93 Treacherous Cliffs Ahead
The rest of the Dungeon goes by in record time.
Kara purposefully mentions my "Severely Weakened State" and then pretends she's angry at herself for letting it slip. In response, I ham it up even more than usual, whining that since the cat's out of the bag already, she should take responsibility and carry me to safety.
With a dramatic hand to my forehead I pretend to be dizzy—or rather, I pretend to pretend to be dizzy. Between my nonexistent AGI, low SP, and the aftereffects of my PTSD episode, I actually am feeling pretty lightheaded and ill.
So I wield my favorite weapon of misdirection: the truth.
The more I tell the viewers I'm dizzy and feverish, and the more I bat my eyelashes at Kara and stagger into her arms and wink victoriously at the camera when she does eventually carry me through the Dungeon, the more the viewers think it's all an act.
This works out great for us, because it means we can fly through the Dungeon without anyone realizing it's actually my AGI and anxiety-ridden neuroses that are currently my problem. I Taunt as we go, complete with my Boxers Bro Bonus to drawn even more mobs at once, then my teammates destroy every enemy in our path while shielding me.
It's surreal, to suddenly be the one left on the sidelines while everyone else fights.
Though uncomfortable and frustrating, it doesn't sting as much as it could. The others keep up a steady stream of chatter, sometimes teasing, sometimes earnest, sometimes simply idly describing the shitty Dungeon weather. They're mostly doing it to prove to the LiveStream viewers that we're all unconcerned, confident that we'll beat this Dungeon and then I'll be back to normal, Curse-Free.
But they're also partially doing it to keep me entertained and engaged and feeling like I'm part of the group, and that's...well.
Once I acclimate to my new stats and figure out how to toe the line so I still look "Severely Weakened," I start participating more directly in the raid. No one tries to stop me, since they know I'm a battle manic who absolutely hates sitting still, and also we're on a time crunch here.
ShadowSlice is more useful now than ever. It doesn't use much of my limited SP, and it stuns the mobs so I can attack the crap out of them without needing to rely on Agility to Dodge or catch up to the quick water demons.
I team up with Nanuk, who realizes he can use a super basic Freeze spell on the Bog itself to give me solid surface to stand on when the mobs are too far away from a convenient stone platform. Though without my Agility, I slip, slide, and fall on my ass enough the first few times we try this, I feel like I'm back in the woods outside my Foundation Village learning how to walk.
Ironically, this time it's my wings that help keep me balanced.
I always pretend to be overwhelmed by exhaustion after each foray into battle, to give me an excuse to head back to solid ground or to lean against my teammates for support, all so I don't sink too far into the water and give myself away. However, I also make that strained-yet-stoic face that says, "I'm powering through; I don't want anyone to know how difficult this is." So if anything, I'm probably making myself seem even more hardcore to the viewers.
Little Dude and Kara have me beat in the overall hardcore badassery category, though.
In a show of bizarre solidarity, Taliesin has yet to re-equip his trousers, choosing instead to continue battling in his shamrock boxers. He's a fierce little whirlwind, flying around with his gleaming Excalibur, shooting lightning in human form and breathing fire in demon form and laughing ever more cheerfully the more dangerous it gets on the way to the Boss.
By the time we hit the Boss's Antechamber, he's doing almost ten times the Damage Nanuk and Nightfury are, and he's spending as much time in the Red Zone as I usually do. Nanuk's concentrating so hard on timely Heals, the game animates sweat drops on his pale forehead.
Kid is a fucking BEAST.
And yet, not even he can keep up when Kara Geir kicks it into her own Beast Mode after we finally hit the Boss.
Luckily for me, the Boss fight is mostly on solid rock. The Boss "Chamber" is enclosed by impenetrable mist on all sides, and is a circular space of gleaming, wet uneven rock surrounding a single murky pool of water, so deep it looks like tar. Yet another insta-death sinkhole, it's the lair of the Beast:
[ KELPIE, WATER DEMON LORD ]
[Level 18 - HP 100,000/100,000]
This Kelpie is a fearsome green-and-black horse with glowing red eyes, a mangled seaweed mane, and hooves that face backwards. According to legend, it's a shapeshifting monster that tricks unsuspecting travelers into riding on its back or following it in human or horse form to its watery lair; then it drowns them, eats their flesh, and spits the entrails back onto shore.
Kara gets the brilliant idea to use that legend to our advantage, so she ignores all our misgivings, sheathes her weapons and unequips her armor, and then nonchalantly starts walking around the watery pit of doom, whistling.
Every time I fought this Boss in the beta, I came in weapons drawn, because duh. It's a friggin' Boss Chamber.
And the Boss always delivered. He'd lunge out of the water with a mighty chomp, ready to drag me to a watery hell.
Kara's plan, however, changes the Boss combat AI. Everyone else is shocked, but I understand this game is more nuanced than it seems, and there are secret algorithms linked to folklore knowledge all throughout the gameplay. So when the Kelpie silently rises out of the water in HUMAN FORM (even though it never shapeshifted in the beta) and approaches Kara with a sly smile, I don't lose my shit like the rest of Chaos Party.
I just grin in anticipation of Kara wrecking this too-smooth fucker's shit up.
She doesn't even draw her dagger this time. She just sucker-punches the dude in the face.
I whistle in appreciation.
She smirks, then smoothly unsheathes her spear and stabs the Kelpie in the dick.
"You are so hot," I say.
"Yes," she agrees, as she twists the spear.
All four of us guys wince in unison and instinctively cover our junk. Taliesin re-equips his pants for extra protection.
I'm not sure if I'm hiding to protect Little Lieu or because I'm worried Little Lieu might get too excited for public decency.
I want to run away and also marry this woman on the spot.
"Now!" Kara calls, and all four of us step into Aggro range to deliver our prepped ranged attacks on the skewered Boss.
He lights up like a pyrotechnic Christmas tree, and Kara yanks her spear free to roll away and re-equip her gear.
Letting loose an enraged howl, the Kelpie returns to his natural equine beast state, and the battle is on!
Throughout it all, Kara never loses her carefully-won Aggro and lives it up as a high-DPS tank. Honestly, the entire fight is practically a one-woman show, us four dudes left as enthusiastic backup.
I fall into my Leader role without much thought, shouting warnings for the myriad major attacks the Kelpie has at its disposal, directing coordinated Party attacks, and commanding Kara's solo strikes when ranged spells block her view.
The other three focus on their ranged attacks, since no one other than Kara has a strong melee weapon with the range of her spear. The Kelpie is a notoriously bad match-up for up-close fighters like martial artists and swordsmen, since its mane can ensnare you, its sharp teeth can gore you, and when it rears up in anger, its huge hooves crash down and crush you. Plus, all of those attacks end with you being pulled or thrown into the insta-death watery grave.
Traditional wisdom has Parties kiting the water demon, or sacrificing a Party member or two to keep its attention while the rest of the Party unleashes ranged attacks or reserved spells. To the casual observer, it may look like we chose the latter, except Kara is about as far from a sacrificial pawn as it's possible to be. She's more like a chess Queen, zooming across the board, wreaking havoc and wrecking shit.
Since I'm the clear weak link, can only move a single space to her ten, and I'm watching over the entire battle from the back line, guess this makes me her King.
The uncharacteristically whimsical thought makes my stomach do some funny flips and my pulse quicken, and all I can do is laugh at my incredibly poor crush timing.
"Ugh, your mid-battle laugh is so disturbing, man," Nightfury tells me.
My grin turns smirkier and I throw Whistling Starfall without looking, just to be annoying. Boom, Kelpie Headshot.
Nightfury's clenched jaw and vexed grumble give me life.
I wave at the general mayhem Kara's causing and laugh even louder. "The best part of all this is that it doesn't matter that everyone's watching us beat this Boss; this strategy isn't replicable. How the hell is anyone supposed to pull off this crazy shit Kara's doing right now?"
Everyone else looks at me like I'm an idiot.
"What?" I say, self-conscious.
"Dude," Taliesin says, before running off to slash at the Boss.
"Dude," Nightfury agrees, eyebrows arched high in disbelief.
"You do realize that is LITERALLY what everyone thinks about every video you make, right?" Nanuk looks like he wants to shake me and also maybe give me a high five. "Nothing you do is EVER replicable."
"Oh," I say, releasing a Smite on the Boss to combo with Kara's own Ultimate. "Good point."
Nightfury and Nanuk stagger into each other and groan.
I throw them a cheeky grin and a "V" victory sign and skip over to a better vantage point for the final Stage of the Boss fight.
It doesn't take a full minute for that smirk to fall off my face in heart-stopping shock.
The Kelpie picks up speed for his final attack, but Kara keeps up like it's second-nature. It's hard to see at first because it's still early game, so she doesn't have too many Skills at her disposal, but once I notice her technique, I can't un-see it.
How could I? It's the skill I became known for at my first Worlds.
Since she held aggro the entire fight, the Boss's AI was able to adapt and start anticipating her attacks. She's countering that by starting skills and drawing the Boss's attention, then canceling them mid-strike and coming at the Kelpie with an entirely different attack. Moreover, she's using skills with flashy opening animation to hide her simpler real attacks, since this game has a lag between canceling a skill and dissipating the skill's glitzy effects.
Without realizing what I'm doing, I move closer to the fight, immediately syncing up with Kara as if I've been doing it for years instead of hours.
I use my CC Breath of the Dying fog spell to slow the Kelpie closer to my current speed, and also to add more confusing visual effects to the battle. Kara starts a high-slice skill to draw the Kelpie's head up, then cancels it and dives for the Boss's weak ankles, attacking in a circle slash completely hidden beneath the fog.
When the Boss inevitably rears up, I'm already mid-leap, waiting with a combo strike from Zen'aku. Before I even land, Kara's already initiated another Skill. We both want this strike to hit, so I Taunt and ignite Will o' Wisps around myself to throw the Kelpie off-balance and wrench the Aggro to myself.
I succeed in stealing the Boss's attention, and he drops to all fours without looking away from my glowing form. Before he can then come at me with a vicious attack, he's raised into the air and howling in pain and rage, held aloft by the end of Kara's spear. She's still underneath the great beast, and she used his distracted attention to easily avoid his hooves and his downward momentum to fully thrust up through his tough hide.
My heart thuds so loudly in my own ears, it completely drowns out the sounds of battle.
It feels like the world's moving in slow motion, as if Kara's holding the Boss for an indeterminate eternity. Then when she's slamming him down onto the uneven rocks, it feels so slow, I can see every individual pixel making up the Kelpie's murderous face. I attack on instinct, drawn into this battle with Kara while nostalgia runs hot through my veins. The eleven-strike combo I pull off isn't one I've ever tried in a video game before; it's a series of moves learned long ago, without swords, in a quiet dojo facing off against my strongest rival and ally.
In the stunned silence following my impossible attack, molten violet eyes meet mine, and everything else falls away.
Her answering gasp somehow sounds louder than the Kelpie's death throes and the Boss music's crescendo and our fellow Party members' cheering.