Friday, 9 November 2012

As the Flesh Gives Way to Coral

Those of you who've read the entry on the third Golden Dragon adventure may think you already know how I came to acquire the fourth one, Dave Morris' The Eye of the Dragon. After all, I got book three as part of a bundle containing the last four books in the series, so it stands to reason that I got book four in the same bundle. And it is true that there was a book four in there. But that was a duplicate copy. What actually got me into the series in the first place was that a friend was selling off part of his gamebook collection, and about the only gamebook he was selling that I didn't already own a copy of was TEotD. I bought it, enjoyed it, found that the only way to get more of the series was the bundle, bit the bullet, and eventually managed to trade away the extra Eye at what worked out as a profit.

Not that I'd never looked at the book in a shop before then. I leafed through one in the same shop where I peeked into the second book (and bought Scorpion Swamp), and rather dismissed it upon discovering that the trap so obviously being set up in the first section led to my character's being mildly jabbed with a sword. Where was the inventive, gruesome nastiness? Lots of places, as I discovered once I actually gave the book a proper go. Just not in that particular section.

In this adventure my character is a Warrior Mage, so I have a dozen one-shot spells to aid me in my quest. Apart from that, the rules are the same as ever, and my stats are:
Vigour 30
Psi 4
Agility 6
That low Psi score could be a problem, but need not be catastrophic (whereas an Agility that low would be more of a problem). The rules actually say that this is a particularly challenging adventure, but I don't think it comes anywhere near The Temple of Flame in terms of difficulty, and provided I can remember the optimal path, I think I have a chance even with those stats.

My services have been engaged by the High Council of a renowned college. They recently sent an archaeological expedition to the remains of Thalios (this world's equivalent of Atlantis, except that it's not completely sunken and lost, just difficult to access), and in the course of the exploration, Master Scholar Giru discovered the legendary magical artefact known as the Eye of the Dragon. However, the Eye is protected by a variety of magical traps and wards, and an experienced sorcerer is required to deal with them. Clearly not having read the warning in the rules, I reflect that this mission should be an easy one.

A ship drops me off as close to the ruins as it can get, which still means an eight-mile walk across tidal flats. It's late by the time I reach the city gates and meet a quartet of guards, who offer to escort me to Giru. My suspicions raised by something about the way they behave, and the fact that their swords are drawn, I say I'll find my own way to him. They react badly to this, so I draw my sword - and then get to choose between fighting and using magic. Four-against-one fights are not a lot of fun under Golden Dragon rules, so I cast The Deadly Swarm, which creates a swarm of hornets under my command. This causes the guards to flee, but their leader trips over and is fatally stung.

I listen to the man's dying words, and learn that the men were genuinely an escort sent for me by Giru. Not long after Giru sent news of his discovery, the archaeological team came under attack by large numbers of Kappa, who now roam Thalios. The guards were supposed to ensure that I made it to Giru without any trouble, but I needn't feel guilty about having set a cloud of stinging insects on them, as they were intercepted by Kappa along the way, and hypnotised into becoming would-be assassins.

The Kappa in this book have little to do with the mythical Japanese beasts of the same name. Both species are aquatic, but that's pretty much where the resemblance ends. This lot are made of living coral, with pearls for eyes, and (as has already been demonstrated) the more powerful ones have mind-controlling abilities. A fun bunch, obviously.

I cross the plaza, reflecting that a lot of this city will get submerged at high tide, and hoping to find Giru before then. Catching sight of a Kappa (with no explanation provided for any reader too impatient or distrustful to have heard the dying guard's tale), I decide to avoid unnecessary combat, and hide in the grounds of the nearby Temple of Swords. As I recall, the rewards for fighting the four-armed idol that's in the actual building don't justify the risk, so I don't investigate the Temple further.

Still, there are parts of the city that do warrant exploring (would it surprise you to learn that failure is guaranteed by not nosing around in the right places?), so I head into the alleys west of the plaza. Not wanting to attract the wrong kind of attention, I avoid using my light source, and blunder around in the near-darkness until I hear a sword being drawn and a voice ordering me to drop my moneybag. Refusing to be intimidated, I spin round to confront... a slumped corpse with a still-living mynah bird on its shoulder. Based on the mynah's vocabulary, I deduce that the dead man was a pirate (his mahogany pegleg is a bit of a hint, too). A bottle is clasped in one hand, and a quick sniff reveals the contents to be vinegar. I take both bottle and pegleg in case I should need to bribe an amputee who wants to open a chip shop (stranger things have happened in gamebooks). The mynah wants to accompany me as well, but a sidekick given to random outbursts of "Yarr!" and similar clichés doesn't go well with stealthy exploration.

The alley leads to a quadrangle by the remains of the Amber Pantechnicon. I hide from a couple of patrolling Kappa, who are consulting a plaque one of them was carrying. This is a nice little bit of incidental detail - living under the sea, the Kappa make their maps on something more durable than paper. Still keen to stay out of trouble as much as the optimal path will permit, I sneak south down the Avenue of Sphinxes.

My gamebook-sense tingles as I pass a mansion. I mean, there's no particular reason to take an interest in this unidentified building and no others, but I get the option of entering it anyway. And from past attempts at the book, I know that there are effectively two ways of winning this adventure. One follows a pretty narrow path, and cannot be completed without an item found in this building. The other is a lot tougher dice-wise, and cannot be completed without an item found in this building. You know what? I think I'll go in.

In the grounds is a bronze statue of a warrior, which I do not approach. My instincts warn me that danger lurks within the mansion, but I enter anyway. In the hall I find a gibbering adventurer, white-haired from shock, who babbles about having sought shelter from a storm in here, along with his ill-fated friend Wulfric. Ignoring him for the moment, I head upstairs and am confronted with two doors. Which is the unsafe one? The one I try, drat it. That's the second consecutive adventure in which I've blundered into a man-trap.

Behind the other door, grey candles illuminate a trio of Gloomviles playing jacks within a pentacle. They invite me to join them. I respond by blowing out the candles, which causes the Gloomviles to vanish. After I snuff the first one out, the others plead to be spared, but I 'know them to be irredeemable beings who deserve no mercy'. The spectre of my character from a much earlier attempt at the adventure briefly appears in order to complain that it would have helped if that little detail had been made apparent before the book asked if I wanted to play the Gloomviles' game. Once the Gloomviles are gone, there's nothing to keep me from helping myself to the one item that remains in the room, an ivory ticket to the Thaliosian Arena.

Further on I reach a door with a skeleton sprawled in front of it. Not the most conventional welcome mat. Nevertheless, I go through, finding myself in a rather odd hall. Steps lead down in front of me, and at the far end of the hall, more steps lead up to an alcove containing a large bowl. The floor, and the bottom who-knows-how-much of both stairways cannot be seen because of an unnatural darkness that covers them. My Orb of Illumination is of little use in this darkness, and to cross the hall without going slightly utterly insane along the way, I have to use my Mind Shield spell. The bowl at the far end contains a large sheet of a strange material that folds up into a remarkably tiny bundle.

Returning to the corridor outside, I search a little more, finding two alabaster jars. I identify the contents of one as a Potion of Wind Walking, but cannot tell what's in the other. If it turns out to be a Potion of Invisible Box, I will have little choice but to conclude that this was once the home of a Mime.

Back downstairs I surprise the fear-crazed man, who wasn't expecting me to survive. Turning my attention to the ground-level doors that lead further into the building, I step through, almost tripping over a severely chipped battleaxe, and find Wulfric. Well, most of him. His companion rants about being trapped in the mansion until I yell at him to shut up.

Ahead of me is an unconventional architectural feature: a wide pit, at the bottom of which rusty metal spikes protrude from the waters of the stream that flows through it. Why would anyone ever want one of those in their home? The pit is spanned by a narrow plank, and my Agility is sufficient to allow me to cross it without falling off. On the other side is a gallery, with a large white mask hanging at the far end. Only, as I draw closer, I discover that it's not a mask, but a Dungeon Devil: a predator shaped like a human head, with a mane of sharp corundum spines. Don't ask how ecology works on this world.

I kill the Dungeon Devil with ease, and break off a spine as a souvenir before heading back across the pit. Ignoring the cellar because the book won't let me go down there any more, I prepare to leave, and Wulfric's friend tries to dissuade me from leaving. I snap at him, stomp out through the front door, and almost get my head pulped by the warrior statue, which has been animated and programmed to kill anyone who leaves the house (well, why should the former owner's anti-burglar measures make any more sense than any of the other absurdities I've found in his home?).

Diving out of the way of the statue's brazen fist leaves me rather vulnerable to a lethal stomping, but before the statue can put its foot down, the whimpering wreck from the hall goes berserk, unable to face the thought of seeing someone else killed in front of him. The blows he rains on the statue damage only his sword, and the statue kills him with ease, but his sacrifice has bought me enough time to get up. I flee back into the mansion, the statue pursuing me Terminator-style, and race across the plank. Which can bear the weight of a human, but not a human-sized mass of bronze, so the statue's inexorable pursuit comes to a vaguely Wile E. Coyote-style ending. The pit's a bit too wide to jump, but that Potion of Wind Walking enables me to cross it unscathed.

As I leave the mansion, I muse on the nature of heroism. "Does it show in a strutting contempt for those weaker than oneself - or in a willingness to face up to one's fear?" Tricky. Maybe once I've solved that one, I can move onto a more challenging question, like 'Is setting one's head on fire the best way to cure athlete's foot?'

Continuing down the Avenue of Sphinxes, I see the statues that gave it its name. An unexpected voice addresses me, and I briefly assume that the mynah is back before realising that one of the sphinx statues is speaking to me. It explains that they were once the guardians of Thalios, but are no longer able to defend it against the Kappa. I explain my quest, and to assist me, the sphinxes tell me of the gates of horn and ivory. Rather wonderfully, I respond by saying I don't have time for all this cryptic nonsense, and demand some more comprehensible advice. With a sigh (and, doubtless, speaking as slowly and loudly as a stereotypical English tourist asking for directions on the continent), a sphinx tells me to go back to the Amber Pantechnicon, so I return whence I came, briefly hiding from a group of Kappa who drag a corpse across the quadrangle, escorted by some giant Sentinel Crabs.

The gate to the Pantechnicon has rusty hinges, which squeak loudly as I open them. So much for stealth. Passing the mouth of a chute in one wall, I head for an unlooted alcove, where a jewelled harp hangs from a golden thread behind a transparent barrier with a vending machine-esque slot at the bottom. Having already disposed of the Gloomviles with a burst of, "Out, out, brief candle!", I now use my Dagger of the Mind spell to cut the thread and acquire the harp.

Perhaps fearful that I'm about to break into an impromptu rendition of China in Your Hand, a Kappa fires a bolt of energy at me from a strange sceptre. The book won't let me disarm him and use the weapon for myself, so I have nothing to gain by loitering while he tries to improve his aim. Hurling myself into the chute I noticed earlier, I make my escape, but the chute turns out to be extremely long and slippery, so I've built up quite a speed by the time I approach the bottom. The Invulnerability spell, while less effective than its name might suggest, does provide protection for long enough that I take no damage as I hit the wall across from the chute exit at something approaching terminal velocity.

No pursuers follow, so I assume that the Kappa assumed that I didn't survive. Ascending steps back to ground level, I see hordes of Kappa searching for me in the quadrangle, and realise that I was mistaken in believing them to have been mistaken. Before any more such hilarity can ensue, the mynah makes a surprise reappearance and steals my Orb of Illumination. I'm going to need that later on, so I pursue the thieving bird up six flights of stairs to the roof. Seeing the mynah about to take off, I hit it with a Befuddle spell, and it abandons its prize and erratically flies away.

As I retrieve the Orb, I catch sight of a large block of ice or crystal at the far end of the roof. Naturally, I decide to take a closer look, and this is important enough that I use my Dodge spell rather than relying on the dice to avoid falling when part of the roof gives way beneath me. Incidentally, falling through can lead to one of the nastier Instant Deaths in the book: using the Invulnerability spell as the top of the building collapses onto you works fine in the moment when the chunks of masonry land, but that just leaves you with several tons of rubble on top of you...

But I avoid all of that and reach the mysterious block. Upon closer inspection, I can see a humanoid figure trapped inside it. So I play the harp. The first note I play resonates within the crystal, growing in volume until the block explodes (by which time I have already taken cover, as I'm not as stupid as you might think someone who plays the harp at big crystals would be).

Getting up again, I see that the erstwhile occupant of the block is a large humanoid insect. Zpeaking in a zilly buzzing aczent, he introduzez himzelf az Lord Mantizz, offerz to reward me for releazing him, and leadz me down zeveral flightz of ztairs to hiz zecret treazure room. Somewhat perversely, the only good thing to do here is refuse to take any loot. This offends Mantiss, who is an alarmingly good fighter (inflicting Instant Death on a double one), so I run away. Determined to punish his rescuer for declining a reward, he gives chase, making a spectacular grasshopper-like leap from the balcony to the stairs I am descending. I cast my Gust of Wind spell while he's in mid-air, sending him off-course, and he falls rather further than he was expecting to. Descending at a more sedate pace to join him, I find him trying to drag himself across the floor to where his rapier landed, and commit insecticide. Relieving him of a tuning fork and his Glove of Unerring Dexterity (part of what made him such a good fighter), I leave the building.

Returning to the quadrangle, I stick to the shadows so as not to be seen by the Kappa. Alas, this does not also enable me to evade detection by the Sentinel Crabs. One of them gives me a nasty nip, and several of its friends seem keen to do likewise, so I flee back east. The Crabs come after me until I pass the dead pirate, at which point they decide that non-mobile prey makes for a simpler meal, and stop for a feeding frenzy.

Reluctant to hang around in case the Crabs remember what brought them over this way, I head south across the Bridge of Blue Skulls, and am accosted by a beggar. I hand over a couple of coins, wondering how he usually makes a living (and what he needs the cash for) in an abandoned city, cut off from the mainland by the sea, and subject to periodic flooding. That's actually my in-text reaction, though it strikes me that, after the mansion and Mantiss, it's a little late to begin musing on stuff that doesn't make sense. The beggar tells me a little about someone called Nuckelavee, who is apparently 'much worse than them coral fellers', but doesn't like fresh water, and then hobbles off elsewhere.

The only building down here is the Citadel of Conundrums, which I enter despite a sense of dread. It's dark in there, so I'd be in trouble if I didn't have my Orb with me. A metal door marked with a glyph catches my attention, and I recognise the symbol as a musical note. One I can't quite coax out of the harp.

What works on TV isn't always effective in real life. Or gamebooks, for that matter.

By contrast, the tuning fork produces the precise note I need. And that's not one of those wacky coincidences that crop up so often in gamebooks: behind the door that the correct note unlocks lives a friend of Mantiss (with a big spider sitting on his shoulder), who is not exactly overjoyed to learn how I acquired the fork. He threatens me with 'the power of a true sorcerer', and the spider's eyes begin to glow. I kill the spider, and the man enigmatically observes, "There'll be another one. There always is." He then gives me his finest treasures: a ship in a bottle, a Potion of Wind Walking and a Wristband of Fire, and I leave before things get any weirder.

Further on, I reach a gallery. Shadows begin to advance on me in a menacing manner, so I hurry towards the exits, one of which is framed by a pair of antlers, the other by two mammoth's tusks. Realising that that sphinx wasn't talking drivel after all, I pick the right exit. The shadows follow me through it, transforming into twenty armed and hostile gladiators, but they remain 'fleeting illusions', and can be eliminated with ease.

The passage leads through a charnel-smelling room with half-dried blood coating the walls and floor. Have I strayed into an entry for the Turner Prize? After going through it, I find myself leaving bloody footprints behind me. I have the option of washing my boots clean, but I know I could wind up needing the contents of my water bottle, the dead pirate's vinegar, the unidentified potion in the alabaster jar, and/or the Potion of Wind Walking, and I don't have any other liquids I could use, so I'll just have to take the consequences of leaving a trail.

Unsurprisingly, something starts to follow me. I decide to try and ambush my pursuer and, as authorial contrivance would have it, choose to do so at precisely the spot where there's a powerful magnet set into the tunnel roof, so my sword leaps from my hands and sticks to the ceiling, leaving me defenceless against my foe. Which turns out to be a Blood Fiend, a massive bipedal crocodile-thing. Okay, I'm not entirely defenceless: I could try poking at the Fiend with a Dungeon Devil spine, or attempt to prop its jaws open with a mahogany pegleg. Or take the much safer option of casting my Burning Tiger spell, which creates pretty much exactly what you'd expect based on its title. This savage blend of flame, fang and claw is more than a match for the brute, and I use the Wristband of Fire to heat the panel above my head until it loses its magnetism, so I can get my sword back.

Continuing on my way, I pass through a room filled with skeletal remains and rusting weapons, which is only there to provide a sub-par weapon for anyone who couldn't retrieve their sword. Then I have to choose between a door and a side passage, and drat it, I pick the wrong option again. More tiresome than catastrophic, as it just means getting into a tough fight (and I no longer need the water or mystery potion), but I'd have preferred the safer encounter that can be had thanks to the item I've just missed. Still, I chose the exit, and there's no point in cheating, so out I go.

From here I can see the Consul's Palace, which may be where Giru is sheltering. Problem is, there's a hundred-metre stretch of water between here and there. If I'd gone the right way back in the Citadel, now would be another good time to pull out the harp and use the power of Bardsmanship (and a big hello to anyone from who actually gets that in-joke). As it is, I have a number of options, but they all ultimately lead the same way.

My backpack contains a ship in a bottle, but I'm gonna need a bigger boat. Fortuitously, there's one tied up at the end of a jetty close by. Less conveniently, it has no oars. On a morbid whim, I cast a Séance spell and try to summon up the ghost of the beggar to ask if he knows where they are. This will only work if he's died since we last met, but luckily for me (albeit not for him), he met a patrol of Kappa not long after we parted company. He may have made some unwise comment about the value of pearls - certainly something inspired his killers to remove his eyes. But he doesn't need eyes to tell me that he saw the pirate hiding his oars under a nearby bush.

Retrieving them I start to row across the water, and run aground on a sandbank. Now I face a tricky decision, as I know what's imminent. Do I cast my Healing spell, wasting half the Vigour gain it would provide, but facing my next enemies at full strength, or do I save it for after the fight and risk not surviving to use it? This may (may) be my last fight: I forget certain specifics of the endgame on my chosen path. Better to heal now than not get the opportunity later.

The sandbank connects with the shore to which I was heading, so I continue my journey on foot, sinking almost knee-deep into the mud with every step. It's a miserable slog even before two Lich Knights rise up and block my way. They would have killed me if I hadn't used that Healing spell. Or if I weren't wearing Mantiss' Glove. Actually, thanks to a few very bad rolls, I do die, but thanks to the aforementioned I got rid of one of the Lich Knights first, so technically 'they' don't kill me. Just the second one does. Not that that's much consolation.

Well, that was odder than I'd remembered it being. And I never even made it to the City of Thieves-tastic 'pick randomly from three options, and fail on two of them' ending. But then, I didn't get to City of ThievesCity of Thieves-tastic 'pick randomly from three options, and fail on two of them' ending because of a harsh fight not far from the finale, so that's consistent.

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