I turn back toward the group.
"Okay, here's how we're going to do this. Standard diamond formation, Wind up front, Kiro in the back. Slend, you take left. If it's still a Diremoth in there, same plan as last time. If not, we'll improvise."
"Uh, what was the plan last time?" Kiro asks.
Wind silently mouths the word "newbie" at me, and I glare at her before answering Kiro.
"If you see its wings shimmer, throw a vortex barrier in front of us so we don't get hit by acid pollen. Other than that, stay out of the fire, try to get some skill shots in if you see an opportunity, and be ready to drag one of us to safety if we take a hit. We'll have to wait for it to land to cripple its wings for phase one. Your trauma skills are near maxed, right?"
"Yeah, I suppose..." His voice trails off in a petulant pout.
"There's no suppose about it," I say, glowering at him. "This isn't Candyland. This is endgame. Trust your training, and we'll make it through just fine, but you gotta react fast. There's no room for error here." I put a hand on his shoulder, feeling the sleek fabric of his sigil-inscribed robe. "Look." I go on more gently. "It's okay to be nervous. Everyone gets nervous their first time in endgame. That's why you're in the back, to keep you out of the heavy shit." I wave my free hand at Wind and Slend, both busy checking their equipment. "We've killed hundreds of Diremoths. It'll be fine. You'll get a feel for the encounter, and next time it'll be easy peasy. It's like anything else—the more you do it, the more natural it seems."
"I guess you're right "
Dammit Kiro, I don't have time for one of your sulks, not right now. I punch him on the arm, trying to shake him out of his funk. "Of course I'm right, stupid. I'm always right. Just try not to cause a wipe, okay? Losing our streak would suck."
He swallows. "Got it." I pat Kiro's shoulder.
"Let's go get some loot, then. Wind, take us in."
We creep through the twisting passageway, its narrow walls almost brushing my shoulders, even crouched as I am. Ominous light flickers ahead of us, and pulses of rancid air increase the stifling heat. It feels like going through some huge animal's digestive tract, working our way down its throat and into its stomach. Another psych-sec. I look back at Kiro to see how he's handling it, and grin inside. His face is set in a scowl of disgust, but he doesn't hesitate, following Wind's footsteps precisely.
Nice, Kiro, nice. I knew you had it in you. I'll make a raider of you yet. This is just another encounter, something to get used to.
Ahead of me, Wind stops and gently raises a closed fist, fur rippling along her arms and back. I settle onto my heels and wait for her to report, motioning for Kiro and Slend to join us. They crouch-walk forward and we huddle our heads together, cheeks almost touching.
"Large cavern just around this corner," she whispers, breath brushing across my skin. "Light's bad, can't see too far inside. Lots of steam. Looks like magma vents around the edges of the room."
"Okay, that means lava's gonna come into play as an environmental hazard," I whisper back. "What's rule number one?"
"Don't stand in the fire," three voices chorus back, Kiro's slightly slower than the other two.
"Right. Don't stand in the fucking fire. Anything else, Wind?"
"Big pile of rocks near the middle. Might be a rockfall hazard, might be a golemtrap. Couldn't tell. Steam hashed the optics on my rifle." She pats the weapon strapped to her back. "We'll operate under the assumption that it's rockfall at first," I say, "but keep your distance from it just in case. A golemtrap is really gonna hurt our deeps if we have to split damage. Any sign of a boss?"
"Nope. Visibility's real bad. Can't see much past six meters overhead. Could be a Diremoth in the ceiling; they like damp places." Wind pauses, then continues, her voice pragmatic. "Could be something else too. Won't know until it eats the newbie."
"Great." I rub the hilt of my blade, its worn grip comforting in my hand. "Okay, we'll proceed as planned, ranged weapons first. Diamond formation, watch for lava and rockfall, don't get near the center. Kiro, be ready to solid-shield us the instant something appears—I wouldn't put it past the devs to have the encounter start with a sneak attack from above. We'll react from there. Let's move."