Wednesday, 9 August 2017

And Now You Would Never Know

Continuing my second attempt at the tenth Lone Wolf book, The Dungeons of Torgar, which commenced here, I prepare to meet Sebb Jarel, the partisan leader who should be able to show me a comparatively safe route to the fortress which holds the Lorestones I need in order to complete my ascension to the rank of Kai Grand Master. Stepping through the curtained arch, I enter a chamber in which five men sit eating and drinking around a fire. I ask for Jarel, and a mousy-looking individual introduces himself and asks how he can help. Now, while it is possible that such an unimpressive-looking person might still have what it takes to lead a band like this, Divination is telling me that mouse-face is lying. Moreover, it informs me that none of the other men around the fire is Jarel either. Furious at the deception, I spit into the fire and storm out of the cave.

Yes, Lone Wolf veterans, I know the consequences of that action.

My rapid departure takes the guards by surprise, and by the time they've gathered their wits sufficiently to raise the alarm, I'm already stealing a horse. A partisan horseman tries to block my way, but with one blow I unhorse him (and possibly also bisect him). Regrettably, I haven't got far before my horse catches a leg in a pothole, and while I am uninjured, my steed is crippled, forcing me to hurry into the forest on foot before the pursuing partisans can catch up.

I lose them without difficulty and resignedly conclude that I'll have to find my own way to Torgar. A sense of being watched by something hostile prompts me to keep moving, and Huntmastery enables me to find something suitable for breakfast as I make my way through the forest. At around dawn I approach a clearing that turns out to be occupied by a large black bear, and then the pack of Akataz of which Halgar warned me catches my scent and attacks. They're some kind of dog, in case anyone was wondering. If I had Animal Control, I could probably get the bear to join the fight on my side, but I don't, and I take a bit of a savaging before I'm able to draw a weapon. The Akataz are particularly susceptible to psychic attacks, so I'm able to get onto the best column of the Combat Results Table with just Mindblast. Even so, I don't fare as well random number-wise as I did against the partisan, and take almost as much damage again before disbanding the pack with extreme prejudice.

Moving on, I soon discover that those Akataz were just part of a larger pack, and the rest have now found my trail. If I had Pathsmanship, I wouldn't even leave a trail, but I didn't pick that Discipline at the start of the adventure, and now I'm going to pay for that choice. The first of the rest of the Akataz to reach me hurls itself in my direction, but I duck, and make a swift getaway before it can extricate itself from the undergrowth.

I maintain a good pace until I reach the place where a steep gorge cuts through the forest. The gorge is over a hundred feet deep, and has a turbulent-looking river at the bottom. Do I dive, or fight the approaching Akataz? Better to fight, I think. Good choice, as I win the fight without taking a scratch then find a trail which leads down to the water's edge. If I had Curing, I would know something about the type of bush that grows by the river, and probably be able to derive a medicinal benefit from them, but instead that makes a hat trick of checks on Disciplines I lack.

Partially submerged boulders provide stepping stones across the river, and I notice with some apprehension that the trees on the other side are shrouded in grey mist in spite of the warm, dry weather. Nevertheless, I cross over, feeling a chill as soon as I step onto the far bank, and realise that I have reached the notorious Isle of Ghosts. Only one man is on record as having been to it and returned still sane: the elusive Sebb Jarel. It's time to see if I can double that number.

A trail leads through the trees, and I follow it to the edge of a narrow chasm. The chasm floor is littered with bones, and caves in its walls give off a damp and unpleasant odour. I decide to risk attempting a leap across. A tangle of roots and trees on the far side could make achieving a good landing that bit trickier, but they're also something I could potentially snag with my Rope, so I tie a stick to the end for a crude grappling hook, make a few throws before it catches securely, and then jump.

Randomness determines what happens next, with 50/50 odds of each outcome. I get a high number (just), and am a little surprised to find that I make it across without any bother: as I recall, random number checks with no modifier tend to put the more favourable outcome with the lower scores (unless 0 is on its own, in which case that's probably an Instant Death).

Continuing on my way, I find traces of an ancient pavement, much of it buried under accumulated soil, and follow the path, occasionally passing the moss-covered remnants of dwellings dating back to a time before the trees claimed the island. In the afternoon I reach a clearing, in which stands an overgrown, mould-encrusted ziggurat. I might have mistaken it for a hill, but for the regular shape. And the fact that someone has been here recently, and hacked a path through the vegetation to reveal a pair of huge doors made of crystal. Divination picks up on an atmosphere of evil, and alerts me to the presence of other people close by. Sensing that they are up to no good, I use the undergrowth for cover as I circumvent the clearing.

Around the other side of the ziggurat, a dozen horses have been tethered to an obelisk, and two soldiers stand guard. Their uniforms and the horses' blankets bear an emblem of a gold portcullis on a black background. These men come from the region through which I travelled while seeking the first Lorestone, and I identify them as mercenaries from Amory, a town I was careful not to visit back in book 6. One of them starts to head in my direction, and while I can tell that he's just answering the call of nature, I nevertheless think it prudent to move away.

Rather less prudently, I return to the front of the ziggurat to investigate the entrance. Pausing to note the holes where explosives were used to get rid of centuries-old locks, I step into a chamber with many exits. A faint green glow and the sound of chanting emanate from one opening, so I check it out, descending a long staircase to a door, behind which I see something so alarming that I have to turn to a different section to find out what ominous sight confronts me.

Frankly, after that build-up, it's a bit of an anticlimax to learn that this chilling sight is just a temple, greenly lit by crystal columns, and a group of hooded men in glass masks standing around a marble block, chanting. Still, any long-standing readers who didn't pick up on the clues provided by the guards may get a bit of a thrill from the moment the men's leader removes his mask, revealing himself to be Roark, the murderous bully last seen fleeing when he proved unable to control the undead horde he'd raised to attack me.

As I watch, he calls out to the 'Lord of Pain' for guidance in these uncertain times and the destruction of his enemies, along the way mentioning his own name for the benefit of any readers who didn't play The Kingdoms of Terror. A mist forms around the marble block, seething with apparitions, and Roark's ritual climaxes with an incantation almost identical to the one he used to summon the undead.

Divination provides a pretext for a hefty info-dump about the history of this place. It was created by the Elder Magi to help them learn about nature, but the laboratory's custodians, the Patar, allowed the evil Cener druids to come in. The Druids summoned a Demonlord, who used the findings of the research carried out here to create the plague mentioned in the intro to book 8. The Cenerese and the Patar briefly rose to power in the region, but were overthrown by the vague-sounding Herbalish, and to atone for their misdeeds, the remaining Patar turned into the benevolent silent order of monks known as the Redeemers, with whom I've had dealings.

Meanwhile, back at the plot, a bunch of modern-day Cener druids, led by Roark, are here to summon the Demonlord Tagazin again. And I've been too busy experiencing exposition to intervene while it could make a difference. Oops. The mist coalesces into the form of a pale sabre-toothed jackal, who demands to know why he's been summoned, and then senses me. Oopser.

My Psi-Screen minimises the harm done by the psychic attack Tagazin sends my way, but then the Demonlord leaps down from the block and heads straight for me. I see no point in wasting an arrow on an enemy this powerful, and, since the book will force me to attack him with the Sommerswerd rather than seek a smarter means of dealing with him, gulp down some of those Alether berries in the moments before he smashes down the door and demands my surrender.

This fight is why Lone Wolf fans in the know tend not to flounce off when confronted with the fake Jarel: Tagazin's stats are higher than those of the Drakkar who ended my previous attempt at this book. On the plus side, I don't have to reduce his Endurance to zero in this fight, and I'm going into battle without having just lost almost a third of my Endurance to an equine crushing. And this is one fight where it's almost certainly better to use Psi-surge. Mindblast won't work here, and on most rows of the Combat Results Table, the Endurance cost of using the Discipline is equal to the reduction in combat damage produced by the Combat Skill bonus. My chances of survival are still far from good, but with a lot of luck, I might just survive.

I do not get that luck. I almost halve Tagazin's Endurance before he kills me, but a couple of very poor random numbers early on in the fight pretty much guaranteed my failure. Well, next time I shall take the easy route through the book, but I don't regret having tried it the hard way just this once.

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