This is the third part of the Spellbreaker playthrough that started here and continued here. At this point my character is at a fork in the road. The map at the start of the adventure gives no indication that one route is any better than the other, but from previous attempts at the book I know I'm better off going north-west. This branch of the road leads into a forest, though not the same one in which Lady Attana's entourage and I were ambushed by brigands.
A short distance into the forest, I am ambushed by brigands. This group is led by a woman, who stands above me on a tree branch, and orders me to drop my weapon and throw her my gold. I decide to try and trick her, and am mildly disappointed to find that this doesn't involve hurling my money pouch with enough force to knock her off the branch. Rather more boringly, I feign surrender and just toss the cash on the ground, and when she leaps down to collect it, I grab my sword and rush her before any of her dozy associates can twig that I'm not as cowed as I appear to be.
I sustain a minor wound while taking the woman hostage. The others surround me, but are reluctant to press their attack while I have their leader, and I'm able to deal with two of them before she breaks away from me. I trip a third outlaw, who collides with one of his fellows, leaving the pair of them too dazed to fight, leaving just the leader and one of her men to deal with in straightforward combat. They're no match for me, and once I've killed the man and brought the woman near to death, she warns me that 'the Mask' will make sure I never leave the forest alive. Keen for a rematch (and a chance to get hold of the magic-looking sword he wielded), I demand to know more about the Mask, and the outlaw reveals that he's in charge of all the brigands in the area, and gives me directions to his camp. I spare her life, tie her up (presumably similarly immobilising the two who were only incapacitated) and, disguising myself in the robes of one of the outlaws who didn't survive the fight, head off to the camp.
As I head deeper into the trees, I hear an owl hoot. That's odd: it's still broad daylight. To be honest, the fact that, despite all I've done since leaving Talpas' residence, it's still only the middle of the day strikes me as being stranger than the possibility that an owl might be active before nightfall, but I must accept that this is one of those gamebooks in which time is extra-flexible.
Correctly suspecting that the hooting is part of the outlaws' security set-up I imitate an owl in response, and no harm befalls me as I continue on my way. Lucky for me that the correct response wasn't a different kind of bird call - if the Mask had thought to tell his men to cuckoo when they heard the hoot, I'd now be in a lot of bother.
I reach a clearing containing the ruins of some ancient outpost, in which the outlaws have made their camp. The walls that survive to this day might provide extra cover in the event of a large-scale assault on the Mask's base of operations, but they also enable me to stay hidden as I get closer. I climb up to the battlements and spy out the area. Stables, haycart, well, remnants of a keep, group of brigands sharpening their weapons. Maybe I should find some way of keeping that little mob occupied while I confront their boss. And while I'm sure the Ruddlestone Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would object (should they exist), the proximity of that flammable hay to the stables is too tempting to pass up. Just as I reach the cart, a man emerges from the stables, but he fails to see through my disguise, so I wait until he's moved away, and then set light to the hay and make myself scarce. Before long the fire attracts the outlaws' attention, and while they're trying to fight it, I slip into the keep unnoticed.
Stairs lead up to two doors. I pick one more or less at random, and it opens into a room in which the Mask is at a table, counting money. He notices that I'm not one of his men, and draws his sword (which the illustration confirms to be the one that was stolen from Gwythain's body, as the word 'Deliverer' is inscribed on the blade). The fight is not difficult (regardless of whether I fight him at his original Skill or the slightly reduced one in the Wizard Books edit), and once it's over, I take Deliverer for myself. I also grab some of the money the Mask was counting, and find the box that had been stolen from Lady Attana. The key she gave me unlocks it, and the Elven prayer beads inside enhance my Faith.
Before leaving, I remove the Mask's mask. The face beneath is scarred and burned, the left side looking decidedly skeletal. While he won't be coordinating his subordinates' actions any more, the outlaws in the camp could still be a threat to me, so I leave the keep via the window, sustaining only minor damage from the drop. Then I retrace my steps to the road and ditch the disguise before continuing north-west. The text doesn't even mention the next junction, but as one of the turnings leads back towards Hallow's Well and I do only have a couple of days left to find and thwart Nazek, not getting the option to choose a direction is fair enough on this occasion.
After a couple of hours I reach the village of Fenford, and pop into the local tavern, the Brindled Cat. (Anyone unfamiliar with the term 'brindled' may be reassured to learn that it refers to the markings of the cat's fur, rather than describing some arcane form of animal cruelty.) On this occasion I do buy a drink, as I no longer need to be so frugal, and could do with the small Stamina bonus it provides. While at the bar, I chat with the landlady, who mentions a monster in the nearby marsh of Blackmire which has been causing trouble in the area. She also indicates that one of the other patrons is a Witch-hunter, and that the local holy man Friar Barnabas, also present, may be able to assist me in my quest.
I'm not sure if there's an optimal order for meeting with the others here, so I might be about to make a serious error. Still, even if I do mess up now, I will at least know to try something else next time. I start by approaching the Witch-hunter, and the text forces me into awkwardly ambiguous dialogue that leads the man to suspect that I might be a witch. I don't have anything that could back up his suspicions, though, and the Ilithorn Rose I have with me convinces him that we're both on the same side.
Introducing himself as Karad, he explains that he's assembling a resistance group to oppose Nazek's coven. He can't accompany me to Claybury, but invites me to meet with him there 'at the sign of the tower' tomorrow, and tells me the Resistance's password. He also gives me some Shackles that can prevent a witch from casting spells, then leaves to do some reconnaissance. I also have to leave now, so I hope there was nothing essential to be learned in conversation with anyone else in the tavern.
There are two ways I can go from here: along the road to Tallow, or on the path through Blackmire to Selwick. Many potentially useful herbs grow in Blackmire, and Tira, the erstwhile witch's apprentice I helped in Hallow's Well, mentioned Selwick when speaking of her former mistress, so the route through the marsh is going to be the better one, even if it is also the more hazardous option.
I've only made it to Blackmire on two or three of my previous attempts at this adventure, and at least one of those ended in there, so I'm definitely setting up another 'save point' before I go any further.