Saturday, 25 January 2014

There Are Worlds Out There...

When describing how I first experienced The Keep of the Lich-Lord, I mentioned that it was one of a couple of new-to-me FF books that I found in the charity shop. When I made up my mind to buy Keep, I also decided to get the other one. Which was Peter Darvill-Evans' Spectral Stalkers. Given that I played Keep twice, and then was done with it, while Stalkers took closer to a dozen attempts, I think I got better value for money from the latter.

Despite my having failed the book a lot more than I did Keep, I wouldn't describe it as unduly harsh. Indeed, it's one of the last Puffin Fighting Fantasy books that can plausibly be won even if you have low stats. The first of my many defeats was a bit arbitrary - I tried to descend a staircase that turned out to be an illusion hiding a crevasse - but the others resulted from my taking unnecessary risks, failure to pay sufficient attention to the text, or just plain bad luck.

In fact, one of the most common complaints made about Stalkers is that it's too easy, with one route to victory that's only something like 10 sections long. While it is true that the book contains an unusually direct route to the endgame, the chances of surviving on that path are negligible unless you're using dice that always roll ones. Besides, there's so much to explore (and hardly any of the 'take the wrong turning and you cannot win' stuff found in so many FF books), taking the short and high-risk route is missing out. You could probably make a trip to the National History Museum last under a minute if you headed straight for the exit once you were inside, but that doesn't make it a rubbish museum.

Anyway, it's about time I got on with the adventure. In view of the book's fairness even to the low-of-stat, I shall be making character creation fully random. I end up with:
Skill 11
Stamina 19
Luck 11
A character who'd have a fair chance in some of the harsher books. But going with the randomness means accepting the better-than-strictly-necessary as well as the sub-par.

As usual, I'm an adventurer by profession. At the start of the adventure, I'm consulting a fairground fortune-teller (and regretting having done so). The interpretation of the cards is nothing that wouldn't be obvious given my line of work (treasure, travel and danger), but then the fortune-teller turns over a card that isn't part of the deck (the cynical might assume that, observing my dissatisfaction with the reading so far, the fortune-teller has switched to the 'that card shouldn't even be there' routine to put me off demanding a refund), which leads him to predict that I'm soon going to be departing the world (not in the sense of dying, but some unorthodox means of travel). Not wishing to get involved, he urges me to go away, warning of an impending storm. Which could just be a weather forecast, considering the look of the sky when I leave the tent, but I wouldn't count on it.

Seeking shelter in a nearby forest, I see a flash that turns out not to be lightning, and a badly wounded winged being that looks like nothing I've seen before falls out of the sky just in front of me. Before dying, the creature tells me to take its burden, makes an unhelpfully vague reference to Archmage Globus, and warns me to beware the Spectral Stalkers. I take the 'burden', which is spherical and wrapped in cloth, and unwrap it to see if this is the sort of thing I want to be carting around.

It's a glowing sphere, slightly larger than my fist, and while it initially appears transparent, upon closer inspection I find that it's full of stars. And worlds, and people, and animals, and things I can't give a name. And me. Yes, for a moment I am among the sphere's contents, and then it's just resting in my hand again. But I'm not in Khul anymore. I'm in a library of positively Borgesian proportions, right next to a desk with a bell and a sign saying 'ENQUIRIES' on it. There's also a sign saying 'SILENCE!', but I ring the bell anyway.

A bespectacled Dragon pops up from behind the desk, asks what I want, and tells me that this is the Library in Limbo and they'll have no trouble here. I ask if she can tell me anything about the sphere, which has gone dull and cloudy, and she says it looks as if it doesn't belong here. She advises me to take it to Wayland the Artefacts Specialist, warning me that he's a bit of a prankster and I'd be advised not to touch his door knocker.

I follow her directions for several hours, eventually reaching Wayland's door. Disregarding the sign that says to knock and wait, I step through, and the bucket of water that was propped on top of the door falls on me. Wayland is highly amused, and asks where I'm from. Suppressing the urge to respond to his joke with a literally side-splitting bit of swordplay, I tell him, and he offers me a drink to dry me out. I warily accept, and find that the liquid in the bottle somehow removes all excess moisture from my exterior. Retaining the bottle in case it should come in handy at a later date, I sit down as directed (narrowly avoiding taking a seat on the Automatic Impaler - wonder if it sticks seven swords into anyone unfortunate enough to sit on it) and show Wayland the sphere.

He immediately identifies it as the Aleph, which contains everything. Except for Limbo and its contents. He agrees with the Dragon's assertion that it shouldn't be here, mentions that it's been sought by wise men since the birth of the universe, and asks how I got hold of it. I explain, and he advises me to use the Aleph to travel, never staying in any one place for long in order to keep ahead of the Stalkers. He also recommends collecting any signs and portents I find, all of which will be round, and suggests that the Sage Semeion Cryptoglyphos could probably tell me more. Then he shows me to the exit.

The way out leads through a corridor occupied by a curmudgeonly Dwarf who guards a room full of empty hatstands. He tells me that the door at the far end leads from Nowhere to Somewhere, and precisely where it takes me can be influenced by what I think about as I step through. Remembering Wayland's advice, I concentrate on the Aleph...

Then I'm in a dark and narrow passage. The sound of chanting voices is audible, and I wind up moving towards it, eventually falling down a chute that ends on a rune-inscribed dais. The wall behind me is carved to look like a skull, the mouth of the chute forming the skull's mouth, and a skull-faced priest announces to the surrounding warriors that their deity has provided the sacrifice to be slain at the end of the coming battle. Not the best welcome I've ever received.

Knowing from past attempts at the book that there's little to be gained by trying to escape or fight, I make no struggle when a couple of soldiers ascend the dais to capture me. Despite my lack of resistance, one of them knocks me out with a blow to the head (which, oddly, does less Stamina damage than Wayland's bucket, and apparently knocks awareness of the priest's name - Syzuk - into me).

When I come round, I'm lying in the back of Syzuk's war-chariot. His army is prevailing against his enemies, but then a lone Elven archer manages to shoot Syzuk. Only in the shoulder, but something about the Elven crafting makes the arrow poisonous to the priest. He falls down beside me and begs for me to help him, so I put an end to his suffering. Without him to steer the chariot, it goes out of control, and the surviving Elves are unable to do anything about it, as it's been fitted with Elf-repellent hubcaps. Eventually the chariot hits a boulder, losing a wheel and throwing me to the ground. I grab the hubcap because it's round, decide that it's time I was elsewhere, and take out the Aleph to see where it will transport me next.

From this point onwards, travel by Aleph will be randomised. Which adds that bit more variety to each fresh attempt at the book (there were two locations that I never managed to reach in all my attempts at the book back in the nineties), but also makes it much trickier to acquire specific items. Good thing none bar the Aleph are essential, though some are very useful in certain circumstances.

As it turns out, I wind up back home - sort of. It's definitely Khul, and a part of the continent with which I am familiar, but pretty much everything is in much worse condition than it was the last time I came this way. The stone bridge across the River Gibelvatter has been destroyed, and a fortress-like inn constructed on the remnants. Outside the inn stands a man, who draws his sword as I approach.

I indicate that I have no hostile intent, and he welcomes me to the Inn of the Ghostly Visitors, hastening to reassure me that the establishment's name is just a joke, inspired by the not-remotely-true-honest-guv rumours that patrons sometimes go missing during the night. He also points out that this is the only shelter for miles, and there's no ferry until morning, so I should spend the night in the room he has ready for me. Though not keen on his tone, I choose to take the room anyway. It has a balcony overlooking the river, and a meal has already been laid out for me. I opt not to taste it in case it has extra ingredients designed to facilitate one of those disappearances that don't happen, and turn in for the night.

It's still dark when I wake with a start and spot a pair of eyes gleaming in the middle of the floor. I leap to the attack, realising as I do that this 'manifestation' is actually a Goblin trying to sneak into my room through a trapdoor. As I slam the trapdoor on his head, he drops his knife, which falls on the floor. For a while I stand on the trapdoor, and eventually the Goblins below conclude that they're not going to be able to get in, and row away. I take a look at the knife, which has a silver blade, and decide to keep it.

When it gets light again, I leave my room. The inn is deserted, and I search it, finding the innkeeper's licence. Which is dated four hundred years after my time, indicating that the Aleph doesn't just transport me through space. And that in any Titan-based gamebook set less than four centuries after my character's current day, failure can't mean the end of the world. Probably. As I leave the inn, its sign falls down, and I narrowly miss a third blow to the head. The sign is circular, so I add it to my collection and, wanting to avoid spoilers for the next few month's FF-based posts to this blog, get out the Aleph again.

I am transported to a landscape of sand dunes. There's a village by a pool of water not too far away, so I head there. The marketplace is almost deserted, with only one stall open. This sells clay replica candles that give off light - sort of like a coal fire-effect electric heater, only not so tacky. The stallholder pleads with me to buy one, saying that they're the village's only resource since Mayrek the Potter went missing and everyone who went looking for him failed to return. I do my part to support local tradespersons, and also decide to investigate these disappearances. Perhaps Mayrek and the vanished villagers are just having a really big party, and don't want the people who haven't been invited to find out.

The remaining villagers give me directions to Mayrek's cave, which has been virtually walled up with boulders, and is guarded by a massive Clay Golem. Probably not a party, then. Unless the Golem's a bouncer. In case that's what's going on, and it should happen to be a bring-a-bottle do, I get out the Siccator and offer the Golem a substantial draught. Well, I throw it over him, but considering how rowdy some parties get, it's not necessarily inappropriate behaviour. Evidently the Golem can't handle its drink, as it promptly goes to pieces.

Mayrek tells me that the Golem was an experiment that went wrong and turned on him, and to thank me for rescuing him, says I can have any one item from his workshop. The porcelain box of money has obvious appeal, but there's also a clay sphere, which would go nicely with the other round objects in my backpack, so I choose that. Mayrek tells me that it contains pure life-force, which will protect me from life-draining attacks. It rattles, prompting me to speculate that it might be a pressurised container, so I don't break it open to find out.

The Aleph takes me to a stage that's mounted on a wagon, on which a Conjuror is mid-performance. Being a slick operator, he claims that my sudden appearance is part of his act. He's also made the Baron's daughter disappear, which is quite a trick, as she was in her father's coach rather than on stage. Perhaps fearful that I'll deny being part of the act, the Conjurer instructs his assistant Felice (who's dressed as a cat) to take me backstage. As Felice leads me away, I realise that she's not wearing a costume - she's actually part cat. Curious, I accompany her backstage, and hear the Conjuror giving her instructions. There's something dodgy afoot, as he plans to distract the crowd until she can get the wagon moving. For now I let Felice push me into the back room, hoping to find out more about what's afoot.

The back room is cluttered with props from the Conjuror's act. Including a cage, with the Baron's daughter in it. Contrary to what the Conjuror told the Baron, she hasn't been returned to her father's coach by the time Felice gets the show on the road. The cage is locked, the Conjurer has the key, and the Baron's daughter suspects that her captor will soon be coming to check on his prisoner. Prisoners.

Unwilling to abandon the young woman to her abductor, I await his arrival. He soon enters, revealing himself to be a Vampire, and gloats about having not only secured a fresh undead bride-to-be, but also having got himself a snack for the journey home. I tell him that he should have checked the ingredients first, as he missed the 'May contain silver' warning. Attacking with the Goblin's knife, I win the fight without difficulty. His spirit flees in bat form, while his body disintegrates into a mound of dust with a key in it. I unlock the cage, ignore the Baron's daughter's demands that I fight Felice as well, and leap from the wagon, pulling the Baron's daughter with me. She complains about my having denied her the excitement of a trip to the Conjuror's castle (did she not pick up on the Vampire thing, or has she just been reading too many Twilight books?) and angrily stomps back home. I discover that I inadvertently grabbed one of the Conjuror's calling-cards, which are not rectangular. but - you guessed it - circular, so I pocket that before letting the Aleph take me somewhere more sensible.

I'm in a park. A nice, tranquil, grassy area with spinneys of trees and rolling hills. Well, tranquil until assorted woodland animals, conventional and folkloric, burst from the trees and flee past me. Funnily enough, the silence persists even as the badgers, bears, centaurs, rabbits, deer, satyrs and so on surge past me. Nor is there any sound as their pursuers, armoured giants riding bizarre war-beasts, gallop from the woods. I decide to try and attract the riders' attention and, as this world seems to have no sound, that means stepping out in front of them and waving my arms. They either don't notice or don't care about me, and I doubt that a silent trampling is going to be any less harmful than the more conventional bone-breaking variety, so I try to grab onto the saddle of the first one and have it carry me away from the immediate threat. I succeed, and continue to fail to attract the giants' attention, so no attempt is made at dislodging me.

Hanging close by is a hunting-horn, which seems a little incongruous in a soundless world. As the riders spread out, I grab the horn and leap from the saddle, making a safe landing. Curious, I try blowing the horn. It makes a noise. I stop blowing, but the horn gets louder. Now the giants and their steeds notice me. This pleases their prey, as the hunt is at least interrupted, but the hunters are less happy. So am I, as it occurs to me that this commotion might attract the attention of the Stalkers.

The giants fade away, the park goes dark, and I find myself in a cave, in the centre of a circle of fires, next to an old woman. I ask her what the [horn FX] just happened. She tells me she's an Oracle, indicates some degree of awareness of my situation, and offers to explain the recent weirdness for 2 Gold Pieces. Though uncertain that my money will be legal tender here, I hand over a couple of coins, and the Oracle explains that I was just in someone else's dream. And no ordinary someone else, either: that was the dream of a god of hunting. She suggests that the horn (which accompanied me out of the dream - an item being brought from a dream into the real world is no more odd than a person physically travelling into a stranger's dream) might deter some enemies, and also hints that the nearby market might have something round for sale. She's right: one of the stalls has a bronze plate among its stock, engraved with a picture of the dream-hunt I interrupted. I am not depicted, which is a good thing, as this stop on my multiversal trip has been strange enough already.

Next the Aleph takes me to a forest. There's a road running through it, and as I make my way to that road, I see a Minstrel with a harp walking along it. A boar-faced creature on a bipedal lizard approaches from the other direction, and is about to attack the Minstrel when he pulls out the harp, which plays music that has a tranquilising effect on the rider. That's not sloppy grammar in the previous sentence: the harp produces the tune without any input from the Minstrel. He's about to stab his now defenceless would-be attacker when a similar being approaches on the same kind of steed, and a third can be heard drawing near.

I ought not to get involved. But I intervene anyway, for the sake of a more interesting encounter. I defend the Minstrel from the second rider, and he kills the first one. At this point the second one decides to retreat, and the third arrives, sees the situation, and opts to flee. Neither of them gets away, though, as the Minstrel uses the harp to compel them back here, then kills them. Not a very nice chap. He indicates that he's disguised, and is actually a Zwinian like the three he just murdered. Claiming to be their rightful ruler, and currently seeking to reclaim his throne from an usurper, he invites me to assist him, and gives the harp a strum that shows it to have some effect on me. Attempting to run off, or openly opposing him, is not likely to go well, so I agree to accompany him.

We continue along the road to a citadel, where the Minstrel uses the harp to make easy prey of the guards on the gate. Definitely not someone I should be helping take the throne, but by now I'd do better to stick with him and seek an opportunity to spoil his plans than attempt escape. Inside the citadel, the people are celebrating, and the Minstrel tells me that it's seven years to the day since he was banished. Before long we reach the heart of the Citadel, and confront Frampa, the 'usurper'. He remembers that the seers warned of a Minstrel, but this recollection comes too late to help, as the Minstrel uses the harp to control the Zwinians.

'You are beginning to find the situation threatening.' Nope, I've been finding it threatening for some time. But now I have a chance to do something worthwhile about it, and knock the harp out of the Minstrel's hands. As its influence begins to fade from the Zwinians, the Minstrel's disguise fades and he attacks me. Before long, the citadel guards subdue him and, not sure what to make of me, Frampa orders me to leave and take the harp with me.

Back outside the citadel, I decide to leave the harp behind, and am about to use the Aleph when the harp speaks, claiming to be the spirit of the Minstrel Cerod, who was a victim of the disguised Zwinian himself. It offers to help me and, while I don't particularly need the sort of help it gave the Zwinian, I'm far from happy at the thought of it offering its services to whoever next comes this way, so I take the harp with me in the hope of finding somewhere safe I can leave it.

The Aleph takes me to a high-tech setting, where a humanoid with mechanical adornments (not entirely unlike Davros) drives up to me in a cart and urges me to step out of the machine in which I've arrived. I do so, and my host introduces himself as Metron the Mapmaker. He shows me his collection of globes, speaks disparagingly of those who believe worlds can be any other shape, and asks if I have anything for him to measure.

I know from past attempts at the book that if I do let him measure anything, it will lose all its magical properties. There may be some kind of comment on scientific rationalism intended here, though I'm not sure whether it would be pro or anti in tone. Regardless, while this would be one way of rendering the harp harmless, I think that killing it in this way would be a bit harsh, so I politely deny Metron the opportunity to get his mechanical mitts on any of my possessions. He mocks my 'superstitious' ways, but offers to sell me a globe of Titan, and I take the opportunity of gaining another round item. Besides, the only alternative to making the purchase is attacking him, which would be unwise (making this encounter a bit harsh on anyone who lost their money on another world). Metron gives me a pencil and some paper as well, in case I ever need to make a map. Then he wants me gone, so I get out the Aleph again.

For a change, where I end up next is determined by what's going on in my mind, rather than the roll of a die. Somehow the Aleph picks up on my metatextual awareness that for the first time in all my years of playing this book, I'm in with a shot at getting a complete set of signs and portents, and brings me to a path at the side of a gorge, which leads to a sinister-looking fortress. The castle appears derelict, but flickering lights briefly show me the silhouette of a child on the battlements, and a scream rings out. Time to go exploring.

Entering a long-abandoned hall, I hear voices arguing about the Nursery Tower, followed by that scream again. This time I pick up on nuances suggesting that it's the scream of somebody falling into the gorge. The subsequent silence is more perturbing than the scream was. Reconsidering staying here, I see a man and a woman between me and the way I came in. Probably ghosts, and as I have no idea of their capabilities, I decide to head further into the castle instead. They pursue me for some time, and I wind up ascending a tower to what used to be a child's bedroom, judging by the clutter of toys there. The spectral couple stopped coming after me at about the time I began heading up into the tower, which could be interpreted as indicating that I'm where they want me. Still, it's getting dark, so I decide to spend the night here.

It's not as if anything creepy could be going on here, right?

Some rather evocative prose does a good job of making the toys seem sinister, from the watchful rocking-horse to the smirking ballerina doll to the clown in a glass ball that rocks from side to side... That clay candle makes everything look a lot less ominous, though. If I had no light source, things would get a good deal nastier - not necessarily fatal, but it is possible to wind up plummeting into the gorge. Makes me wonder whose scream I heard earlier...

Anyway, after a meal to make up for some of the damage I took on my travels (this is one of those books where you can only eat when told you can, making the rapid route to the end even more hazardous, what with the three-dice Stamina penalty incurred on it), I settle down for an untroubled night's sleep. In the morning I add the clown-in-ball to my collection, and then get out the Aleph again.

Mt frame of mind is still influencing where I go, and by now I could do with some answers. The Aleph takes me to the foot of a cliff, which has a massive portal hewn into it. A little exploration reveals my first impression to be wrong: I'm not at the foot, but on a big ledge. Etched onto a nearby boulder is a diagram of a horrendously twisty-turny maze, identified by a caption as the Seven Courtyards of Semeion Cryptoglyphos. Three verses inscribed beneath the maze explain that the path through the maze provides a key to a gate, and that most of the courtyards in it just contain danger.

With the paper and pencil I copy the diagram, which means that I'm allowed to refer to the illustration of the carving inside the front of the book while playing, rather than being on my honour to try and memorise the best path before I enter the maze. Even with the diagram (and knowledge of the twist subtly indicated in the poem), it could be a bit of a headache. Still, in I go...

Chimneys and fissures have been used to allow enough light into the maze for basic visibility, and a circle-on-triangle symbol has been carved into the portal's lintel. This symbol appears in other parts of the maze, making it that bit easier to specify directions without reference to a compass. The passage leads to a T-junction. I pick what I believe to be the optimal direction, and after trudging onwards for a long while, reach a courtyard, in which I am attacked by a flock of bats. I manage to evade them, though.

The exit I pick eventually brings me to a small chamber containing a boulder that glows and radiates heat. I can't stay here for long, but do have time to read the inscriptions above the exits. In essence, they say that while I can have the past and present clarified to me, the future will be determined by the choices I make, and thus cannot be predicted.

If I'm on track, I want to leave by the doorway opposite the one through which I entered. And if I was correct, then for almost two decades I've been wrong about the arbitrariness of the way my first character died. According to the map, I'm in a chamber with three exits. My eyes tell me that it has four ways out, and the one that doesn't match what the map depicts happens to be a stairway. So if that is the illusion that got my first Spectral Stalkers character killed (and I'm not about to check, since if I'm right I'd wind up dead again), then the map provides a hint that it's not real.

Again I take the exit opposite the one through which I came in, and after further plodding along passages, I reach a room that has a large bundle hanging from the ceiling. Disconcertingly, the bundle moans, and begins to move. Suspecting a trap, I don't loiter.

The passage takes me to a courtyard containing a fountain, carved in the shape of a Minotaur. I take a refreshing drink and, for what should be the last time if I've been reading the map right, pick an exit.

My wanderings bring me to a dead end. The floor feels unstable. So I check for secret doors, and find a carving. It looks a bit like a face, and is also a sort of maze, though without any dead ends (not really a labyrinth by the scholarly definition, as there's more than one path, but they all converge on the same couple of points, like a less convoluted version of Embankment station on the London Underground). Each of the 'eyes' is an indentation with a pressable button in it. One will allow me to reach the centre of the maze, the other won't. Remembering what the poems outside the maze said, I do a quick sketch of the route I've taken to get here, to see if it provides any hints. It looks a bit like like half of a Space Invader (the ones on the bottom two rows) with extra tentacles, which doesn't really tell me very much.

I try a button. Nothing happens. Well, the floor shudders. I back away until things quieten down. Then I return to the dead end and try the other button. The wall rises to reveal a courtyard containing a maze-like garden, the walls covered with a mess of stairways, balconies, walkways and other artificial outcroppings that would confuse M.C. Escher. Directly in front of me is a large two-headed dog, which introduces itself as the Logic Dog. It explains that I must guess whether it will attack me or let it past, warning that it will attack if I guess incorrectly. Having encountered such puzzles in the past, I give the answer that results in a paradox and, when the Dog attempts to resolve the paradox with violence, point out the flaw in its argument that obliges it to not attack me. The Dog vanishes (possibly to chase Schroedinger's Cat for a bit), and someone congratulates me on having Captain Kirked my way out of a fight.

The speaker introduces himself as Semeion, and invites me to join him. Ascending the stairs to the balcony where he stands is predictably confusing, but I manage not to fall off, on, down, up, out, in or any other way that could be possible. When I finally reach Semeion, he offers to answer any questions I might have. Sensing him to be trustworthy, I show him the Aleph. He knows what it is, though up until now he wasn't sure it actually existed. Then I produce the other items I've acquired in the course of my travels, and as I have all seven of the circular ones that are so important, Semeion is able to convey a message from some higher power: Archmage Globus is evil, and has sent the Stalkers to acquire the Aleph for him. A protective Talisman in the shape of a seven-pointed star appears in the midst of the circular items, and I put it on.

Next I ask Semeion if he knows anything about Globus, and he takes me to his library. Which doesn't use books, but (judging by the description) a kind of tin can-based braille microfiche system. From this, Semeion is able to learn that Globus lives in a well-guarded Citadel on the topmost tier of the Ziggurat World. A deadly Crystal Garden surrounds the Citadel, and there is a secret passage into the Citadel from a lower level. No doubt that way has its own risks.

Semeion has a Telopticon - in effect, a multi-dimensional CCTV camera - and the Ziggurat World just happens to be one of the places he can use it to view, so if I'm interested, I could have a quick look at where the villain lives. I'm interested. The Teleopticon shows me the Ziggurat World (which is most definitely not a sphere, though it is situated inside one), and zooms in on the Citadel, but owing to magical wards placed by Globus, it can't actually see inside the place without a power boost, which it can only get by drawing on its operators' life energies. I'm currently at full Stamina, so I risk it. The transfer of energy is facilitated by the use of large red leeches (I wonder if they're the same kind that Sherlock Holmes encountered in 1894), and I can only restore the Stamina lost to them by drinking sea water.

The boosted Telopticon shows Globus himself, who is surrounded by a glittering dome that Semeion identifies as a Prism of Power. This is a near-perfect protective shield: no living being other than its creator may pass through it, and inanimate objects can only do so very slowly. It wouldn't deter the non-living Stalkers, though, so there's no point in trying to get one of my own.

At this point the Leech-boost fades, and as the Telopticon changes focus, it picks up on the Stalkers. Semeion thinks that taking a closer look at them might help him identify the enchantment that makes them do Globus' bidding, but it would probably attract their attention as well. To paraphrase Nietzsche, when you gaze long at a monster, the monster also gazes at you. I choose to let the Stalkers have their privacy, and decide it's time I was on my way.

Semeion advises me to go to the Ziggurat World, as my travels must take me there sooner or later, and explains that he can't give me any food because he's not actually human, and doesn't need sustenance. Food for thought is a different matter, and while Semeion doesn't actually use the line from Hamlet, his closing advice boils down to 'get Globus hoist with his own petard'. To thank him for his assistance (and relieve myself of one burden), I give him the harp before taking out the Aleph again.

I arrive slightly above a meadow. After picking myself up, I see one of the Stalkers appearing above me. It can't actually detect me, though (between the Talisman and my having done little to draw attention, I'd need to get less than zero on the roll of three dice to be noticed), and soon disappears.

Massive cliffs dominate the landscape, and I hear people approaching, speaking in a Wood Elf dialect (which seems to me about as likely as travelling to a distant galaxy and finding that its inhabitants speak Welsh). Hiding behind a bush, I watch as four Elves emerge from a copse, carrying something alive in a net. One secures the net to a boulder, another lets out a loud cry, and the last two look up. I'm not sure what's going on here, but it looks likely to be unpleasant for the being in the net, so I step into the open to try and find out more about the situation, first extracting Syzuk's hubcap from my backpack in case they're hostile. Perhaps not the smartest thing I've ever done, as the moment the Elves see it, they run off screaming. Still, I can now see what's in the net without interference.

It's a creature like the one that fell out of the sky at the start of the adventure. This one has a broken leg, and tells me to flee, as he knows my burden and does not want me (and it) to be captured by the flocks of Silica Serpents that are heading this way. I disregard the warning, and carry him into cover. He thanks me and explains that he is a Mercurial, one of the beings that guard the ways between worlds. He also warns me to leave this world at once, before Globus can find out that I'm here.

I head for the cliffs, which don't seem any closer after some hours' walking. Reaching a hilly, forested region, I climb a tall tree on the top of the highest hill, and see that there are grassy plains to the left, and a coastline to the right. As I need some seawater to replenish my precious bodily fluids, I head that way.

Close to the sea I find a ruined town, and I notice some large bubbles out on the water. Undeterred, I get myself a drink, noting as I do that there are large webbed footprints in the sand. While I'm looking at them, a huge bubble rises out of the water, bearing half a dozen large amphibians with shark tooth-edged swords. The bubble dissolves, and its occupants advance on me. Not liking the odds, I surrender.

These creatures, which are called Vaskind, drag me into the bubble (didn't it dissolve last section?) and transport me to the vast undersea dome that houses their city. The air is breathable, though not very pleasant. My captors place me on a pedestal in front of a throne, on which sits a crown but no monarch. The illustration for this section also depicts a Vaskind with a big fish on a leash, which is delightful.

A robed Vaskind says they bear me no malice, but have no idea what kind of creature I am. He asks if I'm a friend of Globus, and I tell the truth - that he's anything but. The Vaskind wonders if I could be the prophesied warrior who will aid his people against their oppressor (despite my 'unimpressive' appearance), and tells me that Globus' Silica Serpents and Black Shadows have driven them from the land, but they dare not rise up against him as he holds their Queen hostage. He mentions the two ways of getting to Globus' Vitreous Citadel, and indicates that the Crystal Garden is guarded by the Serpents and full of dangerous plants, while the secret tunnel leads from the tower of the more deadly Shadows.

Before having me taken back to shore, the Vaskind provides me with some extra food. Back on dry land, I find myself close to the cliff, and start to trudge along the path that zig-zags up it. Some time later (shortly after passing through a cloud layer) I rest on a ledge, noting that there are two ways on from it. One leads to a region dotted with towers, the other to a flatter area. The towers could be Shadow territory, so I make for the flat land.

When I reach the top of the cliff some hours later, I see little but rocks and gullies between here and the next cliff. Well, little geographically speaking. But the sky's pretty busy with Silica Serpents. One lands close by, and gets its wings caught on something. I hide to see what happens next. After a while, a group of Ophidians (tall, skinny humanoids with spidery limbs) wearing black glass armour approaches the Serpent. The armour protects them from the Serpent's highly corrosive spittle, and one of the Ophidians plays a set of pipes, pacifying the Serpent and enabling the Ophidians to muzzle and leash it and take it away. In the hope of being able to get some pipes and armour like theirs, I discreetly follow.

Eventually they stop at the foot of a sheer escarpment with a cave mouth about half way up. Half of the Ophidians climb the rock wall like spiders, and the rest play pipes and release the Serpent, which obediently follows the climbers. The second lot of Ophidians follow the first, and after a bit, I follow them as best I can. Up close, the rock face isn't quite as featureless as it looked, but it's still quite a challenging climb. Not beyond my capabilities, though, and as the Ophidians don't think anyone not of their kind would be daft enough to attempt the climb, there's no guard.

Two tunnels lead from the cave. The shrieks of Silica Serpents echo down one of them, so I try the other. It leads to a store room, containing spears, coils of rope, suits of glass armour and pipes. I help myself to rope, armour and pipes (incidentally discovering the gauntlets that come with the armour to be fitted with retractable hooks that facilitate climbing), return to ground level, and start heading towards the next big cliff. The armour slightly restricts my movement, and carries a Skill penalty, but I think acid-proofing is liable to be worth more than full mobility up ahead.

Eventually I reach the cliff. There's no path up this one, so it's a good thing I have armour with built-in climbing gear. This enables me to make the ascent without incident, and at last I clamber over a parapet and into the Ballard-esque Crystal Garden. Tethered Silica Serpents guard the paths through it, but I'm not bothered because I have pipes. Taking the most direct route means only having to deal with one of the Serpents, and a quick tootle puts that one to sleep.

The Vitreous Citadel is surrounded by a bright blue moat, which gives off smoke. One bridge leads across the moat, ending in an overly fancy door: the black marble frame is carved to resemble a face, with the doorway as the mouth. Which makes the bridge its tongue. Still, it's that or the moat, and I'm wearing armour, not a diving suit, so I don't think wading would be very clever.

After I've taken a few steps onto the bridge, it starts retracting towards the doorway. It's not very stable, and I struggle to keep my balance. When I'm half way across the moat, the bridge stops retracting, but becomes no more stable. The carved face speaks, stating that it knows me to be an intruder as I'm neither an Ophidian nor a Black Shadow and I didn't say the password. It should kill me, but, being a rather vain and arrogant doorway, it might spare me if I plead nicely enough. So I try to flatter the doorway. Hilariously, as I soon begin running out of characteristics to praise, I wind up complimenting the doorway on just how black and shiny it is. It works - to an extent. Spouting self-important verse (it starts by identifying itself as Archduke Gateway, and then moves on to even more grandiose titles), the doorway challenges me to say how many crowns it has. I answer correctly, and the bridge becomes stable for as long as it takes me to complete my crossing.

Proceeding into the Citadel, I trek through marbled corridors populated with crystal statues, and eventually reach two doorways. Usually, if I get this far when playing the book, I go into the room where the Vaskind Queen is imprisoned, as she'd be willing to sacrifice her life to save me from the last trap before Globus. But from the times I reached that trap unaccompanied, I know that the Talisman I wear also has some use in the situation, so on this occasion I'll spare her majesty the painful death, and head straight for the Archmage's chambers.

I step through a doorway into a darkened room. The door slams behind me, and lights begin to glow. A beam of light hits me, and I am subjected to intense pressure. The Talisman lights up, diminishing the intensity of the beam. It could still prove fatal if I were in worse health, but as it is, my Stamina is high enough that I survive.

The beam cuts out, and then the Prism of Power appears, and Globus within it. He claims to be the owner of the Aleph, only sheltering in the Prism because of the enemies who have beset him since he lost his 'bauble', and offers to richly reward me if I hand the sphere 'back' to him. I tell him, "No."

He turns nasty, and threatens to summon the Spectral Stalkers. I defy him to do his worst. He rants, raves, and threatens, and when I remain unimpressed, makes a gesture that causes the Stalkers to begin to take shape in the room.

"All right, you've convinced me," I say, and pass the Aleph through the Prism. Globus eagerly grabs the item he has sought for so long, and gloats that it's too late. The Stalkers are already here, and while under his power, they are compelled to slay the holder of the Aleph. Then it dawns on him that that's not me any more. In a panic, he tries to throw the Aleph back to me, but the Prism's impermeability to fast-moving objects foils that desperate plan. And then the Stalkers are fully formed, and moments later Globus is no longer fully formed. And because they were bound to give him the Aleph once they'd killed its bearer, one of them then picks the Sphere up and puts it neatly beside the Archmage's remains.

Once the Stalkers have gone, I retrieve the Aleph. As is traditional, the villain's base is starting to collapse now he's dead, so I don't hang around for long. The Garden, the Serpents and the Shadows are also destroyed by Globus' passing, so the other peoples of the Ziggurat World are free, and insist on giving me large quantities of treasure. After several days of celebration, I manage to return home by Aleph, after which the sphere takes itself off to some other part of the Macrocosm. Of course, nobody there is liable to believe me if I start talking about having saved everyone everywhere from Globus' machinations, but I know, I'm recognised as a hero on more than one other world, and the loot in my backpack must be worth something on Titan, so that's a pretty satisfying result, all things considered.

Well, that was fun. Again. It's a pity I missed some of the other worlds that can be visited in the course of the adventure - the acquisition and subsequent deployment of the mighty weapon known as Extinguisher is one of the best bits of humour in all FF. Still, I got to all of the most important ones, which I've never before managed in the course of a single adventure, so I shouldn't complain too much.

Mr. Darvill-Evans is known to be a fan of Doctor Who, and while his earlier FF books both include sequences with strong similarities to scenes from seventies Who (and a path not taken by me on this occasion may involve the use of an umbrella for protection from jets of acid much like in The Krotons) this whole adventure reads like a love letter to the series. The hero is transported through time and space, often with little control over where his means of transport takes him. More often than not, he arrives in a place where wrongs need righting, people require rescuing, and villains have to be thwarted. Much of the time, intelligence and quick wits are of greater value than brute force, but the hero is able to defend himself if need be. And so on. Personally, I consider Spectral Stalkers to encapsulate the spirit of Doctor Who far better than any of the actual licensed gamebooks based on the series. Or any of the author's Doctor Who novels, for that matter.

3 comments:

  1. I would always get spit out at the end world after exploring just a handful of other worlds. Worse, I had no clue what I should be doing apart from gathering circular objects which never got used. The same problem came up in Starship Traveller where mindless flight ruled the gameplay. Imo, the only FF book to get multiple worlds right was Rebel Planet (and maybe The Rings of Kether if you count the moon and asteroids as worlds).

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    1. The random aspect can be frustrating. Still, collecting all seven circular objects, while helpful, is by no means essential, and three or four of them have their uses even if you don't get the whole set (such as when I scared the Elves off with the hubcap).

      The main consequences of getting the lot and having Semeion interpret them are:
      1) Learning that Globus is a villain, which you can also find out by helping the Mercurial just after arriving on the Ziggurat World. Or by relying on metaknowledge, but if you want an in-game justification for not trusting him, it's not difficult to find out that he's a bad sort.
      2) Some degree of protection from the light beam just before Globus, which you don't need if you free the Vaskind Queen. Either of two items can be used to do that, and statistically speaking you're more likely to wind up in a position where you can get at least one of them than you are to survive the very first encounter in Crypt of the Sorcerer.

      So while getting to take the optimal route is unlikely, it doesn't really matter, as the book provides alternate options. Which is more than you can say for most.

      And if you disregard the circular object hunt, your goals are pretty straightforward.
      1) Don't get killed or trapped anywhere.
      2) Don't let the Stalkers catch you.
      3) Learn the truth about Globus.
      The first of these is a combination of good decision-making and luck. Likewise the second. The third, as mentioned above, can be achieved by rescuing the Mercurial. And if you achieve all these goals, they set you up to seek out the true villain and thwart his plans.

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  2. I've only once managed to get to all the right worlds to get all the signs and portents and that time I had insufficient funds for the bronze plate - frustrating. Although apparently the reward you get for doing so is negligible. Even from my first playthrough I assumed Globus was evil because I couldn't imagine a good guy wanting to possess something like the Aleph and the talisman is pointless if you rescue the queen.
    In fact I usually avoid the maze completely as I can't make head nor tail of that map and aside from the advice about handing it to Globus, you don't get anything out of it - and that advice led me to hand it to Globus too early which resulted in failure.
    Still, these niggles aside it's definitely one of the most fun and imaginative books in the series.

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