Friday, 30 June 2017

I Walk Away From Light and Sound

My completist tendencies eventually led to my tracking down a copy of Mudworm Swamp, the third of The Adventures of Goldhawk, on eBay. If I'd only had the first two books in the series, I might have been content to leave things as they were, but once book 4 joined them on the shelf (in circumstances I shall doubtless recount a few posts from now), annoyance at the gap outweighed my lack of fondness for the series as a whole. Not sufficiently that I was prepared to pay silly money for the missing book - indeed, I could have got the book almost a year earlier than I did if I'd been prepared to exceed the price limit I'd set for it, but in the end I managed to buy a copy for a reasonable price. After which I stuck it on a shelf and did nothing with it until I wound up playing the whole series for a thread at a now-defunct forum.

My first try at the book didn't last long, as I made the mistake of acting like a sensible person rather than an Ian Livingstone hero, and thus failed to acquire an essential item. A while later I had another go at it, possibly when I was looking for something to say about the adventure for my column in Fighting Fantazine, and while I got a good deal further second time around, I eventually fell victim to a different inventory failure. This will be my third attempt.

In an alternate timeline where my character didn't get an Orc Warlord's axe in the face at the climax of The Demon Spider, I continue to impersonate the poisoned Prince Goldhawk, who's not going to be coming out of his coma any time soon. The lack of change to the Prince's condition may well be in part because court wizard Marris is spending all his time teaching me about the land of which I am the stand-in King and playing Dragon Chess with me rather than researching possible cures. A suspicious-minded reader might even start to wonder if Marris has some nefarious reason for wanting me on the throne rather than the real heir.

That's probably not the case, though, especially given that Marris proves willing to take a bullet for me when evil wizard-turned-mouse (and part-time ghost, for reasons which may make sense to Ian Livingstone, but not to anyone else) Darkmoon tries to get me killed again. Well, not so much a bullet as a bite from a bat-like creature with venom that will prove lethal within a few days unless the only known antidote can be administered in time, but the point remains that he endangers himself in order to save me. It's a bit convenient that the cure for this toxin is known, but unless my irritating friend Orlando the timorous Tin Pig is in on the scheme, that's just Marris' good fortune. Well, good-ish. There are no supplies of the antidote to hand, and the only source is an anthropophagous monstrosity native to the eponymous swamp, so his only chance of survival is if someone is prepared to risk their life in a quest to track down the Giant Slime Beast and extract the required substance from it. Naturally, I decide that since he was prepared to sacrifice himself to save me, I should risk the life he was willing to die to protect in a probably doomed attempt at helping him.

In the morning Orlando and I set off, accompanied (as usual) by my pig-provoking, fight-loving, talking sword Edge. Those of us who have limbs are walking, and I comment that it's a pity horses don't exist in this world. It's also a pity that nobody told Russ Nicholson that when he was drawing a battle scene for the previous books, as one of the knights in that is atop a decidedly equine-looking steed.

While I'm trying to explain horses to Orlando, a man emerges from the long grass, introduces himself as Hyde, and offers to hire out his Galomper to me. A Galomper turns out to be something like a bactrian camel with the head of a warthog. Hyde waits until I've handed over my money before warning me that the Galomper loves to sit on fish, so I must make sure not to ride it across any rivers. If this were the sort of blog to intersperse animations between paragraphs, I'd be using that Nathan Fillion .gif round about here.

We ride along at considerable speed for an hour, and then the track along which we're travelling passes through an orchard. Without warning, the Galomper sits down and refuses to budge, so I trek back to Hyde and make a complaint. He apologises for neglecting to follow the word 'fish' with 'and apples', but says he can't refund my money. He does offer me compensation, though - in the form of a silver arrowhead with the letters 'B.R.' marked on it.

The reason I originally lamented the lack of horses was because we don't have a great deal of time in which to complete this quest. Even if I were able to travel on foot as quickly as by Galomper, returning to Hyde will have taken an hour, and it'll be another hour before I get back to that orchard again, but I must now proceed by turning to the same paragraph as I would have if I'd not hired the Galomper, or decided to cut my losses when the stupid beast stopped moving. So this is a race against time in which wasting two hours or more makes no difference to how things turn out.

After a while Orlando starts complaining about how tired his tin trotters are getting (must be metal fatigue), and then he spots a Magic Gate which he somehow knows can transport us straight to the swamp. How very convenient. You know, if not for the lethality of this adventure, I would be suspecting that this is all a scheme by Marris (in cahoots with Orlando) to convince me that he is actually a good guy.

The Gate is guarded by an Ogre-like creature that demands 5 Gold Pieces to let me past. On my first try at the book, I tried fighting the Guardian instead of paying. It was not a standard fight, and while the cost of failure didn't contribute to my eventual defeat, it makes me wary of attempting the same approach. Paying up will take almost all my money, though, so I hope I won't need to spend much more over the course of the adventure. If it turns out that winning the fight is the only way of getting all the resources necessary for completing the adventure, I will not be happy.

I pay up, the Guardian steps out of the way, and Orlando becomes irritatingly exuberantly enthusiastic about travelling through it. That'll DO, pig!! He does also imply that the Gate transports its users to the location of which they are thinking, so that business with it being able to take us straight to the swamp isn't as implausible as it seemed.

I grab hold of Orlando as he starts to think about the Great Nose Stone, and we pass through the Gate. After a few seconds in what's either a magical vortex or the interior of a washing machine full of Hawaiian shirts, we find ourselves next to something like a Moai statue with a massive nose, which stands at the edge of a swamp.

I don't often get excuses to use my picture of a Moai-headed pianist with his arms fused to the piano.

Orlando complains about the smell of the swamp, Edge insults him, and the text asks if I want to climb the Great Stone Nose, contradicting what Orlando called the statue last section. I climb up in order to get a better view of the swamp, and do not fall foul of the 1 in 6 chance of losing my grip and tumbling to the ground. From the top of the Inconsistently Named Nasal Rock I can see a hill in the north-east and a monster in the north-west. I also spot a bird's nest in the statue's ear, and have a quick rummage around in it because essential tat keeps turning up in arbitrary locations in Ian Livingstone books.

In the nest I find a bronze frog and a gold key. And a venomous snake, which bites me for a point of Skill damage. This book pre-dates Bart the Mother, so that can't be a taxonomically sloppy in-joke, much as I would like it to be.

Back at ground level I resolve to head north-west. My companions bicker, and I am also annoyed by biting insects. Then a humanoid with toad-like characteristics emerges from the mire, and offers to help me through the swamp - for a price. He'll act as my guide in return for my last Gold Piece, or if I can give him one of the Treasures of the Toads, he'll give me some helpful items.

The bronze frog I found in the nest turns out to be a Treasure of the Toads (now that is taxonomically sloppy), and Toady (that, alas, being the batrachian anthropomorph's name) allows me to take three of his four best treasures for it. As I recall, the Buzz Balm and the Zanti Horn are both essential, but I don't know whether I'm more likely to need Flashbang Powder or a Tombstone Bell. I remember a bell being one of the more incomprehensibly important items in one of Ian's earlier books, but I'm going with the powder anyway.

Toady guides us around patches of Suckermud, which is apparently a local phenomenon more dangerous than quicksand (well, that or the swamp dwellers' name for innocuous geographical features which can be made to seem threatening to gullible outsiders to make it seem as if they need a guide), and warns us to tread particularly carefully as we circumvent a large black pool that stinks of sulphur, as it may house a monster.

So this is where Orlando trips over and falls flat on his face. Randomness determines what happens next, and if the pool does have any denizens, they don't react. However, the vibrations caused by Orlando's clumsy stumble do cause a skeletal arm to emerge from the pool, holding aloft Excalibur a wooden box. I wade in to fetch the box, which turns out to contain a gold fly, a crystal snake, and a small iron shield, all of which I add to my inventory.

We resume our slog through the swamp until we reach a point at which Toady says we will no longer require his services, so we go our separate ways. Soon afterwards it starts raining, and just to accentuate the misery, my companions start squabbling again. Then a buzzing noise alerts us to the approach of a giant insect, ridden by a man who carries a small umbrella and looks a bit like Richard Attenborough circa Jurassic Park (at least, judging by the illustration, which rather carelessly shows no rain).

The man tells me that he's lost his Zanti Horn, and asks if I can sell him a replacement. Suppressing the urge to ask him what kind of misfit requires such an item, I produce the Horn, and he offers me a couple of Gold Pieces and some advice in return for it. Maybe if I had the faintest idea what a Zanti Horn does, I'd have some idea of whether or not that's a good deal, but I don't, so I just accept.

Once he has the Horn, the man explains that it will enable him to control his Hoverbug, so he can finally get out of the swamp. He mentions having seen a pack of Swamp Riders, and recommends that if I should encounter them, I claim to be on a scouting mission for Baron Ranzig, as the Baron is a friend of their leader. After that, he blows the horn, and the Hoverbug flies off at great speed.

We continue to trudge through the swamp, and the miserable weather reminds me of home, prompting me to bore Orlando and Edge by waffling on at length about Great British institutions such as tea, the lunchtime broadcast of Neighbours, and losing at sport. Or something like that. Then we encounter a dubiously stereotypical Rain Dancer with a snake tattooed on his chest. He reveals himself to be an ally of Darkmoon, and demonstrates his power by causing lightning to strike the ground just in front of me, gloating that the next bolt will be on target.

This is obviously a situation in which one of the bits of clutter I've picked up on my way here will save the day. In view of the Rain Dancer's tattoo, the crystal snake from that box is either going to be the best item for the situation or the absolute worst one, and since the only other object I have the option of using is one I don't possess, that's what I'm going to have to go with.

The Rain Dancer would make a rubbish poker player. The moment he sees the crystal snake, he starts pleading and grovelling. Intuition tells me to touch his tattoo with the snake, and when I do, the rain stops and the clouds disperse. The improved visibility enables me to spot three mounted figures on the horizon. These are probably the Swamp Riders mentioned by the man on the Hoverbug, and the fact that I've been told what to say if I should encounter them suggests that such an encounter may be necessary, so I head in their direction.

The Riders turn out to be serpent-headed humanoids riding creatures like lizards (though they can't actually be lizards, because they're sweating), and armed with spears. One of them asks who I am, so I tell him that I'm one of Baron Ranzig's men on a scouting mission. He demands proof, so I show him that silver arrowhead and hope that the initials inscribed on it do relate to the Baron  The Rider is satisfied, and tells me that it is his people's custom to exchange gifts with allies. He gives me some Bogtree Bark to chew on, claiming that it may save my life. I doubt that I'll need the crystal snake again, so I hand it to him in return.

He then asks me where I am headed, and I tell him that I'm going to Doom, which is not a fourth wall-breaking observation on the slim likelihood of my surviving this adventure, but an incredibly lucky guess (unless there was a passing mention earlier in the book that I failed to notice, and I have absolutely no desire to reread the text I've waded through up until now to check) as to the name of a nearby place I might be expected to visit. The Rider asks what I plan to do there, and after Orlando attempts to join in with fabricating a cover story and proves utterly inept at it, I interject that we're getting some gold for the Baron. I ask if it's far away, and the Rider tells me it's just beyond Black River. That would be helpful if I had the faintest idea where Black River is.

Okay, I had planned to ignore the quibble in the sentence following this one, because it seemed a bit too picky, but it's starting to look symptomatic of a problem with this part of the book. The Swamp Rider leader was initially referred to as 'The Swamp Rider with the two daggers' in spite of the fact that no mention of the daggers had been made in the preceding description. What with that, the out-of-nowhere mention of Doom, and now my being given a direction relative to a place that could be anywhere, it seems as if Ian wrote this sub-section without distinguishing between details that only existed in his head and what he'd actually included in the text. If 'Black River' is supposed to be a clue that can change an arbitrary choice of direction into an informed one, omitting the information that makes it possible to act on that clue is seriously shoddy gamebook design.

Night is falling, so I seek shelter, managing to find a hut on a boulder before it gets too dark to see anything. Orlando, in one of his occasional bouts of usefulness, has a candle with him, enabling us to illuminate the hut. As I'm preparing to bolt the door, Darkmoon's ghost manifests inside the hut and gloats that he won't be a ghost much longer. He then causes all the stones inside the hut to rise up and fly at me, but the shield I took from the wooden box attracts them to itself and shatters them all.

Orlando mocks Darkmoon, who states that he will have all his powers back a week from now, and invites us back to his home for a rematch. The ghost then disappears, and we settle down for the night. Morning arrives, and I must choose which way to head next. There's no mention of a river in either of the directions mentioned (and while the morning mist is a valid reason for not seeing one, it could still be possible to hear running water), so the Swamp Rider's information about Doom's location appears to have been a complete waste of ink.

I head north, which can't have been the way I went on my previous attempt, as my gamebook manager doesn't yet contain details of what happens. Which turns out to be an encounter with a couple of Marsh Zombies. Orlando warns me that a single touch from one could turn me into a Zombie, and advises me to flee. I do, but this time I'm the clodhopping klutz who trips over. The Zombies approach, and I discover that I chose poorly when picking the third of Toady's treasures, as that Tombstone Bell would come in handy here. Lacking it, I have to fight, and as I'm getting back up and outnumbered, the Zombies get first strike.

The first Zombie manages to get its hands on me, and it's game over. This failure does at least leave me a little better informed for future attempts at the book, which is an improvement on the 'hope to roll better next time' that's all I got out of my defeats in the preceding Adventures of Goldhawk.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

I Do These Things Just So I Survive

Back to Tunnels & Trolls and the Sorcerer's Apprentice mini-adventures I own. While I do have a copy of issue 15 of the magazine, I don't yet have a T&T character advanced enough for the mini-adventure contained within, so I'm skipping ahead to issue 16. Owing to changes at Flying Buffalo, the magazine changed its name to SA at this point in its history, which could well make tracking down subsequent issues tricky, but as I don't know of any SA mini-adventures that come after issue 16's Hot Pursuit, that's not a problem about which I am overly concerned.

The introduction implies that I should be a Warrior, so character generation takes a little while, even with my gamebook manager creating all stats with a single click: the first couple of characters it produced were both better suited to being Wizards (one mediocre, one marginally above average), so I've saved them for more suitable adventures. Still, eventually I got a character who could be a Warrior, and this one is actually a relatively decent all-rounder.
Strength: 13
Intelligence: 13
Luck: 10
Constitution: 9
Dexterity: 13
Charisma: 14
Speed: 9
I also got enough starting gold for a reasonable weapon and a couple of bits of armour. Probably still doomed, but I might continue to be lucky.

Maybe I just don't have access to the right resources, but I know very little about the world in which T&T adventures take place - its geography, its history, its politics. While I am vaguely familiar with the city of Gull, the setting of this adventure, I know nothing about the group known as the Rangers, which could be a problem, as I'm supposed to be looking for Ranger spies. Considering what a delightful place Gull isn't (at least based on what happened to one of my characters there), and the fact that the fictional Rangers with which I am most familiar were on the side of good, I'm not even certain that interfering with their plans would be for the best. And the fact that the introductory section asks if I'm a member of the Rangers just raises more questions. Is this something I get to decide, or is there some adventure taking place before this one in which it is possible to be recruited by the Rangers? This time round it's simple enough to decide that I'm not a Ranger, but it would be helpful to know more about the whole affair.

Anyway, the Captain of the City Guard is offering me a substantial amount of money and a free pardon for any one non-capital crime if I can bring in a Ranger spy, preferably still alive. I've been chosen because I haven't worked for the City Guard before, which makes my reputation (or lack thereof) an advantage.

I decide to commence my enquiries at the Kraken's Cave tavern. This turns out to be a bad decision, but not for in-game reasons: the text gives the wrong section number, and even just skim-reading the first few words of sections in order to try and identify the right one causes me to spot a spoiler before I find where I should be turning (it doesn’t help that the correct section is the very last one in the magazine).

The Kraken’s Cave is a portside tavern, its customers a mix of sailors, women of negotiable virtue, and servants. My investigating technique turns out to be rather unsubtle, consisting of speaking loudly about the Rangers to see how people react, though I do get to decide whether I praise or condemn them. While that spoiler I inadvertently glimpsed makes it clear which is the more inadvisable option, I might have opted to go for the other one anyway, given that the Guard Captain said the suspected spying is believed to be in preparation for an attack on the city.

I speak derisively of the Rangers, and somebody buys me a drink (which already makes this mission more of a success than well over 50% of the T&T adventures I’ve played here). A fat merchant looks nervous, and a ruffian scowls and slinks out of the door. I decide to see what’s troubling the merchant.

Acting on a hunch, I quietly threaten to reveal his dealings with the Rangers, and he tells me he’s only passing on information to them because they have his daughter as a hostage. He goes on to explain that he’s due to meet with them at midnight, and I offer to rescue his daughter while he distracts them with doctored documents. We work on the plan until he has to leave for the rendezvous, and then I shadow him through the streets because Gull breeds cynicism, and I’m not convinced by the man’s sob story.

That was the right decision for the wrong reason. The merchant was telling the truth, but someone must have seen him talking to me, as a couple of Rangers intercept him before he reaches the place where they were to meet. I don’t know what he tells them, but it’s convincing enough that a third man joins them, bringing the merchant’s daughter, and hands her over in return for the maps we edited.

I decide to do what I can to ensure that the merchant and his daughter get home safely, partly out of guilt at having doubted him and potentially increased the danger to his family, and partly because trying to confront three Rangers simultaneously looks suicidal. Besides, if the Rangers discover they’ve been tricked, they might send just one back to avenge the deception while the others flee with whatever information they may have gained from other sources, in which case I could be in with a chance of catching him and getting that reward.

Evidently our tampering was done carefully enough that the Rangers didn’t spot it, as nobody comes after the merchant. He’s grateful for the protection I offer anyway, and gives me a magical dagger to show his thanks. That's all the reward I'll be getting, though, as the Ranger spies will be long gone by now.

Not as profitable an adventure as it might have been, but I survived it, and did a little to interfere with the Rangers’ plans. I also earned some experience, and while it’s not enough to qualify my character for any of the more advanced adventures I’ve had to leave unplayed, it brings me a step closer to the right level.

Monday, 26 June 2017

The Concentration of Force and the Development of Courage

This entry should please some of my readers, but it may also disappoint them a little. I'm back at the Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson subset of the 'shorter series' section of my gamebook collection, which means that I'm starting on The Way of the Tiger. However, I only have the original run, not the more recently published prequel or the long-awaited series finale. It's possible that I might have got my hands on the latter by the time I'm in a position to play it here, but I can make no guarantees.

I'll say something about my introduction to the series when I get to the book I encountered first. My earliest memory of Avenger!, the first book in the series, involves looking through a (most likely borrowed) copy during what was probably a private study session in room C at my school, just down or across the corridor (or both) from my form room. By this time Chris Pennington had drawn my attention to the fact that the same illustration appeared under every 'death' section in the TWotT books, and I was using that knowledge to help me find the grisliest endings. I also spent some time exploring different ways of handling a certain encounter to see if I could find a way of contradicting a reference back to it in the second book, but failed to find any loopholes.

Quite some time passed before I decided to collect the series myself (and that's a story for another blog post). When I did opt to get the set for the first time, I only managed to obtain half the series, but Avenger! was one of the books I did manage to track down. If I'd got the whole series I might have been more inclined to play Avenger! properly, or until I actually won it, but the incomplete set saw relatively little use until it became one of the casualties of the drastic downsizing of my gamebook collection in the early 1990s.

I did play Avenger! several times a decade or so later, after acquiring digital copies of the whole series from a site which had lots of gamebook scans. That was probably after I’d managed to get the whole series in paperback form - some of the physical books were in pretty shabby condition, and while my conscience didn't get on well with the thought of downloading unauthorised copies of books I didn't own, obtaining a digital back-up of a book I had on the shelf seemed fine. My attempts at that digital copy provide the one clear memory I have of playing and failing the book, a lethal bite from a serpent/human hybrid causing me to reflect that maybe I should have picked Immunity to Poisons as one of my Skills after all.

There's no random element to character generation, but, as indicated above, I must pick Skills. There are nine on the list, and I have just four of them, but Shurikenjitsu is selected by default, so I only get to pick three. I think, in honour of my only memorable deceased character, I should make Immunity to Poisons one of them. Picking Locks, Detecting and Disarming Traps (all one Skill) also looks useful, and I think I'll finish off with Climbing.

So, on the world of Orb, which has featured in a few gamebooks outside The Way of the Tiger series, the monks of the Temple of the Rock worship Kwon, a deity associated with helping others and unarmed combat. Brought here in infancy by a dying servant, my character has been raised by the monks and trained as a Ninja. The oldest of them became a father to me, and was murdered by Yaemon, a follower of Kwon's unsubtly named brother Vile, who impersonated a follower of Kwon in order to infiltrate the Temple and steal some scrolls that were stored there. I have vowed to avenge the murder, but there are other challenges I must face first.

One of the Grandmasters of the Five Winds has died, and a replacement must be chosen. I am one of the two most worthy candidates, and must prove myself more suitable than the other. My rival is Gorobei, who is older, heavier and stronger than I, and has already faced this trial once. We meet in the Temple, with assorted monks and locals spectating. The first stage of the challenge is unarmed combat. This being Gorobei's second try, it scarcely needs saying that the fight is not to the death (unlike the similar test that starts one of Jamie Thomson's other books).

The combat system in The Way of the Tiger is more complex than those of most other gamebook series, so I've had to dust off my coding skills in order to program my gamebook manager to handle the fights here. At the start of each round, I choose whether to try a punch, a kick or a throw, and my opponent's defence varies depending on the type of attack I'm making. Between the weight disparity and Gorobei's having oiled his muscles prior to the fight, attempting to throw him is likely to be pretty futile.

Thanks to the more detailed rules, I could give a literal blow-by-blow account of each fight, but that would make these write-ups take even longer than they already do.
Not to mention rendering them somewhat non-gripping.

So I will merely explain that I quickly find Gorobei to be worse at protecting himself from kicks than from punches, and exploit that weakness far more than I could ever get away with doing against a human or AI opponent. Despite some shockingly bad rolls that lead to my losing half my Endurance before I even manage to lay a foot on my opponent, I eventually kick Gorobei into unconsciousness, and hobble on to the second stage of the trial of worthiness.

Joining the remaining Grandmasters, I sit in silence and make no move for an hour. Then the Grandmaster of the Dawn asks me about my greatest desire and my greatest fear, conveniently making both of these queries multiple choice questions. I give the correct answers: that my desire for vengeance against Yaemon is even greater than my wish to serve Kwon, and I fear only failing in a mission. Which is pretty ironic in a series that makes winning so tricky and, for a couple of decades, didn't even have a successful outcome at the end of the final book.

Having passed the test, I am taught the secret litany of the Ninja Grandmaster, given an Opal Ring, and ordained as the new Grandmaster. Gorobei has recovered from his kicking sufficiently to applaud me along with all the others present, and I reflect that he will probably become a Grandmaster when if I die.

That night I have a vision in my sleep, finding myself first on a boat in the company of a man addressed by one of the sailors as Glaivas, and then walking towards a dark castle with three turrets. Despite the not entirely restful night, I wake back at full health. On my way to the Temple, I am informed that a ship is anchored offshore. A man rows to the beach, introduces himself as Glaivas (shouldn't I have recognised his face if my nocturnal vision was a glimpse of the future) and asks to speak to the Grandmaster of Grandmasters.

The Grandmaster of the Dawn tells Glaivas to speak freely, as there are no secrets on the island, and Glaivas snappily retorts that that's true now we've let Yaemon steal those scrolls. He goes on to explain that Yaemon has learned how to use an incantation in the Scrolls of Kettusin and, if he uses it in the right place at the right time (a planetary conjunction that happens once every 500 years, and is naturally imminent), Kwon will be imprisoned in Inferno, Orb's equivalent of hell, allowing Vile's followers to take over the world. Preventing Yaemon from achieving this is obviously far too great a challenge for just one man, so Glaivas wants one of us to help him.

I volunteer on the spot, and the Grandmaster of the Dawn renames me Avenger and agrees that I am the one who must undertake this quest. Glaivas gives me a map of the region to which we must travel, and I spend the rest of the day gathering together my Ninja equipment and meditating. We set sail in Glaivas' ship, the 'Aquamarin',on the evening tide.

For at least a couple of weeks the voyage is without incident, but then the ship encounters a vessel from Port o' Reavers, which it cannot outrun, so we have to contend with a boarding party, led by an Ogre that wields a spiked hammer. I attack the Ogre as it boards the Aquamarin, and while opening up with a kick doesn't enable me to send the brute straight overboard, it reveals my opponent's defence against kicks to be so poor that I don't bother trying out any other attacks. More favourable dice rolls enable me to kill the Ogre in just three rounds of battle, without taking any damage myself.

The rest of the Aquamarin's crew are not faring so well. Glaivas is a capable fighter, but is slowly being outnumbered. I deal with a couple more of the raiders without having to use the combat system, and decide to try and end things quickly by targeting the pirate Captain. I just hope the Skill of Acrobatics isn't a prerequisite for successfully jumping across to the other ship.

No, I make it across without any trouble, but must make a Fate Roll to learn whether or not I get spotted by a pirate. That's a straightforward roll of two dice, with the odds slightly favouring success right now. That may change later on, though, as Fate is an actual anthropomorphic deity on Orb, and if I do something to please or annoy her, I'll get a modifier to such rolls in future. On this occasion Fate does not smile on me, but then the one pirate who spots me leaping aboard decides not to raise the alarm, and as he sneaks up with murderous intent, I hear his earrings jangling, take him by surprise, and throw him overboard, subsequently proceeding to confront the Captain pretty much as I would have done if unnoticed. Given that outcome (all of which follows straight on from the Fate Roll with no further randomisation or any input from the reader), it seems to me that the pirate who saw me is the one who's in disfavour with Fate.

So far in this adventure I've not attempted a throw, so I'll try one against the Captain. This fight turns out to have a time limit, but it's not one about which I need to worry, as I succeed at the throw, and the Captain goes overboard, hitting his head on part of the ship and shattering his skull along the way. The remaining pirates turn on each other, seeking to become the new Captain, and I swim back to the Aquamarin, which makes a swift departure.

Nothing else troubles us for the rest of the voyage, and at last we reach locations depicted on the map at the front of the book. Glaivas tells me about the port of Doomover, to which we are headed. It's a big city, ruled by the Legion of the Sword of Doom. The order of the Scarlet Mantis, to which Yaemon belongs, has a temple there, and uses the symbol of a serpent twined round a cross.

Two ships from Doomover intercept us as we approach the port, and only let us through when Glaivas claims to be here to sell galley slaves. He drops me off at the wharf, throws me a bag of gold, and then prepares to head south to his home city of Tor to organise troops in case I fail in my mission.

Two exits lead from the harbour, an obsidian gate and a set of marble columns with a portico identifying them as the 'Portal of the Gods'. I try the portal, and a disembodied voice welcomes me to the Sanctuary and bids me to draw no swords. Things then get a bit weird, as a mounted knight ignores the 'no swords' rule and decapitates a priest who's trying to assist a wounded warrior, another priest upsets the horse, two more knights lead the first one away, and a self-proclaimed Seer claims to have predicted this and been ignored. He also names their god, enabling me to identify them as members of an order that capriciously does good deeds and opposes restrictive laws - something like a more anarchistic Amélie. The spelling of their deity's name varies at different points in the section, which may be an indication of the kind of whimsical frivolity in which they indulge, but is more likely to be just a typo.

If that really is a Seer, he may be able to give me a helpful warning, so I follow him. He enters a small, tidy chapel, and calls for his acolyte, who looks to be barely out of her teens. Drawing a sacrificial knife, the man tells me to lie down on what appears to be a tomb, next to a silver ewer. I doubt that this will be a lethal blood-letting, so I do as directed.

The Seer only takes half a pint of blood, and shows me a vision of Yaemon and Honoric, the Marshal of the Legion of the Sword of Doom, riding north from the city of Mortavalon, on their way to imprison a god and a goddess in Inferno. Glaivas being a follower of the All-Mother, I think I can guess the identity of the second of their intended victims...

I fall into a trance, and the next thing I know, I'm walking along the road to Mortavalon. Hope I didn't miss any important encounters in Doomover. Well, if this attempt at the book goes as badly as my every previous one, I can always try to find out next time.

As I continue along the road, I reach the edge of the Plain of Feet, on which several thousand of Honoric's troops are training for the war they intend to wage once Kwon is out of the way. I keep moving, and after a while, trees and vines start to predominate on the land by the road. For now I think I'll stick to the beaten track.

A night's sleep makes up the Endurance damage from the blood loss. The following afternoon I reach the encounter that ended one previous attempt at the book: a cobra-headed man, tethered to a wagon with a cage on it, is about to kill a small boy, while the men on the wagon are stupefied by fear. I attempt a kick, partly to save the boy, and partly to avenge the Avenger who died here. It's slightly disappointing that the only type of intervention possible is a kick, because striking the Cobra Man with a Cobra Strike punch would be so much more appropriate.

This time round I didn't need Immunity to Poisons (at least at this stage of the adventure), as my kick is on target, and the boy and I are both able to get out of range of the Cobra Man before he recovers. The men on the wagon tell me that they're taking the Cobra Man to Mortavalon zoo, having found him in a cave nearby. They think there may be treasure in the cave, too. The boy thanks me for rescuing him, and warns me not to shake hands with the young magician.

I should probably just keep going to Mortavalon, but now I'm curious about that cave. Investigating it results in my being trapped in a cage for several hours, after which a door in the cave wall opens onto an arena, and spear-toting guards 'encourage' me to go through, one of them telling me that whatever is about to happen in the arena will have only one survivor.

Spiked walls divide the arena into four sections, with a miniature castle in the middle. A moat surrounds the castle, and a trident-wielding Hobgoblin stands on it. Each of the four sections outside the moat is a different environment: grassland, swamp, ice and desert. I'm on a platform between grass and ice, and on a similar platform on the far side is a man in armour. On the platform between grass and swamp is a Dark Elf, and a young man in blue and gold robes (the magician mentioned by the boy, perchance?) is on the platform across from her. On the grassy plain are two lions, on the ice is a Snow Giant, a boat floats in the swamp, and a Cobra Man is in the desert region.

The platforms descend to ground level. The Dark Elf heads into the swamp, the armoured man into the desert, and the robed man does nothing. The 'two against one' thing with the lions looks less appealing than the lone Giant - besides which, the ice zone is closer to the probable magician, and the boy's warning might just give me a slight edge if I have to fight the young man.

Of course, the ice is slippery, and I have to make a Fate Roll as I launch a kick at the Snow Giant (which turns out to be more like a Yeti than your typical 'oversized humanoid' giant). This time I succeed, though my attack still proves unsuccessful. Mind you, the Snow Giant's retaliation is equally off target, despite having better odds. I'll try a throw instead. No Fate roll for that, but I still fail, and get a quarter of my Endurance gashed away by the Snow Giant's claws. There's no Fate roll to go with punching, either, and the Snow Giant's defence is less good against a fist in the face. Still, while I hit it a couple of times, it hits me more often and harder, eventually ripping my face off.

It'll be a while before The Way of the Tiger is featured here again, but in view of character and plot development over the course of the series, I might have another go at Avenger! before moving on to the second book. I may even try a few undocumented attempts in between, just to get a better idea of what I should be doing and what to avoid, so as to reduce the risk of the series stalling.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Searching Out Fear in the Gathering Gloom

As I mentioned in my playthrough of Darkmoon's Curse, the first of Ian Livingstone's Adventures of Goldhawk series of FF-lite gamebooks for younger readers, I acquired the second book in the series, The Demon Spider, in the same eBay lot as Curse, and was too underwhelmed by the first book to even bother having a go at Spider for a long while afterwards. Indeed, I only got round to giving it a shot when it came up as part of my playing through the whole Fighting Fantasy range, including spin-offs, at a now defunct online forum. Despite making a couple of sub-optimal decisions along the way, I managed to get to the climax, at which point my character was killed in the toughest fight in the book. My account of that attempt is the last such account to have been preserved by the quirks of the Wayback Machine, and can now be found part of the way down this post at the lost forum's successor.

If I had been luckier back when I played Curse here, I'd have defeated the Banshee, obtained the all-important Golden Hand wristlet, and gone on to confront the villainous Darkmoon, forcing him to transform himself into a mouse, and recovering the Karazanian King's crown. With the real Prince Goldhawk still in a poison-induced coma, court wizard Marris would have requested that I continue to play Dave and have myself temporarily crowned King. Which is more or less where Spider picks up...

I agree to continue my imposture (which is not a choice given to me - I guess the only way to decide not to continue impersonating the Prince is to not buy the book), and am crowned, following a bit of maybe-hilarious-if-you're-six slapstick from my annoying sidekick Orlando, the Dwarf turned Tin Pig. Celebrations ensue, and in the morning comes an unexpected dash of realism. Darkmoon's defeat has not caused the Orcish armies which were invading Karazan to give up and disband, and they're only a few days' fighting from reaching Karazan Castle.

The Orcs are faring so well against Karazan's army because of their allies: untiring, relentless animated Skeletons, and Dark Druids, who destroy morale with their daftly-named terror bubbles. Marris decides that Karazan's army will also need allies, and arranges to contact the Silver Elves, who should be able to destroy the terror bubbles with their magic arrows. To deal with the Skeletons, we will need the assistance of the Giant known as Stonehammer. Who, in a rather warped twist, is revealed to be Marris' son.

Marris confesses a tragic tale of appalling parental neglect. Up until the age of sixteen, his son was a normal boy, but Marris never quite got round to teaching him that going into a Wizard's laboratory and consuming the contents of random vessels is a ****ing idiotic thing to do. So guess what happened the moment Marris forgot to lock his laboratory door before dashing off to sort out one of Darkmoon's weirder pranks (making all the inhabitants of a village look 30 years older than they really were). Yep, the boy swigged down a cocktail of potions that brought about changes far more drastic than a conventional puberty, causing him to vastly increase in size while his skin turned rock hard. I wonder if these changes were gradual, or if Marris returned to find his home a heap of rubble, with a sullen, stone-skinned giant standing in the ruins and mumbling that 'a big boy did it and ran away'.

The youth renamed himself Stonehammer (no nominative determinism here, at least) and ran away to the mountains, where he has lived in seclusion, often being mistaken for part of the scenery, for the past decade. Marris cannot tell us exactly where on Sunstone Mountain his transformed progeny lives, but the Queen of Pain knows everything about the mountain, so we'll just have to ask her. Her home is the Dungeon of Despair, and naturally a respected public figure such as Marris doesn't know the exact location of her establishment and has never been one of her clients, despite those allegations in the tabloids a few years back... honestly, the photos don't even look that much like him...

Ahem! If we're able to find Stonehammer and persuade him to come and smash the Skeletons, we'll have to take him back again straight afterwards. Otherwise, he'll die because that's how the magic works. No, of course Marris isn't just trying to avoid an awkward reunion, or minimise the risk of Social Services hearing about the whole affair. It's the magic, being all... magical.

Anyway, while Marris seeks the assistance of the Elves, Orlando, Edge the irritable sword and I will have to go south and seek the Dungeon so we can find the Queen and learn the whereabouts of Stonehammer. And, this being an Ian Livingstone book, I will have to find a multitude of obscure items during my travels in order to avoid being killed in any of a dozen or so arbitrary and mildly gruesome ways.

I automatically start the adventure with a Skill of 8, an unspecified quantity of food and water, and just 10 Gold Pieces. My tiresome companions and I set off early in the morning, and have a not-as-charming-as-Ian-hoped conversation in which I request that Orlando and Edge not use any titles or terms of respect when addressing me, but just call me by the name of the comatose Prince I'm impersonating.

We head south for some hours, eventually reaching a log cabin. Outside it sits a two-headed man, arguing with himself about which head gets to eat the lizard he's just roasted. My metal associates squabble often enough that I'm not in the mood to listen to further disputes, so I suggest that the heads share the lizard, and they tell me to mind my own business. Suppressing the urge to retort, "Well, I am King!" I offer to share my food with them/him in return for information. This freakish double act doesn't know the way to the Dungeon of Despair, but will tell us how to find someone who does know in return for two chicken legs and two Gold Pieces, and I agree because I remember that I'll need the 'little present' that accompanies the advice.

The two heads devour the chicken legs simultaneously, spoiling their shared stomach's digestion, and start arguing about who gets to swallow food first. I remind them that they owe me information (and that I haven't yet handed over the money they want), and am told to go west at the next junction, seek out the belly racers, and ask for Fat Jack. The bicephalous lout also hands me a violin string, and I set off along the road again.

After half an hour we reach the junction that was mentioned, and I turn west as directed. The track leads to a village of cottages with wide doors, and in a field nearby is an event ripped off from homaging Judge Dredd, as half a dozen extremely obese individuals with wheels attached to their distended guts prepare for a sprinting (well, vaguely speedy waddling) contest. We stay well out of the way of the participants, and the winner is identified as Fat Jack, so I approach him after he's collected his prize.

When I ask the way to the Dungeon of Despair, Fat Jack states that nobody in their right mind would want to go there, but I must have my reasons, so he'll tell me. I need to go back east, then south across the Badlands until I reach the Valley of Skulls. At the end of the Valley is a large, heavy boulder which blocks the entrance to the Dungeon. The sort of thing I’d be liable to need a Giant’s assistance to shift. But I won’t be able to find the Giant unless I enter the Dungeon, so…

Fat Jack also warns me that the Valley is inhabited by Little People, who would kill me for a brass button, so I had better make sure I don’t have any brass buttons on me take along a crystal as a bribe. He then prepares for the next race, which we stick around to watch. A small boy wanders among the spectators, trying to sell books. This is the sort of bizarre encounter that usually leads to the acquisition of something important in Livingstone adventures, but I remember from my previous attempt at Spider that the book I’d buy is irrelevant and has a nonsensical title. What makes this all the stranger is that, later in the adventure, I’m going to have to ask for an essential item that has never been mentioned before. This book-buying sequence would be the perfect opportunity for a hint that encountering the Queen of Pain will be a lot more survivable if I have that artefact, but it’s just an irrelevant bit of padding. Unless, at some unspecified point in the future, Ian Livingstone writes his autobiography and gives it a cryptic title about fingers and moons, in which case this would be the most drawn-out and obscure in-joke ever.

We proceed to the Badlands, my companions bicker, and as I pause for a gulp from my flask, a Horned Shrieker emerges from the sand and charges at me. Edge is keen to fight, and a good roll of the dice gives me an instant victory. The pit in which the Horned Shrieker had concealed itself contains assorted items, and while the text forces me to take the rope, I get to choose which, if any, of the spear, the gold medallion and the copper ring I take. I don't remember any of those items turning out to be harmful, so I grab the lot.

Further south, a trail of smouldering footprints crosses the path, heading east. We follow them, Orlando expressing caution while Edge is still in a belligerent mood. After a while we get close enough to see that the footprints have been left by a Lava Beast, which has a sack that must be made of an impressively heat-resistant material. Orlando warns that Lava Beasts are vicious killers, and even Edge would have difficulties harming one, and then the Beast notices us and exhales steam in our direction. I am not scared off, but I heed Orlando's warning (even irritating sidekicks occasionally do something useful) and attack with something other than my sword. Unsurprisingly, that turns out to be the rest of my water (credit to Ian for the unobtrusive reminder that I was carrying it a short time before), which causes the lava to cool in a manner that proves fatal for the Beast of which it is composed. I make a sub-Schwarzenegger quip, and check the sack's contents, which turn out to be a Firestone, an iron key and a Gold Piece, all of which I pocket.

I could go south from here, but the text also offers the option of returning to the track and then heading south, and my knowledge of the author's idiosyncrasies leads me to suspect that doubling back is the better option. As I resume my journey, my mind is filled with images of undead armies, Darkmoon, and the Queen of Pain (in spite of the fact that my character has had no opportunity to learn what the latter looks like). Orlando interrupts my broodings to draw my attention to a half-buried skeleton that's pointing at a cave mouth. Also half-buried is a leather bag, which I don't touch because, as I recall, the venomous snake inside it is somehow still alive and bitey.

The cave merits exploration, though. It contains a significant quantity of sand, several broken clay pots, and one undamaged pot standing on a suspiciously sand-free copper plate with strange engravings. I toss a handful of sand onto the plate, and it is blown away. Orlando wants to leave, Edge is keen to smash the pot, and I ignore both of them and toss a coin onto the plate for no reason other than that the book gives me the option of doing so. The pot disappears, and two rings and a roll of parchment appear in its place.

The parchment has written on it a few lines of barely-scanning doggerel, warning me to take only one ring. One of the rings is made of gold, and inscribed with the image of a skull. The other is silver, and engraved with a cobweb pattern. The clue is in the title, as my schoolfriend and fellow gamebook nut Edward Webb used to say, so I take the ring with the more spider-related motif. And leaving the cave takes me to the same section as going directly south from the petrified Lava Beast would have done, so retracing my steps was the right thing to do.

Even further south, we encounter a hide tent with a peculiar quadruped (seemingly part-mule, part-anteater) grazing close by. The tent's occupant emerges, and turns out to be a man with lots of daggers, and snakes tattooed on his face. He asks if I come in peace, I reply that that depends what side he's on, and he professes to be neutral and reveals himself to be a trader. Well, it wouldn't be a late Livingstone book without an option to buy stuff somewhere, would it? I check out his wares, and opt to buy everything I can, spending most of my remaining money on a Crystal of Healing, a Trapping Box and an Invisibility Spell. He's also offering a Magic Carpet for the oddly specific price of one Firestone and a gold medallion, and I make the trade because the Carpet will enable me to avoid an encounter in which the fall of the dice determines whether or not I get my brain fried. The trader tells me the rather silly word of command needed to activate the carpet, and Orlando adds 'flying' to the list of things of which he's scared. I suppose I should be grateful that Edge doesn't start spoiling for a fight again.

We fly off, and after initially shrieking and cowering and generally being pathetic, Orlando catches sight of the assorted beasts over which we're flying, well out of harm's reach, and decides that he quite likes flying after all. Which is, naturally, a cue for the 'attacked by a flying beastie' sequence that inevitably crops up when air travel features in an Ian Livingstone gamebook. A Terrorwing (think an electrified red pterodactyl with mind powers) swoops towards us and tries to compel me to crash the carpet, and I need to remember the word of command in order to stay in control. The wrong option offered in the book is that bit dafter than the real word, and I have no trouble picking the right answer. We escape from the Terrorwing, and then the carpet runs out of whatever fuels it, and we have to land and resume our voyage on foot.

Orlando starts to suspect that we're no longer heading south, so I decide to ask for directions from a convenient stranger. The man sits cross-legged on a rock, with one hand resting on a wooden box. He wears only a loincloth, so the rainbow patterns that cover his body are clearly visible. Well, the text says they're like a rainbow, but the illustration suggests that Russ Nicholson got taught the wrong mnemonic for remembering the colour sequence. Go Buy Various Random Objects, Youngster, perhaps.

Orlando asks if we’re heading the right way for the Valley of Skulls, and the man replies that he’s only interested in colours, and too busy thinking about things that are blue to help us. Unless we solve his puzzle, which is a variant on one that previously appeared in Trial of Champions, with an additional element that assumes that weeks are the same length everywhere. Still, I answer correctly, and my companions and I are instantly transported elsewhere.

From our new location, I can see distant mountains with a valley running through them. Closer at hand is a ruined temple, which I'd probably have decided to explore even if the book hadn't insisted I do so. Inside are damaged statues, and I see steps leading down at the rear. More bits start falling off the statues, and Orlando gets scared and wants to leave. I catch sight of a crystal ball amidst the broken marble, but as collecting it brings a randomised chance of death, and I don't think I need it, I leave the ball where it is, and head straight for the steps.

They lead down to a bolted iron door. We can hear the sound of someone humming and playing a violin, and have a short and pointless debate about the merits of helping whoever is trapped behind the door, in the course of which Orlando implicitly insults many of the characters who've assisted me over the course of this series.

I open the door and, in a shocking non-twist, find a man playing a violin. After briefly mistaking me for a new guard, he explains that he used to play music for the Queen of Pain until he displeased her (possibly as a result of confusing Joy Division's Atmosphere with Russ Abbot's Atmosphere) and she had him locked up. He considers himself lucky not to have been killed. I mention that I'm looking for the Queen of Pain, and he says she's not far off, but all he wants to do is go home and mend his violin. By one of those staggering coincidences that occur with startling regularity in gamebooks, the violin string I have is just what he needs, and he gives me a tin whistle in return for it.

We proceed to the valley, and ascertain from the number of skulls scattered around the place that this is indeed the Valley of Skulls. A few of the Little People mentioned by Fat Jack leap out of a tree and point spears at us. While expressing his usual (for this book) zeal to shed blood, Edge manages to insult Orlando again, and the Tin Pig opines on the superiority of axes to swords. Advising the two of them to quit squabbling until we've taken care of the immediate threat, I address the Little People, who tell me they won't let me pass without a gift, so I throw them the Crystal of Healing I'd bought for just this situation. Its shininess so distracts them that we are able to get away without any further unpleasantness.

Further along the valley we see a wooden hut, and I decide to take a look inside. The place is full of litter, and smells bad enough that Orlando chooses to stay outside, his subsequent mutterings suggesting that he could have a promising future coming up with tacky slogans for deodorant ads. I search the hut properly, finding a brass lamp next to a copper dish, on which further doggerel encourages me to put some money in the dish in order to have a wish granted. The book gives me no choice but to do so, suggesting that Ian Livingstone wasn't paying close attention to the figures when writing this, as there's no certainty of having money left by this point in the adventure. I still have a couple of Gold Pieces because I didn't buy the book the boy was selling, and found a coin among the Lava Beast's belongings, but it's far from impossible to have spent everything by this stage.

Anyway, I drop my remaining money into the dish, and a bubble with a face grows from the lamp's spout. The face asks me what I wish for, and the book gives me a choice of either instantaneous transportation to the Dungeon of Despair or a Wand of Control. Remember what I was saying 15 paragraphs ago about needing to ask for a previously unmentioned item? That's the Wand. The other time I reached this stage of the adventure, I actually went back and checked every single path not taken on the route here, just to see if I'd missed a hint about the Wand and wasn't supposed to be asking for it in such a random-seeming manner. Nope, there is not a word of set-up for this request.

So, out of nowhere I ask for and receive a Wand of Control, and on the way out of the hut I spot a brass scorpion in the debris, which I leave where it is, because I remember that it turns out to be one of those animal-themed boobytrap items of which Ian became fond for a while.

We hurry on along the valley as dark clouds gather overhead, and a bolt of lightning strikes the ground just ahead of us. Then a figure appears from nowhere, causing the clouds to part and allowing the sun to shine down on us once more, This would be a more pleasing development if the figure in question were not a skeletal entity wearing dark robes and armed with an upright sickle (which illustrator Russ Nicholson has, for understandable reasons, chosen to depict as a scythe, though they seem to be different implements). The Grim Reaper announces that we must perform two tasks or perish (though 'answer two questions' would be a more accurate description of the challenge I now face).

Readers from outside the target age range of this book may be reminded of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and all the more so when the first question turns out to be about a colour. More specifically, the one that was on the Rainbow Man's mind. This book came out a few years before Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? started up, so the Reaper's asking if I'm sure about my answer can't have been influenced by the show, but nowadays it does seem a little reminiscent.

The second question concerns the number of skulls in the valley, though I only actually have to count the ones in the picture, and I know that can't be all of them, because a larger number of skulls could be seen in the illustration of the Little People earlier in the book. In any case, I answer correctly, and the Reaper vanishes.

We proceed to the end of the valley, and with some effort shift the boulder, revealing a damp, slimy, torchlit tunnel. Edge starts verbally abusing Orlando again, but a Goblin attacks before this can develop into another infantile spat. The fight is pretty inconsequential, but at least it shuts my companions up for a bit.

Further along the tunnel, we see a side turning and hear a cry for help. We investigate, finding a gold miner who accidentally dug his way into the Dungeon and got stuck in a pit. We use the rope to help him out, and I explain our quest to him. He says we'll need to use magic to get the better of the Queen of Pain (advice rather too vague and too late to help with the Wand issue) and gives me a rabbit's foot made of gold for good luck. I could question its effectiveness, not only because of what happened to the miner carrying the 'lucky charm', but also because this is the point at which anyone who picked up that brass scorpion experiences the ill effects it brings.

Returning to the main tunnel, we advance further into the Dungeon and get to a particularly 'kids will accept any old rubbish' sequence. A mouse emerges from the shadows ahead of us and reveals itself to be the transformed Darkmoon. The mouse then turns into Darkmoon's ghost for no remotely sensible reason, so I get out the Trapping Box. The spectral wizard literally responds, "Curses! Foiled again!" before reverting to mouse form and exiting through a hole in the wall.

We continue down the tunnel until the floor gives way beneath us, causing us to fall into a massive spider's web. My sword arm gets stuck, so I'm unable to even try using Edge to cut myself free. A Giant Spider with a human face clambers onto the web and walks over to us, introducing herself as the Queen of Pain. She comments that I look as if I'd make a good meal, and on a whim I rub the ring I'm wearing, which causes the Queen to shrink to the size of a coconut. Somehow I get one hand free to use the Wand to keep her from running away, and compel her to answer my questions. She tells me an incantation that will summon Stonehammer (yet more doggerel), and says I'll need to use a magic whistle to soothe him. I then let her go free, assuming that her reduced size renders her incapable of doing any more harm. My character in these books is just rubbish at dealing with the major villains.

Eventually I manage to struggle free from the web, and we find a way out of the Dungeon and make camp for the night. In the morning we proceed to Sunstone Mountain, and Orlando prattles annoyingly until I recite the incantation. Part of the side of the mountain breaks away, and a huge stone human descends, accompanied by assorted rocks and rubble. Fortunately for us, the whistle I was given by the violinist turns out to be magical, enabling me to play a merry tune that cheers Stonehammer up. I explain the situation, and he agrees to help, so we set off towards the battlefield. I don't know how we're able to find it when we went off track on the way here and had to be magically transported to the vicinity of our destination, but we manage it.

The battle is still going badly for the Karazanian army, but Stonehammer's intervention turns the tide. The Orcs renew their assault in desperation, and Orlando and I are soon in the thick of the fighting. I trip over a fallen Skeleton, and an Orc Warlord tries to cleave me apart with an axe while I'm prone, but that lucky charm turns out to work after all, spoiling the Orc's aim. I manage to get up and fight back, finding the Orc to be as formidable an opponent as the Banshee that did for me in the first book - and this time round I don't even have the Skill bonus I got part of the way into Curse. The only thing in my favour is that the rules allow me to hit first, but the odds of my killing the Orc are not good. That roll I got against the Horned Shrieker would do the job here, but I do not manage to do as well this time. Several missed attacks follow, but eventually a weapon makes contact, to lethal effect... and it's not mine.

Well, that's two times I've played this book, and on both occasions I fell at the final hurdle. Owing to the narrowness of the viable path, if I try the book again, I shall have to do almost exactly the same things as I did on this playthrough (though I can skip one purchase). Not a prospect that appeals.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Those Who Do Not Wish You Well

The discontinuation of Warlock magazine didn't just affect my acquisition of Fighting Fantasy books. Without a bimonthly column to keep me informed of what was on the way and whet my appetite for the latest releases, I was less motivated to go on looking for any new gamebooks. There was the odd exception - for example, the fixed schedule and limited shelf life of Proteus ensured a prompt purchase of every issue right up to the end of the run - and the very fact that I'd pop into assorted local bookshops on a regular basis (even if only to check for the latest Doctor Who novelisation) meant that I soon became aware of additions to series I was following, but my reaction to new gamebooks was more often along the lines of 'I'll get it some time, probably' rather than 'I'm buying that as soon as I have the money'.

This slump in interest hit my Lone Wolf collection particularly hard. My memories of getting the books that followed The Jungle of Horrors are hazy, and it's possible that I didn't even bother until the twelfth and (back then) final book in the series hit the shelves. Being able to actually complete the set would certainly have added some incentive to do so.

Regardless of whatever it was that finally induced me to part with £2.25 for book 9, The Cauldron of Fear, I started to read it on the way home from town, as I do have a distinct recollection of reaching the text that went with one of the more bizarre illustrations as I approached the railway bridge under which I had to pass along the way. And then I got home, and homework or TV or some other distraction intervened, and I'm not sure I ever concluded that 'attempt' at the book. When I finally got as far as Cauldron in my epic 'play through the whole series and go back to the start every time I fail' folly of the early nineties, very little of the adventure was familiar to me, and it does include a couple of 'WHAT?' moments that I'm pretty sure would have lodged in my memory if I'd encountered them previously.

So, leaving the not-that-interesting story of my history with Cauldron, I turn my attention to the ongoing saga of Lone Wolf. By the end of the previous adventure, I had acquired three of the seven Lorestones that would enable me to become a Kai Grand Master, but seen my companion Paido captured by the forces of Gnaag, the new leader of persistent nemeses the Darklords. Still, a rescue mission is not on the cards, as getting my hands on the next Lorestone must take precedence. Not only are the Darklords making a fresh bid for world domination, but Vassagonia, a region which has been the source of not inconsiderable bother before now, has chosen to ally with them (not for the first time), and their armies are currently attacking the Republic of Anari, which just happens to be the location of the fourth of the Lorestones.

More specifically, the Lorestone is somewhere in the ancient city that lies some way beneath Tahou, the capital of Anari. Exploring a long-abandoned subterranean city in search of a lost artefact is liable to be tricky enough in its own right: should that city and its environs become enemy territory, it'll become a good deal tougher.

On the subject of increased toughness, a small and nasty tweak to the rules excludes Backpack Items from the 'carry across equipment from past adventures or put it into storage' rule, meaning I no longer have the Combat Skill-enhancing Alether I went through some contortions to keep for books like this one. Because of this, I will definitely be metagaming, so for the duration of this adventure, the Sommerswerd is going into storage.

Incidentally, I fairly recently read some Lone Wolf discussion which revealed that, while the books say items go into storage at the Kai monastery, they're actually being kept safe by the Elder Magi at Dessi. Which is sort of like saying 'Paris' when you mean 'Cairo'. A fairly significant difference at any time, but a lot more so for an Allied soldier stationed in Africa in 1940.

Anyway, with my magical sword safely stashed where it can't vastly increase the odds of my dying at the end of the book, I turn my attention to the other updates I must make to my Action Chart before getting started. Having completed book 8, I gain another Magnakai Discipline, and I'm going for Nexus. partly because I'm aware of at least two instances in the book where it can make a difference for the better, and partly because it completes another Lore-Circle, more specifically, the one that gives me +3 to both Combat Skill and Endurance. And yes, I was already taking that into account when I decided that the loss of the Alether took the boss-fight-with-Sommerswerd from 'harsh' to 'ludicrous'. I can also add to the list of weapons for which my Weaponmastery provides a bonus, and since I'm not going to be using my sword, but do still have a Magic Spear, it makes sense to pick Spear this time round.

I receive 17 Gold Crowns, which go straight into storage, as I already have 40, I can't carry more than 50, and having some local currency on me could prove important at some point. I also get to pick a few items from a list, so I take a quiver to replace the arrows I used last book, a couple of Meals in case Huntmastery cannot help me find anything to eat once I'm below ground, a healing potion, and a rope to replace the rope I just lost when the rules got changed. And I bid good riddance to the pass, lodestone and poison vial that I was forced to cart around for much of the previous adventure.

Okay, time to get this show on the road. Or should that be 'in the air', given that my old friend Banedon is transporting me to Anari in his skyship? We travel to Navasari, a city around a hundred miles south of Tahou, to ascertain whether or not the capital is still in friendly hands, and are advised to go no further by skyship because that would make the book too short any airborne vessel is liable to be considered hostile and shot down.

Banedon and I borrow a couple of horses (not that there's much chance of our being able to return them) and ride north, before long encountering a wagon train of evacuees. I decide to see if they carry any fresh news from Tahou, and the captain in charge of their military escort is instantly suspicious of us. Before things can get nasty, a woman in one of the wagons recognises Banedon as an old friend and defuses the situation. The captain wants to keep the wagons moving, though, so we head back south with them for a few minutes while Banedon chats with Lortha, the wife of his former mentor. She gives him a handwritten invitation to her home, which for some reason I have to carry (good thing I freed up space for this compulsory Special Item by ditching all those compulsory Special Items from the last book), tells him that hostile troops are about two days' travel from Tahou, and warns us that the village of Sidara is rumoured to have been taken by the enemy.

We resume our northward voyage, and after a few hours we reach an unidentified village. Probably not Sidara, as there are no signs of recent trouble, and the locals just want to try and sell us things. Might as well stop to check whether or not they have anything of use. Their wares consist of greasy food and flasks of an unpleasant-smelling wine called Boza. I risk buying a flask of Boza, and also give a few coins to the villagers who are too poor to have anything to sell.

Impressed at my generosity, an old woman invites me to receive the blessing of the local shaman, and I follow her. The shaman turns out to be a scrawny old man with a beard, dressed entirely in feathers (and the accompanying illustration is the picture I remember from my initial desultory stab at the book).

So far I’ve said nothing about the changes made for the Mongoose Books reissue, which have been unimpressive but pretty innocuous. The new artwork for this encounter merits a mention, though, as it replaces the unhappy avian-featured oldster with a quasi-simian glowering brute. I recall that this meeting leads to a vague and not very helpful bit of fortune-telling, but the only prediction I can imagine being uttered by the man in the newer picture is along the lines of, “You’re gonna get your ***kin’ ‘ead kicked in!”

The shaman tells me that I have many enemies (I know). Powerful enemies (I know). They plot to keep me from walking my chosen path, as it will bring about their destruction (I know). One enemy will claim to be a friend, but should not be trusted, as he is treacherous (okay, that's a new one, but rather too vague to be any real help). He then enters a trance-like state, keeping me from asking for a name or anything else that might be of actual use to me, so I rejoin Banedon and we set off again.

Towards midday we draw close to a house, outside which several farmhands are warming a pot of soup over a dung fire. A dirt track leads west from the road, and a signpost indicates that it leads to Tahou. My Discipline of Pathsmanship tells me that the sign is pointing the wrong way, and my eyesight tells me that the Mongoose edition's picture of the signpost doesn't match the description given in the text.

There's no need for me to talk to the farmhands, but I do so anyway. They know nothing about the war (so none of the refugees from Tahou who passed this place over the course of the past week and a half can have bothered to warn them of the approaching Darklord armies), and the sign is pointing the wrong way as the result of a refugee wagon having collided with it. The farmhands offer to share their soup with us, but I decline, politely omitting to mention that my refusal is because the smell of the fire has 'destroyed' my appetite. In a development which makes no sense whatsoever, I have to eat a Meal from my Backpack (or use Huntmastery) before Banedon and I ride north again (turning to the same section that I would have if I'd not stopped to chat, which means that if I hadn't stopped and had my appetite ruined, I wouldn't feel the need to eat).

A few miles further on, we see another turning to the west, which a marker stone indicates leads to Sidara. That's the village said to have already been taken by the enemy. We could pop along there just to bump off a few invaders, but I suspect that Joe Dever was expecting readers who received Lortha's warning to avoid the place, and will have prepared a hostile reception for those who 'unwittingly' take the side trip, so we just continue north.

Not long after sundown we reach the village of Chadi, and opt to spend the night in the local tavern. The book attempts to overcharge me for the room. It has already been established that the exchange rate is 4 Lune to 1 Gold Crown, but when Guyuk the tavern owner says that a room is 12 Lune, a not-so-handy parenthetical aside states that that's 4 Crowns, when it should say 3. This mistake has not been remedied in the Mongoose Books reissue.

I pay the correct price, and Guyuk gives us both a free glass of Lovka, a spirit named after a town which I know to have been burned to the ground by Gnaag's troops just a few days ago. The book's description of it as a 'warming liquor' strikes me as being a trifle insensitive.

Some of the tavern's other patrons appear to be gambling, so I decide to see if I can join in. As wagering money on games of chance is illegal in Anari, they're betting with valuables other than coins, and challenging each other with riddles, thereby avoiding prosecution on technicalities. I opt to stake my Platinum Amulet, as it doesn't really do anything I can't do with Nexus. Not that I need to worry about losing, as my mathematical skills make short work of the puzzle. The unnecessary 'this is the correct section' text in the Mongoose edition is less blatant than its equivalent in earlier books, but it's still tiresome, especially when the relevant section already starts with the words 'You have answered the riddle correctly'.

For some reason the list of precious things from which I can choose my winnings is one item short in the Mongoose reissue. No great loss, as the omitted potential prize is a Spyglass, and Huntmastery gives Kai of my rank telescopic vision anyway. Precious metals and stones aren't that big a deal in the Lone Wolf series, so I pick the Scroll of Honour and Altar Cloth, as I might find a use for one or other of them before I get to the end of the adventure and am compelled to throw them away by that preposterous change to the rules.

Now I've demonstrated my mathematical skills, the technically-not-gamblers won't play with me any more, so I decide to have a quick chat with Guyuk. He's rather agitated, the recent evacuation of Tahouese women and children having caused him to become sceptical about the Senate's repeated exhortations to keep calm and carry on, and intends to close the tavern and move away at the end of the week. He advises us to depart the region as well, and then scurries off to serve a customer, so I decide to call it a night.

I sleep well, and am woken at daybreak when Guyuk's wife starts ringing a bell and yelling to everyone to get up. Banedon has already saddled the horses, and we are soon on our way. At around noon we reach another village, and Banedon tells me that the standing stones which line the highway here are reputed to be all that remains of a Vassagonian army that was turned to stone by divine intervention long ago. I hope the locals aren't relying on the same thing happening again this year.

A little later we see a cloud of dust on the road ahead, and I use the telescopic vision granted me by my Huntmastery to find out that it's being thrown up by a score of Anarian cavalry who are riding this way. Banedon and I could try hiding from them behind some of the standing stones, but these men aren't the enemy (or shouldn't be, at least), and if one of them should spot us, the fact that we were trying not to be seen is liable to raise unnecessary suspicion, so we ride to meet them.

The sergeant leading them is unnecessarily suspicious of us, leading me to wonder if these are genuine Anarian rangers until my Sixth Sense tells me that they're legit. I show him the invitation from Lortha as proof that we're allies, and he finds it deeply suspicious that two Northlanders should be carrying a personal invitation to the home of a couple of Tahou's most respected citizens. Banedon explains, probably using the shortest, most unthreatening words he can, and the sergeant finally accepts that we're not a threat. Either that or, as soon as Banedon mentions being a powerful magician, the sergeant decides he'd better leave us alone while his face and navel are still the right way round. Even so, he warns of dire consequences if we're not in Tahou by sundown. A deadline which has doubtless been made that bit more difficult to achieve now we've been delayed for so long by some paranoid twit of a ranger demanding proof that our proof of being trustworthy is trustworthy.

That was, incidentally, one of the all-too-infrequent instances when the Mongoose edit improved on the original text. Only minor changes, but some rather clunky phraseology from 1987 has been replaced with a line that works much better.

By late afternoon we see the Tahou hills. A watchtower guards the pass through them, and a Discipline check hints that something is not right. I don't have Pathsmanship (which, at the level mentioned, would enable me to detect an impending ambush a long way off), but as we get closer to the tower, I see assorted indications that all is not well: the absence of a flag on the watchtower, the lack of guards demanding to know our business, the discarded clothing and other items strewn along the road, the Giak wolf-riders charging towards us, spears at the ready...

Looks like we're finally going to see some proper action. Will using my bow help here, or just use up an arrow or two before I get directed to the same section I'd have had to turn to if I chose to fight from the outset? I take a chance on finding out, and my arrow unseats one of the approaching Giaks, causing him to fall into the path of those directly behind him and cause a bit of a pile-up. Those further back have enough reaction time to swerve around the obstruction I've created, but I have delayed our attackers by just enough that we can get to the pass without being intercepted. Woo!

For a short time the wolf-riders pursue us, but they soon give up, perhaps discouraged by my evident prowess with the bow. Once we get through the hills, we reach a village with a name that varies between editions of the book: originally it was Vanta, but for the reissue it's been changed to Varta, which I'm pretty sure is the name of a company that manufactures batteries. I wonder if the newer text also mentions the guards of Tahou being 'ever ready' to repel invaders, or reveals that the city's more dangerous criminals are imprisoned in specially toughened facilities known as dura-cells.

Regardless of its name, the village is abandoned, its men having moved into Tahou to assist with the city's defence, while the women and children were in the wagon train of evacuees we passed earlier. Once we're through it, we reach the edge of the ring of fields around the moat which surrounds Tahou. The city looks impressive in the moonlight (so much for our being doomed if we didn't get there by nightfall).

When we reach the South Gate, guards with crossbows surround us and demand to know our reasons for coming here, so I show off the invitation again. They're as dubious about it as the ranger sergeant, but the gatehouse commander is able to tell that it's genuine. He impounds our horses and gives us receipts for them, the text explaining that these Special Items don't count towards the numerical limit because they're so small (and perhaps also because there's no real chance of our ever seeing those horses again, and Joe Dever was not so mean-spirited as to force readers to discard some potentially useful Item in order to make space for something so blatantly worthless). The commander also instructs us to report to the citadel in the morning to be allocated positions among the cannon fodder. Not that he phrases it quite like that, but the subtext is clear.

We are allowed into the city, and as we're a good hour's walk from the home of Banedon's erstwhile mentor Chiban, my companion suggests we stop for a meal in a nearby eating house. I refuse because, if I remember rightly, going in there inevitably results in our winding up arrested for not allowing local racists to murder us (yes, Tahou has one of those legal systems).

We proceed to Chiban's house without incident. He is delighted to see Banedon, and offers to assist me in my quest for the Lorestone. We dine well on magically-sourced food, and then turn our attention to my primary objective here. The 'Tahou Cauldron', a funnel-shaped hollow (the Mongoose text is to be commended for fixing the typo that had it 'tunnel-shaped') with a 500-foot long shaft at its base, is the way to get to the ruins of the ancient city of Zaaryx. The Lorestone was apparently thrown down there to keep it out of the hands of a Vassagonian Zakhan, and the shaft was sealed off 360-odd years ago. Chiban would like to join me on my expedition, but the defence of the city must take precedence. Still, he can at least arrange for me to meet with President Toltuda, whose permission will be required to get the shaft opened for me.

Chiban sorcerously composes a letter to the President (possibly also banishing a paperclip-shaped demon which tries to advise him on how to write it) and sends it by messenger to the Senate House. In under an hour we receive a reply, inviting me to address the Senate, who will vote on whether or not to permit me access to the Cauldron. Chiban is a little disappointed, as he'd hoped that the President would grant me a private audience, but he wishes me well as I prepare to set off.

I reach the Senate House and gain access to the Appellant's Gallery without any trouble. Twelve senators are seated in arches surrounding the oval-shaped hall, and the President sits on a throne in the centre. Arguments are made for and against the proposal being considered, and a show of hands determines the outcome. The President invites me to make my case, which I do. Senator Zilaris is in favour of granting my request, as the power contained within the Lorestone could be used to help repel the invaders. Senator Chil... well, it may not be a coincidence that the letters of his name can all be found in 'Chamberlain', as he proposes that they hand me over to Gnaag in the hope that this will persuade the Darklords and their allies to leave Tahou alone.

The senators' vote is quite literally a case of 'six of one, half a dozen of the other', so it's up to the President to break the tie, and a 50/50 random number check determines his decision. Being President, he gets a more fancy way of indicating his vote: beside his throne is a beacon, and he presses a button to light it. On this occasion, the green flame of approval illuminates the chamber, and Senator Zilaris is eager to escort me to the Square of the Dragons, where the entrance to the Cauldron is located.

Along the way, Senator Chil smarmily backpedals on his opposition to me (slightly more fawningly in the Mongoose text), and invites me to help myself to any equipment from his warehouses that might assist me in my quest. For some reason, while the Items available to me are the same in both versions of the book, the list is in a different order. Neither list is in alphabetical order, and both lists jumble up Weapons and Backpack Items, so the rearrangement doesn't appear to serve any useful purpose. I replace the arrow I used earlier, and get a second rope as a precaution against something I remember from a previous attempt at the book.

Chil also provides the equipment that will be used to lower me down the shaft, and personally supervises the assembly of the rig. Regrettably, the book offers no option to say, "Based on a warning issued by a wacky peasant clad only in feathers, I would like to request that that untrustworthy maggot not be allowed anywhere near the set-up to which I am about to entrust my life."

The President inserts a crystal rod into the stone sealing the mouth of the shaft, breaking the enchantments that hold it in place. The stone is moved out of the way, the winch, ropes and cradle are put into position, and I prepare for my descent. Zilaris tells me that guards will be posted up here, and I can indicate my readiness to be brought back up by giving a signal, which really isn't going to be worth memorising. Chil says he hopes I'll come to know him as a friend, and the book still doesn't allow me to remember the shaman's warning and request that someone from Health & Safety double-check the Senator's handiwork.

My descent commences, and after a few minutes, my Discipline of Divination finally kicks in, revealing that I was wrong to distrust Chil, as he's now helping with the rope. Mind you, he appears to have forgotten to put down his razor since the last time he had a shave. Still, now I can see how things are about to go tragically wrong, I can act on this knowledge by... Er, where's the option to do something other than turn to the same section to which I'd have gone if I didn't have Divination? And how come that omission hasn't been remedied in the Mongoose edition?

O
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I plummet into a freezing cold lake, and randomness determines what happens next. My newly-acquired Nexus turns what would have been a lethal outcome into a merely hazardous one (or, owing to an egregious error in the original text, turns guaranteed survival into ongoing peril), In any case, I'm sinking and running low on air, and will have to discard some equipment to improve my chances of survival. It would probably be safer to ditch the entire Backpack, but losing half of its contents should suffice. What gets thrown out is randomly determined, but the way my Backpack's contents are distributed means that I will definitely retain one meal, one rope, and one of my winnings from the riddle-solving wager, plus either the healing potion or the flask of Boza.

The coin flip establishes that I lose the Scroll of Honour and the potion, plus my spare meal and rope, and the random number check indicates that dropping them is enough to arrest my descent, so I can surface, start breathing again, and swim to the shore. Again the text asks if I have Divination, and somehow I doubt that this is my chance to take the Discipline and give it a good kicking for proving so utterly useless in the minutes leading up to the cutting of the rope. No, it just means that I know my fall to have been caused by Chil rather than some unexpectedly sharp air particles, and get to rage futilely against my betrayer.

This isn't the only time I'll be comparing Lone Wolf to him.

My shouts are not loud enough to be heard up above, and the winking out of what little light I can see overhead indicates that the shaft entrance has been resealed, doubtless with a few resigned shrugs on the part of the President and Senators. I ruefully reflect on my prospects, and then become aware of a sensation similar to the one I experienced when close to the Lorestones I've collected.

My eyes adjust to the near-darkness, and I make out a massive stone staircase ascending out of the lake. I must now have something to eat, and while the first edition of the book says nothing about the effectiveness of Huntmastery down here, the Mongoose text clarifies that 'this subterranean area a wasteland in regard to fulfilling Meal requirements'. Assuming that there's supposed to be a 'constitutes' or similar after 'area', that means that Huntmastery works, but Hunting would not, so I'll save that Meal in case other parts of Zaaryx don't even a wasteland.

After eating, I curl up in a convenient hollow and go to sleep. The stink of decay wakes me an unspecified time later, and I catch sight of a Zaaryx Ghoul about to bury a sword in some part of my anatomy. I seriously need to check the warranty on Divination. Huntmastery saves me from fighting the Ghoul at a Combat Skill penalty, and another welcome Mongoose edit confirms that, like Fighting Fantasy Ghouls, this creature is undead, so I'd be able to do double damage if I hadn't left the Sommerswerd behind when I set off. While I'm comparing the editions, I will concede that at least the original version had an illustrator who grasped the meaning of the word 'lifted'.

I take a little damage in the fight, but nothing that Healing can't handle. At least as long as I survive the encounter with the Ghoul's friends, which are gathering close by. Will my bow prove as effective here as it did against the wolf-riders? Well, it allows me to kill one Ghoul, causing the others to pause, and I see that, while the section number for fleeing up the stairs is unchanged, there's a new one for drawing a hand weapon. I raise my spear, and the Ghouls flee.

There's a slightly odd Mongoose edit here. One Ghoul has been crouched above the entrance to the hollow, intending to ambush me when I came out. Upon seeing the rest of the pack, it jumps down. In the original text, the implication is that the Ghoul intends to join the others as they run away, but the Mongoose variant gives the impression that it decides to attack, as if emboldened by the fact that I scared off its fellows. Either way, as the Ghoul leaps down, something falls from its pocket. The Ghoul attempts to retrieve the item, but I'm in an acquisitive mood, and gash the reaching hand with my spear, at which point the Ghoul decides to relinquish ownership of whatever it just dropped.

I pick up my new treasure, which is a hexagonal token made of a creamy-coloured metal. It has the number '6' engraved on it, and must have been manufactured by the people who made the tapes for the Mission: Impossible team, as it suddenly heats up in my hand, and explodes as I fling it into the lake. Time I was elsewhere, I think.

Ascending the stairs is a slow and laborious process, as each is 'as tall as a young tree', but eventually I reach the top and gaze out across the streets of Zaaryx. Did I fail to pick up on all previous mentions of the fact that its inhabitants were descended from a dragon, or was that detail not considered worth mentioning before now? Again I must eat, and a more coherent Mongoose edit confirms that Zaaryx is effectively a wasteland, so I can use Huntmastery.

As I'm preparing to move on, I catch sight of a shadowy figure in a nearby ruin. Having completed the Lore-Circle of the Spirit, I am able to detect formidable psychic powers. I don't think I want to tangle with the owner. Alas, it does not share my desire to avoid conflict, and launches a mental attack. Psi-screen keeps me from taking damage, but I suspect that things are about to get nasty.

In fact, while the Psi-Ghoul is a more powerful opponent than the Ghoul that woke me, I fare better against it, taking even less damage than in the previous fight, and less time to win than expected, judging by the ‘at last’ at the start of the next section. A ring with a glowing stone set into it catches my attention, and I take the Psychic Ring and put it into my pocket.

My exploration of the city takes long enough that I have to sleep and eat twice before the next noteworthy occurrence, Huntmastery continuing to compensate for my not having packed my Backpack with as many Meals as it can hold. At the centre of Zaaryx I find a building that seems undamaged by the ravages of time, and inside it I spot a group of reptilian creatures huddled around a large leathery egg (or possibly a rugby ball), stroking it and whispering sibilantly to each other. Looks as if the city’s original inhabitants may be less extinct than has been assumed.

If I try to sneak up on the creatures, the book may penalise me for not having the Discipline of Invisibility. Assuming them to be hostile and pre-emptively firing an arrow would be species-ist (and guarantee an unfriendly reception). I think the best thing to do is to greet them and see how they react. With fear, as it turns out: they grab the egg and flee down a flight of steps. Evidently they can see in the dark, as there’s no illumination. I have my trusty Kalte Firesphere, though, so I can light my way with that.

The light reveals that one of the reptiles dropped a hexagonal metal token in the rush to get away from me. Remembering what happened to the last such token, and observing the lack of a convenient body of water in which to dispose of this one if it should become unstable, I examine the token in as much detail as I can without actually touching it. Embossed on it is an equation, and for once the book just assumes that I have the mathematical skill required to work it out, and tells me the answer straight off.

Descending the stairs, I avoid a trap that the reptiles probably thought I’d have failed to notice in the dark, and finally reach a door that’s slightly ajar. I don’t have a mirror to help me get a sneak peek of what’s behind the door, but after that trap I’m suspicious, and lie flat on the floor as I push the door open.

A bolt of energy passes over my head. The paranoid lizards have the equivalent of a flipping laser cannon! But as they’re gawping at my having avoided getting a smoking hole blasted through my thorax, I leap up and charge at them, spear in hand, and the peculiar ability of gamebook heroes to learn the name of previously unknown species just by engaging them in combat lets me know that I’m lethally skewering a couple of Crocaryx.

Regrettably, I don’t even get the chance to try and figure out how to operate the flipping laser cannon!, and simply head on along the corridor. More stairs take me down to a chamber with around a hundred ominously dark archways set into the walls, and a couple of huge metal doors up ahead. Set into the doors are a couple of combination locks, and the number of digits each lock can handle makes it clear that those two tokens have provided me with everything I need to know.

Well, not quite everything. The locks disengage, but the door won’t open. A voice in my head tells me I’ll need a key, and I turn to see a female Crocaryx, whom I somehow recognise as their leader, holding a rod like the key the Tahouese President used to release the stone seal in the Cauldron. Gleaming eyes in archways indicate that reinforcements are close by if I want to initiate any violence, and the boss Crocaryx again addresses me telepathically, noting that I’m different from the other humans who’ve found their way down here (I do not want to see the slash fiction doubtless inspired by that line), and asking what I want down here (repeat previous parenthesis).

My only options are to answer truthfully or ready a weapon, which makes me wonder if it's possible to deceive telepathically. I specify 'deceive' because that's more intentional than 'lie', and I'm sure that anyone who genuinely believes something which is not actually true would inevitably pass on that untruth if it were to come up in the course of direct mind-to-mind communication, but to 'say' something you know to be a falsehood? Probably not without advanced training as a liar - for instance, a journalism course at the Daily Mail.

But I digress. Getting ready for a fight against potentially hundreds of Crocaryx, some of which may be armed with flipping laser cannons!, is not likely to prove wise, so I reveal that I'm here for the Lorestone, and hope that the Crocaryx haven't designated it some sacred item which must be kept out of scale-free hands at all costs.

I put a good spin on my answer, invoking the name and memory of the Crocaryx' dragon progenitor, and the leader reveals, with a mixture of sadness and joy, that her people had dealings with the founder of the Kai centuries before, and have been waiting for me to follow in his footsteps ever since. Should have gone with a welcome mat rather than a flipping laser cannon! 

She opens the door, and we spend the next several hours wandering through places which no human has seen before, eventually reaching a circular chamber with a glowing stone dais at its centre. Instinct compels me to step up on the dais, watched by a crowd of Crocaryx, who share their leader's mixed feelings: pleased because this is what they've been waiting for since my predecessor originally found the Lorestone, and sorrowful at the thought that they have now fulfilled their purpose and now have nothing to do but decline and die out. This is another regrettable instance of the Lone Wolf series drawing on pulp tropes now recognised as being pretty vile - the idea of the indigenous populace only being there to tend and protect things until the right people come along to claim them, after which they become dispensable, has fed into plenty of real-world atrocities. Still, I'm sure none of the noxious associations were in Joe Dever's mind when he wrote this, so I shan't go on about it.

Back in Zaaryx, a golden light shines down on me, and at its core appears a leathery ovoid, which cracks open to reveal the Lorestone. Hang on, was that the egg that the first group of Crocaryx I encountered had when I saw them? That is so typical. They're meant to have been guarding the thing, but someone just couldn't resist the temptation to get it out and fiddle with it. I bet the only reason it took so long for the leader to bring me here is that, as soon as my identity was announced, the guilty Crocaryx owned up to what they'd done, explained how long it would take to put the Lorestone-egg back and reset the 'epic reveal' devices, and asked her to take me on a long detour so they'd have time to put things back as they were supposed to be. I almost wish the mini-adventure accompanying the Mongoose edition had focused on the misadventures of the Crocaryx who has to bring the egg back and set up all the shininess before Lone Wolf reaches the chamber.

If Healing hadn't long since taken care of what little damage I sustained fighting Ghouls, the Lorestone would restore my Endurance to maximum. Then a magical vortex forms and sucks me in, and I find myself back above ground level and on a balcony overlooking what remains of Tahou. It's midday, but little sunlight makes it through the clouds of smoke overhanging the city. The description of the damage wrought by the invading armies is a little more evocative in the Mongoose edition of the book.

Observing that the fighting is heaviest in the West District, I head that way, passing the smoking heap of rubble that used to be the Senate House. Close to the West Gate I see a few soldiers attempting to evacuate a makeshift hospital which has caught fire, and pause to assist them. One of them tells me that the captain is trapped on the first floor, trying to save his brother. Nexus grants Magnakai of my rank the ability to extinguish fires at will, though only small ones at the moment. Recognising my limitations, I put out the flames at the top of the stairs and rush up to help the captain bring his brother out. We make it back to the street just before the roof caves in and the inferno consumes the whole first floor. The captain invites me to join him and his command at the North Gate, but as I'm closer to the West Gate and the need appears greater there, I politely decline and hurry on.

Ascending to the battlements, I get a better look at the assault from without, and notice that work has almost been completed on a bridge which will enable a Squad of Drakkarim to get to the gate. Let's see if I can achieve a third display of awesomeness with the bow. This time round there's a random element to the outcome, and the odds are only slightly in my favour thanks to my Weaponmastery. Still, that 'slightly' is just enough, and I put my arrow through the throat of the engineer who was about to put the finishing touches to the bridge, buying the Tahouese a little time to reinforce their defences.

Further to the north, a new problem arises. Some Giaks have managed to put up a scaling ladder, and a big Gourgaz has preceded them up it. This one is more powerful than the one that half-killed me during my first adventure, but I've improved quite a bit since that fight. I don't get as good numbers this time round, though, and still wind up losing half my Endurance. Still, the death of the Gourgaz scares off the Giaks (at least the ones quick enough to stay out of reach of my spear), and reinforcements on the Tahouese side arrive to help discourage further such sorties.

I use my enhanced vision to spot Banedon at the top of the tower on the boundary between the West and North Districts, and decide to join him because it makes such strategic sense to have two of the most powerful fighters in the city defending the same spot, right? Incidentally, the lack of any 'use a spyglass' option for any reader who doesn't have Huntmastery at the required level makes it more understandable that the Item was dropped in the Mongoose edition: I can imagine anyone who picked it just to compensate for such a deficiency getting seriously annoyed.

I get to the tower without any bother. Banedon is delighted to see that I'm not dead, and brings me up to date on developments. The President and Senator Chil both died in one of the first attacks, the enemy's airborne troops did a fair bit of damage but have practically been wiped out, and things are looking better now that I'm back and have the Lorestone.

Dawn brings a fresh onslaught from the besieging armies (time flies when you're having exposition), and the Vassagonians lead the attack. At their head is a figure in gold armour, surrounded by a halo of blue fire which destroys all arrows fired at him. He carries a black metal sphere, which spits out a bolt of fire that atomises the West Gate. Most of the defenders in the area flee from him, and the one soldier who summons up the nerve to attack is fried the moment his spear touches the magical shield.

The Vassagonian leader heads straight for me, and I discover that he's Zakhan Kimah, an old enemy, deriving his magical protection and destructive power from the Orb of Death, which he obtained from Gnaag's predecessor under false pretenses. I said I'd wind up regretting not pilfering the Orb back when I almost nearly had the chance. He fires a bolt of energy from the Orb, and as I don't have the magical attack-repelling Sommerswerd on me, it hits, doing a fair bit of damage (though if I did have the Sommerswerd, the bolt would still strike a glancing blow, doing exactly the same amount of damage).

I have in my possession two items that could help me here. I shall try using the Dagger of Vashna, partly because I think it'll offer better odds of victory, and partly because there's a kind of symmetry to it: Kimah is a Vassagonian bad guy wielding a weapon he acquired by pretending to have defeated a Kai Lord, and I'll be a Kai Lord wielding a weapon I acquired by actually defeating a Vassagonian bad guy.

The Dagger is one of the few items that can pierce Kimah's shield, because it has trapped within it the spirit of one of the nastiest Darklords ever to cause mayhem in Magnamund, I could use it to fight the Zakhan, but unless his Combat Skill is a lot lower than I expect it to be (and it won't be as preposterously high as it is against a Sommerswerd-wielding Lone Wolf because Joe Dever suddenly turned on his long-term readers), I'm unlikely to prevail. Throwing the Dagger, as I recall, is a 'do or die' option, but as Dagger is one of my Weaponmastery proficiencies, I'm pretty sure I only have a 1 in 10 chance of failure. Actually the Weaponmastery only brings it down to 1 in 5, but one of my Lore-Circles halves the risk. And the number I get would be a success even without bonuses. The Dagger gets Kimah in the heart, and his magical shield incinerates him and the Orb.

This slightly demoralises his troops, who are rapidly driven back out, and the other besieging armies also lose heart. Then friendly troops stream from the hills around from Varta (which now has that name in both books) to recharge Tahou's defences. The hostile forces are routed, and Senator Zilaris proclaims me the Saviour of Tahou. While I managed to avoid having my equipment confiscated, I’m pleased to see that the Mongoose edition has the grateful Tahouese returning anything that had been taken: the omission of that detail from the first edition made it possible to lose the Dagger of Vashna and the Sommerswerd for good.

Then things take a turn for the ominous. A black cloud forms over the West Gate, and starts yelling threats. The speaker identifies himself as Gnaag (just in case I thought I was being harassed by a sentient cumulonimbus) and gloats that he’s managed to get hold of the last three Lorestones, and will destroy them and me at the same time. I sense that he’s speaking the truth (at least as regards having the Lorestones – the destruction bit is not a certainty), and reflect that the completion of my quest to become a Kai Grand Master just got a whole lot trickier.

Well, I won the book, but only by acting on knowledge from past attempts and exploiting loopholes. A quick look at some sections I missed on this occasion reveals that the Mongoose edition reduces the Zakhan’s stats in all iterations of the climactic combat, though most drastically against a Sommerswerd-equipped Lone Wolf (and still not enough to give most players a decent chance of winning that particular variant of the fight). And that section 291 involves breathing in toxic spores while entering Zaaryx by an alternate route.

I’m tempted to peek at certain parts of the Mongoose text of book 11 before I start book 10, but I’m not overly keen on metagaming. I find it preferable to repeatedly failing because of authorial unreasonableness, but it’s still the lesser of two evils. Anyway, it’ll be a couple of weeks (at least) before I need to make up my mind about that one way or another.