"Psychological sections. Fighting's only part of endgame, and the devs love to mess with people's heads. Better get used to it if you're gonna run with us. If you want endgame trophies, you gotta earn 'em. Psych-sec's part of that."
He grimaces. I can't say that I blame him. It takes a special type of mind-set to run endgame encounters, the toughest challenges Infinite Game's developers can nightmare up. No one knows if they have that mind-set or not until they do their first run. Most of them head back to Candyland, home of the omnipresent computer assist. I decided to stay, the darkness calling to something inside me, a thrill I can't find anywhere else. I'm hoping Kiro stays for a while too, since Brand, our normal support, is away from world somewhere, and supports are hard to find.
I walk back over to Slend and Wind. The wings are bare, lumpy flesh oozing more glistening fluid. I nod in satisfaction. Almost every useable piece of the chimera has been stowed away in limitless bags of holding, one of the few game allowances for convenience outside of Candyland. The remnants of the monster lie sprawled in front of us like a mangled mole rat, pink skin shining wetly beneath Kiro's staff.
"Good job. That'll at least pay for rezzes if we wipe later. Wind, you've got point. Slend, make sure Kiro doesn't walk into a trap."
"Whatever you say, Ash." The fox grabs a pair of nightvision goggles from a waist pouch and walks forward in a crouch. "If you hear me die, assume that something bad happened."
I fall in behind her, adopting the same gliding walk, my boots hitting the ground like falling leaves. "If only we could be so lucky."
"Let Wind watch the newbie," Slend grumbles from behind. Chain mail clinks gently but her feet are whisper quiet.
"Wind has a higher dex, and she's more expendable if we lose someone before a boss."
Three trash clears, a logic trap, and an hour later, we're standing in front of an ominously glowing cavern entrance. Bloodstains mar the rocky floor, the jagged mouth of the cave exhaling hot air in rancid breaths. Our path leads directly into the flickering opening, impenetrable rock walls to either side.
"Okay, we're at the boss. Last time, this was a Diremoth," I whisper to the others.
"Latest patch notes said that endgame encounters were rebalanced," Kiro whispers back. "Are you even sure it's still the same base type?"
"Oooh, look at the newbie talking about patch notes," Wind mocks. "Next thing you know he'll be telling us what rotations we should be using."
"Newbie has a point," Slend says slowly. "Devs like screwing the ladder. Wipe here, drop at least five. Season's almost over. Losing first would suck, 'specially to Mikelas. Fucker's evil."
"Yeah, he is," Wind responds, her voice subdued for the first time all run. "Him and his boardshits cornered me back when I was still leveling, before I joined Ash. If we had been in the real "
"We've got your back." I pat her on the shoulder, fur silky beneath my hand, trying not to think about my own encounters with Mikelas, some in the real. "Kiro's right, though. It might not be a Diremoth. The devs have kept endgame the same for the last month. They're trying to get more people out of Candyland, give 'em predictable progression, but the league's about to end. That means it's gonna be different. Devs always change things near the end."
I bounce a rock idly in my left hand, thinking, my eyes locked onto the pulsating cavern entrance. The Everdark facet of Infinite Game is designated part of the fantasy spectrum, which means our guns aren't going to be very helpful here—not only are the monsters resistant to any damaging tech more advanced than a crossbow, the encounters themselves are prioritized to punish tech use, like how the frozen flenser worms surrounding the chimeras we dispatched earlier forced us into melee combat, instead of a safer ranged battle. Devs like to make things hard, but not impossible, so whatever's in this cave shouldn't be a permanent flyer.
The key word there being "shouldn't," I think sourly. Not "won't." They could be trying to lull us into a false sense of security with all these melee encounters leading up to a ranged fight. Wouldn't be the first time.