It's close to the end of my 80 hours with "Dark Souls II," and my character is standing in the middle of a white infinity.
Snow blows in her face. Sunlight hovers on the horizon. I move forward, I move back, I move to each side — I find nothing but more white stuff.
Eventually, though, I find something: A giant Frozen Reindeer emerges from the snowy mist to stampede me like some idiot hiker having a moment with nature.
This is "Crown of the Ivory King," the third of three expansion packs in "The Lost Crowns Trilogy." And yes, this is "Dark Souls."
Discouraged by my winter idyll's sudden demise, I respawn at my bonfire and head in the only other uncharted direction remaining — toward the only storyline "Dark Souls II" boss I've yet to face.
I'll soon find out, however, that The Burnt Ivory King is not just another boss. He's maybe the most epic encounter in all of FromSoftware's action RPG.
It begins with me plunging down a well in an ice palace, then landing on a stone platform atop an ocean of magma. There, I fight about 10 bodyguard knights, each a handful in his own right, before dueling the king himself. But I don't do this alone — I lead into battle one of my own towering, formidable knights.
Despite having (non-summoned) backup for the first time ever in "Dark Souls," I died quickly during my first stab at the Burnt Ivory King for two reasons.
First, I had yet to fully explore this wintry kingdom of Frozen Eleum Loyce to find and recruit all four knights at my disposal. And second, like my little moment before getting gored by the Frozen Reindeer, I was still agape — this time, at the awesome tracking shot that followed me a mile down into the palace's volcanic underground.
I'd died hundreds of times in "Dark Souls II," but before this point the game had never felt so alive — alive with scale, alive with stakes. This is "Dark Souls" — at its very finest.
"The Lost Crowns Trilogy" strengthens an already damn good case for "Dark Souls II" being the best game of 2014. Frozen Eleum Loyce alone hosts some of the most memorable sights in an already majestic game.
The three packs' environments are also the most involving. Along with combing for knights in Frozen Eleum Loyce, you'll cleanse cursed areas in "Crown of the Old Iron King," and hit switches to raise and lower towers that hide pathways and treasure in "Crown of the Sunken King." It's more platforming in an hour than in all of the game proper.
"The Lost Crowns Trilogy" also brandishes the toughest bosses in "Dark Souls II," and they're led in lethality by the Fume Knight of "Iron King." A nimble dual-wielder who buffs his greatsword with fire halfway through the battle, this guy is currently the bane of my virtual existence.
Even though I have yet to beat the Fume Knight, however, I do appreciate him. Apropos of post-game DLC, he embodies "Dark Souls II" at its most exacting.
Beating him not only requires study of your surroundings — he'll regenerate health if you don't — it also demands more flawless maneuvering than the Smelter Demon, the Lost Sinner or any of Drangleic's most daunting.
The Fume Knight, more than any single person or place, is "Dark Souls."
And maybe I'm not close to the end of my time with "II" after all.