Friday, 14 February 2014

Failure to Respond to the Conventional External Stimuli

A slight departure from the usual pattern today, because it's that time of year again. Thus, my next Fighting Fantasy playthrough will be delayed so I can have a go at the second of the Starlight Adventures books I own today.

At the end of a visit to friends in Swansea back in 1999, I was heading for the bus station, and had enough time before my coach was due to leave that I could pop into a few charity shops for a browse along the way. In one that had opened since my previous visit, on College Street if I remember rightly, I found a copy of the sixth of the SA books, Trance, by Pat Hewitt. As I was going through one of my gamebook-acquiring phases, I decided to give it a shot. I played it on the first leg of the journey, discovering a puzzling but not gameplay-wrecking bug along the way, and reached one of the successful endings.

Winning isn't actually all that difficult, as I recall. There's a point early on where the outcome of a coin-flip might result in a bad ending (I'm not certain), but for the most part, passivity is the only way to get into trouble. As I recall, persistent refusal to follow up leads, take opportunities and generally get involved with the adventure eventually leads to a slightly contrived fatal car accident. In effect, you swerve so hard to avoid the plot, you wind up hitting a tree.

My character is a recently qualified nurse who lives in an unspecified English cathedral town (doesn't having a cathedral make it a city rather than a town?). A couple of months back, my brother Jimmy, a reporter for the local paper, went missing for a couple of days. He was subsequently found in a strange condition (mentally similar to catatonia, but without the physical symptoms) in his car, not far from the Burslow Clinic, a private medical facility. The unusual nature of his condition has led to his being given a bed in the Clinic for free. I was offered a temporary job there, though I turned it down because finals were looming and, well, life has to go on, even at times of bizarre family tragedy.

Having completed my training, I have a few weeks' break before I take up my first post as a fully qualified nurse. When I get home, an anonymous, hand-delivered note is waiting for me. Its writer claims to know how to help Jimmy, and wants to meet me. Regrettably, as a result of my having stopped off to do some shopping on the way home, I probably won't be able to get to Ponderosa Café (the specified location) by the specified time. Nevertheless, I decide to give it a shot.

On my way out of the flats where I live, I encounter the janitor, a slightly sleazy and shifty character who asks me to help me with some heavy rubbish bags. I can't afford the time it would take, so I shout out an apology as I dash past. Though I speed to the Ponderosa in my hatchback, it's already closed by the time I get there.

Across the street is a smartly-dressed man with a moustache, a cap pulled down low, and tinted glasses. When he sees that I've noticed him, the man unconvincingly takes an interest in the window display of a computer shop. I start to walk away and, after twenty paces, glance back the way I came. The man is 'casually' moving the same way, looking intently of the windows of the shops he passes. I duck into an alleyway and quicken my pace, resolving not to look back again until I reach the end, but prepared to make a run for it if he really is following me.

When I look again, there's no sign of him. But as I'm catching my breath, I sense somebody close by. It's Gerald Peterson. Whoever that is. He might have been introduced earlier if I'd made a different choice at some point, but here the book gives no explanation of who he is or how I know him. That's the bug to which I alluded earlier - the book's failure to give him an adequate introduction on at least one viable route.

Observing that I'm in a bit of a state, Gerald accompanies me home, and I explain what's been happening. It appears that he's some kind of private investigator, so I ask for his assistance. He wants to start by looking into what Jimmy was doing just before his disappearance, and leaves to commence his investigation. Unwilling to just leave everything to him, I decide to see if any of my neighbours caught sight of whoever delivered the note.

I start with Mrs O'Connor, who lives in the flat directly above mine. After ringing her doorbell, I overhear a bit of ominous dialogue: a woman comments that, 'She doesn't know a thing yet,' and an aggressive-sounding man speaks of the need to shut up whoever they're talking about 'before she does find out.' They could be talking about me, but that is by no means certain, so I risk ringing the doorbell again. The continuing argument stops mid-sentence, but in a 'Mrs O'Connor just turned off the TV'-sounding manner, rather than a 'Hang on, there's someone out there who might be eavesdropping' kind of way.

Mrs O'Connor opens the door and invites me in, and I accept. She fetches a jiffy bag that was left with her for me this afternoon. It was brought by someone in her mid-to-late teens, with very long brown hair. Not somebody I know. The sound of a phone ringing drifts up from my flat, but I probably won't be able to get down there before the caller rings off anyway, so I take the time to ask if Mrs O'Connor knows anything else. She says that the teenager specified that I should be given the bag in person and open it myself.

The phone is still ringing when I get back to the flat. It's Gerald, who says he's coming over straight away, and will be here in a quarter of an hour. Once twice that length of time has passed with no sign of him, I start on the displacement activity, tidying up, dusting Jimmy's books and computer, and so on. The doorbell rings.

It's a biker with a note from Gerald, apologising for having been delayed, and giving a number on which I might be able to contact him if he's around when I try. Mobile phones weren't really a thing when this book was written, so such communication problems are not unreasonable.

The next bit is, I suspect, one of the more clever anti-cheat mechanisms employed in gamebooks. There's a list of things I might have done by this stage of the adventure, with points values for each one. I add up my score for these incidents, receive a rating, and get directed to a section based on that rating. But I'm pretty sure that one of the items on the list doesn't happen in the book, so anyone who falsely claims to have had all the encounters listed will end up sent to a section that probably says something along the lines of, 'Either you've miscounted or you're a dirty cheat. Go back and recheck your figures or answer the questions honestly.'

Anyway, I have seen the suspicious-looking man with the moustache and received the package from Mrs O'Connor, so I'm rated X. Which has slightly awkward implications - maybe Ms. Hewitt shouldn't have gone for the tail end of the alphabet. Avoiding A-E makes some sense, as those letters evoke exam grades, and could be erroneously interpreted as some sort of meritocratic scale, but there are plenty of ranges of letters that don't have obvious (at least at the time of publication) associations of a potentially dubious nature.

The package looks as if it might contain an audio cassette. Another detail that rather dates the narrative. In fact, the bag's contents seem a bit too large to just be a tape, prompting a moment's paranoid speculation that this could be a bomb. I tell myself I'm being silly and open the package. Mildly amusingly, the boo states, 'There is no searing blast, your hands and head are still where they should be.' Inside is a cassette tape, with extra padding in the form of rubber bands.

I play the tape, which just makes noises too weird even for mid-eighties electronic music. It's a short tape, too, and the other side is blank. This isn't the dead end it may seem, though. In the real world, my first home computer was one of the sort that could save files on audio tape (or would have if I'd had the right cable for hooking it up to a compatible recorder), so I am well aware of the use of such cassettes for purposes other than audio piracy or preserving atrocious amateur dramatics.

After booting up Jimmy's computer (and, this being the eighties, probably waiting long enough to prepare, eat, and wash up after a three-course meal), I load the tape, and find an incomplete article that Jimmy was writing for the paper. It concerns a health farm that is apparently making a fortune by turning its wealthy clients into drug addicts. However, what text there is names no names. Still, now there's an obvious reason why some individuals would want Jimmy silenced, so I'm making progress.

I still have a copy of the most recent issue of the local paper to print anything by Jimmy, so I dig that out to look for any hints about where he might have been researching. He was doing a series on health-related self-help, and the last published article mentions that the following instalment would concern 'one of Europe's top health farms'. Still no name, but there is a clue in a passing reference to interrelatedness in the world of alternative health. Apparently the clinic in question employs the same aromatherapist as the sunbed centre on which Jimmy had reported earlier in the series. That's obviously the place to go next.

The sunbed centre turns out to be a pretty miserable place. There's nobody on the reception desk when I go in, so I ring the bell. Getting caught snooping around could lead to trouble. A woman emerges from an adjoining room, and I make a bland enquiry, but before this can spark a conversation that I could steer in an aromatherapy-related direction, the phone rings. The call may be about something above-board (or at least unrelated to my investigation), but I'm a little suspicious at the way the woman fobs me off with a brochure and shoos me away so she can talk to 'Mr Willoughby'.

Not that it matters, anyway, as the brochure could be all I need from the sunbed centre. On the back is an ad for Dower House, 'More than just a health farm,' which is located in the grounds of Burslow Hall. In other words, not far from the clinic where Jimmy is being looked after. And close to where he was found.

I'm on my way home to plan my next course of action when an odious colleague of Jimmy's takes advantage of my having to stop at a pedestrian crossing to cadge a lift back to his office, where he has something he thinks will be of interest to me. Note to self: lock the passenger seat door in future. And invest in one of those personal defence sprays, if they exist in this era.

There's another bit of gamebook path dissonance here, as the section covering what happens at the newspaper office carries the authorial assumption that I went there as part of my investigations rather than having been forced to by a sexist twit in desperate need of a smack with a harassment suit. Once I'm at the creep's desk, he reveals that he has Jimmy's diary, which he 'accidentally' picked up the last time Jimmy was in the office. Having scented a story in what Jimmy was researching before his brief disappearance, the scumbag wants to go through the list of places Jimmy contemplated profiling in his article in the hope that I can help him to steal my brother's scoop. Dower House is at the top of the list.

As, I recognise the name there's a rather abrupt scene jump here. I'd like to imagine that I feigned ignorance of Dower House, let the lecherous so-and-so go through the rest of the list, and sent him off on a massively inconveniencing red herring, but the book just skips to the following morning. I call Dr MacWilliam, the man who offered me the job at Burslow Hall, and... hang on, the book's contradicting itself. Now it says I was invited to stay at the Clinic, as Jimmy might benefit from having someone familiar around. But the Introduction definitely says it was a job offer.

Regardless, I call to ask if the offer is still open. It is, and arrangements are made for me to head out there. Before ringing off, Dr MacWilliam mentions the potential therapeutic effect of familiar music, and suggests that I bring Jimmy's collection with me. Only the tapes, as they don't have the facilities for playing vinyl (and CDs were still too niche to merit a mention back then). I take a big box of cassettes with me, but if I (the reader) have any say in the matter, all non-musical tapes will have been left back at the flat.

When I arrive, I get told that I've been given quarters in Dower House. Once I've dropped my stuff off, I go to see Jimmy and, just in case the music recommendation was sincere, play him some of the tapes I brought. Based on the details given, either these are unusually short albums, or I only play one side of each before switching to something else. In my experience, average album duration was around 45 minutes, and there's no way to fit half a dozen of them into just two hours. Except when using high-speed dubbing, but I wouldn't have been doing that under the circumstances. I'm pretty sure there are no incidents of coma patients being revived as a result of hearing Spandau Ballet sped up until Tony Hadley sounded like he was on helium.

Eventually the lack of improvement in Jimmy's condition becomes too much to bear, and I go out for some fresh air. A girl (that's the term the book uses) near a shrubbery appears to be beckoning to me, so I approach, but there's no sign of her when I get there (what was I doing that I didn't see where she went?). Entering the shrubbery, I feel a disconcerting sense of loneliness and find a tall privet hedge, which turns out to be part of the outside of a maze. I go in and, trying to follow a rustling sound I hear, fail to adopt a consistent system of turns taken at junctions. So when the sound stops, I have to hope that I've successfully memorised my somewhat haphazard route - otherwise I might have trouble finding my way out again. When I decide to leave, that is. Having come this far, I might as well press on.

Well, the memorisation was futile, as I soon hit a dead end, get flustered, and blunder around choosing directions at random for a while. Eventually I come across a stone seat, and sit down for a rest, just before a conversation starts on the other side of the hedge. One of the participants is called Alan, and the other turns out to be the girl I was trying to follow. She was trying to get my attention, but ducked out of sight to avoid being noticed by MacWilliam when he drove past. They seem to be in a relationship, and to know something about the dodginess that's afoot here. She wants to tell me, but Alan insists that she let him handle it, as the risks he's taken will be for nothing if I give the game away too soon. I get the impression that he's something of a ladies' man, so there may be more unwelcome advances to fend off before long.

The two of them move away, still talking, and the last thing I hear before they move out of earshot is the girl asking if they should warn me about 'MacWilliam's special cocktails'. After that I spend half an hour finding the way out, and return to my room. Someone has left a 'Nightcap' for me - a glass of orange liquid, with a card on top identifying it as part of the health farm's regimen. While I don't know what I need warning about with regard to this concoction, the fact that a warning is considered appropriate is sufficient grounds to convince me to tip it down the plughole.

Looking out of the window, I spot that 'girl' again, and this time I can see how long her hair is, identifying her as the source of that tape. Interior illustrator Gareth Jones appears to have missed out on some significant details, as the picture of her shows just shoulder-length hair, hanging down in such a way that I couldn't have failed to see how long it was the first time I saw her.

I head out to talk to her, and she introduces herself as Jenny Peace. She sometimes helps out in the Clinic, and is distressed at Jimmy's condition, so she arranged for me to get the tape she found in his pocket when he was originally brought in. Yes, she knows what's on it, and she asks me not to let Alan Willoughby know that she didn't destroy it like he said she should. Jenny also lets slip that she's actually a mental patient here, as well as being MacWilliam's niece. That's as much as she's prepared to tell me, and I'm not sure that putting any pressure on her will achieve anything worthwhile. To protect her secret, I decide to wait for Alan to contact me.

At breakfast the next day he makes his approach. According to the text, I recognise his voice even before he speaks - not sure how that works. In any case, he invites me to join his aerobics class, and I accept. After he's gone, I ask the waitress about him and learn that he owns the clinic. Not bad for someone who appears to be in his early twenties. But there's obvious potential for a conflict of interest: even if he has no involvement in the wrongdoing that's being perpetrated here, he's not going to want it implicated in a scandal.

At the end of the aerobics class, Alan more or less insists that I come to his self-defence class in the afternoon, too. I attend, and find that I'm the only student. And while he does genuinely teach me a variety of techniques for fighting off attackers, the practical demonstrations involve a degree of physical contact that would be considered inappropriate these days. At the end he asks me to go with him for a drink. In the interests of trying to find out if he ever plans to tell me anything about his suspicions, I do so.

Out on the terrace, Alan points out a couple of celebrity clients, then tells me who he is, in case I didn't already know. He stresses that he knows nothing about the medical side of things - that's MacWilliam's business - and says I'm free to use the facilities here as long as Jimmy is a patient. For Jenny's sake, I say nothing about Jimmy's article, and Alan's conversation takes an autobiographical turn. He inherited Dower House and Burslow Hall, but the family was virtually bankrupt, and the estate would have been broken up but for MacWilliam's needing somewhere for his research clinic and health farm combo. It's clear that the welfare of his ancestral home is enough of an obsession that I'm going to have to tread very carefully in my investigations. Consequently, I decline when he invites me to dinner.

The next day I skip the aerobics class in order to avoid awkward confrontations, instead going to the sauna. There are five other women there, gossiping about MacWilliam and his Nightcap. The formula is a closely guarded secret, the drink is only available to Dower House patients, and there are strict limits on how much anyone can take away with them. Most of the crowd disperses, leaving just me and a woman named Daphne, whom I ask about the Nightcap. She says that it affects different people differently, but helps her sleep well. In fact, if she misses a dose, her insomnia is even worse than it used to be before she started taking the stuff. But she doesn't like it when the others joke about addiction.

Afterwards I go to see Jimmy again, along the way passing a door with a nameplate reading 'LORD FORSYTH'. It means nothing to me, so I guess I missed a lead somewhere. Jimmy's bed isn't in the most suitable position, so I crouch down beside it to crank it into a better one, and hear voices. MacWilliam and the Duty Sister are doing the rounds of the clinic. For show's sake, the beds all have floor-length valances, so I could hide under Jimmy's bed and, so long as no contrived sneeze-based incidents occur, be in no risk of getting noticed.

The nurse seems concerned about the possibility of bad publicity about 'this trance thing'. MacWilliam claims that he and Dr Quigley are close to a cure, but still need to check for potential side-effects. He then expresses a desire to check up on 'his' Lord Forsyth, and the two of them leave.

Back in my room, I discover that all of Jimmy's tapes have gone missing. I ask the Duty Sister if she knows what's happened to them, and she says that MacWilliam ordered them removed, as they could do more harm than good. I point out that he had me bring them in the first place, and she points out that Doctors often change their minds.

After that I go back to Jimmy, and when I've run out of things to say to him, I take his hand. It's not limp, which suggests that on some level he's still in control of his body, but not doing anything with it.

Jenny invites me to eat with her in the dining-room, and as I have no prior commitments, I accept. She tells me her life story - orphaned two years ago, money tied up in a Trust Fund, can't stand her guardian, MacWilliam (who doesn't seem that keen on the position either), assorted emotional crises, possibly a suicide attempt, and now engagement to Alan. Who would be ruined if any scandal were to hit the clinic. But she wants me to get MacWilliam, claiming that Jimmy's not the only person he's put into that condition. She alleges that MacWilliam is drugging everyone, tells me to keep off the Nightcap, and says she can help me cure Jimmy if I promise not to do anything to harm Alan. Then someone coughs on the other side of the partition behind me and, suddenly paranoid, Jenny dashes off.

While it's possible that some of Jenny's claims are delusional in nature, I consider it worth checking to see how much truth there is to her story. I seek her out the next day, but she's still alarmed at the possibility of having been overheard, and tells me to stay away from her. I insist that she does something to substantiate her claims, and she demands that I promise I won't do anything to damage Alan. I'm pretty sure he's guilty of nothing worse than keeping silent (legally, at least, though in view of his engagement to Jenny, the way he's been carrying on with me is pretty despicable), so I agree. Jenny hands me a piece of paper she took from her uncle's waste-paper basket, which she thinks should incriminate him.

Back in my room, I take a look at the paper, which has a list of the Nightcap's ingredients on it, plus notes on the more 'interesting' ones: Guaranine, a substance 'similar to caffeine and cocaine' and Pellotine, a constituent of the hallucinogenic Mescal Button. A little research in Dower House's library establishes that the Nightcap is far from innocuous.

The next day I'm invited to a talk by MacWilliam. He goes on at length about stress reduction, claiming that the Nightcap is a 'natural stress-relief remedy', and says that its effectiveness is enhanced when used in conjunction with his relaxation video. He asks for a volunteer to help demonstrate and, when nobody offers, picks me. I decline, but the rest of the audience, keen for someone other than themselves to be the subject, join him in insisting, and as the door has been locked to prevent interruptions, there's nothing I can do about it.

I am seated away from the others, in front of a TV set hooked up to a VCR. At 10:17 MacWilliam starts the tape, and swirling shapes form on the screen, accompanied by 'a cool, lazy sound'. Not having sampled the Nightcap, I don't get the full effect, but I still wind up in a semi-trance, only vaguely aware of MacWilliam going on about suggestibility and relaxation. And then the tape ends, and I become lucid again, finding to my surprise that it's now 10:24. MacWilliam provides everyone with their own personal copy of the video, stating that they can hire copies when they leave, in order to continue experiencing the benefits of the course.

Back in my room, I look through a copy of Pharmacology and Hypnotism by Murdo MacWilliam. It's not an easy read, but I do find an informative paragraph about the use of psychotropic drugs to break down patients' involuntary resistance to hypnosis.

I catch sight of MacWilliam heading for Burslow Hall, and follow him. Once inside, I head for the 'secure ward', purported to contain violently disturbed patients under the care of specially trained male nurses. Surprisingly, it's not locked. Each patient turns out to have their own room, and it soon becomes apparent that they're all in the same state as Jimmy. This discovery shocks me enough that I don't hear MacWilliam approaching the room I'm in until it's too late.

He tells me that I've become too dangerous to remain at liberty, and points out that my lack of close family other than Jimmy means my disappearance is unlikely to attract attention. He leaves me locked in while he attends to something involving a video.

Something from MacWilliam's book pops into my head - speculation about the creation of hypnotic video programmes that could put people into trances from which they could only be revived with the appropriate 'antidote' programme. If that's no longer just theory, there may be an antidote video somewhere here.

Craig the ward nurse unlocks the door, stating that it's time for my treatment. I ask if he's a real nurse and, when he confirms it, appeal to his medical ethics. He admits to having doubts, but says MacWilliam claims the lengthy trances are necessary to get the patients through their crises. I ask about an antidote video, and when he says he has a copy, I urge him to fetch it and get proof that there's nothing wrong with the patients beyond what MacWilliam has done to them.

Random choice between two section numbers determines Craig's response to my appeal. I choose well: Craig walks out of the room without relocking the door. I follow him, and he fetches a tape from a locked cupboard, explaining that it was left with him in case of fire or similar emergencies. While he's still not certain that he's doing the right thing, I've convinced him to act on his doubts, so he lets me have the video. The patients are manhandled into wheelchairs and brought in front of the TV-and-VCR set-up that had been prepared for my 'treatment', and I play them the antidote video.

Nothing happens. Depressed, I turn away from the patients' vacant stares and see MacWilliam by his car. He seems about to get in, but then changes his mind and goes around the side of the building. Then I hear noises behind me, and turn to see that the patients are starting to move. The tape does work. Now I just have to get it (and the VCR) down to Jimmy's ward. There's a small service lift, which I load with the VCR, and I'm about to send it down when I hear someone coming up the stairs. I could just fit myself into the lift with a bit of creative squeezing, if I'm prepared to risk it. Or I could confront whoever's on the stairs.

I choose the stairs and, slightly jarringly, also get to choose who is on them. It's definitely someone I'm pleased to meet, and there's a list of four options. One is someone I've never met, the others are Alan, Gerald and a police officer. Okay, time to find out what Gerald has been up to all this time.

Following me, as it turns out. He could see that I was doing all right on my own, and opted not to stick his nose in, hanging around as an 'insurance policy'. Now it's time to finish things off, and he'd like my help in ensuring that MacWilliam is brought to justice. As I know that Jimmy's condition is reversible, I choose to delay 'curing' him for as long as it takes to ensure that the man responsible doesn't get away with it.

We head down to MacWilliam's office, which shows signs of having been emptied of potentially incriminating documentation in a hurry. Gerald tells me he's already called the police, and speculates that they might be able to catch MacWilliam before he flees the country. So much for bringing the bad doctor to justice.

I play Jimmy the tape, and after a moment he scratches his ear. Gerald proposes to me. Right now I don't think my character has any feelings for him beyond gratitude, so the response is 'No'. He accepts that, but indicates that he's going to give me as much time as I need, and then try again. As often as it takes. Which is probably supposed to be romantic, but, depending on how things turn out, could constitute grounds for a restraining order. At least the book didn't force me to accept.

Well, that was quite enjoyable. As I've indicated, the book does have the odd flaw here and there, but nothing catastrophic. Overall it's a decent enough thriller, and gets quite tense in places. I like that it encourages proactiveness and independence - some gamebooks I've read that were targeted at a female audience could quite harshly penalise attempting to get things done without a man's help. The closing focus on Gerald's romantic intentions was a bit regrettable, though. I'd have preferred to find out whether or not MacWilliam got caught, and how the exposure of his crimes affected Alan and Jenny. Still, the fact that I'm interested in such details shows that Ms. Hewitt did a decent job of drawing me into the story. If I didn't care what happened to any of the characters, that would be a sign of a pretty poor book.

Based on what I've heard or experienced of the rest of the series, I have no interest in tracking down any further Starlight Adventures. Nevertheless, I'm glad to have this and Island of Secrets in my collection. Any gamebook fans who avoided them because of the target audience have missed out: they're a lot better than a number of non-'girly' gamebooks I could name.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Quite an Experience to Live in Fear, Isn't It?

Last month I pointed out that a case could be made for playing the mini-adventure from the eighth Mongoose Publishing Lone Wolf reissue before the seventh LW adventure, Castle Death. I went on to play Castle Death first anyway, but series of unwise decisions led to my rapidly failing it. So before I have a second try at it, I will have a go at that mini-adventure, Darren Pearce's Masquerade in Hikas.

While I haven't played this adventure before, I did take a very quick look at it back when I first got the book. Good thing too, as the one element I noticed was quite significant. The adventure was 150 sections long, and the final section ended with the direction 'Turn to 152'. A quick trip to and registration on the Mongoose website's forums put me in touch with a very helpful fan who had the corrected version of the book and made available a transcript of the missing sections. Owing to the deletion of the Mongoose Lone Wolf forums following the company's loss of the reprint licence, I can no longer identify the fan in question, but they have my thanks.

My character in Masquerade is Paido, the Vakeros (warrior-magician) who accompanies Lone Wolf during part of section 1 of Castle Death (and a lot more of the subsequent book). This pre-encountering-Lone Wolf adventure has me sent on a mission to investigate rumours that Darklord agents and assassins have infiltrated the city of Hikas. I'm sent off with sealed orders that I'm not supposed to open until I see Hikas.

Unusually for an adventure in this series, my stats are not randomly generated. I get to choose my Vakeros Skills, though. This is a bit of a convoluted process: while the rules start out by saying I just need to pick four Skills from a list of eight, it transpires that some of these Skills have subsets from which further selections must be made. In fact, the full list of Skills, sub-skills, paths and schools of magic runs to 12 pages.

Judging by a reference to the Elder Arts having been 'simplified' for the purposes of this adventure, I imagine that what we have here is a slimmed-down version of the rules for Vakeros characters in the Lone Wolf RPG. Possibly not slimmed down enough - I mean, is the adventure going to provide opportunities for everything on that list to come in handy? Looking closer, I see that a lot of them can or must be used in combat, and the adventure is sure to have fights in, so that covers using a significant proportion. On the other hand, do we really need that many variations on do extra damage/take less damage/add Combat Skill/decrease enemy Combat Skill?

Careless writing and/or editing makes some of these Skills look pretty rubbish. The description of Bleeding Wound is, I presume, missing an 'extra' - either that or it causes its user to do reduced damage almost 90% of the time. Lightning Riposte appears to work best in circumstances that can never happen. The use of positive and negative numbers in references to Endurance damage isn't consistent.

Okay, I'm picking Counterspell, Prophesy/Prophecy (both spellings are used), Sorcery and Battle Magics of the Vakeros (School of Kaenos). Only the last two of these have combat applications, but if the adventure's been competently put together (which is quite an if, based on Mongoose's track record), the other two should be of use at some point.

The adventure doesn't get off to the best of starts. The sealed envelope mentioned in 'The Story So Far...' has either metamorphosed into or been joined by a scroll (the text says I'm given 'a scroll and a message from [my] leaders', which could be taken as indicating them to be separate items, but I only read the scroll (at the appropriate time), so...). My highly confidential instructions are to go to the Gambit Inn and learn what I can about recent strange or unusual events. And this needed to be kept secret until just now because...? Having read them, I'm given the choice of hanging on to them or throwing them away. No mention of doing anything to ensure that nobody else can read them if I throw them away, so I retain them just in case disposing of them really does mean breaching data security in such a careless manner.

Following an info-dump that, among other things, reveals that even the slums of Hikas are beautiful (what?), I notice something glinting near a ruined farmhouse and pause for a snack. What is the point of including a Meal in the list of equipment at the start of the adventure if I'm compelled to consume it in the very first section? I mean, why not just omit all mention of the food and save a little ink, rather than make the reader note it on the Action Chart in order to delete it straight afterwards?

I choose to take a closer look at the farmhouse, finding a piece of broken glass. Other debris indicates that travellers have made camp in the ruins on their way to the city before now. Something makes a noise, and I investigate. A slate falls from the roof, shattering on the ground, and a large spider falls on me and bites me for negligible damage. I leave the ruins and proceed to the city.

While I'm queuing to enter Hikas, a boy with a jug offers everyone who's waiting a drink of fresh water from the city's aquifer, which restores the Endurance I lost to the spider bite. So unless that bite has some other significance later on, the whole tangent with the ruined farmhouse is completely superfluous. The guards on the gate aren't convinced that I'm a Vakeros until I show them my Blue Steel Sword, after which they warn me that there'll be trouble if I use it within the city.

Heading further in, I reach the market-place. Apart from the inevitable stalls, I also see the inn to which I'm supposed to be heading, and a stage on which fire-juggling acrobats are performing. I decide to have a look around the stalls and see if there's anything worth buying here, which somehow results in my winding up in a tent where a fakir is about to perform his famous 'saw a woman in half' trick. As the performance begins, I notice a shifty-looking character sneaking away, and interrupt Master Kodo to warn him that someone may have interfered with his props. He manages to make a joke out of my butting in, quipping that even if I want to be part of the act, I'm not pretty enough to replace his assistant, but is sufficiently convinced by my warning to double-check, and suddenly the show is off. As the crowd disperses, I am summoned 'backstage', where Kodo thanks me for preventing him from seriously injuring his daughter, and gives me a Medallion as a token of his gratitude.

I proceed to the inn, and the patrons momentarily fall silent in the traditional manner. Once the hubbub has resumed, I sign the register with a false name and pay for a few nights' stay. A hooded woman with piercing eyes is watching everyone, and when her gaze rests on me for a moment, I think I see a flash of recognition in her eyes. There's a bit of poor editing here, a rogue full stop awkwardly breaking a sentence. Into two parts and messing with its grammar.

I approach the bartender and chat with him, learning that several citizens of Hikas have been murdered at night in this part of the city. The book then forces me to order a meal and turn in for the night.

A few hours later, a muffled scream wakes me. Sneaking out to investigate, I find a guard who's been stabbed to death in an alley, and obviously not for the purpose of stealing his money. Lacking the Skill that would give me a shot at communicating with the dead man, and aware that searching the alley where the body lies is almost certain to result in false accusations, I decide to seek help. That's not so simple, as the alleys are something of a warren, but I decide to see if Mr. Pearce is going along with the trend, and thus take a left turn. This leads to my getting lost, but eventually finding my way back to the inn. Unhelpful, but I'm actually quite pleased that the trope has been averted for once.

A couple of the inn staff spot me arriving back and, none too surprisingly, I soon get a visit from half a dozen of the city guard who want me to assist them with their enquiries. Though their leader looks as if he hopes I'll resist arrest, so he can get violent. In the (probably vain) hope of clearing up the misunderstanding, I don't put up a fight. A strange dialogue ensues, the lead guard quietly acknowledging my innocence but making it clear that he means to see me punished anyway, and then he brutally clubs me unconscious.

When I come round, I am alarmed to see an undead Helghast before me. After a moment it changes its appearance, disguising itself as the murdered guard (wouldn't it make more sense for it to use the image of someone not known to have been murdered?). My possessions are confiscated and I'm thrown into a cell. Gradually the number of guards present dwindles, and when only two remain, they distract themselves with a game of dice. I am compelled to try and escape, and have one of the Skills that could be used here. Mind you, as it creates a large, glowing magical hand, I suspect that using it might just attract a little attention. But what's the alternative? Sitting and trying to come up with a plan until I doze off, as it turns out.

The hooded woman from the inn wakes me. She's knocked the guards out and tied them up, and addresses me by my real name when telling me there's no time for explanations. While I'm retrieving my belongings, she makes herself scarce. I'm given a choice between resuming my pursuit of the Helghast (can I resume something I hadn't yet started?) or seeking a way out of the cell block. Finding the killer should be my priority.

I go through the door by which the Helghast left, and enter a room containing three guards. But these aren't Hikasian guards, they're Drakkarim, servants of the Darklords. Which means I don't have to worry too much about using lethal force to defend myself from their attack. One of them has a Set of Keys, which I take, and I must then choose one of three doors.

I go north into a room containing an altar dedicated to Naar, this world's most evil deity. There are fresh bloodstains around it. A door leads west, but for some reason I go back south to choose a different exit from the room where I fought the Drakkarim. Will the west door lead to a room with an exit leading north, that I will similarly be prevented from trying? The room behind it is a laboratory, where chemicals bubble away in assorted vessels. A number of cells are set into the walls, all unoccupied, and there is a door leading north. I'm allowed to go through.

Perhaps I'd have been better off not doing so. The door leads to a room where the Helghast is waiting. It drops a portcullis and a solid barrier to block off the way I came in (wouldn't just one of them have sufficed?) and says that I'm to be a test subject in an experiment. It then dashes through a door in the north wall, and while I'm surveying my surroundings (why am I loitering instead of giving chase?) a panel in the north wall opens to disgorge a homicidal mutant. I cast a Force Blade spell, which almost kills the thing (only usable once in the course of the adventure, but the rules imply that some opponents might be unaffected, so saving it for the climax might be a waste, and this could be a bit of a tough fight otherwise), and then finish the creature off with my sword. The door through which the Helghast left isn't locked, so now I follow.

The next room is empty, and the door on the far side is sealed. A demonic face has been carved on the door, mouth agape, and a voice issues from it, instructing me to choose my fate. I risk putting my hand in the hole, and the mouth bites down, injecting something lethal into my bloodstream.

Or rather, my Prophetic power of Future Sight reveals to me that that would have happened if I'd put my hand in there, so I don't do that. Another Skill I won't be able to use again this adventure, but at least I'm still around to be unable to make further use of it. Searching the rest of the room, I find two discoloured patches of stone that might activate hidden doors. This time I'm stuck with the consequences of my choice...

I press one of the patches, and a sliding panel reveals a passage leading to a circular atrium. Stairs lead up to a locked door, but one of the keys I took opens that, and I return to the streets of Hikas, where hunger pangs do me more harm than the last two fights combined. My Prophetic power of Location Sight tells me that the Helghast is heading north, unaware of my escape (pretty rubbish experimental technique), and entering a district containing warehouses and a storage depot. A street leads that way, though taking it does increase the risk of my being spotted. Going through the alleys is probably safer but slower.

I take a chance on the direct route. Before long I see some patrolling guards with a dog on a leash, and try not to attract their attention. Fortunately for everyone concerned, I manage to slip past unnoticed - my character is less forgiving about the wrongful arrest thing than I, so a confrontation would probably have got quite violent.

I emerge (don't ask from what - either this would make more sense if I'd reached this point by an alternate route, or somebody doesn't know the meaning of the word) and spot the disguised Helghast approaching a warehouse. There's a guard on the gate, and further patrolling guards with attack dogs on a chain leash are approaching. Hoping that the ruined farmhouse incident wasn't some kind of foreshadowing, I decide to climb up to the warehouse's roof and see if I can get in that way.

What the text didn't warn me about that plan is that it would involve climbing onto the roof of a different warehouse with the assistance of a stack of crates, and then attempting to jump across the gap between buildings to reach the correct warehouse. A botched rooftop leap resulted in the death of a Lone Wolf the first time I played a Mongoose book on this blog, and on that occasion my chances of success were higher than they are here. My luck proves no better this time round, and hitting the pavement shatters an impressive number of my bones.

After that poor start, this was shaping up to be quite a decent adventure. In desperate need of decent editing, but that's the first Mongoose mini-adventure I've enjoyed in quite some time. Depending on what sort of mood I'm in, I might even give it another go between Lone Wolf books 7 and 8.

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.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

When Nothing Gave Us Cover From the Sky

Sorry that this entry has taken so long to write. Still, it's a decent length, after all the wait.

The other week I told of how I properly got back into gamebooks after finding a load of Fighting Fantasy in a charity shop, four of which I'd never played before. The second of these in publication order was Tower of Destruction, Keith Martin's fourth contribution to the series. Most of my attempts at it to date have ended with my character's losing a fight (though my most recent try just fizzled out as a result of my discovering a route through the book on which I simply wasn't allowed to turn to any more sections).

My character is a member of a barbarian tribe in the frozen north. In the hope of reducing the likelihood of dying in battle yet again, I shall be allocating dice. Thus, I get:
Skill 11
Stamina 14
Luck 8
As in most Keith Martin adventures, there are other characteristics to keep track of, but Honour and Time both have predetermined starting scores.

I'm on my way home from a trading expedition to Zengis, where I was apparently able to get a decent price for some furs (though I don't seem to have any money on me), and my musings about trying to get a job guarding a trade caravan are disrupted by the realisation that something isn't right. It's not as cold as it should be, especially around dusk. Except that it's too early for the sky to be getting that dark. And even if night were falling prematurely, it wouldn't make loud noises while doing so, would it?

I duck as a huge flaming sphere of rock flies overhead. Once it has passed, I continue on my way to the valley where my people live, speeding up as I see the smoke and fire. While passing over the village, the sphere has set much of it alight, killing many people. Including my parents, though this detail is only mentioned in passing, so I guess family relationships can't be that big a deal among my people. Doing the right thing is obviously important, though, what with there being a stat to keep track of how virtuous or villainous I'm being. So before following the trail of the sphere, I should do what I can to help the survivors.

While tending to the injured, I hear a child calling for help from under a mound of rubble. After an hour's digging, I uncover the cellar in which the girl is trapped, and get her out of it before the remains of the hut collapse. With everyone's immediate needs dealt with, I ask what happened, and learn that the Sphere dipped towards the village as it passed, thereby maximising the damage it caused. This was no freak meteor-related tragedy, but deliberate malice.

Between the injured and those involved in longer-term disaster relief, there's nobody available to accompany me as I seek whoever is responsible for this, but the villagers do provide me with some climbing gear and a flask of medicinal brandy. Now it is dusk, so my departure will have to wait until tomorrow.

In the morning I set off, following the trail of ice where the snow melted by the sphere's passage has refrozen. As the sun sets again (sure, this may be a hostile frozen wilderness, but that doesn't mean a man crossing it is liable to encounter anything dangerous, right?), I decide to seek shelter from the wind in a clump of pine trees. A Snow Owl hoots from one of them, and I head for it. At this point the book points out that such birds can be very territorial, and asks if I want to reconsider. Would it not have made more sense to give this warning before the initial choice of clump was made? Anyway, I decide to risk getting a pellet regurgitated at me, and proceed to the clump with the owl in.

The owl asks if I'm following the sphere, and I nod. It warns me of 'the creatures the barbarians call Ice Ghosts' (seemingly unaware that I'm a barbarian myself, and know nothing about these 'Ice Ghosts'), and advises me to consult Tasrin the Sage. It then says it'll keep watch over me tonight, so I have an untroubled night's rest.

Visiting Tasrin will take me off the sphere's trail, but the detour is probably going to be worth taking, so I follow the owl's directions. By midday I've sighted the log house where the Sage lives, and it's late afternoon when I get there. Sensing that something is amiss, I scout around, and in response to a sulphurous stench from behind the back door, I draw my sword and burst in, taking the Smoke Demon on the other side by surprise. It fights back, and the choking smoke around it causes me to suffer a temporary Skill penalty (in other words, an Attack Strength penalty, but many FF writers seem to have forgotten that the term 'Attack Strength' exists). Nevertheless, I win, taking only a little damage.

Undeterred by the strange noises from the adjoining room, I search the hut, and find the dying Sage. He identifies the Demon as a servant of Zeverin, the madman responsible for the sphere, and tells me that I'll find what I need in the Ice Palace. Before expiring, he directs me to the bottom drawer of his desk. This contains a healing potion, which I take, along with Tasrin's money, the ring he was wearing, and as much of his food as will fit into my backpack. I spend the night in the hut, and set off again in the morning.

I try taking a short cut to make up for the delay, and observe ominous clouds in the sky. What happens next is determined by the roll of a die, though I can spend Luck to improve my chances of a favourable roll. The writing here is not good: I'm pretty sure that it's just patronisingly pointing out that if I spend the Luck, I'll have to deduct it from my current score, but it could also be taken as saying that after spending the Luck, I must then deduct an additional point. In any case, I'm going take my chances with an unmodified roll rather than depleting an already low attribute. And I roll high enough to be successful anyway, so the skies brighten and I rediscover the sphere's trail without any trouble.

At the end of the day I come across a dead Snow Fox in a snare, and it would appear that there's nothing dishonourable about plundering someone else's traps. I dig myself a snow cave for the night, and the following day I sight the valley in which the sphere has stopped. I also see footprints indicating that someone has had what could be a rather nasty fall close by. Helping them out will take time, but by now I think I've had enough delays that another one won't really matter, so I investigate anyway.

The climbing gear helps me keep from falling after the unfortunate individual whose fate I am investigating, who turns out to be a barbarian from the Bloodied Eagle tribe, injured and concussed, but still alive. His people aren't renowned for their hospitality, but that wouldn't make killing him and taking his stuff a good choice even if the book didn't have a stat for Honour. So I tend his wounds and make sure he's all right.

When lucid, the barbarian introduces himself as Torsten, and says he fell while fleeing Ice Ghosts. Despite already having heard mention of these entities from the owl, my character is sceptical, but nevertheless helps Torsten climb back up. Torsten insists that I accompany him back to his tribe's camp so he can thank me properly, and not accepting the invitation would cause offence, so I put saving the world on hold for another day or so for politeness' sake.

His people ply me with drink, and when I ask about the sphere and the Ice Ghosts, the chieftain has a lot to say - unless it's a spirit speaking through him. Regardless, Zeverin is responsible for both Ghosts and sphere, has demonic associates, and is within the sphere, yet not there. The tribe are preparing for a trip to the Spirit Grounds to seek advice from their ancestors, but I suspect that that will take too long.

Also present at this gathering is a trader. I sell him the fox pelt (assuming that a Snow Fox and a Silver Fox are the same thing), and buy more provisions, as well as a crossbow and bolts. Rather pointlessly, the text stresses that I must pay for everything I buy, and not cheat. Is the sort of person who would cheat liable to be deterred by such an instruction?

The following morning, the tribe give me extra Provisions (if I'd known I was going to get them, I wouldn't have bothered buying any from the trader) and a flask of alcohol that will not only restore Stamina, but also make me confident enough to get a Skill bonus in the first fight I have after drinking it. Pity it's not an Attack Strength bonus - the usual restrictions on exceeding Initial Skill apply, so I'd have to lose a point before I could benefit from the bonus.

Over the course of the day, I get closer to the valley with the sphere in. At night I find a cave, in which somebody has left everything necessary for making a fire. In the morning I catch sight of what could be a White Dragon in the sky, but there's no point in wasting further time hiding and hoping for it to go away, so I set off anyway, and don't attract any untoward attention. The rest of the day and subsequent night are uneventful, and next morning the climbing gear helps me get down into the valley without any bother.

The sphere is guarded by two Ice Ghosts - blue-skinned animated corpses with ice in their veins. Oddly, they still breathe, and their breath clouds in the air (isn't clouding breath a consequence of the warmth of the breath?). Both attack me simultaneously, and the first time I hit one, I learn that swords aren't the best weapons to use against Ice Ghosts. I wonder why none of the barbarians from Torsten's tribe bothered to warn me about that in advance. Or about the Ice Ghosts' dying convulsions that inflict extra damage on opponents who don't know to jump back as soon as they deliver a coup de grace. Those little surprises lead to my being beaten down to just 2 Stamina by the end of the fight, and I'm only allowed to eat one portion of Provisions before continuing on my way. That potion from Tasrin helps restore me to better health, but my chances of surviving once I'm inside the Sphere now look decidedly iffy.

There's not a lot of cover between here and the Sphere. On the far side, the terrain offers better options for concealment, but as I recall from previous tries at the book, the sphere's occupant is aware of that as well, and has prepared a surprise for anyone trying to sneak up. So I take the direct path to the sphere. Observing an opening on one side, I wait until dusk because obviously I haven't yet wasted enough time, and then enter.

It would appear that Zeverin has managed to get his hands on some Time Lord technology, judging by how much larger the sphere's interior is than its exterior. Reaching a crossroads, I head right and reach a chamber in which a humanoid made of stone is heating rock globes with its fiery breath and throwing them into an aperture in the wall. This may have something to do with the Sphere's power source, but I don't remember deriving any particular advantage from interfering with the process, so I choose not to get into an unnecessary fight, and head back the way I came.

Continuing across the crossroads, I reach a featureless spherical chamber. A smoky entity coalesces into being, and I fight it. The Smoke Wraith proves less trouble than the Smoke Demon did, and once I've killed it, I search the chamber to find out what the Wraith was guarding. There's a sliding panel hidden in one of the walls, and I go through. Getting here has taken long enough that Zeverin has had time to create a Zombie guard on the other side, and as I wasn't expecting it, it automatically gets in a blow against me. It gets inordinately lucky once I'm able to fight back, too, and I lose several more points of Stamina before overcoming it.

Stairs lead up to what looks like a morgue. A humming sound comes from behind the door at the far end, and I sense that I'm close to unlocking the mysteries of the Sphere. But to get to the door I must pass the slabs with corpses on, and do you think the bodies are just going to lie there? Well, they would if I'd set off at the earliest opportunity and made no detours, but as it is, I have another Ice Ghost to fight. The description of what happens to it when I strike the killing blow is rather nasty, and the text implies that this so horrifies me, I don't bother to get any more healing before flinging open the door. But as it doesn't expressly forbid me from doing so, I'm disregarding those implications and downing a shot of brandy. Even at full Stamina, I'd have shaky odds of making it through what comes next alive. At just over half health, as I was before the drink, my chances would have been far worse.

Beyond the door is a large hall, with a pulsating screen at the far end. A bejeweled statue of a Demon sits on a sarcophagus, and close to it are a wizard and a Man-Orc. The wizard sets the Man-Orc on me, claiming to have 'more important things to do' than tackle me himself. Though that doesn't stop him from firing a magical dart at me a few rounds into the fight. The Man-Orc keeps me from attacking the wizard before he can interfere again, but as Zeverin fires at me again, I notice one of the Demon statue's eyes lighting up, so I attempt to smash that. I succeed, and the wizard vanishes (like the chieftain said, he wasn't really there), but the Man-Orc gets a free strike at me while I'm getting rid of Zeverin's projection. It's the last blow he does land on me, though.

I take the Man-Orc's sword, which is magical (and my Skill is just low enough that I can use the bonus provided by the sword) and eat some Provisions, because the 'fun' isn't over yet. The statue seems to be some kind of control mechanism for the sphere, but before I can start trying to operate it, I hear a groan from behind a door I hadn't previously noticed. Behind the door is a cell, with a man chained up. I use keys from the Man-Orc's belt to free him, and he operates the controls to put the Sphere out of action. Except that he bungles it, and warns me that the sphere is about to explode. I help him escape (consequently being injured by flying debris).

The ex-prisoner introduces himself as Aliades, reveals that he had been duped into helping Zeverin with his scheme, and points out that things are far from over. The sphere was just a prototype and, having confirmed that it works, Zeverin will now be working on an even more destructive flying tower. This will enable Zeverin to cause enough death to open a 'necromantic highway' that will allow the denizens of hell to pour into Allansia and overcome it as a stepping stone to taking over the rest of the world.

Aliades then teleports the two of us to a study, where he summons up enough food to restore my Stamina to its Initial level. While I'm eating, he tells me that only the Ice Palace to the north-east can provide me with magic to fight Zeverin. In a past life, Zeverin studied under Elokinan, the Elven Chief, Mage and Architect who sculpted the Palace, so there may also be useful information there. One complication: the Palace is a mausoleum, and the dead there might not appreciate my nosing around. But that's a problem to deal with when it arises. For now, I should get some rest.

At dawn, Aliades wakes me, clearly the worse for wear. He casts a quick spell and gives me a Potion of Stamina before dying from the withering affliction that Zeverin has inflicted upon him. I'm unaffected, possibly because I'm not important enough. After restocking on Provisions, I step outdoors, being instantaneously transported half the distance to the Palace, which leaves me miles from anywhere in a vast tundra.

I trudge through the snow, and fail to notice the approach of two Pegasus-riding barbarians until they're practically on top of me. Landing close by, they tell me that they're from the Frostwind tribe, and they look pretty formidable. Still, they're not actually hostile, just unimpressed to learn that I'm on a heroic quest (I rather like the dry humour of one of them observing that they met a similar hero just last week, and he got trampled by a Mammoth). If I were low on supplies, I could buy food from them, but I'm at full capacity, so we just go our separate ways.

Further on, I hear howls, snarls and scream from behind some rocks. I investigate, and find a trapper fighting a polar bear, watched by his huskies. The bear strikes a killing blow, then notices me and tries to get another kill. I win the fight, and the bear transforms into a barbarian. The trapper's sled has a few noteworthy items on it in addition to the furs and traps: a pouch of money, a large bag of salt, and some extra Provisions that I can take despite exceeding the quota, as they can be stored on the sled. Given the lack of restrictions on carrying equipment other than Provisions, I can only conclude that the text means 'Provision' rather than 'Possession' when describing what should happen if I take the salt with me once I've finished using the sled.

Towards the end of the day I sight the Palace, but only for a moment, and then it's gone, concealed by an illusion. In the morning I try to continue towards it, but the huskies refuse to get any closer, so I have to abandon the sled and continue on foot. I don't actually see the Palace again until it's almost directly in front of me, and up close it has quite an impact. There's a gatehouse in front of me, and an annoying error in the book that means heading straight for the gatehouse results in falling into a trap laid for people who try to avoid entering via the gatehouse. Easy enough to avoid when you know about it, but bothersome otherwise.

As I'm trying to open the ice gates, a figure on top of the gatehouse fires at me with a crossbow. I retaliate, and am slightly surprised to find that our sniping at each other is treated as a normal fight: ranged combat usually has special rules. After three exchanges of bolts, the Dark Elf in the gatehouse ducks out of sight, and I hurry inside to finish him off. This time the text explicitly states that I don't have time for Provisions or Potions, so I'm taking that as retroactively legitimising my Potion-taking back in the sphere.

The Dark Elf is not alone, and he lets his unwounded companion attack first. They're slightly easier to deal with one at a time. The only thing of note I find in the gatehouse is a little food, which I eat to make up for the one crossbow bolt that did hit me. If I didn't already have a crossbow, I'd be unable to take the sniper's one, as it's too 'light' for me to use. Bit of a flimsy explanation (perhaps it's a flimsy crossbow).

I proceed into the Palace to explore it. Under normal circumstances I can only visit each different part of it once, which is what messed up my last attempt: certain parts of the Palace only open up if you have specific items from other parts of the Palace, so going to the wrong one first can make it impossible to go everywhere and acquire everything necessary. To make things worse, the book isn't as clear as it should be about what to do if you've attempted to visit everywhere and wound up 'locked out' of several key locations. It's bad enough failing just for going to door C before door B, but when doing so doesn't lead to any 'fail' ending, just a list of non-viable options, that makes for a very unsatisfying bit of gameplay. For the sake of this post, let's hope I've learned from my mistakes.

There are two Towers next to the gatehouse, one with a shield above the entrance, the other bedecked with multicoloured icicles. I head for the one with the shield on, and a Dark Elf at the top of it takes a pot-shot at me with a crossbow. I fire back, and something deflects the bolt, so I waste no further time shooting, and enter the Tower. He lines up his shot while I'm ascending the stairs, so I get hit climbing through the trapdoor onto the roof, but the damage isn't lethal, and whatever it was that saved him from my crossbow bolt, it's not much good against my sword. Once he's dead, I find and take the Shield of Warding that deflected my shot.

On the way back down, I have a proper look around. The Tower has been pretty thoroughly vandalised, but at ground level I discover a rune-inscribed door that has been left alone. Maybe the runes deterred the vandals. And maybe it was the groaning noise from behind the door. But I'm not letting either of them put me off. Though maybe I should have done, as the Elf-Ghost that attacks as soon as I go through could be a nasty opponent, as it could drain my Skill as well as Stamina. I get lucky, and lose no Skill, but opt not to disturb the tombs it was guarding.

Maybe I'll have more luck in the Tower of Rainbow Ice. Or maybe not, as it's guarded by an Ice Golem in the shape of an Elf. It tells me that only Elves may pass, and as I'm not an Elf, I have no choice but to try and smash it. Well, I could just leave, but that would pretty much guarantee failure, so I carve the Golem into ice cubes.

The stairs the Golem was guarding lead to a landing, and I head right. This brings me to the entrance of a chamber in which a bird sculpted from ice clutches a leather-bound book. A magical barrier prevents me from entering, but a numerical sequence etched into the doorway suggests a way of dispelling it. The mathematical progression is mostly straightforward, though I don't get why the sixth number isn't 40 lower than it is. Nevertheless, I am able to work out what the final number in the sequence should be, so I am allowed into the chamber and can take the book and the bird.

Returning to the landing, I take the stairs up to the top level. The ceiling looks like a cloudy sky, though the illusion is slightly spoiled by the incense-burner that dangles from one of the clouds on a chain. The burner is too high up for me to reach, but the chain may be breakable. Not with a crossbow bolt, though, so I'm forced to leave it hanging there and go back down. Memory suggests that there's nothing to be gained by going left on the landing, so I leave the Tower. At least I got the most important item from it.

Judging by the description of the Palace layout, the Tower I've just left is relatively close to one made of Black Ice (presumably that's ice that's black in colour, rather than the kind that you don't notice until you're slipping on it), so I head for that one next. Inside, I find no way up, only steps leading below ground level, and sense that there's something evil down there. Searching the ground-level chamber turns up nothing but a portal I cannot open, so I descend to see if anything down below will provide a means of opening it.

The cellars are a warren of tomb chambers, and my arrival in their midst prompts the manifestation of a spectral Elf, twisted by malice. It mistakes me for someone who drove it insane and turned it against its own people (Zeverin, perchance?), and attacks me. Despite having higher stats than most of the opponents I've faced this adventure, it never manages to harm me (good thing too, as this is another potentially Skill-draining foe). When I strike the final blow, the Spectre's form changes to resemble how the Elf it was must have been before being warped, and the oppressive atmosphere lifts.

Back at the top of the stairs, I find that that portal has now opened, revealing stairs leading up, so I ascend to a domed chamber that still faintly echoes with songs from bygone ages. The Ice Bird I have with me animates for a moment, and sings a few bars of song, causing rainbow patterns to appear in its feathers. This must mean something, but I'm not entirely sure what. There's nothing else for me to do here, so I leave.

Across from the Tower I've just left is a Tower so light and delicate as to almost seem as if it's not there. I head for that one next. It contains no doors or stairs, but beams of coloured light shine down, and I conclude that they must transport people to different parts of the Tower. I step into the green one, and find myself in the basement. A Gremlin-like creature made of ice pops out of the floor and grabs one of my possessions, but a quick blow with my sword smears the thief all over the floor, enabling me to retrieve the stolen item. The Ice Mite starts to re-form, so I pick a beam before the pest can try to pilfer from me again. Will green take me back to the entrance?

No, it transports me to the middle floor, where I find an alchemist's laboratory. The only item of note in there is a flask of Blue Potion. As it has pointed ears etched on it, I think it's more likely to make me look like an Elf than counteract Sleeping Sickness when enhanced with the right ingredient. There's no green light beam on this level, so I try the purple one instead. And get painfully ejected from the Tower. I'm allowed to go back in, though, so I do. This time I try the blue beam, which takes me back to the middle floor. There's no point searching there again, so I try yellow. Which takes me back to the cellar (using a different section number from my previous cellar trip, just to catch out readers who notice the numbers). I smash the Mite again and step into the blue beam. Which sends me outside in a less painful manner.

There are only two beams in the entrance hall, so I take the blue to the middle floor again, and then try the red one from there. Which takes me back to the ground floor. If I want to get to the top floor, I'm going to have to go via the cellar. The Ice Mite still hasn't learned to leave me alone, and once I've reduced it to its component crystals again, I step into the ominous-looking beam of pure darkness.

I arrive in the chamber at the top of the Tower (about time too), and see a brief vision of a theatre-like auditorium. That fades, leaving me in a gallery filled with ice sculptures of Elves. I look around, and the bust of the sculptor talks to me, revealing that the spirit I helped find peace in the Tower of Black Ice was Zeverin's apprentice, and there are more unhappy souls trapped in the catacombs, which I will need the Ice Keys to enter. The bust also offers to provide me with something useful if I can solve one of the nastiest puzzles in the book.

On an ice monolith are etched eight clock-faces, with one hand shown on all but the last. The first shows an hour hand with one arrow, in the ten o'clock position. The second is another hour hand with four arrows, pointing to five o'clock. So far, so straightforward. But the third is a minute hand with two arrows, pointing to quarter past, and the fourth an identical hand showing twenty to. The fifth is like the first, but with five arrows, and the sixth like the fourth, but with three arrows. And to muddle things even further, the seventh is a minute hand with five arrows, mid-way between five and ten past. I can see a logical progression to the first, second and fifth. I can see a different logical progression to the fourth and sixth (and could potentially reconcile it with the other progression by having the different hand length provide a modifier). Where the third and seventh fit in, I have not the faintest idea.

Some years back I put an attempt at the book on hold when I reached this point, meaning to get back to it and solve the wretched puzzle (I know there are solutions online, but looking at them would feel like cheating) at some later date. There's still a 'save' of it stored in my gamebook manager. This time round, I should keep going one way or another. What if I ignore the anomalous clock faces and go with one of the recognisable progressions? Two possible solutions present themselves, each producing a different section number. The one involving eight arrows on an hour hand seems a bit excessive, so I'll try the other. And that's not it. However, the wording of the section containing the puzzle implies that I can have more than one go: usually, puzzle sections say something along the lines of 'If you get it wrong, turn to...', but this one just says 'If you can't solve the puzzle, and want to give up'. Which lends itself to abuse - I could just check every section until I find the correct one - but I'll just try the one other solution that occurred to me, and if that's no good, I will give up.

It's the right answer. Which doesn't explain how clock faces 3-4 and 6-7 fit, but that's not my problem. I gain a silver amulet, and the text explicitly advises me to make a note of the name of the sculptor, so I imagine there's a 'convert letters to numbers' check somewhere to prove that I have the amulet. Good of Mr. Martin to give advance warning, as some gamebooks don't bother to indicate details which need noting down for later on. There's nothing more for me to do up here, and section number recognition kicks in and enables me to pick the beam that will transport me outside the Tower without hurting me.

I think I should be heading for the Ice Cathedral next, so that's what I do. On the doors are an engraving of a bird soaring into the sky, wings outstretched, so I pull out the Ice Bird, and it sings at the heavy doors, causing them to open. Among the Cathedral's contents (all made of ice) are a pipe organ surmounted by a sculpture of an angel, four sarcophagi, a bunch of keys, and a fine-weave basket. I briefly turn to the wrong section on account of confusing an amulet with a brooch (couldn't the author have made the two items of different metals to make it clearer that they weren't the same thing?), but have no trouble getting back to the right one as soon as I realise my error.

If I'd been able to acquire that incense burner, it could come in handy here. As it is, the song of the Ice Bird pacifies the restless spirits that weren't mentioned in the description of the Cathedral interior, yet were apparently active around me (maybe the incense burner summons them, and I've just been through an awkward transition resulting from the use of the same section to follow on both from using it and from not using it). Anyway, I head across to the organ, and see that the angel statue is holding a tablet with some rather odd musical notes on it. This is the book's other nasty puzzle, though I have already solved it once. While not very good at reading sheet music, I get the basic principles, and by combining that knowledge with my cryptographical skills, I was able to make sense of the hidden message. Readers with no musical knowledge could potentially crack the code with the help of a name provided elsewhere in the book, which makes this puzzle a little less unfair, but I know that some fans find this just as bad as the clock face one.

Having made a note of what the music tells me, I take the Ice Keys, making a note of how many there are in the bunch, as the text makes it pretty obvious that the number is significant. For no adequately explained reason, I can't touch the basket, so that only leaves the sarcophagi. Each contains an Elf in a shroud, holding an object, and the four occupants are straight out of a rather macabre deck of 'Happy Families' cards. I strongly suspect that for the greater good I'm going to have to break into at least one of the sarcophagi. Possibly two, as two of them have engravings.

At the cost of an Honour point, I take the Ice Sword from Mr. Elfcicle. Do I risk a similar penalty for the sake of Mrs. Elfcicle's wand? If it improves my chances of saving the world, that's a price I may have to pay. But the wand snaps when I try to take it, so I only get the penalty. Miss and Master Elfcicle can keep their amulet and puzzle. There may be something else I could do here if only I knew what needed doing (something related to the incense burner, perhaps), but on this attempt at the book I'm done here.

There's still one Tower in the Palace that I haven't explored: the Great Tower, which stands at the centre of the Palace. When I enter it, I discover it to be guarded by an animated statuette of a jaguar. Once I've subdued that, I take the steps leading down from the entrance chamber, which lead to a locked door I cannot open. There were also spiral stairs leading up, so I try them instead. They lead to the Tower of Destruction equivalent of a compilation album - ice sculptures, engravings, an organ, coloured ice, more stairs... and another blasted Dark Elf. This one's a sorcerer of some kind, judging by the way he floats in mid-air and prepares to cast a spell. I attempt to distract him with a crossbow bolt in the face, but by the time I've got the bow ready, the spell is finished, and semantics get annoying. The Shield of Warding has a good chance of protecting me from the effect of any magical attack with the word 'Bolt' in its name, but the Dark Elf cast an Ice Dart spell, which is presumably unaffected by the Shield.

Still, I am now able to fire my bolt, while Elfic Bristow prepares another spell, and the race to see who fires first is determined by a standard round of combat. If I win the round, I shoot him. If he wins the round, he completes his spell. If we both get the same Attack Strength... that contingency hasn't been planned for. Guess which of those three outcomes occurs. No, hang on, my gamebook manager's combat simulator is adding the Skill bonus from the Magic Sword, which wouldn't apply for firing the crossbow, so the Dark Elf wins the round. And hurls a Lightning Bolt at me for the Shield to deflect. Another round of ranged combat ensues, and again I narrowly lose, so he is able to cast a spell on himself before swooping down to attack me with a dagger.

Now I can use that Skill bonus, and the Dark Elf stops winning Attack Rounds. Rapidly recognising his error, he drops the dagger and surrenders. I keep the blade of my sword at his throat (I still don't know what that spell he cast on himself did, so I'd better be on my guard for a sneaky attack), and he explains that Zeverin sent him and his associates to pillage the place and make sure nobody could get anything from the Palace to help oppose his schemes. The Dark Elf comments that he thinks Zeverin is rather too subservient to his Demonic master, but the opportunity to wreck a place this nice countered whatever qualms the Dark Elves had about their boss's relationship with his boss. He also observes that the Demon is way out of my league. I gag him and tie him up to safeguard against treachery, and if I manage to save the world, I might even come back and save him from freezing or starving to death, if none of his compatriots have beaten me to it.

The Dark Elf has some keys, which I take. I could also help myself to his robe and dagger, but in Keith Martin books there's often a downside to taking weapons from enemies, and there's been no text to suggest that the other Dark Elves would have kept from shooting at me if I'd been wearing their boss's outfit, so I think I'll make do with just the keys.

Going up the stairs, I unlock the door at the top, which leads to a library in which the text is inscribed upon the walls. A spectral Elf appears, and tells me he has a lot to teach me, and not much time. I have the option of giving him the book, but I'm not sure I can do so without handing over the Ice Bird, which I may still need. So I hang on to it and wait to see what else I can learn from the spirit. He can inform me about one of three topics, and I choose Elven magic here. The spirit tells me that Tassaskil can regenerate the enchantments of the Ice Sword, and Elokinan's Chalice, which is in the Ice Crypts, can boost a mortal's Stamina 'to extraordinary levels', then starts to tell me something about gaining access to the Crypts, but fades away with the sentence unfinished.

I eat some Provisions in case the Dark Elf has freed himself and prepared an ambush, but it appears that he's still tied up, so I go down to the basement again, and the Dark Elf's keys unlock that door. All I find down there is the room where the Dark Elf had made camp, so I help myself to his food supplies and the Potion of Flying he was storing. I also find a hidden Potion of Speed, about which the book says that the Dark Elf 'obviously didn't have time to get this to prepare himself for fighting [me]'. A narrow escape indeed - who knows how close I came to dithering just long enough for him to go down two flights of stairs, unlock a door, rummage through his belongings and activate the concealed compartment in his lunchbox?

On my way out, I spot that the jaguar statuette still radiates a faint magical aura, so I take it, and will be able to bring it to life and set it on one opponent. For spurious reasons, I can only set it on my chosen enemy and then stand back awaiting the outcome of the fight. Why is there no option of joining in, and hoping to get in three or four unopposed blows against the opponent in question while they're busy fighting off the Stone Jaguar?

What remains to explore here is rather more mundane (well, as mundane as buildings sculpted from ice can get). First I try the dwellings once inhabited by the Ice Elves, which turn out to have been cleaned out long before, so I rummage around in the ice rubble that has accumulated in the streets. This attracts the attention of a Giant Wolverine, which sprays me with vile-smelling musk and attacks. Thanks to the Skill penalty (just for this fight) that results from my trying not to throw up, this is the most formidable opponent I've yet faced this adventure, but I manage to kill the beast without taking a single wound.

Resuming my search, I encounter another spectral Elf, who begs me to release the spirit of his father, who was trapped in the workshops by Zeverin, and warns me to beware the evil one in the Great Tower. The warning is a bit redundant, but I might as well head for the workshops next.

The architecture of the workshops is a lot more ornate than that of the Elves' homes. All but three of the buildings are just as empty, though. First I try the armourer's, which contains neither restless spirits nor any armour in a usable condition. A ledger provides indications that an Elf named Filandre may have had some magic armour, but gives no hint of where it is now. In the weaponmaker's workshop I find a box of enchanted crossbow bolts that do double damage among the incomplete swords and morningstars, and then hear a terrible moaning from a side chamber. That'll be the trapped spirit, then.

Investigating, I see a mound of toppled equipment and broken ice, with a translucent hand reaching out from under it. Aware that the spirit may drain my Stamina if I try to help it, I eat more Provisions before taking the spectral hand. A wise decision, as freeing the trapped spirit costs me 8 Stamina. Still, I get back the Honour I lost for taking the Ice Sword, which is rather appropriate, as the spirit tells me that Zeverin trapped it here as punishment for crafting the sword.

Is there likely to be anything useful in the jeweller's workshop? I check it anyway, encountering another Dark Elf. It's another 'which section you turn to next is determined by who wins the first Attack Round' situation, and this time I genuinely get equal scores for both of us. As the book doesn't allow for that contingency, I just roll again, and this time I land a blow on the Dark Elf, preventing him from completing the spell he was trying to cast. The fight never goes any better for my opponent, and once he's in no fit state to rescue his leader from the Great Tower, I take the jewels he'd looted, eat another meal, and turn my attention to the Ice Palace's stores, as they're the only part of the place I haven't been by now.

I never will get to them, because along the way I spot some ice gates which had been concealed by an illusion. If I stop to check them, I'll be forced to use the Ice Keys to unlock them and descend to the Ice Crypts, but if I don't stop to check them, I'll never get another opportunity to do so, and will wind up in the same textual dead end as on my last attempt at the book. Just have to hope I can make do without whatever I might have found in the stores.

Beyond the gates are steps leading down below ground. I use the Ice Keys and head down. The ice on the steps makes a dangerous-looking ramp, so I use the bag of salt I've been lugging around for the past few hours to make it less slippery. The tunnel leading on from the steps gives off a faint glow, and has alcoves in the walls containing sculptures. Rounding a corner, I see a crossroads up ahead, but I see it through the insubstantial body of a spectral guardian who wields a wand and tells me that only Elves may pass. I drink the potion from the flask with the pointed ears on, and, as expected, it makes me look like an Elf. Possessing no ability to see through the illusion, the spirit lets me past, and I proceed to the crossroads.

The path straight ahead has steps leading down, so I think I'll save that until last. The right turning leads past a chamber that's hidden behind another illusion, but the amulet allows me to see through it, so I go in to find out what was considered worth hiding here. An assortment of ice sculptures too delicate to take away, a number of rather odd wind instruments carved from ice, and a robe on a peg, with a metal tube sticking out of the pocket. I take the robe down, and it attacks me, being a predator that disguises itself as clothing. I shred it like a particularly scathing fashion critic, and take a closer look at the tube, which contains a Wand of Cold with one charge left in it. Don't ask how I'm able to recognise its function or the lowness of its power.

Returning to the tunnel and continuing along it, I reach a desecrated graveyard. None too surprisingly, I also sense spirits who are in a troubled mood, to say the least. Before entering to do what I can to put things right, I eat more Provisions: if there's anything hostile in there, I'm liable to need to be at full health to deal with it. As it turns out, the insane Elf-Ghost that attacks me isn't able to do any harm, but it's better to have been prepared than not. Further effort earns me an Honour point to make up for the other tomb I raided, but also requires me to eat again. Then another Elf-Ghost attacks, wounding me a couple of times before I dispel it.

Though tempted to leave the ungrateful dead in their current condition, I persevere with returning bodies to graves and making what repairs I can. Eventually the graveyard is in a respectable state, and I hear an unearthly sigh. Feeling a sudden chill on my forehead, I check my reflection in a bit of ice, and find that a star-shaped mark has appeared there. I wonder if Allansia has a self-help group for adventurers who wind up with silly markings on their foreheads.

Returning to the crossroads, I go straight across (observing from the section numbers listed that if I'd taken another branch first and then gone along the one to the despoiled graveyard, the amulet wouldn't have dispelled the illusion, which seems a bit odd). This passage has wall carvings of Elven bowmen and swordsmen. I notice some odd-looking carvings, just in time to dodge out of the way when they briefly animate and strike at me. Continuing on my way, I reach a chamber containing an ice anvil and tools, and then a wave of intense cold hits me.

Another spectral Ice Elf appears, wielding knives. He asks if I'm here to see Elokinan, Tuinarel, Tassaskil or Meloniel. I remember that Tassaskil's the one who can re-enchant the Ice Sword, and name him. The Spectre bows and indicates that I should proceed. A particularly formidable-looking Elf-spirit stands by the anvil. He stares at me, somehow assessing my Honour. While not all that it could be, it is evidently satisfactory, as he touches the Ice Sword and imbues it with power, providing a +2 Skill bonus that disregards Initial levels. He then tells me that he has enough power for one further enchantment, which will improve the Sword's effectiveness against either wizards or Demons. I suspect that the Demon will be more of a threat than Zeverin, and choose accordingly, so Tassaskil adds the extra enchantment, which enhances the Sword's bonus by 1 against Demons and causes it to do extra damage. The book doesn't explicitly state that the extra bonus can exceed Initial scores, but it seems reasonable to conclude that it works the same way as the basic bonus.

I return to the crossroads and take the steps down. More gates bar the way, and the word 'Call' is inscribed on them. The music puzzle in the Cathedral told me how many times I must call out Elokinan's name, so I do it, glad that it's only my character who has to perform the action described. I imagine that he has a pretty sore throat by the end. And losing count would be a real pain.

The gates open, light pours out from behind them, and the spirit of Elokinan appears and looks into my soul. My less-than-maximum-possible Honour score appears to be more of an issue here, but then Elokinan sees the silly mark his fellow-Elf-spirits left on my forehead and as compensation allows me to drink from his chalice, boosting my Initial and current Stamina to 25. I'm starting to feel like I might be in with a chance of winning this book for the first time ever.

Elokinan gives me a vial of liquid from the chalice, and tells me that this dose will make me invisible as I travel to the Tower. And if I ride something to get there, the concealment will spread to my steed. Noting that my Ice Sword is already charged, Elokinan then transports me straight outside, saving me a bit of a walk. Correction - straight outside the Ice Palace, saving me a longer walk. And not before time, as the northern sky darkens and Zeverin's Tower glides into view, pausing to destroy a village. Rather more impressively than the book's front cover suggests. Forget the pretty fireballs, this is more like when the aliens zapped the White House in Independence Day. Only with the beam turned up to 11.

The Tower heads towards me, so I drink the Dark Elf leader's Potion of Flying and Elokinan's Potion of Invisibility, and get into the Tower without attracting the attention of the two-headed Giant guarding the entrance. A black stone corridor, giving off a red glow and radiating heat, leads into the Tower. There's a closed door on my right, and an open door in the wall about half way along the corridor. I've only got this far into the book once before, that time without the sword or the Stamina boost, and this is just about as far as I did get. Pity I can't remember which of the options presented to me led to the fight that got me killed last time.

Ah, it's opening the door. This leads to a guardroom containing two Nightgaunts, who scream as they run at me. The scream attracts the attention of the two Nightgaunts in the room with the open door, who also charge at me. At least the narrowness of the corridor means that only two can attack at a time. And this time round I have a decent weapon and a superior Stamina. I still take a couple of blows, but nothing I can't handle.

Hurrying along the corridor, I round a corner and find that stairs lead on. Two flights, one going up, the other down. Maybe the Tower entrance was higher up the structure than I imagined it to be.

Or maybe Zorin Industries lent a hand with the design specs.

Not massively keen on learning whether or not the stairs leading down are a trap, I go up. Narrowly avoiding an encounter with a lesser Demon and one of its minions, I go up, feeling the temperature increase, until I reach a spherical chamber, with steps leading up to another exit, guarded by a bizarre giant Golem. Its feet are like giant stone ball-bearings, which enable it to effectively skate around on the curved floor. I find it harder to keep my balance, and decide to see if the Stone Jaguar can distract the Golem long enough for me to get to the steps. No it can't. But the Golem doesn't manage to do any more damage than the Nightgaunts did, and I still have plenty of ways of restoring Stamina.

At the top of the steps is an archway leading into darkness, and a side passage along which I think I hear footsteps approaching. It could be that the archway is a trap, and the footsteps are intended to scare me into hurrying through, so I take the side passage. It curves around, circumventing the darkness (this part of the Tower could do with being described more clearly) and brings me to the entrance of another chamber. Lights flash within, though I can only just make them out through the thick webs blocking the doorway. Lacking any useful magic, I can only try to force my way through. They sap my strength, inflicting a temporary Skill penalty.

The chamber beyond the webs contains four stone figures which are feeding a column of flame with blood that they pour from copper bowls. The after-effects of the webs somehow keep me from noticing the other occupant of the room, who slings a Lightning Bolt at me. The Shield of Warding doesn't work, but the section doesn't have one of Keith Martin's patent 'you have no time to use any Stamina restorative' restrictions, so I down the booze from Torsten's tribe, which not only makes good the damage just done but also cancels out that Skill penalty.

My assailant floats into view. It's Zeverin, preparing another spell. Let's see how an enchanted crossbow bolt in the face affects his concentration. Well, the first one just counteracts the magical sphere he was preparing to hurl at me, but the other three significantly reduce his health. Once I'm out of bolts, he hits me with a couple of salvos of magical darts, but then he's out of magic and lands, hoping to finish me off in straight combat. A single blow with the Ice Sword shows him to have been even closer to death than I'd realised.

His death has no effect on the functioning of the Tower, and I sense that there's more trouble to come yet. There's time to take some action (though not to eat a meal), so I drain the healing potion that Aliades gave me (the text only lists brandy as something I can drink, but if I can drink, I can drink). Ambiguous text makes it unclear whether or not I can also drink the Dark Elf's Potion of Speed.

And then Zeverin's boss shows himself. Relem the Night Demon, one of the second-highest ranking of Titan's Demons (but not quite on a par with Ishtra, Myurr or his boss Sith) appears before me and hurls magical bolts. The Ice Sword dispels some, and the Shield of Warding deflects the rest. That's wiped the smiles from Relem's faces. He shoots great bolts of fire at the floor by me, and the flames do me a little damage, but Tasrin's ring spares me from the worst of it.

Relem prepares to attack, but the Ice Bird flies at him. He shatters it, but while he's distracted, I have time to take the Potion of Speed. And then we fight. Even with the full Ice Sword bonus, I only match him, Skill-wise, his Stamina is as high as mine would be if I were at full health, and he does as much extra damage to me as the Ice Sword does to him, but that Potion enables me to get in an extra blow in the first round. For much of the fight we're evenly matched, but the dice favour me slightly more than they do him. And then, with him down to his last point of Stamina and me only in slightly better shape, an Elf-spirit gives me a small boost to Stamina and Skill. The book doesn't say whether that bonus is above and beyond Initial Skill, but it doesn't matter. Even without it, the next round is Relem's last. The Ice Sword sunders his form, banishing him back to the Pit.

The Tower's fires cool, and the pillar of flame becomes a ring of fire surrounding the room. I guzzle the brandy to bring me a little further from the brink of death, and dash for the exit, hoping that Tasrin's ring will keep me from getting burned, burned, burned. Not completely, alas, but the fire only singes off what I got from the brandy.

Outside the chamber, I reach a junction. Back to the spherical room the Golem was in, or to a part of the Tower I've not visited? Let's hope that the other way leads to an emergency exit, because the Tower's shaking very ominously. Bits of stone fall from the ceiling, but none hit me. I see a side turning to a room where people are donning harnesses, evidently in preparation for evacuation. I dash into my room, narrowly succeeding at the Luck roll to get there without taking further harm, and see the men jumping out of an archway at the behest of a robed figure. Concerned that there might not be enough harnesses for me as well as Zeverin's minions, I charge in and fight the robed man for one. He loses.

As I pull on the harness and make for the archway, someone fires a crossbow at me. The bolt would hit, but the Shield of Warding does its stuff again. The harness magically slows my descent, and the only servants of Zeverin who've landed nearby would rather run than fight.

The Tower crashes and explodes. I've done it! Except that a robed figure is advancing on me. He's far enough away that I can eat a portion of Provisions before he arrives, but I'm still in pretty poor shape by the time he gets close enough for things to turn nasty.

It's Zeverin. Again. He's worse than the Borad. He prepares to hurl a spell at me, and then the Ice Sword's magic drains out into a pool of light. Elokinan's form emerges from this pool, dispelling Zeverin's spell and trapping the evil mage in a cage of light, where he will remain trapped for all eternity. The cage and its prisoner vanish, and Elokinan tells me I've saved Allansia, and probably Titan. As his last act before departing the world forever, he does something to ensure that Relem will never be able to find me and take revenge.

Not far away is a trapper's hut. I head there in search of hospitality.

For some time I've considered this the book in which Keith Martin's fondness for extra rules and hub structures got a little too much. In addition, the early stages do little to convey a sense of trekking through a frozen landscape, at times the plot just drags, and the text contains plenty of errors. Still, by the end it felt pretty epic. Enough so that I barely mind Elokinan's playing deus ex machina to deny me one final fight with Zeverin and a chance to use that Wand of Ice. It's still not my favourite of Mr. Martin's books, but I enjoyed it more than I was expecting to.