Thursday, 30 October 2014

Fading Memories Blending Into Dull Tableaux

I'm not sure when I originally became aware that Puffin Books had marked the 10th anniversary of the publication of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by getting Ian Livingstone to pen a sequel, the imaginatively titled Return to Firetop Mountain. During one of my nineties sojourns in Tunbridge Wells, I saw a copy of the book in (what was at one point called) Ottakar's bookshop, and had a quick look through it, noticing a disproportionately high number of the sections that featured the character of the Inquisitor, and gaining the impression that he played a much bigger part in the book than was actually the case. What I read did not engage my interest enough to make me want to get the book - especially not for full price.

Some years later, after I'd moved to Hull, it was one of my periodic excursions to Swansea that led to my original acquisition of a copy of Return. Not in Swansea itself, but between coaches on the journey back. As usual, I had taken advantage of the gap between connections to pop into the second-hand bookshop up the hill from the coach station, and found a Return there. I bought it, and started reading it in the queue to get on the coach. That must be the only occasion on which I played a gamebook without using dice and lost as a result of a failed roll: I had been keeping track of the various penalties inflicted on my character, and knew that if I had been using dice, my chances of succeeding would be somewhere between zero and five in twelve, depending on my Initial score. Regardless, the odds did not favour my dodging the net, so I concluded that if I were playing by the rules, I'd probably fail, went with that outcome, and wound up captured and tortured to death by a Goblin.

I didn't try the book again until I was home and had access to dice. And then I kept on trying to win it - always by the rules (but almost certainly allocating dice before long) - until I finally succeeded. After the first few attempts, I started working on a 'condensed' version of the book, like the one I'd done for the first Lone Wolf book back in the nineties. It gradually grew longer as I went along, rarely requiring correction, because wrong decisions were almost always obviously wrong a very short time after they were made. Eventually I succeeded, the book went to a charity shop, and my notes probably got binned, as I couldn't imagine ever needing a lengthy list of instructions for completing a gamebook I no longer owned. When I got back into gamebooks for good, I acquired a replacement copy of Return from a fellow fan at the official FF forum, in whatever form it existed at that time. Probably in exchange for something, but I can't remember what.

The book's Background section is a little awkward. It starts by going on about the tendency of evil wizards to use dark magics to enable them to return from the dead, and proceeds to the revelation that Zagor, the infamous Warlock of Firetop Mountain, has done just that. Ten years after his death, he's back, as a result of which the distinctive red vegetation that gave the mountain its name has turned black, livestock in the vicinity has been dying nastily, and people living in the region have been abducted during the night, for use as raw materials in the construction of a new body for Zagor. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, but then the focus shifts to the viewpoint of my character, one of Titan's many itinerant adventurers, who knows nothing of what Mr. Livingstone has just spent the past page-and-a-half explaining. My wanderings have brought me to the village of Anvil, located not far from the mountain. Observing that the locals are in 'wary of strangers' mode, I go to the tavern to find out what's alarmed them so, and get given a quick explanation of what the Background section has already revealed once.

Nobody from Anvil feels up to the challenge of trying to re-kill Zagor, but I offer to do so in return for a night's lodgings. And what sort of stats does the man who dares to confront the risen Warlock have? I will be allocating dice again, since without a double-figure Skill I'll have no chance.
Skill 12
Stamina 18
Luck 11
Not bad, but even if I can remember the correct path, there's no guarantee that I'll make it to the end. Or even to Firetop Mountain, for that matter.

In the morning, the tavern's barman, whose parents cruelly saddled him with the name 'Moose', advises me to seek the assistance of the grand wizard Yaztromo. As I set off, I wonder if it's worth trying to get help from the 'wise, good, powerful, philanthropic' wizard who has never refused to help anyone who sought his aid in opposing evil. Before I can resolve this knotty quandary, Moose catches up to me to say that a couple of Trackers eavesdropped on our conversation, and must be stopped before they can warn Zagor that I'm on his case. As far as I'm aware, nothing actually comes of their passing on the warning if I decide not to bother going after them, but I join Moose in the chase anyway, as they have something that's useful or essential on them.

Along the way I spot something shiny, and stop for a closer look. It's a shield, lying around for no good reason, so I pick it up before returning to the pursuit of the Trackers. After a bit, Moose indicates that I should stop running. Branches rustle nearby, and the Trackers give away their position by howling. One of them throws a dagger at me, but my new shield protects me, and I add the dagger to my inventory before charging in to battle. Moose and I kill a Tracker each, and help ourselves to the Z-embossed gold coins they have. I also take a couple more daggers, but don't touch the piece of paper that Moose finds in one Tracker's boot, as looking at it was what hit my original Return character with his first Skill penalty.

Moose returns to Anvil while I continue on my way, next encountering a man who leads a donkey that carries buckets of mushrooms. In appalling verse he introduces himself as Dungheap Dan, and when I attempt to speak to him, he gives me a mushroom, indicating in rhyme that it has medicinal properties. I proceed on my way before he can start on the limerick about the young lady from Kallamehr.

The path forks, and I am presented with a choice between seeking Yaztromo and heading straight to Firetop Mountain. Picking the non-suicidal option, I head south until distracted by a cry for help. Investigating, I find a honey-smeared man staked to the ground and being attacked by ants. I release him, and he gives me an unreliable Ring of Invisibility.

I keep going until dusk, and then take shelter in the cellar of a ruined hut. Before settling down for the night, I search the place, finding a numbered key in a clay pot, and a wooden brick and ball in a leather pouch that was inside a box. After an uneventful night I wake to the sound of footsteps overhead. Whoever is up there fails to notice the trapdoor down into the cellar, and I wait for them to get some way away before emerging and resuming my trek.

A reception committee awaits me at the Dwarven village of Stonebridge: the people of Anvil sent a messenger bird with news of my quest. It turns out that Yaztromo is not at home, having gone west to the town of Kaad to deal with an outbreak of plague, so transportation has been arranged. A Dwarf leads me to a boat on the Red River, crewed by nine men with silly fantasy-fied versions of real world names. Probably based on Livingstone's Ultra 30 Race Team, to whom the book is dedicated.

We set off down the river, and after a while we see a capsized boat with an Orc clinging to it. Suspecting a trap, we sail past, and the Orc hurls a throwing axe at us, fatally hitting one of the crew (and potentially revealing the identity of Ian's least favourite member of the Ultra 30 team).

A little later a dove flies down to the boat, bearing a message from Moose. Somehow Zagor has learned of my plan to defeat him, and even more somehow, Moose has learned of Zagor's plan to thwart my plan by sending a Doppelganger to Kaad to impersonate Yaztromo. The warning concludes by pointing out what I apparently already know: that Doppelgangers can easily be identified by their eye colour (a rule that Ian forgets or ignores the next time he features a Doppelganger in a gamebook).

The weather turns nasty, but as I didn't get half the crew massacred by Orcs, the boat makes it to the jetty near Kaad intact. I continue on foot, and just outside the town I am greeted by an uncharacteristically friendly Yaztromo with the wrong colour eyes. He tries to shake my hand, but I know that its touch will send me to another world, and attack. The subsequent fight is bothersome: neither the Doppelganger nor I can win except by rolling a double after inflicting a blow on the other combatant. I succeed at this in the fourth round of the battle, but on previous attempts it's taken a lot longer.

Proceeding into the town, I find the real Yaztromo, who explains that he's too busy dealing with the plague to accompany me. He can give me advice, though, and tells me that I'll need some Elementals. A quirk of the Raise Dead spell that Zagor used on himself requires him to secrete a number of numbered replica dragons' teeth made of gold, which can be used to summon Elementals, within his domain. Yaztromo also advises me to visit the local store, gives me some money to buy stuff, and provides directions to the home of Zoot Zimmer, who can provide rapid transportation to the mountain.

I head to the shop, finding a boy playing with wooden bricks outside it. The lad tells me that the proprietor isn't in, and if I want the brat to fetch him, I'll have to hand over a wooden brick. Lucky I found one in that cellar, eh? I provide the requisite bribe, and soon the shop is open. It contains an assortment of junk, everything priced at 2 Gold Pieces, and despite having at least 15 coins, I'm only allowed to buy five items. I get a pair of leather gloves, a magnifying glass, a mirror, a rope and a lantern.

My purchases made, I seek Zoot Zimmer, whose address is stated in the text, so readers wise to Ian Livingstone's tricks will make a note of the house number. Zimmer turns out to be a Half-Elf, and a deliverer of painfully clunky exposition. He offers me some herbal tea, which would restore a little Stamina if I'd lost any (one of the relatively few occasions in the book where any healing can be had), and then summons a Giant Eagle, on which the two of us ride off to Firetop Mountain. I don't think there's a single voyage by air in an Ian Livingstone gamebook that doesn't include an attack by some flying predator, but at least on this occasion it's possible to evade the monster, whatever it is. Once the skies are clear again, we resume our journey, and Zoot drops me off by the mountain, then flies off on the Eagle.

The appearance of the mountain is a little intimidating, and is described almost word for word as it was back in TWoFM. A little more variety would have been nice, even just finding a synonym for 'gargantuan'. For the next several paragraphs my 'in-character' perspective is going to be a bit different from normal: while this character has never been here before, most readers would be familiar with quite a bit of the area even on their first attempt at Return on account of having been through it back when they played the first FF book. As the nostalgia element is a significant aspect of RtFM, I'll be treating the revisited locations more as they would have appeared to FF veterans than as my new character would be perceiving them for the first time.

I enter the cave leading into the interior of the mountain and proceed to the first junction. I can't remember whether or not there's anything useful at the dead end to the east this time round, so I'll check that out first. The door to the room with the pit in has been boarded up, and on the ground nearby I find a bottle with something in it. I have to break the bottle to get it out, and it's a brass egg. Useless, as I recall.

Going back the way I came, and straight across at the junction, I pass the cobweb-festooned corpse of the Orc guard who was sleeping on duty back in The Warlock. The doors in the walls of the corridor leading north from his guard post have also been boarded up, and padlocked for good measure. The 'closed down' aesthetic is taken to new extremes on the westward branch of the next junction: the door to the Orc Chieftain's quarters has vanished altogether. The dead end that's taken its place is so unimpressive that I automatically head east to another junction.

Further to the east, Livingstone throws a bone to the readers wishing to revisit old encounters - the animated skeletons of the five squabbling Orcs from TWoFM are continuing their dispute, and can be killed all over again. I'll bypass the encounter this time round, as there's nothing to be gained from it but the possibility of flesh wounds. Well, there is also the case that once held the bow and silver-headed arrow known as The Giver of Sleep, but the weapon itself is long gone, and I see little point in risking Stamina loss for so little reward.

Instead I go north, up another corridor with three doors set into the wall. These doors haven't been barred, so I can investigate the rooms behind them. The first of these rooms, formerly used to imprison an unsuccessful adventurer, now contains only debris and a chain attached to the wall. Searching the clutter on the floor turns up a gold coin, a tin whistle and an onyx egg - nothing of any significance in this adventure. Pulling on the chain yields a better result, yanking a stone from the wall to reveal a hidden compartment. The hole is too small to admit my head, but I can fit an arm through. Fumbling around inside, I find some gelatinous gunk at the bottom, with a cylindrical canister buried in it. As I remove the canister, I observe that the glove on my hand is giving off wisps of smoke, indicating that the goo was acidic. Good thing I wasn't bare-handed (as was my character the first time I played this book - hello Skill penalty number two). The canister has a screw top, which I undo, and green vapour billows from inside. I hold my breath and wait for the gas to disperse, and then look inside the canister, which contains the first of the gold teeth I need.

The Wizard Books reprint of Return fixed a minor error here: originally, there was no number on this tooth, though Yaztromo said that the teeth would all have numbers on, and when the tooth is needed at the endgame, the text refers to the number 'on the tooth'. There is an inscription hinting at the type of Elemental that this tooth will summon, and the number relating to that kind of Elemental can be learned elsewhere in the adventure, so the omission doesn't render the book unplayable, but it has caused unnecessary confusion: I once had to refer to the Wizard edit to confirm to a fellow fan that the tooth in the canister was indeed the correct one, and there wasn't yet another numbered tooth hidden somewhere really obscure.

Leaving the room, I bypass the next door. The armoury was barely worth visiting back in TWoFM, and now it's worse, containing only a choice between Instant Death and a Skill penalty - the third one that helped doom my first RtFM character. The third door is another matter, though. It leads to a derelict torture chamber, with the skeleton of a long-dead victim on the rack. Observing a gold ring on one of the skeleton's fingers, I go across to add it to my inventory, and a snigger from up above alerts me to the fact that a weighted net is falling towards me. At full Skill I have no trouble dodging it, and I look up to see an annoyed Goblin peering through a hole in the ceiling.

The Goblin scurries away, and as there's a rope attached to the net, I can climb up and give chase. But first I take the ring, noting the number inscribed on it, and put it on. Once I have climbed up and squeezed through the hole, I find myself in a low-roofed room with one exit, and a sword hanging on the wall. Scratched on the hilt of the sword is the name of the infamous Chaos Champion who once owned the sword. The text points out how odd it is to find such a legendary weapon in a Goblin's home, but it's a little late for Ian to be trying to lampshade such absurdities. I take the sword and leave via the narrow tunnel.

After about twenty metres I find an iron spike that has been driven into the floor, and just beyond it is a steep drop. Ominous noises come from behind me, so I attach my rope to the spike and climb down the shaft ahead. Retrieving my rope, I light the lantern and ignore the chalk writing on one of the walls: quite apart from the probable lethality of the trap that reading it triggers, the whole scenario of the trap is one of the most 'What was the author thinking?' aspects of the entire book.

Another tunnel leads out of this room, passing through a candlelit room that's littered with skulls. As I head for the exit, the skulls animate and start shuffling towards me. I jump over them, narrowly succeeding at the Skill roll required, and don't hang around to see what they make of my prodigious leap. The passage beyond this room ends at an unlocked door, and I go through, closing the door behind me. Nothing was said about the skulls giving chase beyond the room, but even if they did, the need to turn the door handle pretty much guarantees that they won't get this far.

The room beyond the door contains an oak chair with figures carved on it, and has a trapdoor set into the floor. I'm pretty sure there's nothing worth having here, so I open the door in the opposite wall. It leads into a marble-floored room containing three statues of warriors suffering a painful death of some kind. The door slams behind me, and part of one of the walls begins to rise up, revealing a serpentine tail.

Yes, it is what the clues suggest.

I close my eyes and start rummaging through my backpack for that mirror (no idea why I couldn't get the mirror out while the wall was still too low for me to be in any danger of catching the Gorgon's eye). Then I hold the mirror up to try and reflect the Gorgon's gaze back at her. My Luck holds, and she petrifies herself. I don't think there's anything useful in the chamber from which the Gorgon came, but I'll just check... No, just a couple of clay pots that contain nothing helpful. But now I've come in here, I have to break at least one of them. I can only remember the contents of one pot, but I do recall that the item in question is only harmful if I try to take it. I smash the pot that rattles... and that's not what I was expecting. Still, now I can see the numbered silver ring, I remember what it does, and know that it too will do nothing bad if I just leave it in the remains of the pot.

There's another door from the room containing the Gorgon's victims (which is chained and padlocked, otherwise I wouldn't have hung around to risk getting stoned), so I force it open and head down the tunnel beyond. A little further on is a door in the wall, with a convenient barred window that allows me to look inside without attracting any attention. There's an Orc being served rat stew by a hunchbacked Dwarf. Now, I don't need to eat any Orc fleas (the consequences of looking at that chalk writing are messed up), but I believe that the crate under the dining table contains something useful or essential, so I enter anyway.

The Orc attacks, but doesn't last long. Despite already having two swords, I have to take the one the Orc used as well. Then the Dwarf attacks me, and fares no better than the Orc did. The crate contains a silver bell, which I need, and a load of rotting cabbage leaves, which are not required. Before returning to the tunnel I also check out the back room, where I find a lot of irrelevant items and a gold spoon. I can win the book without the spoon, but taking it won't hurt me, so I pocket it.

Further along the tunnel is another door, this one with no window. Sounds come from beyond it, suggesting that someone is in pain. I open the door, finding a man with bandaged eyes chained to a wall. The colour of his trousers, the familiarity of his voice, and the stilted nature of his begging not to be hurt again, all lead me to the conclusion that this is Zoot Zimmer. I greet him, but he doesn't recognise my voice, and refuses to trust me unless I can tell him where he lives. Good thing I added him to my address book (not that I'll be getting any further opportunities to visit).

Zoot explains how he wound up here: a Dragon attacked and blinded him on the return flight to Kaad, and the Eagle crashed. Patrolling Orcs found him and brought him here, to donate an arm to Zagor's new body. I'm not convinced that enough time has passed to allow all that to happen, but maybe I just did a really thorough job of checking the rotten cabbage leaves. Anyway, I break Zoot free, and lead him along the corridor. It ends at a stone wall, but footprints on the ground suggest that there's a secret door here.

Zoot shows off his heightened sense of touch, finding a loose stone with a handle behind it. He suspects a trap, and continues to search, finding a second handle behind another loose stone. Another of the gold teeth is in there, too. Warning me to stand back in case he's made a mistake, Zoot pulls the handle he thinks is the safe one. It opens the secret door. It also opens a trapdoor into a spiked pit just below Zoot. Given the nature of his dialogue up until now, he probably utters the Wilhelm Scream as he plunges to his death.

Jumping over the pit and through the secret door, which closes behind me, I find myself back in familiar-to-TWoFM-readers territory, beyond the portcullis at the end of the last corridor with three doors. The branch of this passage running west has caved in, so after a brief search in the vicinity of the portcullis, which turns up only a numbered bronze tooth, I head east.

Around a corner I find the 'Rest Ye Here Weary Traveller' bench, though only the first word on the sign is still legible. I think it's still safe to sit on, but as I'm already at full Stamina, there's no point in taking the time to double-check. There have been further cave-ins at the next two junctions, blocking off another turning west and the passage to the Iron Cyclops' room, but the tunnel that goes north is still intact.

Beyond the next door I find a room containing a human skeleton. It's probably supposed to be the remains of the Barbarian who could be encountered here in The Warlock, but he was armed with an axe, while this skeleton has a sword. Amusingly, the text asks if I need a sword - okay, I would have lost mine if I'd gone snooping around in the armoury, but as it is, I have my original sword, the Chaos Champion's sword, and the Orc's sword that the book made me pick up. I'd be running a little short if I needed to arm a string quartet, but for the purposes of this adventure I have more than enough swords. Also in the room is a wooden box, which once contained a mallet and several wooden stakes, but now holds only a ball of string. If I run into any Vampires, I'll just have to hope that I can distract them with a game of cat's cradle.

Continuing along the passage, I reach what used to be a rather fancy art gallery, but the decor has deteriorated (is 'fade' the right word to describe the time-induced change of colour experienced by white paint?) and the paintings are no longer on the walls. A Cave Troll art critic enters via the far door, and expresses his frustration at having missed the exhibition by attacking me. He has a few copper coins, a bulb of garlic (one of the more clever red herrings in the book, as garlic is usually a good thing to have), an earwig-shaped earring that I wouldn't try on even if I were the piercing type, and a piece of paper with the word 'Leg' written on it. My character surmises that the Troll was actually seeking a replacement limb for the Warlock, but even if I overlook the fact that in the climactic confrontation, Zagor has two legs (just like Terry Gilliam), the lack of specification has problematic potential - the recipient of any leg procured by the Troll could literally have ended up with two left feet.

In the pear-shaped room shortly before the river, I catch sight of a Troglodyte sleeping on a mound of rubble. Next to his head are a throwing dagger and a pouch, which I take. The dagger may not be necessary, as I still have the ones I took from the Tracker (and the fact that one of them was thrown at me suggests that they too are throwing daggers), but the pouch contains a piece of slate with the word 'arrow' scratched onto it, and not knowing that word would mean trouble later on. I suppose I could make a lucky guess, but I prefer to do things the proper way.

Continuing to the river bank, I ring for the ferryman, who demands two Gold Zagors for the crossing. His ten-years-back predecessor wanted three gold, so I guess inflation rates are non-existent down here. As is good service, actually: paying the required sum (even with Zagor-approved currency) led to one of my early attempts at the book ending badly. When I refuse to pay for his sudden but inevitable betrayal, he transforms into a Wererat, so either Zagor's not the only individual to have been brought back to life, or muroid lycanthropy is a perk or requirement for the Firetop Montain ferryman.

After killing the Wererat (and, as is traditional, finding a sum slightly lower than he charged on him), I get into the boat to cross the river. Part of the way across, the boat remembers that everything from the north bank onwards in TWoFM was written by Steve Jackson, so it insists on heading down river to the entrance to a whole new tunnel complex, thereby saving Ian Livingstone from having to figure out the way through the Maze of Zagor.

The cavern to which I am taken is filled with giant crystals (best ignored), and has two inland exits, one marked 'PITS', the other 'PUZZLES'. I take the latter option, partly to avoid a couple of unnecessary fights, and partly because some puns are below even me.

The tunnel leads to a cavern, its walls lined with crammed bookshelves. A black-robed Ian Livingstone look-alike (with a Fighting Fantasy logo belt buckle) introduces himself as the Inquisitor and says I must solve his puzzles to be allowed to go any further. Both puzzles are mathematical in nature, and no real challenge for me. My success not only permits me to go further, but also provides an opportunity to have a look at the Ianquisitor's library. The books I see include a couple of in-jokes: there's a copy of Casket of Souls and a tiny tome entitled Eye of the Dragon (which is a bit of an odd title, as it contains details of the dragon's teeth that I'm after). The book is written in minuscule print, and I'd be unable to read it without the magnifying glass I bought in Kaad. Several pages are missing, but I do at least learn the purpose of one of the teeth I've found.

The exit from the library leads via a sliding panel to a room which contains a breastplate on a table. I'm at full Skill, and Ian hasn't offered Attack Strength bonuses since about City of Thieves, so even if the breastplate isn't booby-trapped (which I think it probably is), putting it on is unlikely to help me at all.

Further along the passage is a door set into the wall. The sound of laughter comes from behind it. The handle will not turn, so I knock, and get asked the password. I try the word I got from the sleeping Troglodyte, which is correct. A second Troglodyte, flanked by Lizard Man guards, opens the door and says he wasn't aware that a human would be entering the sheep's eye eating competition. It's not something I'm massively keen on, but there's no way of winning this book without participating in the contest, and as it's only my character who'll be actually eating the eyeballs, I'm prepared to go along with it.

The other contestants are a Barbarian (no species mentioned, so presumably he's one of the humans the Troglodyte didn't think were playing), a neanderthal-looking caveman and a Troglodyte. The Barbarian offers a side bet on the contest, and I agree. He insists on only betting gold, so I put up the spoon as my stake. The outcome of the contest is entirely dice-dependent, making this one of the more frustrating aspects of the book. At least to get what I need, I only have to beat the Barbarian, not win outright. On this occasion I do actually beat every other contestant, though for a bit it looked as if the caveman might outdo me. The Barbarian comes last, and gives me a numbered dragon's tooth made of gold, which means more to me than the actual prize for winning the contest, a bronze bust of Zagor.

Returning to the corridor, I carry on to a junction. I'm pretty sure that going the wrong way here will doom me, but I can't remember which is the correct one. Well, I do know which one is most often the best option in a Livingstone gamebook, so I'll try that one. Yes, that's looking good. The passage leads past a door from behind which comes a sound like someone chopping wood. In fact it's the sound of a Chaos Warrior practicing swordplay on a wooden dummy. He appears to consider me a better practice opponent, and actually manages to wound me a couple of times before I conclude the bout.

The room contains an assortment of weapons and a box of clutter. From the weapons I take a whip (no option to take a sword, for once). The box contains a rat's skull, 3 Gold Pieces, 2 Silver Pieces, a horseshoe, a horn (all of which I have no choice but to take), one of the missing pages of Eye of the Dragon, a copper bracelet and a silver pendant. I get out the magnifying glass to read the page, which reveals what I need to know about the tooth I have yet to find. Well, what I need to know other than how to acquire it. I know the pendant to be dangerous (especially to anyone carrying garlic - very sneaky, Mr. Livingstone), and don't remember the bracelet serving any vital purpose, so I leave both alone and continue on my way.

Further on there's another door in the wall. I hear shuffling feet from behind it, and go through. It leads to a room in which a pock-marked, rag-wearing creature is carrying a dragon's skull to a crate. The deceased dragon appears to have undergone some dental work at a point prior to its demise, so I opt to take a closer look at it. The creature carrying it does not approve, and I must fight. Not a very skilled opponent, but it is a Plague Bearer, and I'm doomed if it wins even one round of battle. It doesn't even come close to harming me.

Disappointingly, the gold tooth in the skull's jaw has no inscription. Still, also in the room is a human skull being used as a candle-holder, with a detachable top, so I take a look inside. Another of the missing pages is in there, along with a small bone carving of a dragon's head. The page (which is significantly longer than the preceding one - 85 characters compared to just 51) explains the function of a third tooth, and the carving is an unusual lucky charm, designed to reward the fortunate and punish the 'worthless' individuals who are prone to misfortune. Kind of a cross between karma and Tory policy. My Luck is high enough that the charm restores the Stamina I lost to the Chaos Champion.

Back to the passage, and before long another door. This leads to a room with a sunken floor, in which massive worms slither over the carcass of a dead dog. Also down there is a fancy brass box, which I enter the pit to retrieve. The Sucker Worms aren't interested in the living, so I wait for an opportunity to grab the box without a fight. It contains only another missing page, this one exactly as long as the last one, which confirms what I had already inferred about the fourth tooth. If I wanted to take the box with me, I'd have to discard two items to make room for it. After all, a tin whistle and a rat skull take up so much backpack space.

Corridor, door. This leads to a dusty, cobwebbed room in which two skeletons face each other across a gaming table. The playing pieces are miniature dragons, one side gold, the other silver. Of course the skeletons animate and attack when I pick up one of the pieces. I don't fare so well in this fight, though I am still the survivor. The game pieces turn out to just be painted wood, and the only other items I find in the room are another gold coin and a glass ball filled with smoke. Smashing the ball merely releases the smoke, which makes me feel ill, but eating the mushroom that Dan gave me settles my stomach and heals a little of the damage I took in the fight.

The corridor leads to another junction. Should I go the same way as before, or try the other direction? I'll take a chance on Ian's favourite again... A wise choice. The tunnel leads to a door with assorted strange items nailed to it (small skulls, an ear, old coins, a copper triangle...). Behind the door a woman calls for more crushed maggots. Sounds unpromising, perhaps, but this is somewhere I need to visit. I step through into a lavishly furnished chamber in which a beautiful woman is grinding something up with mortar and pestle. A boy with a silver headband brings a bowl, presumably the requested maggots.

The ring I acquired in the torture chamber dispels the illusion. The woman is a hideous crone, her servant a crude hybrid of dog and human. A voice in my head urges me to ring the bell, so I pull out the one I got from the box of cabbage leaves and give it a good shake. The chime causes the witch to fall unconscious, and Jim-Jim the dog-headed mutant attacks me. I put him down, and don't try on his headband.

Searching the room, I find a metal panel set into the wall. Above it is a coin slot, and a sign warns that this only accepts silver. I drop in the silver coins I got from the Chaos Champion, unlocking the panel and finding the last of the teeth I require. The room only has the one door, so I head back to the last junction and take the other branch. A little way along that, I see a locked door set into the wall. In one of those ludicrous coincidences that occur in some gamebooks, the key I found in the cellar of that ruined hut fits the lock.

Beyond the door is a corridor with a Goblin in it. He sees me and reaches for a lever, but I interrupt him with the Troglodyte's throwing dagger. Retrieving the dagger, I continue along the corridor to a meeting room. Eight chairs surround a long table with coins scattered across it, and the walls are lined with shelves full of books, scrolls, maps and the like. An old man with a purple gown and headband enters, identifying me as an intruder, but reflecting that I may be of use to him if I'm intelligent enough. His challenge is a test of observation - to count up the coins on show. I add up the ones depicted in the accompanying illustration, getting the total right, and the man notes that I will make an excellent spy, once he's used his Mindbending abilities to secure my allegiance to Zagor. Not keen on such a change of profession, I use the whip I found earlier to incapacitate him. After pocketing the gold, I take a look at the contents of the shelves, eventually finding a scroll that explains how to use the teeth to summon the Elementals. I wonder why Yaztromo neglected to mention that little detail.

The exit from the Mindbender's room takes me to a hallway in which half a dozen mummies stand on pedestals. A clock chimes, causing the mummies to animate, and I try using the Ring of Invisibility, as my FF combat manager only has slots for five opponents, making fights against larger groups a bit of a hassle. The ring works for long enough that I can get through the door at the end of the hall.

In the antechamber beyond, I see an ornate door with a big 'Z' on it. A formidable-looking beast guards it, but the Chaos Warrior's sword from the Goblin torturer's room proves effective for bribing the brute to let me through. The door leads to a chamber in which a couple of Zagor's personal physicians, the Death Lords (how do I know what these people call themselves and do for a living?) are being brought a fresh body to plunder for transplantable bits. One of them spots me, and summons a couple of Goblin archers. I block the arrows with my shield, and fight the Goblins. The book recognises that the sword I used as a bribe might have been my only sword, and lists a Skill penalty for lacking such a weapon, but I still have a pair of the things. More than enough to make short work of the Goblins.

The Death Lords flee, but before giving chase I search the Goblins' quarters. I help myself to a wooden staff with a carved bone skull on it, and leave the bowls of soup (slightly put off by the claw that protrudes from one of them) and the wicker basket that could contain something nasty.

Now I follow the Death Lords, who are waiting for me in a marble-floored room. Standing on an inlaid golden crescent, and brandishing metal spheres, they mutter an incantation that opens up great rifts in the floor. I tap the floor with the staff I just acquired, and the floor becomes solid again. The Death Lords then throw the spheres at me. I imagine that Ian Livingstone was attempting to riff on the Phantasm films here, but that doesn't make the phrase 'razor-sharp spheres' any less ludicrous. What happens next is determined by the roll of a die, modified by how much armour I have. Which is only the shield. Looks like I should have taken that breastplate. And I don't think I ever even saw the helmet. With what I roll, I'd need all three items to evade the spheres. Since I only have one, I get a sphere in the arm (yeah, a helmet would have done a lot to help against that. The sphere causes me to lose consciousness, and I come round just in time for the operation in which my left arm is removed so that Zagor can use it.

It's frustrating to have failed after getting so far, but at least I have now been reminded of a mistake or two to avoid next time. And while RtFM isn't that great an anniversary celebration, there are Ian Livingstone books I'd less like to have to replay.

2 comments:

  1. This would never have happened if that other adventurer hadn't have broken into his mountain, killed him and stolen his treasure 10 years ago. That must have really got his goat.

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  2. Great write up. And "Kind of a cross between karma and Tory policy" - brilliant!

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