Friday, 15 September 2017

We Know It Is There, Beneath the Surface

This is the second part of my third attempt at Lone Wolf book 10, The Dungeons of Torgar. Regular readers may be wondering what happened to the first part, so I shall explain. Back when I decided to have a go at the really tough route through the book for my second try, I knew that there was little chance of my succeeding, what with that whole 'really tough' thing. I also knew that the easiest route through the book starts in exactly the same way as the really tough one, and during the early stages of that second try I discovered that with the right Disciplines and decisions, there are no fights or incidents with randomised outcomes prior to the point at which the really tough route branches off from the easiest one. Therefore, I split my playthrough just before the branching point, so in the likely event of my failing the adventure, the first part of the playthrough could double as the first part of any subsequent attempt. I wasn't lying when I said I was breaking off the narrative at that point so as not to have a gap of over a week between posts - I just didn't mention that even if I'd had a less busy week and reached that point in just a day or two, I'd still have concluded the post there and started a fresh one for the pivotal decision.

Anyone unsure of the basic premise of the adventure can get the essentials from paragraphs 4, 6-8 and all but the last sentence of paragraph 9 of my first try at the book. The story so far on this latest attempt is, as explained above, here. And this is the continuation.

So, the partisans taking me to see Sebb Jarel, their leader, introduce me to an unprepossessing figure, and Divination tells me that I am being deceived. I comment that if this is Sebb Jarel, then I'm his brother Halgar. The real Jarel, who has been watching from the shadows, undetected by Divination, laughs and steps into the light, revealing himself to be the sort of person who'd have been played by Brian Blessed if this had been made into a film in the eighties. He sends his impersonator and the other men in the cave out to stand guard, and asks what I want of him. I explain, and he agrees to be my guide even though he knows it could cost him his life, as he can tell that I'm the protagonist only I have any real chance of defeating the Darklords.

Jarel tells the other partisans what they need to know about the mission he is undertaking, and in the morning we set off. Though we start on horseback, we have to go on foot once we reach Forest Taintor. Nothing of note happens until after nightfall, when Jarel takes first watch, and I am woken by the howl of a wolf. I stand back-to-back with Jarel as we prepare for the attack, and when the wolf breaks cover, I get to use my bow. Thanks to my Weaponmastery, even my getting a 0 on the random number generator only means getting the middling outcome, which is wounding the wolf but still having to fight. There'd be some consequence if the fight lasted more than four rounds, but it only takes me two to kill the wolf.

That consequence probably relates to a second wolf, which leaps to the attack, but gets lethally intercepted by Jarel. We hurriedly gather our belongings and move on before the scent of blood can attract further predators. By mid-morning we've reached the river that flows into the Hellswamp, and I get an info-dump about the smuggling that used to go on around here. Jarel gets a boat out of a hut that has seen better days, and we take it to the river. As he starts rowing, he makes a comment indicating that he used to be a smuggler. Over the course of the day, Jarel tells me a lot more, but I'm spared further detail.

At dusk we leave the water, and are beaching the boat when a Gorodon (whatever that might be) emerges from the surrounding vegetation and advances on us. Not having Animal Control, I am unable to persuade the creature (which turns out to be a large predatory reptile) to head off in search of prey that won't kill it. Incidentally, this is one of the rare occasions on which I actually prefer the illustration in the Mongoose edition.

Once the Gorodon is dead, Jarel cuts off its horns, claiming that potion-makers pay well for such things, and offers me one of them. That has regrettable echoes of appalling practises in the real world, even if I did only kill the beast in self-defence. Still, there's a slim possibility that trading in a horn might be the only way to get a potion that could help me through one of the ridiculously harsh fights in the next book, so I'll retain it on the off-chance, and if I only get money for the thing, I shall donate that to the MWF, or found the organisation if it doesn't yet exist.

We make camp in a convenient stone hut, which provides shelter from the rain that starts during the night. The rain persists into the following day, on which we reach the Hellswamp, in which our progress is slower. Despite the ominous name of the place, nothing of note happens until late in the evening, when we spot an island that might be a suitable place to rest for the night. Then randomness determines that the night is as uneventful as the day.

Some way into the next day we reach the confluence with the River Torg, which leads to Torgar. Around 10 miles up the Torg, the boat suddenly and unexpectedly becomes immovable, despite the lack of obvious obstacles on which we could have run aground. There's a Discipline check after the boat gets immobilised, and I meet the requirements. A quick peek at the rules reminds me that the relevant Discipline at the appropriate level provides warning of an imminent ambush. Pity it didn't kick in before we hit the trap, eh? And it transpires that the 'obstacle' is actually a group of submerged amphibians who've grabbed onto the underside of the boat. So the Discipline that was supposed to have alerted me to an impending ambush at 500 yards' range only kicked in when the attackers were less than a foot beneath me. That's rubbish!

What little advance warning I did get gives me a Combat Skill bonus when half a dozen Ciquali emerge from the water to attack, but I would have had the most favourable Combat Ratio achievable even without that bonus, so the Discipline's belated attempt to make itself look useful is a wasted effort. There's a time limit on the fight, but even with the worst numbers possible, I'm still certain to kill the Ciquali within the target number of rounds, so the only reason to actually play through the battle is to find out if I take any damage along the way. 5 points, as it turns out, and I fillet my attackers with a round to spare.

Some of my attackers, it turns out. Two of them dive out of range (and I'm a little alarmed to see the text describing our self-defence as 'murderous'). There's an unnecessary and clumsy change to the text in the Mongoose reissue here, splitting a perfectly decent descriptive sentence into two clunky ones in the manner of an author who places too much trust in their word processing software's grammar checker.

Being sore losers, the escaping Ciquali then ram a sharpened stake through the underside of the boat, and Jarel and I soon find ourselves swimming for the shore. I make it, but the Ciquali grab onto Jarel's cloak and drag him down to a watery grave. For fairness' sake I should note that the Mongoose edit has the better description here, but it's not as much better as the previous section was worse, so if this were a contest, the original text would be ahead on points.

The book has me spend an hour staring at the river, grief-stricken, before I resolve to get on with my quest, making the recovery of the stolen Lorestones the means by which I shall avenge the tragic death of Expendable Companion #97 (or thereabouts). I then spend eight days trudging along the riverbank towards Torgar, highlighting one of the flaws in the way the rules handle Endurance recovery: over the course of those eight days, my Kai Discipline of Healing restores only half as much Endurance as it did in the few minutes I spent swimming for my life and watching Jarel get killed. On the ninth day I finally emerge from the swamp, and promptly encounter another rules absurdity in the form of a Meal check: for over a week of plodding through mud and being pestered by insects, I had no need for food, but a few hours' walking on dry land and suddenly I have to eat. And that hunger-inducing morning provided as much Healing as the eight Meal-free days that preceded it.

I'm about to cross a bridge across a polluted-looking stream when I catch sight of some approaching horsemen. Yes, I do have Huntmastery at the level where I gain telescopic vision, so what does it tell me? That they are Talestrian cavalrymen (and the few moments it takes me to use my enhanced vision provide as much Healing as that 8-day slog). The Talestrians are on my side, but may be suspicious, so I'd better hope that I've correctly remembered the way they salute. Or I could hide under the bridge, but if they're on the way to Torgar I might be able to get a lift.

They are initially suspicious, but my cover story convinces them that I'm an ally, and they take me to see their commander. He is with the troops besieging Torgar, so I finally get to see the eponymous fortress, which stands on the far side of a ravine, accessible only via a lone causeway. As one of the cavalrymen leads me into their commander's tent, I am asked if I've been to Talestria in a previous book. I've played through all of them, so the answer must be yes, but I lose track... And a quick scan of blurbs reveals that Talestria was the setting of part of book 8. Don't say my face is familiar from wanted posters on account of what happened in the Temple of the Sword... No, the commander turns out to be Lord Adamas, the almost-companion who went off to fight Warlord Zegron's armies in section 1 of that book rather than risk getting sidekicked to death. Once we've brought each other up to date on developments, he observes that we have the same goal here, becoming significantly more verbose in the Mongoose edit.

A lengthier-than-necessary info-dump tells me that the Talestrian army has taken heavy losses while forcing a couple of Darklord armies to retreat to Torgar, but the fortress contains thousands of Talestrians who were captured during the initial invasion, and who could reinforce Adamas' troops if released. The Elder Magi have provided Adamas with a device that could breach the gates of Torgar, provided somebody can get close enough to use it.

We move closer to the gate. Adamas' troops have managed to erect a log wall on the causeway to provide some protection from enemy fire, but that still leaves almost 50 yards of exposed ground to cover before the device can be put into play. The device turns out to be an agglomeration of triangular crystals , with a protruding shard that serves as a 10-second fuse. Recognising that he and I are the only people present in good enough condition to have a chance of delivering the explosive, Adamas flips a coin and invites me to call. If Healing hadn't already restored me to full health I might have been tempted to try and use Divination just for the extra section's worth of Endurance recovery, but as there's no need to draw things out, I'll simply go for tails.

Tails it is. I hadn't consciously remembered that - just got lucky. Or unlucky, if the fact that Adamas has to take the risk significantly increases the chances of failure. Mongoose Adamas continues to say more than his original self as he prepares to run the gauntlet, and randomness determines what happens next... Boulders are hurled down, but Adamas dodges them, gets to the gate, and places and primes the explosive. His luck runs out on the return journey, though, as a rock fells him. I guess I'd better try and rescue him: having a named companion die at the wrong moment can be fatal for Lone Wolf. I get him to safety in the nick of time, and find myself musing on semantics: in the Mongoose edit I pull Adamas behind the rampart with 'barely' a second to spare rather than 'just' one second as in the first edition. That makes the escape marginally narrower, right?

Judging by the illustrations, the explosion blows a large triangular hole in the gate. Better attribute that to magic, as I'm pretty sure that in conventional explosions there's not that precise a correlation between the shape of the explosive and the destruction done. In any case, Adamas and I lead the troops through the hole, and soon battle rages around us.

Up ahead, a regiment of Drakkar troops presents a shield wall, in front of which are a couple of robed figures holding yellow globes. Divination informs me that the globes are a form of incendiary grenade, so I attempt to shoot one of them before the bearers can throw them at us. Thanks to my Weaponskill, I have decent odds of succeeding, but with the number I get, there's no need for a bonus. My arrow shatters one globe, and the resultant explosion causes the second bearer to drop the one he's carrying. The Drakkar troops who weren't immolated make a speedy retreat, and we advance. My companions join up with others from their regiment, and I continue on my own, reaching an open square containing a conical iron tower. Something here is vibrating intensely enough to make the very flagstones throb.

Proceeding into the tower, I have no trouble evading the hostile troops within until I reach a stairway lit by an orange glow from below. A random number check occurs, and I haven't yet completed the Lore-circle that would give me a bonus here. It's the same Lore-circle that would have helped in the lead-up to the pirate ambush in book 6, but I'm guessing that some other ability it confers is what matters here.

The lack of that bonus means I get the less favourable outcome, which is failing to evade a repulsive-looking Drakkar officer on his way up the stairs. He's not immune to Mindblast, so I decide to use that but not Psi-surge, which turns out to be the best choice: the fight would have gone on for longer if I'd used neither, but wouldn't have ended any more quickly if I'd used the more advanced Discipline, and the Endurance cost for using it would have left me significantly worse off.

Searching the body, I find a Black Key, a Dagger, and some money. It's in Kika, the currency used in Darklord territories, which continues the trend of having the coins' size directly proportional to the exchange rate with Gold Crowns. The original text is a little too uninformative about Kika, whereas the Mongoose text goes into slightly unnecessary detail about them. In any case, I top up my money pouch, and help myself to the key.

The stairs lead to a parapet overlooking a pit in which thousands of slaves toil. There's nothing I can do to help just yet, so I take the other exit, which leads to a locked door. Good thing I picked up that key, eh? It does fit the lock, and the door opens onto another passageway. Half way along it there's another door, with a barred window. I peer through and find myself staring into a cell containing Paido, the warrior-mage who accompanied me for most of book 8 and got taken prisoner at the end. The key to the cell hangs on a hook nearby, so I unlock the door, and Paido is delighted to see that the stories of my death in the Danarg were a lie.

I inform him of the quest that brings me here, and he tells me that he knows where the Lorestones are. We sneak along various passages to a chamber in which a squad of Death Knights guards a pair of huge iron doors at the top of a staircase. An alarm bell rings, and the Death Knights start to descend the stairs. Divination reveals that the alarm is nothing to do with Paido and me: Adamas and his troops have reached the tower entrance, and the Death Knights are being summoned to help repel them. That'll make the job harder for the Talestrians, but saves us from a fight where the odds would not be in our favour.

We wait until the Death Knights are out of the way, and then open the doors they were guarding. In the chamber beyond is a huge pit, surrounded by figures bizarrely clad in transparent robes and masks. Glowing crystal rods fire beams of light into the air, the beams converging above the centre of the pit, bathing the three Lorestones in green fire. Hearing the alarm and seeing Paido and me, the beings around the pit make a rapid exit. This is another scene for which I prefer the illustration in the Mongoose edition, though it's less accurate than the original.

The pit appears bottomless, and the Lorestones are out of reach, though they should be accessible from one of the rusting metal gantries that span the ceiling. Examination of the rods reveal them to be bombarding the Lorestones with negative energy in an attempt to destroy them. However, the beams are also keeping the Lorestones suspended above the pit, so breaking the rods would cause the Lorestones to fall in. After a little reflection, I come up with a cunning plan. If I climb onto the gantry closest to the Lorestones and cup my hands beneath the ball of fire, and Paido then starts smashing the rods, the Lorestones will drop into my hands rather than the pit when the beams cut out. What could possibly go wrong? (I ask this only because there's no way of avoiding what's about to happen, other than failing altogether.)

I get into position, the gantry shaking alarmingly as I inch along it, and Paido begins smashing the rods. Once half of them are broken, the glow of the Lorestones begins to show through the flames. One of the Lorestones drops into my hands, suffusing me with fresh enlightenment, but a harsh voice interrupts my jubilation. Darklord Gnaag stands in the archway through which the oddly-clad minions fled when Paido arrived, and gloats that he's about to do as he said he would at the end of the last book. He then raises a crystalline weapon and fires two bolts of energy at the gantry. The first of these blasts the remaining Lorestones out of the green fire, causing them to drop into the pit, and the second one snaps the gantry, as a result of which I also fall.

The pit turns out to be a portal leading to the Daziarn, another world that I once visited as a different character, but more recently turned into a penal colony for Magnamund's worst criminals. And even more recently utilised as a means of disposing of unwanted Kai Lords. Still, as passage through it is neither automatically lethal nor quite as one-way as is generally believed, Gnaag may have been a little premature in announcing my destruction. Time will tell.

And I never needed to memorise saluting technique after all. But I would have done if any of my attempts at this book had taken me through section 291 (yes, I'm still checking them), which is part of an alternate route to Jarel's camp.

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