Lernie entered Nightmare difficulty at CLVL 36, the standard timing for a character full-clearing through Normal difficulty on the default (players-1) setting. Before starting out on the new difficulty, I took a Crystal Sword that had dropped in the ice caverns of Act Five Normal and used my socket quest on it to guarantee the four sockets needed for a Spirit runeword. No doubt this would be seen as a horrible waste of a socket quest for those individuals who like to grind endlessly for the top-tier runes and rarest unique items. However, I had no interest in replaying areas over and over again to search for the best items, or even in replaying the same areas more than once on Lernie's single pass through the game. My goal was to make use of whatever I could find along the way and there was simply no way that I was going to do better than a Spirit runeword for ages and ages to come. Spirit provided +2 to all skills, plenty of additional fast cast (I rolled somewhat low at 27% this time), a massive 55% faster hit recovery boost, 22 points of Vitality translating into just short of 50 HP, along with 100 additional mana for spellcasting. All of that came from a one-handed weapon that required a paltry 43 Strength to equip. Spirit is honestly too good of a runeword because it overshadows almost any other option for caster builds until hitting the truly ridiculous runewords and uniques with miniscule rarity. This was most likely the weapon that Lernie would be using for the rest of the game - why not bring it into use ASAP?
The addition of the Spirit runeword along with the start of a new difficulty level also made this the perfect moment to respec Lernie's stats. I removed all of the stat points that I had previously allocated to Energy and shifted them over to Vitality instead, not needing them any longer thanks to the +100 mana on Spirit. I was also able to reset her skill points and bid farewell to everything that had previously gone into the Fire Ball skill. The revamped Sorcie skill tree now had everything going into Hydra and Fire Mastery, both of them holding the maximum six skill points that could be placed there at CLVL 36. I had 11 skill points left over and would continue to level up those two skills in parallel every time that Lernie gained a character level, eventually running out of her accumulated store of skill points right around the time that Hydra and Fire Mastery maxed out. This was going to take most of the remainder of Nightmare difficulty and then I could start work on improving Thunderstorm and Lightning Mastery to handle Fire Immune monsters in Hell difficulty.
Act One Nightmare was therefore the first time that Lernie was using Hydra as her primary attack spell and it definitely functioned in a different fashion as compared to Fire Ball. I took a break from this character for several months between Normal and Nightmare difficulties and that may have actually been a good thing since it stopped me from getting too confused as I adjusted to Lernie's new gameplay style. Any fears that I might have had when dropping from a maxed out Fire Ball skill down to the lower level Hydra skill were immediately dissipated once I saw the fire snakes in action. The Hydra shots started out dealing 118-144 damage which at first sounded unimpressive in terms of the raw numbers. However, that was the damage done per shot and per Hydra, and with as many as six of them available to be placed on the screen at once, it turned out that Lernie was dealing massive overkill damage against the denizens of Act One. I could pop down a couple of Hydras, walk away from the keyboard for a few seconds, and come back to see everything roasted to a cinder with Lernie standing around in complete safety.
Thus I found myself rarely placing more than two or three Hydras at a time since they were sufficient to destroy all but the toughest of opponents for the moment. Monsters were dying so quickly that I didn't get too many opportunities to work on developing better tactics for the use of this skill; it was only against double boss packs or giant clumps of enemies that I was able to start practicing its use in earnest. There actually is quite a bit of finesses to using Hydras effectively, even if the opposition was too feeble to see it very much in Act One Nightmare: there's the classic use of placing Hydras to serve as scouts around corners and into blind spots which has been around since the original Diablo. Hydras can also be surprisingly good at taking down priority targets in the enemy back lines, something that I used against the shamans by tossing a new Hydra next to them from the other side of the screen. I had a ton of fun using Hydras against the huge carver camps, drinking mana potions in order to summon a rolling siege line of Hydras that edged forward slowly through the camp with new Hydras replacing the ones that timed out on their ten second duration. One downside to Hydra is that it's a very mana-intensive skill and players need to be prepared with blue potions on hand to avoid running out of mana during extended fights.
It also helped that I had all of those saved skill points left over after using the respec at the start of Nightmare difficulty. This allowed me to level up Hydra and Fire Mastery simultaneously throughout Act One by dropping two new skill points on each new character level, and the combination of pumping both of the CLVL 30 fire skills caused the damage on Hydra to grow at a rather terrifying rate. The skill was increasing by 20-30 average damage with each pair of skill points added until Lernie was hitting about 350 damage (per Hydra and per shot) by the end of the Act. The rapidly growing damage on the skill was enormously outpacing the rate of monster scaling and thus Lernie's journey was temporarily becoming easier with time, not harder. I was beginning to sense that the raw power of Hydra was going to turn Nightmare difficulty into somewhat of a cakewalk and Lernie wouldn't be truly challenged until she reached Hell difficulty and started hitting lots of fire immunity. I still had a long ways to go to reach that point but it was exceedingly rare for Lernie to lose even 100 HP out of her 600 HP maximum - she simply wasn't facing dangerous situations as everything died to Hydra fire.
In terms of items, the biggest find for Lernie was probably her reward ring for rescuing Cain which was among the best I've ever seen. The pictured ring had three hefty resistances on it and lacked only 10% faster cast to be perfect for a Sorceress that didn't need lifesteal. Along with the awesome Ormus reward ring that Lernie had received back in Normal difficulty, this was certainly the best set of quest rings that I'd ever had on an individual character. The other item finds turned out to be stuff that appeared for my mercenary Kasim. First I saw the unique chain mail armor named the Sparking Mail appear, something which was far from amazing but did have 80% increased defense and some lightning resistance on it. I decided that this would be worth upgrading to its exceptional version and (once I could finish making another Perfect Diamond) turned it into a mesh armor for the base item. I also found the unique bardiche Dimoak's Hew which was mostly interesting for having +100% damage and +20% faster attack speed. I would have upgraded it into its own exceptional equivalent but lacked the Sol rune needed - I hadn't turned up a single Sol rune yet and thus had been unable to make a Lore helmet for Lernie! Her rune luck had been quite sad thus far. Long term, I was still hoping to make an Insight polearm of some kind for Kasim if I could find a good base item with the proper four sockets.
Act One Nightmare went by quickly at a brisk full clear pace. The fights often looked spectacular from a visual standpoint when all six Hydras were on screen at the same time and bellowing forth their fiery projectiles. D2R gets dark enough in the underground areas that the flashes of light from the Hydra shots and the occasional Thunderstorm strike were legitimately helpful in seeing what was going on. The one opponent type that I was most worried about was Fire Immune enemies and of course I ran into a couple of them throughout the act. Bishibosh was the first and I didn't really have a plan for dealing with him... only to watch Kasim bash the evil shaman to death in seconds after the Hydras had cleared out everything else. Uh ok, I suppose that worked! More common were situations like the one above, where another dark one shaman had rolled the Magic Resistance trait which was enough to create a fire immunity. Everything else perished to Hydra fire followed by the shaman standing around completely untouched as all six of the summoned creatures tried in vain to damage it. I ran up next to the boss and hit it with some Static Field casts followed by Kasim disposing of the thing but that didn't feel like a viable strategy long term. All of the carvers and their shamans would be Fire Immune in Hell difficulty and I wasn't confident that Thunderstorm was going to be a solution there. Maxing Nova instead (another skill that I've never used) felt like it might be a better idea. I still had time to decide and two more potential stat/skill point respecs to use as needed.
Anyway, Lernie never ran into any dangerous situations and pretty much cruised through all of Act One. Andariel is weak against fire element which meant that she perished in about five seconds of real world time, with Kasim even surviving her poison despite the huge damage bonus act end bosses get against hirelings:
It was on then to Act Two and the deserts outside Lut Gholein. The Sewers proved to be more difficult than I expected and in fact were the first area to present an actual threat since picking up the Hydra skill at the start of Nightmare. All of the Burning Dead skeletons had 75% fire resistance and that was enough protection to neutralize the strength of Lernie's Hydras. While they were able to get the kills eventually, it took vastly longer than any foe she had faced thus far and Kasim was taking a beating against enemy mobs. I had to take my time and avoid charging around corners into big groups of enemies, not that they were going to kill Lernie with her ability to Teleport away but simply because I wanted to avoid unnecessary mercenary resurrection bills. I made it through the first two floors without any real danger although at a slower pace than what had become the norm.
The third floor of the Sewers presented a new and more serious problem: all of the Burning Dead mages had 100% fire resistance which was enough to create an immunity. They were completely invulnerable against Hydra damage, not just the bosses but all of the regular monsters as well. In the picture above, note how the Stone Skin and Extra Strong modifiers don't provide any additional magic resistance to this boss, indicating that the Fire Immune property was a natural part of the enemy's design. Lernie had no clear solution for dealing with these opponents beyond hitting them with Static Field until reaching the 1/3 HP cap and then standing around hoping that the combination of Kasim + Thunderstorm could take them down. It should come as no surprise that this wasn't much of a plan and Kasim died multiple times whenever I ran into a mob of these Fire Immune mages. These fights went badly enough that they forced me to rethink my longterm skilling pattern for Lernie: relying on Thunderstorm as a main attack skill didn't seem to be remotely reliable given what I was seeing here. It looked like it would have to be Nova after all for dealing with Fire Immune opponents in Hell difficulty and I made plans to give that skill the next priority after maxing out Hydra and Fire Mastery. As for Radament, he turned out to be much easier than these random monsters by virtue of spawning with a bunch of Horror skeletons instead of Burning Dead. The Horrors have strong lightning resistance but lack any protection to fire element and were gunned down in short order by the Hydra artillery barrage.
The outdoor portions of Act Two were much easier thanks to their wide open spaces with plenty of room to maneuver. These tend to be some of the lowest-danger regions in the entire game and the monsters in these areas have little to no fire resistance rendering them helpless against Lernie's Hydras. She was still pumping both Hydra and Fire Mastery with two skill points on every new level and the damage continued to climb to ever-higher peaks. The threat level was low and Lernie's clear pace was speedy through the deserts. The underground areas were marginally more difficult largely because there was less space and it was harder to see what was going on. The Maggot Lair was mostly annoying because the Hydras kept shooting their fireballs into the walls or lacked vision to hit their targets. Access to Teleport meant that Lernie couldn't really be hurt in those narrow corridors though, not when she could blink backwards to safety behind Kasim as needed. Coldworm was Fire Immune but her offspring were not and the Hydras downed the maggot young with remarkable speed, after which Kasim speared the big worm to death with his pike.
Things weren't much different against the slow-moving zombies in the Lost Oasis followed by the snakes in the Claw Viper Temple. The most difficult opponents turned out to be the Fire Towers in the Valley of the Snakes thanks to their 90% fire resistance; Lernie did take the time to kill them since I found their fire shots to be annoying. She finally maxed out Hydra and Fire Masters while passing through the Ancient Tunnels at SLVL 20+2 for each of them, resulting in 497-595 damage on the Hydra shots. While this was massive overkill damage against anything that wasn't Fire Immune for the moment in mid-Nightmare difficulty, I still hoped that I could find some more +skills gear to increase those numbers further for Hell difficulty since the monsters would keep scaling upwards while Lernie's damage would not. I had some fears about Fangskin and his crew on the second floor of the Claw Viper Temple only to find the place completely deserted. There were no Hollow Ones with their minions present, just Fangy and his crew by themselves. Lernie tossed down the maximum six Hydra before waking up Fangskin (one of the fun preparation tactics that can be done with this skill) and the snakes were blasted apart before they could do anything. There was no need for an emergency Teleport up onto the platform for safety this time.
Hydras continued to prove their usefulness against the skeleton archers and melee monsters crawling around in the depths of the Palace. They're an amazing tool for scouting around corners where the player lacks vision and will even shoot at enemies on the other side of walls to indicate that there are foes present over there. A Hydra sorcie should never find herself stumbling blindly into an enemy ambush with the tools she has at her disposal. I continued to stay safe and rarely found myself losing more than 100 HP out of Lernie's 700-800 total. The Arcane Sanctuary was the first place to have meaningful fire resistance on monsters in some time, with the goats having 70% resistance which would become an immunity in Hell difficulty. However, they were still melee opponents which would never get close enough to hit Lernie if I acted with any brain at all and this wound up being an easy area to complete as well. The visuals here in D2R were downright amazing at times:
This battle with Hydras and enemies on all sides in the middle of the teleporter quadrant was a treat to watch play out in real time. The toughest opponents wound up being the Lightning Spires thanks to their 90% fire resistance, continuing the trend of inanimate objects taking the longest time to defeat. The Arcane Sanctuary also helpfully provided a significant equipment upgrade when a Sol rune finally dropped and Lernie could make a Lore helmet for the first time. I had been using a circlet with some additional HP on it for lack of anything else and even this basic runeword represented a major improvement. Hydra increased to 544-627 damage from gaining a skill point in both Hydra and Fire Mastery and now I could switch my gambling over to amulets in the hopes of finding more +skills there. As for the Summoner, I didn't even manage to get a screenshot of him since Hydras cast onto his platform secured the kill offscreen. He is such a pathetic opponent, they really should have beefed up his life in the new D2R patches.
The False Tombs and the True Tomb went more smoothly than I'd been expecting with the resurrecting undead not causing too many problems here in Nightmare. The Burning Dead skeletons remained highly fire resistant but the additional skill points in Hydra since the start of the act resulted in them collapsing fairly quickly. I tried to place the Hydras next to the Unravelers as much as possible so that the fire summons would target the greater mummies first. Hydras can be cast anywhere on screen that the player has vision and it was common for Lernie to open a door and then raise a bunch of them way in the back of an enemy mob while Kasim tanked the enemies in front. There were many, many times where the Hydras were killing monsters that I couldn't even see since Lernie didn't have vision yet. The other foes in the Tombs weren't much of a threat thanks to their total lack of fire resistance and their melee nature. It was a true joy having Teleport on hand and it's been ages since I allowed myself to have access to this skill. Lernie could blink past the slow-moving enemy skeletons, pop next to an Unraveler to raise several Hydras, then leap over a wall into safety before the shambling hordes could close in on her. I hate the fact that Diablo 3 put this skill on a cooldown timer - Teleport is awesome and games are meant to be fun, let people blink around as much as they want!
I caught a minor break when Kaa's Tomb turned out to have no Unraveler/Burning Dead monsters inside which allowed me to clean it out faster. Kaa himself was easy to spot since there were no other greater mummies in the Tomb, and with the extra fire resistance he drew from his Fire Enchanted trait, it took the full complement of six Hydras to down with concentrated shots. I wasn't as lucky in the True Tomb and did have to slog through lots of Unravelers which took a fair bit longer in real-world time. I did have a major item find for the mercenary in one of the False Tombs, a rare Halberd with 20% increased attack speed and 121% increased damage. That was the best I'd seen by a good margin and something well worth using as I continued to search for a four-socket polearm that could become an Insight runeword. Of course I also needed another Sol rune to make Insight even assuming I could find the base weapon, plus I wouldn't mind making a Radiance helm as well which also required yet another Sol rune. Lernie's rune luck continued to be subpar throughout the remainder of the act.
The one remaining foe that I truly respected was Duriel, largely due to the ridiculously small room in which he must be fought. I thought that I'd be safe enough given that Hydra was at the absolute peak of its power relative to the strength of the enemies but I've learned over the years not to take chances with this boss. Once I entered the Orifice chamber, Kasim charged forward to tank while Lernie raised the maximum number of six Hydras as quickly as possible. I cycled through raising more Hydras as their 10 second timer ran out while feeding more potions to Kasim, including using the Shift-number key option to grant the mercenary a full rejuv off Lernie's belt. This was enough to keep Kasim alive for the roughly 20 seconds that the Hydras needed to slay Duriel:
All in all, it went as smoothly as I possibly could have hoped with zero danger to Lernie herself. Duriel dropped Hellclap, the unique war bow, which amusingly had +1 fire skills on it but fell far short of the various benefits on Lernie's Spirit sword. Now why couldn't that have been Magefist instead for the gloves slot? I stopped to gamble amulets with the gold obtained in this session and Elzix handed Lernie a real keeper: a Blazing Amulet with +2 sorcie fire skills. That was one step short of the Volcanic amulet with +3 fire skills and it lacked a suffix to go along with its prefix but I happily made the switch and ditched the Amulet of the Squid that I'd been wearing previously. Losing some HP was worthwhile to gain two additional points in both Hydra and Fire Mastery; Hydra was now up to 644-737 damage.
The jungles of Act Three are another low-danger portion of the game that tend to be a real slog to pass through. This is one of my least-favorite parts of Diablo 2 because it's so tedious passing through all of the greenery that seems to stretch on forever without any breaks or alterations. Lernie certainly didn't have much in the way of problems in these areas between plenty of room to operate and a near-total lack of fire resistance among the monsters. The only enemies that had a decent amount of fire resistance were the pictured zombies and, well, they were lethargic melee opponents who had essentially no chance ever to hit her. Hydra turns out to be an excellent skill against swarms of weak opponents since the serpentine heads shoot their fireballs at a fast rate and they automatically track the movements of the monsters. Fetishes and flayers were easily dealt with by summoning a bunch of Hydras whenever Lernie ventured into their villages. Teleport also helped cut down on the need to backtrack by allowing Lernie to blink over the river segments whenever she felt like it. I've played this game enough to be pretty good at reading the jungle layout but Teleport still saved me a good bit of time.
I didn't take too many screenshots while passing through the jungles since fights tended to be on the easy side. The Spider Cavern and the Arachnid Lair in particular were a total breeze with the spiders never really getting close to Lernie. I tried to take a picture of Sszark and he died before I could even move the mouse to get the hover on his boss abilities. The most noteworthy occurrence during these regions was Kasim finally reaching 133 Strength so that I could use the Horadric Cube to upgrade his excellent rare Halberd into a Bec-de-Corbin. Landing both 20% increased attack speed and 121% extra damage on an exceptional weapon was as good as I could hope to have while operating in pure play and the weapon even had poison damage as well to stop monster healing. This would be enough to tide over Kasim until I could put together an exceptional or elite Insight runeword for him - I still hadn't found a second Sol rune yet!
The Flayer Dungeon and the Swampy Pit were noticeably tougher thanks to their tight spaces and more dangerous enemy mixes. The Undead Soul Killers and Undead Stygian Dolls showed up for the first time in these dungeons and immediately dialed up the threat level - no screwing around with those little buggers. I discovered that one of the drawbacks to running Mana Shield was that any of their death explosions would instantly empty Lernie's mana globe with the reflected damage. This was still worthwhile since her mana was absorbing 35% of the incoming damage, true, but I had to be careful since the loss of all mana meant an inability to Teleport away to safety. Oddly Kasim didn't seem to be bothered much at all by their death explosions and I was therefore happy to let the mercenary tank their attacks. Although there were no true close calls here, Lernie did drink noticeably more red and blue potions to stay topped off on both life and mana.
Witch Doctor Endugu at the bottom of the Flayer Dungeon always has the Magic Resistant and Fire Enchanted traits and thus always shows up with an immunity to fire element. This was a good opportunity to get a preview of the hordes of Fire Immune opponents waiting in Hell difficulty and Lernie had been steadily adding skill points to the Nova skill ever since maxing out Hydra and Fire Mastery. Nova was about SLVL 7+3 by now and I was quite pleased with the damage that it put out against Endugu and his Magic Resistant trait, with the enemy shaman dropping in fewer than a dozen casts of the skill. Nova drains through the sorcie's mana orb at breakneck speed but it does deal pretty good damage and has absolutely no casting delay whatsoever. Here in D2R it also looks amazing up close with the waves of electrical energy shooting outwards. Hopefully this would be enough to get the job done on the next difficulty level; Lernie should be able to max it out by the end of Nightmare in preparation for the challenges ahead.
The outdoor parts of Kurast are more regions that rarely hold any true danger for players, at least not until reaching Travincal anyway. There were lots of vultures and thrashers in these areas that were easy prey for the Hydra swarms. The zealots similarly died too quickly for hierophant healing to be effective. I caught a break in the Kurast Sewers as there were no skeletons and greater mummies present, only lots of mosquitos and mummies and gloombats. The mosquitos were unexpectedly the most annoying foes since their attacks drained mana and broke the Energy Shield, nothing truly dangerous but definitely annoying. As for the temples, Sarina and her crew weren't too bad because I was able to summon the full six Hydras ahead of time before waking them up, the group of rogues collapsing immediately to their concentrated fire. The Disused Fane turned out to be the worst of the lot with a boss pack right at the entrance that I had to Teleport Lernie away from, fleeing deeper into the temple blindly. That's always a dangerous thing to do and fortunately it worked out here with Lernie able to stabilize and fight her way back to the stairs. No pictures here, I was concentrating on not dying. The other four temples were a bit of a joke with all of their bosses tucked away in side rooms instead of swarming Lernie the instant she entered. It's pretty ridiculous that stairs traps are still in the game after all this time; at least now computers are fast enough to load the new areas quickly rather than having your character die before they can even see what's going on.
I followed the usual precaution of clearing out everything in Travincal before moving to engage with the Council members. Lernie could Teleport onto the platform that runs around the whole temple city which made it easy to take out the vampires that like to hide up there and rain Meteors down on the player's head. After establishing that everything else was dead, I edged Lernie towards the front of the central temple and drew out Geleb with a couple of minions:
This battle was awkward because not all of the Hydras on that screen were summoned by Lernie and it was impossible to tell which was which from a visual perspective. Lernie's Hydras proved to be better than their Hydras though as the fighting only took a few seconds to complete. I wasn't even able to get a screenshot of Geleb and knew it had been him only from the Fire Enchanted death explosion that left his corpse splattered on the ground. I tried my best to draw out the remaining Council members afterwards only to find that they weren't biting. Lernie ended up casting her Hydras into the central temple through the windows on the right hand side, slaying the monsters inside without even seeing most of them. Once it was safe, she Teleported through the wall and summoned more Hydras which finished off Toorc in the back corner; I never even saw Ismail who must have been downed offscreen. One of the Council members dropped the unique Poleaxe, the Battlebranch, which was sadly nowhere near as good as the rare weapon that Kasim was already using. Maybe this would have been useful back in Normal difficulty but not anymore.
There were more Undead Stygian Dolls on the first floor of the Durance of Hate which required more careful creeping around corners to avoid walking into a bunch of them. Fortunately they were not present on Durance 2 which was back to its ridiculously massive size here on Nightmare difficulty. I still don't know why Blizzard made this area so huge since it does nothing to stop the players who want to do hundreds of Mephisto runs for hours on end. Even with Lernie's fast clearing pace, it took close to half an hour to defeat all of the mummies and vampires and maulers that stretched across the vast expanses of the Durance - what a pain in the butt. The unique Long Sword named Hellplague dropped on the floor and it actually had +2 to fire skills on it! However that was still inferior to all of the other stuff on Lernie's Spirit runeword and gaining extra physical damage along with life/mana steal wasn't useful for a casting Sorceress. I wish that I could have found a way to use this weapon since it was thematically a great fit for Lernie's character.
Durance 3 is one of my favorite parts of the game, tense and exciting no matter how many times that I've played through it. Lernie hugged the bottom of the entrance area until she could start drawing out the foes at the main doorway. She pulled a couple of Blood Lord vampires and slew them before Bremm Sparkfist came out with his old Extra Fast trait pulled as the bonus Nightmare ability. He and his minions all lacked fire resistance and Lernie's Hydras defeated them in short order before they could swarm over her. I followed my usual pattern of heading to left to defeat Maffer followed by going to the right to eliminate Wyand before waking up Mephisto himself. Maffer was surrounded by more vampires but Wyand was completely alone and Hydras made short work of him. As for Mephisto, Lernie spammed out the maximum six Hydras and then focused on recasting them in succession as the 10 second timer began to run out, keeping the Hydra fire at maximum blast at all times. Kasim tanked the Prime Evil like a champ and I kept feeing him additional red potions throughout the fight to keep his health up. I was expecting the mercenary to die but apparently those potions were sufficient to offset the damage incoming from Mephisto and he stayed alive for the whole battle. This was nice and routine with Lernie never pulling aggression or taking a hit over the course of the combat.
Act Four was a more serious testing ground for Lernie's abilities. This has always been the toughest part of the game for fire sorcies dating all the way back to the pre-expansion days. The three Sorceress skill trees were actually balanced around Act Four originally: fire skills dealt the most damage but everything in Act Four was heavily resistant to fire damage so the "best" skills would come up short at the most critical moment of the game, thus encouraging players to run at least some lightning or cold skills as well. Obviously that balancing went out the window with the addition of Act Five in the expansion. Anyway, one thing that hasn't changed is that Act Four remains packed full of fire-resistant monsters. Lernie found herself facing Cliff Lurkers and Venom Lords in the Outer Steppes, both of whom are 80% resistant to fire element on Nightmare difficulty. It took a long time to kill the Venom Lords with their beefy health totals, with groups of the balrog enemies forcing the summoning of five or six Hydras instead of Lernie's usual two or three. She continued to make progress but at a noticeably slower pace as compared with other areas.
The Plains of Despair turned out to be worse though as they included Doom Knights who were completely Fire Immune and thus invulnerabile to Hydras. This was an unwanted preview of Hell difficulty and forced Lernie to fall back on her alternate Nova skill to dispose of these enemies. The other monsters here were Doom Casters with their own 50% fire resistance and then more Venom Lords back again from the previous area. I had no choice but to return back to town again and again for more blue potions since Nova was such a mana-intensive skill to use. It was dealing decent damage at something like SLVL 13+3 while still being far short of sufficient for this point in the game. That was intended though: I was deliberately using underpowered options for Lernie's non-Hydra skills to force her to rely on the fire lizards whenever possible. The standard option here would have been taking Frozen Orb and bowling over everything which resistant to fire but where would have been the fun in that? Anyway, Nova got the job done, eventually, as I continued to add more skill points into it on each level up. Izual had only minimal fire resistance and was quite literally easier to kill than normal Doom Knight opponents.
Lernie had much more luck in terms of the monster mix in the next two areas and the difficulty level fell off a cliff. She drew mostly Damned enemies in the City who were completely Lightning Immune but lacked any resistance to fire at all; they perished almost instantaneously as soon as Lernie began raising the Hydras. It was kind of incredible how much easier and faster this region was against a different set of enemies. The River of Flame similarly had lots of maggots and stranglers and weirdly Abyss Knight casters without their melee protectors. None of these were hard for Lernie to deal with despite some fire resistance on the stranglers and Abyss Knights. The Hell Forge was as close to the stairs as I've ever seen on the River of Flame and encountered almost immediately, with Hephasto drawing a non-threatening Mana Burn for his extra ability. The Hellforge quest reward dropped a Lem rune which is unfortunately one of the least-valuable runes to have despite its higher tier status. It's probably best known for the Wealth runeword that has 100% extra magic find on it, obviously not something that Lernie cared about. Why couldn't this have been one tier higher as a Pul rune to make the Enlightenment armor, or a lower tier Lum rune for Smoke? At least I did find a rare Grim Helm with 71% enhanced defense to add 215 more Defense rating to Kasim's equipment.
The Chaos Sanctuary was a gathering place for all of Lernie's most dangerous foes, Venom Knights and Storm Casters and Doom Knight / Oblivion Knight pairs. All of the Doom Knights remained Fire Immune and the Venom Lords were nearly so which made this place a real slog. It was good practice in getting ready for Hell difficulty though, with mixed monster groupings of Fire Immune and non-Fire Immune opponents which would be common after completing Nightmare. I did my best to proceed slowly without waking up too many monsters at a time while using lots of Nova whenever there was a bunch of Doom Knights present. Hydra and Nova synergize better in this regard than I had previously realized, with Lernie casting a bunch of Hydras followed by spamming out Nova sparks while the fiery snakes did their thing in the background. Both skills just drain the mana orb like crazy so Lernie once again found herself back in town a lot loading up on more potions.
Once the whole Sanctuary was clear, Lernie could focus on dealing with the seal bosses. De Seis spawned with a Fanaticism aura and a whole bunch of Fire Immune knight guardians which proved to be a deadly combo for poor Kasim. I had to retreat back to town to resurrect him and separate the Doom Knights into smaller groups to kill them in safety. The Infector had the Magic Resistant trait which gave him an immunity to fire damage - just great! Kasim bit the dust yet again against the huge mob of Venom Lords and Lernie had to run for her life to split up the group. I was able to isolate the Infector and two minions behind the first lava pool near the entrance to the Chaos Sanctuary where a revived Kasim was able to down the boss with Nova help, then we walked back towards the original seal killing the remaining minions who had gotten stuck on various parts of the Sancutary architecture. I'll probably have to pull this boss back to the River Maze in Hell difficulty where Teleport and ranged attacks will make short work of him. The Vizier spawned with both fire and lightning immunity but was the easiest opponent by far since his minions died so quickly to massed Hydras. I could stack all six of them ahead of time before opening the seal and have a nasty surprise waiting for the monsters.
Diablo was a bit of an anticlimax after the tough seal bosses. He mostly stayed at a distance and kept trying to trap Lernie in Bone Prisons rather than closing to melee range, not something that was a danger with Teleport on hand. I was quite content with that situation and kept refreshing the Hydra count as they timed out. Kasim also helped distract Diablo as I fed him red potions through the fight to keep his health up. I expected the mercenary to die but it was Diablo who croaked first without ever getting closer to Lernie than the edges of the screen. That was the best screenshot that I managed to capture - Lernie truly kept this guy at arm's reach for the whole encounter.
I had observed back in Normal difficulty that Act Five was vastly easier than Act Four and it proved to be so again for Lernie here in Nightmare. I don't have a lot of notes or screenshots from the outdoor portions of Act Five because they were so routine for Lernie to complete. It can sometimes be hard to get the screenshots of the bosses because massed Hydra fire would slay them while I was still trying to mouse over their abilities. None of the guest monsters from earlier acts that Lernie encountered happened to roll with the Fire Immune property and even heavily resistant Burning Dead Archers were easy prey to Hydras given that they stood in place without moving. I was somewhat concerned about the Act Four subdungeons but they were equally friendly in terms of their monster mixes, no balrog or minotaur opponents appearing inside. Lernie broke the siege of Harrogath, rescued the prisoners, and made her way into the ice caverns that make up the midpoint of the act. Most noteworthy was finding Rattlecage, the unique Gothic Plate armor, which I upgraded to an exceptional item with 490 Defense. It had 40% chance to cause monsters to flee which was a handy property for Kasim's attacks to have.
The ice caverns were, if anything, even easier for Lernie and a total joke compared to Act Four. These areas had mostly witches and ice monsters along with the occasional guest monster skeletons, and there was essentially no fire resistance at all on these foes. The melee monsters in particular were completely useless and lacked enough speed to ever get close enough to hit Lernie. She practically flew through these areas with Hydras obliterating everything, no need for any Nova castings at all. Next up was Nihlathak's temple after rescuing Anya and it presented more of a genuine obstacle. The Halls of Anguish were packed with Devilkin and their shamans which were annoyingly fire resistant and took some time to clear out. The Halls of Pain were worse with Blood Clan goats spawning with the Fire Immune property. Lernie was forced to rely on Nova here and guzzle down lots of mana potions again. Nova is an interesting skill in the sense that it takes the same amount of casts to kill one goat as it does to kill ten goats thanks to Nova's area of effect properties. I tried to gather up a bunch of them together and then burst them all simultaneously while they were grouped around Kasim. Thankfully there were no goats on the bottom floor, only lots of witches and ghosts who were easy to dispatch. I took great care against Nihlathak to stay behind the rolling line of Hydras, even Teleporting over the fallen bodies of monsters on the ground so that he couldn't Corpse Explode them under Lernie's feet. The Hydras fought their way through the summoned enslaved minions and killed Nihlathak himself while Lernie and Kasim watched in safety from the other side of the room.
The Frozen Tundra and the Ancient's Way continued to have lots of weak opponents with little to no fire resistance. There were more imps and goats and frozen terrors and skeleton mages across these regions with nothing putting up much of a fight. The Icy Cellar was certainly packed with bosses but Hydra is one of the best skills for waking them up one at a time from a distance instead of stumbling into giant hairballs. I realized about this time that I had missed out on minotaur opponents for the entire act which helped to make this whole journey easier. Lernie could stomp through any number of gloombat and witch bosses without facing real danger. Meanwhile, there was a major item find while clearing these areas in the form of the unique Grand Crown, the Crown of Thieves. This had a bunch of excellent stats for Kasim including 305 Defense rating; I'll paste an image of it into the screenshot below. This was a true keeper item on the mercenary.
While Act Five had been a snoozefest thus far, the Ancients and the final bosses in the Worldstone Keep are always dangerous enough to demand respect. I prepped the Arreat Summit battleground with a bunch of health and mana potions before activating the statues and prepared to bail if they rolled unwanted boss affixes. This was a rough encounter for Lernie because Talic and Korlic both had 70% fire resistance and she couldn't tell the Hydras to prioritize hitting one target at a time. Madawc predictably died right away since he lacked any protection against fire but it took long minutes on end to work through the massive health bars of the other two Ancients. Aside from refreshing the Hydras as they died, I was mostly concentrating on keeping Kasim alive by feeding him a steady stream of red potions. At one point he fell low enough for me to use a full rejuv off belt via the Shift-click hotkey and that restored the mercenary back into the safe zone. Korlic was the next to fall leaving Talic as the last one remaining, with the Spectral Hit trait that he rolled taking him all the way to 90% fire resistance. The fight ended with Talic pinned against a wall with six Hydras hitting him with an endless stream of fire as they slowly whittled down his health. This is a place where I expect to need Nova support in Hell difficulty given how much fire resistance the Ancients have; the Hydras alone won't be enough as they barely were sufficient this time around.
The Worldstone Keep levels were lively while still remaining comfortable overall, with lots of witches and poison skeletons and defilers inhabiting the three floors of the castle. I really appreciate that the developers didn't make this place obnoxiously huge like the Durance and the preceding outdoor parts of Act Five. Lernie found two useful items from the monster drops: the set boots Natalya's Soul which had 40% faster run along with cold + lightning resistance and then later a random Fal rune. The new boots looked to be worth wearing because cold resistance was one of the holes in Lernie's gear setup and 40% faster run speed would allow me to drop her venerable Stealth armor while still having plenty of movement. The one downside was Natalya's Soul requiring 65 Strength to wear which I deemed a worthwhile investment; Lernie had 45 Strength and thus would need four character levels before she could use the new gear. As for the Fal rune, now I was really hoping to find a Lum rune to make a Lionheart armor. Lernie currently had Fal and Lem runes along with nothing else higher than Dol - what an odd pattern of rune drops!
The Throne of Destruction stairs were trapped, of course, fortunately not badly though. Lernie cleared out the side wings (where there actually were some minotaurs for the first time in the act) and prepared for the boss rush at the throne itself. Hydra allowed Lernie to prepare ahead of time with a full stack of six lizards waiting for the bosses and that was more than enough to tear right through Colenzo and Achmel. Bartuc was slightly tougher although he lacked anything in the way of fire reistance and then Ventar and Lister were much, much more difficult customers. The venom lords were all 80% fire resistant and I had to Teleport backwards repeatedly to pull Kasim back into a safer position while splitting off some of the minions from the wider boss pack. This little cat-and-mouse game worked well enough to finish off Ventar. On the other hand, Lister spawned with Extra Fast trait and his minion pack simply bowled right through the waiting Hydras to crash into Kasim. I captured that moment in the screenshot above and had to Teleport frantically backwards to save the mercenary's life. Lister was 95% fire resistant and his minions weren't much better which forced me to pull them into the side wings one and two at a time where they could be slain in safety. The minions of destruction were nasty customers when juiced up with that extra speed, coming close to stun locking Lernie even with her ample faster hit recovery gear. This was one of the most dangerous foes in the whole run to date.
Lister was the final real boss with Baal being little more than an afterthought. I've written a bunch of times about how Baal doesn't have an aggressive AI personality and the Prime Evil seemed content to stay on the bridge of the Worldstone Chamber firing off his cold shot at a distance. That was fine with Lernie who also remained at a distance raising Hydras to keep all six of them pelting Baal continuously with fireballs. Kasim was no help at all here and mostly wandered around the room doing nothing at all - thanks for the help, buddy! Baal summoned his clone at one point which died to Hydra fire after which the fire creatures went back to pummeling the main boss again. I had to return to town once for a potion refill and that was all she wrote for Baal, never any moment that came close to being dangerous. Baal dropped two set items, neither of them useful for Lernie's purposes. Oh well.
That brought Nightmare difficulty to a close where Hydra had truly strutted its stuff and become the star of the show. I knew that it wouldn't be as dominant in Hell difficulty since the skill's damage hadn't been increasing and there would be Fire Immune monsters everywhere. The days of dropping two Hydras and everything dying in seconds were sadly at an end. I would have to rely much more heavily on Nova going forward as Lernie became a true dual-element Sorceress. Would I be able to keep her deathless streak going all the way to the finish? I certainly intended to try.
Oh and I also cleared the Secret Cow Level for fun. MOO!