Struggling to Adapt
Descending hurriedly the winding path down to the jungle — the idea of flying on the hat felt like a bad one, now when she knew about the big floating monsters — Shantae still kept enough presence of mind to survey the horizon while she was still high up. Lo and behold, there were other lone crags she overlooked before, all much further away than the one sticking a mile or so ahead. She sighed. There probably was yet another castle choke-full of monsters. She wanted something smaller and simpler to begin. A small cave, or a hut.
Still, it was worth following the road. Luck could be on her side.
Less than quarter a mile she was reconsidering, having been jumped three times by spiky apes lurking in the shrubbery along the road. One on one these weren't that dangerous, but the most recent ambush had two. She prevailed but the encounter had been too risky to her tastes. What if there were zombies in the next one? Three or more? The road was winding enough to conceal what was ahead but not enough to hide her from sight fast enough if she tried fleeing.
A couple of gray stone columns appeared ahead, framing the road. There were sturdy wooden fences running from them into the shrubbery.
She approached cautiously, noting two black holes in one column and matching chips in the stone of other. Twisted ducking under the top one at the same time as she stepped over the bottom one. Whew. Wait, there was a patch of unusual color on her right! Whirling to face it sharply she found herself face to face with a flying maw, dozing with its eye closed while floating among the dense foliage. Quietly, afraid to breathe, she—
"Die, mortal!" angry voice screamed from behind her at the same time as her danger sense screamed imminent death. The floating orb started, its green eye flying open.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Shantae dropped onto all four. A hail of bullets roared over her head, the big red monster growling in pain. Half rolling, half scrambling across the packed mud, she dodged, jumping onto her feet and dashing back in the same motion. The forgotten dart trap saw her off with a double swish-thunk, the bottom projectile passing uncomfortably close between her legs. Skirting the bend to throw her enemy's aim off, she heard a scream of pain ending abruptly in a wet crunch. No surprise here, human-sized creatures were bite-sized for that thing and that zombie just shot it in the face with who knows how many bullets!
Hoping it would stay and dine rather that remembering about her, Shantae ran for a bit more before sneaking into the jungle where she continued towards the blood swamp moving aside prickly branches and fearing spiky apes. However gross those channels were, they were conveniently winding and labyrinthine while still providing enough space for her trump, the scimitar dash. A much better getaway than the single, non-branching road watched by who knows how many eyes.
Finally, she was back in the swamp. Hey, wasn't this place she knew, not far away from the cave of herself-insertion? How convenient. The stench of blood, she could have lived without. Oh, well. She trudged to the right, still intent on finding where that road went. Maybe furter away from The Boss there would be less monsters? She was actually growing hungry — and had nutritious lobster tails in her inventory to boot — but the stench made thinking of food a nauseating affair. Instead, she was sneaking along the nearest blood channel, having to step into it at times where bushes were too dense.
So far, nothing had jumped the girl. She was even growing used to the eerie silence. Was there light ahead? She approached cautiously.
There, on a flat, rocky isthmus breaking the channel, were several lit candles surrounding a red magic circle framed by two bloody poles with series of mutilated and decayed heads stuck on hem like beads. Inside the circle, there was a mutilated corpse. She approached stepping lightly. This was a massively built man in green armor once, now his head and right shoulder were practically pulped.
Looting may be seen unethical, but any practiced relic hunter — like her — had well developed habits of grabbing anything that wasn't nailed down. A bit like kleptomania, to be honest, but all is fair in a dungeon.
A cloud of flies buzzing, maggots writhing furiously, stench hanging so thick it made one's stomach twist into a pretzel. Looting this mutilated corpse would be so gross. But Shantae had to learn what sorts of items and supplies worked here. The question was: was this a trap or not? Most likely it was, but she wasn't going to pass such an opportunity.
Tense, ready to bolt, the girl approached the body. Nothing was jumping at her. She stepped into the circle...
A nearby cliff face unraveled, like it had been an illusion, revealing two familiar looking goat-headed brutes. Twin roars of fury made her jump. They were shaking with rage, their muscles rippling, towering over her.
Squeaking in terror, Shantae fled blindly, the disgustingly lukewarm blood of the channel splashing all over her harem pants. She even forgot to scimitar-dash. A torrent of lethal green bolts missed her wide, blowing some innocent shrubbery to cinders.
Two of them! At once! These nigh-invulnerable hulks could be just garden variety monsters, not even mini-bosses! Anyway, there was no way she'd take on these two. She survived against one by sheer luck and perseverance, fighting it because she was cornered and had nowhere to go. Not a case this time!
Lost in thought, glancing back to watch out for deadly bolts of green fire, Shantae rounded a leftward bend to bump into something rubbery! Bounced back, she slid a bit, barely keeping balance enough not to fall into the revolting channel.
"Moaaahh?" a bassy voice grumbled, the wall of obese flesh in front of her beginning to turn.
Eyes wide, Shantae backed away. This... This monster was as tall as the brutes, but it was also as wide as it was tall! Two or three times more massive! Disgustingly fat too, its hide all in sagging folds, its stubby legs almost invisible under its hanging belly. And its forearms were replaced with large cannons. She began backing away faster, glancing back. She couldn't just run to the side and hide in the jungle because the channel here was passing through a natural arch in a rock formation. Trapped! The fat hulk finished turning and aimed its cannons at her at the same time as the two brutes rounded the corner. Stupid, stupid! How could she let her attention lapse like that!
Abandoning all thoughts, pulling out the scimitar, Shantae ran as fast as she could, gaining momentum to activate the dash, blurring around the brutes, trying hard to steer to the right.
None too soon as a literal inferno exploded behind her, billowing flames engulfing the brutes!
Crashing through dense bushes she'd be unable to breach otherwise, Shantae canceled the dash and began climbing up the slope, her feet slipping, grabbing at tree trunks for purchase. There was no such thing as too much caution after seeing that avalanche of fire!
Roaring in pain, the brutes went on the offensive. Shantae found it prudent to follow the fight by listening to it from over a ridge. There were roars of pain — the fat monster's voice quite distinct from that of the brutes — explosions, hiss and roar of fire, sounds of tearing. One of the brutes screeched in pain, followed by frantic splashing steps ending in a loud splash-hiss. More tearing, the fat one voicing its pain. Then a wet gurgle... and silence.
Shantae waited holding her breath.
There were splashing steps receding into distance, matching the gait of a brute. So, one of them survived while another fell. As did the fat flame thrower.
What a frightening experience.
Standing up Shantae paused for a minute, pondering how to proceed. The tropical-like shrubbery was dense, with scratchy rigid bushes, large plume-like meaty leaves and other plants in that vein. Sneaking through all that would be tedious and fraught with meeting a spiky ape face-to face. Not to mention getting scratched all over, what with her outfit consisting mostly of bare skin and thin, almost see-through silk. Only the bikini zone was protected by denser fabric.
She eyed a nearby palm-like tree. Normally, going the upper route would be much too tiring. But she could cheat using the pirate hat.
And so it went. Climb a tree, watch carefully making sure no one noticed you, glide to the next tree much further away than she'd be able to jump on her own. Repeat.
It worked like a charm. She was covering ground quickly, keeping the blood swamp to her left. A couple times spiky apes got agitated, hearing her but never looking up. And one time she had to drop into shrubbery as she saw incoming bluish white light. It turned out to be a perfectly straight and spaced stream of incandescent thunderbolts that charred, then sheared, the tree trunk.
So... She counted on her fingers. Disregarding The Boss at His tower, this was the eighth kind of monster she encountered. Or was it? She never saw who fired that.
A long, tedious and scratchy sneaking through the bushes Shantae dared to go to the treetops again. That incident never repeated itself. To her right, the jungle was stretching out of sight, seemingly uniformly endless. But she knew now there was a road hidden from sight. To her left, the swamp was stretching on, blood channels winding through the same jungle interspersed with occasional rocky outcropping.
She came upon a gorge cutting from the blood channels into a rock massif she just climbed. Cautious, she followed it: the rocks were nearly bare, no plants to hide behind. It made one zig-zag before opening into a large glade cut into the jungle, a stocky building of massive gray blocks framing its opposite side, with the familiar road going away to the right. Huh, so that's where it leads.
The glade wasn't empty: three zombies and three spiky apes were milling about. There was a large area corralled with low fence, an upraised wooden platform in its center and on the platform... Shantae gasped: they had a prisoner! There was a man in green armor, down on his knees, his hands tied behind his back to a bloody pole. His most distinguishing feature was a full helmet, one with a... curved glass pane in front of his eyes?
This was not the time to ponder on weirdness! She had to save him! Poles with decayed heads stuck on them decorating the area were a good hint of what fate awaited him otherwise.
Her eyes narrowed, Shantae began planning, playing different angles of attack in her mind. But... It wasn't working. She found herself hit by bullets due to many zombies' targeting lines criss-crossing. Or jumped by one spiky ape or other from behind - she wasn't going to imagine further, thank you very much. Or scimitar-dashing into dense shrubbery, having successfully disposed of half the enemies only to be jumped by the remaining half while she was stuck. It was like a bad puzzle, there was a small rock outcropping next to the beginning of the road, preventing her from using it to make a running start.
Frustrated, the pointy-eared girl chewed on her lip. There must be a way to save him! She just had to figure how. Making a racket to draw some of them away? That required thorough checking around lest she attracts a herd of monsters from just a bit further away.
Would be a nice opportunity to train sneaking skills if that man's life was not depending on her!
She checked the road and the blood swamp around the gorge mouth first. The road was deserted but there were monsters in the swamp, hiding in bushes along the channels. Some spiky apes, some pink gorillas, two fat flame throwers stuck on a bump in the middle of the channel and a badly burned brute wandering around aimlessly. So drawing those captors here was a very bad idea. She'd be lucky if none of the monsters she saw — and didn't see — here came as reinforcements during her daring rescue.
Returning to the glade she was relieved to find the prisoner still unharmed — and alert, judging by his helmeted head turning around occasionally. It was time to check the jungle around the glade and the building. The intrepid girl soundlessly descended on the hat, hidden out of sight of the monsters by the very rock outcropping framing the road entrance... She then barely avoided impaling herself on a wooden stake sticking out of the ground!
Twisting her body to contort around the stake, she stumbled and fell. Only to freeze, the point of another stake inches from her face!
Forcing her breathing down, Shantae very carefully stood up. This entire stretch of jungle was one immense spike trap, stakes of all kinds sticking out of the ground and even bristling on racks tied to the bushes.
On the positive side, no monster could possibly hide here or pass through this obstacle. On the negative side, she had to reach that building somehow. Groaning, she began inching through the spiky maze. It may be impassable for the bulky monsters, but she was much more graceful. Not to mention flexible.
It only took her fifteen minutes or so and only cost her a torn pant leg. Then came climbing up the wall of rough stone blocks. Nothing motivates perfection like a spike trap below you!
Reaching the top, Shantae peeked over the edge. Nothing was there but a flat stone roof, this building was unsophisticated like a brick whose shape it was mimicking. There were no flying monsters in sight, good. Behind the building, there was another open space, with the road continuing for a bit only to disappear into a large gate-like tunnel entrance barred by thick columns of iron. It must be descending underground, since there was jungle again behind the modest-sized structure, uninterrupted save the lone crag a mile further away.
Hmm. So this place was kind of a guard house on a road connecting two fortresses. She sneaked closer to the edge. Uh-oh, there were monsters down there! Two brutes and two... brains on mechanical legs? Shantae blinked. Robots, she could get, because tinkertech was ridiculous. But a gray brain-like creature with tiny, stubby arms sitting on a four-legged tinker platform making it look sorta like spider...?
If those came running, her daring rescue plan would smoothly turn into a suicide. Shantae groaned. It could not be. There had to— Wait. This building had an entrance, right? And that entrance was barred by a massive wooden door, right? And what was peculiar about that door? It was framed by panels of vibrant yellow color, quite distinct in this world of red and brown. So, that yellow skull behind that blue skull-grate...? It was a key for this building. And there must be a blue one somewhere too! Color-coding keys and doors... If she was a master of dumb monsters, she'd do that for sure!
She imagined herself commanding an army of Bolo clones and shuddered. No wai.
But more importantly it meant those brutes and tinker-spiders couldn't do a thing unless someone comes with the yellow skull-key!
Feeling a burst of optimism, she sneaked back to the other side to peer over the edge. The jungle on the other side of the building had spikes visible, so it was impassable as well. Which left her... back with a charade of how to deal with three zombies and three spiky apes, all at once. Fr-r-rustration. Unless... Yeah, that would be risky but if that guy could fight — and he looked like a warrior — then sowing confusion, then untying him, then hoping it works in the end was the best plan.
Deciding to attack sneakily, like a pirate, Shantae glided the hat over the clearing to hover right above one of the zombies. Then she performed a practiced swap, the hat going back to hammerspace and out going the scimitar. Mounting it like a pogo-stick, she rammed the zombie's head from above. Something crunched and she bounced successfully, allowing her to ram a second zombie who happened to be nearby. This time, the scimitar sank into his head with a wet crunch and stuck making the girl lose her balance and fall to the ground at the third zombie's feet. The hail of bullets he let fly passed harmlessly above her, making the spiky apes roar in pain. Perfect!
Running to the wooden platform, Shantae used the scimitar to hack at the man's restraints. It took him only a couple seconds to overcome the surprise of seeing her. Laughing victoriously, he pulled a... different musket out of his own hammerspace inventory to start blasting at the monsters. This thing was like a cannon. It shredded. There was so much blood... And chunks...
Two spiky apes came down quickly. The last zombie was at that moment running around on fire after it caught the ire of all three of the apes. Moaning, flailing and stinking horribly like burnt meat.
Then, things went pear-shaped. A pink gorilla came running from the gorge. Two flying skulls rose from the jungle. How have she missed all of those!
The guy in green armor focused on the pink gorilla, shooting it once, twice... It wasn't enough. The wounded beast crashed through the fence just as the guy's weapon went click and stopped firing. He began reloading it frantically, feeding something small and red into it, dropping some of these things in his haste.
Shantae intervened, pulling out the pirate pistol and shooting the spiky ape and the skulls then running away. They followed readily, fireballs and huge flaming skulls zipping past her as she dodged. Another shot thundered behind her, then again. Then something hit all the monsters chasing her all at once. Wait, was that hand-cannon of his firing grapeshot?
The monsters turned and attacked the guy in green. All the three remaining: the pink gorilla's body was down at his feet. He sundered the first skull, then his weapon went click again allowing the second skull to ram him at full speed. Ouch, that must have hurt! He fed his weapon yet another red thingy and blasted the skull, having turned around as it sort of slipped around him after it hit.
Ignoring Shantae's terrified "Watch out!" he began reloading again, only to catch a fireball with his face as he was turning back to the last spiky ape. That didn't kill him.
But the following two fireballs did.
His entire upper torso went up in flames. Screaming in pain, he dropped his musket to writhe on the ground.
Yelling in anger, Shantae pulled out the scimitar and ran towards the beast, activating the dash as soon as she had enough speed. As she rammed it, it exploded into a bloody mess, practically splashing apart around her, the forces of magic pushing it all away so not a single drop landed on her.
That was... much, much gorier than any such collision back in Sequin Land where ramming monsters was simply sending them flying. But this was not the time for reflection! She hurried to the wounded warrior.
He wasn't breathing. His helmet was a warped, blackened mess fused to his neck armor thingy, there was no way to make him drink a healing potion. His face visible through the melted, cracked glass... She really, really wished she haven't looked.
Sighing in defeat, her mood plummeting, Shantae sat down on the platform edge. The first non-hostile human... Was he, really, human? And was he really non-hostile? She didn't have a chance to talk to him, and now he was dead and she was all alone again.
Not that being the lone hero in a hostile territory ever bothered her. It was more lack of purpose for wandering this place that got to her. And not knowing if— how to return. Sigh.
She picked the discarded weapon. Lifting it up, she found it awkward. The weight wasn't bothering her: Shantae was stronger than she looked. But she was a petite girl and this thing felt oversized. Now, where had he been getting these... charges? Probably from his inventory, now lost.
And this was the wrong place to sit down figuring things out! Scouring around the platform, Shantae found many small red cylinders. Some empty, smelling funny, two heavier, sealed. Stuffing them and the weapon in hammerspace, she quickly looted the two unburnt zombies. The polite term was implying they "dropped" the items, even about monsters that possessed no hammerspace inventory.
One pistol, two tinkertech muskets and several little flat thingies that looked like ammunition later, the agile girl was climbing up the nearest cliff. None too soon as she saw that burned bruiser wandering through the gorge right after she flipped herself onto the cliff top.
So, what next? Shantae considered her options. She haven't seen any items of value, but these were probably hidden deep inside buildings and fortresses, just like valuable stuff back home was tucked away in dungeons. The problem was, she felt so ridiculously underpowered she had to retreat every time she met any monsters. Sneaking worked, to a degree, and she had good mobility advantage over the non-flying ones, and she had her trumps of the scimitar dash and the stealthy wrath-from-above hat-scimitar combo. But she'd lose these advantages as soon as she entered a confined dungeon, which she'd have to do. Eventually. Recalling the whole courtyard packed with pink gorillas she shivered imagining them stampeding her all at once, flowing down narrow corridors like an unstoppable mudflow.
There was also the problem of failing to spot monsters hiding out of sight, this was the easiest way to get herself killed. Poor guy.
So, her aversion to such grisly methods notwithstanding, she'd have to study the weapons she got. She'd prefer not to make her enemies explode into bloody chunks, thank you very much, but she needed an edge desperately.
Now, where should she do that? She pulled one tinker musket out. These weapons looked complex, she'd probably fumble a bit and make a lot of noise before figuring how they worked. Simply stay up here, on top of the rocks? She recalled that flock of red spherical things. And the one at the road. And the two skulls that emerged so suddenly. And the one skull that had attacked her out of nowhere. No, bad idea. She'd concentrate on the mystery weapons leaving herself wide open and blam. No, she needed someplace safe, somewhere she'd preferably be able to bar entrance... Hmm... Wait, the room she had been warped to! As revolting as it was, the door could probably be closed again.
Deciding to check around first, Shantae glided from the rock formation down to the middle of the blood swamp, landing at channel edge with a squelch of muddy ground. Yeech. No one tried shooting at her, though, which was good.
The swamp was stretching on, further to the right of her, but she was going to return to the starting room now, along its other side. Maybe there would be some loot lying around for picking, or another prisoner who wouldn't die when she saved them?
After some cautious walk she noticed a wide channel running through a huge arch in a rock formation, curving to the right.
"Let's say south is the direction I took the first look in, when I just came outside." Shantae mumbled under her breath slogging down the channel, which was growing deeper. "Then the starting room would be to the north of the swamp, the first fortress with the boss tower to the east, that lone crag to the west and the edge of that vast emptiness runs roughly south to north." She slowed to a crawl, not wanting to get bootfuls of blood. "While I am facing... south, I think. Hmm, it seems there's an opening ahead... Whoa, a whole lake of blood? Sheesh, they even got a pier with a dory tied to it. I'd better go the upper way, who knows how deep this lake gets. I got no desire go take a swim in blood."
The channel had, indeed, opened into a small lake as soon as it was out of the natural stone arch. The lake was surrounded by jungle, a wooden house standing at the far shore. No monsters were visible from here. This looked promising!
Shantae retreated into the swamp proper, then climbed the rock formation barefoot, the blood-soaked boots tucked away in hammerspace. Crossing the ragged massif uneventfully, she lied down on its edge, waiting and watching.
Nothing was happening, no one was moving. The hut was your typical jungle hut, with rough wooden walls, many wide windows and a flat thatched roof. A faint light was coming out of one of the windows on the near side. So gliding to the roof was out, it'd crunch loudly underfoot.
Eventually she glided to a small crag jutting close to the hut. Grabbing at a sheer rock wall was tricky but she made it and climbed to the top. Then she put the boots on and glided to the corner of the house, stopping there and descending naturally, without making a sound.
Then it was sneaking under the windows time! First, the window where the light was coming from. Huh, a golden chandelier? How incongruous. There were some armor pieces on a shelf but, more importantly, a lone zombie in a darker, almost black outfit toting a musket exactly the same as the one she inherited from the deceased guy. Ice-cold goosebumps crawling along her back, Shantae very, very carefully sneaked away. She had no desire to be exploded into bloody chunks, thank you very much.
That fright aside — the zombie wasn't looking alert so she would probably be fine — she went peeking into other windows. An empty room beyond the first one, then the front entrance... Oh. How disgusting.
There was a green marble pillar with a bloody, beating heart on top of it. Placed in the center of what could only be described as a rug of living flesh, pink and ridgy and stretched all over the floor.
Shantae hurried past. Nope, not poking that one.
The second window. Aha! There was a row of small white boxes with an unfamiliar symbol: a symmetric white cross in a green circle. Six of them in total. She hopped onto the windowsill to sneak inside, her steps light like a feather. The boxes were in her inventory faster than you can say "relic hunter". Score! Whatever they were.
There was also a metal barrel full of glowy green liquid. Fascinating, but better not touch without more insight. She was here only to grab everything that wasn't nailed down. In the back of the room there was sort of windowless closet. Acutely aware of blood smears leading from it, she peeked inside. A vibrant blue skull stared back at her, glowing prettily on a shelf on the far side of this small room. She was so glad she didn't need it, because lots of... raw meat, literal raw meat piled on the floor in front of it were a big fat hint that grabbing it was... fraught with peril.
There was nothing else here. Shantae peeked into the central room. The zombie was nowhere in sight, everything was quiet. But there was an entrance to another room in the back of the house. Inching along the wall to keep as far away from the rug of flesh as possible, she slipped into that room. Oh yeah! Propped on a stand next to the right wall, there was some sort of tinkertech cannon, big and black, all dull shine and fiddly techy bits. Stacked on the floor were wooden boxes, some of them opened revealing kinda-drum-like things inside, each with six elongated... somethings. Considering one such drum-thing was sticking out of the cannon? Ammunition!
Giddy with success, Shantae pushed it all into her inventory in record time, throwing out flesh pops and meat chunklets when it wouldn't fit. Maybe throwing food out was foolish, but these weren't very edible to begin with.
And now was the time to make herself scarce and go study the loot! Grinning like a loon, Shantae climbed out of the back window, onto a narrow open space around the hut that was devoid of shrubbery. There was no one aro— Her danger sense blared! Twirling to the right she saw a brute of a zombie in dark red armor standing in shadows next to the wall, toting a sleek shiny gatling. This six-barrel thing was many times thinner than the ones she saw back home, but knowing what devastation could a single musket wreak...
And it was being pointed at her, beginning to spin.
Shrieking in terror, Shantae assaulted him, whipping frantically. He flinched, stumbled, his weapon wavering. Then he just weathered her next two hits unflinchingly and her world exploded in excruciating pain tearing at her insides! It quickly gave way to terrifying numbness. The black and red sky swayed, why was it right in front of her. Her vision swam, filling with black spots, fading away.
Then, a reddish flash, a sound not unlike running water, and she was standing in the familiar room carved out of bedrock, the long forgotten dead brute at her feet.
Grabbing at her abdomen, her eyes wide, the dancer girl found herself whole again, healthy and clean. But also barefoot. The pirate boots were gone.
Checking her inventory, she found she now had four Auto-Potions instead of five. The boots weren't there either, she now only had the hat, the pistol and the scimitar. And all the loot she paid so dearly for.
"It seems I can either get much better at spotting hiding monsters, or keep dying horribly..." Wow, her own voice was so small and trembling. "Four more times..."
Dying turned out to be terrifying. And very, very painful. But still, she was already thinking what moves out of her martial arts repertoire she should have used to beat that gatling zombie. Grappling had to be the key!
Because pessimism was, frankly, just stupid.
( ｡◕ シーンブレイク ◕｡)
A.N. For those who haven't played Brutal Doom: that was not Doomguy but rather one of those NPC companions who replace invisibility spheres on the classic maps. Believe me, these guys never dodge. If you want them to live any longer than "tragically short", keep leaving them behind convenient corners (their follow/stand mode is switched by the Use button when you are close) and lure monsters into these makeshift killing fields.