My post-Sky Lord indifference to new Fighting Fantasy books continued when Luke Sharp's Daggers of Darkness came out, and I doubt that I'd have been any more interested if I'd been aware that it was by the author of Chasms of Malice. When I finally got around to buying the preceding book, Stealer of Souls, I got Daggers at the same time, and after my successful dice-free readthrough of Stealer, I had a go at Daggers without dice, failing for reasons I'll go into once I've explained some of the premise.
Daggers is a definite improvement on Mr. Sharp's earlier gamebooks, though I didn't really notice that first time round because the principal improvement regards the difficulty of the dice-based aspects of the adventure. While still a bit heavy on the random chances of suffering, it's nowhere near as merciless as Chasms, and while I have yet to win it by the rules, I'd say that there's a realistic chance of doing so. Another problematic aspect of his first two books that is less of an issue in this one (as I recall) is the profusion of arbitrary Instant Deaths towards the end of the adventure. There are still plenty of ways of getting killed - I'm pretty sure that since creating my Gamebook Manager I've failed Daggers more often by choosing poorly than because of bad dice (though not on the attempt I previously wrote up online) - but there's generally been a sound reason for my actions getting me killed, unlike the 'open this door and die, open that one and survive to the next blind choice' nonsense that mars the endgames of Chasms and Star Strider.
Anyway, time I was getting on with the plot. This adventure is set in the kingdom of Kazan, which has a kind of meritocratic monarchy. Parents nominate talented children as candidates, and those who pass the preliminary tests (thereby earning the title of 'Select') get financial support for several years, after which they are exiled from Kazan and must do their best to survive in the outside world. When the reigning monarch dies, the Select are recalled to Kazan, and must attempt to prove their worthiness by passing trials to gain enchanted Medallions. The one who reaches the Throne first becomes the new ruler.
Well, that's how it works in theory, but on this occasion the Vizier Chingiz wants to seize power, and has suppressed the news of the old King's death and sent assassins to kill off the Select. My character is one of the Select, and the book starts at the point where the Wizard Astragal semi-foils an attempt on my life. I say 'semi', because while I survive the attack, I am wounded with a Death Spell Dagger, which introduces an unusual poison into my system. The toxin has few noticeable effects while spreading through my body, but once it's permeated every cell, I'll die, and the only way to be cured is to hand the Dagger back to its maker. The progression of the spell is tracked with Poison units: every so often (usually after significant exertion) I'll be instructed to mark off more Poison, and once I've marked off 24 units, it's game over.
That's how I failed first time round: while I didn't bother resolving combats, and assumed automatic success on any roll, I did keep track of accumulated Poison, and eventually hit my limit. At which point I cheated and pretended I'd never got into that fight with the Creature from the Black Lagoon, which would mean I didn't get the Poison increase that came with the fight, and was thus still alive and able to read on. It's funny which minor misdeeds your conscience will not let go of...
The harshness of the ordeal faced by the Select while the ruler lives neatly explains away one common gamebook absurdity: the character who's supposed to be one of the best, yet has pathetic stats thanks to bad luck with the dice. Sure, I was something special years ago, but life in exile isn't pleasant. Maybe it toughened me up, forced me to excel to survive, and helped me realise the potential that got me through those tests, and maybe it took its toll, leaving me a shadow of my former self. Let's see how this character has come out of the intervening years:
Not bad. Only just above average, but respectable scores, and while those stats would doom me in a lot of books, I think they could get me through this one.
I start to make my way across the mountainous border between Gorak and Kazan, and the poison begins to spread. Eventually reaching the frontier, I find another of the Select lying on the obelisk that marks the border, a dagger in his chest (though the accompanying illustration makes it look a lot more like a sword in the stomach. Taking a closer look at the body, I am startled to find that he's not quite dead. He tells me which way his attackers went, then expires, at which point he instantaneously becomes a skeleton and his possessions evaporate.
I take the path his killers didn't follow. It forks again, and I keep going the same way. For some time I trudge through the snow, and then I hear the sound of approaching horses. I don't hide, partly because this encounter could be worth having, and partly because my footprints would give me away if I did attempt to conceal myself. Upon sighting me, the riders loose a Gryphawk, but it veers away from me when I draw my sword. One the riders draw level with me, they demand to know why I'm not bowing to them, and threaten me with death if I don't grovel appropriately. I answer that the Select don't abase themselves like that, and one of their number casts bones to the ground, reading in them confirmation that I am what I claim to be.
That changes everything, as their tribe, the Yigenik, has custody of one of the Medallions, so I must now prove myself worthy of it. I am offered a choice of horses on which to travel to my Test, and pick the one reminiscent of the name of the pub where I celebrated my not-yet-40th Birthday a few years back. It's a good choice, and the ride does me a little good. We don't reach the testing ground before nightfall, though, so we make camp, and during the night, Orcs attack.
Do I fight or not? Doing so will mean an increase in Poison, and while the Medallions are useful, they're not essential, besides which the Test could prove fatal. And there's some risk of my being separated from my companions even if I don't run. On the other hand, fleeing is no guarantee of evading danger, and I might run into something worse than Orcs. If I survive, the Yigenik are going to be some of my subjects, so I have a kind of duty to them. Fight.
Arrows are fired, but none hit me. I kill two Orcs, but become separated from the Yigenik in the darkness. There are two sources of noise in the vicinity, and the one for which I head turns out to be my fellow travellers, looting the dead Orcs. Once it's light enough we ride on, and an old woman asks me if I think I'm strong enough for the Test. Might as well give it a go.
Phase 1 of the Test involves running on hot coals and trying to dodge as the warriors on either side of the track attempt to hit me. I dodge well, only taking one wound, and am taken to the Maze with the Medallion in. Just as the Fangtigers are being released into the maze, a large Grypvulture flies out of it. The bird is carrying an Orc, and the Orc has the Medallion. Forgetting the Test, the Yigenik fire arrows, wounding the Orc and causing him to fall to earth. He survives and runs off, and I give chase.
The Orc enters a house, and as approaching with caution meant letting him escape on a previous attempt, I just charge at the thief. Three Goblins block my path, and while I kill them with little difficulty, they've bought the Orc time to go through one of two doors. Sticking with the direction that's served me well so far, I see the Orc disappearing into a tower. There's a bridge leading to it, and if I can evade the Goblin clinging onto the bridge and the arrows fired by Chingiz' men on the ground, I might be able to catch up with the Orc before he gets back to the Grypvulture.
I don't catch him. Well, no point crying over stolen Medallions. I've had enough of mountains for now, so I travel on along a forested valley. Cutting my way through the vegetation is tiring, but not such hard work that it accelerates the spread of the poison. The book has me eat Provisions just as I was thinking of doing so myself - could be tricky if I'd been weaker and unluckier and had to consume the lot just to last this far. Then an arrow hits me in the shoulder, and I am surrounded by black-haired women who tie me up and take me to a settlement. They tell me that as punishment for trespassing, I must Run the Arrow or take the Test of the Three Cuts, with death the consequence of failure. I risk the former, and it's much the same as a similarly-named trial in Deathtrap Dungeon: an arrow is fired, I start running, and as soon as I pass wherever the arrow hit, my pursuers can chase after me. If I outpace them, I live. If they catch me, I lose my head.
I run like a Medallion-pilfering Orc, and retain the ability to wear a hat. My flight takes me to a clearing with a Troll in, and I approach him, hoping to brazen things out. It works: he mistakes me for one of the Vizier's men, and admits to being lost because he can't read the map. It's a good map, too, and helps me find my way to the road, where a couple of the Troll's more astute fellow troops recognise me as an enemy, so I have to run for it again. This time my favoured direction lets me down, and I run into another two Trolls. That arrow in the shoulder reduced my Skill, as a result of which I'm not able to defeat the second of them.
Not a very satisfying ending, but the dice could just as easily have gone my way rather than the Troll's. And as there's no 'one true path' through the book, I can have a completely different set of encounters the next time I attempt it, and still be in with a relatively fair chance of triumph.