Monday, 2 November 2015

Something Ill-Defined and Impalpable

This is the second part of my attempt at Jonathan Green's Spellbreaker, which commenced here. I'm not going to recap what happened in the first part because that's what the link is for.

Hurrying away from Hallow's Well, I take the road south to Aryll, but only get about half way there before dusk falls. My search for somewhere safe to spend the night leads me to a small cave behind a clump of bushes. Unlike most caves, this one has a door. I'm about to knock on it when it is opened from within by an anthropomorphic mole. He invites me in, saying he was expecting me because he read of my coming in the runes.

My host, Talpas the Molekin, gives me some soup and offers to cast the runes to give me some indication of what the future holds. I take him up on his offer, and get told a lot of vague stuff hinting at things I already know. Slightly more helpfully, I also learn that I must visit a place of death and a place of worship. And then comes the 'That runestone isn't even part of the set!' bit, as the last of the stones turns out to bear the Witch Mark, Shekka's Rune. Talpas throws the offending stone into the fire, and I turn in for the night.

In the morning Talpas gives me some extra Provisions and I resume my walk to Aryll. My first sighting of the village is not encouraging: it's unnaturally quiet, the air is filled with bonfire smoke, and a woman carrying a massive pack yells at me to stay away because of the plague. I ignore the warning, because that plague is part of the reason I've come here.

Proceeding into the village, I see houses with red crosses painted on them, and realise that the bonfires are being used to dispose of the diseased dead. A couple of the corpse-burners take me to the village elders, and along the way I acquire a new attribute: Infection. Its function should be pretty obvious, and the consequences of having it get too high are liable to be fatal. A couple of the herbs I acquired along the way could be of help here, though it turns out that I can't use both to get double the effect. Maybe I should have bought that other Faith-boosting relic instead of the second of those herbs. Still, getting to reduce every Infection gain by 1 could mean the difference between survival and a painful demise, so I shouldn't complain too much. And I've avoided acquiring a couple of afflictions that would hasten the onset of illness, which is also good.

The elders have figured out that the plague is carried by rats, but they don't know how to get rid of the infestation. As I now have the Charmed Pipes that were used to draw the rats here, I can use them to lure the rats into an old barn on the outskirts of the village, which can be set alight once they're inside. Of course, I will also be inside the barn when the fires are lit, but I've only had one or two past characters fail to escape the flames, so I'm not too worried about the danger.

When I start playing, hundreds of rats, some of them as big as dogs, emerge from cellars and sewers and advance on me. I lead them to the barn and continue playing until the structure is properly ablaze. Pity I don't think to keep playing until I'm at the foot of the ladder leading to the hayloft, as I get bitten several times while dashing across to it. Still, I make it up the ladder without further trouble, and the barn waits until I've leapt out of it before collapsing.

The elders thank me for my assistance, and one of them comments that there is now some hope for the people of Aryn's Hill. Remembering that name from the story I heard at the Pilgrim's Rest, I ask about the canker from the legend. Tales tell that somewhere around here Gwythain the Protector fought a servant of the god of disease, who had been unleashing plagues of rats and flies upon the world. The villain's crypt is said to be inside the hill on which the village stands.

I decide to investigate the crypt, and the village Tanner leads me to the stone purported to mark the crypt's entrance. A recent cave-in has opened up a tunnel by the stone, so I light my lantern and head inside. A diseased rat at least 1½ metres in length attacks me, but is easily killed.

The tunnel leads to a pair of stone doors, above which is the cheery inscription "All Good souls, do not ye enter here." Two decaying corpses lie on the ground by the doors, but as I approach, the cadavers get up and start shambling towards me. My Faith is strong enough to deter them from attacking, and I get through the doors without encountering further contagion. Beyond is a large cavern, with a slime-covered floor that writhes with giant maggots.

Mind your step!

There's another stone door at the far side, but as I head for it, a swarm of massive Carrier Flies swoops towards me. I manage to fight them off for long enough to get through the door, which leads into the actual crypt.

The first thing I notice about the crypt is the smell, a stench of decomposition strong enough to inflict a Skill penalty as long as I'm in there. At the far end of the crypt is a sarcophagus, containing the Canker: formerly the servant of the dark gods told of in legend, but now a decaying, undead monstrosity barely recognisable as having once been human. Between it and me are more than a dozen Plague Zombies, though only (roll) two of them try to intercept me, and one of them is repelled by my Faith. Thanks to the Skill penalty and some bad rolls, I take a couple of wounds while putting down the one Zombie that actually attacks me.

As the Canker itself moves to the attack, I take the risk of throwing my lantern at it. The monstrosity catches light, but still attacks me. There's a time limit for completing the fight, but in this one I don't lose or draw any rounds, so I'm not even close to running out of time. Killing the Canker causes the remaining Plague Zombies to revert to inanimate corpses, and having flung my light source at the thing proves no obstacle to finding my way back out.

The people of Aryll celebrate upon seeing my return, and invite me to a banquet. I decline, citing the urgency of my quest, so they settle for giving me some food, money, a replacement lantern, and directions to the barrow in which Gwythain was laid to rest along with his magic sword Deliverer. It's guarded by a sect of druids who worship a benign deity.

While visiting the barrow will take me out of my way, I think there's an essential item in there, so I make the necessary detour. Along the way I develop plague symptoms, and am only spared the Canker's posthumous revenge by using the Heal-All I've been taking care not to use before now. This cures the disease and heals most of the damage I've taken since reaching Aryll.

My journey to the barrow takes me through a stone circle. As I'm crossing it, druids surround me and take me to their High Priest, who wears a mask made from a horse's skull. He demands to know why I'm here, so I explain that I wish to enter the barrow. The High Priest tells me I must prove my worthiness, and shows me the carvings on a small stone, challenging me to calculate the Equinox Stone's mystic number. The carvings depict an unfinished Magic Square, though (like the last time FF featured such a puzzle) it doesn't use the numbers 1-9. This puzzle might be considered slightly unfair, as there's nothing to indicate whether the 'correct' answer is the sum of the missing numbers, the total to which any line should add up when the square is complete, or the number by which the digits of a standard Magic Square have been multiplied to create this one. On the one previous occasion that I reached this stage of the adventure, I correctly guessed that it was the third of those possibilities, so I have no trouble getting it right again, but anyone who got themselves sacrificed (well, I'm guessing that that's what happens to anyone who doesn't give the desired answer) as a result of picking one of the other options would have valid grounds for complaint.

The High Priest then sees the Pilgrim's Staff and, rejoicing, grabs it from me. He plants it in the centre of a nearby grove, and it sprouts shoots, rapidly transforming into a bush with white flowers. Handing me one of the blooms, he explains that the staff was made of wood from the rare and sacred Ilithorn. Suppressing the urge to point out that he could have asked for the Staff rather than just snatching it away like that, I proceed to the barrow before he can take an interest in any of my other possessions.

A short distance into the barrow, there's a small hole in the ground. I have to Test my Luck to see if I notice it, which is annoying, as doing so costs me a point of Luck, and even if I were capable of failing the Skill roll that the Unlucky must make to keep from falling in, the damage incurred as a result would be negligible.

Further on is a circular chamber, with scenes from Gwythain's life depicted on the walls, and an axe-wielding undead Barrow Guard blocking the far exit. His axe does extra damage the one time he hits me, but not enough to seriously imperil me. Beyond the archway he guarded, there's an alcove in the tunnel wall, with a coffin in it. A sword is inscribed on the lid, so I open it in case Deliverer is here and the passage onwards is a trap. The coffin contains no sword, nor any corpse, but there is a Golden Sickle and a bunch of herbs in there, so I take them before continuing along the tunnel.

Eventually I reach the burial chamber, which has more biographical murals. On a plinth lies Gwythain's skeleton, wearing silver armour and a silver helmet, and clutching a shield with a golden lion motif. No sword. Someone's pilfered it. Probably the mask-wearing brigand with the magical-looking sword who attacked us on the way to Hallow's Well.

There's an inscription on the plinth, so I read that before I do anything else. It states that his 'weapons of truth shall serve the noble-hearted' (not that the brigand showed any signs of a noble heart), but requests that the armour be left intact. Does the shield count as armour? I'm sure the helmet does, and shall leave that alone, but I'll risk taking the shield, as there must surely be something of use in here. Yep, the shield provides bonuses to Skill and Faith. Better not push my luck, so I leave.

I reach the circular chamber just as the Barrow Guard is getting up again. Not an unexpected development - the sword-thief would have had to get past it as well, so if it were the sort to stay dead, I wouldn't have had any bother from it on the way in. Not that it's much bother now, as it's weaker than it was in the previous battle, and the Skill bonus from the shield allows me to exceed my Initial score.

There's no sign of the druids when I emerge. I decide against returning to Aryll, and head in the direction that should lead to the road west. Along the way I encounter a large Ogre carrying a dead deer. He decides that he'd rather eat human flesh than venison, and I give him a taste of cold steel instead. That spoils his appetite rather permanently, and I reach the road without further incident. Before long it forks, and I shall again pause my narrative and institute a save point, because I'm pretty sure that I'm almost at the point where my previous online attempt at this book came to a nasty end.

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