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?

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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.

2 comments:

  1. Great stuff! Banedon is certainly a more competent sidekick than Paido...

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  2. Another reason to use the Project Aon editions as, based upon comments by Joe Dever in the Lone Wolf Club newsletters, they do not prohibit carrying over backpack items between books, or even series.

    Since you didn't know the Sommerswerd would be returned to you, I can understand leaving it behind, but the route which sees it confiscated also allows you to get an item that can help avoid losing half your backpack contents in the Cauldron, so I think that is the preferable route, even though you then have to fight a (weakened) Zakhan.

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