Monday, 10 February 2014

Sufficiently Advanced

Simon, the friend responsible for my first contact with David Tant's The Legends of Skyfall, first brought the series to my attention after getting a copy of The Black Pyramid, the second book in the series. He waxed enthusiastic about it as we walked to school one morning, telling me all about a couple of the traps, and speaking with amusement of how 'stupid' the viewpoint character was for assuming that a crate with the word 'missile' on it must be the property of a powerful Magician. Actually, for a character from the society into which the colonists of Skyfall had degenerated, that was a perfectly logical inference, but such subtleties were lost on Simon at the time.

I had a brief look at his copy of the book, looking more closely at one of the traps that had caught his attention, but didn't properly get to grips with the adventure until I acquired it as one of the three that I found at Sevenoaks market as described previously. I didn't bother with the rules the first time I played it, and wound up failing on account of a rather more ingenious trap than the ones that had so appealed to Simon. The first time I tried playing it properly, I drew a map as I went along, and when the map suddenly stopped making sense (possibly because of an error in the book), I got demoralised and had my character sample the contents of the various bottles accumulated along the way. Which included a particularly lethal poison, so I knew to avoid that bottle if I ever got motivated to try the book again.

More recently I ran the adventure on rpg.net as I had the first one, starting here. At the moment it's the Skyfall book that killed the group most often, though they're still playing the last book in the series, and (judging by their performance to date) may well equal or beat their current record for deaths in one Skyfall book before it's over.

The gender of my character will become relevant at one point in this adventure, and as I didn't specify it last time round, I should choose now. There's no real advantage or disadvantage to choosing one or the other, so I determine it randomly... And I'm a man.

Having rescued my father and assorted other bargepersons from the villainous Were-Crocodile Druid of the Dunmarsh, I decided to spend some time in a less damp part of the world, and travelled to the settlement of Seven Wells, on the border of the Groaning Desert. It must have been an arduous journey: by the time the book starts, I no longer have any of the treasures I accumulated in the marsh, and the flip of the coins establishes that I start with just 7 Fortune points, the lowest possible starting score.

One evening I'm in the local pub, The Laughing Hyena, when a dying man is brought in. He's badly sunburned, having been travelling through the desert for some time, but the burn across his legs and stomach wasn't caused by the sun. A priest is brought in to try and heal the man, but he's beyond help. When the priest is called away to attend to a woman who's gone into premature labour, I volunteer to keep vigil over the dying man, and thus hear the story he tells when he becomes lucid enough to explain how he wound up in this state.

He had been sent to investigate the fate of a lost expedition into the desert, and provided with a small fortune in precious stones to hire a Wizard with a Flying Carpet. While flying across the desert, they had noticed a pyramid made of black stone, and gone closer to investigate. They saw a group of white-robed figures near it, and then a beam of light struck the carpet, burning a hole in it and also causing the dying man's mysterious wound. The Wizard died in the resultant crash, and the man attempted to get back to civilisation, mostly travelling by night, and heading in the direction of the constellation that was his birth sign. Obviously he made it, but not soon enough to save his life - indeed, he passes on not much later.

Reflecting on his story, I decide to seek out the pyramid he mentioned. And if I should happen to find that bag of precious stones while I'm out there... well, it'd be a shame to let them go to waste. In addition to the standard equipment, I take extra waterskins, a tent, and a mirror, to help me check that I'm consistently walking away from the constellation the man followed.

The desert isn't all sand - there's also a lot of rock. Some of it has been eroded into strange formations, and the sound the wind makes blowing through them is what gives the Groaning Desert its name. It's also inhabited, as is shown by the occasional glint of reflected starlight in the eyes of some nocturnal creature, odd scuttling noises from the vicinity of the rocky outcrops, and the way something big ducks behind a boulder just to slowly to avoid being noticed when I glance back over my shoulder.

This is where I get to make the first decision of the adventure. Do I go back and investigate, prepare an ambush, or concentrate on finding somewhere to shelter during the coming day, and worry about my shadow later? Depending on how the coins fall, the ambush could work out well, but all things considered, it's a safer option to just keep going. In the light of dawn I catch sight of a suitable-looking cave, and head there, wondering if I just imagined that I was being followed. The book then rather gives the game away by telling me what happens if I've already dealt with my follower. As I haven't, I use the tried and trusted 'arrange equipment under a blanket to make it look as if I'm asleep, then watch from a place of concealment' trick.

After an hour I'm beginning to doubt that there was anything, but then an Ogre leaps into the cave with a roar, and I attack before it can do too much harm to my bedroll. It's a nocturnal creature, and fights at reduced Expertise in daylight, and I also have SURPRISE for two rounds, giving me a temporary Expertise boost of 2. To improve my chances, I risk using Fortune to increase damage the first two times I hit the Ogre. Once SURPRISE has worn off, the fight gets a lot tougher, and I'm down to 4 Vitality by the time the Ogre dies. Still, I get to increase my Expertise for having fought such a formidable opponent, I get a Fortune bonus that exceeds my in-fight expenditure, and I can make good most of the damage by eating a meal and drinking a Healing Potion. Less positively, my exertions have made me thirsty, so water consumption is greater than anticipated. I may have to cut short my expedition.

I spend the day asleep in the cave, and set off again after dark. After a while I hear sounds suggesting that local scavengers have found the Ogre. Other noises, which rather ominously don't get any quieter the further I go, lead to the realisation that something prefers its meat a lot fresher than 'killed at the start of the day'. After crossing a clear expanse of land, I look back to see a Mountain Lion on my trail. No chance of ambushing this predator.

On the plus side, I have a slightly higher Expertise than the Lion. On the downside, it gets two attacks (and does an impressive amount of extra harm if it hits with both in any one round). Some particularly unfortunate coin-flips mean that the fight takes a lot longer than it should, and on one occasion the Lion does manage to use its 'hold with forepaws while clawing with hind paws and biting' manoeuvre, but in the end I'm the one still standing. Just. Another Fortune bonus, another Expertise boost, another meal and Potion consumed.

I spend the day in the last cave before the desert becomes nothing but sand dunes, and the following night is just one long repetitious sequence of climbing up and down. Nothing attacks me, but there's no shelter around, so I have to make do with my tent when the sun rises again. This provides somewhat inadequate protection, and I wind up drinking more than planned again. Half my water is gone, and I've not even reached my destination. Nevertheless, I can't be far off now, so I wait until late in the day and then climb to a good vantage point to see if I can spot the pyramid.

It's just gone midnight by the time I find what I seek - an unnaturally flat circle of sand around three miles across, with a hill that comes to a decidedly regular point directly in the middle. I'm not going any further for now, though, as the sand between here and there turns out to be teeming with serpents, scorpions, lizards and other creepy-crawlies, like a 'make the audience squirm' sequence from an Indiana Jones film.

A needlessly lengthy sequence of sections that just lead to other sections without allowing any decisions (confusingly bringing the book's total to 401) follows. At dawn I start to circle around the circular depression, hoping to catch sight of the steps mentioned by the burned man. After an hour, I spot a group of white-robed figures heading across the sand to the central dune, and hide. One of them is being carried on a litter, and another leads sheep or goats on a rope. They enter the pyramid, and it occurs to me that it's exactly a week since the carpet was shot down, so maybe these people don't live in the pyramid, and just visit it on a weekly basis.

Waiting in the sun means more water consumption, and a little Vitality loss from the heat, but eventually the group comes back out, minus animals, but with everyone on foot this time, and they return whence they came. Once they're out of sight, I hurry across the sand while it's still free of venomous bitey creatures and ascend the steps. The dune on which the pyramid stands seems to be made of sand, but is rock hard, and the steps have been cut into it. They are perfectly regular, showing no signs of erosion, and when I reach the top and see the pyramid close up, I see similar precision in its manufacture. It's been built from blocks of black stone, apparently without mortar, and you'd struggle to fit a fingernail into any of the joins.

Before entering, I take a look at the surrounding area. No sign of the dead Magician, so he (and the bag of gems) must have been dragged off, either by the white-robed people or by something large and hungry. Still, right now I'm more concerned with finding a sufficient quantity of water to allow me to return to Seven Wells than with expensive shiny things. Don't expect that state of affairs to last long.

It's dark inside the pyramid, so I light one of the torches I brought with me. Up ahead is a T-junction, and most of the wall facing me bears a frieze. Evidently a long-standing and ongoing project: towards the right end, the paintings have faded almost to illegibility, while there's a stretch at the left end that hasn't yet been painted on at all. The frieze shows people sailing, fighting animals and monsters, worshipping an idol and, funnily enough, attending meetings.

The map of the pyramid interior that I drew for the group playing the book at rpg.net still exists, but I'm going to try and work from memory rather than refer to it. In any case, I know for certain which way to go first, as I remember that their tiresome obsession with the 'always go left' meme from The World of Lone Wolf indirectly led to one of their deaths. So I go right. Before long I reach a corner to the left, and around it I see a pair of imposing doors up ahead, and a smaller door set into the wall on the right.

One thing that facilitates getting lost in here (apart from the occasional mistake in the text) is the complete lack of compass directions. Unless you pay careful attention, it's easy to get confused, especially as the way your character faces while the corridor layout is described isn't necessarily the way you were just travelling.

Anyway, I go through the small door (which has a handle in the shape of a fish) and find myself in a short passage leading to another door, that one with an ordinary doorknob painted white. I go through that one as well, and enter a room containing six tables covered in cushions. Along a couple of the walls are stone benches with no cushions, and another has several shelves laden with glassware and buckets. The glassware includes four Potion-style bottles, three containing blue liquid, the other holding orange. Further buckets stand on the floor, with water in. It's not very palatable, but drinkable, so I refill my waterskins.

Technically, I could now return to the pyramid entrance and head for home, and that would constitute a win, because I have enough water for the return journey. But that would make this a rather dull post, and leave most of the pyramid unexplored, so I'll take the bottles and pick one of the other exits from the room. Starting with the one in the left-hand wall. It leads to a small room containing a well. I lower the bucket on the rope (which is at least a hundred feet long) in order to avert a continuity error later on. The book offers the option of getting into the bucket and riding it down to the bottom of the well, but that is as unwise an idea as it sounds. I could now try climbing down the rope with the bucket on, but that could have regrettable consequences (and not just the 'lose your grip and fall to your death' kind), so I'll return to the last room.

The other door leads to a small room similar to the one it adjoins. More cushioned tables, wooden stools instead of stone benches, and the shelves here contain sharp knives, towels, needles and thread, and two bottles of green liquid, which I add to my collection.

Returning to the corridor, I proceed to the double doors, and push one of them. It opens into a massive room in which steps lead up to a metal dais with a large stone statue of a bird-headed man on it. Just behind it, there are carved bas-reliefs on the wall at each side, one depicting a man offering a bowl to the statue, the other showing a woman doing likewise. At the far end of the wall behind me is a second set of double doors.

Acting on metaknowledge, I head for the female bas-relief. The bowl held by the carving has a small hole in the bottom, to drain any liquid poured into it, so I tip half a waterskin of water into the bowl. This causes a hidden door to open. Before the water can all drain away, I take a quick drink, and find that the residue left by whatever was poured into the bowl before now has dissolved into the water. Fortunately for me, the previous users were in the habit of tipping curative Potions in there, so I won't be affected by the next disease I would have a chance of contracting.

While the secret door is open, I pop through. Behind it is another corridor with hieroglyphs on the walls. I head along it, and after turning a corner, take a close look at the artwork on the next stretch of wall, because I'm pretty sure that that's the one that it's worth scrutinising. (Examining the wrong ones brings an Expertise penalty due to eye strain.) Yes, there's a painting of the pyramid with a slightly recessed entrance. When I press it, a whole section of wall slides aside. Not for long, but there's time for me to jump through.

I find myself in a room with curtains around three walls. The one with the secret entrance is an exception, and examination of it and the floor reveals a projecting stone liable to reactivate the door by which I came in, and indications that there's a second sliding block in the same wall, though there doesn't appear to be any way to activate that one from inside. Owing to the peculiarities of Mr. Tant's description of the room, it is only after checking this wall that I notice the colours of the curtains (green on the left, grey in the middle and purple on the right) or spot the black stone altar with the three-foot-high gold statue on it. In a surprising-for-gamebooks bit of realism, the statue is too heavy for me to move. The gold candlesticks, bowl and goblet are more portable, though the text does point out that the owners will not be very happy if I take them. Two wrongs not making a right, the fact that their owners are murderers is no justification for stealing them. Mind you, I have already taken some of their water and potions, so it's a bit late to be getting on my high camel about theft in gamebooks.

Twisting the stone projection causes the slab to move again, allowing me back out into the corridor, so I carry on away from the room with the statue and reach another room, with one other exit. This seems to be a changing room for the females of the white-robed people. White robes decorated with green embroidery hand on hooks, there's a shelf laden with boxes and bottles of cosmetics, and several mirrors hang on the wall. The middle mirror is covered with a green cloth, which I leave alone, because touching it would trigger the trap I read up on in Simon's copy of the book, and while I know how to get out of it, the experience is so psychologically scarring that my character would never be able to enter this room again, and I might need to pass through it at some point. Not sure why such a thing is in here, unless the white-robed ladies have some particularly warped hazing rituals for initiates.

The other exit leads to a room with white-painted walls and a large pool of water in the middle of the floor. There are towels on hooks and unlit torches in holders around the walls, and a tinderbox on a table between the two doorways out of the room. I light the torches, and note that the black stone walls and floor of the pool make the water look really unappealing.

For now I leave by the doorway through which I haven't yet come, which leads to the men's changing room. In this room are white robes with purple embroidery (one of which I put on so that I won't stand out so much, should anyone still be here) and no mirrors or cosmetics, though there is a chest against one of the walls. It has a key in the lock, so I take a look inside, and have to pay quite a hefty Fortune cost to keep from being immobilised by the trap that doing so springs. This was the other trap Simon went on about, principally because this seems to have been the first time he encountered the Skyfall books' 'choose whether or not to spend the Fortune to resist' mechanism, and he was surprised to find that you could effectively voluntarily accept whatever grim fate the white-robed people reserve for intruders and would-be-thieves.

Inside the chest are a bottle labelled 'Cure Disease', a metal rod with grooves in one end (which I know from previous experience to be the 'key' to the other sliding block leading into the room with the gold items), and five bags of gold coins that I have no legitimate grounds for taking.

The room has another exit which, ultimately, leads back to the large room via a secret door by the male bas-relief (along the way passing the wall decorations concealing the 'keyhole' which that metal rod fits. I don't want to go back to the large room, though, so instead I return to the room with the pool and jump into the water. Interestingly, the book assumes that my character is smart enough to have left any bulky equipment (like all that gold I'm not carrying) by the side of the pool. Preferable to assuming that I'm too stupid to have thought about that, but I'm a little surprised that Mr. Tant didn't do a post-dive check, with subsequent coin-flipping and/or Fortune deduction to give anyone who did forget a chance not to drown. Especially as there is a trap elsewhere in the book that becomes a lot trickier to deal with if you are lugging around vast quantities of gold. Anyway, I keep the robes, sword, and a few of the bottles, and leave everything else at the poolside.

The light from the torches I lit enables me to see underwater well enough that I spot the submerged tunnel leading out of the room. If we take the two passages to the changing rooms as heading south, this goes west. I swim along it to another, smaller pool. The room it's in is dark, but the sides are low enough that I can climb out, and a little fumbling around helps me to discover another table with a tinderbox on, and there are more torches around the walls, so I soon have light. This enables me to see the towels on hooks and the ladder leading up through a trapdoor in the ceiling.

I dry off, then climb the ladder. Strangely, after the book tells me that the ladder is fixed to the wall, the next section has me attempting to take the ladder with me, only to find that it's fixed in place. And the storeroom to which it leads contains a couple of portable ladders (along with several coils of rope, some ten-foot poles, a trident, sacks of food (from which I take some supplies, as it's been over a day since I last ate) and several hutches that probably housed animals not so long ago). There are limitations to how much I can take from here, so apart from the food I just grab a rope.

There is another way out of the room. It would be absurd to have the pyramid's food stored in a place only accessible via a submerged tunnel. The other way out is a narrow, unlit tunnel, so I take a torch from the lower level to light my way. After a while I reach a side turning (going by the orientation I made up earlier, it's to the south) and head along it. The torchlight eventually shows a rectangular hole in the floor up ahead, so I approach with caution. Closer inspection reveals the hole to be the mouth of a shaft, and there's a narrow ledge on each side that could be used to get past it.

The shaft itself goes a short distance down to a window in the ceiling of a room below. All I can see is red lighting, a daunting drop to the floor, and a door leading from the room. Despite the drop, I lower myself into the shaft and, hanging on to the edge, break the window with a forceful kick. A humming noise becomes audible, but I don't hear the broken glass hitting the floor. Nor can I see it below me. Troubled by this, I decide not to drop down into the room, instead pulling myself back up and continuing past the mouth of the shaft to a similar hole I can see further along the passage.

The second shaft leads to a more interesting-looking room. Through the window I can see a pile of straw and a large, predatory-looking feline on a long chain. That bit too interesting, I think, so I leave the window unbroken and continue to the T-junction I can see further ahead.

At the junction I turn left, though as the book had me turn around 180º before picking a direction, that involves going right. A compass would have made things so much simpler. Anyway, the passage turns a corner and then terminates at the top of another shaft. It's too dark to make out anything through the glass, but after smashing it (again noticing rather less of a 'broken glass falling 15 feet onto a stone floor' sound effect than would be expected), I am eventually able to make out that the falling glass was cushioned by the thick carpet of live snakes writhing and squirming at the bottom of the pit below. Somewhere else to not visit, then.

Taking the other branch of the T-junction, I round a corner that takes me back 'north', and soon reach an alcove with another of those shafts in. Below the window at the bottom of this shaft is a large dog, currently sleeping, so I let it lie for now and continue along the passage to a T-junction. Further alcoves are visible along both as yet unexplored branches, so I check them out in turn. Nothing is visible through the glass in the first shaft, and breaking it just reveals an empty room. The glass in the bottom of the second shaft is clear, and shows another empty room. Or so it seems, but when I smash the glass on principle, the shards only fall a few feet and then hang suspended in mid-air. If I hadn't left my spare torches by the pool, I'd drop one down the shaft, but as it is, I'll just leave this mystery alone.

There are still parts of this network of passages that I've not yet explored, so I continue on to them, finding one shaft that the book won't let me investigate after I think I see something moving below the glass, and another that clearly leads to a room containing a Giant Scorpion. Eventually I wind up back where I entered these passages. So even if the people who use the pyramid know how to open these windows, the only way to get to the storeroom without getting wet is to access a window in the ceiling of a room that probably contains something dangerous and then chimney their way up a narrow shaft. That's not very efficient.

Time to get resourceful. I leave my equipment in the storeroom, descend to the small pool room, swim through to the larger one, and get my original rope and my torches. Swim back again, reclaim my equipment (except for the rope I took from the storeroom) and grab a ladder. For some reason I can't take a ladder and a rope from the storeroom, but I can take a ladder if I have my own rope.

Returning to the shaft above the room in which the broken glass hung in mid-air, I light a spare torch and drop it down. It falls no further than the glass, but the light it gives off indicates that it's landed on something invisible, wet and absorbent. The flames soon go out, and I note that the broken glass has sunk a little deeper into the unseen thing. Definitely not a room to try jumping into.

At this point I'm going to quit suppressing my metaknowledge and head back to the window above the sleeping Hound. Predictably, this wakes the beast ('in no good humour', as the book drily puts it), which starts baying, and I hear another one joining in. To quieten the one below me, I throw it some of the food I gathered in the storeroom. After seasoning it with the contents of one of those bottles. A specific one, but I'm not specifying which in order to leave a few surprises in case anyone who reads this wants to play the book themselves at some later date.

Anyway, that quietens the Hound. Permanently. Not a nice thing to do, but the brute's 'as big as a small pony', and there's no way of achieving the most worthy of the goals that can be attained in this book while that creature is still alive.

The other Hound continues to make a noise. I deduce from its failure to appear below me that it's chained up (somehow I didn't manage to work that out from the sound of the chain rattling, which was mentioned as part of the racket being produced down there), and decide to see if I can use the ladder to make my descent less painful than a straight drop onto a stone floor covered in bits of broken glass. With the help of the rope, I'm able to lower the ladder down the shaft and manoeuvre it into a position where I can climb down it into the room.

The second Hound is chained up in a far corner of the room, straining to get at me but unable to reach. Apart from the way I came in, there are two glass panels in the ceiling, one radiating unnaturally bright yellow light, the other glowing red and giving off heat. There are two doors at ground level, one open, the other closed and within range of the live Hound. A careful search of the parts of the room the Hound cannot reach turns up nothing of interest until I try turning the metal ring to which the dead Hound's chain is attached. Then a concealed door, also in the safe part of the room, opens.

This next bit was tiresome to transcribe for rpg.net. Beyond the door is a long and winding passage, and the book has a separate section for each corner, or whenever a stretch of corridor is so long that the next turning is out of visual range. Consequently, it takes eight sections to get to a choice other than 'turn back' or 'keep going'. Although, what with the continuing lack of compass-based directions, it's more 'go to the section you were just at' and 'go to a different section number'. Anyone who has a lousy short-term memory regarding numbers is at serious risk of getting lost in a single corridor.

Eventually the monotony is broken (the first time the reader gets to this part of the pyramid) by the sight of a door. Followed by a change in the sound of my footsteps, almost as if the floor beneath my feet were not as solid as the preceding 250-odd feet of corridor. As a veteran of this book, I know that the door is a fake, and pulling on the handle activates the trapdoor hinted at by the hollow sound of the floor here, so it's not really much of a distraction from the tedious trudging along the passage. Still, it's only a few more sections between the trap and the room in which the corridor terminates.

In this room is the mouth of a shaft, and a very crude lift for descending it - basically a large bucket attached to a hundred-foot-long rope, plus a winch. A braking system makes it impossible for me to just jump into the bucket and let gravity take over (and if there were no brakes, I'd be deterred from doing so by awareness of the likelihood of my smearing myself and the bucket over the bottom of the shaft if the rope should be longer than the drop), so the only option is to lower the bucket and, once it hits bottom, climb down the rope.

A little coin-flipping determines whether or not I manage to keep from falling down the shaft, but the chances of failing are only 1 in 16, and I could spend Fortune to chance a failure to a success if needful anyway. At the bottom is a room illuminated by more of those strange shining ceiling panels, with a door in one wall and a passage leading away in the other wall. I check out the passage first, finding that it leads to a pare of massive metal doors, with a similar pair half way along one of the walls.

Advancing to the closer doors, I see plates set into the wall either side of them, one glass, the other metal. Pressing the glass one causes a light to come on behind it. I know better than to try touching the metal one. The other doors mysteriously open when I approach them, closing again when I move back. Advancing causes them to open again, so I step through into a room so large and well-lit that for a moment I think I'm back outside rather than a long way underground. On the far side of the room is another pair of the doors, though these are jammed part-way open, and a pair of even larger doors takes up the whole of the wall to my right. Of more interest are the large screen at the end of the room to my left, which gradually changes colour from blue to red and back again, and the bizarre metal structure in the middle of the room.

The metal structure is over a hundred feet long, and in bad condition. It seems to be mounted on a giant pair of skis or sled runners, and I cannot begin to imagine how many beasts of burden it would take to drag the thing along. There are windows at one end, two cylinders protrude from the other end, and metal steps lead up to a door in the side.

Going inside the construction doesn't make it any clearer (at lest to my character) what this is all about. The interior is smaller than expected, the walls apparently being around ten feet thick, and there are several chairs inside, designed to tilt so far that anybody sitting in one could wind up flat on their back. Around the walls are lots of extra windows of various sizes, the larger ones all blank, while many of the smaller ones have needles pointing to numbers behind them. Many of these windows have coloured knobs below them. In places, small metal doors in the walls have been forced open, and thin metallic ropes trail out of them and onto the floor. It all seems very magical, and I don't loiter there.

Going through the gap between the jammed doors out of the big room, I enter a corridor that runs perpendicular to the last one. At the near end is another jammed pair of doors, and there's an ordinary door at the far end, with a glass plate set into the wall next to it. For some reason, the text goes through some hypothetical convolutions to explain that if I were to press the glass panel and look through the door, I'd see the room beyond illuminated by more of the glowing ceiling panels, which would go dark if I were then to press the panel again. Maybe it's there to save having to devote a number of sections to the viewpoint character's learning how a light switch works - it would look silly if the book were more than 401 sections long, right?

Ignoring the far end of the passage (perhaps disturbed at my mysterious foreknowledge of what would happen if I went there and tried pushing at the panel), I go through the gap between the other jammed doors. This leads to another corridor, with three openings in the right-hand wall. Voices drift from the second one, but I start by looking through the first one, and see an assortment of furniture. Ominously, while some of it is normal-sized, the rest is about 50% bigger than would be comfortable for most people.

For some reason there's no option to go back through the jammed doors, so I move closer to the second opening. The voices are more distinct now, one old and quavery, the other deep and gruff. I attempt to sneak past the opening to check out the third one, and have to spend a Fortune point to avoid making some kind of startled utterance when I spot that one of the occupants of the room is a 9-foot tall Troll. The other is a white-haired man, whose appearance is less remarkable.

The last opening leads to a rather cluttered room, containing a large number of battered crates and chests on which are written cryptic phrases like 'Missile Warheads' or 'Lighting Units'. Several also bear a strange symbol - a circle with a much smaller circle in the middle, and three triangles equally spaced around the small circle, pointing inwards. Concluding that I have strayed into the territory of a powerful Magician, I quickly leave.

The only thing to do now is enter the middle room. Its occupants are too distracted by whatever it is that they're doing to notice that I've come from the wrong end of the corridor, and my white robes keep them from recognising that I'm an intruder. He asks if I'm here for initiation, commenting that he wasn't aware any new 'Keepers of the Temple' were being appointed. While a little concerned about what initiation might involve, I agree, since I don't have a decent excuse if he should ask why I'm here if not for initiation. As it turns out, there's no cause for alarm, as initiation is just a guided tour of the lower level while the Troll prepares lunch.

The old man leads me down the corridor to the door with the light switch I somehow know all about, explaining that this whole place was created by master magicians countless years ago. He shows me the device that distils water from the very air, and the bottom of the well shaft into which the water is tipped for the convenience of the people at ground level. On the way back, he comments on the glowing ceiling panels, which have been burning without flames for centuries.

Then we enter the room with the screen and the metal edifice, and the man reveals that the screen is some kind of 'gate', though people can only pass through it when it is blue. He doesn't know what's on the other side, because nobody who's gone through it has ever returned, and the one monstrous creature to come through to here died moments after arrival. Based on the maps and charts found inside the metal structure, and the wear and tear on its skis, he believes it to be a vessel in which the ancients travelled. It's also where he found the fire-throwing devices 'my' people use (and I'm quite relieved to hear that apparently only one still functions).

As we move on, he mentions a sealed chest with a combination lock that he's been unable to open to get to the weapons or treasure contained within. That's not something I shall be looking into, in part because I'd have to fight the Troll to get a chance, and that is one nasty opponent, but mainly because of the chest's contents. Anyone smart enough to solve the 'puzzle' of the lock (or, like my teen self, sufficiently stubborn to check every section until reaching the correct one) is in for an unpleasant surprise, and should perhaps have paid more attention to the strange symbol I mentioned in the room with the crates.

We pass through the room where I arrived on this level, and if I'd come down by some other means (climbing down the well rope, or surviving the pit trap I didn't trigger), the absence of the lift-bucket would have alerted the old man to my deception. As it is, he takes me through the door I didn't try, which leads via a ramp to a room containing a huge mound of scrap metal and a vat of acid for disposing of anything dangerous (such as a sliced-to-bits-but-trying-to-grow-back-together Troll). An opening in the ceiling above the metal heap shows where that trapdoor I didn't spring leads.

With the tour concluded, the man asks if I have any questions. Acting on a hunch, I ask about the prisoners, and he says he could do with some more, as he only has two left, and they're not in very good shape any more. As we're passing the doors beside the metal plate I avoided touching, he asks if I'd like to see the prisoners. I feign mild interest, and he puts his palm to the metal plate, explaining that he's deciphered the spells operating it, so now it only opens the doors in response to his touch, and will kill anyone else who touches it.

The doors open onto a passage with seven cells leading off it. Not that they were originally intended as cells, so (as the man explains with a laugh) it was necessary to remove all the couches and cushions before putting the captives in them, as it wouldn't do to let slaves get comfy. Through a peephole I see the prisoners - two men in tattered clothes and poor condition. I casually ask if his palm operates the cell doors too and, when he confirms it, drop the pretense of being an initiate, draw my sword, and get him to release the prisoners.

They're delighted to have been freed, and reveal that they're the last members of an expedition attacked by the white-robed men. Both are wealthy, and offer to reward me handsomely if I help them back to civilisation. I dissuade them from doing anything vengeful to the old man, and they keep a tight hold on him while we return to the room with the 'lift'. I climb the rope, again without difficulty, and after some inexplicable speculation about where the top of the rope is in relation to the winch (I saw that before descending, and if I hadn't come down this way, the rope wouldn't have been available to climb, so I must know, and thus have no need to guess), I manage to get back onto solid ground.

Then I lower the bucket and winch up one of the ex-prisoners while the other restrains the old man, after which the two of us lower the bucket and winch up the old man and the other ex-prisoner. I don't know if, left alone down there, the old man would have been able to fetch the Troll soon enough to have the Troll interfere with the winching up of the second prisoner, but evidently my character thought the risk great enough to go to the effort of bringing an extra body up top.

We plod along that tedious corridor to the room with the Hounds. Unless I can persuade my companions to climb the ladder, follow me through the upper level, and either break into some other room and confront whatever peril awaits within or swim through that underwater passage, I'm going to have to fight the second Hound to get to the door. The door that isn't just another trap, I specify, in case anyone reading this still remembers that there were two doors out of the room even before I activated the hidden one leading to the corridor.

So I fight the Hound. I could attempt to poison it like I did the first one, but the fight's not that difficult when I don't need to descend 20-odd feet (within range of the beast's attacks) before I can take action against it. Besides, defeating it in straight combat brings an Expertise bonus and a Fortune bonus. Once I've put the Hound down, I open the door, and the other one closes. My companions accompany me through the door to a crossroads.

There's a lot of this level that I haven't properly explored (though I've seen almost every room from above). Still, I now have the welfare of the men I rescued to consider, besides which almost every room I have yet to enter contains something hostile, a trap, or both, so I'm going to try and head almost straight for the exit. The first step is simple enough, as only one branch of the crossroads doesn't lead to a door. We go that way, to a T-junction. Here the description seems at odds with my memories of the layout. Do I go to another crossroads, or a right turn?

It soon becomes apparent that I can't remember the route, so I start mapping. This helps a little, but not much, and I frequently retrace my steps upon catching sight of a door or dead end that doesn't look like where I need to be. This can't be making a very good impression on my companions. Nor can the 'almost blundering into a spiked pit' business that happens just when I think I've cracked it. The book doesn't cover helping companions not fall into traps, but as I more than succeed at the coin flip that determines whether or not I survive, I'm taking the excess as meaning that I knock the others out of harm's way as I leap back.

After that one slight near-fatal error I am on track, and bring my companions to another storeroom. An authorial error has the door to the storeroom retreat 5 feet as we approach it, but the door is unable to escape us, and once inside the storeroom the ex-prisoners are able to stock up on waterskins for the desert crossing. And, as a mark of respect to the rpg.net crowd, I fill a bucket from the mound of sand in the room to take back to Seven Wells.

In another manifestation of authorial carelessness, I'm told that I leave most of my waterskins here in safety to collect once I'm on my way out. Actually, that's not so daft. I leave my friends, prisoner and spare waterskins in that storeroom while I head back to the other one (which is easier than you might think, as this storeroom is only a short distance from the big room with the bas-reliefs) to get enough food for my companions on the homeward journey, and collect anything I'd left at the poolside. Then I return to the second storeroom to collect people, waterskins and bucket, and we head for the exit, possibly getting confused by an incorrect direction in the text.

Now I decide to let the old man go. We don't have enough water for four people, and keeping an eye on him during the trek could be problematic. My friends would rather just kill him, but I talk them out of it. He's probably not capable of climbing down to the lower level, and even if he is, we'll be long gone by the time he gets back to the Troll. Especially as all that wandering around, going the wrong way and so on will have confused him regarding the route back to the 'lift' room. I don't know how the white-robed mob will express their displeasure when they next come here and find out that he let an outsider free their prisoners and take assorted supplies, but I'm afraid that's his problem.

I need to spend Fortune to ensure that the desert crossing is sandstorm-free, but I have more than enough to cover the cost (and have done as long as I've been here), so my friends and I make it back to civilisation in good health, with quite a tale to tell. I am awarded the freedom of the town, and don't have to pay for drinks for a long while. The book ends with me reflecting that I've had enough of sun and sand, and deciding to visit an uncle with a mine in the mountains. Which sets things up for the third book in the series.

That was rather a slog. There are some interesting ideas in the book, but the imprecise goal (there's no actual need to rescue the prisoners or take the gold - victory is assured as long as you have enough water and Fortune when you leave the pyramid, so I could genuinely have won by leaving as soon as I found those buckets of water), the lengthy periods of wandering around corridors and the multitude of minor errors all combine to make this the weakest book in the series. A pity, as it's the only one to do anything of note with The Legends of Skyfall's most distinctive feature (among gamebooks, at least) - the misunderstood remnants of the technology that brought humans to Skyfall in the first place.

2 comments:

  1. I accept that from the standpoint of an inhabitant of Skyfall, it would be logical to assume the crate was the property of a wizard. Hope all is well with you.

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