enormous jar on Hidduk’s right seemed to hold lifeless fish heads, and the label read “Last meals - Fishermen.” The next, which seemed to contain more frightening faces, was labeled “Assorted Leavings - Great Gullet”. Hidduk quelled a shiver as he thought of his own face, forever preserved in this awful way. He forced his eyes to focus past the floating things and toward the end of the flat area, where Sacriphisto was still pointing. 

There, just before another switchback that led up to the next tier of the freakish collection, a darker spot in the dark wall told of a mysterious opening. Previously, these cracks had disappeared before Hidduk could get a close look. Now, he hesitated a moment, while his companions gathered and stared as well. This was The Depths, after all. Such an opening could lead to escape… or death. He should regroup, use his powers to safely scout ahead, perhaps gain a clue-- 

Before the Cait Sith could finish his thought, a plume of orange swept across his vision and hung in the air, lighting up the path. Xedric said, “That’s better.” 

Hidduk turned on the Flame Warden, hissing through his teeth. “What are you doing, you fool? Do you want whatever lurks here to find us that easily? What if someone was there? What if…” He trailed off as he glanced back at the path and saw that someone was indeed there.

Eager for another fight, both Jorvald and Fogja rushed forward, weapons raised. The extremely short, hunched shape of the stranger started, then held out a hand in a warning motion.

This time, the giant reacted quickest. Sweeping out a huge hand, she stopped the motion of her fellow Viking, making the Dvergr skid to a stop. Jorvald blinked down at his feet, where they had halted just before the telltale hairline crack in the stone pathway. It told of another trap to drop unwary Delvers into the drink. 

Sacriphisto came up behind them as the two Vikings panted, staring into the dim light that barely touched the hem of the stranger’s crimson clothing. “Let us not judge too quickly, friends. It is always worth waiting to see if a living being means us harm.” He glanced back at the figure, but not without a hesitant look in his dark Bean Sidhe’s eyes. 

The glow that emanated from the jars served only to outline the stranger, rather than illuminate it. As if sensing this, the unknown one moved toward Xedric’s flickering light. 

The diminutive figure was draped in some kind of heavy cloth, and glittering points of light hung over it, swinging heavily. As the figure stepped forward, these points of light jangled together, making tinkling metallic sounds. The voice that emerged from within the heavy brocaded robes was surprisingly clear and calm. “So, you caught up at last. I hope you aren’t expecting me to share…” As the hunched stranger walked into the light, the jewelry he wore glinted and glittered, as though he were covered in fireflies. It was Donnie. 

The Luchorpán’s face was drawn and weary, with strange new shadows under his eyes. Nevertheless, he wore a delighted smile, and managed to wave one long-fingered hand in a grand gesture, causing his gems and finery to clink together musically. “Greetings, friends! I hope you’re all duly impressed. This stuff is heavy!” 

Slipping around the trap, Hidduk’s eyes popped as he examined the little jumper. Donnie’s clothes were embroidered with silver and gold, and a much-too-large red cape adorned with glittering jewels hung down his back to the floor. Several gilded belts, half of them in a feminine style, criss-crossed the Luchorpán’s little body, each sagging with the weight of valuable trinkets. His wrists and hands, in turn, were thickened with bracelets and rings of all sizes, glinting all the way down his extremely long fingers. Donnie grinned and struck a pose, with some difficulty. “Like what you see?” 

Hidduk sighed. “Welcome back, Donnie. Where in the name of all furball did you get this… all this?” 

“That’s easy.” Donnie jerked his thumb at the nearest jar, which held a mass of small yellow-white slivers, suspended in its gently glowing liquid. “One of these things, of course. I was not stealing; it said ‘Funeral Offerings - Still Attached.’” He glanced where he was pointing, and half-stepped away with an alarmed look as he read the label: Thieves’ Fingernails. 

Meanwhile, the other Delvers were following the route that Hidduk had carefully traced around the trap. Xedric was first, and he strode straight up to the Luchorpán and leaned over him, cupidity flickering in his eyes. There was something about the Human’s face that made both Hidduk and Donnie lean back slightly; it was the same look that had come over the Senior Flame Warden when he had channeled The Depths’ laughter into a new fire spell. “Marvelous. Absolutely marvelous. But how did these get here? And what happened to the things you brought in with you?” 

Donnie held his grin, but his eyes shifted away. “I can answer both of those at once.” He moved to the edge of the walkway and glanced over the precipice. He seemed about to say something flippant, but then his eyes widened and his smile vanished. “Oh. He’s back.” 

“What do you mean?” Fogja asked as she strode up next to the Luchorpán, looming over him. 

“Look,” he pointed. Far down below, where the huge sieve threw up a white wave glittering in the light, a weird thing stretched over the river, like a metallic spider with telescoping limbs. In the glow reflecting off the water, it fished with its springy, improbably thin arms, dipping into the furious torrent above the falls. 

From that point, clutching at various outcroppings of rock and the giant sieve itself, the eye could follow the disturbing extensions to a central body. However, instead of a spider’s bulbous abdomen, a man’s torso bobbed in the middle of the splayed-out limbs. Concentrating intently, he scraped the side of the huge sieve with his thin, metallic arm, and came up with a dripping set of chain links and soggy leather straps. As his arm retracted, the distant figure appeared to lean forward intently, studying the item as he backed toward the shadows. Below the man’s midriff, there seemed to be a metallic construction, with a central wheel. This he fitted to a metal track, and paused. Then, as if suddenly becoming aware that he was watched, he started and looked up. His wheel spun, carrying the man backward, and he zipped through a crack and out of sight. 

Fogja gasped, then growled in her throat. “Rrrr… that’s my armor!” 

Jorvald chuckled, then cleared his throat. “Well, that was an odd sight, no mistake. How’d he get like that, anyhow?”

Donnie looked uncomfortable. “I may have an idea of how to answer that, too. However, we’d better get moving. The Collector definitely doesn’t like, uh…. Loiterers.” With a nimble twist made slightly awkward by the heavy finery he wore, he began to move up the path to the next switchback. The other Delvers followed quickly, all but for Xedric, who stayed to toss a fiery stone and watch it fall. He grinned suddenly as though he’d hit something, and grabbed another rock. 

Hidduk heard it first; the rapid click-click-click that signalled the Collector’s movement, so quick that it sounded more like a metallic hum. The Cait Sith turned to shout a warning, but he was far too late. 

From above, a long thin arm shot out, telescoping down toward Xedric, where he stood peering over the edge. The gnarled, strangely pale hand at the end of the arm gave him a swift, sharp push. With a shocked look, the Human dropped like the stones he had been throwing. 

The voice that came to the shocked Delvers spoke with a sibilant grinding, as though the Collector’s larynx had been internally replaced with mechanical parts. The bulbous head that leaned over from the shelf above was too large for the torso, with wide eyes surrounded by wrinkles, suggesting they never closed. Lungs wheezing as they expelled breath into unfamiliar speech, the man’s attempt at precise syllables was marred by the extraneous noise. “Sso… dissorderly, sso… unssorted. I musst put you in your proper placse. Come, new…sspecimenss for the Collection.” 


Thus ends the fifth part of the tale. 

Bonus Images!

Did you really think we’d let you go without showing off some amazing C.U.B.E. images? Did you really? No way. We have some here for your viewing pleasure, and there are many more images available on our forums! Red_CU created this stunning Arthurian-inspired castle, with noble areas, stables, a grand hall, and more. Take a look:
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